Stacia Leonard pulled her lips into a tight smile. She nudged the signed hardcover copy of her book across the electric-blue tablecloth printed with her publisher’s insignia. Athena Publishing was big on branding. They probably would have tried to put a brand mark on her if her contract allowed it.
“I hope your aunt enjoys it,” she said to the fan whose eyes were a bit too open and grin a mite too manic.
“Oh, she will,” he said. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“That so?” Stacia gave her publicist’s foot a discreet kick under the table, and Raleigh immediately stood and gestured to the bookstore employee who was supposed to be managing the line. Apparently, she’d gotten distracted by a display full of kitschy, funny bookmarks and hadn’t noticed that the guy in front of Stacia had already overstayed his welcome by about three minutes.
The line was winding down and Stacia needed to decompress. She’d become a writer because she was antisocial. That had backfired epically. Apparently, being a successful author meant she wasn’t allowed to hide from the public. She was expected to engage and shit like that.
The employee finally got her head out of her ass and whisked the fan with the stack of books to the gift-wrap table.
“Just two books left,” Raleigh whispered. “Bet the manager has egg on his face now. He didn’t want to stock your books before. He said woman-penned mysteries don’t sell.”
Stacia simply bobbed her eyebrows and then smiled at the young woman who passed one of the remaining books over to her. “Hi. Would you like me to personalize this for you?”
The lady clucked her tongue and shook her head. “Nah. It’ll be worth more without my name in it, I think.”
Stacia scribbled her signature on the title page and blew a little air across the slow-drying ink. “I think you overestimate my collectability.”
“I don’t think so. I know you don’t do many appearances, so there aren’t many of these signed books floating around. Ooh!” The lady snatched the last book just as the store manager entered the line with one hand extended toward the final volume. “That one, too. Just in case.”
Stacia chuckled and signed that one as well. “There you go.”
“Awesome. My book club friends aren’t going to believe I saw you.” She furrowed her brow and ignored the manager looming beside her, clearing his throat. “You know, you’re smaller than I imagined.”
Stacia shrugged. “I get that a lot. According to my genetic genealogy test I’m half leprechaun. I’m not going to be breaking any backboards in this lifetime. I’m really good at getting under a limbo pole, though.”
The lady snickered as she walked toward the line exit. “Ah, that’s why I love you. You got a way with words.”
“Just think, my eleventh grade English teacher said sarcasm was a mental illness,” Stacia said to Raleigh. “Sometimes, I think she was right.”
Raleigh plucked some invisible lint off his necktie and smiled like the cat that got into the cream. “Sarcasm is your brand, and your brand sells pretty nice, doesn’t it?” He cut his hazel gaze to the store manager, who rocked on his heels with his hands jammed into the pockets of his pleated khakis.
“So I stand corrected,” the manager said in an undertone. “Any chance you’ll still be in town in four days? I put in an order for the other eight books in the series. I hoped you’d sign a few for us to shelve.”
Stacia opened her mouth, but before she could get a word out, Raleigh said, “No way of knowing. If we’re lucky, Stacia will be home in four days working on book ten. If the studio guys want to quibble over creative license, we may be here longer.”
“When’s the T.V. show supposed to debut?”
“In the spring if the schedule doesn’t get botched.”
“Maybe we could do the launch party here.”
“Maybe,” Raleigh demurred, drawing out the “a” in the word for a few seconds too long. He turned to Stacia and pointed to the phone in his hand. “Gonna go see if the driver’s nearby.”
“Okay. I’ll wait outside.” She bent to grab her tote from under the table.
“No need to rush away,” the manager said. “I thought maybe we could set up some events before you left.”
“Raleigh will take care of that.” She slung the strap of her bag over her shoulder and put a smile on her face before she stood. “And I really need to go outside. The air conditioning in here is going to trigger a fit of narcolepsy.”
“Yeah, it is a little bit aggressive. I keep meaning to get that fixed.”
“Uh-huh.” Stacia pulled up the hood of her cashmere sweater and pushed her sunglasses onto her ears as she stepped outside into the bright Los Angeles evening.
She leaned against the pergola support and rooted her phone out of her bag. No messages, but she hadn’t expected any. Her friends knew she never responded. They went months without speaking and then they’d catch up with hours-long phone calls that would fill up her social well for the rest of the year. There were eighty-seven Twitter mentions, which she’d let her assistant deal with, and a bunch of buzz on her Facebook fan page. She ignored that. Last, she scrolled through the bunch of notifications from an Instagram picture Raleigh had posted of her early in the signing. Most comments were permutations of “Wish I was in L.A.!” Her perusing of her direct messages, however, brought her up short. There was an unexpected and familiar name mixed in with the handles of so many strangers.
ADRIENVALL: you’re in L.A.?
It wasn’t the message that took her off-guard. After all, the words weren’t so different from all the rest. What made her heart stutter was the name and the familiar headshot in the avatar.
Adrien Valliere was the face of the fictional potential love interest in her book series. The leading man, Detective Pierce Holloway, was introduced in book one as a background player. He became a powerful secondary character in book four and a co-protagonist in book five. On the cover of book five, for the first time, Adrien had appeared with the model portraying the plucky heroine, Jennifer Daughtry. Fans had nearly rioted when early art was leaked and they saw that he wasn’t on the cover of book six. The publishing house’s design team had to go on a frenzied, last-minute quest for Adrien Valliere stock art and had managed to dig up one more image that hadn’t already been used on a bazillion book covers. The cover had been beautiful, which was an odd thing to say about a guy Photoshopped to hold a bloody hand mirror.
At that time, no one knew his name or how to find him for a custom photoshoot for the next books. He may as well have been a ghost. The photographer holding the copyrights to the images hadn’t responded to queries. The team had to do a hard pivot with the art direction, but the timing had worked out well. Cover looks were trending toward more abstract feels. No people, just a lot of stylistic blood splatter and some props. By then, it didn’t matter if Adrien was on the cover or not. When people thought about Pierce Holloway, they thought of him with Adrien’s face.
Him finally connecting with Stacia on social media after book seven hit the shelves, though, had apparently ignited an afternoon of mayhem at Athena’s art department. He looked even more like Pierce than he had when he’d posed for those stock photos eight years prior.
“Oh, shit,” Stacia whispered.
She’d never actually had a conversation with the guy. She followed him back because that was easier than stalking his account every day for new candids—the guy was amazingly pretty. She imagined that he’d followed her in the first place because he was in the image business, and she had a little name recognition.
She dragged her tongue across suddenly dry lips and tapped the reply field to activate it.
Mostly, she didn’t respond or she’d let her assistant answer any reasonable questions. Ignoring the guy whose face had probably launched her books onto the New York Times bestseller list for twenty weeks straight seemed extraordinarily snobbish.
“Oh, shit,” she repeated, then input a response.
For a few days.
Seemed friendly, in her opinion, but not too friendly.
She hit the post button, then scrolled through all the new pictures from fellow author friends. Mostly pictures of their cats.
One new picture of Adrien. Ultra-close-up of a brand new ring of sickly looking blue and black bruising around his bright gray eye.
Stacia gasped and clutched her chest as she read the caption.
wife is playing with special fx makeup. how does it look?
“Dammit.” She let out the breath she’d been holding and closed the app.
She wasn’t sure what it was about him that was so unmooring for her. Every single time he appeared on her screen, her heart rate kicked up. She felt as though she needed to perform, somehow, and like she needed to for-real brush her hair and wear a grown-up bra. Maybe her feeling of discomfiting was because he was attached to a figment of her imagination. He wasn’t supposed to be real. There she was, being so very ordinary, and yet writing about people who were too perfect to exist in real life. Her ex had groaned about that all the time. You don’t think this guy is a little bit unbelievable, Stacia? Is that how you think men should be? I’d tone it down if I were you. Make it realer.
She hadn’t, and Oren wasn’t around anymore to editorialize on what was desirable.
Her characters were superheroes, really, and one had just slid into her DMs.
Another DM notification alert lit up as Raleigh stepped outside holding his phone to his ear.
She was glad for the distraction. If that was Adrien responding, she couldn’t imagine what he might want and was afraid it was something mercenary. There were so many damned con artists in the business and she’d been propositioned by nearly every sort.
“Driver is a few blocks from here,” Raleigh said. “Hit a bottleneck, but he’ll be here in a jiffy.”
“Cool. Hope you don’t mind if I forego dinner and go straight to the hotel. It’s six here but nine on the east coast. I’m ready to fall over.”
“If that’s what you want.” He muttered, “Party pooper.”
“True.” Stacia tapped her phone screen for the message. It was from Adrien.
“Oh, shit,” she whispered yet again.
wife says to ask-do you have free time? photo opp.
That query wasn’t weird or scammy. Bold, maybe, but being in his business, he probably had to be.
“What, ah?” Raleigh asked.
“This would totally make Oren flip his lid if he ever sees it. Remember how he used to disparagingly call Adrien Valliere ‘Mr. Faultless?’”
“Oren wouldn’t know his mouth from his asshole, and he deserves a burial beneath a pyramid of rhino shit. But what is it that he might see that’d set him off?”
She wasn’t going to argue with him about Oren. The two had immediately clashed at first meeting. She and Oren had broken up a year ago and she didn’t want to set Raleigh off on another of his rants. At least, not in public. She fell into cyclical slumps about the things Oren had accused her of, however. She’d probably need to hear another of Raleigh’s “fuck that dude” sermons sooner than later.
“Adrien wants a picture with me,” she said. “Or me with him. Probably the latter.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Depends on who draws the eye. The guy with the perfect face gets my bet. I’d just be a prop.” A five-foot-tall prop with dopey hipster glasses because she’d lost a contact lens somewhere in Richmond International and her backup lenses were in the suitcase that hadn’t caught up to her yet. She’d left her assistant to get her luggage from baggage claim, and apparently there’d been a delay.
“Tell him ‘fuck yeah,’” Raleigh said. “I’ll take the pictures myself. The first one I send will be to that trollop who shares an office wall with me.” He bared his teeth and stuffed his phone into his suede messenger bag. “That scheming bitch.”
“What’s wrong with her? And are you really worried? You’re the one with all the high-profile authors.”
“I just don’t like her. I can feel it in my bones, she’s got that upstart gene. The moment I turn my back, she’s gonna start reaching out to my authors to ask if there’s anything else they need while I’m busy with you.”
“I think you’re paranoid, Ral.”
“The pot calls the kettle black. How rich.”
Stacia shrugged and hovered her thumbs over her phone screen. “I’m upfront about my neuroses.”
In fact, she was generally so paranoid about people’s intentions, that if Adrien had been anyone else, she would have told him to shoot a message to her assistant. Adrien wasn’t just another fan. He was part of the reason her mortgage had been paid off at the age of twenty-eight. That, and the fact she’d been writing two doorstopper novels per year since she got laid off from her first newspaper job right out of college.
She typed Send me a text when you’re free and tapped in her digits.
Ice dropped into her gut right after she hit send.
She didn’t give out her real number. Her parents had it. Her brother had it. Her closest friends had it. And of course, Athena had it, but only Raleigh ever called her.
She’d dropped her last number after Oren had moved on. She’d gotten tired of the You see, it’s just that… texts from him.
He didn’t need to explain in seventy different ways why he’d dumped her. One had been enough. He’d decided that he couldn’t compete with her career and her “fake paper people.”
It’d been a year since he’d left, but she didn’t really try to connect with people anymore. Partly, she was busy. Partly, she worried that Oren was right that her priorities were upside-down. She wasn’t an easy person to be with, and he certainly hadn’t been the first to tell her that.
As the hired car pulled up to the curb, her phone vibrated from the incoming text message from a number she didn’t recognize.
how about now? They’d included an embarrassed emoji. i keep weird hours. don’t want to miss you.
“Adrien,” she whispered. “Now?”
Raleigh was holding the back door open and gesturing for her to get in.
She scooted in and to the left door, and tapped in, Heading to hotel now.
can be downtown in thirty minutes. meet you somewhere?
She chewed on the inside of her cheek and pondered her options. If Raleigh were involved, the encounter would turn into a big to-do, and incredibly awkward, and Stacia was too tired for added awkwardness. Meeting at some darkish bar for drinks to loosen up her dorky ass and then a few quick selfies was just about her limit. She didn’t really know how to be social outside of publisher events anymore, except with Raleigh, and he didn’t count. He only pretended to be a people person when there was a paycheck involved, and he was very good at pretending.
Adrien texted, can drive you to hotel afterward if u want. won’t keep you long.
Those were her magic words—the promise of brevity. He was making it hard for her to find a reason to say no, and, if she had to be honest with herself, she didn’t want to say no. Beyond the fact that the opportunity was one that shouldn’t have been ignored, she wanted to squash that nervous energy she felt every time she saw his picture.
Fictional character. Real person. Same face.
Tell me where, she sent.
He relayed a street address, which she quickly input into her map app. The location was about a ten-minute walk from the hotel.
She texted, Make it forty minutes in case there’s a delay with hotel check-in.
She cut a side-eye to Raleigh to see if he was watching her.
He was busy looking out the window at a fender-bender to their right and shouting into his own phone, probably at his assistant.
And I need to get rid of a headache, she added to the message.
c u in 40.
She tucked her phone into her tote and cleared her throat right as Raleigh disconnected his call.
“Do I have to do everything myself?” he groused. “Sheesh. Seems like I can’t even leave the office.”
“You know what?” she said. “Take a break tonight. I’ll get out to the photo op on my own.”
“Yes way. I don’t need to be babysat. I’m a grown woman who’s been making her own way since seventeen. I can certainly get from the hotel to the restaurant and back.”
Raleigh narrowed his eyes.
“You’re going to flake, aren’t you? You’re going to your room to…hmm, what was that last lie you told me?” He tapped his chin contemplatively, and then snapped his fingers. “Oh, yes. You’re going to brush your teeth, and then I won’t hear from you again until you’re due at the next meeting tomorrow morning.”
“I’m not going to flake.”
“Don’t piss in my pond, girlie. Meet and greets are my bailiwick.”
“Yes, but your bailiwick is also making five-minute meetings turn into three-hour-long soirees. I don’t have the endurance tonight.”
If Raleigh narrowed his eyes any more, his upper and lower eyelashes would knit.
“I’ll behave,” she insisted.
“Writers make the best liars. I don’t believe you.”
“I’ll send you the picture first thing.”
“Smile in it or I’m coming there.”
“Jeez.” Had Raleigh been a reasonable person, she would have thought he was joking, but the scene was playing out in her head like a clip from an old silent film, and Raleigh was the overly flamboyant villain.
Minus the cape.
She shuddered, and spat, “Fine. Tiny smile. No teeth. Too late for teeth.”
“Nine eastern is too late for teeth?”
“It is when you make a habit of going to bed at nine thirty.”
Really, it was probably a good thing she was single. She’d become such a bore.