Barney holds open the conference door for me, and I practically float past him. This is actually happening, and in exactly the way I want it to. Everything has gone so perfectly that if Barney weren’t just as good at managing my anxiety as he was at programming, I’d probably be preparing myself to be walloped with a sidewinder that was about to bring everything crashing down.
As it is, I’m practically euphoric.
“I’ll send the file with the raw library data now so you’ll have it by the time you get back to GEH,” I tell him. “How soon do you think I’ll get to see the beta app with content?”
“We’ve already programmed the testing criteria, so as long as your file translates into the system correctly, I can get you an updated version within twenty-four hours of the first load.”
“Of course. I fully expect to be completely finished by the end of the weekend. We’ll have days to fuck…” His words halt and he grimaces as he looks up at me. “Uh… sorry. We’ll have days to mess around with it to try and find any bugs. Plenty of time to get them fixed before the launch.”
“That’s excellent. And you don’t need to apologize.” I lean in, like I’m going to give him the low down on some juicy gossip. “I’m just as fucking excited as you are.” He laughs, then he seems to relax a little.
“You know there’s a joke we tell in R&D that Grey always gets what he wants because he’s got B.D.E., but that can’t be it because you’ve got it to.”
His cheeks pink and once again he looks at me with slight embarrassment. “Uh… Big Dick Energy. It’s more of a swagger really, like… the way he holds himself. It makes people listen to him and you have that. It’s almost like the two of you are so similar that you move the same.”
“Nah.” I wave him off. “He’s just got me well trained.”
“Yeah, I think he’s got us all well trained. It’s his world and we just live in it.”
“Thankfully, he’s a benevolent dictator.”
“Ha! To you, maybe.”
I laugh and Barney joins in as we make our way to the doors. After repeating my standing request to keep me informed of any major developments between now and our next meeting, he humors me with a good natured smile and wishes me a good afternoon before he makes his exit. I feel a giddy rush of excitement over the constant deluge of good news he’s given me, then take a lap through the floor to check-in with my people. I end up lingering a little too long at Luke’s desk, so by the time I make it to my own office and sit down in front of my computer, my inbox is full. Unfortunately, the email waiting for me at the top of the pile isn’t from one of my editors. It’s from Carmen.
From: Carmen Gallagher
Subject: Quarterly Sales Reports
Date: August 6th 2012 10:45 AM
To: Anastasia Grey
Attachment: 2012 Q3 Sales.exe
I’m not happy, and I’m running out of patience.
CEO, Gallagher Corporation
I click on the attachment the accounting team presented her in their meeting this morning and cringe at the numbers glaring back at me. They’re dismal. The Black Rose is reflected here, which only drags down the average from Stevens’ and Jacki’s releases. After that, there’s an entire month and a half where hardly any sales were made at all. Though, I was prepared for that and Carmen should have been too.
She was the one who only gave me one more release and put ridiculous criteria on it.
So, it’s not the financials that bother me. It’s the patience part of the email that dampens the elation I feel following my meeting with Barney. Greenwich Library aside, I’m still looking for our next traditional bestseller, but the sort of title Carmen has tasked me with pulling in is a nearly impossible feat for the size of our press. We don’t attract the authors who already have a significant following and can command those kinds of sales. Finding an undiscovered author who is good enough to pull in 50,000 units sold on their first title and who doesn’t have the confidence in their talent to go straight to a big five publisher is like trying to find a specific drop of water in a lake.
And I still have to compete with Christian.
Grey Publishing remains the dominant small press in Seattle, especially after The Black Rose fiasco, and every time I’ve gotten close to finding my very own white peacock, Elizabeth Morgan has swooped in and stolen it out from under me.
I exit out of Carmen’s email without replying and dig in to a dark comedy Roger forwarded to me, telling myself that today is the day I’m going to make my big discovery. It has promise, but only for the Greenwich Library. As I type that into my response to Roger, the paging tone on my desk phone breaks the silence around me.
“Ana, you’ve got a call on line one,” Penny says. “It’s your agent.”
I frown and turn to my phone, pressing my finger into the button next to the blinking red light and bringing the handset to my ear. “Hey, Lydia. What’s up?”
“Oh you know, just checking in. Seeing if you need anything. Like… instructions on how to send me your manuscript. It’s really easy. I’ll send you something that you can respond to so you don’t even have to look up my contact information. All you have to do is drag…”
“I’m aware of the process of sending an email, Lydia.”
“That seems suspicious considering you’ve been editing since June and it’s August now, but I still don’t have that gold mine in my hot little hands. The Grey brand is hot, hot, hot right now, Anastasia. We’ve got to capitalize on it.”
I snort. “Don’t you think I’ve given you enough to capitalize on considering I handed my best author over to you, already?”
“Hailey Lewis?” Lydia lets out a harsh, very unimpressed laugh. “No, what you did was pass off one of your fans to me who practically idol worships everything you say to her own detriment. I got her an offer from Scholastic, you know what she said? No. She wants to work with smaller publishers so that she can have more control and be more involved in the process from start to finish. Where do you think she got an insane idea like that from, Anastasia?” She emphasizes my name to make it her answer, but I ignore the slight because everything else she says has my interest peaked.
“She wants to work with a small publisher?”
Lydia makes a disgusted sound. “Of all the ridiculous things… No offense.”
“I’ve got to go,” I tell her quickly, already pulling the receiver from my ear. I can hear her distant protests before I set the handset in its cradle, but I ignore them, hang up, and bolt to my office door. “Abby, can you get Hailey Lewis on the phone for me?”
“Uh… sure thing.” I catch a brief glimpse of my assistant moving to the computer so she can access our contact files before I close the door. Then I pace my office floor until I get the page telling me Hailey is on the phone. “Line one, Ana.”
“Hailey?” I start a little too urgently. She hesitates before she responds, so I force myself to take a deep breath and calm down before I scare her off.
“Hey, Ana… What can I do for you? Please tell me you’re about to release another book. It’s rough out there right now, and I’m dying for some good content.”
“No, I’m actually calling to talk to you about yours. I just got off the phone with Lydia and she told me that you’d backed out of a deal with Scholastic because you wanted to work with a smaller publisher?”
“Yeah, you wouldn’t believe the contract they sent me. There was all this stuff in there about variable royalties based on tiered sales models and about waiving my rights to control the narrative if there was ever an offer for a movie deal. I’m just not ready to deal with all of that yet and I don’t want to get screwed out of something, you know? I want to work with someone who wants to help me build a career, not squeeze every dollar out of me they can.”
“I’m really glad to hear that, Hailey. Are you free this afternoon?”
“Then I’d love to have you stop by my office so you and I can discuss exactly what you want out of this experience. Is 2 o’clock okay?”
“To go hang out with my hero while she gives me publishing advice? Uh… yeah.”
I laugh. “Good, I’ll send a car for you. I’m looking forward to seeing you, Hailey.”
“Me too. Bye, Ana.”
“Bye.” I hang up the phone and feel a rush of adrenaline so intense, I have to put myself through a few breathing exercises to stop from hyperventilating. Once I’m under control, I pick up the phone again and dial the extension to Luke’s desk.
“’Sup, dude?” he answers.
“Will you come in here for a minute, please?”
“Everything alright? If someone is holding you at gunpoint, say ‘waddle’.”
“Just get your ass in here.” He laughs, hangs up, and my door swings open thirty seconds later. I stare at him with an enthusiastic smile until he plops down in the chair across from me, eyeing me wearily.
“What? Did you solve the world’s energy crisis too?”
I shake my head. “No, this is so much more important than that. Do you remember Hailey Lewis?”
He scrunches his forehead briefly, trying to remember. “You were in a restaurant with her once. When I was tailing Alexis Young.”
“She’s an author,” I tell him. “She wrote Phoenix.”
“Oh, you mean the amazing book that could sell a hundred thousand copies that you gave away like an idiot.” He laughs, and I pluck a pencil out of its holder to throw at him. He deflects it, grinning at me. “Did she change her mind?”
“Yes! Lydia said she wants to work with a small publisher. I called her and she’s going to come by this afternoon. If I can get her to sign with us then all of my problems will be solved. Her manuscript is that good.”
“So how are you going to reel her in?”
“That’s the best part,” I say, leaning in conspiratorially. “She’s obsessed with Escape and it’s made her idolize me, a little. It might be a little sleazy, but I think if I just give her some personal attention I won’t have to do more than ask.”
“Well, look at you.” He smiles, proudly. “My little Annie Steele is all grown up and ready to take over the world.”
“Ready to? Bitch, I’m already half-way there.” He laughs again, but I’ve only just joined in when I have a sudden realization that has me diving for my phone.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. I shoot him a guilty look.
“I told her I’d send her a car.” He rolls his eyes as Penny picks up the phone and dictates my instructions to Abby.
At fifteen past two, the car I’d hired to bring Hailey to GSP pulls up in front of our building. I’m waiting there with Luke and Taylor, who had to come down from GEH to keep away the paparazzi currently attacking me with questions about Christian. She steps out of the sleek town car with that same, nearly hysterical, smile plastered across her face. Her cheeks are flushed. Her eyes turn slightly glassy. I open my arms to hug her, and when she steps into my embrace, I can feel her shaking.
“Thank you for coming, Hailey.”
She lets out a whiny squeal through her nose that is so high I can barely hear it. “Are you kidding me? Thank you for asking me to come! I feel like I’ve won the lottery or something having you basically mentoring me through this.”
“Who’s the girl, Anastasia?” a papparzo asks as the men around him continue snapping photos of our conversation. It’s a hard fast rule with both Christian and security that I’m not supposed to engage with the paparazzi, but this isn’t about our personal lives and I’m trying to cultivate a best-seller here.
“Hailey Lewis,” I call back. “A phenomenal new author who is about to shake up the entire fiction world, mark my words.”
The guy who’d asked the question smiles and moves toward me, pulling his camera to his face. Luke shoves him back.
“That wasn’t an invitation,” he says coldly.
“Always so violent, this one,” one of the photographers in the crowd says. Then every camera moves to Luke with the promise of a juicy new headline.
“Come on,” I say to Hailey, pulling her under my arm and turning her to the building. “Let’s go upstairs and talk.”
Taylor lectures Luke about getting physical with the paparazzi the entire elevator ride. Both Hailey and I stand awkwardly in the corner, avoiding eye contact, while Luke is left to nod at the floor like a chastened child. He won’t challenge anything Taylor says to him, but I can tell by the twitch of tension in his jaw that he doesn’t think he was wrong.
Honestly, I don’t think he was either.
It can be terrifying being caught in the middle of the horde, unable to see through the flashes or hear over their shouts and questions. Luke’s gotten me out of some unnerving situations multiple times, and if the worst that comes of that is a few trashy articles about our security team abusing the paparazzi, then I’ll just ask Kate to put the power of Kavanagh Media behind us and we’ll defend him.
“Thank you, Taylor,” I say, dismissing him the moment we step out onto our floor. He nods to me once, then moves back in the elevator, and I place a reassuring hand on Luke’s shoulder.
“I appreciate what you do to protect me, Luke. Fuck that guy.”
He chuckles, instantly perking up. “You know I always got your back, Steele.”
With a smile, I turn back to Hailey and gesture for her to lead the way. She’s shaking her head when I close my office door behind us.
“See, that’s why I’m not interested in the big publishers and big contracts and big… anything. I couldn’t handle paparazzi like that. Having no privacy… how do you do it?”
I wave her off. “Oh, they’re not here for me. The only time the paparazzi ever call my name is if it’s followed by, ‘is your husband…’. If you want to stay private, all you have to do is refrain from marrying an ambitious tech guy.”
“Noted.” She laughs.
“So tell me about what happened with Lydia.”
Hailey takes a deep breath and recounts essentially everything that’s happened since I left her in that restaurant with my agent months ago. She’s been put through the ringer, strung along, manipulated, told one thing and then presented with something completely different. By the time she’s finished, I’m a little surprised she’s even interested in publishing anymore.
“I’m so sorry,” I tell her. “I had tough negotiations when I published Escape too. They controlled everything. They even made me change the title.”
I nod. “I get it. Your art is personal and you want to protect it. I want to help you do that.”
“I know.” She blushes and looks down at her hands, fighting the smile that threatens the corners of her mouth. “You feel a little like my guardian angel. You’ve inspired me. You’ve read and encouraged my work. You’ve made me feel like my voice is important. You’ve given me the avenue to publish under my own terms… I don’t know what I did to deserve your kindness, or your guidance, and I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to repay it.”
“You could start by working with me.” I lean on my desk, giving her the warmest look I can summon. “I want to sign you, Hailey. I want to help you bring your words and your message to the world on your terms, and I want to do it with you personally.”
Her brow furrows. “What?”
“I’m being very honest with you when I tell you that I haven’t found anything that has inspired me the way Phoenix has since I brought you to that lunch with Lydia. Before that, even. I want to publish your story, Hailey. And I want to help you use it to launch a career.”
She looks overwhelmed, her eyes darting quickly back and forth before she collapses against the back of her chair. “But… I thought you already did?”
I shake my head. “I know, but I got overruled last time. It’s different now. I’m the Editor-in-Chief and it’s my call who we sign. I want that to be you.”
“No, I mean… you already did. I just signed with Grey Publishing like four days ago. Elizabeth told me that your husband brought my manuscript to her personally. That was you… wasn’t it?”
The smile on my face melts away into shock. “No.”
“Then, why did Mr. Grey give her my manuscript?”
Because he has a death wish apparently.
I take a breath and smile again. “Because you’re brilliant and Grey Publishing is known for excellence. He’s a savvy businessman.”
She beams again. “We’ll still work together though, right? I mean, if I have questions or need advice… can I reach out to you?”
“Of course.” The words come out a little strained, but I manage to keep my face pleasant. She doesn’t seem to notice and that’s good, because I mean it. It’s just that my heart is thundering in my chest so hard I can hear the blood pounding behind my ear drums and my entire body is singing with nervous energy.
She smiles and stands from her chair, so I move around the desk to wrap her in a hug.
“I can trust Elizabeth. Right, Ana?” She glances up at me, looking for reassurance. I nod.
“Yeah, Elizabeth is one of the best. You’re in good hands.”
“Good.” She exhales in relief, then regains her smile as she turns to leave. I follow her out, but only so I can go straight to Luke’s desk after waving good-bye.
“We’re going to GEH,” I snap. He looks up at me and he must be able to read exactly what just happened on my face because his lips slowly lift his cheeks into a broad grin.
Laughter follows me all the way to the parking garage and occasionally fills the otherwise quiet car. I’m happy that Luke is amused, because I’m certainly not. I sit there stewing, then silently rehearse the angry speech I’m going to hurl at my husband the entire elevator ride to his floor.
“Hey, Ana,” Andrea greets me brightly as Luke and I emerge through the security doors. I stalk towards her desk and she frowns at my less than welcoming expression. “He’s got an important meeting in like ten minutes, but I’m guessing you don’t care about that.”
“Not even a little,” I reply, storming past her desk. I hit the double oak doors to his office hard, throwing them open with enough force that they bounce off the walls behind them.
“You son of a bitch!” I snap, stomping forward. His eyes move up to me from his computer screen and, immediately, an amused smile touches his irresistible lips.
“Don’t talk about my mother that way, Ana. She adores you.”
I move past the chair I’d normally take and place my palms flat on his desk, staring straight into his ashen eyes. “I specifically told you to stay the fuck away from Phoenix. I just had Hailey Lewis in my office and she told me that she signed with Grey Publishing earlier this week.”
His smile widens. “Yes, she did. And honestly, it couldn’t have come at a moment too soon since our strongest local competitor is about to launch a subscription application that’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to contend with going forward.”
“What happened to all the talk about wanting to see me rise to the top of my industry and watching me rule over it like a Queen?”
“Nothing, I still feel that way.”
“Then why would you swipe Phoenix out from under me? You knew what that manuscript meant to me, you knew how hard I fought for her.”
“Not hard enough, clearly.”
“Oh, sorry. You’re right. I should have been strategizing on how to win Scott to her side but instead I was waiting for the EMTs to pull you out of a burning building!”
“Come on, Ana. It wasn’t burning.”
I set my jaw in place. “How did you even get her manuscript? I know she didn’t submit it through GP.”
“You store it on our home server and your password on the encryption is ‘Calliope’. You basically gave it to me.”
“No, that’s called stealing.”
He gives me a slanted look. “Remember a few months ago when you broke into my GEH profile to access Elena Lincoln’s records?” He lifts his hands, weighing them like a scale. “Pot, meet kettle.”
“I found her, Christian.”
“And I signed her.” He leans back and the tight leather around his chair groans. “This is the game, baby. You are the one who wanted to play against me.”
“I’ve never done anything underhanded to Grey Publishing. I defend you. I’ve worked around Elizabeth’s bully tactics to keep from having to clash against you head on. You built my app for Christ’s sake! I thought we were a team. I thought we were going to grow together and build each other up, not go behind the other’s back to make shady deals. And you knew! This is sabotage!” Each word picks up the anger from its predecessor like an avalanche rolling down the hill. Christian’s eyes glint with delight.
“You know, you’re incredibly sexy when you’re mad.”
Automatically, my thighs clench in reaction to his tone, my body already preparing for submission. I fight back the instinct and spit my words out at him through gritted teeth.
“You wanna turn this into a war, then suit up, Grey.” I stand up straight and cock an eyebrow at him. “Because now I’m coming for you.”
He smirks. “Not yet, you’re not.”
With an irritable scoff, I whip around to storm out, which only makes him chuckle. As I yank the door back, I shoot him a death glare that only seems to humor him more, then move like a threatened animal back out to the lobby. Luke is leaning over reception, laughing at something Andrea said when I erupt from the hallway. When he glances up at me, the same heckling smile from the car returns to his face.
“That was quick.”
“Oh we’re not finished yet,” I snarl. “We’re not nearly finished.”
Luke winks at Andrea. “This is gonna be fun.”
She laughs, then looks up at a man who enters, carrying a temporary guest badge. I watch her greet him warmly, and invite him to take a seat while she lets Chrisitan know he’s arrived, then wrap my arm around Luke’s and pull him toward the elevators. On the way down I’m so heated that I can’t stop myself from pacing. I almost decide that I need to pop into Calliope’s daycare and cuddle her for a few minutes to get myself calmed down, but when I reach for the round number 7 on the elevator panel, I pause. Then I choose 4 instead.
Luke furrows his brow. “Fourth floor? That’s Grey Publishing.”
“I know.” The elevator dings and the doors slide open. We have to take a left down a small hallway to get to the double set of doors, and since there’s no security down here, I’m able to walk straight in.
Claire, the receptionist, is chewing on the end of a pencil, concentrating very hard on something in front of her. When I approach her desk and cough softly, she looks at me and lights up like a snowy street at Christmas time. “Hi, Ana! What are you doing here?”
“I just wanted to talk to Elizabeth, is she in?”
“Yeah, let me check and make sure she’s not busy.”
Claire picks up the phone while I glance nervously over my shoulder. The paranoid part of me is convinced Christian is going to appear at any second and bust me, but for now, it’s just Luke.
“All free,” Claire says. “Her office is just around the corner there.”
“Thanks.” I give her a toothy smile as I move past reception, waving to the people who are still here from when I was in charge. Elizabeth’s door is closed, so I knock softly and wait for her to invite me inside.
“Come in, Ana!”
“Hey!” I somehow manage to widen my smile even further as I step into her office and settle down in a chair across from her. This room is bigger than mine at GSP is, which makes me feel a little bit better about what I’m about to do. “How’s it going?”
She lets out a deep sigh. “Well, it would be better if you decided to scrap the Greenwich Library. Our submissions have dropped 30% over the past three weeks, and I’ve only signed two new authors.”
“I heard,” I lie straight through my teeth. “In fact, Christian and I were just talking about ways we could try to recruit more talent.”
“You were? Why didn’t he ask me to join you?”
“Oh, it was informal. I was just popping in to say hello, telling him about my day, and we started talking about work…” My hands flutter away the rest of my sentence, and I settle more comfortably in the chair. “I’m actually here because I wanted to get your opinion on hosting a joint writing conference. Christian and I were thinking it would be a good way to cement our influence in the greater publishing world while also drawing in a larger pool of new authors.”
I’m careful to include Chrisitan in the decision making process so that she won’t immediately turn around and tattle on me. It seems to work, because I can see her considering it through her silence.
“Those conferences are a good opportunity for our agents and editors to make contacts, and it would be nice to not have to pay travel and lodging for them to go…”
“And think of all those Grey Publishing branded marketing materials that will be sent out to collegiate English departments and the competition circuit. I bet even that will be enough to give your submission numbers a boost.”
“That’s true.” She nods, like she hadn’t considered that angle, and then starts to smile. I’m almost sure I’ve got her when she glances up at me and creases her forehead.
“But why do you want to do this with us? I’ve been in this rivalry with Greenwich for several years and it’s not exactly friendly. Wallace and I have nearly come to blows fighting over authors before.”
I give her the answer I would have given her this morning. “Scott’s gone, Elizabeth. It’s just me now and, from what I can tell, the only thing GSP has gotten out of this rivalry is 2nd place. I want to try something different.”
She rocks slightly in her chair, letting my words settle before she reacts. It’s an exercise in patience, so I do my best to imitate Christian, keeping my expression passively pleasant, and staring straight back.
“Well, I love it,” she says at last. “Honestly, it’s the perfect fix for what Grey Publishing needs right now and if you’re willing to take on half the work, I’m willing to let you do it.”
I laugh. “That’s excellent. What does your calendar look like for October?”
For the next fifteen minutes, we toss around ideas for dates, venues, and the types of courses and services we want to provide. The deeper into the conversation we get, the more excited Elizabeth becomes. I’m almost high off the sense of victory just at my fingertips. I can feel the power pulsating through my blood.
This must be why Christian is always at his most dominant when he’s in the middle of a hostile takeover.
“This is going to be faaantastic,” she says, stretching her hands out for emphasis. “I can’t wait to really get started. Should we set up a weekly meeting time?”
“I’ll have my assistant call yours,” I say, casually. Then I get up from my seat and reach a hand across her desk. “I’m really looking forward to working with you.”
“Me too. And I gotta tell you, Ana. You left me with some big shoes to fill here. They all still think you’re kind of a legend.”
I place a hand over my chest, trying to look taken aback, even though I really am flattered.
“Are you kidding me? You’re so good that my people think of you like the boogeyman. When I told them Lynoel Pierce had an offer from GP, my editors said I was crazy for even trying to pursue him further because we’d never beaten you on a signing before.”
“And you still haven’t.” She smirks and there’s an arrogance to her statement that plays right into my hands. I laugh, then shake my head in dismay as I turn for the door. Just as I’m about to step out though, I stop and turn back to face her.
“Oh, before I forget. Would you send me a copy of your new author contract so I’ll have it on file for the conference?’
“Yeah.” She smiles. “Sure thing.”
“Thanks, Elizabeth. Talk to you soon.”
I leave the room and close the door behind me, taking a moment to pause and bask in the feeling of triumph. It was almost too easy. Maybe I wasn’t actually being facetious earlier. Maybe Christian really does have me trained.
The thought makes me smile as I make my way out to Luke, who’s hovering awkwardly in the lobby like he’s not really sure what he should be doing. I don’t say anything to him as I wave goodbye to Claire and walk through the main door and into the hallway. He follows close behind me all the way to the elevator, respecting my silence until I reach out for the call button.
I turn a satisfied look in his direction. “I can play dirty too.”