Chapter 12

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After months of the ever present blanket of clouds and rain, spring makes its first grand appearance the Saturday after my first week of work. The sun is warm in the clear sky, there’s a gentle breeze that blows off the lake behind our house, and the air is filled with the sweet scent of blooming flowers and freshly mown grass. It’s the kind of day that demands your attention. So, after Christian finishes a phone call with Ros and I’ve cleaned away our breakfast, I call the family, pack up a picnic lunch and a blanket, and take the baby to play in our, so far unused, park sized backyard.

It’s the perfect day. Christian is undistracted, Calliope’s face is alight with joy, and for the first time all week, I’m able to forget about the unread submissions continually trickling into my inbox. There’s nothing but warm weather and plastic wands for blowing bubbles.

“Mine! Mine!” Calliope complains when Christian takes the wand back to dip into the soapy liquid. It’s the newest word she’s picked up at daycare, most likely because she’s been forced to share toys for the first time in her life, and I’m not the biggest fan.

“Please,” I correct her, but she only blinks at me before turning back to Christian and holding out her hands for the wand again. He laughs, then passes it back to her, and as she blows raspberries at the iridescent liquid inside the loop, I glare at him.

“What?”

“You can’t reward her for bad behavior. She doesn’t get to demand things. If she wants something, she can ask politely for it.”

He looks appalled. “My daughter doesn’t need to ask permission to take what’s hers. We should be encouraging her to stand up for herself. It’s exactly this kind of tenacity and sense of self worth that will make her into a world leader one day.”

“Or you’ll turn her into a spoiled brat.”

“Brat? No, not my sweet little Calliope. Look at this face. Does this look like a brat to you?” He turns her around so that she’s looking up at me and while I watch her attempt to blow bubbles in the same way she leaves kisses on my cheek, I can’t help but melt under her wide eyed gaze.

“See,” Christian says, gloating. I wrinkle my nose at him.

“This is no way an approval of your behavior,” I tell him. “She’s just so cute.” I lean forward to tickle her tummy and when she starts to giggle, I scoop her into my lap and kiss every part of her face that I can reach. Christian smiles at the both of us, but is distracted as he pulls out his phone by a series of booming barks coming from the house. In the next second, Champ comes barreling down the yard towards us and I’m only just able to move Calliope out of the way before he’s on top of me, pinning my shoulders down to the ground with his massive paws while he covers my face in slobber.

“Champ!” Elliot yells, running down to pull him off of me, but Christian gets there first. He pulls the dog back off the blanket from us, but it doesn’t stop him from struggling to get back to me. I laugh, check to make sure Calliope wasn’t scared, and then scoot forward to scratch his flat head and wrinkly lips.

“Hey, Champ! Oh, I missed you!”

“The dog?” Christian asks, raising an eyebrow at his brother. “You brought the dog?”

Elliot shrugs. “He’s been cooped up in that apartment for months. It’s a nice day, Kate wanted to bring him so that he could get some exercise.”

“So take him to a dog park.”

“Okay,” Elliot laughs. “You go say that to my eight month pregnant wife. See how that works out for you.”

“Where is Kate?” I ask, but, in response, Elliot just turns towards the house. I follow his gaze and see Kate waddling carefully over the sloping grass towards us, holding her round tummy as if she’s afraid not supporting its weight will send her tumbling down the lawn.

“Babe, wait,” Elliot calls. He rushes towards her but she holds a hand out towards him in defiance.

“I don’t need your help, I can walk thirty feet.”

“I don’t want you fall.” He reaches out to take her arm, but she yanks it out of his hold.

“I’m pregnant, Elliot. Not an invalid.”

“Fine.” He holds his hands up in surrender and backs a few feet away. Kate’s mouth sets in prideful determination, but after taking a few steps down hill, she starts to lose her balance. Elliot crosses his arms over his chest and grins.

“Need some help?”

“No.” Her stubbornness is actually quite impressive. I almost wonder if she’s going to stay stranded in that one place all afternoon in order to make her point that she doesn’t need Elliot to help her, but she turns pleading eyes towards me. “Ana…”

With a laugh, I get up and take the hands she reaches out for me, then slowly guide her down to our blanket. She does let Elliot hold most of her weight as she lowers herself onto the ground, but once she’s settled in, she quickly brushes him away.

“I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Alright.” He takes a few steps back. “Do you want anything?”

“Elliot… You’re hovering.”

“Fine.” He begins to dig in the bag they brought along with them and pulls out a bright orange braided rope. Champ, who’s collar is still clutched in Christian’s hand, immediately freezes and focuses every ounce of his attention on it. Elliot swings the toy back and forth, chuckling slightly as Champ follows it with his entire head, and the throws it as far as he can towards the water. Champ takes off like a bolt of lightning and we all watch as he seeks it out, plays with it for roughly two seconds, then brings it back.

“Good boy,” Kate says, when he drops the toy in front of Elliot. As he picks it up and once again throws it as far as he can, she turns to me and sighs, looking as though she’s carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders… or maybe in her uterus.

“You look like you’re ready for the baby to come,” I tell her.

“Oh my god, Ana. I swear, I can’t do three more weeks of this. I’m swollen everywhere. I haven’t seen my feet in weeks, I’m exhausted, cranky, starving all of the time, and I’ve got such bad pregnancy brain that I can’t focus on anything at work. It takes me three times as long to do every single task as it normally would.”

“Well, when do you go on maternity leave?”

“Right now,” Elliot says, emphatically, looking sternly over at her as though this is a fight they’ve had before and he’s ready to launch on the defensive again. “Her last day was Friday.”

“It most certainly was not,” Kate argues. “I’m not just going to sit around the apartment twiddling my thumbs for three weeks when I’m perfectly capable of going to work.”

“You’re not though. You are very pregnant, Kate. You need to slow down and take it easy. You’re done with work for the next twelve weeks.”

“No, I’m not.” Her lips thin together as she struggles to restrain her irritation, and Elliot turns imploring eyes on me.

“Ana, a little help here?”

“He’s right, Katie. You really should take the time you have left to relax and get ready for the baby. Aren’t you about to move into your new house? You could set up the nursery.”

“Oh don’t even get me started on the damn house,” Elliot says, throwing the toy again. His frustration propels the rope farther, sending it crashing into the lake, which Champ jumps into without a second thought.

“What’s wrong with the house?” Christian asks.

“Nothing,” Elliot replies. “Absolutely nothing. I’ve spent the better part of a year building and renovating it to be exactly what she wants, and now she wants to sell it.”

“What? Why do you want to sell it?” I ask.

Kate shrugs. “I was thinking we might talk to Christian about buying Escala.”

“But I thought you loved your new house.”

“I do. I really do. But Escala has a lot of advantages that moving to Medina wouldn’t. Now that Grace and Carrick are basically living full time in the downtown apartment, they’re practically our neighbors and I’d like to have them close when the baby comes. We’ve got doormen and a maintenance staff. The location is really great…”

“It’s closer to her work,” Elliot says emphatically. “She wants to stay because it’s closer to work.”

“That’s not a bad thing, Elliot. It’s closer to your work too, you know.”

“It’s a penthouse apartment in a 31 story building smack dab in the middle of the city. What about that says ‘family home’ to you?”

“A lot of kids grow up in the city.”

“Not our kids. Our kids are going to have a yard to play in and curb for a lemonade stand. I’m not going to have them walking past junkies shooting up in alleys or trekking through homeless camps on their way to school.”

“Dad’s going to fix that,” Christian interrupts. “Remember?”

“Yeah, uh huh.” Elliot rolls his eyes. “So was the last mayor.”

“Where are your parents, anyway?” Kate asks, looking around the yard like she’s going to find Grace or Carrick hiding behind a tree.

“Mom’s on call,” Christian replies. “She was at the hospital when Ana invited her.”

“What about Carrick?”

Christian frowns and Elliot shakes his head. “He and Christian are fighting.”

“We’re not fighting,” Christian says. “We’re having a professional disagreement that he’s brought into our personal lives.”

“Yeah, because it’s stopping him from doing anything else. You know the city council told him that they’re not going to approve his appointments until the budget is finalized? And he can’t finalize the budget while you’re pushing this whole tax cuts for billionaires thing.”

“Wait, appointments?” I ask. “Like… police chief?”

“Yep,” Elliot says.

“Well, then he should stop fighting me,” Christian says. “I’m not asking for that much. And if this project takes off, I’ll be providing more jobs for this city than Microsoft and Amazon combined.”

“And if it doesn’t, he’ll be the mayor that got elected and immediately gave his own son millions of dollars in tax cuts for no reason.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not going to fail.”

“You can’t do what you want to do, Christian! You’re chasing the impossible. As in, against the laws of physics impossible. Dad isn’t going to give you what you want.”

“Then I’ll have to take it.”

Elliot lets out an exasperated sigh. “I swear to god, you two are exactly the same person. Two rams beating their heads against each other trying to get the upper hand, when in reality you’re both just giving yourself brain damage.”

Champ returns again, but before Elliot can whip his toy back out towards the lake, Calliope crawls across the blanket and reaches up for it. “Mine!”

The irritation on Elliot’s face immediately disappears as he looks down at her tiny fingers clutching the air over and over again in her attempt to reach up to an impossible height and take the tug rope from him. He frowns, obviously wanting to give her what she’s asking for but knowing it’s not a great idea to let a ten month old little girl take a toy that the 120 lb Bull Mastiff ten feet away is dying to for.

“I don’t know, Calliope. Champ might get you and you’d get hurt.”

She’s undeterred. “Mine!”

“No, Callie baby. I’m sorry.”

Her face contorts with an impending temper tantrum, but before she burst into tears, she looks over at Christian, her hands still stretched high above her head, and in a shaking voice says, “Mine, Dada.”

Christian moves across the blanket, lifts her up onto her feet, and crouches down behind her. His arms wrap protectively her waist so that he can snatch her up out of reach in an instant if he has to, and then he holds out his hand for the rope.

“No, Christian,” I say, dread gripping my stomach.

“I’ve got her, Ana.” His assurances aren’t enough to make me stop clenching my teeth in fear, but when he turns around again, Elliot hands the toy over to him. I cringe as Champ’s eyes follow the bright orange rope into Calliope’s hand, like beacon, and he begins to bounce with excitement in front of her.

“Alright, Princess,” Christian coaches her. “Pull it back like this and… throw!” He guides her hand back and then helps her snap it forward, but she forgets the part where you’re supposed to let go. Champ takes off, but very quickly realizes there’s nothing to chase, so he trots back and starts to whine.

“Try again,” Christian continues. He goes through the motions with her three more times, but only when he tells her exactly when to let go does she succeed in throwing the toy for the dog. It only travels about a foot away from her, so Champ has to run towards her to pick it up instead of away, but she screams with joy when the dog lays the rope at her feet and then lays patiently down in the grass for her to throw it again.

“Real hard this time,” Christian says on her fifth successful throw. “One, two, three!” With all of her strength she manages to toss the rope another four or five inches, but this time when Champ brings it back to her, he doesn’t step back and wait to retrieve it again. He barrels forward into her and Christian, knocking them back slightly, and starts licking her face from chin to forehead. Christian immediately pulls her up out of the dog’s reach, but she doesn’t look scared or start to cry. In fact, she’s more upset that Christian’s keeping her from reaching Champ.

“No, Dada! No!”

“Let me see her,” Elliot says, but Christian is wary when he looks down at his outstretched hands. Elliot rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to let her get hurt. Champ listens to me better than he listens to you.”

Reluctantly, Christian passes Calliope off and Elliot swings her up into the air before grabbing onto Champs collar and lowering her down so she can pet him.

“Gentle now,” I warn her, nervous to have her so close. It’s not that I think Champ is going to attack her, he’s just so much bigger than she is that he could hurt her on accident. She looks over at me with wide eyes, but Elliot quickly gets her attention again and shows her how to gently stroke her hands across the dog’s fur. The look on her face is that of pure wonder and after a few seconds, Champ’s eyes close and he lays down on the blanket at her feet. Calliope giggles, then falls to her knees and crawls over to him, wrapping her arms around his back in the biggest hug she can manage.

“Whew,” Kate says. “Well, he’s good with kids. That’s a relief.”

Elliot smiles. “Look at her. You’re going to have to get a dog, Christian.”

“Why? I’ve got yours.” He flashes his brother a grin, then pulls out his phone to take a picture of Calliope cuddling with Champ. I peak over his shoulder to see the photo he got, and my heart instantly melts.

For the rest of the afternoon, Christian, Elliot, and I take turns running around with Calliope and Champ, who seem to have a superhuman level of energy to burn. When Champ finally needs to come lay down for a break, Christian walks Calliope down to the lake, where two ducks swim in the shallows around our dock with their brand new baby ducklings. I send Elliot down with some of the bread from our picnic, then grin as I listen to Kate’s euphoric excitement over the impending arrival of her baby girl and watch my own daughter tossing breadcrumbs into the water with her father. When they run out of bread and the ducks swim away, Christian brings her back to me, and she sits on his hip making weird, throaty sounds at him, almost like the crackle of a broken radio.

“What is she doing?” I ask when he sets her on the ground next to a snoozing Champ. He plops down on the blanket next to me and grins.

“Callie, what does a duck say?”

She turns to him and begins making the sound again, and I laugh.

“Almost.”

Christian’s arms wrap around me and he slowly pulls me down onto the blanket. His fingers brush loose tendrils of my hair from my face and then he leans down and presses his lips into mine. I moan and wrap my arms around his neck, but when he begins to nibble on my bottom lip and his hand moves higher up my thigh, I quickly pull away.

“Watch your hands there, Mr. Grey,” I scold him.

His eyes twinkle and his lips stretch into a devious kind of smile. “These hands?”

Before I can squirm away, his fingers clamp down on my sides, moving just enough to make me kick and flail to get away from him, but not enough to give me any leeway to escape.

“Stop!” I scream through my raucous laughter, but of course he doesn’t.

“What was that? What did you want me to do?”

“Stop!” I call again. “Oh my god, I hate you! Stop!” My cheeks start to burn from smiling too broadly and I desperately try to catch my breath. For a moment, I almost break free of his hold, but he pulls me right back into him and his tickles become more insistent. I roll away, laughing and struggling for air. “No! No!”

“No, Dada!”

He stops and turns to see our little girl standing on wobbly legs a few inches away, but holding out one finger as sternly as she’s currently looking down at him.

“I can’t tickle, Mommy?”

“No!”

His face falls. “Alright. Then, I guess I’ll just… have to tickle you!” He launches at her, gently pushing her back on to the blanket and then attacking her with his fingers. She screams and starts to giggle, but while I sit up and look happily at the two of them, Champ comes barreling over the top of them, barking loudly as he knocks Christian off the baby and pins him into the grass, snarling. Elliot nearly falls over with laughter, but manages to compose himself just enough to pull the dog away from my husband.

“Good boy, Champ!” he says in praise. Christian glares.

“Mr. Grey?”

We all turn and see Taylor standing a few feet away, looking slightly uncomfortable to be interrupting us. Christian quickly gets to his feet, brushing away the grass from his clothes.

“Taylor?”

“A package just arrived. I think it’s urgent.”

“Really? I’ll take it in my office.”

“Oh… it’s not for you. It’s for Mrs. Grey, sir.”

Christian turns around and looks down at me, his eyebrow furrowed in confusion. “You’re expecting something urgent?”

I sigh. “It’s probably Walter Daves’ finished manuscript. He’s GSP’s biggest author and we’re depending on his sales to get us through the rest of the fiscal year. Scott was supposed to send it on Friday but, Saturday is good too I guess.” I roll my eyes.

“So, no miracle yet?” Kate asks. I shake my head.

“I’ve actually signed off on a lot of really great pieces. We’ve got a really strong catalogue of non-fiction titles, but unless it’s a celebrity autobiography, that’s not a genre that really produces big dollar sales. Walter Daves’ last series put up impressive numbers, so I’m hoping this novel does at least as well as his last. We really need him to help us make up a big deficit in the fiction department.”

“Well, I guess we’ll leave you to it then.” She reaches out for Elliot’s hands so he can help her to her feet, and then holds out her arms to hug me good-bye.

“You’ll let us know if you need help moving?” I ask her.

“Yeah, but I don’t think we will. Elliot’s working the next two weekends so he can get caught up on everything before taking a few weeks off for the baby. We hired movers.”

“Okay. Well, let me know if you need anything else.”

“Will do. Thank you for a wonderful afternoon, we had a lot of fun.”

“Us too.”

I smile, then pass her off to Christian while I accept a hug goodbye from Elliot. Calliope reaches up for me, so I scoop her into my arms and carry her to the entryway where we see Kate and Elliot off, but by the time we’ve closed the door behind them, her eyelids are drooping so badly, it looks as though she can barely keep them open.

“I think someone needs a nap,” I tell Christian.

“I’ll take her. Apparently, you have work to do.”

“Thank you. I’ll be in my office.” He pulls the baby from my arms into his, and I rise up onto my toes to kiss him before he carries her upstairs to her room. A small sense of longing fills me as I watch them disappear, but I push it aside and try to forget about the beautiful day outside, or any other possible distraction, as I make my way back to my office. There, I find the envelope sitting on my desk, which I rip open to reveal a well put together manuscript. It’s bound better than I would have expected, but I try not to let that set my expectation too high as I start to read.

In a way, The Black Rose, is a relief. It’s much better than the drivel I’ve sorted through all week, but… by chapter six, I’m already convinced this isn’t the blockbuster seller that I need it to be either. Still, I hold out, and over the next three hours I make it to the end. Once I do, I lean back in my chair and let out a heavy breath. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. The writing needs some improvement, the plot is slightly tropy and predictable, and I’m a little worried that once the editors get to it and cut out all the unnecessary fluff there won’t really be much left… but it’s publishable.

Maybe.

Or maybe I’m just desperate.

There’s too much work to be done on it for a weekend I’m spending at home with my family, so I send a text to my new PA, Abby, and ask her to schedule a meeting on Monday with my entire team so we can come up with a strategy of how best to tackle this title, which I fear is going to be a behemoth. Once the email is sent though, and I move to place Mr. Daves’ novel in my bag so that I don’t forget it on Monday, I notice another manuscript that I’d completely forgotten about.

Phoenix, by Hailey Lewis.

With a cursory glance, I look down at the phone sitting on my desk. At home, Christian and I share phone lines, and I can see that he’s currently on a call with someone because of the light illuminated next to the button for line one. He’s undoubtedly taking advantage of Calliope’s nap to finish up whatever he was working on this morning, so I don’t think I’ll be missed if I spend an hour or two reviewing the draft I promised Hailey I’d glance over. I can afford to be a little more comfortable though. So, rather than read at my desk, I pick up a red pen and take the manuscript into the library with me, where I sprawl out on a cushy sofa and begin chapter one.

It’s a sci-fi novel that I would market as young adult, but the story is actually quite complex and interesting. Based in a fictional country which has been taken over by a totalitarian regime that uses violence to squash any attempts at revolution, a young girl named Hazel narrowly escapes a bombing that has killed her entire family and manages to refugee to a safe zone over the border. There, with no loved ones left and no hope for her future, she begins working for the resistance. For several chapters, I read about her journey to become a warrior for her people and then about her victories against her enemy. The title becomes clear. Left horribly burned and scarred from the bombing, she rises from the flames and ashes of her past to become a true hero. But just as I find myself ready to cheer on her victory for the resistance, Hazel finds out that the people she’s dedicated her life to fighting for are only a different side of the same coin as the people who murdered her family. It’s devastating and makes me as the reader feel defeated, until Hazel stands up on her own, sheds the banners of warring countries, and launches her own rebellion. It’s thrilling. Every twist and turn is unexpected and when I finally come to the end, I’m ravenous for more. The whole book reads so effortlessly, that it felt like I was watching a movie, and when I flip back through the notes I made, I realize there are several chapters where I made no annotations at all.

This is it.

This is the story Greenwich needs to publish. It has best seller written all over it. Hell, this could become the next big phenomenon. It’ll take some serious investment, expansion probably, and a dedicated staff comprised of the best of the best, but with the right marketing and editing, we could hang our entire year on this one release. Hell, we could probably ride out the next five years if it lives up to the potential I think it could have. Everyone is going to want this title, big and small publishers alike. The only advantage I have here is that no one else has this yet, and Hailey might be willing to take a gamble with me because of the personal connection we’ve already built. If she does, I’m going to make her the next Suzanne Collins and put GSP right at the top of the Seattle Publishing food chain.

When Christian finally pulls me out of my office so that he and I can share a late dinner together, I’m filled with so much excitement and determination, that I can hardly contain myself. There was some time, when I was sorting through dud after dud in my inbox last week, that I almost thought I’d made a mistake. That my success at Grey Publishing and with Escape might have overinflated my ego a bit and made me believe I was capable of achieving things that were simply unrealistic. But this manuscript has completely erased all of that doubt. I’m that confident in it. And that confidence carries me through the rest of the weekend.

 

****

 

I was wrong before, when I said I wanted Calliope to care that we were leaving her at daycare. I think she thought the place Christian and I dropped her off every morning last week was temporary, and she was willing to give it a try for a week. But when we take her back the following Monday, she devolves into the worst temper tantrum I’ve ever seen. Nothing can console her. She cries, and screams, and kicks… She even hits Kensie in the face when I try to hand her over. And the lecture Christian gives her about hitting when he immediately takes her from our nanny does nothing, because she’s back in his arms, which is all she wanted. But when we finally leave, the tears start again. I step into the hallway outside the locked security door with her screams still ringing loudly behind me.

“She’s going to be fine,” Christian assures me, reaching up to my face and wiping away an escaped tear that I can let show now that my baby is no longer in front of me. “I’ll come check on her after my meetings this morning.”

I nod, but his promise doesn’t make me forget the horrible sounds of Calliope’s screams. Like she was being tortured…

“Hey,” he continues. His fingers wrap around my chin so that he can tilt my face up towards his, forcing me to look into his eyes. “She’s in excellent hands. I don’t want you to worry about her, I want you focus on this book you’re going to pitch. It’s not going to be any fun when Grey Publishing beats your quarterly sales if you can claim that you were distracted by Calliope.”

Despite myself, I smile. “You’re ridiculous.”

“Yes.” He laughs. “And you’re going to be late. I love you.”

“I love you too.” His lips press into mine, washing away a small degree of the pain I feel for leaving Calliope, and then he walks me to the elevator to see me off.

Calliope’s tantrum aside, I feel really good when I get to the office. For the first time, Scott isn’t here to greet me or direct me through what he wants to accomplish today. I’m officially on my own and with Phoenix tucked securely in my bag, I’m feeling more confident about that than I did when I left the office Friday afternoon.

Abby greets me at the door with a mug of tea and an iPad, and she begins running through my schedule for the day as we walk into my office together.

“I’ve booked your flight and hotel for Angela Rowe’s book party in San Francisco, the latest numbers on Pinehart’s sales are on your desk, and you got an email from Calliope’s pediatrician reminding you that her one year booster shots are due. I booked an appointment for April 25th and blocked out your calendar so you’ll be able to go with her.”

I sit at my desk and smile gratefully at her. “You’re a lifesaver, Abby. Really.”

“I do what I can, Mrs. Grey.”

“Ana, please. Is everything all set for our meeting this morning?”

“Yes, ma’am. 09:30 AM. Do you need me to set up any presentations for you?”

“Not today, it should be fairly basic. I’ve got a few emails to respond to and I’ll need to send Pinehart’s number to New York once I’ve reviewed them and made a decision on optioning his second book. Then I’m all set.”

“Perfect. Let me know if you need anything else, Mrs. Grey.”

“Will do, thank you.” She smiles and turns to head back to her place next to Penny at reception, but before she closes the door, I call out to stop her. “Oh, and Abby…”

“Yes, Mrs. Grey?”

“Please call me Ana.”

“Right. Ana. Sorry.” I smile at her as she turns to leave, then get to work on everything I have to complete before my meeting this morning, including rehearsing my pitch for Phoenix.

 

The conference room is full by the time I leave my office. Twelve pairs of eyes follow me as I make my way to the head of the table, and before I can even set my things down, I’m barraged with questions.

“Mrs. Grey, I really need you to reconsider the Jefferson Morris title. It’s rough, yes, but I think with the right editing and marketing, it could be a success.”

“Morris is a hack,” a woman named Nadia interjects. “What we really need to discuss is the serious lack of funding that was approved for Rowe’s promotional tour. Pinehurst got almost double what you’ve approved for Rowe…”

“Have you gotten the manuscript from Walter Daves yet?” A hush falls over the room at that question and every pair of eyes turns towards me.

“Yes, I received Daves’ manuscript over the weekend,” I reply. “I’ve read it, and I’ve decided that we aren’t going to pursue The Black Rose for our big summer title.”

There’s a pulse of silence, so intense that it feels heavy, and then a roar as twelve people begin shouting angrily at me.

What do you mean we’re not going to release The Black Rose?

Daves is our best selling author!

You can’t just come in here and cancel my author’s releases! Daves has carried this publishing house for years!

“Exactly,” I say, holding my hands up to the stop the shouting and trying desperately to keep my voice firm. “Daves is the best this press has put out in years, and we’re floundering. Okay, this isn’t a debate. Just like my rejection of Jefferson Morris or the amount of money I’ve allocated to Rowe’s promo tour is not up for debate. I was brought in here to turn this place around, and we’re not going to do that by resting on our laurels and publishing the same weak material over and over again. I’m not going to sugar coat it for you guys, we’re in trouble. And it’s going to take something big to save us. Thankfully, I have something big.”

I reach into my bag, remove the copies that I made of Hailey’s manuscript Sunday night, and begin to pass them around the table.

“This is Phoenix, the debut novel of a local, young author, and it’s brilliant. It’s a young adult, sci-fiction story that I think will work well for audiences aged 12-35, which is our primary demographic, and this one book opens us up for possible franchise opportunities. We’re going to throw all of our weight behind this release, so I want all of you to read it and familiarize yourselves with some of the viral marketing techniques I’ve put together to reach younger audiences. Editing team, you’ll need to get started right away. This is going to be fast so I need everyone on board.”

I pause, expecting questions or requests for more specific direction, but there’s nothing. The people seated around the table before me simply blink at one another, or stare down at the manuscript in their hands as if it’s in an ancient dialect that they can’t understand. At least… for a second.

“Debut novel?” Stevens repeats, the uncertainty in his voice clear. “You’re telling me that you want to cancel the release of our most profitable author to take a chance on an amateur writer who has absolutely no following?”

“Yes. It’s called discovering new talent.”

“No, what it is is bullshit!” Tyler Sullivan, one of our agents, exclaims. “Walter Daves is my author, and I’m not just going to sit back while you discredit everything he’s done for this publishing house so that you can get one of your friends or… one of you or your husband’s bootlicking sycophant’s published. The Stormy Nights Saga built this business. Walter Daves is Greenwich Small Press.”

I take a deep breath and rest both of my hands on the smooth surface of the table before looking Sullivan directly in the eyes. “Tyler, have you actually read The Black Rose?

“Most of it, yes.”

“And what did you think?”

“I thought it was enjoyable. I think we’re going to see just as much success from The Black Rose as we did from Stormy Nights.”

“Really?” I sit in my chair, and click my teeth together in contemplation a few times before continuing. “Tell me, Tyler. What’s your favorite book?”

“Excuse me?”

“Now might be a good time to address one of the bigger issues I think might be hurting us, help you see where I’m coming from. So, I want to know… what’s your favorite book?”

His jaw flexes with irritation. “I’m partial to Tolstoy.”

“Well, that’s an English major answer if I’ve ever heard one. Let’s try again. Jacki, what’s your favorite book?”

She blinks, clearly taken off guard. “Ummm, I don’t know. Pride and Prejudice?”

“Romance. A little old fashioned, but a classic for sure.” I smile encouragingly at her, then begin to pace the table.

“I studied literature at Harvard, so I can’t say that I don’t also enjoy the classics. In fact, I wrote my thesis on the evils of imperialism as is depicted in The Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, and I took inspiration for my own depiction of desperation for the unobtainable in Escape from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But my favorite book of all time is Harry Potter. Specifically The Prisoner of Azkaban, which I think has something to do with Sirius Black coming into Harry’s life and stepping in as a father figure when he doesn’t really have to, much in the same way my own father came into my life… But the point is, my favorite book is Harry Potter. The magic, the whole new world JK Rowling created… the fantasy. That’s my genre. That’s what makes me love to read. The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire… anything that takes me on an epic journey in a far away world where anything is possible and good overcomes evil. That’s what I want. Sci-fi is good too, though I prefer books based on dystopian futures over aliens, like The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale. But it’s my preference for this genre that makes me an expert. I can tell you what makes a good fantasy hero. I can tell you what themes or plotlines are overdone or cliché. I can tell you what will resonate with other fantasy readers, because I am one. Stevens, you’re currently representing a non-fiction title, a children’s book, and a crime drama. Can you tell me what will make any one of those three a bestseller?”

“Marketing,” he replies.

“No, not what can we do to help boost its numbers. I want you to tell me what specific things in the story itself appeals to the readers who seek out those genres.”

“Ummm…”

“Jacki,” I say, cutting him off. “You said that Pride and Prejudice was your favorite book. Why?”

She blushes. “Mr. Darcy. He’s so wonderful and romantic, and his love for Elizabeth is beautiful.”

“He’s boring,” Tyler says under his breath.

Jacki blushes. “Maybe. I-I guess I’m just a sucker for a happily ever after…”

“And that’s fine. So are millions and millions of other readers just like you. It’s a billion dollar industry, and how many romance novels did we publish last year?”

“None,” Stevens says, and I nod.

“None. Instead, Jacki’s biggest title last year was a horror novel that sold just under 750 copies. So, tell me Jacki, what about that story made you think that it was going to be a success for GSP?”

“Well, I don’t know. It, uh… It just got approved.”

“And it bombed. Now we can talk about the god awful cover art and whether or not we could have done anything to help bolster sales during the release, but the cold hard facts are that that horror story, The House on Switzer Street, was both poorly written and nearly a carbon copy of Stephen King’s Rose Red. Had Jacki been well versed in the genre before she sent it off for approval, she would have known that. We need quality titles and this…” I reach into my bag, pull out my copy of The Black Rose, and toss it onto the table, ”is not quality.”

Every pair of eyes around the table shift down to manuscript before them, but no one says anything. I can tell by the thin lips and several red faces that a few of them want to argue, but won’t.

“I’m telling you,” I say, more gently now, “that this story, Phoenix, is our best move. This is a best seller, and with the right editing and representation, the sales of this one title could eclipse our entire fiscal year from last year. I need you all on board.”

“Yeah,” Jacki says. “She’s right. We need a change. What we’re doing isn’t working. We all know that Mrs. Grey knows how to sell books, we should listen to her.” She turns to look at me. “I’m on board.”

“Good.” There’s a small murmur that makes its way around the table and while it doesn’t necessarily sound confident, it’s not disagreeing either. Maybe most of the people here need to see the outcome of the changes I’m proposing before they fully buy into them, but with something I’m as sure of as I am of Phoenix, I’m okay with that.

“Great, then let’s get to work. We’ll meet on Friday to discuss strategy.”

The room fills with the sound of books closing and chairs scraping against wood as everyone gets out of their seats to return to their desks. I gather my own materials and make a beeline for my office, the disappointment of my team’s less than enthused reaction over Phoenix dissipating as I reach for my phone and dial the number on the note Hailey left for me. It rings twice.

“Hello?”

“Hi, is this Hailey Lewis?”

“Yes it is. May I ask who’s calling?”

“This is Anastasia Grey, er… Steele. Do you have a moment?”

“Oh my god, Anastasia Steele! Yes! Yes! Of course I do!”

“Well, Hailey, I just wanted to call and tell you that I finished Phoenix, and I absolutely loved it.”

“You did?”

“I did. And, I’m not sure if you know this, but I’ve recently taken over as the head of Greenwich Small Press. We’re looking for a fiction title to release this summer and I’d like to talk to you about what it would take to get you to sign with GSP.” Several seconds pass, but there’s only silence on the other end of the line. “Hailey? Are you still there?”

“I don’t know. I think I might be sleeping or… maybe dead.”

I laugh. “You’re not dead, I promise. This is real. I’m going to send you an official offer letter, I just wanted to have you on the phone when I told you how truly wonderful your story was.”

“So, you… you really want to publish my book? Like, I’m going to be a real author?”

“Yes, you are.”

“Oh my god.” She’s quiet again, except that I can hear a series of small but harsh broken breaths through the phone that tell me she’s crying. This is overwhelming, I’ve been there before, so I give her a minute. “I don’t know what to say,” she says at last. “Thank you. I mean, you were my hero before, but now…”

“There’s no need to thank me, Hailey. Trust me, you’ve earned this. You’ve truly created something amazing.”

“Ugh! I don’t think I’ll ever get over you saying that. So what now? What do I do?”

“Well, I’ll send an offer letter for you to sign and get back to me and then we’ll meet to discuss the details of your contract. I’ve already given your manuscript to our editing team, so now, unfortunately, all there is to do is wait.”

“Okay. I can do that. Not well, but I can do it.”

“Good. Then I’ll send this contract over to you and we’ll talk again soon. Bye, Hailey. And congratulations.”

“Bye! And thank you. Oh my god, thank you, thank you, thank you!”

I hang up the phone, feeling my chest swell with pride and happiness, but as I turn to my computer and pull up the standard contract GSP sends to all of our new authors, I’m distracted by the paging tone on my phone.

“Mrs. Grey, Scott Wallace is on line one for you.”

“Thank you, Penny.” I press my finger into the button next to line one and pick up the phone. “Good morning, Scott. What can I do for you?”

“You can tell me why you’ve pushed the manuscript I sent to you over the weekend off the frontlist.”

“Well, I read it and thought it was extraordinarily average. There’s another work we’re going to be pursuing that I think we’ll find more success with.”

“I didn’t send you that manuscript for your approval, Anastasia. I sent it to you so that you’d get it to your editors. GSP will be moving forward with The Black Rose.”

“I’m sorry, did you read it? It’s not good, Scott.”

“Walter Daves is a bestselling author with an established fan base. We don’t have the luxury of taking chances on unknowns right now because you like fairy tales. This is a business, Anastasia, not your personal book club. Get that manuscript into production.”

Because you like fairy tales? So, someone in that meeting called him.

“No. I’m sorry, but no. This isn’t about my preferences, this about what is going to make this company money. I know it’s been awhile since you’ve had to share this position, Scott, but I’m the President of the Seattle branch, and I am choosing not to move forward with The Black Rose. If you have a problem with that, we can speak with Carmen.”

“I’ve already spoken to Carmen and she’s greenlit the Daves’ title.”

“Wait, you already spoke to her? Why didn’t she call me?”

“I told you this is how it works. You go through me, I go to Carmen. This isn’t a discussion. The decision has been made and you either get on board or you pack your things.” There’s a click as Scott hangs up and then the long droning of the dial tone. My muscles seize with anger. What the hell does he mean get on board or pack your things? He’s not my boss…

But Carmen is.

My body deflates as I sink back into my chair. He’s already got Carmen to sign off on The Black Rose. What am I going to do, call her up and say nu-uh? Scott has numbers on his side. As much as I dislike this story, Tyler was right. Daves’ Stormy Nights series is the biggest title this publishing house has ever released. It was a New York Times bestseller and was nearly optioned by Universal. I brought it up in my interview. Carmen is just like Christian, focused on data and numbers. There’s no way I’d be able to convince her to take a chance on a novice author who’s never been published before over our current sales Juggernaut. Not without some kind of research to back me up.

Gritting my teeth, I get out of my seat and leave my office. Several smug smiles and looks of superiority follow me all the way to reception, but I don’t dignify them with any kind of reaction. My only disappointment is that there are too many people smirking at me for me to immediately know who went to Scott so I can deal with them.

“Abby, I need you to put a focus group together for me,” I say, taking care not to let any hint of nerves our doubt show in my voice.

“A focus group, Mrs. Grey?”

“Eleven participants, ages sixteen to thirty-five, evenly split between males and females.”

“Okay. And this is for…”

“For Phoenix. I’m going to need data if I’m going to explain to Carmen why The Black Rose is a terrible decision for us going forward.”

“That’s not going to work,” a voice says behind me, and I turn to see Tyler standing at his desk, arms crossed, scowling at me. Bingo. “A focus group won’t change anyone’s mind. That’s not the way we do things around here.”

“No, maybe it isn’t,” I say, my voice low and cold. “But it is the way I do things. And as long as my name is on that office, the way that I do things is the way that this branch does things. Anyone who has a problem with that going forward, can go ahead and bypass Mr. Wallace and speak to me directly.”

My eyes narrow in on Tyler, then I push off the counter and storm back to my office, letting the door slam closed behind me.

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