Chapter 1: Prologue
Alex Fletcher's Not So Infinite Playlist: "I think I'm gonna be sad, I think it's today, yeah, The girl that's driving me mad Is going away"--John Lennon, "Ticket to Ride"
"It's just two weeks. I'll be back before you know it." Sophie reached out to rub Alex's shoulder. "Besides, think how much composing you'll get done without me there, talking all the time."
"Right. I'll probably have an entire symphony written by the time you return." He spoke with a briskness Sophie knew him well enough to recognize as at least partly assumed, and her heart melted at how hard he was trying.
This would be their longest time apart since becoming a couple, just over a year ago. But her parents had given her an incredible gift last Christmas: two weeks at First Pages, an exclusive Bay Area writers' retreat. There'd be workshops and guest speakers, as well as long, peaceful interludes in which people could write and create undisturbed. She just couldn't pass it up--and Alex would never have asked her to.
The intercom sounded then, announcing the imminent departure of her flight and advising passengers to start boarding.
"I'd better get going," Sophie said, slipping her purse strap over her shoulder.
"Then I'll see you off." Alex picked up her carry-on before she could stop him. Together, they made their way to the gate.
Once there, Alex set down the carry-on and drew her to him, ignoring the stares of curious onlookers. "Okay. Here's one for the road, darling." Cupping her face, he covered her mouth with his in a deep, lingering kiss that she felt all the way down to her toes.
"Wow," Sophie said, somewhat breathlessly, after he released her. She knew Alex could kiss, but this had been exceptional, even for him. "Keep that up, and I'm definitely going to miss my flight."
"Can't have that, can we?" He stepped back, managed a smile. "Mind you, that was just to ensure that you'll miss me like a major appendage for the next two weeks."
Sophie swallowed, her eyes stinging suddenly. "Babe, I already do."
His eyes glinted. "Good. I'll leave it up to your lurid writer's imagination to decide which appendage."
So she was laughing instead of crying when she got on the plane and strapped herself in for the long six-hour flight to San Francisco.
Alex stayed until the plane had taken off, then left the airport without a backward glance. He did not think--he would not think--about another partner, whom he'd also loved, who had gone away and never come back.
Day 1: Welcome To First Pages!
Session 1. Identity and Empowerment: Finding Your Voice as a Writer
Session 2. The Voice Within: How to Deal with Your Inner Critic
Chapter 2: Day 2
Sophie settles in at First Pages
Session 1. The Beauty of Form: From the Couplet to the Sonnet
Session 2. Playing with the Net Down: An Appreciation of Free Verse
Session 3. From Medieval Ballads to Rap: When Poetry Joins Music
So beautiful here, Sophie mused, as she strolled along the garden path. Maybe California didn't have seasons the same way New York did, but the air was mild, the spring sunlight warm upon her face, now that the morning fog had burned away.
Honestly, if she couldn't find something to say about the beauty before her--whether it was the misty blue of the sea in the distance or the sunny yellow of the early daffodils blooming right here in the garden, she had no business calling herself a writer.
Pausing in the middle of the path, she stretched luxuriously, working out any lingering kinks. Today, for the first time since her arrival, she felt free of jet lag. Although yesterday's workshops on identity and empowerment as a writer had been intriguing, even inspiring, she had been so sleepy afterwards, she'd gone back to her room for a nap that lasted nearly two hours.
It felt strange to be sleeping in a bed that didn't ripple or undulate with her every movement. It felt even stranger to be sleeping in it alone; a little sentimentally, she wondered if Alex noticed her absence as much as she did his.
This morning, she'd awakened feeling fully refreshed and attended two fascinating workshops on poetry. Another was scheduled for later in the afternoon--since it concerned music as well as poetry, she'd be sure to make it back in time. But for now, she wanted to let what she'd heard so far sink in.
The first workshop, on formal poetry, had been especially thought-provoking. When she'd first started writing poetry, she'd been all about the free verse. But writing songs with Alex had given her a greater understanding--and appreciation, she thought, of how formal verse worked. There really was a beauty in order, a power in the way a poem--or song, for that matter--built to a climax within its tight, contained structure: the "punchline" couplet at the end of a Shakespearean sonnet, the alternating refrains of a villanelle. And those other vital tools of the trade--meter, rhyme, and scansion . . .
She would test herself over the next two weeks and compose some poems in the forms she'd previously dismissed as too confining. A poem a day didn't sound too daunting, she decided. She could work her way up to a sonnet from something shorter.
"Haiku," Sophie murmured aloud, reaching for her notepad and pen with renewed determination.
Chapter 3: Day 3
Alex gets some much-needed answers.
Session 1. Elements of Narration: Building Your World, One Scene at a Time
Session 2. Elements of Narration: How to Create Compelling Characters
Session 3. Elements of Narration: The Art of Plotting
Alex Fletcher's Not So Infinite Playlist: "Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be. There's a shadow hanging over me"--Paul McCartney, "Yesterday"
"Sir Paul, you are not helping," Alex muttered, wondering if he should turn off the radio altogether. But the apartment just seemed too bloody quiet without some sort of noise in the background.
"Why she Had to go, I don't know. She wouldn't say . . ."
"Right--that's it." Alex got up to change the station, halted thankfully at the knock on his door. After a quick glance through the peephole, he opened the door to his visitor at once. "Rhonda--hello. What brings you here today?"
"Sophie asked me to stop by now and then, while she was away," Rhonda explained. "Make sure you were eating right and not subsisting on take-out or TV dinners."
"Thank you. Very nice of you." Alex stepped aside to admit the force of nature that was Sophie's older sister.
Rhonda made a beeline for the kitchen, talking over her shoulder as she went. "I brought you our chicken cutlet dinner, our vegetarian lasagna, even our broiled salmon with lemon-dill sauce."
"Fine. Lovely." The Weight-Not entrees were far from being the worst things he'd ever eaten, even if they tended to be a bit bland. But it was nothing that some extra seasoning wouldn't fix, though Alex had no intention of telling Rhonda about the butter and gravy required to make the mashed potatoes more palatable.
"So, have you heard from Sophie lately?" Rhonda asked, opening the freezer door.
"I have, yes. She's been sending me daily e-mails. As far as I can tell, she's having a fantastic time out there." Alex tried to sound pleased about it. "And she says she's learning more about writing every day."
Rhonda nodded. "She's been telling me pretty much the same thing. Mom and Dad had the right idea, sending her there." She reached into her shopping bag, took out another few boxes. "What about you, Alex? Are you making out okay?"
"Fine," he said, perhaps a little too quickly. "Mind you, things are a bit quieter than I'm used to, but I'm managing."
Rhonda surveyed him with those sharp green eyes of hers, so different from Sophie's soulful dark ones. "Managing," she echoed. "That good, huh?"
Alex tried not to squirm too visibly. "I suppose, when you live with someone, you establish a sort of rhythm. And when that someone's--away, the rhythm's off." Way off. Downright discordant, in fact.
"Mm-hm," was all Rhonda said, but her gaze was still fixed on him.
"You've grown accustomed to having someone else about, hearing their voice, expecting them to answer when you call. And you find yourself doing stupid little tasks to keep your mind off how bloody big the apartment seems . . ." Alex broke off, appalled at the words spilling out of him. One last shaming confession rose to the surface. "I watered the ficus yesterday, before I remembered it was plastic. My God, when did I become so pathetic?"
"Maybe when you fell in love with my baby sister?" Rhonda suggested, grinning. Her expression softened. "For what it's worth--I'm glad you miss her. As much as she misses you." She reached out to touch his arm. "She's coming home soon, you know."
"Right. Unless, of course, she falls for some sensitive poetic type out there and decides to elope with him." He meant the remark as a joke; to his horror, it came out sounding almost plaintive.
Rhonda stared at him. "Wow. You've got it bad. Listen," she held his gaze with her own, "I happen to know Sophie loves writing songs with you. More to the point, she loves you. And you should know my sister's not the kind to leave you in a lurch either way. She'll be back."
Feeling at once slightly ashamed and immensely relieved, Alex managed a nod. If anyone knew Sophie inside and out, it was Rhonda.
"And besides," Rhonda began, then stopped, flushing slightly.
Alex stared at her in turn; he could not recall ever seeing Rhonda blush before. "What?"
"I probably shouldn't say any more." Turning away, she resumed loading the freezer.
Alex caught hold of the freezer door. "On the contrary, if it concerns Sophie and myself, then I want to know."
Rhonda took a breath. "Oh, it's about Sophie, all right--but not you. And I mean this in the most literal sense, Alex: this isn't about you."
Alex blinked, feeling as befuddled as an owl in the sunlight. Then the other shoe dropped with a resounding thud. "Oh, Christ! Cates?"
"Afraid so. She has to get the douchebag out of her system once and for all." Rhonda put the last of the Weight-Not entrees in the freezer and turned to face him. "He really messed her up, Alex."
"I know." He and Sophie had both brought their share of baggage to the relationship. But at least Alex's personal nemesis lived an ocean away, not right here in New York. Running into Colin was far less likely than encountering bloody Sloan Cates, though at least that had happened only once, so far.
Rhonda sighed. "I admit, dating her professor wasn't the smartest thing my sister's ever done. But Sloan made the first move. And honestly, how many women would turn down a handsome, best-selling author if he asked them out?"
"Not many," Alex conceded, suddenly reminded of all the women who'd been willing to sleep with him, Colin, or any of the other members of PoP during their heyday.
"I met him a few times, after they started seeing each other," Rhonda continued. "He had a lot of charm, he could be very persuasive." She sighed again. "Sophie was in way over her head. And I was just so glad she'd found someone that I didn't see the warning signs either.
"I was there when it all blew up in her face--his fiancée walking in on them, then finding out he'd lied about--well, pretty much everything. And then when his book came out--" Rhonda's face darkened. "God, I could have killed him with my bare hands. I wanted to. But Sophie was just so crushed and humiliated. Not just by the spin he put on things, but what he said about her writing."
Alex sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I'd hoped when that horrible Sally Michaels film flopped, that would be the end of it."
"In a way, it was. At least it was the beginning of the end. But she has to take the last step by herself. Put him completely behind her and get her writing mojo back. And going to this retreat should help her do that."
Man up, Alex told himself. He swallowed and said heroically, "If that's how it ends up working out, then I'm glad she's had the chance to go."
"Good." Rhonda smiled her approval. "By the way--another reason she was able to do this? She knows you're here, waiting for her."
Alex exhaled, feeling some of the tension ease at her words. "Where else would I be?"
Chapter 4: Day 4
Alex and Sophie clear the air--somewhat.
Session 1. When Everything Changes: The Defining Moment in Your Short Story
Session 2. Panel discussion: Short Fiction--A Genre of its Own?
Session 3. Selling it: How to Market Your Short Fiction
Sophie curled up in an armchair, clicking her pen and staring down at the writing pad in front of her.
White seagulls pinwheel
From the sky to the water--
Falling stars with wings.
A pretty good image, she congratulated herself before moving on to the next haiku she’d written.
Out in the garden,
Jonquils lift their heavy heads:
Spring is here at last.
Okay, so it wasn’t Wordsworth and the daffodils, but it wasn’t half bad, all the same. Having to pare down an image or a thought to seventeen syllables made you a lot more aware of how you used language.
At the piano,
I watch your hands, thinking of
The way you touch me,
Draw from me the sound
Of endless longing, making
Me your instrument . . .
Sophie felt herself flush, even though there was no one around to see. All right, so that one was drawn from real life. From sitting beside Alex as he played. But then, watching your lover do what he was good at, what he was meant to do, was incredibly sexy.
Maybe there was a song in that, she mused as her cheeks cooled. She could bounce the idea off Alex himself when she got home.
She missed him acutely, all of the sudden. While her days at the retreat were very full, her nights lacked a certain something without him there to talk to. Writing workshops might not be his idea of entertainment, but she just knew he would have had something amusing to say about them.
She glanced at the clock on the end table. It wasn’t too late, even in New York. On impulse, she picked up her cell phone and punched in his number.
He answered on the third ring. “Hey, babe--it’s me,” Sophie said at once.
“Darling--how are you?” His voice grew noticeably warmer. “Everything all right out there?”
“Just fine,” she assured him. “I hope I didn’t wake you. I took a chance you’d still be up.”
“Up and about. I just got back from an engagement, in fact. A bachelorette party, at the Hilton.”
Sophie smothered a smile he couldn’t see. Even though Alex was reestablishing himself as a serious musician, he still took on nostalgia gigs from time to time, as a way of thanking the fans who’d been there for him during the lean years after PoP disbanded. “Bring home any groupies?” she teased.
“Nary a one. And not from lack of trying on their part, I’ll have you know. Problem is, I can’t seem to fancy anyone else when you’re not here.”
Warmth curled about her heart at his words. “I seem to have the same problem.”
“Ah. Then it must be love.”
“Must be,” she agreed, smiling into the night.
“So I cleared out a little bit early and let them fondle the stripper instead.”
“No, actually.” Through her laughter, he continued, “And now I’m at home, surfing the internet until I relax enough to turn in. You?”
“Looking over my output from the last few days. We’ve finished up poetry and moved on to short stories. But I’ve written a few poems that might make good song lyrics, with a little tweaking.” Sophie paused. “Alex?”
A brief silence on his end; she imagined him furrowing his brow over the sudden urgency in her tone. “Yes?” he ventured at last.
“You know I’d never do anything to mess us up, don’t you?” she began, a little anxiously. “I mean, the songwriting--that’s our thing, you know, and it’s important and I love doing it. But I was thinking, there’s also the performing. And that’s your thing. I can tell you love it--getting up in front of an audience, or even just jamming with other musicians.” She gripped her phone, praying he would understand the next part. “Well, writing used to be my thing--the poems, the stories . . . I’ve missed it so much. And I really want it back.”
Another silence, then, “I know.” His voice was gentle. “And I understand.”
Relief washed over her. “You do?”
“I do, yes. And here’s what I think. There’s room in our lives for all those things--yours, mine, and ours. We’ll simply make room.”
He did understand. Sophie swallowed a lump in her throat. “Thanks, babe.”
“You’re very welcome.” His voice grew brisk. “Now, what’s next for you at the retreat? Novels?”
“Sort of. Genre workshops start tomorrow and continue into the weekend.”
“Genre. That would be popular fiction, wouldn’t it?”
“Yeah. Like mystery, romance, and science fiction.” And once, she might have turned up her nose at the idea of writing any of those things. But since working with Alex, she’d come to understand that something being popular did not automatically make it worthless. “I’ve heard the genre sessions are always packed--a whole bunch of new people came just for those. They showed up at dinner tonight, and I don’t know how I’m going to keep them all straight.” Sophie leaned back in her chair. “Some are students. There’s this group of about six girls who seem to have come from the same graduate school--if they’re even that old.”
“Some universities are having their spring break about now,” Alex pointed out.
“That’s what I figured. Anyway, they all kind of look alike, blonde and waifish, with names like Debbie, Julie, and Courtney. And they’re all so bubbly and idealistic and starry-eyed.” Sophie shook her head at the memory. “You would not believe how ancient they make me feel! Hey--are you laughing at me?”
“A little. You’re a fine one to talk about feeling ancient.”
“You’re not ancient,” Sophie said at once. “At least, that’s not how I think of you.”
“Thank you, darling. That’s comforting to know.” He still sounded amused. “So, after genre, mainstream? Writing the Great American Novel?”
“Among other things.” She gave him a quick run-down of the sessions scheduled for the following week. He listened with apparent interest and ventured the occasional remark, but she sensed eventually, from the quality of his silences, that he was coming off his performance high and beginning to tire.
“Fading, babe?” she asked, after hearing what sounded like a stifled yawn on his end of the line.
“Sorry. Yes, I’m afraid I am, a bit.”
Sophie glanced at the clock again, added three hours, and winced. “I didn’t mean to keep you up so late,” she said remorsefully. “Why don’t you get some sleep? I’ll be back in touch tomorrow.”
“Right. I’ll turn in now.” He sighed. “I sleep better when you’re here, of course.”
Sophie smiled. “So do I.” Especially after their favorite nocturnal activity. “Night, Alex.”
Chapter 5: Day 5
Alex is offered comfort from an unexpected source.
Alex Fletcher’s Not So Infinite Playlist: “I ain’t missing you at all. Since you’ve been gone Away. I ain’t missing you at all. No matter what my friends say”--John Waite, “Missing You.”
Ray opened the door to Alex the following day, but before Alex could say anything in greeting, Cora’s manager held a finger to his lips and jerked his head meaningfully towards the interior of the studio.
“Meditating,” he mouthed at Alex, who, after a moment’s confusion, nodded his understanding.
Even without Ray’s warning, he would have guessed that something of that nature was afoot. Strains of sitar music, along with the faint aroma of burning incense, issued from the red-draped room where Cora Corman rehearsed most of her dance moves.
Cora herself sat in a full lotus--a position that made Alex’s legs ache in sympathy--on a yoga mat in the center of the room. Her eyes were closed, her hands resting palms-up on her knees in what looked like a gesture of supplication.
The silence continued for so long that Alex began to wonder if he should just hand the demo to Ray and make a quiet exit. Then, unexpectedly, Cora’s eyes flew open and a beatific smile spread across her smooth young face. “Hi, Alex.”
Alex cleared his throat. “Hello, C. I hope I’m not interrupting?”
She shook her head. “It’s okay--I’ve regained my Zen now.” As always, her expression was almost eerily serene--someone less kind might have described it as vacant, but Alex refrained from doing so. Much to his own surprise, he’d grown oddly fond of Cora, who seemed to have adopted him and Sophie as a kind of honorary uncle and aunt. Certainly, she prided herself on having helped them get together last year. “You said in your email that the new song was ready?”
“Yes, yes, it is.” Alex took the CD out of his coat pocket. “Put the finishing touches on it this morning. My arrangement, Sophie’s vocals.” His girlfriend might not think of herself as being much of a singer, but of the two of them, she was much better suited to perform the songs they’d written in the female “voice.”
Cora uncoiled herself and stood up with an ease and fluidity he could only envy. “Let’s hear it.”
Ray took the CD and put it in the player. Cora blinked at the synthesizer riff that filled the room, followed seconds later by Sophie’s voice.
“Boy, I remember when this thing first started,
And people said it wouldn’t last.
But it’s still growing like an English garden,
And we’re just lyin’ in the grass . . .”
English garden. Alex found himself smiling at the reference. During their holiday in the UK last summer, Sophie had seen and been enchanted by several English gardens--possibly because she herself was hopeless with plants. They’d also lain in the grass of at least one of them, after a highly satisfying interlude. Trust her to remember that.
There was nostalgia in her voice now, and a hint of defiance--as befitting a song about love winning out over the odds.
“Sometimes the rumors start floating around
But I promise . . .
They can say whatever they want--
This love's invincible,
They can try to shoot off their mouths, boy.
But they only want what we got--
This love's invincible.
They can never turn us around, boy.”
Cora was swaying in time to the music, her eyes closed and her lips moving silently. Imagining her own approach to the song, no doubt; well, as long as it didn’t involve “steamy and sticky” Indian rhythms, Alex was open to suggestions. This particular effort was a bit of a departure for him, in any case, much closer in sound to the kind of songs Cora usually sang. Still, it had been fun to hook up the synthesizer, play around with it until he’d come up with the opening riff--and Sophie’s lyrics gave the song more depth than it might otherwise have had.
The song ended, and Cora opened her eyes. “I like it,” she said, after a moment, and Alex managed not to exhale too visibly. Ray grinned and gave him a quick thumbs-up.
“There might be a few things I’d like to change before recording,” she continued.
“Oh?” Alex tried not to sound apprehensive. He reminded himself that not all of Cora’s ideas were bad, and since garnering praise for her straightforward rendition of “Way Back into Love,” she’d become much more receptive to her songwriters’ input. But Sophie was still as protective of their songs as a mother cat with one kitten, and he didn’t want to have to upset her if Cora had something completely off-the-wall in mind for their latest work.
“Nothing too drastic,” Cora assured him. “But maybe we could add more percussion to a few sections? I’d run it by you first,” she added. “And Sophie too, of course. When is she coming back?”
“Next Sunday. Nine days from now.”
Cora’s eyes widened. “You’ve been counting the days. That’s so sweet.” She laid a hand on his forearm. “You must really miss her.”
Alex blinked, wondering uneasily if he were walking about with the equivalent of a neon sign proclaiming that fact flashing above his head.
“But don’t worry,” Cora went on serenely. “Next Sunday will be here before you know it. Maybe we could meet the following Monday or Tuesday--if that’s okay with Sophie.”
“I’ll be sure to ask,” Alex replied. Moments later, he took his leave, still bemused by the experience of having been mothered by a girl less than half his age.
Session 1. Contemporary Romance: Beyond Happy Ever After
Session 2. Historical Romance: Making Research your Friend
Session 3. Romantica and Erotica: Walking on the Wild Side
“Ever since I started writing romance, my sex life has never been better. My husband insists on trying out all the various positions.”
A burst of laughter followed this confession. Another aspiring author chimed in, “You can get the losers out of your system too. I’m writing romantic suspense right now--and I’ve made all my ex-boyfriends the victims of a serial killer.”
“I still miss my ex. But my aim’s getting better all the time.”
The dining room erupted into laughter again. Sophie took a last spoonful of raspberry parfait and listened contentedly to the conversations around her. Romance writers were a more eclectic bunch than she’d ever imagined--from the husband-and-wife team who penned love stories set in the Old West, to the research librarian who wrote kick-ass romantic suspense, to the stay-at-home mom whose passion was for dark paranormals. Today’s sessions had been the most interesting, so far: she hadn’t wanted to miss any of them. And clearly most of the First Pages participants had felt the same way, because the conference rooms had been packed. The current post-mortem--over dinner and desserts--was proving just as entertaining.
Everyone loves a love story, Sophie mused, her thoughts going at once to her own. Although if she were ever to depict herself and Alex as romantic leads in a novel, she’d want to put some distance between fiction and reality. Maybe she could set their story a century in the past, in Europe instead of America. Or have them swap roles: he could be the frustrated poet, and she could be the struggling composer. She resolved to jot those ideas down once she got back to her room for the night.
The party in the dining room was finally winding down, the wait staff collecting empty dessert plates as the attendees began to rise and move towards the exit. Sophie pushed back her chair, preparing to depart as well.
Somewhere nearby, she heard a young female voice burble, “Isn’t this just fabulous? My advisor said I simply had to come here this year!”
One of the graduate students, Sophie supposed. All enthusiasm and italics. Smiling indulgently, she left the dining room and returned to her own suite.
Too late to call Alex tonight, she concluded regretfully after glancing at her watch. But she’d send him an email in the morning.
Too wired to sleep, she got out her writing notebook instead.
Chapter 6: Day 6
Instant messaging--the next best thing to being there?
Session 1. “I Wants to Make Your Flesh Creep”: Horror and the Occult from Lovecraft to King
Session 2. Beyond “The Butler Did It”: The New Whodunnit
Session 3. Writers of the Purple Sage: Revitalizing the Western
Sophie had skipped the horror writing session quite happily; fear, blood, and gore were not her favorite topics first thing in the morning. But the mystery workshop had been fun.
Alex claimed not to read novels, but at home, he had a shelf full of classic Agatha Christies and another of Dick Francis mysteries; although, he confessed, he'd only finished about half of them.
"I used to bring one or two books along when we were on tour," he explained. "Reading on the bus--time can hang a bit heavy."
She had sat through the Western workshop as well, although it hadn't engaged that much of her attention. She'd spent most of the time idly wondering if she and Alex would ever try their hand at country-and-western, and fantasizing just a bit over how Alex might look in cowboy boots and leather chaps. Of course, imagining his reaction on having to wear such regalia was even more entertaining.
"And a ten-gallon hat? Strumming an acoustic guitar--or a banjo? Oh, surely not,” she could hear him protesting in that very English voice of his. Well, he might look cute that way. Maybe even on a horse--she could ask if he’d ever taken riding lessons.
Sophie shook her head at herself over that last--she really should be over any hero-on-a-white-horse fantasies by now--and set up her laptop. She logged on, then stared at her computer screen in surprise. Alex's IM tag--“PoPStar80s"--had just appeared in her buddy list window. Frowning, she glanced at the time, added three hours for the east coast, and fired off a message to him.
WriterGrl: Babe, what are you doing up?
There was a lapse of several seconds, during which she imagined Alex at his desk, staring at his own monitor. Then his response came through.
PoPStar80s: Hi! Good to hear from you!
WriterGrl: You too, but why aren't you in bed? It's after midnight in New York.
PoPStar80s: Ah. I was out. Too wired to sleep.
Sophie bit her lip. She’d never seen Alex really drunk since they’d gotten together. While he’d drifted close to the line once or twice, he’d never actually crossed over it. She hadn't seen any evidence that he was likely to, but she'd left him on his own . . .
“Go anywhere special?” she typed in, hoping the question came across as suitably casual.
“Just the usual,” came his reply. “Down to the Pub Club.”
Sophie sighed, relieved. The Pub Club was around the corner from one of their favorite restaurants; a place where British expatriates living in New York tended to hang out. “I go there whenever I develop an unaccountable craving for fish and chips and warm beer,” Alex had told her once.
She glanced at her monitor, saw he had typed further, “Met a drummer I knew there: bloke named Nigel. And a few of his mates. We were jamming for an hour or two. The patrons were suitably impressed.”
Sophie smiled and responded. “I'm glad you had a good time.”
PoPStar80s: Music--it keeps me off the streets.
A slightly longer pause, as if Alex was weighing his words. Then, unexpectedly--
PoPStar80s: I miss you.
Sophie caught her breath. Given Alex’s English reserve and tendency to hide his deepest feelings behind quips and irony, it was rare for him to make such a direct admission. Eyes misting a little, she quickly sent back:
“I miss you too. But I'll be home before you know it.”
Another pause, about as long as the sigh she imagined him giving on the other end.
PoPStar80s: Sleep well then.
WriterGrl: You too, babe.
Chapter 7: Caesura
Sophie's progress at the retreat hits a snag.
Session 1. “All the World’s a Stage”: Writing for the Theatre of Today
Session 2. “Lights, Camera, Action!”: Bringing Your Screenplay to Life
Session 3. “Dramatic License”: Mastering the Art of Adaptation
Stifling a yawn, Sophie doodled in the margins of her notepad and wondered if it was possible to suffer from workshop fatigue.
Genre weekend had concluded Sunday with lively sessions on fantasy, science fiction, and children’s literature. Sophie had attended them all, despite her doubts that she’d ever write any of them. Although with a young niece and nephew, she supposed she couldn’t discount the possibility of producing a children’s book someday.
Monday had brought a return to the mainstream, with sessions on literary fiction. And today, screenwriting was the focus. Sophie swallowed back another yawn and wondered if she should give tomorrow’s workshops a miss and just focus on writing itself. The subjects were moving further and further away from the genres that most intrigued her, after all.
She turned a disinterested gaze upon the rest of the class. Currently a debate was going on between attendees about the merits of various screen adaptations. Brad, an entertainment lawyer with screenwriting aspirations, had been bemoaning the unreasonableness of authors who couldn’t bear to see a syllable of their deathless prose sacrificed in the page to screen transition.
“They’re damned lucky someone liked their work enough to option it,” he declared now, brandishing his pen for emphasis. “In my opinion, they should stick to writing their next novel and leave screenwriting to the screenwriters, instead of whining about changes and insisting on more and more creative control!”
Julie, one of the dewy-eyed blonde graduate students who’d arrived for genre weekend, countered, “Well, why shouldn’t they? Writers deserve to have control of the work. My advisor says that only the original author can truly understand the nuances of his creation!”
My advisor says. That phrase seemed to pop out of Julie’s mouth every other sentence--Sophie had observed as much during yesterday’s sessions on mainstream fiction. She’d found it decidedly annoying, but had tried to make allowances for the girl’s youth. Besides, Julie’s current argument was not without merit, although Sophie conceded that Brad had a point as well.
Brad made a rude noise. “Considering that your advisor produced one of the worst screenplays of the past year, I wouldn’t call that much of a recommendation. Didn’t Rolling Stone completely skewer that movie?”
Julie turned bright pink. “Ten years from now, Sloan’s script will be revealed for the brilliant adaptation it is!”
“One year from now, every copy of that script will be lining birdcages and litter-boxes all over Tinseltown,” Brad retorted, but that wasn’t what had Sophie jerking upright in her chair, suddenly wide-awake again.
Sloan. The air seemed to hum and buzz in her ears like a swarm of angry gnats. It couldn’t be--it just couldn’t! Oh God, why had she never thought this might happen?
Well, why wouldn’t he be able to land another teaching position? What college wouldn’t jump at the chance to have a noted author and National Book Award winner on their professorial staff? Another campus, another course, another impressionable young woman worshipping at the feet of Sloan Cates . . .
She glanced at Julie, still pink and indignant, defending her idol against Brad’s derision. Just like she would have, once--and the memory made her feel distinctly sick. Swallowing hard against the nausea, she slid down in her seat and bent over her notebook until the session was over.
She didn’t remember leaving the classroom, or even making it back to her room. As soon as the door loomed before her, she unlocked it and practically hurtled inside, shutting out the world.
Too agitated to sit down, she paced her suite, her thoughts a seething mass of doubt, anger, and pain. Old pain, but still capable of casting that shadow overhead.
Sophie paused, rubbing her aching temples and trying to anchor herself in the present. The present in which she was a successful lyricist, happily involved with a terrific guy who was also her writing partner. A guy who understood her quirks and her baggage, and loved her just the same.
If she picked up the phone, called Alex or Rhonda--she knew either one of them would drop everything and come out to be with her. Hold her hand, talk her through this, offer her unconditional love and support . . .
She was blessed to have that--and them, in her life. But something in her rebelled against the thought of calling in the cavalry for this.
I’m not a damsel in distress, damn it! I shouldn’t need to be rescued, not after almost two years!
She wasn’t the same wounded girl who’d hid in a public restroom to avoid confronting Sloan. Or even--she hoped--the girl who’d been unable to get a word out when she had confronted him.
And fate had handed Sloan a beautiful come-uppance that she couldn’t possibly have improved upon. Alex had read her all the blistering reviews of “Sally Michaels” when it first came out. As he’d remarked with satisfaction, it was enough to make one believe in karma.
Except that Sloan’s influence continued--not over her, thank God, but over impressionable young women like Julie. Starry-eyed wanna-be writers who thought--as Sophie had--that Sloan Cates was the ultimate authority on their work. Who might fall into the same trap of being used, deceived--and at last, unjustly vilified for his misdeeds.
She found herself wondering if Sloan had actually taken Julie to bed. If he hadn’t, it was probably only a matter of time before he did, she thought cynically. And to judge by Julie’s near-worship of Sloan, it would probably never occur to her just how unethical it was for a teacher to date a student.
It had occurred to her, Sophie admitted, squirming inwardly. Getting involved with Sloan certainly hadn’t been her finest hour--and she was older than Julie! But then, that was how she’d rationalized their going out together--two consenting adults, no one else's business, yadda yadda yadda. At least she’d had the sense to cut off all contact with him once she’d seen him for the selfish, manipulative user he was.
Cut off all contact, moved on, and finally--after a long, painful eclipse--found her voice again.
Her voice. And she was damned if she’d let Sloan Cates--or one of his star-struck protégées--silence her this time.
“I’ll handle this,” she said aloud, coming to a halt in the middle of the room. “I don’t know how yet, but I will.”
Chapter 8: Apologia
Alex learns surprising news, while Sophie tries to put the past into perspective.
Alex Fletcher’s Not-So-Infinite Playlist: “Without you, I’m workin’ with the rain fallin’ down, Half a party in a one -dog town, I need you to chase the blues away”--Bruce Springsteen, “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”
“Earth to Alex. Come in, Alex.”
Alex blinked, found his manager pointedly waving a hand in front of his eyes. “Sorry. What was that again?”
Chris sighed. “What I said was, Nina Callaway wants to know if you’re free later this afternoon. She’d like to run through the set for Friday night.”
“Right.” Alex tried to inject more enthusiasm into it--as well he should, he reminded himself. His latest gig was a cabaret set at a new nightclub, the Roxy Blue, headlined by singing sensation Nina Callaway, whose sultry voice the press had compared to that of Patti LuPone or Rita Coolidge. A far cry from performing at amusement parks and state fairs. “Right,” he repeated, more firmly. “Be glad to. At the club itself?”
Chris nodded. “The Roxy’s being very flexible about rehearsal--they want the cabaret to be a success. By the way, Nina really likes ‘Way Back into Love.’ She’s interested in doing it as a blues cover, if you’re agreeable, with you accompanying her on piano.”
“Sounds brilliant.” Alex did not have to feign enthusiasm this time. Another cover of his and Sophie’s first hit, and performed by such a high-profile singer--he could hardly wait to tell her. Assuming she wasn’t too caught up in her workshops to pay attention--her email this morning had had a somewhat distracted tone . . .
“Here you go,” a new voice announced cheerily, and Alex looked up to see that their waiter had reappeared with a laden tray. “Now, which one of you had the Caesar salad again?”
“So, when’s Sophie coming back?” Chris asked, after their waiter had served them both and departed.
“Sunday--five days from now.” Alex unfolded his napkin, draped it over his lap.
“You’ve been keeping count.” Chris smiled knowingly, pointed his fork at Alex. “The Big L--it gets you every time.”
“Yes, well . . .” Alex cleared his throat. “No need to belabor the obvious.” He changed the subject. “Right--speaking of the Big L, how are things with you and the lovely doctor?”
“Fine.” Chris fiddled with his own napkin, not looking at Alex. “In fact, I was thinking--well, we’ve been going out for a while now, so . . .” He paused, clearly wrestling with himself about something, then, “I’m going to ask Gloria to marry me.”
“Good God!” Alex stared at his manager in shock.
“You’re probably thinking it’s a little soon after the divorce--“
“No, no, I’m not,” Alex interrupted, with an emphatic shake of his head. “It’s been about a year, actually--I wouldn’t call that too soon.” Chris’s cheating ex-wife had moved on much faster, he remembered, though he wasn’t about to bring Susan into this. Steady, patient, loyal Chris deserved something good in his life, something of his own. He smiled at his manager. “That’s fantastic news, really. Gloria’s quite a woman.”
“Isn’t she?” Chris relaxed visibly, smiling back in a way that transformed his mournful face. “And Beth likes her too.”
“Even better,” Alex replied. Since the divorce, Chris had worried continually about his twelve-year-old daughter’s happiness. It was good to know that she got on well with his girlfriend. “So, when are you planning to pop the question?”
“Tomorrow night.” Chris poked nervously at his salad. “I just hope she says yes.”
“She will,” Alex predicted. “And once she does, we’ll have a celebration--you, Gloria, Sophie, and me. Plus Beth, if she wants to join us.”
Chris’s smile broke out again. “Thanks, buddy.”
Session 1. Someone Else’s Story: Five Ways to Galvanize the Biography
Session 2. “In Memory Yet Green”: Memoirs and the Living Subject
Session 3. “The Hero of My Life”: Constructing the Autobiography
Sophie flexed her tired hand, and exhaled--for what felt like the first time in two days.
Ever since Tuesday’s sessions and their unpleasant revelations, she’d been holed up in her room, writing furiously. More than half the pages of her writing pad were covered with her headlong scrawl, which Alex continually complained was impenetrable to anyone else.
Getting stiffly to her feet, she wandered over to the kitchenette to brew some fresh coffee and warm up the muffin she’d brought back from the dining hall. Slightly restored by the food and drink, she returned to the living room and picked up the pad again to read over what she’d written.
It was all there: the pain, the anger, the betrayal, and--to Sophie’s growing chagrin--the almost overwhelming sense of victimization.
She grimaced, shuffling through the pages. But she was too honest not to acknowledge that was what was coming through, loud and clear: the defensiveness and still-fragile ego of someone who’d been taken advantage of by an older, more sophisticated, thoroughly unscrupulous man.
Which might be true as far as it went, but surely she wasn’t as vulnerable now as she was then.
She set down the writing pad, stared off into space, frowning as much at herself as at her memories of her ex-lover.
I don’t want to be his victim, not even in fiction. I don’t want to be seen as a victim, period.
She wasn’t in love with Sloan Cates anymore. He wasn’t more important than Alex. Or her and Alex, and what they’d built together.
All the same, it galled her--the havoc he’d wreaked upon her life. He’d lied to her, used her, and made her doubt herself to the point of paralysis. And then, to add insult to injury, he’d transformed her into a talentless but predatory femme fatale and himself into the hapless hero caught in her toils, and reaped a sickening number of literary accolades for his deceit.
Why must she let his version of events stand?
She was a writer herself--why couldn’t she work a similar magic? Give a new and intriguing twist to this sordid episode--one that would ultimately exorcise whatever residual anger was left.
Write it out of her system and be done with it. And him.
But not as a memoir or an expose, or even as a roman à clef. She wasn’t going to make the mistake of trying to challenge Sloan on what was considered to be his turf.
But there was more than one way to tell a story. And more than one kind of story to tell.
Femme fatale. Victim.
What if Sloan was--not the beleaguered hero he imagined himself to be--but a real victim?
She sat perfectly still for some minutes, letting the idea form. Then she reached for her pad again, and turned to the first blank page.
Chapter 9: Epiphany
Alex and Sophie each experience a moment of truth.
Alex Fletcher’s Not-So-Infinite Playlist: “I’m tired of being in love and being all alone, When you’re so far away from me. I’m tired of making out on the telephone, ‘Cause you’re so far away from me”--Dire Straits, “So Far Away from Me”
“Great show tonight,” Nina Callaway remarked backstage to Alex, as the applause from the last encore finally died down.
“Seems to have gone over well,” he agreed, smiling. In fact, Cabaret Night at the Roxy had been an unqualified success, largely due to Nina’s performance but Alex thought he and the other participants had acquitted themselves honorably.
Accompanying Nina had been a high point, of course. The press had not exaggerated her vocal talents, and she had the looks to go with her voice--dark, sultry, effortlessly sexy: the quintessential nightclub chanteuse. Alex had also been pleasantly surprised by how well “Way Back into Love” worked as a blues-y torch song. He couldn’t remember when he’d last played blues or jazz, but it might be smart to keep in practice. Shifting gears now and then was good for a musician, he reflected.
Nina’s voice broke into his musings. “Hey, Alex--you got a ride home?”
“Ah--I was planning on taking a cab.” He supposed he could have cadged a lift from Chris and Gloria--now engaged and positively glowing with it--but he fancied the lovebirds would appreciate some alone time.
“I’ve got a limo,” Nina offered, “We can give you a lift.”
“Thanks, but I don’t want to take you out of your way,” Alex began.
She shook her head, smiling. “It’s no trouble. I often go on a drive after a gig like this--it helps me unwind.”
“Very well, then.” Alex smiled his thanks. “I accept.”
Some twenty minutes later, they climbed into Nina’s limo, which rolled smoothly along the streets, almost without a sound. They chatted lightly about the night’s cabaret act, and what was coming up next for both of them in the way of gigs.
“I loved the Leon Russell cover you did tonight,” Nina remarked. “That had to be one of the better renditions of ‘A Song for You’ I’ve heard in recent years.”
“Thank you.” He’d found himself thinking about Sophie while he was performing it; the lyrics were certainly apposite. “Tailor-made for a piano man, I’ve always thought. I particularly enjoyed your performance of ‘Fever,’ by the way. Nothing like the classics, is there?”
“Well, I hope Peggy Lee would have approved.”
“The men in the audience certainly did,” Alex told her. “At least three in the front row looked like they wanted to eat you alive.” He’d felt something of a pull as well, watching her vamp her way through the last “What a lovely way to burn.” Charisma like that couldn’t be bought, he reflected. Come to think of it, Colin’s charisma had been of a similar order, though his had had a preening element that was blessedly absent from Nina’s.
She gave a low, throaty laugh that made his skin prickle, not unpleasantly. “Maybe they just missed dinner?” she suggested, with a faintly mischievous smile. “Speaking of which, I’m famished. How about you?”
Alex took a quick self-inventory. “A little, perhaps. I try to eat lightly before a gig.”
“So do I.” Nina pushed back a dark curl that had strayed across her forehead. “Alex, would you like to go somewhere for a bite to eat? Or maybe we could go back to my place--I’m told I make a mean Florentine omelette.” Her smile held an unmistakable invitation.
Alex swallowed, understanding what was really being offered here. Attracted? Any straight man with a pulse would be. Tempted? Not nearly as much as one might expect.
Can’t seem to fancy anyone else when you’re not here . . .
“I’m sure you do,” he managed to get out at last. “Thanks for the invitation. It’s very flattering, and believe me, there was a time I’d have gladly taken you up on it. It’s just that,” he paused for a moment, then chose his next words with care, “I’ve been involved with someone for the last year or so. Seriously involved.”
“You’ve got a girlfriend?” Nina’s brows rose. “I’m surprised she wasn’t there tonight.”
Alex sighed. “She usually is, but she’s had to go out of town for a few weeks. She’s coming back on Sunday.”
“You miss her, huh?” Far from appearing insulted, Nina was regarding him with warm, even understanding dark eyes.
“I’ve been counting the days,” Alex admitted.
“That’s nice. Really nice.” Nina leaned forward, brushed a kiss against his cheek. “She’s a lucky lady.”
“Mr. Fletcher?” The limo driver’s voice floated back to them. “Is this where I turn?”
“It is,” Alex confirmed, with a glance out his window. He relayed the rest of the directions to the driver, then sat back in his seat.
A few minutes later, they came to a stop in front of his apartment building. Alex thanked Nina and the driver, then got out of the car. Feeling slightly bemused, he watched the limo pull away from the curb.
Nice to know he still had it, even if there was only one person he wanted to give it to. And Sophie was coming home in two--no, less than two days. In fact--this time Sunday, they’d probably be heading up to the apartment together, after a romantic evening out.
Lovely thought. Cheered, Alex turned and strode into the building, waved jauntily at Khan as he passed the concierge desk, and made his way to the elevator with a spring in his step.
Things were definitely looking up.
“Oh, this genre is always searching for new voices, and things that buck the formula. I would say, finish and polish your manuscript, write a strong query letter, then find yourself a really good agent.”
Sophie nodded. “I’d pretty much decided it would be best to get an agent first. Thanks for the information, Mr. Archer.”
He smiled, nodding as well. “Nice talking to you, Ms. Fisher.”
He moved off through the crowd. Sophie sipped her drink and consulted her watch; pleasant as this last-night party was, she found her thoughts turning increasingly homeward, toward New York--and Alex. She still had some packing left to do . . .
“Fisher?” A young female voice spoke up at her shoulder.
Surprised, Sophie turned around to find herself face to face with Julie, whose gaze went at once to her name-tag. “Sophie. Fisher,” the girl repeated, with the painstaking pronunciation of someone who was perhaps not completely sober. “Oh, my God. You--you’re ‘Sally Michaels,’ aren’t you?”
Oh, my God just about covered it. For a moment Sophie felt her throat close up with panic: so Sloan finally had spilled the beans to someone--his version of the beans, anyway. Fortunately, Julie did not seem to have made up her mind whether to be curious or hostile.
Defuse, Sophie told herself. She was older and--she hoped--wiser than Julie, so it fell to her to keep this situation from escalating into an ugly altercation. Swallowing hard, she made herself stand her ground, grateful for the heels that increased her five-feet-four by a good two inches and gave her a slight height advantage over Julie. “No,” she replied evenly, looking straight into the girl’s wide-set blue eyes. “I’m Sophie Fisher. I was always Sophie Fisher.”
Julie frowned, clearly trying to reconcile Sloan’s slinky temptress with the woman in front of her. “But--“
“'Sally Michaels’ is a work of fiction,” Sophie went on, drawing on a reserve of composure she hadn’t known she possessed. “Just like any other novel.”
She wondered fleetingly if it might be possible to open Julie’s eyes, challenge her assumptions about Sloan Cates. Or at least warn her of his selfishness and capacity for deceit. But would she even listen? Would she have, in Julie’s place?
Sadly, she doubted it. Some lessons had to be learned the hard way, on one’s own. She settled for bestowing her most guileless smile on the girl. “Imagination--is such a powerful tool, isn’t it? And everyone has their own unique story to tell, of course.”
Julie’s lower lip was slightly outthrust, like that of a child weighing the pros and cons of an outburst. Fortunately, another young woman materialized by her side. “Jules, for heaven’s sake,” she hissed at her friend before darting an apologetic glance at Sophie. “Sorry--I think she’s maybe had a little too much to drink--“
“Courtneeeyyy,” Julie protested in a near-whine.
Sophie managed an understanding nod and a “say no more” wave of her hand. “I’d better turn in now,” she said brightly, checking her watch again. “I’ve got a plane to catch tomorrow morning. Enjoy the party, both of you.”
She made her escape, slipping through the crowd and out of the reception room without further encounters. Her words to Julie echoed in her mind as she headed back to her suite: their own unique story to tell.
Irresistibly, she thought of “Simon Caine”--literary wunderkind, guest lecturer, and serial seducer of graduate students--whom she’d just left naked, spread-eagled, and fatally pinned to his office desk with an antique sword in the third chapter of her manuscript--and smiled.
Chapter 10: Epilogue
Sophie comes home.
Alex Fletcher’s Not-So-Infinite Playlist: “To have you with me I would sail the seven seas, To have you as my guide and my life. My love is a flame, that burns in your name, We’ll be together tonight”--Sting, “We’ll Be Together.”
Stepping out of the terminal, Sophie scanned the crowd for Alex, and located him almost at once. To her delight, he caught sight of her at the same moment and his face brightened visibly, as he began to work his way toward her.
Sophie lengthened her own stride, and they met halfway in the kind of embrace she’d imagined countless times over the last two weeks.
He kissed her until the terminal seemed to whirl around them both, then drew back, smiling. “Welcome home, darling.”
“It’s good to be home,” Sophie said fervently, her arms still locked about his neck.
“Glad you went?” Alex asked, relieving her of her carry-on.
“Yes, but even gladder I came back. I’ve got a ton of things to show you,” she went on, disengaging herself reluctantly from his embrace. “I wrote some poems we might be able to use as lyrics. And a few short stories--really short, I mean, barely a thousand words--but I’m pretty happy with them.”
“Short can be good,” Alex told her, as they started making their way towards baggage claim. “Effective. Sounds like you had a productive couple of weeks.”
Sophie nodded. Later, maybe, she’d tell him about her encounter with Sloan Cates’s latest protégée and how she’d handled it, but right now, she just wanted to bask in the pleasure of being back where she belonged. “I also tried my hand at something longer,” she confessed. “A mystery novel.”
His brows rose. “Really? That’s quite a new direction for you. What kind of mystery?”
“Classic whodunit, with some cozy elements. It’s set on a college campus in upstate New York. Think you might be up to reading it?”
“I’d be glad to,” he assured her. “Er, it’s not still in longhand, is it?”
Sophie laughed. “Relax, babe. I’ve been typing it on my laptop.”
“Brilliant--I’ll give it a go, then, but tomorrow perhaps.” He took her hand. “I was thinking we might go out to dinner tonight, if you like. Celebrate your homecoming.”
She smiled, leaning against him as they walked. “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s order in.”
Alex absorbed her meaning with commendable swiftness. “Ah. Yes. That’s a much better idea,” he agreed.
One year later . . .
Sophie Fisher’s MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD, the first in a new mystery series, to Jane Adler at Deerstalker Press, in a very nice deal . . .