Actions

Work Header

That's Me In the Spotlight!

Work Text:

February 14, 1982

Another Leap; from one body to another, consciousness soaring briefly upward and outward before beginning a slow spiral down toward the light –

The bright light ...

Lots of bright lights ...

Spotlights, to be exact. A bank of spotlights. And every single one of them blazing directly down onto –

Oh, boy. Onto me.

Surreptitious glances from one side to the other confirm a podium, a table, a microphone. I'm on the podium, perched on the table, the microphone in my hand. And in front of me is a vast wood-panelled auditorium filled with row on seemingly endless row of collapsible seating, and in the seats are people – row upon row of people, almost all of them women.

Row upon row of bright, eager little faces turned expectantly up to me, waiting to hear me speak, breathlessly anticipating my words of wisdom ...

Boy, are they ever in for a surprise.

*

The silence was starting to become embarrassing. I had to say something.

"Uh ..."

Okay, so it wasn't exactly the world's most brilliant start, but I was praying for inspiration, divine or otherwise. All that happened was that the microphone emitted a protesting squawk of feedback that built up to an ear-splitting crescendo. Not what I was hoping for at all. Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed a figure in jeans and a pink sweatshirt as it ran across the stage behind me and did something to the amp – kicked it hard, to judge from the noise it made. I smiled weakly and tried again.

"Sorry – just testing." Incredibly, several people laughed. "Uh – what I thought was ..."

Inspiration!

"What I thought was, rather than for me just to sit here giving you all a long, pre-prepared lecture, which would probably be very boring for all of us – including me – and I expect half of you have already heard in any case – "

Another ripple of laughter. What was wrong with these people?

"So, I thought, why don't I throw this open to the floor, turn it into kind of a question and answer session? That way we can cut the – " (Careful!) " – um, the garbage, you get to ask me whatever you want to know – "

Someone at the back cheered faintly.

" – and, uh, I get to tell you just what I want you to hear." And maybe get some answers, too, somewhere along the way.

That got the biggest laugh yet. I leaned back casually, trying hard (a) to project ease and confidence and (b) not to topple off the table and thus blow my cool beyond any chance of redemption. I supposed it was too much to hope for that someone would ask me a question about quantum mechanics ...?

So much for inspiration. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but I hadn't been prepared for the hail of questions it brought down on me. Everyone in the hall seemed to be yelling at once, which naturally meant that I couldn't make out a thing. I tried holding up a hand for quiet. Not a chance. A couple of tentative pleas of, "One at a time, okay?" had precisely the same result – or lack thereof. Finally I couldn't stand it any more. I grabbed the mic and bellowed, "SHUT UP!"

That got me silence. It got me a lot of shocked stares, too, ranging from the wounded to the downright savage. I'd hurt their feelings, obviously. What a shame. So I gave them another smile; they seemed to like that a whole lot better. (Note: "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." My great-aunt Tillie used to say that. Up until now, I'd never been quite sure what she meant.)

"Sorry," I offered, smoothing ruffled feathers. "But let's make it just one at a time, okay? I know it's a little slower, but it works out a lot more effective in the long run. Now, if you've got a question, raise your hand."

About a thousand hands shot up all over the room. Well, okay, maybe not quite a thousand, maybe a couple of hundred – maybe fifty – which was more than enough. I picked one at random. "Okay, go ahead."

The woman I'd pointed out stood up: a big woman, swathed in a shapeless pink caftan adorned by a corsage of mauve orchids. The mauve and the pink clashed distressingly. She had a strong nasal accent, and a voice that went past loud, left outspoken lagging by a mile. Stentorian would cover it. Just about. Which was unfortunate, in view of the question she had prepared.

"Can you tell us what it was like to make love to Joan Collins?"

I blinked. What kind of a thing was that to ask someone – and in public, too? "Boy, did I ever pick the wrong question there!"

They all laughed again. I could say anything, I suddenly realised. Whoever I was, whatever I was supposed to be doing, all these people wanted was to see me and to hear me talk. What I talked about didn't matter. Hell, I probably could give a lecture on quantum physics and get away with it. But for the Leap-induced gaps in my memory, I might even have tried it.

Okay, for some reason that had nothing to do with logic, I remembered who Joan Collins was – she'd been a big-league actor, a major TV star, back in the '70s and '80s. Therefore it seemed more than possible that 'now' was sometime around that era, and that I was supposed to be some sort of TV personality as well. That was fine, as far as it went; I could probably fake that – just so long as nobody asked me any specific questions about the show I was in, whatever it was.

"Well," I hazarded, "I can't speak for Joan – but I can tell you one thing for sure, it was quite an experience. I wouldn't have missed it for the world."

God, it meant nothing, wasn't even funny, and it still had them falling in the aisles. Who in the world was I? Who, for that matter, were they?

Now, wait a minute. Every new Leap is a little like starting a jigsaw puzzle, dovetailing one detail with another until I have enough to build up some idea of the overall picture. What did I have to work with here? There was the Joan Collins connection ... the rapt expressions on some of the faces I could see out there in front of me ... the swags of deep pink satin brocade cascading down the walls ... I'd thought the hotel (hotel? – yes, judging by the fitments, probably) just had exotic tastes in drapery, but pink did seem to be the theme colour here. Half the audience, more, was dressed in pink of one shade or another – pastels, mostly. As a matter of fact, even I was wearing a pink sweater – salmon pink – along with a pair of jeans made up of denim patches which I wouldn't willingly have been buried in, let alone appear wearing them in public. Something at the end of the hall, above the exit doors, looked as though it were a banner of some kind; what did the writing on it say? All I could make out from this distance were huge pink hearts, twined with garlands of roses ... hearts and flowers ... the age-old symbols of ...

Oh, my god. Of romance. This must be a romance convention, I realised, and my stomach sank. I know all about conventions; I'd been going to science expos (which sounds pretty staid, but you would truly be amazed) from the age of ten, plus I'd had a friend – I'd forgotten his name – in college who used to spend most of his spare time following Star Trek conventions up and down the northeast coast (you could always tell when he was going to a convention and when he was visiting his parents; when he went to his folks, he didn't pack his Mr Spock ears). And if I'd made my name by doing love scenes with Joan Collins, I'd give you any odds you asked that I was a soap opera star. I must be one of the convention guests – and all of these people must be my adoring fans.

With that in mind, I regarded them with a new wariness, remembering some of my friend's wilder stories; I had a feeling that this was the sort of situation that could get out of hand altogether too easily. And there were a lot of them, and only one of me.

What would these people do if they found out that I wasn't who they thought I was – whoever that might be?!

My Swiss-cheese brain rather unkindly chose that precise moment to spit up the legend about Orpheus and the Mænads.

Looking on the bright side – there had to be one someplace – improbable as it sounded, this did mean that, if I only knew just who I was supposed to be, I might even be able to answer some questions. When I was in college and later, working on my various astounding, ground-breaking new projects (which I also didn't remember, which was depressing), I used to watch a lot of TV soaps – not because I enjoyed them – although have you ever noticed that people who claim never to watch soaps still always know all the storylines? – but because I needed some background noise to keep me from disappearing up my own test tubes, if you'll pardon the analogy, and during the daytime the only choice on TV was between soap operas and game shows. Not exactly stimulating viewing, but my mind's never needed external stimuli. Or rather, it never used to, not until I started Leaping. Nowadays it needs all the help it can get. So, for a while there I was quite the expert on the worst that American TV has to offer.

I remember when I was in England once, at a symposium, I met a highly respected emeritus professor of philosophy from one of their universities, who shocked me to the core by claiming that the only show on TV worth watching was Charlie's Angels. "But it's sexist garbage!" I objected (I was very young at the time). He didn't deny it; he just pointed out that, to people above a certain mental level, nothing on TV is going to be worth watching – so you may as well watch trash and have done with it. He used to take four spoonfuls of sugar in his coffee for pretty much the same reason, smoked like a train, and still lived to be ninety eight. I don't know what that proves, if anything. Nevertheless, I still maintain that Charlie's Angels is sexist garbage. Al catches every rerun he can, which just goes to prove my point.

Incidents like this I remember, when I don't even know where I used to live!

Once I'd figured out what was going on, the rest of the questions proved to be easy to field – well, a lot of them weren't questions at all, a lot of them just wanted to tell me how wonderful I was, or come out with some excuse to touch me. What did they think, that I could cure leprosy, or something? But no, there was the occasional genuine question. Like the woman who asked if the actors ever got 'carried away' (her words) during love scenes. ("Some people might be able to get 'carried away' with an entire film crew watching them, but I guess I'll never be quite that much of an exhibitionist.") And the woman who wanted to know where I got my inspiration. ("From life," I told her, with all due solemnity. "Life, and the scriptwriters.") Not to mention my all-time favourite, which I still puzzle over in my odd spare moment: "What's the difference between an amateur and a professional?" ("Professionals," I told her, wondering why she didn't just buy a dictionary, "get paid.") Oh, they just lapped it up. I was a triumph. No matter what I said, it seemed I couldn't go wrong.

"Has your experience as an actor been helpful to you in your new career?"

Ah. That one rocked me back a little bit. What new career? Where did you go from being a soap star? Mostly to selling real estate, I rather thought, which seemed improbable in this case; I doubted if the convention organisers would have been interested in a lively discussion about current trends in the property market. Improvise, Sam, improvise ...

"Uh ... it's certainly been a very meaningful influence." I heard myself say it and mentally cringed, but ploughed manfully on. "I like to think that acting has helped to give me a little bit of a better insight into character – what goes on inside people's heads – which, of course, is always going to be incredibly helpful, no matter what else I go on to do."

It was hokey, but it worked. The woman who'd asked the question smiled, obviously satisfied, and sat back down again. More than that, for a wonder, I even saw her lips shape the words 'thank you' – a first, that session.

The pink sweatshirt, which I'd been distantly aware of offstage, hovering in the wings for the duration of my performance, appeared at my elbow just then. It turned out to belong to an earnest-looking young woman, plump, bespectacled, her dark hair pulled back out of the way into a practical French braid, clutching a clipboard and wearing, apart from the sweatshirt and jeans, a distinctly harried expression. I noticed that the sweatshirt bore the legend 'Dream Team' elaborately calligraphed in silver glitter paint. I took that to mean that, if this was a convention, then she was one of the organisers. Or possibly just a gofer. Someone semi-official, at any rate, so I was only too glad to see her. It'd be nice to be around someone who knew what was going on, even if I didn't. Especially since I didn't.

She took the mic out of my unresisting hand. Well, if she wanted it, she was welcome to it. That was fine by me, no problem.

"We just have time for one more," she announced. I hoped my sigh of relief wasn't too audible. "Anyone – oh, no," she added under her breath, as I picked out a dark-haired teenage girl who was waving her arms in the air like she was trying to hail the last cab on earth.

Why 'oh no'? I wondered, but understood her reaction when the teenager leaped to her feet and blurted out, "Are you free for dinner tonight?" She was almost drowned out by a chorus of youthful shrieks and giggles from her friends, including one clearly audible and marginally hysterical screech of, "Jamie, you airhead!" Which was a sentiment that I would certainly go along with.

"I'm not sure," I told her. "You'd better check with my agent, okay?" I handed the mic back to my guardian angel amidst a storm of laughter and applause, dizzy with relief – partly because the ordeal was over and I was still in one piece, but mostly because I'd just caught sight of Al, sitting in the front row (jammed in between two moderately attractive blondes) and applauding right along with the rest of them.

I was glad Al had enjoyed the performance. I only wished that I had.

*

I waved a thankful goodbye to my public as Sally-Anne Howard, Guest Liaison Officer (or so her nametag proclaimed) took my arm and guided me offstage and back to the hospitality suite (which was also labelled. At least that ought to make this Leap a little bit easier to find my way around).

"I'm going to strangle that rotten brat Jamie one of these days," she informed the world at large, and collapsed onto a sofa with an audible thump. "This makes the third convention in a row she's tried that little stunt on one of the guests."

"Gee," I observed, sitting down across from her, "and I thought it was just my incredible personal charm."

She gave a disparaging laugh. "Sorry, not this time. I'm just afraid that someday someone's going to call her bluff ... not that it wouldn't serve her damn well right, but it'd be hell for our publicity if it got out. We get enough negative press as it is, without we go looking for it." She took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes tiredly, then smiled up at me – reluctantly, I thought. "You handled it very well, I have to hand you that. In fact, that was the best guest speech I've ever heard you give – you were positively inspired."

I shrugged and shuffled a bit: aw-gee-shucks-ma'am. "All I did was answer a few questions."

She wiped her spectacles clean on the hem of her sweatshirt and put them back on. "Yeah, but the way you did it, it was just so great – polite and patient, talking to the audience at your own level, like they were normal, reasonable, adult human beings, which god only knows, some of them are not ..." Her voice tailed away. "I mean to say ... that is ..."

I got the picture. Only too clearly did I get the picture. "Instead of coming on like I think I'm some kind of bigshot megastar, and what anyone else thinks doesn't count for a damn?" I ventured.

The look on her face told me I'd hit the target. Well, whoever I was supposed to be, I didn't see why he should be allowed to get away with that.

"Yes, well, it's time all that changed. Have I jerked you around a lot?"

Once again, her look said it all, but she started to make a polite disclaimer, which I didn't let her finish.

"Well, if I have, I'm sorry. I apologise."

She blinked, looking utterly dazed. Obviously I'd just stepped completely out of character. "No sweat. It's all routine for running one of these things. At least you've always shown up when you were scheduled to – that's more than a lot of people manage!"

"Well, that's something. That's good." I looked away from her. Al had reappeared over by the door and was making let's-talk-NOW gestures above Sally-Anne's head. "Uh ... Sally-Anne, am I due to do anything else right now? I mean, sign autographs, or anything?" God, I hoped not; that could present an interesting problem. "I'm sorry, my schedule's gone right out of my head."

"That's okay," she assured me, "no-one expects you to remember. That's my job." She consulted her clipboard. "No, you're free until four thirty – then you're scheduled to take part in a panel session in the Wordsworth Room. Was there something you wanted to do? Can I help at all?"

"No – I'd just like to go up to my room for a while, if that's okay." I assumed an expression that I hoped would convey heroic suffering – sort of wan but brave. "I've got kind of a migraine coming on ..." I couldn't resist shooting a significant look at Al.

"Thanks a lot, Sam!" he said indignantly, right on cue.

Sally-Anne leaped up at once, all capable sympathy. "Oh, okay, sure. You do look kind of peaky – "

Peaky! So much for my acting efforts.

" – I'll take you up the fire stairs, if you like, if you think you can manage them – I expect you want to avoid the fans, right?"

Migraine or no migraine, that sounded like a great idea.

"Right at this moment – yes, I would," I agreed. I only hoped I didn't sound too sincere.

*

Sally-Anne proved to be an angel of mercy. I don't know if all conventions are staffed by saints-in-training, or whether she was just a special case, but it would almost have been worth having a real migraine to have had her taking care of me. She steered me solicitously up to my room, got me settled on the bed, drew the blinds, dug out a couple of Tylenol from the depths of her bag, poured me a glass of Evian from the miniature fridge, rang down to the front desk to have them hold all my calls – and she did it all with quiet, calm efficiency, without being asked, or angling for thanks, or making any kind of a big production out of it. I felt like a complete and utter heel, playing on her sympathies that way – especially with Al regarding me sardonically throughout the performance, and throwing in the occasional cutting comment – even though it did achieve the result I wanted. Maybe I could make it up to her somehow, sometime.

"Well?" I asked Al, when Sally-Anne had gone. "Who am I? What am I doing here? Where is 'here', anyhow?" I got up and walked over to the closet, checking my reflection in the mirror – my impossibly good-looking reflection. My impossibly good-looking reflection that I recognised at once. "Hey! I'm Lane Henderson!"

"Aka Beau on The Weak and the Willing," Al confirmed. "Voted sexiest man on daytime television, three years running. My third wife never used to miss an episode." He frowned, turning the clock back in his mind. "Or was that my fourth wife ...?"

I turned away from the glass and hitched myself up to sit on the dresser. "So, what am I supposed to do here?" I asked. "I don't see where Lane Henderson's going to be needing our help – he's a major-league success, isn't he?"

"He was," Al corrected me. "Between 1972 and 1977. Then he left daytime TV and went to Hollywood to try to make it in primetime. It's 1982 now, and he's pretty well quit trying. Last year the only work he had was a guest slot on The Love Boat, and a made-for-TV movie that the critics panned and no-one else watched." He shrugged philosophically, pulling out a cigar. "That – " he observed, between puffs as he lit up, "is – show – biz."

"He managed to pull quite an audience today," I objected.

Al dismissed the audience with a wave of his free hand. "Fans. This is a convention, you're bound to get fans. Every show has them – no matter how lousy it is, no matter how soon it's cancelled. They can carry a lot of weight." To his credit, he refrained from making the obvious comment. "Lane still has one official fan club running, plus three unofficial – "

"What's the difference?" I asked; not that it was a topic that was likely to attain major significance in my life, but I was curious despite myself.

"The unofficial ones get their newsletters out on time," he explained cryptically. "That still only accounts for a couple of hundred people. TV ratings don't even start to register until they reach six figures."

"So, what? Am I supposed to get him back into the limelight?"

Al checked with his computer handlink. "No ... as a matter of fact, he's turned his own life around. He's written a novel ... no," he amended, "not just a novel, a best-seller ... in fact, that's the primary reason he's at this convention, he's up for a Crystal Heart award ..."

"A what?"

He gave a long-suffering sigh, and explained rapidly, "This is the eleventh annual St Valentine's Day – "

Massacre? my mind supplied.

" – Hearts and Flowers convention, organised by the True Romantics of America, sponsored by Crystal Heart Publications – 'From Our Hearts to Yours' – amongst other not exactly disinterested parties, held right here at the Connaught Regency in sunny downtown Cambridge – "

(It happened to be snowing at that moment; I could see it drifting in big, wet flakes past the window as he talked.)

" – attended by writers, publishers, agents and editors, selected guests such as yourself and, right down at the bottom of the list, readers, fans and other riffraff drafted from the general public, and you," he finished, finally pausing to draw breath, "are here to collect your first Crystal Heart, which is a trophy presented by, guess who? – to the author of the best romantic novel of the year." He nodded toward the shiny stack of paperback books piled up on the coffee table.

I was aghast. "I'm a romantic novelist?!"

"A very successful one," Al consoled me. "Besides, it's set during the Civil War – that makes it historical. Almost educational, even."

I slid off the dresser, walked over and picked up the book on top of the pile. Lane's name stood out boldly in raised gold lettering over the tasteful cover illustration: a dark-haired man, a little like Lane himself, dressed in what might have been the lower half of a Confederate Army uniform, bending at an anatomically impossible angle over a well-endowed blonde woman in – or, more accurately, largely falling out of – a Scarlett O'Hara-style ballgown. Then, of course, there was the title. Let's not forget the title.

"Rebellious Passion?" I read it out in disbelief, and sat down heavily on the dressing stool. "It's a bodice ripper," I sighed, and covered my face with my hands. "Isn't it?"

"Well ..." he admitted. "Beeks says she read it, and she said she almost laughed herself sick. She told me to tell you that you should have called it 'Revolting Passion'."

"Oh." I thought about it for a moment. "Verbeena reads romances?"

"So? You write them!"

"I do not!" I said indignantly. I couldn't help but wonder just what it was that Verbeena had found so funny, but decided it was probably best not to speculate. Pity the real Lane, trapped in the Waiting Room with a woman who knew all about psychosexual repression and autoerotic transference and wasn't afraid to talk about it. "So," I asked instead, "what does Ziggy say I'm here to do? Improve Lane's tastes in literature?"

Al checked again. "No ... According to the data we have, Lane wins his award at this convention, celebrates a little bit too well, and ends up two months later getting himself slapped with a paternity suit." He stared me up and down in an appraising kind of way. "That's okay then. Just you being here ought to solve that little problem."

Al has his own subtle (less than) ways of getting at me. He didn't mean it as a compliment.

"Thanks a lot," I said.

*

If my sole purpose in being here was not to get somebody pregnant, it seemed to me that my safest course was to shut myself up in my hotel room and stay there for the duration. Maybe I could persuade the obliging Sally-Anne that my migraine had suddenly got much, much worse ... that way I could avoid my (Lane's) devoted public at the same time ...

No, I didn't think the convention committee would go for it. In any case, it wouldn't be fair to them, depriving them of their guest of honour. And besides, I wanted to pick up my Crystal Heart – just out of simple, vulgar curiosity, really. If Lane's book was the best romantic novel of the year, what in the world was the opposition like?

Before I did anything else, I wanted to get out of the pink sweater and the appalling patchwork flares. I took a shower, and then made a tour of inspection through Lane's wardrobe, my spirits rapidly sinking lower and lower. I hoped with all my heart that I'd at least get to Leap out before I was forced to wear the tuxedo with its satin lapels and ruffled shirt. Had anyone ever really dressed that way? Probably only has-been TV stars, I comforted myself; I was sure that I hadn't. At least – pretty sure. I finally picked out another sweater, a blue one this time, and a less offensive (although still unfortunately flared) pair of jeans, and started to dress. It was almost four thirty; Sally-Anne would be along to fetch me at any moment.

Sally-Anne. Now, there was a thought. She had been awfully accommodating ... Precisely how far did her guest liaison duties require her to go?

"Al," I wanted to know, "what's the name of the girl?"

Al, who was gazing reflectively out of the window (it only gave onto the hotel forecourt, so I don't know what the attraction was; I didn't ask), perked up and looked hopeful. "What girl?" he asked.

"The girl Lane gets pregnant," I explained patiently; when you're dealing with Al, patience is something you learn real fast.

His interest waned. "Her name's Jamie Lynton," he told me. "I think you already met her."

The over-ebullient teenager. Right. Not my type at all. In which case I ought to be safe from temptation. In fact, now that I came to think about it ...

"She's a little young, isn't she?"

"M'm." Al rocked his hand from side to side: maybe. "Some people might think so, but Lane wouldn't necessarily be one of them."

I sighed. "The man not only writes trash, he's a practising pædophile too. Why do I have to Leap into such wonderful people?"

"Don't ask me." Al pointed to the ceiling. "Ask him."

I might have done just that, but a knock on the door prevented me. Sally-Anne was waiting outside, an anxious look on her face that transformed itself into a relieved smile when she saw me up, dressed, and ready for (just about) anything.

"Are you feeling better?" she asked solicitously, giving me a last chance to say no and back out. I didn't take it. If I did, I reasoned, I'd probably never Leap, and I'd be stuck in the body of a third-rate author for the rest of my life. His life. Whatever. It didn't bear thinking about. No matter what joys this convention still had in store for me, nothing could be worse than that.

*

Okay, so I hadn't bargained for a panel debate on, quote, 'Compulsion to Climax: The Rôle of the Orgasm in Modern American Fiction'. Unquote. I mean, who would?

*

Nor, having survived that experience with my integrity more or less intact, had I expected to let myself back into my hotel room and find myself faced with Jamie herself, sprawled across the king-sized bed, drinking Chablis and watching a soft-porn movie on the in-house cable TV.

I was too startled to think of a witty and/or original opening gambit. "How did you get in here?" I demanded instead.

She rolled over and knelt up, languid, unhurried, a passkey dangling from her fingers.

"Chambermaids," she drawled, "will do anything for money. You of all people ought to know that, Lane."

With luck, that was a joke. I laughed anyway, just in case, and spread my hands wide, assuming an expression of injured innocence. "How in the world did I get such a terrible reputation?"

"According to Ziggy," Al told me, from over by the TV, "you earned it. I've already seen this movie," he added disappointedly (how could he tell?), but settled down to watch it all the same.

Jamie gave a low, seductive laugh, and swung herself off the bed, moving in close and wrapping herself around me like an oversized sheet of saranwrap. "Oh, you had to work very hard!"

After a brief but determined struggle (she seemed to have more hands than a full-scale battleship), I managed to disengage myself, and held her away at arms' length. "Look, Jamie, I don't want to hurt your feelings ... but you have to understand, I'm forty years old – "

Al graciously spared a second to glance away from the TV. "And the rest," he observed, with more honesty than kindness.

" – I've got a life of my own – I'm just not interested in getting involved with a girl young enough to be my daughter!"

Jamie's smile vanished like a mirage. She shook away from my hands and flounced back to the bed, settling herself on the edge, swinging her feet moodily. She refilled her glass and picked it up again, swigging the wine back like it was lemonade. "That's not what you said in Minneapolis!" she snapped, drew breath and, with a visible effort, turned the charm back on. "It was snowing in Minneapolis – remember? Remember how cold it was? If we hadn't've kept each other warm, we might've just frozen to death!" She showed every sign of being about to come for me again, probably with the aim of arranging a demonstration; I hurriedly backed away.

"It's always snowing in Minneapolis," Al put in, which was not only irrelevant but also inaccurate. Obviously he'd never been there in the summer. (And I had? When? Why? Later ...)

"It's snowing now," I pointed out, perhaps unwisely, and backpedalled fast before she could close in for the kill. "That doesn't change a thing. Jamie, whatever I did – if there was anything between us in the past ..."

She smirked unbecomingly. "Oh," she purred, "there was nothing between us in Minneapolis. There wasn't room for anything but ourselves."

I swallowed convulsively. Oh,boy.

"Well," I eventually managed, "that was wrong, and I'm sorry. And I'm sorry if it disappoints you, but it's not going to happen again."

I suppose it was being overly optimistic to hope that she'd just take no for an answer and go away. Instead she lay back on the bed invitingly. Invitingly if your tastes happen to run to teenagers, that is.

"Jamie," I said patiently, "I said no."

"Suppose I just go ahead and say it happened?" she demanded, and pushed herself back up on one elbow. "Suppose I start screaming for help right now?"

I heaved a sigh and sank down on the dressing stool. "Suppose you do? What happens then?" I ticked off the answers on my fingers. "Firstly, I'd get in some trouble for a while, until the medical tests showed that I haven't touched you – and, believe me, I'd insist on medical tests right away; second, the convention would get some bad press – and thirdly, what would you get? A few moments' attention and a little bit of publicity, mostly negative. Big deal. If that's what you want, go right ahead and scream."

She snapped upright, drained her glass, and threw it at me. It skimmed by my ear, narrowly missing me, and passed straight through Al before shattering against the opposite wall. Al glanced up from the movie again.

"Please!" he complained irritably. "I'm trying to watch this!"

I walked over and turned the TV off, ignoring his indignant, "Hey!"

"You've already seen it, remember?" I muttered to him, in an aside. Aloud I said, "That kind of behaviour isn't going to help you, Jamie. It doesn't impress me, and it won't make me change my mind." I could see Al giving me take-it-easy signals, so I deliberately softened my voice. Maybe I had been kind of abrupt. "Now, do you want to talk about this?"

"No, I don't – I don't want to talk," she snapped. "I want to – I want to know why you're treating me like this!" Her eyes narrowed. "There's someone else, isn't there? Someone prettier – someone younger – ?"

"Much younger and you'd be raiding the nursery," Al observed dispassionately. Deprived of his chosen entertainment, he settled back comfortably to watch the live-action soap opera being enacted for his private benefit. I guess I should've been happy someone was enjoying all this drama.

I sighed again, deeply and with feeling, and went over to her, sitting down beside her, taking her hands. "No, Jamie, there isn't anyone else. But I don't love you, and this relationship's no good for either of us."

She laughed, not pleasantly. "Who said anything about love? You don't think you're the only star I've had, do you?"

An expression of alarm crossed Al's face. "Uh-oh – better check her bags for plaster of Paris, Sam."

I ignored him. "Why?" I asked her. "What does it get you?"

She lifted a shoulder aimlessly. "Why not? It makes me feel good."

"For how long?"

"Long enough."

"Why do you feel bad in the first place?" She didn't answer; I hadn't expected her to. "Okay, well, think about it. There must be other ways to make yourself feel good. Don't you think you're selling yourself short?"

Talk about falling on stony ground. The look she gave me, you could have split rocks with it. I persevered in spite of it.

"You know," I went on, "you remind me of a girl I knew in high school ... she had a lousy home life, so she hit back at her parents by spending her senior year sleeping her way through the entire football team ..."

"All of them?" Al and Jamie asked, simultaneously and in identical tones of disbelief (and, in Al's case, considerable awe).

"Well, no. The running back got her pregnant, and she had to drop out, which didn't exactly solve any of her problems. He didn't, of course, he got to finish school – " Not that it had helped him, I remembered; Bob Henkel could have stayed in school till the coming of the millennium without it doing him any good. "That's the double standard for you."

Yeah, the double standard. Now, that was a strange concept. Look at me: I was treating Jamie like a victim and Lane as a villain – but she was the one lying in wait in his room, not the other way round! If he had been a woman and Jamie a man, who would have been the victim then?

Or was I just hunting for excuses to ease myself around the fact that, try as I might, I just couldn't summon up the slightest trace of sympathy for the girl? (None for Lane either, it's only fair to add.) Except insofar as Jamie might be regarded as a victim of a society which brainwashes girls her age into believing that a woman's place is with a man – any man. But then again – she didn't have to buy into it, did she? Or take it to quite such an extreme?

"Which reminds me," I went on, matter-of-factly, "what form of contraception have you been using?"

She looked at me in sheer speechless horror, as though I'd said something obscene. I just smiled at her.

"Well, that's something else to think about then, isn't it?"

She jumped to her feet, ruining any chance of a dramatic exit by tripping over the trailing edge of the bedcovers, and headed for the door. She looked back at me, her hand on the doorhandle. "Look, I don't need to listen to you preaching, okay? If you're not interested, there's plenty of others who will be! And you know what you'll be missing!"

I leaned back, feigning unconcern. "Okay," I said agreeably, "suit yourself. But if you're trying to prove something, you're going about it all wrong. You might think about giving yourself a chance – find out what you're good at, and work at it. Try it. You might find you don't need to give yourself away after all."

"Yeah," she said caustically, "sure, right." And the door slammed shut behind her.

I breathed a deep, heartfelt sigh – only partly of relief; I wasn't convinced that I'd managed to make any impression on Jamie at all, however much I might have helped Lane. Still ...

"Thank god that's over!" I looked to Al for support. "How'd I do?"

"Well," he said doubtfully, "you sure convinced me ..."

"So, what happens to her now?"

He ran a check. "Oh. I don't know if you're going to like this, Sam."

"Just tell me," I said impatiently.

He looked up, trying to fight back what he probably likes to think of as an impish grin. "She obviously takes to heart what you told her about using her talents. In 1989, her first novel just beats out one of yours to win that year's Crystal Heart award."

Oh no. Not that. "You mean to say – "

"Yep." The grin fought free. "She takes up writing bodice rippers, too." Al shook his head and sighed. "I guess some people, you just can't save."

"But no paternity suit?" I persisted.

He checked again, and confirmed, "No paternity suit, no."

"Well," I decided, "that's something. I helped the baby, at least. And helped preserve Lane's good name – not," I added, "that he deserves it."

"Don't worry about that," Al told me. "After that last panel you did, Lane's going to be lucky if his sex life ever gets back on track again." He hadn't been exactly positively impressed with the showing I'd made in the discussion.

"I'd have done better if I'd had some warning," I defended myself. "Anyhow, Lane's sex life sounds almost as weird as yours – he could probably do with a break." I waited. Nothing was happening. "Al ..."

"You're not Leaping," he deduced brilliantly. I folded my arms and tapped my foot impatiently. "Yeah, yeah, just give me a moment here ..." He pulled out his handlink and started pushing buttons, occasionally giving it a thump to help things along. "Uh ... I hate to tell you this, Sam, but Ziggy doesn't know why."

I glanced at my watch. Time was moving on, the way it does when you don't want it to. "Can you ask him to find out in a hurry? Lane's award ceremony begins in another thirty minutes!"

He raised his eyebrows. "What's the problem? You don't want to cheat him out of his moment of glory?"

"Sort of," I muttered, but couldn't keep my eyes from straying to the closet. Al cottoned on at once.

"You don't want to wear the tuxedo!"

"I'm going to have to wear the tuxedo," I sighed, "unless I get out of here real soon. Doesn't Ziggy have any ideas?"

"Not a one. According to him, Lane wins his award, goes on home, and just carries on churning out one deathless classic after another, right up to the present. Our present, that is. That should keep Beeks happy." He brightened. "Maybe you're supposed to commit hara-kiri and stop him!"

"I don't think so," I said repressively.

"Then I guess it's going to be the tuxedo after all." He flipped the handlink off and stowed it away in his pocket. "Come on, Sam – how bad can it be?"

*

Twenty minutes or so later on ...

"This bad!" I told him.

"You look great, Sam," Al reassured me.

I wasn't convinced for a moment. As well as the shiny lapels and the ruffles down the shirt front, the outfit also included an oversized bow tie in black velvet and a wide cummerbund to match.

"Lane may look great," I corrected him. "I look like a jerk!" I checked in the mirror. "No, scratch that – Lane looks like a jerk, too."

He walked around me, regarding me with the eye of a connoisseur. "No, really, it's very ..."

"Seventies?" I supplied.

He waved the suggestion away. "I was going to say, debonair. In fact, now I think of it, I used to have a tux just the same as that one."

That was what was wrong! I was wearing an outfit that Al would wear! I turned my eyes heavenward in appeal. "Please, god, get me out of here!"

The only response was a knock at the door. Not god, but Sally-Anne, come to collect me. Like me, she was in evening dress; unlike me, she looked very pretty in hers. I'd had her unkindly pegged as the pink chiffon and ruffles type, but what she was actually wearing was a plain black halterneck that made the extra few pounds vanish; she'd taken her hair out of its braid and pinned it up instead, and exchanged her glasses for contacts, and altogether the effect was almost enough to reconcile me to staying on as Lane for a little while longer.

"Ready to go down?" she asked brightly. I turned and glared at Al before he could make the obscene response I could hear practically hovering in the air between us. She followed my gaze, looking puzzled. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," I lied. "I guess I'm as ready as I'll ever be."

Leap, I urged myself. Leap, come on!

Not a chance. It looked like I was doomed to be awarded.

*

The awards ceremony ran to standard. Anyone who's ever had to sit through one would recognise it – everything from the menu at the formal dinner beforehand (tasteless chicken à la King, limp salad with bottled dressing, white bread rolls like rocks, tepid champagne), through the tedium of lengthy, self-congratulatory speeches by the organisers, right up to the profound embarrassment of being called up on stage for your presentation and then having to think of something original/entertaining/sincere/spontaneous and/or appropriately humble to say. I toyed with, "You like me – you honestly like me!" but finally settled for a simple, "I owe a lot of people for this – thank you, everybody." Since I had no idea who Lane owed, or for what, it seemed a safe middle course.

Once I'd received my (Lane's) Crystal Heart, I left it in Sally-Anne's good care while I went to the bathroom. I'd forgotten about Lane's legions of devotees – no, not forgotten about them, precisely, so much as underestimated their level of enthusiasm. In between signing autographs – sometimes on pieces of paper, but by no means always – expressing thanks to people who informed me, absolutely straight-faced, that my work had given their lives a whole new meaning, pretending to remember what were obviously long-standing aficionados from previous encounters, and staving off advances only marginally less subtle than Jamie's, the trip took me about three times as long as I'd expected it to. (The woman who asked me what I was planning to do next came very close to getting an answer she wasn't expecting.)

On my way back, another woman stopped me just outside the banqueting hall. Her face seemed vaguely familiar; after a moment, I placed her as one of the people who'd stood up at the question and answer session that afternoon – the one (the only one) who had said thank you.

"I just wanted to congratulate you," she told me. She seemed desperately embarrassed; I assumed she must be shy, or maybe just in awe of Lane-the-celebrity. "It's a good book, for its genre – it deserves to be a success."

I was impressed; she'd pronounced 'genre' correctly. There didn't seem to be much I could say to her – what does one say to one's fans? – except yet more thanks, but I put as much sincerity into it as I could. Okay, so romantic fiction isn't my thing, but hey, a lot of people seem to like it – including Verbeena Beeks, who's anything but dumb – so who am I to criticise? And, to do it justice, from my rapid flash-read of Lane's book back in the room, it was quite well-written, even though I thought the subject matter left a lot to be desired and not enough to the imagination.

When I finally got back to the table, Sally-Anne was hovering behind my chair, and another woman was occupying her seat – an older woman, this one, with the no-nonsense air of the successful businessperson, who, in spite of her taffeta evening gown, still somehow managed to convey the impression of being about to chair up a make-or-break committee meeting. Sally-Anne gave a small, nervous smile when she saw me.

"Lane, Ms Gordeno wants a word with you – she was looking for you earlier, when you were lying down, but I told her I didn't think you were up to talking business. Do you mind if ...?"

Did I have a choice? Not to judge by the look in Ms Gordeno's steely eyes. Once again, I had to thank the convention organisers' mania for labelling everything and everybody: the woman's badge proclaimed her to be Barbara Gordeno, Managing Editor, Crystal Heart Publications. Lane's boss, I presumed.

"I don't mind." I reached into my pocket and handed Sally-Anne my room key. "Look, Sally-Anne, could you take that – " I indicated the award, "upstairs, and put it somewhere safe for me, please? Would you mind?" I didn't see why she should run my errands, but I had a distinct premonition that Ms Gordeno was about to send her for coffee. Successful women always seem to be the first to treat their frailer sisters like servants. "And isn't it about time you went off duty? I don't need a babysitter – I can put myself to bed." She didn't look too convinced. "Honest!"

She glanced from me to the other woman, then back again. I tried my best to look conspiratorial. After a moment she nodded, as though she'd got the message.

"Sure, Lane, that's okay." Lifting the award in both hands – it was a huge, heavy and, need I say, unutterably tasteless thing, mounted on a plinth most definitely made of an endangered hardwood – Sally-Anne smiled at me again, this time, I thought, in relief, and hurried away.

Ms Gordeno, whose expression had been growing steadily more impatient throughout this exchange, didn't waste any time in social niceties. "Lane, your new manuscript's overdue," she said abruptly. "Can you let us know when we can expect it?"

"Uh ..." Now I thought of it, there had been quite a lot of paper scattered about Lane's room. I hadn't looked at it, but maybe it was his working draft. "It's coming along," I assured her, hoping for Lane's sake that it was the truth. "I've just got a few more points to clear up – "

She made an impatient gesture. "For heaven's sake, Lane, Angela will do all that on the rewrite. Your title's at the top of our fall promotion – and you know we've got a schedule to stick to."

Angela? I wondered. "Rewrite?" I echoed stupidly.

She gave me a searing look that should by rights have reduced me to a molten puddle on the floor, but managed to keep her voice pleasant. "Lane, honey," she recited wearily, as though she'd had this discussion many times before, which was probably the case, "you know that your name on the cover's a big draw. And okay, you had some good ideas for plots and characters ... but, face it, you are not a writer. Our audiences may not be the most discriminating in the world, but even they aren't going to hand over good money for something that reads like a sixth grader's essay!"

"I've got a ghost writer," I realised aloud. So that was what I was here to do! I had to see that an unknown author got the recognition that she deserved. No wonder Ziggy hadn't been able to figure it out – if she'd never been credited for her work, then there would have been no record of it for him to find.

"Well, of course you have!" Ms Gordeno's tolerance was wearing thinner by the minute. "We discussed all that when you signed the contract. In fact," she added, "didn't I see you talking to her just now?"

Was that who that had been? I'd thought there'd been an edge to her voice ... and, once you knew, you could spot the barbs in her questions ...

"I didn't recognise her," I said feebly. "Excuse me – " I pushed back my chair, ignoring her protest, left her staring after me, and headed in the direction I'd seen – Angela? – take.

She wasn't hard to find. She was sitting disconsolately alone in the bar, tucked away in a corner, twirling the olive around and around in her martini. I sat down next to her.

"Look," I said hurriedly, "I'm sorry. I didn't realise who you were."

She gave a dispirited sniff. "Yeah. You and the rest of the world."

"I guess." I hesitated, not knowing quite where to begin. "I – uh – you probably won't believe this, but I honestly didn't know what the deal was."

She looked me deliberately straight in the eye. "You didn't?" She sounded sceptical, and no wonder.

"No," I said firmly, making it sound as convincing as I could. "I didn't. And now that I do know, it seems very unfair. Exactly how did you get hooked into doing this?"

She sat back, sighing. "I submitted some manuscripts to Crystal Heart. I got back the standard rejection slip ... well, I didn't hold out much hope. I know I can write, I love writing, but I just don't have the inspiration ..."

"Uh-huh." I nodded encouragingly, gesturing for her to go on.

"Then I got a call from the editorial department. Would I be interested in doing some revision to a manuscript they'd received ... they thought it had promise, but it needed some work ..." She sighed again, and finished her drink. I signalled the waiter for a refill. "Well, the manuscript wasn't the only thing that needed work, so I took the job. I got paid for it, too. Pretty well, I thought. Until it hit the best-seller lists, on the strength of being written by a famous TV star." She glared at me accusingly for a moment, then let her eyes drop. The glare faded away, to be replaced by a rueful half-smile. "I know it's not your fault, it's mine – I should have held out for a better deal, or stuck with my own writing ..."

I put a hand over hers. "It's not your fault. How could you have known?"

She shrugged. The smile wavered. "It doesn't matter. It's too late now."

Was it?

Crystal Heart wasn't the only publisher who specialised in romances. Okay, granted, it was a competitive, cut-throat market, and a lot of the time the writers carried less weight than their agents and editors. But a really big author – an author whose name on the jacket guaranteed an instant appearance on the best-seller lists – an author whose new title was going to head up the fall campaign ... he was entitled to throw his weight around a little bit, wasn't he?

"Maybe not," I said, and jumped up from my seat again. I'd got as far as the door when a sudden thought struck me and I swung back to her table. "I'm sorry, I don't know – Angela – what?"

"MacClean," she said, bemusedly.

"That's great!" I said, and left her staring (it seemed to be becoming a habit with me). I hurried back to the banqueting hall, to find Ms Gordeno just picking up her purse and getting ready to leave. I grabbed her by the arm. The frosty stare she gave me should have stopped me dead in my tracks, but I was too buoyed up to notice.

"Barbara – " Probably no-one called her that. Oh well, too bad. "Barbara, exactly how badly does Crystal Heart want that new manuscript of mine?"

"Since I expect you've already spent the advance," she said icily, "I imagine that we want to get it about as much as you need to deliver it. Why?"

"Because," I said, "I haven't spent the advance." Which was true, although Lane might have done so. "I can deliver it as soon as you need it, but on one condition."

She looked at me as though I were something she'd stepped in. "Is this some form of blackmail? I wouldn't try it, if I were you. We do," she pointed out, "have lawyers, you know."

"Lawyers!" I dismissed the entire legal profession with an airy wave. "Doesn't everyone? Who needs them? All I want is for Angela MacClean to get full credit for her part in the collaboration – and an equal share of the proceeds. Is that too much to ask?"

Whatever she'd been expecting, that wasn't it. I'd shaken her right out of her poise – no mean achievement, I fancied. "But ..." she started confusedly, "it was you who insisted that the story was yours, and you should be the only one credited ..."

"I changed my mind," I explained simply.

She just stared at me, her expression a complete blank.

"Well?" I encouraged her.

"Well ..." she hedged.

Evidently she was too stunned to listen to reasoned argument. Luckily I had another ploy to fall back on: charm. Women – all kinds of women, not just his hard-core disciples – used to melt over Lane Henderson and his winning smile. God only knew if it would work on managing editors, but it was worth a try. "Just say yes, and I'll run up and get the manuscript right away!"

She sighed and capitulated, though she still looked puzzled. "Call my office in the morning. I'll set up a meeting. Perhaps," she added, "since you seem to have taken up her cause, you'd make sure that Ms MacClean's there, would you?"

"I'll have my secretary call her," I promised.

She walked away rather unsteadily, pausing now and again to glance back at me in a wondering way. I gave her a little wave of my fingers to bid her goodbye. She was so bewildered, she almost forgot herself far enough to wave back.

Since I didn't have a secretary, I had to run back to the bar myself. Angela was still there, of course, together with quite a collection of empty martini glasses. Also, although unknown to her, Al, resplendent in a tuxedo which, as he had promised, was every bit as ghastly as my own. He sat back proudly, and preened.

Well, at least he didn't carry a purse with this one.

Angela looked up, startled, as I fell into the seat beside her, grinning like a maniac. "You want to tell me what that was all about?" she asked politely.

I waved the waiter over, and ordered a bottle of wine. I waited until he'd filled both our glasses, then held mine up and clinked it against Angela's.

"To our new partnership," I said. "Henderson and MacClean. What a team!"

Her expression went through all the changes that Barbara Gordeno's had: shock, disbelief, sheer incredulity ... numbness. "Team?"

I explained.

"And Gordeno went for it?" she demanded, when I'd finished. "You mean it?"

I just nodded; it was about all I could manage. By this time, in between the excitement and all the running about, I was starting to run distinctly short of breath.

"It works out even better than you'd think, Sam," Al told me. "It turns out Angela has a BA in anthropology, and she persuades Lane to move the setting of their next book back to prehistoric times ..." He pulled a paperback book out of his pocket and held it up for me to see. Angela's name was there; underneath Lane's and in smaller lettering, but there. The jacket illustration featured a dark-haired man in a deerskin loincloth, locked in a passionate embrace with a blonde woman wearing an improbable-looking fur bikini and a bone necklace. The title was Dawn of Desire. "It's a runaway success, top of the New York Times bestseller list eight weeks in a row, translated into nineteen different languages, made into a ten-part miniseries – Lane even gets to co-produce, as well as star – and the sequels are just as big. Lane and Angela haven't looked back since."

I looked at the trashy cover and sighed. Was it really all worth it? But then I saw the look on Angela's face, and I had my answer.

*

I thought for sure that was it. Two good deeds in one day; my Boy Scout brigade would be proud of me. I'd righted yet another wrong, helped yet another person in need – and without so much as a nudge from Ziggy, too! – surely I was entitled to Leap now?

It seemed not.

"Still no bright ideas?" I asked Al, as we plodded slowly up the fire stairs (the elevators were still overrun with fans), back to my room.

"Quit complaining," he told me. "You're doing okay on your own."

"But I don't want to have to do it on my own!" I whined. He just looked at me.

I pulled up short outside my door. "Damn!"

"What?"

"I gave my key to Sally-Anne – I'm going to have to go back down to the front desk and get a porter to let me in." I had a thought. "Unless – " I tried the door. "Unless she left it open ..." It was locked. "No, she wouldn't have done that – she's way too conscientious." I sighed at the prospect of yet more unwanted exercise, and started to turn away, but then I heard a sound and looked back. The door to my room was opening, and Sally-Anne was peering out.

"Lane, wait up!" she called. "I'm sorry – I looked for you, to give you your key back, but I couldn't find you, so I decided to wait. I hope you don't mind."

"No," I assured her. "I'm glad you did. It's a long way back to the lobby, and I'm exhausted."

"Poor Lane," she sympathised, and stood aside to let me in. "Your trophy's on the dressing table," she told me. "And your new manuscript was lying around all over the floor, so I picked it up and sorted it out for you. I thought Ms Gordeno was looking more than usually fearsome, so I figured you'd need to have it ready."

"You thought just right," I told her, smiling down at her. She really was looking awfully pretty, standing close to me in the doorway, gazing up at me. I wondered ...?

It was worth a try. "I don't know how I'd have managed without you today," I told her softly; which was true. I reached for her, pulled her into my arms, and bent my head to kiss her ...

... and Leaped.

Oh, shit!

***