Romance novels save the day in award-winning author Gwyn Cready's fun and sensual take on modern-day love
Can romance novels save the day
Snobbish book critic Ellery Sharpe has made the strategic mistake of unleashing her scathing wit on the memoir of the world's leading romance publisher. As damage control, her boss at Vanity Place magazine assigns her the ultimate punishment: write an ode to romance novels, a genre she considers the literary equivalent of word search puzzles. To make matters worse, he hires her sexy ex, Axel Mackenzie, to shoot the photos.
When it looks like true love hasn't a chance?
Axel has reasons of his own for wanting to convince the strong-willed Ellery to paint romance in an attractive light. He decides to take his cue from Kiltlander, a much-adored romance, and starts secretly drawing lessons from the book's compelling hero. Because getting Ellery to fall for romance novels might be just the push she needs to believe people can change...even him.
"Cready's writing is romantic and wickedly witty." -Rachel Gibson, New York Times Bestselling Author
"Sexy second-chance romance." -RT Book Reviews, 4 stars
"Delightfully original...an absolute crowd-pleaser." -Publishers Weekly STARRED REVIEW
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A Novel Seduction
By Gwyn Cready
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Gwyn Cready
All rights reserved.
Offices of Vanity Place Magazine, Manhattan
"Cripes, Axel," Kate, the photography editor, said. "You look like you slept in the street."
Sleep? Now, there was a novel prospect. Axel Mackenzie scratched the bristle on his cheek and stretched his aching neck. Did the floor of an abandoned warehouse count? He was getting too old for this kind of life. What would really hit the spot was an ice-cold beer. For a number of reasons, including the fact that even the most liberal-minded New York City bar didn't open for a good three hours, the idea was a nonstarter. He took a sip of the magazine's thick, strong coffee and made a noncommittal noise.
Kate shook her head, frowned at a missing button on his thoroughly wrinkled shirt, and gestured at her scuffed Nikes. "And it's not exactly like we set the bar real high around here, either." She scanned his proofs. "Lucky for you, you're good."
"Ah, if I had a dollar for every time an editor's said that to me," he said, stuffing his shirt into his jeans.
"I notice you didn't say 'woman.'"
"I notice you didn't say 'great.'"
Buhl Martin Black, Vanity Place's Humpty Dumpty–esque publisher, burst into view at the far end of the hallway, gripping the latest issue of his magazine, cheeks puffed in fury. With his upper torso angled toward his destination like some sort of fleshy road sign and his short legs pumping furiously to keep up with his head, he looked like a character in some cartoon.
Axel instinctively tucked himself out of sight against the cubicle wall. Kate, who was directly in the line of fire, clutched the corners of her desk like a spectator in one of those fifties atomic bomb films, waiting for the blast.
But Black roared by without a word. He passed his admin, flew into his office, and slammed the door.
Two terrifying beats later, Axel watched as one head after another rose along the wall of cubicles and gazed wordlessly at the others. Yeesh. There were many reasons he preferred freelancing to full-time employment, but avoiding intra-office hissy fits was definitely one of them.
He had worked with Kate for years, and if there was one thing he knew, it was she was always the professional. She buzzed her wheelchair to life and swung it around her desk. "If you don't mind, I think I'd better see what's going on."
"Yeah, yeah, go ahead." She disappeared, and Axel grabbed the current issue of Vanity Place. A moment later, his phone vibrated. He swiped to answer and stood, like the others, to take in the battlefield beyond the wall.
"Dammit, where's my money?"
Axel kicked himself for not checking the caller ID. His buddy Brendan was selling his microbrewery, and Axel wanted it. Unfortunately, Axel's bank account didn't seem nearly as supportive of the idea as Axel.
"C'mon." Axel lowered his voice. "You know I'm good for it. I've sent you almost all of it."
Kate wheeled not into Black's office, but into the office of Phil Peck, the managing editor and the man most likely to have some insight into his publisher's dark mood. Phil jumped up to close the door behind her.
"'Almost,' Axel. 'Almost,'" Brendan said. "I got a guy here who's got the whole thing. He's waving a check at me."
Brendan had run the microbrewery in Pittsburgh as a hobby. Sadly, the beer tasted that way. Now Brendan's ten-year marriage was going bust, and he needed every spare dollar. Axel had liquidated everything he owned to buy his pal out. Microbrewing was his dream.
"C'mon, Brendan. I'm what? Ten short?"
"Ten? Try twenty-three."
Twenty-three? Axel winced. "Look. Give me another month —"
"A week. I'll give you a week."
The sound of glass shattering in Black's office blasted through the quiet. Then the lever on the Black's door jiggled, and every head including Axel's ducked. But the door remained closed.
"A week?" Axel said under his breath. "This is your college roommate here. Gimme two at least."
"Not sure you want to harken back to those days, my friend. You wrecked my car, stiffed me on two months' rent, and I'm still not entirely sure if you made a pass at Tracy the night of our engagement dinner."
"In retrospect, you'll admit, probably not a bad thing —"
"A week, Axel."
The line went dead and so did most of Axel's hopes. But before he could consider next steps, the greatest set of legs he'd ever seen — as familiar to him as his favorite Leica — emerged from a conference room. Ellery Sharpe, the owner of the legs, was talking to some overwhelmed junior editor. Axel could tell the poor schmuck was an underling by the Judge Judy finger she was wagging in his direction as she spoke.
The pair parted, and Ellery bent to get a drink at a fountain. Her dark ponytail shone against the softness of her blue sweater, picking up the black of her pumps, and he found himself entranced with the way her fringed wool skirt made it look as if she were wrapped in a Hudson's Bay blanket, a situation in which she'd been in his bed on more than one occasion. She straightened, unaware he was watching, and started down an adjacent hallway.
She swung around as if she'd been hit with a spitball.
His doctor would have called it an unconscious death wish — which is what he had called a lot of Axel's former habits — but God, he'd forgotten the fire that could blaze in those eyes, the same stunning violet as the pills that had once been his favorite recreational drug.
She marched toward him, looking left and right to see if anyone had overheard. "I told you never to call me that."
"You told me a lot of things. A friendly heads-up — if I were you, I'd consider a long walk to the cafeteria."
Her gaze narrowed. "Why?"
"Black," he said. "Something's up with him. Something bad."
She shrugged, the thick sable hair flipping over her shoulder like the tail of an irritated cat. "Not my problem. I'm heading to the art department to look at layouts. Now, if you'll excuse me ..."
He gave a theatrical bow and waved her on, but after two steps, perhaps feeling the prickle of something she didn't like, she stopped and turned. Axel dropped his eyes, but it was too late. She'd caught him gazing dreamily at the swaying fringe.
"Hudson's Bay," he explained, heat rushing up his neck.
She rolled her eyes. "Canadians."
With a sigh, he dropped into the chair, returning to the more prosaic parts of his day. A week, Brenden had said. He might as well have said an hour. Axel had already short-leased his apartment for the month to a visiting couple from Osaka to try to scrape up more cash, and was crashing on friends' couches when he could and warehouse floors when he couldn't. His leg bounced anxiously. All he had left to hock were his cameras, and he wasn't quite ready for that.
Damn. He would have given his left eye for a smoke, a Seconal, and about three quick beers, but he settled for a hard rub through his hair. He picked up the magazine and, as always, flipped immediately to the book review section. He scanned the lead story. Vanity Place won the award for the most pretentious thing going. He felt like he needed to apologize for dropping out of grad school whenever he read something in it, and that was often no more than the table of contents. But this review — a beautifully constructed Stinger missile aimed at the recent memoir of Bettina Moore, head of Pierrot Enterprises, the world's most successful romance novel publisher, and the darling of the publishing world — carried razor-edged pomposity about as far as it could go.
Moore's estimation of her impact on American culture is as overstated as her dress on the book's cover. If romance novels are, as Moore says, "candy conversation hearts that speak to the soul of a woman," let's hope aphorisms employed in the future include "There's more plot in the phone book," "Romance Novels: Publishing's Answer to Farmville" and "Get a Library Card!"
Axel shook his head. Incisive prose was one of Ellery Sharpe's gifts. But he hated to see her use it as a weapon of mass destruction. What had happened to that starry-eyed twenty-two-year-old who was going to revolutionize journalism with her own biweekly rag, who had convinced him to work for her for free when he had national offers pouring in, and whose fierce pride in her hometown had caused him in a semi-drunken glow to nickname her "Pittsburgh"?
Kate wheeled in. "Sorry, Axel. Bit of a firestorm. Where were we? Oh, right, the photo proofs." She pulled up to the monitor and hit Page Down a couple times. "These are fantastic."
She'd upgraded them from "good." About time. "Right. What's next?"
"Hmmm." She punched up the project list.
"I'm looking for something fast," he said. "Fast and lucrative."
She lifted a brow. "How about a shot of Sasquatch?"
"Will it pay twenty-three grand?"
She snorted. "Sure. If you get him having a beer with Jimmy Hoffa. Seriously, though. I've got a John Irving shoot I'd love you for."
"Is it soon? Is there travel?" He thought of the per diems he could pocket in addition to his fee.
"Yes to both. It was supposed to be next month, but his schedule changed and he wants to do it this week. Ellery's finalizing the date."
Axel's dreams of a quick payoff sputtered like a rapidly deflating balloon. "Ellery's writing the article?"
"She is the head of the literary section here."
"Yeah, um ..." He gave Kate a polite but regretful shake.
She angled her head. "What? You two don't click?"
He remembered when his relationship with Ellery imploded five years ago, after which he'd given up and split for New York, and imagined himself as Sylvester the cat, listening to the click, click, click of the bomb Tweety has slipped into his catnip canary. "Oh, no, we definitely click. It's like a freakin' click fest when we're together. We just, um ... do our best work with others."
"Is that so?"
Kate gave him a piercing look, but he hadn't spent thirty-six years with four older sisters without developing strong self-preservation strategies. He kept his face blank.
Kate went back to her screen. "Well, other than that I've got —"
Black's muffled voice shook the room. "Yes, Phil," he shouted, "I mean now! Find her and get her in here!" This was followed by the sound of a phone being slammed into its cradle and perhaps through the desktop.
"I take it," Axel said, "there's a problem."
"Sixth sense of yours?"
"What can I say? Years of experience."
"Yeah, well, Black's not too happy about the article Ellery wrote on Bettina Moore," Katie said.
Axel cast a quick, concerned glance down the corridor, where he'd spotted the legs. Pittsburgh's grand ambitions would be imperiled. Technically, he should have no interest in what happened to her one way or another, but even after all these years, he hated to see her get into trouble. "Why not? Does Black's wife love romance novels or something?"
"I don't think Black's wife loves anything about Bettina Moore."
"The article was a little harsh, I suppose, but nothing out of the ordinary for this place." He gave Kate a "gimme a break" look.
She met his eyes. "'Publishing's answer to Farmville'?"
"Okay, okay, it was cruel. But you guys don't exactly encourage writers to use kid gloves."
Kate sighed. "Black doesn't see it that way. Not on this one."
So Pittsburgh would get a slap on the wrist. She'd live. Black could be quite vindictive if he chose, but it didn't seem like he had a real beef here.
"Why didn't he quash the article?" Axel had had more than one project end up in the circular file for no better reason that some suit upstairs didn't like the story.
"He was out of town when it was turned in."
Axel scratched his ribs. "You snooze, you lose."
"Only he wasn't snoozing."
Axel stopped. "Oh?"
Kate looked to see if anyone was close and lowered her voice. "Black was supposed to be at a publishing summit in London."
"'Plugged In: The Future of Publishing'?" Everyone who was anyone was supposed to have been at that. An old colleague, Barry, had mentioned it to him when they'd run into each other a few weeks ago.
"Nope, that's later this week. This was a magazine publisher summit, but the point is, Phil has it from a very well-placed source that Black was actually spending a long weekend with someone he shouldn't have been."
"And this makes our most reverend publisher suddenly sensitive to condescending writing?" Hell, if that's all it took to get this place to pull its head out of its ass, Axel wished Black had discovered the delights of adultery a long time ago.
"That someone was Bettina Moore."
Axel leaped to his feet. He needed to warn Ellery. He spotted her immediately, waving a cheery hello to Phil Peck as she joined him outside Black's office, unaware she was waltzing into certain annihilation.
Kate nodded. "A conversation heart for the ages."CHAPTER 2
"Actually, yes." Ellery allowed an ironic smile to rise at the corner of her mouth and gazed curiously at the shards of what she hoped was imitation eighteenth-century French porcelain scattered across the floor. "I thought parts of it were quite funny."
She knew Black shared her wicked sense of humor. In fact, there were even some parts of the article — the line about romantic novels doing for adverbs what Lady Gaga did for hat wear popped to mind — she'd written specifically for him. She leaned forward to give him a broad, collegial smile, though why it looked as if he were choking on his tie, she didn't know. She hoped he hadn't taken to ordering the salami breakfast burritos in the cafeteria again.
"You have to admit you took some cheap shots," Phil said carefully from his perch on the adjacent chair.
"Yeah," she said, laughing, "I did. I especially liked the 'literary equivalent of word-search puzzles' line." Her phone vibrated, and she stole a quick glance at the screen. A text from Axel? Emergency! Trust me on this, it began, and she clicked the phone off automatically. The last time he used that line, she'd ended up with sixteen tubs of something that looked like rabbit pellets and smelled like the floor of a bar stacked in her entry hall for six months. Life with a Canadian hadn't been easy, at least not that Canadian. They seemed to have beer in their blood.
"But it isn't the books themselves," she went on, "it's that woman and the way —"
Phil cleared his throat.
"— she insists on seeing her achievement as something more than having figured out how to build the biggest crap-shoveling machine in the history of publishing."
Phil made an even louder noise and began waving his hand back and forth below the edge of Black's desk.
"It would be like the head of BP writing a book on harnessing the power of the ocean," she said, "or the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates on squeezing profits out of a sports team. I mean, they have the credentials, but who would want to read it? And, my God, the outfits she wears —"
Black slammed his fist so hard on his desk, Ellery jumped. "I think," he said slowly, "it's time for a little fair balance."
Ellery turned to Phil. He looked as if he'd been laid out sitting up. All he needed were coins over his eyes and a bugler playing "Taps."
"Fair balance?" she repeated.
"Yes," Black said. "I'm curious as to why so many women love those books, aren't you?"
She cut her gaze to Phil, like a runner looking for a sign, and got nothing but the faint whiff of embalming fluid. This was like some weird, otherworldly experience. Buhl Martin Black wondering why women liked romance novels? The man who could give you the name and theme of every short story that had been published in the New Yorker since 1972 and who had cried when John Updike died? "Well, I mean, I guess."
"Good," Black said. "Because I want you to write a piece on it."
"Me?" She felt the world shifting under her feet. "I don't know the slightest thing about them."
His eyes shone like round, hard nuggets of coal. "Really? You seemed to have formed quite a clear opinion."
"I want three thousand words," he said. "A real ode to the topic. Why don't we try for the upcoming issue?"
She blinked. They had moved from the absurd to the impossible. "The issue being put to bed next Monday, as in 'one week from today'?"
"That's the one."
Three thousand words? On a topic she neither understood nor could tolerate? "In Vanity Place?"
"Are you under the impression, Miss Sharpe, that understanding what makes women tick is somehow beneath our notice? As far as I know, they still make up half our readers, though I am only the publisher, so perhaps I've been misinformed."
This from a man who had nearly drummed her out of the editorial room for once professing a liking for Bridget Jones's Diary. "But —"
"But nothing. I want the article to be in essay form. Your personal journey, discovering the marvelous world of romance novels."
"You will be the literary critic who convinces the non-romance-reading public they've been wrong all along. You will be credited with the Great Awakening. You will go down in history as the Pied Piper of Romance."
Excerpted from A Novel Seduction by Gwyn Cready. Copyright © 2011 Gwyn Cready. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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"Why I Write" by Gwyn Cready
The question I am most often asked when I give talks is "What made you want to become a writer?" This is followed almost immediately by, "Did you always want to be a writer?" I have to admit I dread these questions these questions a little for the answer invariably changes what had been a lively, fun discussion to something more somber.
I began to writeand still writeto honor the memory of my dead sister. She was 31 and I was 35 when she passed away. She died without warning, and I never got a chance to say good-bye.
She and I couldn't have been more different. She was an artsy typea poet and photographer who wore gypsy skirts, thumb rings and patchouli perfume. I have an MBA in marketing and spent 25 years working in corporate America. The only ring I dealt with was the ring of the telephone. We weren't close in age or in temperament growing up, but as we drew closer to our thirties, the differences between us diminished.
One of our last conversations was about a book my friend, Leslie, had given me, a book called Outlander. I loved itnot in a way you love a new pair of boots or even a yummy red velvet cupcake. I LOVED IT. I couldn't put the darned thing down. And I wanted her to read it, especially since the heroine's name was Claire and my sister's was, too.
She never got the chance. She died when her throat swelled shut in an attack brought on by an extremely rare disease called hereditary angioedema.
Claire's death devastated me. She was my only sister, and I'd already survived the death of my mother when I was eleven. There are undoubtedly worse things to go through in lifeabuse or the loss of a child comes to mindbut I wouldn't wish the life- upending double-wallop I went through on anybody.
I'd already named my daughter after my mother and my son after my father (I have a very generous husband), and those were the grandest tributes within my power to give. If I'd been planning to have a third child, I would have simply named the baby Claire (or Clarence) and been done with it. Unfortunately, I didn't want to have another child.
I decided that the next most enduring tribute would be to create a piece of art that I would dedicate to my sister. Since the only talent I have that even approaches artistic is writing, I decided I would try to write a book. And since Diana Gabaldon, the author of Outlander, had made me fall in love with romance novels, a love story was the sort of book I settled on trying.
Within a month of Claire's death, I began to write. That was May, 1997. My first book, Tumbling Through Time, was published in January, 2008. It took almost eleven years from the time I began writing until I could open a cover and read the words that told me I'd finally fulfilled my mission.
For my sister, Claire, who would have laughed.
And she would have laughed. Her no-nonsense sister, Gwyn, writing steamy romance novels? Heck, she would have howled.
I'm a full-time writer now, writing my seventh book, and I thank Claire often for the gift she's given me. My life is immeasurably better, and not just because I'm a writer. My life is immeasurably better because Claire was my sister.