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     “Honey, try to look at least a little engaged–for me?” 

     My wife pulled a face that was probably similar to the one I was making as I looked around at the assortment of people, mostly women, milling around the tightly-packed tables in the convention space. 

     She loved this shit, attending author conventions and collecting as many signed paperbacks as she could get her hands on. 

     The built-ins in our living room were vomiting books boasting bare-chested men and women clearly in the throes of…well, make-believe, if you asked me. 

     Miranda’s collection made it virtually impossible to have anyone over, because once they saw our living room and the floor-to-ceiling stack of romance novels, they jumped to the immediate conclusion that we were avid readers, but not of the serious variety.

     “Go ahead.” I held a hand out to encourage her. “We’re here for you anyway. I’ll just find a chair over there somewhere and wait for you. I can catch up on work emails while you’re chatting.”

     Her face pulled into a frown but she didn’t argue with me, marching away toward the nearest table, already in full gush.

     “Ugh, look at them all.” 

     There was a voice beside me and I turned my head to find a woman leaning against the wall next to me. She was elegantly dressed: black pants, a black top and sexy heels, with a thick silver bangle on one wrist. 

     It was her hair that was the weird contradiction: long, loose blonde curls with a bright lavender sheen that intensified toward the bottom.

     “There’s no way you came to this by yourself,” she guessed quite accurately, and I lifted a hand to point across the room, where my wife was actively mauling a tall, very fit man standing beside one of the tables. It made the woman snort.

     “Yeah, I didn’t think you were here to troll for lonely ladies–oh, Trent. He gets all the attention at these things and he absolutely knows what he’s doing.”

     Even without looking at her, I could almost hear her eyes roll.

     “Groupie or cover model?” I asked, watching my wife’s hand skate up the man’s well-defined arm. It made my stomach turn just a little.

     “Author,” she said matter-of-factly. “His stuff is appalling trash and he’s his own cover model. God knows why, but the women eat his shit up.”

     “What’s he write, sci-fi?” I asked, and she snorted so hard that I was pretty sure she broke something.

     “Nope. That particular neanderthal writes romance–needs to get out of my end of the pool, because he gives the rest of us a bad reputation.”

     “And you are?” I asked slowly, looking over to catch the full-on view of her face for the first time. Huge blue eyes, dark eyebrows, soft red lips. She was a total knockout.

     “Emerson.” She held out a hand with perfect red nails to shake mine and I couldn’t help but grin at her.

     “There’s no Emerson on the list of attending authors.” I quickly eyed up the huge poster board near the doorway.

     “Nevertheless,” she said, waving her hand dismissively and grinning at me. It made me feel immediately and incredibly guilty, because there was something magnetic about her. I wanted to lean in and catch another whiff of that intoxicating perfume she was wearing, but I was pretty sure doing that would guarantee sleeping on the sofa for the next month if Miranda looked over, her own wandering hands notwithstanding.

     “Nevertheless, what?” I asked, trying to marshall my thoughts.

     “You’ll figure it out soon enough.” She smiled again, a smaller one. “I didn’t catch your name, by the way.”


     “Gerald?” Her eyes went wide and it looked like she was trying to suppress a laugh. “Oh no, you do not look like a Gerald.”

     “Well, that’s what my parents called me.”

     “Any other names?” she asked.


     “Oh, no.” She snorted, bringing up one hand to cover her mouth. “This keeps getting worse! Tell me…do you have any other names?”

     “My parents are from an old money area in Connecticut; what do you think?”

     “They really gave you a third name?”
    “Yeah.” That time I really did pull a face. “West.”

     “Wait, I’m confused.” She turned to face me with her arms over her chest. “Which of those is your real first name?”

     “Lionel. My grandfathers were Lionel and Gerald, so West is the only name I got to myself, but no one calls me that.”

     “Hmm, Lionel Gerald West.” She looked at me thoughtfully. “West. Yes, I like that much better. The last one is far more dangerous and dashing. I may steal that for a character name.” She tapped red nails against her bottom lip.

     I was pretty sure there was nothing about me that was dangerous or dashing these days. 

     Maybe thirty years ago.

     The last thing I was going to tell the woman was that my given name was far less innocuous than anything I’d been called growing up. When you grow up in a blue-blooded family, everyone gets a damn nickname and it’s a competition to see who can come up with the most outlandish one and make it stick.

     “Dossy!” My wife hollered across the space, waving me over. Her voice somehow carried above the incredible din and I couldn’t hide the wince.

     There was Miranda: right on time.

     That was it, Emerson was dead. “Stop! Oh, please, stop!” she wheezed, holding up her hands from where she’d sank to the floor. Her head rested on her knees as her shoulders shook with laughter.

     Dossy, of all the stupid fucking nicknames…because I’d had a vicious case of chicken pox when I was three and my two-year-old brother couldn’t say “polka-dotted,” so he called me “Dossy,” because just about every conceivable area of my body was covered in the awful blisters.

     Emerson would have a real field day with my family: Muffy, Plumpy, Fifi–that one was my brother, courtesy of me. I could pronounce the word “fishface” just fine by the time I gifted him with the moniker, but Fifi was so much more delightfully emasculating. He fucking hated it. He deserved it, though–still did. Someone had to keep him humble.

     “Oh, Dossy…” she leaned into my shoulder for a moment and I could feel her still shaking with laughter. “I hope you and your wife stop by my table later; I can’t wait to sign a book for you.”

     “I’m sure we will,” I said, knowing full well I was scowling. “She visits every damn table at these things.”

     She did, too. Miranda dragged me behind her as we made our way from one table to the next in the huge convention center. 

     Lunchtime came and we were nowhere near to being through the enormous assemblage of authors. I had no idea so many people wrote for a living. Already I’d been out to the parking lot twice to dump the books Miranda had purchased into the back of her SUV.

     When I finally found her in the crush of people, she was standing pressed up against a table, engaged in animated conversation with someone I couldn’t see around all the other people milling nearby. I had to fight my way through the throng, coming up behind her just as my eyes caught the name on the banner that stood behind the table: Poppy Arnaud, written in a flowing red script on a black background. 

     My eyes went wide. I recognized that name. I was pretty sure Miranda owned every book Poppy had ever written, and when I looked down to see who my wife was talking to my mouth fell open at the sight of long lavender curls.


     “Gerald, please.” Miranda’s voice was almost a whine. “This is Poppy Arnaud. You know, my favorite author.”

     The woman cast a sidelong glance at me and gave me an almost imperceptible wink, and I wondered just how often she told complete strangers her real name.

     My wife purchased the most recent book and requested an inscription, which Emerson seemed to do happily and as Miranda moved to the next table without me, the woman with the lavender hair smiled up at me again. “It was lovely to see you again, Gerald. Your wife and I spent some time getting to know one another.” 

     Was it me, or did her nose turn up a little when she said it?

     “So you know…” She gestured toward my wife, moving rapidly down the line and back in the direction of the male romance author with a body builder’s physique. “The inscription isn’t for her.”

     I had no idea what that meant, but at that point a sharp “Dossy!” rang over the crowd, and with a nod to Emerson–Poppy–I turned and walked away.




     “Our house is a fucking fire hazard with all this tinder,” I grumbled as I heaved the fifth bag of books into the back of Miranda’s car.

     “Whatever.” Her laugh was brittle. “I need something to keep me busy while you’re in the city, all those long days and late nights.” She sighed loudly and I knew something was coming. “I’m running out of shelf space. Maybe I’ll read through some of the older ones and decide which to donate.”

     That would be the day. My wife was an inveterate hoarder–didn’t matter whether it was plastic cutlery or the pamphlets you couldn’t get people to stop pressing on you in the street, she saved it all.

     I climbed behind the wheel as she buckled herself into the passenger seat and sighed happily. “I’ve been trying to catch Poppy at the last three conventions and something always went wrong. I’m so glad I finally met her.”

     It didn’t matter what I said, because this was the part of the conversation where my input was not required, so I simply nodded and backed the oversized SUV out of the parking spot.

     “Looked like you got along pretty well with Trent, too,” I remarked casually, careful to keep my eyes on the road. I could feel her back arch up like a cat even without seeing it.

     “What’s that supposed to mean?” 

     “Whatever you want it to mean.” I kept my voice easy and non-confrontational. I had years of experience dealing with hostile people and my on-the-job training had probably been the only thing to keep me married for so long: I knew how to defuse active hostage situations.

     Lately I’d begun to wonder if I might be in one myself.

     There was an angry huff from the seat beside me and I knew I’d just burned through all the good will cultivated in one long Saturday, with just two sentences. 

     I tried to hide the bitterness but sometimes it came sneaking out anyway, even if I was able to disguise it with an even tone.

     I let the uncomfortable silence settle over the car until we hit the tunnel, shooting out into the late afternoon sunlight on the Jersey side of the Hudson.

     Miranda sat chewing on her lip as we finally pulled into our driveway and I parked the car outside the garage, sitting for a moment to gather my thoughts as she rustled around in the back, loading bag after bag of books onto her shoulders and trundling them into the house.

     What were we even doing anymore? I sighed, wrapping my hands around the steering wheel and touching my forehead to the backs of my fingers. 

     We were twenty-six years into this thing, with two kids between us, and now that they were out of the house the cracks were becoming quite apparent.

     What we were trying to do with these outings was to reconnect. Rekindle. Learn how to appreciate one another somehow, by understanding where the other was coming from. Only, it seemed that this was going in one direction and it wasn’t a good one. Rather than drawing us closer, sharing our interests with one another seemed to emphasize the fact there was very little overlap in our lives.

     I dragged myself slowly from the car, bone-weary after what had been an early morning and a long day, waiting around for her so I could lug bags of books to the car.

     Popping the hatch, I retrieved the two large totes remaining in the back. As I pulled the second bag toward me it lurched forward, spitting a book across the space. It plopped on the ground and I closed the back before leaning over to pick it up, smiling to myself when I saw the name on the cover. It was a book with one of those things Miranda called “a discrete cover,” which I took to mean it was something you could read on the train without people being suspicious you were reading porn.

     The face was a matte black with fogged white lettering: When All Turns to Ash, and at the bottom were muted red letters in a flowing script: Poppy Arnaud.

     The hazy picture on the front was what really caught my attention: a man, head down, shoulders hunched, hands shoved into his pockets, walking away. 

     I sighed and shoved the book back into the bag, remembering the way something had bubbled up inside when the woman with the lavender curls teased me that morning. She hadn’t been mean; something about her had been kind and genuine, and though she just about died laughing, she wasn’t laughing directly at me.

     Emerson, wherever you are, I need you to write me a happy ending.

     Swallowing hard, I picked up both bags and carried them into the house.





     “No, I’m sorry. Come again?”

     “That’s literally what he said,” I responded wryly, holding up the overpriced glass of subpar whiskey as Genevieve, my best friend for almost as long as I could remember, tried to pop her eyes back into their sockets.

     “But…why did he think he got you there?”

     “I have no idea.” I held up my glass in the direction of the bartender, because I was going to need more for this part. “He seemed to be laboring under the impression that my navel was some kind of magical erogenous zone.”

     “He went down…on your belly button.” Genivieve looked as horrified as I’d been at the time, when I’d had to fake my way out of what had apparently been an enormous misunderstanding on the part of a guy I hadn’t called back since. To be fair, it was possible he’d been drunk at the time, something I could neither confirm nor deny.

     “Now you know why I never tell a guy where I live, not until at least the eighth date,” I said, draining the first glass and reaching for the second as the bartender slid it toward me. 

     “Now you know why I don’t date anyone more than five years younger.” She raised an eyebrow at me and I huffed. “Viv, he was forty fucking years old. If a man doesn’t figure it out by the time he’s out of his teens, there is absolutely no hope…but now he won’t stop calling me.”

     “You and your magical unicorn snatch, driving the boys out of their minds,” she teased and when I turned a little green she laughed even harder. 

     “For fuck’s sake, Em, you’re a romance author. You write about wild, kinky sex and I can’t even use the word ‘snatch’ without you going all prissy on me?”

     “It’s a gross word,” I whined. 

     She was right. There were a lot of words I refused to use, most of them starting with C. 

     “Right, I forget sometimes.” She grinned wickedly and I realized her grin was aimed at the cute bartender. “You write classy romance.”

     “Damn straight. You’re the idiot who forgot, because you never read my shit.” I tipped my head at her and held up my glass.

     Viv gestured toward the bartender, something I recognized was a come-hither gesture, and I rolled my eyes at her. She was bombshell gorgeous, all plump lips and glossy dark hair. She was so naturally perfect it was unfair, and men fell at her feet like flies from a bug zapper.

     “Another Orgasm?” The bartender smirked at his clever little double entendre, his voice all smooth and seductive. 

     “Mmm.” Viv licked her lips before sinking her perfect top teeth into her bottom lip. “I’ll have three, please, if you’re offering.”

     “You need to see an endocrinologist, you hot mess.” I slapped a hand down on a bar. “I’m going home, Viv.”

     She grinned at me. “I’ll text you tomorrow; give you the final count.”

     Viv could have any man she wanted and why she wasted herself on guys she picked up in bars was completely beyond me. She actually had high standards when it came to everything else, so there were times I wondered if she had some kind of self-sabotaging mechanism when it came to men.

     I drifted along River Street for a moment, taking the sharp left onto 3rd, plowing right through a crowd of smashed stock market guys having a loud discussion on the sidewalk. It was one clearly fueled by tequila and ire over someone named Jenny, who’d probably told Finance Bro she wasn’t interested, and I paused when one called “Hey, gorgeous.”

     I did not have time to educate these shore boys tonight. They were feeling themselves, probably recently out of Brown and thinking they were living the high life as traders on the floor, living in too-small apartments with three roommates in a one-bedroom, fifth-floor walk-up.

      Turning slowly, I acknowledged the twenty-something with a mustard stain on his pink oxford shirt, the top two buttons undone just enough that I could see the beginnings of what would grow into a shag carpet of chest hair with a couple more years under his belt.

     “Gimme a smile, beautiful.” He hiccuped and burped simultaneously, a real feat, and I sighed heavily.

     “Listen, Vinny. Bobby. Paulie.”

     “Frankie,” he corrected, and I couldn’t stop the smile that he misinterpreted as being for, not at him.

     “My point exactly.” I held up a hand as he lurched toward me. “I think it’s wonderful that you and the bros here are having a fun evening out. Maybe blowing off a little steam. But this…you see it?” I pointed to my forehead. “The sign says fuck off. I don’t give rides to anyone.” I held a hand well over my head. “You must be at least this tall to get on the ride.”

     A chorus of teasing “Ooh’s” broke out behind me as I spun on my heel and started marching up 3rd street.

     The boys hanging out in the Hoboken bars were largely harmless, but I’d spent the last twenty years fending off their advances. It made for great novel material though, so I couldn’t be upset about that part. More than one dumb frat boy had made his way into my books, more a character lesson than anything else. 

     I saved the awful ex-boyfriend material for villains, forever immortalizing them in the written word, occasionally gifting them with horrible deaths.

     My favorite little pizza place on Washington Street was still open and I made the trek several blocks up to order an enormous slice at the counter, using both hands to maneuver the slice dwarfing the thin paper plate into my mouth as I walked back down toward my pretty little condo on Park.

     I blamed my Hoboken existence on missed opportunities. I hadn’t met the right guy, the one who wanted to move me out to the suburbs and have a gaggle of children. 

     The one who probably worked in pharmaceuticals or some other form of world domination, with a house in Franklin Lakes and another in East Hampton.

     The hard, honest truth was that I probably wasn’t cut out to be a housewife. I wasn’t the sort to run the PTA or juggle tennis lessons with yoga, massages and facials. 

     I was cut from far weirder cloth. 

     It had been a long, long day and the fact Viv had been able to talk me into going out was a miracle. I’d been up since four to get into the city to set up for the convention, did some serious “peopling” all day long, broke down my booth and hauled everything home. 

     By the time Viv called at seven, I was out of my city clothes and into pajamas. Her invitation meant I had to get dressed again and leave my condo, but I hadn’t seen her in six weeks and she had stories to tell me from several business trips overseas.

     I wrote of wild adventures, but she lived them.

     It wasn’t unusual for me to go home alone. I’d lived that way for the better part of my adult life, with only one abysmally failed relationship to report. That had been divorce enough for me, dividing our shared property when he packed to move out. Thankfully that wasn’t much more involved than deciding who got final ownership of the pizza cutter, but that was enough.

     The worst part of the breakup was losing Ffion, the little Australian Shepherd I’d come to love over the course of eight years. Since she’d come to the relationship with He of Whom We Shall Not Speak, she also left with him and truth be told, I missed the dog a hell of a lot more than the man.

     Over the years I’d thought about adopting an animal, or maybe four. I practically owned Viv’s cat as it was, since she was forever jetting off overseas to consult Sheikh This and His Royal Highness That on complicated legal matters. 

     Genevieve was the full package: beauty and brains, and she’d been known to win more than one negotiation or litigation simply based upon the fact she could short-circuit synapses with a toss of her glorious dark hair.

     “Rumbly,” I called as I unlocked the front door, almost immediately met by a ball of fur the size of a small dog. The cat was more fluff than he was actual substance and his purr was powered by a lawnmower engine, I swear. He was my shadow when I was home, which was most of the time, and the cat got incredibly anxious when he knew I was going out.

     Rumbles’s real name was Rumblestiltskin, because Viv found his huge, rattling purr utterly ridiculous and over time his name had devolved into sillier things, like “Bumble Butt” and “Rumbles,” so that was what I called him now.

     After a quick shower I changed back into the pajamas I’d been wearing when Viv called, and I crawled into my big bed with the cat and my e-reader. I was a reader by choice–a voracious one–but also by profession. I joked with friends that it was a professional hazard, that I could always be found face-down in a paperback or glued to an e-reader when I wasn’t writing.

     Rumbles crawled right under the blankets with me and snuggled up into my side, purring so hard I could have sworn it shook the bed.

     Flipping through my phone, I did a quick catch-up on the things that happened in the world while I’d been tucked into a corner of the Javits Center. The convention had been enormous, with thousands of authors both independent and well established traveling from all over the world to attend two exhausting days of one of the longest conventions of my life.

     At forty-two, I’d been writing almost as long as I’d been reading. I’d been one of the lucky few to land an exclusive three-book contract almost right out of the gate, at twenty-six, which was as unlikely as it was unheard of. While that didn’t mean I was wildly, insanely wealthy, it did mean I was comfortable and if my publisher had their way I’d crank out six books a year rather than my usual two. I thought that was still a pretty impressive writing schedule to maintain when I looked at some of the bigger names who often went years between books.

     In my market, relevance and visibility went hand-in-hand. Not only did I have to keep cranking out books, I also had to be accessible to the people. I had to attend events, generate newsletters with a “conversational tone,” and give people an insight into my “glamorous life” on social media. My name and my face were my brand and I’ll be honest, lately I’d begun to find the rat race I’d been running for the last sixteen years utterly exhausting.

     “I’m writing about things I don’t get to experience,” I grumbled to the cat and he looked up at me with a slow blink that I was pretty sure was an indication of feline affection. I reached over to scratch his ear and he thundered in response. 

     “That’s right, Rumbles, my man. Clearly you’re the only man in my life.” I sighed as I said it, flipping off the light and setting my phone on the nightstand. My phone buzzed with another text I wasn’t about to retrieve and I was too tired to read tonight, so I rolled to cuddle up to the cat before falling into a restless sleep.




     I woke early the next morning, unsurprised I was unable to sleep past sunrise, when sunlight began an unrelenting assault on my eyelids through the huge bank of windows in my small bedroom. 

     The cat was long gone, probably sitting patiently beside his food bowl, having gotten the memo moments before I did that it was time to start the day.

     While water heated for coffee, I texted Viv: I expect details about your sordid evening with the bartender.

     There was no immediate response, which was hardly a surprise. Not only was she probably sleeping it off but if memory served, she was off to Abu Dhabi this week or maybe next, or some other such far-flung location, living her own glamorous life as a contracts lawyer who was internationally sought after.

     After feeding the cat and making coffee, I shuffled into my street-facing office and opened the blinds to let in the morning sunshine. I lived on the first floor of the little three-story building and though it meant I didn’t have the spectacular views my neighbors on the third floor had, with their rooftop access, it did mean the small back garden was solely mine. 

     Naturally, that didn’t keep my neighbor on the second floor from creeping on me, but I was fairly sure that he was largely harmless. 



     Booting up my computer for the day, I sank into the wide chair I used as my office chair. Perhaps today the spirit of writing inspiration would find me and I’d find a way to close up the plot hole in my latest book, one that was due to my editor in just three weeks, yet my creative processes had screeched to a halt. Something was stuck. Something that felt an awful lot like burnout and inertia, and I wondered not for the first time if I could obtain an extension and get away for a few weeks to refresh.

     I’d been running full-out for the last four years, since the asshole departed with my darling Ffion, and I’d filled the hole in my life the same way I always did: with work. It had delighted my publishing company, of course, as I’d put out four books rather than two the past few years, and I knew it was time to have the Come to Jesus talk with them about scaling back to something more reasonable. 



     The browser page opened immediately to the day’s news, announcing the takedown of a corrupt FBI director and I read with interest the sordid tale of the man’s convoluted family connections to organized crime. How that had escaped anyone’s notice was beyond me, though I suspected a long chain of Someones had been convinced to look the other way for far too long.

     It made me think of Gerald for whatever reason and without expecting to find anything at all, I idly plugged Lionel Gerald West into the search engine. I was pretty sure West wasn’t his last name, but imagine my surprise when the first search result pinged a Lionel G. W. Hendrickson, FBI field office director, just a hop across the Hudson from me. Well, wasn’t that intriguing…I clicked, bringing up the man’s official staff photo on the left of the screen, surrounded by the short bio.

     It seemed Director Hendrickson was well established in his career, boasting twenty years of service after a lengthy stint in the Army. He was from Connecticut–no surprise there–and married, something I already knew, with two adult daughters.

     The truth of the matter was that the man in the picture was different from the man I’d met the day before at the convention center. The photo was handsome, distinguished and austere: all business, all up front. The man himself, however, had been something entirely different: gorgeous and guarded, but kind. A playful spirit buried beneath disappointments and distractions, perhaps.

     I closed the tab in order to stop staring at his handsome face, because that just wasn’t going to help me get any work done. Besides, he was taken and presumably happy in his long-standing marriage to some blue blood.

     Pulling up my manuscript, I clicked on Tools again, hoping another thirty thousand words had magically appeared overnight, hardly surprised they had not, but disappointed nonetheless. 

     I couldn’t help but wonder if Lionel G. W. Hendrickson had read the inscription I’d penned into my latest book, the one his wife had purchased from me the day before. It was a story about second chances, a marriage that fell apart despite attempts to save it, and starting over.

     Typically, I didn’t do anything personal. My inscriptions were short and sweet: All my love, Poppy. That was my favorite. But this one…something had been different about the woman at my table, and recognizing her as the wife of the man I’d teased mercilessly along the edge of the huge room, something came over me when I left an inscription for him, with my real name. That was reckless, something I never did.

     For L.G.W., with all my love. I hope the both of you have found your happily ever after. -Emerson.

Copyright 2023, Erin FitzGerald

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