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It was, quite possibly, the worst book she’d ever written.
Madison held the advance print copy in her hands and regarded it as though it was a prodigal child. Born of natural and right means, nurtured and grown over many sleepless days and nights, believed in, hoped for… then, before she could grasp what had happened, it had gone the way of its prodigal siblings. Trash. Such filthy trash.
But it wasn’t like a child. It was her work, her thoughts, her very words. And she’d let it happen. The stories started out sweet and innocent, but she could hear her publicist in her head, her editors whispering in her ears, and her agent, Kaci, in her very dreams.
This won’t sell.
It wouldn’t. And so, she sent her characters off into situations they didn’t need to be in and made them lewd, crude, and for the majority of the book, completely nude.
She’d never even known that this was an actual legitimate literary genre back when she’d first started writing.
Madison bit her lip as she ran her hand over the cover. It was well done. It would catch eyes, would look pretty on store shelves, and would entice readers to buy it. Once inside, they’d discover that as far as literary efforts went, this was her best by far. As far as skill went, she was at the top of her game. As far as entertaining plots went, this was better than she’d ever done.
But it was trash. And raunchier than all the ones before it. It was, most definitely, the worst book she’d ever written.
Number 12, she called it, because she refused to call it “Read My Lips.” Or just “Lips” as Kaci insisted on calling it. She only acknowledged its place in a long line of books just like it. Number 12.
She glanced over at her laptop, where Number 13 was already halfway written. There was money in being prolific in this genre, and because there was nothing else in all the world that demanded her time and attention, she was able to keep the words coming. The money was shocking to her at first, the very idea that people would pay to read something she’d made up, but this far into the game, advance payments on books and royalty checks were more subdued affairs.
Likely because the guilt had become greater lately.
She put Number 12 down quietly and looked out her window. She managed a faint smile looking over the neat, tidy lawn and the quiet street beyond her doorstep. Kaci had balked at the small house back when Madison had bought it, saying that she could certainly afford something bigger and in a much more affluent neighborhood.
And she could have. But this street, this place, had so many wonderful memories attached to it, and because there were precious few pleasant memories from her childhood, the ones that she did have in this particular place were even sweeter. She’d been a kid here, going to visit her friend, Faith, who lived just down the road. They went to church and school together from elementary school to junior high then on to high school. And when things had gone from bad to really, really bad at home, Faith’s house was the one place where Madison had felt some stability, some warmth, and some normalcy. Faith’s father was the pastor of their church, and Madison had assumed that his family put on a show for church like her family did, that they pretended life was okay when they walked into the sanctuary, that they tore one another to pieces as soon as they got home.
But Faith’s family wasn’t like that. They were the same no matter where they were. And they really believed what they said about Jesus.
Faith’s own mother had led Madison to Christ in the pastor’s house, on this very same street, so many years ago. And when her parents did divorce, when her dad left them, and when her mother left the church, Madison had come back to this same place so many times, so distraught, so hurt, and so completely messed up.
It was a strange thing, knowing the security of Christ and believing in His Lordship… and discovering that still, she held part of herself back from Him. This pain, the feeling that abandonment was part of life, was what she’d held back.
And in the end, long after she’d gone away to college and figured out that she could write, it was that part that was so easily given over to something so completely set apart from Him.
It had only moderately bothered her before. With her bank account full and promising, she had made her way back here to settle down, to hole herself up and write, to make a home for herself. She’d been swept up in nostalgia when the realtor had showed her this place, saying, like Kaci, that it was really less than what she could afford. Madison had hardly heard her as her mind rushed through memories of this neighborhood, of how her heart had felt, of how she had known love here.
She honestly assumed that Faith’s family had long since moved on from the church and from this neighborhood. It had been years, after all. That’s why she’d been caught so off guard when the first neighbor at her door was none other than Chloe Hayes, Faith’s mother.
There had been surprise, just a moment of it, and then, instant recognition.
Madison hadn’t been prepared to have been remembered. And so fondly remembered, as Mrs. Hayes, nearly forgetting the basket of homemade desserts in her arms, had reached right out to Madison, gathered her close and murmured, “Maddie… Maddie Smith… I’ve been praying for you.”
Even now, tears pooled in Madison’s eyes as she remembered. To know that she’d been prayed for, all these years, as life had taken some strange turns… it was a lot. It was so much, in fact, that Madison immediately agreed to go to her old church now that she was back in town. And she’d been going for months now, where everyone knew her, where everyone loved her, where she was learning again about who Christ was, and where no one ever asked what it was that she was doing with her life.
Perhaps they knew. Perhaps that’s why Mrs. Hayes had been praying for her.
Madison looked back over at Number 12. Scripture began to pop up in her mind. Irritating. This conviction that came up at the worst times. It was church. It was being back in a community where people lived what they believed, where they said what Jesus said, where she could feel Him speaking to her heart, and –
Her phone rang, and she snapped her eyes from Number 12. Crossing the living room and walking into the kitchen, she reached out for her cell phone and glanced at the screen.
Clark of Ye Giant Publishing House of Smutty Books. How thrilled Madison had been to have gotten that first call from him, never guessing how deep the hole she was stepping into was, so many years ago. How great the dread was now when his number lit up the phone.
She took a calming breath and reminded herself just exactly who she was now.
“Vivian Chase,” she said in that breathy, sultry, completely ridiculous voice that Kaci had made her perfect after she’d first hit the bestseller list. She’d have never consented to acting like this or even adopting the pen name to begin with, but it had been a point not worth arguing as Kaci had sold the book with the pen name already on it. Too confusing, she’d said, waving Madison’s concerns off.
Maybe it was better this way. It certainly made acting like Clark was expecting her to act a little easier. It was just Vivian Chase, after all. Not Madison Smith.
“Viv,” Clark murmured. “I have some huge news.”
“Me, too, Clark,” she murmured right back. “I’ve been meaning to call you ever since I got the advance copy of ‘Read My Lips.’”
“Do you like it?” he asked. “The cover turned out great. And the reviews read just as well as I thought they would.”
“Oh, that’s great,” she said, not giving two flying flips about any of it. “But what I really meant was… well, the good news is about the story, Clark.”
He paused. Then, “The story?” She could practically hear him grin.
She forced a flirtatious laugh. “It’s been soooo loooong, Clark,” she said. “So long since I’ve read that book, you know. And I swear, last night as I was reading it in the bubble bath, I blushed at that scene twenty pages in.” She knew it by heart. Could probably recite every nasty word by memory.
“Did you now?” he asked. The skeeve was probably imagining her in the bath now. Great.
“I sure did,” she said, forcing another giggle. “Clark, if it’s making me blush, it’s going to be a best seller.”
“Well, we already knew that, Vivian,” he said confidently. “So I have the bigger news still.”
“And what’s that?” she asked, with just the right measure of coyness in her voice.
“We’re changing up your press tour for this one,” he said.
So, she wouldn’t be doing her standard jaunt from city-to-city, selling books, speaking at events, teaching the odd writer workshop here and there, smiling, and making sexy jokes. Hallelujah. Playing Vivian Chase for the crowds was the worst part of writing, honestly.
“Oh!” she fake-gasped and moaned, ever so slightly. “But, Clark, I love the press tour!”
“You’ll love the changes even more, though,” he said. “We’ve been focusing on the East Coast and the South, of course, since your fan base is strongest there.”
“Mmmm,” she murmured, wondering what he was getting at.
“But your last book… Vivian, you were selling more copies in Texas alone than in all the southern states combined.”
Well, this was unexpected. “I’m sorry… what?” she asked simply, hearing Madison Smith in the question.
“Texas loves you!” he exclaimed. “I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to hit that while we can. And with you in Texas, it’ll be simpler to fly you out to the West Coast, where we’re projecting even better sales and an entirely new fan base out there.”
“But how do you know –”
And then, she focused in on what he’d really said. “With me in… Texas?”
“That’s what I said,” he answered, a smile evident in his voice.
“But I live in Florida,” she managed.
“I know,” he said, “but for the next six months, you’re going to be in Texas, promoting yourself. And we’re going to keep you to one place for the most part, let you settle in there, and teach a class.”
“Teach a class?” she asked. “On writing?”
“Yeah, and we’ve already gotten all the details set up with Kaci. She said you’d prefer Fort Worth – smaller than Houston and Dallas both, you know. Has already gotten your living arrangements squared away and taken care of. She also told us that you’d prefer teaching in a more intimate setting. A restaurant. A non-chain kind of place. We found the perfect place, worked it out with the owner, and have you on schedule to be there in a couple of weeks.”
“But I live in Florida!” she repeated.
“Kaci’s got the details,” he said, not even hearing her anymore. “It’s gonna be great, Viv.”
And he hung up before she could even think of a sexy comeback.
It was the one day of the week that Grant kept the restaurant closed. He set every day of the week apart for Christ in his heart, living for the Lord and His glory with all of his life, but he took special care on Sunday to keep from work.
The restaurant was work. But cooking wasn’t. He couldn’t sleep in after all these years of running his place, so he usually headed over to Rachel’s house for breakfast, and he almost always was the one to do the cooking.
He pulled up to her house at seven and grabbed the bag of groceries out of his backseat before he made his way down the sidewalk. He’d just picked her up at the airport yesterday after two weeks abroad, so he figured the odds were bad that she’d even have eggs or milk in the fridge.
She’d be glad to see him.
He thought on this as he knocked on the door… and waited. He leaned on the doorbell… and waited. Finally, just as he was taking a breath to yell towards the direction of her bedroom window, the door opened.
And there was Micah, wearing a towel.
He looked at Grant for a long moment. “Hmm,” he said, very simply.
“Good morning to you, too,” Grant said. “Did I catch you while you were in the shower?”
Micah opened his mouth to ask a question, then frowned again. “No, actually.”
“Then, why the towel?” he asked.
“First thing I could find to throw on when the pounding on the door started,” he said.
“Why exactly weren’t you wearing clothes?” Grant asked.
Micah sighed. “Do you really want to have this conversation with me?”
They watched one another for a few more seconds. “Aren’t you going to ask me in?” Grant said.
Micah looked over his shoulder… then looked back. “Should I, Grant?”
“Rachel usually does,” he said. “Sunday morning breakfast and all.” Then, to sweeten the deal, “I’ll make you an omelet.”
Micah considered this for a minute. “Come on in, then,” he said, moving aside as Grant came in and headed straight towards the kitchen. “I should probably go tell Rachel that –”
But his words were cut short as the door to Rachel’s bedroom opened and her voice rang out. “Micah, who was that at the – Grant!”
The door slammed shut again. Micah sighed at this. Grant shrugged and started making himself at home in the kitchen.
Five seconds later, the door slammed opened again. And Rachel, tugging on a bathrobe, came into the kitchen.
“Grant, what are you doing here?” she screeched.
“It’s Sunday,” he said by way of explanation. “Thought you’d still want breakfast.”
She stared at him, her mouth open, wordless.
“What?” he asked. “Married people don’t eat?”
Oh, yeah. The two weeks abroad? Had been her honeymoon. And the half dressed man who’d opened the door for him? Was his brother-in-law, Micah.
Who was, by all appearances, no longer bothered by Grant’s presence, as evidenced by the way he was now sitting at the dining room table, towel and all, peeking at the ingredients Grant had laid out.
“We just got back from our honeymoon!” Rachel continued on. “Did you stop and think that maybe, just maybe, we might want some privacy?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. Not really.”
“Last night was our first night in this house together!” she yelled.
“Then, this meal is my late wedding gift,” he said.
“Micah?” She looked to her husband for affirmation.
“He told me he’d make an omelet,” Micah shrugged.
She looked at both of them for a long moment. “Unbelievable.”
“Rachel,” Micah murmured, pulling her over to sit on his lap. “If it doesn’t bother him, it doesn’t bother me.”
“It bothers me,” she cooed, putting her arms around his neck. Then, to Grant, “How do you know you weren’t interrupting something?”
He glanced over at her. “Apparently, I was, since Micah is still naked –”
“I have a towel on,” he said, kissing Rachel.
“Good enough for me,” Grant said. “And before you say it, Rachel, I know that things have changed. And I won’t be here every Sunday. Unless Micah requests an omelet.”
“I can make him an omelet,” she argued.
“I’m sure you do a lot of really great things for Micah that I don’t want to know anything about,” Grant noted. “But you can’t possibly make a better omelet than me. Give the man what he needs, Rachel.”
She frowned at this, then looked back at Micah. “He’s right,” he muttered. “I’ve had his omelets before. They’re the best.”
Rachel opened her mouth to argue this, but Grant put a cup of coffee in front of her and said, with great enthusiasm, “I’ve got some awesome news.”
“You’re getting a life outside of the restaurant and hanging out here? Finally?” she muttered.
“Ouch,” he said. “I have a life, Rachel. But actually, this new is about the restaurant –”
“Big surprise there,” she said, picking up her coffee.
He ignored this jab. “When are our profits the lowest, Rachel?” he asked.
“Tuesday and Thursday evenings,” she said, knowing the business almost as well as he did, given how involved she’d been in it all, from the very start of it all a few years back until now. “But they’re not all that low then.”
“Always room for improvement,” he said. “And I’ve figured out a way to improve those particular evenings.”
“How so?” Micah asked. “Promotions? Deals?”
“Didn’t have to change anything,” he said. “Just secured new clientele.”
“New clientele?” Rachel asked.
Grant grinned over at her. “Sealed a deal,” he said. “Some book club thing. Fifty women. Romance writers… or wannabes, I don’t know. In the restaurant two times a week, Tuesday and Thursday, every week for the rest of the semester.”
Rachel frowned. “Well, that doesn’t mean that they’ll all show every week. Or that they’ll spend anything –”
“Twenty dollar charge per head, with or without food,” he said. “Part of the deal. And they only have part of the restaurant. The lady who booked it told me that the rest of the place will be filled with overflow people, trying to hear the lectures.”
“Well, then,” she murmured. “Lectures?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Big name writer coming in. They’re on a waiting list to have this lady teach them or read out loud to them or… well, whatever she’s going to do. The roster for the class filled up in ten minutes, and I’ve got people already calling who didn’t make it onto the list, trying to reserve tables for weeks and weeks on out so they can hear the lectures as well.” He slid in across from Micah, passing the omelet over to him.
“Wow, really big name, apparently. Who is it?” Rachel asked, taking a sip of coffee.
“Some lady named Vivian Chase.”
And with that, Rachel spit all of her coffee out, practically in Grant’s face.
“Good grief, Rachel,” he said, picking up a napkin and wiping what had splattered onto his forehead. “Could you at least try to be a lady?”
“Vivian Chase?!” she shouted. “Grant! Do you know who she is?!”
“Yeah,” he said, “some romance writer. Chick lit. The woman who’s about to up my business substantially, and –”
“Grant, she writes dirty books,” Rachel whispered. “Bestsellers, of course, but… well, you know.”
“Actually, I don’t,” he said flippantly. “And I don’t care either way. She didn’t want to teach in a stuffy classroom or academic setting, and her agent said the restaurant was just right.”
“Seems like a conflict of conscience, though,” Micah noted, mid-bite. “Assisting this lady with promoting her work when, like Rachel says, it doesn’t honor God.”
Grant sat back and sighed. “I’m just cooking food.”
“You do more than that,” Rachel said. “And you know it. By allowing this in your restaurant, aren’t you giving clearance to what she does? Aren’t you affirming it?”
“I’m cooking,” he said simply, not wanting to think about it, honestly. His life was the restaurant, and he did everything in his power to make it succeed. This book club was a good thing, no matter how these two were spinning it. “Not unlike I’m doing right here, right now. Rachel, you want something?”
“Sure, since you’re already here,” she said. Then, “Grant?”
“Yeah?” he said, already back at the stove, pushing aside any negative thoughts his family had put into his head.
“Just be careful,” Rachel said softly, as he watched her exchange a concerned look with Micah.
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