My first Thomas & Mercer book, THE DARKEST FLOWER, went to copy edits this week. That means I'm done editing it and it's time to turn to writing the sequel.
I've written a lot of books before--one published already, one currently being searched for out-of-place commas as I type, two posted on Radish, and five others existing in various states of finished in my Word files. You'd think I'd have no trouble dashing off a sequel to TDF. I've got the plot and the pitch and the characters.
Nope. Any writer will tell you that a book to be written "under contract" -- meaning it is already sold and certain to be published -- is a whole different kind of writing. Here's why:
1. The difficulty of starting a new manuscript that always exists: you've just completed/edited/turned in a supremely polished book that reads beautifully, has correct pacing, and no continuity errors (you hope). By comparison, the new book looks like a mess. How did you ever write before? Who on earth will want this slop of rambling, incoherent nonsense with plot holes big enough to fly a 747 through? It is boring. It is offensive. It is trite and superficial and absolutely awful.
Until it isn't. Nine completed manuscripts and I know it always gets to the Not Awful place. It's just that that place is very, very distant at the moment.
2. The knowledge that this book will be published. There's a certain comfort (also despair, but definitely comfort) about writing a manuscript before you have an agent or a publisher. It is what it is. You're writing the book you want to read. You're having fun with it. All that disappears with an under-contract book. It cannot stay what it is--it has to be readable, marketable, easy to pitch, and the type to build your career. You are not writing the book you want to read--you're also writing the book thousands of OTHER people will want to read. It's great to have fun with it, but it is also a product on the marketplace. This is a job now.
3. If that second book is a sequel (mine is), how will readers react to what you're doing with the characters they liked in the first book? Does it stand up? Does it match the tone, the voice, the structure? At the same time, is it different enough that readers will not feel like they're reading the same book a second time?
4. If the book you're writing is the finite one under whatever contract you have, will there be another? Will a second contract be for more sequels, or something different?
There are probably another thousand reasons, but those are the main ones. I've written so many manuscripts that I wasn't expecting all those worries, but here I am. I'm still having fun, mostly, seeing where I can take my lawyer main character this time. I always love exploring backstory and conflict. There is no greater thrill for me than developing characters and really showing what they want, what they won't give up, what they're willing to destroy.
I keep telling myself this is normal. It's normal to be afraid of not measuring up. It's definitely normal to write a first draft that has none of the sparkle or polish of the final draft. I will get there. It's just that I might have to do it with my eyes squeezed shut.
And a lot of ice cream. There will definitely be a lot of ice cream.
I turned in my first-pass edits for THE DARKEST FLOWER today: one day early and, I hope, thorough. It wasn't easy, though.
When I was in high school and college, I was a procrastinator. I remember many a night when I stayed up past midnight writing a paper on a book I'd only finished two hours before. I grew out of that in adulthood once I became a lawyer -- I have too much natural anxiety to try that when contempt of court is on the line.
I am still so thrilled that Thomas & Mercer took a chance on me and this book that I was determined not to be late. I'd get my revisions done a week early and have time to read over what I'd done idly. Things didn't work that way.
Nine days before the edits were due, I got the call we all dread. My mother had become confused sitting out on her porch. She wouldn't eat. Wouldn't come inside. When my father and the neighbors tried to force her out of the direct sunlight, her legs wouldn't work. She'd been admitted to the hospital--during the coronavirus epidemic. I dropped everything -- including my edits -- to rush up there to see her and to help my dad handle things.
She was tested for coronavirus. Not that. For stroke. Not that. Eventually they found the bacteria in her blood which had traveled from an innocent scrape or mosquito bite scratch to cluster around the heart valve replacement she'd received last fall. There was nothing to do but give her antibiotics and hope. We waited.
My parents live about ninety minutes away from me. I drove back and forth nearly every day for a week. I carried my computer, but as you can imagine, not much editing got done in full PPE--rubber gloves, mask, gown, and all. Stress--both for my mom and the approaching deadline--grew.
It's amazing how priorities reshuffle. I'm constitutionally unable to fail to meet a deadline--long years in the legal profession have made it so. I also love my parents. I quit sleeping. I edited pre-dawn and at lunch when I could make it back to work. I missed time -- over a holiday weekend--with my kids and husband.
I found time to help my father, late one night after we left the hospital, install Disney on his TV so he could watch Hamilton. We watched the opening song together at six in the morning before leaving for the hospital again.
My mom is hoping to leave the hospital today--stable enough to medicate at home. I got it all done. It turns out there was time for the important things.
Now maybe I can watch Hamilton myself.
“When is your next book coming out?”
If you’ve ever published a book (my last one came out in January 2019, in what feels now like another lifetime), then you’ve heard this question. If you were lucky enough to have a multi-book contract, you had an answer.
I didn’t have an answer. I used to say something like, “Ha, ha, someday, I hope!” Then I’d ask after the health of the person’s family, real quick.
It’s the question you don’t want to hear if the honest answer is “I have no idea.” There’s a little stomach-flip that goes along with it every time: the decision to have another book be published rarely belongs to the author. It’s entirely dependent on a publisher wanting to publish it. The question is especially difficult to hear if the true, complete, a-little-bit unhinged answer is, “Maybe never: I only had a contract for one book, and my agent didn’t like my next book, so I had to search for a new agent for three months, and then it took three more months to edit that book for her, and then I bit my nails to the quick for six soul-killing months on submission, and each rejection from publishers added to my growing despair that maybe I’d already climbed the highest publishing mountain I would ever climb and I didn’t have enough sense to look around and enjoy the view!”
Whew. That was a mouthful, and I promise you it was a fairly miserable state of being, too.
This story has a happy ending, however!
Back in the summer of 2017, I gave in and began watching Game of Thrones, years after everyone else. Easily my favorite character right from the start was Cersei Lannister, and specifically, Cersei Lannister as a mother. Absolutely convinced that her exalted privilege exempts her from the rules and morals that everyone else lives by, she’s entirely without redeeming qualities except that she will do anything for her children. My brain played with the idea. What if that isn’t a coincidence? What if motherhood itself made her so ruthless? We assume that mothers are serene, giving people who put aside everything for their children’s happiness, but yet we all know women who admit in their darkest hours that, maybe, possibly, motherhood makes them just a touch…disturbed.
Possibilities started to boil. If I had a ruthless mother who’d do anything for her children, she’d be in the PTA, of course, interacting with mothers of all different stripes. She’d own the PTA. She’d smile sweetly and teach her kids to say “sir” and “ma’am” and people would get hurt in her wake. I started typing, and Kira Grant was born, along with her lawyer, Allison Barton, yet another mother with motives of her own. THE DARKEST FLOWER is full of poisonous gardens and badly-behaved moms and murder-y fifth-grade graduation parties.
I finished the manuscript in October of 2017 and put it aside because Lying Beneath the Oaks was headed out into the world (publishing takes forever). I’d hoped to send THE DARKEST FLOWER out to publishers in early 2019, but I changed agents and it didn’t go out until September 2019. I got the news it—and a sequel, hallelujah, AND an audiobook—would be published by Thomas & Mercer, a division of Amazon, on Friday, March 13, 2020, the lucky/unlucky day the pandemic closed my children’s schools and started to wreak havoc on all of our lifestyles in earnest.
When does my next book come out? I can finally give an answer: THE DARKEST FLOWER is coming JUNE 8, 2021.
Cue the socially distant celebration. And wash your hands.
So, your agent just sent off the manuscript you’ve labored over for months or years, the one that you kind of hate and mostly adore, and said, “You’re on sub!” What’s next? Buckle up. This one is long.
First off: why should you listen to me?
Because I’m kind of an expert at being on sub. I’ve gotten the “you’re on sub!” email from an agent (I’ve had two agents) ELEVEN times. Yes, you heard that right. I have one published book. Having a published book does not mean you’ll never go on sub again, unless you’re very, very lucky.
This whole process is terrible for all but the luckiest of authors. There are people who get instant offers and have all of publishing clamoring to be fortunate enough to work with them. Odds are, however, that won’t be you. You are in for a long and torturous wait with very little incoming information. Remember when you were querying and you could track the agents on your list on Query Tracker, and send a revenge query when you got a rejection? It felt like a little control. Yeah, you have no control now. It’s awful and soul-crushing and you’ll be absolutely certain you’re a no-talent hack and the editors are all at lunch drinking cocktails and laughing at you.
They are not. You are, and will always be, your own worst critic. If your agent thought your manuscript was good enough to go on sub, it was. Hang in there.
The advice is to write the next thing. That’s my advice, too, even though I know it’s hard and sometimes darn near impossible.
How did my agent decide who to send my manuscript to? Did she just fire off queries?
Most agents choose editors they know are likely to enjoy your manuscript, based either on their own personal experience with the editor, or based on what else the editor has acquired in the past, or both. Some agents send what amounts to a query letter, asking if the editor would like to see the manuscript, and then they send to those who request. Others do informal pitches of your work over the phone or at lunches in the weeks prior to sending it out, so that they know who is already interested in seeing it. It’s always done with a lot of thought—agents’ incomes are on the line here, too.
How much will I know about what is going on?
A lot of this depends on the agent. Some will tell you that John Q. Editor at SimonCollins House was absolutely thrilled to get your manuscript and said he’d read it right away. Others will tell you only that you’re on sub.
First off, you’re entitled to know which publishing houses your agent chose to receive your manuscript. Your agent may have discussed this with you or shared the list prior to sending your manuscript out. If not, you can ask for this list. If you don’t want to know, ask for the list after sub is over if your book didn’t sell. You should always keep records of who has seen your work.
Many agents do not feel comfortable, however, sharing the names of the specific editors who are getting your manuscript. This is for several reasons: first, agents do not want you freaking out and stalking these people. The temptation is very real for an author on sub to sit on Twitter and try to glean deep meaning from an editor they know has their manuscript who tweets, “So tired today!” Author:Does that mean she was up late reading my manuscript? Or WAIT. Does that mean she was bored reading my manuscript? Or does that mean she has too many manuscripts and will never get to mine? WHAT DOES IT MEAN? This, as you can see, is a super fast way to make yourself crazy. I know you won’t listen, but if your agent gives you these names, please don’t do this. Editors do not tweet about manuscripts they’re reading.
Secondly, agents often do not give out these names because they’re protecting their own relationship with the editors. Once you know the name of Jane Doe at Random SchusterHarper, you are tempted to follow her on Twitter and possibly try to be her friend. Editors find this super creepy. They tend to blame the agent for this happening.
So what now?
There’s huge excitement when you are about to go on sub. You’ll envision auctions and a lightning fast call from your agent telling you about an editor who dropped everything the second she got your manuscript, read it in four hours, and offered a million dollars to buy it RIGHT NOW. It could happen!
Likely it won’t. Editors receive many manuscripts and have time to read them mainly at night and on weekends. Their workdays are consumed with meetings, calls with existing authors, discussions of marketing, and doing a lot of math. In fact, your manuscript may get put in line behind dozens of other manuscripts that editor is being asked to consider. It may take a while.
I’ve been on sub a lot of times. The fastest responses I ever got were both two days later: one was a rejection that made clear the editor had maybe read the first page and was just not that into it. The other was the eventual editor of my published book, but it was not an offer at that point. The next fastest was seven days. I went on sub once and didn’t have a single response from anyone for 27 days. Prepare to wait, and wait longer if your sub is in the summer or coincides with the holiday season or any particularly well-attended conference for your genre.
Do I see my rejections? What will they be like?
You can see your rejections if you want to. Tell your agent your preferences. Some authors want to see every painful word. Others want only good news. Your agent will try to accommodate your preference. If you see them, most agents will cut and paste them into emails to you (leaving out any portion that is personal or unrelated to your book—remember agents and editors have relationships that existed before you and will exist after you). They come in two varieties, and you can decide which is more painful for you.
The first type is the very brief kind that says “the voice didn’t hook me” or “not for me” or “I just didn’t connect the way I wanted to.” The second type will frequently praise your concept, your writing, and your plotting for as many as two full paragraphs before the “unfortunately” that heralds the second part, frequently using language like “I couldn’t think of a way to pitch it to marketing” or “I just can’t find a vision for how to position it.” (For the record, I think the second kind is more painful.)
What if they love it? How will I find out about editor interest?
If you’re lucky, you’ll receive an email or sometimes a call from your agent saying that Little Macmillan Brown loves your book and wants to offer you a million dollars, hardcover, lead title status, and a world-wide book tour.
Most get the news in dribbles, though. First off, your agent might tell you that Editor X has sent the manuscript for “second reads.” Remember all those people who said “you only need one yes?” Right. That might be true for the agent search. It isn’t true for the editor search. Publishing houses work in teams. An editor may read and love your book, but if she can’t get the sales and marketing people on board, plus her superior, and maybe also her superior’s superior, there will be no offer coming. “Second reads” means that she liked it enough to see if others might also be enthusiastic enough to support her at an acquisition meeting. Sometimes, your agent may tell you that your book is going to “acquisitions.” This means that an editor plans to attempt to get permission from her team to make an offer. This is excellent news, but not a guarantee. I’ve gotten that far twice that didn’t work out, and I know many other authors whose manuscripts came away from these meetings still unsold.
Can I figure out whether anyone is interested in my book by obsessively checking hits to my website?
Lol! You’ll definitely check, but you won’t have a clue from anything you find there. I’ve seen hits from major publishing houses while on sub only to receive a rejection a week later. As I said, I’ve been to acquisitions and seen no sign that anyone looked at my website, even when I knew what day the meeting was. Go on and look if it makes you feel better, but I promise you it won’t really tell you anything.
Will I ever get to talk to an editor? What about an R&R?
Sometimes, editors want to speak to you on the phone before making an offer. It’s not common but far from unheard of. Their primary interest here is to find out that you are A. Not unhinged, B. Pleasant and likely to be easy to work with, and C. Possibly willing to make major revisions.
Which leads me to my next point—sometimes an editor will love your manuscript enough to be willing to work with you to make it more likely to get past all those people on the team. This is a “revise and resubmit,” and there are two types. The casual kind that comes in a rejection (“I loved this manuscript, but I really don’t think I could sell a book where the main character dies in the last chapter. If she revises, I’d love to take another look, but for now it’s a pass.”) and the more formal kind where the editor contacts your agent and asks if you’d be willing to work with her on revisions on an exclusive basis. The latter kind is a big deal. It means that if you accept, your agent will either pull the manuscript from all other editors reading or will give them a short deadline, like two weeks, to decide before she pulls it. I’ve done two of this type of R&Rs and have only two thoughts to share: they are invaluable as a way to sharpen your skills and learn what actual editors expect, and they are really, really painful when the edited manuscript still doesn’t get past the team.
Ugh! This sounds awful! How long does this go on?
Some editors take as long as a year to read a manuscript. Yes, you heard me. Most are faster, but not “fast” by any rational definition. Most of my rejections came in between two weeks after going on sub and five months after going on sub, but not all. So does this mean you sit on sub for a year waiting on one editor? Not likely. Agents know that some editors are “non-responders” and will never get back to you at all. They will not force you to sit in limbo forever. They’ll either start the next round of sub with that book or start a new round of sub with your next manuscript (there should be a next manuscript—remember me telling you you were supposed to be writing it?).
Is it possible my book won’t sell anywhere?
Yes. I hate to have to say this, but I’m guessing if you read this post you’ve figured that out. With eleven rounds of sub and one published book, I’m proof that sub doesn’t always work out. It doesn’t. Sometimes the market doesn’t want what you have. Sometimes editors might love it but sales teams don’t. Sometimes it just wasn’t ready. If that happens, talk to your agent. Review the feedback you got in your rejections. Consider whether to use it to revise. Consider whether you might look at smaller publishers. There is no shame in putting the manuscript aside and starting over with a shiny new one. Everything you put on sub teaches you a little more. Don’t lose faith, though. I know of some NYT bestsellers that didn’t sell in their first rounds. I promise you—perseverance is the key.
If I missed something, please don’t hesitate to ask me in the comments!
I’ve written a lot of manuscripts – some are pretty good if I do say so myself, and some are best left as permanent Word documents in the dusty folders on my laptop. They all have one thing in common.
In every one of them, I struggled mightily to make the main character likable.
Likability is the bane of my existence. When I first dared to have someone read my very first manuscript (now permanently shelved, thank you), I discovered that the heroine of that story was unlikable in the extreme. Opinions on this topic were unanimous. This was more than a little depressing: like most first-time writers, I’d written the main character as…me. A woman my age, with my opinions and my thoughts, but with better hair and less squishy thighs.
Turns out my opinions and thoughts were less than sweet. Turns out my internal thoughts are unlikable. I am a complicated person, and I have many qualities. These qualities do not include sunshiny or chipper.
Time passed. I wrote more manuscripts and got an agent. I continued to have problems with likability, and that’s where I got dinged most often. Fortunately, I learned to revise, to watch out for this problem, to delete passages in which the main character thought dark and ugly things, even though we all know real people think dark and ugly things. Real people judge other people harshly. Real people are occasionally careless with other people’s emotions. My main characters began to get so cheery I didn’t know what to do with them.
My writing grew constrained and mired in too much worry about likability.
Anyone who’s read this blog before knows that my road to publication was long. I became too focused on whether my writing would be published, and forgot that it’s supposed to be fun. I have a day job. Writing isn’t how I pay my bills (and likely never will be), so I took a few months to think about things.
There are unlikable characters everywhere. People love them: love hating them, love watching them scheme, love seeing their downfalls and (though we don’t always admit it) their triumphs as well. Think of Cersei Lannister, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Lucy from Charlie Brown, Joan Collins on Dynasty, Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions, Amy from Gone Girl. The trick isn’t to write every main character as Miss Merry Sunshine. The trick is to make your audience relate to your character.
I decided that writing what I didn’t want to write in the hopes of publication wasn’t for me. I want to write what is fun. If it’s never published, so be it. Maybe I needed to write all those manuscripts to trust myself and my skill enough to write an unlikable character. I gave myself permission to write a character whose thoughts are dark as midnight.
So I did. My newest manuscript is a dual first person point-of-view, and one of the women whose head we’re in is far, far, so-very-distant from likable. I heard criticism: there are always those who want to root only for the “nice” people. I got told to make her less consciously awful and more, say, misguided. Delusional, even.
Early readers also told me Kira was funny and engaging as well as being horrible. People related to her. They rooted for her. I kept her. I stopped chasing that worry that people wouldn’t like her and it’s made all the difference. Her unlikability is what the book is about, in many ways.
I had a hell of a lot of fun writing her—and that’s what matters to me.
Okay! It's time for more of the deleted scenes from Lying Beneath the Oaks! If you haven't read the novel, get it now in paperback or eBook (links at right). The below scenes are full of SPOILERS, so don't scroll down if you haven't read!
These are snippets from Molly's life as a teenager before she left Michigan. Most of this information made it into the book, but the story flowed better all in one timeline.
Still with me? Just checking -- you're not going to read SPOILERS, are you? No, you wouldn't do that. Perfect. If you've read the book, here they are!
SIXTEEN YEARS AGO
I missed the bus on purpose, skulking in the hallways after seventh period. I’d have a long walk home, but I had to try. I needed her.
Demetrius Taylor left the classroom, his swagger sending his pelvis out the door first. He looked me up and down, lingering on my chest. “She catch you, too? Wouldn’t a thought you’d be cheating, brainiac like you.”
I shook my head.
“All right, then. Later.” He slunk down the hall.
Inside the history classroom, Ms. Sinclair sat shuffling papers in a shaft of orange sunlight that lit up the chalk dust in the air that she’d set in motion when she’d cleaned the board.
“What can I do for you, Molly?”
I stared at her, suddenly aware I’d come burdened with too much hope. Ms. Sinclair cared about her students, more than most, but what had given me the idea, even for a second, that I’d matter enough to her for this?
“It’s…it’s things at home. I don’t know if I can stay there.”
She went still, reminding me of a cornered animal. “Are you being abused? I have to report it if you are.”
“N-no.” A lie, but a necessary one, now that I understood this conversation had been over before I came through the door. “It’s just that things are kind of bad. I might need somewhere…somewhere to go.”
At the crumpled look on her face, I knew. She cared. Other teachers barked out directions or read us passages from the textbooks in a monotone. Ms. Sinclair asked about our lives. She probably bored her friends with stories about the unbelievable hurdles her students jumped. She volunteered in soup kitchens and gave money to the United Way.
But she had a one-bedroom apartment and a boyfriend who liked to stay over.
She wouldn’t help me.
Nobody could help me.
SIXTEEN YEARS AGO
Staying in her embrace wasn’t an option. It was so tempting to pretend there was safety somewhere. Better to sit across from her than to let myself fall into the trap of thinking this was anything more than an illusion. A visit, into other people’s normality.
“Do you mind setting the table, honey? I can’t see well enough when it gets this time of day, now. That home health nurse says I’ll have to go into a home, if it gets much worse. I sure do like looking at your beautiful face, though. How come your mama hadn’t brought you by more often?”
“She’s been busy,” I said, keeping my face turned away, not wanting to upset her by admitting her daughter was busy passing out drunk or high and getting more and more vocal about my need to contribute to the household. Tonight I’d been allowed to come on the condition that I’d raid Grandma’s purse. (“She can’t see nothing, the old bat. Piece of cake,” my mother had said.)
For thirty whole minutes, I’d eat KFC with the one person who cared about me. I refused to be jealous of other girls who didn’t appreciate what they had. Just for today.
The punishment I’d take later when I brought nothing home would be worth it.
Hi! I am so thrilled about the response to LYING BENEATH THE OAKS! You guys have been amazing and so supportive. Some readers have told me in their reviews that they wish there was "more," that they wanted to hear more about Molly than what we could fit in the published story. CAUTION: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. If you haven't read LYING BENEATH THE OAKS, please stop here and come back when you have.
(Did you stop? You're not going to ruin the story for yourself, are you? Good.)
Originally, each of the story's chapters were separated by little snippets of Molly's life when she was a teenager before she left Michigan. The book flowed better without them, so I took them out, but I'm happy to share the first two of them here, right now. I'll do two each week until I run out. Again, last chance to bow out before you run across some spoilers! Thank you all so much for reading, and here you go (have mercy on me -- these are unedited and unpublished):
SIXTEEN YEARS AGO
Shameka held out a hand to me.
“Come on, lazy ass. Mr. Rice is going to kill you if you say you can’t change for gym again.”
I waved her hand away, clutching the splintery locker room bench with the other. She meant well, but I flinched at hands outstretched toward me. They never meant good things. I couldn’t change for gym, not today or any time this week. If I did, they’d see. Thank Whoever for Michigan’s cold weather. I needed the coverage of the jeans. The long sleeves, too. The lowered grade didn’t matter. My highest hope was a diploma and a good retail job.
Shameka was as close a friend as I had, but that wasn’t saying much. To have a friend, you had to talk. Had to share pieces of who you were, and I could never do that. I’d offended her today. Her smooth skin wrinkled as she absorbed the rejection and turned away.
“Okay. Fine. Do what you want.”
I watched her go, unblemished legs on display in the school-issued shorts. Friendship required regular watering, and I’d long since been wrung dry. She was patient with me, but soon she’d move on. With so much I couldn’t say, I took more friendship than I could give.
It was the giving that really mattered.
I knew that, even while I held it all in.
SIXTEEN YEARS AGO
“Slut. Where you been?” Her voice, ruined by cigarettes and other things, hissed from the stained Barcalounger in the corner like smoke. She sat drinking in the dark, coiled to strike. The sticky sweet scent of peach Schnapps combined with menthol Camels, burnt fish sticks, unwashed body, and overflowing garbage, making me gag.
“Great. Give me the money. We need groceries.” Groceries weren’t what she wanted. The Schnapps bottle lay empty on its side on the floor.
“I don’t have it, Ma. I don’t get my paycheck until the end of the month.”
The air shifted. In the dim light, she stood, hidden strength in her slack, wasted body. I put the ancient sofa between us; I knew better than to let her get close enough to reach me.
An ugly bark of a laugh sent the smell of her decayed teeth and the Schnapps into my face. I could smell my mother anywhere.
“You wanna play that way? You got a real job with a paycheck? Play away. You better get me $50 by tomorrow. I need it. I don’t give a shit how you get it. Told you before: them boobs ain’t for nothing.”
I only had one thing anybody would pay $50 for.
It was a game I played.
How long I could keep from selling it.
I’m in an emotional mood. Tomorrow – well, tonight, at midnight – I become a published author. I have written a book, and edited that book, and watched it go on sub, and watched it get a book deal, and edited it some more, and then I’ve watched it slowly surface into the world. It’s called LYING BENEATH THE OAKS. I’ve reached the stage of the process where I choke up.
Tomorrow, I have a book in the world. For the rest of my life, and for as long after that as anyone remembers me, I’ll be a published author.
I know not everyone feels the way I do about books, so let me try to explain. When I was young, before kindergarten even, I read constantly. My parents would call my name and it was like the sound came from the end of a tunnel and tugged me back into the world with a not-entirely-welcome jerk. I lived in those worlds and had truer friendships with Anne of Green Gables and Pippi Longstocking and Blossom Culp and Beezus and the Railway Children and the All-of-a-Kind Family than I did with plenty of the real girls I saw around me every day. They meant everything to me. I couldn’t get a new supply of books fast enough. I’d mourn every time I exhausted a loved author’s oeuvre.
As I aged, the passion didn’t change; only the authors. I learned about romance from Kathleen Woodiwiss and Danielle Steel. By the time I got the birds and the bees talk, it was old news thanks to my surreptitious trips to my mom’s bookcase. As a young adult, I lived on ramen and my library card. As a newly-employed professional, I moved dozens of boxes of books from place to place for years. I’d have done without furniture first.
I never tried to write a book. I didn’t even take a creative writing class after the required unit in middle school. There’s a valley between appreciation and creation I never dared to cross.
That was then.
My children were born. I bought them bookcases and packed them full of picture books and then chapter books. We read every night, like clockwork. They learned to read on their own, but I read all seven volumes of Harry Potter aloud to my youngest anyway. He was at the age when he preferred it. Their schedules began to fill with sports and music lessons. I had time I hadn’t had before.
One night, on a walk in the summer of 2012, my husband laughed at the description I related of a woman I’d seen in town. Neither of us knew her, but I felt like I did. I loved making up backstories and telling them to my husband. He pulled up short and said, flatly, that I’d be wasting a gift if I didn’t try to write a book.
So I sat down and tried. I wrote two chapters and read them back. They were horrible: flat and meandering and lifeless. I closed the file and forgot about them for over a year, when it occurred to me that writing and editing were two different things. I could do both. I never looked back.
Publishing a book is a dream. After tomorrow, maybe someone else will get lost in the pages of my book. Maybe my book will travel from starter apartment to starter home with someone else. I’ve completed the circle. It took a lifetime to get here, but here I am.
I’m just over a week away from being a Published Author. In a week, my words will be out there for people to read. Yes, I’m stressed out. (Husband: “You look miserable! This is supposed to be fun!” Me: *thinks about the possibility that I have failed to do the ONE THING that will cause my book to sell and wishes hard that I knew what that one thing is*)
I’m going to put aside the stress for a few minutes to reflect back on these last few months before my book release and talk about the things that most surprised me.
Blood pumps between my fingers and trickles over my knuckles; it's slower now. I press the towel hard to stop the flow, but it's sodden and useless. I imagine I can push the blood back into her body. The ambulance is taking too long. There's no sound. Her skin is bleached of color. Her stilled eyelashes fan out over her cheeks. I'm bewildered by blood like this: I've seen minor cuts. A scraped knee. A crimson dot or a slash, blotted easily. This is a salty red ocean. I pray the wound is sealing up under my hands. Cooling blood soaks my legs where I kneel. Everything shines wet and red. It's like being inside my own heart.
I can't feel the throb of her pulse anymore; only my own, roaring in my ears. I don't dare move my hands to check my watch. It's been too long. My fingers begin to stick together.
In the distance the sirens wail. At last.
Marrying a stranger was hardly the worst thing I'd ever done.
What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, they say, though I hadn't a clue how on earth that would apply to a legal marriage and a wedding ring that's too cheap to pawn and too nice to throw away.
I woke up with a stiff neck in the thin white light of morning in a parking lot. Muscles screamed as I un-wedged my head from the crevasse between the passenger side window and the headrest of a Ford sedan that smelled like two thousand miles of cigarette smoke and Febreze. Some worrisome brown substance stained the front of my jeans and cheap pink scoop-neck top. Only one flip-flop remained on my feet.
On my left hand, a too-big gold ring with a tiny stone of some kind slid toward my knuckle.
My head throbbed and my vision twirled and twisted. This must be a hangover. I hadn't had one since I was a teenager, because I'd always been careful not to get drunk for fear of what could happen. I tried to swallow but came up short of saliva, and groaning with every millimeter, turned my head to glance at the driver's side. The intake of breath hurt my head.
A man sprawled there asleep, his khaki pants and Vineyard Vines T-shirt rumpled and stained to match mine. He had messy chestnut hair with gold streaks. A straight nose over well-formed lips. A fit body. No noticeable tattoos or ridiculous jewelry. Something about him screamed To the Manor Born—maybe the khakis. They belonged on a boat deck or a golf course or something. He snored, his breath fanning fumes of alcohol that churned my stomach. He wore a gold ring on his left hand as well.
Oh, my God. What had I done? What had we done?
What had I said?
For a horrible throbbing heartbeat, I couldn't come up with his name.
Cooper. It clunked into place. His name was Cooper, though I had no idea what his last name was.
I poked him. He grunted and shifted in his seat. Yep, I remembered right. His voice was low and rumbly and did things to me. Had we . . . ?
"Hey," I said, poking him harder. His upper arm was solid.
"Whassgoinon?" he muttered, backhanding his mouth and nose like a child. Apparently I wasn't the only one with a hangover, because his eyes squinted tight in pain. They opened, revealing green-brown irises in a sea of red.
"I think you'll see what's going on when you wake up." I pushed on his shoulder again, holding up my hand to show off the ring.
He sat up, blinking against the daylight and what had to be a whopper of a headache, and took in the situation. "Oh, holy God." He looked at me, eyes full of remorse and—to my surprise—kindness. He stretched out his own hand where the matching gold ring told the tale. "Did we get married?"
"I think we did." I pointed to the small white fake chapel in front of us, deserted at this hour.
"Do you remember it?" he asked in his musical drawl of an accent, carefully trying not to give offense.
"No." A few hazy memories assaulted me, but not enough to put together a picture. Another couple kissing passionately in the hotel lobby. A flash of skin. A sense of terrible fear and longing and then a ride in the night with the windows all open, my hair blowing. None of it made sense. Fear—of myself and the lost time—stood the hair on the back of my neck on end. "You?"
"No." He glanced, wincing, into the backseat, handing me my missing flip-flop and pulling a sheaf of paper forward. I leaned in to look as he flipped through. A fancy-looking marriage certificate with bad calligraphy, suitable for framing. A brochure for the chapel, with an inflated price list for wedding attire, a photographer, and hair and makeup. An instruction sheet for the licensing place. Another sheet explaining that our real marriage certificate would be mailed to us.
"Edward Cooper Middleton. The Fifth. Your last name is Middleton," I said, to have something to say to cover the memory jolt of my first communion at age six. I wore a white dress that resembled a bride's. I'd dreamed of my future wedding, then, but that dream had been dead for over fifteen years.
"It is," he said. "No relation to the princess, though. I get that a lot. I go by Cooper. Edward—Ted—is my dad. You're Molly Todd."
"Molly Middleton, now, I guess," I said, choking back a gasp of disbelief. This man was my husband. Husband. And I didn't know him at all. If I had to be honest, though, he should probably be more worried that he didn't know me.
Much more worried.
I'd met him—what?—three or four days before. I'd been fired from my job six hours earlier and had curled up in the hotel bathroom crying, wondering what in the hell I'd do next. Whatever it was would almost certainly involve ramen for dinner and defaulting on some bill or another. I should have spent the time calculating how I could continue to pay for my month-to-month lease, how to save money on groceries, and where I could find another job quick.
Instead I cried, and a kind woman named Nikki turned from the sink where she was washing her hands to listen. When she heard the part about the ramen, she invited me to join her and her husband and their friends at the buffet for dinner. I wiped my tears away with a cheap brown paper towel, asked her not to mention what I'd told her, and followed her.
At the table were two other women, three husbands, and one single man named Cooper who'd all come to Vegas from South Carolina for a Clemson University reunion of sorts. In an instant, I understood why Nikki had thought I might fit in—she made up some story on the spot and pointed me straight to the chair next to Cooper. They were having a good meal and a good time and the longing for both overwhelmed me. If Cooper hadn't looked up at that moment of weakness and caught my eye and smiled, I might have been able to walk away.
But he did—-and when he waved me over, I went. I turned off my desperation long enough to let myself enjoy it. It had been a long time since I'd spent an hour with someone attractive who thought I was attractive, too.
Cooper paid for my dinner, and I let him.
My conscience had fought me over that: it jabbed and whispered that, deep down, the things I'd done in my life barred me from simple pleasures like this.
The friends—all Clemson grads in their early thirties, except one woman who took a lot of ribbing for having gone to the rival University of South Carolina—welcomed me into their group and did everything but physically shove me at the single Cooper, who'd been divorced some years before. They were easy to talk to and laughed and teased each other and bought lots and lots of drinks. I joined their pack and we all stayed pretty well drunk as skunks, going from casino to buffet to bar to hotel to casino, for three days. I slept on the sofa in someone's hotel suite.
They were kind. None of them knew who I was. What I was.
I didn't remember what happened last night. My memories grew hazier as the weekend went on. I hadn't drunk alcohol in so long that my tolerance had dropped to nothing. In high school, I'd been known for saying too much when I drank. I prayed I'd grown out of that. I couldn't afford to say too much anymore. There were things I had to keep secret.
"You have red hair," Cooper said now, trying to stretch his lanky frame in the seat of the small car. "Last night, I remember your hair. Something about your hair, anyway." He trailed off.
"It's too dark to be red," I said, self-conscious now.
"Okay. Auburn, then. It's pretty."
"Thank you," I said, prim as a nun. Prim had no place here: the stranger I'd married probably knew the curtains matched the carpet. Um. In a manner of speaking.
"Oh, holy God," he said again. "We've really screwed up now, haven't we?" He leaned back against the glass of the driver's side window, throwing sunlight onto his sculpted cheekbone. At least I'd picked a good-looking stranger.
I liked that he didn't blame me, though most likely he should. I guaranteed I had more to gain through this marriage than he did. Even if I didn't remember how we decided to first get a license and then arrive at this extra-sleazy chapel, I doubted I'd objected to it. The memory of the longing returned.
"It's probably my fault. I do impulsive things sometimes." Not true. I hardly ever did impulsive things, and that's what worried me the most. "I'm sorry. What do you want to do now?" I asked.
"First things first. Let's hit a gas station and get some water and some hardcore breakfast to sop up all this alcohol. My head is killing me. Yours can't be much better."
Cooper reached out a hand and squeezed mine.
* * *
Later that night, we sat side by side at the airport gate, surrounded by Cooper's luggage and my tiny duffel bag. I didn't own much, and it hadn't pained me to terminate my lease this afternoon and save myself the upcoming rent. While we packed and cleaned up in his hotel room, he texted his friends some explanation I never saw and bought us both plane tickets to Charleston.
I'd chosen more wisely than I'd realized. Cooper didn't ask any questions—or not the right ones, anyway—and said he couldn't let me stay alone in Vegas until we got all this straightened out. He assumed I was on vacation, like he was, and that I wouldn't need to be anywhere until the Monday after Thanksgiving, now a week away. Nikki had kept her word and never told the others about how I'd lost my job, or what it was. He didn't know I didn't need to be anywhere at all.
It seemed crazy that I'd pick up and go with this stranger-husband across the country, but somehow, I trusted him. I trusted him at a basic bone-deep level, and I'd never trusted anyone before. Instincts had been one of the few things in life I could count on. I tried not to question the strong ones.
We were on our way to his home in some small town in South Carolina I'd never heard of, where we'd see if annulments were a real thing. I'd never even been to South Carolina.
Six hours of flight, a layover in Charlotte, and an hour of driving from Charleston ought to give me a chance to figure out first who I'd married, and then to figure out what to do from there. I felt bad that Cooper had paid for my plane ticket, but he said he'd take care of it. I certainly couldn't afford it—it cost more than a month's rent on the apartment I no longer had. I glanced at his phone as he read articles on the internet: the latest model iPhone. Leather luggage. Nice watch. He hadn't had to borrow money for the plane ticket.
"Listen," I said, as he spoke at the same time. I let him go first. I'd prefer if he did most of the talking.
"Molly," he said. "I know this is deeply awkward and bizarre. I wanted you to know—I'm not a psycho criminal. I'm a regular guy with a good job and a normal family and a place to live. I'm sure you're worried for your safety and I want to make sure you know you'll be safe with me, until we get this mess all straight. If it makes you feel better, you could call my sister before we get on the plane."
I had to force myself to keep up my tough-girl face. Tears welled and I blinked them back. Nobody had ever said anything to me as thoughtful as that. So far, I'd been safer with Cooper than I'd ever been before. "Thanks. I trust you. If you'd wanted to kill me, I guess you'd have done it by now."
"And I also want you to know," he continued, his hands open and loose on his lap. "I'm not an alcoholic. I haven't gotten drunk like that since college. I don't normally behave like that. I swear I'm a responsible adult. When I'm with those guys, it's like we're all twenty-two, not thirty-four. You'd never know it to look at them, but Craig is a banker in Columbia. High up on the pay scale, too. Jon's a high school teacher and football coach in Beaufort, and Jeremy works for a drug company. The corporate kind. We were all close in college and then they met the ladies and well . . ." he said, trailing off. "We are actually grownups."
I chuckled, trying to calm my emotions and stop my brain from worrying about the next step and the step after that. They'd been great. If they'd noticed my inexperience with any kind of party, they hadn't commented, not even when I made the mistake of letting my amazement show the first time I tasted a mixed drink. After that I remembered to cover my lack of sophistication. I didn't think they'd been aware I had no knowledge of ordinary fun that was normal for regular people.
Cooper echoed my laugh. "Yeah, I can see how you might think Jeremy was running a pot farm the way he carried on here. Without the ladies, we'd have been even dumber. Reliving the days when we all still had hair and no gut."
While I waited for some kind of response to occur to me, I took the opportunity to study him. If his hair had thinned in the last decade, then there'd been way too much of it before. It was thick and came in many colors from dark brown to light caramel, and I had a dim memory of maybe having rubbed my hands through it.
My eyes drifted downward. "Umm. How skinny were you? Because now, you're . . . that's not much of a gut."
The flush lit up his beautiful skin once again. "Uh, I run. I play basketball when I can find guys to play with. And in college I was too skinny."
An overwhelming urge to run my hands up his flat torso to his shoulders shocked me out of nowhere. I sat on my hands.
"What about you?" Cooper asked. "What do you do to stay in such amazing shape?"
I glanced down. The boobs. He must be talking about the boobs. 36D, noticeable on a relatively thin frame. They'd never done a single good thing for me since the day they'd made their unwelcome appearance at age twelve. "Oh, I eat regular meals and no snacks. I walk whenever I get a chance, too. I got lucky, I guess. With my metabolism."
"Whatever it is, it's working."
Heat shot through me. He met my eyes. The contact held and simmered. For a wild second I thought he might kiss me. He swallowed and looked away.
Better that way. It would be better if I didn't get any further emotionally entangled with someone who'd use all the legal efficiency money could buy to remove me from his life within the next few days. This couldn't last. Even if I'd married him on purpose in a fit of alcoholic idiocy, I knew that much. These days were a gift. A little time to try to figure out a life plan. At age thirty-three, better late than never.
"Cooper, I—" I bit my lip. He didn't need to know my history. There'd be no point in telling him and taking us from awkward to awful. "What's the name of the town you live in again?"
"McClellanville. It's about forty-five minutes north of Charleston. In the Lowcountry, on the marsh."
"How long do you think it will take to get this straightened out?"
He put away his phone to give me his full attention. The worst of the hangover had disappeared. His skin tone had returned to a healthy tan and his eyes had cleared of the red. "Well, now, this is Thanksgiving week. I doubt we can get in to see a lawyer tomorrow, and then it's almost the holiday. I'd say we've got to stay married at least a week. Or more, depending on what they say when we do talk to them."
"Oh. Should I stay in a hotel?" I asked, terrified he'd say yes. I didn't have much money for a hotel. "You don't have a girlfriend or something, do you?"
"Nope. No girlfriend right now. I do live at my family's house with my dad and sister and her little girl, though. She and her husband split up about six months ago and she's back home. We've got room, in any case. House is old, but it's plenty big. More than enough bedrooms. You can stay with us."
I pictured our entrance. We'd walk in. Cooper would say, "Hello, Father. This is Molly. I married her during a three-day drunk. I don't know the first thing about her."
"What will you tell your family?"
He sat back, long legs stretched out in front of him, and laughed. "If it were just me, I'd tell the truth. Caroline'll think it's funny. Dad'll try to take control of the situation no matter what."
"What do you mean, 'take control'?"
He rubbed the tip of his nose. "Oh, Dad is one of those guys who has to be in charge of every situation. You know. If he thought we got married drunk, he'd want to ask a million questions to find out whether you took leave of your senses as a child or only recently, and whether I need to check in somewhere to dry out."
"Oh." A million questions sounded bad.
"It's nothing. Dad's just like that. You can't let him bother you. I'll leave it up to you, though. What do you want to tell them?"
"I have no idea. I shouldn't care what they think, but I'd hate to have your father think I'm an alcoholic gold digger. Or a nutcase."
"He'll probably think you're terrible anyway, but not for that. Do my ears deceive me or is that a Northern accent?"
Heat rose up my chest into my cheeks. "I'm from Michigan. Does that count?"
"Yup. That's what I thought. Somewhere Midwest. North of the Mason-Dixon line. Dad's got a few old-fashioned Southern prejudices."
"Great. So he'll hate me the instant I say hello. Before we even explain."
"Tell you what. If you're up for it, we can pretend that we weren't drunk. We can pretend we had some kind of love-at-first-sight situation and got married stone cold sober. Let him think what he wants. Then we work on the annulment all quiet-like and I tell him what happened after. You'll be gone and you'll never have to see him again. How's that?" He ran his hands through his hair. It fell back into place in perfect waves.
I stared at him, unable to make sense of someone so easy-going. "Cooper, why?" I cleared my throat, the words escaping me. "Why would you do this for a total stranger? The plane ticket? Taking me home to meet your family?"
His brows met in confusion, then his gaze dropped sheepishly. "Well, as you say, you're a stranger, but you're also my wife, for the moment at least, and you seem kind of . . . lost, maybe. Like not enough people have taken good care of you in your life. It won't hurt me a bit to do that a few days until we get all this mess straight, and like I said, the annulment will be easier if we can go to the lawyer together and just get it done."
I was so overwhelmed with the generosity of this plan—his kindness—it delayed the realization that it would seriously complicate the sleeping arrangements at his family's house. Which took my mind to another unanswered question. "Um. Last night. Do you know if we . . ."
"Did we have sex, do you know?" I forced out the words, unable to meet his eyes. I didn't think we had before last night. The first couple of nights, we'd crashed along with his friends in whatever hotel room we fell down in. Nikki had shared her suitcase. "I mean, I wouldn't be upset . . . you know, if . . ." Son of a bitch. I made it more and more awkward every word I spoke.
"Uh. I don't remember," he said, rubbing his temples. "I honestly don't. When I packed up my hotel room, I didn't see . . . anything that would make me think we did," he said, delicately. "Though that doesn't mean we didn't. Because I would have wanted to." Now it was his turn not to meet my eyes.
"So," he said, uncomfortable now. "Do you have family you need to call?"
I'd need to tread carefully here. "Um. My dad was never in the picture. My mom died when I was a teenager, and my grandma died six years ago. I never had any brothers and sisters."
"I'm sorry," he said. I glanced up. He meant it.
"It's all a long time ago."
"What do you do for a living?" he asked, showing off his skill at the basic manners I lacked.
I did not lack skill at lying, however, and this lie I'd practiced. I'd told it to several people I met in Las Vegas during my time there. No one would understand my real job. "I'm an interior decorator."
"Oh, that must be interesting. Annoying as hell, too. People who can afford help with interiors are usually pretty demanding."
"Are you one of those people?"
He colored and spread his hands flat on his thighs. "I guess I am. Or my dad is, anyway. That's the second blunt question you've asked in five minutes."
"Yeah. I do that, I guess. Does it bother you?" Bluntness was good cover: people never think blunt talkers are hiding anything.
Sometimes they are.
"No, not exactly. I'll get used to it." He leaned his elbows on his knees. "I'm a Realtor."
"Oh." I couldn't think of the first thing to ask about that.
He studied his fingernails as I desperately scrabbled for anything to say.
"Welcome to American Airlines Flight 355 to Charlotte. We'll begin boarding with our first class shortly."
I'd lost my train of thought. "Thank you. For what you said. For taking me home." For so much else I can't say.
"Ha!" he said, his low-pitched laughter rumbling. "Don't thank me until you meet my family."
"No, it's amazing what you're doing. Everything. Nobody . . ." I owed him more. I owed him some of the truth. "I-I'd been having kind of a tough time when I met you. I lost my job recently. I came to Vegas to try to forget things. To be somewhere new. I don't think I've ever been that drunk before. I've certainly never married someone before."
He absorbed that, taking it in stride. "Well, good. No need to apply for extra vacation time after all. You don't have a boyfriend who's going to turn up at my door, shotgun in hand, do you?"
"No. No boyfriend."
"You know I was married before. Got a divorce after Lynette left and stayed gone for a year. I never heard from her again. My lawyer had to put a notice in the paper. She never responded."
"I don't honestly know. We'd been married two years. I thought we were happy enough. Dad used to give her a hard time about being a Yankee—she was from Virginia, so it was his joke—and occasionally we argued about me spending too much time at work or hunting, but that's it. She was a first grade teacher. Not the kind you'd think would be impulsive, but one day she was gone. Took a bag and left. A plane ticket to Charlotte showed up on our joint charge card. Then nothing else. She must have cut up the card."
"Did you look in Charlotte?"
"Charlotte is a major airline hub for flights all over everywhere. She could have flown on anywhere. My dad hired a private investigator and he never found anything."
"No contact with her parents?"
"Nope. She only had a dad. He was in a nursing home with Alzheimer's by the time he was fifty. That part was odd. When I checked there, they said they'd call if she ever visited him again. They never called."
"That is odd. Are you okay?" I asked, searching his face, finding that I cared whether he was hurt by this, and worried that I cared.
"Yeah, now I am. I was torn up about it at first, no question. But it was five years ago now. I hope she's happy somewhere. And look. I've moved on. I'm remarried." He laughed.
Something inside me lifted knowing he was the sort of person who could already find the humor in it, less than twenty-four hours later. If I had to be married to a stranger, at least he was a kind stranger.
"Now boarding, American Airlines Flight 355 with service to Charlotte. All rows."
"Are you ready?" Cooper asked, shouldering the carry-ons and extending a free hand to me.
I took it.
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