Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Proposal (con't)

I've had a wonderful time here at Ridgecrest, at the novelists' retreat--but after breakfast this morning I'll be flying home. Always good to go home, isn't it?

Photo (thanks to Deb Raney): the faculty at the novelists' retreat: Lynette Eason, Ann Tatlock, Angie Hunt, Ray Blackston, Deb Raney, and the organizer herself, Yvonne Lehman.


October 18

Chapter Three

Too buoyed with hope and energy to rest, Theo tossed and turned for much of the night. She drifted in and out of sleep, dreaming and thinking about signing a huge book contract. When the phone rang with her wake-up call, she sat bolt upright, as wide-awake as if she’d just had an intravenous dose of pure caffeine.

Knowing that Ann would be well into her morning routine, Theo called to share the news about Janet Fischer and promised to phone after lunch with even more exciting news. She talked briefly to Stacy, then felt a stab of mingled guilt and relief when Ann came back on the line and said Stacy had awakened in the night and cried for her mama.

She showered and put on her makeup, then slipped into her thick, housewifely robe and sat at the desk in the hotel room. Pulling the Down syndrome book proposal out of her briefcase, she tried to read it from the careful perspective of an editor. She made note of a few possible weaknesses that could be improved and jotted down several suggestions that she might make if Janet Fischer seemed reluctant to seal the deal.

The breadth of her own dreams staggered her, but nothing was impossible, was it? An editor had actually called her. Anything could happen now, absolutely anything.

She dressed, checked her hair one final time, smoothed on a fresh coat of lipstick, and tucked her room key into her briefcase. She looked, she hoped, like a casually elegant, confident writer. Janet Fischer must never know that under the thin veneer of calm, Theo’s heart was pounding.

“Are you Janet Fischer? I’m Theo Russell.”

The tall, regal woman in a stylish navy jacket and matching skirt blinked in surprise when Theo greeted her outside the cafe.

“Really?” The word came out amid a throaty laugh. “What a delightful revelation. I suppose I expected a man. Sexist of me, wasn’t it?”

Theo forced a casual smile. “My name always catches people off guard. I was named after an uncle Theodore.”

“I understand.” Obviously not one for small talk, Janet Fischer motioned to the hostess. “Excuse me, miss. We’re ready to be seated.”

Theo followed Janet Fischer into the crowded restaurant and noticed that several heads turned to follow them. The editor was a lovely woman with classically handsome features, but the looks directed at them seemed to reflect more than mere admiration. There was clearly respectful attention and more than a little curiosity. Apparently there was a good bit of interest in whom Janet Fischer had chosen to interview over lunch.

The hostess seated them at a small table in a quiet corner, and Janet pulled her own leather attachĂ© onto her lap. “I must congratulate you,” she said, rifling through her case. “This proposal is absolutely brilliant. The medical aspects are well thought out and aptly presented. I wonder that no one has beaten you to the idea.”

“I’m sure someone has.” Theo took her eyes from Janet’s for a moment to nod gratefully at a waiter who placed tall glasses of water before them. “But I thought I could bring a fresh approach to the subject.”

“Well, you’ve certainly done that.” Though the editor’s voice was cool and controlled, Janet’s eyes glinted in appreciation behind her designer glasses. “I was quite intrigued when I read this material. I can’t help but wonder what will happen when women in the marketplace read this. I’m certain the repercussions will shake society.” She lowered her chin and stared at Theo over the top of her glasses. “Are you confident that you can do this, my dear? That you can carry it off?”

Theo nodded confidently. If there was one topic she knew inside out, it was Down syndrome. “Absolutely.”

Janet studied Theo silently for a few moments, then straightened in her chair and smiled. “All right, then, Theo. I base my acquisitions on intuition and insight, and everything tells me this book is going to be the women’s book of the year. I’d stake my reputation on it.”

“I hope men will read it, too,” Theo said, dazed. Though pleased, she was bewildered by the editor’s enthusiasm. She nodded again at the waiter who brought a pair of menus to the table. “I don’t see this solely as a woman’s issue—”

“Of course not. It’s an issue for everyone, and we’re very intrigued with the project.” Janet fished a sheaf of papers from her briefcase and dropped them on the table. Leaning over them, she crossed her arms and squinted in some secret amusement as she watched Theo. “I’ll come right to the point, my dear. We’re open to giving you a contract based upon this proposal. I don’t exactly know what sort of money you’re looking for, but if this book turns out to be what we think it will be, I’m sure our offer will be more than satisfactory.”

Theo didn’t know what to say. She sat in stunned silence, searching for the proper, professional response, but nothing came to mind.

Janet Fischer frowned slightly. “I assure you, Theo, we will do right by you. Considering the potential of this project, you can be sure that the advance will be quite substantial.”

“Quite . . . substantial?” Theo echoed tonelessly, still trying to take it all in.

Mild frustration showed in Janet Fischer’s eyes; apparently Theo’s response wasn’t what she had hoped for. With a slight lift of her elegant chin, Janet said, “We might be talking mid-six figures.”

Six figures.

Six figures? Suddenly apoplectic, Theo’s mind went totally blank. Six figures. Goosebumps lifted on her arms. At the very least, six figures would be one hundred thousand dollars . . . “Mid-six figures” was half a million . . .

“Six figures,” Theo repeated, clenching her hands under the table. She half expected Janet Fischer to disappear in a puff of smoke, that it was all a dream, but the editor sat there still, a mollified smile framing her perfect keyboard of teeth.

“Of course, I probably shouldn’t even be discussing this without your agent’s input,” Janet went on, leaning back in her chair. “But we’ll let the business people work out all the details. What I want from you is a commitment to write this wonderful book for Howarth House.”

Theo sat still, a frozen smile on her face. She didn’t even have an agent. Something else to take care of this weekend.

With a manicured fingernail, the editor tapped the papers on the table in front of her. “I want you to write this book for us, and I want our written agreement finalized as soon as possible. I’ll send the contract to your agent. Once you’ve had a chance to discuss the details together, have him give me a call. And the sooner, the better.”

“All right,” Theo whispered, still reeling from the thought of half a million dollars. She felt her cheeks begin to burn. “But no one has been exactly trying to beat my door down, if you know what I mean.”

“Of course not,” Janet answered, a wry smile curling upon her lips. “No one knows where that door is.” She slid the pages on the table toward Theo. “This book will set the world on fire. Truly it will. I believe in you. You convoluted the arguments of the euthanasia proponents with Out of the Darkness, and you’ll upset the entire medical community with this.”

Theo felt everything go silent within her as she stared at the proposal on the table. The stack of pages wasn’t her outline for a book on Down Syndrome. The cover page was titled The Savage Breast; the name at the bottom of the page was Theo M. Russell, represented by Madison Whitlow of New York City.

Theo closed her eyes, fighting the sudden feeling of nausea that washed over her. This meeting wasn’t a dream come true—it was a nightmare. Numb with astonishment and disappointment, she leaned back in her chair while her mind struggled to understand how such a mistake could have happened.

The waiter arrived. While Janet launched into a detailed query about the restaurant’s daily specialties, Theo’s mind churned with fear, embarrassment, and grief. It wasn’t fair. Ten minutes ago she had been in the door, a genuine writer with an eager editor. Now it was all a terrible misunderstanding. She had stumbled into a luncheon appointment meant for Theo M. Russell, the overnight sensation who had probably made more money with his first book than Theo would ever see in a lifetime of articles and ladies’ club bulletins.

While Janet continued to interrogate the waiter, Theo inched her hand toward the proposal and casually picked it up. Flipping through the pages, she skimmed the facts and outline.

Russell had done extensive research on breast cancer. A bold headline at the top of the second page proclaimed: “An analysis of all reputable studies suggests that women who terminate a pregnancy before their first live birth have a risk of breast cancer 50 percent higher than women who do not.”

She was barely able to control her gasp of surprise. Fifty percent higher? Could that be right?

The rest of Russell’s proposal contained a synopsis of a novel that would be based on actual research and medical facts.

The exasperated waiter turned from Janet to Theo. “And for you?” he asked, his pencil poised above his pad.

“Nothing for me, thanks,” she told the waiter. He lifted an eyebrow in surprise.

“Not hungry?” Janet Fisher’s voice was an elegant drawl.

Theo shook her head. “I’m afraid I can’t do this. Ms. Fischer, this proposal—”

“You can do this,” Janet interrupted, leaning forward. “Not enough money? I’ll have to run it by my superiors, but we might be able to go higher.”

“No, it’s not the money. It’s this proposal. It’s not—”

“You’ve had second thoughts?” The editor’s eyes glowed with determination. “If the proposal isn’t exactly what you had in mind, make whatever changes you like, but I must have this topic. Women’s health issues are hot right now. Sizzling. I can’t afford to let you go elsewhere.”

Theo bit her lip and glanced down at the pages again. There was no way she could do Russell’s novel. It wouldn’t be right. Besides, she wrote nonfiction.

So . . . why not go ahead and write nonfiction?

The idea came quietly, as though afraid to make itself known. Theo caught her breath, her pulse racing. She thumbed through the pages once more. “If you really want the topic . . .” She spoke in a low, thoughtful voice. “I can make changes?”

“Of course. Just say you’ll do the project, and I’ll have the contract overnighted to your agent. If the terms are agreeable, you’ll have the advance in less than a month.”

Theo’s mind blew open to the possibilities. Why not? Why not write a book all her own. A nonfiction treatise of the issue. The medical facts and research weren’t Russell’s property. They were available to anyone who wanted them. She could write a nonfiction book—one that was her work, her research, her talent—without touching any of Russell’s story ideas or characters. Though it was a crazy way to avoid a publisher’s slush pile, her work would be read by a genuine editor at Howarth House. And Theo M. Russell, wherever he was, wouldn’t be bothered at all. Someone would publish his next great novel, and he’d sell a zillion copies without even trying. No matter what a small-timer like Theo did, she wouldn’t hinder his career.

God works in mysterious ways, Theo told herself firmly.

Maybe, a niggling voice responded from within, but would he work like this?

Maybe again. Another maybe that meant no. Taking this idea might or might not be unethical, but allowing Janet Fischer to believe that she had snared the Theodore Russell definitely was.

“Ms. Fischer,” Theo picked up the proposal, “I can’t—”

An ear-splitting beep shattered the quiet of the café, and the editor rolled her eyes.

“I can’t escape,” Janet said, her smile flattening to a perfectly straight slash of lipstick. “I’ll have to return this call. Listen, Theo, it was really a pleasure to meet you.” The editor stood to gather her things. “But I’m expecting to hear from that novelist who just wrote Paradise Passion, have you read it? Quite a major talent, and ours for the taking if we’re fast enough to snag her.”

“Mrs. Fisher--” Theo pushed her chair back from the table--“about this proposal—”

“Based upon your previous success, I don’t have a worry in the world,” Janet said, extending her hand. “Now let me say farewell, and I’ll be expecting to hear from you soon. Don’t disappoint me, Theo.”

“Mrs. Fisher—”

“Call me Janet.”

“Janet.” Theo shook the editor’s hand and pointed again to the proposal on the table. “You’ve got to understand something. This proposal isn’t—”

The beeper shrilled again, and Janet turned, hurrying toward the exit. “Just have your agent call me,” she said, moving away.

“But this proposal isn’t mine.” Theo finished, lifting her hands in exasperation.

But Janet Fischer was waving at a group of diners at another table, and either didn’t hear or was no longer listening.

Order THE PROPOSAL in printed form or for your Kindle.

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