Author: Tiffany Reisz
Zach threw Sutherlin’s bio and sales projections in the trash. He’d stolen his philosophy of editing from the old New Critics—it’s just about the book. Not the author, not the market, not the reader…one judged a book only by the book. He shouldn’t care that Nora Sutherlin’s personal life was rumored to be as torrid as her prose. Only her book mattered. And his hopes for the book were not high.
Zach examined the manuscript with suspicion. Mary knew he preferred to read his books in hard copy versions. But she’d obviously had a little too much fun printing out this one for him. Across the scarlet-red cover blazed the title in a lurid Gothic font—The Consolation Prize. Editors almost invariably changed a book’s title, but he had to concede it was an interesting choice for a work of erotica. He opened the manuscript and read the first sentence: “I don’t want to write this story any more than you want to read it. ”
Zach paused in his reading as he felt the shadow of something old and familiar whisper across his shoulder. He brushed the sensation off and read the line again. Then the next one and the next one…
Some days Zach hated his job. The actual editing he loved, taking a novel with pretensions of greatness and actually making it great. But the politics he hated, the budget crises, having to let a brilliant midlister go to make room for a better-selling hack… And now here he was, hauling his arse into Connecticut to meet some loony smut writer who’d somehow convinced one of the most respected lions in publishing that she deserved one of the best editors in literary fiction. Yes, some days he hated his job. Today he felt quite certain it hated him back.
Zach parked J. P. ’s car in front of a rather quaint two-story Tudor cottage in the tame and pedestrian suburb. He checked the address, his directions and stared at the house. Nora Sutherlin—the notorious erotica writer whose books were banned as often as they were translated lived here? Zach could imagine his own grandmother in this house forcing tea and biscuits on small children.
With a heavy sigh, he strode to the front door and rang the bell. Shortly after, he heard footsteps approaching—sturdy, masculine footsteps. Zach allowed himself the pleasure of imagining that Nora Sutherlin might simply be the pen name for some overweight bloke in his mid-fifties.
A man did open the door. No, not a man—a boy. A boy wearing nothing but plaid pajama pants and a cluster of hemp necklaces, one dangling a small silver cross, stood across the threshold from Zach and regarded him with a sleepy smile.
“Nineteen,” he said in an accent Zach immediately recognized as American South. “Not sixteen. She just tells everybody I’m sixteen for the street cred. ”
“Street cred?” Zach asked, stunned that the rumor of the teenage intern had proved true.
The boy shrugged his sun-freckled shoulders. “Her words. Wesley Railey. Just Wes. ”
“Zachary Easton. I’m here to meet with your…employer?”
The boy, Wesley, laughed and brushed a swath of dark blond hair out of his brown eyes with the graceful languor of youth.
“My employer is right this way,” he said, exaggerating the Southern accent for comic effect. Zach entered the house and found it cozy and homey, replete with overstuffed furniture and bursting bookcases. “I like your accent. You’re British?”
“Lived in London the past ten years. You don’t sound like a native, either. ”
“Kentucky. But Mom’s a Georgia peach so that’s where I get this mess from. I keep trying to lose it, but Nora won’t let me. Has a thing for accents. ”
“That does not bode well,” Zach said as Wesley grabbed a V-neck white T-shirt off a pile of folded laundry and pulled it on. Zach noted the boy’s slim but muscular frame and wondered why Nora Sutherlin bothered with the intern pretense. A nineteen-year-old lover might be rather disgraceful for a woman of thirty-three but certainly legal.
Wesley led him down an abbreviated hallway. Without knocking he pushed open a door.
“Nor, Mr. Easton’s here. ”
He stepped to the side and Zach blinked in surprise at his first glimpse of the infamous Nora Sutherlin.
From all the rumors he’d heard, he’d expected some sort of Amazonian in red leather wielding a riding crop. Instead, he found a pale, petite beauty with wavy black hair barely contained in a loose knot at her nape. And no red leather in sight at all. She wore men’s style pajamas, blue ones covered in what appeared to be little yellow ducks.
Her legs rested on top of her desk and she had her keyboard balanced across her lap. With quick nimble fingers she typed away, saying nothing and giving them only her beguiling profile.
“Nora?” Wesley prompted.
“I’ve got a crisp new Benjamin for the first person who can give me a good synonym for thrust, noun form. Go,” she said, her voice both honeyed and sardonic.
Although irritated by her cavalier attitude and her unfortunate attractiveness, Zach couldn’t help but scroll through his substantial mental thesaurus.
“Push, lunge, shove, attack, force, jab,” he rattled off the words.
“His slow, relentless jabs sent her reeling…” she said. “Sounds like commentary on a boxing match. Goddammit, why are there no good synonyms for thrust? Bane of my existence. Although…” She set her keyboard aside and turned to face him for the first time. “I do love a man with a big vocabulary. ”
Zach’s spine stiffened as the most unusually beautiful woman he’d seen in years smiled at him. She stood up and walked on bare feet to him.
“Ms. Sutherlin. ” Zach took her proffered hand. “How do you do?”
From her small stature he expected a dainty grip. But she grasped his hand with surprisingly strong fingers.
“Gorgeous accent,” she said. “Not a bit of the old Scouser left, is there?”
“You’ve done your homework, I see,” Zach replied, troubled that she seemed to know more about him than he knew about her. He now regretted tossing her bio into the bin. “But not everyone born in Liverpool speaks like a young Paul McCartney. ”
“Shame. ” Her voice dropped to a whisper as she continued to gaze at him. “What a shame. ”
Zach forced himself to really meet her eyes and then wished he hadn’t. At first glance her eyes appeared a deep green, but she blinked and they seemed to change to a black so dark they likely could not remember the green they had just been. He knew that she looked only at his face, but still he felt stripped bare by her penetrating gaze, torn open. She knew him. He knew it, and he sensed she knew it, too.
Determined to regain control of the situation, Zach pulled his hand back.
“Right. Work. ” She returned to her desk. Zach glanced around her office and saw even more books than were in the living room: books and notebooks, stacks of paper and dark wooden filing cabinets.
“One quick question, Mr. Easton,” she said, dropping into her desk chair. “Are you, by any chance, ashamed of being Jewish?”
“Excuse me?” Zach said, not quite certain he’d heard her correctly.
“Nora, stop it,” Wesley scolded.
“Just curious,” she said with an indifferent wave of her hand. “You go by Zachary but your name is actually Zechariah like the Hebrew prophet. Why did you change it?”
The question was so personal, so entirely none of her concern that Zach couldn’t believe he deigned to answer it.
“I’ve been called Zach or Zachary since the day I was born. Only when filling out formal documents do I even remember Zechariah is actually my name. ” Zach kept his tone cool and even. He knew that he could only win here if he stayed calm and didn’t allow her to get the rise out of him she so clearly desired. “And the only thing I am ashamed of currently is this sudden downturn in my career. ”
He expected her to flinch or fight. Instead, she just laughed.
“I really can’t blame you. Have a seat and tell me all about it. ”
Warily, Zach sat down in the battered paisley armchair across from her desk. He started to cross his ankle over his knee but froze in midmovement as his foot tapped an unusually long black duffel bag that sat on the floor. He heard the distinct, unnerving sound of metal clinking against metal.
“I’ve got to get to class,” Wesley said, sounding desperate to leave. “That okay?”
“Oh, I doubt Mr. Easton will bend me over my desk and ravish me the second you leave,” she said, winking at Zach. “Unfortunately. ”
The words and the wink forced an image into Zach’s mind of doing that very act. He forced the thought out just as quickly as she put it in.
Wesley shook his head in amused disgust.
“Mr. Easton, good luck,” Wesley said, turning to him. “Just don’t act impressed, and she’ll eventually settle down. ”
“Impressed?” Zach repeated. “I doubt that will be a problem. ”
Zach waited for his words to register. He saw Wesley’s eyes narrow, but she only looked at him from under her veil of black eyelashes.
“Oh…” She nearly purred the word. “I like him already. ”
“God help us all. ” Wesley left on the heels of his prayer. Zach glanced back at Wesley’s retreating form. He wasn’t quite sure he wanted to be left alone with this woman.
“Your son, I presume?” Zach asked after Wesley departed.
“My intern. Sort of. He cooks so I guess that makes him more of a factotum. Intern? Factotum?”
“Houseboy,” Zach supplied, putting his large vocabulary to use again. “And a rather well-trained one, I see. ”
“Well-trained? Wesley? He’s horribly trained. I can’t even train him to fuck me. But I don’t think you drove all the way from the city just to talk about my intern with me, adorable as he is. ”
“No, I did not. ” Zach fell silent. He waited and watched as Nora Sutherlin sat back in her chair and studied him with her unnerving eyes.
“So…” she began. “I can tell you don’t like me. Shows you’ve got good taste in women at least. Also shows you’ve heard of me. Am I what you expected?”
Zach stared at her a moment. The last three writers he’d worked with had been men in their late fifties and early sixties. Never once had he seen any of them in their pajamas. And never had he met a writer as uncomfortably alluring as Nora Sutherlin.
“You’re shorter. ”
“Thank God for stilettos, right? So what’s the verdict? J. P. said he’s giving you total control over the book and me. It’s been a long time since I’ve let a man boss me around. I kind of miss it. ”
“The verdict is undecided. ”
“A well-hung jury then. Better give me a retrial. ”
“You’re very clever. ”
“You’re very handsome. ”
Zach shifted in his seat. He wasn’t used to flirtation from his writers, either. Then again, she wasn’t one of his writers.
“That wasn’t a compliment. Cleverness is the last recourse of an amateur. I look for depth in my books, passion, substance. ”
“Passion I have. ”
“Passion is not synonymous with sex. I’ll admit your book was interesting and not entirely without merit. At one point I even detected a heart inside all that flesh. ”
“I hear a ‘but’ in there. ”
“But the heartbeat was very faint. The patient might be terminal. ”
She looked at him and glanced away. Zach had seen that look before—it was defeat. He’d scared her away as he’d planned. He wondered why he wasn’t happier about it.
“Terminal…” She turned her face back to him. A new look was shining in her eyes. “It’s almost Easter—the season of Resurrection. ”