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Vol. 3, No. 3

With an X
by Sylvia Brownrigg

~

"Xandra? Excuse me." Auburn-headed Georgia Montgomery appeared at the door of Robin's office. A year after the runaway success of Sexual Chemistry, Xandra had convinced Robin that she needed her own assistant, and bright young Georgia was the result. "Fiona Finch is on the line."
    "For me?"
    Robin raised his eyebrows at Xandra. "I believe she's in the process of being poached," he told her. "Slowly, in white wine, like a salmon. The Hawk is after her."
    Francis Miller, "The Hawk," was by now Robin's chief rival, an aggressive young man and one of the only agents around who could even touch him. And he had been, lately: fingering Robin's list stickily, lifting one of two of his old masters. Gavin Long said the Hawk had even approached him. Gavin, of course, wouldn't go anywhere near the Hawk; he was a loyal man. But with Fiona Finch—who knew?
    "I don't know why she'd want to talk to me," Xandra said. "I'm always worried she'll remember the review I wrote of her lover's first book. The dreadful Evie Beaver. I didn't know their connection at the time, or I probably wouldn't have been quite so vile."
    Robin leaned back in his chair. He wasn't listening. "She wants to tell you, rather than me, what she's planning to do. Woman to woman: she'd be less ashamed in front of you. Possibly there's even another layer, in which she'll try to tell you that you should be working for the Hawk. Yes. Up-and-coming list, hungrier sort of guy."
    "What should I do?"
    Robin Sinclair looked at her, a sergeant about to issue a command. She could read his rage in the tension of his muscles. "Do what you have to to get her to stay. I'm not bleeding another author to that milk-faced, prickless wonder from Eton."
    Xandra's marching orders took her to Fiona Finch's club in Covent Garden, a dim, smug place, lively with familiar faces. Xandra tried not to let their light distract her; she knew that this encounter was likely to shape her future.
    Fiona Finch's dark hair fell around her face in a sleek bob that framed bright green eyes and a mouth edged in a slight smile. Were her jaunty, witty mysteries featuring Detective Joanna Winston ironic parodies, or were they "straight" thrillers? It didn't matter. Readers ate them up. But her next book, Out of This World, was a departure—a foray into science fiction. Robin and Xandra agreed that this direction was a mistake, as they would have told her if she hadn't been thinking of leaving the agency. But now, Xandra knew, flattery was in order, and so she dished it up, tastily.
    Fiona Finch knew what Xandra was up to, but she allowed this pretty thing her long minutes of laughter and praise-singing—it was a charming performance—before she laid out her own proposal. It was as Robin had predicted. Francis Miller wanted Fiona. He wanted to sell this new work of hers, thought it very bold, very innovative. He even had an editor in mind for the book, someone at Chatto named Alison Kaye. ("No," Xandra couldn't help inserting. "Not her. Sorry: go on.") And he wanted Xandra, too. Fiona wasn't speaking for him, of course, but she could report that Francis Miller thought Xandra's talents were wasted on a grand old man like Robin Sinclair. Someone young like her would surely be happier in a younger agency. Where the action was.
    It took all of Xandra's self-restraint to stave off this piece of flattery. She was tempted, for one delicious minute, to give in. What would happen if she said yes? But no. No. It wasn't that side of the business she wanted. She wanted the power to make the deal, the power to seduce, not the passive role of being seduced. She was better as a seducer.
    "You know," she said, shaking her head, "what I don't like about Francis Miller?"
    "What?"
    "I think he's incredibly bright and everything, he's obviously moving very fast, he's very sure of himself. But there's something that bothers me about him."
    "What's that?"
    "Well . . ." She shrugged. "His attitudes. I remember being in a meeting with him once—" Why would Xandra ever be in a meeting with Francis Miller? It was implausible. She hurried on. "At Frankfurt, I think it was. And someone was telling him about some lesbian writer he ought to read, and I remember him saying in this bored voice, 'Oh, God. Lesbianism. That's so ten years ago.' You know—as if it were a skirt length, or something."
    Fiona Finch wasn't quite sure what to make of this story, but before she had a chance to think about it, Xandra went on to use her good looks and smart tongue to snow the writer with everything she had: what the agency was planning for Fiona, the genuine daring that excited Robin in her new work, the dramatic potential Xandra saw in her previous work, how much they both wanted her, how they wanted her.
    By the end of a bottle of a smooth pinot noir, Fiona Finch made her decision.
    "If you're staying with Robin, I'm staying with Robin," she said. "You're a persuasive girl. I hope Robin appreciates what he has in you." Her green eyes hinted at what she might mean by the remark, and Xandra somehow made herself blush.
    When they parted, as they kissed good night, Xandra, on a slightly drunken whim, pulled Fiona Finch toward her for something like a genuine kiss. Surprised, Fiona Finch pulled away, but said shyly that she'd love to meet Xandra again for a drink some time, if the opportunity came up.
    Xandra said there was nothing she'd enjoy more. She said enough to seal the deal, so she could run back to her small flat (she lived alone now, off the Portobello Road) and call Robin. It was risky to call him at home, but she couldn't contain her triumph. Before, she would have called Christina, but these days Robin was the person to whom she wanted to tell everything.
    He sounded unsurprised to hear from her. He let her burble on for some time—"She's staying. I told her you had Giles talking to Hollywood about the rights, and I told her—" before he interrupted.
    "Have you eaten?"
    "Only olives. Why—do I sound drunk?"
    He laughed. "Hungry rather than drunk, perhaps. No, I ask because I'm cooking—just something simple, some poached salmon—and I'm wondering if you might like to come and share it with me. You can tell me more about Fiona then."
    Where was Madeleine? Where were the children? It seemed rude, or presumptuous, or possibly predatory, to ask. "I'd love to. Of course."
    "Good. Can you come soon? Take a cab."
    Xandra hung up, damp and heart-sped with excitement; and also, as a novice with an eye to the operations, impressed. So that's how you did it. What a smooth strategist he was! To be so confident that he could organize, in a way that looked like a spontaneous invitation, the occasion on which he would finally make her his own.
    As he did that night. Xandra had been Robin's since soon after her very first murmured "X"; but she had not expected this: to be in his home and spend the whole of a night with him. His wife and children were, he explained as they finished eating, in France, leaving him alone—and free.
    "Usually," he told Xandra, "I take their being gone as a chance to devote myself, exclusively, to work."
    "Yes." Her mouth was dry.
    "But tonight . . ." He pushed away the plates, and took her hands. He held them lightly, surely, as if he were intimate with them already. "I would like to devote myself to you. Alexandra." He kissed her fingers. His eyes found hers. Then he smiled again, that sly smile—but this time, at last, she was in on the joke. "Would you be"—he lowered her hands, kissed her palms; he stroked her hair; he drew her willing body toward him with a felt hunger, now— "as they say, persuadable?"
    Alexandra answered him with her body, in a kiss. Yes. Oh, yes. She would.

 

~

No one was sure where the story came from. Sometimes gossip is like algae on a still pond, seeming not to grow or evolve but rather just to appear, a slick slimy body, out of nothing. The Hawk was said to have fallen dangerously in love with Fiona Finch. Some stories had him groping her in his office, some had him trying to kiss her, some had her slapping him, and a late-night pub version had her kicking him in the balls. Xandra, at Robin's quiet urging, made sure there were a few different versions in circulation, to make the story more authentic. Humiliated, Miller apparently punished the woman who had spurned him, making sure that a stitch-up or two appeared in the papers about her iffy new sci-fi adventure, Out of This World (who else could have been behind that contemptuous unsigned piece in the Times?). So that was Francis Miller for you: not just a sad bastard, but a mean one, too. Not that Fiona Finch came out of it that well, either. A bitchy gossip column hinted that she herself had been known to make unwanted advances on young straight women. Her book died quickly off the best-seller lists, unusually for her—even all that gossip didn't help the sales.
    Six months later, Xandra was dispatched to explain to Fiona that Robin wouldn't be handling her himself anymore—his plate was so full, she would be much better served by a younger member of the agency. No, not Xandra—Xandra was incredibly busy these days, too!—but a very smart younger woman, named Georgia Montgomery. Fiona Finch left the Robin Sinclair agency soon after.
    Just as well for Robin, really. Fiona Finch was deadwood now, and you couldn't keep that around. Who could match Robin Sinclair? The man had the instinct. And now, giving him new glamour, he had Xandra Lewis keeping his agency sharp by bringing in the edgy new talent. It was Xandra who had the knack for finding the best-selling literary London lads. It had started with Charles Wyndham, but a great number of the trendy writers on the shelves were hers: gay Irishman Michael Burke, urbane tale spinner Imran Nisar (whom she had persuaded away from Francis Miller), shaven raver Richard Thomas. All of those were hers. You could almost put a whole wave of British fiction down to Xandra Lewis, if you knew the hidden story. If you knew who the players were.
    Later Xandra could not quite remember when Robin had given her that wedge of power in the business—was it two years ago now?—when the agency started to be known, unofficially and then officially, as Sinclair Lewis. (It made for a good literary joke.) A cynic might have said it was after they started sleeping together. A deeper cynic might have said it was after the wildfire success of her whispering campaign against the Hawk, which had metamorphosed into the viciousness about Fiona Finch. "The woman would have raped me, if I'd given her half a chance," is what Xandra had told Nick Bly, knowing well that you could count on Nick to turn that kind of remark into gossip gold.
    The beginnings didn't matter much, anyway. The fact was, Xandra and Robin were a team, as he'd said they would be, and she would never have gotten any of it if she hadn't been good at what she did. If people wanted to mutter about the coincidence of her rapid rise and her relationship with Robin, let them. She knew the truth: that she and Robin were a team in all ways, which was not simply about sex. They were in love with each other. In many deep and uncanny ways they were, she felt, the same person. All this she knew, and it made her proud, and radiant, and yet more confident than she had been before.
    Though the relationship was an open secret, they were discreet. And devoted. They made love for devouring hours, when they could find a slice of day or night to be together, or on the rare occasions they could travel. Robin had no intention of leaving his family, and Xandra didn't want him to. Really, she told Christina, she didn't. She liked being able to retain some independence. Besides, he could not give her more than he already had. He had given her his mind and his body and, yes, his soul (there were those who thought Robin Sinclair didn't have one, but she knew differently). He'd even given her his own sexy name for her, Lexy— "With an L," he said to her, an affectionate joke. Furthermore, Robin had given her London. London, finally, was hers. It was theirs. She knew everybody now. When the film rights to Gavin Long's latest novel sold for a million dollars, it was just she and Robin and Gavin who went out to celebrate. Over dinner, Gavin and Robin reminisced about that early time when Xandra had written so well of Gavin's misunderstood novella. "You called me 'a canny master of the uneasy and the alien, the slyly violent,'" he told her. "I've always remembered that phrase." Afterward, Robin and Xandra had a few private hours in her flat celebrating rather more salaciously.

 

~

Two years later, just before her thirtieth birthday, Xandra took Georgia up with her to the Edinburgh Festival, where she received a proposal. Well, she received two proposals, but the first one didn't really count. It was a fax from Robin asking Xandra to marry him, and it went along with a rather over-the-top bouquet of flowers he'd had sent to her hotel room. He had started posing this awkward question about marriage lately. His children were at university now, and not long ago he had discovered what he'd long suspected: that Madeleine, too, had been engaged in a long affair with a colleague. (A younger man, as it happened, and Robin would have liked to break his balls, but that was another matter.) Robin and Madeleine, who had known about Xandra for years, had been talking in an amicable way about divorce. It made Robin determined, and fierce—if perhaps a little desperate. I'd like to have you in writing, he faxed her. Would you be ready to get into a contract with me, darling Lexy, after all these wonderful unsigned years? But Xandra was not so sure that she would. As she said to Georgia: "What a way of putting it!"
    The second proposal, on the other hand, seemed of real interest. It was from Roger Lamb, the director of Random House. She knew Roger, of course, but had never met with him one-to-one like this. And she knew that it would not be authors they'd be discussing, for once: not other people, this time, but Xandra. Xandra Lewis, herself.
    "Your talents are wasted in an agency," Roger Lamb told her, bluntly. "Look at what you've done with Robin Sinclair. You've found the heart of the new literary talent in this country. You have more or less created a new wave in British fiction."
    Xandra smiled—she couldn't help it. It was true. She had done that. It had been her work, and no one else had said as much to her. Not even Robin.
    "But what control do you have over your authors' work once you've discovered them? None, virtually. You don't have any hand in the work itself. You have to spend your time managing the personalities." This, brutally, was also true. "I have a proposal for you: I'd like to make you a senior editor at Random House. Give you the chance to make real decisions over a group of authors." He leaned toward Xandra, across the table. "Of course, it would mean leaving behind Robin, and what you've built with him." Roger Lamb caught her eye, and the cool glint there told her what he meant. "It's a big decision. But I want you to know I'm very excited by the idea. I believe you could do great things at Random House."
    Xandra, staring into her not-drunk drink, staved off the thrill of the offer for a moment while she thought. Fast, as she always had.
    "Roger," she smiled. "What a fantastic opportunity. I take it you're thinking of a named imprint, the kind of thing they do in America? 'An Alexandra Lewis book for Random House.' Is that the kind of thing you had in mind? It's about time we did that in Britain. The Americans are always a step ahead of us where marketing is concerned."
    Roger Lamb, unusually, was caught by surprise. "I hadn't thought of that. But—"
    "Because if that's what you're offering," Xandra said, in one of her deeper registers, "I can't imagine how I could possibly refuse."

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