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Vol. 3, No. 3

With an X
by Sylvia Brownrigg

The first thing Alexandra Lewis had to do was change her name.
    Alex no longer suited her: it was too schoolgirlish, too blunt and bookish. It was the name of a girl who'd swooned over Charlotte Brontë in the sleepy shade of Oxford parks. "Reader, I married him," the tangle-headed teenager read, and sighed, and said, to her best friend, El, "That's what I love about Jane: she follows her heart. The man is blind, but she marries him anyway." Alex was the name of someone who believed in that phrase—following your heart—which hadn't gotten her anywhere. That is, it got her into Cambridge, where she indulged deeply her love of reading, but it also took her into stunned misery when she followed her heart into a wrenching passion for Charles Wyndham. That beautiful aristocratic boy, with his pretty lips; his eloquent eyes; that live mind. Why had he left her? What was so superior about bland-faced Alison Kaye, who was Scottish for God's sake, whom he went on to marry, as if this weren't the modern world where people didn't marry at twenty-two (unless, perhaps, they were following their hearts)?
    "I'm changing my name," Alex told El. She looked at herself in the smeary mirror of the dingy bathroom. El, good old El, had found this dark two-bedroom flat in Kilburn for them to share. The neighborhood was careworn, and the place was a good ten minutes' walk from the tube—it certainly wasn't the literate luxury of Alexandra's parents' pied-à-terre in Bloomsbury, where she had stayed for her first few thrilled weeks after moving down here—but at least it was theirs. It was independence. It was London.
    Alex watched herself in the mirror as El unpacked her science books. She was here to study medicine. Alex couldn't actually imagine anything duller than medicine.
    "Did you hear what I said? I'm changing my name." She looked at her own clear, open face: the round curve of her cheeks, the hungry lips, the bright, laugh-ready eyes (only slightly haunted by that residual sadness), framed by dark, thick handfuls of her long curled hair.
    "To what?" asked El, and Alex caught sight of her friend's bashful, adoring gaze in the edge of the glass. El was still a little in love with her, probably. Just a little.
    "Xandra," she said into the mirror, and even as she said it her face changed shape: grew older, more mysterious, possibly posher (surely someone named Xandra would be more likely to have grown up in a stately home, rather than in the quiet suburbs of north Oxford, trading book banter with her professor father?). Xandra, she fell in love with it. Xandra would be great at parties, you'd always want her there, has Xandra come yet? And the smart sharpness of a Xandra would be a desirable quality, rather than something drab and sexless as it might be in an Alex. Because Xandra, you could tell from the sound of the name—from the face in the mirror, from her husky laugh as she tossed back her head to expose her long throat, and from her way of wearing close-fitting sweaters that encouraged others not so much to follow their hearts as to follow her breasts—Xandra would be sexy.
    "Alex?" El said, having turned away from the mirror's moment of creation. She needed a hand with one of the boxes.
    "Not Alex. Never Alex. Xandra," her new flatmate answered her. "With an X."

 

~

London. It was where she had always been headed. From more or less the moment she arrived, Xandra knew that London was the reality, and that her life until now had been dreamed.
    How to get in, though? Where was the door? Xandra wanted London like a lover—she wanted all of it, now. She was ravenous. She was in a kind of fever about it. El, working diligently on her medical studies, laughed at Xandra—whom she still thought of as Alex—for pulling out her long hair, in what seemed to El an absurd frustration.
    "You already work in publishing," El said to her one evening, when Xandra was actually lying flat on the floor in an attempt to quiet her rapid, impatient breaths. "Isn't that what you want?"
    "It's a university press," seethed Xandra (a job her father helped her get: they'd published his seminal work on Jane Austen). "It's nothing, it's connected to no one."
    "What do you mean, 'no one'? Who do you want to be connected to, exactly?"
    "Oh, El." How obtuse could her friend be? Xandra remembered something suddenly. "Guess who I saw in the British Library today? Writing in a very thick notebook? Gavin Long!"
    "Really?" Gavin Long, prizewinning, best-selling author of smart and sinister fictions about loves gone awry, difficult families, the dark pleasures of pain: the two friends had always shared a passion for him. "Did you say anything to him?"
    "What could I say to him?" Xandra was exasperated. "'Excuse me, I'm nobody, but I love your novels'? That's my whole point!"
    "I would have."
    "Yes," Xandra agreed; El probably would have. "'Gavin Long,' I could have told him, 'You're a canny master of the uneasy and the alien, and the slyly violent.' Do you remember that?" But Xandra realized as she recalled it that it was probably a mistake to invoke the time El had issued that clever assessment of Long's work. It had been a late and wakeful night for the two of them, talking and smoking and drinking in El's room. They were talking about Gavin Long, and so clever had Alex found that line of El's that she repeated it, as if awestruck. She wished she'd thought of it herself, as she told El, who generously replied, "You can have that line, Alex. I hereby give it to you. Consider it yours." She had leaned forward as if to present the line to Alex as a gift, and as she'd leaned in she'd found Alex ready to kiss her, with open, vodka-flavored lips. The kiss had stretched into more than a kiss, into a long night of lovemaking. In the morning Alex shook out her curls and made clear what she thought of the encounter. "Vodka! Strong stuff. Better stay away from that from now on," she teased, before making a quick coffee and then going off to study for her exams. They were friends after that, still. Just friends. Friends with a hint of a history that Xandra had all but forgotten. Until a moment like this, when she heard El's held breath, and sensed the passion her old friend was attempting to calm.
    "Anyway . . ." said Xandra, sitting up. "People like Gavin Long. Fiona Finch. Do you know who met Fiona Finch lately? Alison fucking Kaye! I can't bear it. At the TLS party. Charles is working two days a week there, and writing reviews for them; Alison is temping at the Francis Miller agency. They're both in middle of everything. It's not fair!"
    "You silly girl," El said lightly. "Why don't we have Charles and Alison over for supper? I'll cook. I'd like to see them. You can ask them—or they'll tell you—how to get . . . to . . ." She paused. "To—wherever it is you're going."
    It was a start. El cooked well, and the stories and wine flowed generously, as did a return invitation. At dinner with Charles and Alison (oh, their tiny flat was warm with over-spilling bookshelves and chipped matching plates, and Xandra could, she felt, just spit with envy), Xandra met Philip Howard, who was working on a biography of Calvino. Philip Howard liked Xandra: perhaps, especially, Xandra's front. Would she like to come along with him to a special screening of a film loosely based on one of Calvino's stories? It was all about who you knew. Certainly she would. She could go to it with him without having to sleep with him, right? The man was pig ugly. She tried asking El this point of social etiquette, but El was no help at all. "I have no idea," she said. "It's not my world."
    So Xandra went with Philip to the film. She did sleep with him anyway—just to be sure—and it seemed to be the right decision, as Philip was the one who got her own reel going. One name linked to another in progression, arm in arm, like those human bridges people formed to help passengers off a sinking ferry. Philip Howard knew shaven-headed Richard Thomas, whose cyber-novel had just been published; he took her along to the launch party for Richard's book, where she re-encountered bitchy Christina Evans, with whom she'd shared a tutorial at Cambridge; bitchy Christina—though perhaps she wasn't so bad, and she did have a nicely cutting sense of humor and knew a lot of people—introduced her to gay Nick Bly, who assistant- edited the Times's books pages. "Sandra?" he asked, leaning in, and when she delivered her line, "No, Xandra—with an X," he brayed with laughter, and asked Xandra if she'd like to write a review for him. "With an X, preferably," he added. She would, of course—though she wasn't sure he was serious. But then here it was, a first novel by a young woman who sported a ridiculous name—Evie Beaver—and praise from none other than Fiona Finch. The slightly hysterical novel detailed a sensitive young woman's spell in a mental institution. Xandra hated it. She called Christina to read bad sentences to her over the phone, gratified by Christina's screams of glee. "It's as though," she told Christina, "Sylvia Plath rewrote The Bell Jar after listening to too much Madonna and watching bad Dutch porn movies." Christina stopped laughing for a moment. "Would you say that in print?" she asked Xandra. Yes, Xandra would.
    Nick loved the piece. "Thank you for puncturing the mad-female-fiction bubble," he said to her. "The sooner women realize that going bonkers does not in itself guarantee their literary genius, the better for us all. Still, if I'd written something like that, the feminists would have eaten me alive." Xandra was pleased. She knew Nick was a snake, ultimately, and that he said vile things about everyone behind their backs, but he was entertaining, and more than that, he knew everybody. On the strength of her Beaver piece, she started to review for him regularly, and soon Xandra Lewis had a reputation in print for an acid tongue, and readers turned with guilty pleasure to see who would be her next victim.
    Then Nick sent her a new novella by none other than Gavin Long. Her old hero! "I don't want you to spend more than half an hour on this," Nick drawled. "It's dreadful—empty—an undeliberate parody of his earlier work. Or so I've been told. I can't bring myself to read it." Xandra could, and did. She loved it, actually. After the light lunches and bar snacks she'd been reading and reviewing for Nick, here, at last, was a genuine literary meal. She'd forgotten what it was like to feel satisfied by a book. For a few hours, Xandra was back in an Oxford park, soaking up an innocent sun while the good words briefly sated her restless appetite.
    Nick was disappointed in what she wrote, but he didn't say so (to her face). Frankly, his favorite critic had gone a bit soft on the old master: as if he needed it, with his bulging paunch of Bookers and Whitbreads. But Xandra Lewis's surprisingly kind words stood out bright in a dark gloom of reviewers' bored carping, and earned her an invite to the party for the book. For Gavin Long! His book party!
    "This must mean you've arrived," said El to Xandra as she dressed to kill for it, but Xandra was not attuned to the note of irony, or sadness, in her flatmate's voice.
    But if El had meant the phrase ironically, it was truer than she knew. The first part of Xandra Lewis's trek was nearly over: the human bridge was taking her at last to her destination. It might not be safety or dry shore, but it was tall, mid-forties, and handsome, in a blunt-faced way. It was Robin Sinclair, who saw the thick-haired beauty in a sleeveless dress amidst the all-too familiar celebrities and sycophants, and made a point of greeting her with a glass of wine.
    "Hello, I don't think I know you."
    "I'm Xandra Lewis," she told him.
    "I'm sorry . . ." He leaned in close. "Sandra?"
    "Xandra—with an X."
    She was twenty-four. And now—now, finally—her real, intended life could begin.
    

 

~

Robin Sinclair handled everybody. The greats, the once-greats, the dead greats, the young might-be greats, whom Robin would ensure were covered and favored and hovered over as if they certainly and already were great. The man's reputation as an agent was for ferocity, acuteness of judgment, and a ghost of a feeling of the outsider (he'd been a working-class boy), which, some said—those who knew him, rather than those who feared or fawned over him—was the drive behind his hard bargains. He inspired terrific loyalty in his writers—except for those he dropped, abruptly, to keep his list sharp and lean. But those like Gavin Long whom he'd held on to for years, in Long's case since his thinly reviewed second novel and long before he was famous, thought the world of Robin Sinclair, and would say so to anyone who asked.
    As hard as Xandra had been working to know everything and everyone that mattered, there were gaps in what she knew, including the above. She'd been running ever since she'd arrived in London, the city of words and names and connections. So when she encountered her future face-to-face, she didn't even know it. When she met Robin Sinclair at Gavin Long's party, the name—Robin Sinclair, Robin Sinclair—reverberated around her brain, but she couldn't place it. Random House publisher? Esquire editor? Xandra looked into his face to read the answer, but was distracted by what she saw there. Under a low forehead and heavy brow was a busy, working intelligence that immediately seemed familiar to her. Oh, sure: the man was looking at her breasts. But when he asked her what she thought of Gavin Long's book and she answered him in the sentences she had so recently committed to print, a wry humor lit his eyes, and he stopped looking at her breasts and started looking at her self. He nodded in tacit agreement, urging her on, while a subtle smile softened his aggressive features. That look—the conspiracy in it, almost as if he and she were in together on a secret that he hadn't yet got around to revealing to her—made Xandra want the man with a strange urgency. She excused herself with uncharacteristic nervousness to find another glass of wine.
    It wasn't until she was having a sloppy Italian supper with Christina in Soho later that night that Xandra understood just what had happened to her.
    "Robin Sinclair is Gavin Long's agent?" she groaned. Drunk, but not so drunk that she couldn't see the humiliation in it.
    "His, and everyone's. You know, Xandra: Robin Sinclair: He represents everyone."
    "Oh, fuck. Fuck! What an idiot I am. My God! He'll think I'm an imbecile."
    "No, he won't."
    "I knew that. I knew it! I just forgot. I knew I knew his name, but you know, you can't just ask someone: I'm sorry, I know you're famous, but who are you again?"
    "Look. I saw the way he was looking at you. I don't think you need to worry. I'd say he liked you."
    "Fuck. Fuck," said Xandra again, losing her vocabulary as she finished her glass of wine. It was her sixth or seventh, the one that would coat the side of her head, the next morning, in the peculiar dread and pound of a hangover. Wondering: how could she manage to see him again, to change that liking into something more tangible?

~

Xandra wasn't sure why she tormented herself by asking Charles to meet her for lunch. (His connections, probably.) But here she was, across from the long, lean figure of him, listening to his stories of all the fabulous people at the TLS. Why didn't she have a job like that yet? She was reviewing, yes, but workwise she was still treading water. Could Charles help her? She watched him as he delivered his irritatingly glamorous narrative. That face, she thought, for one lucid, lust-free moment—pretty, girlish lips; that floppy hair; the clean-cut, aristocratic look—could launch a thousand books.
    "Charles," she interrupted him. He was relating some amusing comment he'd made in print. "What ever happened to that novel you were working on at Cambridge?"
    Charles looked rather pleased with himself. "It's funny you should ask, actually. Alison just finished reading it through the other day . . ."
    Dear God. Not more about Alison. This Xandra really couldn't bear. She tried to catch the waiter's eye to get the bill, then realized what she was hearing.
    ". . . is going to show it to Francis Miller next week. He sounded very interested."
    "Francis Miller?" This time Xandra recognized the name of an agent. Of course: odious Alison was working for him. "I think that's a bad idea."
    "What?" said Charles. "Why?"
    Why? How could it possibly be a bad idea? Xandra's mind worked fast. "Conflict of interest," she said simply. The waiter came around finally, and instead of the bill, Xandra asked for a cappuccino. This was important. She had to focus. "She's your wife. Peddling your fiction. It wouldn't look good."
    "Conflict of interest?" Charles raised an eyebrow. "But that's all the publishing business is. Everyone is in everyone else's pocket. That's how it works."
    "I think that's changing," Xandra said, with a swift confidence that made him believe her. How she'd changed since her old mousy Alex days.
    "So what do you think I should do with it?"
    "Give it to me, and I'll show it to Robin Sinclair."
    "Robin Sinclair?" He was impressed. "Do you know him?"
    "Know him?" Xandra laughed, throwing back her head. What a question! "I'm about to start working for him."

 

~

She had to make her way through several barriers of receptionists even to speak to the man. "Xandra," she repeated with ever less patience, "with an X." These girls were so cool; they knew how to convey Who are you? I've never even heard your name with just a flicker of the voice. Finally, she had him.
    "Yes, hello. I remember you, Xandra." He sounded just as he had at Gavin Long's party: bemused, intrigued. At her mention of a manuscript she thought he'd like to see he became wary. "Ah. I didn't know you wrote." "Oh, it's not mine." She lined her voice with a deeper, more persuasive velvet. "It's by a very talented young man I know. I think you'd enjoy it." Robin Sinclair's voice warmed to something a little keener, more professionally engaged, and he said he'd be happy for her to send it to him. "No," she said. "I'd rather give it to you in person, so I can tell you about it." He sighed. Impatient, but impressed. He suggested she stop by for a coffee some morning later that week.
    "I was thinking of lunch."
    And somehow, wrong-footed, Robin Sinclair agreed.
    It would be an audition, this lunch, and Xandra was determined to walk off with the part. In the past weeks, the shape of her desires had become clear to her. She wanted to be the power behind the writers; she wanted to be the hidden hand who shaped their futures. She wanted to be the person who made them. And, above all: she wanted Robin.
    It galled her to realize that Charles Wyndham, who for unfathomable reasons had thrown in his lot with the insipid Alison Kaye, would be the first writer she would make. But she had no doubt that she could make him. Why not? He was eminently makable. He'd written a sharp, layered piece of fiction. She hated him for it, a little—it might have been more fun if he'd produced some precious piece of undergraduate crap that she could gloat over, in a wine bar, with Christina. But here it was, Mind-Body Problems: a slick, funny story of a young English philosopher who goes to Tuscany for a conference and falls in love with an Italian porn star. A comedy of ideas and manners that follows a young man as he is drawn into two very different worlds . . . Xandra could see the whole thing: the pitch, the campaign, the niche, the copy. She explained it to Robin Sinclair over lunch. "And one of the best things about Charles Wyndham," she concluded, "is that he looks like a film star. I can see the posters."
    Robin listened to her seriously, nodding. He offered little comment, but was clearly intrigued by her perceptions. Without offering any judgment, he changed the subject, asking Xandra about her family, about her father—whose work he knew, of course. "He wrote the Jane Austen book. Persuadable?" "Yes. That's right." "Brilliant book. He's a gifted scholar." He asked her of her current employment, and she mentioned the university press in such a way as to make herself sound like an editor there.
    "And," he said, "I have to ask. What is your relationship to Charles Wyndham?"
    "I knew him slightly at Cambridge. We had friends in common."
    Robin nodded. "So how is it that his manuscript is in your hands?"
    "Well . . ." This time she hesitated slightly, and he noticed it. "Charles wanted me to read it, to offer him my editorial suggestions—and I thought it the most brilliant thing I'd read in months. His wife was going to show it to Francis Miller, but I just knew you were the right person for it. His wife didn't—" Xandra lowered her voice. "To be honest, she didn't really understand it."
    Robin looked at her. Through her, it almost seemed to Xandra, with an expression that seemed measured, and steely, and yet—did she imagine it?—almost melancholy.
    "So, Xandra," he said. "Can I interest you in coming to work for me?"

 

~

It turned out to be easier to work for Robin Sinclair than it would be to sleep with him. Xandra had thought the two would go together. Robin was certainly pleased about Charles Wyndham; within two weeks he had sold the book for a hundred thousand. Everyone was pleased about this, of course, with the sour exception of Alison Kaye, who seemed rather jealous of her husband's success. (It happened to coincide with her own dismissal from the Francis Miller agency, but then that was predictable; she really wasn't aggressive enough for agenting. She'd be better off, perhaps, as an editor.)
    But romance was apparently neither Xandra's requirement nor her reward. When Robin Sinclair wanted to, as he seemed to now, he could play his cards close to his chest—that, too, was part of his skill as an agent—so that Xandra became confused about how and when to play one of her own best cards: her willingness. He wanted her. Didn't he? The question obscured her own greedy truth: she wanted him. But there was nothing for it but to work, apparently. And so she worked.
    Xandra easily mastered the ranking levels of telephone voice—cool condescension for unknown inquirers; sleepy benevolence for lesser writers; an exaggerated, clipped British for calls from Los Angeles; and the deep purr for Gavin Long or Fiona Finch or the other stars, on the rare occasions she'd field a call from them. After a few months of proving she was not so proud that she wouldn't do secretarial work if she had to, Robin gave her something real to do: sort through manuscripts from new writers.
    "Find some gold here," he told her, simply. "There will be a great deal of negligible paper in this pile, but somewhere in here there may be gold. I want you to find it."
    A few weeks into the dozens of Euro-thrillers and doomed urban romances, Xandra started to read a novel called Human Biology, about an Oxford biology professor who preys on his female students in the hidden corners of the lab. Xandra had avidly read almost half of it—the story was compelling, the sex scenes deft and daring—before she realized why its contours seemed familiar to her. It was based on El's father.
    This character taught biology rather than chemistry, but it was recognizably him. She and El had not spoken of El's philandering father since one terrible afternoon when they were schoolgirls and El, choked and tearful, told Xandra about surprising her father in his college rooms, walking in on him as a girl who looked familiar, somehow—oh, because she'd been at their high school the year before—was giving him a devoted (and, judging from his face, skillful) blow job. El had never spoken of it since that afternoon, but Xandra had over the years thought back to the dreadful detail of that perverse encounter. It would make a very edgy, poignant moment in a novel, actually.
    Who was this author? Before Xandra showed the manuscript to Robin, she called her up. Human Biology was a great story, but perhaps she could make it a little racier? The author, thrilled by the phone call—from someone at Robin Sinclair's agency! Did she really have a chance there?—took down the suggestions over the phone. She would incorporate all of them. The idea of a scene with the professor's daughter walking in on one of his rendezvous made her somewhat uncomfortable, but Xandra assured her it would make the story more powerful. The professor needed to come off a little darker than he was. The author, subdued, agreed. Oh, and one other thing: the title. It didn't have quite the right zing. "I was thinking," said Xandra, "of something like Sexual Chemistry." "Yes," said the author, doubtfully, "though he's a biology professor, so it doesn't fit quite so well." "Could you change that? Couldn't he teach chemistry?" This was someone at Robin Sinclair's agency asking her. Of course she could change it.
    Xandra found a moment when Robin was alone in his office and off the phone. This in itself was an achievement: there were perhaps two or three such second-long moments in the whole of a nine-hour day.
    "I need to speak to you," she told Robin. He looked at her with some curiosity, and a little lust. "I've found your gold."
    "You're fast." He smiled. "Let's have lunch, and you can tell me all about it."
    "I was thinking of dinner."
    Robin's brow furrowed; his eyes lightened. "Dinner, then," he said smoothly, with that small smirk she'd first seen at Gavin Long's party. As if he'd just won a small bet with himself. It infuriated her. "You're right, of course. Gold is certainly worth a dinner."
    Xandra couldn't understand him. She tried telling Christina about it, but Christina was distracted by her own affair with her boss at Faber. Robin took Xandra to a chic new restaurant in Notting Hill, helped her to monkfish and Sancerre and a sweet, tart lemon mousse that dissolved on her tongue, stopping her—briefly—from conversation. Mostly, he let her talk. She told him her ideas for Sexual Chemistry, what the book meant, how it could work.
    "It's not based on anyone in particular, is it?"
    "Oh, it could be any one of a number of Oxford dons. They more or less all get up to that kind of thing."
    Robin nodded, smiled, looked at his watch, mentioned his wife. Well, of course he had a wife. Xandra knew that. She'd spoken to Madeleine on the phone several times. He also had two teenaged children, Hannah and Ben. But that didn't need to get in the way. It didn't need to be a problem.
    "I love working for you," Xandra said. Huskily. She was slightly desperate: this dinner was nearly at a close. She flipped her hair back, then dipped her eyes.
    "I'm very pleased that you do." He paid the bill, and looked at her. It was certainly lust there. It was. She could read that much. But what else was it? What was it? "I think," he told her, "we make a good team."
    Outside, on the street, he hailed her a taxi, and before she knew what had happened he had leaned in and told the cabbie her home address, giving the man a tenner.
    "Good night, Xandra," he said, opening the door for her to climb in. Before he let her go, he kissed her. A real, moist kiss, after which he smiled, slightly. "With an X."

 

~

Xandra never quite got around to telling El about Sexual Chemistry. There was never a good moment for it. Anyway, what would she have told El? It was a fiction. No one would make any connection with any actual person. As she herself said, every other Oxford don slept with his or her students. Besides, it wasn't as though Xandra had written it herself. She was just an agency bod, doing her job. She came back late from the party for the book a little drunk, thinking of who she'd seen there: Fiona Finch, who seemed quite flirtatious; Robin, whose eye for her, she thought, was beginning to look positively wolflike; and the book's author, who was slavishly grateful to Xandra for her help—and said as much in her short speech after the toast. As Xandra modestly said, "The book was there. I just supplied the chemistry." That got a laugh.
    "Oh!" The lights were on. El was up. "Hi! God. I didn't think you'd be awake."
    "I've been on the phone for hours." El looked haggard.
    "Oh?" Xandra hummed as she took off her chic scarf. "Who to?"
    "First my mother, who's going through a horrible crisis, then Jane, who helped talk me through it." She gave the name a weighted significance.
    "Ah, Jane . . ." Jane. Xandra combed her name-filled mind for a Jane. Not Jane Myerson, the columnist; not, probably, Jane Lustig, editor of Publishing News. "Jane?"
    "Jane Adams. She works in radio. I'm—I'm thinking of moving in with her."
    "Really?" Xandra threw off her sleek shoes; slowly, her outfit came away from her. "Well, that suits me. I've been thinking of getting out of Kilburn, too. It's not really central enough, is it?"
    "That's not why I'm moving." El paused. "We're in love, Alex."
    "Who is?" asked Xandra stupidly, and on reflex added, "Don't call me Alex."
    "Jane and I."
    "Oh, God." Xandra recovered quickly. "You're not going to go all lesbian on me, El, are you? That's so ten years ago."
    "It was three years ago, actually." El's voice was cool. "You and me, that is."
    "Oh, come on, El." She brushed her fingers through her hair. "That was just one of those Enid Blyton girls-and-exams moments. It wasn't exactly serious."
    "Well, this is. Jane and I love each other and—we want to live together."
    "That's lovely." Xandra turned to the kitchen, away from the glowing El. "I'm very happy for you."
    El followed her in. She seemed relieved and cheered to have made her confession. "So—what glam party were you at this time?"
     "Oh, you know," she yawned. "Just some typical publishing do—nothing special. Though you know who was there? Literary lesbian Fiona Finch. I should introduce you to her, if you're really going to go the sapphic route."
    El let the remark go. "Listen, I wanted to ask you, have you heard of a book called Sexual Chemistry?"
    "Sexual Chemistry?"
    "It's a novel by some young woman about her vile predatory professor at Oxford, and Mum is convinced it's about Dad. The author gave an interview in today's Times—"
    Yes, Nick had secured a good space for that piece. As he'd said to Xandra, "The book is utter drivel, but as you and I well know this is the kind of thing that makes great copy. Wide-eyed soulful beauty telling tales about her sex life . . ."
    "—and it's made my mother hysterical. I thought you might have heard of it."
    "Mmmm." Xandra turned to put the kettle on, and made a crucial error. She failed to read her old friend's watchful face. It was a negligence of the kind she wouldn't have allowed if this had been a work encounter. "Maybe it does sound a little familiar."
    "I thought you'd know about it. And you don't think it sounds like Dad?"
    "Well . . ." she yawned again. "It didn't occur to me to make the connection. With your father."
    You could lie to people who didn't know you, and they might never know it. But someone who'd known you since you were a girl could hear the lie, could see it; could almost taste it. "You knew about the book. You've read it," El stated, startled.
    "All I know is—"
    "This party," El interrupted, in a dangerous voice. "Who was it for, did you say?"
    "I told you, it was nothing—"
    "It wasn't, by any chance, for Sexual Chemistry?"
     Xandra shrugged. "I really don't—"
    El emitted only a small cry, or sigh, of betrayal.
    Xandra turned to her, arms folded. "Look, El. I didn't write the book. I just work in an agency. What can I do? I don't have any control over what people write. I can't tell them what to put in their books. Robin loved it. I couldn't get in his way."
    El was shaking her head, her whole body clenched in disbelief. "No, of course you couldn't. Not Xandra. Xandra wouldn't do anything to slow down her rapid rise." She turned from her old friend and walked away, leaving Xandra to laugh off the truth of the remark.

~

"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."

~

She had to start her list with a big name: a hook to draw in all the rest. From there, she could build her new empire. Who better than the great man of letters, Gavin Long?
    Gavin Long's agent—it was Robin Sinclair, of course—proved difficult: couldn't see any reason for Long to leave his loyal editor of many years at Weidenfeld and Nicholson. Xandra had no choice but to go over Robin's head, and meet with Gavin herself. He was an old friend, so she could be straightforward with him: look, Gavin, at your stage, a new launch, a new publisher, a whole new image—it will be great for you. It will introduce you to a new band of younger readers, and you know you'll take your thousands of faithful fans with you wherever you go. How much would you be getting from Weidenfeld for your new book? Robin would settle for that? I'm shooting myself in the foot to tell you this, Gavin, but we'd set aside something substantially bigger than that for you—to give you an incentive to make this move. Have you thought about getting someone a little younger to represent you? A little hungrier? I love Robin, you know I do, but . . .
    Gavin Long, not easily persuadable, was finally swayed by the younger woman. Wasn't she likely to know what she was talking about? So a beautiful relationship of many years—the loyal, literary passion of Gavin Long and Robin Sinclair—came, rather bitterly, to an end. Well, as Xandra said to herself about the situation: sooner or later, all good things must.
    But Gavin Long wasn't enough. Furthermore, the vast sum Xandra had insisted they pay him wouldn't begin to be earned back; Long just didn't sell in those numbers anymore. Roger put pressure on Xandra to come up with some other well-known name, perhaps someone younger than Gavin: he was so establishment, after all. What Roger failed to take into account was that the agencies weren't sending Xandra the right writers. The system seemed to be blocked. Francis Miller only sent her first novels by bland suburban women, while Robin was proving rather petulant about the Gavin Long episode and refused to deal with her. Xandra was still friends with Robin's assistant, Georgia, who was discovering some great new literary talent, but the only novel Xandra had bought so far from Georgia, again for a dramatic sum of money (well, money made headlines, which was half the battle) had, unfortunately, sunk like a stone. Xandra was going to have to fall back on old friends. She called Charles Wyndham and asked him to meet her at her office for a drink after work.
    Poor Charles. How tired he seemed! (Not that he was losing his looks.) Alison had given birth to twins a few months before. Her friend Christina, now a senior editor at Faber—she'd eventually married her boss there—had just had a baby, too. Xandra was glad to be free of all that.
    "I don't have a single idea for a book right now, Xandra," Charles was telling her. He was sprawled over the couch in her office. "I'd give you something if I had it, obviously, but—the TLS is keeping me busy, and the babies, and then Alison—"
    "It doesn't have to be a masterpiece," she interrupted. "I know you're a perfectionist, but—just something light, collegiate, even. You know, along the lines of the first one, Mind-Body Problems." It didn't hurt to remind him what he owed her.
    "That! God." He laughed. "That feels so long ago now, that book."
    "Yes." She came over to the couch, sat close to him along its edge. She started stroking his forehead, in a friendly way—to soothe him in his tiredness. "Do you remember, Charlie, when you first told me you wanted to write?"
    "Yes." He smiled, his eyes closed. Her hand felt good. He did remember it. They had been walking along the Cam, one summer night. "I do. And you told me that you wanted to read."
    "Yes, and I said—"
    "That we'd make a good match."
    He opened his eyes at the realization that her touch had changed. Her warm hand was on his neck now, and along his back. Tired, child-wearied, he looked at his ex-lover. He calculated the privacy they'd have here in her office; surely she had calculated it, too. She was leaning into him now, his old, delicious Alex, and though he could already taste the regret in his mouth, before he'd even kissed her, he knew that something—nostalgia, or lust, or the sheer force of Alexandra Lewis's will—had successfully persuaded him.

 

~

"You should do it, Xandra," Georgia told her on the phone. "It would be good for the list."
    Xandra sighed. "That's what Roger thinks."
    Xandra had been invited to appear on a television arts program called "Hype over Heart: What's Going On in British Books?" She was reluctant to do it; she had turned down such invitations in the past. Herself on camera? That had never been the point of all this. Talked about, important, known: all those Xandra had wanted, yes, but not to be on camera. Roger urged her to go ahead. Her list, quite frankly, was not performing as they'd hoped, and any added fillip of publicity she could get for it would be a help.
    "What would be good for my list," said Xandra, "is a hot author. When are you going to let me have a look at Nick Bly's book?"
    "You'll be the first to know when he's finished it. I can tell you the title though: Reader, I Slept with Him. Isn't that brilliant?"
    "It is," said Xandra with a slight hesitation. "You said it's some kind of parody?"
    "Yes, set in the London literary world. It's quite hilarious— Oh, hi, Robin. Yes, I'll be right in," Georgia murmured. "I must go, sweetie. But: do the program. You won't regret it. I know that producer, you'll be in good hands."
    When Xandra got to the television studio, she was briefed by one of the starry-eyed young lackeys. Xandra wasn't really listening. She was reading the two-page list of potential discussion questions and growing uneasy. The producer was someone named Jane Adams—a name that sounded familiar to Xandra, but then there were too many names altogether in her life, so almost any one might sound familiar. Christina was one of the panelists, so that was a relief (not that Xandra had seen her for quite a while), but otherwise the lineup was grim: the other panelist was none other than Francis Miller, and moderating the spat would be that wretched woman Evie Beaver. Her writing career had never taken off, but she'd found a successful line in spiky arts programming on television.
    "Half an hour till we begin," someone said, as the makeup woman came to daub away the beads of her unexpected nervousness. Xandra closed her eyes to block out her anxiety. Go back, she told herself, to someplace quiet, someplace peaceful. You are sitting in a park in Oxford. It's a warm day. There's a lovely, gentle breeze . . .
    "Hello, Alex."
    Xandra opened her eyes, startled, jumpy; the makeup woman inadvertently cursed her, then apologized.
    "El!"
    It had been years since she had seen her old friend El, and yet here she was, looking almost exactly the same. If anything, a little better now than in those days: a steady serenity lit her face. She must be a practicing doctor by now, somewhere. Worthy creature. "What are you doing here?"
    "I came to see you, of course. I don't normally come to Jane's programs, but how could I not today? I was going to wait to say hello until after, but—I couldn't resist."
    Xandra was perplexed. "Jane . . . ?"
    "Five minutes," came a voice.
    "I'd better leave you. We'll catch up when it's over," said El. "Good luck!"
    Something in that phrase turned Xandra's stomach cold. Her skin felt clammy.
    Hype over Heart: they started right in. Was British culture in some stage of late, debauched corruption—had it absorbed the American sins of favoring celebrity over content, marketing over matter?
    "Alexandra Lewis," Evie Beaver began, smoothly. "Now, you edit a fiction list at Random House, under your own name. What is the reasoning behind that decision? Isn't an editor normally someone who works behind the scenes? What's the logic there?"
    It was a personal attack, more or less, but one for which Xandra was prepared. "My list is a sort of literary brand name. It is a way of signaling to readers the quality of the book they're looking at. I am, if you like, promising a consumer they'll get a good read."
    "Does that mean your titles are more highbrow? You won't publish novels based on scandal or gossip?"
     "An Alexandra Lewis title will certainly have integrity," Xandra said, unruffled, "but there is no shame in publishing books that sell well, whether they're thrillers, or romances, or, yes, the occasional roman à clef. Publishing is a business, after all."
    "Everybody has to have one or two gossip-stirring titles," said Christina from across the table. "For instance, Alison Kaye at Chatto has just paid handsomely for such a novel by the Times's Nick Bly called Reader, I Slept with Him."
    Francis Miller chuckled. "I've heard it's very funny."
    Xandra tried not to look surprised. Nick hadn't finished it, surely? Hadn't Georgia just told her—? As the question crossed her mind, Xandra thought she saw a flicker of auburn from the side of the studio floor.
    "Which brings us to the question of large advances," Evie continued. "Christina Farley, what is your view of this phenomenon? It's been in the press a lot lately."
    "I do think certain publishers, and editors, become intoxicated by their checkbooks." She looked at Xandra. "They forget what the business is about. It's a way of assuring publicity."
    "Alexandra Lewis, you've received quite a bit of attention for the amount you've spent on some of your books. Can you justify that? Do these books earn back the money?"
    "I pay my writers what I think they're worth," Xandra said, trying to keep her voice steady. "It has nothing to do with publicity. We have a strange reluctance, in Britain, to associate quality literature with a decent amount of money."
    "Let's take one of your authors," Evie said. "Gavin Long. Now, there was quite a well-publicized row about the amount of money you paid to take him away from his previous publisher. To put it somewhat crudely, did that decision pay off for you?"
    "I'm not sure it's appropriate to discuss—"
    "The word on that," offered Francis Miller, "was that the book sold no more than a few thousand copies, and thousands had to be pulped. But then, one can't always trust rumors."
    "I wouldn't feel comfortable—"
    "Or, to take another example of an author of yours," continued Evie implacably. "Charles Wyndham. I understand he received a significant advance on a book he hadn't even started?"
    "Well, yes," said Xandra. How did the wretch know that? Her face shone with sweat. On the side of the studio floor the makeup artist shook her head. She'd been pretty, this one, but some faces—it was always hard to predict which—seemed to melt under the bright glare of the lights and cameras. "But Charles Wyndham has a proven track record. One knows Charles Wyndham will write a book that—"
    "Will be an absolute delight," finished Francis. "As his agent, now, I have to say Charles is onto a good thing with this one. May I give a sneak preview?" he asked Xandra.
    "Please, do." Xandra brushed a drop of sweat away from her eyes. She hadn't spoken to Charles about his novel, actually—he'd been rather difficult to reach on the phone—but if Francis Miller was willing to rescue her on this one, she would let him.
    "It's a novel about a university romance," Francis enthused, with an agent's flair for selling the story. "A student nearly makes a terrible mistake falling for the wrong woman. Xoe, she calls herself, 'with an X,' as she's always telling people, rather breathlessly. It is a comedy following the alternative life he'd have had if he'd taken that path. Narrow escape, that kind of thing—a literary Sliding Doors."
    "And that," Evie turned to Xandra, "is the quintessential Alexandra Lewis title, is it? Xoe is the kind of character that the Alexandra Lewis imprint is proud to call its own."
    How circular it was! Charles Wyndham imagining where her heart might have taken her. Alexandra Lewis closed her eyes to the question. To the sight of surrounding hostile faces and the memory of the long journey she'd taken to get here; to the growing realization that there was a long line of these questions, and faces, and betrayals. And right behind them, waiting her turn, the next one, Georgia Montgomery, ready for her own story to begin.
    The panel waited for Alexandra Lewis to collect herself and rejoin the discussion. What they didn't yet understand was that Alexandra Lewis had already left the room, the studio. She had left London already. She was on her way to somewhere else.
    New York. Why not? It was a whole new city, waiting for her, waiting for her like a lover.

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