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She promised what was left in her bank account after her death would help me catch up on all the time off I had to take from my writing career. For the past year, I’ve lived off what little advance I had left over from my last publishing contract. But it’s all gone now, and apparently, so is my mother’s money. It was one of the last things she confessed to me before she finally succumbed to the cancer. I would have cared for her regardless of her financial situation. She was my mother. But the fact that she felt she needed to lie to me in order for me to agree to take her in proves how disconnected we were from one another.

I take a sip of my water and then shake my head. “I don’t really need a lawyer. All she left me was debt, but thanks for the offer.”

Corey purses his lips. He knows my financial situation because, as my literary agent, he’s the one who sends my royalty checks. Which is why he’s looking at me with pity now. “You have a foreign royalty check coming soon,” he says, as if I’m not aware of every penny coming in my direction for the next six months. As if I haven’t already spent it.

“I know. I’ll be fine.” I don’t want to talk about my financial issues with Corey. With anyone.

Corey shrugs a little, unconvinced. He looks down and straightens up his tie. “Hopefully this offer will be good for both of us,” he says.

I’m relieved the subject is changing. “Why are we meeting in person with a publisher? You know I prefer to do things over email.”

“They requested the meeting yesterday. Said they have a job they’d like to discuss with you, but they wouldn’t give me any details over the phone.”

“I thought you were working on getting another contract with my last publisher.”

“Your books do okay, but not well enough to secure another contract without sacrificing some of your time. You have to agree to engage in social media, go on tour, build a fan base. Your sales alone aren’t cutting it in the current market.”

I was afraid of this. A contract renewal with my current publisher was all the financial hope I had left. The royalty checks from my previous books have dwindled along with my book sales. I’ve done very little writing this past year because of my commitment to my mother, so I have nothing to sell to a publisher.

“I have no idea what Pantem will offer, or if it’s even something you’ll be interested in,” Corey says. “We have to sign a non-disclosure agreement before they’ll give us more details. The secrecy has me curious, though. I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but there are a lot of possibilities and I have a good feeling. We need this.”

He says we because whatever the offer is, he gets fifteen percent if I accept. It’s the agent-client standard. What isn’t the agent-client standard would be the six months we spent in a relationship and the two years of sex that followed our breakup.

Our sexual relationship only lasted as long as it did because he wasn’t serious about anyone else and neither was I. It was convenient until it wasn’t. But the reason our actual relationship was so short-lived is because he was in love with another woman.

Never mind that the other woman in our relationship was also me.

It has to be confusing, falling in love with a writer’s words before you meet the actual writer. Some people find it difficult to separate a character from the individual who created them. Corey, surprisingly, is one of those people, despite being a literary agent. He met and fell in love with the female protagonist of my first novel, Open Ended, before he ever spoke to me. He assumed my character’s personality was a close reflection of my own, when in fact, I couldn’t be more opposite from her.

Corey was the only agent to respond to my query, and even that response took months to receive. His email was only a few sentences long, but enough to breathe life back into my dying hope.

I read your manuscript, Open Ended, in a matter of hours. I believe in this book. If you’re still looking for an agent, give me a call.

His email came on a Thursday morning. We were having an in-depth phone conversation about my manuscript two hours later. By Friday afternoon, we had met for coffee and signed a contract.

By Saturday night, we had fucked three times.

I’m sure our relationship broke a code of ethics somewhere, but I’m not sure that contributed to how short-lived it was. As soon as Corey figured out that I wasn’t the person my character was based on, he realized we weren’t compatible. I wasn’t heroic. I wasn’t simple. I was difficult. An emotionally challenging puzzle he wasn’t up for solving.

Which was fine. I wasn’t in the mood to be solved.

As difficult as it was being in a relationship with him, it is surprisingly easy being his client. It’s why I chose not to switch agencies after our breakup, because he’s been loyal and unbiased when it comes to my career.

“You look a little frazzled,” Corey says, breaking me out of my thoughts. “Are you nervous?”

I nod, hoping he’ll accept my behavior as nerves because I don’t want to explain why I’m frazzled. It’s been two hours since I left my apartment this morning, but it feels like more has happened in that two hours than in the entire rest of this year. I look down at my hands…my arms…searching for traces of blood. It’s no longer there, but I can still feel it. Smell it.

My hands haven’t stopped shaking, so I keep hiding them under the table. Now that I’m here, I realize I probably shouldn’t have come. I can’t pass up a potential contract, though. It’s not like offers are pouring in, and if I don’t secure something soon, I’ll have to get a day job. If I get a day job, it’ll barely leave me time to write. But at least I’ll be able to pay my bills.

Corey pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes sweat from his forehead. He only sweats when he’s nervous. The fact that he’s nervous is now making me even more nervous. “Do we need a secret signal if you aren’t interested in whatever the offer is?” he asks.

“Let’s listen to what they have to say, and then we can request to speak in private.”

Corey clicks his pen and straightens in his chair as though he’s cocking a gun for battle. “Let me do the talking.”

I planned to anyway. He’s charismatic and charming. I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could categorize me as either of those things. It’s best if I just sit back and listen.

“What are you wearing?” Corey is staring down at my shirt, perplexed, just now noticing it despite having spent the last fifteen minutes with me.

I look down at my oversized shirt. For a moment, I forgot how ridiculous I look. “I spilled coffee on my other shirt this morning and had to change.”

“Whose shirt is that?”

I shrug. “Probably yours. It was in my closet.”

“You left your house in that? There wasn’t something else you could have worn?”

“It doesn’t look high fashion?” I’m being sarcastic, but he doesn’t catch it.

He makes a face. “No. Is it supposed to?”

Such an ass. But he’s good in bed, like most assholes.

I’m actually relieved when the conference room door opens and a woman walks in. She’s followed, almost comically, by an older man walking so closely behind her, he bumps into the back of her when she stops.

“Goddammit, Barron,” I hear her mumble.

I almost smile at the idea of Goddammit Barron actually being his name.

Jeremy enters last. He gives me a small nod that goes unnoticed by everyone else.

The woman is dressed more appropriately than I am on my best day, with short black hair and lipstick so red, it’s a little jarring at nine thirty in the morning. She seems to be the one in charge as she reaches for Corey’s hand, and then mine, while Goddammit Barron looks on. “Amanda Thomas,” she says. “I’m an editor with Pantem Press. This is Barron Stephens, our lawyer, and Jeremy Crawford, our client.”

Jeremy and I shake hands, and he does a good job of pretending we didn’t share an extremely bizarre morning. He quietly takes the seat across from me. I try not to look at him, but it’s the only place my eyes seem to want to travel. I have no idea why I’m more curious about him than I am about this meeting.