Authors: Chris Harrison
TO MY KIDS, JOSHUA AND TAYLOR, YOU WILL ALWAYS BE THE
GREATEST LOVE STORY I EVER WRITE.
eigh Merrill had grown up surrounded by men. She'd known men who were kind, men who were good at their work, and men who were generous, but rarely had she met one who was all of the above the way Joseph Middlebury was. As editorial director, he'd taken an interest in her from her earliest days at Jenks & Hall Publishers, listening to her ideas and encouraging her to discover new authors, and she'd thrived there, moving up from a lowly editorial assistant to senior editor in only six years. When at last she'd gotten her own office and he'd finally decided it wouldn't be inappropriate any longer to ask her to coffee, she felt both grateful for all his support and flattered that he'd singled her out to be with him in this new, more intimate way. Why not? she'd thought at the time. It might be fun.
She'd never dated someone like Joseph, a man who'd grown up in
Manhattan, gone to expensive boarding schools, dined with presidents and celebrities. For two years they'd been happy together, in both love and business. They lived in apartments around the corner from each other, enjoyed Thai food and going to concerts, doing the
crossword over lox and bagels on Sunday mornings. Their friends said they seemed like the perfect match.
Yet when Joseph stood up at the launch party for Leigh's latest book, tapped the side of his wineglass with his butter knife, and announced that he had something important to say, a very special question he needed to ask, she felt her whole body go stiff. He wouldn't, she thought. Not now. Not here, in front of everyone.
She'd started to suspect he might have something planned when the launch party for
The Perfect Letter
had been announced. For some reason he'd been especially attentive to all the details, choosing the venue, the food, the guest list, fussing over organic versus free-range, raw milk versus pasteurized. All for a book that wasn't even his.
So now the launch party for a high-profile novel was taking place at an impossibly romantic restaurant, in an outdoor garden lit with paper lanterns, hung with purple wisteria and mounds of vanilla orchids, over tables piled with Italian cheeses and
in a chili and tarragon sauce. Violin music played in the background. The tables were covered with empty wine and martini glasses, and the guests were already a little drunk, so that everyone was falling into chairs, draping their arms around each other affectionately. The author of
The Perfect Letter,
Richard Millikinâso famous and so reclusive that this book, his first in thirty years, was already near the top of the bestseller list its first weekâwas not present, so in a sense it had become Leigh's party, her colleagues coming up to congratulate her with a mixture of envy and pride on the biggest publishing coup this side of J. D. Salinger. Even Randall Jenksâone of the founders of the
publishing house and Leigh's biggest fanâhad come for the celebration, though Randall was famous for claiming he detested gatherings of more than four people. Still he kept plying Leigh with martinis, telling her in his posh London accent to enjoy her success, that she'd earned it, that a book of this magnitude would make the house a fortune both in sales and literary heft. “I still don't know how you talked Millikin into it,” he said. “I had it on good authority he'd never publish again.
“I learned from the best,” said Leigh, holding up her glass in Randall's direction.
“That you did. And I should warn you, I am susceptible to flattery.” He patted her arm. “I have great plans for you, young lady. Keep up the good work.”
Leigh had to smile. No one had called her “young lady” since her grandfather had died. She hadn't realized how much she'd missed it.
It was fitting for her to remember her grandfather now. In the morning she was going home to Texas for the first time in almost ten years. She hadn't been back since her grandfather had died, since she had come home from Harvard her freshman year to bury the man who'd been practically the only family she had left. After the service she'd gone back to Boston and had her aunt Becky mail her things to her in six cardboard boxes, and in all the years since, she'd found excuses not to go backâtoo much school, too much work, too many other obligations. That is, until the organizers of the Austin Writers' Conference invited her to come as the featured guest speaker, all expenses paid. All Leigh had to do was give the opening remarks and attend a couple of days of pitch meetings. Her friend Chloe, an Austin nightclub singer whom Leigh hadn't seen in more than a year, practically begged her to accept. It would be suspicious not to go, and Leigh Merrill had become quite good, over the years, at diverting people's suspicions.
Still, when Joseph stood up at the head of the table and started tapping on his wineglass with the butter knife, catching her eye, she felt a momentary surge of panic. For months he'd been trying to get her to move in with him, but she'd always refused. She liked her privacy, her own space, she always said. Joseph shouldn't take it personally. She always got the sense that her answers never satisfied him. He was used to success, to commanding a room, to handling prickly authors and argumentative editors and tightfisted marketing execs and getting them to work together. He was used to asking a question and getting the answer he wanted.
Now he smiled out at them allâhis tie perfectly straight, his thick dark hair perfectly combedâwith the confidence of a man about to embark on his greatest triumph.
“Congratulations to the entire team who put together
The Perfect Letter,
debuting at number three on the
New York Times
bestseller list,” he said, pausing while his colleagues answered with a round of applause. “Most especially I'd like to congratulate Leigh, who spent two years on the phone with Richard Millikin convincing him to let her publish the book. She won't like me telling this story, but once she even drove me up to the frigid coast of Maine for the weekend to tell him all the reasons why she was the woman for the job. Of course, she didn't tell me that's what we were doing. I thought it was going to be a romantic weekend for two. I should have known better. Leigh is nothing if not dedicated to her work.” Laughter. “Well, Millikin believed in her enough to let her take on the book. And now the entire literary world will believe in her.” Smiles and nods all around, with a “here, here!” from Randall.
“So now I think it's time for me to show her how much I believe in her, too,” he said, pulling the box out of his coat pocket, the box she realized, sickeningly, he'd hidden there earlier in the day with this moment in mind. Her legs felt numb. She was sure if she tried to stand, she'd topple over.
She froze as Joseph came closer, standing over the place where she sat, and opened the box to reveal a single diamond glittering under the soft lights of the restaurant. “You're my equal in every way. I can't think of anyone I'd rather spend my life with, as a partner in every sense of the word. I know if I don't snap you up now, someone else will. Marry me, Leigh. Make me the happiest man in the world.”
The room was utterly silent. In the background the waiters came and went, taking away the plates of food and empty wineglasses, eyeing the scene in front of them with mortification and amusement. The lamps flickered in the background; somewhere outside, a siren blared. Leigh couldn't believe this was happening. She felt her hands grip the sides of the table, saw her friends and colleagues perched eagerly in their chairs, waiting for her answer, their faces beaming. Joseph was kind; he was generous; he was successful. He loved her. They were great togetherâeveryone said so. She owed him her career, her entire future.
But marriage, commitment. Was she really ready for that yet? She was aware of the eyes of every person in the room watching her, waiting. It occurred to her that either answer, in this case, might be the wrong one. She said the only thing she could: “Can we talk about this at home?” she asked. “In private?”
Immediately Joseph put his hand, and the ring, back in his pocket, and she watched the dawning shame and embarrassment creep up over his face, growing slowly red from the collar up. “All right, Leigh. If that's what you want.” Out of the corner of her eye she could see the confusion on Randall's face, and she wanted to shut her eyes and will herself away, far away, where she wouldn't be the cause of hurting these two wonderful men, these two men who loved her and believed in her and who'd given her a life when she thought she'd had none.
There was only the room, the silence, the slow clearing of throats
and murmurs of discomfort. Over Joseph's left shoulder, in a cluster of wisteria, a moth flew into the lantern, caught its wings on the flame, and lit itself on fire.
On the cab ride north Joseph was nearly silent while Leigh kept up a steady stream of chatter about the fall list, about people at work, about authors she was struggling with, gossip from the London Book Fair, the first week's sales figures for
The Perfect Letter
âanything to avoid talking about what had happened back at the restaurant, the way the party had started to break up after Joseph's disastrous proposal, people filtering out of the restaurant in groups of twos and threes, giving Leigh another (more muted) round of congratulations and shooting Joseph sympathetic looks as they departed.
Finally Leigh had collected her purse and checked around the restaurant one last time for anything forgotten, anything left behind, and only then did she look Joseph in the eyes, once, quickly, and then away. His brown eyes, usually so lively whenever they looked at her, were muddy with sorrow. She'd wounded him deeply, this man she cared about. He'd been sure, so sure, of getting the answer he wanted.
When the cab pulled up to the front of her building, she opened the door, then turned back to Joseph. “Are you coming up?” she asked.
He sat perfectly still, looking out the window. He turned toward her a little but would not meet her eyes again. “Do you still want me to?”
“You know I do. I said so before. I think . . .” But she didn't know what to think. She touched the sleeve of his jacket, feeling the warmth coming from inside. “Just come up. Nothing's changed. I promise.”
“I don't know,” he said, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly. “Maybe I should leave you alone tonight. Maybe we should have some time apart, to think.”
“No,” she said, fear suddenly seizing at her heart. “That's not what I want. Please. I said I wanted to talk at home, and I meant it. Please come in. Please talk to me.”
Finally he looked up. The hurt in his eyes was clear. “All right.” He paid the cabdriver and followed her into the building.
They got in the elevator to ride up to Leigh's eighth-floor apartment, a modern one-bedroom in a high-rise filled with light and glossy surfacesâpolished chrome, granite, glassâthe kind of city apartment she used to dream about long ago as a kid in Texas. It was a haven for her, an oasis of calm in the middle of the city. And it was entirely hersâshe didn't have to share it with anyone.
Upstairs she put her purse near the door, hung up her coat, put her keys in the dish on the table by the front door. During the cab ride home she'd been trying to think of what to say, how to say it, how to keep intact what she and Joseph had, what she valued in him and didn't want to throw away.
I love things the way they are, Joseph,
Let's not rush into anything,
You know how much I care about you.
She looked at his face in the light of her front hallway, his soft dark eyes shadowed underneath, and she knew she'd hurt him, though she hadn't meant to. She had not agreed to marry him, publicly, in front of all their friends.
Finally he asked, “Is it me? Is there something about me that you can't, you justâ?”
Turning, she caught him on the mouth, her lips moving over his still ones. He was stiff; he wouldn't let himself touch her. He was resisting. He didn't want to reconcile, didn't want to let himself feel better. She pulled him toward her, but he held himself away. He was wallowing in his suffering, and that made her angry all of a suddenâwhat did he know about suffering? Because his girlfriend had not accepted his marriage proposal? Did he always have to get his way? Did he have to have the whole world and Leigh Merrill, too?
Joseph cleared his throat and avoided Leigh's gaze, clearly embarrassed by the emotions he could no longer keep hidden, and then she felt awful for having been angry with him. She pulled him closer, and he relaxed into her, his naturally thin, wiry frame pressing into hers. He was tallâa good six-foot-five, built like a basketball player, lanky and strong as a steel wire. She enjoyed the feel of his smooth, cool hands on her shoulders, in the small of her back, pulling her tightly to him.
Gently he stripped off her sweater. He reached his hand toward her breast and stopped. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Are you sure you want to?”