“Can I get you anything, Ms. Chase?” The question from the perky blonde flight attendant prompted Bronwyn to loosen her death grip on the armrests.
“No, thank you.” Brushing her long, dark hair out of her eyes, Bronwyn took a deep breath to calm her frazzled nerves. She hated flying.
“In that case, would you please sign this for me?” Handing her a first-class menu and pen, the flight attendant snapped a picture with her phone, capturing Bronwyn’s cringe. “I can’t wait until your new novel comes out. I’ve read the last one twice preparing for it.”
Glancing uneasily at the passengers now looking at her, Bronwyn accepted the pen and paper. Scribbling her signature and a thank you blurb, she once again pondered the thought process of autograph seekers. “That’s very nice of you to say,” she murmured, handing back the menu and pen.
“I have to tell the other girls you’re on board.” Before Bronwyn could utter a word, the attendant disappeared behind the navy curtain separating the classes.
Leaning her head back, she began to feel anxious.
“So you’re a writer.”
Glancing over at the beer-bellied executive seated by the window beside her, Bronwyn resigned herself for a lengthy conversation. “Yes, I am.”
“Let me guess.” The man smiled, exposing a mouth full of gleaming white teeth. “Chick lit? Women nowadays seem to love that feminist stuff.”
“Historical romance,” she said hoping if she kept her answers short, he would take the hint.
Rudely eyeing her white button-down shirt, navy blazer, blue jeans and penny loafers, his full lower lip jutted out. “Never would have guessed it by the way you’re dressed.”
“I wasn’t aware there was a dress code for authors.”
“You should at least wear a skirt or something.” Noting the lack of cleavage her conservative outfit afforded, he added, “More feminine than what you got on.”
Biting back a sarcastic reply, Bronwyn plastered a smile on her face. “I’ll keep that in mind for my next flight.” Reaching for the carry-on bag beneath her feet, she began to rummage for her phone.
“So where you headed?” Mr. Exec flashed the hundred-watt smile again.
Losing patience, she stopped rummaging. “This is the plane to New York City, isn’t it?”
His loud barking laugh had other passengers craning their necks to look in their direction. “I meant are you heading home or away?”
“Away. I live in Chicago.”
“So what are your plans once we land? Obviously, you must be quasi-famous for the flight attendant to recognize you. Do you have an interview scheduled for one of the late shows or something?”
“Found it.” Snatching her smart phone, Bronwyn held it up. Not knowing or caring if it had the capability required she said, “Thanks for reminding me. I need to listen to the questions I’ll be asked.”
Inserting the earbuds, she caught a glimpse of the flight attendant coming back through the curtain. Pressing the play button on her music app., she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. Her favorite song by Avalon Landing began to play softly in her ears.
“Oh, is she sleeping?” she heard the flight attendant ask Mr. Exec in a disappointed drawl.
“She wasn’t a second ago,” Mr. Exec said throwing Bronwyn under the proverbial bus.
This cannot be happening to me, she thought, feigning sleep.
“Will you press the attendant button when she wakes?”
“Is she that famous?” Mr. Exec asked. “Aside from the woman who wrote that wizard series, I don’t think I could name one famous female author.”
“Ms. Chase is an international best-selling author,” the flight attendant said. “Her latest novel comes out at the end of the month. I’ve already preordered it.”
Bronwyn could feel Mr. Exec’s gaze rest on her. “I’ll ring you when she wakes, darlin.”
I hate flying, she thought.
Numerous scribbles later, and one firm rejection of Mr. Exec’s offer of dinner and a Broadway show, Bronwyn rode the escalator down to LaGuardia’s baggage claim.
Approaching a bald middle-aged man sporting a gray goatee, she gestured to the pre-printed placard he held bearing her name. “Hello, I believe you are waiting for me.”
“Welcome to New York, Ms. Chase. Do you have checked baggage?”
“Unfortunately, I do.” Dreading the thought of running into Mr. Exec again, she scanned the arriving passengers crowding around the luggage carousel.
“Does it match your carry-on, Ms. Chase?”
Holding up her black and burgundy designer tote, she said, “Yes, it does.”
“Then, if I may, I will escort you to the car and come back for it. It shouldn’t be too hard to locate.”
“You would do that for me?” Mentally exhausted, she felt like hugging the man.
“Certainly,” the driver said with a look of surprise. “Please follow me.”
Settled in the back of a plush black four-door sedan, she stared out the window at the frenetic Thursday afternoon airport traffic while the driver returned to the terminal for her suitcase.
In a weak moment, Bronwyn had allowed her agent to talk her into appearing on a popular daily variety show to promote the release of her latest novel. Counting the hours until her early Friday morning time slot, she felt sick to her stomach.
She toyed with the idea of taking a Xanax but decided against it. The anti-anxiety drug her doctor prescribed for her made her feel tired and disconnected.
Stowing her suitcase in the trunk, the driver climbed behind the wheel. “I’m scheduled to drop you off and wait at Salon Très Magnifique before taking you on to the Hotel Sorte. Does that still suit you, Ms. Chase?”
Swallowing the burning bile forcing its way up her throat, Bronwyn could only imagine what form of torture Carmela had in store for her at the salon. “It’s fine if it’s on the schedule.”
Pulling up alongside the curb of the swanky Manhattan salon, the driver handed her a card. “I can’t park here so please give me a call when you’re finished and I’ll pick you up curbside.”
“I’ll do that.” Bronwyn glanced at the card. “Albert?”
“That’s me,” Albert said with a grin. “I take it you’re a low maintenance kind of lady?”
“Excuse me?” Despite it being true, Bronwyn felt offended. It took her over a week to prepare for the trip, every article of clothing meticulously chosen to exude a confidence she did not feel.
“I meant it as a compliment,” Albert said. “After dealing with celebrities on a daily basis—”
“Say no more,” she interrupted with a smile, “I think I know what you mean.”
Seeing a meter maid approach, Albert stepped out to open her door. “I’ll be waiting for your call, Ms. Chase.” Leaning close, he added, “It’s on the schedule to enjoy the pampering.”
“Thank you, Albert.”
An hour later, she studied her reflection in the gild framed mirror. Strips of aluminum foil covered her straight jet-black hair, doing unimaginable things to it.
“You don’t look like I thought you would.”
Bronwyn raised her eyes on the mirror to meet the gaze of the blue-haired colorist standing behind her.
“Pardon me?” She had a flashback of her conversation with Mr. Exec. She obviously did not fit into the ideal romance writer mold.
“All your heroines have the ultimate rockin’ bods.” Ms. Blue wrinkled her pert nose at Bronwyn’s conservative apparel. “Your professory getup does nothing at all to emphasize your assets.”
“Sorry to disappoint you,” she responded dryly. Professory? Rockin’ bod? Were they even words?
“I can help, ya know.” Ms. Blue leaned into Bronwyn’s comfort zone. “Your eyes are your most striking feature, almost silver.” She glanced around at the crowded salon before whispering, “I can give you a complete makeover in my apartment for cheap.”
Bronwyn looked confused. “Isn’t that what you’re doing now?”
“Honey, hair and nails alone does not make a woman beautiful.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’m good with the hair and nails.”
“Suit yourself.” Ms. Blue stalked off without checking the status of Bronwyn’s hair.
Fifteen minutes later, she began to wonder if Ms. Blue would be coming back. The last thing she needed was fried hair for her interview tomorrow.
Thankfully, a blond male stylist who introduced himself as Tim showed up to remove the foil and rinse the gunk out of her hair. Using a comb to work out the tangles, he looked at her in the mirror. “Have you ever considered a shorter hair style?”
“To be perfectly honest, I never gave it much thought.”
“How about I add some layers to emphasize your high cheekbones?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I think I’ll stick with just a trim, but thank you for the suggestions.”
With an exaggerated sigh, Tim reached for the scissors.
Two hours, a facial, manicure, pedicure, haircut and blessedly subtle bronze highlights later, she stepped past the bustling crowd on the sidewalk to the curb.
Pocketing her phone after calling Albert, she spotted the sedan easing through traffic toward her. Double-parking in front of the salon, she waved for him to remain in the car.
“I’m so sorry it took so long,” she said climbing into the backseat. “I had no idea my agent scheduled me for the works.”
“It was well worth the wait. You look beautiful.”
Blushing at the unexpected compliment, she bit her lip, feeling awkward. Since having her first novel published five years ago at the age of seventeen, she found herself thrust into a world of flattery and compliments from people who would not normally have given her the time of day.
Albert glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “I’m scheduled to take you to the hotel now. Is there anywhere you would like to stop on the way?”
“The hotel’s fine.” Just the thought of wandering the city alone put her on edge.
Stuck behind a sea of yellow taxies, Albert made slow headway. “I hope this traffic doesn’t interfere with your evening plans.”
Focused on the pedestrians crowding the sidewalks, she absently admitted, “I don’t have any plans for this evening.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, how long is your visit?”
“I fly out of LaGuardia tomorrow afternoon.” Completely surrounded by people and buildings she began to feel claustrophobic. Imagining a meadow filled with wild flowers she inhaled several calming breaths.
“I’m sorry, I must have been daydreaming. Could you repeat that?”
“I was wondering if you would like to join me tonight for an abbreviated tour of the city.”
“Oh, um, I appreciate the offer, but I have to get up early.” Could she sound any lamer?
Stopping at a red light, Albert peered into the rearview mirror. “The invitation was meant as a friendly gesture.”
“I didn’t say anything.” She felt her cheeks flame before breaking eye contact.
“You didn’t have to,” Albert said with a chuckle. “I am quite good at reading people and your face is an open book. No pun intended.”
Despite herself, Bronwyn laughed at the joke.
“It’s an open invitation,” he said turning his focus to the road. “You have my card should you change your mind.”
Slipping through a break in traffic, he eased the car to the curb in front of the historic Hotel Sorte. A doorman clad in a navy blazer with gold trim opened her door as she dug in her bag for her wallet.
“No need for that, Ms. Chase. Your agent included a generous tip.”
“Oh, okay,” she said stepping from the car. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Albert.” The funny thing was, she meant it.
Dreading the thought of a long night alone fretting about her upcoming interview, she paused on the curb as the doorman retrieved her suitcase from the trunk.
Before she could change her mind, she rapped on the sedan’s passenger window.
The window whirred down. “Did you forget something, Ms. Chase?”
“Is your offer of a tour still good, Albert?” she asked, hating the anxiety she detected in her voice.
“Shall I meet you in the lobby around seven?”
After a brief hesitation, she blurted, “Seven is fine, and please call me Bronwyn.”
“Bronwyn it is,” Albert said with a grin. “The concierge’s name is Stanley. He can vouch for me.”
“Oh, I didn’t have any doubt about… I’ll see you at seven.” Entering the hotel, she was surprised to find herself looking forward to touring the city.
After checking in at the front desk, she took the elevator to the fourth floor. Knowing her fear of heights, Carmela reserved rooms for her no higher than the eighth floor. Beyond that, ladder trucks would have difficulty reaching her in the event of a fire, one of many things on her list of phobias.
Tipping the bellhop, she closed the door to her suite with a sense of relief. Glad for the silence after so much noise, she dropped her bag on the bed and swept back the curtains to check out the impressive view of Central Park.
The phone ringing had her lunging across the queen-size bed to answer it. “Hello?”
“Bronwyn.” Carmela’s shrill voice crackled through the receiver.
“Hi, Carmela. Why didn’t you call me on my cell?”
“Your phone must be switched off, dear. I’ve been trying to reach you for hours.” Carmela dragged out hours as if she were speaking of days. “Didn’t you get any of my voicemails?”
“But I called…” After turning off her phone on the plane for landing, she remembered switching it back on to call Albert.
“Why didn’t you call me when you landed?”
“It must have slipped my mind.”
“Never mind that now. How’s the anxiety level?”
“I’m fine.” She hated it when Carmela treated her like a child.
“Wonderful,” Carmela said. “Listen, honey, I managed to get you an appearance on one of the late shows tomorrow. Not the late show, but you are the youngest author to debut at number one so a plug is a plug. I already cancelled your return trip. I don’t suppose you’d consider staying in the city a bit longer?”
“From the sounds of it, I already am. How much longer did you have in mind?” Already resigned to the fact that Carmela would bully her into staying, Bronwyn mentally prepared her defense.
“I have a shot at booking you for a primetime slot on June 22nd.”
“The twenty-second? Carmela, it’s only the seventeenth.”
“At least consider it?”
“Fine, I’ll consider it.” No way was she staying in New York that long.
She heard Carmela take a breath and waited for the onslaught.
“The morning show is live so do whatever meditation thingy you do beforehand. Pop a Xanax if you have to. I can’t tell you what a nightmare it will be for me if you freeze on camera. After the morning interview, the driver will take you to the taping of the late show appearance, be sure to bring a change of clothes with you. It would be an unmitigated disaster if you were to wear the same thing twice. The navy dress is for the morning taping, the black for the evening show.”
“You packed me a dress for an appearance I wasn’t even scheduled for?”
“It’s my job to prepare,” Carmela said. “Now where was I? Oh yes, your driver will be in the lobby at five a.m. sharp. I take it you kept to today’s schedule?”
“I am as presentable as I will ever be,” she assured Carmela while twirling a finger through her glossy curls.
“Terrific. It’s… ten after six now. Order yourself room service, nothing too heavy, and get a good night’s sleep. I have a wake-up call set to ring you at four a.m. Do not forget to call me from the car in the morning. Any questions?”
Debating if she should mention her evening out, she decided to play it safe. “No questions, but I guess I should mention that I have plans to see some of the sights this evening.” Clenching her eyes shut, she waited for the inevitable stream of reasons why this was a horrendous idea. Greeted by silence, she ventured, “Carmela?”
“With a man?” The silky smooth tone of Carmela’s voice did not fool her for a second.
“It’s not like that.”
“You have been in the city for less than five hours. Where did you meet him?”
Regretting her decision to confide her plans, she said, “He’s the driver who picked me up at the airport.”
“So he knows who you are.”
“Do not take that tone with me, young lady,” Carmela snapped. “Who was it that emancipated you at the age of seventeen?”
She felt herself deflating the way she always did when Carmela brought up her past. “We both know it was you.”
“That’s right. It was me. Remind me again of how much money you pocketed from your first book?”
“I know what you did for me, Carmela. And you know how grateful I am.”
“Then you also know that I’m only looking after your best interests. A limousine driver is not fit company for someone like you. Order dinner, get some sleep, and call me in the morning.”
Someone like me? What was that supposed to mean? “Okay, Carmela,” she murmured. “I’ll call you from the car.” Hearing the click of the phone, Bronwyn set the phone back in its receiver.
Taking Albert’s card out of her bag, she stared at it. It was true. Carmela had rescued her from a bad situation with her final foster family. It was also true that her books had made Carmela a wealthy woman with an expanding public relations agency.
Checking the time, she began to prepare for her night out.