A slow-burning new romance is coming in a few days from Max Monroe—featuring a writer’s block-ridden fantasy novelist who, after one too many glasses of wine, ends up sending her hot new editor a steamy piece of fangirl fiction she’s written about herself and him—and I have the first chapter for you.
Wednesday April 26th
April 26th came too soon.
I sit in a fancy, plush cream chair in the waiting area of my editor’s office, and my knees bounce with the kind of nervous energy that threatens to catapult me into outer space without needing Jeff Bezos’s penis rocket.
My purse digs into my back from its awkward spot behind me, and it paints the perfect picture of how anxious I’m feeling about being face-to-face with Chase Dawson again. It’s not every day that you diddle your doodle to the distinct image of someone’s uber-attractive face to put yourself to sleep every night, and then have a professional meeting with them.
It’s just not that common.
I wrestle the offending bag like it’s a gator in a swamp, and Benji lifts his head off the carpet quizzically. It’s not hard to tell what he’s thinking—you, lady, are a psychopath.
After three deep breaths in and out to calm my racing heart, I finally manage the transition of my bag from the chair to the floor, and Benji lays his head back down with a soft groan.
I know, Benj. I’m annoyed with myself too.
Chase comes around the corner suddenly—not really, I’m just at DEFCON level one—and I startle in the chair hard enough to make it rock onto its back legs. I swear I see Benji roll his eyes from the floor, but he doesn’t bother to pick up his head. Saving his energy, I presume, for when I’m interacting with my crush, and he has to be on alert to make sure I don’t pass out.
Or, if I do pass out, make sure I do it with the kind of grace that prevents head contusions and stitches.
Chase doesn’t notice me at first, which is probably for the best, and I try to remind myself that a lady shouldn’t gawk or have drool dripping out of her mouth.
“Good morning,” he chirps cheerfully to his assistant, who’s stationed at the desk ten feet in front of me. He picks up his messages from her waiting hand and smiles so brilliantly my chest hurts.
“Good morning, Mr. Dawson,” she returns easily.
God, he’s a beautiful human being. High cheekbones, a strong jaw, and a perfect complexion are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his Clark Kent-esque charm. He’s tall, but not too tall, and just fit enough to see the hint of muscular bulges beneath his crisp, collared shirt. He also has the algorithm for grooming balance nailed. Kempt, but not super feminine, Chase Dawson might as well be red-hot candy in human form.
He turns on his heel, and that brilliant smile is now focused on yours truly.
God help me.
“Brooke,” he croons deeply, closing the distance between us and kneeling down to give Benji a scratch behind the ears. My sweet canine moans that it feels so good. I only wish I knew the feeling.
“It’s great to see both of you, and I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting,” he continues, that smile never wavering despite the risks it’s causing to my sanity. “Morning meeting ran a little long. They apparently didn’t get the memo about who my visitors were for today.”
I return his smile, still unable to form actual words. Pathetic, Brooke. Pathetic.
“I also have one quick phone call to make, if that’s okay with you,” he adds, and his full, perfect lips turn down at the corners. “I feel terrible to keep you and Benji waiting any more than you already have, but I’m afraid if I don’t make this call, they won’t keep me around to edit for you, and I’d absolutely hate that.”
“Uh-huh.” I nod, and it feels like my neck doesn’t understand there’s a point where you need to stop nodding before you look like one of those bobblehead toys they give away at baseball games. “That’s…of cour…mm…fine,” I mumble. My tongue trips over itself because apparently I am a toddler learning how to speak for the first time.
For the love of everything, get it together.
I swallow. Clear my throat. And attempt my best impression of a casual woman who hasn’t been having sexual fantasies about the wickedly handsome man standing in front of her. Though, my impression is more of a silent film version, where I don’t say a word but offer a far-too-big smile in his direction.
If Benji were wearing his Batman costume today, I could be his Joker.
“Do you want any coffee? Some tea? Maybe a cookie or two?” He winks. He winks. At me. “If you snack on the good stuff, they let me have some too.”
“U-um, suuu…sure.” I clear my throat again, trying to remind my vocal cords they have thirty-one years of experience at their job and need to start using it. “Coffee would be great.” As would a lobotomy with a rusty knife and no anesthesia at this stage of discomfiture.
Chase chuckles a little, and I panic that I’ve just said the line about the brain removal aloud. I look at Benji, who’s studying me closely, thanks to many rapid changes in my heart rate. Did I just say that out loud?
The backstabbing, adorable bastard in the Thor getup and service dog vest doesn’t answer, instead tilting his head to get another scratch from Chase. That’s it. I’m canceling the Captain America costume order when I get home.
Chase’s assistant gets up with a nod, not even having to be told to carry out my coffee and cookie order directly, and Chase gives Benji one final rub behind his ears and stands up straight.
“I’ll just be one minute,” he promises, his impressive white line of teeth on display, courtesy of his smile.
I nod. A minute is good. A minute gives me time to gather myself out of the pile of goo on the floor and try to remember how to put a motherflipping sentence together.
Chase glances over at me for a moment, and then, even though I didn’t think it was possible, his grin grows. “You look great in purple, Brooke.”
“T-thank you.” Your tongue would look great on my nipples.
His grin turns megawatt, and again, I have a brief moment of panic, wondering if I said the thing I didn’t mean to say. Of course I didn’t say that out loud. Lord knows he wouldn’t be grinning. He’d be, like, running for the hills or something. But holy moly, why can’t I distinguish reality anymore, especially when my thoughts are this demented?
Chase heads into his office behind me, and the glass door to my right falls closed almost painfully slowly.
His voice is distinct, cheerful, and confident as I hear him at the beginning of his call. “Jim, I got your message about the Beranski deal. I have a couple of ideas for strategy if you’re ready…”
His voice fades out as the door finally settles into place, and I let go of the tension I didn’t know I’d rammed into the base of my spine like a rod. I’ve been white-knuckling the armrests of this chair so tightly that my fingerprints are visible in the creamy velvet. My palms are also sweaty, and I discreetly wipe them down the front of the lavender dress Chase said I look good in.
News flash: He said you look good in the color. Not good in the dress.
I want to smack myself across the face but decide that’s not a good look since the office behind me that contains the man who makes me turn into a moony-eyed crazy person is made of a glass door and glass windows. Pretty sure witnessing someone slap themselves is a huge red flag.
Of course, Benji is on his feet now, likely sensing the impending disaster my little emotional breakdown is liable to cause.
Using the breathing techniques I’ve learned over the years, I work vigorously to bring myself back from the brink of unconsciousness, glancing over my shoulder briefly to get another look at Chase’s comforting smile.
Because for as much as he riles me up, he also calms me down, and yes, I am aware I’ve never sounded more insane than I do right now. Thanks for asking.
Since Chase’s assistant, whose name my fogged-up brain can’t seem to remember, is down the hall and Benji and I are alone, I don’t censor myself while trying to regain control. I take several deep breaths—enough that I’m pretty sure I’m responsible for the entirety of the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange on the planet—until I’ve melted back into a semi-recognizable version of the woman I aspire to be.
Come on, Brooke. You’re acting a little immature right now, don’t you think? Adults can have crushes without melting down, for heaven’s sake.
There she is—the voice I paid one hundred dollars an hour to find in post-divorce therapy.
And even better, she’s right. Sure, I find Chase Dawson dreamy in the way that suggests I should participate in a sleep study or two, but as a rational, professional, compartmentalizing-capable adult, there’s no reason I can’t find a way to be “Work Brooke” for the next thirty to forty-five minutes. She’s a badass. She knows her worth. She, unlike the anxious me, sometimes recognizes how meaningful it is to have landed a Netflix deal and live in an apartment in Lenox Hill that doesn’t inherently smell like moldy cheese and farts.
Newly pepped, I straighten the line of my spine and sit up tall in my chair. Benji notices, giving me a canine nod of pride.
We got this. I wink at him.
I fold my hands in my lap and try to position myself in my chair until my legs are crossed and I look like a professional woman who isn’t at all on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I am victorious.
Squeaky wheels chatter with Chase’s assistant Dawn’s—go me, remembering her name and everything!—return, the chocolate cookies atop the cart she’s pushing harkening my mental win like a siren on a slot machine in Vegas.
She smiles politely, parking the catering rollaway right in front of me and locking the wheels. “I thought you might want to go ahead and have a cookie or two while you’re waiting—though, he shouldn’t be long.”
“Thanks,” I reply, my voice belying my now obvious affection for Dawn. She’s, like, really nice.
With a quick nod and a wink, she returns to her desk and dives right back into work. I’m almost astonished. I mean, she didn’t even pick up her phone and scroll TikTok or anything.
If only you had her willpower, maybe Garden of Forever would’ve ended up good and you wouldn’t be here stressing—
I squash that thought before it can even grow legs.
I look down at Benji and note that he is studying Dawn too, and I’m sure it’s because he’s never seen such focus before. Her fingers roll across her keyboard like they’re one memo away from solving world peace, and I’m convinced the modern me would never make it in a job outside of writing.
Thanks to my fascination with Dawn, I don’t realize that Chase has opened the door until he’s standing right next to me, his smile nearly all the way wound up.
“You ready?” he asks, causing a jerk in the muscles of my neck so violent that a shooting zing of pain rolls up the side of my face. No doubt, I’ll be working out that new kink for the next week.
“O-oh,” I stutter. “Y-yes. Let’s do it!” My fist pumps in the air as though it has a very Jersey mind of its own, and Chase laughs. Like, throws back his head while his chuckles make his vocal cords pump at the line of his sexy throat.
By God. No wonder I wrote a book about this guy.
“Fantastic!” he cheers then, holding out a hand to help me out of my chair. “I love the enthusiasm.”
It’d be so easy to get embarrassed again right now, but thanks to all the willpower I can fit inside my five-foot-six body and desperation born from years of dealing with my own awkwardness, I manage to place my sweaty, clammy hand into his completely dry one and stand. Benji pushes to his feet at our sides and follows us into the office obediently.
I don’t realize until we’re entirely through the door that I’m still gripping his hand and drop it like it has the power to burn my skin right off my bones. But Chase continues to maintain so much nonchalance that I’m honestly not even sure if he noticed.
The door falls closed behind us, its path still creepily slow, and Chase rounds his desk to the other side, all while holding out a hand to the chairs at the front.
“Take a seat,” he suggests warmly, tucking his tie close to his abdomen so that it doesn’t get caught on his desk as he sinks into his chair.
He’s a professional suit guy, but not in the way that’s boring. Of course not. He could never be boring. Everything he wears, every pair of dress pants and every collared shirt and suit jacket, fits his body like a glove. I’m certain he gets his clothes tailored. It’s either that or he just has one of those perfect bodies where everything fits him.
I, on the other hand, have one of those bodies where finding a good pair of jeans that fits me is like finding the golden ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar.
“You know, Brooke, I’ve been looking forward to this meeting for weeks,” Chase admits unabashedly, rolling up the sleeves of his white button-down shirt almost recklessly until both veiny forearms are exposed.
“You have?” I hear my mouth question with an apparent mind of its own.
“Heck yeah. Longstrand wanted me because of the book I hand-picked at my old publishing house landing on the New York Times for twenty-nine weeks. And you’re the reason I wanted Longstrand.”
I can’t be too sure, but I seem to have swallowed my tongue. Seriously, I think I can feel it in my throat.
He chuckles a little, his cheeks heating to the most subtle color of rose. “That sounds pretty creepy the more I think about it. But I’m a fan of your work, and my sister…well, she’s a superfan. I’d have been excommunicated from the family tree if I didn’t jump at a chance to work with you.”
I’m flattered and flabbergasted all at once. I’m flattergasted.
“You’d read my stuff before you came here?”
“Yes. I think I read the first book in your Shadow Brothers Trilogy within the first month of its release, before the presses even heated up too much. I knew instantly it was going to be a hit. You’ve got an ease of prose that lulls the reader into submission. To be honest, being so familiar with your work is what made this one all the more of a surprise.”
A surprise? Surprisingly bad, he means.
And just like that, the whole reason I’m here, sitting across from the most handsome man who has ever lived, hits me like a semitruck careening off the highway.
Today’s conversation is about Garden of Forever. And I know that manuscript isn’t worthy of publication. I knew it when I was writing it. I knew it when I wrote The End. And I definitely knew it when I hit send on the email addressed to Chase Dawson at Longstrand Publishing.
Shit, shit, shit. I knew they’d never let that heaping pile of fly-covered cow manure go to print.
The need for flight pounds in my temples, and I consider just up and darting out of the office like one of those little psychotic birds—barn swallows. My grandparents had a barn swallow problem when I was a kid, and it was fascinating to see the way those feathered lunatics would just recklessly fly all over the place.
“That said,” Chase continues. “I’m seriously impressed by the seamlessness of the transition.”
What? What transition? Transition from being a successful novelist to a rock-bottom hack who can’t write?
“Brooke.” Chase smiles like he’s really proud. “This is good. Really f*cking good, if you’ll excuse the language.”
Um…what? “Y-you…you like it?”
“Yes.” He nods. “I have some modest ideas that I think can really turn up the emotional tug to an eleven, but Clive and River’s chemistry is undeniable. Their story is magnetic, Brooke. Truly captivating.”
Did he just say Clive and River? Brain cells wither, and a blinding light cut only by the shadow of a dark man with a scythe paralyzes me. Sweet Lord and the land of Jesus, I know this man did not just say the name of the character I’ve written about him.
Right? Tell me for the love of everything holy that’s not possible. Those words were never meant to see the light of day, let alone land on his desktop. Inside that fangirl fiction book that no one should have ever seen, I wrote some seriously sexy fantasies, described down to the minutest of details. I put my pen to the paper—fingers to the keyboard—in the hope that I’d bleed out any and all feelings for my hot editor from my system. I did not write any of those words with the intention of having them read.
As a matter of fact, if I had, I’m more than certain I would have omitted ninety-nine percent of them. If I’d known Chase, of all people, would see that manuscript, the book would’ve been so fade to black that all that would’ve been left would have been two lines of dialogue that overutilized the word hello.
“Hello, River. I’m Clive.”… “Hello, Clive. I’m River.”… The End.
Chase is still smiling at me, and my heart is taking it personal. Up-up-up the rate of my ventricles pumping blood throughout my body increases. I grip the armrests of the chair, and white dots start to take over my peripheral vision.
“Accidental Attachment is fantastic, Brooke. Clive and River together are fire. Their passion has an intensity you can feel.”
Okay, yeah, I’m no longer on the brink of passing out. It’s coming; I can feel it.
It makes me think of this blooper reel I saw on YouTube where a man passed out live on air while in the middle of a conversation with a news anchor. His face went from red to white, and his final words were “I’m gone” before he fell like a stack of dominoes to the floor.
“Honestly, their sex is some of the hottest I’ve ever read in my life,” Chase adds, and yeah…
Benji jumps to his feet in front of me and starts nudging, trying to keep my attention long enough to get me into a suitable position. You wouldn’t necessarily think of the fact that there are both good and bad ways to hit the floor when your body turns into a limp sack of noodles, but as a resident expert on the issue, I’m here to tell you it’s true.
Benji’s primary purpose is to alert me before I’m past the brink of lights-out-ville, but in the event—such as this—that the tank in my blood pressure is too fast for even a SuperDog, he has to settle for finding a way to prevent me from splitting my head open.
The room spins, and vomit percolates, right there, just at the back of my throat, waiting to spray its embarrassing chunks all over the hunkiest man I’ve ever seen’s office.
It really wouldn’t be so surprising, though. Because for as successful as I seem on paper, I’m also in the top one percenters of awkwardness. This is all just par for the course in Brooke Baker world.
“Brooke? You okay?” I hear Chase question foggily, almost like he’s standing on the other side of a bridge in a distant haze.
I try to answer, I think, but my words are nothing more than garbled gravel on my lethargic tongue. Benji gets impatient, shoving his body between mine and the side of the chair and effectively sliding me off the front edge like a rubber waterfall. I land none-too-gently on my ass, but the sting is nothing compared to the one I feel seeping into every vestige of my pride.
With quick paws and a soft bark, Benji rounds the space behind me and jumps on my back, forcing my head between my legs and a slight awareness to return to my mind.
“Oh my God, Brooke,” Chase croons in a way that seems both distressed and controlled from right in front of my face. I’d love to be able to focus on the perfect, passionate blue of his dreamboat eyes from this unexpectedly close position, but to be quite honest, I’m a little too occupied with using all my basic functions to avoid peeing myself.
Yep. That’s right. Unfortunately for me and the universe, one of the main side effects of going unconscious unexpectedly is losing control of your bladder. As if the humiliation of the whole thing isn’t enough for people like me, the Almighty decided, “Hey, why don’t we also let them piss themselves?”
No offense to God or anything. He obviously did a good job with everything else. I’m just a little bitter about this one tiny thing.
Benji woofs softly beside me, licking at the apple of my cheek and bringing a tingle to my face. I’m coming back from the precipice—hallelujah—but all my thoughts are still sluggish.
Still, I fight hard, and I manage a horrifying fake smile for Chase. His eyebrows draw together in concern, and I pointedly ignore them.
“I’m okay, I think. Just ensuring my memories last longer by making them dramatic.” The joke falls flat, but that’s okay. I’m sure he’d find me funnier if all the blood hadn’t drained from my face.
“Can I get you anything at all? Some water? A soda? What would help?”
What would help most is to go back in time and not fall off my chair and nearly pass out during a work-related meeting, but since that’s not really an option, the soda is probably ranked at number two.
“I’ll take a Coke if you’ve got one. It usually helps.”
“Dawn, get me a Coke, please. Quick!” Chase yells through the glass wall of his office from his knees beside me, not even bothering to explain. Given my little-girl crush on the Super Secretary, I’m really hoping she doesn’t take offense at her boss’s barking orders on my behalf.
I focus on breathing—and you know, not looking Chase directly in the eye—for the next minute at least. Normally, I’d be dedicated to focusing on how he was feeling about the situation, about me, about the book—dear God, the book—but if I’m ever going to make it off this tan Berber carpet floor of his, I’m going to have to spend a little time on me.
The sound of Chase’s glass door’s hinges sliding open comes quickly, and Dawn’s presence looms over the two of us. “Oh my gosh, is she okay?”
“Just testing out the floor as my zen space,” I tease. “As the British would say, it’s rubbish.”
Chase chuckles, thankfully, and the momentary excitement of having my humor land is enough to get me up onto my knees and into the chair. Chase keeps a hand on my back to steady me, Dawn braces the seat, and Benji crowds the front of my legs to ensure I keep moving in the right direction.
Dear Lord. A hunk, a costume-wearing canine, and a powerhouse woman who obviously has a heart of gold. Somewhere, there’s a writer just wishing they could write a scene like this. I know it.
Dawn twists off the top of the bottle of Coke and places it in my hand, even going so far as to curl my fingers around the bottle for me. “Got it?” she asks, and I nod.
“If you need anything else at all, you just let me know. There’s a deli a couple of buildings over. I could get you a sandwich or some soup or—”
“Thank you so much,” I interrupt as politely as possible. “But just the Coke should help. Plus, you already brought those cookies, and I think they’ll be really disappointed if I don’t eat them.”
Dawn moves so she’s easily in my line of sight and gives me a warm smile before going back out the door. Chase nods at her over my shoulder, and as much as my nosy ass would like to, I don’t know why.
Benji, evidently satisfied with my progress, finally abandons his alert and curls himself up on the floor at the side of my chair. Chase notices. “Hey, that seems like a good sign.”
I nod softly. “I’m no longer posing a threat to your carpet’s security.”
He laughs before joking, “Was it something I said?”
Sheesh. If he only knew the power of his words. Or his smile. Or his blue-as-the-sky eyes.
“No, no,” I cover. “Just…probably didn’t eat enough this morning or didn’t have as much caffeine as I normally do.” Liar, liar, five-cups-of-coffee-drinker’s pants on fire. “I’m feeling better, I promise.”
“Okay, good.” Instead of heading back for his chair, he leans his hips into the edge of the desk behind him and crosses his feet at the ankles, pressing his palms into the surface. “Still, just in case, I’ll try to keep the rest of this as short as possible. I really just wanted you to come in so I could give you an idea of the process we have ahead of us.”
“The process?” I ask dumbly. I mean, I’m three traditionally published books in with this publisher. Shouldn’t I know what to expect by now?
“Yes,” he says excitedly, rubbing his hands together. “It could be a little confusing since you have a contract with terms for Garden of Forever and we’re switching it up with this different manuscript.”
I feel clammy again, and by the look on Chase’s face, I’m guessing my skin is a matching shade of putrid.
“No, no, don’t worry, Brooke. I don’t think we’re in the weeds here. In fact, I think we’re ahead of the game. This new direction from you is just fresh enough to throw the market into overdrive. It showcases your talent in a way I don’t think Longstrand ever even considered. Going with this book is the right move. I’m confident in that. But now it’s my job to convince the other editors.”
“Convince them how?”
He smiles. “With my unrivaled pitching skills, of course. You did the hard work by writing a great book, and next Friday, I’m going to make sure everyone else understands just how confident I feel about it.”
“Do you think there’s going to be pushback about not complying with the terms of the title and content?” I ask through a thick throat. I mean, I have the correct book just sitting on my computer, waiting for someone who’s not an idiot to send the right file. It’s crap, but at least it’s what they asked for—and a little less life-ruining for me too.
“No,” Chase assures. “It’s a simple change for the reward of a bang-up best seller.”
I swallow hard. Some withered part of me is still screaming, I can’t believe this is happening!
“Once I get the go-ahead in the pitch, it’ll be up to us to work through all the content editing changes and potential improvements. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re probably going to be sick of me by the time this thing goes to print.”
“I’ve never believed in the potential of characters like I do River and Clive, and I know this isn’t your problem, but I have a hell of a lot to prove since this is my first fully solo project here. I won’t sleep until it’s perfect.”
“So…we’re going to be working really closely.”
“Most definitely,” he agrees, like that isn’t the biggest bombshell to the heart I could get.
Clive and River are a collection of everything I’ve ever dreamed about this man and me together.
And now, I’m going to have to dissect every single part of it while staring at his handsome face?
Better dry-clean your black outfits, ladies and gentlemen. Brooke Baker’s funeral is sure to be soon.