"You did what?" Kate Newman asked, tossing aside the letter from the IRS and shuffling through the papers piled on her desk. Maybe she would find something to negate what she'd read. Something that would magically make the whole tax mess disappear. "Tell me this is some kind of joke. Please."
No sound came from the chair across from her. She stopped and looked up. "Jeremy?"
Her friend and business partner sat defeated, shoulders slumped, head drooping like a withered sunflower. Even his ever jittering leg was still.
She picked up the letter again. Only one question left to ask. "How?"
A tear dripped onto his silk shirt before he lifted his head and met her gaze with the saddest puppy-dog eyes she'd ever seen. Jeremy enjoyed being a drama queen, but this time the theatrics were absent. He shook his head. "It's Victor."
"Victor?" she repeated, dumbly. "What does he have to do with the salon? With paying our taxes?"
The small office at the rear of their salon seemed to rock as the reality of the situation sank in. IRS. Taxes not paid. Future in peril. Kate grabbed the edge of the desk and focused on her business partner.
He swallowed before replying in a near whisper, "He's got cancer. It's in his bones now."
Her legs collapsed and she fell into her swivel chair. "Oh, my God. What kind?"
More tears slid down Jeremy's tanned cheeks. He closed his eyes, but not before she saw the torturous pain present within their honey depths. "He was diagnosed with testicular cancer two years ago. He underwent treatment, and the doctors said he was in the clear. We didn't think it was a big deal. We never even told anyone. But six months ago, the cancer came back. And you know when he lost his job, he lost his insurance."
Kate couldn't think of a thing to say. Her feelings were swirling inside her, tangling into a knot of sorrow and outrage. How could this happen? How could Jeremy's life partner be sick and her business at risk? The world had tipped upside down and now Kate was hanging on by her fingernails.
"I didn't know what to do. He was so sick…is so sick, and there was all that money sitting there in the bank. I thought I could pay it back in time. Kate, he's my life." Jeremy's last words emerged as a strangled plea before he broke into gut-wrenching sobs. "Please forgive me, Kate. I needed the money for his chemo. To stop the cancer. It didn't work."
She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the leather chair. She wanted to cry, to express some emotion, or punch Jeremy in the mouth. But all she felt was emptiness. Then fear crowded her heart, choking her with the sour taste of failure. How could she have let this happen? Why had she assumed Jeremy was taking care of their taxes?
"I don't know what to say, Jeremy. I'm seriously contemplating murder."
His shoulders shook harder.
Shit. As angry as she was with him, she knew she'd have done the same thing.
The sunlight pouring in the window seemed way too cheerful for such a day. It pissed her off, so she jerked the blinds shut. "Why didn't you tell me? Let me help you before it came to this?"
His sobs subsided into an occasional sniffle. She knew he hurt badly. His partner meant everything to him. The two men had been together for four years—they'd met at the launch of Fantabulous, Jeremy and Kate's high-energy salon located on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Jeremy and Victor had hit it off immediately, acting like an old married couple almost from the beginning. They were the happiest couple she knew.
"I couldn't. Victor is so private and didn't want anyone to know. He was adamant about it. You're my friend, but he's my partner. I promised, and until now, I kept the promise."
His eyes were plaintive. He could offer no other explanation and Kate couldn't blame him. She'd felt much the same way her whole life. Private. Elusive. Never one to offer up a motive.
"I don't expect you to forgive me, Kate, but there was nowhere else I could go for the money. I even called my parents." Jeremy's long fingers spread in a plea.
"They wouldn't help you," she said, shifting the colorful glass paperweight her friend had given her for Christmas. She wanted to yell at this particular friend, get it through his gel-spiked head, that somehow she would have helped, but it was too late.
"No. Didn't even return my call."
"So what are we going to do? Can't we stop this? Put the IRS off somehow?" Kate knew she sounded desperate. She felt frantic, sick. Vomit perched in the back of her throat. Although Vegas had taken a huge hit economically, they'd been making it, but money wasn't flowing the way it had when they'd first opened.
"I talked to my friend Wendell. He's a bankruptcy lawyer. He said if we could scratch up ten thousand, we might hold them off then see where we stand. He also said we might cut a deal with the IRS and pay a lesser amount on the back taxes."
"Ten thousand?" she echoed. She only had about three thousand in savings and she'd been dipping in to cover extra expenses for the past few months. She didn't own anything she could use for collateral, and they'd put a second mortgage on the salon for an expansion right before the economy tanked. She looked down at the three-hundred-dollar boots she'd bought before the holidays and thought she might be ill on them. She felt stupid. Dumb. She should have been better at saving her money.
Jeremy dropped his head into his hands.
"That feels like a fortune. I don't have it right now. No one does in this economy. The banks won't give us free suckers anymore, much less a loan," Kate said.
"I don't have the cash, either," he said. "I mean, obviously."
She pushed her hands through her hair and looked at the IRS letter. It ridiculed her with its tyrannical words. She wanted to rip it up, pretend it was a silly nightmare. Lose her business? Ha. Ha. Joke's on you, Kate, baby.
But no laughter came. Only the heavy silence of defeat.
Like a bolt of lightning, desperation struck. Once again she was a girl lying in the small bed inside her grandmother's tinfoil trailer, praying she'd have enough to make the payment on her class ring. Praying she'd have enough to buy a secondhand prom dress. Praying no one would find out exactly how poor Katie Newman was.
Her unfortunate beginning had made her hungry, determined to never feel so insignificant again.
She had to get out of the salon.
She snatched her Prada handbag from the desk drawer.
"Where you going?" Jeremy's head popped up. He swiveled to watch her stalk out of the small office.
"Anywhere but here," she said, trying to keep the panic from her voice. She felt as if someone had her around the throat, closing off her oxygen. She could hardly take in the temperate air that hit her when she flung open the back door.
"Kate! Wait! We have to tell Wendell something."
"Tell him to go to hell. I'll rot before they take the salon," Kate managed to say through clenched teeth. And she meant it. She didn't care what Jeremy had done. She wasn't going to lose her business. She'd go Scarlett O'Hara on them if she had to. The image of her clutching a fistful of deposit slips in the bank lobby crying out, "As God is my witness, I shall never go hungry again!" popped into her mind. She saw herself sinking onto the bank's cheap Oriental rug, tears streaming down her face.
She yanked open the door of her cute-as-a-button powder-blue VW Bug, plopped her purse on the seat and slid her sunglasses into place. "Screw 'em. I ain't giving in. Even if I have to sew a dress from my stupid-ass curtains, I'll get that money."
She wasn't making sense. She didn't care that she wasn't making sense. She needed money. She needed it fast.
And there was only one way for her to make money fast in Vegas. Blackjack.
Three hours later, Kate slid onto a leather stool in the casino lounge. For all the clanging and clinking going on outside the bar, it was eerily quiet in here. Curved lamps threw soft light on the polished dark walnut tables scattered around the room. Kate had chosen the nearly empty bar over a cozy table. She needed to be close to the liquor.
Blackjack had not been her friend. In fact, blackjack had taken her last hundred dollars and bitch slapped her.
"What'll it be?" said the bartender. He wore an old-fashioned white apron that suited the Old World ambience of the place. Soft music piping from the speakers settled over the few patrons.
Kate pursed her lips. "Grey Goose, twist of lime, three cubes of ice."
"Nice. I like a woman who drinks like a man." The voice came from her left. She glanced over at the guy.
"I wasn't aware vodka was a man's drink," she responded with a lift of one eyebrow, a move she'd perfected in junior high school.
"Touche," he said, sliding a predatory smile her way. He looked good. Toothy grin, disheveled brown hair, five o'clock stubble designed to make him doubly irresistible. Any other time and Kate might bite.
But not tonight.
She gave him a flashbulb smile and turned ever so slightly to her right. Stay away, buddy.
But he was like any other man—couldn't read a woman's body language. She felt him scoot closer.
The bartender set the glass in front of her. Without hesitating, she picked it up and downed the vodka in one swallow. It felt good sliding down her throat, burning a path to her stomach.
"And you drink like a man, too," her unwanted companion said.
Kate turned toward him, not bothering to toss him a smile this time. "How do you know I'm not a man? We're in Vegas."
His eyes raked her body. "I can see you're not a man."
Kate narrowed her eyes. "Good vision, huh? Well, don't trust your eyes. Don't trust anybody, for that matter."
She didn't say anything else, just turned from him and studied the way the light illuminated the bottles lining the mirrored bar. It made their contents glow, made them seductive.
Bars of "Sweet Caroline" erupted from her purse and she rifled through it until she found her cell phone. A quick glance at the screen and she knew her friend Billie had finally got around to returning her earlier call. Finally. She could seriously use a sympathetic shoulder. And not of the rumpled, sexy, "can I buy you a drink" variety.
She punched the answer button on her iPhone. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Oh, my God, I'm like so having an emergency here." Billie's normally sarcastic tone sounded like neurotic chicken. A whispery neurotic chicken.
"What's going on?"
"He freakin' proposed!"
"Nick?" Kate asked, picking up the fresh drink in front of her.
"No, the Easter Bunny," Billie huffed into the phone. "I'm in the bathroom. Oh, God. I don't know what to say…I think I'm hyperventilating."
Kate pulled the phone from her ear and stared at it. Where was her calm, self-assured friend? The one she needed now that her business was doomed? "Okay, first thing, head between your knees."
"The toilet area's not real clean. I'm gonna stand."
Kate wanted to scream that she'd lost everything today and didn't need to hear about Nick and his damned proposal. But she didn't. Instead she said, "Okay."
"Kate, he has a ring and everything. He actually got down on one knee." Billie's voice now sounded shell-shocked. "I didn't know what to do."
Kate picked up the vodka and tossed it back. It felt as good going down as the first one. "So you said."
"I said I had to go pee," Billie whispered.
Kate couldn't help it. She laughed.
"Don't you dare laugh, Kate Newman!" Billie snapped. "This is not funny."
Kate sobered. Well, kinda sobered. The vodka was working its magic. "You're right. It's not funny. It's sweet."
"You can't be serious," Billie whispered. "He's talking marriage. Marriage, Kate!"
Kate heard something muffled in the background, then Billie's quick intake of breath. Then she heard Billie call, presumably to Nick, that she'd be right out.
"Okay, stop chewing your hair."
"Do you love him?" Kate asked.
"Yes. I totally love him," Billie whispered. "Then say yes."
"Are you joking?" Billie said. "Did you just tell me to say yes? You don't believe in marriage."
It was true, she didn't—well, at least not for herself. Love was fairy-tale bullshit. She shouldn't be giving relationship advice to a dead cockroach, much less a living, breathing friend. "I don't. But you do."
The line remained silent.
"Can you imagine waking up with him every morning even when he's old and wrinkly and…impotent? Can you imagine watching your grandchildren together? Filing joint taxes? Painting a nursery?" Kate couldn't seem to stop the scenarios tumbling from her lips. "How about picking out china patterns or cleaning up your kids' vomit—"
"Okay. I get it. Yes," Billie said.
"Then hang up, open the door and take that ring."
Kate punched the end button and tossed the phone on the bar. If Billie was so stupid as to reject a man who loved her despite her seriously weird attributes, then she deserved to stay locked in Nick's bathroom. With pee on the floor.
When she looked up, the bartender and her previously pushy friend stared at her as if she'd lost her mind. Well, she had. And her business along with it. And now Billie wasn't even available to her. Kate was on her own.
Before she'd hit the ATM machine several hours earlier, she'd contemplated borrowing the money she needed from Billie. As a successful glass artist with international acclaim, her friend had steady cash flow even in a bad economy. But Kate never asked for help. And to do so now, with a friend, felt not cool. With a possible wedding on the horizon for Billie, ten thousand would be hard to spare. Besides, if she were going to borrow money, it would be from her absolute best friend who lived in Texas and was loaded to the gills with old oil money. But Kate had never asked Nellie to help her before, not even when Kate had dropped out of college her freshman year to go to beauty school and spent three months eating bologna and ramen noodles.
She couldn't bring herself to do it. Kate had always relied on herself to make it through whatever problem arose, and this was no different.
But what would she do? There was no way the salon could generate extra income in the coming months. It was post-Christmas and debt squashed unnecessary services for regular customers. Many spas had closed their doors and many friends had gone from esthetician to cocktail waitress in the past few months.
Of course, it never occurred to Liz to write a book until her college roommate said, "You read so many of those things, why don't you write one?" The idea stuck with her. After a stint as an English teacher and stay at home mom, Liz found writing a great way to avoid an ever-growing pile of laundry. After a Golden Heart final with a Regency romance, Liz started her career in contemporary romance on the same day she met her editor. Coincidence? She prefers to call it fate.
Liz lives in North Louisiana with her high school sweetheart, two beautiful children and a menagerie of animals. She serves as the president of her local RWA chapter and Vice-president of the Golden Network. She loves strawberries, fishing, retail therapy, and is always game for a spa day. When not writing, she can be found working in the flowerbed, doing laundry or driving carpool.
BELOW: Liz & me at the 2010 RWA Golden Heart/RITA Awards. ~ ~ ~ ~ANGI: What’s the first book you remember reading?
AMY: The first book I remember reading was The Little Engine That Could, which is a great first book to remembering reading. It’s a great book for writers to keep beside them because the “tracks” to publication are fraught with all kinds of crazy turns and steep hills, but if you can remember to just keeping going, reciting in your head “I think I can, I think I can” then you’ll reach the top before you know it. Great analogy for writers…okay, and people everywhere. The first romance I remember reading had a nurse, an doctor and a fast little convertible. I have no idea what the name was, but I was hooked.
ANGI: What’s your favorite fairy tale?
AMY: Beauty and the Beast. I love finding something beautiful and unexpected beneath the surface, and that fairytale delivers. I particularly love the Disney version with dancing candlesticks and French maid dusters. I try hard to portray the same elements in my stories. I think my upcoming January release has that “beneath the surface” element in that my heroine Kate is one tough cookie on the surface, but underneath she’s lonely, scared and hurting. A Little Texas is her story of emptying her heart of anger and filling it with the love of family and one particularly sexy man.
ANGI: What was the first story you remember writing?
AMY: The first story I remember writing where I got that writer’s high was in 10th grade English. We were to write a creative writing piece. I wrote one about a prisoner who’d escaped and was being chased in the woods. I remember writing about his heart racing and the hounds barking. Then he stumbles upon a serene old chapel in the woods. He takes refuge there and instead of hiding, he is compelled to sink to his knees and pray for the first time in a long time. When I finished the three page short story, I remember thinking, “Man, this is good.” I got an “A” on it, too.
ANGI: What’s your favorite movie of all time?
AMY: Hmmm…that’s tough. I truly love Sense and Sensibility. I also love Notting Hill. Bridget Jones Diary ranks up there, too. Can you sense a pattern? Yeah, I love Hugh Grant. But, he’s not my type. I just like him. Like I want to hang out with him.
ANGI: What’s something you’d like to tell your fans?
AMY: Do I have fans outside of my mother? LOL. If I have any, I think I’d like them to know how dear my characters are to me. I feel like I know them. Like really know them. Oak Stand feels like my hometown. I wish I could get my hair trimmed at The Curlique and roll my buggy down the aisles of the Shop and Save. I want to sip tea with Margo on Tucker House’s front porch and swap cookie recipes with Ester. I think we writers get so attached to our characters it feels real. Which is why I get defensive when careless reviewers post things like “I don’t get her” or “I think the name of the town is stupid.” It feels like someone calling your baby ugly to your face. It hurts. So we authors are a bit vulnerable when it comes to our “babies.”
ONE OF LIZ'S YOUNGEST FANS READING HER BOOK.
AMY: Nope. I can’t. I get so distracted, even by instrumental music. I do, however, get inspired by music when I’m plotting. Which is usually while I’m driving, or showering, or sitting in carpool.
ANGI: What’s the first thing you do when you finish writing a book?
AMY: Type “The end,” push back my chair, and give it a Rocky double fist pump. It always feels good.
ANGI: If you were given a chance to travel to the past where would you go and specifically why? AMY: Definitely the Middle Ages. I love castles and knights and crofters and Scottish Lairds and those stiff collars the ladies wore. But, maybe the later Middle Ages/Early Renaissance. Put me in London. I’d want to be a Lady’s maid at court. Just let me take a bar of soap, some antibiotics and a razor with me. Okay, and maybe some deodorant. And a toothbrush. You know, I’m really happy with where I am right now. LOL.
ANGI’S GOTTA ASK -- AMY’S GOTTA ANSWER
QUESTION: Is there a real Bubba in your life?
ANSWER: Absolutely. My brother Blake serves as my inspiration for Bubba. Blake stands 6’3” and a good 320lbs, if not more. He’s huge, strong and has a sweet heart. His beard is red and his head mostly bald. He has bright blue eyes and hands the size of a small chicken. He drives a gooseneck trailer for oil and gas companies making deliveries. He hunts, he fishes, and he loves dogs. He’s getting married on January 15th. He’s a wonderful Christian man who had given up whiskey and honkytonks, for a family and horses. Every time I write Bubba, he talks, acts and says things like my brother.
GOT A QUESTION YOU’D LIKE TO ASK YOUR FANS?I’ve told you about a real life person I based a character on, so if you could write a character based on someone in your life, who would it be and why?
BE CERTAIN to leave a comment today. Liz is graciously drawing for a copy of Vegas Two Step (the first book set in Oak Stand and Liz's debut SuperRomance) along with a $10.00 gift card to Barnes and Noble.
Liztalleybooks.com and to “friend” her on Twitter and Facebook: amyliztalley. Be sure to add GetLostInAStory to your FB LIKE pages and receive notification of today’s winner of VEGAS TWO STEP & the Barnes & Noble gift card.
Krista Davis will join us tomorrow and Angi will be blogging throughout New Year’s weekend about CLAIMING 2011 AS YOUR YEAR. So be sure to join us again. ~~til this weekend, Angi