Comfort Zone was a New Jersey Romance Writers’ Put Your Heart in a Book contest finalist in the Single Title Contemporary category!  I’m delighted to say I tied with my bestest yarn buddy and roommate, Laura Graham Booth! 

 

I’ve changed the title from Gabriel’s Angel to Comfort Zone and now I’m thinking I like “Ready or Not” better.  After considerable soul-searching, hair-pulling and teeth-gnashing, I’ve also rewritten the first chapter.  As of today, 4/29/10, here’s the latest version.

 

            Liz Hale sipped her café au lait and thought, Here it comes.  Sherry had that look again.  She was going to say it, the same thing she always said at about this point in their conversations.  Liz did the only thing she could do:  she braced for impact.

            “Sweetie, it’s time for you to make a change.  Change is good, right?”

            Liz put her cup down and rested her hand on the romance novel she’d been reading before Sherry showed up at Cuppa Joe’s for their Friday sip-and-bitch.  “Sher, whoever coined that phrase deserves a monkey wrench upside the head.  Michael promised me we’d live happily ever after, and then he went and died on me.”   Two years later, the thought of life without her high school sweetheart still put a sharp little knot in her stomach.  Not hurting over him anymore was all the change Liz wanted, but she didn’t expect it to happen today.

            “Need I remind you, you promised him that you’d pick up your life without him and go on.  It’s right there in his letter.”  Sherry’s manicured nail tapped the book under Liz’s hand.  An envelope stuck out, its edges as ragged from reading and re-reading as the book that sheltered it.  “Look, change is good.  I’m going to help you.  The first step is getting you a new job.”

            Before Liz could remind her friend that she already had a job, Sherry turned, grinning at the hottie walking in the door.  Liz smiled, grateful that some things never changed. 

            “Oh good, here he is.”  Sherry jumped out of her seat, waving.  “Gabe!  Over here!”

            Liz’s hand wrapped around her coffee cup.  “Here who is?”  She studied the guy who had Sherry’s attention.  To Liz’s surprise, he looked like he’d leapt off the pages of the book under her hand.  He wore a gray polo shirt that set off his sky-blue eyes, and well-worn jeans wrapped around long, muscular legs.  Highlights in his hair tossed him somewhere between dark blond and golden brown.  The curls looping over his collar suggested he either missed his last barber appointment by a few weeks or he knew how good it looked that long.  His face had been sculpted by an artist, all angled cheekbones and strong jaw and straight nose.  Liz wondered offhand if there were some Native American genes in his DNA.  His scan of the coffee shop stopped at Sherry, and he unleashed a smile that made sunlight pale in comparison.

            “Sher.  Good to see you again.”  The man’s baritone voice rippled goosebumps across Liz’s skin.  When he reached out to hug Sherry, the petite blonde disappeared into the man’s arms. 

            “Thank you for coming.”  Still glowing, Sherry backed out of the hug and waved between the two.  “Gabe, meet Liz.  Liz, Gabe.” 

            He offered Liz his hand.  “Hi.  Gabriel Sullivan.”

            “Liz Hale.”  Liz let go as soon as she could, so she wouldn’t spend time thinking about the fact that his grip was firm and confident, and his hand was warm and dry.  He shook hands just the way he looked. 

            Sherry motioned for him to take a chair at their table.  “You have perfect timing.  We were just talking about you.” 

            Liz almost dropped her coffee cup, the one she’d planned to hide behind.  “We were?” 

            “We were.  Gabe needs someone to…”   Sherry got a twinkle in her eyes that Liz had seen before.  Back in college, that twinkle would show up just before she convinced Liz to ditch class.  “Do you want to tell her?”

            “Be my guest,” he said, waving her on with the grace of an orchestra conductor.

            Sherry beamed, nodding to the book in front of Liz.  “You like that book, right?”

            Liz picked the book up, turning it to display the cover.  “Cold Chemistry?  Sure.  You gave it to me.  You said April Morgan is one of the authors you edit for.”

            “I did, and after you read it and the two others, I believe your exact words were, ‘April Morgan is my favorite author.’  Well, this is your lucky day.  Lizzie, meet April Morgan.”

            Liz looked around the coffee shop.  No one stood up.  She looked at Gabe and Sherry, each grinning like twin Cheshire cats.  Gabe offered her his hand again.  She’d have rather put her hand in a piranha tank.  “Bullshit.” 

            “I kinda figured you’d say that,” Sherry said.  “Well, not exactly that, but yes, it’s true.  Gabe is April Morgan.  He writes under a pen name because he’s an associate professor of literature and creative writing at Montgomery University.  Did I get the full title right?”

            Gabe nodded as he took his hand back.  “Everything but my driver’s license number.”

            Liz’s head throbbed, trying to wrap her brain around the notion that the well-built man sitting across the table from her wrote books for a living.  On top of that, he was her favorite romance fiction author. 

            A guy wrote those love scenes?  She stifled a smile.  Well, yeah, if you look like that, why not?

            Her heart raced in her throat.  Wait a minute.  This guy looks like he could break every heart in Montgomery County.  Whatever Sherry’s got in mind for me, it better not involve him.  Michael wanted me to start over, but not that way.  I’m not ready .

            Liz didn’t want to ask the question, but if she didn’t, she knew they’d only wind up sitting around the table, staring at each other, and Gabe’s intense gaze made her fidget.  “What’s this got to do with me?”

            Sherry covered Liz’s hand with her own.  “AlphaBeta Publishers, which is Gabe’s publishing house and my employer, is sending April Morgan–Gabe–on a book-signing tour for the summer.  Your job is to go on the tour, pretending to be April Morgan.” 

            Liz snorted a laugh.  “Yeah, right.  Me?  Sher, I don’t know the first thing about writing romance novels.  I can read them just fine, but–”

            “Actually, that’s a good thing,” Gabe said.  “Sherry told me you know the books.  That’s half the battle.”

            Sherry nodded.  “Exactly.  We had an actress lined up to play April Morgan but she backed out at the last minute to do a commercial.  You need the money so you can get back on your feet again.”  She leaned closer to Liz, whispering.  “Face it, sweetie.  Fi and Jimmy don’t leave you alone.  If you keep living over your in-laws’ garage any longer, they’re going to offer you Michael’s old room, take you out for a haircut and start calling you Michael.  It’s bad enough you dress like him.  They need to move on as much as you do.”

            Liz’s stomach jacked into a tight little knot.  She held on to her pride with both hands.  “What’s wrong with the way I dress?”

            “Nothing, if you’re changing the oil in my car.  Which I could use, by the way.”  She waved the thought away before sitting back in her chair, sipping her coffee.  “Look, Gabe’s a teacher.  He’ll teach you about writing while you cover his ass for this tour so no one at the Big U knows what he does in his spare time.  Face it, you love these books.”  She tapped the cover again.  “Sadly, the folks up in their sterile ivory towers don’t take them seriously.  If Gabe wants tenure and a deanship somewhere down the line, he doesn’t have a chance if they find out he writes romance fiction.  That’s where you come in.  This can earn you the money to do, well, whatever it is you want to do.  We’re not talking ‘Indecent Proposal’ money, but you can put a deposit on an apartment at least a mile away from your in-laws.  And didn’t you and Michael always talk about opening a repair shop?  Use the money for start-up funds.  Whatever.  Anything.  You needed a job and a chance to start your life over again, and I found you both.”

            “I never said I needed a job,” Liz said, even as her every nerve ending stood at attention.  She hadn’t thought about their dream of owning a repair shop in, well, two years.  Until that moment, she’d considered the idea as dead as Michael.  The thought of making it real stole her breath.  “What, exactly, are you talking about here?  Identity fraud, and what else?  Shaking hands and kissing babies?”

            Amusement sparkled in Gabe’s eyes.  Liz was glad she could make him happy because his intense gaze made her nervous as all hell.  “It’s pretty simple,” he said.  “Sit behind a table, sign the books, smile and say ‘thank you’ a lot.  That’s about all there is to it.”

            Liz turned to him.  “Have you done this before?”

            He shrugged linebacker shoulders.  “Well, no, but I’ve been to a few.  I figure the hardest part will be remembering to answer when someone calls you April Morgan, and to sign her name on the books instead of yours.”

            “Aren’t they going to know I’m not her?”

            Sherry shook her head.  “In case you haven’t noticed, we didn’t include an author photo in the books.”

            Liz turned the book over.  Just a brief synopsis on the back.  No photo on the inside covers, either.  She’d never noticed that before, maybe because the stories dragged her in from the first page.  She quickly learned to go along for the ride. 

            “Sales are down across the board,” Sherry said.  “AB is kicking its authors out on the road this summer to try to drum up numbers.  Demographic surveys say readers feel like they ‘know’ their favorite writers when they read their Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, see interviews on TV, all that crap.  It’s Nancy’s idea to take it to the next level and have the fans meet their favorite authors in person.  She’s pulling out all the stops.”  She turned a dark look on Gabe.  “She thinks the media attention could kick Gabe’s career into high gear.  If this goes well, she might look favorably on a new contract.”  

            Gabe stared right back, his gaze unwavering. 

            Sherry knocked the last of her cappuccino back and stood.  Gabe shot up from his chair like someone had goosed him.  “I’m getting another coffee,” she said, then turned to Liz.  “Come with me.”  It wasn’t a request.

            Liz looked at her cup, still half full.  Not that she needed more caffeine, but sitting at the table, waiting for Sherry to come back, would leave her alone with Gabe.

            She grabbed her purse and followed Sherry.

            Standing at the back of the the order line, Liz leaned closer to Sherry.  “You want to tell me what that’s all about?”

            Sherry rolled her big cornflower blue eyes.  “Long story.  I’ll tell you later.  So, what do you think?  Did I do good or what?”

            Liz shook her head, her stomach twisting over the thought of massive shifts in her life based on a just cup-of-coffee conversation.  “Sher, I already have a job.  It’s summer.  The timing isn’t good.  The staff starts going on vacation, so I have to cover extra shifts sometimes, and Fi and Jimmy aren’t going to–”

            Sherry waved her off.  “Forget the job. I mean the guy.  Gabe.  What do you think?”

            Liz turned back to him, sitting at the table, watching them like an eagle watching two prairie dogs.  She quickly turned her attention to the brownies behind the display counter.  Much less troublesome.  “Nice looking, if you’re into GQ models.  How long have you been going out?”

            Sherry moaned something unprintable and smacked Liz on the back of the head.  “Stupid!  I don’t mean me, I mean you!”

            Liz jumped off the line.  “What?  Jesus, Sherry!  You can’t be serious!”

            Sherry pulled Liz back, her nails dug into Liz’s arm.  She hissed in Liz’s ear.  “Why the hell not?  It’s perfect.  It’s been two years, sweetie.  You need a guy, and who better than a guy who writes romance novels?  Novels you happen to love, I might add.  I’m not saying you have to marry him, and at this point it’s a little late for a rebound fling.  You just need a starter guy, someone who can get you back in the swing of things.  He’s hot, he’s smart, and he’s breathing.  What more could you ask for?”

            Seeing nothing but red, Liz yanked her arm out of Sherry’s grip and glared.  Her heart slammed in her chest ‘til she could barely breathe.  She wasn’t sure what bothered her more:  knowing Sherry had tried to set her up without her consent; knowing she’d set her up with a guy who looked like Gabe (who happened to be her favorite writer in disguise); or the very idea of dating again A.M., After Michael.

            Too many words jumbled in Liz’s head, most of them of the blue variety.  All she could say was a flat, hard, “No.”  She crushed her purse under her arm and walked out of Cuppa Joe’s as fast as she could, grateful to be wearing sneakers instead of those deathtraps Sherry called high heeled shoes.

*   *   *   *   *

            Gabe watched Liz sprint to the parking lot.  She threw herself behind the wheel of a black muscle car that growled to life, peeling rubber from mag tires as it passed the coffee shop.  He stood to go walk to Sherry, ask what happened, but he saw the copy of Cold Chemistry Liz had left on the table.  It looked pretty ragged, like it had been through library, a sandbox, and a wind tunnel.  The envelope stuck between the pages didn’t look much better.  He smiled.  The book was only two years old.  He could only wonder where this book had been, what it had seen. 

            I should return this.

            Sherry patted him on the shoulder.  “Don’t worry about her.  She’s fine.”  She took her seat, sipping at her latest cup.  “So, where are you on book four?  Got a title for me yet?  Blurb?  Synopsis?  Something I can take to marketing and graphics?”

            “She didn’t look fine.”  He sat down, his eyes pinned on the book.  As if pulled by a magnet, he reached for it.  Sherry quickly snatched it away before he could get a grip on it. 

            “Oh, geez.  You know what?  I’ll bring this back to her later.  Don’t worry about this.  So anyway, the next book?”

            He’d have rather talked about the one on the table between them.  “I’m working on it.”

            She rolled her eyes and put her cup down.  “I’ve heard that somewhere before.  What’s it about?”

            He tried to get comfortable in the hard-backed wooden chair, but it wasn’t easy.  It was either the chair or Sherry’s deliberate stare he found uncomfortable.  “You know I can’t talk about it until it’s drafted.”  Not that he would’ve told her, even if he had written a word of it yet.

            “Yeah, I know, the jinx. I’ve heard that before too.  Look, I know you want another contract, but you have to prove you can finish this one first.  You also have to prove you’ve got the numbers to make it worth our while.  If this tour doesn’t work out…”  Her hand waved like a rolling sea.

            He nodded when what he really wanted to do was punch something.  “I know.”

            She sighed.  “We could hire another actress, but the tour starts on Tuesday.  Assuming she could retain the information, she’d need to read and memorize all three books in three days.  We need Liz to make this work.”

            He glanced toward the door.  “She didn’t look too on board to me.”

            Sherry tapped a nail on the cover of the book.  The look that flashed in her eyes tripped his nerve endings.  He smelled trouble hanging in the air like ozone after a lightning strike.  “Don’t you worry about that.  I’ll work on her.  You just work on the book, and get me a first draft as soon as you can.”

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