Mr. Love: A Romantic Comedy (4 page)

BOOK: Mr. Love: A Romantic Comedy
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Jane Cooper, propped up in a lumpy bed at the Sugar Maple Inn reading Gordon Rushworth’s atrocious novel, sees a cockroach scuttling across the wooden floor toward her suitcase.

Before she can stop herself she hurls the bulky manuscript and squashes the roach.

About all the book is good for.

Jane, dressed in a T-shirt and sweats, gets out of bed and, using a Kleenex, her mouth making a little moue of distaste, cleans the splattered bug from the back of the manuscript.

She flushes the Kleenex away, washes her hands and returns to the bed, leaving the manuscript lying on the floor.

No way in hell is she
going to read another word of that tome.

It is pretentious, ridiculously over
-written and stultifyingly boring.

To say the characters are made
of cardboard would be to suggest they have dimension.

What is she going to say to Gordon Rushworth in the morning?

She’ll get him to go first, she decides.

Tell her what he has gleaned from reading

If he
’s helpful to her—and, hearing Jonas’s cool voice on the phone earlier, prays that he will be—she’ll leave him with the impression that she likes his book and will do her best to get her boss to like it too.

If Rushworth arrives with nothing in the way of help, she’ll tell him that
his book is just not her thing, leave it on the table and head on back to New York

What the hell, if he can’t help her she’ll be out of a job anyway.

Despite her very distressing day, she feels a twinge of compassion for Gordon Rushworth.

He is clearly an intelligent man, if a little pompous.

And not bad looking, in an appealingly rumpled, bookish way.

But he
’s monumentally untalented as a writer and she can only imagine how painful it will be for him to have spent a decade on this book, only to face its inevitable rejection.

Well, he can always self-publish.

There may be a few suckers out there prepared to part with a couple of dollars to read his drivel.

But a man like Gordon Rushworth would never be satisfied with that.

He wants his genius to be acknowledged by New York City publishers and the coterie of reviewers who write for the major newspapers and magazines.

He didn’t say, but
Jane is certain he is an academic of some sort, hence the sabbatical.

Probably teaches English Literature.

Well, better that he forget his ambitions to be a writer and return to whatever crusty Ivy League college he is a faculty member of.

Jane, almost drifting
off to sleep, sits bolt upright and, despite her earlier resolve never to touch Gordon Rushworth’s book again, she stretches across and snags the manuscript and opens it on her knees, not even worrying that she may be getting roach juice on her sweats.

She skims through the book, zooming along with
Lance Prescott as he watches his childhood sweetheart waste away and die (this tragedy presented with all the emotional insight of a Hallmark card, bogged down with pages of Lance pondering the meaning of life and death), fights off the high school bullies who torment the young intellectual, and finally makes his way to an East Coast college where he forgets about love and dedicates himself to (in his words) “the life of the mind.”

Jane powers up her iPad and opens
, clicking through the pages, until she bursts out laughing.

The coincidences are to
o numerous to ignore.

The small
Vermont town.

The bullies.

The drunken stepfather.

The East Coast college.

Sarah Oatman, the tragic, Salinger-sprouting, ingénue of
Too Long the Night
lives on as Suzie Ballinger, the horny, Salinger-sprouting heroine of

“Thank you, God,” Jane says, slumping down onto the bed with her eyes closed and
a stupid grin plastered across her face.

She has found Viola Usher.

And she’s having brunch with him tomorrow.






Bitsy Rushworth loves her brother, but she doesn’t like him.

A contradiction that she mulls over
while driving her Volvo through the breathtaking Fall landscape, leaving East Devon behind, making her usual Saturday morning pilgrimage to a farm forty minutes from her home.

A farm that houses the Quant
Foundation, headed by Daniel Quant, a man who has been responsible for a radical shift in Bitsy’s thinking over the last year.

It’s Quant’s philosophy that enables her to embrace her seemingly contradictory feelings for Gordon.

“Be thankful for the challenge of this contradiction,” Quant had told her in a one-on-one counseling session shortly after Gordon had dumped himself on her. “You have attracted this relationship with your brother, which means it is precisely what you need in your life at this moment. It is fueling your own evolution.”

“And what will happen when I’ve evolved enough?”
she asked.

Quant had laughed, his piercing blue eyes disappearing into a ripple of wrinkles.

“Then you’ll be able to tell the freeloading S.O.B to shape up or ship out.”

Just one of the contradictions of Quant himself, that he could make solemn pronounce
ments one moment and then sound like a longshoreman the next.

Part of his appeal, along with his tanned skin and graying hair worn cropped close to his skull.

It was terribly clichéd, Bitsy knew, to fall for a self-help guru, but she’d fallen for Daniel Quant.

And fallen hard.

Since the end of her very short-lived marriage nearly twenty years ago—when her husband, an academic at a minor East Coast college, had burst out of the closet what could Bitsy do but gather her few belongings and what was left of her pride and slink back to East Devon?—she has experimented with everything from yoga, to transcendental meditation to holotropic breath work.

No New Agey
event has taken place within a hundred mile radius of East Devon without Bitsy gassing up the old Volvo and hitting the self-realization trail.

But t
he only realization she’d arrived at was that she was alone and lonely and probably always would be.

Then she’d
picked up a flier at a health food store in Brattleboro, advertising a talk by Daniel Quant of the Quant Foundation.

Located on a farm
close to East Devon.

Bitsy had seen too many shaggy, neo-hippie farming communes (topless lactating women with hairy armpits; feral children; weed-smoking men sorely in need of dentistry) to be interested, then she
spotted the couple who were handing out the fliers.

They were clean and trim in tasteful summer wear.

He had neatly cropped hair and (when he smiled and handed a flier to a passerby) good teeth. She was pretty enough to play a housewife in a suburban sit-com.

No, not typical at all.

So Bitsy had driven across to the farm the next Saturday and had been pleasantly surprised.

The farm was not a commune, home
only to Daniel Quant and a few of his personal assistants.

Assistants of both genders and a variety of ages, which seemed to dispel the horny guru cliché.

Growing from the side of the old brick farmhouse was a new two-story glass and wood structure that housed the Foundation.

It was in a hall in this building that Daniel Quant spoke to an audience of
around a hundred people.

What he said wasn’t all that revelatory, a synthesis of various
Eastern-flavored philosophies all tied together by the string theory, but it was the way he said it that impressed Bitsy.

She was swept away by t
he sheer force of his personality.

Daniel wasn’t at all creepy.

He was humorous and likeable.

A regular guy.


Telling people what they were desperate to hear: how to be happy.

Bitsy became a
frequent visitor and spent a month at the Foundation in summer, attending classes and helping with fundraising.

Daniel Quant had some money, it seemed.

But he wasn’t wealthy enough to run the Foundation out of his back pocket.

Bitsy, although she’d never been asked to, made a
small contribution each time she visited.

Today, as she drive
s past the Quant Foundation sign, she feels a lifting of her spirits as she always does.

She parks the Volvo beside the other cars, SUVs and fancy sedans rubbing
shoulders with old pick-ups, and makes her way into the hall, greeting a lot of familiar faces.

Daniel comes in and although he smiles, he carries with him an air of seriousness, and the assembled group quietens.

“I’m going to say this plainly. The Foundation has been funded both by me and by generosity of the wider community. It was revealed to me yesterday that a trusted advisor has been embezzling funds from my private accounts.”

There are murmurs of shock and he holds up his hands.

“The man confessed what he has done and has chosen to hand himself over to the authorities. But the money is gone never to return.”

He looks around the room, his handsome face

“Friends, the simple reality is this
: unless we are the recipient of a windfall—and I’m talking a truckload of cash here—the Foundation is going to have to close its doors.”

He shrugs.

“I’m interpreting this as a positive challenge. As an acid test of where the Foundation is and where it is meant to be. And I’ve had to remind myself that holding on to the Foundation is like holding my breath—I’ll suffocate. So, I’m going to let go and hand it over to the winds and see where they blow us. Thank you.”

He walks out, leaving the room in shock.

People start to whisper and chatter and there is talk of cake sales and fairs.

Bitsy is too distraught to join in.

She walks back to her car, devastated, as if the central pillar supporting her world has been pulled loose, leaving her in a freefall that has her panicked and terrified.






When Gordon, crossing the East Devon square, finds himself patting his pockets for a pack of cigarettes, he realizes how nervous he is.

He kicked the vile habit a decade ago.

Passing a couple of sad stalls selling junk (trying for the Ye Olde Village market thing and not succeeding) he gets the pungent whiff of tobacco smoke and sees a pimply early-teenage girl with canary yellow hair selling used books, puffing as she bops to music on her iPod.

Gordon has to restrain himself from bumming a cigarette from the delinquent.

He takes a deep breath, trying to tamp down his twin terrors: that Jane Cooper will sneer at his novel and that his sentimental gesture of putting the picture of the old bridge on the cover of
has led to his exposure and humiliation—a serious, literary novelist, reduced to writing women’s romance.

Pushing these thoughts away, he does his best to stroll casually toward Grace’s Field to Fork.

The eatery was known simply as Grace’s Diner when he was growing up in East Devon. Even dowdy Grace, with her beak of a nose and plow horse hocks has succumbed to cuteness in the expectation of the tourist boom that has never come to East Devon.

Since his return a few months ago Gordon’s heard many explanations
as to why the town hasn’t taken off like its neighbors: the road linking it to Route 7 is poorly maintained; the town is overshadowed by the just-too-nearby Brattleboro; there hasn’t been enough support from the various tourism associations.

Oddly, the explanation that makes the most sense to him is his sister’s hocus
pocus take on the situation: East Devon has bad
feng shui
, which she blames on a legacy of negative energy from a massacre in the town during the Revolution.

He doesn’t buy the massacre thing but the town
depressing, with an all-pervasive atmosphere of gloom and failure.

A good place to leave.

Gordon, you are a harbinger of doom
, he tells himself as he enters Grace’s, setting off a distorted electronic version of “Yankee Doodle”
when he opens the door.

Even though he’s a little early Jane Cooper
already sits at a window table drinking coffee and eating a plate of Grace’s signature Red Flannel Hash with corn fritters and maple syrup.

“Good morning,” Gordon says, sitting opposite
the agent.


“Did you sleep well?”

“You weren’t kidding about the bedbugs.”

“Commiserations,” he says, sounding like a pompous idiot.

Grace appears with her notebook and Gordon asks for a coffee, too nervous to eat.

Stilling his hands on the table top when he finds them fiddling with a menu, he leans forward and says, “So . . .”

Jane Cooper sets down her cutlery and dabs at her mouth with a napkin.

Her face, free of make-up, is delicately boned, and her eyes behind the Buddy Holly glasses (is this some trendy New York thing?) are a pleasing shade of violet.

He wishes there w
as a smile on her unpainted but quite generous lips.

“Are you an honest man, Gordon?” Jane asks, those violet eyes drilling him.

He tries for levity.

“As the day is long.”

“Or the night?”

“Hah,” he says, “touché.”

“If I asked you a question would you give me a straight answer?”

“I would do my best.”

There is a suspenseful pause as Grace delivers Gordon’s coffee and tries to interest Jane in a slice of Vermont apple pie.

The agent politely refuses but Grace persists and Gordon has to bite his tongue to stop himself from telling her exactly where she c
an shove her pie.

At last she waddles off and Jane adjusts her glasses on her nose and fixes her eyes on Gordon again.

“Ask away,” he says.

“Are you Viola Usher?”

The question that he has feared most robs him of his breath, and he tries to cover his distress by taking a sip of the coffee.

A mistake.

The java is scalding hot, getting him to spray it onto the table top in a fit of coughing.

He scrambles for napkins and wipes up his mess.

“My apologies,” he says, wheezing.

When he regains his breath, he says, “Why on earth would you ask me something so absurd?”

“You’re answering a question with a question,” Jane says.

“Of course I’m not Viola Usher,” he says. “There, asked and answered.”

He tries to meet her eyes but finds his gaze drifting out to where the geezer of a postman is in conversation with the local reverend.

“You’re lying,” Jane Cooper says.

“I beg your pardon?” he says, shocked at how forthright she is.

“I said, you’re lying.”

He stands.

“I refuse to be insulted like this. I’m leaving.”

“I doubt it,” she says, gaze unwavering.

She could win a fortune playing poker in
Las Vegas.

Gordon subsides into his seat.

“The only reason I’m staying is that I feel I deserve to hear your opinion of my novel.”

“Which novel is that?” she asks. “
Too Long the Night

“You’re toying with me.”

Jane shrugs.

Well,” she says, “I read the first seven chapters of
Too Long the Night.


“I was overcome . . .”

“You were?”

“Overcome with the realization that there were far too many glaring similarities between it and Viola Usher’s book.”

“This again.”

“Okay, Gordon, indulge me. Both books have their protagonists leaving small towns in Vermont for unnamed Ivy League colleges.”

“Hardly conclusive.”

“Both Sarah Oatman in
Too Long the Night
Suzie Ballinger in
spend an awful lot of time talking about
The Catcher in the Rye

“Well, they’re both rights-of-passage novels of sorts, so is it terribly surprising that they would reference the greatest bildungsroman of them all?”

“Did you honestly just say

“I did.”

“You’re pompous
a liar.”

“I don’t have to sit here and be insulted,
” he says, but he stays in his seat.

“Gordon, I know about Suzie Baldwin.”

He stares at her.


Jane shakes her head.

“It doesn’t matter.”

Gordon points toward Grace who has her back to them, delivering an order to another table.

“That old gossip monger told you, didn’t she?”

Jane waves this away.

“Look, I don’t want to trample on your feelings—”

“Oh, think of them as little purple grapes and trample away.”

“—but I know you and Suzie were close. Clearly, her death inspired you to write
Too Long the Night

“Wow, you are perspicacious. No wonder you’re a literary agent.”

“I understand you’re upset.”

doesn’t come close.”

please: Suzie Baldwin, Suzie Ballinger? Is that a coincidence?”

“Yes, along with all the others.”

“Okay, I’m going to be straight with you.”

“And what have you been so far?”

“I was just warming up.”

“Okay, fine, do your worst.”

“I spent a little time Googling you this morning and charted the downward trajectory of your academic career. You were fired from some obscure college in South Dakota three months ago and I’d say your chances of employment are slim.”

“I told you: I’m taking a well
-earned sabbatical.”

“And you’ve probably received a boatload of rejections already for
Too Long the Night

“Nonsense, I’m weighing offers from three agents.”

“I sincerely doubt that. Twelve-hundred page literary novels are not hot ticket items right now.”

She shrugs.

“I’m sorry Gordon, I’m being honest here.”

“Am I meant to applaud that?” he says

“I believe that you wrote
as a little money-spinner under an assumed name. The alias is a dead give away.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Shakespeare’s Olivia was a woman pretending to be a man. Come on, Gordon, how hard is it to join those dots?”

Gordon feels sick, realizing how he has hoisted himself by his own petard.

The photograph of Maple Creek Bridge.

The clever-clever nom de plume.

Not taking care to disguise Suzie better.

Jane is speaking again.

“Look at the upside, Gordon.
is making you a ton of money and if you sign with the Blunt Agency you’ll get to a do a print version which’ll make you even richer. Then there’ll be the fortune you’ll earn from the movie rights. And we’ll get you a monster advance when you write the sequel. We can do all this for you.”

Gordon stares at her.

“No, you can do it for Viola Usher. I am not she. I did not write that book.”

“You’re going to be outed, Gordon. I have friends in the media who would just love to tell the story behind
. Walk away from me and I’ll set them on you like a pack of hounds.”

Gordon, his legs shaky, stands.

“Ms. Cooper, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Good luck with finding the elusive Viola Usher.”

He throws a ten dollar bill on the table and strides out of the eatery with as much dignity as he can muster.

BOOK: Mr. Love: A Romantic Comedy
9.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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