Finding Figaro, by Penny Hudson
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I know a surprising amount of people who read romance, but will never admit it in public. It’s the most popular genre there is, so why not be open about it? It generates more than a billion dollars in sales every year. That’s billion with a ‘B’. That’s a lot of money to laugh at. So why is there such a knee-jerk, sneering attitude toward readers who enjoy romance? Especially if that reader doesn’t fit the stereotype of middle-aged woman trying to liven up a boring life?
Jasper is the character I used to explore all of that. He’s a young gay man, literary snob, and a bit of a stuck-up jerk. He also likes romance. Not that he’ll admit it. He wants to get his own manuscript published and he also wants to impress his critique group, led by his semi ex-boyfriend Kale. His secret quest to find Figaro becomes more than just digging out the real person behind the pen name when he’s got to explore the root of the problem. Why is he so ashamed of something he likes in the first place?
Jasper believes the stereotypes and he doesn’t fit them, therefore he should not like romance. He still young enough he can see life as an ‘either/or’. If he likes Paradise Lost, he cannot like romance. But we all know it isn’t ‘either/or’. It’s more ‘dash of chaos with a side of surprise’. His silly little diversion finding Figaro forces him to open his mind to other possibilities.
The best kind of surprise is finding out what really does matter in life.
Aspiring author Jasper decides it’s a good idea to treat a major publisher’s gala like his private pitch event, but the only attention he attracts is from sexy bestselling author Isaac Wright. Isaac is far more interested in his pretty face than his manuscript, but Jasper kisses up to him anyway. The attraction is mutual, until Jasper reads one of Isaac’s books—a political thriller—and hates it. He decides he can’t date someone if he detests their work so he decides to turn his attention to his closet obsession: Figaro Powers, a romance writer. Although Jasper will never admit to reading romance, knowing Figaro was at the gala as well and Jasper missed seeing him, makes the obsession even bigger.
Isaac doesn’t give up on Jasper, though and offers to help him edit his manuscript. A pregnant sister and a stuck-up ex-boyfriend thwart their efforts, but it’s only when Miles, Jasper’s housemate, forces the issue that Jasper confesses to Isaac that he hates his book, and breaks Isaac’s heart. Despite this, Isaac sticks up for Jasper, and Jasper needs to reconsider whether the kind of books you read and write really says everything about the kind of person you are.
“Take this upstairs, they’ve got some little mixer going or something,” Mr. Mott passed him the tray, then faced the lady. “I can send more if they need it.”
“Thank you,” she replied in a slightly odd accent. It almost sounded like she was a native of the city, but there was a trace of somewhere else hiding in the vowels. She bestowed the satisfied smile of a woman well used to getting what she wanted from subordinates on Mr. Mott before she turned her attention to Jasper.
“I’ll show you where to go. I’m Evelyn Chulm, the ringleader for this rodeo.” Jasper placed her name and realized she was a senior editor, head of the acquisitions division. Everything Weather Stone published, she signed off on the manuscript purchase. Maybe if he impressed her he could rescue his submission from the slush pile and bypass the gatekeepers entirely?
So he refrained from mentioning she mixed her metaphors as he trailed after her across the ballroom to the bank of elevators in the entryway. “What’s the event upstairs, if you don’t mind me asking? Is it a VIP cocktail party or something?”
Evelyn jabbed the button on the elevator before she answered absently,
“What? No. Nothing like that. The food’s for the prisoners.”
Jasper tilted his head. Surely he’d misheard. “You have prisoners?”
“They named themselves,” she replied while she dug through her matching green-sequined bag. “I swear authors are more dramatic than actors. I’ve got a half-dozen of them cornered upstairs, signing. They’ll join the party after they take care of business, but they’re threatening to riot unless conditions are improved. Drama queens. There’s alcohol up there, but they threatened to call the Geneva man if they didn’t get something besides crackers and muffins. This is my peace offering. Mint?”
She triumphantly held up the small tin and offered him one. Jasper shifted the tray around to balance it with one hand while he accepted the mint. He tried to think of it as a common social offering and not her subtly hinting his breath stank. Does my breath stink? In the enclosed elevator, she’d surely notice if it did. He huffed a breath into his hand to check behind her back when she stepped out of the elevator.
Evelyn led him to the other side of the building, past offices decorated with giant posters of book covers while he tried not to breathe directly at her face, just in case. More than half the books were famous bestsellers. There seemed to be a bit of coup counting going on the way smaller versions of the covers were centered around the doorways. Awed, Jasper took it all in and fumbled for a conversation starter that didn’t begin with, “I wrote this book….”
How could he say that? Here? To her? She’d probably bought most of these books, and his hands were full of neon chicken salad sandwiches. Jasper’s courage failed miserably, and he glanced around, desperate for inspiration.
To fill the spaces between book covers, there were motivational posters randomly placed all along the hallway. The cheerful pictures of glorious sunrises and tranquil seas added a surface layer of professionalism, but when Jasper read the captions, they said things like “Ambition: It’s a new day, so fuck up a new way,” and “Enjoy your tropical vacation, don’t think about how even jellyfish can kill.”
Evelyn noticed his wide-eyed shock and chuckled, “It’s not all debate about Faulkner and channeling Dickens. We like to have fun. In here, please.”
Jasper followed her into a massive conference room. The table could easily seat thirty people. As it was, the stacks of new hardbacks dwarfed the eight men and women spaced around it, forming tall barriers between them and overflowing into messy heaps on the floor.
Two fresh-faced aides or assistants, or whatever they were—a harried pair of minions—moved around the table and shuffled stacks of signed books back into the empty boxes, then set up fresh stacks to be signed at each author’s side so the relentless assembly line could keep going.
The authors scented the food as soon as he entered the room, and their heads came up in a synchronized maneuver more reminiscent of wolves scenting prey. They charged over, pens and sharpies abandoned where they fell. Jasper barely had time to slide his tray into a space Evelyn hastily cleared before they swooped down on the bright sandwiches like a good line editor descending on a randomly occurring shifted tense.
He took a big step back from the feeding frenzy and gleefully let his gaze rove over the books scattered across the table. Almost immediately he spotted Johnathan Turane’s new murder mystery. Jasper sneaked a glance behind him. Right now the famous freckled author had a sandwich in each hand and resembled a chipmunk. This book was already on the NYT Best Seller list just from preorders, and it wouldn’t come out for two more weeks.
He kept looking and realized the infamous anarchist Edith Cwerst was fifteen feet away, snow-white hair bobbing away as she chattered to two other authors. He’d written a paper about her in college. She’d become famous—or infamous—for ripping Congress apart during the McCarthy Congressional hearings in the fifties.
They’d attempted to charge her and she fled to Europe, then retaliated by writing four books that eventually became required reading in high school. The irony that now the government bought her books by the truckload to teach children was not lost on her, judging by the satirical volume of essays she recently released about an oppressive government persecuting the common citizen. Eventually citizens T and J and P—only ever identified by a letter, never a name—ran logic circles around the bumbling bureaucracy to triumph in the end.
Jasper walked beside the table and let himself bask in the glory of the talent and skill in the room. Even if the talent and skill were behaving like teenagers with a pizza.
The pile of books and boxes right on the very end of the table caught his attention. Figaro Powers. Notoriously guarded about the truth behind his pen name, he never, ever did signings or conventions, and there wasn’t a picture of him anywhere on his book covers. Figaro Powers was in this room, right this very moment.
Jasper let out a shaky breath and casually reached out to stroke the cover. He drew his hand back at the last second and felt as if he’d been about to wipe a smudge off the Mona Lisa. He glanced around to see if anyone noticed his indiscretion. Nobody paid any attention. The authors were focused entirely on the food, and the pair of minions scurrying around was too busy taking advantage of the break to catch up on shuffling books to pay any attention to random wandering waiters.
Being a fan of Figaro Powers was his most embarrassing kink. Graphic sex was interspersed with just enough plot to keep the steaming hot romance novels classified as romance instead of outright pornography. It would be less embarrassing to get caught reading straight-up porn than books that had mostly naked beefcakes on the cover, usually locked in a passionate embrace while their long, artfully tousled hair served to either highlight and emphasize a bold hero or hide a secretive, dangerous one.
It was romance; Jasper knew he shouldn’t like that sort of thing. The redheaded stepchild genre. Pap for the masses. His critique group, especially their fearless leader and Jasper’s sometimes ex-boyfriend, Kale, would give him hell for even hinting he’d read a romance. It was the complete polar opposite of the heavy, serious literature he usually devoured, but he did like it. He loved it. It was his dirty little secret. Between highbrow nonfiction designed to plumb the depths of the human experience, he read Figaro Powers and dreamed lusty dreams about the love scenes.
Jasper looked over to the huddle on the other side of the room. Which one was he? If it was a he. He could be a she. He had eight suspects, and all of them were still stuffing their faces or digging fresh beers or waters out of the red cooler in the corner to wash down the warm, toasted bread and creamy filling.
He leaned over the table to pick up an empty water bottle and a crumpled, crumb-laden napkin, then looked for more stuff he could slowly clean up while he waited for Figaro to sit down. Then he could introduce himself, ask for an autograph. Figaro Powers was right here. Right here! To hell with the critique group. He was going to meet Figaro!
Evelyn waved to get his attention, then called out across the room. “Hey, waiter guy, sorry, didn’t catch your name. Don’t worry about the mess in here. We’ve got to go back downstairs. People are going to arrive soon.”
He brushed the crumbs in his hand into the trash can and walked slowly after Evelyn, casting an eye back toward Figaro’s area at the table. None of the authors were standing anywhere near it. Figaro could be any of them. The boss lady had already disappeared down the hallway. Before he could think about all the ways this might backfire, Jasper thumbed his phone on and snapped a picture of the cluster of authors still hovering around the sandwiches before slipping away after her.