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Part 11--Picking Winners
"Ah, OUR parking garage," Cassie commented, as Hank's little red sportster nipped to a halt millimeters from the concrete retaining wall. The cocktail party and awards ceremony being thrown by her publisher was, as could be expected, at the same hotel where they had put her up.
"ISN'T it romantic?" Hank said, playing along by batting his eyelashes and simpering as he clasped his clutched hands to his chest.
Cassie heaved a theatrical sigh, and hugged herself to his brawny upper arm, the body part a chaste star of an old movie musical would have had to content herself with. "It's HEAVENLY," she cooed. "The exhaust fumes, the old crumbling grey mortar--it hasn't changed a bit!" This caused Hank to splutter out of character into laughter. He gave her a hearty squeeze with his remaining free arm and a kiss on the top of her head before he began to extricate himself from the vehicle.
Strange as it might seem, Cassie considered as she also exited the car, Hank WAS the most romantic thing to happen to her in years. Maybe in her whole life. Bob had been...intense, but not really romantic, while they were courting. The fact that she and Hank could so easily make each other laugh had a great deal to do with it. Perhaps this was the reason her ideas of romance were considered eccentric among her writing peers.
As they made their way into the hotel proper, Hank inquired, "By the way, is it absolutely imperative that you return to Denver tonight?"
The way he so very casually brought the question more or less out of nowhere warmed Cassie's heart--it sounded highly rehearsed, as if he had had it on his mind for some time. As she had. This answered her question of whether he was planning to bring their time together to a natural, graceful end by merely driving her to the airport and bidding her adieu, with no other possibilities mentioned. "I'm afraid it is. I'm committed to teaching the afternoon half of a writing workshop there tomorrow."
"Oh, I see." Another hope dashed. Hank knew he couldn't honorably try to argue her out of a professional engagement--but could that be the reason she selected exactly that story? She had already expressed reservations about their future together....
"I wish I didn't have to," she murmured regretfully, taking his hand, and the future brightened again. "But a promise is a promise."
"I am glad to know you are the sort of person who takes promises seriously," Hank told her, and kissed the knuckles of her hand before they dropped into decorous behavior more appropriate for the highly populated grand ballroom.
Cassie put her hand through the crook of Hank's elbow, which he now knew meant she was using him as a sort of towering security blanket to help her deal with the throngs of people present. He was still not sure that not wearing the image inducer was a good idea, but there had turned out to be NO time to attempt reassembly. 'And whose fault is THAT, my boy?' he asked himself, with a mental grin at the extremely satisfactory recollection of what had taken up most of their afternoon. Ah, well, so long as no one upset Cassie. He was quite used to putting up a shield in social situations by deciding to make all stares and whispers beneath his notice.
"CASSIE, there you are!" A stout, buxom woman in a bright red blazer had hailed them, and was now bearing determinedly through the crowd, cutting a swathe between the billows of business suits and evening dresses.
"Oh, hi, Wendy," Cassie replied, coming to a halt. "We just got here--I was looking for YOU."
Wendy patently examined the couple from head to toe, with most of her emphasis on Hank. "Nice dress, dear," she commented absently, referring to the little black number they had 'fluffed up', (as Cassie put it), that afternoon in the mansion's laundry room.
Hank patched an expression of amiable expectation on his face, and endured the white-haired woman's study with equanimity. "Now I see why it's taken you so long to start dating again," Wendy finally said to Cassie, with a grin that could easily be described as salacious. "You were hunting one that was trophy size!"
"Wendy!" Cassie protested, aghast at her agent/friend's lack of diplomacy.
Hank only snorted in surprised amusement. He tentatively assumed he had passed muster of some sort. "I believe I spoke to you on the phone this morning? I'm Hank McCoy, Cassie's...ah..." oh, THIS could be a little tricky, "...escort."
Wendy stretched forth her hand. "You make a LOVELY couple," she said in her cigarette-husked voice. "Have you been taking good care of my girl?" Her tone was bantering, but those sharp eyes held reservations. Apparently Cassie aroused protective instincts in others besides him.
"VERY good care, Wendy," Cassie assured her firmly, closing the door on that subject.
"Aaaand that's why you don't have a corrected manuscript under your arm for me?" Wendy inquired further, provoking Cassie's blushing reflex. She looked the pair of them up and down again, and nodded to herself. "That's all right, dear. You know that almost nothing in the world is more important to me than your happiness...."
"Yes, Mother," Cassie retorted, but smilingly.
"Then you two dears have fun, but remember--I will not listen to even one-tenth of an excuse if that corrected manuscript is not on my desk by Friday!"
"I'll finish it on the plane and FedEx it to you tomorrow," Cassie promised hastily.
"That will be fine," Wendy said. "Better go check in and get your ID. I'm going to work the room, since you already have...an escort." She feasted her eyes on Hank, who WAS looking quite elegant in a semi- formal evening jacket, one more time, then excused herself to go mingle, trailing a "Hmmm-mmmm-MMMM" of admiration at Cassie's taste and luck.
"Do you know, I believe she liked me," Hank said mildly.
"If she didn't, we'd both know it," Cassie assured him. Her eyes were aglow, and so he understood this had been an important encounter, and he had come through it to advantage. "Let's go sign in."
Hank was offered his choice between a stickyback lapel label and the kind with a plastic cover and an actual pin. He opted for the sticky one, as less potentially damaging to his best jacket, and in a fit of mischief wrote 'Dr. Henry McCoy' upon it with an austere calligraphic flair. Cassie, at least, was impressed.
As a guest writer, her label turned out to be swathed within a corsage of miniature white rosebuds, with her name written in gold ink and the whole thing covered in opalescent glitter. With aplomb, Hank took over the tricky task of securing the delicate thing to the bodice of her dress. Someone in the crowd took this as the perfect photo opportunity, but he only smiled reassuringly at Cassie's worried glance in that direction. "Not a problem, my dear, that's my good side, and you don't have a bad side!" She seemed to grasp his underlying meaning, that the publicity promoters didn't trouble him, and relaxed.
With Cassie on his arm again, they walked through the crowd, occasionally stopping so Cassie could introduce him to someone, or so SHE could be introduced to someone. She had explained there were about a dozen writers present, all up for various awards, and representatives of trade magazines and booksellers and executives from the publishing house, and even twenty-five women who had won a contest to get to be here tonight; the grand ballroom was fairly full. A string quartet played in one corner, and one wall was devoted to refreshments. Sadly, they were all delicate morsels of this and that--he hoped there would be time to stop for a real dinner somewhere before heading to the airport.
The people attending managed to surprise him. Although he and Cassie did reap some startled looks, the percentage of appalled ones was gratifyingly low. Each time Cassie stopped to talk, Hank was made to feel free to take part in the conversation. The only trouble was that he was in one of the few venues on earth where he had no clue on how to do so. The romance, writing and publishing shop talk was absolutely alien to his life experience thus far, forcing him to be content to listen and nod, and occasionally beam proudly at Cassie. At least he was good at that.
Cassie did get a chance to explain a semi-useful hierarchy to him, one Wendy had developed. "Regular--that's a plain paperback. Then there's foil-cover, where they turn the art department's imagination loose on your book cover design. Next is big books, the really fat ones, and top of the line is fat foilcovers. Well, top except for hardback...."
"And where do you fall in this spectrum?"
"Foil," Cassie smiled. "I haven't managed big because I run out of story too soon--I drive Wendy crazy, you know."
"Something must have," Hank mused, but kindly. He had rather liked Wendy.
"But...she thinks I could just jump right to hardback, one of these days. Especially if I get the Readers' Choice award tonight." She gave his arm a hard squeeze. "Thanks to you, I haven't have time to DWELL on it, but now that it's almost time, I'm nervous."
"I hope you get it, my dear," was all he could say. Ironic, that he felt such a strong urge to give her anything in the world she wanted, and that what she wanted was something he hadn't the slightest power to help her attain.
A small voice behind them interrupted their conversation. "Excuse me? Ms. Cantrell?" They turned to find a short, plump woman with glasses, nervously clutching a small object, which she first thrust out at Cassie, then pulled back in to her chest. "I wondered...if it's permitted tonight...do you...do autographs?" She seemed so pathologically self-effacing that, in contrast, Cassie would come across as brash as...Wendy, Hank thought. And wasn't it odd how the words 'brash' and 'Wendy' seemed to go together in a sentence?
"I'd be happy to," Cassie said, taking the again proffered autograph book. "It's to...?"
"OH!" Clearly the poor overcome woman hadn't even imagined the possibility of a personalized souvenir. Hank smiled benignly. She was certainly a living example of the popular stereotype of a romance reader. "To...Eleanor. Thank you so much." Cassie signed her name with a flourish.
The woman started to back away, then halted, looking at them both. "I just should say...although of course it's none of my business...." Hank's eyes narrowed ever so slightly as he felt Cassie's hand tense on his arm. "I think it's wonderful the two of you are here like this."
At this totally unexpected sentiment, Hank could not help doubting his hearing for a moment. Several other women had drifted up, emboldened by the first one's success at gaining an audience. The shy one stammered on, "Little things are the most important. That's what I tell my students when we cover the history of civil rights in social studies."
"What grade do you teach, Eleanor?" Cassie inquired, charmed by this totally unexpected ally.
"Fifth grade. It's a good age--they are just starting to question what their place will be in the world." Some of the women standing by nodded and smiled. "I try to encourage all of my children to first of all, be fair. If that's the main thing they remember me for, I'll be happy." When talking about her students, it seemed she wasn't shy at all.
"It isn't fair, the way some people treat mutants," a younger woman interjected, cutting her eyes at Hank, but speaking to the group. There were more murmurs of agreement, and Cassie nodded briskly as well, beaming her appreciation at them all.
A total stranger who we think was a mutant saved my sister's life," another one said, capturing Hank's undivided attention. "In Chicago."
"How was that, madam?" he asked, and the group gathered closer to hear. There were now a dozen of them in their little clique.
"She was in a wreck; a drunk driver ran a red light. The doors were jammed--none of the people on the spot could get them open, and there was gasoline spilled all over. And something made it light--" The horror of what might have happened could still be heard in her stark retelling. "But then a man ran out of the crowd, and touched the car door--and she says it turned into dust. And he touched the other things in the way, too, and just lifted her out of the fire. Then HE disappeared." The group murmured its awe and approval. "My brother says no, the steering wheel and seat belts burned up in the fire. But the DOOR couldn't have! Don't you think he must have been a mutant?" She might as well have been saying 'angel', from her reverent tone.
"It certainly sounds like it, from what you tell me," Hank answered gravely. Chicago? Interesting. The professor would like to hear about this. Come to think of it, he might benefit from hearing the whole of the current conversation....
The impromptu gathering rapidly turned into a combination of old home week and an autograph party, with Hank and Cassie cheerfully trading the signing of books as they chatted with their new friends. They only broke off, and then reluctantly, when the evening's master of ceremonies went to the podium and called for attention, so the festivities could commence.
Hank stared at his empty plate, struggling to maintain his equanimity. He had gotten his wish for dinner after the ceremony, although he was fairly certain he hadn't wished for Wendy to come along, too. "Well, I SWEAR I'll come up with a strategy for next year," the agent promised Cassie yet again.
"It really is all right, Wendy, honestly," Cassie tried to explain, casting a worried glance at Hank's impassive facade. "It not like I thought it was a sure thing, and was COUNTING on winning or something." Under the table she squeezed Hank's hand, and he returned the gesture.
"I guess you can't get that many more relatives by next year?" Wendy joked.
"If it's going to come down to people mobilizing relatives and...and buying votes by starting their own fan clubs--" Cassie leaned closer to Hank, who released her hand so he could put his arm around her shoulders. "I don't care if I get an award like that or not."
Wendy put her hand to her forehead and sighed dramatically. "Child, you are going to be the death of me!"
'Don't make it sound too tempting,' thought Hank, and at least a sliver of it was serious. The time he had left with Cassie could be reckoned in minutes and they were spending that time consoling Wendy, through the guise of supposedly consoling Cassie, in the hotel's dining lounge. At least they would soon HAVE to leave, to reach the airport in time....
"You know, Cassie, we'd better get going if we want to make the airport on time," Wendy said, to Hank's incredulous dismay.
"OH--but...Hank was planning on driving me," Cassie explained, with a haste that calmed his racing heart rate at least a little.
"Oh, he was? Why on earth didn't you say so, dear? I would have come in a cab, instead of my car!" Wendy started gathering her things. "Are you sure this isn't putting you out, Hank? I can drive her; it's no problem."
Hank managed to say, very calmly, that it was an honor and a privilege and no trouble at all to convey Cassie to the airport, all the while cursing the loss of private time together this misunderstanding had cost them. Wendy followed them all the way to his car, with her parting words being a reminder to send the manuscript TOMORROW! Hank popped the clutch a little quicker than was his normal habit, and they escaped with a small shriek from the tires.
Cassie slumped in the seat like an exhausted rag doll, almost hanging herself in the shoulder harness in the process. "Alone at last," she groaned. "I love Wendy, but sometimes--sometimes she makes me as crazy as I make her."
"I would rather have been alone with you," was all Hank would permit himself to say. The understatement of the millennium.
"Same here." She smiled at him, and sat up straighter in the seat.
"ARE you overly disappointed out the award going to someone else?"
"No, not if what Wendy found out about the demographics was true," Cassie assured him. "The publishing house will have the data about who and where the votes came from--if a lot of hers really were relatives...it doesn't matter, anyway. Not if Wendy's going to auction me off after my contract expires."
This was one of the many new things Hank had learned this evening--a threat to change publishers by opening up the field to better offers. "Can I bid on you too?" he inquired lightly. If only life could be so simple.
Cassie turned so she could see his profile in the light from the dash. "You want something written?" She was ready to laugh, if he was making a joke.
"How about my biography?" he suggested.
"Sounds like an interesting project. I might like a change of pace like that--if I thought I could do it justice." Hank glanced at her, because he couldn't quite read her reaction from her tone. Didn't help--she just looked lost in thought.
"We'll have to talk about it sometime." Sometime outside this last hour before your plane leaves. Some future time. And how do I ensure that? "We need to be sure to trade phone numbers."
"Yes." Cassie looked forward again, outlined by the glare of the sodium lights they were whipping past, reminding him strangely of the figurehead on an old time sailing ship. "The pacing is all wrong on this," she said abruptly. "I'm not ready to go home yet."
"We've tangled someone's plot thread," Hank said, laughing because there was no other option for him. "You can't stay; I can't go along...." He somehow knew by the way she threw her head back, and turned away abruptly to stare out the side window, that he had touched the heart of the matter, and it pained her as deeply as it did him. Which was, in a perverse way, comforting. "Ah, don't worry, Cassie," he told her, putting a hand on her knee. "We'll work it out." She didn't turn to him, but gripped his hand and held it like a lifeline as they flew down the highway in the dark, towards an unknown future.
"Love is an exploding cigar we willingly smoke." Lynda Barry
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