"It's freezing in here!"
With a sob of frustration, Tory shoved away from the desk, slamming the keyboard tray shut as she stood up. Her chair rolled backwards on the slick vinyl mat. As she fled to the kitchen, the computer screen went blank, another reminder that she hadn't written a word in over an hour. The sludge in the bottom of the coffee pot had congealed into a foul-smelling gelatinous mass. It hadn't quite burnt. The timer must have cut the thing off just in time. She glanced at the kitchen clock. After one a.m. Again.
Tory flung the pot in the general direction of the kitchen sink. She missed, of course. She had lousy aim, and she knew it, so she didn't bother to try very hard. Luckily the pot didn't break. It wasn't glass. The glass carafe had long since been replaced with a stainless steel one. The worst effect of her temper was a splattering of black sludge all over the floor and on the front of the counter.
If she still had a housekeeper there would have been nothing more to the whole incident. Hell, if she still had a housekeeper, she'd have had coffee in the damn pot, not something that looked like a new special effect for a sci-fi movie. As it was, she'd have to scrub up the mess herself.
"I can't do this any more!" She screamed it loud enough that even Henry, wherever he was, should have heard her. "I hate you for doing this to me, you rotten son-of-a-bitch! Where the hell are you, anyway?"
"If you hate him, why do you care where he is or who he's with?"
"Who's there?" Tory let the dishrag drop back into the sink. She wasn't going to panic. She wasn't. She turned to face the voice. Or where she thought it had come from. Slowly, very slowly, without the least trace of panic, she swept the room with her gaze, searching for the source of the voice. No one. There was no one here.
Of course there was no one here. She lived alone now. Even the damn cat had deserted her. On the other hand, if the cat hadn't deserted her, but was, instead, starting to talk to her in a man's voice, she had more problems than she was prepared to face at the moment.
She opted for a more rational answer. Armed with a huge flashlight which might be useful as a weapon if necessary, she searched the small condo, looking in the hall closet, looking beneath the bed--
Damn. There were things under there. She vaguely remembered her mother calling them dust bunnies. Well, some of the rabbits under the bed looked like they might be gaining sentience. Were you supposed to vacuum under the bed, too? How would you do that? Take the bed frame apart maybe? Well, she sure as hell wasn't going to move the damn bed. It was mahogany--one of the few antiques she had left--and nothing short of a moving crew could lift the thing.
She searched the rest of the condo. Closets. Bathrooms. Even in the shower. Back to her office. Nothing. No one.
That left only one conclusion. She was losing her mind. Great timing. She seemed to have lost everything else--her housekeeper, the car ... her husband.
Returning to the kitchen, she picked up the dented coffee carafe and set another pot to brewing. She needed caffeine. That was what was wrong. That was all that was wrong. Caffeine. Resolute, she marched back to the keyboard, determination stiffening her tired shoulders.
"Why do you bother? You hate this story. You know you do."
"It's my job," she snapped before she could consider the source of the voice. "And I really need the money."
"How can you write romance when you don't believe in love?"
"I believe in love!" Tory shrieked. "Just because that sorry-ass piece-of-shit of a husband of mine ran off with some blonde bimbo doesn't mean I don't believe in love."
"You've given up on love, and so have the people in your book. That's the real reason you can't finish this manuscript. You don't want to. You don't care about these people. They aren't real to you any more."
Tory looked for something to throw and latched onto her empty coffee cup, but then she realized she had nothing to throw the cup at. "Shut up, shut up, shut up! I am not talking to some voice in my head."
"Why not? You always used to talk to us. I thought we were real to you."
Us? Who had she ever ... This was one of her characters? Tory squirmed slightly, trying to bring her world into focus. "I suppose I did talk to my characters, once upon a time. But they didn't talk back."
"Has it been so long you've forgotten? You used to talk to me. We had long conversations, you and I. Back when you were writing The Boys of Summer, we talked all the time." His voice sounded desperately sad. "I thought, back then, that I mattered to you."
The Boys of Summer books. Tory sat back with a sigh. She'd been younger then, and still amazed that someone would pay her to do what she loved most. There'd been magic in those books. Short, sweet little romances all, with barely more than the touch of two lips and the feel of a hand resting on a shoulder.
She placed him, of course. She'd never really forgotten him but now she brought him back sharply into focus. Why should she feel suddenly guilty that she'd lost touch with this character? He was her creation, her first love, her...
He was a character. A fictional character from a fictional book. Maybe she needed to see a doctor. "The market's changed. I couldn't give the Summer books away today. No one wants to buy books with no sex in them."
"Women loved the Summer series. They had passion, those books. You loved writing them. Back then you stayed up half the night writing because you wanted to. And you still found time to talk to me."
The readers loved you, Tory thought. As she had. Once upon a time. "It was easier then." Tory rose to pace the room, disquieted by the pain of remembering.
Writing those books had been like a romance of its own. She'd been in love with writing. She'd been in love with the world. She'd been in love with her hero.
With the blush of nostalgia warming her, she reached for the cardboard sheath hiding behind the boxes in the corner. As if handling a fine antique, she pulled the life-sized cardboard cutout from his box and unfolded the long bronze torso, locking the braces together with an ease born of familiarity. She'd hauled this man all over the world with her, to book signings, to writers' retreats, to radio and TV talk shows, wherever they'd sent her.
It was easier to admit now. He'd been more than just a cardboard hero to her. She'd been in love with this tall, long-haired stranger who'd been every man for her, who'd represented both her dream come true of being a writer, and her search for the perfect man.
The paper's finish felt slightly chalky, as if time were eating it away from the inside, but once she had him set up, the years seemed to fall away. Tory drew in her breath sharply. She'd almost forgotten how handsome he was.
He was a Viking in this pose. Nearly naked from the waist up, strange runes written across the sharply defined muscles of his chest, his arms bulged with the strength necessary to lead an army or carry a maiden to safety. His smooth chest glowed with a fine sheen of oil, making the aging cardboard cutout seem to radiate the soft light that filtered in from the kitchen.
Tory brushed her fingers across his face. Strong, bold jaw line, long, straight nose, and deep blue eyes that burned with intensity. Just now those intense blue eyes seemed to follow her. How many times she'd described his face!
No matter what century she'd painted him into, no matter what uniform he wore, no matter what color they dyed his hair for the current book cover, always he was the same man. This was the man she'd seen in her dreams nearly twenty years ago. Over the years she'd felt compelled to share those dreams with the world.
"I was so in love with you back then," she whispered. "You were my perfect hero."
Her fingertips moved to the glistening shoulders, brushing the breadth of them, trailing down the rippling muscles to the leather-wrapped forearm. For the moment, he felt so real, so alive, so warm beneath her fingers, that it was hard to remember he was just a cardboard cutout, a faded reminder of the dreams that had once driven her. For the moment he seemed more real than the chaos that defined her life. So it came as no real surprise when she laid her head against that broad chest and his arms rose to comfort her, cradling her against his firm, strong body, nor that his hand moved to stroke her hair, gently smoothing the tangled mess away from her face.
"There, now, my love, don't cry. I would not have you sad. There's nothing wrong that love can't fix. Everything will work out for the best."
"Love can't fix everything."
"It can in my world. Come. Let me show you."