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Famous is a 2018 RITA nominee for best contemporary romance: long!
Everyone knows her face. He knows her heart.
Emerson Quinn is famous. Girls want to be her. Boys want to date her. Each record outsells the last. All that remains is to continue transitioning her brand from its teenage fan base to a more mature, diverse audience. So she’s under strict orders to play nice with her army of assigned co-songwriters and to knock off the serial dating that keeps landing her in the tabloids. If she follows instructions, she can look forward to an indefinite run at the top of the celebrity ecosystem. There’s only one problem with this plan: Emerson is miserable.
So she runs away, impulsively fleeing her L.A. life and heading for a small Iowa college town where a guy she once knew lives. He’s the only person in the world she can think of who might be enough of a nerd to not know about Emerson Quinn the brand. Who might be willing to provide a haven where she can lay low and write her new album by herself, on her own terms.
Art history professor Evan Winslow knows a thing or two about leaving your past behind. He’s worked hard to establish himself far from the spotlight of his infamous father. He’s up for tenure soon, which will mean job security for life. All he has to do to lock down his hard-won, blessedly quiet existence is keep his head down.
Too bad the most famous pop star in the world—who also happens to be his long-lost muse—has just shown up on his doorstep.
Seven years ago.
Sometimes a wedding was not just a wedding.
This one, in which Evan Winslow’s friend Tyrone pledged his eternal devotion to his girlfriend Vicky, was, in fact, a test. It looked like a normal wedding, with white funereal-looking flowers and ill-fitting tuxedos, but it was also Evan’s Hail Mary pass: one last attempt to hold on to his life in Miami, to his nascent career, to his entire freaking life.
His final experiment to measure how extensive—how permanent—the damage inflicted by his father on the Winslow family’s reputation was going to be.
Evan had laid low for the past two weeks, hoping the whole “out of sight/out of mind” adage would prove true, and now it was final exam time.
This test had one question: Could Evan attend his friend Tyrone’s wedding and not be recognized, not upstage the proceedings with his mere presence?
The answer was no. Fail. Flunk.
Which meant this was it. Today was the end of life as he knew it, which sounded melodramatic but was no less true for it. Because if Evan knew one thing with certainty, down to the dusty corners of his soul, it was that he could not live with the fame—the infamy—his father’s crimes had brought down on his head. He had already been coming around to accepting the idea that his painting career was done before it had even really started—thanks to the crimes of Evan Winslow Sr., Evan Winslow Jr. was destined to be persona non grata in the art world—but now he’d brought the goddamned paparazzi to his best friend’s wedding.
He’d tried to hedge against that prospect, and he initially thought he’d succeeded. He’d spent the night at his brother’s place. Evan’s brother wasn’t in the art world—the family business—having opted instead for life as an overgrown trust-fund baby. So he wasn’t getting as much media attention as Evan. Evan had called a cab to his brother’s house, timing things so as to arrive at the church just before the ceremony started.
But he’d miscalculated, emerging from the taxi as a limo pulled up and disgorged the bride and her attendants.
He’d held out a shred of hope that the flashbulbs that started going off were actually for the bride. But how many brides hired half a dozen photographers with zoom lenses to photograph their nuptials?
How many wedding photographers yelled things like “Were you in on it too?” and “Will you attend the sentencing hearing?”
So he’d hustled inside ahead of the bridal party and tried to make himself inconspicuous.
Which, of course, had set off a series of whispers among the guests. People talking behind wedding programs, some openly pointing at him. The bride’s mother glaring, no doubt because he had upstaged her daughter before she’d even made an appearance.
It didn’t even matter that everyone recognized him, really. The fact that he had failed his test was regrettable but not elementally important. Because even if the infamy died down, could he live with the lie? With the notion that everything he had—his luxe condo; his painting ability, honed over years of lessons from the world’s greatest artists; his expensive grad school—was all built on lies and paid for with stolen money?
The answer to that question was also no.
So it was time to go. To start over somewhere else. Pack his shit up, transfer to another college to finish his degree—say goodbye to his entire life.
He had no earthly idea how to do that, but that was a problem to be solved tomorrow, on day one of his new life. Right now, the last day in his old life, he had a wedding to attend.
Thankfully, the music changed at that moment, signaling the start of the ceremony. Everyone turned, and he breathed a sigh of relief. For a few moments anyway, there were people in the room who would attract more attention than he would.
He almost laughed as the first bridesmaid appeared. The dress was ridiculous. She looked like a short, puffy, pink mummy. Evan didn’t know fabrics, but he suspected that the multi-layered, shiny dress she was wearing had not been constructed from any fiber or dye that occurred naturally in this world.
And there was another one, and another. They kept coming, parading down the aisle in ascending order of height, like caricatures of bridesmaids rather than actual bridesmaids, with their identical upswept hairdos and identical pink heels.
His wrist twitched. They would make a great painting, all of them lined up like nesting dolls.
No, correction: as the final bridesmaid appeared at the top of the aisle, Evan had to revise his previous thought. They would make a great painting, but she would make a spectacular painting. He would title it Bridesmaid Number Seven.
Tall and thin with long limbs, she was the sort of person people might describe as gangly. It was like someone had taken a regular, average woman and stretched her out like taffy. But she was too graceful to be rightfully called gangly. She had an ease about her, which was rather remarkable, given the packaging and spackling she’d been subjected to.
Evan noticed those sorts of details when a painting was emerging. It was like his brain clicked into some other mode as it swept over a scene, processing, neutrally assessing everything with equal attention, waiting for the jolting spike of feeling that signified the correct take on a subject.
He was a beat behind everyone else standing for the bride because he was still looking at the last bridesmaid. She and her colleagues arrayed themselves at the front of the church and turned to watch the bride process. Her face had interesting angles: sharp cheekbones and slightly unruly brows arching high over eyes that should have been too close-set to be called pretty.
Where would he put her? In a forest, maybe? In her ridiculous pink dress in a forest, Titania styled by Barbie? No. That wasn’t quite right.
As the bride passed his pew, he forced his gaze from her tallest attendant and considered his friend Tyrone’s soon-to-be-wife with more attention than he had ever found it necessary to bestow on her before. Vicky had the same facial structure as the bridesmaid, but less of it. The cheekbones were there, just not as prominent. The two women had to be related. Sisters, maybe?
As Vicky’s father kissed her and sat down, the bridesmaids turned their backs to the congregation, presenting the assembly with a row of identical bows on their backsides, each one a little higher than the one next to it thanks to the arrangement of attendants from shortest to tallest.
He was still thinking about her face, though.
He would start with Yellow Ochre and add tiny amounts of Cadmium Red Light to start with, and then he’d layer in the planes of those gorgeous cheekbones.
It was with a jolt, a great wrenching, invisible blow, that he realized: no.
Not that those were the wrong colors, but that he wasn’t going to paint her.
He wasn’t going to paint anything.
After today, he didn’t paint anymore.
* * *
“Is that cute guy in the corner the son of the infamous art criminal?” Emmy whispered to her cousin Vicky. Now that dinner and the first dance were over, she’d finally gotten a minute alone with the bride so she could ask about the handsome man sitting alone at a table in the back of the ballroom. She figured he must be “the one” since she’d seen him intently speed walking past a clump of photographers before they went into the church.
He’d been staring at her much of the evening.
It started when she was walking back up aisle after the ceremony on the arm of her assigned groomsman. The intensity of his gaze had drawn her attention, but he’d looked away when she caught him starting.
And she’d kept catching him. His appraisal had continued throughout the toasts and as she’d tried to make conversation with the rest of the wedding party over dinner. She’d glance over at him only to find him already looking at her—enough times that he’d started grinning sheepishly, like he knew he’d been busted.
But of course if she kept catching him, it meant she was staring at him as much as he was staring at her.
It was just so hard not to look at him. He was tall and broad-shouldered under his impeccably tailored suit, and when he smiled as she’d catch him looking, he did it with his whole face.
“Don’t look!” Emmy shriek-whispered as Vicky turned to peek over her shoulder.
“I can’t tell you who he is if I can’t see him,” Vicky declared, not even trying to make her surveillance subtle. “Oh! Yep, that’s Evan Winslow!”
“His dad even made the papers in Minnesota,” Emmy said. The story of the jet-setting art dealer’s fall from grace had all the makings of a Greek tragedy, and it was playing out in the tabloids. It was a true-crime story that had the nation fascinated, except instead of dead bodies there were Ponzi schemes and counterfeit art.
“Yep,” said Vicky. “The trial was huge. They were one of the richest families in Miami. It’s been all over the place. Poor guy. Ty says he’s taken it all super hard.” She cocked her head. “So you think he’s cute, huh? A little nerdy for my tastes, but I dare you to go over there and talk to him.”
“No way! I can’t just—” Emmy’s objection was cut off when the DJ cued up a horrid song that made Vicky’s sorority sisters scream and rise as one.
As they swept Vicky away in a tornado of pink tulle, she called, “Go over there. What have you got to lose? You’ll never see him again anyway.”
There was so much more she wanted to ask Vicky. How old was Evan Winslow? What was he studying? Vicky’s new husband knew him from the University of Miami, where they were both grad students. Tyrone was doing his MBA, but she had a hard time imagining this guy in a business school. He seemed like more of an intellectual—a humanities type maybe. His hair, though currently slicked back, seemed like it was a little too long for him to fit in with the would-be capitalists, and his nerd-chic horn-rimmed glasses seemed more Buddy Holly than business. She started to make up a story. Something from the point of view of a sensitive guy forced into business school by his conniving, greedy father. The chorus could be the dad talking, but by the end of the song, the lyrics would be turned around, the guy defiantly using the father’s words against him.
Well, hell. Emmy wasn’t generally an assertive sort of person. She tended to hang around on the sidelines and make up little snippets of songs about what she saw unfolding around her. But Vicky was right. She was flying back to Minneapolis tomorrow, and she’d never see this guy again. In twenty-four hours, she’d be back doing battle with her parents, facing their perpetual and poorly disguised disappointment over her barista job and her “childish dreams.” So why not put an end to their little mutual staring society and go say hi to the infamous Evan Winslow?
Gathering about a thousand yards of pink polyester in her arms, she hiked up her skirts and set off. He must have felt her approach, because he looked up from his cake while she was still a good twenty feet away, an expression of surprise seguing into another of those magnetic, self-deprecating grins as she got closer.
“Hey,” she said, trying to make the greeting seem casual.
“Hey,” he echoed. Then he added, “You’re here,” as if all this time he’d merely been waiting for her arrival, as if she had been the point of his attending the wedding.
He picked up a wedding program and slid it across the table to her.
“Ha!” She laughed in delight. If she’d been making up a story about him, it seemed he had done the same thing, in a way. Except where hers was coming together from turns of phrase and snippets of melody, his was composed of ink—garden-variety ballpoint from the look of it. He had drawn her on the back of the program, right on top of the Shakespeare sonnet that Vicky, who Emmy was pretty sure wouldn’t know a sonnet if it bit her in the ass outside the context of wedding planning websites, had artfully placed on the otherwise-blank heavy-gauge paper. The funny thing was that Emmy wasn’t wearing the god-awful dress in his portrait. He’d put her in shorts and a tank top, which was pretty much her uniform when she wasn’t performing bridesmaid duties.
“You drew me! You’re an artist?” She’d known his dad was an art dealer, but she didn’t know that much about the rest of the Winslow family—she’d read the headlines but hadn’t really followed the details of the trial.
He paused for long enough before answering that she started to fear she’d offended him somehow. “I used to be a painter.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I used to paint, but now I don’t.”
Okay then, that was clearly not a topic he was keen to discuss, so she tried another question. “Vicky said you’re in grad school with Tyrone?”
“We’re both at the University of Miami, but I’m doing a PhD in art history. Ty and I met in a campus running club.”
Yes. The satisfying ping of having uncovered the truth in her proto-song echoed in her chest. An artist and an intellectual. She’d been spot-on.
“Are you from Minnesota?” he asked. “You look like you’re related to Vicky.”
“Yeah. She’s my cousin. I’m Emmy.”
He stood and stuck out his hand. “Hi, Emmy. I’m Evan.”
She was on the other side of the table—too far away to reach his hand—so she walked around. Wanting to pretend that she was in control, she slowed her steps. But that was only because she wasn’t entirely comfortable with the truth of the matter, which was that in her haste to reach him she’d had to slow her steps. She was a stupid, powerless fish he was reeling in.
He didn’t let go when the handshake would normally have ended, just hitched his head toward the door. “Want to go for a walk?”
Of course she did.
* * *
“Aha!” Evan said, pushing his shoulder against the heavy metal door at the top of the stairwell. “Unlocked!” He held it for a laughing Emmy to precede him onto the roof of the banquet hall. She had her voluminous skirts gathered in one hand and her high heels dangling from the fingers of the other. “Be careful of your feet. Who knows what’s up here.”
She paused at the threshold and peered out. He looked over her shoulder. Yeah, the gravel that lined the ground was going to require shoes. Or…
“Eeee!” she shrieked, laughing as he swung her into his arms. “What are you doing?”
What was he doing? He was acting like the hero of some lame made-for-TV romantic comedy. Not his style at all. But there was something about being in limbo, teetering on the precipice between one life and another, that made every decision this evening seem less important, every action less imbued with its potential future consequences.
“If I’d known that ‘go for a walk’ was code for ‘break onto the roof,’” she said, “I might have thought twice about accompanying you.”
The roof had been the only place he could think to escape, where he could be sure there would be no photographers. But he didn’t want her to feel uncomfortable, so he paused, wondering if he should turn around.
But then she craned her neck to get a better view and said, “It’s gorgeous up here!”
So he crossed the roof and deposited her on some kind of ventilation structure that would do as a bench.
“Beautiful,” she said, still talking about the view.
It was. The buildings of the Miami skyline he knew so well were jewels against the otherworldly pink sky of dusk. But so were the shining sapphires of her eyes.
And that was another made-for-TV thing he didn’t do: compare women’s eyes to gemstones. What the hell? There was limbo, and there was losing control of himself.
“Give me that,” she said, grabbing the stolen bottle of champagne he had tucked under his arm and setting to work on the cork. When it popped, she squealed and held the fizzing bottle away from her for a moment before tipping her head back and drinking directly from it. The slanted pink light caught tendrils of blond hair escaping the pins that anchored an elaborate updo. He watched her throat undulate as she drank. Then she lifted her head, used her forearm to wipe her mouth, and grinned as she handed him the bottle, perfectly framed by the blazing sunset.
He was cursed with a painter’s eye. He saw things other people didn’t. He was never going to get over not painting her.
“What’s your last name?” he asked, thinking, irrationally, that if he knew it, he could somehow find her later. Put a bookmark in this meeting and come back to it, even though he knew that he was going to have to draw a sharp line between what he was already starting to think of as his “old” life and whatever was going to come next.
“I’m moving to Los Angeles in two months,” she said.
“So it’s Emmy I’mMovingToLosAngelesInTwoMonths?” He couldn’t help teasing. “That must have been a mouthful when you were a kid.”
“No.” She laughed. “I’m moving in two months, and I’m going to change my name when I do, I think. I haven’t decided to what. So it’s just Emmy for now.”
Ah, so he wasn’t the only one on the verge of reinventing himself. Perhaps that’s why he felt this strangely, strongly compelled by her. They were of a kind. “If that’s how you’re going to be, I won’t tell you my last name, either.” She likely already knew it, but she hadn’t brought it up, so he wouldn’t either.
“Don’t tell me,” she said. “Let’s just be Emmy and Evan. E and E.” She took another swig of the champagne. “Like e.e. cummings.”
“I will wade out till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers,” he said. He wasn’t sure how his brain had produced that obscure line, but he knew now how he would have painted her.
She’d been looking at the skyline, but the cummings snippet snagged her attention, and she turned, eyes suddenly glazed with moisture.
“What’s the matter?”
“I’m a songwriter,” she said. “Or at least I’m trying to be.”
Ah. The impending move to L.A., the name change—the pieces were coming together.
“Sometimes when I hear a line like that, it makes me despair of ever writing anything worthwhile,” she said, shaking her head.
“Don’t despair. You can do it.”
“How do you know? You don’t even know me.”
He shrugged. She had intelligent eyes that looked intently at the world. That’s what storytellers needed. That’s probably what he had seen in her, why he had picked her out from the row of identical puffy pink dresses. “I have a feeling you’re going to make it.”
“You’re the only one who thinks so,” she whispered.
“I have a good eye,” he said, struck with the urge to reassure her. “I see things other people don’t.” He turned so they were side by side, both facing the now rapidly darkening city—which was why he didn’t have any warning when she leaned over, grabbed his cheeks, and kissed him.
Her lips were soft, and pressed so lightly against his it almost tickled. His first instinct was to push her away, because what could come of it? They were both headed for new lives, both making a break with the present.
But he couldn’t make himself do it. What was so wrong with kissing a pretty girl on a rooftop? It was the perfect coda, actually, to his Miami life. So he surrendered, letting his whole body relax into the soft hunger of their kiss, forcing himself to attend to every nuance of the experience, to savor the bittersweet finale, as if he could file it away somehow, and take it out and examine it again later, like he would a memento from his past.
And, oh, he hadn’t felt this alive for months. It was like she was filling him with energy he thought had been drained permanently by the police raids, the meetings with lawyers and PR people, the endless court proceedings. He sipped at her lips, letting his hands frame her face, wanting to anchor her there forever. As he deepened the kiss, testing the seam of her lips, she opened for him, but there was a tentativeness there, a hesitation.
It was like she didn’t really know what she was doing.
The rogue thought entered his mind as her tongue slid along his, ripping an involuntary groan from his throat as he gently pushed her away.
“How old are you?” God, how could he have missed that? Hadn’t he just been bragging about how good he was at seeing things?
Her brow furrowed. “Does it matter?” She was flushed, her pupils dilated, her breath short.
She was gorgeous.
It didn’t matter how old she was, not in any elemental way. But it did matter here on this roof, in the clumsy corporeal world. It meant the difference between continuing this spectacular goodbye-to-his-old-life kiss and not continuing it.
She pulled back and scooted farther away from him on the bench, confirming his fears even before she spoke. “I’m nineteen.”
Right. It might be perfectly clear that this was merely a casual kiss, but he wasn’t going to be that guy. He eyed the nearly empty champagne bottle on the ground at their feet. That was all he needed—the story of Evan Winslow, Jr. getting a nineteen-year-old drunk and seducing her.
So much for enjoying his bittersweet Miami coda.
“How old are you?” she countered, a challenge in her voice.
“That’s not so bad,” she said.
“Not so bad for what?” He was teasing her, but only because teasing was all he could do now. “You’re right,” he said. “A seven-year age difference is not bad at all for sitting on the roof talking about everything under the sun until someone notices we’re gone and sends out a search party.” He patted the seat beside him, shrugged out of his suit jacket, and held it out to her.
He wasn’t a total saint, though. He liked the disappointment that washed across the striking angular face he wanted to paint so bad his fingers ached.
“Talking,” she said, pouting a little but sliding back over to sit next to him and letting him slip the jacket over her shoulders.
“Talking,” he confirmed, emphasizing the word for himself as much as for her.
“Okay, uh, what’s your favorite TV show?”
“I don’t really watch TV.” He didn’t tell her that he didn’t even own one. Or that the glimpses of his family’s sordid drama that he’d caught on CNN at his brother’s house had been enough to reinforce his desire to never get one.
“Last concert you saw?”
He thought—hard—and came up with nothing. He had been to a few shows on the last cruise he took with his parents. His mother dragged Evan and his brother and their father on an annual luxury cruise and made them dress for dinner and generally fulfill her fantasy of the perfect Ralph Lauren family. But probably cruise ship bands playing Neil Diamond covers weren’t what Emmy had in mind. “I’m not really one for live music,” he finally said.
“Okaaay,” she said, screwing up her face like she was trying to think of a new topic.
“It’s no good,” he said laughingly. “I’m completely pop-culturally illiterate.”
“How come you don’t paint anymore?”
Whoa. If her previous questions had been rubber-tipped darts that pinged easily off their targets, this one was a razor-sharp axe that sliced right through him.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” he said, which was the absolute truth, even if it didn’t answer her question.
“Okay,” she said, and he was surprised that she was going to accept his evasive answer. Maybe it wouldn’t be so hard to upend his life after all. Maybe he could get used to being not-a-painter. “So what should we talk about?”
“You. We should talk about you.” She was the most compelling person he’d met in a long time. And she was the only person he’d met recently who hadn’t said a word about his father. “I want to know everything there is to know about you, Emmy NoLastName. Tell me about moving to L.A. Sing me a song.” He turned to face her head-on. He would listen to her for as long as he could get away with it. He would listen and watch. Then he would say goodbye.
To her, and to himself.
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