Personal Bias
© Le Meg

Julia King took one look at the manuscript that had been handed to her and felt her jaw go slack with shock. Her boss, Associate Editor Richard Dryer, raised a bushy gray eyebrow at her and waited for the stupor to pass. When it didn't, he asked, "Is something wrong?"

"No. Yes." Julia stood, the manuscript in both hands, and felt herself begin to tremble. "We might—I might have a problem with this one."

Dryer's eyebrow hadn't gone down. "A problem."

She read the cover page again and felt her teeth begin to grind in the back. Not a good sign. "I know him," she explained, trying her best to keep the slow, burning rage out of her voice. "From college. Personal bias. Can't do it."

"Personal bias." Dryer had a habit of repeating choice phrases that drove not a few of Gilded Page Publishing's other employees up the wall. Julia could usually handle it pretty well, mostly because she understood it was his way of thinking through a situation, but this was simply not a good time for her.

She put the manuscript down and raised a finger, opened her mouth, and then closed it again. It was amazing how fast it all came back. If she hadn't of been completely sideswiped by the whole situation she might have had time to appreciate that a little more, but as it was the primary emotion she was feeling was not wonder. Julia put a hand to her forehead and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself down as her boss watched in interest, and then eventually tried again. "Okay, Mr. Dryer, this may come as a shock to you, but I am capable of immense degrees of hatred—"

Mr. Dryer snorted.

"—and trust me when I say that though such things happen rarely, when they do they occur with hurricane strength and I cease being able to function, which is why I simply cannot take on this manuscript, nor anything this man writes, now or ever."

Her boss waited a second, eyebrow still raised. "You all finished there, kiddo?"

Julia exhaled slowly. "I think so."

"First of all," he held up one finger to assist her, should she lose track of his points, "I don't believe you. You, Julia King, are not capable of truly hating someone. Two," the second finger popped up, "College was how many years ago for you? Five or six?"

"Five," Julia replied.

"Five," he agreed, "And five years is plenty of time to put the heart break behind you, kid." He saw her open her mouth in protest and frowned. "I'm not done. Three—and this is the most important reason, so pay attention—not only is it your job to help me review these manuscripts, but I think you'll find that this one is especially important to your career because there are certain higher-ups watching your work on this account closely, thanks to a certain report written by a certain Associate Editor on your behalf. Trust me, you want to do this book. And you want to do a very good job on it."

Julia felt like crying. When she didn't respond right away, Mr. Dryer wiggled his three fingers at her and asked, "You good with those? I can think of more."

"Yes, Mr. Dryer."

"Good girl." He tapped the top of the manuscript. "Now, you banish Mr. Larson to whatever dark and dreadful closet you have to, and let me know when you're ready to sit down and discuss time frames with me. Preferably within the next twenty minutes."

"Yes, Mr. Dryer." Her boss nodded and started to leave, but Julia couldn't let him go without telling the truth. "He didn't break my heart."

The eyebrow went up again. "Julia."

"No, I have to tell you at least that much—I have some pride, Mr. Dryer." She adjusted her jacket, as if that somehow signaled as much.

"Careful, kiddo. You're talking about our newest client."

"Whom I despise," she reminded him.

"Personally," he corrected. "But professionally, you'll need to be best friends. And you need to get yourself in that mindset in twenty minutes because that's when he's due to arrive."

It took every ounce of will power she had not to start screaming and stomping like a spoiled little child. Mr. Dryer smiled at the blatant shock and even crisper anger that clouded her features and wiggled three fingers at her again as he walked away.

Julia had never truly felt ill will towards her boss before that moment, but that was nothing compared to the feelings of intense loathing that she was now undergoing for an entirely different man. Feelings she hadn't expected to experience so strongly ever again. She glanced again at the manuscript.

I Am Not Prince Hamlet. A novel by Kevin Larson.

The irony killed her. She began digging through the bottom drawer of her desk for some emergency chocolate. After single-handedly bringing him to ruin in college, now it's my responsibility to see that he makes fame and fortune. FML.

There was no chocolate. Julia checked her watch, sighed petulantly, and then grabbed her purse. She found Mr. Dryer speaking to one of the interns about their imminent guests and waited for him to finish before putting her hands together in a placating gesture. "Coffee. Please. Please let me go get my coffee before I do this."

Mr. Dryer smiled indulgently at her, like a grandfather would his favorite grandchild. "Be back in ten."

She did a quick fist pump and then hurried to the elevator without another word. Gilded Page Publishing was located around the midtown area and took up a few floors of one of the big skyscrapers that lined every block. Luckily there was a Starbucks just a few doors over, so Julia never had to go far to find her fix. And a fix was definitely what she needed if she was going to get through the next hour of her life.

To satisfy her desire for the kind of sweet-tooth therapy she'd been so hoping to indulge in earlier, she picked up one of the little rhubarb cakes in addition to her usual and bit into it immediately as she waited for her extra-shot latte.

Kevin Larson. Kevin Fucking Larson. Why didn't you just fall down a hole and die after college?

She and Mr. Larson had a history, yes, but it was nothing like Mr. Dryer suspected. They'd never dated in college. They weren't friends. Julia wasn't even sure if they'd ever had any classes together in the four years they were there, but she'd known who he was anyway. By the time they were both Juniors, most people knew who Kevin was—the random English major in student government who had aspirations to become a lawyer, who ran for Vice President and won, and who generally had the entire school in the palm of his hand.

She knew Kevin, but he hadn't known her—not until she brought him down.

Julia thanked the barista who handed her her latté and then took another bite of the rhubarb cake as she headed out the door. It was close to 2 PM. While she had no doubt that the next hour would probably be the worst hour of her life, at least she was more than half way through the day already. That was a positive, and you could never have too many positives.

She spent the last ten minutes of her freedom looking up the book's title. It sounded vaguely familiar to her but it wasn't until she typed the phrase into Google that she understood why. "I am not Prince Hamlet" was part of a line from T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Trust the English major to pull his book title from the literary canon. Still, begrudgingly, it piqued her interest a little. The part the line was from could be especially telling, though ultimately she would have to read his damn book to know for sure.

Finishing the last of the rhubarb cake in one go, Julia shut her browser and put her desk to order, shuffling papers, returning folders to their appropriate drawers, and re-aligning the pens and pencils she had stored in the NY Starbucks mug on her desk—doing basically anything she could to stall for time. Exactly twenty-three minutes had passed before Mr. Dryer walked by her desk towards his office, crooking his finger at her as he went. She stood, morosely, and picked up her coffee and the manuscript, and followed him in.

"The lobby secretary called to let us know they're heading up," he informed her, settling in behind his desk.

Julia stood just to one corner of it, setting the manuscript down. "Who's 'they'? His agent, I'm assuming?"

"You assume correctly. Alan Price, to be exact."

Julia's eyebrows shot up. "Seriously?" Damn. He's doing pretty well for himself already. He bagged Price as his agent, now Dryer as his editor? Must be some kind of manuscript.

"Your faith in our client is truly humbling," Mr. Dryer replied, deadpan.

Julia responded by sipping her latté very loudly.

There was a knock on the office door a few seconds later, despite the fact that the door was wide open, and Alan Price peeked his head in. "All ready in here?"

Mr. Dryer stood, moving around his desk to welcome Price and his young padawan. "Ready and waiting," he agreed, as Alan led GPP's newest novelist in. Kevin looked incredibly pleased to be there, and was already shaking Mr. Dryer's hand before he noticed her. And then, comically, he stopped mid-shake.

Julia set her coffee down and took this as her cue. "Mr. Price, it's a pleasure," she said, moving forward to greet him. Maybe if she ignored the fact that Kevin Larson was staring at her with the same utter shock she'd experienced just moments before, no one else would think anything of it.

Price had glanced from Kevin to her when Kevin malfunctioned, and was now eyeing both of them curiously. "I think I've told you before to call me Alan, haven't I?"

"It's possible," she agreed apologetically.

Kevin still hadn't let go of Mr. Dryer's hand. "You okay, son?" Her boss asked him.

"Yes. No. What—why is she—" Kevin took in her professional attire with grim realization. Once he grasped the situation fully the cold fury set in—she could see his eyes cloud over, his mouth go rigid, his back straighten in response to years of bitterness, and began to get an inkling of how very difficult this account might become.

Mr. Dryer gestured towards Julia. "This is my assistant, Julia King. She's already made me aware of your, ah, acquaintance with each other. College, you said?" He directed the last question to Julia, who nodded a terse agreement.

Kevin didn't say anything right away. He hadn't changed much from college; at least not physically. Still the same tallness, the same athletic frame, the same dirty-blond hair cropped fairly short. She assumed the dimples were still there to liven up his cheeks but since the chances of him smiling anywhere in her vicinity were very, very small, Julia would just have to take that on faith. His good looks had been well appreciated five years ago, by both him and his many admirers. Julia guessed that much probably hadn't changed, either.

"Kevin?" Mr. Price questioned the young writer then, glancing at Mr. Dryer. "Everything okay?"

"Fine." Kevin finally looked away then, and she could tell from the stiffness of his movements that she was now officially getting the cold shoulder. "Sorry. That was really unexpected. But it's very good to meet you, Mr. Dryer. Alan has been telling me very exciting things."

Mr. Dryer gestured towards the room's two guest chairs. "Can we get you anything before we begin? Coffee? Snacks? I think someone brought in muffins today from a bakery a couple blocks down."

"Water would be great, if you have it," Mr. Price said, and Kevin nodded in agreement before adding, "I've had my ritual coffee, it should hold me over."

Mr. Dryer waved his hand. "Of course." He glanced at Julia afterwards and she headed for the staff lounge without another word, exhaling slowly once she was out of range of the office. As she filled two clear plastic cups with water from the cooler, she mentally talked herself down from the fit she was about to have.

It's fine, she told herself. It's totally fine. You're both professionals, you're both adults. There's no reason this can't work. Even though he clearly hasn't forgotten what happened, we're all here about his book, so there won't be anything to worry about. Even though he still looks like the arrogant punk he was before. It's fine. You're fine, Julia. You can do this.

She returned to the room to discover that she was the topic of conversation. As she handed Mr. Price and then Kevin the plastic cups, Kevin said, "I was just asking Mr. Dryer how long you've been working here. Almost three years."

Julia eyed him warily as she returned to her standing position by Mr. Dryer's desk and picked up her coffee. "Yes."

"What happened to your journalism ambitions?" He asked, coolly, and glanced at Mr. Dryer. "No doubt you know she was on the paper in college. Had a column all to herself. Wrote the most amazing articles."

"I had an internship the summer after school," she explained lightly, though she knew better than to think he was genuinely interested in what she did after college. "They kept me on after it ended, but I realized I didn't as like it as much as I thought." Because I realized I didn't like who I would have to become in order to succeed.

"That's a shame. You seemed so enthusiastic about it in college. Going undercover, using anonymous sources… the works." Kevin was more or less glaring at her over the rim of his cup.

Julia glanced at Mr. Dryer. He was behind his desk again, fingers steepled as she watched the exchange, and though he met her gaze, his was carefully blank. She eventually replied, "People change."

Before Kevin could continue his acidic hints, Mr. Dryer turned the conversation towards the book. "Now, neither one of us has really had the opportunity to do more than glance at the manuscript you sent over. That said, however, the office is prepared to bump your book forward on the queue so that it meets some of the award deadlines, the Pulitzer included, based on the recommendations sent by Mr. Price and others at his office. We usually don't do this, especially for first time authors, but we've worked with Alan's office for some time and trust their judgment."

Now that his focus wasn't entirely on her, Kevin seemed to be coming down from his anger some. "That sounds great."

"Julia and I will read I Am Not Prince Hamlet and get back to you tomorrow with some preliminary views on how the revision process will go." Kevin frowned a little at that but he was apparently smart enough not to interrupt Mr. Dryer as he spoke. "It might be a few days before we hammer it all out but we will certainly be able to start editing directly by the end of the week. Now, is there anything we need to know about your schedule? Any events coming up? Prior obligations?"

Kevin glanced at her briefly. "Nothing planned." He paused and asked, "Ms. King is your assistant, you said?"

Here we go, she thought, annoyance flaring up.

"Yes. She has a very good critical eye and I'm sure you'll find her contribution to be of value."

Kevin looked as though he very much doubted that but, once again proving himself wiser than he looked, he kept those opinions silent. She reminded herself to thank Mr. Dryer when all of this was done for ignoring Kevin's pointed questioning and re-asserting the importance of her presence. If Kevin had his way, he wouldn't stop until she was out on the street, face down in the gutter.

"Do you have any other questions?" Mr. Dryer asked.

"How exactly is this process going to work?" Kevin asked. "I've been told it differs a little from editor to editor, so what's your preference, exactly?"

Mr. Dryer smiled. "We will read your book, at least twice. Once all the way through, pausing only to fix very basic grammatical mistakes, but usually I prefer the first read to be done without any pencil or pen in hand. We'll sit down with you, in person or on the phone, whichever you prefer, and discuss the book as a whole—what your aims are, what you think is important, what we think is important, etc. The second read through will begin to address what we view to be the inconsistencies in the text, the plot holes, the pointless characters, and other story revisions, as necessary. We'll have another sit down and review these with you, and get to work on making the appropriate revisions. It is your novel, of course, and you are allowed to disagree at any point in time."

Kevin nodded. He was starting to look more excited and less constipated again, and though she knew she wasn't out of hot water yet, she started to let herself relax a little.

"You'll love the book," Mr. Price said then, grinning. "You'll see. Once you sit down and read, you'll see why my office is all aflutter over this young man."

Julia smiled a little in amusement. She had no doubt the office was "all aflutter" over him—it was the general reaction garnered with Kevin Larson entered a room. Whether or not the book had anything to do with that, only time would tell. As far as she knew, though, he'd never written anything in college. He'd focused on politics and the debate team more than his creative potential, and eventually, more than his school work. And that's what had ruined him. No amount of charisma could save him once it came out that the school's sweetheart, the Vice President of student government, was paying somebody else to write his English essays.

As if he could read her mind, Kevin glanced at her and then Mr. Dryer. "What if I object to Ms. King's participation?"

She set her coffee down and crossed her arms, but it was Mr. Dryer that responded again. "On what grounds?"

"Personal bias," Kevin replied easily. "I mean no offense but the nature of our history is such that I don't believe she would judge my novel objectively. My work means a great deal to me and I don't want it marred in any way."

"Oh, grow up," Julia said then, irritated. "It was five years ago. It wasn't personal then and isn't now."

Mr. Dryer cleared his throat and she shut up. "Mr. Larson," he spoke evenly, "You have my full assurance that our greatest concern is the artistic and commercial success of your work. Ms. King has been my personal assistant for two years and I trust her creative sensibility and her professionalism. If you find that you have concrete proof that she is actively working against you during the revision process than by all means, bring it to our attention, and will we adjust accordingly. Until then, however, she remains a part of this team."

Kevin flushed a little but inclined his head towards Mr. Dryer in acquiescence. "That's fair."

Julia felt a little vindicated but her temper was by no means abated. She'd been afraid of this—that he would pick up his angry crusade against her as immaturely as ever, regardless of the fact that in both counts she'd simply being doing her job, and that not once had she ever acted out of personal bias. If she disliked him now it was because he'd made the last year and a half of her collegiate career living hell. He disliked her because despite his charm, she'd still called him out and brought his blatant disregard for the school's code of conduct out in the open. She might have facilitated his downfall, might have even prided herself on it now on some level, but the fact still remained that he was the one who broke the rules in the first place—if his life was ruined, it was his fault, not hers.

The meeting wrapped itself up quickly after. While Mr. Dryer had remained professional and collected throughout, it was clear Mr. Price felt a little awkward and wanted to end things as quickly as possible. Alan Price was known to the whole industry to be amiable and enthusiastic, and though he could and did adapt to changes expertly, his ruddy complexion always betrayed the toll such maneuvers took. Kevin looked as cool as ever—he was more like Mr. Dryer in that regard. Both men could think on their feet and respond effortlessly, effectively, to shake-ups of any kind. Even when it appeared as though his collegiate career—and his future plans to go to law school—were crumbling into ruins, Kevin had always managed to keep his composure in public. He shook Mr. Dryer's hand again and, after a pause, shook Julia's. But his dark blue eyes were bitter when he met her gaze and she knew that he wasn't happy, and that this war wasn't over.

Once Mr. Price and Mr. Larson were gone, Mr. Dryer closed his office door and turned to Julia. "I apologize earlier for not taking your concern seriously." He paused, and then spread his hands in a way that suggested bafflement. "I would have thought that a writer so lauded by Alan's office would have been a little more… uh…"

"Mature? Professional? Intelligent?" Julia offered. He gave her a wry look, and innocently she added, "I've got more."

"Well. Regardless, perhaps you should give me the actual history now, since I refuse to have you dropped because some hot-shot new author thinks he's the second coming."

Julia settled into one of the recently vacated chairs and sighed. "I love you, Mr. Dryer."

"You should, I pay you."

She spent most of the night reading Kevin Larson's novel. It was almost 3:30 AM when she finished, crying, in love with life and everything in it, and went in search of her cat for something to cuddle with. She understood now why Alan Price believed so strongly in the promise of the young writer, and why his office pushed so hard to have his book moved up the schedule.

The title was perfect—beautiful, poignant, capturing the truth of T. S. Eliot's idea and yet simultaneously suggesting more than Eliot had thought to give. The protagonist of Kevin's novel certainly wasn't Prince Hamlet, but in true Shakespearian fashion he was every bit the Fool. He was experience personified, tragedy reborn into promise, success, and happiness, if not fame and fortune. He was Arthur Miller's common man, forced to endure the absurdities of life, expected to excel even when the cards are so clearly stacked against him, and yet through every crushing defeat, every broken promise and random act of cruelty, he managed to pick himself back up, to find joy in the simplest and most unexpected of places, and to appreciate the delicate beauty of existence despite its inherent chaos. It had its flaws—extraneous dialogue ran scenes too long in some places, overwhelming the emotional effect or the subtle foreshadowing, and in a few places she thought the atmosphere would feel so much richer if he added a few more details about a person or place—but this was a book that, with the right tinkering, could be huge. An artistic and commercial success, as Mr. Dryer had put it.

Respect came, unwilling as it was. If he could write this, he couldn't be a total douchebag, inside and out, could he? This depth, this feeling, it had to come from somewhere.

Somehow she managed to get a decent six hours of sleep in before it was time for her to get ready for work. She opened up I Am Not Prince Hamlet again on the train and began to re-read, eyes glued to the manuscript even as she paused inside the Starbucks to get her ritual morning fix. It wasn't until she got in the elevator, moving absently onto one side to make room for the other bodies moving in with her, that her attention was interrupted.

"So Dryer lets you out early and gives you the whole night to read it, and you're only just starting?"

Her head snapped up and she found herself eye-to-eye with Kevin. "What are you doing here?" She asked, unpleasantly surprised.

"Dryer called me, wanted me to come in so we could get started." He glanced down at the manuscript somewhat condescendingly. "If you're not finished, however, I don't see what good it—"

"This is my second time through it, Kevin," she replied. It was too early for this. "I finished it last night."

That gave him only a momentary pause, but he bounced back impressively. "That does explain why you look like shit. Stayed up late, struggled through it, cursing my name well into the morning…"

The little bell went off as it opened up onto the fifth floor, letting a couple others off. Julia glanced longingly at the eleventh floor sign and sighed, "Don't flatter yourself."

He took a sip of his coffee—Starbucks, she noted—and glanced over her. "Have you always been this thin?"

A woman in the elevator raised an eyebrow in disbelief at him, though if he'd seen it, he didn't respond in anyway.

Asshole, Julia thought. "Yes. I have."

The woman and two others got off on the ninth floor. She threw Julia a sympathetic glance that seemed to say, "Good luck with that scumbag" and she couldn't help but smile a little back.

"You don't have weight issues, do you?" He asked, as the doors closed again. "No jars of vomit stashed in your closet or under your bed?"

Julia stopped trying to read his book. "Kevin, if you're just trying to irritate me, your presence alone is enough."

"No mood enhancing drugs I should be aware of?" He continued as though she hadn't spoken. "Diabetes, maybe? Epilepsy? Nothing that might hinder your productivity?"

So that's what this is about. "I'm working on your book whether you like it or not. Get used to it," she muttered, and swept out of the elevators gratefully when they opened on the eleventh floor. He, of course, followed her.

As she deposited the manuscript and her coffee onto the desk and booted up her computer, he sat on the edge of her desk casually. After watching her go about her business, checking her schedule book, logging into the company's network, he asked eventually, "Any relatives near death, maybe?"

"Kevin!" She pinched the bridge of her nose, the seeds of a headache already taking root. "This may come as a surprise to you," she said, glaring at him as she went, "But college happened a long time ago. Five years ago. You're acting like you're a sixteen year old punk in high school who has a crush on a girl and reacts by stealing her fucking lunch. I am not going to ruin your book. I actually liked the damn thing. Now if you don't mind, I have some work to do before I can join you and Mr. Dryer. Get off my desk and leave me alone."

Kevin had made a face at the high school comment but checked his watch and stood. "Until I find a better option, the plan right now is just to whittle you down until you break and try to strangle me," he told her, and started towards Mr. Dryer's office. "But you will not be working on my book, Jules. I'll make sure of that."

Don't fucking tempt me. She rubbed her forehead in response, pulled open her bottom drawer, and began searching for some painkillers.

The first meeting started without her, but by the time Julia was able to join, it seemed as though they'd gone through most of the book and had outlined what they agreed were the big ideas, the strings in the story that held it all together and elevated it from good story to work of art. And Mr. Dryer did call it a work of art. "It's a work that needs work," he told Kevin, "But what you have here is poignant, very human fiction. It's a brilliant first novel."

Kevin was practically glowing in his seat. "Thank you."

Mr. Dryer glanced at Julia then. She hadn't said much, and she knew it was unlike her. GPP had come to know her for her effervescent spirit and ready smile, and in meetings with clients she was always ready with a question or a suggestion, even a quick quip here and there to make the author feel more at home, more relaxed with proceedings. But with Kevin it was she who felt uncomfortable, and the way he ignored her completely, addressing Mr. Dryer as spoke and directing all questions towards her boss only, made it close to impossible to give her input. Certainly, even if she did manage to get her two cents in, Julia doubted very much that Kevin would even take it seriously.

"I hope you'll excuse me for a second," Mr. Dryer said, standing behind his desk. "I have to double check some figures downstairs. I realize you'll be heading over to Alan's office after this so if I get those now, you can take them with you."

Kevin nodded. "Of course."

Mr. Dryer glanced at Julia again. "I'm sure you have some ideas, Julia. If you don't mind going over some of those with Kevin, just to get him acquainted with what the revision process will look like…"

She managed a thin smile, and saw her boss's polite expression flicker with amusement. "Yes, Mr. Dryer."

Kevin waited until Mr. Dryer was well out of earshot before stretching, his long legs extending far in front of him. "Don't bother."

Julia ignored him, and began flipping through the beginning of the book. "There are a few scenes that go on much longer than they need to, or that should get to the end much faster, without all the useless filler chit chat. It works for Tarantino because he has flesh and blood actors who can use their physicality to move the scene forward, but in fiction it just bogs down the scene and makes you look like you don't know where it's going."

"I don't care."

"You should," she replied, pausing to skim a page. She'd made only a few corrections here and there the night before, but in the morning had been more liberal with her pen and tracked down the examples she wanted by looking for those sections that were especially worked over. "Here. The conversation between Kyle and the taxi driver is fantastic, but there are parts that are misleading—they're strings that never get tied off and at the end of the novel, beautiful as it is, the reader will still feel that itch to know and that's distracting—"

"Jules, shut up, please." He glanced over at her, resting his finger against his temple. "Don't embarrass yourself."

That made her more furious than all of the bullshit he'd said to her that morning combined. "Mr. Dryer is going to tell you exactly the same thing," she told him, trying desperately to keep her voice even and cool. "These are minor changes, Kevin, but they'll make a significant impact on the tone and flow of the novel as a whole—"

"You don't know the first thing about writing a novel," he interrupted her again, dripping disdain. "You were a journalism major. You wrote short, pithy articles with a quick punch but absolutely no substance, and if you think anybody ever took you or your shit seriously you are very much mistaken. The only notoriety you gained for taking me down was that everyone in the school finally saw how much of a shallow, worthless bitch you really were. Don't waste my time anymore."

That hurt. Breathless, her skin hot with anger, humiliation, and god knew what else, Julia stood abruptly. "Fine, then. Here's your book," she muttered, half-dropping, half-slamming it in his lap, and then stalked out before she had a total meltdown. She paused at her desk only to snatch her purse up off her chair and made it half way to the elevator before it opened and Mr. Dryer walked out. He took one look at her and frowned, but waited until he was closer before asking, "Everything all right?"

"No." Her breath was shallow, her chest tight; she was afraid that if she relaxed at all she would burst into tears in the middle of the office and as unprofessional as walking out was, she would choose that over crying at work any day of the week.

Thankfully, Mr. Dryer seemed to understand what was going on, even if he didn't know all of the details, and checked his watch. "Think you can come back by two, two-thirty?"

His kindness almost broke her. "Yes," she whispered. "Thank you."

He squeezed her shoulder and then nodded towards the elevator. "Go on. I'll take care of it."

She didn't need to be told twice. Julia hurried out, and immediately began to dig through her bag for her cell phone. Her sister answered on the second ring, worry in her voice. "Jules? Aren't you supposed to be at work?"

Julia burst into tears. The other people in the elevator with her either shifted awkwardly away from her, looked vaguely concerned, or glanced at her briefly before looking away in indifference. She hurried out when the doors opened on the lobby and quickly made her way out of the building, into the busy street. "Can you come get me?" She asked her sister.

Jill responded immediately, "Of course. What happened, baby?" That was followed by a gasp and an angry, "Did that bastard—"

"Please, just come get me. I'll be outside the Lincoln Center." Julia hung up shortly after and started walking up the avenue, ignoring the stares she was earning because of her tears.

Middle school and high school were supposed to be the most hellish years, but nothing matched that year and a half after her article about Kevin Larson's scholastic infidelity went into print. Her editor had loved it, had gushed over it, over how professional the reporting was, how she'd used her sources, done her research into the school's rules about cheating and what the punishments could entail. Julia had linked it back to corruption in government—she'd thought it a prime example of how such politicians got started. Popular, powerful men who took advantage of their situations, thought they couldn't be touched, and made headlines bleed ink when the truth came out. At the end of the article, she'd asked the school, "Is this what you voted for?"

She'd been awarded honors for her major at graduation because of it, been promised soaring recommendations from all of her professors and the Dean of her school, and even had a letter sent to her by the university's President. Her academic career couldn't have been made any better, even if she tried.

But at graduation, when she'd walked across the stage to accept her diploma, only a quarter of the graduating class actually clapped for her. If that wasn't a sign that her social reputation had taken a total nosedive, she didn't know what was.

She'd never fully recovered. The two years she'd spent with the newspaper she'd interned with had taught her, more than the snubbing had at school, that she simply couldn't be that person. She couldn't be a figure of ridicule, of controversy. Julia liked being liked. Maybe that had been the one thing she'd had in common with Kevin, and the one where they were most different—she'd wanted it, and he had it. And for that year and a half of torture, she'd never forgiven him.

The tears had more or less dried by the time Jill pulled up in her shiny suburban. As Julia got in, her sister handed her a King-sized Milky-Way and added, "There's wine at home. Your favorite."

Julia smiled at her, exhausted from crying. "Thanks."

The whole story came out during the drive, and when Julia related what Kevin had said to her in the office, Jill had let loose a string of ugly words and murderous intentions. "I hope they drop his ass," she said spitefully.

Julia rubbed her forehead. Sobbing earlier had only brought her headache on that much faster. "They won't. His book is too good, and it's not like he insulted an editor. Anyway, you don't know him. He'll charm anybody into thinking that the situation was reversed and that I'd insulted him first. The whole school knew he'd cheated but they still backed him."

They parked the car in one of the city's many underground garages and then walked back up to the street, and down the few blocks to where Jill's apartment was. She and her husband lived in a beautiful three-room space and, in their limitless generosity, had invited Julia to live with them when she'd landed the internship after college. She paid rent for her room, though it was substantially cheaper than what she'd have to pay if her sister wasn't her landlord, and often babysat for the couple to make-up for the disparity.

She and her sister had a couple glasses of wine while they made lunch, and while they talked a little about what might happen with Kevin and GPP, Julia preferred not to think about it at all. She asked her instead about what restaurant she and her husband were going to later, what movie they planned to see, and whether or not their daughter Violet would be allowed to watch television.

"You don't have to babysit," Jill told her then, sympathetic. "We can get somebody else for tonight. You shouldn't stay in. Go out and have fun."

Julia shook her head. "No, it's okay. Honestly, I'd rather stay. If I go out I'm liable to get stupid-drunk and then feel bad for myself all over again when I can't pick somebody up from the bar. At least with Violet I know I'm a person of merit," she half-joked.

Jill frowned. "That's the saddest thing I've ever heard, Jules."

"Leave me alone. I have to be back by two-thirty anyway; I'll let you know how it goes when I get home later."

Her sister dropped her off a little early so that Julia could stop in and get her coffee—she wanted the comfort of it now, more than the actual caffeine it delivered—and then Julia headed upstairs, bracing herself for whatever news might greet her.

Mr. Dryer's door was open, but out of habit she knocked first, peeking in much like Alan Price had the day before. "Mr. Dryer?"

Her boss glanced up from his work, and scratched out a final line before waving her in. "Close the door behind you."

Julia complied, and came forward to sit in one of the two chairs in front of his desk. "I just wanted to say thank you—again—and also that I'm really, really sorry about that and that if I hadn't been so mortified I would never ever have thought about walking out—"

"Julia." He said her name calmly, but with a hint of admonishment. "I spoke to Mr. Larson. We are not dropping the account, but nor am I willing to let your real editorial talent go to waste because he has some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. You—and you alone—will revise Mr. Larson's manuscript."

Julia almost dropped her coffee. "What?"

"Mr. Larson has your copy of his book and is going to spend the rest of the day looking over what suggestions you had time to make from last night and this morning. I reviewed some of them myself and not only do I agree with many of your remarks, I was impressed by them. I stressed this to Mr. Larson, particularly, and gave him the option of trying to work with you, or trying to find work anywhere once I spread the word that he's an unprofessional, immature punk with very little respect for the profession and even less tact."

Julia just gaped at him. "Mr. Dryer, you—that's—"

"You left off on page 167," he informed her then, and handed her the copy he'd been using. "Let me know when you've finished the second read through."

If she wasn't careful, Julia realized she might start crying again. This was the burst of confidence she'd needed, though, and Mr. Dryer's personal stake in her abilities lifted her spirits. "Thank you, Mr. Dryer. Thank you so much."

He smiled at her. "You're welcome, kiddo."

That night, Julia received a very unexpected phone call. She'd just finished putting Violet to bed when her cell phone went off in the other room. Kissing her niece on the forehead, she whispered goodnight, shut the door gently behind her, and then crossed quickly to where her phone danced across the kitchen counter. She didn't recognize the number. "Hello?"

"It's Kevin. Where do you live?"

Julia stiffened, and thought about hanging up. "How did you get my number?"

"Dryer gave it to me. Where do you live?"

"What do you want?" She asked, checking the time on the stove. It was just past nine-thirty.

"I want your address, Jules." He sounded annoyed. "Will you just give it to me?"

Her mouth puckered in anger. How dare you. "I would really prefer not to see you or speak to you outside of work."

"I'm trying to apologize to you, all right? Give me a break here."

She raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. "You can't do that over the phone?"

"No, I can't. I need to be able to show you something."

Against her better judgment, she relented. She rattled off the address and then warned him, "That better be it, Kevin. It's a school night and my niece just went to bed."

There was a pause and then Kevin replied, "That was disturbingly maternal."

Julia hung up on him. She returned to her wine and his manuscript and read a few more pages before he rang the doorbell downstairs. As she buzzed him in, she wondered what he could possibly have to say to her, let alone show her, that would make the effort worth it. She opened the door so he could get in himself, and then went back to the counter. Only at the last second did she realize she should have put something else on—the white t-shirt was old and big, but the cut-offs were threadbare and way too short. It was clearly a 'bumming around the house' outfit and not a 'I am prepared to accept your [shitty] apology' outfit.

Kevin walked in a few seconds later, an old Barnes and Noble bag in his hand, a Boston Red Sox ball cap on his head.

"I won't be surprised when you get murdered in the streets in that," she said, glancing at the hat. "Don't expect flowers."

He glanced over her as he handed her the bag, and then at the counter where her wine and his book sat patiently. The surprise in his eyes was unmistakable. "You're still reading it."

"Unlike you," she murmured, pulling what looked like a frame out of the bag, "I'm not an asshole." The back of the frame was to her so she flipped it around, and then almost dropped it.

"Yeah," he agreed. "I framed it."

It was her article. The one she'd written about him, exposing his bribery to the rest of the school, earning him a ruined academic career and her a ruined social one.

"I lied earlier, about your articles." He paused, obviously uncomfortable, and lifted his hat to run his hand through his hair. "I read every single one of them. I loved them. I'd never met you before but I waited every week for those, and it's stupid, but when you wrote the one about me I felt like I'd been stabbed in the back by somebody I trusted."

Julia stared at him.

"I'm sorry for the way people treated you that last year. It got out of hand. And I'm sorry for graduation, and for the things I said earlier. I saw you in his office yesterday and just panicked." He paused again, eyeing his book. "I thought I was going to have to beg you to reconsider."

"You could beg a little," she replied lightly.

His mouth quirked, and one of his dimples peeked out at her. "I read your suggestions. I think you're probably right on that count, too."

She flipped through what was left of the book. "I'm half way done. You'll have the rest of it in the morning."

Her cat wandered in from her bedroom, drawn by their voices, and stared up at him for a second before winding around her legs. As she bent over to pick him up, she told Kevin, "You can sit, if you want. You don't have to stand there."

He just stared at her. After a second, he murmured, "I'm sorry, Jules. I was really, really wrong about you."

She shrugged to lessen the tension she still felt in the room, and scratched her cat behind the ears. "You live, you learn."

Kevin pulled out one of the counter stools then and settled in, pulling his manuscript towards him. "Why'd you quit the journalism job?" He asked, flipping through her marks casually.

"I didn't want to be that person," she replied, her voice quiet.

He glanced at her.

"For what it's worth," she added, "I didn't mean to ruin your dreams. I didn't think they'd come down that hard on you."

He shrugged. "I should thank you," he mused. "I was on my way to becoming exactly the kind of double-dealing politician you wrote about. Saying one thing, doing another. And I definitely wouldn't have taken my writing seriously."

Her cat jumped up on the counter then, sniffed her wine, and then wandered over and sprawled out in front of Kevin, directly on top of the manuscript. Julia tsked at him. "Hamlet, you fat attention whore." She realized Kevin had glanced at her in surprise at the name, and shrugged at him. "What can I say. I'm a fan of those Shakespearean rags."

He grinned, both dimples winking flirtatiously now. "Jules, keep this up and I might be in danger of actually liking you."

She rolled her eyes and sipped her wine, but couldn't quite keep down a smile. "I'm not worried. You haven't seen what I'm going to do to your book yet."

He just laughed.

The book went out, the reviews came in. I Am Not Prince Hamlet was being heralded as the best thing to happen to the literary community in years, and Kevin Larson was quickly becoming the newest darling of the critics. Julia had yet to see an actual printed copy of it, complete with the gorgeous cover and the ISBN on the back that marked it officially as a piece of published, recognizable literature, but she'd also been working with the damn thing for months and therefore was in no great hurry about it.

Months. It was hard to believe that all that time could have passed so quickly, but it did. It didn't always pass smoothly—there had been plenty of arguments, and at least a dozen more moments when one of them walked out of a room, even the building, in anger. Julia would argue that a line or an entire scene had to go; Kevin would defend it, unwilling to murder all of his little darlings from the text. By the end of the day the entire office would know exactly what had happened, and too frequently they made bets to see which one of them would come out on top. But it was never as personal as it was that second day, and at the heart of all of their squabbles was a genuine desire to make the novel as brilliant as they knew it could be. Julia was proud of what they'd accomplished, and more than that, grateful that she'd been given the opportunity and had the courage to follow it through.

Mr. Price and Mr. Dryer had both sent her congratulatory notes and gifts. Alan sent flowers; Mr. Dryer, in an infinitely wiser move, gave her a Starbucks gift card. Julia felt like she was getting married or having a baby or something, with all of the attention the book kept coming her way. The fact that her superiors were also impressed with the work she'd done only made her grin even larger.

Jill sighed in the doorway, watching her get ready. There was a company party tonight to celebrate the first wave of awesome reviews the book was getting and Julia, happy that everything had turned out so well after such a bumpy start, was looking forward to having a good time. That included dancing in front of her mirror while Michael Jackson played on the radio.

"Should I worry about you?" Jill asked, rubbing her chin. "I feel as though I should. I have that feeling. That sisterly feeling."

Julia waved her off, and after applying gloss, smacked her lips in the mirror. "I'll be fine, it's just GPP people. I think we're allowed to celebrate every once and a while, don't you?"

"Yeah, yeah. Just do me a favor? If you pick somebody up, go to his place. Violet is too young to know her aunt has a sex life."

Julia stuck her tongue out at her sister's reflection, and then whirled around. "How do I look?"

"Gorgeous, as always."

Julia thought so, too. She'd spent a little more time than usual on her hair so the long, dark locks almost glistened in the light, and the dress she wore fit great. Smiling, she collected her purse and her phone as she started for the door. "It's gonna be a good night. Love you. Don't wait up!"

"Oh god," Jill replied.

The party seemed to be well under way by the time Julia got to the lounge where they'd all agreed to meet. She quickly found Mr. Dryer and gave her boss a big hug, and kissed his wife on the cheek. Mrs. Dryer was apparently delighted to see her (or a little drunk already, one of the two) and toasted to her twice before exclaiming, "You are such a good girl! I'm going to talk Richard into giving you a raise for all the work you do."

Julia laughed. "That sounds great!"

Mr. Dryer rolled his eyes. "Of course it does."

She mingled with a couple other people from her floor before running into Mr. Price and once again received his congratulations. "Let me buy you a drink, young lady," he said, clapping her on the shoulder. "What do you want? What do girls drink these days? Something with vodka? A martini, perhaps?"

"She wants wine." Kevin slid into the conversation easily, coming up behind her, and handed her the glass of cabernet he'd already bought. He was wearing a black button-down with grey slacks and, if Julia was honest, looked pretty damn good in them. "Don't worry, Mr. Price, I'll take care of her."

Mr. Price smiled broadly and tapped his temple in understanding before turning his attention elsewhere. Kevin took her by the elbow then and guided her away from the noisy bar area to a cozy little curved booth on the side. He gestured for her to slide in first so she did, setting her wine down so she didn't spill it, and then glanced at the bag on the table. "What's that?"

"It's yours," he told her, sprawling back in the black leather seat. One of his legs bumped hers under the table as he stretched them out but instead of apologizing or moving it, he kept it against hers. She ignored the way it made her heart beat faster. He sipped his whiskey and nodded towards it. "Open it already."

Julia narrowed her eyes at him playfully and then peeked in before squealing. "Oh, awesome! Oh my god, Kev, it looks great." She admired his book, fingering the jacket cover as she turned it over, reading the description on the back. When she opened it, she found he'd written inside it in big, black letters: thank you. seriously. love, kevin. She grinned, and glanced up at him. "You're welcome."

He smiled and lifted his drink. "Cheers." They touched glasses and drank. Somebody called him over shortly after and Kevin shrugged at her. "I'll be right back."

She waved him off, sipping from her wine, and flipped through the book some more as she admired it. Something on the dedication page jumped out at her and she flipped back to it, and stared in shock when she realized it was her name she read. It was under the first dedication to his parents, short and sweet, but she couldn't help but feel lightheaded because of it.

To my parents, he wrote, for their endless love and support, in spite of me, and for teaching me how to be a man.

And to Jules, for making me actually want to be one.

Her mouth felt dry. She glanced up, heart pounding, and found him watching her. They just stared at each other for a few seconds before he nodded towards the dance floor. She followed him out and let him take her hand, leading her into their first dance easily. His hand held hers at shoulder height as the other went around her waist, guiding her gently with his swaying movements. Julia didn't ever remember being this close to him, and the effect was startling. She felt breathless. His cologne was subtle but heady and the five o'clock shadow on his face that brushed against her smooth cheek made her skin tingle. She felt his lips against her jaw briefly during their second song, and slid her hand from his shoulder to his neck in response, every fiber of her longing for more of the same.

It was the third song before either of them said anything. Kevin's lips returned briefly and he murmured, "I don't really know what to say."

She almost laughed. There was something freeing about it. "Should I find you a pen? Maybe you could write it instead."

He nuzzled her and she could feel him smiling. "Maybe."

Julia pulled her face away from his so she could look at him. His blue eyes traced her face as she studied his, no trace of anger or bitterness in their dark color. She'd noticed it a while ago, that change, but she'd never quite seen them look the way they did just then.

"I'm a little in love with you, I think," he whispered, eyes dropping to her mouth briefly.

She smiled, feeling the way those words sunk into her blood and warmed every part of her. "A little?" she questioned.

He closed his eyes, his lashes brushing his cheek. "Jules, please."

Julia slid her hand from his neck to his cheek and guided his mouth to hers. "We'll work on it," she promised him, and kissed him. His lips were soft, moving against hers for the first time, and his mouth tasted like whiskey and something else entirely. She felt his arm tighten around her, drawing her closer, and slid her other hand around his neck when he ran his through her hair.

A chorus of whistling and raucous cheering interrupted them and they both glanced to the side to see what looked like most of Gilded Page Publishing all gathered by the railing that separated the bar area from the dance floor, applauding. None of them looked particularly surprised, and one of the interns had already pulled out a flip pad and was obviously checking bets.

Julia couldn't help but laugh, blushing as she was, and Kevin grinned and waved at their audience before swinging her around, back into another dance. "I think we've officially started the party," he told her, still grinning.

She ran her fingers through the hair at the nape of his neck. It was longer than it was when he'd first walked into Mr. Dryer's office, long enough to start curling around the edges of his beat-up old baseball cap. That she even knew that was telling enough. "We're starting a lot of things tonight, aren't we?"

Kevin pulled her in again, his smile with those dimples brilliant enough to make her knees feel weak, and kissed her again. When he pulled away, he murmured, "We'll have to stop working together, though. I don't think you can be my editor after this."

Julia frowned. "Why not?"

He put his hand in her hair again, kissing the side of her mouth as they danced. "Personal bias. I'm way too infatuated. After this I'm going to think that everything you say is the greatest thing anyone has ever said."

"That's not necessarily a bad thing."

Kevin chuckled, wrapped both arms around her as he kissed her, and lifted her up. "Don't push your luck, babe."

She just grinned.