Violetta Bottomberg looked at him, her Alejandro, and he looked at her.
They were a happy couple, and they both knew that with their undying passion for each other, they would live gaily ever after.
Steven Shafter, editor-in-chief of DelaPerle Press, passed a hand over his balding head and adjusted the large spectacles along the bridge of his nose. Taking a deep breath, he repeated the horror he had just read: “‘Gaily ever after”? “They were a happy couple”? What is that for an ending?’”
The author of these words was sitting a few feet away from him in a bright-blue coat, white boots, a white scarf, and white gloves. Her glossy red lips pressed into an uncertain smile. “You d-don’t like it?”
“No. But you know what I despise most?”
“What d-do you despise most?”
Opening the book to its middle, Steven read aloud, ‘“He slipped his johnson into her lady parts.”’
Harlette reddened and pushed her blond hair behind her ear. “Would you have preferred “He slipped his member into her honey pot”?”
“Why not “his bratwurst into her bearded oyster”? This is shameful, Harlette. To think you call yourself a romance novelist. No one in this sexually driven world will ever take you seriously. You can forget about this book, The Lovely Temptress, ever being made into a movie.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want it to be a film. That would be supporting the…you know…industry…” She trailed off, red as a tomato.
“Porn industry, porn industry!” Steven almost shouted.
“Please, not so loud.”
“What? Afraid your mother will hear?” he said. “Should’ve thought of that before becoming an erotica writer. Although there is nothing erotic about what you write.”
A pause. Harlette’s lips trembled. “What do you mean? Don’t you like my books? You always told me they were brilliant. I mean, you contracted me to write an erotic series… I will revise The Lovely Temptress—”
“Why do I hire you?” Steven wondered suddenly.
Harlette straightened, tilting her head to the side.
He frowned and leaned in closer to her, and he repeated his question, his tone deadly serious: “Why do I hire you?”
Harlette’s breath caught in her throat. “Steven, what kind of question is this?”
Steven’s eyes fluttered. A sudden spasm caught hold of him, and it made him jerk up and almost fall off his chair. Harlette yelped, and as she readied to inquire about his health, he looked at her. His lips slowly pushed into a smile.
Getting up from his chair slowly, he reached her side in a few robotic strides and taking both of her hands in his, he said, “I love your work. Give me an autograph? For my wife too. And don’t forget my children.”
Harlette was confused. “But Steven…you don’t have any children.”
“Yes, yes,” he replied, nodding as he pulled her up and led her out the door. “Here, have these flowers,” he said in a distracted tone. He grabbed a vase of yellow tulips and thrust it into her hands, making her stumble backward. “You can keep the vase too.”
“But it’s crystal!”
“Yes, yes, it is,” he agreed, and before she knew it, she was out of the room. The door closed behind her. It was odd how he had changed his opinion of her work so radically, yet it was not uncommon of him to do so. In fact, he always did that. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought him possessed by a strange demon obsessed with the idea of making her a famous published writer. But that was impossible.
In a composed manner, Harlette, vase in hand, descended a winding staircase, crossed the hall to the glass door, and stepped into the cold rain. The sounds of sputtering vehicles and arguing folks announced that it was rush hour.
Late autumn’s breath slapped Harlette’s face. Tightening her hold on the crystal vase, the willful romance novelist mingled with the many passersby threading up and down the street.
Nineteen-year-old Harlette was a published writer, a romance novelist. Between the ages of seventeen and eighteen, she had published five books: Love in His Arms, Love Me, Love You, True Love in the Afternoon, and Baby Love. Being a romance novelist had its ups and downs. The good thing was that writing romance was what Harlette loved; the bad thing was that this genre wasn’t considered very sophisticated. Many people scorned the books, and at social gatherings, it labeled her as loose and even silly. She did not mind that as she hardly went out. In fact, she felt rather lonely most of the time, for the only people she regularly saw besides Mr. Shafter were her parents and her nineteen-year-old sister, Yuka. Well, adoptive parents and adoptive sister. Harlette had never met or even asked about her biological parents. Oh, but she was not to be pitied—she was a happy young woman with a family who gave her all the love and care she needed.
Her heels clicking on the pavement, Harlette walked at a brisk pace, eager to return home. Yet that eagerness melted away when she spotted the display window of her favorite lingerie boutique. Despite knowing she had to stop being such a spendthrift, she stepped inside, determined to be generous with herself. Why? Only because she had concluded that, perhaps, sexy lingerie would make her feel more confident and therefore enhance her chances of finding Mr. Right. Or not. Honestly, loneliness combined with writing romance all day was driving her slightly mad.
An hour passed before Harlette finally left the shop; she had two bags overflowing with underwear and all manner of accessories in one hand, and in the other, the vase. She walked along a narrow gravel path, a large smile plastered on her face, and guilt flashing in her eyes.
The sound of engines faded as she left the city and entered the forest. A couple of birds perched on branches looked curiously at the joyous young woman, who was singing to herself.
Harlette’s house was a small chalet made of wood. Enormous pines towered over it, casting it into shadows. Harlette hated this gloomy and silent atmosphere, and many a time asked her parents to move, or at least let her move out, yet they always refused.
Harlette’s parents were historians and antiquarians, and they preferred to live hidden from the world, a world they considered violent, ugly, and noisy. Never had they encouraged Harlette or Yuka to travel abroad, and having Harlette write books made them happy, for it did not require her to move away. Once and only once, Harlette expressed the wish to become a singer, but her parents had immediately reprimanded her, telling her that touring and appearing in public was too dangerous. Anyway, there was plenty of singing to be done in the shower, and Harlette had contented herself with that for nineteen years.
Harlette opened the door, stepped inside, and wiped her feet on the rough carpet. She placed the vase on a table, rolling her eyes when she spotted a pack of cigarettes. Harlette’s adoptive sister, Yuka, was a chain-smoker and had sworn to quit multiple times. She was also a serial liar.
It took no time for Harlette to jog up the stairs and shut herself in her bedroom. She smiled at the baby-blue wallpaper, the shelves laden with romance books and jewelry, and the large bed with a rose-printed duvet and pillows. This was her sanctuary.
A red velvet chair sat in one corner of the room, right next to a large window framed by garnet drapes, and on it sat a plump white cat looking at her with large, confident blue eyes, her fluffy tail flipping from side to side.
Bernard was a stray female who had wandered into Harlette’s room three years ago. Yes, Bernard was a female cat. Ever since Harlette was very young, she had planned to call her future dog Bernard. And even if it was a female feline who had strolled into her life, Harlette bestowed that name upon her.
“How’s it going, Berr?” Harlette asked, putting her bags on the bed before rummaging inside them. The cat meowed at the annoying sound of the rustling of paper. “I did quite badly today,” Harlette confessed with a pout. “Steven isn’t pleased with me. He didn’t like my ending for The Lovely Temptress.” Harlette stopped herself and grimaced. “Well, he liked it eventually. That was strange. But then again, he’s always like that. I think he must be taking something.”
Harlette plucked a pair of lacy black-and-red underwear out of the bag. She undressed quickly. Slipping into the newly purchased apparel, she then put on the pair of stiletto heels.
When she saw her reflection in the mirror on the wall, she looked about, feeling self-conscious for dressing that way. She studied her reflection again. Tilting her head to the side, she wondered if men would find her appealing. Her eyes lingered on the stilettos.
The mirror started to glow, and the glass rippled like water till two large eyes appeared, along with a smiling mouth. “Hello there, sweet cheeks,” the mirror said in a singsong. Its voice was low and masculine, making the whole room shudder.
Harlette screamed at the top of her lungs. Bernard licked her paws absently.
The mirror detached itself from the wall and swaggered toward Harlette like a cowboy. “I’ve come to take you away!”
Harlette reached behind her for her bathrobe. She slipped it on. What ridiculous dream was this?
Before Harlette knew what was happening, the mirror tipped toward her, its mouth enlarging and opening, and swallowed her whole.
Harlette fell into endless blackness. Yes, just like that.
The cat stopped licking its paws. With her mistress gone, who would feed her?
Bernard stretched and hissed, and then she lunged at the mirror, disappearing into its drooling mouth.