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Petra smiled wanly and nodded at Lukas. It was difficult to gauge from my vantage point, but I thought I saw him swoon. After a moment, a couple of Tomson’s employees glanced at each other and walked over to the table. I couldn’t see Petra’s response, but Lukas was gesticulating wildly. Another employee scurried over. He put a beefy hand on Lukas’s shoulder and physically pulled my boss from the line. Lukas began to animatedly plead his case, but the guy’s face went cold.

“Great,” I muttered. “Just great.”

Lukas was escorted out by the literary bouncer.

Even with Petra’s lack of engagement, the line moved at a dinosaur’s pace. Lukas was gone, hopefully helping Glynnis and Jackie back at the office. Rhiannon’s and Byron’s exchanges with the illustrious Petra happened way out of my earshot. I did know one thing—they didn’t last very long.

I practiced the script in my head, wiped my sweaty palms against Mykia’s overalls, and cupped my hand over my mouth to check my breath. The phone-obsessed mom and her daughter approached the table. Up close, Petra was tiny and delicate, with bright blue, inquisitive eyes. She smiled up at the duo but said nothing. She did take her time writing an inscription in each book. A good sign. The bookshop employees, bored and happy the line had reached its end, wandered to other parts of the store. A better sign. There wouldn’t be anyone around to stop me.

“Thank you,” Petra Polly said to the women in front of me. It was a modulated voice, the phrase coming out a little strange.

“Can we get a quick photo?” the mother said, already shoving her phone in my hand. “It’ll only take a second.”

“No,” said Petra Polly. Very calmly. Very firmly.

“It’ll just take a second,” the daughter whined.

“No,” Petra said.

Undaunted, the two women sandwiched Petra anyway. “Take it,” the mother said to me. “Quickly.”

Petra winced. No matter if she was a public figure, this was a violation. I tossed the phone in their general direction. “She said no. Have some respect.”

“You’re both bitches,” the daughter said as they walked toward the exit.

Petra and I stared at each other. “Thank you,” she finally said. The woman’s face drooped with exhaustion. I felt sorry for her, and more than a bit maternal. I had a job to do, but the job could wait a minute or two. Petra needed some coffee and a jelly donut.

“Can I get you something?” I asked. “Coffee? There’s a café next door.”

Petra stood and stretched. She leaned over the table, and I had to bend my knees to make eye contact. “These people are fucking awful,” she said, in the broadest, cockneyist Oliver Twist accent. “There’s a guy earlier, right? My number one fan? Scared the fucking bejesus out of me.” She gestured to the lethargic bookstore employees. “None of these twats’ll save my ass if he’s waiting outside, and I don’t want to wait for a cab with creepers like him around. Have you got a car? I’m staying at some hellhole right outside of town. Can I get a lift?”

Sometimes, when in shock, the brain takes a while to catch up with the mouth. “Sure,” I said after a beat. “I’ll pull around the back.”

CHAPTER 27

I had to remind Petra to use her seat belt. She frowned and clicked it with a huff, then immediately dug through her bag and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.

“You don’t mind if I smoke, right? I’ll blow it out the window. There won’t be a trace.”

She lit up before I could answer.

Petra sat in what my grandmother would call an “unladylike” fashion. She stuck one foot on the dash, like Trey often did, and hunched toward the passenger door.

“Where am I going?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t feel like sitting in that hotel room, that’s for sure. It’s all beige. Everything—carpet, bed, furniture. It’s like a doctor’s waiting room for the NHS.”

“So you really are from England . . .”

“Do ya think?”

I let that comment pass. I drove through town slowly, figuring I should let her finish smoking before I brought up stopping at Guh. Would they still be there? I regretted not texting Jackie when I got the car. Since I hadn’t shown up yet, maybe they thought I was still convincing Petra? I had to try.

“So that man who was talking to you?”

She snorted. “There’s one in every city. This one was going off about helping me advertise my business. What kind of idiot presents a business plan at an author signing?”

“He’s my boss.”

“Really?” She cackled. “Lucky you.”

On impulse, I decided to go with honesty. “I was also on a mission to talk to you. I’m supposed to convince you to come back to our offices for a presentation of our services.”

“That’s weird.”

“You got that right.”

I cruised past the municipal building, McAllister’s Café, and O’Malley’s Pub.

“God, I just want to get soused,” Petra said, her voice growing sad.

“We can stop at the bar if you want.” And I can text Jackie from the bathroom. Maybe the crew could move all the posters to O’Malley’s. We could wow Petra after she’d had a few American beers . . .

“I’m in recovery. Been to rehab twice. I’ll always want to get soused, but I don’t think I’ll actually ever do it again. I’m fucking twenty-nine years old. Could be a long life, you know? That’s just a pisser.” She tossed the cigarette butt out the window, which made me wince.

“Your book made it to the New York Times bestseller list. That is an incredible accomplishment. You’ve managed to persevere.”

“Fuck yeah,” she said, ear-piercingly loud.

That was the response of the woman who wrote so eloquently about the emotional life of an idea? I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. She held another cig in one hand while she chomped on the nails of the other.

“Where do you live?” she asked. “Are you close?”

“Not too far.”

“Let’s go to your house.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea. Why not stop by our offices and see what we have to offer? It’ll only take ten minutes.”

She put one small hand on my arm, lightly, so as not to affect my driving. “What’s your name?”

“Paige.”

“Paige, I don’t know how to say this without sounding mad, but Petra Polly doesn’t really speak to people. I don’t match my own image. People don’t want to hear someone like me give advice. And it’s fucking exhausting to be silent. For some reason I like you—you’ve got a face that tells me you’ve been through some shit. Let’s go sit on your sofa and watch the telly.”

“Okay,” I said, against my better judgment.

“You did all this yourself? It’s brilliant! Messy as all hell, but brilliant!”

Petra walked the haphazard rows of my garden. She couldn’t see much under the light of the moon, but she touched everything, gently, reverently.

“You’re growing a miracle here! You know that, right?”

Petra’s hair had come out of its braid and stuck out in all directions. Her silk dress had rumpled, and she’d peeled off the knee socks the minute we got to my house. She seemed lighter. Happier.

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