The following is excerpted from Joani Elliott's debut novel, The Audacity of Sara Grayson, about what happens when a literary icon dies before finishing the final book in her best-selling series and leaves that manuscript in the hands of her daughter, who swears she's not a real writer. Elliott believes in the magic of stories, a good cup of tea, and the power of living a creative life. She has taught writing at the University of Maryland and Brigham Young University. She lives near Salt Lake City, Utah.
She refused to be triggered by breakfast food, so she went straight for the waffles. Real Belgian ones made of yeast dough—not batter. She’d eaten two of them already. Hot, bronzed waffles with Nutella and strawberries and vanilla bean ice cream. There were times to avoid your triggers and times to chew them up slowly and deliberately. Plus, eating was preferable to small talk, not that anyone would want to talk to her. They were here for Ellery, and Ellery was everywhere.
Life-size cutouts of Ellery and her family stood proudly next to Belgian flags and clusters of bright red poppies. Since Ellery’s family was stationed at the embassy in Brussels, it was an obvious design choice but achingly unoriginal. Elegant black and gold streamers hung loosely across high ceilings. A Neuhaus Chocolatier table crowned the center of the room with pralines, truffles, and dark chocolate medallions stamped with Ellery’s portrait. Taps of Belgian beer flowed into frosty mugs with Ellery quotations about gifts and potential and other ridiculous ideas.
It was a smashing tribute to someone who didn’t actually exist.
Sara unwrapped an Ellery chocolate and quickly bit her head off. A clean snap is a sign of excellent chocolate, she’d read once. She let it melt slightly in her mouth before she chewed and swallowed. She unwrapped another medallion and bit the heads off several more, leaving a pile of unfinished chocolate torsos on her plate. For 300 bucks an hour, her therapist, Sybil Brown-Baker, might diagnose this as passive-aggressive behavior.
Or was it misplaced anger?
Sybil Brown-Baker sent a pamphlet home last week: “How We Transfer Feelings of Shame and Pain.” Sara read it word-for-word and returned it the next day with her editing feedback, all free of charge: bad semi-colons, comma splices, and sentence fragments.
She didn’t teach freshman English for nothing.
She just earned next to nothing.
Her freelance work with Cozy Greeting Cards International was poised to take off. They loved her work and thought she had a real knack for cancer cards, and could she please send more?
A jazz band performed painfully slow Michael Bublé covers while Sara opened another chocolate. Her older sister, Anna-Kath, waved at her from the waffle bar. She chatted happily with a screenwriter Sara had met earlier.
Was this their tenth movie premiere? Or eleventh? Their mom was nowhere to be seen. She was probably still talking to reporters.
At least they were done walking the red carpet, that veritable tripping hazard all lit up with flaming torches. Fans shouted their mother’s name, “Cassandra Bond!” like they didn’t get out much and shot their arms over crowd barriers with Ellery Dawson books for her to sign. Didn’t they know they could save $3.99 on the e-book?
Her mother never seemed to mind. She wore Versace in red silk that night, her dark hair tucked loosely in an elegant chignon. Hardly the lonely author in sweatpants, Cassandra Bond looked like a movie star who decided to write a book.
Sara adjusted her strapless, gray formal gown. It was supposed to be emerald green, but they made a mistake when she picked it up and it was too late to change it. The shop ladies assured her that the gray dress held tones of shimmering pink and that she would look absolutely “breathtaking.”
Sara delicately scratched the side of her up-do. She had the same dark brown hair as her mother’s, but hers was pulled in a French twist of overpriced hair product that smelled like rich, earthy clay. Apparently smelling like coconut was out and smelling like dirt was in.
Someone named Veronica, with glossy lips and a fake facial mole, offered to take Sara’s plate. The catering staff at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre are passionate about taking people’s plates. They also stop and study your face for a moment to determine if you’re an interesting part of the film, which means, Are you an actor? Sara began making up random roles for herself. She’d raise her eyebrows and whisper, “Gang Boss” or “Python Wrangler” and nod her head knowingly.
Sara took a new plate and ate five more chocolates as she moved through the seafood tables. Her armpits itched from using a dull razor, and she could feel a cold sore stinging on the corner of her lip. She ate some shrimp. Just be happy for Mom. It would soon be over and she could sink into a hot bath and finish Food Truck Wars. She was wondering if the blackened catfish tacos would beat out the grilled mahi mahi curry when the back of a woman’s hand suddenly slammed into Sara’s red plastic plate. A shrimp tail shot up in the air and lodged itself down Sara’s dress, precisely between her breasts.
She straightened her back, feeling the chill of its exact location as her plate landed with a smack on the gleaming parquet floor. She smoothed her dress and strained to smile like nothing happened while Colin from catering picked up her scattered foil wrappers, chocolate, and shrimp. He piled it back on the plate and stood up to leave when he immediately froze in front of the tall, blonde woman standing next to Sara. Beads of sweat broke out on Colin’s forehead as he absently handed the messy plate back to Sara. He had apparently left the planet, and she suddenly saw why.
Top five of Hollywood’s highest paid actors and star of the night’s premiere: Ellery Dawson.
Sara thought Char looked better as a person than as a piece of chocolate. She wasn’t sure that was true about herself. She would probably look better as chocolate. If she were ever made into chocolate. Which was highly unlikely.
Sara laughed it off in a nervous sort of sputter. Bits of cocktail sauce clung to her chest. She looked around for her napkin. Colin was standing on it.
Char pressed a hand to her heart. “I’m so sorry.” She handed Sara her own napkin and pointed to the cast-off chocolate on Sara’s plate. “I won’t take that personally,” she said, one eyebrow raised. Then she flashed her gorgeous smile while the piece of cold shrimp stuck between Sara’s boobs moved down another quarter inch. Colin still hadn’t moved, his mouth slightly agape, saliva beginning to pool in the corners.
Char leaned closer. “I have a dreadful habit of talking with my hands. I think I gave you quite a whack.” Her Australian accent had that charming raspy quality that made her voice as famous as her looks. This wasn’t the first superstar Sara had ever met, but her back began to sweat and her hands felt clammy.
Char took Sara’s plate and handed it back to Colin with a pat on the shoulder. He abruptly gasped for air and stumbled back to the kitchen.
“Charlotte Fox.” She reached out her hand. “Did you work with the film?”
Sara shook her hand limply. “Um no. I’m here for my mother, Cassandra Bond.” She felt a sting in the corner of her lips. Was that cold sore coming alive?
“Oh my gosh! You’re Cassandra’s daughter?! She’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. I read the first Ellery book three years ago and called my agent. I said, ‘Hal, this is going to make an incredible movie, and I just have to play Ellery.’” She flicked both wrists up gracefully in the air. “And now, here we are.”
“That’s great. Super great. I’m sure it’s a great movie.” Did she just say great three times? She would have marked that on a student’s paper.
Char linked her arm with Sara’s, walking them over to a black settee. Sara’s feet inexplicably went along. They sat next to a gigantic movie poster with Ellery posed in a dead run, gun-in-hand: Dangerous Gifts and a World to Save.
Sara noticed people gathering near both sides of the settee, hoping to get a chance to talk to the star. Char ignored them. She leaned into Sara’s shoulder like they were already old friends. She had read that superstars could be very lonely despite all the fame.
“So, what’s it like being the daughter of the most famous writer in the world? I mean you probably already know what happens in the final book, right?”
Sara laughed awkwardly, unsure if Char actually expected an answer. “Oh, hard to say, exactly.” The shrimp’s tail prickled against her skin.
Char reached for Sara’s hand and looked at her with pleading eyes. “Just tell me, is my father dead or alive?”
Sara pulled her hand back. “Excuse me?”
“My father…Ellery’s father. You know how Book Four ends, with that big explosion outside the Moscow hotel and all that chaos? I know it looks like he was in the blast, but it’s so exasperatingly unclear. I can’t wait until the final book comes out next year. Maybe you can just give me a teency hint?”
Sara shrugged her shoulders. “Sorry…I…don’t really know.”
And she didn’t really care.
“Are you a writer too?”
Sara shrugged. Her cold sore was stinging, practically growing as they spoke. Her fingers reached for it gingerly.
Char nodded with empathetic eyes. “Cold sore?”
“I get them all the time. Look, right here.” She pointed to her own fading cold sore. “Almost gone.” A bald man with an oversized ascot tapped Char’s arm and whispered something to her. She waved him off. “I’ll be there in a jiffy.”
People like Char could get away with using words like jiffy or spiffy. Or teeny-weeny. When you look like that, you can say whatever-the-hell-weird words you want and people just think you’re charming. Char opened her black clutch and fiddled with its contents. Sara couldn’t help looking. She half-expected there to be a gun inside. Ellery would carry a gun. She was certain that if terrorists stormed the theatre, Char Fox would singlehandedly overpower them while Sara cowered in a bathroom stall texting poorly worded goodbyes. Would she text Mike? No. Of course not. Why would she think that?
She glimpsed a phone, lipstick, a hotel key card.
She felt mildly disappointed.
Char pulled out a tiny blue vial. “Here. My herbalist made this compound for me. It’s an absolute gem for cold sores. One dab, three times a day. It’ll be gone in a flash. Take this. I’ve got more at home.”
“Um. Thank you.” Of course Char Fox had an herbalist.
“Oh, and could you give this to your mum?” She handed Sara a small slip of paper. “My herbalist’s number. We talked. I think he can help with her issues.”
Sara held the paper. “Her issues?”
Char flicked another wrist. “Well you know, loss of appetite, the weight loss. I know she’s been struggling.” She whispered like it was their itty-bitty secret.
“Uh…right.” Sara stared at the number with loopy threes and fours. “My mom’s fine, really. But thanks for the concern. I should go find her, actually.” Sara forced a smile. “Um, break a leg.”
Char laughed as Sara walked away.
Did she really just tell Char Fox to break a leg? Does anyone even say that in film? Is that why Char laughed?
Sara walked as quickly as she could in her two-inch heels, her ankle turning only once as she passed the hot frites. She hurried past two busy restrooms to find her favorite one in a back-corner hallway.
She locked herself in a stall, wriggled, and then scrunched her shoulders to loosen the shrimp—which only sent it maddeningly below her breasts, wedging itself against the tight bodice of her dress. She heard the clicking of fast-moving heels.
“Sara, are you in there?” Anna-Kath whispered through the bathroom stall. “I see your feet. Let me in.”
Sara huffed. “You didn’t have to follow me. I’m fine.”
Anna-Kath began laughing so hard she was practically wheezing. “I can’t believe you just collided with Char Fox.”
“It’s not funny. And now I have a piece of shrimp stuck between my boobs.”
“Your shrimp or Char’s?”
“Does it matter?”
“It does on eBay.”
Excerpted from The Audacity of Sara Grayson by Joani Elliott. Excerpted with the permission of Post Hill Press. Copyright © 2021 by Joani Elliott.