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Cheating at Solitaire

Ally Carter


  Julia was staying at the Ritz. Always the Ritz. Only the Ritz. Like a lot of women, Julia reserved a special place in her heart for the elegant restaurant where a man had popped the question that had changed her life. But instead of a Tiffany ring, Julia walked away that day with a two-book deal, and from that point on, Julia James could afford to buy her own diamonds.

  Five years later, Julia had climbed fourteen stories from the hotel restaurant to a luxurious suite where the lights of the city shone through sheer curtains onto her unadorned hands. She flew quickly through a deck of cards and grew lost in the familiar motion, as her mind drifted back to the day Candon Jeffries had told her she was going to become a star. At the time, Julia had nearly laughed at him. Ten pounds overweight and self-conscious about it, she considered herself to be a perfectly ordinary single woman. But Candon had worked side by side with Julia in the trenches of the publishing world, and he knew that she didn't sit at home on Friday nights, waiting for a boyfriend to ask her to the movies. She didn't live on microwave popcorn and bad takeout. Instead, Julia went to the movies alone. She froze individual servings of homemade lasagna and chicken Kiev and never thought twice about the phone that didn't ring. Julia James wasn't just another single girl in the city. She was, he declared, the queen of single girls— the Elizabeth the First of lower Manhattan—so he had proposed that Julia share her gift with the world. That lunch at the Ritz five years ago marked the point when Julia James went pro.

  Now she was a guest of the Ritz, on her third trip, promoting her third book, waiting for her third ride to Rockefeller Center and her third conversation with Katie Couric. In the meantime, Julia was playing her billionth hand of solitaire. She could have played on the computer, but she liked the feel of a deck in her hands, the brush against her thumbs as she shuffled, the methodical, even motion of laying out a hand. Plus, Julia liked being able to cheat.

  She tried to focus on the cards or the memory of the lunch—anything but the ominous ticking of the clock beside the bed. Four forty-five in the morning and wide awake, Julia pulled the cards together again and shuffled.

  Chapter One

  WAY #1: See clearly the cards you've been dealt.

  If life is a game of cards, then every day, a new card turns over. See it for what it is. Recognize its impact on your life. And if that card is standing in your way, then find a way to cheat.

  She had a hard time returning the smile he beamed toward her, brighter than the sun that was still waiting to bring day to New York City. Julia settled herself onto the plush leather of the backseat and said a silent prayer of thanks that the driver had worn a nametag. The face she recognized, but his name was lost among the myriad of others that floated through her subconscious like a fog. Charlie, she told herself. Charlie. Charlie. Charlie. She tried mnemonic devices:

  —from 707 Ways to Cheat at Solitaire

  Good morning, Ms. James," the driver said, opening the door of the Town Car.

  Sleep and fatigue crusted in Julia's eyes, and she Charlie the tuna. Charlie's Angels. Charlie, the male Charlize Theron.

  "How are you, Charlie?" she asked once the man had settled himself behind the wheel.

  "Well, I'm great, ma'am. And how are you this fine and beautiful morning?"

  "I'm very well. Thank you for asking. "

  "We got early editions of all the papers back there for you. I hope you don't mind, but I peeked already and saw those books of yours are still on the bestseller list. Your folks must be awfully proud. "

  It was far too early in the morning for Julia to think about her mother, who had probably already scoured the paper and hung Julia's clippings on the refrigerator right next to her report card from the second grade. Instead, Julia picked up a paper.

  Breath lodged in her throat as she began at the bottom, scrolling toward mid-list where Table for One, her debut, was holding strong. Her second book, Spaghetti and Meatball: Meals for the Single Person, was just a notch or two above that, on the Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous list. But as Julia's eyes returned to the main list and continued moving up, she soon stopped breathing completely.

  With every passing line, her heart pounded harder, until she crossed into the top ten and saw 101 Ways to Cheat at Solitaire sitting there, staring back at her, proof in black and white that life is good.

  They eased into predawn traffic, and Julia scanned the streets around her. The city's support staff was already hard at work, like the backstage on Broadway, making sure, the props were placed and the lighting was perfect. Beer trucks lined up in front of bars. Laundry vans skirted restaurants. Storeowners washed windows and rearranged displays. Julia watched the world put on its makeup, comforted by the fact that even the greatest city in the world has morning breath.

  Charlie was looking at her in the rearview mirror. His knowing stare was enough to make Julia wonder if she had lipstick on her teeth or had missed a button on her blouse.

  "I tell you, Ms. James," Charlie said finally, "I see your author photo all the time, but you're even prettier in person. "

  Relief flooded over Julia as blood rushed to her cheeks. People sometimes told her she was pretty—one even went as far as to say she was beautiful—but, Julia admitted, her mother was probably biased.

  "I hope you don't mind my saying so, ma'am," Charlie went on, "but you just get prettier every year. "

  Bright red now, Julia didn't know what else to do, so she said, "Why, thank you, Charlie," and turned to look out the window.

  "You sure do have some fans," the man went on. "I'm sorry to say I haven't read anything of yours. But my sister, she's a big fan—forty-six and not a man in sight. Yep. She's a big fan. "

  Julia was staring out the window at Fifth Avenue, thinking about the opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany's, remembering why, for a short time, New York City had been her kind of town. Not because it was the sort of place where you can window-shop in formal wear at five A. M. , but because it was the kind of place where you can do that and trust that no one will stare.

  "So, you've got a new book out now, I guess?" he asked her. "That's right. "

  "Well, I'm going to have to get one for Lou Ann. " Charlie cocked his head and grinned. "She reads those books of yours and talks about how she doesn't need a man. And it's a good thing, too, 'cause she sure doesn't have one. "

  They reached the studio, and despite the damp morning air, tourists had already lined up outside the Today show's windows. Charlie pulled the car to the talent entrance and got out to help Julia with her door. A cry rose up from the crowd when she emerged from the car, but Charlie quickly stepped between Julia and the masses, shielding her with his broad body. "You be careful out here. Some of these women'll get ya. "

  Julia chuckled and pulled a fresh copy of 101 Ways to Cheat at Solitaire from her bag. She scribbled inside and handed it to Charlie, who looked down at the book in his hands as if he were staring at a block of gold. "Oh, Ms. James, I wasn't fishing for a . . . "

  She squeezed his arm. "It's not for you. It's for Lou Ann," Julia said with a wink, then stepped away from Charlie and the car, turned and gave a big wave to the masses, and slipped through the studio entrance.

  This can't be good, Julia thought as she sat next to the tiny and adorable Katie Couric. Katie always looked trim and petite on TV, but it wasn't until Julia saw her in person that she remembered how truly waiflike the anchorwoman was. Julia did the mental math. If Katie looks like this in real life, and like that on TV, what am I going to look like on TV? She straightened up, sucked in her stomach, and suddenly wondered why she cared.

  "Now, the new book is called 101 Ways to Cheat at Solitaire. Isn't that right?" Katie

  "Yes, it is. I love playing cards, Katie. I carry a deck with me everywhere I go, so when I was discussing themes for my next book with my longtime friend and editor, he pointed to my purse and said that the answer was right in there. I guess he was right. "

  "Your first book is a staple on the bestseller lists. You followed that with a cookbook, Spaghetti and Meatball: Meals for the Single Person, and that further broadened your fan base. How do you keep moving forward? Keep the material fresh?"

  "Well, Katie, all of my work deals with helping single people cope in a couple's world. In Table for One, I wrote about how it doesn't have to be scary to be alone. With Spaghetti and Meatball, I wanted to help single people tackle common challenges, like shopping and cooking for one in a family-sized world. With 101 Ways to Cheat at Solitaire, I have taken a huge, and for some women very intimidating, concept—the idea of being single for the rest of your life—and broken it down to a manageable size, one hundred and one easy things that every woman can do to thrive as a single person. "

  Katie shifted and rested her chin in one perfectly manicured hand. "So, how does Julia James cheat at solitaire?"

  "I'm a thirty-four-year-old single woman, Katie. And I'm happy. I don't believe happiness is reserved for those who are dealt great hands. Happiness is a decision you make—a goal you work toward. And when life doesn't give you the cards you need to win easily, then . . . " Julia cocked an eyebrow as a guilty expression flashed across her face, "it's time to cheat. "

  Katie shifted. "You were listed as one of the ten most bankable writers in America. How does that make you feel?"

  "Blessed. " Julia waited a beat and then added: "And rich. "

  They laughed their way into a commercial break.

  Lance Collins woke up to the sound of the ringing phone, although he couldn't imagine that he'd even been to sleep. He picked up the receiver, dropped it immediately into the cradle, and tried to return to the comfortable place on his pillow. But again the phone rang, so he rolled over and answered it. "Hello," he said, groggy.

  Sunlight streaked through the dingy window and horizontal blinds and fell across the rumpled sheets that tangled around Lance's legs. He fought to straighten himself as he heard an unfamiliar female voice ask, "Lance?"

  "Yeah. "

  "It's Tammy. "


  "Tammy at Poindexter-Stone. You know, great eyes. We got Thai food one night," the woman named Tammy went on, irritation rising in her voice. But in his current state, Lance wasn't sure if he could remember his own mother's eyes.

  "Oh, hey, baby," he said, realizing too late that the "baby" might have been too much.

  "Save it," Tammy snapped. "You're late. I know. I'm calling to remind you to take your head shots. "

  At this, Lance swung his legs to the floor. "Take them where?"

  "Are you still in bed?" Tammy shouted, forcing Lance to hold the phone away from his ear.

  Lance looked at his feet on the floor. Technically, he was on the bed, not in bed, but Tammy with the great eyes and the love for Thai food probably knew bs when she heard it. Tammy probably had a BS in bs, so he didn't argue.

  "I can't believe you're blowing this off!" she jabbed at him.

  "Blowing what off?" Lance shot back.

  "You got a call for Wesley Star," she said, her tone resonating with "duh. "