Same table. Same favorite chair. Identical box. I had read other entries, maybe three, already. While waiting in my car. At a coffee shop. Between appointments. But for one in particular, I remember that chair, the morning sun slanting across the table's oak rings, steaming mug in hand. I read the title. I couldn't believe I hadn't picked it first. Two words, their complete juxtaposition wholly captivating. I dove in.
I can't say exactly when the writer had me. It might have been the first sentence. It might have been a half-page later when I realized this setting was unlike any in romance I'd ever read. I'm sure on the first page I sensed a kinship with her for writing outside the box, writing from her heart, and I know I admired her courage to commit something thought of in romance industry circles as "unpublishable" to paper, an entire novel to completion.
Soon, however, all of that fell away. I was in her world and didn't want to leave. I devoured her entry in one sitting, seemingly at one breath. My steaming mug grew cold, its contents untouched. When I'd finished reading, I walked to the computer, logged into RWA's site and entered a score of 9, the highest possible for an unpublished manuscript.
In March, when RWA announced the Golden Heart finalists, I looked for that two word title before the title of my manuscript. It's hard to explain how I could have been more excited to see another writer's work held up to prestige before my own, but I'd often wondered in the weeks and months after I typed in that 9 if the other judges who had read it believed in it as I did. Had they rewarded courage? Seeing that title, those two words, meant that what I write might have a chance in the publishing landscape, too.
When the finalists introduced themselves, I hesitated. I wanted to send her a private, unassuming email, but I didn't want it to seem look-what-I-did-to-help-you-final. So I stalked her website and blog for weeks. I wanted to know if she had acquired an agent or had contest wins. Did others get her story as I had? Finally, I wrote her. I wished her good luck on placing first, but told her she didn't need luck. She already had a winning story.
At the national conference, I met her in the afterglow of a publishing offer. Moments before, her agent had called her to say Harlequin had offered her a deal and she would be headed to their international markets. She had tears filling her eyes and gave me the most sincere thank you and a hug overflowing with dreams come true. She explained that finaling in the contest was the beginning domino, her open door. That night at the awards ceremony, she won the Golden Heart for her category and tears filled my eyes. Privilege.
She is now a Ruby Sister alongside me. I can't wait to see her debut take flight and read the rest of her story.
And I can't wait to get back to that box.