In this captivating novel from #1 New York Times bestselling author Danielle Steel, five successful women play for high stakes in their careers at a boutique literary and talent agency.
Jane Addison is an ambitious young woman with big dreams of owning her own company someday. At twenty-eight, she arrives in New York to start a job at Fletcher and Benson, a prestigious talent agency. Eager to impress her new colleagues, Jane jumps right in as an assistant to Hailey West, one of the agents in the literary department.
Hailey is dedicated to the authors she represents, but her home life is chaotic and challenging. After her husband’s tragic and untimely death, she was left widowed with three children to raise on her own.
Then there’s Francine Rivers, the stern and accomplished head of the literary department. Also a single mom after her husband’s affair with the nanny, she has overcome the resulting financial hardships, but only with unbearable sacrifice.
Compared to Hailey and Francine, drama agent Allie Moore’s life seems much more carefree and uncomplicated. She relishes her success and loves working with the talented actors they represent—until a passionate relationship with one of her rising star clients threatens to derail her career.
Merriwether Jones is the CFO for the agency. She appears to have it all—beauty, success, and a perfect marriage until her husband’s jealousy over her career threatens to blow everything up.
Even though she’s a newcomer, Jane quickly realizes that there are damaging secrets hidden behind the doors of Fletcher and Benson. As one of the youngest employees, she has the least power, but is also the least willing to accept things as they have been for years. When she puts everything on the line to right these wrongs, the consequences will leave no one unscathed.
In this riveting novel, Danielle Steel tells the story of a group of remarkable women navigating the challenges of balancing their families, their personal lives and the high stakes of ambition at the top of their game.
High Stakes by Danielle Steel
SERIES n/a; standalone | GENRE Adult Women’s Fiction
PUBLISHER Delacorte Press | PUBLICATION DATE March 8, 2022
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A Standalone Novel
© 2022 Danielle Steel
Jane Addison was rushing around her bright, modern new West Village apartment, getting ready for her first day at a new job. She had gotten her undergraduate degree from UCLA, worked for two years at San Francisco Magazine, and then gone back for her MBA at UC Berkeley, in their entrepreneurial program. She was twenty-eight years old, born and raised in San Francisco. Her father was one of the most successful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Her older sister, Margaret, was thirty-five, climbing the ladder at a rival venture capital firm. Margaret was married, with two children. Her husband was the CEO of a successful tech start-up, which was about to go public. Jane’s life was very different from Margaret’s, and so were her goals. For the moment Jane wasn’t interested in marriage, and didn’t know if she ever would be. Having babies held no particular lure for her. Margaret and her husband had met in business school at Stanford, and they liked their stable, married life and their demanding careers. They seemed comfortable and efficient managing both. It looked like a hard juggling act to Jane, a lot of responsibility and too much work.
Jane’s dream was to own a small magazine one day or, even better, a small publishing house, but she was a long way from achieving her goals. She was just beginning her work life. She had flown to New York to interview for jobs at the major publishing houses, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Little, Brown, but nothing that interested her and paid decently had turned up. The magazines she had sent her resume to hadn’t leapt at the chance to hire her. They told her she was overqualified for the openings they had, and figured she probably wouldn’t stay long enough to make hiring her worthwhile.
In the end, the only offer she’d had that excited her came from a friend of her father’s, an old classmate of his at Princeton. Bob Benson owned a literary and entertainment agency, Fletcher and Benson, in New York. They represented actors, producers, directors, and screenwriters on the dramatic side, and writers on the literary side. The position she’d been offered was as an assistant to the executive assistant of the number two agent on the literary side, a woman named Hailey West. Jane had met her when she was applying for jobs in New York, and she seemed like an intelligent, pleasant, busy woman, committed to the writers she represented. The agency had some very important clients, and it seemed to Jane like a good interim job until the right opportunity turned up, closer to her goals for the future. She still wanted to work at a major publishing house to learn the ropes, but an entry-level job in publishing didn’t appeal to her much, and at least a job in a literary and talent agency sounded like fun. Meeting important writers and movie stars would be exciting. The agency was very successful. She’d interviewed with her father’s old friend and the heads of both sides of the agency, Francine Rivers for literary and Allie Moore, head of talent. They were both interesting women, and Bob Benson said that if she did well, she could be a literary agent one day.
Jane’s mother came from San Francisco to help her find the apartment in a big, modern, efficient building in the West Village, with a view of the Hudson, in what seemed like a friendly neighborhood. The building had a gym, a pool, and a roof garden for the tenants’ use. There was good security and plenty of staff, and her parents liked the fact that she’d be safe there. Her mother had been an interior decorator until Margaret was born, and she still enjoyed decorating their homes and doing whatever she could for her girls.
She helped Jane get her apartment organized and furnished in record time. Jane was thoroughly enjoying it and grateful to her parents for the comforts they provided. She was well aware that she and her sister had enjoyed benefits all their lives that many of their friends hadn’t. They were discreet about it, but Jane realized how lucky she was that she could take whatever job she wanted without worrying about whether or not she could pay her rent. Thanks to her mother, she had a comfortable home all set up for her a month after she arrived.
An old boyfriend of hers from UCLA, Benjie Strong, was working for a start-up in New York. He’d been there since grad school. They had reconnected as soon as she got there. They had been dating for a month and had busy, separate lives. He had slept at her apartment the night before, and had his own place with a roommate in SoHo. It had made the transition to New York easier and a lot more agreeable for Jane.
He was making toast in her kitchen when she helped herself to a yogurt from the fridge. She made coffee for both of them with the espresso machine and handed him a cup. He’d been reading The Wall Street Journal on his phone and looked up with a smile when she set the coffee down next to him. Benjie Strong was a year older than she was. He was twenty-nine, and looked like he was going to a picnic in cutoff jeans, a T-shirt, and running shoes without socks. He had gotten his MBA at Wharton, and was a bright guy. There was no dress code where he worked. Jane had already seen that the dress code was casual at Fletcher and Benson, but not to that degree. The men wore collared shirts and jeans, loafers or running shoes. The women mainly wore skirts and tops of some kind, and looked put together even if they were wearing jeans, which some did. They wore makeup and their hair was neat. Benjie looked like someone who had the day off. He smiled broadly when he glanced at her.
“Going to a party?” he asked her, and she laughed.
“Compared to you, I look like I’m going to dinner at a fancy restaurant. Going to the beach?” she teased him back.
“I’m a lot more dressed up than most of the guys I work with. Some of them come to work in shorts and flip-flops, if the weather is decent. No one cares what we wear to work.” It was the nature of start-ups, they both knew, and most of the employees were younger than Jane and Benjie, fresh out of college, looking like they had just rolled out of bed. No one shaved, or not frequently, and they barely brushed their hair. Games were provided in common areas, vintage pinball machines or video games, a candy bar, and board games to play on their breaks. The whole atmosphere was keyed to the very young. Many of them worked from home several days a week. And in start-ups or companies like Amazon, they often brought their dogs to work. Amazon, Facebook, and others like them had set the trend years before, and made the work environment highly desirable to the “millennials,” mostly in their twenties, who worked there. The surroundings at Fletcher and Benson were more polished, since their clients were adults, and the employees were older than those at most start-ups.
The women she had seen there dressed well and she noticed that most of them wore heels to work. She was wearing a short black denim skirt, a striped Chanel T-shirt she had “borrowed” from her mother to bring to New York, and a pair of high-heeled black Manolo Blahnik pumps. Her long blond hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail, and she was going to wear a white Levi’s jacket and carry a black-and-white tote. She looked fashionable, but not too much so. She was slim and had a good figure and long legs. There was nothing suggestive about what she was wearing. The skirt wasn’t too short, and the heels weren’t too high. Her perfume was a light fresh scent one barely noticed. She looked clean and young and pretty, and she was eager to do a good day’s work and learn about her new job and coworkers at the agency.
She and Benjie left the apartment together. Benjie was taking the subway to work in Brooklyn, and Jane had called an Uber to take her to Midtown, where the agency was, on Fifty-Seventh Street between Madison and Park Avenue in the heart of the luxury shopping district. It would be hell getting there in bad winter weather, with all the traffic, but it was warm now and a nice area to walk around in during her lunch hour. There were plenty of places to eat or to order food nearby. And there was a kitchen and dining room for employees who brought their own lunch. Many of the employees ate at their desks while they continued to work. The working conditions were extremely pleasant at Fletcher and Benson, even if they didn’t provide all the games and snacks offered by start-ups. None of that mattered to Jane.
“Have a good day,” Benjie called out to her as she got into her Uber and he headed for the subway. She wasn’t madly in love with him, but they had a good time together and shared some of the same interests. They didn’t want to live together but saw each other a few times a week on an exclusive basis, which meant that neither of them was dating anyone else. It suited both of them. They had dated briefly in college at UCLA and were enjoying a replay of it now. It made being in New York more enjoyable, having someone to share it with. Benjie had had a serious relationship in business school, but they broke up when he graduated and moved to New York. Jane had never been seriously in love, and she didn’t regret it. She wanted to get her career off the ground first and stay focused on that. Her work was important to her, more so than romance at the moment.
It took her half an hour to get uptown in morning traffic, while she read The New York Times online in the back seat of the Uber. They arrived right on time, and she followed a mass of people into the building where Fletcher and Benson occupied two floors. She went straight to the executive floor, gave her name to the receptionist, as she’d been told to do, and was about to head for a seating area, when a tall, heavyset man with white hair nearly collided with her, and then looked her over appreciatively. She didn’t know who he was but felt instantly uncomfortable at the way he stared at her. His eyes went straight to her chest, and then took in the moderately short skirt, and glanced past her legs and then back to her face again. He stood in her path like a boulder in a stream, and she had to walk around him to get away from him. He didn’t step aside and continued staring at her.
“Are you here for an interview?” he asked her in a deep, gravelly voice. “You can come and work for me if you like.” As he said it, the receptionist met Jane’s eyes with a knowing look and shook her head almost imperceptibly.
“I’m starting a job today,” Jane said in a subdued voice. She didn’t want to be rude, not knowing who he was, although she thought his behavior was crass and unacceptable.
“Receptionist?” he asked, making a very broad assumption that if she was a woman, she must have a low-level job. He was out of step with the times.
“In Ms. West’s office,” she said quietly.
“That’s good news,” he said. “Well, welcome aboard.” And with that, he headed down a long hallway, and Jane took a seat to wait for Hailey West’s executive assistant, who appeared a moment later. Julia Benning smiled at her warmly in welcome. She was a pleasant-looking woman in her late forties or early fifties. She took Jane first to the office of Francine Rivers, the head of the literary department. She explained on the way that the heads of both the literary and dramatic departments wanted to see Jane again to welcome her. Julia said that it was customary for them to see the new hires who were going to be working in the executive offices. She left Jane outside Francine’s door, and told her she’d come and get her after Jane met with Francine and Allie Moore, the head of talent. Jane had met both women previously during her interview.
Standing there alone a minute later, Jane felt a rising wave of panic seize her as she knocked on Francine Rivers’s door. Jane could see her through a wide glass panel: a stern-faced woman in black slacks, a black blazer, and running shoes, with her dark hair pulled back in a messy bun. She was frowning as she concentrated on her computer. She turned when she heard Jane knock and signaled for her to come in, then waved her to a chair. Jane realized then that Francine was speaking to someone on speakerphone and looking at a book cover on her screen.
“It looks all right to me, Elliott. If they make your name any bigger, there won’t be room for the title on the cover. And I think the red foil makes your name really pop. I like it.”
“The whole thing looks off-balance to me,” a disembodied voice came from the speakerphone. “The British cover was much better.”
Francine Rivers looked irritated but tried not to sound it when she responded. “Do you want them to make the title smaller?” she asked, only half in jest, and the male voice at the other end answered immediately.
“Yes, I do. Tell them to try that.”
“I’ll take care of it right away,” she assured him, and ended the call and then turned her full attention to Jane.
“I’m sorry. One of my badly behaved ‘children.’ ” She smiled a wintry smile at her. “Hell hath no ego like a narcissistic author. He won’t be happy till his name fills the whole cover.” She looked closely at Jane then, as Jane noticed that Francine had dark, serious eyes and a slightly sour, jaded expression when she wasn’t smiling. “I get all the problem ones. Some of our big authors are challenging. They can be very insecure, like children, and jealous of their competitors. Don’t worry. Hailey gets all the nice ones. But she’s friendlier than I am, and has more patience,” she said, almost smiling. “So welcome to the mother ship. We’re delighted to have you join us.”
She had seen Jane’s grades from business school and was duly impressed. Bob Benson had already told her that Jane was the daughter of an old friend of his from Princeton. And he had told Francine who Jane’s father was. She recognized the name, of course. Jane was obviously bright and had a good education, so there was justification for hiring her, and not just because of a college friendship between her father and the head of the agency. She had gotten the job on her own merits. Her contacts had merely gotten the door open, not landed her the job. “What made you want to work for a literary agency? Do you write?” Francine asked her. That was frequently the reason bright young people applied for jobs at the agency. They somehow thought that if they worked for an agent, their own work would be discovered, which wasn’t how it worked. And most aspiring writers never made a career of it anyway. They didn’t have the persistence or the talent. Even after all these years as an agent, it still amazed Francine how hard it was to find a good new writer, especially one who had more than one book in them.
“No, I don’t write,” Jane answered her. “I want to learn more about publishing,” she said naïvely, still feeling nervous and sensing the tension around her. Francine was her big boss and seemed very serious to her, as the head of the literary department at the agency. “And being an agent is part of it,” Jane said as an afterthought.
“We’re problem solvers,” Francine explained. “Most writers want a mother or a nanny, and need one. That’s basically what we do—we nurture them, in addition to getting them book contracts and negotiating for them. We’re their advocates and translators and liaisons between the writers and their publishers. Some of the problems are ridiculously small, and others are enormous and harder to solve. You’ll see it all firsthand in Hailey’s office. She’s gentler with her writers than I am. Occasionally I lose my temper and scare the hell out of them. It whips them into shape, though.” She smiled a tired smile. “I do that with the publishers too. Being an agent is like being a referee at times. At other times, you need a gentle touch to close a deal, or so I’m told. I prefer threats, leverage, and force, myself. It always works for me,” she said, and laughed. She looked as strict as she said she was, and as dedicated to her job. Jane readily believed her. “This is not a playground. It’s hard work,” Francine added for emphasis. She seemed like a take-no-prisoners kind of person. Jane wouldn’t have called her bitter, but there was something cold and unhappy about her.
As they were talking, the heavyset white-haired man whom she had seen earlier in the reception area appeared in the doorway. He opened the door without knocking, ignored Jane this time, and looked straight at Francine.
“Seven? The usual?” he asked, and Francine nodded, looking irritated. Jane noticed that her new boss’s eyes went dead after he spoke. Francine nodded assent again and he left her office, leaving the door half open. He didn’t bother to close it, although it had been closed when he arrived.
“That’s Dan Fletcher, one of the two heads of the agency,” she explained to Jane without further comment.
Jane nodded. “I saw him this morning when I arrived.” She didn’t comment either.
“I hope he behaved. He doesn’t always when attractive young women are involved. No one has explained the Me Too movement to him. I hope he didn’t say anything inappropriate,” she said, still looking annoyed.
“No, not really. He just looked me over and assumed I was here to interview for a receptionist’s job.”
“He thinks that’s what I do too.” Francine smiled. And then she told Jane how to find Alabama Moore’s office, the head of the talent side of the agency. Francine said she had work to do. Jane stood up and thanked her for her time.
They shook hands and Jane left Francine’s office and made her way down the long hallway, with countless offices on each side, and people busy at desks inside them, looking at computer screens or talking on the phone.
Jane’s only worry was that Dan Fletcher would appear again and harass her, or invite her into his office, an invitation she had no intention of accepting.
She found Alabama Moore’s office after a few wrong turns. She had to double back once, but she finally found the office with her name on the door. As the head of the dramatic department, she had a huge office. Allie Moore was on an exercise bike when Jane knocked and walked in. She was wearing a white Chanel jogging suit and listening to something on headphones. She smiled and stopped pedaling as soon as Jane entered the room feeling awkward.
DANIELLE STEEL has been hailed as one of the world’s most popular authors, with nearly a billion copies of her novels sold. Her recent many international bestsellers include Against All Odds, The Duchess and The Right Time. She is also the author of His Bright Light, the story of her son Nick Traina’s life and death; A Gift of Hope, a memoir of her work with the homeless; and the children’s books Pretty Minnie in Paris and Pretty Minnie in Hollywood. Danielle divides her time between Paris and her home in northern California.