After sitting on her bed most of Saturday working on her laptop, Claire Beauchamp rolled her neck and stretched her back, her arms extending above her head. She flinched when her joints cracked.
Over the past few days, her boss, John Grey, forwarded manuscripts and drafts from the author she was working with. She hadn’t eaten anything all day, and her stomach was beginning to grumble, and her eyes blurry from reading.
She’d read so much in the past hours, she was practically cross-eyed, and the bridge of her nose hurt where her specs rested. Words upon words had sifted through her brain, but now the lines were beginning to blur together.
She glanced back down on her laptop and opened a file in her document folder, her eyes scanning through lines she knew by heart. She’d been going through her own work lately wondering if she had what it takes to be a writer. Someone who would give her an honest opinion ought to read it before contemplating getting herself a literary agent if she was to start a new chapter of her life and take that leap of faith in her dream career.
A sudden urgency took over, and she needed Annalise to read her work, like right now. Which reminded Claire, her friend was away with Willie, shopping and sight-seeing. He was staying over their place for the weekend for the first time since she and Annalise left Lallybroch. After declining their invitation to join them earlier, the loved-up couple left her to her work with the promise of dinner when they returned.
She was about to reach out for her cold coffee from the bedside table when Raiders of the Lost Ark’s theme song blared from her phone. At the same time, a picture of her uncle Lamb appeared on the screen. He was wearing a high-crowned, wide-brimmed, weather-beaten fedora hat and had a lopsided grin plastered to his thickly stubbled face. Rugged, she thought, just like her favourite pair of distressed leather boots, and very Indiana Jones.
Smiling, she tapped the answer button and put the phone on speaker. “Uncle Lamb! Long time no speak!"
"Sweetheart,” he started in a deep familiar voice, “how are you?”
She frowned and pushed her laptop aside. Something was off. “Oh you know, same old …just finishing work and …"
"On a Saturday?” he asked, cutting her off.
“Look who’s talking.”
He chuckled. “You’re young. You should be out. There are so many things to do in London …especially on a Saturday. ”
Claire rolled her eyes but opted to change the subject instead. She wasn’t ready to give her reason for working overtime nor share her future plans nor talk about the handsome Scot she met during her holidays. Not just yet, anyway. “So …to what do I owe the pleasure of hearing your voice, dear uncle?”
“What?” he said gruffly, pretending to sound offended. “Can’t I call my favourite girl in the world and check up on her?"
She mentally sighed. Something must be up since her uncle never called. It was always she who usually phoned, and when he did call on a rare occasion, it was either because something had happened or he was in London. She dismissed the latter since she knew he was in Papua New Guinea. The next conclusion she landed on was his health but thought it absurd. Her uncle was strong as an ox, ate healthily, only smoked the occasional cigar and regularly went for doctor’s check-up, a requirement in his job as an archaeologist travelling to remote places.
Unless. "You sound suspiciously chipper. Let me guess …you met someone. There’s a woman in your life."
He coughed like he was choking on a drink. "No! Why would you say that?"
Alright, he sounded repulsed by the idea enough. Or was that denial? "I don’t know. You seem so …how shall I say it …unlike yourself. You normally skip the niceties and get to the point."
He lets out an impatient breath. "Claire, darling, am I really that awful?”
“No,” she replied, ignoring the ache in her throat. She missed their time together but tried not to make it apparent in her tone. He was a busy man, and the last thing she wanted was her uncle worrying. “You don’t seem like you’re rushing off to anywhere. It’s rare you sound this relax.”
“It’s way past my bedtime already,” he sighed. “And besides, work is on stand-by at the moment until we get the license to start digging on site. People here are so damn laid back, and nobody seems to be in a hurry to process the paperwork. I’m not about to hand out cash to speed things along even if bribery is rampant here.”
“I see. So you’re in Port Moresby then?”
“Yes. As soon as we have the license sorted out, we’ll be flying to Lae first thing tomorrow. Hopefully, anyway.” He cleared his throat. “Speaking of paperwork, I received an email from my lawyer. Your trust fund has matured, dear. I’ll send you the details where to go to and who to contact, and maybe you can start planning your life. Perhaps take a sabbatical and travel with me if you wish.”
Ah yes, the trust fund.
After her parents died, everything they had owned was put into her trust fund by her uncle to secure her future. She’d already received a small lump sum when she turned eighteen, and the money had afforded her, though small and cramped, a decent rental two-bedroom apartment in London with high windows, which was premium in this expensive city. And Annalise, her best friend and roommate made enough money to help pay the ridiculous expensive utility bills. Her own wage just about covered the other expenses with almost nought left for savings, but she hadn’t worried knowing there was money in place in her name. She was counting on it to support herself when she pursued her dreams of writing.
“About that, I think I’ll let that sit in the bank for a while. It’s not like I need the money right now, nor do I have the time to spend it.”
“As you wish,” her uncle replied. “And another thing I need to discuss with you …South Lodge …”
“What about South Lodge?” South Lodge should have been her family home if her parents hadn’t died, and she knew it was a highly coveted property because of its historical significance. It was never put into the market for sale since her uncle thought it wasn’t his place to decide. It was put on a twenty-year lease to a high profile politician, its payments going towards her trust fund.
“The lease is up, and the occupants will be moving out soon. Unfortunately for you, that information made it to the local news and you were mentioned as the legatee. So don’t be surprised if you’re bombarded with offers now that your name is out. I’m willing to bet, property investors and developers will be itching to get their hands on it.”
Claire took off her specs and pinched the bridge of her nose. God, she hated adulting, paperwork and dealings with lawyers. Maybe she should just sell South Lodge and be done with it, so she could concentrate on her future plans. What do I need a five-bedroom house with one acre of garden in Oxford for? "I’ll think about it, uncle. I just have a lot of things going on at the moment. I’m quite sure those things can wait.“
"Of course dear.”
“Thank you for letting me know.” She thought of Jamie, and the Highlands and how much life was a lot simpler there. She really needed to double her effort to tie up loose ends in London and have a heart to heart talk with Annalise. Is her relationship with Willie serious? If not, her friend would have to eventually find a new roommate. After quickly glancing at her bedside clock, she realised they would be here soon and hopefully with a takeaway. Annalise did mention something about sorting dinner out tonight.
“Your upbringing hasn’t been the most ideal. Enjoy the money and treat yourself. Don’t spend your life doing things that don’t bring you joy.”
She smiled. Her uncle must have had a rude awakening of some sort to sound so philosophical. Or probably, he did meet someone special. Either way, she wasn’t going to push for any answers for now. She really needed to get out of bed, do a few stretches and have a shower before Annalise, and Willie arrived. “I’ll try,” she finally said.
“Good. I’ll let you get back to whatever you’re doing.”
“Sadly, yes.” She shut her laptop and got out of bed. “Take care of yourself, alright? And I’ll phone you sometime next week after I’ve figured out our time differences."
"Absolutely, sweetheart. Talk soon."
"Love you, uncle Lamb."
"Love you, too."
She terminated the call with a swipe on her screen and rubbed her eyes. She’d been working for seven hours straight, and her eyeballs felt like they’re made of sandpaper. Glancing at the corner table, she smiled when she saw Jamie’s gifts. Willie had brought them with him when he arrived last night from Inverness. She knew Jamie was making up for his absence, but it couldn’t be helped when there’s the danger of his PTSD condition worsening in the city. To her delight and surprise, he’d sent her a leather-bound journal, a framed selfie photo of them together, driftwood bookends he made and a box of her favourite Lindt chocolate.
With a contented sigh, she made a mental note to call Jamie after dinner. And to ask her boss first thing Monday morning if she could take her work to Scotland the following weekend to surprise her boyfriend. After all, she was just taking her uncle’s advice, and after the work, she’d put in the last couple of weeks, and the extra hours she planned to do the next few days, she deserved a little joy in her life.
Claire leaned forward, and nervously examined her best friend’s face. Annalise was hunched down, scrolling her laptop, tongue darting out as she read the paragraphs on the screen.
What’s that look for? Doesn’t she like it? She couldn’t tell. It was the first time she’s showing her work to anyone, one of the stories she had written during her spare time before embarking a career as an editorial assistant for Dreamcatcher Publishing Company. She needed to hear her friend’s opinion to know if she even had a small chance of becoming a writer.
Annalise took her sweet time, and Claire wasn’t sure if her inscrutable expression was a deliberate act to prolong the suspense, or if she genuinely had no reaction to what she’s reading. If it was the latter, Claire would definitely kiss her dream of being a writer goodbye. If it’s the former, she’s going to strangle her friend for making her suffer.
She heard the door to the apartment open and close, followed by the sound of keys jangling and heavy footfalls, announcing the arrival of Willie. He’d stopped by to order some food at a local Indian takeaway while Annalise headed straight home to prepare the table for dinner. Instead of calling out to him, she held her breath for Annalise’s response.
Just when Claire was starting to accept her hope of being a writer would never amount to anything other than a pipe dream, she saw the reaction she impatiently waited for. Annalise’s mouth formed a comical O, followed by her eyes’ widening and random shallow sighs.
This was massive. Despite Annalise having seen works from established authors Claire had edited for, she’d never witnessed her friend looked this excited. Annalise simply couldn’t hide her gobsmacked expression, even if she tried.
"Oh, dear Lord,” she whispered, her gaze flicking to Claire and then back to the screen. “Why didn’t you tell me you had this? I knew you wanted to be a writer, but this …”
Annalise took a massive deep breath, her fingers almost shaking. "Oh my God, Claire."
"Oh my God, wot? Oh my God good or oh my God, bad?” Claire asked, even though she already knew deep in her bones, what the answer was. But she desperately needed to hear the words.
“This is bloody good,” she said, as she went back to a previous page, and reread it all over again. After a couple of minutes more, a slow smile started to spread across her face, as she stole a few cheeky glances over at Claire.
Claire knew she could rely on her friend to tell her the truth. If her work had been bad, friend or not, Annalise would have been forthright and told her the hard facts. Nevertheless, she tamped down her own growing excitement. “The question is though …is it good enough for the mass?"
Without hesitation, Annalise nodded vigorously, her blue eyes big as saucers. "Oh, Claire, are you kidding me? You really have no idea, have you? Of course, it is! I need to read the rest. Please tell me it’s finished."
Claire relaxed for the first time and slumped back against the headboard of her bed, relief soothing her wild heartbeat. "It’s finished.”
Annalise let out a whoop as she gripped the laptop tightly. “Oh my God! Give me everything …I won’t be able to sleep tonight if I don’t read at least one more chapter of this story."
"I’ve got ten more finished materials.”
“Oh my God, oh my God! You’re killing me. I want it all.”
Willie poked his head by the frame of the doorway to her bedroom and eyed them suspiciously. She wasn’t sure what he expected to find, but his eyes narrowed when he saw Annalise’s flushed face.
“What are ye both up to?” he asked, frowning. “Ye sound like ye’re looking at porn on the internet."
Annalise grinned and motioned him over. "Sort of."
Willie hesitantly entered the room. "Sorry?”
“In actual fact, much better than porn …” Annalise announced, smirking at Claire.
“Annalise!” Claire wheezed when it dawned on her, her friend must have been reading the sex scene part.
Annalise reached out and reassuringly squeezed Claire’s hand whilst looking at Willie. “Take a look at this. Claire wrote it.”
Annalise handed the laptop to Willie, and both of them earnestly watched his face to gauge his reaction. As he sat down on the edge of the bed and read, Claire knew he would be the real test. Willie being a bloke, she didn’t expect him to have the same reaction as Annalise, but she hoped he would appreciate the storyline and plot. Claire already understood, if her story was going to be good enough to be published, its success would be based on women’s purchasing power. If he liked her style of writing even a smidgen, then she would be laughing.
Claire held her breath in anxious anticipation, and approximately a minute and a half later, she got her response.
His eyes bulged out, and then the tips of his ears glowed with red. In all sort of ways, he was so similar to Jamie but yet so different. But there’s no mistaking how vibrantly their ears always lit up when they’re embarrassed. Or moved.
“Kind of explicit,” he commented hoarsely, before tucking a tongue into his cheek as if trying to find the right words to say. “But it is an intriguing story with great flow and interesting characters. It’s no’ the genre I would typically read, but the first few paragraphs of what I’ve seen so far are riveting. It makes me want to read more.”
Annalise, enthusiastically nodded in agreement and waved a hand in the air. “There it is."
"Ye have a gift, Claire,” Willie added, eyes still fixed on the screen and working overtime as his focus became more intense. “The dose of mystery ye’ve woven into the lines is remarkable and intelligent.”
She felt herself beaming in vindication. “Thank you."
He briefly glanced up at her. "Now that I remember, Jamie did vaguely mention ye wanted to be a writer.”
“That’s the plan,” she beamed.
“Good. Because if ye can produce something like this, then yer talent is wasted on editing other people’s work.”
“She’s got ten more finished stories,” Annalise piped in.
Willie arched an eyebrow at Claire and continued reading, and when he finished, he shook his head and let out a low whistle. “Is Jamie the inspiration for this story?”
Her face heated. “I …ah …wrote that years ago. And …um, I’ve revised and edited it a million times in the past. I wanted Annalise to read it first and find out if it’s good enough to be published.”
Annalise grinned at Willie, still looking a little flush like she was having a physical reaction to the few lines she’d read earlier. “So what do you think?”
Willie didn’t miss Annalise’s excited reaction to the story. “It’s verra good but I didnae realised graphic scenes affected ye so much. Ye’re beet red!"
"Only when it’s very well written,” Annalise smirked, taking the laptop from his hands and moving towards him to sit on his lap.
Willie pulled Annalise closer and kissed her, and Claire sighed. It’s both beautiful and terrible being in the presence of people, so in love. While she’s ecstatic to see her best friend smitten and happy, it made her sad that Jamie couldn’t be here with her. She missed him terribly, and it’s only been a fortnight since she had last seen him.
After a few seconds of watching them unashamedly snogged in front of her, Claire clapped her hands, and they both immediately pulled away. “Right, that’s enough you two. So, where’s the dinner I was promised?”
Suddenly looking self-conscious, Willie promptly lifted Annalise from his lap, plonked her down onto the bed and jumped up, and Claire couldn’t help but grin at him.
“Right on it,” he muttered, before disappearing from her bedroom.
Annalise laughed and playfully shoved her shoulder. “Passion killer.”
Claire ignored the jest. “So you really think I should publish my story?”
Her friend nodded excitedly. “Absolutely! You should have let me read it sooner. From what I’ve seen so far, you have good, solid material, and I’m convinced, when I read the rest, it will not disappoint.” She stood up and smiled. “Come on, in as much as I’m all fired up after reading your story, I’m famished.” She got up and left the room.
Instead of moving from her position, Claire stared at her work for a few seconds and just breathed. Although Willie and Annalise were sincere with their praises, she couldn’t help but still feel nervous. This next step in her life could either turn out to be huge, or it could get her mocked out of a dream career she loved.
Pushing aside her doubts and thinking of Jamie, she quickly compressed a copy of her story’s file and sent it to him via email to read, hoping he would like her written work too. Who knew, maybe, after reading it, he would be as fired up as Willie and Annalise.
After hearing the whoosh of the email sent, Claire launched herself off the bed to join her friends, looking forward to Jamie’s reaction later and daydreaming of a future in Scotland with her love.