On Reading A Lot

I remember the late, great John Richardson once saying that the best way to get better at reading the Bible was to read Moby Dick. I haven’t ever managed it, I’m afraid, but I definitely think that reading a lot, and reading widely, and reading good books makes you a better reader. I haven’t read Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well, but I think that might be part of her point, too. Like Jim Packer, my favourite relaxation is reading genre fiction (not so much detective fiction these days, though I devoured that when I was younger).

A Facebook friend recently wondered whether any of his friends had read more than 100 books so far this year. I was certain I had, but then I realised that, since I read almost everything on my Kindle, it’s now really easy to check exactly how many. I basically read Kindle books as I buy them, so although there may be some margin of error for actual reading, I can tell you that I have bought 239 Kindle books this year, of which I think about 20 remain unread (mostly purchased to read on my holiday, but then I lost my Kindle, so I didn’t read them that week and haven’t yet gone back to them. Over Christmas, probably.) I’ve also read some paper books, and I think the number of those is also around 20, so I’m going to say I’ve read somewhere between 220 and 250 books this year. But to be honest, I’d much rather spend my time reading books than tracking the books I’ve read.

Plus, I read the Bible (though technically, I began in Advent 2017).

Other than that, here’s some things I read that I might recommend to you, if they seem like your sort of thing. I’m not much of a one for telling people what they ought to read, and I tend to run a mile from anything I’m told I ought to read. But if they sound interesting to you, these are all things I enjoyed and thought well-written.

Fiction:

Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey. This actually is sort of a murder mystery, but the real draw of the book is the narrator, who has dementia. It’s beautifully done and heartbreaking and lovely.


Phoebe: A Story with Notes, Paula Gooder. Not a novel, but imaginative fiction based on the early church in Rome. Listen to my review of this on the Church Society podcast on Monday!


Then There Was You, Kara Isaac. Romance fiction is my catnip, and Kara Isaac writes romances about Christians. Like, real, actual Christians that I can imagine I might know. This is, I think, her best, but they are all wonderful. She is my find of the year.

Non-fiction:

Praying the Light: Unfolding the rich intercession of the Bible, Andrew Case. I should go back to this. It’s a book of prayers that teaches you how to pray the Bible. I was praying one every day for a couple of months, but I fell out of the habit.


None Like Him, Jen Wilkin. I read three Jen Wilkin books this year and dithered over which to mention. They’re all good. I really like Women and the Word, but I picked this in the end, because it’s proper theology and, even if there are flowers on the cover, I don’t care if that means women are working harder at loving God with their minds.


A New Day, Emma Scrivener. We read this in my women’s Bible study group at church and I think we all found it incredibly honest and helpful. Highly recommended for anyone who is a person or knows any people.


When Darkness Seems My Closest Friend, Mark Meynell. I talked to Mark about this book here.


The 8 Week Blood Sugar Diet. I have never done a diet before in my life. I did this for 8 weeks and spent most of the year happier and healthier than I can remember. It hasn’t completely stuck, but I have no regrets, and definitely plan to do it again in 2019.

Here’s some things I read that I would not recommend:

Party of One, Joy Beth Smith. In my head, this is called Pity Party of One. It’s hard to take advice about singleness seriously from someone who thinks she’s very old at 27.

Reading the Bible Supernaturally, John Piper. I mean it’s fine. But it’s a huge book, and you’ll spend hours reading it that you’ll never get back, and it could easily be summarised in about three pages.

Things I haven’t got round to but meant to read this year. There’s still time, maybe:
Lethal White, Galbraith
On Reading Well, Prior
Echoes of Exodus, Wilson and Roberts
Revelation, Leithart
I’m also in the middle of All That’s Good by Hannah Anderson. And I skim-read Tim Chester’s Enjoying God, but plan to read it properly with a friend (and do the exercises!) in 2019.

Bonfire Night

Every year, the allotment society hold a Bonfire Night party: food, fireworks and fun for all the family. Holly always goes with her grandfather, only this year he’s stuck in a care home and she’s been looking after his allotment for months. Greg and his kids have only just taken over their plot, but the Bonfire Night party should be a great way to get to know some of the other gardeners. Including the cute girl who spends all her Saturdays working at the allotment just along from Greg’s.

There’s only one thing that’s guaranteed: there are going to be fireworks…

Bonfire Night is a 10,000 word contemporary romance short story.

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Excerpt

Holly leaned on her garden fork and wiped the back of her hand over her sweaty forehead.

Whoops.

Make that the back of her very grubby hand. Oh, well, it would wash off and it wasn’t like there was anyone here she was interested in impressing. She tucked her woolly hat more securely around her ears and glanced around the allotment.

A bright, sunny Saturday in mid-October and the place was heaving. All the old lads who came down every day were smugly watching the weekend folks from the comfort of their folding chairs and drinking strong tea from thermos flasks. They’d long since tied up their raspberry canes and pruned back their blackcurrant bushes. You could see the neat patches of ground that had been dug over ready for spring planting, while their winter potatoes and brassicas were still yielding vast crops.

Holly’s grandad would have had his allotment as neat as anyone’s. Ever since he’d retired, it had been his pride and joy. That’s why she was out here now.
Every week, she spent her Saturday taking care of the plot and on Sundays she visited him in the care home with detailed photos of what she’d done. Grandad kept a close eye on the weather forecast and he’d always know exactly what needed doing next. Holly took a notebook with her and carefully wrote down his detailed instructions for the coming week.

Of course, she took him the produce to inspect, too, though the care home weren’t interested in cooking the veg for him. But he enjoyed the soft fruit and sometimes Holly made soup from the veg and smuggled it in with a crusty roll from the baker on the corner.

Today she was supposed to dig up the beans and the peas. She’d already removed the canes and stored them neatly in the potting shed. She was halfway through the first row of beans and wondering why on earth Grandad insisted she grew so many of the darn thngs. Her small freezer was full to bursting with them. She’d be amazed if she got through them all before next summer. She never questioned him, though. It was his allotment and she was just the unpaid labour.

The guy two plots along was here again, she noticed, with his kids. The littlest one didn’t do much except sit in the mud and smear it all over himself, but the older ones were helping, after a fashion.

He was new on the allotment. She’d first noticed him a month or so ago, taking over from India, the hipster woman who’d filled her plot with all kinds of exotic things that no one recognsed. She was after essential oils for her aromatherapy products, she’d told Holly. As well as purple carrots for unspecified reasons. Hardly anything had produced a harvest, though, and none of the other gardeners were surprised that she gave it up after less than a year.

Holly heard all the gossip around the allotment. Everyone asked after her grandad and then told her all the news they thought he might want to hear. She’d relayed the message the blackspot on Colin’s roses that he was sure had come from his neighbour’s plot, but since Shelly and Miranda refused to treat their plants with any chemical controls, there wasn’t much Colin could do about it. He’d won a rosette at every summer flower show for the last fiften years, but who knew whether he’d have a single bloom worth showing next summer.

She’d heard more than she’d ever wanted to know about Bill’s fears for club root on his cabbages and Mr Chen’s fight with the slugs for ownership of his Chinese greens. Holly had been more interested to find out that Kate and Dave in the corner plot were finally expecting their first child and that to celebrate they’d decided to plant a new apple tree.

She hadn’t yet got to know the father of the boy currently stealing the very last of the autumn raspberries from Neal Kennedy’s plot.

‘Hello!’ she called out.

The guy looked up at her and smiled briefly. ‘Hi.’

‘Is he yours?’ Holly nodded across at the boy. ‘Only he’s not really supposed
to eat other people’s crops.’

‘Oh, hell. Elijah! Elijah! Come here now. Sorry,’ he said to Holly. ‘I have told them, but it’s hard to keep an eye on all three of them at once.’

‘Yes, it must be. I’m Holly, by the way.’

‘Greg.’ He retrieved Elijah and told him off, extracting a promise not to do the same thing again. ‘Come on, then, let’s find something more useful to keep you busy. Want to do some digging?’

He lifted his hand to Holly in a friendly way, then turned away to find a small spade. She watched him patiently showing his son how to use his foot to push the spade down, then twist the soil up and out of the way. With the child-sized tool, he couldn’t get far enough down to give the ground the real turnover it needed, but the technique was good. She watched for a few minutes, then pulled up her own fork and started to attack the rest of the beans.

By lunchtime, she was nearly done. She’d brought a packet of sandwiches and a bottle of diet coke. Grandad kept a stool in his shed and since the autumn sun was warming up a bit, Holly dragged it outside and sat down to her meal.

‘That looks comfortable.’

Holly looked up to see Greg holding one muddy child on his hip and the other two standing around him. He was tall and had a sort of rugged look. Although maybe that was just his beard.

‘It works,’ she said.

‘I just wanted to say thanks for earlier. I don’t want this lot becoming a nuisance to anyone.’

‘No problem. Just so you know, that’s Neal Kennedy’s patch and he can be a bit particular. I wouldn’t want your kids to get in trouble with him.’

‘Noted. Do you know all the other allotment holders, then?’

She shrugged. ‘Most of them, a bit.’

‘You’ve been here a while?’

‘Oh, no. Only since April. It’s my grandad’s plot, actually. He knows everyone.’

‘It’s kind of you to help him out.’

‘He had a hip replacement. I said I’d look after it until he could manage it again.’

Greg frowned. ‘Six months to recover from a hip replacement. Is he okay?’

Holly shook her head. ‘A couple of months after the operation he had a stroke. He’s recovering, but it’s slow.’

‘Oh, I see. I’m sorry.’

‘The allotment is what keeps him going. He’s determined to be digging again in the spring.’

‘Will he make it?’

Holly hadn’t dared to think about it. ‘Probably. I don’t know. Did you know about the allotment bonfire party?’ She pointed to the A4 photocopied poster over on the noticeboard. ‘They’re looking for volunteers to help build it next weekend.’

‘We could do that. What do you think, guys?’

‘Oh!’ Holly interrupted before the kids could speak. ‘It’s not really a family thing. I don’t know if it’s safe for them. But I know Bill’s looking for a couple of extra pairs of hands, if you can leave them with their mum for a few hours.’

His face turned blank and he hoisted the little one higher on his hip, while reaching out to the other two. ‘I can’t do that, sorry.’

Oh, hell. She’d put her foot in it big time and she didn’t even know quite how.

Greg was halfway out of the allotment with the children skipping alongside him before Holly’s brain finally processed what she’d said.

This was why she shouldn’t be allowed near people. She always managed to get it wrong. She didn’t intend to upset people, she really didn’t. But if there was a way to misunderstand, she’d find it. And then she’d dive into it headfirst, smashing people’s feelings all over the place without realising until it was too late.

She screwed the top on her diet coke bottle and put her rubbish in her satchel. There were two and a half rows of peas left to dig up and at least they didn’t have any feelings to hurt.

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November 2014
Self published
10,000 word short story

Not My Field

There’s an immovable object: Mike’s dairy farm in Somerset isn’t going anywhere.

And there’s an irresistible force: university lecturer, Carla, who has brought so much fun and joy into his life over the last few months.

But when she’s offered a senior position in a German university, they both know something’s going to have to give. NOT MY FIELD is a story about grown up people learning to take risks, make compromises, and in the end, choose love.

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Excerpt

Carla glanced at the open document on her computer screen. What she really wanted to do this morning was finish the essay for Professor Myren’s Festschrift. Technically, it had been due back with the editor last month, and it really only needed a couple more hours of uninterrupted work time. But Christopher Fulwood was on her back about the performance review forms again, and if he didn’t get them, he was perfectly capable of making her life a living hell. She’d have to try to finish her paper that evening and get the sodding performance review done now.

She twisted her hair up into a messy bun and stuck a pencil through to hold it in place. A pile of undergraduate essays were dumped unceremoniously onto the floor with a stack of books she’d been sent for review on top of it. Now at least she could see the wood of her desk, which always made her feel better.
The PRF was enough to make anyone’s eyes glaze over at the mindnumbing detail which the admin team expected all university teaching staff to be able to provide. Faintly, Carla remembered promising herself last year that she would keep an ongoing list throughout the year of all the relevant work she’d done, so that all she’d have to do at this point was copy and paste. Next year, she really she would do that and not just for the first two weeks. For this year, she pulled out her paper diary and began to leaf through it looking for the information she needed: classes taught, research students supervised, papers submitted, publications received, committees attended.

Carla was trying to make sense of the scribbled notes in her diary from last October when the phone rang. Grateful for an excuse to abandon the struggle, she picked it up with some relief and then, when she heard the familiar voice of an old friend, genuine pleasure.

‘Jürgen! How lovely to hear from you.’

She pushed her chair away from the desk and settled in for a catch-up. Of course, he wouldn’t just be ringing for a casual chat at ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning, but she definitely had time to ask after Gabi and the kids, as well as a few mutual friends before she let him get to the point. He assured her that everyone was well, apart from Thomas’s cracked wrist after falling from his skateboard.

‘Thomas goes skateboarding?’ She struggled to imagine the quiet, serious professor of English doing anything of the sort.

‘He was showing his son.’

‘Ah, I see.’ She grinned, imagining the look on Thomas’s face as he admitted that to his colleagues. ‘Tell him I hope he gets better soon.’

‘I will. Carla, I have been given the great honour of sounding you out about a position here.’

‘What sort of position?’

‘Direktor.’

She couldn’t have understood him. He was asking for suggestions, perhaps, names to throw into the hat now that Myren had announced his retirement. Or a reference for another candidate, maybe.

But Jürgen was still talking. ‘They want someone younger, with an interest in the newer developments in the field. Someone who’ll lead the whole department in new and innovative research. There’s a shortlist, of course. But you’re at the top of it.’

Director of the Faculty of Romance Studies. At Tübingen. She couldn’t quite believe it.

She’d sent Myren a card, thanking him for his mentorship at an early stage of her career and wishing him a happy retirement with Betta, and of course she’d agreed to contribute to the Festschrift. It had not once occurred to her that she would be in the running to succeed him.

‘I don’t know what to say,’ she told Jürgen.

‘Nothing yet,’ Jürgen replied, with a hint of his dry humour. ‘It’s all confidential at this stage. But I’ll confirm your interest with the committee and then you’ll be hearing from us in a more formal capacity.’

Still holding the phone to her ear, Carla stood and went over to the small, oddly shaped window in her office. If she twisted in the right direction there was a view across the city, with both castle and cathedral. Everything that summed up Durham framed in a two by four rectangle. She liked it well enough, but she’d never fallen in love with it. Not the way she’d fallen for Tübingen.
She’d done her PhD there, working on German interpretations of classic Romance language texts. She’d had fun, too, throwing off the tense shackles of her doctoral studies and learning to become more confident in her academic career. Jürgen and Gabi, had been great friends, and there were others she still kept in touch with.

It would be a wonderful place to work again. Her friends in the language faculty would be stimulating colleagues. As Director, she’d have a chance to shape the department, focussing their teaching and research in a new direction. It was a dream job.

‘Don’t tell them anything yet, Jürgen,’ she blurted out. ‘I need… I need to think about it.’

‘Okay.’ He paused. ‘Are you okay, Carla? I thought you would be jumping at the chance? Gabi and I were so excited to think you would be returning.’

‘I’m honoured,’ she said carefully. ‘And I can’t think of a better place to work. I’d love to come back.’

‘Then what is your concern? Perhaps I can set your mind at rest.’

She twisted a finger into her hair, the way she always did when she was nervous. ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this, Jürgen, but there’s a guy.’

He was very sweet about it, telling her that he understood completely and refraining from asking all the questions she could tell he was dying to. At least it hadn’t been Gabi on the phone. She would have come straight out and demanded to know all about this man in Carla’s life.

At twenty-two, Carla had followed her heart. She’d thought she was in love and she’d assumed it was worth risking everything for. She’d been wrong, but she’d been lucky and she knew it. She’d been careful never to make the same mistake again. She’d had several very enjoyable relationships along the way but she’d always been careful not to risk the things which really mattered to her.
It was disconcerting, therefore, to find that she was hesitating about the Tübingen job. It would be a great achievement, moving her into the very top echelons within her profession. At forty-nine, she was still young to be offered such a prestigious post, but she knew full well that if she turned it down, there was no guarantee she’d ever have a chance at such a role again.

But then, on the other hand, there was Mike.

October 2014
Self published
13,000 word short story

An Unsuitable Husband

Theresa Chartley has no time for marriage, and no room for disappointment–especially with French soccer player Emile Renaud. Sure, he’s gorgeous, but he’s wrong for a career woman like Theresa. If only her mother would stop pressuring her to get married and let her live her own life. Finding a very unsuitable husband to shock her parents into silence and put an end to the marriage campaign is the only answer. Emile will do just fine.

Theresa’s outrageous proposal is the answer to Emile’s problem. They’re complete opposites living in different worlds, but a fake marriage will let him ditch his clingy ex once and for all. Then he’ll be free of commitment and free to live his life the way he wants to.

A contract. Twelve months. And they walk away scot-free. But a year of marriage tests them both in unimaginable ways. Maybe Emile isn’t unsuitable after all, but how can Theresa let herself love him when she signed a contract to let him go?

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An Unsuitable Husband is a 50,000 word category romance novel.

Excerpt
The heavy thud of the beat blocked out all other rhythms. Every thought, every breath, every heartbeat drummed in time with the music. Theresa Chartley set her drink down and threaded her way through the crowds to the middle of the dance floor. Bodies on all sides formed a tiny cocoon, sheltering her as she gave herself over to the beat. The strong, deep pulse soothed her like nothing else could, giving her mind time to rest and the stresses in her subconscious a chance to seep away while she moved instinctively. In the music, she could be fully in the moment and it was bliss.

Half an hour later, she made her way back to the table and grabbed her bottle of water. She scanned the dark room to check on the friend she had come with. Julie’s distinctive white-blonde hair was easy to spot through the mass of people on the floor. Theresa watched her friend wrap herself around a guy so that their two bodies moved together perfectly. Briefly, Julie raised her head and caught Theresa’s eye. She winked. No rescue required there.

Theresa hadn’t come to the club to meet a guy. She’d come to forget about meeting guys. She’d called Julie on the way home from her parents’ house and arranged an evening designed to block out her mother’s latest insane plans. Melanie Chartley’s mission in life was to see her daughter married. She wanted the village church in June, decked with pink roses and white lilacs. She wanted Theresa in an ivory silk gown and all the men in top hats and tails. Mostly, Theresa suspected, she wanted a reason to boast to all her friends. For years, Melanie had dropped hints, subtle and not so subtle, but since Theresa’s thirtieth birthday, she’d stepped up the pressure and now she’d decided to take action. Next weekend, Theresa was expected to visit her mother so she could meet Hetta Black’s son.

“He’s a few years older than you, darling,” Melanie had told her over the phone, “but still very handsome. And you mustn’t mind about the children. They’re away at boarding school most of the time.”

“Children?” she’d repeated in horror.

“Oh, didn’t I say? He’s a widower, poor thing. But he’s been very brave about it, and now the children are old enough, he’s looking for someone new.”

“He won’t be looking for someone like me.”

“Don’t be silly, dear. You can be quite pretty when you make the effort.”

Theresa had closed her eyes and counted to three. “I meant that he won’t want a wife with a career like mine. I frequently work fourteen hour days, and I don’t have time for shopping, cooking, or chasing around after teenage children.” She didn’t have the energy to invest in that sort of relationship, either, but that was beyond her mother’s ability to comprehend. Short, self-contained flings with minimal emotional involvement suited Theresa best. Messy, complicated long-term commitments scared the hell out of her, especially the kind that came with a ring and a legally-binding promise.

“Well, naturally you wouldn’t continue with your job when you’re married.”

She’d hung up. There was no chance of convincing her mother and no point having the familiar argument all over again.

She’d call later in the week and make sure lunch was cancelled. And pray that Timothy Black found someone more suitable very soon.

But here in the club tonight, there was no reason to think about her mother and her suitable widowers. No need to think about anything. Just feel the music. Just feel the moment. She swayed her hips, letting the rhythm of the beat sink into her until she could feel it pulsing through her veins. She threw her head back, closed her eyes, and let herself dance as though no one was watching.

It took her a while to notice the guy. He was behind her, but he was matching his moves to hers. She could feel his breath in warm, soft ripples against her neck. His hips just brushed against the curve of her bottom. His shoulder occasionally bumped into hers, but when his hand slid around her waist, there was no mistaking it. No mistaking the delicious shudder of sexual attraction that shot straight through her, either. Her body knew he’d make love with the same perfect timing.

They danced for hours, her back against his chest, mirroring and matching and making love with their fully clothed bodies. Eventually, the dance floor was almost empty, but Theresa didn’t want to be the one to break their connection and she sensed he felt the same. The club was a protected bubble away from reality. As soon as they stopped moving, the magic would dissolve.

He didn’t break the rhythm when his lips brushed against her ear. “My place?”

Julie had left with her guy hours earlier. Theresa leaned back against his chest. She wasn’t in the habit of hooking up with random men in clubs. On the other hand, whoever this guy was, he wouldn’t be dragging her off to see the vicar and expecting her to say “I do” any moment now. “Why not?”

He spun her round and pulled her in so they were face-to-face for the first time. She slid her arms around his neck and pressed herself deliberately along the length of his body. His eyes gleamed for an instant and then darkened as he bent and claimed her lips.

Maybe it was the recklessness of kissing a stranger, maybe it was the hours of foreplay on the dance floor, or maybe it was just him. Whatever it was, Theresa had never experienced such a rush of desire from a simple kiss. One of his hands rested lightly against her bottom and the other curled into her short hair. She squirmed into his touch, silently urging him to stroke and explore and push her senses further out into the stratospheric levels of lust he’d already evoked. But his kiss remained steady and somehow that just made her long for more.

The cab ride was agonizing. Buckled in on opposite sides of the back seat, he stretched out his arm so his fingers rested on the nape of her neck. She didn’t dare move closer. Taxi sex was really not on her agenda, even on a reckless night like this. She just hoped he lived somewhere nearby, because the beat of the music was still throbbing in her blood, and her breath was still coming as fast as if she were dancing hard. Touching without looking had been incredibly arousing. Looking without touching was unreasonable torture.

He had dark hair, slightly longer than her mother would consider respectable, curled over his collar and flopped on his forehead. Visible stubble shadowed his strong jaw but did nothing to disguise the sensuality of his full lips and wide mouth. Hooded eyes regarded her with smoldering lust that made her breath hitch. She turned away in an attempt to take hold of herself.

“Not long now, chérie.”

She hadn’t noticed the accent in his brief, murmured words earlier. “You’re French?”

“Indeed.” He leaned lazily back against his seat but his fingers ceased to trace patterns at her neck.

“Is it true what they say about French men?”

“That depends what they say.”

God, that accent was sexy, especially when delivered in his deep, husky voice.

“That they make the most incredible…” She paused, and he raised an eyebrow at her. “…food.”

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April 2014
Entangled Publishing
50,000 word category romance

Island Fling

Seven years of separation. One night to reconnect.

Years ago, Andrew and Maggie tumbled into love too hard and too fast until one harsh collision with reality shattered everything between them. But now they’re older – and maybe a little bit wiser – is there a way for them to make peace in the tranquility of a remote Scottish island? Or is this one night fling just a way to finally say goodbye?

Island Fling is a 10,000 word short story.

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Excerpt

The brown paper was creased and a little torn at the corners, revealing the layers of bubble wrap beneath. Andrew frowned at the neatly typed label and the unfamiliar return address. It wasn’t addressed to Fraser Fine Art, the prestigious Edinburgh gallery he’d inherited from his grandfather. Instead, the hopeful artist had typed out Andrew’s own name, perhaps thinking it would get him a better chance of a viewing, since the gallery didn’t normally accept unsolicited submissions at all these days. He picked up the large package with both hands, intending to hand it over to Darren to sort out the return postage.

That torn packaging kept catching his eye. A hint of vivid green lurked beneath the translucent plastic of the bubble wrap. Whatever waited inside wasn’t an insipid amateur watercolour, at least. Of course, the hidden artwork could be a hideous amateur acrylic, but those were rarer in Andrew’s experience. In the first few years after he’d taken over the gallery, he’d insisted on viewing everything. He hadn’t trusted anyone else to judge what was good, what was bad, and most importantly, what would sell. Now they curated exhibitions of selected artists from Scotland’s artistic elite. It was an honour to be invited to show at Fraser’s on Queen Street, and one that was rarely refused.

He missed the rush of adrenaline that came with the unexpected discovery of a truly great work. Sifting through the piles of dross, there were still nuggets of gold to be found. Maybe this would be one of them. And if not, well, he’d lose a couple of minutes and some packing tape to put the parcel back together. He reached for his penknife to slit the tape then felt his way through two layers of bubble wrap with increasing caution, ensuring that the blade stayed clear of the canvas. When the canvas was clear, he turned the painting over.

For several seconds he simply stared, unable and unwilling to believe what his eyes were telling him. The painting depicted – in the loosest sense of the word – a seascape of one of the Scottish islands. He didn’t know them well enough to identify which one, but they were was a common subject. Artists of all talents – and none – loved the clear light and the drama. He’d seen hundreds, maybe thousands of similar scenes.

He’d never seen a canvas like this. The artist had performed that particular brand of magic called chiaroscuro, creating a dark, foreboding image punctured by occasional glimpses of brilliant light. The contrast gave the work an intense, compelling quality that drew him into its deep heart.

And at the heart was a woman, lit up like a modern Rembrandt angel as she emerged from the dark water of the sea. Her hair was slicked back from her forehead, her swimsuit clinging to her lithe body like a second skin.

Andrew couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. It was as if he were there, on the pebbled beach, waiting for her to come to him. He’d grasp her wet body and crush it against his. He’d lock his arms around her and press kisses against her warm, salted mouth. And this time, he wouldn’t let her go.

Maggie Fiona Mitchell.

It had to be her. He didn’t need to search for the MFM in the corner to confirm the artist or the subject. He’d known the instant he turned the canvas over. The unique fingerprint of her brushstrokes hadn’t changed in the seven years since she’d disappeared from his life.

Her work had improved immeasurably, though. She still saw the world in all its dark glory, but now she had the clarity she’d previously lacked. She used to see so much, feel so deeply, that she couldn’t help but throw it all into her work. Every thought, every emotion, every image, every colour creating a clashing, clanging, unbearable disharmony.

The painting on Andrew’s desk had such utter, breathtaking beauty precisely because of its restraint. Maggie used to argue that restraint would lead to simplistic work, but she’d proved herself wrong. This was a work that a person could live with and learn anew every day for a lifetime. It was complex and yet it dragged a single, simple response from Andrew’s heart.

For seven years, he’d heard nothing of her, and seen nothing by her. He still kept an eye out for her work in the catalogues, but when the years passed and nothing turned up, he assumed she’d built a new life and in it found a different way of being. A different way of painting. But now she was here, in his gallery, in acrylic on canvas, in colour and light, in a pose that set his pulse racing.

He picked up the discarded brown paper, searching for the return label. White Cottage, Isle of Muck.

Andrew glanced back at the painting. It looked an invitation to him.

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March 2014
Self-published
10,000 word short story

Last Night Of The Summer

It’s been a fabulous summer, crewing on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Sun, sea, and seriously sexy scenery in the form of Ellie Richards. But Jake Morgan’s kept their friendship firmly hands off while she’s been recovering from a badly broken heart.

Only now she’s hinting that she wants more and he’s determined to make the last night of the summer one for them both to remember.

The Last Night of the Summer is a 10,000 word romantic short story.
 

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Excerpt

Ellie Richards had legs.

Not just any legs. She was blessed with the kind of legs that made a man slow his steps and slide his eyes sideways as he passed the galley, in hopes of catching a glimpse of them. Legs that had him taking detours along the crew corridors two or three times a day.

Today, she’d framed her legs with denim cut offs, rolled up to cup her delectable little bottom. Endless legs, lightly tanned, perfectly curved in all the right places, stretched out as she reached up to one of the high cupboards.

“Let me get that for you.” Jake stepped up behind her and picked up the bag of flour.

“Thanks.” She smiled and he remembered the other reason he liked to stop at the galley. Ellie’s smile. It wasn’t so much the smile itself, it was the way her whole face transformed when she smiled. Her eyes widened and glowed, her cheeks dimpled, her lips stretched, her head tilted upwards.

It was a smile that made a man want to kiss her.

Jake resisted the impulse. Ellie was off limits. Not only because she was a member of his crew, nor because the confined space on the yacht could make things awkward. They were almost at the end of their summer working together around various Mediterranean islands anyway. A fling at this stage wouldn’t make anything awkward.

No, the main reason he shoved his hands in his pockets and hung back at the door was that he’d spent the last three months watching her glue her shattered heart back together and he didn’t want to be the one who broke it again.

Ellie wasn’t looking for a night or two of hot sex. She was after the real thing. That had become clear right from the moment he’d found her weeping about the guy who’d done a number on her so bad it had sent her running out of the country. She’d told Jake through her tears that she’d really believed the bastard heartbreaker – Jake’s name for him, not hers – was the one.

She deserved to find the guy who would be the one for her. Forever.

Which ruled Jake out. He couldn’t be the one who would settle down with her and give her the happy ending she deserved. He was just another chancer, out for a good time with a gorgeous girl until he got bored and moved on. The girls he slept with knew the limits on what they were getting, and wanted exactly what he offered. He didn’t break hearts and he wasn’t going to start with Ellie.

“Something smells great.” Not just her cooking. She had the scent of the sea in her hair and flowers on her skin.

She nodded to the counter behind him. “I made another batch of the honey and pistachio biscotti.”

“You’re an angel.” He winked. That was allowed. Complimenting her on her cooking. Winking to show it was nothing serious.

Ellie Richards could tempt a man to get serious. She’d be worth settling down for, if a guy was ready to start thinking about that. Which Jake wasn’t.

“I know.” She batted his hand away when he reached out for one of the biscuits. “They’re just out of the oven. You’ll burn your mouth.”

He sighed dramatically. “Bring some up when they’re safe to eat?”

“Of course. Do you want coffee, too?”

“Please.”

He stayed longer than he ought, watching her put together a tray. Her movements were swift and assured, efficiently competent in the tasks she’d done a hundred times that summer. She’d had to learn fast, but she’d done it and come out smiling.

Another waft of coffee and fresh baking and for an instant, Jake had a picture perfect image of a home with Ellie in the kitchen, filling the whole house with delicious scents. She’d know how to make the house into a proper home. She’d fill it with amazing things like smiles and laughter and cuddles and babies. He’d hold her hand under the dinner table and together they’d embarrass their kids by sneaking kisses and slow dancing when their song came on the radio.

Well, Jake wouldn’t, obviously. Some other guy, who had the extraordinary good luck to meet her in the right place at the right time would get to do all that.

“Here.” Ellie was holding out the tray towards him. “You might as well take it up yourself.”

“Grab an extra cup,” he suggested. “Join me for half an hour.”

She scanned the kitchen, turning down the dial on the oven and covering a bowl with a cloth. “Sure.”

Up on deck, Jake slid on his shades against the fierce brightness of the morning sun, and glanced around to make sure everything was under control. The guests had all gone ashore for the day and the crew were taking things easy. They’d made a good team this summer, despite their differences. Adam sat on the upper deck, reading a technical manual on marine navigation. Gianluca was busy teasing Marica as they swabbed the decks. Ellie pulled a cap on, tweaking her ponytail through the hole in the back. She kicked off her battered boat shoes and curled her feet under as she sat down cross-legged like a child on the sun lounger.

“Milk, no sugar, right?”

“Right. I should be doing that.”

He grinned. “You do plenty.”

“True.” She smiled lazily. He put her cup next to her with a biscotti on the side, then served himself.

“Last week.”

She didn’t have to ask what he meant. The Delphine had been home to them both for the past three months, but the last group of paying guests were leaving on Saturday. The crew would have Sunday to put the boat to rights for the winter, and then they’d scatter around the globe.

“Adam can’t wait.”

Jake grinned. Their first mate had been invited to join a racing yacht crew for winter training. He had ambitions of winning the Americas Cup one day. “He’d have left weeks ago if it would have got him there sooner.”

“Do you think Marica will go with him?”

He shrugged. “I can’t keep up with them.” Since the first week of the summer, Adam and Marica had fought through a relationship that made a rollercoaster ride look like a sedate Sunday afternoon drive.

“The sex must be fabulous.”

“Huh?” Jake narrowed his eyes and surveyed Ellie’s innocent face. Was that really a wistful tone he’d heard in her voice.

“Well, there must be a reason they keep getting back together.”

He hadn’t thought about it. “I guess.”

“Three months is a long time.”

Okay, he definitely hadn’t made that up. Ellie Richards was sitting next to him, stretching out those long, tanned legs and telling him that three months was a long time to go without sex. Jake’s body definitely agreed. He shifted on his sun lounger and let his head fall backwards, staring up at the sky.

Three months without sex wasn’t a big deal. Three months without sex when there was constant temptation at very close quarters was proving to be an ordeal.
Usually he found a girl or two in a port town who’d enjoy a summer fling with a British sailor. This year, he hadn’t bothered. It hadn’t been a deliberate decision. Just that he hadn’t been tempted by any of the Italian girls with their dark eyes and wide smiles this year. What man would be, when they had Ellie to look at every day? He couldn’t stop himself from glancing across at her again. Still gorgeous. Still off limits.

“Are you still missing your guy?” The bastard heartbreaker, as Jake liked to think of him.

She shook her head. “No. Really not. It’s been good to get away and get some perspective on him. I was an idiot.”

“You’re too hard on yourself.”

“I should have realised he was seeing someone else. It was obvious to everyone else. Anyway, I won’t make that mistake again. Next time, I’ll do my homework.”

“There’s going to be a next time?”

She frowned. “I certainly hope so. I’m not planning on staying celibate for the rest of my life.”

“What about the rest of this week?” Because if Ellie wanted help breaking her duck, he was all hers. At least for the next few days.

Her eyes widened and her eyebrows rose. “Are you flirting with me?”

He tipped his head back and laughed. “Yes. After a whole summer of trying very hard not to flirt with you, you finally broke me.”

She laughed too, but only for a moment before she looked away in embarrassment. She brushed his hand off, stood up and collected the dirty cups back onto the tray.

“I’d better get back to work.”

“Ellie.” He took hold of her wrist and held it loosely. Her pulse was racing fast under his thumb. Terrified? Or excited? How the hell was he supposed to tell the difference? She hadn’t pulled away, so that was good, right? His pulse was racing, too. God, it was like he was some schoolkid again. Asking girls out wasn’t supposed to be this hard when you were his age. But then, Ellie wasn’t just any girl.

“What?” She was watching him carefully. Cautiously, dammit.

He squeezed his hand and hoped she’d find it reassuring. “Any time you’re ready to end your celibacy, just let me know.”

He met her gaze steadily and tried to make it clear that he was serious. No flirting, but he meant it. She’d know, surely, that he couldn’t be offering more than a few nights. They were almost at the end of their summer together. She’d hinted that she was ready to start moving on and maybe a night or two with Jake would help her with that.

She extracted her hand from his grasp and looked at him for a long moment during which Jake entirely forgot to breathe. He could almost believe she wanted to say yes. He bit back a sigh of disappointment when she shook her head at him.

“Right. I’ll do that. Now I really do need to get back to work.”

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November 2013
Self-published
10,000 word short story

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