The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious.
Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Text copyright © 2013 Helen Smith Originally published as a Kindle Serial, March 2013
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer PO Box 400818
Las Vegas, NV 89140
Library of Congress Control Number: 2013902945
For Damon and Lauren
Table of Contents
In Hartford, Connecticut, in the United States of America, just after eleven o’clock in the morning on a Saturday, Winnie Kraster received an invitation to die. Not realizing what it was, she accepted eagerly.
Winnie usually checked her email inbox several times a day at the weekend, even though her husband, Des, disapproved of what he called her “computering.” That morning, as she scrolled down the list of messages, opening her correspondence and then deleting or responding as appropriate, her gorgeous Maine coon cat, Frederick, rubbed his leonine face against her leg. He put his front two paws onto her lap, in preparation to leap.
“Honey, no!” Winnie batted him away—he was distracting her, and she had nearly deleted it! But there it was: the email that was to change her life (though not, unfortunately, in a good way). The subject line of the email announced that she was a competition winner.
Normally, any email announcing amazing good news—a lottery win in Italy, for a lottery she had never entered, or money that was to be gifted to her by an official in Lagos in return for an administration fee—went straight into the trash folder on her computer. But this email was a genuine one. Winnie was thrilled to think that it would have reached her all the way from England only seconds after it had been sent, in the magical twinkle of time that cyber communications permit. This was the email that would validate all Winnie’s hopes and dreams. This was the email that said, “Don’t give up, girl! You’ve done it! You’re worth something.” It had been sent to her by the Romance Writers of Great Britain, a small but prestigious organization that claimed world-famous writers like Polly Penham and Morgana Blakely among its membership.
Winnie called to her husband, “Honey, get in here! You gotta see this!” There was no question of consulting him about how she should respond to the email from Morgana Blakely, president of the committee organizing this year’s RWGB conference in London. Morgana had invited her to travel to London. Winnie would be there.
Winnie had a job as an administrator in an insurance company where Des also worked (it was where they had met, in fact, seven years ago). She spent all day in the office, but then she came home and spent several hours a night tending the blog that she wrote, as keenly as any gardener cultivating roses for a championship competition. If Des could have touched or held the results of her efforts, he might have been more interested. All he saw was his wife hunched over her computer—there was something miserly about it: the glow of the screen on her watchful face, the loneliness of it—as she uploaded reviews of romance novels she had read, and posted details of competitions that she or her readers might want to enter, and shared with her readers the difficulties she encountered as she tried to break into the market herself as a new writer.
Fortunately Des cared so little about Winnie’s blog—written as Tallulah, under the blog name Tallulah’s Treasures—that he rarely read it, and so he missed the posts where Winnie complained about some of the trivial but irritating details of their domestic life, sometimes even going so far as to suggest that she’d be happier if she could just stay home and write, with Frederick close by for comfort. And smoke! Yes, Des disapproved of his wife’s sneaky cigarette habit. But she felt that nicotine helped her connect her thoughts sometimes. Didn’t the writer Winnie most admired in all the world, Polly Penham, confess to treating herself to a cigarette from time to time to help the writing flow, as she polished off yet another funny, clever, adorable romantic comedy? Polly’s books featured likeable yet ditzy young women whose antics could make Winnie laugh aloud as she sat and read them late at night in bed, Des grumbling at her side. Maybe Polly’s next book would feature an American blogger with a Maine coon cat—Winnie could but hope.
Des understood how much his wife’s dreams of getting published meant to her, even if he was sometimes jealous of the time she spent on her writing. If he was honest with himself (not with her—that would have been a mistake), he had just never thought it would come to anything. Now it seemed that her efforts had been validated. He came and stood behind her, one hand on her shoulder, and read the email that was open on her screen:
FROM: [email protected]
SUBJECT: Winning Writer in Our Online Competition
Thank you for submitting a romantic scene to our online competition. Entries came flooding in from around the world, and the standard was very high. We’re delighted to tell you that our judging panel—which included the organizing committee of the RWGB conference, and the award-winning writer Polly Penham—thought your contribution was outstanding.
You have been chosen as one of the winning writers in our competition. Congratulations, Winnie! We would like to invite you to come to London to meet my agent, Lex Millington, of Millington Bussell, for afternoon tea and a chat about the publishing business at this year’s Romance Writers of Great Britain conference, which will be held at the Coram Hotel in Bloomsbury, London.
After tea with Lex, Polly Penham will meet you and the other winning writers to share tips about her success. Later, we will get together with members of RWGB and guests from the industry for a gala dinner at the hotel. Your accommodation costs will be met for the night of the dinner.
Please let me know if you are able to attend. And, once again, congratulations!
Des noted that the email promised very little other than “chats” with various people. Even the airfare wasn’t included, from what he could see. But for Winnie this was to be the start of everything. She was overcome with happiness. Des bent and hugged his wife. He could feel her trembling as he put his arms around her. Whatever happened—even if this was to be another disappointment shared with readers on the Tallulah’s Treasures blog—Des was determined that they would celebrate. He went to look in the kitchen to see if they had any white wine he could chill in the fridge. Maybe they could invite some friends over for barbecue tonight.
Winnie pulled the cuff of her sweater down past her right wrist and over the heel of her hand, and wiped her eyes with it. She took a couple of calming, slightly shuddery breaths. Then she began to compose an email accepting the invitation to go to London. She thought it was the beginning of everything. Des, out in the kitchen, a pack of lamb chops held to his nose to try to detect whether the meat was still fresh enough to serve to guests, was not so sure. He thought he might try to take a few moments later on to downgrade her expectations, even knowing that it might make her angry with him if he tackled the subject, with all the tactlessness of a long-married husband who cares too much to lie to his wife. It did make her angry. Unfortunately—though he would later wish for it over and over—Winnie would not live to hear Des say to her, “I told you so.”
Cerys Pugh was getting her roots done at home in Cardiff, South Wales, in the United Kingdom. She was fortunate enough to know a hairdresser who would come to her house with all the equipment necessary, and charge a very reasonable price. Cerys was a writer and she worked hard at her job, and she liked to spend as little time as possible on distractions during the day. Even while Pam, the hairdresser, was attending to the dark pathways of Cerys’s elegant silver-blonde bob, Cerys had her fancy phone in her hand, checking her emails.
“This phone,” Cerys was fond of saying, “is my life. Photos and facts at your fingertips. Won’t answer back. Won’t get drunk at parties and demand that you drive it home. Won’t go to the pub and want its dinner cooking in the meantime. What’s not to like? If I could marry this piece of kit, I would.” All of which reflected rather badly on Cerys’s ex-husband, a mild-mannered man who had stayed in more often than he went out, and who could cook a very good lasagne, and who earned a decent living working for the gas board. The couple had had what Cerys called “our differences,” and they certainly had different temperaments—Cerys was explosive and quick to blame, her ex slightly prone to depression, which could make him seem dull. But it did seem a bit harsh to compare him unfavorably to a phone.
Cerys and Pam chatted for a while about technology, men, grandchildren and the like. And then Cerys said, “I picked up something nasty on the Google Alert last week.”
Pam was a creative individual who worked with her hands and rarely used a computer—though both her teenage sons had laptops at home—and at first she thought that Cerys was confessing to having a communicable disease. She couldn’t continue with the appointment, if so—the risk of passing something on to other clients was too great. Pam had disposable gloves on her hands to protect her from the hair dye, and the strength of peroxide she used in it was likely to kill most germs. But even so…
“Goobie what?” said Pam, nervously. She paused in her work with her hands held up, about half a foot from Cerys’s head, and slightly above it, as if preparing to contain invisible, toxic rays if they should leak out from Cerys’s brain.
Whether she guessed what was going through Pam’s mind, or she was just determined to get her point across about how nasty this thing was, Cerys held up her phone to show Pam that she was talking about an article she had found on the Internet. Pam bent, squinting a bit to try to see what this was all about—she’d needed reading glasses since she’d turned forty, but hairdressing was long-range, and her glasses weren’t perched on her nose.
Cerys explained, “I set up an automated search on the Internet—see, Pam? Every week I get an email with a roundup of any mentions of my name or the title of any of my books. That way I can keep in touch with my fans and thank anyone who’s left a review.”
Pam wondered if calling her readers “fans” wasn’t a bit self-indulgent. Cerys, God love her, wasn’t Shirley Bassey. Still, we’re all allowed our foibles. “That’s nice,” said Pam. Scare over, she continued with the application of the hair dye, wrapping the precut silver foil squares around segments of her client’s hair, her fingers quick and sure, like an old-timer rolling cigarettes in front of a novice smoker.
be nice, except that people don’t have the manners they were born with, never mind what their mams taught them and what they learned in school.” Cerys touched the screen a few times and then proffered the phone again. “Tell me what you think of this, Pam.”
Pam bent again to look. She didn’t at first understand the significance of what she was reading—you can’t keep up with everything your clients produce, otherwise you’d go mad—so she didn’t recognize the name of the book. But then she saw the name of the author: “Cerys Cadfael” (Cerys’s pen name when she wrote historical fiction). From what Pam could see, someone on the Internet had written something horrid about Cerys’s latest effort.
“Never mind, love,” said Pam. “Don’t worry about it.”
Cerys took the phone back. “It’s my baby, that book. That’s how I feel. I’ve nurtured it into being, and now I watch over it as lovingly as any child, Pam.”
Pam thought for a moment. She was used to playing the counselor for her clients—what hairdresser isn’t? “Well,” she said, “instead of a child, a living thing, why don’t you think of it as something that your body’s expelled? Does that help? Think of it as waste matter, Cerys. See what I’m saying? You’ve done it, now leave it. Get on with producing the next one.”
Unfortunately, this didn’t help. “You’re not suggesting that my book—which took me the best part of a year to write: a product of my imagination, the blossoming flower of my passion—you’re not suggesting, Pam, that I should look upon it as a great big poo?”
“Well…” Cerys was a regular client, and she tipped well. Pam backpedaled cautiously. “No, love, I don’t suppose I am.”
“It’s my livelihood, and this woman is trashing it,” said Cerys. She was still on about the review.
Pam wanted to move the conversation away from the subject of Cerys’s livelihood and any potential threats to it, in case it prompted her client to reduce the tip she planned to leave. “Well, hopefully you’ll never meet this woman. Least said, soonest mended, I always say.”
“You’re right,” said Cerys. “You know me, Pam. I speak as I find. Good thing she lives in America. If I ever came face-to-face with her, I’d treat her to a few home truths.”
“Does she now?” said Pam, impressed. “All the way in America, and she’s read your book.”
“She’s kind to new writers, fair play to her. But heaven forbid you should get on her wrong side. Heaven forbid you should have established a reputation—never mind if you’ve worked tirelessly for twenty years to get to that point—and she gets it into her head you’re getting too big for your boots.”
“Is that what she said?” asked Pam. She hadn’t taken in much of the review. She’d been too busy trying to understand its relevance to Cerys and why it was upsetting her to read the thing.
“Oh yes! And plenty more.” Cerys read one of the choicer excerpts from the review: “‘Cerys Cadfael is supposed to be taking her readers for a ride—you know the kind, where a rugged Celtic hero sweeps the heroine onto a white horse, gallops across the Welsh hills, and sweeps the heart of the reader along with the two of them. Oh, Ms. Cadfael takes her readers for a ride, all right; unfortunately, it’s the wrong kind of ride, where someone coerces or cajoles you into paying a little more for something than you think it’s worth.’ The cheek of it, Pam! She didn’t even pay for the book. ‘Coerces or cajoles’! She was sent a free copy by my publisher, it’s not like I’m taking the clothes off her kids’ backs. And how do you like ‘Ms. Cadfael’? So
, while she gets her jabs in. It’s not the
. Jealous—that’s what she is.”
“Well, never mind,” said Pam. “At least you’ll know not to send her the next one. What’s her name, love?”
“Tallulah,” said Cerys. “Ms. highfalutin Tallulah of Tallulah’s Treasures, if you please.”
Nik Kovacevic had worked at the Coram Hotel in Bloomsbury in London for many years, but he had only recently been appointed to the position of general manager. What a prize! At thirty-two years of age, he’d made his mother proud. Unfortunately, this good news had caused resentment among some of his colleagues. Who was he, a former friend and confidant, to start giving them orders? Why had he been chosen over them anyway?