Authors: Kate Aaron
Copyright 2015 Kate Aaron
Croft House | Licence Notes
All rights reserved. No part of this book may
be reproduced in any form or by any means without prior written permission from
the publisher, except where permitted by law, or in the case of brief
quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For more information,
contact: [email protected]
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to
actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover image by Elizabeth Mackey Graphics
Edited by Theo Fenraven
WARNING: This book contains scenes of an
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About the Author
Kate Aaron lives in Cheshire, England, with
two dogs, a parrot, and a bearded dragon named Elvis.
She has the best of friends, the worst of
enemies, and a mischievous muse with a passion for storytelling that doesn’t
know the difference between fact and fiction.
Copyright 2015 Kate Aaron
I hadn’t wanted to be famous. Honestly. There I was,
scribbling away in my little garret, the walls papered with rejection slips, a
forty-year-old typewriter on my desk because I cared more about appearance than
substance, and somehow my cheap and cheerful little laptop didn’t set the right
. I was a writer: I might never be rich or even far from the
breadline, but I was an
, goddammit. I had a rep to protect.
So I’d sit long into the night, admittedly working
by the light of a 60-watt bulb rather than a guttering candle, but I drank the
coffee and smoked the cigarettes and dreamed of ending my days lounging, louche
and indolent, sipping metallic red wine in a dark and dingy cafe on the banks
of the Seine, surrounded by those who understood my artistic temperament and
calling; those who asked no more of me than I strike the correct pose.
Saying I got bored of living off baked beans and
freeze-dried noodles and sold out shatters the illusion, but that’s what I did.
I went from being a skinny twenty-six, living in a poky flat on the cheap side
of London, to being a skinny twenty-eight-year-old with a nice apartment and healthy
I know, I know, I’m disappointed in me too—but fuck
if I didn’t love it.
I can’t say that word now.
swear, can’t drink, can’t smoke. At least, I can’t be seen doing any of those
things. Not in public. You think image management is limited to actors and
tweeny pop stars? You’re wrong.
I was going to write the Next Great Novel, win the
Booker Prize. I was going to be the Alan Hollinghurst of the noughties. People
were going to speak my name in hushed tones, and the reviewers at the
were going to wank over my words.
It didn’t happen. I sold out. I wrote a fucking
children’s book, and it sold a bazillion copies.
It ruined my life.
It was all Ryan’s fault.
you can’t do it,” he jeered somewhere
around his third or fourth pint in our local pub. Ryan was a teacher—a
teacher. He spent his days attempting to educate thirty rowdy nine-year-olds
and claimed he hated it. I knew he didn’t—a job like that, it’s a vocation, a
calling. You don’t fall into teaching pre-adolescents their times tables if you
don’t have some deep, abiding need within you to do so. Any normal person would
It might have been partly my fault, too. I’d just
received my latest rejection letter and may have been drowning my sorrows. I
may have sworn I was never writing another word, or at least not another word
with more than three syllables. Kid’s books, YA, fantasy… that’s where the
money was. J.K. Rowling, who was she? Where had she come from? Overnight
success like that shouldn’t
And yet it had.
And yes, all you
fans out there, I
know she spent years writing, years getting rejection after rejection. “There’s
no such thing as overnight success.” I’d heard it all before. Right then in
that moment, it didn’t console me one whit.
So maybe I was calling her to burn. Maybe I said
writing a kid’s book was easy. Maybe. And maybe Ryan leapt on that and told me,
from his own
, that I was bloody well wrong.
And maybe I don’t like being told I’m wrong.
So I did it. I bloody did it. Of course it wasn’t
as easy as I’d claimed in my drunken, offhand way. Every idea I’d had, there
were already a dozen books out there exactly the same. Can’t do fantasy
because, well, J.K. Can’t do dystopian because of
The Hunger Games
Can’t do theology because there’s the
. I might be
jumping on the YA bandwagon, but I was going to do it
I spent the first month simply reading, devouring
every tatty kid-friendly paperback in my local library. I outlined concepts and
themes, morals and messages that needed to be imparted into impressionable
young minds. Work hard, be loyal, be honest. The goodies always win and the
baddies always get what’s coming to them. I needed a pantomime villain, an
underdog hero, and a kick-ass girl. Slowly, the pieces started coming together
for what I hoped would be a groundbreaking sci-fi-based YA series.
The first draft was shit. And the second. The third
not much better. I kept at it. This damn book had cost me a good eight months
of my life, and still I worked on it. I made Ryan read it, because after all it
was his fault I even started the stupid thing. He liked it. The kids he taught
liked it, too.
I sent it to my agent, Max, and when
he liked it…. Well, I thought maybe I was onto something.
The rest is the stuff of daytime talk show history.
How my agent sent it out and got not one but three offers. How a couple of big
publishers started bidding for the book. The seven-figure contract I was
finally offered in exchange for a whole freaking series. Then Hollywood came
knocking and optioned the film rights.
Suddenly I was famous. Mister J.K. himself. Simple
Owen Barnes was transformed into Owen Black (it sounded better, apparently) and
within a year, my book was in every bookshop in town. Hell, even the supermarkets
You’d think they’d leave me alone after that, let
me get on with writing the second in the series, but no, I had to whore myself
out all over in an effort to promote the first. I ran the mill of daytime talk
shows, magazine interviews—even one with the
!—and various signings
and readings across the country.
I couldn’t be myself anymore. There’s nothing more
likely to kill the career of a budding YA author than for his young fans to see
a photo of him falling out of a pub drunk at three in the morning. Nothing more
likely to put the parents off buying my books for their little darlings than if
they thought I was doing something unsuitable. First they took my name, then
they took my identity.
Max went through my wardrobe himself. Gone were my
stylish T-shirts with risqué slogans, my drainpipe jeans, and leather
bracelets. I was dressed like a Young Conservative, all preppy shirts and
wholesome, toothsome innocence.
I was also strictly forbidden from being seen with
That was almost the limit. I considered it,
considered telling them to shove the whole deal up their uptight arses. Ryan
talked me out of it. Bastard. “It’s not like you’ve got a boyfriend,” he said,
perfectly reasonably. “You’re not hiding anything, you’re just not telling the
I’d growled and glowered and squirmed against it,
but ultimately I caved. Ryan was right, I
have a boyfriend. I wasn’t
hiding anyone, treating some poor lover like I was ashamed of him. But wasn’t
that worse? Wasn’t I acting like I was ashamed of
It was fucking laughable. Here I was, Owen bloody
Barnes—sorry, Black—a man who had been out since he was fourteen years old, and
they were asking me to go back into the closet? And why? That was the question
I kept asking:
? What did it matter if the kids or their parents knew
I was gay? Did they think I was going to influence them while they read my
strictly conventional adventure story? Do people still think being gay is
catching? Nobody would give me a satisfactory answer. All I knew was they were
convinced my being out would be detrimental to sales.
I can’t say it didn’t hurt, and I can’t pretend I’m
not still disgusted with myself for agreeing to it in the first place, but I
challenge you to turn down that kind of money over a matter of principle.
So I swallowed my pride and my self-respect, and I
continued to do the interviews and signing tours without mentioning my private
life at all. It was easier than you might think—I was a children’s author,
after all. Nobody wanted to know who I was dating.
Not that I was dating anyone anyway.
All that changed one rainy Tuesday in March. I was
at a critical stage in the second book, and the last thing I wanted was to take
a day off to do a reading of the first few chapters for a couple of hundred
kids at a venue in West London, but it had been set up months previous and
there was no getting out of it. I typed until the last minute, until my
building’s doorman called my apartment to announce the arrival of the driver
sent to ferry me to the theatre.
The place was packed. Although it was only a small
venue, I’d never spoken before an audience of that magnitude before, and it was
intimidating to say the least. It didn’t help that my audience was made up of
fidgety nine- to twelve-year-olds, and the back of the room was a bank of
cameras videoing the event for future publicity drives. I’d done a couple of
dummy runs on Ryan’s kids, which was a boon for his school, if nothing else. I
was fairly confident I could speak to my audience without being completely
patronising, and was relieved to see I wasn’t alone with them, adult chaperones
sitting every couple of seats between their tiny charges.
Peering out from behind the curtain hiding the
wings from view, I saw
. He was sitting in the middle of the first
row, his attention fixed on settling a little blonde girl of maybe ten beside
him. The kids had been invited to the reading from a number of different
events—some a writing competition, some linked to a TV show, some from the
local schools. She could have been from any of them and any relation to him:
daughter, niece, student. I hoped not the former.
was about my age, sitting amongst
children so I couldn’t accurately gauge his height, a vision of brown hair cut
short about his ears but slightly longer on top; dark eyes, although I couldn’t
tell the colour, narrowed slightly in concentration as he bent to listen to
what his young companion was saying. A straight nose, square jaw shadowed by
two-day stubble, lips that held the softest curve of sensuality about them. Curly
hairs peeked from the V-neck of his thin sweater, stretched tight by broad
shoulders and perhaps—I stood on tiptoe in an effort to see beyond the
stage—the first hint of a belly not-quite flat.
My publicist, Katy, took to the stage and announced
me, lights at the back began blinking as the cameras rolled, and I stepped out
to the sort of thunderous applause only a group of kids can produce, stamping
their feet as well as clapping their hands. Obediently they fell silent at my
ushering—much to my surprise—and I sat in the cosy armchair placed front and
centre, like I was some benevolent uncle about to read them all a bedtime
I made a point to catch
eye as I studied
the first row, those farther back lost to me as the auditorium lights dimmed.
He smiled and nodded, acknowledging my glance. I smiled back and urged my hands
to hold steady as I shuffled my papers and began reading.
I hadn’t had a boyfriend in forever. The last, a
car crash best not remembered. I’d been burnt, needless to say, burnt beyond
wanting to try again for the longest time.
I wouldn’t say I wasn’t looking for someone, it’s
just… looking required effort. It wasn’t so easy to do if you were holed up writing
or surrounded by people from your publishing house, none of whom wanted you to
be dating. I’d done the whole club thing when I was in uni, and as much as I’d
loved it at the time, I wasn’t that person anymore. I didn’t want to move
So I stayed single, and it wasn’t like I was moping
all over my apartment about it. Most days it simply didn’t feature; it wasn’t
significant. I mean, it wasn’t like I was desperate for a husband.
I made it through the reading without throwing up (or
a child throwing up), and took the hushed silence as I read as a good sign.
Bored children fidget, right? I was pretty sure I’d know the minute I lost
their attention. Then again, maybe my publicist had put the fear of God into
them before I arrived. Who knows? All I knew was it seemed to go well, and my
relief was palpable as the auditorium broke into another round of thunderous
Officially, I was supposed to do a meet ’n’ greet
after the reading. Unofficially, I intended to hare out of there as fast as I
could. I was on the penultimate chapter of the second book: I’d reached that
stage where the story didn’t so much call to me as shout and demand, insisting
I chain myself to my desk and simply
until it was done. If I
didn’t, I knew my thoughts would be consumed with nothing but what came next, revising
lines in my head until they were perfect, then being unable to recall them
later. There was nothing more frustrating, and I wanted nothing more than to
Well, maybe I wanted one thing more….
I was agreeing to the meet ’n’ greet before I’d
even thought about it, before I’d properly considered the hoards of fawning
children who would want me to sign autographs on scraps of school paper, who
would ask dumb, stupid questions because they were only children and they
lacked the intellect to do otherwise. And the parents and teachers and
guardians and whoevers, I’d have to make polite conversation with them, too. Pretend
I was happy to meet their snot-nosed brats and listen to the heaping praise for
what was, after all, only a children’s book. It’s not like I’d won the Booker.
With a resigned sigh, I took my place and welcomed
the first group with a smile plastered on my face.
By the time
arrived, I’d hit the fatigue
threshold, and yet I was barely halfway through the event. Katy was hovering,
doing her best to herd the hoards into a quiet, organised line and hurry them
through as quickly as possible. Hello, scribble, goodbye. Next!
He approached, holding the girl’s hand. She was
smushed up against his thigh, clearly overcome with shyness now she was close
to the great and mighty author. It should have made me feel powerful, this
magical ability to silence audiences wherever I went, but it just made me feel
awkward. I didn’t have kids, didn’t know anyone who did. Didn’t even have a
younger sibling I could have learnt from. There was only Ryan in my small group
of friends who had any kind of paternal urges, and he channelled them through
his work rather than foisting them upon the rest of us. I felt as shy and
stupid as the girl being nudged towards me.