Read an Excerpt
The cursor still blinked at her from the same blank page. Although Stella rather fancied that it had given up blinking and had moved on to mocking. There were no words. No story.
No characters spoke in her head. No plot played like a movie reel. No shards of glittering dialogue burnt brightly on her inward eye desperate for release.
There was just the same old silence.
And now grief to boot.
And Diana would be arriving soon.
As if she'd willed it, a knock on the door heralded Stella's closest friend. Normally she'd have leapt from her seat to welcome Diana but not today. In fact, for a moment, she seriously considered not opening the door at all.
Today, Diana was not here as her friend.
Today, Diana was here as a representative from the publisher.
And she'd promised her chapter one 'I know you're in there. Don't make me break this sucker down.'
The voice was muffled but determined and Stella resigned herself to her fate as she crossed from her work area in the window alcove, with its spectacular one-eighty-degree views of rugged Cornish coastline, to the front door. She drew in a steadying breath as she unlatched it and pulled it open.
Diana opened her arms. 'Babe,' she muttered as she swept Stella into a rib-cracking hug. 'How are you doing? I've been so worried about you.'
Stella settled into the sweet sisterhood of the embrace, suddenly so glad to see her friend she could feel tears prick at the backs of her eyes. They'd only known each other a handful of years since meeting at uni, but Diana had called most nights since the funeral and this was her tenth visit.
'Pretty rubbish,' she admitted into Diana's shoulder.
'Of course you are,' Diana soothed, rubbing her friend's back. 'Your dad diedit comes with the territory.'
Diana's parents had passed away not long before they'd become friends so Stella knew that Diana had intimate acquaintance with grief.
'I want to stop feeling like this.'
Diana hugged her harder. 'You will. Eventually you will. In the meantime you need to do what you need to do. And I think that starts with a nice glass of red.'
Diana held up a bottle of shiraz she'd bought at an off-licence in Penzance on her way to the windswept, cliff-top cottage her friend had taken out a long-term lease on after her strait-laced fiance, Dreary Dale, hadn't been able to handle the success of Pleasure Hunt and had scuttled away with a stick jammed up his butt.
Sure, Stella had insisted her reasons had more to do with the historic coastline's rich pirate history stimulating her muse but, given that no book was forthcoming, Diana wasn't buying it.
Stella looked at her watch and laughed for the first time today. It was two in the afternoon. 'It's a bit early, isn't it?'
Diana tutted her disapproval. 'The sun's up over the yard-armisn't that what you nautical types say? Besides, it's Novemberit's practically night time.'
Diana didn't wait for an answer, dragging her pullalong case inside the house and kicking the door shut with her four-inch-booted heel. She shrugged out of her calf-length, figure-hugging leather coat and unwound her Louis Vuitton scarf from her neckall without letting go of the bottle. She wore charcoal trousers and a soft pink cashmere sweater, which matched the thick brunette curls that fell against its pearles-cent perfection.
Diana was very London.
Stella looked down at her own attire and felt like a total slob. Grey sweats, coffee-stained hoodie and fluffy slippers. A haphazard ponytail that she'd scraped together this morning hung limply from her head in an even bigger state of disarray.
Stella was very reclusive writer.
Which would be much more romantic if she'd actually bloody written anything in the last eighteen months.
'Sit,' Diana ordered, tinkling her fingers at her friend as she headed towards the cupboard where she knew, from many a drinking session, the wine glasses were housed.
Stella sat on her red leather sofa if, for nothing else, to feel less diminutive. Diana was almost six feet and big boned in a sexy Amazonian, Wonder Woman kind of way. She, on the other hand, was just a couple of centimetres over five feet, fair and round.
'Here,' Diana said, thrusting a huge glass of red at her and clinking the rims together before claiming the bucket chair opposite. 'To feeling better,' she said, then took a decent swig.
'I'll drink to that,' Stella agreed, taking a more measured sip. She stared into the depths of her wine, finding it easier than looking at her friend.
'You don't have the chapter, do you?' Diana asked after the silence had stretched long enough.
Stella looked at Diana over the rim of her glass. 'No,' she murmured. 'I'm sorry.'
Diana nodded. 'It's okay.'
Stella shook her head and uttered what had been on her mind since the writer's block had descended all those months ago. 'What if I only ever have one book in me?'
The fear had gnawed away at her since finishing the first book. Dale's desertion had added to it. Her father's death had cemented it.
Vasco Ramirez had demanded to be written. He'd strutted straight out of her head onto the page in all his swashbuckling glory. He had been a joy, his story a gift that had flowed effortlessly.
Now they wanted another pirate and she had nothing. Diana held up a hand, waving the question away. 'You don't,' she said emphatically. 'But what if I do?'
Stella had never known the sting of rejection and the mere thought was paralysing. What if Joy, her editor, hated what she wrote? What if she laughed?
She'd had a dream ridefrom a six-figure auction with a multi-book contract to New York Times best-seller to a movie deal.
What if it had all been a fluke?
Diana stabbed her finger at the air in her general direction. 'You. Don't.'
Stella felt a surge of guilt mix with the shiraz in her veins, giving it an extra charge. Diana had championed her crazy foray into writing from the beginning, encouraging her to take a break from being an English teacher and write the damn book.
She'd been the first to read it. The first to know its potential, insisting that she take it to show her boss, who was looking for exactly what Stella had writtena meaty historical romance. As an editorial assistant in a London publishing house Diana had been adamant it was a blockbuster and Stella had been flabbergasted when Diana's prediction of a quick offer had come to pass.
She smiled at her friend, hoping it didn't come across as desperate on the outside as it felt on the inside. 'Will you get sacked if you return to London empty-handed?'
Almost a year past Stella's deadline, Joy had pulled out the big guns to get her recalcitrant star to deliver. She knew how close Diana and Stella were so she'd sent Diana to do whatever it took to get book number two.
Diana shook her head. 'No. We're not going to talk about this tonight. Tonight, we get messy drunk, tomorrow we talk about the book. Deal?'
Stella felt the knot in her shoulder muscles release like an elastic band and she smiled. 'Deal.'
Two hours later, a storm had drawn night in a little earlier than usual. Wind howled around the house, lashing at the shutters, not that the two women cosied up by the fire were aware. They were on their second bottle of wine and almost at the bottom of a large packet of crisps and were laughing hysterically about their uni days.
A sharp rap at the door caused them both to startle then burst out laughing at their comic-book reactions.
'Bloody hell.' Diana clutched her chest. 'I think I just had a heart attack.'
Stella laughed as she rose a little unsteadily. 'Impossible, red wine's supposed to be good for the heart.'
'Not in these quantities it's not,' Diana said and Stella cracked up again as she headed towards the door.
'Wait, where are you going?' Diana muttered as she also clambered to her feet.
Stella frowned. 'To open the door.'
'But what if it's a two-headed moor monster?' Even through her wine goggles Diana could see the rain lashing the window pane behind Stella's desk. 'It is the very definition of a dark and stormy night out there, babe.'
Stella hiccupped. 'Well, I don't think they knock but I'll politely tell it to shoo and point out that Bodmin is a little north of here.'
Diana cracked up and Stella was still chuckling as she opened the door.
To Vasco Ramirez. In the flesh.
Light from inside the cottage bathed the bronzed angles of his jaw and cheekbones, fell softly against his mouth and illuminated his blue eyes to tourist-brochure perfection. His shoulder-length hair, a relic from his tearaway teens, hung in damp strips around his face and water droplets clung to those incredible sable lashes.
He looked every inch the pirate.
'Rick?' Her breath stuttered to a halt as it always did when he was too close, sucking up all her oxygen. The recalcitrant memory of an almost-kiss over a decade ago flitted like a butterfly through her grey matter.
Rick smiled down at a frowning Stella. 'Now what sort of greeting is that?' he teased as he moved in for his standard double cheek kiss.
Coconut embraced him. Nathan had bought Stella coconut body products every year for her birthday and she'd faithfully worn them. Still was, apparently.
Stella shut her eyes and waited for the choirs of angels in her head to start singing hallelujah as the aroma of salt and sea enveloped her. He was, after all, so perfect he had to be heaven-sent.
She blinked as he pulled away. 'Is everything okay?' she asked.
Her heart beat a little faster in her chest. Which had nothing to do with the erotic scrape of his perpetual three-day growth or the brief brush of his lips, and everything to do with his last visit.
Rick didn't just drop by.
Last time he'd arrived unannounced on her doorstep looking bleaker than the North Sea in winter, the news had not been good.
Rick pressed his fingers against her mouth, hushing her. 'Linda's fine, Stel. Everything's fine.'
She almost sagged against him in relief. Certainly her mouth did. He smiled at her as he withdrew his hand and she smiled back, and with the wind whipping around them and flurries of raindrops speckling their skin it was as if they were kids again, standing on the bow of the Persephone as a storm chased them back into harbour.
'So not a monster from the moors, then?' Diana asked, interrupting their shared reverie.
Rick looked over Stella's shoulder straight into the eyes of a vaguely familiar, striking brunette. She looked at him with frank admiration and he grinned.
God, but he loved women.
Particularly women like this. The kind that liked to laugh and have a good time, enjoyed a flirt and some no-strings company.
'Honey, I can be whatever you want me to be,' he said, pushing off the door jamb, brushing past Stella and extending his hand. 'Hi. Rick. I think we've already met?'
Diana smiled as she shook his hand. 'Yes. When you were here for the funeral. Diana,' she supplied.
'Ah, yes, that's right,' Rick said, stalling a little. He'd been so caught up in his shock and disbelief and being strong for Stella and Linda that he'd not really taken anything in. 'You work for Stel's publishers?'
Diana grinned, her eyes twinkling, not remotely insulted that Rick had struggled to remember her. 'Took you a while.'
Stella watched her bestie and her whatever the hell Rick wasold family friend? deceased father's business partner? substitute brother?flirt effortlessly. Now why couldn't she be more like that? The only time she'd been comfortable, truly comfortable, with a man had been with a fictional pirate.
Even her relationship with Dale had been lukewarm by comparison.
A blast of rain spattered against her neck, bringing her out of her state of bewilderment, and she realised she still had the door wide open. She shook her head at her absent-mindedness.
'To what do we owe the pleasure?' she asked, shutting the weather out and joining the chatty twosome in the centre of the room.
Rick looked down at Stella's cute little button nose. 'Well' he winked at her before returning his attention to Diana and running his finger around the rim of her glass 'I heard a whisper there was a party going on.'
Diana laughed. She looked at Stella. 'You never told me he had ESP.' Then she scurried to the kitchen to get another glass.
Rick watched her for a moment before returning his gaze to Stella. She stared up at him and the familiar feeling of wanting to wrap her up swelled in his chest. 'How are you doing, Stel?' he murmured.
Rick had felt the loss of Nathan Mills probably even more profoundly than his own father. Nathan had been his guardian and mentor since Anthony Granville had got himself killed in a bar fight when Rick had been seven. The man had been the closest thing to a father he had, had curbed all his hotheaded brashness and he felt his loss in a hundred different ways every day.
He could only imagine how Stella must feel.
Stella shrugged, feeling again the mutual despair that had added an extra depth to their bond. She fell into the empathy that shone in his luminescent gaze. Sometimes it was hard to reconcile the impulsive, teenage bad-boy of her fantasies with the hardworking, responsible, compassionate man in front of her.
'I hate it,' she whispered.
The truth was Stella hadn't seen her father regularly since she'd started university and joined the workforce.
Become a grown-up, as her mother would say.
A flying visit at Christmas, the arrival in the mail of a single perfect shell he'd found on a beach somewhere that always made her smile, an occasional email with pictures of him and Rick and some amazing find at the bottom of a sea bed.
But just knowing he was out there doing what he loved, following his wild boyhood dreams of sunken galleons, had kept her whole world in balance.
And now he was gone, nothing was the same.
'I know,' he murmured, putting his arm around her shoulder and pulling her into his chest. 'I hate it too.'
And he did. He hated doing what he did without the one person who truly understood why by his side. He hated turning to tell Nathan something and him not being there. He hated the absence of wise words and Nathan's particular brand of bawdy humour around the dinner table.
Rick shut his eyes against the loss he still felt so acutely and sank into her, enjoying the familiarity of having her close. He liked how she tucked into him just right. How her head fitted perfectly under his chin and how his chest was just the right height to pillow her cheek and how she always smelled liked coconut.
As kids he'd been the pirate and she'd been the mermaid and they'd played endless games revolving around sunken treasure. Not very politically correct these days, he supposed, but they'd amused themselves for countless hours and forged a bond that he still felt today.
Of course there'd been times, during their teenage years, when their games had taken a certain risque turn and while they'd never indulged, they'd diced pretty close.
Holding her like this reminded him just how close.