Writing can be a lonely business in some ways. I mean, yes, you have your beloved characters to keep you company and engage in the sort of dazzlingly quick dialogue you (well, I, anyway) never quite manage in real life, but it’s not the same as talking to real people, is it? And even when I do get to talk to real people, at the school gates or whatever, it’s a little hard to engage them on the subjects of character conflict and plot, or RSI prevention, or worthwhile promo ops, or the baffling world of royalties statements.
Which is why it was so lovely to get away to Telford at the annual Romantic Novelists’ Association conference this weekend.
This year’s conference was expertly organised, brilliantly run, and just so, so much fun. It was hot and sticky, but nowhere near as bad as last year, the food was incredibly good, and the kitchen parties as epic as ever (even if I did change into my pyjamas for one of them. It had been a long day, and the holdy-in knickers were getting a little tight!)
It’s back to work for me today – but with a bounce rather than a bump. I left the conference feeling inspired, and eager to get on with my various writing projects. Starting today, with the release of the third and final book in The Love Trilogy – Summer of Love! Perfect for these sunshiny days we’ve been enjoying.
Watching Alex as he painstakingly arranged her rings and pendants to best catch the light, Lily found it hard to believe this was really the same boy who’d torn up the town in his youth. Or even the same man who’d taken the financial world by storm, making fortunes for others, and enough for himself by all accounts. The man Cora had described as having a different woman every night, and two on Saturdays, while he was living the high life in London.
Now, he looked… settled. Content. The restlessness she remembered from when he was a teenager had left him. Maybe he’d finally found his place in the world, unlikely though it seemed.
Lily wished she could say the same about herself.
But she was a grown up now. Maybe Alex could drop his old life and start a new one, but that wasn’t so easy for most people. He’d left behind colleagues and friends, sure, but he’d moved home to family. If she wanted to start over again… She had nowhere to go. She’d used up all her second chances by the age of nineteen.
She had to make this life work.
But… did she have to marry Edward to do that?
‘Can you hold this for me?’ Alex asked, not looking up, and Lily hurried to his side to assist, keen to leave her unpleasant thoughts behind. ‘Like this.’ He draped a chain over her fingers, leaving the pendant dangling down above the champagne glass full of rings. ‘Perfect.’
Stepping back, Alex lifted his camera and Lily blinked at the flash as he took several photos in rapid succession. Then he moved back again, lifted the camera slightly, and took a few more.
‘If I was in that last set, we’re burning the negatives,’ Lily said.
Alex smirked. ‘Digital camera, I’m afraid. But I’ll let you have a copy of the files.’
Like she’d want a reminder of how wretched she looked and felt on this day. Although, with Alex there, distracting her, the day had improved somewhat. Maybe the crush she’d had at school was ten years out of date, but being around Alex was relaxing. Fun, even. ‘Okay, what do you want to photograph next?’
Glancing around him, Alex settled on the cabinet of engagement and wedding rings on the other side of the room. Striding towards it, he said, ‘Let’s get some shots of the really good stuff, now. But I’m going to need you to model them for me.’
Lily hung back until Alex held his hand out for the key. She passed it to him, biting her lip. Modelling her engagement rings, the ones she hadn’t been allowed to make for her own hand… Was that weird? It felt weird. She swallowed. ‘There’s a variety of sizes there. They won’t all fit perfectly.’
‘But enough of them will fit well enough?’
She nodded. Her fingers were fairly average size, maybe slimmer than most. Some might hang a little loose, but he could hide that in the photos, she was sure.
He looked at her, eyes serious. What was he trying to prove here? His expression gave nothing away. He simply tipped his head in acknowledgement and said, ‘Okay then. Let’s get started.’
Alex sat her, not at her workbench, as she’d expected, but by the window, the May sun streaming through and warming her skin. Using the folding table he’d commandeered for the other shots, draped in a snowy white cloth to best reflect the light, he’d settled her into a comfortable enough position, where her hand could rest at the best angle. When he was happy, he said, ‘Right then. Inferior ring off. Let’s see which of yours suits you best.’
Lily looked at the ring she hadn’t chosen on her hand. This was stupid. She took it off all the time at home – to do the washing up or when she put on moisturiser. The diamond stuck out at just the right angle to catch her skin, or her tights, or get encrusted in soap. It really wasn’t a practical ring. It only made sense not to wear it all the time.
Resolved, she slipped it off her finger, placing it on the windowsill for safekeeping. Then she bent her head over the tray of rings and chose her favourite, next to the one she’d made for Cora. White gold, with a blue diamond, bezel set low on the band so its surface was almost level with the rest of the ring. Simple, practical, and stunning. She was proud of that ring. Even if she’d never wear it herself in reality, she wanted to show it off.
Holding it up for him to see, she said, ‘How about we start with this one?’
* * * *
The ring Lily picked was utterly her, Alex realized. Simple but captivating, and just a little bit unusual. Was that the sort of ring she would have designed for herself? If she’d been given the chance, that is. Without thinking, he plucked the ring from her grasp and said, ‘An excellent choice, milady. Shall we see how it fits?’
It wasn’t until he’d lifted her left hand and slipped the ring onto her fourth finger that he realized quite what it meant. His heart racing, he jerked his head up to meet her gaze as he pushed the ring home. Her eyes were wide and green, caught in the moment like him. A pink tongue darted out to wet her lips, and Alex clamped down on the urge, sudden and overwhelming, to lean forward and capture her mouth with his.
In the past, he’d have done it. He’d have taken the perfect romantic opportunity, and won her over. Seduced her with the right smile, the right words, the right look. But he wasn’t that person, now. And besides, he’d never have done it with a ring. He’d always known that marriage, commitment, settling down… that had to be saved until it was the right person, in the right place. And being back home might have put him in the right place, but Lily Thomas couldn’t be the right person. Not least because she was engaged to marry someone else.
But still, he couldn’t shake the thought that this was exactly how it should feel to propose marriage. Terrifying, heart racing, arousing and perfectly right.
Except he wasn’t proposing, was he? He was supposed to be taking photos.
Dropping her hand, Alex swallowed hard. ‘Right then,’ he said, busying himself with his camera so he couldn’t see if her eyes were still wide and wanting, or if her lips were still parted in that sweet, alluring way. ‘Let’s get started.’
‘Right. Yes. Okay.’ Was it his imagination, or did her voice sound husky? Maybe he wasn’t the only one affected by the moment. ‘How do you want me?’
Naked under me,Alex thought, the image vivid and desperate in his head. How had this happened? He’d seen her twice in the last decade. How had she got so completely under his skin in so little time?
‘Um, just rest your hand like… that, perfect. Great.’ With a deep breath, Alex lifted the camera and started to shoot, focusing on the light, the framing, the angle. They weren’t going to be his best-ever photos, he knew. Hopefully he could fix them later, once he had them on his computer.
For now, he just had to get through the tray of rings between them without succumbing to his desires.
He just had to remember that Lily was engaged to someone else. That those weren’t his rings on her finger. That he didn’t want Lily for his bride anyway. He was looking for the steady, supportive wife his father had wanted for him. Not the wild child best friend of his cousin.
Focus. That’s what he needed. ‘Right. Next ring.’
It took hours to get through all of them, but Alex couldn’t bring himself to stop. He wanted to see every single ring on her slim fingers. Wanted her to see how every one of them was a better match for her than the one Edward had picked.
As the afternoon light faded into evening, they reached the last ring, and he smiled at Lily as he reached in for it, not realizing she was doing the same thing. She sucked in a breath when their hands brushed against each other. Unfortunately, the sound was followed immediately by the clatter of the shop door opening…