Ready for the first glimpse of London? Here’s the first chapter…

Ready for the first glimpse of London? Here’s the first chapter…

London

Chapter One

She knew who it was before she’d even finished rocketing her name across the men’s department of Selfridges.

“Jacqui Bailey…Is that you?”

Jaq had a feeling when she’d tipped her triple espresso into her lap this morning that something bad was going to happen, and so far, that spill had been the best part of the day. She’d just ducked into Selfridges on her lunch break to buy another pair of pants, and of course, at that exact moment, Victoria Barton was searching through the silk ties.

“I can’t believe it. I haven’t seen you since graduation!” She paused, giving Jaq a full sweep with her eyes. “Still shopping in the men’s section, I see.”

“Good morning, Victoria,” Jaq said, leaning into her trademark double air kiss. “Lovely to see you.”

“What are you doing back in London?” she said, looking Jaq up and down. “I thought you went back to Oklahoma or Kansas or something.”

“Texas. Austin, Texas.”

“Still looking as dashing as ever,” she said, standing an inch too close and dropping her voice to a whisper. “Now why is it that we never got together in school?”

“I can’t remember,” Jaq said with a slow smile, “But it was obviously my loss.”

“Well,” she said, flicking her hair over her shoulder, “You’ve lost your chance now; I’m getting married on Saturday.” She stopped, then cranked the volume up several notches. “Wait, Jacqui, you simply must be there!”

She handed Jaq her purse to hold and dug around in the pockets of her coat for her cell phone.

“Okay,” she said, leaving her holding the large, very pink bag. “Now, where can I send the invitation? I’ll have it couriered, so it arrives this very afternoon.”

“You can send it to my office. I’m in the Curtis Green Building, Victoria Embankment. The courier can just leave it at the front desk; they’ll get it to me.”

Victoria typed at lightning speed and dropped her phone back into her bag, finally taking it from Jaq and pushing it back onto her shoulder.

“Now, promise me you’ll come?” She pulled Jaq into an air kiss goodbye and squeezed her shoulder. “Now that I know you’re back in London, it simply wouldn’t be the same if you weren’t there.”

Her heels clicked a steady rhythm down the tile floor, then stopped. Jaq turned back around.

“You know Bronwyn Charles is coming, of course.” She paused long enough to get the reaction she was hoping for, then turned the corner and clicked out of sight.

Later that afternoon, Jaq leaned back in her chair and looked at the invitation that had just landed on her desk like the explosive device it was.

Bronwyn Charles.

Even at twenty-nine, she still had nightmares about that night. Waking up to the key turning in the lock of their dorm room, blinding flashlights shining in their eyes, Bronwyn’s mother shouting, and then feeling Bronwyn’s warm body ripped from her arms.

Jaq shook her head and picked up the invitation.

Great, she muttered, it’s in Northumberland.

Northumberland was nearly seven hours away, closer to Scotland than Jaq was to the sandwich cart downstairs. The location effectively turned the hour-long wedding she’d agreed to into a weekend-long affair. Wait, scratch that, it was a bank holiday weekend, so possibly even longer. Fabulous.

***

“You’re not wearing that, Bronwyn. You’ll embarrass your father.”

Elizabeth Charles, Bronwyn’s mother, was standing in the mahogany and mirror-lined dressing area reserved for Selfridges’ clients working with personal shoppers. She sank into the ivory velvet chaise along the wall and pointed at the mirror.

“You look like a poof, darling, it’s shameful.” She fanned her face with a brochure from the side table and looked at her daughter with a raised eyebrow. “Although maybe that’s what you’re going for. I wouldn’t know.”

“Seriously, Mother,” Bronwyn said, whipping her head around to look directly at her. “I don’t remotely resemble a gay man, although I might look better if I did.” Bronwyn paused to lower her voice and take a deep breath. “And you cannot refer to anyone as a ‘poof.’ I’ve told you that a thousand times.”

Bronwyn looked in the mirror again at the dove gray and charcoal suit. The shape was masculine, but it was a Stella McCartney design and cut for a woman. But it wasn’t quite right. It needed something more than just the black stilettos she planned to wear with it.

Her personal shopper, Andrew, swept back into the dressing area just then and stood behind Bronwyn, looking with her into the three-way mirror.

“It’s not doing you justice, is it?”

“Quite right,” Bronwyn said in her soft West London accent, still staring with him into the mirror. “But I can’t work out what it is.”

Andrew stepped to the side of the mirror and looked again. “It’s the shirt.”

“Well, thank God,” her mum said, rolling her eyes as if to ask for strength from the patron saint of homophobic mothers. “Finally someone has the good sense to put you in a decent silk blouse.”

“Actually,” Andrew said with a wink at Bronwyn in the mirror, “Lose the shirt completely and put the stilettos on. Let’s pin the legs all the way down to pull in the fit and see what that does.”

Bronwyn took the blouse off in the dressing room and slid the jacket back over her bare shoulders.

“Andrew?” She said from behind the door. “Bra or no bra?”

“No bra, darling. This is no time to ruin the line of that gorgeous suit with unnecessary layers.”

“Bronwyn, this is your mother.” Elizabeth spat out the words at a startlingly high volume, as if Bronwyn was suddenly hearing impaired and may have forgotten who was on the other side of the door. “You are wearing a decent blouse to that wedding. And I’ve had enough of this nonsense. I’ll be at the bar on the fourth floor; have someone fetch me when you’re finished.”

Bronwyn waited until she heard the door shut behind her to step out of the dressing room and step onto the platform in front of the mirrors. The stilettos changed the entire look, giving her legs a clean, long line, and the jacket now came together in a deep V shape that showed the perfect amount of skin.

“Wow,” she said, turning slightly to either side in the mirror, “You’re a genius. This is perfect.”

Andrew folded and pinned the extra fabric all the way down her legs to the hem, then nipped in two inches off the waist. Bronwyn tilted her head in the mirror and looked at herself from the side.

“You don’t think that smaller waist is going to make it look too girly?”

“Not at all,” Andrew said with pins in his mouth, motioning for her to turn her back around. “You’ve always had that sexy androgynous thing going for you. We’re just playing up those angles and giving it a little edge.”

Bronwyn turned and kissed Andrew on the cheek. She’d been lucky enough to meet him a few years prior and hadn’t shopped without him since. Her mother was always pushing her to wear more feminine clothes, which she did for the most part, but occasionally, she wore something she liked, and this was one of those times. Andrew was always telling her she needed to forget everyone else and wear what she loved. Perhaps he was right.

“Thanks, love,” she said, starting to unbutton the jacket. “I may actually survive this wedding thanks to you.”

Andrew laughed and added one more pin to her hem of her trousers. “Well, maybe me and a large vodka tonic. Stay far away from your mum and tell me all about the sexy butches at the reception next time I see you.”

“Not that there’s ever any of those,” she said, smiling, “But if there are, you’ll be the first one to know it.”

Bronwyn stepped back into the dressing room and handed her suit out to Andrew for tailoring, then sat down on the overstuffed bench next to the mirror, twisting the diamond band on her finger. Something about this wedding had her unsettled, which was not a good sign when her own was only three months away.

***

Jaq shoved her bag onto the luggage rails and settled into the only empty double seat on the train to Northumberland, hopeful that no one would need the seat next to her. She wasn’t in the mood to make small talk, not that she ever had been. Even as a kid, she stayed in her room with the door shut as much as possible. Her mother waitressed at a truck stop down the highway most nights, and by the time Jaq left for school in the morning, she was usually already asleep on the couch, the trailer door still ajar, and her purse limp on the floor beside her.

Jaq always looked around for her as she left for school because if her mom was in her room with the door closed, that meant she had company. And that meant they’d probably still be there when she got home in the afternoon. The trailer always smelled different when there was someone else there. Cigarette smoke, sweat, and forgotten ash crowded every breath of air when she opened the door. After a few years, she’d learned just to crawl through her window at the back of the trailer if her mom had someone over. She still had a scar on the heel of her hand from where she’d sliced it on the sharp aluminum windowsill when she was ten.

Everything changed the summer she turned fourteen. Her school had started summer classes for kids who needed extra help, and since Jaq didn’t have anywhere to be, she asked one of the teachers, Miss Stowe, if she could sit in with math class she was teaching. Technically, there was supposed to be a charge for the summer classes, but Jaq didn’t mention it, and Miss Stowe didn’t either.

The first day was slow, but it was better than being at home. Miss Stowe wrote a single problem on the chalkboard and everyone was supposed to solve it. Numbers were the only thing Jaq had ever understood, so she solved it right away, then broke it down into other, more complex combinations. She painted them into equations to match the ones in her head, like an artist left alone in a room with a blank canvas. By the end of the class, the new spiral notebook Miss Monroe had let her borrow that morning was more than half filled, the pages crumpled and stiff with the density of the penciled equations.

As the class ended and everyone shuffled out, Jaq realized she’d used way more paper than Miss Stowe had probably wanted to lend her. Everyone else had only used two or three pages at the most, and Jaq had used up half of a new spiral notebook. The only option she had at this point was to give it back to Miss Stowe and offer to bring her a new one, although that wasn’t an option at all, really. School supplies weren’t high on her mom’s priority list.

She handed it back to Miss Stowe after everyone else left the room.

“Sorry about your notebook,” Jaq said, not quite meeting her eyes. “I’ll bring paper next time.”

She took it and flipped through the pages slowly, which made Jaq nervous and she glanced at the door, but she knew it would be rude to leave before Miss Stowe said something. She stood there while Miss Stowe flipped through several more pages, then started to thumb through the rest, the paper creating a breeze that moved a delicate lock of blonde hair across her forehead.

“Do you have any other books with you?” Miss Stowe said, looking behind Jaq at the surface of her desk. It was empty; she’d only brought a pencil, and that was in her pocket. “Or a cell phone?”

Jaq shook her head. “I don’t have a cell phone.”

The industrial clock on the wall ticked off the seconds through an invisible megaphone.

Miss Stowe looked up and locked eyes with Jaq. “How do you know how to do all this?”

Jaq dropped her eyes; she’d asked the question but didn’t seem like she expected an answer, so Jaq didn’t give her one. She started to walk towards the door but the teacher stopped her, closing the notebook and looking at Jaq again for a few seconds before she spoke.

“Jacqueline, can you come to class early tomorrow? About a half hour?”

She just said yes and closed the door behind her. The walk back to the trailer would take more than an hour and it was time to get home.

***

“Mum, I know you hate to drive with Daddy,” Bronwyn said, trying to finish her packing both quickly and silently since she’d just told her mother she’d already driven halfway up the northern countryside on the way to the wedding. “But just make sure he doesn’t have any sandwiches with him and you’ll be fine.”

Bertrand Charles loved to enjoy a sandwich or three on a long drive, almost always dropping pickles and assorted relishes in his lap, mostly because it annoyed his ex-wife. He’d offered to give Mum a ride to Northumberland and she’d accepted against her better judgment.

“No.” Bronwyn sighed. “I cannot turn around and come get you. It’s a seven-hour drive and we’d be driving all night.”

Bronwyn carefully hung the suit she’d wear to the wedding the next day in a garment bag and draped it over her arm, lugging the suitcase as quietly as possible down the stairs and into her front hall.

“I do have to go now Mum; traffic is dreadful. I’ll see you at the wedding tomorrow.”

Bronwyn clicked her phone off before her mother could protest and picked up her purse from the hall table, pulling the door shut behind her. She tossed everything into her blue Citroen and paused to look in the rearview mirror before she backed out. Truth be told, she looked a mess, but thankfully she wouldn’t see anyone tonight anyway; it would be half seven before she even arrived. A glance into the rearview mirror reminded her she’d need to go straight to her room and avoid the hotel bar completely, where everyone she knew from school would be holding martinis aloft and shredding each other into ribbons with the gossip they hid under their breath. Her dark hair was defiantly shedding its ponytail, and because of the rush, her pale skin was flushed a ridiculous pink. She’d stopped wearing much makeup after high school, but still wore a soft, imperfect smudge of dark gray liner and inky mascara that brought out her light green eyes. Jaq had told her once, as they were lying in bed, that they were the color the forest floor shot through with sunlight.

Bronwyn shook her head as if to clear the image of Jaq from her mind. There was no use thinking about that now; she needed to get on with things. She should be missing Ian, her fiancé, not wasting her time pining for the girl that had forgotten her years before. After the night her mother burst into their dorm room in the middle of the night and pulled her out of Jaq’s arms, she’d insisted that Bronwyn pack her things and taken her out of Stratford Academy the next day. They’d just wedged the last of her bags into her mother’s car when she saw Jaq striding across the parking lot toward her. Jaq eyes were intense, locked onto hers, and as she got closer, Bronwyn felt the rest of the world cracking and falling away, leaving just her and the girl she loved. When she reached the car, Jaq slid her hand strong around the back of Bronwyn’s neck and pulled her into a kiss that lasted until her mother’s threats reached an alarming pitch. Jaq’s hands were warm against her cheeks as she pressed her forehead to Bronwyn’s and took a breath. Then she was gone.

Bronwyn completed the last half of the term at home and Jaq had graduated by the time she returned to Stratford. Her heart still ached when she remembered the endless nights she’d spent pouring her heart out into the letters she’d sent every day until the term ended. She’d waited every afternoon for the post to come through the door until the last few weeks when she knew in her heart nothing would be there and it was just too painful to be right.

Just as the London skyline disappeared behind her, her mobile rang. She tossed it into the passenger’s seat and let it go to voicemail. Ian refused to come to the wedding, so why couldn’t he just let her get on with it? He’d started to get possessive the instant he’d slid the diamond on her finger; suddenly, she’d become one of his investments and he was aggressively protecting his interests. His behavior aside, the truth was, she was avoiding his calls because she knew he was going to ask about the wedding dress fitting she’d canceled at the last minute this morning. She didn’t know why she’d done it. But she knew she didn’t want to talk about it.

Their relationship wasn’t bad; in fact, it was quite good in all the ways one could see from the outside. He was in banking, corporate investments, and had a bright future with one of the top London firms. He was tall, with beautiful blue eyes and great hair. And perhaps more importantly, all of her friends were already married at this point, most having children, yet she was somehow an old maid at twenty-eight. Well, perhaps that was a bit harsh. Her mother could have meant something else entirely when she reminded her twice last week that her chances of actually keeping anyone interested were decreasing by the day.

Bronwyn shook the thought out of her head, rattled around in the glove compartment until she found a protein bar, and ripped it open with her teeth. Ian was perfect on paper. But she couldn’t shake the dread constantly in the center of her chest. The instant she opened her eyes in the morning it settled over her, smothering her, stealing her breath. It must just be the wedding. She was running out of time to figure it out and needed this weekend away to get her head around it; his constant presence was doing her head in. She’d never been head over heels in love with him, but this sense of unshakeable dread didn’t make sense, even to Bronwyn. Things had happened, but everyone had their faults. He had a temper, but they’d been together for three years, he was perfect husband material, and the sex wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t anything she thought about the next day or even remembered the day after that, but that’s just real life, isn’t it? Sex in a long-term relationship isn’t fireworks. It just isn’t.

Bronwyn rolled down her window to clear her head with the fresh, late September air; she’d always loved the drive into the northern countryside. The green rolling hills looked like velvet against the bright blue sky, and a smattering of trees in fiery shades of orange and scarlet unfurled like a ribbon between them. As she rolled up her window, she amused herself with the thought of how horrified her mother would be if she knew Bronwyn had just unhooked her bra, pulled it out through the sleeve of her shirt, and tossed it in the back seat.

***

Jaq slipped out of the trailer before dawn the next morning and walked toward the highway. She’d found a stack of old papers at the back of the TV console the night before and spent an hour sifting through them, looking for the ones with the printing on just one side. She’d stapled them together to make a notebook for class so that she didn’t have to borrow one from Miss Stowe. It actually looked pretty decent in the end, or at least decent enough, which was the same thing.

She walked along the side of the highway with a hoodie pulled up to cover her face and a coat over that. She took long, aggressive steps and kept her eyes in front of her. She’d learned a long time ago that if you looked like a girl, the wrong people would pull their cars over to the side of the road.

The morning was bright yellow by the time she got to the school, so she let herself in and walked down the wide, shiny hall to Miss Stowe’s classroom. The door scraped the floor as she opened it and she froze in the doorway, the door falling heavy against her back. There were three people in the room. One was Miss Stowe; the other two she’d never seen, but they dressed as if they were important.

“Jacqueline,” Miss Stowe said, smiling and waving her over to one of the groups of student desks where they were all sitting. “This is Dr. Benson and Dr. Carver. They both teach at universities here in Austin and I’ve asked them here find out a little more about what you’re doing with your numbers.”

Jaq nodded and slipped into one of the student desks. The man got up and started writing on the board.

“I’m going to put a problem here on the chalkboard, Jacqueline, and then you can try and solve it.” He smiled at her over his shoulder and the strangeness of all this began to settle in her stomach. “If you can’t solve it, no big deal, just tackle the parts of it that you recognize.”

He put the chalk down and sat back down in one of the student desks. Jaq walked up to the board and studied it for a few seconds, then erased the problem and started to rewrite it in the far upper left corner of the chalkboard.

“If that one was too much to start with,” she heard the man’s voice behind her, “I can give you a different one.”

There wasn’t anything to say, so she didn’t. He’d just taken up too much room on the board. She started writing, and solving, and shattering the equation like cold glass before she pieced it back together into something different. She manipulated the numbers until they became what she wanted then spun them quickly into an unexpected direction, following them around the perimeter of the board. It took her less than five minutes to fill the almost every inch of the available space. Suddenly she was aware again that there were other people in the room and finished quickly in the tiny blank borders she’d left around the edges of the chalkboard. Jaq turned around when she ran out of room, unsure whether to sit or stay standing. She put the chalk down and dug her fingernails into the palm of her other hand, waiting. The adults were all looking at each other but no one was talking. Finally, someone cleared their throat and spoke.

The next few months were a blur. Jaq was given a full scholarship to a prestigious secondary school in England, the Stratford Academy in London, which turned out to be Dr. Benson’s alma mater. The second she stepped off the plane into Gatwick airport, her life changed in an instant. She had most of the same classes as the other students, but started to work with math professors at the university level and beyond just days after she arrived. In three months, she’d completed university physics and maintained both her regular classes and an increasing number of Oxford University courses over the rest of the year. For the first few months, she woke up desperate every day to soak it all in before someone snatched it away. Then slowly, as months turned into years, she started to relax. Until life exploded again into a million shimmering pieces the day she met the girl with eyes like the forest.

5 Replies to “Ready for the first glimpse of London? Here’s the first chapter…”

  1. I just finished this shining novel full of slow burn romance, steamy comings-together, and family interference. Love you, and love this book.

  2. Hi there, I do believe your site might be having internet browser
    compatibility problems. When I look at your website in Safari, it looks fine however, if opening in IE, it has some overlapping issues.
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    Apart from that, wonderful blog!

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