This is how it began. My sister Anna, a brilliant and witty writer, suggested that we should try to write a romance novel according to the guidelines published by Mills & Boon. Not as easy as it sounds, apparently. She created a finely judged opening paragraph and sent it to me. And, intoxicated by the stylistic possibilities that are simply not offered by my usual literary output of press releases on Bedfordshire’s latest social housing project, I have taken up the gauntlet. The idea is that we will take it in turns to develop the story, in full view of you, dear reader.

We are taking this project seriously, but I am already acutely aware that writing about simmering desire with one’s own sister might be possible only with tongue tentatively in cheek. We have agreed not to discuss our plot ideas, so the novel will unfold as unpredictably to us as to our readers. This could lead to trouble later on, but for now it seems a very liberating way to start.

Who knows where this project will take us? To the dizzying heights of publication by the world’s leading romance brand? Probably not. But wherever we end up, it should be fun getting there…

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Part 43 – Men: who needs ’em?

Who needs a man? Well, every Mills & Boon heroine, naturally; and probably Mills & Boon readers too. But in the modern age it is not the Done Thing for a heroine to need a man. She can want one; she can adore one; hell, she can even buy one, what with escort agencies advertising in The Times these days. But she mustn’t need one.

So we are toughening Topaz up. For far too long Desire has been her Destiny. For the past 42 posts she has been Fate’s plaything. That won’t do. She must take control, be her own woman, live life on her own kick-ass terms, not Cleft’s musky ones.

Can you imagine Topaz doing that? Neither can I. But this is Modern Romance, and we need to up the modernity. So here Anna starts cutting Topaz free from the shackles of Desire to face a new dawn of independent self-fulfillment. Prepare to suspend disbelief.

Part 43 (by Anna)

For now there was a different priority, however. Her womanly contours were caressed once more in the silks and weaves to which they were accustomed. Her burned chafed skin was burnished by Eden’s expert fingers into a healthy apricot glow and there was a pleasing shimmer of silver from her new fibreglass nail extensions as she adjusted the Scheherazade gemstone necklace at her throat. But with her past sloughed off like her soil-stained rags and her future a pile of untamed breeze blocks on a mountain summit, she lacked one essential: a place to lay her newly coiffed head.

Topaz paused for a moment on the simmering pavement. She could see her reflection fragmented in the the lacquered quilting of her Marc Jacobs hand bag. It seemed an omen.

‘I must become whole again,’ she thought, and the resolve propelled her along the boulevard, through the milling crowds and across a square bleached white in the sun and clustered with shaded tables where expensively groomed couples sat sipping early cocktails. Topaz gazed upon them with momentary hunger, then swiftly looked away. Too long ago, it seemed, that she too was a careless, leisured creature browsing unpriced menus.

Plate glass flashed in the light on either side of a gilded marble portico on the other side of the piazza. Exclusive Estates wove in gold letters across the pediment. As Topaz crossed the threshold, shedding the heat like a mantel and subsiding, almost, into the tomb-like cool, a young man in an Armani suit rose from his desk in greeting. ‘Can I help you, Madam?’ Topaz eyed him levelly. Did he know what he was asking? Was this stranger equipped to point her along fate’s byways?

‘Yeah, I need, like, a crash pad to rent as soon as,’ she told him.

Minutes later she was enveloped in the black suede of a sofa, leafing through a sheaf of particulars. Apartments processed meaninglessly before her eyes. Vast apartments, intimate studios; apartments done out entirely in white, apartments balanced seemingly miraculously among the clouds with walls of glass and steel. Topaz stared tiredly, willing each one to spring to life; willing one of them to whisper ‘home’; willing the shadow of Cleft to be exorcised from the alien rooms she scrutinised.

‘I’ll look at this one,’ she said at last, plucking a sheet almost at random from the glossy pile. ‘Can I see it this afternoon? And can you get someone to book a room at the Guadalphin for as long as it takes?’

Involuntarily she fingered her sheaf of gilded credit cards in their snakeskin casing. ‘You’re my future,’ she whispered. ‘It’s just you and me now, and we’re going to take on the world.’

Friday, 27 January 2012

Around the World in 80 Words

A great idea from king of the bloggers, SAHDandproud: a description of your favourite/least favourite/fantasy place in 80 words. A challenge is a challenge, and I cannot resist. Anyway, what with my kitchen being replaced and the house being a dusty, noisy hell-pit, the Literary Muse is avoiding me at the moment. This is easier. So come wiz me to ze Casbah, as Charles Boyer once said.

Marrakech. Spice-scented air; night blossoms; shimmering pools reflected in ancient tiles of voluptuous hue. The bustle and swirl of the casbah; the click and whirr of crickets in parched gardens. Shifty men offering drugs in the streets. A starving goat bleating incessantly, only partly drowned out by the chainsaw screaming beneath the window. Stains dotting the dining room carpet. And the sudden skid of my shoe under the breakfast table as my foot hits a slippery pile of cat shit.

Why not go to SAHD’s linky thing and have a look at where everyone else has been? Eat your heart out, Lonely Planet.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Part 42 – In Which Topaz Regains Her Sparkle

I am entering decidedly female territory here. Not that romance fiction isn’t feminine terrain in itself, but at least the romantic urge is a universal phenomenon. Beauty treatments and designer clothes, on the other hand, are not; it should be Anna writing this bit.

But I think perhaps Desire Be My Destiny has too much grit and not enough glam, what with building sites, fly-blown hovels and broken limbs, and I don’t want to lose my girlier readers. Luckily, I am sufficiently metrosexual to know the difference between a jacuzzi and one of those tanks where fish eat your feet, so am risking an excursion into pink fluffydom for the benefit of those who like that sort of thing.

Part 42 (by Oliver)

The voice that answered, hissing slightly through the iphone, was so familiar, yet so strange; a voice from another life, Topaz thought, from when she was still a girl, not the woman that she had budded into, so swiftly, so thrillingly, over the past… could it really be just over a week?

‘Eden, it’s Topaz Eversleigh-Brinkworth.’

‘Topaz! So long time no see! Are you back in Marbella?’

‘Almost – Malaga at the mo. Can you fit me in tomorrow?’

‘Of course. What’s it to be – your usual Buff and Fluff Express?’

‘I’m, like, so in need of more than that!’ Topaz smiled ruefully to herself. Eden would not recognise her if she could see her now: nails ragged, hair unkempt, legs scratched and toes scuffed. ‘Can you give me the full works?’

‘You mean the Princess Pamper Package? Sure. Sounds like you’re out to impress someone!’

And, smiling again at the irony, Topaz clicked the iphone off.

Shortly after dawn, Topaz checked herself out of the hospital, invigoured by her new plans, her new start. Nervous now of cabs and their drivers, she hired a VW Golf on her father’s account with Malaga Executive Motor Solutions and drove the hour to Marbella in a zest of new-found freedom.

As the hot wind caressed her forehead, her lobes, her nape through the open window, part of her could not help swelling with the memory of other hot nudges in her secret places, other summer zephyrs that had played on her slim, taut body, albeit under skies of amethyst, not the lapis of today.

She pulled up outside the Garden of Eden heedless of parking restrictions and lurking wardens: there were some aspects of her old life that she was pleased to embrace once more. And there was Eden to greet her, to shepherd her swiftly into Marbella’s most ultra-chic spa and salon, away from the paparazzi who patrolled the streets outside with monotonous unpredictability. The marble floor felt cool under Topaz’s thin Manolo soles and the air conditioning sent chill fingers under the thin stuff of her Prada sheath, frayed now and rubbed rough on the hard-baked Spanish soil.

Facial first, then all-over deep muscle aromatherapy massage, hot pebble back re-alignment ritual and organic exfoliating body detox. Finally, Topaz’s favourite: Eden’s Blingertip manicure and pedicure special. Then, lightly fingering her platinum AmEx card, Topaz flipped the iphone to life once more and made a rapid few calls to her favourite Marbella boutiques. Eden, she knew, would let her view a selection from the Paris Spring collections in the private suite when the stores had sent her personal shoppers over with them.

Topaz leaned back in the cream leather recliner and pressed the frosted glass of chilled Pinot Grigio refreshingly to her breast. Before her, racks of Prada and Dior shimmered voluptuously; Juicy Couture and Dolce & Gabbana blinged lusciously against Eden’s calming taupe décor; Armani and Versace jostled for primacy in her fine-tuned vision. Deftly, Topaz drew together her new wardrobe: new not for the sake of novelty, as she had always shopped in the past; new for the new her, the new life that was, even now, opening like a bougainvillea blossom in the misty haze of a bright new dawn.

And she knew she had come home, to herself and to her vocation. Picking out the must-have designs, assembling ensembles that spiced decorum with daring was what she did best. Just a small step sideways to assembling rooms, interiors, homes in the same way. And where better to start than in Paradise Heights? Why should she not build the villa herself as a showcase for her own taste and flair, a calling-card for a new career creating the ultimate in opulent homes for the international jet set?

Topaz let her mind wander through the white rooms of Brinkworth Place, and she realised that her loving thoughts were not for the parents who lived there but for the exquisite furnishings that, for her, made the house a home: the life-size porcelain cheetahs that flanked the chrome fireplace in the den; the smoked-glass dining table supported by three gilded dolphins; the bronze Venus de Milo studded all over with 100,000 Swarovski crystals. With such a heritage, Topaz’s calling suddenly seemed pre-ordained. And for the first time in days, certainty surged through her.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Part 41 – In for a Penny...

I feel I should pay some kind of tribute to Penny Jordan. No, me neither, but apparently she was Mills & Boon’s most prolific author, and I’ve been reading her obituary.

It raises two points which are relevant to the work in hand. First, and I quote from the obit here, ‘Penny Jordan admitted… that she found it difficult to write the sex scenes (Mills & Boon couples usually do it at least twice per book), observing that it is difficult to find new ways of writing about male and female genitalia without sounding silly. In any case, the sex was not the most important aspect: “The appeal of romance is love,” she declared. “And that’s universal.”’

My point exactly. If she couldn’t do Doing It, how am I supposed to? And TWICE? I know M&B is supposed to be escapist, but that’s pushing plausibility, surely? Anyway, Penny’s reticence has vindicated my own coyness.

Second, reading samples of Penny’s prose makes me think that, spoof though it may be, Desire Be My Destiny is actually pretty spot-on, stylistically. Take this typical passage, for instance:

‘She risked a second nervous look at the strong, almost cruel lines of his face, the nose that spoke of a lineage that went back to the days when Wales was the birthplace of men born to lead others; the tight aristocratic line of his jaw; and most of all, that almost shockingly sexual, rich, thick hair that for some reason had her fingers curling into protestingly protective small fists as she fought against their instinctive urge to reach out and touch it.’

Maybe I have a future with Mills & Boon after all. Just as long as they don’t expect me to read any more of their books.

And now, on with the show…

Part 41 (by Anna)

Later, much later, when the sun, a swollen red orb, had slithered behind the brown rim of mountains, when Topaz’s charcoal lashes had dampened with memories, when the wall-eyed nurse had checked the bedside monitor and crept from the room, Topaz’s weary fingers found the square of paper. The words on the envelope, penned in an unfamiliar hand blurred and danced before her. Unfamiliar, and yet only one hand could have scrawled those powerful thrusts and curves.

A manicured forefinger twitched at the seal, then stilled. Fragments of remembrance, jagged, tortured, seared through her mind. Her head burned on the white pillow and the envelope slipped to the floor. She knew what must lie within it, could feel the heat of the unread words, but she knew that if she were to be true to herself, to become the woman she must be, she must wean her heart of its intoxication.

As she lay there in the gathering dimness, the sound of other peoples’ busy-ness clattering down the corridor, faint forms shaped themselves in her mind. The past tethered her. She must throw off its bonds. She had shown herself that she could live without her parents’ wealth. Now she must prove that she could live without Cleft.

And Terence? She had promised she would compensate him for his sacrifice. She would keep that promise, but her flesh would not be the currency. As for the future, she would forge her own destiny. Half smiling as she made her vow, she reached for her iphone and began to tap in a number.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Part 40 – Reality Check, or Why Mills & Boon Have Unrealistic Expectations

Writing Desire Be My Destiny is heaps of fun, and I hope reading it is too. But I have my doubts about whether it will find a huge following among the genuine Romance afficionados out there. Not because it isn’t brilliantly written, witty and emotionally acute, of course, but because I have just read on the Mills & Boon ‘tips for aspiring authors’ these chilling words:

‘First, we expect you to enjoy reading romance fiction. If you are already a fan, your appreciation for this type of book will be apparent in the writing. If you have not done so already, we encourage you to read many, many books from each series.’

Many, many books? I simply can’t. I have read half a book – two chapters of one about a magic wedding dress, which was such drivel I felt my brain dribbling out of one ear as I read it; and about four chapters of The Greek Billionaire’s Lovechild’s Mother’s Revenge (or something), which, although well written and plotted, didn’t exactly strike an intellectual chord. Or any other kind of chord, come to think of it: I certainly didn’t clench any pages.

That’s not to say I’m not susceptible to the thrill of romance – one of my favourite films is Random Harvest, for crying out loud. But maybe I should have known that, being English, middle-class and male – not to mention having my own sister as a co-author – I faced an uphill struggle. Still, I’d rather have a laugh than clench a page. As long as you’re laughing with me…

Part 40 (by Oliver)

Topaz had moved away from where Terence sat in the dust. She stood facing the sea, rippling far below Paradise Heights like a great swathe of indigo silk, lace-edged with the tiny waves splintering silently on the beaches that swept out of sight towards Marbella. A view that she had dreamed of seeing from the windows of her marital home – until last week. A Mediterranean idyll that had promised a secure, luxurious future – until last week. All of this was what could have been. No more.

And the alternative? She had seen her true destiny marked for her in the sinewy arms of Cleft; a future of new promise and thrilling uncertainty, save for the knowledge that she had found that all-consuming love that she had never imagined would be hers. No more. And with a small sob, Topaz caught the full pout of her lower lip between her perfect white teeth and allowed a tear to moisten the corner of one eye.

A groan behind her, and Topaz turned, remembering Terence. He had slumped now, the anaesthetising effect of laughter, surprise and relief having evaporated in the merciless sun. His leg rigid against its makeshift splint, he had fainted again. Suddenly Topaz was confronted with the full force of the situation. Terence seriously injured. No food or water in the blazing Spanish heat. The i-phone out of range of a signal. And Cleft gone, and with him all her dreams of happiness and trust and love.

Never had Topaz felt so helpless, so alone. With a low moan, she leaned against the gnarled trunk of an ancient olive tree – the tree around which she had planned the central glass atrium of the villa which destiny was drawing inexorably away from her grasp.

In the shimmering heat she seemed to see a jumble of jagged images: Brinkworth Place, a swirl of gilt and crystal, tinted glass, white leather and mirrored walls; the dampness of the summer house and the musky trophy hidden within; her mother’s magenta gash of a mouth snapping ‘You will not leave this place until you are wed’; the darkness and fear of her flea-bitten mountain prison; Duncan Dunkley looming unexpectedly out of the Spanish sun; Terence, lessened by pain and betrayal yet so much more a man; and, through it all, Cleft, striding confidently into her destiny – and out of it, his broad back diminishing down the mountainside. And she ebbed into blessed unconsciousness.

So Topaz did not hear the firm footfall drawing closer to the the plateau of Paradise Heights; did not see the manly form mount the ridge, the sun’s rays fanning behind it like the alcove of a Baroque shrine; did not feel the hard yet tender hands lift her effortlessly, caressingly, from the stones beneath the twisted olive. She was oblivious to the cool, soft interior of the ambulance that waited on the track below, and to the efficient hands that immediately attended to Terence’s injured legs and swabbed her dust-caked flesh.

Perhaps there was some part of her inner being that thrust longingly upwards at the feel of the soft kisses planted on her yielding mouth, on the hot eyelids that were shut at last to the trauma of recent days, on the palms of her still-manicured hands. But she could not have known the newness of those kisses; their velvet tenderness, urgent no longer but profound and sobering in their depth and intensity.

She slept dreamlessly in the hospital bed, unaware of the tall, dark man keeping unceasing vigil by her bedside. It was only when her eyelids fluttered open and the room started coming into focus that he rose and, slipping an envelope onto the pillow among her tousled honeyed locks, walked silently from the room.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Part 39 – Cleft Bereft

Well, Mills & Boon expect it – a Parting of the Ways – but I think they expect it a bit sooner than this. I hope this doesn’t mean we’re only half way through this opus.

What’s worrying me is that without Cleft around to define her and provoke periodic low moans, Topaz is going to have to become her own woman. And I honestly don’t think there’s enough going on beneath those tousled tawny tresses to justify any kind of independent life at all…

Part 39 (by Anna)

When he was out of sight Cleft sagged. He sank down onto a low rock, his elbows on his wide-spread knees and his tousled head in his hands.

‘Goddam it!’ he hissed through clenched white teeth. He kicked savagely at a stone with his booted foot and sent it scuttering over the precipice. Its rattling progress echoed with startling intensity in the still and waiting air. The sun was hoisted high in the sky now and burned viciously down on the slumpled figure on the mountainside, but Cleft was heedless of time and place and of the rivulets of sweat sliding down his muscled grooves.

‘Goddam it!’ he ejaculated again. Fury subsumed him. Fury at himself for the crass joke born of jealousy and fury at his own vulnerability to this woman, this almost-stranger, whose fluid brown eyes dissolved the barriers that had always shielded him from heartache

Life had been accommodating to Cleft. Oh, he’d voyaged through stormy seas – walking out on his parents’ Californian ranch with only a fistful of dollars and his sunshades to make his own way in the world and drifting unfettered round the five continents. He’d laboured under unforgiving sun when the cash flow ran dry and prostrated his long lean body in bars and on beaches when his wallet was full. Romance for him had been a passtime, sometimes amusing, occasionally thrilling, but always transitory as his restless spirit propelled him on to the next new horizon. It had been in many ways a hard life, but he had always been at the controls.

Until now. Or rather until that evening that seemed an eternity ago when a stranger’s profile had lassooed his heart. Now the unfolding horizons had shrunk; the aimlessness evaporated. Cleft had confronted his destiny and found that it resisted his control. For the first time in his life he experienced doubt.

Formerly the rugged beauty of his rippling bronzed body had been his currency. It had always sufficed. Now he looked inwards and wondered. Was he as much Man within as without? Was Terence, behind that scrawny yellow-tinged surface, perhaps nobler than he? He had been prepared to sacrifice his future for the woman he loved. He had perceived through those watering myopic eyes that Cleft was her irresistible fate.

Cleft understood at that moment that it was not enough to desire Topaz; he had to deserve her. Slowly he raised his head. His path was clear now. He knew what he must do. With an ease that defied the exertions of the night he rose to his feet, tilted his chiselled features towards the sun and wordlessly made his vow.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Saturday is Caption Day

I love Mammasaurus – she’s full of ways to entice the witty, the curious and the simply prurient to blogs near and far. Like this fun caption linky thingy.

I like to think she does it because she loves us all, but it’s probably to get a good laugh out of our bad home décor and hamfisted attempts at photography. Never mind. Just post a caption to this photo and boost my stats while you’re at it.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Part 38 – Split Lit.

I love it when things write themselves. I got so carried away with this touching scene that Cleft’s interjection was quite spontaneous. Timely, though: Mills & Boon require a falling out and a separation. Trouble is, they also require a reunion, and while I’d like to think that means a catch-up over a nice cup of tea, I rather think that on Planet Romance it means Doing It.

Part 38 (by Oliver)

For a while in the silence that followed, the air seemed to thrum still with the roar of the BMW’s engine, the ground to throb with the whirr of its tyres. Somewhere a stone clattered gently, loosened by the whisk and scratch of a lizard’s tail. Then the stillness thinned, and Topaz spoke first.

‘I’m sorry, Terence,’ she said quietly. ‘I didn’t mean…’

‘I know.’ Terence’s face was set, staring down at the the yellow toenails protruding from his sandals. ‘But maybe it’s for the best. I need a new start, new challenges. And –’ his face breaking into a grin ­‘­– it’s time Dad learnt a lesson. I’m the one to teach it to him!’

Topaz reached out her hand and touched Terence’s arm, warmly, comfortably, and they smiled at each other gravely. Behind them, still towering against the azure sky, Cleft watched through his mirrored shades, his eyes shielded but his mouth suddenly tight.

‘Listen,’ Topaz said. ‘This is all my fault. It’s not fair that you should lose everything because of me. I’m going to make it up to you. No, there’s no going back,’ she said quickly, seeing hope spark fleetingly in Terence’s eyes, ‘but I’ll make sure you’re OK.’

‘Oh Topaz,’ Terence stammered, flushing with emabarrassment and self-consciously fingering his collar. ‘I’d really rather you didn’t…’

‘Ha!’ The derisive snort erupted from Cleft before he could stop it. Topaz and Terence looked up, startled.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Topaz’s voice was icy, even as the surges that she felt rippling through her inmost parts as she beheld anew his taut beauty sent heat flaming through her body. Cleft paused awkardly before saying: ‘Sorry. But if I’d realised how easy it was to touch you for cash, I’d have tried it myself.’

He had intended to indulge the jealousy that, for the first time, a woman was arousing in his breast: to deflate Terence and break the comfortable intimacy that seemed to be burgeoning between him and Topaz. Too late he realised that his quip had fired its poisonous dart into the wrong target entirely.

Topaz gasped and stared, her stunned face twice reflected in Cleft’s shades. She saw herself in miniature fixed rigid in that blind gaze, as memories of the shabby jeep, the flaking room at the inn, Cleft’s rootless – impoverished – existence came jostling in. Then she saw the tiny Topazes raise a hand and run it through their tousled tawny manes before the fists clenched with determined finality.

‘Get out of here,’ she said, levelly, low, crumbling silently within as the words came out almost without her noticing. ‘I never want to see you again.’ Knowing, even so, that every fibre of her being shrieked for his touch, his hard lips on hers, the enveloping warmth of that deep manly scent.

‘Please, Topaz, you don’t understand –’ Cleft began.

‘But I do. I have undertood people like you since I was old enough to know that my wealth makes me a target for every gold-digger on the planet. Daddy was right.’

‘No!’ Cleft did not hear the rising urgency in his voice. ‘It was just a silly joke. I’m sorry – I didn’t mean…’

‘I know what you meant. That’s why I never want to see you again.’

And Topaz’s voice was so flint-sharp, her face so terrible in its resolve even as inside she churned with anguish and loss, that Cleft knew that it was useless to respond. He held both hands up, palms outwards, and backed away slowly. Then, with a shrug that spoke too loudly of forced bravura, he turned and began walking.

Topaz watched numbly as the dust rose in ochre billows behind him, so that even before he descended below the lip of Paradise Heights Cleft’s figure was lost to her.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Part 37 – Very Terry

I am now worried that Terence is far too prominent a character for the Mills & Boon guidelines to countenance. He’s also far too likeable – mainly, I think, because my brother-in-law got the idea that Terence was based on him, so we felt obliged to treat him gently.

So I think this must be the last of Terence. From now on he needs to withdraw gracefully. Oh heck, that means we’re left with only the panting and the moaning…

Part 37 (by Anna)

Duncan Dunkley made no reply. Instead he bent slightly, the shadow of his Panama eclipsing the pale gleam of Terence’s face. A bony hand reached out and prodded Terence’s injured shin. Terence let out a cry and his father straightened. There was a silence, briefly, on the moutainside save for the itchy whirr of insects and a metallic exhalation from the huge BMW.

Terence subsided into the hot dust, his gaze fixed on his father with a mixture of alarm and defiance. Topaz’s eyes darted between the two men as she rose slowly to her feet and Cleft stood waiting, his muscled legs planted wide on the rocky ground and his face inscrutable behind his sunglasses. When Duncan Dunkley spoke his voice cut the humid air like ice.

‘I assume,’ he addressed Terence, ‘that this cheery little outing is to check the progress of your marital home.’ He smiled mirthlessly.

Terence shivered, whether from pain or fear Topaz could not tell. She put out a hand to touch his hunched shoulder, then turned calmly to face her intended father-in-law.

‘I know what your game is,’ she told him. ‘And I’m not playing it. There will be no wedding next week and you’d better accept it.’

Mr Dunkley turned as though she had not spoken and fixed his gaze on his prostrate son.

‘Do not confuse spinelessness with nobility,’ he said quietly. ‘Dunkleys never surrender. Defeat is not in our blood. How do you think we got where we are today? Through backbone and initiative, that's how.’

A flame of anger ignited Terence’s face.

‘And where are we now?’ he asked bitterly. ‘Near bankruptcy. Stealing the freedom and fortune of an innocent young woman to get us out of the hole. You call that backbone do you? You call that initiative? I call it cowardly, invidious skulduggery.’

Duncan Dunkley froze. Topaz watched disbelief turn to fury in his cold grey eyes.

‘Fine words,’ he said contemptuously. ‘And that’s all they are, Terence – words. I don’t need to tell you what’s at stake here. If there’s no marriage, there’s no family business and those words are going to sound pretty hollow to you when you have to give up your private suite, your comfortable allowance, your social standing.’

Terence snorted. He was half upright now, his face blazing with emotion.

‘It’s you who worships wealth, not me,’ he said. ‘I don’t give a toss for any of those things. Oh sure, it’s nice to have a soft bed and a string of servants, but I don’t need any of it. I went along with your dirty little scheme because I didn’t realise then just how unimportant those things are, but I’ve changed.’ He glanced at Topaz. ‘Life’s not about what you have and who you are; it’s about what you give, and I pity you, Dad, because that’s a lesson you've never learned.’

The old man’s stillness was frightening. He stood there cool as stone under the burning sun and even his lips seemed barely to move as he spoke.

‘You need to understand, Terence, that if you disobey me, you are no longer any son of mine. You will no longer have your rooms at The Winnings and your allowance will cease forthwith. Do you comprehend me? No home, no income and precious little talent for earning one.’

Terence swallowed hard. Topaz could see the conflict that crippled him. She stepped forward.

‘Terence has nothing to fear,’ she said levelly. ‘You are the loser in this, Mr Dunkley. One day you’ll realise that.’

Duncan Dunkley’s mouth twitched beneath his Panama.

‘You’ll regret this,’ he replied. ‘All three of you will. One day, sooner than you think, you’ll be begging me for mercy.’

He turned his immaculate shoes, incongruous against the gritty dust, and climbed smoothly into his 4 x4. The engine belched into life and with a lurch that shot a billow of dust over the trio the vehicle roared away down the track.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Part 36 – An Unexpected Arrival

I know, I know – I have no idea how Mr Dunkley got there either. But my self-imposed rules forbid me to make any revisions. Maybe if I’d never mentioned it you wouldn’t have questioned his appearance. So let’s pretend I never did.

Part 36 (by Oliver)

The pounding rhythm of Cleft’s tread was hypnotic. Every step was a shudder coursing through Topaz’s being, and as she drank in the tangy musk that simmered from his sweat-soaked body, her eyes remained fixed on the clenching tautness of Cleft’s denim-clad buttocks, flexing inches before her face.

Then a groan reminded her that Terence dangled alongside her. Glancing at him, she saw the pale face sequinned with sweat, the spectacles dangling absurdly in his sparse hairline and the whites of his eyes showing between his half-closed lids. And as he scrambled back to consciousness and caught her stare in his, a look somewhere between longing and loathing seemed to shimmer across his face. Then his mouth twisted into a kind of smile and he gasped ‘Oh, my dear!’

Such was the delight that shone through the parched croak of his voice, the pallour of his moist face, that Topaz was smote with a feeling she had never felt before: shame. The impact came not so much from the nature of her sentiment as from the realization that this was the first time she had ever felt anything forceful at all for Terence.

She gasped as she saw the truth at last: through years of childish friendship and family expectation, Terence had quietly occupied a corner of her being. No matter how fast she ran towards Cleft, no matter how the endgame played out, she would always have to accept that Terence was there, somewhere, in her destiny.

Terence’s cheek was growing red where it rubbed and knocked against Cleft’s denim buttock. Topaz began to feel sick from the swaying motion mingled with the heavy scent of Cleft’s man-musk. And whatever bond had appeared between Topaz and Terence, it was now strengthened as they looked each other straight in the eye, bobbing and swaying upside down – and both let the laughter come.

At once Cleft halted. ‘What’s up?’ he growled, breathless through effort and irritation. But as he swung them off his shoulders, Topaz and Terence laughed all the more, until Cleft had no choice but to join in. Lying on the rock-strewn Spanish dust, all three laughed away the weeks of confrontation, conspiracy and confusion.

Terence spoke first. ‘Look here, Cleft’ he said, weak from mirth and pain. ‘It’s time to end this ridiculous charade. We’re old enough to be frank with each other: I love Topaz – truly I do, dear. Topaz likes me, but she loves you. Nothing will change that, so I’m not going to try.’

‘Terence!’ gasped Topaz, catching her full lower lip between the glacier whiteness of her teeth. And for the first time in her eyes, he seemed to become something like a man. ‘But what about your father?’

‘Indeed. What about me?’ The voice cut in like a knife, and, looking up, the three saw the substantial figure of a sweating man, his white suit tightly buttoned against the Mediterranean heat, a crisp Panama shading his face and a glossy black 4x4 looming expensively behind him.

‘Dad!’ Terence paled still further and winced as he sat upright. ‘What are you doing here?’

Monday, 9 January 2012

Part 35 – Scents and Sensibilities

This is the sort of thing I like: a good bit of momentum in the plot. It would help if I knew what direction that momentum might be taking us, but one can’t have everything. And I’m not even going to think about what Mills & Boon would make of our characters constantly falling over, swooning and being generally flaky.

One question for the ladies: is it attractive for Cleft to be constantly in need of a good wash? Because he’s exuding more pungent perfume in this, and it seems to me that anyone that whiffy must be a turn-off. Still, presumably Anna, being a woman, knows best. And maybe I’m too metrosexual, what with my soap and deodorant and stuff.

Part 35 (by Anna)

‘All right. You win this round. But I’ll make sure it’s a hollow victory. What are you but a lump of brawn and musk? She’ll tire of you, don’t you doubt it, but I won’t wait even that short while. I’m on your case, Stone, and you’ll never be rid of me until you give me back what’s mine.’

A low moan somewhere behind his left ankle caused him to turn. Topaz had raised her head, the imprint of the hard, puckered ground flaming on her tanned cheek.

Terence stepped over to her prone figure and, not ungently, caught her wrists and drew her upright. She felt his skinny fingers damp against his skin. Involuntarily her black eyes flickered over to where Cleft towered. Terence saw the look and snorted.

‘He’s yours,’ he said, ‘for the moment. But think carefully before you surrender your family’s fortune on a whim. I'’l be waiting for you when you change your mind.’

Topaz’s lips moved to form a reply, but no words came, only a tortured shuddering gasp which seemed to exhale the tears of centuries. Terence paused. His resolve seemed momentarily shaken by her crumpled anguish. Then, indefatigably, he hitched his sagging Bermudas and swung round towards the descending track. Blindly, he strode.

Too blindly. There was a cry, a raw animal sound, a scruffling of stones and a small plume of dust. Then silence.

Cleft’s shades flashed jagged darts of sunlight as he turned. Topaz scrambled to her bruised feet, unheeding of the pain, fear pulsing visibly in her delicate throat as she peered through the radiance.

The dust cloud shimmied briefly in the hot white light then sank back to earth. Behind it lay a form, quite still, spread over the burning shingle. One leg was flung out at an angle. And a goat, possibly the same creature that had blocked Topaz’s path to her fiancé those few days that seemed a lifetime ago, was limping bleating into the undergrowth, its morning siesta ruptured by the painful impact of Terence’s blundering trajectory.

In one easy stride Cleft moved over to his rival and crouched beside him. His bronzed hand reached out and touched Terence’s pallid leg.

‘Cracked femur,’ he murmured. ‘Don’t worry, mate, I’ve gotcha.’

Terence’s eyes, bulging with pain and fear, fixed on him as he moved over to an ancient olive tree and with a single powerful twist snapped off a small branch.

‘I need a tie,’ he said, turning to Topaz. Their eyes locked for an instant and intuitively their minds worked as one. Wrenching at her Kurt Geiger sandal, she unwound the leather ankle strap and held it out to Cleft.

It vanished almost into the hugeness hand as he bore it to his mouth and, savouring swiftly the intimate scent of the woman he loved, he caught the strap between his white teeth and pulled. The leather cleaved like butter. Kneeling now he laid the branch against Terence’s damaged limb and, with deft gentleness, fixed it in place with the amputated thong. Then, delving for the bulge in his Levis, he drew out his iphone and punched in a number.

‘No signal,’ he growled. ‘We’ve gotta get him outta here fast and get the leg seen to.’

He stooped and, inserting an arm beneath Terence’s shaking torso, he lifted him easily over his right shoulder. He turned to Topaz who, stepping gingerly after him, was trying to conceal the pain in her feet. He took a step back and, stabilising Terence’s long body against his collar bone, he wound his free arm around her slender waist to raise her and draped her over his free shoulder.

Topaz, dangling against the soaked, salted fabric of his polo shirt, inhaled the spiced scent of his manliness as, impervious to the heat of the strengthening sun and the weight of his twin burden, he set off down the mountainside.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Part 34 – Fight Club

Last time Terence and Cleft confronted each other, I copped out and admitted that I have no idea about the finer points of fisticuffs, and therefore am unqualified to write about them. But the wonder of writing fiction – especially spoof Romantic fiction – is that personal experience is the last thing you need. At least, I hope the authoress of my research tool, The Greek Billionaire’s Love-Child’s Mother’s Revenge (or something) didn’t experience what her heroine did.

So at last Terence shows his Alpha side. It’s not very impressive, but good for him nonetheless.

Part 34 (by Oliver)

The two men faced each other, spicing the air with the insistent tang of testosterone, the heavier musk of enmity. The space between them fizzed over Topaz’s prone figure, and both knew that the time of reckoning had come at last.

Cleft’s gaze was inscrutable behind the gloss of his shades. Motionless he stood, a slight pulse quickening the sculpted, hair-fringed hollow that showed in the bronze V of his open-neck shirt, ticking tense moments away. Terence swallowed once or twice and mopped his slick forehead with the sleeve of his linen jacket. Then he said:

‘Say goodbye to all this, Stone: you’re off the job. And –’ gesturing to Topaz’s slender body at his feet – ‘say goodbye to her too. This is where it ends between you.’

Cleft opened his mouth in a silent snarl of contempt, then his lips curved into a smile, easy and slightly swaggering. ‘That depends,’ he said, evenly. ‘If you think you deserve her, you’ll put up a fight for her, man to man. So why not? Why not sort this out here and now? If you had what it takes, you would.’

What happened next took even Cleft by surprise. Terence looked up into Cleft’s face, shaking slightly, Cleft thought, with the sweat beading again on the pale dome of his forehead. Cleft felt almost sorry for this little man, so indecisive, so powerless in the pulsing presence of raw male strength. Then suddenly Cleft felt a blow to his stomach, and Terence was a ball of energy, bent double, launching his shoulders and fists into Cleft’s taut, muscular frame like a pugnacious goat tackling a mountainside.

Hopeless though Terence’s attack might have been, it unnerved Cleft momentarily so that he took three or four paces backwards before bracing himself against the onslaught of Terence’s frustration and anger. And in the brief pause between realisation and retaliation, Cleft knew that this fight could never be a fair one. The drooping Dunkley frame could never match the primeaval strength of Cleft’s chiselled body, as firm and as unyielding as weather-hewn granite, despite its unexpected nimbleness and the sharp, cutting blows that swiped Cleft’s thighs and abdomen. And small blame on Terence to fight for his woman – Cleft would have done the same himself.

So Cleft unclenched the ball of a fist that his hand had involuntarily coiled into; instead he dodged and ducked, parried and recoiled so that in a short while Terence had vented his ire and his strength and subsided into a panting huddle on the very rock where once Cleft’s rough, tender hands had caressed the supple softness of Topaz’s body, felt through the flimsy stuff of her sundress to the bubbling wells of desire beneath.

His jacket smeared with the dust of Paradise Heights and his wiry white legs still trembling from unaccustomed effort, Terence sat panting on the rock, looking with loathing at Cleft through the haze of thin hair that had straggled across his face. And when he spoke, he almost spat the words:

Friday, 6 January 2012

Part 33 – Cop Out

Well. All that simmering, all that sighing, all that lip-melding. All for nothing. Anna has ducked her responsibilities and left Topaz still not Wholly Woman. I call that a really poor show.

Part 33 (by Anna)

Cleft’s mouth brushed her soft eyelids. His lips were hard, insistent and yet meltingly tender. She caught her long fingers in his tousled black hair and threw back her head in a movement of blissful abandonment. The lips instantly slipped to the warm silken curve of her neck. Muscled fingers teased the frilled boundaries of her top, then, abruptly Cleft rolled over and raised his torso so that his sculpted features blocked out the hanging moon.

‘This is not how I wanted it to be,’ he said throatily. ‘Not here. We must find our paradise where Destiny planned it.’

Topaz sank back onto the itchy ground. For a moment she was speechless. Her flesh simmered still with anticipation of the moment nearly realized; the moment when, by some mysterious musky alchemy she would become whole. Cleft was gazing at the tangled slopes rearing inexorably above them; his angular face, tinted by the moon, looked as flawless as Grecian marble.

‘How’s the ankle holding up?’ he said, turning to her, so that the ethereal light faded from his cheeks and she read tiredness in his eyes.

‘It’s fine!’ she lied, biting her lip against the burning throb.

Stooping, Cleft inserted his strong hands into the yielding hollows of her armpits and lifted her to her feet. Briefly, Topaz staggered against him and briefly she was held, hard, urgently, and then, moving as one through the seeping moonlight, they began to climb.

Night gathered protectingly around them. Tendrils of bushes reached out and plucked them. Leathery leaves scraped at their clothes; thorns pierced weary flesh and every now and then their footsteps spiced the darkness with the scent of crushed herbs.

Then slowly the darkness began to thin. The moon’s watery light weakened dissolved and a slow flush spread like blood across the canvas of the sky.

‘Not far now,’ murmured Cleft, bracing an arm against her struggling back. The sinews, flexing against her spine, gave her strength and when she next looked up she could see Paradise Heights above them, waiting for them beneath the humid dawn. Unbidden, her bruised feet trod the final steps and then Topaz sank onto the ground from which should have arisen her marital home.

‘What the…?’ ejaculated Cleft.

Before she could raise her head, a pair of feet had planted themselves before her lowered eyes. Smooth yellow-toed feet moistening slightly in monkish sandals. A gasp escaped her:

‘Terence!’ she whispered. Then she swooned.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Part 32 – In Which I Outdo Myself

When they come to make the film of Desire Be My Destiny, I think this scene will be the one that earns Topaz (or whoever plays her) an Oscar. And if this doesn’t inspire Anna to make them Do It, nothing will. I’ve put my all into this and left her with a cliff-hanger that can only go one way: all the way.

Part 32 (by Oliver)

In the muffled blackness of her cupboard prison, Topaz murmured softly through lips that were dry and bruised. She barely knew that she did so, barely heard the breathy whisper ‘Cleft! Cleft!’, repeated almost like a mantra, an affirmation that he would come to her. Yet she knew she must not believe that he would, and with this unconscious realisation the breaths turned to small sobs, so that the ‘Cleft!’ was gasped, breathed in.

Then, a sound. Not the shuffling heaviness of her captor, or the bark and clatter of the brutish dog; a firm, urgent footstep and a strong voice calling out.

‘Hey there!’ The deep throbbing tone seemed to strike something vital deep within Topaz, but still she sobbed gently, ‘Cleft! Cleft!’ 

‘Anyone here?’ came the voice again. This time there was no mistaking it. Even through the jumble of Topaz’s mind, some life-affirming force seemed to reach inside her and lift her out of darkness, back along the dingy path of memory to the sudden brightness of the present.

‘Cleft?’ she gasped. ‘Cleft?’ And with the glorious dawning of realisation, her voice strengthened and grew louder – ‘Cleft! Cleft!’ – so that by the time she saw the urgent shadow in the strip of light under the door, her passion was flowing and she screamed now, ‘Cleft! Cleft!’

With a mighty heave and crack, the door broke open and Topaz raised an arm to shield her huge, damp eyes from the surging sunlight. Cleft stood there, legs still braced, the muscles taut and pushing up through the thin material of his grimy jeans. Sweat gleamed on his forehead and in the hollow revealed by his open shirt, and in the dusky sheen of his wraparound sunglasses, Topaz glimpsed herself huddled, tethered like a beast in her filthy corner.

Through her joy, the sobs came jagged, so that as Cleft swiftly knelt to untie her bonds she had barely enough strength to help him. His hands felt under her back, behind her knees, and he rose and turned in one lithe movement, sweeping Topaz through the caked, fly-blown hovel and out into the Spanish sun once more.

And at last their lips found each other, the first hungry clash of tongues subsiding into velvet languidness as, oblivious to the wheeze of the reviving cur behind them and the hammering on the window of the cab before them, Topaz and Cleft melded their desire and their fate gloriously into one.

But, too soon, Cleft pulled away and placed Topaz tenderly on the ground. Loping over to the baking car and the red, streaming face that peered out of it, he made as if to open the door and the driver’s small, spiteful eyes seemed to pucker with relief. Then he paused, seeing the heavy cosh that was badly concealed behind the drenched girth.

‘Bad move, Diego,’ spat Cleft. ‘You'll have to cook some more.’ And, turning back to Topaz, he left the car and its bulging occupant.

‘He can use the cosh on the car window, not us,’ said Cleft, grinning. ‘But we won’t be driving outta here, that’s for sure.’ And with a confident jerk of his head towards the umber foothills, he said: ‘It’s the bandits’ way for us, my darling, across the hills by night.’

His arms flexed as he lifted Topaz once again and, not looking back, started to carry her up the steep hillside track. Behind them the dog whined drowsily as it scrambled back to consciousness, and the beating from within the cab grew frenzied in the simmering heat.

But Topaz and Cleft heard neither. She leaned her head, heavy with drowse, on the massive plane of his shoulder and felt the steady rhythm of his tread bear her on, on into the barren heart of the mountain where the rules of men held little sway over the unfathomable laws of Fate.

And as the first stars began pricking through the deep amethyst gauze of the heavy Spanish evening, Cleft lay her down in a hollow beneath a cordyline, the sword-like leaves of which clashed gently in the zephyrs of the night. As he held himself taut above her tender, trembling form, Topaz gazed up in wonderment at the beauty of this man who was in her arms at last.

Eyes locked, nothing needed to be said. Except, with a strangely husky throb in Topaz’s throat, ‘Do with me as you will, Cleft. I owe you everything; I will give it to you tonight.’