My new novel No Other Love (Pink Bean – Book Six) will be out next week (on Tuesday 19 September 2017). Here’s a preview. Enjoy!
No Other Love
© Harper Bliss
“Best make things look spic and span,” Mia said as she handed Annie a cup of coffee. “The boss is stopping by today.” She shot Annie one of those smiles Annie had seen her use on the customers to great effect. Inspired by being on the receiving end of one of Mia’s smiles, Annie had tried smiling at people like that, but she instinctively knew her own attempts didn’t have the same effect. She practiced sometimes in front of the mirror while washing her hands and she simply didn’t have a Mia-smile.
“Sheryl or Kristin?” Annie asked, still amazed that she was able to get a real cup of coffee in her own book shop. Not the instant stuff she used to brew. It was part of the deal she had made with the Pink Bean owners. They leased part of her shop and Annie got all the free coffee she wanted, on top of a bunch more visitors through the door.
Annie needed the clarification on which one of the two was stopping by because last time Mia had said the boss was dropping in, Annie had mentally prepared for Kristin only to have Sheryl show up. There was a distinct difference.
“Kristin,” Mia said. “We have some numbers to crunch. Sheryl is not much of a number cruncher.” That smile again.
Annie nodded, while she wondered if she had time to run upstairs and drag a comb through her hair. It sometimes felt as though Kristin was her boss as well as Mia’s, even though that was probably not the right way to describe it. Annie checked her watch. It was before eleven. Not that she was banned from her own house, but she knew Jane preferred she didn’t come upstairs too early in the morning, or until her wife had ventured down for her first Pink Bean coffee—and social interaction—of the day.
Besides, Annie had a perfectly able comb in the downstairs bathroom, which they’d had remodeled to include a stall for customers and Pink Bean employees.
Annie didn’t want to admit to herself that she was nervous because Kristin was due to arrive. The success of the Pink Bean in her shop was of crucial importance. If Kristin and Mia didn’t sell enough coffee, they would pack up their coffee machine and move elsewhere. Annie shook off the thought. Mia had told her time and time again that the decision to join forces with Annie’s shop was influenced by much more than purely business. Still, Annie felt like she had to impress.
The door of the shop opened and both Mia and Annie looked up. It was always a guessing game whether the person walking in was after coffee, a book, both, or none.
Annie didn’t need to look at Mia to know a smile was spreading on her lips. Annie smiled too at the sight of Lou.
Lou gave Annie a wave and headed straight for the coffee counter to kiss Mia on the lips. All this young love on display. Annie wasn’t entirely sure how that made her feel. She was happy for Lou, who had suffered a bad breakup in Brisbane, and she and Mia made a great couple. That wasn’t the issue. It was witnessing what the beginning of romance looked like that put her out sometimes. The energy between them was palpable. It had been a long time since Annie had felt that kind of energy buzz through her.
Annie had known Lou for a long time and she wasn’t the type to engage in too much public canoodling. Yet Annie saw her melt under Mia’s smiling gaze. She was still looking at them from her place by the cash register when the door opened again. This time it was Kristin. Annie nearly jumped to her feet, even though that door opened countless times a day and it was hardly the first time Kristin had come in to see how everything was going. Annie was happy Mia and Lou were preoccupied with each other so they hadn’t noticed her reaction.
Having spotted Lou, Kristin headed straight for Annie, and stood at the counter. Just as Mia kissed Annie on the cheek every morning when she arrived, so did Kristin when she bestowed a visit on the second Pink Bean branch. When Mia kissed her hello, Annie didn’t even think about it. It was as automatic an action as actually saying hello. But with Kristin it was different.
At first, Annie had believed it was because Kristin’s demeanor was, in general, a little more uptight, and it was always more uncomfortable kissing someone like that, but then she’d had a good hard look in the mirror—probably while she brushed her hair in anticipation of Kristin’s arrival—and she had realized it was all down to herself. She was the one having an issue. It had been a disconcerting feeling. One that manifested itself again now, as she stood in front of Kristin thinking of suave ways to peck her on the cheek.
Annie stepped from behind the counter—her safe space from where she observed all the goings-on in the shop—and put a hand gently on Kristin’s shoulder before letting her lips touch down on Kristin’s smooth, cool cheek.
“How’s business?” Kristin asked. She really wasn’t one for small talk.
“Mine or yours?” Annie scampered back behind the counter.
“Mia will tell me about mine once she’s done schmoozing with her girlfriend.” She rolled her eyes and Annie couldn’t help but grin. “Yours.”
“Sales are up!” Annie exclaimed. “It can’t be denied. Who said print was dead?” Oh Christ. Was she no longer capable of having a normal conversation with Kristin either?
“I believe it was your wife who came up with those words of wisdom.” Kristin glanced at the display of Jane Quinn books they had set up right next to the counter—a massive feather in Mia’s cap. “How are those doing?”
“Not too bad, although Jane cringes every time she comes down and sees all of her books presented like that. And word must have spread, because the other day she was having a coffee just as someone was browsing her books. The person put two and two together, bought one, and promptly walked up to Jane to have it autographed.”
“She must have loved that.” Kristin sniggered. Apparently she was beginning to know Jane and her solitary ways.
“I had to bring her coffee upstairs for the rest of the week.” Annie grinned. “But it’s good to push her out of her comfort zone once in a while. She needs that. That’s why this was such a good idea.” She pointed at the coffee machine, then at the book display. “And this as well. She’s Jane Quinn, for crying out loud. She should take some pride in that.”
“We’re all different,” Kristin said matter-of-factly.
“Aren’t we just.” Talking about her wife, who was toiling away upstairs on her next book, made Annie feel guilty about overthinking kissing Kristin hello. “And that’s why I love her so dearly.”
“Hello and goodbye.” Lou joined them. “I need to rush to Darlinghurst for my next class. Someone’s been having a bad influence on my punctuality.”
Kristin shook her head. “I’ll give her a stern talking-to.”
“Please do.” Lou shot them both a wink and left the shop.
“Talk to you later, Annie,” Kristin said, and sat down in the exact same chair she always did, waiting for Mia to join her.
When nothing much was going on in the shop, Annie usually read. She used to easily go through a book a day, but since the Pink Bean had set up shop, she was lucky to make it through a book a week. Today, Annie willed her attention to remain on the book she was reading, but having Kristin in the shop, made it that much harder to focus.
Jane had gone through her usual routine, which consisted of nothing more than brewing her own cup of coffee and sitting down in front of her computer. Unwashed and dressed in the same comfortable clothes she had worn the day before and the day before that. Usually, it was all she needed to get going, re-immerse herself in her work in progress, and add a good chunk of words before the clock chimed eleven.
But for the second week in a row, it wasn’t happening. She didn’t want to tell Annie, because she suspected that the reason why she couldn’t find the peace of mind required to do deep, focused work was because of what was going on downstairs. Annie would just say—for the umpteenth time—that she was too sensitive and this was a good thing for them and if the occasional chatter drifting up bothered her she should just put on a pair of noise-canceling headphones.
But Annie had never written a book. She didn’t have a clue about the delicate tension required to tune into the subconscious and get in touch with what was going on in there. She didn’t realize that the smallest change in routine was enough to set Jane back a couple of thousand words a week and while not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, it screwed up Jane’s carefully crafted schedule in a way that made her feel very uncomfortable and insecure. Because, yes, having Kristin rent the space from them was a good thing for their finances, but hadn’t Jane already taken care of that?
Her books were paying most of the bills now, and while having the Pink Bean downstairs lifted some of the pressure off her shoulders, it seemed to be adding quite a bit as well—as in disturbing Jane’s fragile equilibrium.
She looked at her screen, at the sentence that wasn’t advancing and hadn’t budged for the last ten minutes, and heaved a sigh. She took longer than most to get used to changes, but that didn’t mean she didn’t adapt eventually. The words would be flying from her fingers again soon. She’d jump out of bed raring to go, because the alternative would be not to deliver a book on the deadline she had set herself and communicated to her readers. Jane had always felt confident announcing such a deadline because there was no doubt in her mind she could meet it. Not one single doubt—as long as she could adhere to her routines and everything was right in her little world.
A few more weeks of this, however, and things would be even more wrong. She gave up on the sentence, got up, and paced around in her office. She looked at the picture of her and Annie in New Zealand where they’d married, both of them dressed in white. That picture always made her smile. Because it was much more than a wedding picture to her. It was the culmination of a great relationship that, at the time, had already lasted fifteen years, even though there had been times Jane had believed they wouldn’t make it. That picture was the proof they had. What it said to her was that relationships, just as lives, go through ups and downs, and when you get through those lows, and celebrate the highs, you will end up coming out stronger on the other side.
They would celebrate twenty years together—and their fifth wedding anniversary—in a few months.
Jane touched a finger to the spot in the picture where Annie smiled widely. Oh screw it. Annie was just downstairs. Perhaps seeing her in the flesh would make Jane feel better. Take away some of this anguish about her lagging word count.
But then she would have to change into something respectable. The past few years, the book shop had had so little clientele, Jane often nipped down in her shabby writing gear, but she couldn’t do that now. Annie was never alone in the shop anymore, even when there were no customers. Mia was always there, and Kristin often came in and so did Sheryl during her lunch break, often bringing along colleagues.
It was out of the question for Jane to wear the same old tracksuit pants she’d been holding on to for years—it was hard to get rid of a pair of pants you’d written a couple of successful books in—when she went downstairs these days. She even had to put on a bra. Before the Pink Bean, days used to go by when Jane didn’t wear a bra. Days when she didn’t feel any need to venture out but was perfectly content with the company of her words and her wife. A quick—bra-less—stop in the shop was enough to remind her of the outside world.
Jane sighed and went into the bathroom. Should she shower? It was part of her ritual to not shower before she had gotten in her word count of the day, and if she did, she was pretty sure no more words would be added to that wretched book today. So she just slipped into a pair of jeans, put on a bra, and drew over a blouse. She pulled her fingers through her hair and gave herself a reluctant thumbs-up in the mirror. Because, granted, those coffees Mia prepared were not half bad. She could do with one of those right about now. Maybe it would jolt her brain into the kind of alertness needed to finally finish that bloody sentence. Because it was that very sentence holding her back. If only she could get past it, this squandering of precious minutes, staring at her screen and not producing, could end. It was worth a go. One of Mia’s coffees. A quick chat and kiss from her wife, and Jane would get back to it.
She dashed downstairs with a spring in her step, convinced she’d be running back up in about ten minutes, filled to the brim with inspiration.
When she arrived in the shop, Annie was handing a customer a book. Jane couldn’t see which one it was because it was wrapped in a paper bag. She dearly hoped it wasn’t one of hers, which was a completely counterintuitive thought to have, because of course she wanted to sell books, she just preferred not to witness the sale.
Mia was sitting at a table with Kristin, who always looked like she’d just stepped out of the pages of a glossy magazine. How was that even possible? Jane watched Annie as her gaze followed the customer leaving the shop. Annie’s gaze then landed on Kristin and Mia. Was she thinking the same thing about Kristin? Jane suddenly felt too shabbily dressed to walk into the very book shop she co-owned. Oh, sod it, Kristin had been in here plenty of times when Jane had been dressed like this—she had even put on a blouse—and it wasn’t as if Annie’s Book Shop had suddenly developed a strict dress code.
Jane stepped into sight and Annie jumped as though she was surprised to have her wife turn up.
“Only me,” Jane said.
“You’re early.” Annie reached for Jane’s hand.
“I know. This book is not agreeing with me. At all.”
“It’ll come, babe.” Annie pulled her close. “It always does.”
But what if it doesn’t? Jane thought. What if she had finally used it all up? And what was it anyway? Divine inspiration? Jane believed even less in that than in the apparition of the so-called muse. She sat down and did the work. That had always been her muse and inspiration and everything she needed. So why was that suddenly not enough anymore?
“I was hoping for one of Mia’s glorious cappuccinos,” Jane said. Mia had shown her how to use the machine, and it wasn’t all that complicated, yet it felt kind of strange to go behind the coffee counter, because that was the part of the shop that they rented out, and Jane felt she had no right to go in there.
As if Mia had read her mind, she stood up, looked at Jane, and said, “On it.”
“Thank you.” Jane remembered the time, only a few weeks ago, when Mia had started talking to her about the Jane Quinn books she had read and how much she had enjoyed them once she got past the fact that Jane had written them and how they had quite a few naughty bits in them.
Jane had smiled and tried to look as grateful as possible. She was grateful—having someone enjoy her books was the point of everything she wrote—but she simply didn’t have a clue how to react when someone said it to her face like that.
“You have to learn to take a compliment,” Annie had said to her years ago. It seemed that Jane still hadn’t picked up that particular skill yet.
“Hi, Jane.” Kristin walked up to them. “How’s that new best seller coming along?” She threw in a smile.
This was the kind of question Jane had formulated a standard answer to over the years—even though the word best seller was used so liberally today. Jane didn’t write best-selling books by any means. She wrote books that sold enough to keep her business afloat and absorb some losses incurred by the book shop. But it was nothing compared to an international or even national best seller in a genre that wasn’t as niche as lesbian romance.
Jane shrugged. Because the book wasn’t coming together at all, she couldn’t rely on her standard reply. “This one’s doing my head in.”
Annie brought her hand to Jane’s head and mussed her freshly-finger-combed hair about. “But what a pretty little head it is.”
“What’s it about?” Kristin sounded genuinely interested.
Annie held up her hand. “Wrong question, Kristin.”
What was with Annie today? Did she believe that because Jane wasn’t in full control of her power to write down words, she had also lost the ability to speak them? “Jane doesn’t like to discuss her work in progress.” Maybe Jane had made Annie speak for her one too many times over the years they’d been together.
“I’m hoping Mia’s coffee will help,” Jane said.
“And here I am to the rescue.” Mia sidled up to them, holding a deliciously-smelling, steaming mug in her hands.
“You’re a life-saver,” Jane said. “I didn’t mean to disturb your meeting.”
“You’ve come down early.” Mia said, echoing Annie’s words.
“I didn’t realize my schedule was under such scrutiny,” Jane joked.
“If I keep reading your books the way I’ve been doing lately, I will need a brand new Jane Quinn book soon,” Mia said. “So forgive me for cracking that whip and keeping an eye on you.” She shot Jane a smile that was so disarming, Jane could only reciprocate.
“Just keep on supplying me with excellent coffee,” Jane said.
“Of course. Imagine how that will look on my resume later: personal barista to Jane Quinn.”
“Depends where you’re applying for a job,” Jane said.
“Not anytime soon, I hope,” Kristin said.
“It was just a manner of speaking, boss. I’d be a fool to leave this gig.”
“Good.” Only Kristin could make a simple word sound so full of meaning—and perhaps a hint of threat.
“I’d best get back to it,” Jane said, hope swelling in her voice and in her heart. “Some people are waiting for my next book.”
<<End of preview>>
No Other Love will be available on 19 September 2017