As you know, lovely readers, I have been attempting to write (and generally musing on) Mills & Boon for some time now. I kicked off my blog series with a snide look at why I was absolutely, definitely capable of penning such an opus (here), followed by sarky deconstructions of the plot (here), characters (here), and a lament on the inauthentic and vaguely off-putting sex scenes (here), all the while beavering away, trying to write something publishable.
I submitted my first ever Mills & Boon manuscript in April. In May it was rejected. Naturally I cried for the whole of June. But now it’s July and I feel ready to talk about it with you. And what’s more, I feel ready to share my rejected chapter. So here it is, unchanged and unedited. It’s pretty special. Enjoy. x
FOR LOVE NOR MONEY by Fanny McRimmersworth (sure, why not)
“SOLD… for £18,750. Thank you, madam.”
The auctioneer brought the gavel down hard on the block in front of him as Beth whipped her head round. Sure enough a serious-looking woman was sitting in the second-to-last row gathering her papers into a briefcase. As she stood up she glanced towards the back of the room and Beth saw her give a tiny, almost imperceptible nod. Beth’s eyes darted to the exit, just in time to see a tall, impeccably dressed man slip out of the door. Before she even knew what she was doing, she dashed across the saleroom floor towards him.
She couldn’t let this chance pass her by, she thought as her heels clattered across the tiles. She’d been fascinated from the second time she saw the assistant in the saleroom. That was three months ago. Since then the serious-faced brunette had been present every couple of days. Always perfectly calm, she sat with her papers in her lap and her auction catalogue folded in her hand, quietly outbidding the competition. It had been mostly paintings with the occasional sketch or drawing. It was restrained but calculated and money was clearly no object.
Curiosity gripped Beth. As part of the auction house’s specialist team, she knew the buyers from most of the major European galleries and a few of the American ones too. She had learnt to recognise the private collectors from Russia, the Middle East and the local ones in London, as well as their assistants. But this new buyer had appeared from nowhere and he (she knew now it was a he) clearly knew what he liked. What’s more, Beth liked it too. So many collectors were more interested in the value of the art than the art itself but there was something personal about these purchases, she could tell.
“Excuse me,” she said breathlessly, elbowing her way past unsuccessful bidders. She reached the outer exit of the auction house where she spotted the man standing on the pavement at the bottom of the steps, a black overcoat slung over one arm. With his other hand he was reaching for the door of a sleek silver car that had just pulled up to the curb.
“Excuse me,” Beth shouted and he turned causing her to inhale sharply. His thick dark hair and commanding build had been enough to tell her he was an attractive man, even from behind. But as he turned to look at who was yelling at him, a mixture of concern and amusement etched across his elegant features, she almost lost her footing on the steps. Keen cheekbones sat perfectly above a strong, ever-so-slightly stubbled jaw. A crisp white shirt, open at the collar, set off the rich olive colour of his skin and even with his suit jacket on, Beth could make out the subtle lines of his toned chest. For a second an image of what that hard, bronzed torso might look like without the shirt flashed into her mind’s eye and she blinked, embarrassed. Where did that come from?
She forced her eyes back up and immediately felt her cheeks flush pink, a look she knew clashed horribly with her auburn hair. She had expected dark eyes but instead they were grey-green and alive with light. As he appraised his assailant, a slight crease formed at the edge on his mouth suggesting a smile. He knew. He knew what had just gone through her head. In an instant he took her in, scanning the full length of her body before returning to her face. She took in the full force of his gaze and swallowed, momentarily forgetting why she’d followed him.
“Yes?” he asked her.
“The auction,” Beth said hurriedly. “That last lot. That was you, wasn’t it?”
“It was,” said the man and his eyes were warm now and grey. She collected herself.
“And yesterday,” she said. “The surrealist piece. That was you too.” He’s almost obscenely beautiful she thought. Like a Greek god. She had a sudden recollection of the Apollo Belvedere, a seven foot tall marble statue, naked but for a light robe over one shoulder. What is wrong with you, today? she scolded herself. She glanced at him, terrified he could read her thoughts.
His gaze flickered again with amusement. “What of it?”
What of it, indeed, Beth thought and suddenly her whole venture seemed ludicrous. She’d raced out of the auction house and bellowed her lungs out after a complete stranger just because he’d bought some art. People did that here every day and she didn’t go accosting them in the street. But this was different, she thought. Buyers like this didn’t turn up every day. And when they did, they almost never looked like him.
“I just…” she stammered. “Who… what?”
She felt the heat rise again in her pale cheeks as she realised she had no idea what she wanted to ask him. Why are you buying all this? Absurd question. It was none of her business and from the look on his face, she could tell he was thinking the exact same thing. He turned back to his sleek car and opened the door.
Well done, Beth. The consummate professional, as always. As the car rolled away, Beth walked back into the auction house, frustrated. Of course, he wouldn’t have answered her. It was ridiculous to think that she could just go up to some unknown art collector and start demanding answers but neither that knowledge nor the shame she felt at having rudely confronted him could dispel her curiosity. She sighed and looked at her watch. Midday. She needed to get back for a meeting with her boss. Brushing a strand of copper-coloured hair behind her ear, she began to make her way in the direction of the office.
“Miss Fanshawe,” she heard her name and turned to see the serious assistant walking briskly towards her.
“I’m looking to get hold of the documents for today’s auction. I understand you’re the person to speak to?”
“I can certainly get them sent over to you,” said Beth.
“Much appreciated. Here are my details,” she thrust a business card into Beth’s hands and, still unsmiling, she turned and left. Beth looked down at the card. Bardem Holloway Inc. Totally meaningless. So he was just another international businessman with money to burn, she thought, disappointed.
Her meeting was scheduled for 12.15 and Beth had been trying not to think about it. The auction house had informed its staff a month ago about the cuts and Beth had always known there was a possibility her job might be among them. She was a valued member of the team but the industry was in dire financial straits and there was no way the auction house could keep them all on. No matter how hard she worked, no matter how well she understood her subject, there were people older and more experienced. And how many modern art geeks does one auction house need, she thought wryly.
As she reached her boss’s office door, her palms grew moist with nervousness. If she lost her job, she didn’t know what she’d do. She’d been telling herself it’d be fine but deep down she was terrified and not just for herself. She had Molly to think about too. She closed her eyes for a second, remembering how she’d pressed her lips against her three-year-old daughter’s sleeping head the night before. The scent of Molly’s warm skin, freshly laundered pyjamas and strawberry shampoo filled her with a fierce, protective love.
“We’ll be okay, darling,” she’d whispered as she’d stroked the little girl’s dark hair. “You and me, we’ll be okay. I promise.
As she raised her hand to knock, Beth realised she had no idea if that was true.
Five minutes later she got her answer. Sunlight streamed through the slatted blind in her boss’s office, creating strips of light and shadow across the desk. Beth sat on the opposite side, looking down at her hands.
“I’m really sorry Beth. It’s been a terribly tough decision and you’ve been such an asset to the team…”
If I’m such an asset to the team, why are you letting me go? thought Beth but she pursed her lips and looked up at her boss defiantly. She knew she wouldn’t cry. She didn’t do things like that in public but she could feel a heavy ache building in her chest nonetheless. She sat and mutely nodded as she listened to her boss spell out the terms of her redundancy.
In the ladies’ bathroom, Beth pulled her thick flame-coloured hair out of its band and tried again to tie it in a neat ponytail. Uncontrollable hair was a gift from her mother, and she had fought against it all her life, just as she had rebelled against Linda’s bohemian sensibilities and silly notions about art conquering all. Or was it love? Beth rolled her eyes at her reflection. She loved her mum but in the real world you played by the rules or you got knocked out of the game. But what’s the point of playing by the rules if you’re going to get knocked out anyway, she thought grimly. She had worked at the auction house for five years, ever since she’d left university with a first class masters degree in art history. Her mother had always told her she was too talented to spend her life tucked away in a research department but Beth knew from her own childhood that talent alone didn’t pay the bills. She was determined that, unlike herself, Molly would have a stable, secure upbringing. The auction house had been a solid job that offered decent wages and rewarded hard work. Until now. Beth gave her hair a final tug and sighed.
Back at her desk she quickly pulled up a list of contacts. For the next while she didn’t let herself think, she simply sat and typed. Two hours later she had fired off some fifty or so emails, some enquiring about specific roles but most just asking if there was any work at all. Glancing at her inbox she noticed she already had some replies. Sorry. Apologies. Regretfully. Not at this time. Bear you in mind. The message varied in tone but not in content. Beth leaned back in her chair, put her fingers to her temples and took a deep breath.
Don’t panic, she told herself. You will find something. She had six weeks paid work left at the auction house, plus a couple of hundred in the bank… she totted up the numbers in her head. Take out bills, food… she had enough to last them about two months. But then Molly needed new shoes… Beth’s head began to swim. All that mattered was Molly, she thought. As long as I can take care of Molly. That had been her mantra for the last three years. And now… what on earth was she going to do now? She felt the ache begin to build again beneath her diaphragm. She closed her eyes then quickly opened them. Leaning against a row of files on her desk was the business card she’d been given earlier that day by the assistant.
Beth picked it up, scanning its gold and grey typography for the woman’s email address. Then, before she could change her mind, she dashed off a message, expressing her admiration for the buyer’s taste and explaining her circumstances.
If you have any projects coming up for which you need any help, I would love to be involved, she finished, before attaching a copy of her CV and pressing send. She sat back again and bit her lip, thoughtfully. It was a cheeky thing to do but it was worth a try. She probably wouldn’t get a response anyway, she reasoned. Spontaneity really wasn’t her thing. This morning ought to have taught her that. She grimaced as she remembered her encounter on the steps of the auction house but as she did she felt a pang in pit of her stomach which wasn’t anything to do with her embarrassment. Get a grip, she scolded herself and pushed her chair back from the desk just as a reply flashed up.
Thanks for your email. Actually we might have something. Can you meet for coffee at the Soho Hotel at 3pm?
Beth checked her watch. It was half past two. Soho was just the other side of Regent Street, it would take her fifteen minutes to walk there. She typed back: I’d be happy to.
Great. See you there, came the swift response.
It was five minutes to three when Beth arrived outside the swanky central London hotel. As she entered the restaurant, a waiter dashed towards her.
“I’m meeting somebody,” said Beth glancing around for the assistant. “I’m having coffee with –
Her eyes fell on a table by the window. Seated at it was the not a female assistant but a tall, impeccably dressed businessman. He looked up and caught her eye and her stomach gave a jolt as she recognised the strong build, caramel skin and jet black hair. He was even better on second viewing, she thought and almost laughed. She was appraising him like a work of art. But this man was a work of art, she thought; this Apollo. The heat crept to her cheeks as she felt herself under his scrutiny for the second time in just a few hours and it wasn’t only her cheeks. Deep inside her something stirred, hot and liquid like molten wax, something wholly unfamiliar. Desire, a voice in her head whispered but she ignored it. She was 28, she knew what desire felt like. Of course she did. Molly had a father, for goodness sake. Peter had been her husband once… no matter what had happened afterwards.
The waiter followed her gaze across the room. “Ah, Mr Bardem, of course. Let me show you.”
“Mr who?” said Beth. Something was familiar. Mr Bardem… Bardem Holloway. Oh hells bells, he wasn’t just an international businessman, he was the owner of the whole company. She felt her mouth go dry but she determinedly held his gaze and smiled.
“Mr Bardem, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I have been observing your recent purchases with great fascination.”
Stefano Bardem stood up and shook her hand. Something like a smile flickered in the corners of his eyes but his mouth remained serious.
“Miss Fanshawe. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me at such short notice. I understand you’re looking for work, yes?” He cut straight to the chase, his flawless English inflected with the merest hint of an accent.
“I have some business coming up you might be able to help with. Now,” he paused and looked down at a mobile phone on the table in front of him. “My assistant forwarded me your resume. It says you speak French?”
“That’s right,” said Beth. “I spent a year there studying. In Paris.”
“My business is in Paris,” he explained. “I have meetings, auctions, some social events. I need an assistant, someone who knows the language. Your background in art will also be of benefit. It’s clearly something you’re passionate about.”
He paused and looked at her, his amusement plain now. “Of course it could be that chasing high bidders outside and shouting at them in the street is par for the course in your office.”
Beth felt her face grow hot again but she smiled in spite of herself. “Oh yes, that’s all part of the service,” she said. “And it’s a good thing you were only after a few drawings yesterday. I’ve seen auctions for neoclassical sculpture end in fisticuffs.”
“A good thing?” he said. “On the contrary, a bit of rough and tumble would have been quite exciting.”
Beth blinked in surprise. Was he flirting with her? “I’m not one for getting physical on the first auction,” she said carefully.
“Well, that wasn’t my first auction. And I’m pretty sure it wasn’t yours. We could have taken it to first base, at least?”
Oh God, he was flirting with her. For a moment her eyes locked across the table with his and she felt a dart of searing heat blaze through her as she fought the urge to scream YES! This sensation was ridiculous, it wasn’t normal. Desire? Desire felt like butterflies. When she’d first met Peter he’d made her feel happy, light, airy and yes, a little nervous, but always safe. Right now she felt like she was standing on the edge of a dark, vast ocean, trying desperately to stop herself leaping in. That wasn’t desire, it was madness. She shook herself and mentally clawed her way back to the meeting.
“How long will you be in Paris?” she asked, endeavouring to change the subject.
“I will be there one week,” he told her. One week? Her heart sank. A lot further than she cared to admit.
“Mr Bardem, I’m sorry. It sounds like a fantastic opportunity but I’m really looking for something more…” she struggled to find the words. “I have a daughter, you see and I have to… a week just isn’t really…”
“A daughter?” Beth looked up and saw a surge of colour flash through his eyes.
“A three-year-old. Molly,” she said.
“Where’s her father?” he asked sharply. Beth felt her insides turn cold and her heart gave a painful flip. In a split second she was back in the hallway of her old house, the black telephone receiver in her hand. She remembered the pattern on the tiles, she remembered the feel of the hard plastic against her ear, the way she’d gripped the doorknob of the living room as she staggered backwards in shock. Then later the doctors, the police, the lawyers… something caught in the back of her throat.
“H… he,” she stammered.
“I apologise, it’s none of my business,” he said airily. “In any case, I can offer you a good rate of pay.”
Beth shook her head slowly as her reverie faded. “Unfortunately I’ll have to turn it down. I still have four weeks left at the auction house and I can’t afford not to work them.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “What’s your salary? I’ll match it.” Beth frowned. For someone who owned a company, he clearly wasn’t very good at maths.
“But four weeks is still better than one, Mr Bardem. Even if you can match my salary.”
Stefano shook his head. “No, Miss Fanshawe, I mean what’s your annual salary? I’ll pay that for the week.”
Beth stared at him. “You’ll pay me… for one week’s work? You’ve got to be joking!”
He gave a dry smile. “Do I look like the kind of man who jokes about money?”
Beth swallowed. Given the extraordinary symptoms she’d been experiencing over the course of their conversation, she wasn’t sure she was the best person to comment on what kind of man he looked like. “But I…”
He exhaled impatiently. “Miss Fanshawe, I’m really not sure what kind of ‘but’ there could be at this stage. I need someone with your skills and I am prepared to pay for that. I appreciate it’s short notice but from what I understand, you’ve not exactly been swamped with better offers.
Beth studied him seriously for a moment. For all his flirtation he really did seem genuine. But this was not a sensible move by any stretch of the imagination. And Beth was not one for recklessness. Model student, loving wife, dedicated employee: these were the things she knew how to be. Jetting off to Paris with a total stranger on some vague offer of work was the kind of blithe impulsiveness she’d expect from someone like… her mother.
She brushed a strand of coppery hair out of her face, only for it to fall straight back down. All her life she had played by the rules and where had it got her? Maybe it was time to try another tactic. She looked at Stefano, the broad shape of his shoulders, the casual way he was resting one tanned hand on the tablecloth in front of him as he waited for her response. The smile was gone from his beautiful mouth but his grey eyes regarded her calmly and sincerely.
“When do we leave?” she said simply.