Was it just the awful weather that was making Emma feel so miserable?
IT had been a tough day. It wasn’t just the dark skies and the heavy rain; it was Emma’s clients. They seemed to grow steadily more demanding. Where once her first-time authors were thrilled to be published, now they expected her to secure them the sort of outlandish six-figure deals they seemed to keep hearing about. It was unrealistic.
As for her more established writers, they hankered for the days when every publisher had a whopping budget for promotion and publicity.
Emma had tried to explain that authors were now expected to get savvy about social media and do a lot of the legwork themselves, but some didn’t listen.
“I’m starting to prefer a day poring over contracts to spending time with people,” she told Phoebe, who’d brought her coffee.
“Don’t be silly,” Phoebe replied playfully. “You love being an agent. We know your greatest thrill is tearing open a fat Jiffy bag, hoping to discover the new ‘Girl On The Train’.”
Not every submission was that exciting, but Phoebe was right that reading manuscripts was Emma’s favourite part of the job.
Yes, she received too many copycats of the latest headline-grabbing big sellers, and more insipid romances than she cared for, but she tried to give every effort a fair crack, and she’d found quite a few authors who’d been able to give up their day job, and one or two who’d done rather better.
“What are you having for tea?” Phoebe asked now, swishing into Emma’s office in her raincoat and sitting on the edge of the desk.
“It’s a night for some hot soup for me,” Emma said. “Preferably on a tray, with something good to listen to on the radio.”
“Matt coming round?” Phoebe asked.
“No. He’s away with work,” Emma replied.
“What exactly is it that Matt does?” Phoebe asked as they walked down the stairs.
“Shares,” Emma replied vaguely.
“What, like a stockbroker?” Phoebe asked. “Yes,” Emma fibbed. In truth, when she’d asked Matt the same question in their early days, she’d picked up that he wasn’t a stock-broker, but she couldn’t follow what it was he did do.
After three years, she felt it was ridiculous to admit to Matt or anyone else that she had no idea.
They opened the door to the sound of wheels swishing on wet asphalt and the wiggling trail of head-lights reflected in surface water.
“This is where I split,” Phoebe said, popping up her brolly and running to catch her bus.
“See you tomorrow,” Emma called.
She headed in the other direction, stopping in her tracks when she saw her bus queue. No way were all these people going to fit on one bus, and she couldn’t bear to wait in the rain for another.
If ever there was a night to treat herself to a taxi home, this was it.
Emma hurried down the footpath to find a spot from which to hail a cab.
Joy! She was due a bit of good luck, and up came a taxi with its yellow light on.
She rushed to meet it as it pulled in to the kerb and was almost pushed out of the way by a tall man in a dark grey overcoat.
The man grabbed her arm to steady her, then dropped it just as suddenly, as though fearful he might have hurt her.
“I thought he was stopping for me.”
“He may have been,” Emma admitted. It had all happened rather quickly. “Look, we’re both getting soaked, and we both need a lift – couldn’t we share? Which way are you going?”
“Longdene,” the man replied.
“Then we have a deal,” Emma declared. “I’m heading for Woodside.”
The man opened the car door and stood back for Emma to climb in.
When they sat down, Emma was glad that the man pulled out a book and began to read. She wasn’t in the mood for making conversation.
She was tired and the dark evening made her feel ready for bed, rather than company.
Left to her own devices, she found herself stealing glances at the man beside her.
His wavy hair, wet from the rain, was almost black, and the shadow on his jaw suggested he was a man who needed to shave twice a day.
Another glance revealed dark hairs on the backs of his hands and wrists as he held his book, and Emma felt sure that, if he turned and looked at her, his eyes would be dark, too.
Suddenly he turned towards her.
“Why do you keep looking at me?” he asked.
Emma felt colour rush to her face. People didn’t usually challenge you like this. They usually pretended they didn’t notice.
She had to think quickly. Some explanation was required unless they were to pass the remainder of their journey in hostility or embarrassment. Would two fibs in one day be too bad?
“I was looking at the book,” she lied. “I have a professional interest.”
There, that sounded better.
“I’m a literary agent,” she told him.
“You get writers into print?”
“Yes, when I can.” What was his accent? There was something soft in it, but something wild, too.
“What do you do?” She was genuinely curious, and hoped it wouldn’t be a job like Matt’s that she didn’t understand.
“I work with horses.” “Doing what exactly?” “Training them, racing them, loving them.”
Well, she understood that, at least.
Emma had never heard Matt talk about loving shares, whatever he did with them. He loved his BMW and holidays in the Maldives, but she hadn’t heard him say he loved an animal, and she wasn’t even sure if he loved her.
“There aren’t many horses in Longdene,” she observed, guiltily aware that she was fishing.
“I had to come to town to do a deal. I hate it. It makes me nervous. I can’t wait to get back to the country.”
Emma was just about to say something else when the driver interrupted to tell them that, due to flooding, the road ahead was closed.
They’d have to take a diversion, but that meant a lot of traffic being funnelled down one street, and there were bound to be delays.
Five minutes earlier, a weary Emma would have been dismayed. Now, though, she found she wasn’t so disappointed. “I’m Emma.” “Francis,” he replied. She was right. His eyes were as dark as sloes.
“I must ask – what’s your accent?” Emma ventured.
“I’d rather not say,” Francis mumbled, turning his book over in his hands.
“Oh.” Emma couldn’t imagine what would make someone reluctant. She decided to change tack.
“Well, we’re both book lovers – we’ve got that much in common.”
“Look, I’m a traveller. At least, I was. Not everybody likes travellers. We’re mistrusted. People think we’re uneducated.
“My father loved horses and he loved books. He had me riding at two years old and reading at three.
“But I read too many books about people who lived in houses, with drawing-rooms and fireplaces and stables out the back.”
“I always wanted a house with a library,” Emma told him.
“I wanted that, too,” Francis admitted. “I’d have all of Shakespeare’s plays on one shelf, and Shaw’s on another.”
“I’d have every Dickens, bound in leather,” Emma returned.
“And the Bröntes: fine, fierce, fearless women,” Francis added.
“And poetry – Keats and Coleridge and Christina Rossetti.”
“I could talk like this all night.”
“I could talk like this all night, too.”
With the traffic stalled and the wipers slapping from side to side, Emma and Francis spoke of novels they had raced to finish, read and reread; they rhapsodised about poems that had made them brave or made them weep.
It was almost with disappointment that the driver stopped the taxi.
“Longdene. Where do you want me to drop you?”
“Emma, I’m with somebody. But if I wasn’t . . .” Francis searched her face with those sloe eyes.
“I’m with someone, too,” Emma admitted. “But if I wasn’t . . .”
Francis was already halfway out of the door. “It wasn’t meant to be.” And he was gone.
Although Emma didn’t see Francis again, and had no expectation of ever doing so, she brought things to an end with Matt.
In her job, she asked to see the first three chapters of a novel from prospective clients; if she was hooked, she’d request more.
Well, she’d seen three long chapters from Matt, and she realised she really didn’t want to read on.
In summary he sounded great – independent, professional, solvent, confident – but Emma found she wasn’t that interested in his story.
She continued to represent her writers and to try to give a break to new talent, but nothing came along that truly surprised or inspired her.
At least, not until a year later.
It was another wet day in November. Emma had just wrapped her hands round a mug of coffee and had set aside routine work in favour of a reading day.
Tearing open the topmost Jiffy bag in her submissions drawer, she eased the contents out on to her desk.
She ignored the covering letter and summary in favour of reading the first page without any preconceptions.
As she read, her heart started to race.
There, set down in print, was an account of that meeting 12 months earlier – the rain, the taxi, the connection – an encounter that had stayed with her like a melody she couldn’t quite forget.
But the writing was from his point of view, not hers, and it was beautifully told.
She whipped out the letter. It was signed Francis
Barry. He had found her. She spent the next hour reading Francis’s first three chapters. It was their love story, or at least the beginnings of it.
Emma was enchanted. It was the best thing she’d read in a long time, and she definitely wanted to read on.
But wasn’t it a kind of love letter, too? And didn’t that mean she had to reply?
There was a postal address, but that would take days. Even an e-mail might not get seen for hours.
Emma picked up the phone.
When he answered, in that soft, wild voice she’d only heard inside her head for a whole year, she found she couldn’t speak at all.
“It’s all right,” Francis’s voice said in a soothing tone she imagined he used on frightened horses. “I just needed to know. Now I do.”
“You’re miles away,” Phoebe observed, buttoning her coat. “Ever since the horse-whisperer showed up, you haven’t had a thought in your head for anyone else.
“Are you going down to the country again this weekend?”
“Yes.” Emma nodded. “Mornings with the horses, afternoons working on Francis’s manuscript, and evenings spent just the two of us.”
They tramped downstairs and pushed upon the door into the wet night.
The wheels swished on the wet asphalt and the headlights made their wiggling trails on the surface water.
Emma couldn’t have felt happier. ■