This is one of the old practice novels I started writing when I still thought I was going to be the next queen of romance fiction and I’d considered posting it before and dismissed it as just too awful.
But then as I was researching names for my 200 Thank You’s on the Occasion of my 200th Blog Post post (because I’m terrible with names if you’re someone I’ve met personally – you’ll have to become famous if you want me to remember your name for all time), I pulled out a bunch of amateur publications from when I was at Holmesglen TAFE. And there, amongst them, was a collection of first chapters from my Novel 2 class. And this was in it.
I shuddered. But I figured if it was already out there, it might as well be out here, too.
It’s way too long for a first chapter of a category romance novel and it’s unnecessarily complex because both the main characters have men’s names even though one is a woman. But aren’t these exactly the kinds of things in relation to which we insist on sticking to our guns when we’re young and learning to write and don’t know any better?
‘Stephanie Bailey, will you marry me?
Stevie Bailey, as she was known to her friends, struggled to retain her neutral expression as the impact of the question hit her with all the force of a fist. Inside, however, she was abuzz with emotions and questions of her own. Why was this man calling her Stephanie when he knew she only responded to Stevie? Why was he asking her to marry him when they weren’t even dating? And what the hell was going on? That was the most prominent thought in her mind at that exact moment. In fact, she had been silently asking that question all night.
Gatherings at the Bailey family home were routinely formal affairs without being completely over the top. And while everyone in attendance tonight was attired as per usual, Stevie had been noticing the tiny details that denoted difference. The regular domestic staff, who could normally handle the cooking requirements for a dinner party, were being assisted by an outside catering company. There were perhaps only twenty people attending – all family and close friends – but no more than normal.
Another fact that had not escaped Stevie’s notice was the wine being served; it was part of her father’s private and very special collection, and along with the numerous bottles of champagne she had seen chilling, the tally of suspicious events had begun to grow.
Added to the secretive glances her parents had been exchanging with the parents of the prospective groom all night, and her mother’s uncharacteristically youthful exuberance, everything seemed to be falling into place.
Of course, it was far easier to see in hindsight. But at least Stevie now knew why she had been abruptly abandoned by her cousins at the stroke of ten o’clock. Seeing their decisive departure, Stevie had attempted to rise herself but had been forced by Rose and Verity to sit down again. At the sight of the big half circle surrounding her while she sat meekly on a chair in the sitting room, she had wondered if this were some sort of family intervention. But for the life of her she couldn’t think of one addiction she had that would require this.
The proposal had dismissed those thoughts from her mind; most thoughts, in fact. But she now realised that the semi-circle behind the man who had proposed to her was meant as some sort of road block, stopping her from making a getaway, if as they anticipated that was what she may have intended. But she intended nothing of the sort. She wasn’t moving until she discovered exactly what was going on.
Stevie forced a smile and looked at the man in front of her, who as tradition demanded, was on bended knee. And as tradition also demanded, he was holding out a sparkling engagement ring, although unlike most, the gold band carried on it one of the most beautiful diamonds Stevie had ever seen. But she supposed it should have been expected when the man holding it out to her was Alexander King, the son of her father’s business partner and a man of impressive proportions in his own right, financially and physically.
‘What are you doing?’ she whispered so that only he could hear, while trying desperately to maintain her apparent smile.
‘I think I’m proposing,’ he whispered back, and from what she could tell, he seemed deadly serious.
‘Why?’ was the only thing she could think of to say. But perhaps it was the right thing. Alex’s sober expression disappeared momentarily, replaced by a discreet flash of white teeth.
‘Not for any of the normal reasons,’ he clarified quietly without really clarifying anything. ‘Just give the same answer you would always give me, regardless of the circumstances.’
‘Okay,’ Stevie murmured, then raised her eyes to the crowd to see if they had heard her exchange with Alex, but none of them seemed to have. She could sense the rising uneasiness and a glance at her mother’s anxious but excited face told her what was expected. Clearing her throat, she gave her response in a loud and unmistakable tone.
‘No.’ The uproar was instantaneous. Her mother began to feign her infamous illness, the one that only Stevie tended to bring on. Her father and Alex’s faltered, their hands in mid-air as they prepared to shake on what they had considered a done deal. Everyone else was so shocked they could barely utter the words of condemnation. But when they did, there were only a few phrases of astonishment and displeasure that were not voiced.
Amongst all this uproar were the two most important players, Stevie and Alex, who remained exactly where they were, surveying the commotion they had just caused. Alex then rose from his kneeling position, snapping shut the lid of the engagement ring box and sitting beside Stevie to wait for their respective families to calm down and regain their usual poise. It did not take long. Everyone present bore either the name Bailey or King and had grown up in the public eye, necessitating the ability to quickly mask true feelings. The talent was coming in handy now, Stevie could see.
Sitting in silence with Alex, she decided an explanation was in order, especially since she sensed he had received the expected and desired answer.
‘What was that about?’ Stevie asked pointedly, turning her back on the confusion of the room.
‘I’d love to explain but it’s going to have to wait,’ Alex deferred, distracted by something over her shoulder. She opened her mouth but got no further with her interrogation before her mother and a selection of female relatives accosted her, dragging her off by the arm into the privacy of the parlour.
‘Stephanie Bailey, what on earth do you think you are doing?’ Helen Bailey cried, pushing Stevie down onto an available couch and collapsing beside her only daughter. ‘How can you even dare to refuse Alexander? How could you not want to become a part of the King family? Imagine. My daughter could be Mrs Alexander King, but no! She considers herself too good for him.’ She leaned back in her chair and pressed the back of her hand to her forehead, demonstrating just how draining her disobedient daughter’s behaviour was. Helen’s sister-in-law, Moira, and nieces, Rose and Verity, made up the contingent determined to force a reversal of Stevie’s rejection.
Stevie could barely contain herself. Apart from her irritation at being referred to as Stephanie, which she had informed her family did not suit her at all and from now on she was to be called Stevie – a decision she had made at the ripe old age of eight – she was appalled that her mother could think she would ever marry a man she didn’t love. Alex was a good friend, her best friend in fact, but a husband? A partner? A lover? Never!
Well, she reminded herself, there had been that one night, the night they had celebrated the twentieth anniversary of their respective fathers’ partnership. It had been a flashy get-together of Sydney’s who’s who and Stevie had spent the evening drinking far too much and poking fun at most of the guests, although never to their faces. The occasion might have been proclaimed social but she knew that business was never far from the minds of either Benjamin Bailey or Lloyd King.
Alex, who by then had already started working for the family company, had done his duty by mingling before his own efforts at consuming too much liquor.
That night had marked a turning point in their relationship. After being assured by Helen that they would not be missed by anyone, especially in their drunken state, they had escaped to the guesthouse and settled down to watch an old late night movie. But they weren’t more than fifteen minutes into the film when the television and all the lights flickered off. And judging by the music that continued to blare from the main house, it was only their plans that were affected.
They hadn’t even intended kissing each other; at least, Stevie had never intended kissing Alex and he had never shown any inclination towards kissing her. Their relationship had never been like that at all.
‘Shouldn’t you go check the fuse box?’
‘Why should I do it?’
‘Because you’re the man. Don’t men do those sorts of things when the lights go out?’ she queried, not wanting to admit she didn’t know where the fuse box was.
‘Men do all sorts of things when the lights go out but so far I haven’t demonstrated any of them for you,’ Alex said boldly. The remark was typical of Alex, despite his drunken state. Typical of the uncensored dialogue he exchanged with her, at least.
‘You haven’t wanted to,’ she pointed out, crossing her legs and turning to face him, the absent electricity all but forgotten. His outline was still visible in the muted light flowing down from the main house where the party continued.
‘I still don’t. Not really. I don’t think.’
Stevie sighed dramatically, hiding a smile. ‘Well, as long as you feel that way, go ahead. But just for clarification, how drunk are you?’
‘Pretty drunk,’ he offered, slurring the adjective.
‘Okay. Well, this should be memorable,’ she muttered, offering up her face and waiting for him to find her lips in the dark. It took some effort. First he kissed her ear, then her cheek and her chin, before finally finding his intended target. But by that time, Stevie was already laughing.
‘This is like kissing a mime artist,’ she managed to get out between giggles.
He locked lips with her after gaining a degree of control, delivering one of the funniest kisses Stevie could remember being the recipient of. She managed to endure it for a moment before starting to laugh again.
‘I was wrong. This is like kissing my grandmother,’ she sputtered, shrugging Alex off the shoulder he was resting his forehead on, only to have him fall back against her.
The lights came back on then and Stevie’s eyes had to adjust to the brightness before she could focus on Alex. When she did, she realised he was slumped against her because he was asleep.
It had certainly been memorable, if only for her. Alex had maintained that he remembered it all except for the falling asleep part.
‘Of course, you don’t; you were asleep!’ she had joked. But for Stevie that had been the most unforgettable part of all.
And how had the evening been a turning point? Well, Stevie considered, it had rid them of possible complications. They had both realised that the future held nothing more than friendship for them, and it had made them the best of friends. That had been over eight years ago.
‘Stephanie, are you even listening to a word I’m saying?’ Guiltily, Stevie looked up and, realising that she was smiling at the memory of Alex, schooled her features into a more serious expression. ‘Well, what do you have to say for yourself?’
‘Mother, the first thing I have to say is do not call me Stephanie.’
‘Stephanie!’ her mother cried.
‘The second thing I have to say,’ she continued more seriously despite her mother’s outburst, ‘is that I have no intention of marrying a man I am not in love with, and regardless of how fond I am of Alex, I am not in love with him.’
‘We know you’re not in love with him,’ her cousin Rose agreed, too quickly for it to be backdown. Nevertheless, Stevie’s determination was transformed into confusion.
‘Of course. But we also know that you do love Alex,’ her other cousin, Verity, insisted.
‘Of course. In the best way possible without actually being in love with him,’ Helen said coaxingly, raising a hand to ensure no strands of hair had escaped from her stylish French roll; none would have dared. ‘And what better base for a marriage to begin from?’
‘I can think of a number of better bases,’ Stevie muttered. ‘Actually wanting to get married would be one of them.’
‘But you and Alexander would be perfect for each other, dear. Can’t you see that?’ Moira put in. Stevie surveyed the women looking at her and decided they had all succumbed to some form of temporary insanity.
‘I’m sorry, but Alex and I will never be anything more than friends. You will all just have to accept that.’ Stevie defiantly crossed her arms over her chest.
‘I’m sorry, too, Stephanie,’ her mother said without elaborating, then yanked Stevie up from the couch and dragged her out of the room into the hall. Alex was standing there surrounded by his family, although Stevie doubted that he had been dragged by anyone.
‘Oh, Alexander, I’m so sorry about this. I’m sure that Stephanie didn’t mean to say no to your proposal. I’m sure that she would be ecstatic to be your wife,’ Helen babbled on, trying to suppress the objections that Stevie was attempting to raise.
‘Mother, stop it. I’m not going to marry Alex.’ Her mother was horrified but Stevie couldn’t let her go on with her wild assertions. ‘I’m not sure how you convinced him to ask me but I know that he doesn’t particularly want to marry me either.’
‘Stevie, how could you doubt my feelings?’ Alex questioned dramatically, and Stevie was the only one to notice the roguish gleam in his eyes. Damn him, she thought to herself. He was enjoying this as much as she hated it. She only wished she could take the wind out of his sails by declaring she would marry him. But she knew that any positive declaration she made, even in jest, would be one her family would never let her go back on. No, it was better that she stand firm, she decided, no matter how much she appeared to be an ungrateful and hostile recipient opposite Alex’s façade of a seemingly devoted yet unrequited suitor.
‘I don’t doubt your feelings. That’s why I know you don’t want to marry me. We’re not getting married.’
‘Oh, no,’ Helen whimpered, and everyone rushed to her side in anticipation of her fainting.
‘Don’t worry, Helen,’ Alex said, striding past the crowd towards Stevie, then sweeping her up into his arms and walking determinedly to the base of the stairs. ‘I’ll make her change her mind if it’s the last thing I do.’ And at that, with her struggling in his arms, demanding to be put down, he marched up the steps towards Stevie’s bedroom.
She gave up her struggle as soon as they reached her room, knowing he would put her down. He did this, then closed the door.
‘Are you insane?’
‘Are you doubting my sanity?’ Alex questioned back.
‘Yes! I began to doubt it the minute you proposed.’ She started pacing the room, infuriated by the progression of events that had led them to this moment in time, events that had been mostly of his making. She had no illusions about the fact that it was both their parents’ wish to see them married, to each other no less, but Stevie had been certain that the issue would never seriously arise because Alex was as amused by their desire as she was. Or so she had thought!
‘Just calm down,’ Alex soothed, watching her progress back and forth.
‘Calm down?’ The pacing stopped and she faced him directly. ‘Calm down? I’m definitely missing something here. What possessed you?’
‘Nothing possessed me. I just decided it was time to make them all realise that our marriage was never going to happen.’
‘Oh, but you didn’t see fit to let me in on tonight’s little stunt?’
‘Your mother would have known in an instant if I’d told you what was happening,’ Alex pointed out.
‘It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that I’d have been gone in an instant if you’d told me what was happening?’
‘That might have played a part,’ he agreed. ‘I mean, the demonstration would hardly have been effective if you weren’t even here to refuse me.’
Stevie was becoming annoyed by his backward sense of logic. ‘What about the part where you carried me up the stairs?’
‘What is conflict without a little drama?’ he parried, seeming to have all the answers.
‘And the rest?’
Alex quirked an eyebrow.
‘I’ll make her marry me if it’s the last thing I do,’ she mimicked poorly, imitation giving way to irritation.
‘To be fair, I think my exact words were “I’ll make her change her mind if it’s the last thing I do”.’
Stevie quirked her eyebrows back at him. ‘Semantics.’ His explanation was merely fuel for the fire burning fiercely inside her. Wisely, he didn’t say anything for a long moment and when he finally spoke, Stevie could tell he had deliberated quite thoroughly.
‘I thought if we were going to go through with this plan as a means of getting them off our backs, it would have to seem spontaneous, at least to you. And there was no better way to ensure your reactions would be real ones. As for the rest, well, I didn’t want to seem too eager to accept your refusal. Besides, I think your mother appreciates a little drama now and then.’
‘How much do you think she’ll appreciate it when I go downstairs and tell her we’re not getting married?’
‘It’s the nature of being disappointed. She’ll just have to deal with it.’
‘She never should have had to deal with it.’
He was silent. Stevie had finally out-argued him.
‘I only proposed because I knew you would never accept.’ Alex found his voice, but it was a smaller, quieter version of the one Stevie was used to. Far from winning this argument, she realised they were both losing it. She had not come to visit from another state so that she could argue her way out of this friendship.
‘I understand that. What I don’t understand is why you ever thought proposing would resolve this issue.’
‘I’m not sure I can tell you why I thought that. But I can tell you that your mother was damn convincing. And your father. And my parents as well. It seemed like a very concerted effort,’ he explained as if it were suddenly just dawning on him.
‘I should have known they would be behind this,’ Stevie said. ‘It’s always been a hope. It seemed more like a demand tonight, though. You should have heard my mother telling me why we should be getting married. Rose and Verity, too.’ More items to add to the list of bizarre behaviour, she thought, shaking her head.
‘Your father?’ Alex was still thinking about his own remarks. ‘This is weird.’
‘They could never be accused of repetitive ploys. Or should I say plays? Sometimes it feels like a game. I just wish they’d pick someone else to play it with.’ Stevie sank onto the bed, suddenly tired of it all. She studied the carpet at her feet, not looking up when another pair of shoes moved into her line of vision.
Taking the moral high ground was terribly draining and, she suspected, depressingly pointless. She had never known her mother to lose a single campaign. Campaigns were there to be won, not abandoned. And despite the fact that this campaign was entering its tenth year, her mother’s eyes were still on the prize.
‘Hand it over,’ she ordered without looking up. The shoes in front of her own splayed in a silent question. ‘The ring.’
Alex dug in his jacket pocket for the jewellery box and placed it in her outstretched hand. She opened it and took the ring out, sliding it onto her left hand ring finger and holding up her hand to study the stone.
‘Well, I suppose we’ll have a decent marriage,’ she said without expression, handing back the box and closing her fist as if to seal the placement of the ring on her finger.
‘What?’ Alex’s hand faltered around the ring box and he dropped it before rescuing it in mid-air. Using his other hand, he forced Stevie’s chin up so he could look into her eyes. They were strangely dull but he could still see the accusation glinting there.
‘See? It’s not funny if I do it either.’
Alex breathed a huge sigh that encompassed both relief and regret, and sat down beside her on the bed. He wound an arm about her waist, trying to perk her up but she remained slouched, her head having returned to its previous angle.
‘My mother’s going to think you want to marry me now. I bet you didn’t think about that.’
‘The way I imagined it, I would ask, you’d say no, I’d persist briefly, you’d say no again and that would be the end of it. I guess I didn’t think it through properly. Just add it to my list of completely unthought-out relationship decisions. I never claimed to be any sort of emotional genius. I am an accountant, after all.’ He held his hands up and tried to look sheepish. He failed. But Stevie felt the beginning of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
‘You’re not an accountant; you’re an account executive. Hardly the same,’ she argued, keeping her head down, but even she could hear the smile in her voice. The arm about her waist tightened slightly but she still didn’t look at the man the arm was attached to. The anger was easy to rid herself of. The depression always lasted longer. And all the talk of marriage and life partners and love had made her consciously aware of the fact that she didn’t have any of those things.
‘There’s enough negatives coming from tonight,’ she relented, speaking the words aloud to pacify both Alex and her inner thoughts. ‘Let’s look at the positives. At least my mother now thinks somebody wants to marry me. I think she may have spent the last ten years wondering if anyone actually wanted her little girl.’
‘Oh, there have been a boatload who would have married you in an instant if you had given them the proper encouragement. Your mother knows that only too well.’
‘Like who? And you can’t count any of the ones who just wanted me for my money,’ she qualified, voluntarily looking up from the carpet for the first time.
‘Oh. Um, well, let’s see.’ Alex removed his arm from her waist and cushioned his head as he lay back and contemplated. ‘What about Gareth?’
‘Ew! You’re not serious,’ Stevie hoped, twisting around to look at him as he reclined in the middle of her bed. ‘Our relationship was entirely in his head. Besides, Gareth is my third cousin. You don’t seriously expect me to marry someone I’m related to?’
‘Apparently not. What about Wesley?’ Alex suggested.
‘Wesley was even more blue-blooded than my mother. And no matter how many times I told him I hated being called Stephanie, he still insisted on using my full name.’ She shuddered at the memory.
Alex didn’t offer up any more suggestions and the silence drew Stevie back to that dark place where she shared her mother’s worries of never finding someone she would want to spend her life with. She hated this place.
‘Hmmm?’ He was still thinking about marriage candidates she had spurned.
‘Do you really think you’ll find someone you want to spend the rest of your life with?’ The question was out before she could stop it. Usually she could stop it but then again Alex was usually a thousand miles away.
‘Sure. I mean, I assume so. I’m not in any great hurry, though.’
‘Of course, you aren’t. Men never hurry until it’s too late,’ Stevie responded, bringing her feet up and resting her head against his shoulder. She could feel his chin against her forehead as he looked down at the top of her head. ‘Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever find what my parents have.’
‘You’re not going to suggest we jump off the harbour bridge together if we haven’t found our perfect matches by the time we’re thirty-five, are you?’
‘No.’ She turned onto her side, tugging her skirt out from underneath her.
‘You’re not going to suggest we get married after all if we haven’t found our perfect matches by then?’
‘No. My mother would probably have pushed me off the bridge if it ever got to that.’ Alex laughed, covering the hand that lay on his chest. Stevie managed a small laugh of her own, the veil of depression lifting. He always brought out the humour, if not the best in her.
‘Are you ready to go back downstairs?’ he asked.
‘I suppose,’ she agreed without enthusiasm. ‘What are we going to say to them?’
‘We’ll say we’ve seriously discussed the possibility of getting married but think it won’t benefit anybody, least of all us. I’ll say I rushed into the decision, confusing friendship for love, and allowing myself to become wrapped up in the enthusiasm of members of the family who are in favour of the arrangement. You’ll say you’re flattered but not nearly ready to get married, especially not to someone you think of more as a brother than a potential husband. How’s that?’
‘Very eloquent. I knew you’d be useful eventually.’ Stevie studied the ring on her left hand which was resting on Alex’s chest. ‘I guess you want the ring back,’ she said regretfully. Well, it was a beautiful ring regardless.
‘Yes, please. I might have to break some more hearts later in the year.’
‘You wish. You’re not that eligible,’ she lied, sitting up and tugging at the ring. And that was when the disaster really began. ‘Um, Alex? I can’t get the ring off my finger.’
He sat up immediately.
‘Don’t worry. It’ll come off with a bit of effort.’ He grasped the ring and tried to pull it off as gently as he could, but it remained where it was. It was stuck.
‘Oh, fantastic! This is just what we need. The ring firmly positioned on my finger while we go downstairs and tell everyone that we’re not getting married.’
‘Don’t worry! It’ll come off,’ Alex reiterated, though it seemed he was reassuring himself as much as he was her. His efforts to get the stubborn ring off her finger were becoming desperate.
‘Ow! Alex, you’re hurting me!’
‘Sorry,’ he said, loosening his hold but continuing. They both knew she couldn’t leave the room until the ring came off.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door. Before either of them could move, the door flew open to reveal Eleanor, Alex’s youngest sister. Eleanor took one look at Stevie and Alex sitting on the bed, their heads close together, the ring lodged firmly on Stevie’s finger and Alex’s hand on the ring, and ran back down the hall, yelling, ‘Everybody! Everybody! She’s said yes. They’re going to get married. Stevie and Alex are engaged.’