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One Hot Italian Summer
Author: Karina Halle

One

 

 

Grace

 

 

They say writing is the loneliest profession.

It’s said so often it’s become a bit of a cliché. I never really understood it, because, until now, it’s been the opposite for me. Writing has been the greatest journey, a dream career, a chance to be with my best friend day in and day out, working together to create something magical. It has never been lonely—it has never been anything but a shared discovery of the unknown. Me and Robyn against the world.

But now that world is unfamiliar to me. The lights have dimmed. It’s just a maze of shadows, hard to find your way in and impossible to get out.

And I’m standing in front of that dark maze, knowing I have to go it alone, knowing the journey I’m about to go on—if I can even open up my laptop most days—is going to be dark and strange and terribly sad. There is no joy here, only fear. Fear that I alone will not be able to find my way with Robyn gone.

I stare at the blank page before me, this bright, flashing thing that stares right back. It dares me to write a word. To start.

But I can’t.

I reach over and slam the laptop shut then push back my chair a few inches, the sound of the wood scraping on the floor loud and definite. I want to put distance between me and the work but I know I can’t do this forever. This is my career, the path I chose, and either I give up on it now and move on to something else, or I forge my way forward.

For now, though, I’m moving on.

Just for today.

Because it’s easier this way.

I sigh and get to my feet, stretching from side to side. You’d think I just put in hours of hard work from how sore I am, but the truth is I’ve been sitting here since this morning, just staring at the screen, lost in thought and often paralyzed by it.

It’s the end of May and I have a book due at the end of summer.

The first one I’ll have written on my own.

A book with what feels like the entire world riding on it.

Because my world is.

I walk over to my bedroom window and gaze out. From here, I can see Dean Cemetery and people walking along Dean Path, their brightly colored umbrellas popping against the monochromatic background. So far, spring has settled on Edinburgh in a grey mist, and I can’t remember the last time I saw the sun. It certainly hasn’t helped my mood, turning writer’s block into a solid concrete wall.

I sigh and rub my hands up and down my arms. The flat is drafty and damp, the kind that sticks to your bones. It’s the top level of a stone house, and I’ve been renting it since university. There are wood beams along the ceiling, one stone wall in the kitchen, and wind that whistles through the thin windows, bringing in the chill and the musky scent of the River Leith.

Also, it was this cemetery across the street that changed everything for me. I stumbled upon a gravestone that only gave a hint of a woman’s rich past and then my brain was off and running. A cozy mystery about an elderly lady who used to be a member of Scotland Yard and her long-lost American niece. Both of them teaming up to solve mysteries and fight crime while running a cat café.

Too scared to write alone, I approached Robyn, wondering if she’d want to write it with me. She said yes and the two of us jumped into it without a second thought.

I met Robyn Henry in my university’s creative writing class. I was studying history at the University of Edinburgh in a vain attempt to make my professor father proud, and decided to indulge in something more freeing. Though I’d often spent my childhood alone, I’d lose myself in books. They kept me company when I had no one, and I’d pen silly little stories to pass the time. A creative writing course made sense for me.

It made more sense when I met Robyn.

Robyn was unlike anyone I knew. I was shy and quiet, keeping tightly to myself, and she was loud, quirky, and gregarious. She took a liking to me, kept on bugging me to hang out with her, wanting to read my stories before anyone else. She saw something in me that many people dismissed, and in turn I was enthralled with her. I wanted to be just like her.

My mobile rings, jolting me out of my thoughts. Honestly, there’s only a few people who call me regularly and I have to say I don’t feel like talking to anyone at the moment.

I go to my bedside table where it’s charging and look at the number.

My heart goes cold.

It’s my agent, Jana Lee.

I’m terrified of her.

I stare at it for a few moments, thinking. If it were my mom or dad I’d wait for them to text or leave a voice message, but I can’t ignore Jana.

I pick it up.

“Grace speaking.”

“Grace, darling, how are you?” Jana’s throaty voice comes through. “How’s the writing coming?”

She doesn’t even take a moment before she barrels right into it. That’s her, straight to the point, even if it knocks you over.

I can lie. I’ve been lying for the last couple of months, essentially as soon as Jana signed me as her client. But I’m not sure if she’ll let it fly this time.

“Uh,” I stammer.

“Please, please, please tell me you’ve made progress. Tell me you at least have a quarter of the book done.” This is more of a command than anything.

“I do,” I lie. I glance guiltily at the laptop on my desk, as if it’s going to jump up and protest.

Jana sighs heavily. “Grace, listen to me. I need to know the truth. I need to know if you can finish this manuscript by September first. If you can’t, then we’re in some serious shit here with the publishers and I’m not about to put my neck on the line for you. I need to know now so I can either have the deal cancelled or we can move forward, as it is in your contract.”

This was what I was afraid of. I always thought it was dumb luck that I managed to land Jana as my agent, after my last agent, Maureen, dropped me. For Maureen, Robyn was always the one she believed in. Robyn was her star. For the last six years that Robyn and I wrote the Sleuths of Stockbridge series, the only contact I even had with Maureen was through Robyn.

Then, when Robyn died, Maureen decided she couldn’t represent me. Gave me the excuse that she was grieving, but I was grieving too.

I still am.

Jana represented another author friend of mine, Kat Manning, who put out her feelers, managed to snag me a phone call with her. I even took the train down to London to have a meeting.

Here’s the thing about Jana Lee: she’s as infamous for her brash, bold, volatile personality as much as her talent in picking and nurturing writers. She’s one of the most, if not the most, powerful literary agents in the U.K. She’s been responsible for everything from bestsellers to Pulitzer prize winners, and for whatever reason, she decided to take me on, even when I didn’t have a book to show for it. All I had was a proposal, a three-page outline for a women’s fiction novel, and she managed to sell it for a nice sum.

Now, of course, I have to follow through and write the damn thing.

Which has been next to impossible.

Time for me to finally admit it.

“I don’t want the contract cancelled,” I tell Jana. I need it. I need it to not just give me money to pay my rent since royalties are so unreliable, but to prove myself as a writer. To prove I can do this without Robyn’s help, that I can do it alone. “I’ll make it work. It’s just been … harder than I expected.”

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