Seven Summer Nights is finished. If I look whipped, that’s because I am. Poke me with any kind of cutlery you like and serve me sprinkled in Parmesan curls: I’m done. I will have this book in your hands, or in your e-readers at any rate, by the end of November at the latest. The very talented Jay Aheer is working on the cover, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with.
This book! (Here you have to imagine the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes pacing about the floor, clutching at his fevered brow: This case, Watson! THIS CASE!!! [He was such an adorable drama queen.]) How long has it taken me to write? Too long, that’s how long. Since February, in fact, and that doesn’t make me financially viable as an author. To manage that, I need an average of four releases a year, although since I somehow popped out Priddy in the midst of all this, and I hope to offer a festive shortie, I guess it’s not too bad.
This is the longest book I’ve ever written. Nearly 140K words. And, after all, it may tank on me: I’ve reached further, dug deeper, and although I adore my MCs and am missing them already, the issues are serious, the romance wrapped around some heavy-duty plotting. I don’t think it’s an easy read: it was a bloody tough write.
But the joy of creating for my core readers is that I’ve always found you open to whatever bonkers thing I decide to try next. You’ve loved my secret agents, my agoraphobic Scotsman, my quantum physicist with Asperger’s and my sheep-farmer. I think – dearly hope – that you’ll love Rufus and Archie, my World War veteran and his vicar. I know not all of you love extracts, though, so this is your warning to read no further! For the rest of you, here we go…
Spence led Archie into an open ward. A first glance showed him twenty or so beds arrayed along the walls. This was the seaward side, to judge by the chilly light, but the high windows were keeping their secrets. Only a handful of the beds were occupied. Spence sheered off at an urgent summons from a nurse, leaving Archie to find Rufus for himself.
Which should have been so easy. The one man of all other men who’d entered Archie’s world and turned it painfully, deliciously inside out: Archie could have picked him out among thousands, he’d thought, by scent alone if he had to.
But this place stank of Lysol, and Rufus, with his head shaved and his dapper suit replaced by hospital pyjamas, looked just like the other wasted bodies under blankets in the shifting sea-ight. “Dear God,” Archie whispered, finally picking him out. He swept up to his bedside like a hot wind. “I thought I’d lost you. It’s all right. I’m here now.”
Eyes like the clouds over Colditch Sands. The shorn head turned on the pillow. Archie could feel the effort of focus, as if a seagull’s mewing had turned out to be a human voice, in need of response and attention. “Could you… pass me some water, please? My throat’s dry.”
“Of course.” Archie perched on the edge of the mattress. The brigadier was in conclave now with another two white coats, and Archie couldn’t have cared less anyway: leaned in and brushed the lightest kiss to the exposed brow. “Why didn’t you tell me these scars were so bad? Here, let me sit you up a bit. Here’s your water.”
Rufus leaned back on the pillow Archie had pushed behind him. He held the glass awkwardly, like a man wearing thick sheepskin mitts, drank a mouthful or two then lost his grip. Swiftly Archie reached in, wiped up the spillage with a napkin and held the glass to his lips again.
The clouded eyes watched him from a vast, lost distance. “That’s enough. Thank you.”
“Why can’t you manage for yourself?”
“Not sure. Jolly annoying. Slipped me a mickey, I suppose – they always do, in here.”
“You haven’t been here before.”
“Not this one, no. All the same, though, really, aren’t they? I’m just hoping this one’s…” He faded out, struggled to sit up a little further. “A bit closer to home.”
“You’re not in a field hospital, Rufus. All that’s over.”
“Oh, I know it will be soon. With all the surrenders on Eastern Front, things can’t go on much longer. So you needn’t look so worried.” He put out a hand and briefly patted Archie’s. “I say. You mustn’t cry over it, old man.”
“I’m not.” Archie rubbed the napkin over his face. “All right, I am. Sorry. It’s just that I’ve been looking for you all night, and… they cut off your lovely hair.”
“Do I look awful?”
“No. Like a fallen angel.” Archie ran the lightest touch over his scalp, gingerly avoiding the scars. “It looks as if you fell on your head, though. They’re going to make this feel better.”
“That would be nice. Listen, though, Reverend. It’s good of you to come and see me, but I’m not a believing man, not… not in that way. You should go and see Corporal Brooke. He was going to go into your line, he told me. Before he got drafted.”
Archie’s turn to spill the water now. He placed the glass back on the bedside cabinet. “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
“I’m sorry. Have you come to see me before? You’d think I’d remember a chaplain brave enough to come so close to the Front. Especially one this handsome.” Colour rose painfully into his face. “Forgive me. I am drugged.”
“Please don’t tell anyone I talk that way.”
“I won’t.” Archie fought back terror. “Listen. Do you remember the village and the church? Do you remember…” He paused. Impossible to find words for what remained so lucidly clear in his own mind. “Being with me in the orchard at night?”
“No.” The wan face became wistful. “Sounds lovely. I wish I could.”
Archie would do neither of them any good by lying face-down on the blanket and bursting into tears. The sense of loss expanding within him was bigger, more eviscerating, than the pain he’d experienced on the first morning after Richard’s suicide. A comforting graveside cliché: the people we love are never truly gone as long as we remember them… What kind of death-in-life would it be to have lost his place in this man’s mind? “Don’t worry,” he said hoarsely. “Everything will be all right.”
“What about this church, and the orchard?”
“They’ll be waiting for you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
A faint, weary chuckle. “I must be worse off than I thought.”
“Because you’re holding my hand, Vicar. They generally only do that when we’re about to snuff it.”
Well, that was bitter truth. The rough semblance of training Archie had received for his front-line role had almost prohibited physical touch, as prone to unstring the nerves and make lonely squaddies weep for home and their mum. He tightened his grip. “You’re not about to snuff anything. You don’t remember, Rufus, but I’m your friend. And as soon as you’re better, I’m going to take you home.”