Friday, 15 April 2016

Debut Spotlight: Linda McLaughlan

Under the debut spotlight today it's the turn of author Linda McLaughlan whose debut novel Chasing Charlie is out now as an eBook and will be published as a paperback next Thursday.

Linda McLaughlan has worked in film and TV in both her native New Zealand, and in the UK where she lives now. She spent some time backpacking through Asia where she met her illustrator husband and moved to England. She lives on very little sleep in a quiet lane in deepest Hampshire with her husband, two children, five chickens and string of foster dogs. Chasing Charlie is her debut novel.

When unlucky-in-love Sam bumps into her first boyfriend, the charming but roguish Charlie, she falls head first for him all over again. Even though he broke her heart, she’s determined to win him back – even if she has to chase him all over London...

Sam’s friends have their doubts about whether cheating Charlie is really the man for her, but they have their own problems to deal with. Uptight Mara is struggling to trust anyone after a bad break-up; sexy corporate go-getter Claudia has her self-confidence rocked after a health scare; and sensitive, intelligent Ed, has been secretly, hopelessly in love with Sam for years...

As Sam chases her lost love like a woman possessed, getting into ever more outlandish situations and making a fool of herself in the process, she finds herself wondering just how far she’ll go to win Charlie back. Or will she finally see what’s right under her nose?

Thanks to Linda's publishers Black & White publishing I am able to share with you an extract from Chasing Charlie to whet your appetite.

Chapter 1

It was about half past five and it felt like most of W1 were on the footpaths that evening looking for somewhere warm, dry and well stocked. Normally, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. I’d been in London for long enough to handle a spot of rain and a few extra people about, but that evening my reaction skills were somewhat lacking. My badly chosen pumps were wet for a start. Mara had taken one look at me that morning and her eyebrows had jumped halfway up her head. She was right of course. It was a boot day, not a pump day. But those eyebrows – you know the kind, they say a thousand (mostly patronising) words in the space of a few millimetres. So I left the house without changing my footwear. The roles at 21 Harvist Road, Queen’s Park, were clear-cut. Mara was the sensible one; I was the ditzy one. It was an excellent arrangement.

Except, of course, when I lost sensation in my toes. Then it was just bloody stupid.

I was taking my sodden, stupid self to meet the girls at the pub, cursing my feet and all things cold when out of nowhere someone rounded a corner and walked straight into me. A sharp intake of breath and a big splash later, I was on my bum in a puddle.

‘Fuck  me, it’s you,’  I whispered, the world tilting (it really was!) as I took in who was reaching out to help me up.

He hadn’t changed a bit, and if anything had grown more handsome since I’d last seen him. He was – sorry, is – excessively good-looking and I would challenge anyone not to find him attractive. He had one of those faces people look twice at and nudge whomever they’re out with, murmuring, ‘Who’s that? Do you think he’s off the telly?’ His sexy, slightly curving eyebrows sat exactly in the right place on his forehead. His cheekbones were high, his jaw clean-lined, without a smudge of jowl peeking out below. His nose was straight, his lips inviting and his eyes were always sparkling. Was I making him sound like a hero from a Mills & Boon? Perhaps. But I had forgotten his hair. There you had the deal-maker. A warm russety brown, just the right side of boyish and kept just long enough on top to fall into his eyes every so often.

He caught my eye and surprise flashed across his face.

‘Sam?’ he said uncertainly. ‘Sam Moriarty? Is that really you?’ I let him help me back onto my feet and made an ineffective effort to straighten myself out, my heart going nineteen to the dozen. I was vaguely aware that people were swirling either side of us, but I was making no effort to avoid their bags and elbows. I didn’t feel like a grown-up Londoner in that moment. I felt seventeen again, flimsy and nervous.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he said in his creamy Sloane accent. ‘I should have looked where I was going. I was in a hurry. Such an idiot . . .’

‘Charlie,’ I said.

‘. . . running late for my meeting, and just came running round the corner . . .’


Charlie stopped talking.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Are you OK?’

‘I’m all right. More shocked than anything,’ I said.

‘Seeing me would do that.’

‘Yes.’  I didn’t know what else to say. All I could think about was how close we were standing together under his umbrella.

He glanced at his watch.

‘So how long have you been in London?’ he asked.

‘Four years,’ I said.

He looked a little startled. ‘As long as that? I thought you were doing Australia.’

‘I was there for a couple of years.’

‘Then it’s amazing we haven’t bumped into each other before now,’ he said.

‘Not really, I doubt we inhabit the same circles,’ I said, possibly a little frostily, and he’d laughed then – his big hooting laugh I hadn’t heard for such a long time.

‘Why, because I’m a toff and you’re a woman of the people? Oh, Sammy, you haven’t changed a bit!’

‘Well it’s true!’ I said.  I was desperately trying to keep my frown on and failing. 
He looked at me, his head tipped slightly to the side, as if he was looking at a curious display.

‘Look, we should try and have a drink sometime, catch up properly. But right now I’ve really got to make this meeting. That is, if you’re OK?’ he said.

‘Of course. Go!’  I made impatient shooing motions, thinking he’d just go then. But he didn’t. He took his phone out, and I took out mine, and he rang my number so I’d have his.
‘I’m so glad I bumped into you, Sam,’ he said, his voice drop- ping into his lower register, and he bent down and kissed me on both cheeks. That set off at least a dozen hyperactive butterflies in my chest. I tried to look him in the eye but couldn’t manage it.

‘All right. Now sod off,’ I said. Charlie laughed.

‘I’ll call you!’ he called as he strode away.

Charlie Hugh-Barrington. I couldn’t deny it – a part of me had been thinking about him on and off over the past decade. Sure, I’d got on with my life, and for large parts of it I hadn’t given him another thought. But in my heart there was this teenage girl wearing a hideous gold handkerchief top wondering, ‘Will we get back together? Will we?’ And now I’d seen him! I had actually, really, truly seen him! Inside, I felt like I had been thrown a mile into the air and left there, hovering, while down on earth my feet walked me mechanically to the pub through the rain. As I trudged, I fingered my phone in my pocket. I had his number.

The door to the pub was sticky from the rain, and I had to give it a good shove to open it. Inside, the air was thick with the stench of perfume, beer and coat after moist coat. I stood there for a moment, still reeling. But I had to pull myself together; it was girls’ time now, no time for mooning about. There was a place for that, and it wasn’t Friday nights. I took a deep breath and pushed my way to the back. There they were. I could see Claudia’s glorious blonde pouf, the perfect beacon, guiding me across the room.

‘Sorry I’m late,’ I said as I drew level with their booth.

‘Would you look at what the cat dragged in?’ Claudia’s foot- long eyelashes took in the whole sorry sight in front of her, from my scalp to my toes. She paused at my feet. I followed her gaze. The thick grey tights I’d considered the one sensible winter addi- tion to my outfit were wet from my calves down, and were dying a horrible death in the two orange paddling pools that had been my pumps.

‘I take it you walked?’ Claudia asked.

‘Of course I bloody walked,’ I answered crossly. What kind of question was that? I peeled my tights and pumps off and left them on the floor. They could produce their own tributary to the Thames without me, thanks all the same. ‘And don’t bloody say you told me so,’ I said to Mara as I squeezed into the booth next to her.

Mara grinned at me.  ‘I really wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.’
And girls’ night began. I held my encounter with Charlie inside like a tiny golden nut. Normally I tell my best friends everything, but he was my secret for the time being.

‘You’re quiet,’ Mara observed at one point. I shrugged. She eyed me with that shrewd ‘you can’t get anything past me’ way of hers, but let it go. I tried to focus on what Claudia was saying. She was telling a story about some calamity her sister had got herself into. I gasped and shook my head and giggled at what I hoped were the right places, all the time feeling like I was going to burst with my news. The only thing that seemed to help was drinking. So I did. Up, down, up went my glass, and the minutes passed. Soon it had been an hour.

Finally I had to use the toilet and I stood, rather unsteadily, and excused myself. At last I could check my phone away from my friends’ overly observant eyes. The door closed behind me, reducing the din from the pub to a dull clatter. The bathroom was cold. A vent, presumably put there to share the smells of the toilets with the universe, was doing a good job of passing on the smell of old chip fat from the kitchen to the bathroom instead. I veered into a cubicle, pulled down my pants and sat down. I rooted around inside my handbag. I hadn’t checked it yet, not wanting to give myself away, but it also wasn’t the done thing, not with the girls. It was one of many rules that Mara insisted on, completely ignoring popular culture as usual. No phones on the table when it’s girls’ night. It’s rude, it’s distracting and it’s taking over our whole lives, so shove it in your bag.

There it was. My heart juddered as I took it out.

No new texts. I checked the signal. Four bars. Fuck! What did I expect? I leant over my handbag, my knickers at my knees, and stared at the door, wallowing. It was pathetic. I was pathetic. But then, gradually and quite against my will, my eyes started to focus on the graffiti on the back of the door, and I couldn’t help reading it. They stopped at a wriggly heart.

S M luvs C H

How immature was that, writing on a toilet door? I rolled my eyes. But they kept being drawn back to the heart. Finally I twigged. Those were our initials, or close enough. And just like that, I was back at the party. The one where it all started.

It was Gavin Mallory’s seventeenth birthday party. I was there reluctantly. Annabel Brown had dragged me there to watch her sink a bottle of Cava and pluck up the courage to snog some oaf I had no time for. I stood in the shadows, such as they were in Gavin’s parents’ garage, and watched the girls swaying and the boys standing around in awkward bunches. I couldn’t be bothered with any of them – they were all so samey, talking about nothing, and they bored me. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to have arguments about stuff that was actually happening in the world, about films, about music. I wanted to be older than I was. I wanted to be out of there.

And then Charlie arrived.

God knows how Gavin knew him – maybe through playing rugby or something – but there was a shift in the air when he stepped out of the darkness of the driveway and into the garage. OK, so the girls weren’t overflowing with integrity before, but their preening and tittering took on a whole new lease of life when they clapped eyes on him. The boys weren’t sure what to do. Talk to him? Take the piss? But somehow he just melded in, talking effortlessly with whoever had the guts to speak to him. I was transfixed. He had a proper haircut and held himself like a man. Upright, but relaxed. And his voice! The minute he opened his mouth I was done for. Posh, yes, but it wasn’t his pronunciation that got to me – it was the texture of his voice that really weakened my seventeen-year-old knees. Like deep red velvet; like black treacle. Mrs Watts, my English teacher, would have reacted violently with her red pen if she’d seen the ardent purple twaddle I wrote in my diary that night and many more nights after that.

At some point during the party, Charlie stopped affably chat- ting to everyone else and spent the last magical couple of hours with me. Me!  He actually fancied me! He could have anyone but he chose middle-of-the-road Sam Moriarty,  living in an ordinary semi, in ordinary Petersfield, going to an ordinary comprehensive. From that night on, he transformed my last year at school into something magical.

Of course he was away at school most of the term but our relationship was hot and heavy and meaningful in the holidays, and any odd weekends he was home. And me being me (and an even sillier, seventeen-year-old version at that), I thought that this was it – I’d met The One. We would travel the world together and eventually settle in the country. We would host wonderful parties together, and ride horses across the downs on perpetually sunny days . . . I dreamt up a whole life with him in the year we spent together and didn’t have any reason to think he felt otherwise. He was every girl’s dream boyfriend, attentive, loving and funny. He pined for me in-between visits home, and couldn’t wait to see me again. He was particularly keen on seeing me on a leather couch in his sitting room at home (his brother and him had their own sitting room, if you please), which was just big enough for two teenagers if they lay down on top of one another . . . in other words, he was perfect, we were perfect.
Why couldn’t it have just kept on being perfect?

It was obvious! I drew back from studying the toilet door. There was no other way of thinking about this. He was the only man I had ever loved. Loved, for Pete’s sake. I dabbed cursorily and lunged out of the toilet, all fired up with the zeal of a woman who has finally found her mission in life. I was a complete idiot to let him go without a fight all those years ago. I would win him back, that’s what, starting from now.

The door opened then with a bang. In strode Claudia, filling the room with cinnamon and musk.

‘There you are!’ she said, going straight into a cubicle. ‘There’s a hilarious guy out there desperate to join our table, but Mara’s having none of it,’ she said, peeing furiously.

I half listened as I stared into the mirror. So I’m going to win him back, but where to start?
Eyes: definitely my best feature, blue with flecks of green. A bit bloodshot tonight, but we’ll brush over that.

Eyebrows: looking a little tatty as usual, but hopefully someone can do something with them.

Nose: Used to be cute and stubby. I turned my head in the mirror – left, right. Left again. Dammit. My nose was starting to look like my mother’s, slightly bulbous at the end.

‘He’s not taking no for an answer. You should see the look on Mara’s face,’ Claudia continued from behind the door.

‘Typical,’ I answered. That’s the thing about Mara.  If I ever started feeling too tragic about my own love life, I could always look at her. She kept a wall so high around her that men probably didn’t even realise there was a real, live woman standing behind it.

Claudia joined me at the basin, and took out a compact and lippy from her bag, retouching her perfect make-up with an ease that I had long given up wondering if I would ever achieve. I turned back to the mirror and leant in close. Where were the girl-next-door freckles across the bridge of my nose? There were a couple of blackheads but no sign of the cute freckles, the traitors.

Mouth: lips a little on the thin side, prone to looking worried in repose, not to mention dry. I smiled. At least my faithful pegs were still obediently lined up, only my eye teeth misbehaving, jutting out at a slight angle. The smile would do.

Hair: Christ. I dug my fingers into my greasy roots, attempting to liven it up into something that looked deliberately messy, rather than tragically rained on. I met Claudia’s eye in the mirror.

‘Darling, your hair looks awful.’

‘Do you want to have a go at it?’ I asked hopefully.

Claudia came closer and poked an experimental finger into my roots, her face looking as if she was poking something rodenty to check if it was dead or alive.

‘No.’ She withdrew her finger and washed it under the tap.

‘I’m not that disgusting, am I?’

Claudia dried her hands on a paper towel. ‘No, darling, you’re not. But your crazy hair in this weather is more than I can deal with tonight. I want to relax, not perform miracles.’

‘Thanks a lot.’

‘You’re welcome.’

She was right, of course. And if even my dear Claudia thought I looked a mess, what would Charlie have thought tonight? I doubted I’d looked any more together when I’d seen him. I took one last look at the frizzy-haired face in the mirror. I would need a miracle to whip myself into shape. Amendment: I would need a whole bag full of miracles. A big bag. A mahoosive bag that would be impossible to carry on my own. I could see already those damn miracles were going to put my back out. They would be expensive. They would be elusive. I shook my head and grimaced. What the hell was I thinking?

We went home after that, back to Mara’s flat, where I’d lived for the past two years. I was silent on the Tube. All I wanted to do when we got in was shut myself in my room and flick through my memories of Charlie, savouring each sweet moment one by one. I also needed to work out where I could magic the miracles that would help me win him back. I certainly didn’t want any more surprises, or anything verging on emotionally taxing. So when we opened the door to the flat and found another gorgeous man sitting in the kitchen, this one brown and lean and smiley, I almost cried.

But Mara didn’t. She squealed with excitement.

‘Ed! You’re back early!’

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