An exciting opportunity could solve all Brianna’s problems. But will it ultimately create more?
Brianna Denton is a primary school teacher at the end of her tether. Budget cuts, changes in legislation and a pandemic have left her feeling like walking away from the only career she’s ever wanted. The trouble is, if she did quit, what would she do next? Living in London is expensive, and keeping on top of her rent and bills while retraining would be nigh-on impossible. An offer to move in with her best friend, Joel Harris, is appreciated, but feels way too much like charity for her liking.
But then Joel throws her a curveball. On a complete whim, he’s bought a fixer-upper cottage on a remote Scottish island. He wants to transform it into an uber-luxury holiday home and rent it out. To do that, however, he needs a skilled, reliable workforce and a project manager to keep things running smoothly. A visit to the island in question provides as many questions as answers, but one thing becomes clear – Brianna is the perfect woman for the job. She’s smart, organised, works well under duress, and if she can handle a classroom full of young children, surely a bunch of skilled tradesmen won’t be a problem. Working and living in such a stunning setting is a massive plus point, too.
Brianna takes a leap of faith, leaving her home and beloved career behind to help turn Joel’s dream into a reality. It’s a steep learning curve, but Brianna is definitely up for the challenge. But when working relationships develop into something more, will it bring the entire project crashing down around her ears, or is it simply the beginning of a whole new life?
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Brianna smiled as she caught sight of Joel, already waiting for her outside the pub. His job as a high-flying London City banker meant he put in some insane hours at work, but he ensured he was always available and on time for their last-Friday-of-the-month meet up at their favourite Thames-side establishment. Not only was it a lovely place, but the location was perfect for them both—it was just far away enough from Joel’s work it was unlikely he’d bump into any colleagues, and close enough to the primary school Brianna taught in that she could tie up any loose ends and scurry the short distance to meet her friend in no time at all. Today she’d had quite a few loose ends, which always seemed to be the way lately, and was a few minutes later than she’d planned, so was scurrying more quickly than usual, not wanting to keep him waiting any longer than necessary.
He hadn’t spotted her yet—he was leaning against the wall, one expensively-shod foot propped up on the bricks behind him, his head tilted up to the early spring sunshine, which even this late in the day was surprisingly strong and picked up the few lighter strands in his dark hair. He’d removed his tie—knowing him, the moment he set foot outside his office building—the end of which poked from the pocket of his black trousers, and rolled up the cuffs of his subtly-patterned shirt to expose most of his forearms. The look was casual, relaxed. Handsome.
In a parallel universe, she and Joel might be a couple, off travelling the world together, or perhaps married and getting ready to settle down and have a couple of kids. Maybe they’d have started early and had the kids already. And a dog.
In this universe, however, they were best friends—had been since their first day of senior school at the tender age of eleven. And while Brianna thought Joel handsome, it was in an impartial, stating a fact way. She wasn’t attracted to him, and it wouldn’t have made a difference if she was, because in this universe, Joel was as gay as they came—a fact she hadn’t realised she’d already known, until at eighteen he’d sat her down, his expression serious, and said he had something to tell her.
Her heart had pounded, and a sick feeling had taken over her stomach. Thoughts started racing through her head—was one of his parents ill? Was he ill? Was he moving away? Unable to cope with the internal onslaught of negativity any longer, she’d said, “For Christ’s sake, Joel, spill the beans, would you? You’re freaking me the fuck out.”
His seriousness had morphed briefly to annoyance, then resignation. He’d taken in and released a deep breath, then, “Bree, I wanted you to be the first to know… I’m gay.”
A sound somewhere between a squeak and a giggle had escaped her lips before she could stop it. She’d clapped her hand over her mouth for a second, then removed it and burst out with “Oh, you idiot!” before landing a playful slap on his arm. “Is that all? I thought you were going to say something bad. That something terrible was going on. Thank God.”
Joel had frowned. “So you… don’t mind?” He’d paused, narrowed his eyes. “You don’t seem surprised.”
She’d shaken her head. “Of course I don’t mind. Why the hell would I mind? I’m not a homophobe. If blokes float your boat, so be it. As long as you’re happy, I couldn’t give a toss. And, for the record…” it had been her turn to pause, “I think I’ve known for years.” She nodded as long-forgotten jigsaw pieces began slotting together in her head, then shrugged. “Yeah. I have. Years.”
And now, twenty years later, their friendship had endured—flourished, even. Weathered storms, and basked in sunlight—much as Joel continued to do as she grew closer. Her smile widened, and she was glad she had on flat shoes—not only did it make both her job and the short walk from the school easier, it also meant she had a good chance of creeping up on Joel, maybe scaring the shit out of him as he sunned himself. They might be approaching forty, but when they were together, they often acted as immature and idiotic as they had when they’d first met. Yes, they were getting older, but they sure as shit weren’t growing up.
Respective partners had come and gone, most of them never able to comprehend, much less tolerate, hers and Joel’s unique friendship, but as their jobs, and other friends and family kept them busy and fulfilled, singledom had never particularly concerned either of them. As far as she was concerned, at least, what would be, would be.
She enjoyed the sunshine on her skin as she closed the gap between them, then held her breath as she came within a couple of metres of Joel before flinging herself forward and grabbing onto his nearest finely-muscled arm. “Gotcha!”
He yelped, jumped, snatched his arm away and opened his eyes in a hilarious sequence, then clutched his chest and gave her a good-natured glare, his blue eyes glinting. “Fuck’s sake, Bree! You’re lucky I didn’t swing for you, then. I thought someone was trying to rob me.”
“That’ll teach you to wear ludicrously expensive watches,” she replied with a snicker.
He glanced wryly at his Patek Philippe, then looked back at her with a grin. “Touché. Come on,” he turned around, slipped his arm through hers and led her into the relative gloom of the pub, “for that twattishness, first drink’s on you.”
She couldn’t argue with that reasoning. It was still worth it, though, to see the look of pure panic cross his face. She stifled further giggles, not wanting to inspire her friend to order the most expensive drink he could think of, purely to get his own back. While top of the range watches were easily within his budget, she’d had to save up for a mid-range Fitbit.
A few minutes later, with drinks in hand, they sat down at a table on the terrace overlooking the river and took simultaneous sips of their chosen beverages. Brianna swallowed the mouthful of chilled white wine, then, without meaning to, let out a long, contented sigh.
Joel raised an eyebrow as he swigged his beer, then said, “Sounds as though you needed that. Tough week?”
“Hmm. You could say that.” She fidgeted in her seat, getting the uncomfortable inkling she’d opened a can of worms she’d have preferred was left undisturbed.
“Oh?” His other eyebrow jumped up to join the first. “Do tell.”
She stared out over the river, screwed up her nose and wafted a hand in his vague direction. “No, no, it’s work stuff. Boring, really. Not worth talking about.”
“Bree.” He grabbed her hand, drawing her attention to his face. His expression was earnest, his gaze intense. “Maybe it is boring, but it’s clearly bothering you, so I want to know about it. I’m your best friend, remember? If you can’t tell me, who can you tell?”
She squeezed his hand, then pulled hers away, picked up her glass and took a gulp. Swallowed, then groaned. There was no putting the lid back on the can—she might as well come out with it. “Oh, all right. It’s just… I don’t know… I think I’m getting a bit fed up of teaching.”
Joel spluttered into his pint, drawing querying glances from a few of the people at tables adjacent to theirs. Ignoring them, Joel put his drink down, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and gaped at her as though she’d grown a second head. “What? But you… you love teaching!”
Nodding sadly, she replied, “I do. The teaching part. The kids. But the rest; the planning, the admin, the assessing, the being assessed, being micromanaged, dealing with parents, the endless fucking meetings, the meetings about meetings, the meetings that could have been an email… it’s getting on top of me. It wasn’t too bad before—the joy of being in the classroom far outweighed the rest, but since the pandemic, the shambles that is bloody Brexit and the subsequent government fuckery, things have become steadily worse. Rules being changed, goalposts moving, budgets being squeezed, funding getting cut, costs going up. We’re expected to work more and more hours for the same amount of pay, with fewer support staff, yet still uphold the same insanely high standards and have enough energy and spark to engage and teach a class of primary school kids! It’s becoming completely untenable. And the strike action hasn’t exactly been stress free.”
Joel gave her a sympathetic smile. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. I wish there was something I could say to make you feel better. Why haven’t you mentioned this before now?”
She shrugged. “No point. All the decisions are way above my pay grade, so there’s nothing I can do. I’ve just been soldiering on, hoping things will improve. But right now, I honestly can’t see an end in sight. We’re human beings, not robots, and we’re being treated like shit. We’ve come a long way from being lauded as keyworkers, that’s for bloody certain.” She rolled her lips inward, bit down on them, wondering whether she should let the words on the tip of her tongue come out. She’d barely admitted it to herself, much less anyone else. But this was Joel. He’d have her back no matter what she said.
She took a deep breath, huffed it out again, then looked him in the eye. “I’m thinking of jacking it in at the end of term.”
Lucy Felthouse is the award-winning author of erotic romance novels Stately Pleasures, Eyes Wide Open, The Persecution of the Wolves, Hiding in Plain Sight, Curve Appeal, and The Heiress’s Harem and The Dreadnoughts series. Including novels, short stories and novellas, she has over 170 publications to her name. Find out more about her and her writing at http://lucyfelthouse.co.uk/linktree
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