His Brand of Beautiful finalled in the Romance Writers of Australia First Kiss competition 2012 held in April. My entry was judged 125/125 by one judge; 124/125 by another and 123/125 by the third, to finish on top of the locally-judged part of the competition.
The final judge was Jessica Alvarez of Bookends.
I haven’t entered writing competitions before, but the feedback from the process has been extremely valuable to me. This scene has been tweaked since the judging and I think it is longer now (First Kiss entries had to be 1000 words), but for anyone interested, I’ve put the scene below.
My hero Tate, and heroine, Christina end up in the Australian outback on horseback on a camping trip (the why, is in the book). Christina, a winery executive; wants Tate, a branding strategist, to design a new brand for her family company, Clay Wines. There are (of course) a gazillion reasons why Tate doesn’t want to work for Christina.
In Chapter 10, they wake up in a tent (err… she wakes up in the tent – he’s in a swag by the fire) somewhere in the South Australian outback by a river (this is set in the days of Lake Eyre floods) and Tate has bet Christina to a shooting match with his .22 (she having boasted the previous night she could shoot them a rabbit for dinner).
The bet? If Tate wins, Christina owes him $100 and has to read him a sex scene from an erotic book she keeps under her bed. (How he knows she has this dog-eared book under the bed, is – you guessed it – in the book). If Christina wins the bet, Tate has to design her new brand.
I hope you enjoy.
Christina accepted the gun in one hand and a heavy-duty cardboard box of .22 bullets in the other. The rifle felt as well-loved as it looked; trigger metal-smooth beneath her index finger. Lethal. She chose four bullets, flipped them in her palm like marbles, handed back the ammo box and tucked the remaining three in her jacket pocket. Bullet number one clicked as she slid it into place; worked the bolt. The rifle nestled into her armpit like it belonged.
Tate checked his watch. “I did happen to open your book at this very dog-eared page that was about the time Barbara goes into a swingers’ bar. You could read me that part—”
“Shut up Newell, or I’ll shoot you.”
Her mind focused, needlepoint sharp. Oxygen filled her lungs. A tickle of breeze brushed her creek, fanned the scent of rich silt and damp earth across the river, and something else—cleaning oil from the barrel of the gun. A twig floated into a nest of dead branches snagged on a log midstream.
“Ready?” He raised his hand, started counting down. At zero, his hand dropped. “Go!”
She exhaled. Raised the gun to her shoulder. Sighted on the rock at far left.
A half-second before her lungs emptied she squeezed the trigger.
Cockatoos lurched for the sky. Horses shied. Recoil kicked her shoulder. Shards of rock skipped toward the river, raising ripples where they hit. The largest portion scratched bark off the neighboring trunk; crashed against a serpentine root. A smaller piece fizzed across the sand like a skimming stone.
For a second she stood stunned—which showed how out of practice she was—good shooters didn’t notice noise or recoil or ripples racing for the riverbank.
She worked the bolt. The spent cartridge spat into the sand, buried itself fat-end-up like a lead finger giving the bird. Bullet number two slotted home.
Aim. Exhale. Squeeze. Thwack. Eject. Reload.
Bullet number three. Heart pumping like a train.
Thwack. Eject. Reload.
Fourth shot she hesitated, wanting to make it certain; wiped the palm of her trigger hand against her pants. Cockatoos screeched above her head, the sound drifting as the birds wheeled in huge sweeping circles. Acrid-smelling blue smoke hovered over the riverbank; seared the back of her throat.
Aim. Exhale. Squeeze. Don’t pull. The shot cracked across the sand.
Christina lowered the gun. She wanted to throw her head back and scream triumph at the sky.
“Forty-three seconds, four hits,” Tate muttered.
Flicking the safety on, she concentrated on making sure the hand that held the gun to Tate held no trace of a shake.
“Where’s the poker face Newell? You seem shocked.”
“Hold the celebrations, Annie. Now it’s my turn.” He scouted by the bank for more rocks.
“Don’t pick yourself watermelon targets either.”
He placed four new rocks on the platform and stepped back behind his improvised line.
He clicked the safety off, slotted his first bullet and took up his shooter’s stance; legs shoulder-width apart, slightly bent at the knees, boots half-buried in sand; blue jeans clinging to that tight, tight ass.
“I’m ready,” he said.
She cleared her throat. “In my book, Barbara has a lesbian romp with a chick called Lillian. She has the most fantastic tongue, apparently. Maybe I could read you that one.”
His grip on the gun tightened. “And I thought I fought dirty.”
He backed the pressure off. She couldn’t see any white in his knuckles and she knew then he was good. She raised her arm. The second it dropped she clapped both hands to her ears.
Bullet number one cracked across the sand like a stockman’s whip; obliterating the target rock. So did two and three in a blur of pump and reload. Man he was fast.
He sighted the final target and took the shot.
“Damn. That’s wide.” The muscle in his jaw twitched.
Alone on the platform, the final rock mocked him unscathed, while all around them, whipcracks echoed off the sand and cockatoos shrieked.
Christina pumped her fist and let out a primal whoop. She pounded upstream, away from the excited horses at a sprint, high-fiving a row of appreciative, if droopy-leaved, shrubs. Her boots plowed the heavy sand, knees like pistons and somewhere near the end of the second victory lap when her stomach started to cramp and her lungs to burn; it occurred to her she should offer Tate commiserations. Besides, she had to catch her breath. She hunted for him, hands on her knees, squinting against the rising sun, trying to pierce the deep shade by the river.
He was by the bank, .22 propped against a tree trunk the size of his waist. His mouth was set in a grim half-smile, arms loose at his sides.
“You are such a crappy winner,” he called across the sand, voice thick; the slightest twitch in fingers hanging loose.
Head down, she gasped between pants: “You’re a … lousy … loser.”
She looked up in time to see his hat frisbee to the ground. He took a single, menacing pace forward.
“You wouldn’t dare…” her protest choked on a bubble of giggles.
Lion-quick, Tate sprinted across the sand. She had no time for a half-step in any direction before his tackle steamrolled her to the ground. Any air she’d managed to get into her body whooshed from her lungs.
A whirlpool of blue-checked shirt, orange sand, and sky—shot through by a whip of chestnut as her hair escaped its tie—spun outside arms that encircled her like an iron cage. His momentum slowed and they plowed to a halt, her riding boot tangled between his legs; her arms wedged in the too-small space between her breasts and his chest. She pushed against his solid mass, tried to shimmy an arm free, tried to take a breath. Just one. She wasn’t greedy.
Tawny-orange grains of sand scattered through his hair, the two colors in the sunlight almost a perfect match and she thought what was sand and what was hair? Peered closer; noticed flecks almost the same color on the very outer rim of his iris, like moons around Saturn. Or was it rings? Did Pluto have the moons?
“Breathe Christina. Don’t you dare faint.”
The breath she sucked in went exactly nowhere because her snort of laughter expelled it straight back the way it had come and her shoulders shook. Hard. A tear squeezed down her cheek. Tate caught another where it pooled against her nose.
She smelled gun-smoke on his collar; wood-smoke at his wrist. The contrast made her wonder.
Her right arm popped free. She laid her elbow over the side of his neck; let her fingers dangle into the coarse tickle of sand, warming now under the morning sun. Couldn’t resist a stroke into his hair; waves a little stiff where sunscreen and dust slicked the tips. His breath deepened.
“Christ,” he mumbled against her hair. Or did he say her name? His voice softened. “What do I do with you?”
“You don’t want to work for me. You can’t shoot me.” It started sassy. It ended on a sigh. There was heat in his cobalt eyes that could have melted polar ice-caps; was melting her.
His hand slid beneath her shirt. Callused fingers, rough from the previous day’s ride, dug under her bra and when his palm caught her breast; she wasn’t sure who sighed first. There was nothing gentle in the lips that parted hers; it felt like their contest continued. Christina closed her eyes and pressed closer, tasted mint toothpaste, coconut sunscreen and gunsmoke—loitering on his tongue like the memory of yesterday’s thunder. A moan vibrated in the back of her throat.
He teased her lower lip, sucked it into his mouth. His hand tangled in her hair; his thumb a warm weight at the point where her cheek joined her ear. Their hips bumped, slid away, bumped again; like boats at the dock. Rock. Roll. Rock. Roll.
Sunlight flickered across her eyelids and she missed him instantly. Her eyes flew open, found him breathing hard, propped on his elbow above her; eyes bright.
“What’s wrong?” She hardly recognized her voice. The word rasped from lips that were shaped for kissing, not talking.
“I’m lying on a rock,” he said.
She giggled. “So am I.”
“That’s not a rock.”
He retrieved his hand from inside her shirt, nudged her hips away then sat, bringing her with him; gentle now. The borrowed shirt rode up her hip, revealing a muffin-top swell over the jodhpurs’ tight band and his eyes slipped lower.
“Don’t move,” he warned.
Oh my God. He’s seen a snake. She froze.
His palm came up; levered back. Slapped.
“Sorry.” Tate flipped his hand. A crushed black body and an explosion of blood painted his palm. He wiped the mess on his jeans.
Christina rubbed her hip, trying to take away the sting.
When he ducked his head, her heart cartwheeled. He laid his lips over the red mark his palm had raised and then the scrape of his whiskers created a whole new kind of sting. She tangled her fingers in his mane of tawny hair, watching the river slip-sliding away through a gap in the trees.
He breathed in her scent and she felt him exhale; a rush of breath warm on her stomach.
A wry smile curved her lips. “Let me guess. I stink of Eau de horse and coconut?”
“It’s like perfume on you.”
A lone pair of cockatoos—the first brave enough to re-enter the warzone—screeched defiance overhead. In the shade the horses waited, tails swishing to an unheard tune.