Out of Luck in the Outback drops on April 25! You can pre-order it here. See below for chapter 1. It’s the 4th book in The Traveling Calvert Sisters series and features Ava, the second child of the Calvert clan. If you enjoy the series with all the sisters, you’ll love the ending.
You Need an Adventure
“The crystal dinner goblets are quaint reminders of the nostalgic era before the war, and the…” I hesitate, shake my head, and glare at my screen, backspacing until the sentence deletes into the void where it belongs. “The inn flaunts dinnerware sure to warm any antique lover’s heart.”
That’s not right, either. No matter how much I spin this sentence, it sounds like something out of my mother’s back issues of Good Housekeeping.
My coworker, Gwen, pops another olive into her mouth and shakes her head at my rambling before looking back at her laptop. Resigned and already bored with myself, I pull another pencil out of my makeshift bun and put it between my teeth. If I keep chewing my pencils to the nub every time I have a deadline, I’ll have lead poisoning before I hit my thirty-first birthday in two months.
“Ava!” a voice booms from across the bullpen. The tone startles me, and I knock over the cold coffee still in a mug from this morning. “Do you have that piece on hidden gems in the French countryside yet?”
“Not yet, Mr. Gosnell,” I say. I grab some crumpled tissues and dab at the sloshed coffee. “You said Tuesday at noon.”
Mr. Gosnell, a squat man in his sixties, puts his hands on his hips like he’s a junior high teacher in charge of an unruly bunch of seventh graders. The gesture only makes him look older than his actual age. Wrinkles line his mouth and the corners of his eyes as he squints in my direction. I paste a smile to my face, hopeful he’ll move on to criticize one of my coworkers.
Shaking his head, he points to his office. “Let’s chat.”
“Shit,” I mumble under my breath. “I told him I’d have it done.”
Grabbing a nearby pencil and tucking it back into my bun, I stand and run my hands over my beige skirt and blush pink satin blouse. I can do this.
I’ve been at Nickel Travel Times for six months, and I like to think I’ve turned in solid work for the budget magazine that’s only one notch under Budget Travel in circulation numbers. In the current economy, people are eager to travel on a shoestring. Big hotel chains with every amenity under the sun is only for the rich, and they don’t need a travel magazine to get them where they’re going. Business is surprisingly good, and I write interesting articles about interesting places.
At least, I hope Mr. Gosnell sees it that way.
“Take a seat, Ava,” Mr. Gosnell says, pointing to a brown leather chair as soon as I’m through the door. I slink into the chair and cross my legs at the ankle like my mother taught me, careful to look like a lady at tea. “You’ve been here for six months now. Are you struggling?”
He holds his hands up like he’s soothing a wild stallion before running a hand through the hair that’s left on his head. “You meet your deadlines. I’ll give you that. It’s just that…well, you meet your deadlines with about twenty seconds to spare. You’re stressed, you burn the midnight oil, and you drink more coffee than I’ve ever seen anyone consume. I worked the Iran-Contra hearings back in the eighties. I’ve seen coffee consumption.”
I cringe a little in my seat and switch my legs around. “Nothing wrong with a morning cup.”
“The barista downstairs is worried about your heart health.”
“That’s unusual and mildly creepy.”
“I’d say it’s not good when the barista worries about your heart function and suggests more water. What’s going on? I’d have thought you’d be settling in now. Do you ever take a day off?”
“Sure,” I shrug and look everywhere but at the kindly older gentleman across from me. With his graying temples, he reminds me of my father, and my heart clenches whenever he scolds me. It makes me miss home and being told to pick up my socks and turn the music down.
“When was the last time you had a day off? Tell me about it. What’d you do?” he asks, leaning back in his chair. The chair groans under his weight, and he steeples his fingers and looks at the ceiling like I’m going to tell him a bedtime story.
I squeeze my eyes shut and try to think of my last day off. “I went to Lake Michigan on a beautiful day and ate a loaded hotdog with my neighbor, Vanessa. All the sailboats were out. We watched some oiled men play volleyball.” I stop and open my eyes, remembering who I’m talking to. “Uh, they were oiled with sunscreen. Got to watch for skin cancer.”
“Yes, Mr. Gosnell?”
“What month was that?”
“Well, I guess it would have been August,” I bite my lip, trying to remember. “August-ish. Maybe July.”
“Shit,” I whisper. How did time get away from me? I guess my mother was right when she said everything after thirty is like a roll of toilet paper. She said that the closer you get to the end, the faster it goes.
Mr. Gosnell clears his throat and opens a nearby drawer. “How much travel would you say you’ve done, Ava?”
I look out his window and think, admiring the view of Navy Pier in the distance. “Well, sir, I grew up by St. Louis in a small town called Alton and then went to college in Alabama. I’m quite familiar with the Gulf Shores and Florida Panhandle area. I stayed in Alabama after graduation, managing the college paper and writing pieces for the local news in Birmingham.”
I groan a little and drop my head. “Then I moved straight to Chicago and haven’t had time to leave except when I visited my sisters in New York and Seattle. Am I fired?”
“You work for a travel magazine.”
“I realize that, sir. It’s on my radar to get out, but I moved, and Chicago apartment rent isn’t conducive to saving for a big trip to Europe or South America. I have a roommate ad going, and I’m trying to find someone that isn’t psycho, but have you met half of the people under forty in Chicago?” I ask. Dropping my voice to a whisper, I lean forward. “I’m scared of most of them. One wanted me to join his throuple, and I had to look up what that was.”
“Did you ever think the reason you may be having problems meeting deadlines is because you’re spending so much time on research and have no real travel experience?”
“Research is part of this job. I can’t go every place I write about. We don’t have that kind of budget. We have freelancers for the big stories.”
“Yes, but it’s the little nuances,” he says, putting his thumb and index finger together to make an inch symbol. “There are little things about how people move through the world that can only be learned while traveling. How to pack for certain activities and climates. Where people like to go. How do people decide where they’ll eat? The anticipation and how travel flows. These are things only people who have left their couch and their own comfortable cities know. You need to know these things before you can write a compelling piece.”
“Are you saying my work isn’t compelling?”
He taps on his laptop and flips the screen around so I can see it. “This is your article on Quebec.”
I read the first few lines, grimacing like I always do when I read my own work. “Is it bad?”
“No,” he drawls, and I sigh with relief. “It’s just not good.”
“Is there a difference?”
“Yes, there absolutely is. You need to make this good. You give us the bare minimum here, Ava. There’s no emotion. Nothing that shows me you like Quebec or would even like to go there. You pulled this information off Google and got the pictures from the photography department or some stock photos.” He taps his chest a few times. “I want an article with heart. Make me want to go somewhere. No more book reports. Make me fall in love with a place with only your words.”
I blow out a breath, moving strands of my long, blond hair that fell out of my bun, pencils be damned. “I can’t afford it right now.”
“I know. That’s why I’m sending you on a trip and expensing the flight and a couple nights in a hotel. I want a full report.”
I shake my head like I’m clearing cobwebs from my eyes. He opens another drawer, grabs a file, and shuts the drawer with a bang while I remain silent, waiting to hear where in the world I’ll be sent on assignment. Knowing my luck and the magazine’s non-freelancer budget, I mentally prepare myself for Detroit.
“Ever been to Australia?”
My eyes widen, and I lean forward in my chair as Mr. Gosnell taps at his computer and shares the Qantas airlines screen with me. “Excuse me, sir. I thought I just heard you say Australia. Did you mean the country, or is there an Australia, Indiana I don’t know about?”
He laughs and picks up the phone. “Carol,” he says into the receiver. He gives me a quick smile, and I’m too shocked to return it. “I’m sending Ava Calvert on an assignment. Get her something decent for two nights in Sydney to start.”
Carol, our travel reservation agent for the office, must ask a few clarifying questions that Mr. Gosnell answers in a clipped tone, but I’m too busy processing my assignment.
It’s somewhere I can go where I have to use the passport I’ve had for seven years but have never used. In fact, I’ve never been out of the country at all. The irony and sheer hilarity of a travel writer at a major player in the travel magazine industry having never traveled outside of her home country isn’t lost on me, and my stomach squeezes with something between a laugh and feeling like I’m going to throw up.
Do I have to go by myself?
Mr. Gosnell hangs up the phone and nods. “She’s got a bed and breakfast reservation for you next week. Will that work for you?”
“Uh, I uh,” I stammer. My mouth won’t form words.
Mr. Gosnell notices and folds his arms over his wide chest. “Are you nervous about actually traveling?”
Waving my hand in front of my face, I shake my head. Look cool, dammit! “Nah. I’m fine. What’s the writing assignment?”
“Spontaneous Australia on a shoestring.”
Shoestring I understand. “Spontaneous, sir?”
“Yep,” he says, holding up his hands like he’s a film director planning a shot. “Picture it, Ava. You in Australia with no plans. No set itinerary. But wherever you go or whatever restaurant or club you stumble into, you have a budget.”
“What’s the budget?”
“Fifty Australian dollars a day for food, travel, and sundries. Fifty for accommodation.”
“That’s incredibly low,” I mumble and look at the floor. “Do you want me to stay in hostels and eat ramen?”
“If it’s a spontaneous decision, yes. If you have to sleep on a bus bench and use a camp stove to make noodles, make it an adventure. Hitchhiking is much safer there.”
“You want me to go to Australia without reservations and hitchhike?”
“Hitchhike, cozy up to a bunch of uni students in an RV, or just think outside the box,” he swipes his hand over his desk like none of this really matters. “We’ll take care of your flight there, and you can call Carol and tell her what city you want to fly out of to get home. I had Carol make you reservations for two nights in Sydney. That should get you started. But make no mistake, Ava,” he says, leaning forward and looking straight into my eyes. He doesn’t blink, and I want to look away. Would that be disrespectful? “I want an adventure. I want you to do something besides stay in Sydney. Find the hidden wonders. Find the hole in the wall restaurant with Thai food that will melt your tongue and clear your sinuses for five bucks. I want more than a rousing article about eating a beet on your McDonald’s sandwich.”
“They eat beets on their burgers down there for some odd reason.”
“Dear God, where are you sending me? Snakes, poisonous spiders, and beets on burgers?”
He waves his fingers, and I know that’s my signal to leave. No arguments. I rise from the chair and walk to the door like I have cement bricks attached to my legs. Like a younger and blonder Jacob Marley.
“I want adventure,” he says as I turn the doorknob. “Once you get to Sydney, you have two days to figure out where to go and something to write about that will make readers want to start saving for a trip Down Under. I want to be dazzled. Knock my socks off and make me want to keep you employed.”
I nod, gulp, and make a finger gun at my boss while smiling the best grin I can muster. “Be prepared to be dazzled, sir.”