A CHRISTMAS KISS
(BOOK 4 IN THE LIFE ON THE MOORS SERIES)
Eliza J Scott
Copyright © 2019 by Eliza J Scott All rights reserved.
Eliza J Scott has asserted her moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission in writing of the author.
This book is entirely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book has been edited in British English (BrE) and therefore uses British spellings.
To the wonderful book community with all my love x
45. Six Months Later
Also by Eliza J Scott
About the Author
THE FRIDAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Zander threw the phone down, rested his elbows on his desk and pressed his fingertips against his forehead. ‘How the bloody hell did I ever get into this mess?’ He was reeling from a call from Melissa, his girlfriend of three years. Make that his needy, self-absorbed girlfriend of three years. H; is emotions were veering from anger to feeling utterly fed-up. How could she do this, today of all days?
He glanced at the clock on the wall; it had just gone five-thirty – just gone five thirty on the evening their Christmas plans were supposed to spring into action. The evening Zander had been looking forward to for months and, up until two minutes ago, he thought Mel had been, too. But, thanks to the verbal hand-grenade she’d just lobbed smack, bang in the middle of them, everything had gone tits-up. ‘Bloody woman!’ He’d spent the day at Runswick Way Practice where he worked as a GP, making sure he was caught up on everything; he’d sent off referrals, drafted letters and signed prescriptions, leaving him free to go on holiday content in the knowledge that no work-related niggles would suddenly ping into his mind and trigger a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
‘Right, let’s get this over and done with.’ He snatched up the phone and started scrolling through his contacts list, looking for his parents’ number. Just then, there was a tap at the door and Noah peered around it, his hair a vivid ginger in the artificial light.
‘Bad time?’ Noah grimaced.
‘No, come in.’ Zander put the phone down and dragged his hand down his face. ‘It’s just … just the usual crap.’
‘Ah, by that I assume you mean Mel?’ Noah flopped into one of the patients’ chairs beside the desk.
‘Got it in one: Mel.’ He sighed, nodding slowly. Noah and Zander went back a long way – to university in Newcastle in fact. And Zander had always had the feeling that his friend wasn’t exactly enamoured with Mel.
Noah looked at his watch. ‘Listen, we’ll be closed up here in half an hour. Fancy going for a beer after?’
‘Sounds like a plan. I should be organised by then – with work, that is.’ And there’s not exactly any need for me to rush back now, he thought. ‘Though, I’m driving, so it’ll just be a shandy for me.’
‘Yep, same here; I’ll give you a shout when I’m ready. In the meantime, the dreaded Mrs. Wilkinson awaits …’
‘Not the Mrs. Wilkinson?’
‘The very same. I, it would appear, have drawn the short straw and she’s been added to my list today.’
Zander couldn’t help but smile. ‘Unlucky, mate. What complaint will it be this week, I wonder?’
‘Hah! It’s anybody’s guess, but her notes make interesting reading. She must be going through some great tome of medical complaints, convincing herself she’s got everything listed in it and is doomed to be dead within three years.’
‘One of life’s classic time wasters.’ Zander shook his head. ‘She doesn’t realise how much better off she’d be by just getting on with her life, instead of worrying she’s got every complaint under the sun; she’ll outlive all of us that one.’
‘And would you like to tell her that?’ Noah smirked.
‘Hmmph. Not particularly.’ His words came out sharper then intended. ‘Sorry, just ignore me; I’m still smarting after Mel’s phone call.’
‘No worries, mate.’ Noah got to his feet. ‘Right, well, the sooner I see Mrs. Wingebag Wilkinson, the sooner we can consider it the weekend and go for that shandy.’
Once the door clicked shut, as if on cue, Mel’s words leapt back into Zander’s mind.
‘Sorry, Zandie, but two weeks in the French countryside in the middle of winter with your family just doesn’t do it for me – especially that frosty sister of yours; I know she doesn’t like me – and before you try to deny it, we both know it’s true. It’s unfair of you to expect me to have to deal with it at any time of the year, but over Christmas, even you would have to agree it’s a bit much. On top of that, it’ll be as dull as ditch-water. I want to have fun while I’m still young, and I most certainly don’t want to behave like a boring middle-aged old fart. You’ll be getting a pipe and slippers next; sipping port in a woolly cardigan, having a mug of cocoa before bed. In fact, that’s sorted out the headache I had trying to think of a Christmas gift for you; a pipe and slippers would be perfect: “The Middle-Aged Man’s Survival Kit!” Haha!’ Mel cackled loudly at her own joke when she finally came up for air.
‘I’m only thirty-six, Mel – four years older than you – I hardly think that qualifies me for middle-age.’
‘Ha! But you’re old before your time, Zander Gillespie, always have been. In fact, I’m sure you were born aged forty-five.’ Though her tone was jokey, he could sense the thinly-veiled snipe.
He picked up a pen and started doodling on his notepad. ‘What, because I don’t want to go clubbing every weekend, and would rather have a romantic meal at a nice restaurant, eating decent food with my girlfriend? I thought you liked that, spending quality time together?’
‘Not all the time, Zander, and don’t get me started on the walks in the country with that smelly old Labrador of yours … yawn, yawn, yawn. Sometimes, I actually think you care more about that mutt than you do about me.’
Zander felt himself bristle; she was always having a pop at Alf, and she knew he didn’t like it. He and the black Labrador went back a long way – seven years, in fact – and were there for each other when nobody else was. As far as he was concerned, Alf was the best buddy a man could have – and if he was completely honest, he did have the biggest chunk of Zander’s heart.
He swallowed down his niggle; he wasn’t going to get drawn into an argument about Alf. Zander had been looking forward to their break, getting away from it all and relaxing. In fact, he couldn’t remember a time when he’d needed a holiday more. Not to mention the effort he’d put into getting a pet passport for Alf.
‘You could’ve said something before now, Mel. What am I going to do about your ticket?’
Her impatient sigh lost none of its impact down the phone line. He could picture her pouting, rolling her expertly made-up blue eyes and flicking her long blonde hair over her shoulder, before focusing her attention on her latest expensive manicure. A manicure he’d paid for along with a pamper session as a pre-Christmas treat.
‘This is like a bolt out of the blue, why didn’t you tell me you didn’t like doing those things? Actually, come to think of it, I don’t remember forcing you to do any of them. And the holiday’s been planned for months, Mel, you’ve had plenty of time to tell me you didn’t want to go.’ In fact, she’d done a pretty convincing act of letting him believe she was keen to see his parents’ newly-purchased chateau. Her eyes had lit up when he told her it was in Carcassonne in the sunny south of France. And she’d practically salivated when he’d shown her the pictures of the luxurious six-bedroom, six-bathroom property. Something must have happened to change her mind. And, if he knew her like he thought he knew her, he suspected she’d had a better offer.
‘I’m sorry, Zandie; I didn’t realise I didn’t want to go until recently.’
Why did he get the feeling she wasn’t telling him everything? ‘So what are you going to do with yourself while I’m in France, Mel? Surely you’re not going to just sit and stew at home?’
‘Zander, since when have I ever done that?’ she snapped. ‘I’m not a sitter, I’m a doer, always busy, busy, busy and, for your information, I’ve had an invitation from Anna to join her and Pete … and some, er … friends at her sister’s house in London.’
Ah, he was right; and that pause was interesting. ‘And you just leapt at the chance without giving a thought to how I’d feel at being backheeled by my girlfriend while she trots off to spend Christmas with some people she’s only known for five minutes?’
‘Oh, don’t be so miserable.’ Her tone had developed a petulant edge. ‘It’s not like I’m leaving you all on your own; you’ve got your whole family to spend all of Christmas and New Year with. I can’t believe you’re being so selfish. What’s wrong with you spending the festive period in the way that you enjoy, while I spend it in the way that I enjoy? It’s hardly unreasonable. In fact, I think it’s more unreasonable if you expect me to give up this opportunity. Anna thinks so, too.’
‘I don’t care what Anna thinks, Mel. But if that’s what you want to do, then I’m not going to stop you. Will I see you before you go? Get a chance to give you your Christmas presents?’
‘Er, no … er, no need to worry about the presents, that’s all sorted and er … and we’re getting the train down to London tonight, it’s all booked, we’re going First Class.’
‘Right …’ His mind was scrambling over the subtext of her words; it might not be out of character for Mel to be selfish, but it was totally out of character for her not to be bothered about presents. At Christmas and birthdays, she was usually up at the crack of dawn, tearing the paper off her gifts like an over-excited child. Telling him not to worry about the presents just didn’t fit. Realisation dawned; if they’d got First Class rail tickets this close to Christmas, they must have been booked a while ago. Mel had clearly been planning this trip for some time. He was getting fed up of her selfish attitude and sly ways; they were exhausting. He exhaled noisily. ‘Okay, have a good time.’ With that he’d ended the call.
Livvie Weatherill pulled on her raspberry-red overcoat and wrapped a moss-green scarf around her neck before slinging her handbag over her shoulder and gathering up her cluster of shopping bags. ‘Now I know what a packhorse feels like,’ she said to herself, distributing them evenly between both hands. ‘I’m off, Bry. Hope you have a good weekend,’ she called.
‘Ooh, you too, petal. Hope it all goes well.’ Bryony rushed out from the depths of the kitchen at the back of the shop, pulled Livvie into a tight hug and planted a kiss on her cheek, rubbing it in for good measure.
‘Thanks.’ Livvie smiled at her best friend. They’d met at Blushing Brides wedding gown shop in the small town of Rickelthorpe just over four years ago and had hit it off straight away, sharing the same sense of humour as well as love of Prosecco and all things chocolate, and a loathing of the tyrannical owner Mrs Harris.
‘Haven’t you brought a hat?’ Bryony’s eyes flicked over Livvie’s thick auburn hair that was gathered in a messy “up do” on top of her head.
‘No, I’ll be fine, I don’t have far to walk.’
‘Rather you than me; I can’t bear having cold ears. Ooh, and don’t forget this.’ Bryony swiped up Livvie’s mobile phone from the counter and popped it into the top pocket of her friend’s coat.
‘Oh, thanks, Bry; I’m such a scatter-brain.’
‘No worries; and you’re not. Anyway, I hope Donny appreciates all the effort you’re going to.’
‘I hope so, too.’ Livvie ignored the little niggle at the back of her mind that hearing her boyfriend’s name had triggered.
‘Hey, what’s not to love about tornado rossini followed by stiffy tockee pudding?’ Bry chuckled at the name they’d given to sticky toffee pudding after Livvie had ordered it at a restaurant – a Prosecco or two too many jumbling her words, making the waiter laugh. The name had stuck ever since.
Her friend’s joke temporarily chased Livvie’s doubts away, and a smile lifted the corners of her mouth. ‘Yep, when you put it like that, what’s not to love? I just hope he gets his work finished early. Debbie –the woman from the flat next door – is being a bit of a pain with all the plumbing problems she needs fixing; they’re always urgent, too. She’s only been there for six weeks, but she’s definitely made her presence felt.’
‘Uhh, she sounds very demanding.'
Just then the brass doorbell above the door jangled and two women stepped in on an icy blast of cold air. ‘Will you be able to manage?’ Livvie always felt guilty about taking time off work, even if she was only leaving a couple of hours early.
‘Two women doesn’t make a stampede, Liv. Looking at the weather, I doubt we’ll get many more in. Go on, get yourself home.’ Bryony made her way over to the door, holding it open for her friend. ‘And hurry up about it, we’re letting all the warm air out.’ She smiled.
‘Okay, see you Monday night.’
‘Yep, if you pop round for six thirty, that should be perfect.’
‘Looking forward to it. And are you sure I don’t need to bring anything?’
‘Nope, just bring your gorgeous self, Liv; and Donny, of course.’
Bryony and her boyfriend Josh were hosting a party at their flat. Ordinarily, Livvie would be looking forward to it, but a nagging doubt at the back of her mind told her that Donny would be reluctant to go; he never liked to do anything with her friends and always seemed to engineer an argument so he didn’t have to go.
She mustered up a smile. ‘Okay, will do; have a great time tonight.’ She leaned in to Bry, lowering her voice. ‘And enjoy the thought that we don’t have to be here and put up with Mrs Harris for a whole two weeks.’
‘Bliss.’ Bry grinned. ‘Now go.’ With a laugh, she pushed Livvie through the door.
‘Alright, I’m going.’
Every year, the shop closed for the festive period from the Friday before Christmas until the Saturday after New Year’s Day, while Mrs Harris and her husband took off to join their daughter and son-in-law in the Canary Islands. She claimed there was a lull in wedding dress shopping at this time of year and it was a waste of time the shop being open, but, meanly, insisted that Livvie and Bryony take two weeks from their annual leave to accommodate it, leaving them short of days to use over the summer.
Once outside, Livvie noted that the sky had taken on an unusual shade of gun-metal grey tinged with a bruise-like purple. That, in Livvie’s experience, usually meant snow was on its way. She hurried along the pavement, dodging other shoppers and a group of merrymakers who’d obviously started their Christmas celebrations early. ‘Oy, sweetheart, how about a kiss under the mistletoe?’ A man, looking rather worse-for-wear loomed over her, waving a pathetic-looking piece of berryless foliage. Livvie took a step back, holding her breath; he was radiating boozy fumes so strong, she feared they might melt her eyeballs.
‘Leave her alone, Dave,’ called one of his friends, dragging him away. ‘Take no notice of him, love.’
Livvie breathed a sigh of relief and hurried off, regretting losing her gloves as the heavy carrier bags dug into her frozen fingers. Soon, she was at her little silver banger of a car, grateful that she’d managed to get a parking place so close to work that morning. After a quick rummage for her keys, she dumped her shopping in the boot and squashed what wouldn’t fit in the footwell behind the front seats.
‘Brrr. I can’t believe how cold it is.’ She shivered and flicked the engine on, turning the vents onto the windows that had already started to steam up. Hopefully, it wouldn’t take long for the car to start generating a bit of warmth.
Just as she’d fastened her seat belt, her phone rang, reminding her it was still in the top pocket of her coat. She fished it out and smiled to see Donny’s number. ‘Hi, babe,’ she said, waiting for an answer. ‘Donny? … Hello … Donny, are you there?’ There was no reply, but she could hear a muffled mix of background noises. He must’ve butt dialled me by mistake. She laughed softly to herself and was just about to hang up when she heard a woman’s voice; a woman’s voice that was vaguely familiar and it was saying her boyfriend’s name. Livvie listened on, her brow furrowing at the collection of unpalatable groaning sounds that followed.
Her heart lurched and panic began to swirl in her gut as realisation dawned. She’d had her suspicions for the last couple of weeks and she didn’t have long to wait for them to be confirmed when the woman asked Donny to do something toe-curlingly explicit; something you definitely wouldn’t ask of a plumber who’d called round to fix a leaky tap.
Tears welled in Livvie’s eyes, as hurt seeped up inside her. All the planning she’d done to prepare for this dinner, the amount of money she’d spent on getting the best ingredients to make tornado rossini, Donny’s favourite meal. Not to mention having to use up a day’s holiday when she only needed to leave work a few hours early. Mrs Harris was a dragon and had refused to budge on letting Livvie leave early if she made the hours up by working over-time. If it wasn’t for Bry, Livvie would have left there years ago.
In a moment, anger quashed her sadness and she snatched the tears from her eyes. Throwing her phone down, she flicked the indicator, pulled out of her parking place and made her way home, her heart thudding angrily as her head filled with the words she planned to hurl at the pair.
Livvie tucked her car around the corner from the converted Victorian villa she shared with Donny in the less salubrious part of Rickelthorpe; she didn’t want to alert him to her early arrival. As she walked towards the building, she spotted Donny’s scruffy white van parked on the road in front of it. The lights were on in their flat; surely they weren’t having their sordid little rendezvous there? Anger jostled with hurt, urging her forward and giving her a much-needed blast of courage to confront him.
With her heart pounding even harder in her chest, Livvie slotted the key into the lock of the large black front door, made difficult by fingers that were still numb with cold. Carefully, she clicked it shut and tiptoed over the tiled hallway that led to the broad staircase. She made her way stealthily up the stairs, avoiding the ones with the tell-tale creak – though the runner was threadbare in parts, it still did a good job of muffling her steps. Alighting silently on the landing, Livvie steadied her breathing and pressed her ear to the door of their flat. A wave of nausea washed over her; they were there.
Before she knew it, she found herself pushing the door open and following the voices to the living room; wanting to catch her boyfriend out, yet not wanting to face the truth. She was conscious of her mouth falling open as she took in the sight of Donny, his blond hair sticking up in tufts, and their neighbour Debbie en flagrante on the sofa. Her sofa, the one she’d saved for ages to buy.
‘You bastard!’ Livvie tore across the room and kicked Donny hard up the backside. ‘You bloody cheating slime-ball.’
‘Arghh! Arghh! You caught my bollocks, you stupid cow!’ Donny fell to the floor, rolling around, groaning in agony.
‘Good! You bloody-well deserve it!’ Adrenalin raged around her body. She turned to Debbie. ‘And you can get your slaggy arse off my sofa and get out of my flat.’ She picked up a pile of discarded clothing and threw it at the woman, who desperately tried to cover herself. ‘Go on, get out!’ Livvie was surprised at just how good screaming at her felt.
‘It’s my flat too, and keep your voice down, the neighbours will hear.’ Donny was still bent-double.
‘Well, that hardly matters, does it? The neighbour’s sodding-well here, screwing around with my boyfriend of the last two years.’ She watched as Debbie, her face a picture, struggled to pull her dress over her head.
‘It’s all her fault; leading me on. What d’you expect me to do when it’s offered on a plate?’ Donny went to push himself up, his face puce and still crumpled with pain.
‘What do you mean, offered on a plate? You were the one who came on to me with your sad little cheesy pick-up lines. But you needn’t bother wasting them on me anymore and besides, you’re not that great.’ Debbie snatched up the remains of her clothing from the floor and looked at Livvie. ‘And don’t think I’m the first; all he’s done is brag about his conquests and how you’re too stupid to even notice.’ With that she flounced out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
Livvie’s mind was reeling as she turned her attention back to Donny. Debbie’s last words had stung, but they were enough to elbow the tears that had begun to well in her eyes out of the way. She took a fortifying breath. ‘I think you should go.’
‘Go where? This is my flat, too, you know; we rent it together.’ His blue eyes had lost their usually playful expression, replaced with one that was cold and challenging.
‘Shame you don’t always remember that when it comes to actually paying the rent and the bills, isn’t it? And I think you’ll find it was me who paid the deposit.’
‘I pay what I can; you know that. There’s just not that much work around at the moment.’ It didn’t escape Livvie’s attention that he seemed reluctant to make eye-contact as he pulled on his clothes.
‘That’s probably cos you’re spending half your time shagging around!’
‘Well, you’ve only got yourself to blame. When was the last time we had sex, eh? Answer me that. Two weeks ago? Three weeks ago? It’s so flaming long ago, I can’t even remember.’
She flinched; if her reckoning was right, it was closer to four weeks ago. She’d been sensing her feelings change towards Donny as a succession of little niggles had started to creep their way into the back of her mind, pushing an invisible wedge between them. Returning home late, smelling of other women’s perfume, stale beer on his breath, not to mention finding the back of an earring in their bed a couple of weeks ago; a bed she’d only just changed that morning.
At that thought, Livvie suddenly found herself making her way towards their bedroom.
‘What’re you doing? You don’t need to go in there.’ Donny followed her down the hall, pulling at her arm.
‘And why would that be?’ She took in the sight of the crumpled sheets of the bed she’d left made that morning, the decorative cushions cast on the floor. ‘In our bed, too? You total slime-ball.’
‘Yeah, well, like I said, you’ve only got yourself to blame.’
‘And when did you last initiate anything between us? It’s been down to me that last couple of times.’
Donny’s expression changed to a spiteful sneer. ‘Well, maybe if you took a look in the mirror, you’d see why; see what I have to look at. You’ve let yourself go, Liv, piled on the weight, especially on your arse, and as for those thunder-thighs, they’re like a couple of massive tree-trunks. It’s no wonder I don’t want to come anywhere near you.’
His words plunged into her heart like the blade of a knife, but she wasn’t going to let him see he’d hurt her. She fought with all her might to hold her tears back. ‘I think that says more about you than it does about me; you’re a nasty, spiteful individual, and I think you should go.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m not hanging around here tonight, listening to your crap. I’m off out.’ He strode back towards the living room and grabbed his keys from the bowl on the sideboard. ‘And don’t forget what I said about looking in the mirror.’ He threw the words over his shoulder as he left the flat.
Livvie’s heart twisted. She hurried over to the window, watching as Donny climbed into his van and drove off. Only then did she let the hurt take hold and the hot tears flow.
‘Want to talk about it?’ asked Noah. He and Zander were sitting at a small table in the corner of the pub, by the large Victorian fireplace that housed an electric “roaring” fire. Already the Queen’s Head was buzzing with people in a party mood, the festive music from the speakers slowly being drowned out by the increasing volume of the revellers’ high-spirited voices.
Zander took a long, slow slug of his shandy before he answered. ‘There’s not a lot to say, really; I thought I was about to go away to Carcassonne for Christmas and the New Year, take Mel so she could get to know my family better, and they could get to know her. But now it’s all off.’ He shrugged, wiping the condensation from his pint glass with his fingers. ‘Simple as that.’
‘Doesn’t mean you can’t still go, though.’
‘I know, but I don’t think I could stand all the sympathetic looks from my family; you’ve no idea what it’s like being the only unmarried offspring. Steff’s been happily married to John – who, incidentally, is the “perfect” son-in-law – for what feels like forever.
‘I thought you liked John?’
‘I do, he’s a really good bloke; I didn’t mean to sound sarcastic. And Toby’s still on cloud nine after getting hitched to Jo last year. Which leaves me, at the grand old age of thirty-six, who doesn’t seem to be able to hang on to a partner for more than five minutes, doomed – in their eyes – to a life of singledom.’ Zander puffed out his cheeks and sighed. ‘I’m dreading making the call to my parents, telling them we won’t be going.’
‘I still think you should go, the sympathetic looks wouldn’t last for the whole break – and you never know, you might meet a nice French girl.’ Noah hooked an eyebrow at him.
‘Er, I’m still in a relationship with Mel – at least I think I am – and the thought of having to explain, face-to-face, why she isn’t with me; seeing the pity in their eyes, catching them whispering about me … ughh!’ Zander was still unsure of how he should broach the subject of Mel when he went to collect Alf from Steff’s later that evening; the interrogation, though well meant, would be intense and he didn’t know if he was up to it. He was seriously considering not mentioning it. He could get round it by explaining the situation to his mother over the phone; he knew she’d be disappointed at first, but she’d have the grandchildren to take her mind off it. And the fact that she could break the news to everyone was, he had to admit, very tempting. It may be the coward’s way out, but deep down he knew what Steff’s reaction would be, and he knew she’d be absolutely right. ‘Trust me, Noah, having Christmas dinner, just me and Alf, is the easy option.’
‘I take your point. But, if you want my opinion – and I hope you don’t think I’m stepping out of line here – it might be a good time to have a think about where your relationship with Mel is going. It’s just, you seem to have a lot of hassle with her; nothing seems straightforward. And it’s been a while since I’ve seen you look properly happy.’
Zander gazed into his glass; his friend was right, there had been umpteen times recently when Mel had scuppered their plans and blown him off for doing something with her trendy new friends. As for feeling happy, now he thought about it, that wasn’t something he’d felt around Mel for quite some time. ‘Yep, maybe I will; we can’t go on like this forever.’
Noah paused for a moment before his eyes suddenly lit up. ‘You could always come to us for Christmas dinner; it’s our turn to host this year – last count I think Jess said we had eleven coming; that’s fifteen including us and the kids, you could make it a nice even number. And it goes without saying that Alf’s welcome, too.’
‘Thanks, buddy, that’s a kind offer but the last thing you need is my miserable face putting the dampers on the day.’
Before Noah had chance to reply, their attention was drawn towards a group of women – clearly on the other side of a few egg nogs. They were giggling loudly and looking in the direction of Zander and Noah’s table. The giggles increased in shrillness and volume once they realised they’d got their quarry’s attention.
Zander groaned as the loudest of the group started to weave her rather tipsy way towards them. ‘Great,’ he said sotto voce. ‘That’s all we need.’
Noah snorted into his pint.
‘Hi, I’m Bex, and me and my friends were just wondering if anyone had ever told you that you look like that Henry Cavill bloke?’ Swaying precariously on a pair of dangerously high heels, she peered at Zander, twirling the ends of the tinsel she had draped around her neck.
‘Er, yeah, once or twice.’ He felt his heart sink. He daren’t look at Noah who he could sense sniggering beside him.
‘Thought so.’ The swaying continued as she peered more closely at him. ‘Your eyes aren’t half blue.’
Zander just nodded.
‘Well, if you fancy buying us a drink and getting to know us a little better, Henry, we’re going to be over there for the next half hour or so. Mine’s a Porn Star Martini.’ She arched her eyebrows suggestively at him. ‘Your friend can come too, if he fancies.’
‘Thanks,’ said Noah.
‘You’re welcome, Ginger Nuts.’ Bex turned on her heels, almost losing her balance, and headed back to her chums amidst shrieks of laughter.
‘Nice,’ said Noah. ‘Tempted?’
‘I’d rather stick pins in my bollocks,’ said Zander.
Zander raked his fingers through his short dark crop. ‘How come I always attract the wrong sort of women?’
‘I don’t think it’s the attracting part that’s the problem; the choosing part, however, is a different matter.’
Zander thought for a moment, his mind briefly parading his girlfriends of the last ten or so years before him. Hmm. Noah had a point; there was definitely a theme going on.
‘If you think about it, all of the women you’ve had a relationship with – apart from Clara – have been the glamorous, high-maintenance, self-centred, dolly-bird type who think appearance and material things are everything; I’m sorry to say it, but you have an affinity for shallow birds, mate. Whereas, those of us who don’t have your film-star good looks, well, we don’t have that problem; that type of women seem to by-pass us – not that I’m complaining. I’ve got my lovely Jess, who’s beautiful, kind and easy-going.’
‘Yep, you’re a lucky bloke.’ Zander nodded. A memory of Clara who he’d broken up with seven years ago popped into his mind; he quickly shooed it away.
Noah pulled a face. ‘Sorry, that sounded a bit smug, didn’t it? Didn’t mean it to; but you get where I’m coming from?’
‘No worries, mate, I know you didn’t and, yes, I’m beginning to realise what you mean.’
Zander glanced around; the pub was filling up with a sea of happy-looking people, all ready to get into the festive spirit and have a good time. ‘Right,’ he said downing the dregs of his shandy, ‘time to go and collect Alf from Steff’s. Can’t say I’m looking forward to the questioning; nothing gets past that big sister of mine.’
Noah checked his watch. ‘Yep, time I was heading back, too. Good luck, and remember, if you change your mind, you’re always welcome to join us for Christmas.’
‘Thanks, you’re a good mate.’ He reached across and tapped Noah on the shoulder before getting to his feet. It triggered a burst of cheering from the group of women at the bar.
‘Ooh, decided to come and join us, have you, Henry?’ The woman’s screeching tone was like chalk down a blackboard, making Zander grit his teeth.
He pulled on his dark tweed coat, shaking his head. ‘Sorry, ladies, I’m afraid I’m going home.’
‘Well, let us know if you’d like us to come and join you,’ Bex said, making her friends cackle.
He smiled politely and turned back to Noah. ‘You have a fantastic Christmas; give my love to Jess and the kids, and I’ll see you in the New Year.’
‘Yep, you too. And don’t forget what I said.’
Zander headed towards the door, ignoring the whistles and leers from the women at the bar. Outside, he paused for a moment, the icy air nipping at his ears and nose. A gust of wind suddenly blasted down the street; it carried with it the inimitable hint of snow. He pulled up the collar of his coat and headed towards his car, wondering just how he was going to explain to Steff that he wasn’t going to be joining them in Carcassonne. No longer bolstered by Noah’s chat and the Christmas vibe in the pub, he felt his heart plummet right down to his brown brogues. Bloody Melissa.
Standing at his sister’s shiny, pillar-box red front door, Zander took a breath and braced himself. Postponing the inevitable, he took a sudden interest in the large wreath that was hanging from the door-knocker. Made of thick, glossy branches of pine, it was adorned with fresh, rosy apples, deep purple baubles and sprigs of holly sporting vivid red berries. Trimmed with a rich burgundy bow and woven with warm white fairy lights; it’s festive aesthetic wasn’t wasted on him. But now wasn’t the time to admire Steff’s handiwork; he had a Labrador to collect and an explanation to give. ‘Best get this over with,’ he said to himself as he pressed the doorbell.
Its melodic chime triggered a babble of excited children’s voices, followed by barking from Alf and Cynthia – the family’s wire-haired dachshund – as the four of them raced down the hall. Moments later, the door was flung open, and the dogs shot towards him, Alf’s stubby tail wagging furiously and Cynthia running circles around him on her stumpy little legs.
‘Woah. Hello there.’ Zander ruffled his Labrador’s ears.
‘Hi, Uncle Zandie, Mum’s making some mince pies and we’ve been helping,’ said his nephew Joel, whose face was smeared with the proof.
‘And I rolled out the pastry on my own and cut out the shapes.’ His niece, Annabel beamed proudly.
‘Sounds like you’ve been having fun. And have you been helping, Alf?’ Alf responded by wagging his tail so fast, his whole body shook.
‘Alf’s been trying to eat everything,’ said Joel.
‘Sounds about right.’ Zander smiled at his faithful dog who was gazing up at him with his one adoring brown eye – injuries sustained as a puppy had meant the vet had no option but to remove his other eye as well as part of his tail. Zander didn’t like to think about it, and was always thankful that Alf’s ebullient personality had shone through, snuffing out all traces of his previous trauma.
‘Stand back, you two, and let your Uncle Zandie through the door; you’re letting all the warm air out.’ His sister bustled down the hallway, wiping her hands on a tea towel, her shiny black hair escaping from its ponytail. ‘Come in, Zandie; it’s freezing out there,’ she said above the Christmas music that was wending its way down the hall and out into the neat front garden.
The children scurried back towards the kitchen, with Cynthia in hot pursuit, allowing Zander to step into the warmth. Alf stuck close by, sniffing at his dad’s trousers. ‘Thanks, Steff, it’s pretty nippy out there now; I wouldn’t be surprised if it snowed before the night’s out.’
‘Well, it’s forecast, though I do wish it would hang on until we’re all safely over in France.’
Oh, Lord. His stomach clenched as he followed her down the long hallway, past a wicker basket full of shoes. He stopped momentarily to hang his coat on the newel post of the staircase, being careful to avoid the pine garland, trimmed with fairy lights that was wrapped artfully around the bannister.
‘Smells good in here.’ He looked around the post-baking detritus of the kitchen. There was a dusting of flour on the floor, with soggy patches where Alf and Cynthia had tried to lick up any sticky bits of stray mincemeat – That explains why Alf’s beard is suddenly greyer than when I dropped him off this morning. On the pine dresser, Emma Bridgewater pottery jostled for space with a collection of Christmas cards, party invitations and a variety of festive decorations – some clearly this year’s handmade offerings from the kids. The final flourish was a further pine garland that ran along the top, twinkling with warm white lights.
Zander loved to spend time at his sister and brother-in-law’s home; it was chaotic but homely and cosy. All squashy sofas and plump cushions, the term shabby chic could easily have been coined for it. And there was always a trail of delicious smells emanating from the kitchen which was definitely the beating heart of the home here. He’d always hoped he’d have somewhere just like this himself one day, filled with love and happiness … and a gaggle of children. An image of Mel suddenly popped into his mind, jarring with his thoughts. In fact, whenever he thought of her, his mind conjured up sharp corners and hard edges; nothing soft or homely. She was cold and shallow. Vapid, even.
‘We’ve been in a last-minute mince pie baking frenzy; I hadn’t realised we were heading off to Carcassonne when I offered to bake thirty of the blimmin’ things for the school Christmas Fayre. And I’d clean forgotten all about it until one of the mums reminded me at the school gates tonight. I’m going to drop them off with her first thing in the morning before we set off.’ She feigned mopping her brow. ‘Panic averted.’
‘Look, Uncle Zandie, I made these all by myself.’ Seven-year-old Joel held up some suspicious looking offerings that could only just pass for mince pies.
‘Wow, they look amazing.’ Zander smiled at the eager expression on his nephew’s face.
‘Here, have one.’ Joel thrust one of the heavy lumps into Zander’s hand. ‘They’re super-yummy, aren’t they, Mummy?’
‘They most certainly are, darling.’
‘Thank you, they look it, and Alf certainly seems to think so, judging by how much he’s drooling.’ Zander took a bite – watched closely by Alf – wearing an expression that said they were just as Joel had described. ‘Mmm mm.’
‘And I only picked my nose once while I was baking, Uncle Zandie. Just once.’
Zander’s face dropped and he stopped chewing, at a loss for what to do with his mouthful.
‘You picked your nose loads more than that, Joely,’ said Annabel. ‘I saw you. And you ate some of it, too.’
Zander glanced across at Steff, who was trying but failing to suppress a giggle.
‘I did not! Well, only two times at the very most.’
‘Coffee, Zander?’ asked Steff. ‘Help wash your mince pie down.’
He swallowed his mouthful. ‘I think I better had. Thanks for the warning, by the way.’
‘Sorry.’ She filled the kettle and set it on the Aga. ‘If it’s any consolation, every time I caught him with his finger up his nose, I made him wash his hands.’
‘Good to know.’
‘Watch this, Uncle Zandie.’ Joel patted him on the arm.
Zander turned to see his nephew touching the tip of his nose with his tongue.
‘Bet you can’t do that,’ he said proudly.
‘Hmm. I don’t think I can.’ He attempted to copy his nephew. ‘Nope, can’t do it.’
‘Boys are so disgusting,’ said Annabel.
‘And that’s not all; wait till you see this, Uncle Zandie. Wait, wait, wait you’re going to totally love it.’
Zander watched with morbid fascination as Joel stuck out his tongue and popped the tip first in one nostril, then the other.
‘Impressive.’ He gave Joel a thumbs up.
‘Urghh! That is so gross,’ said Annabel.
‘None of my friends can do that.’ Joel wiped his nose with the back of his hand and grinned.
‘I’ll bet. It’s some party-piece you’ve got going on there, young man; you’re going to be quite the hit with the girls when you’re older.’
‘Urghh!’ Annabel and Joel chorused.
‘And where’ve you been taking my nephew to learn such tricks?’ Zander asked Steff.
‘Gets it from his father.’ She gave a mischievous grin.
‘Oh, while I remember, Alf’s had his tea.’ At the word “tea” the Labrador’s ears pricked up. ‘Just with you being late back, he and Cynthia were looking at me, sucking their cheeks in, trying to convince me they were starving.’
‘Sounds about right – and sorry for being late, s’just—’
Steff splayed her hands. ‘Hey, no problem, I just thought I’d better let you know in case Alf tries to con another meal out of you.’
‘Wouldn’t be the first time, would it, buddy?’
Alf replied with a wag of his tail.
‘Come and sit down, Uncle Zandie, then you can have a look at my baking – you can have some, too.’ Annabel pulled out a chair at the scrubbed pine table and patted the seat. Zander did as he was bid and she set a tea plate in front of him. He smiled, she was definitely a chip off the old block. “Gently bossy” is how their mum used to describe Steff, which suited her perfectly; and now Annabel, too.
‘You can have a mince pie with a star on the top, one without, or one with some icing – it’s lemon flavoured,’ she said pointing to a range of wire cooling racks with the pies set out on them. ‘And I’ve sprinkled edible glitter over them, so they look extra Christmassy.’
‘They look very professional, Bells. Are you sure your mum didn’t make them?’
Annabel’s face flushed with pride. ‘Nope, I made all of them; Mum hardly helped me at all, did you, Mum?’
‘That’s right, Bells did pretty much all of it herself. I think we’ve got a little Mary Berry on our hands. She made the Christmas pudding a couple of months ago, and the Christmas cake.’ Steff placed a steaming mug of coffee on the table in front of her brother. She grabbed one for herself and flopped onto the patchwork cushion of the slightly battered armchair that sat beside the Aga. ‘Phew!’ She blew a straggle of hair out of her eyes.
‘Which one would you like to start with, Uncle Zandie?’ asked Annabel.
‘Erm, I quite like the sound of the one with lemon icing, thanks.’
While the children were distracted, Zander quietly slipped Joel’s mince pie into his trouser pocket. It popped out straight away and was quickly hoovered up by Alf.
Before he knew it, half an hour had passed and Zander still hadn’t mentioned that he wouldn’t be joining the rest of the family in Carcassonne; the more he thought about it, the more he was dreading the inevitable grilling from Steff. He knew what she’d say, and he knew she’d be right, but he just didn’t have the strength to hear it.
‘So are you all packed up and ready to leave first thing in the morning?’
At that moment, John arrived home, setting the dogs and kids chasing down the hall in great excitement. It didn’t escape Zander’s attention how Steff’s face lit up and her eyes sparkled as her husband walked towards her, pulled her to him and pressed a kiss to her lips. Zander felt a sudden pang of – what? Loneliness, self-pity, envy? No, he thought. It was none of those, it was despair at himself, his crap choices and his pathetic life. And it was time he did something about it.
‘Right, that’s my cue to leave.’ After the initial flurry of hellos, Zander took a last sip of his coffee.
‘Don’t rush off on my account,’ said John. ‘You’re more than welcome to join us for dinner.’ He set his briefcase down and unfurled his scarf.
‘Yes, why not stay, there’s plenty of beef casserole and dumplings to go round,’ said Steff. ‘And there’s a massive apple crumble for afters.’
Zander felt his stomach rumble; his sister was a fabulous cook and always made enough to feed an army. And her apple crumble was to die for; all soft apple with the perfect tang of tartness and a hint of cinnamon. As for her custard; thick and creamy, speckled with vanilla, and there was usually a trickle of toffee sauce, too. Mmm. He almost succumbed when he realised he’d be quizzed about tomorrow.
‘Please stay, Uncle Zandie,’ said Annabel.
‘Yes, please stay for dinner. I’ll even let you have another one of my mince pies,’ said Joel.
Zander did his best not to laugh at the face Annabel was pulling behind Joel’s back. ‘Much as I’d love to, I really need to get back.’
Once outside in the crisp evening air, Zander gave a sigh of relief, his breath hanging in a plume of condensation, suspended in the glow of the lamp above the door. That was one hurdle over and done with; the next was telling his mother. He wasn’t looking forward to that. ‘Right, young man, it’s absolutely freezing, let’s get you home,’ he said to Alf. ‘Time to put plan B into action.’ The pair made their way down the path and out onto the street. In the time he’d been indoors, a thick frost had crept over the gardens and footpaths, making them sparkle in the soft light of the Victorian street lamps.
The pair headed towards Zander’s car. ‘The only thing is, I don’t have a bloody plan B.’
Livvie glanced up at the clock; it had been just over an hour and a half since Donny had left. In that time, she’d taken herself into the kitchen – the only room that had no evidence of his indiscretions – where she’d sobbed and sobbed until she had no more tears left to cry. Now, her head pounded and her heart ached with an unpalatable combination of hurt and humiliation; his cruel snipe about her weight before he left still smarting.
What had happened to the fun-loving Donny she’d fallen for; the one with the permanent smile and boyish charm? When they’d first met, she’d been drawn to him like a moth round a flame, eagerly anticipating their dates, her heart thrumming with excitement. Though from this vantage point, it was hard to believe there’d been a time when her face had ached with laughter because of his seemingly endless supply of jokes and funny anecdotes. They’d dried up long since, fast becoming a distant memory, along with the permanent smile. The Donny she was familiar with now was a colder, coarser version of himself, and Livvie didn’t like him one bit.
With a sniff, she pulled out another tissue from the box and blew her nose, just as a text pinged through on her iPhone. It was Bryony in her usual cheery tone, hoping everything was going well. She’d signed off with a mixture of happy, party emojis. Livvie felt her throat tighten as fresh tears threatened. She resisted the urge to call her friend and pour her heart out, not wanting to put the dampers on her evening. Bryony had been excited that Josh had booked them a meal at the new fancy restaurant that had opened up in town, followed by VIP seats at the cinema for a viewing of the latest blockbuster starring Nicole Kidman and Keanu Reeves. She’d been bubbling away about it for the last couple of days and there was no way Livvie could throw a bucket of icy-cold water over that; she knew that Bry would feel torn between wanting to go out on her date with Josh and the urge to comfort her best friend.
‘What a mess.’ She pushed her phone out of the way and heaved a sigh. To say the day hadn’t exactly panned out how she’d hoped would be an understatement. By now the preparations for the meal should be well under way with delicious aromas of chopped onions, garlic and mushrooms for the duxelles floating around the flat, the table should be set for a romantic dinner for two, while Michael Bublé’s smooth tones would be playing gently in the background. The wine should be chilled to perfection; ready for her to pour a glass for Donny who was due to burst through the door at any minute. She’d even bought some new underwear for the occasion; he regularly grumbled about her usual choice of trusty M&S knickers, so she’d pushed the boat out – and her self-consciousness to the back of her mind – and picked up some of the tarty stuff he seemed to prefer.
Instead, here she was, five days before Christmas, sobbing her heart out, hardly daring to face the future. Her spirits slumped along with her shoulders. If she was honest with herself, Livvie had known she and Donny had been drifting apart for a while; that their relationship had been hanging on by a tiny thread that had been getting stragglier by the day. The cheeky-chappy banter she’d once found funny had begun to grate and it had gradually begun to dawn that he was using her. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time he’d contributed to the rent or the household bills; he’d bring in a four-pack of beer and some family-sized bags of crisps, referring to them as a treat for her as his way of distracting her from the fact that he barely dipped his hand into his pocket and paid his way. She’d let it pass; not wanting it to cause an argument.
One evening, when she’d worked late owing to a private viewing by a local minor “celebrity”, she’d returned home, hoping that Donny would at least have brought something in for dinner. But, true to form, there he was, sprawled on the sofa, beer can in hand, watching the football, grumbling at the length of time he’d had to wait for his food. When she’d commented that he could at least have made beans on toast, he’d flown off the handle.
‘It’s not just you who goes out to work you know, Livvie. I’ve been flogging my guts out today, doing proper stuff, not swanning around in a frock shop, fawning over stupid women like you do.’
‘There’s no need to shout; I know you work hard, but I don’t just swan around, there’s much more to working in a wedding gown shop than you think. I have to—’
Donny held his hand up to silence her. ‘Spare me the details. Anyway, you’ve totally spoilt the surprise; I was going to order a takeaway from your favourite restaurant, save you having to cook and do the washing-up.’
That comment had irritated her on so many levels; he was a chauvinist of the highest order. But Livvie was too tired for an argument. Instead, she pushed down her annoyance and focused on the more palatable part of his words. ‘I’m sorry, that’s really thoughtful of you. Just ignore me, Mrs Harris has been a right old bag today, treating Bry and me like dirt in front of the customers.’ She flopped down on the arm of the sofa. ‘A Chinese takeaway would be lovely.’
A little victorious smile hovered over his lips. ‘Yeah, well, the number’s on the sideboard; I’ll have sweet and sour spare ribs, duck spring rolls and chicken egg fried rice. Oh, and tell them to chuck in some of them prawn crackers, they go well with beer.’ He leaned forward and slurped noisily from his can.
Livvie cringed inside and, difficult as it was, she resisted the overwhelming temptation to grab his beer and tip it all over him. Silently seething, she stalked over to the sideboard, snatched up the menu and called in the order. How much longer can I put up with this?
Half an hour later when the doorbell rang, it was obvious that Donny had no intention of moving from his place on the sofa. ‘That’ll be the takeaway,’ he said, his eyes never moving from the TV screen.
‘I’ll get it, shall I?’ Seeing as though your arse has taken root there.
‘Yep, you be a good little woman.’ He followed that up with a loud belch.
Ughh! Revolting pig! To this day, Livvie didn’t know how she hadn’t run over and jumped up and down on his nuts. Instead, she bit her tongue and went to fetch the food. ‘I’ll pay for it, too, shall I?’ she said to herself as she stomped to the door.
Yep, looking back, the rot had well and truly set in some time ago. She’d been fooling herself, trying to hang onto a failing relationship that she hadn’t been happy in or felt comfortable with for, well, easily the last year. Turning a blind eye to things that had really started to niggle her. And, no doubt, Donny was feeling the same. Actually, who was she trying to bloody-well kid; of course he wasn’t happy, why else would he be screwing around with any women daft enough to let him get into her knickers. She’d been a mug; but not anymore.
The thought of Christmas day suddenly loomed in her mind, making her heart sink. They’d been invited to her sister and brother-in-law’s house for dinner. ‘Ughh!’ That thought made Livvie’s blood run cold. Cheryl and her smarmy husband Gavin had the sort of house that made you feel it didn’t want you there. As soon as you stepped through the front door, the off-white walls and cream carpet screamed OCD at you. It was a shoes off at the door type of home, with the said shoes being exchanged for slippers from a box that was kept tucked out of sight in a cupboard under the stairs. Livvie wasn’t keen on wearing footwear that somebody else’s sweaty feet had been in – and there was no way Cheryl would offer the same courtesy at her flat which made Livvie even less inclined to do it – so she’d started to take her own fold-up party slippers; Cheryl’s face was a picture the first time Livvie had turned up with them.
‘No slippers for me thanks, Chez, I’ve brought my own.’ Livvie produced a velvet pouch containing a cute pair of velvet slippers from her bag, waving them at her sister.
As Livvie slipped her feet into them, she was aware of Cheryl’s eyes burning into her; she’d be dying to snatch them off her so she could give them a thorough inspection before granting a seal of approval. Livvie wrestled with a smile; was it wrong to get so much pleasure out of telling her sniffy sister she didn’t need her stupid slippers? No, she told herself, this was way too much fun.
‘And you know I don’t like “Chez”.’
‘Sorry, I forgot.’ Livvie bit back the urge to use “Chezza” instead; Cheryl liked that even less. Chezza, Chezza, Chezza!
That was the most Livvie had ever smiled at her sister’s house. As a rule, from the very moment she arrived there, her carefree spirit was sucked out of her and replaced with a tightly knotted ball of anxiety. Everywhere gleamed and sparkled like it was a freshly decorated show home; not a thing was out of place. Livvie regularly wished she’d perfected the art of levitation as she tiptoed down the hall into the pristine living room. Even sitting on the sofa, with its precisely placed cushions that managed to ping up everywhere as soon as she sat down, brought her out in a sweat. And it was clear that Cheryl couldn’t relax with the slightest hint of disorder and itched to drag Livvie off the sofa and plump the rogue cushions back to perfection before re-aligning them – Livvie often wondered if she used a ruler and a spirit level to do it.
She marvelled at how her ten-year-old nephew Ryan managed to survive in such a hostile environment when it seemed to bring out a clumsy side of Livvie she only ever had when she was there. It was so bad, she’d even wondered if the house was deliberately booby-trapped to make things go wrong for her. Like the last time she’d been given the “royal approval” to visit and the handle had dropped off the teacup she was drinking from, sending tea splashing all over the newly-fitted cream carpet. Though it clearly wasn’t her fault, the expression on Cheryl’s face said otherwise; it still made Livvie shudder.
‘Oh, God, I’m so sorry.’ Livvie felt distraught as the hot liquid soaked into the thick pile of the wool carpet.
‘Funny how that hasn’t happened to anyone else.’ Cheryl’s expression was tight as she watched Gavin rush off for a bowl of soapy water.
‘But I didn’t do it on purpose, look, the cup separated from the handle, which I’m still holding.’
‘Well, all I’m saying is that I don’t see how it could be the fault of the cup when it’s from a very expensive set and it’s never happened before.’
Oh, of course it would be bloody expensive, God forbid you had anything in your snooty house that the rest of us common folk would own. ‘All I did was hold it, heard a crack and then the cup ended up on the floor. You and Gavin saw it for yourselves.’
‘Yep, Liv’s right, we both saw what happened; the cup’s obviously faulty.’ Gavin earned himself a frosty glare from his wife.
There was always so much tension in the air; no wonder Ryan hardly ever ventured down from his bedroom.
‘Ughh.’ Livvie had another thought: their mother – Delia – would be spending Christmas day there too, with her never-ending comparisons of her two daughters; Livvie never came out of those looking good.
‘I honestly don’t understand it,’ Delia had said the previous year. ‘I’ve brought you girls up identically and yet you’re so different.’ They were sitting around the table at Cheryl’s house after Christmas dinner.
Oh, Lord, here we go. Livvie’s heart went into freefall straight down to her velvet slippers.
‘There’s our Cheryl with her beautiful, immaculate home, a good job as a legal executive, married to a very successful solicitor, and on top of all that, they’ve given me the most adorable grandson. Anyone could say she’s living the perfect life.’
Adorable, my arse, thought Livvie, he’s a spoilt little shit! She could hardly bear to look at her older sister, who was sitting opposite with a smug expression on her face. As for “the perfect life”, it’s about as far removed from perfect as I can imagine. There’s nothing homely or happy about this place.
‘And then there’s Olivia.’ Her mother turned, fixing her youngest daughter with a steely glare. Delia was on the wrong side of half a bottle of sherry and was sporting the tell-tale signs: a flushed face, glassy eyes and a vicious tongue.
Livvie groaned inwardly and braced herself. Here goes, I’ve got a feeling I’m not going to like this.
‘What can I say?’ The disappointment in her mother’s voice made Livvie’s heart twist. ‘Who’d have thought the two year age gap between the pair of you could make such a difference. But it does. Livvie’s the complete opposite to Cheryl, with her chaotic flat, her dead-end job in a little frock shop, and that waste of space she calls a boyfriend, with not even a glimmer of hope of starting a family – not that I would recommend that with him, mind you. Honestly, Liv, anyone would think you made such terrible choices deliberately, just to upset me.’
Livvie could feel her face prickle with anger. ‘Do what to upset you, Mum? Not live the life you want me to?’
‘Mum does have a point, Liv,’ said Cheryl, barely concealing a smirk. ‘You could make more of an effort with your life choices. Take Donny, for example, why isn’t he here with you, celebrating Christmas day with his girlfriend?’
Livvie’s eyes were drawn to the supercilious expression on Gavin’s face; that and his bulbous nose that had turned a vibrant shade of puce thanks to today’s generous quota of claret. ‘I’m afraid I have to agree,’ he said.
‘What is this, “Pick on Livvie” time? For your information, Donny’s having Christmas dinner with his gran over on the other side of town.’
‘That’s what he tells you,’ said her mother. ‘And have you met this grandmother in question? Hmm? And why weren’t you invited to join them?’
Panic reared in Livvie’s stomach. ‘Not yet, no; and I wasn’t invited because Donny knew I was coming here.’
Gavin held up his hands. ‘Hey, no need to sound so defensive, we’re just looking out for you.’
‘Gav’s right. We don’t want to see you hurt, and even you would have to admit that Donny comes across as a bit of a freeloader.’ Cheryl was visibly smirking now. But deep down, even a year ago, Livvie knew there was more than a hint of truth in what they were saying. Yet, despite this, some perverse part of her couldn’t help but defend him.
‘Look, I know Donny’s not everyone’s cup of tea—’
Gavin snorted. ‘You can say that again.’
Livvie ignored him – and the urge to kick him under the table – and continued. ‘But I know he cares for me; and he does all sorts of thoughtful things I don’t tell you about.’ In truth, she couldn’t remember the last time he’d done anything thoughtful for anyone other than himself. ‘And you’re right, Mum, Cheryl and I are different but – and don’t take this the wrong way, Cheryl – I wouldn’t want to be like her with her high-pressure job and perfect home, or wear my hair and clothes so … so … precisely.’ Livvie tiptoed around the words she’d really like to say – She walks around all buttoned up and covered up, with a face that would sour milk, and she’s so uptight, she looks like she’s got a broom stuck permanently up her arse! – but she kept those thoughts to herself. She braved a glance across at her sister whose smile had dropped and who was now glaring at her.
‘And I most certainly wouldn’t want to dress like you, or wear my hair like you.’ Cheryl arched a combative eyebrow.
Livvie puffed out her cheeks and sighed, wondering if there was any point in continuing to defend herself. It never got her anywhere and it looked like today wasn’t going to be any different. She was just going to have to try and get used to being constantly compared unfavourably to her sister, and accept that she was the black sheep.
Though they shared the same hazel eyes and thick auburn hair, that’s where the similarity ended. Where Livvie’s locks were a mass of unruly curls – and usually piled haphazardly on top of her head – Cheryl’s were cut into a precise, blunt bob with a heavy fringe and straightened to perfection. And, unlike Livvie who embraced her natural curves, Cheryl was stick thin, thanks to her strict adherence to whatever trendy diet she was following. It resulted in her face being bony and sharp; some would say it looked cruel. As far as clothes were concerned, Cheryl’s capsule wardrobe of beige, black and white stood in stark contrast to Livvie’s passion for bohemian clothes in bold, vibrant colours, many that she’d made herself.
‘All I’m saying is that our Livvie could do with taking a leaf out of our Cheryl’s book; the way she—'
‘I think Livvie gets the point,’ said Gav, topping up his glass of claret. ‘Now dinner’s all finished, I think I’ll head into the lounge. He stood up and left the table, taking his glass with him; he’d clearly had enough of the bear-baiting and was keen to get started on his usual Christmas tradition of drinking himself stupid for the rest of the day – much to his wife’s disapproval.
Zander pulled into the driveway at the side of 4 Milton Gardens. Mel’s car had gone but lights blazed from every window of the smart Victorian villa he’d called home for the last eight years. It rattled him that she had no regard for global warming or taking care of the environment, or even wasting money; he’d lost count of the times he’d mentioned that she could perhaps consider turning a light off when she left a room she had no intention of returning to for a while. He felt his mood dip as he recalled her words. ‘Stop being such a Scrooge, Zander; you’re always nagging, “turn this light off, turn that light off, turn the heating down, put this in the recycling bin, put that in the recycling bin”, nag, nag, nag. There’s more to life than constantly worrying about the environment, you know. You’re becoming a real bore’.
Zander was pulled back to the present by a whine from the back of the car, followed by a snort as Alf stuck his nose through the dog guard. ‘Yep, you’re right, fella, time to venture inside; see what chaos awaits us.’
With a feeling of dread, he pushed open the front door and stepped into a wall of warmth. ‘Bloody hell, it’s stifling!’ The temperature stood in stark contrast to the biting cold outside. Typical Mel, always had to have the radiators bouncing hot; she’d sooner open a window than turn the heating down.
He unravelled his scarf and took in the mess of the hallway which was littered with an assortment of discarded shoes – mostly Mel’s, but there appeared to be an unfamiliar pair of male ones. Alf gave them a thorough sniffing before trotting along to the kitchen. Zander followed. ‘Mel,’ he groaned. The room reeked of stale cigarette smoke and was littered with the detritus of a hastily prepared meal – evidently his girlfriend hadn’t been alone if the amount of cups and crockery was anything to go by, or the small bowl that had been used as an ashtray. That annoyed him more than anything; she knew he didn’t like her smoking in the house, never mind inviting some stranger –or strangers – to join her. He went over to the island in the centre of the room. Something vivid and sticky had been spilt down the full length of one of the cupboard doors; it looked like it would leave a permanent stain. Her disrespectful attitude was really beginning to grate on him.
The living room was no better. Zander’s eyes were drawn to a little dish he’d brought back from a holiday in France; it was perched precariously on the arm of one of the leather sofas, and was now full of cigarette butts. He tutted as he went to pick it up, noticing what looked like a splodge of nail varnish on the seat next to where a pile of clothes were strewn – had they been put there to hide it, he wondered? On closer examination, it would appear that someone had tried to pick the nail varnish off, taking the top layer of the leather with it; presumably that’s why they gave up, he thought. To top it off, there was what looked like a cigarette burn in the carpet.
Fuming, he shook his head. ‘What a bloody mess, eh, Alf?’ The Labrador stopped his exploration of the new scents in the room and looked up at him, his tail wagging ten-to-the-dozen. ‘That woman must take me for a fool.’
‘Right, that’s it. Time to relax now, Alf.’ Zander had spent the last hour trying to restore some semblance of order to his home. The first thing he’d done was to turn the radiators down and throw open a couple of windows. The bedroom and en-suite bathroom had been as he’d expected: full of Mel’s chaos. He’d started at the top and worked down, pushing her clothes and shoes into bin bags and dumping them in the utility room. The kitchen had proved quite a challenge and, once all of the washing-up was done and rubbish thrown in the bin, he’d taken a closer look at the stained cupboard door; it would need to be sanded down and painted over. But the biggest disappointment had been the living room. The cigarette burn was in a very obvious place and he suspected the leather of the cushion would be permanently marked by the nail varnish and would need to be replaced. ‘This has got to stop.’
Pouring himself a glass of wine, Zander, closely followed by Alf, headed for his study where he fired up his laptop. He was feeling restless, too restless to sit in front of the television and watch TV or a movie. But he had the overwhelming urge to get away. Get away from this large, empty house that only served to remind him of the bad choices he’d made. He found himself thinking of Clara again. Quiet, gentle, easy-going Clara – on the face of it, at least. His family and friends had all loved her; everyone had expected him to marry her. Not do what he did. His stomach clenched at the thought. How would things have been if they’d stayed together?
The thought that he still needed to call his mother ran through his mind, triggering an involuntary sigh. He’d been putting it off, trying to find the right words, building up the courage to pick up the phone.
He clicked on the mail icon of his laptop and watched the emails slide into the inbox. Amongst the mix of junk, newsletters and adverts, an email from “Quaint Country Cottages” leapt out; it was the company who managed the rental of his holiday cottage in Lytell Stangdale in the middle of the North Yorkshire Moors. He clicked on it, hoping it wasn’t telling him of some problem or other. Thankfully, it was a round-robin, informing their clients of their festive opening hours.
Zander sat for a moment, drumming his fingers against his chin. ‘Lytell Stangdale. I wonder…’ Alf looked up from his position, curled up by his dad’s feet, and wagged his tail. ‘You thinking what I’m thinking, buddy?’ He reached down and rubbed the Labrador’s ears, which increased the speed of the tail wagging.
Earlier that year, Zander had been visiting his cousin, Beth, who was a GP at a surgery in Danskelfe, the next village to Lytell Stangdale. He’d been sitting in the Sunne Inne on the Saturday lunchtime, enjoying a pint of local beer, absorbing the community spirit of the place, when he’d found himself roped into a local fundraiser – he hadn’t realised when he’d agreed to it that it would involve him taking his clothes off for a calendar shoot, but that was by-the-by. He smiled at the memory.
He’d been visiting the area to check on the property he’d purchased with a view to renting out as a holiday let. Dale View Cottage was an achingly beautiful thatched longhouse, typical of the area, and, despite the fact that it had needed a massive amount of work doing to it, Zander had fallen in love with it on the spot. Indeed, it had been a labour of love restoring it to the standard it was today.
He had fond memories of that weekend and, despite having to get his kit off, he’d been tempted back several times since, struck by how friendly and welcoming the locals were. Each time he’d found himself laughing and chatting in the pub with Jimby Fairfax – whose idea the fundraiser had been – and Ollie, who was Jimby’s best mate. Camm, whose looks betrayed his gipsy heritage, had been a regular, too, as was local architect Robbie. Yeah, they were a great bunch of blokes and Zander felt like he’d known them for years. His mind roamed over the memories of his visits there; he’d always thought Jimby’s sister Kitty was cute, but she was off-limits, being married to Ollie. ‘Shame,’ he said aloud, his mind moving on. Kitty’s friends were hilarious; sassy Molly whose wicked sense of humour always made him chuckle; he didn’t wonder that she lived with someone as easy-going as Camm. Then there was glamorous, purple-haired Violet who was a dead-ringer for a young Elizabeth Taylor; she was recently married to Jimby. On the face of it, Zander thought you wouldn’t put the two of them together, yet the reality was that they complemented one another perfectly. Yep, he mused, they were a nice bunch of down-to-earth folk.
Before he knew it, Zander found himself looking at the “Quaint Country Cottages” website and, in particular, the listing for his own property. His spirits suddenly lifted. ‘Perfect!’ Thanks to yesterday’s cancellation of a booking that took in the whole of the festive period, the property was empty. He pushed up his shirt sleeve and checked his watch, his mind racing over an idea that had started to bloom out of nowhere. He glanced out of the window, remembering that Steff had said snow was forecast; it hadn’t started yet.
‘Alf,’ he said, flipping down the lid of his laptop, ‘pack your bags, buddy, we’re heading off to the North Yorkshire Moors.’ Alf jumped up and trotted after Zander who had headed to the spare bedroom where his suitcase, all packed for Carcassonne, sat on the bed. ‘Right,’ he said rubbing his chin. ‘I only need to make a few adjustments to this, then we’re good to go.’
Knowing he couldn’t put it off any longer, Zander called his mother who, though disappointed, took the news much better than he’d expected. She tried very gently to talk him into in to changing his mind, but didn’t push when she realised she wasn’t going to persuade him. If he’d thought about it, why should she be surprised, when, thanks to Mel, he’d cancelled other things at the last minute. The last time sprang into his mind. The pair had been en-route to a Bonfire Night party at Toby and Jo’s when Mel had suddenly thrown a wobbler about not wanting to be there. She’d had an offer from her new friends and was kicking off about not being able to spend the evening with them, doing what she wanted.
‘You’re so selfish, Zander. Why do we always have to do things with your stupid family?’ she’d yelled at him, pouting like a spoilt child.
‘You could’ve said you didn’t want to go when I first mentioned it to you.’ She was unbelievable.
‘Well, I didn’t know about this party at the time, did I? She’d shaken her phone at him. ‘And it sounds amazing; much better than spending a boring evening at your brother’s.’
The argument had got so heated, Zander had ended up turning the car round, dropping Mel off at her friend’s party and heading home; he hadn’t been in the right frame of mind to celebrate and didn’t want to bring the mood down at his brother and sister-in-law’s get-together. And, out of some misplaced loyalty to Mel, he didn’t want them to judge her if he’d turned up alone. Deep down, he knew they thought she wasn’t right for him, but good manners always prevailed and she was always made welcome whenever she deigned to accompany him on a visit. But Zander was growing tired of it.
He ended the call with his mother with a sense of relief, and, before he knew it, his suitcase was on the back seat of his Jeep, his wellies were thrown in the footwell and Alf’s large, squishy bed was pushed into the roomy boot. Alf, seemingly up for the adventure, leapt up, wagging his tail and wearing an expression of ‘Ready when you are, Dad’.
‘Looks like you’re all fired up for a road trip, buddy.’ Zander laughed and rubbed Alf’s head. ‘We’ll have a great time, just you and me, won’t we? Who needs women?’ Alf’s tail beat faster, thudding against the back of the seats.
As they pulled out of the drive and made their way along Milton Gardens, the prospect of spending Christmas tucked away in his cosy cottage in the middle of the North Yorkshire Moors suddenly made the world seem a much brighter place.
There was no way Livvie could stay at the flat over Christmas and there was definitely no way she could face going to Cheryl’s on Christmas day. There’d been radio silence from Donny since he’d stormed out a couple of hours earlier, but Livvie didn’t expect otherwise, though she did wonder if he’d be back later that night. He was unpredictable at the best of times, and no stranger to spending the night who-knew-where, offering only a vague excuse for his absence on his return the following day.
What a mug I’ve been.
The thought of seeing him again, of listening to his crap, made her stomach swirl with nausea. Livvie put her head in her hands, closed her eyes and tried to weigh up her options. It didn’t take long to realise that she had very few of those; there was no large welcoming extended family of cousins and aunts who could offer her a place to stay in her time of need. If she called Bry, she knew she’d say she could stay at her flat, but there’s no way Livvie wanted to intrude on her friend’s Christmas with Josh, or play goosegog for that matter.
The urge to get away from it all started to gnaw at her. She needed to escape from here, escape from her judgemental family and her loser of an ex-boyfriend. The thought of going somewhere where nobody would know her was suddenly very appealing.
The film she watched every Christmas Eve, “The Holiday” with Cameron Diaz and Jude Law popped into her mind; she loved the romantic idea of swapping your home for a quaint little cottage in the country. ‘That’s it!’ she said, sitting up straight. ‘I’ll book a holiday cottage for over Christmas.’
Before she knew it, she’d booted up her laptop and googled “quaint country cottages”, ignoring the little voice at the back of her mind telling her she’d left it a bit late in the day. The first website on the list was for a company called exactly that: “Quaint Country Cottages”. It offered her a tiny glimmer of hope and she grabbed tight hold of it. ‘That sounds promising.’ She clicked on it, gasping as the screen began loading images of stunning cottages of all shapes and sizes. The blurb informed her it was a small, family run company that specialised in the area around the North Yorkshire Moors, which was, she reckoned, the perfect distance away from her flat; not too close and not too far.
She began scrolling down and hadn’t got far when her eyes landed on the sweetest little thatched cottage she’d ever seen. It’s so beautiful, it’s bound to be fully booked.
Livvie hovered the cursor over the calendar and clicked on that day’s date. ‘Oh!’ Her heart leapt; it was available! In fact, it was available right up to the week after the New Year, and even offered a reduction in the fee owing to a last-minute cancellation. Her mind scrambled over the information; that covered the time Blushing Brides was closed. It was perfect; fate was talking to her. Before she had chance to think about it, she hurried off in search of her purse and her bank card.
Within minutes of her filling in her details and pressing send, a couple of emails had landed in her in-box. One was a booking confirmation, the other included directions, information about the cottage and the code for the key safe, which was apparently on the wall by the door. Livvie hastily printed everything off and raced to the bedroom to dig out her suitcase.
Her heart rate had gone into over-drive and she was consumed by the urge to move quickly; she didn’t want to risk Donny coming home and find her halfway through packing. She’d had enough experience of him worming his way into her mind, talking her out of doing things he didn’t want her to do, and she knew he’d do his best to talk her out of this. Or worse, talk her in to telling him where she was going. She didn’t want to think about that.
An image of his smug face loomed into her mind, firing up her anger towards him once more. She threw the suitcase on the bed and began hurling her clothes in with little concern for creases or space-saving, her heart pounding with every item.
She was almost done when she heard the main entrance door of the building slam shut. She froze, her heart thudding even harder, nausea swirling in her stomach as she held her breath, listening intently. She sensed footsteps and the sound of movement coming up the stairs and only when they passed the door to the flat and she realised it was the tenant from the flat above could she breathe again. ‘Oh, my God, that was scary!’
Quickly, she headed to the bathroom where she grabbed her toothbrush and cosmetics; she threw them into a washbag then scurried back to the bedroom where she stuffed them into her already bulging case, her pulse thrumming in her ears all the while.
Next, she peeled off her work clothes, throwing them in the direction of the washing basket, before pulling on her jeans and a warm bottle green jumper dotted with cream stars. ‘Boots,’ she said aloud, hurrying to the cupboard by the door to the flat where she found her black biker boots.
‘Right, that’s it.’ She had one final check round, making sure she’d got everything she’d need, and before she knew it she was dragging her suitcase down the stairs and out into the street.
It may have been a good idea to park around the corner from her flat when she was trying to catch Donny unawares, but her case weighed a ton and kept toppling to one side thanks to a wonky wheel. It made her wish she’d had the foresight to move her car once he’d gone. It didn’t help that every time she heard a car approaching, panic reared up inside her, fearful that it was Donny. And despite the sparkling frost, which made it slippery underfoot, she was sweating buckets.
Livvie was almost at her car when the familiar sound of a rattly engine sent a chill down her spine. She glanced up to see a white van heading down the road, in her direction. Donny’s. ‘Shit!’ Quickly, she bobbed down beside the nearest car, holding her breath until he passed. Hearing the engine slow down as he pulled into the parking space on the drive, she moved as quickly as she could, dragging her case onto the road and squatting down in the gap between two cars. Not daring to move, she waited, the sound of her breath amplified in her ears. She heard the slam of his van door, the crunch of his shoes on the gravel, then the jangle of his keys as he fumbled for the lock. And he was whistling. After what happened, how could he be whistling? Bastard!
Livvie waited to hear the main door of the flats close behind him before she tentatively stood up. She released a noisy sigh which billowed out in a mushroom of condensation in the chilly air. As she pulled her case onto the pavement, the dodgy wheel caught on the curb, causing it to fall against the car she’d been hiding behind. The impact set the vehicle’s alarm shrieking out into the darkness, sending a ginger tom cat racing from beneath it. ‘Shit, shit, shit!’ Livvie’s heart had never pounded so fast in her life. She mustered all of her strength, heaved her case onto the pavement and dragged it as quickly as she could, not daring to look back until she’d rounded the corner to where her little car was parked.
‘Oy, what the effing hell d’you think you’re doing?’ Donny’s voice carried down the road. Livvie froze, her breath caught in her chest.
‘S’alright, mate. It’s just me checking my car. I just saw a cat shoot off down the road; think it probably jumped on the bonnet, set the alarm off.’ She recognised the voice as belonging to their neighbour from five doors down.
‘Oh, righto, John. Just thought I’d better check; you never know these days.’
‘Aye, you’re right there.’
‘Well, see you later, then.’
‘Yep, see you later.’
Livvie slowly released her breath; she was shaking as she very quietly opened the rear passenger door and hefted her case onto the back seat of her car, only daring to close it when she heard Donny retreat.
It wasn’t until she was on the main road out of Rickelthorpe that she could relax. And, only when she felt she was safely out of Donny’s reach, did she pull into a little side road and tap the address of the holiday cottage into her sat nav.
As she drove along, her tiny car eating up the miles, she was pleased to find that fear was slowly receding and excitement taking its place. Even if it meant she’d be spending Christmas day alone, Livvie had no doubt she’d made the right decision.
The journey to the moors had been fairly straightforward, with the main roads being well-gritted and frost-free. But it was a different matter once Livvie headed deeper into the countryside, with its narrow, twisting lanes, some with sheer drops down vertiginous valley sides. A few of the roads had been gritted by the local farmers, but that was patchy. To make matters worse, it had started to snow; sleet at first, but it had become increasingly heavy and the flakes had grown larger with every mile. Livvie was shocked at how quickly the road was disappearing under a thickening blanket of snow. She was unused to driving in such inhospitable conditions and, even though she was taking it slowly, her car still managed to skid around a bend, making her stomach clench and her knuckles blanch as she gripped tightly onto the steering wheel. She took a moment to steady her nerves, thankful that the roads were quiet and she’d managed to avoid colliding with a dry-stone wall that had loomed threateningly close before she’d ground to a halt.
It didn’t take long for her to realise that the sat nav’s directions had become unhelpful and were sending her on a wild goose chase; her tyre marks had been covered by the snow, but a stone marker she could have sworn she’d seen twice before appeared on the roadside once more. ‘Bugger!’ She looked out onto the moor where tiny dots of light from farmhouses blinked back at her. Could Dale View Cottage be one of them? She had no idea, so she tucked her car into a pull-in place and reached for her road map.
‘Oh, why don’t they include the little roads on these things?’ she said to herself. As she was trying to make sense of it, she was startled by a loud scraping sound and the bright lights of a tractor illuminating the road. It came to a halt beside her. Feeling slightly anxious, Livvie lowered her side window as the driver leaned across and opened the door of his cab.
‘Woah!’ The bitingly cold wind slapped her in the face as it leapt into the warmth of her car, hurling snowflakes everywhere.
‘You okay?’ asked the tractor driver. Livvie noted he had a friendly face and a mass of dark curls escaping from the brim of his thick, woolly hat.
‘Erm, I’m a bit lost, actually.’ She wiped snow from her eyes.
‘Where do you need to be?’
‘Dale View Cottage; the address I’ve been given just says it’s on the Dale Road in Lytell Stangdale, which seems to have confused my sat nav and it’s started sending me round in circles.’
The friendly face laughed, a twinkle in his eyes. ‘You’re not the first person to say that about sat nav round here. That’s Zander Gillespie’s holiday cottage you’re looking for. You need to be up along the road by Tinkel Top Farm, then past Fower Yatts Lane; it’s not far from here, but it can be tricky to find. I’m heading that way, so you can follow me while I clear the road ahead of you if you like?’
‘Oh, right. Okay.’ She paused for a moment, listening to her gut that was telling her she could trust him. A sudden memory of the said gut-feeling she had when she first met Donny flashed through her mind, telling her to steer well clear of him. Turned out it was right; shame she hadn’t listened to it then.
‘I’m Camm, by the way; I live at Withrin Hill Farm just over there.’ He nodded behind him. ‘And I’ve just taken on the contract with the local council to keep the roads clear of snow in the winter.’
‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Camm. I’m Livvie.’
‘Right, Livvie.’ Camm looked around at the snow that had started falling much more heavily; large flakes were now swirling around in the wind that had been gradually gaining strength. ‘I think we’d best get you there before the drifting gets too bad. It’ll only take five or ten minutes. Stick in a low gear, no hard braking and you should be fine.’
‘Okay, thanks.’ She smiled, relief washing over her at hearing how close she was to the holiday cottage; she’d barely driven in snow before and had never had the need to fit winter tyres to her little car. She wound her window back up, thinking how nice it was to see a friendly face. The kindness of strangers, she mused; what a contrast to her family.
Camm eased his tractor along the road, Livvie following slowly behind him. Her heart leapt into her mouth a couple of times when her tyres lost their grip on a stretch of road that was on a worryingly steep incline and spun alarmingly. Luckily, she’d managed to right herself and gripped onto her steering wheel for sheer life, her heart banging against her chest, until they’d reached the top. After that, they took a left and headed down a long, narrow track which led into nothing but inky darkness. It crossed her mind that she was in the middle of nowhere, following a total stranger to who-knew-where. For all she knew, he could be a crazed serial killer who would chop her up into hundreds of tiny pieces which wouldn’t be found until the snow had thawed in the spring. Then she remembered his warm smile and his kind eyes and told herself she was being ridiculous. Trust your instincts, she reminded herself.
Before she knew it, the warm glow of lights from a cottage reached out onto the track. Camm turned right beyond the building, then reversed back out, turning the tractor so that it faced in the opposite direction. He tucked in and came to a halt, before climbing down from the cab and making his way over to her car. She opened her door and stepped out, the harsh wind catching in her throat and the icy snowflakes stinging her cheeks.
‘We’re here; Dale View Cottage.’ He nodded towards a long, low house that appeared to be huddling into the hillside. In the garden, a Christmas tree decorated with fairy lights swayed in the wind, while another one twinkled from behind the glass of a mullioned window. ‘The area I’ve just cleared yon side of the house is the parking place; if you drive in there, it’ll get your car off the track.’
‘Oh, okay, thanks.’ She climbed back into her car and did as she was bid, glad to get back into the warmth.
In a moment, Camm was standing beside her. ‘I’ll give you a hand with your bags if you like?’
‘Oh … I … er … I think I’ll be fine, thanks; I don’t have that much.’
‘Well, if you’re sure. I could just carry them to the door and leave them there so you could take them inside yourself.’ He gave her a reassuring smile and she felt a pang of guilt, hoping she hadn’t made him feel that she doubted his intentions.
‘Actually, it would be really good if you could help.’ She remembered the troublesome wheel on her suitcase. ‘I honestly haven’t brought that much. I left in a bit of a hurry; it was a last minute booking and I wanted to get here before the snow arrived.’ The snow part might be a tiny white lie, but Livvie felt it added to her explanation of lack of luggage and stopped her having to explain any further; she didn’t want to look like a pathetic case.
‘Lucky you didn’t leave it any later. Here, let’s get this thing inside.’ Camm reached in and pulled out her suitcase. Livvie grabbed her bag and snatched her mobile phone from the seat beside her, following his large footprints to the cottage, her head bowed against the savage wind.
He pushed open the wooden gate. ‘At least the path’s been gritted; Zander’s got a good team looking after this place,’ he said, stopping outside a low, wide front door that was sporting a large festive wreath; it too twinkled with fairy lights.
Camm dumped the case on the doorstep while Livvie reached inside her bag and retrieved the piece of paper with the code for the keysafe, thankful of the glow from the outside light by the door.
‘Right, I’ll go and get the rest,’ he said.
‘Are you sure you don’t mind?’
‘Course not. But I’ll get this in first, before it gets soaked.’
‘Oh, okay.’ Livvie released the key from the small metal safe and wriggled it into the lock, the cold biting into her exposed fingers, making her wish she’d found her gloves. She pushed open the door to reveal a cosy hallway, softly illuminated by a table lamp on an old oak coffer. Camm lifted the case inside, being careful not to step any further than the doormat, then headed back to the car.
‘Wow!’ Livvie took in the old flagstone floor, covered with a large Persian rug, the low-beamed ceiling and the delicious aroma of Christmas, no doubt thanks to the festive pot pourri that sat in a large blue and white bowl the centre of the coffer. There was another door of similar proportions directly opposite the front door, and a further two leading off from the hallway – one each on either side of the front door. The one to the left was set in an uneven stone wall, while the one on the right was set in an ancient, oak partition that had darkened to a rich, deep brown with age. Swags of fake pine branches, decorated with deep red baubles and more fairy lights were draped along the length of it. Her heart pumped with excitement; she’d never been in a house like this before, the sort you usually only see in magazines. ‘Oh, this is beautiful.’
Already, this trip felt right.
‘That’s the lot,’ said Camm, armed with the shopping bags from the boot of her car; the ones she was carrying when she left Blushing Brides earlier that afternoon, full of delicious ingredients for her romantic meal with Donny. The contents had cost her a fortune and there was no way she was going to let them go to waste. ‘And looking at the weather, it’s just as well you came prepared.’ He gave a hearty laugh.
‘Yes, it is … and thank you so much for this, and for helping me get here.’ She was beginning to feel very guilty; the poor man was absolutely covered in snow.
‘Hey, it’s no problem; I could hardly leave you abandoned by the roadside.’ He paused for a moment, making her feel a little awkward. ‘Listen, here’s my number, if you need anything. It’s our landline – you’ll find that mobile phone signal can be a little, er, unreliable round here.’ He reached inside his jacket, pulled out a small business card and handed it to her. ‘If I’m not in, Molly – my partner – might answer or her son Ben or his girlfriend Kristy.’
‘Thank you, that’s really kind.’ She glanced quickly at the card, noting the word “campsite”. ‘Though, I think I’ve put you to too much trouble already.’
‘Don’t be daft, it’s what we do out here, help each other out.’ He grinned, rubbing his hands together. ‘Right, time I was getting back to road clearing. Looks like you’ll be toasty enough in there.’ He nodded up to the chimney where the wind was pulling smoke one way, then the other.
She stepped out and looked up. ‘Ooh, a real fire.’ The thought sent a wave of happiness through her as her mind conjured up an image of flames dancing in a large grate.
‘Aye, that’ll be down to Mrs Hoggarth who looks after the place and gets it ready for guests.’
‘Well, I’m glad she could get here! And thanks again for all your help, there’s no way I’d have been able to find this place without it; or even get here for that matter.’
‘No worries; you get in where it’s warm. Enjoy your stay; and you know where we are if you need us.’
Livvie headed back in and closed the door, shutting out the cold, suddenly aware that her feet felt like blocks of ice and were soaking wet. Her boots might look stylish, but they were hardly practical for wading through inches of moorland snow. She heeled them off, then tugged at her soggy socks, leaving both by the front door. ‘Ooh.’ Delicious warmth from underfloor heating seeped through the soles of her feet, making her skin tingle.
Carefully, she pushed open the stripped pine door to the left, revealing a scene of utter cosiness. Soft lighting courtesy of table lamps dotted around bathed the room in a warm glow, along with fairy lights from the Christmas tree she’d spotted from outside. Livvie took a deep breath; she loved the smell of a real Christmas tree, something she hadn’t had since she’d moved in with Donny. He didn’t like them, claiming they were a waste of money, insisting they had an artificial one instead.
‘They’re nothing but a bloody nuisance, and an expensive bloody nuisance at that,’ he’d said. ‘And it’ll be muggins here who’d have to carry the sodding thing up the stairs to our flat, then have the problem of dragging it back down, with needles dropping off everywhere. No, you can make do with an artificial one; they look just as good but without the hassle.’
‘Sod you, Donny!’ Livvie said aloud.
She pushed him out of her mind as her eyes roamed around the rest of the room. Just like the hallway, the ceiling was low and heavily beamed, with the lower part of a thick cruck-frame pushing up through wide elm floorboards, though instead of flagstones, in here the floor was covered by a rustic sisal carpet. To the immediate right ran an ancient wall of dark oak panelling which extended to roughly six feet. Livvie walked beyond it to see a wooden settle built into the other side, it sat directly beside a huge, low inglenook which housed a sturdy log-burner. Thanks to Mrs Hoggarth, flames danced merrily behind the glass while logs were stacked neatly beside it. ‘Ah, so that’s where the smoke was coming from.’
A large, squishy sofa, piled with plump cushions and a tartan rug over each arm faced the fire. It was flanked by two equally comfortable-looking armchairs. Livvie felt a smile tugging at her lips as she pictured herself stretched out on it in her PJs, a hot chocolate topped with marshmallows perched on the coffee table in front of it, while she lost herself between the pages a good book. Oh, bliss! On the subject of books, her eyes were drawn to a large book-case at the far end of the room, stuffed with a variety of colourful spines. She made her way over to it and was thrilled to see several titles by her favourite authors and some by ones she’d never read before, but had always intended to. Now would be the perfect time to put that right, she thought, pulling one out. ‘This is just getting better and better.’
The windows were adorable; set low with deep sills. She’d never been in a house with real stone mullions, though she noticed one had been replaced with a Yorkshire sliding sash, its small Georgian panes glinting in the light. It added a quaint and quirky air to the room.
At the far end, a grandfather clock was keeping time by an L-shaped staircase, it’s ticking low and rhythmic. At the right of the stairs, was another door that had a small sign with the word “snug” written on it. ‘Wow, a snug,’ she said to herself. She flicked on the light switch and peered around the door to find a sweet room fitted with twin beds covered in matching patchwork throws. It too, had an inglenook fireplace – though on a much smaller scale to the one in the living room – but it was currently unlit and the warmth in here appeared to be courtesy of the underfloor heating. This room, too, had a stone mullioned window. Livvie went across to it and drew the curtains. ‘“Snug’s” the perfect name for this room.’
The kitchen could have been straight from Country Living magazine, thought Livvie, thrilled to find the ubiquitous cream Aga – in her dreams, she had a cottage in the country with a large Aga, where she’d cook mouth-watering casseroles and bake huge fluffy scones. Though the room was sympathetically decorated to suit the age of the house, with its tasteful handmade kitchen and the odd piece of polished copper dotted about, there was no short supply of mod cons, including a fancy coffee machine – which, she noted, also had a setting for hot chocolate. Livvie clapped her hands gleefully; she’d be trying one of those just as soon as she’d looked around everywhere.
She headed back into the living room and made her way upstairs. On the landing, a small table set with a lamp and a scattering of magazines was tucked under the eaves, a neat leather chair beside it with a checked woollen blanket thrown over its back. She soon discovered that there were two good sized bedrooms, with cathedral-style ceilings and the upper half of the sturdy cruck frames that reached upwards, meeting in the middle of the ceiling, held together by huge oak pegs. The windows were sweet dormers that would no doubt have amazing views over the countryside during daylight hours.
The bathroom took her breath away. Like the kitchen, the décor was sympathetic, but was furnished with everything you would find in a contemporary space. And though the room was an awkward shape, thanks to the sloping roof, it had been planned with great attention to detail; it appeared that not a millimetre had been wasted. On one wall was a large roll-top bath with chunky claw feet, above which was the biggest chrome rainfall shower head Livvie had ever seen. While a gleaming white sink was sat on top of a purpose-built vanity unit, next to which was a Lloyd Loom chair in a delicious shade of duck-egg blue that matched the walls. Shelves in what looked like driftwood housed toiletries and trinkets, and paintings with a seaside theme added a tasteful finish to the walls. Livvie released a happy sigh, the sadness of the day’s earlier events temporarily pushed from her mind. She couldn’t wait to have a soak in the bath. ‘Hot chocolate first,’ she said, drawing the blue and white ticking curtains before making her way downstairs.
Getting her suitcase up the stairs had been interesting, but she’d managed, and heaved it onto the case-stand in the bedroom she’d chosen; the slightly bigger one that boasted two dormer windows. ‘Right, I just need my jimjams and a pair of fluffy socks; I’ll unpack properly later.’ She rummaged around amongst the messy bundle of clothes and pulled out what she needed.
Armed with a creamy hot chocolate, Livvie headed to the bathroom, where steam and the delicious aroma of lavender spilled out thanks to the complimentary bubble bath she’d found on one of the shelves. She peeled off her clothes to a stream of Christmas songs that blared out from the Bose system she’d spotted downstairs and put into use; she figured as she was in the middle of nowhere, she was free to play it as loud as she wanted.
With her mug of hot chocolate perched on the vanity unit, Livvie fixed her curls more securely on top of her head, then stepped into the bubbles. Her body groaned with delight as she slipped into the soothing warmth of the water. ‘Ahh, bliss!’ she said as it lapped over her. She lay her head back and closed her eyes, allowing the joyful spirit of the songs to wash over her, refusing entry to thoughts of Donny.
The weather had taken a turn for the worse as Zander headed towards the North Yorkshire moors. What had started out as sleet was now falling as thick, feathery snowflakes, quickly settling like a dense blanket on his windscreen. As soon as the wipers swept it away, another one took its place. ‘Bugger,’ he said as he increased their speed. ‘Let’s hope we actually get there, Alf, buddy.’
On hearing his name, Alf sat up and pushed his nose through the dog guard, his wagging tail thudding against the boot. Zander smiled, wondering if there was ever a time when Alf wasn’t happy. The thought was quickly intruded upon by a reminder that, yes, there was a time when he was sad; sadder than he’d ever seen a dog. Zander pushed the horrible memory away; he still couldn’t bear to think of it.
As the Jeep ate up the snowy miles, he was relieved when road signs for Lytell Stangdale and the surrounding villages started to appear. ‘Nearly there, young man.’ He pressed on with renewed vigour.
He took the junction for Lytell Stangdale and carefully made his way along the isolated road, full of twists and turns. ‘It’s a different world out here, Alf,’ he said, taking in the rapidly growing snowdrifts that were lining up in the more exposed parts of the moors. By now the snow was really hurling itself at him. ‘Thank goodness the roads have been ploughed; and fairly recently too, by the look of things.’ He didn’t have far to go, but Dale View Cottage was set in an isolated spot on its own out on the moors and Zander was concerned the little lane that led to it would be impassable.
He didn’t encounter another car as he drove through Danskelfe but as he left Lytell Stangdale, he noticed the lights of a tractor climbing steadily up the steep incline of Withrin Hill. ‘It’s clearly a local far