Anna Browne’s Christmas Party – PART ONE

Here it is, lovelies! The overwhelming winners of my first #WurdyParty poll were ROSIE DUNCAN from Fairytale of New York and HARRI LANGTON from Welcome to My World – but you might recognise some other characters in Part One of my Christmas story…

So, without further ado, here is PART ONE…

Anna Browne’s Surprising Christmas Party © Miranda Dickinson 2015

PART ONE

Food.

Tick. A team of caterers were busy laying out gorgeous-looking platters across four white-cloth covered tables.

Bar.

Tick. Trays of sparkling wine glasses were being polished by two bartenders and would soon be filled with warm, spicy mulled wine.

Decorations.

Tick. Frosted white tendrils of ivy curled along window ledges and along the edges of tables. Garlands of sweet-scented eucalyptus and fir studded with winter white roses looped over two exquisite fireplaces at either end of the room, and delicate bowls of Christmas roses, red berries and frosted apples adorned every table. Tiny sparkling crystal and silver decorations were suspended on strings of pure white fairy lights over the whole room, creating the illusion of a twinkling, night sky. It was perfect. The guests were going to love it.

Music.

Hang on… Where was the music?

Anna Browne looked up from her list to survey the room. The space that had been cleared halfway down Hillford Hall’s elegant stateroom for a makeshift stage was worryingly empty. The band had said they’d be arriving at three p.m, hadn’t they? One look at her watch confirmed it was almost four-thirty. Where were they?

‘Excuse me,’ she called to a smartly dressed woman moving silver chairs around the tables where her guests would soon be seated.

The event planner smiled and hurried over. ‘Everything okay?’

Anna forced herself to take a breath. Almost everything was, she told herself. This was the only thing missing. ‘It’s all wonderful, Erin. It’s just – weren’t the band supposed to be setting up by now?’

Erin checked her watch. ‘They are a little late,’ she frowned. ‘But I know them well and they’ll pull out all the stops when they get here. I heard traffic was bad out of Birmingham this afternoon. The day before Christmas Eve is always a bit of a nightmare.’ She smiled and placed a reassuring hand on Anna’s arm. ‘Trust me, they’ll be here. I’ll give their manager a call, find out what’s happening, okay?’

Anna nodded, returning Erin’s competent smile. ‘That would be good, thank you.’

The event planner already had her mobile pressed to her ear as she walked away.

‘Hi D’Wayne? It’s Erin from Hillford Hall. Are you on your way?’

Packing her nerves away, Anna wandered over to one of the enormous sash windows that overlooked the ground of the hall. It was the easiest party she’d organised, thanks to the friendly event planner and her brilliant team. Hillford Hall was everything she’d hoped it would be, too: a gorgeous red sandstone stately home on the edge of the Staffordshire border set in acres of beautifully landscaped parkland. A light dusting of snow that morning had completed the magical setting, each tiny flake frozen into perfect position under the darkening clear sky. The moon had already appeared in the deep winter blue, throwing long shadows from the ancient oaks and beech trees across the snow-covered lawns. Anna could see a trail of silver lanterns marking the path from the car park to the grand entrance of the hall, flickering white candlelight beckoning guests to enter the frosted splendour of the party.

Anna relaxed a little, smiling as she imagined her brother’s face when he saw the photographs she’d emailed him earlier. ‘You’re goin’ a bit upmarket, in’t you, An? Stately homes and Christmas soirees… Mum would have a fit!’

Good job my mother isn’t invited tonight, she thought, the memory of their final row still fresh. Perhaps there would come a time when she could be civil with Senara. But it hadn’t arrived yet.

‘Twenty minutes,’ Erin called, summoning Anna’s attention. ‘They’re held up in traffic.’

It would be cutting things fine, but with guests due to begin arriving at seven-thirty p.m. there was still time for the event band to set up and sound-check. Anna raised her hand in thanks and turned back to her list…

* * * *

‘I just can’t believe you’re here!’ Harriet Langton hugged her cousin for the fiftieth time since she’d picked her and her husband up at Birmingham Airport. ‘Auntie Rosemary is so excited – I swear she’s been stockpiling Yorkshire Tea and Cadbury’s Mini Rolls for weeks.’

Rosie Duncan laughed and hugged her cousin back. ‘Mum’s talked of little else since we told her we were coming for Christmas.’ She took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of Harri’s tiny cottage on the edge of Stone Yardley. Cinnamon, recently baked gingerbread and brewing coffee mingled with lavender that hung in bunches tied with gingham ribbons from the white-painted cast iron bedframe in Harri’s bedroom where the two cousins were getting ready. ‘It’s good to be home. I don’t have time to think about England most of the year but when Christmas comes it always makes me a bit homesick.’

Harri’s blue eyes widened. ‘But you have Christmas in New York, every year, right on your doorstep! Stone Yardley can hardly compare to snow in Central Park, or shopping at Macy’s, or skating at the Rockefeller Center. The High Street and Viv’s kitchen shop’s window display aren’t a match for all of that.’

Rosie giggled. ‘Are you kidding? We don’t have the Stone Yardley W.I.’s annual festive knit-a-thon, or the festive Victorian shopping night – I miss all those things. And besides, it isn’t about the place; it’s about the people. I love Ed’s family, but nothing can beat being with you lot.’

‘Second Christmas in a row we’ve been together,’ Harri grinned. ‘Can you believe it’s been a whole twelve months since we were all together on Long Island?’

‘I know. Where has all that time gone?’

A burst of laughter from downstairs made Harri and Rosie share rolled-eyed looks. ‘Ed and Alex are getting on, then.’

‘Was that ever in any doubt? Ed’s been keen to meet him again since you two first visited us. He’s very keen on Alex’s real ale recommendations.’

Harri laughed. ‘Who knew our other halves would bond so well over Enville Ale? I did wonder if Ed would find this place a bit twee after your gorgeous apartment.’

‘Ed’s wanted to experience a true English village experience for years, but we’ve always been so busy at Christmas we couldn’t consider it before. He’s been like an excited kid for weeks about coming here. Besides, your cottage is lovely. Which do think? Diamonds or amethyst drops?’ Rosie held up two pairs of earrings and checked her reflection in Harri’s bedroom mirror.

Harri finished pinning her auburn curls into a side-plait and sat beside Rosie on her bed. ‘Diamonds. They’ll look amazing against your hair. I am so happy you’re here, Rosie. It reminds me of all the Christmasses we had as kids. Do you remember playing that trick on James when we sewed his duvet to his mattress? He couldn’t work out why he couldn’t get his feet into bed! How old were we then?’

‘We must have been about eleven, or twelve? We plagued him so much, didn’t we? It drove Mum to distraction, I think.’ Rosie smiled at her cousin. ‘You look gorgeous in that dress, H. Emerald green is your colour.’

Harri blushed a little and pulled up the neckline of her strapless velvet dress. ‘Alex likes it. You don’t think it’s a bit too – revealing?’

Rosie laughed. ‘You are nuts, do you know that? You look wonderful. Perfect for Hillford Hall. I still can’t believe we managed to get invites for the party. Mum was over the moon when I told her.’

‘Auntie Rosemary loves the place. She’s decorated the staterooms there for so many weddings over the years she practically knows every inch of it. I think she and Barnie might end up tripping up the aisle in one of them one day, you know.’

‘He certainly seems to be wining and dining her,’ Rosie replied, smiling at the recent revelation that her mother was dating her gentle-spoken delivery driver at Eadern Blooms. ‘She tells me off when I ask about Barnie but she’s smiling in a way I haven’t seen for years. I want her to be happy.’ She looked at the small alarm clock on Harri’s bedside table, beside a faded framed postcard of the church of Santa Maria della Salute by the Grand Canal in Venice. ‘It’s almost seven o’clock. Shouldn’t we be going?’

‘Oh blimey! We’d better get a wriggle on.’

‘Are you sure you don’t mind driving? I’m sure we could find a taxi even in Stone Yardley.’

Harri shook her head. ‘They’re like gold dust this close to Christmas. Besides, I want to enjoy tonight without getting tipsy. Honestly, it’s fine. Al and Ed will have hangovers enough for all of us if they have a successful evening at the pub.’

They collected their wraps and handbags and began to make their way down the creaking narrow staircase. In the cottage’s small living room, Alex and Ed were eating pizza and talking loudly, their conversation falling away when Harri and Rosie entered the room.

‘Wow,’ Ed said, blowing a wolf-whistle. ‘You English ladies know how to dress up.’

Alex snorted with laughter. ‘How cheesy are you, Mr Yank?’

‘What? I thought I was being suave and debonair.’

‘Nope, mate. Cheesy and just a little bit creepy. Girls, you look great. Wish we were coming with you.’

Ed feigned offence. ‘Ah, but we weren’t invited, Al.’

‘Shows what they know, eh?’

‘Poor baby,’ Rosie said, edging around the coffee table and a very disgruntled looking ginger cat to plant a kiss on Ed’s forehead. ‘Will you manage without us?’

‘I guess we’ll cope. Al’s going to school me in warm ale and British village gossip.’

‘He’s a trooper,’ Alex smiled.

Rosie saw something unspoken pass between Alex and Harri – and noticed that Harri didn’t give her fiancé a kiss. Something had felt off between the pair of them since they’d picked her and Ed up from the airport and she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. Their shared home was a little cramped but cosy and even Harri’s grumpy cat Ron Howard seemed grudgingly fond of Alex. They smiled and joked and appeared to be happy, but Rosie couldn’t shift an irritating little mind-itch that something wasn’t quite right.

Harri was as chatty as ever as they drove through the country lanes from Stone Yardley to Hillford Hall and Rosie resolved to bide her time. Maybe in the elegant surroundings of the Christmas party she would have the chance to ask her cousin about it.

Stepping out of the car in the frozen night, Harri and Rosie stopped to gaze up at the wintry hall, its windows throwing warm light out of its icy windows across carefully maintained knot gardens edged with yew. Swags of Christmas garlands tied with sparkling gold ribbons had been draped across the large pillared entrance, a deep crimson carpet cloaking the end of the silver lantern-marked path and rising up the steps.

‘It’s like a fairytale,’ Harri breathed, her breath forming silver moonlit clouds in the frosty air. She linked her arm through Rosie’s. ‘Ready to go in?’

Rosie smiled at her cousin, catching sight of the merest hint of sadness in her eyes. ‘Absolutely.’ By the end of this evening, she vowed, I will find out what’s really happening with Harri and Alex

TO BE CONTINUED…

©Miranda Dickinson 2015 – All Rights Reserved.

Who will be the next guest at Anna Browne’s Christmas Party? Check out my Twitter poll and vote BEFORE 8PM to make sure your favourites appear in the story. Find out who will be invited in PART TWO, coming tomorrow!

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