Did you enjoy PART ONE of my exclusive free Christmas story yesterday? I asked you to vote on Anna Browne’s next guests, this time from my third novel, It Started With a Kiss – and the winners were UNCLE DUDLEY, AUNTIE MAGS and WREN MALLOY. Read on to find out what happens – and watch out for a few other familiar faces I’ve sneaked in!
Here’s PART TWO for your reading pleasure (and read on to find out your choices for tomorrow’s story, too…)
Anna Browne’s Surprising Christmas Party ©Miranda Dickinson 2015
The guests were beginning to arrive now and Anna felt a swell of pride seeing their delight as they entered the wintry wonderland she had created in Hillford Hall’s elegant stateroom. At last, she could discard the list that had been her constant companion during the past week and enjoy herself. Just as she’d planned, all the elements had come together at the right time, even if the band’s late arrival had given her palpitations.
They were all set up on the makeshift stage halfway along the length of the room and while the first guests began to mingle around the perfectly decorated space they had set up background music through their PA system. The warm, irresistible tones of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby soothed the atmosphere and brought a sense of festive timelessness to the party.
Anna smoothed her red dress and fastened simple aquamarine and silver drop earrings – a present from her elderly neighbour, Isadora – to her ears. The old lady had been dubious when Anna had told her about the venue for the Christmas party last week.
‘Do they do suitable glamour that far north? You may have to take a translator, dear. I fear you’ve been living in good society for too long…’
Anna smiled as she remembered her shock at Isadora’s sweeping judgment of anywhere north of Watford Gap. Never let it be said her neighbour was shy when it came to expressing her opinions. She couldn’t be more wrong, of course – and the wonderful event unfolding before her eyes was testament to that.
‘Excuse me, Miss Browne?’
Anna turned to see the handsome drummer from The Pinstripes event band walking towards her, his smart black shirt and suit trousers far removed from the vintage rock t-shirt and well-worn jeans he had arrived wearing. No wonder she’d seen several of the single female guests giggling in his direction.
The drummer gave a rueful smile. ‘Sorry. I’m not normally one to stand on ceremony.’ He held out his hand. ‘I’m Charlie. I just wanted to know what time you’d like us to do the first set?’
‘We’re serving the buffet around nine, so around 8.30pm?’
Charlie grinned – and if Anna’s heart hadn’t already been taken, she could have quite easily joined his growing group of admirers in the room. ‘Perfect. First set is more classic stuff anyway, so if the guests aren’t ready to dance by then it’ll be entertaining to listen to.’
‘I hadn’t really thought about when people would want to dance,’ Anna said, thinking of the discarded list in the cloakroom next door.
‘It usually has a direct correlation with how much alcohol they’ve been served,’ Charlie replied, his eyes twinkling. ‘Judging by that huge vat of mulled wine you have for them, I’d say a good proportion will be ready to bop as soon as we start.’
Anna laughed. ‘Oh well, I’m glad I had that covered.’
‘Job’s a good ’un, then. I’ll let the others know. Thanks, Anna.’
Charlie turned and walked back to where his colleagues were making final adjustments to the band layout. Anna noticed him share a joke with one of the singers, a pretty girl with dark blonde hair who seemed to command more of his attention than any of his other bandmates. Being used to watching people in her job, she was intrigued by the pronounced friendliness of their exchanges – they were certainly closer than the rest of the musicians, although the group as a whole appeared to be good friends.
Anna couldn’t imagine herself ever having the nerve to step in front of a band and sing, even though in her formative years she had adored singing. The Pinstripes were every inch the professional outfit and Anna had been amazed at how they had sounded during their sound-check. All of them had arrived dressed so differently from one another, laden with cases and bags, stands and equipment, yet when Charlie had counted them in, the music they produced was better than anything Anna had heard in professional concerts.
It was wonderful to watch the professionals around her working so effortlessly to create the party she had envisaged when she had begun planning tonight’s event. Everyone, from bar staff to waiters, catering staff to the band, worked deftly to make the room so relaxed, efficient and welcoming – and the result were streams of excited, enthralled guests. This evening was most definitely going to be a success…
* * * *
Halfway along the frost-covered path leading from the car park to the beautiful entrance of Hillford Hall, a diminutive woman – huddled within the folds of her best coat – stopped walking and turned back. She lifted a gloved hand to her brow and squinted past the bright candlelight of the row of lanterns marking the path to the winter gloom beyond, trying to make out an approaching figure and wishing she hadn’t left her glasses at home this evening.
‘Dudley! Is that you?’ she hissed.
The man was being insufferable this evening! He’d insisted they leave early from their narrowboat in case the traffic was bad, only to bring them to the grounds of Hillford Hall a whole hour before the party was due to begin. He’d gone off happily wandering around the snow-covered grounds and she’d been about to muster a search party when he’d returned, the hems of his best suit trousers caked in muddy, snowy slush and the shoes she’d so carefully polished for him last night now as dull as canal water. It was a damn good job she loved Dudley Parker, she told herself, otherwise she might have been tempted to inadvertently ‘lose’ him in Hillford’s landscaped boating lake…
‘Hold your horses, our Magsie! I found a bit of a rag in the car boot and my shoes have buffed up lovely!’ Dudley Parker appeared in the shadows and crossed onto the candlelit path, that cheeky grin of his that had saved him from many a sticky situation before firmly in place again.
‘A bit of a rag? We’re about to go into a stately home and you’re buffing up your leather slip-ons with something you found in the car? You’ll be the end of me, Dudley Parker!’
Dudley slipped a cheeky hand around his beloved wife’s waist and planted a warm kiss on her cheek. ‘That’s as maybe, bab, but what a way to go, eh?’
Margaret Parker giggled despite herself and gave him a dig in his ribs – or at least, as close to his ribs as his thick coat and sweater beneath would allow her to get. ‘You old charmer. Look at this place – have you ever seen anything so lovely?’
She gazed up at the blazing splendour of Hillford Hall, looking as if it had appeared from the set of one of her beloved television costume dramas. Tonight was a dream come true. When the gold-edged invitation had arrived, she had been overjoyed and she was still buzzing about it this evening. An elegant Christmas party in one of the country’s most beautiful stately homes – and her and Dudley on the very exclusive guest list! It was a world away from her everyday life and she could hardly believe it was happening.
Mags lived a happy, comfortable life, with their narrowboat and the small café she owned in Kingsbury, and she would tell anyone that she wanted for nothing. But she and Dudley had made many sacrifices to have that life, one of which was the hurried registry office wedding when her brute of a first husband had finally granted her a divorce. Secretly, Mags had dreamt of an elegant, beautiful wedding in a grand house such as Hillford. She hoped for it now for her beloved niece, Romily, who was now so completely happy with the man she had searched long and hard to find.
‘Tonight, you’ll be a queen here,’ Dudley said, close to her ear. ‘My beautiful Magsie, the belle of the ball!’ Of course her secret wish hadn’t been lost on him. He knew Mags better than anyone else on earth. ‘Maybe we should get our Rom to help us hijack the party and renew our wedding vows.’
Mags gave a loud tut to hide how touched she was by his suggestion. ‘Dudley Parker, we don’t need to renew anything. I meant what I promised you then and I mean it now. It is a gorgeous place, though. And we’ll get to see Romily singing with her friends, too.’
‘I know. I’m proper chuffed about that. Come on then, Magsie, let’s show this elegant lot a bit of Warwickshire class!’
* * * *
‘I swear, if D’Wayne tries to make a set change one more time I’ll swing for him,’ Jack grumbled, as The Pinstripes sat around a large mahogany dining table in a room they’d been given as a dressing room. Given that the most they could usually hope for was a broom cupboard or a staff toilet to get changed in, this was opulence in the extreme. There was even a huge crystal chandelier suspended over the table – in all the many gigs the band had notched up over the years, this was a first.
Wren Malloy grinned at the band’s keyboard player and hoped it would be enough. The thing was, she agreed with Jack. D’Wayne, her boyfriend and the band’s dubiously talented manager, had been a nightmare lately. But his attitude towards The Pinstripes had been the least of her worries… Ignoring the hardening knot in her stomach, she attempted to be oil on troubled waters.
‘I’ve told him we know what we’re doing. I think he’s just nervous about the showcase he’s booked us on next month. He really wants us to get some American gigs and if the contact with that hotel chain is impressed, it could be serious money.’
‘He should be more concerned with making sure we get to it in one piece,’ Tom replied, checking the new string on his electric guitar. ‘Knowing D’Wayne he’ll have us turn up a month late for the showcase.’
‘I don’t know why you take his side, Wren. I mean, I know you’re shagging him, but that doesn’t mean you have to betray your mates when he’s wrong.’
‘At least we don’t have to do that,’ Jack quipped, pulling a face.
‘Euwww, imagine if that was in the contract…’
‘Kill me now!’
Wren glared at Jack, who once again was enjoying his tag-team attack on her boyfriend with Tom. Even Charlie was smirking like a rude schoolboy. Did male musicians ever grow up?
‘Guys, would you give Wren a rest?’ Romily Parker stepped into the fray, as she had so many times before – and Wren loved her for it. Her friend had been her greatest ally and even though she knew Rom wasn’t exactly D’Wayne’s biggest fan at the moment her best friend’s support meant the world. ‘Jack, if you have an issue with D’Wayne, take it up with him. He can’t change the set anyway. That’s our domain and always has been. We’ll do what we rehearsed. What’s he going to do, storm the stage and take away our music?’
‘Ah, the voice of reason prevails once more,’ Charlie winked at Rom, as Jack and Tom mimed being sick.
Wren still wondered what had happened between Rom and Charlie. For a long time she’d been utterly convinced her best friends were destined to get together, but everything had changed when a certain handsome furniture maker from Stratford-upon-Avon had walked into her life. They certainly seemed loved up now and she had never seen Rom happier. If only she could feel the same way in her own relationship…
‘Hey, don’t let them wind you up,’ Romily said, handing her a bottle of water. ‘They’re just being their usual annoying selves.’
‘Good job I have you here to help me bring sanity back to the band,’ Wren smiled. ‘Is Will coming tonight?’
The mention of Romily’s other half made her instantly glow. ‘He said he’d try to come later. He’s teaching a woodwork class first.’
‘How did you ever come to date a non-musician?’ Wren laughed. ‘I can’t imagine what you two talk about… Ugh, wait, you’re going to tell me you don’t have time for much talking, aren’t you?’
Romily blushed. ‘Wren! As if I’d say something so crude.’
‘Mm-hmm. I know your game, Miss Loved-Up Parker.’
‘You should. You’re loved-up, too. Aren’t you?’
Wren felt her heart quicken. ‘Guys, talking of the set, we need to go through the order before we go on. Have you all got your folders?’ She could feel her friend’s gaze heavy on her as she busied herself with the pre-gig ritual. Maybe she would talk to Rom later this evening, if they found five minutes alone. Or maybe it could wait – until she could work out what was going on in her head.
A fleeting memory of a screwed-up letter shoved into her coat pocket glanced across her mind, making her feel sick.
No! Don’t think about that now!
Banishing the thought to the furthest reaches of her mind, she pinned her brightest smile over any other emotion her face might betray and threw herself into action…
TO BE CONTINUED…
©Miranda Dickinson 2015 – All Rights Reserved
Who will be the next guests at ANNA BROWNE’S CHRISTMAS PARTY? Choose TWO from my fourth novel, When I Fall in Love:
- Elsie Maynard
- Woody Jensen
- Torin Stewart
- Olly Hogarth
- Daisy Maynard
- Cher Pettinger
- Danny and Aoife (counts as one choice)