If you enjoyed PART ONE and PART TWO of my exclusive free Christmas story, I think you’ll love PART THREE! I asked you to vote on which characters from my fourth novel, When I Fall in Love, you wanted to invite to Anna Browne’s Christmas Party – and by an enormous landslide you chose ELSIE MAYNARD and WOODY JENSEN. Of course, they aren’t the only characters from the book who appear in this part of the story – watch out for a couple of cheeky cameos!
Here’s PART THREE for your reading pleasure – I’ve had so much fun writing it because I adore these characters so much! Also, read on to find out your choices for tomorrow’s story, too…
Anna Browne’s Surprising Christmas Party by Miranda Dickinson
‘Pleased with everything?’ Erin smiled as she handed Anna a fresh glass of mulled wine.
‘I am. I think our guests are, too.’
The room was filling up now, with more guests arriving by the minute, and Anna couldn’t hide her smile as each new group reacted to the scene that met them as they walked in.
Ben had joked earlier that week that she should reconsider her career choice, her plans for the magical Christmas party being so impressive. Anna had laughed this off, while being more than a little flattered. She wished Ben could have been here, but twenty-four-hour rolling news waited for nobody. He was driving up tomorrow to spend Christmas with her at the gorgeous Hillford Hall, a treat they’d promised each other after a hard couple of months working in their respective careers. Anna knew he would adore the room she had already checked into that morning, but to have him here with her tonight would have made the whole thing completely perfect.
‘It’s a wonderful party,’ Erin said. ‘My boss Phil was blown away when he popped in a while ago. Are most of your guests here now?’
‘There are still some key people to come,’ Anna said, scanning the faces of the new arrivals for one person in particular. ‘It’s still early, though.’
‘Oh absolutely. We’ve had parties half-empty until almost midnight before.’ Erin grinned, keeping a professional check on everything in the room as she did so. ‘I think the band are ready for their first set. Relax, Anna. Enjoy your party.’
As The Pinstripes moved into position, the singers adjusting in-ear monitors and the handsome drummer making final tweaks to his cymbal stands, Anna took a sip of warm, spicy wine. Ben might not be here, but she was – and she was determined to enjoy the fruits of her labours…
* * * *
‘I don’t think this is the right way. The sat-nav just said to make a U-turn.’
‘A-a-angel, why would you trust your life to an electronic box?’
‘Er, because it knows the route and we don’t?’
Woody Jensen shook his head. ‘Oh you of little faith. Trust me, babe, I’ve been here before.’
In the passenger seat of the battered old Range Rover, Elsie Maynard sighed and wished for the thousandth time she’s driven instead. ‘When, Woody?’
‘Back end of ‘84. Wild stay we had, TVs chucked out of the sash windows and everything.’
‘You’re telling me Hellfinger stayed at Hillford Hall?’
‘Indeed I am.’
Elsie had heard enough of Woody’s dodgy rock’n’roll stories to remain unconvinced. ‘Was it even a hotel back then?’
‘Yeah. Our manager’s mate Vince owned it. We were the first guests. Stayed twice actually, though the second time we were all good lads in bed with our cocoa by ten. That was before Knebworth, mind. We were on our best behaviour by then.’ He winked at Elsie. ‘Allegedly.’
Elsie hunkered down in the seat. ‘I take it you didn’t drive here, then?’
‘Nah. First time was in the van, second time our tour bus. Stop worrying, girl! Uncle Woody’ll get you there, no sweat.’
Elsie remembered her best friend Cher’s reaction when she’d admitted Woody was nominated driver for the long journey from Brighton to Staffordshire. It had taken her a full five minutes to regain enough breath to speak after laughing so loud she’d startled the customers in Sundae & Cher ice cream café. ‘Are you mad? I mean, you know I adore the man, Els, but I don’t trust him to drive me to Sainsbury’s!’
‘He offered. And he’s done so much for The Sundaes lately I thought it would be rude to refuse.’
Cher had rolled her eyes heavenwards at that. ‘It’s kind of his job as co-director of the choir. If anything, he owes you.’
‘That’s why he offered to drive. To give me a rest.’
‘A rest? Have you been in my boyfriend’s car for any length of time lately?’
‘I’m sure it will be fine,’ Elsie had replied, keen to defend her kooky friend. ‘It was kind of him to offer.’
Cher had pinned a loose length of hair back into her beehive up-do and laughed again. ‘Kind is one thing: Woody’s driving is something else. Take my advice: pack a map.’
Elsie thought now of the road atlas she’d secretly bought from a service station on the way up, now stuffed beneath her seat. Would now be a good time to reveal it? Certainly the country road along which they were speeding now had precious little in the way of road signs and looked suspiciously familiar to one they had driven down half an hour ago. The party would have started already and she needed to be there.
It had been a chance meeting at Sundae & Cher that had led to this party coming about – and even now she was amazed at how quickly everything had happened. The softly spoken Cornish woman and her brash American friend had come in on quite possibly the worst day in late September, when thick banks of sea mist skulked stubbornly over the seafront and stole the light from Brighton’s famous streets. As days for ice cream go, it hadn’t been the most promising – in fact Anna and her friend had been the only customers in the ice cream café to actually choose ice cream, while everyone around them took refuge in extra-large salted caramel hot chocolates and generous wedges of Cher’s renowned cherry crumble pie. Elsie had congratulated their British Bulldog spirit – promptly finding out that only one of the pair was British, which had fuelled their conversation. The other customers had slowly ran out of excuses to stay in the warm café and one by one reluctantly headed back out into the cold, damp day, leaving Elsie and Cher talking to Anna and Tish for a good hour. It transpired that the pair were taking a well-earned day off from their London lives and, as a result, were determined to enjoy every minute of it, no matter what.
As they’d talked, Anna had spotted a poster for Elsie’s choir’s latest concert, raising funds for families of people battling cancer and mentioned that she’d lost a good friend to cancer when they were both sixteen and at college in Cornwall. The mention of the C-word instantly took Elsie back to a time when it had ruled and dictated her life. The memories were never far away – even now, when she considered she was moving on with her life. She’d told Anna about a trust she had been helped by following her loss – and the idea of the fundraising Christmas Ball had been born. Anna knew several people who had been robbed of loved ones by the terrible disease and wanted to do something to help. They’d exchanged contact details – and if Elsie were really honest, she never really expected to hear from Anna Browne again.
But Elsie had been wrong.
Anna Browne was, quite possibly, one of the most determined and kindest people Elsie had ever met. She was also, by all accounts, an organisational wonder – bringing together the whole event in a matter of weeks. It was the main reason why Elsie wanted to be at Hillford Hall as soon as she could be – not blundering around the pitch-black country roads of the rural Staffordshire borders watching time slip away. Even the sat-nav she’d insisted upon bringing had given up saying anything and was now displaying a single purple road in a sea of grey screen, as if sulkily staring out of the window, offended at not being listened to.
‘I have a map. Under my seat.’
He glanced at her, his brows knotted and his pierced bottom lip protruding just a little bit more than normal. ‘I see.’
‘You’re amazing for driving. Honestly, I really appreciate it. But – it’s getting late and I need to be there. We both do. I hear the hotel manager Phil was a bit of a huge Hellfinger fan back in the day – he can’t wait to meet you.’ She peered through the gloom at the ageing former rock star to see if he was upset. ‘How about we pull over and just check to make sure where we are, hmm?’
Woody gave a loud snort but did as he was told.
‘Torin would have trusted me.’
Elsie was already flipping through the pages of the atlas trying to find the road they were on. ‘Torin said I needed an intervention for letting you drive.’
‘Hmm.’ The tangle of A- and B-roads on the map page gradually began to make sense until Elsie realised where they were. ‘Hang on – I see what we’ve done. We’re actually not far from the Hall. If we double-back and then take a right at the crossroads we just passed I reckon we’ll be there in a few minutes.’
‘Cool.’ Woody stared blankly at the leather bangles and silver rings on his wrists and fingers.
Elsie felt a rush of affection for her companion. He might be a little off-the-wall, convinced of his own mystical capabilities and annoyingly overconfident in his own ability, but he had a good heart and meant a great deal to her. She reached over to squeeze the worn arm of Woody’s beloved black leather jacket. ‘Thank you. For being here.’
‘Yeah well, I’m a natural philanthropist, see? It’s in my blood, babe. Can’t not do the right thing. Some might call it a curse, but it’s a cross I have to bear.’
Elsie planted a kiss on his cheek. ‘Come on. I hear it’s a free bar. Perfect for rewarding thirsty wise men.’
Woody sniffed and revved the engine. ‘Well, when you put it that way… Hang onto your heels, angel, the Roadster’s about to fly!’
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 fifth novel, Take A Look At Me Now:
- Nell Sullivan
- Vicky Grocutt
- Aidan Matthews
- Max Rossi
- Lizzie Sullivan
- The Alfaros (counts as one choice)
- Annie Legado