Category Archives: Free stuff

#WurdyChristmas 5: Lucy’s choice, Lucy’s world

free-wallpaper-christmas-treeWelcome to the fifth – and final – part of my #WurdyChristmas treat short story. Yesterday I asked you to make a tough decision for Lucy – so did she choose to stay in the beautiful winter world, or return home to change her own life?

Thank you for getting so involved in this story – it’s been so much fun to write! Read on to find out what happens when Lucy makes the biggest decision of her life…

SILVER BELLS AT TONY & FRANK’S ©Miranda Dickinson 2o16

PART FIVE

You can stay here. Permanently. And you’d never want for anything, never feel lonely again. Or you can go back. Make things different in the way you’d like them to be. It’s your choice…

What kind of a choice was that?

Lucy looked at her grandmother – her beloved Gran who, even this evening before everything happened, she would have given anything to see again. Here Gran was, as vibrant and vivacious as she had ever been in life, dancing with Bing flippin’ Crosby for heaven’s sake – and Lucy wanted more than anything to stay by her side. Who decided Gran would be the one asking her to make an impossible choice? It seemed unnecessarily cruel. But, if it meant Lucy could see her grandmother whenever she wanted, was it worth the risk?

Who would miss me if I stayed here? Her parents, for sure. Maybe her workmates at Tony & Frank’s. Certainly not Aaron Morgan. Had he ever really cared about her, or only about what he got out of their relationship? She could be safe here in this startling winter world. She could be happy…

So, she should stay.

‘Gonna have to hurry you, kid,’ Bing said.

Lucy’s choice was easy, wasn’t it? She was surrounded by beauty – the dazzling snow sparkling like diamond dust on everything in sight; by joy – the look in Gran’s eyes when she danced with her hero; and by possibility – the village in the distance that invited her to explore and the handsome stranger in whose arms she had found such freedom. Beauty, joy, possibility – what more could anyone wish for?

Choose carefully, the note back on Sophie’s desk had said, your choice will change your life

Tony had been right – Lucy wanted her life to change. What better than a fresh start in a beautiful place? Because what was the alternative? Return home as a dumped girlfriend, face the inevitable questions about what happened and maybe even get in trouble for spending the night in the restaurant. Not much of a choice.

‘Lucybobs, what does your heart tell you?’ Gran asked.

How can you ask me that? Lucy felt tears prickle her eyes. Her heart longed to stay where people she loved were. Given the chance to remain in contact with Gran why would she ever choose to walk away?

‘I don’t know,’ Lucy said. ‘What would you do?’

Her grandmother held up her hands. ‘I made my choices in life, dear. This has to be one of yours.’

Bing nodded. ‘It’s your gig, kid. If anyone else made this decision for you, you’d regret it.’

He was right, of course. This whole experience had begun with someone else’s decision. It had to end with Lucy’s own.

And that’s when it hit her.

This is my choice. It’s all been about my choices.

Without realising it, Lucy had been slowly taking back control of her own life tonight. The choices she had made hadn’t seemed like they belonged to her – investigating a song she remembered from childhood, picking a gift, choosing a door to walk through – but with each one she had felt stronger, become braver.

They were all looking at her now, Gran, Bing and the beautiful stranger – all willing strength and courage into her with their smiles.

‘I think –’ she began…

Whhhhhuuummmmphhh!

A huge pile of snow glanced across her right shoulder, almost knocking her over.

‘He shoots! He scores!’

Lucy regained her balance and turned to see two familiar faces engaged in a snowball fight. Both were still dressed in evening suits but each had added a candy cane-striped scarf and camel-coloured overcoat to their attire.

‘Boys, boys! The lady was just making her decision,’ Bing frowned.

Tony and Frank’s gaze instantly dropped to their snow-covered feet like naughty children being reprimanded for too-rough playground games. ‘Sorry.’

‘I should think so, too. My granddaughter deserves more respect. So, Lucybobs, are you staying here?’

The snow had begun to fall again and Lucy felt the soft kiss of pristine white flakes against her skin. This world – wherever it was – was breathtaking. The prospect of staying here forever threatened to steal Lucy’s heart…

Apart from one, tiny detail.

It wasn’t real.

‘No,’ Lucy replied – noticing the sky dim a little, ‘I don’t think I can.’ The sun hid behind a vast bank of white cloud that had appeared from nowhere. ‘I love you, Gran – and it’s an honour to meet you, Mr Crosby. But this isn’t the change I want to make.’

One by one the tiny white lights on the bandstand began to extinguish. A long shadow passed from the top of the rolling, snow-covered hills to the valley far below, lights in the small village that huddled there disappearing, too. Seth gave a low bow and was lost in the encroaching dusk. Bing saluted Lucy, kissed Gran’s hand and, with a slow turn, vanished.

Lucy felt her heart swell when Gran stepped forward and took both her hands. It was bittersweet: this could only be another, more final, parting.

‘My darling girl,’ Gran said, her falling tears sparkling as if they contained glitter. ‘You did it.’

‘I love you. Don’t leave me yet!’

But Gran was shimmering now, her body becoming stardust. Lucy felt the pressure of her grandmother’s hands on hers becoming less and less – and she let out a sob as Edith Smith finally melted into the darkening snowscape.

‘I – I didn’t say enough,’ she cried, her hands still outstretched as if she could catch the last few stars where Gran had stood. ‘There was so much more I wanted to tell her.’

Tony’s almost-transparent hand rested lightly on Lucy’s shoulder. ‘You did good, Lucy Smith. We should get you home, if that’s where you want to go?’

It hurt, but it was the only choice.

Go back. Make things different in the way you’d like them to be.

Gran had known the best decision all along.

‘Aww, boss, just one more snowball,’ Frank pleaded, as the last of the light faded from the incredible winter world. His voice seemed to be coming from a long way away now. As Tony’s laugh rang out with a metallic, hollow echo, Lucy braced herself…

Whhhhhuuummmmphhh!

Lucy’s cheek was cold and her head hurt. An indistinct sound was playing somewhere nearby, repeating over and over. Not a song this time, but something Lucy couldn’t yet place. Slowly, she lifted her head and found herself at the red vinyl table in the first booth where she’d fled as soon as she had reopened the darkened restaurant.

Except Tony & Frank’s was dark no longer.

From every table, booth wall, serving hatch, window and stool that lined the bar, tiny sparkling white lights shone. It was almost as if the interior of Tony & Frank’s had become the bandstand in the winter world Lucy had just left. The restaurant was ablaze with light. At the far end where the serving hatch revealed the now illuminated kitchen, the Founders’ busts sparkled with scarves of looped silver tinsel Lucy couldn’t remember them wearing during her evening shift. Tony appeared to be grinning, while Frank grumpily surveyed the empty restaurant.

Had she dreamt it all?

The nondescript sound came again, this time more insistent. Bewildered, Lucy rose and moved towards the front door, her shoes leaving damp footprints across the black-and-white chequerboard floor. She couldn’t think how her feet could have become so wet. Unless…

This time when the sound repeated, Lucy immediately recognised it. The knocking continued until she found the front door key on the giant bunch of keys in her pocket.

‘Okay, okay, I’m coming.’

‘Police,’ said a gruff voice from the other side of the door.

Great. Turning the key in the lock and pulling open the heavy oak-and-glass door, Lucy dug out her brightest smile. ‘Hello, officer.’

The middle-aged police officer at the entrance didn’t smile back. Instead, he peered around Lucy to look into the restaurant. ‘Are you alone, madam?’

‘I am. I’m supposed to be finding a taxi to take me home.’

The police officer’s brown furrowed into a frown. ‘Can I ask why you were here, alone on Christmas Eve –’ He checked his watch. ‘– Ah, my mistake. Christmas Day…’

Soon it will be Christmas Day

Not soon. Now! Lucy looked at her watch – and saw the hands had moved to read three o’clock. She had come back to change her life, just as she’d told Gran she would.

‘Well?’ The police officer’s radio crackled into life and he turned away to angrily bark a reply into it.

How Lucy was going to change her life was still an unknown. Like the song that first sounded in the kitchen, like the destination behind the impossible doors. But she had already made choices that had changed her experience tonight – and she was determined to change the rest of her life for good.

The squeak of the front door summoned her attention. Leaving the police officer to argue with the disembodied voice of his colleague back at the station, Lucy made her way to the entrance – just as another policeman entered.

Lucy froze.

Hair the colour of a clear midnight sky. Winter blue eyes that sparkled in the light of the fairy lights in the restaurant…

‘Hi,’ he said, looking over at his colleague, then around the lavishly lit restaurant. ‘Are you the only person present?’

Lucy managed a nod, instantly feeling dumb.

‘We were patrolling the retail park and we saw the lights come on.’

‘I’m sorry, that was me.’

‘And how did you get in?’ He had taken a notebook from his pocket and was now awaiting her story. He lifted his pen to the pad and Lucy remembered how strong the stranger’s arms had been as they had held her. What would it be like to be cradled in them in real life…?

What am I thinking? This isn’t the same man

‘I let myself in,’ she rushed, hoping her answer would mask the growing flush creeping up her neck. ‘I’m assistant manager at Tony & Frank’s.’

‘Right. Any reason you’re here on Christmas Eve?’

‘Christmas Day,’ Lucy corrected him, blushing again.

The PC looked at his watch. ‘So it is. Merry Christmas.’

Lucy was about to reply when the older police officer returned. ‘Have you taken her statement?’

‘I’m doing it now, Sarge.’ The young PC turned back to Lucy. ‘So, you let yourself in – because…?’

Lucy sighed. ‘Because my boyfriend dumped me this evening after work and I didn’t bring my car, so I let myself back in with my keys.’

‘For what purpose?’

‘To call a taxi… Probably to wait it out until daylight. Then I’ll walk home.’

‘Have you seen the weather outside? You won’t be walking very far.’

Lucy peered through the window and gasped. Every inch of the car park where Aaron had trashed her heart was now covered in glittering, shimmering snow. ‘Oh – wow…’

‘Not to worry, Miss…?’

‘Smith. Lucy Smith.’

The midnight blue eyes seemed to sparkle. ‘We can give you a lift home, Miss Smith – can’t we, Sarge?’

The older police officer looked less than impressed. ‘Well…’

‘Aw, come on. It’s Christmas. And we can hardly leave Miss Smith here.’

‘I suppose so…’

Lucy, weary from the rollercoaster she had been on, smiled at the thought of reaching her own bed before daybreak. ‘That would be wonderful, thank you.’

‘Right. I’ll radio in. Miss Smith, could you turn off all these lights and secure the premises?’

‘No problem.’

Lucy was aware of the young PC’s eyes on her as she closed down Tony & Frank’s for the Christmas break. When the last set of lights had been turned off, she offered him a shy smile. ‘All done.’

‘Great. Our car’s out here.’ Together, they began walking across the newly fallen snow to the police car parked in splendid isolation on the deserted car park.

‘I’ll be glad to get home,’ Lucy admitted.

‘I’ll bet. So, your fella dumped you?’

‘Yes.’

‘On Christmas Eve? That’s harsh.’

‘It is. It was. But – I think I’m better off without him.’ As Lucy said it, she understood. The first way she could change her life was to make sure she didn’t let anyone else treat her as second best. She wouldn’t waste any more tears over Aaron Morgan. Tonight had taught her that she deserved more. She had left so much behind in order to return here – she had to make her decisions count.

‘Guy sounds like an idiot to me,’ the police officer said.

‘Maybe he was.’

‘Trust me, I see a lot of idiots in my job.’ He gave a self-conscious smile and offered Lucy his hand. ‘PC Seth Bell. At your service.’

When Lucy took his hand it felt warm and familiar…

* * * *

In the darkened restaurant, silence returned. Above the open serving hatch to the kitchen, two plaster busts kept watch over Tony & Frank’s. A length of silver tinsel shuddered to the black-and-white chequerboard-tiled floor, where it sparkled in a pool of pale blue emergency light.

And in the middle of the table in the first booth, a small silver box dotted with diamond-hearted stars began to glow…

THE END

©Miranda Dickinson 2016

Thank you for reading, voting and helping Lucy Smith choose! It’s been a privilege to write this story with you and for you. There’s just one last poll for you to vote on…

#WurdyChristmas 4: Where does the door take Lucy?

free-wallpaper-christmas-treeWelcome to the fourth part of my exclusive #WurdyChristmas treat short story. Yesterday, I asked you to choose which door Lucy should walk through  – gold-trimmed or green-trimmed. The lead swung between the two for a while, but you made a good choice!

Do the doors lead anywhere? Are Tony & Frank real or figments of Lucy’s imagination? And does she trust them enough to put her life in their slightly transparent hands? Find out below – and don’t forget to vote in the poll at the bottom to decide what I’ll write for the last part of the story tomorrow! Happy reading, lovelies!

SILVER BELLS AT TONY & FRANK’S ©Miranda Dickinson 2o16

PART FOUR

Gold or green? Gold or green?

Lucy stared at the two red doors that had materialised on the back wall of her manager’s office.

‘Time’s marching on, kid,’ Tony said, appearing by her side. ‘What’s it gonna be?’

Lucy glanced at the clock above the jumble of shelves, boxes and not-so-mythical Founders. It still read one minute to midnight. If time was marching on, it was doing it at a glacial pace.

‘Well?’

‘I’m thinking.’

Tony sighed. ‘Don’t think. Act. Follow your heart.’

Lucy turned from the doors to stare at him. ‘Why? Why is it so important that I choose?’

‘Because you want something to change.’

‘So tell me what’s behind each door so I can see if it’s the change I’m looking for.’

‘Nuh-uh. Can’t do. This has to be your decision. Ask your heart…’

‘Logic works better for me.’

Tony’s surprise registered immediately. ‘It does? That’s not the Lucy Smith I know.’

This was way past a joke now. ‘You don’t know me! I’m stuck in my workplace because my stupid boyfriend – ex-boyfriend – dumped me instead of proposing. I have no transport. I haven’t a hope of a taxi because it’s Christmas Eve. I’m hearing that song over and over again, I’m being asked to make decisions when I don’t even trust my own mind any more because I’m talking to someone who doesn’t exist and… and…’

‘…And you want something to change?’

‘Yes!’

‘So pick a door.’

It was impossible. Everything that had happened since she’d returned to Tony & Frank’s was impossible. And now she couldn’t even win an argument with a figment of her imagination.

But he was right, wasn’t he? Ever since Aaron had driven away instead of asking her to marry him, the only thing Lucy Smith had wanted was for things to be different. She might be staring at two doors that couldn’t possibly be there, invited to do so by a suave Italian-American restaurant owner who absolutely couldn’t be there either, but she did have a choice.

Gold. Or green.

‘How do I choose?’ She whispered, tears stealing her voice.

‘Just go through the one that feels right, kid. There’s no wrong answer.’

‘There aren’t any –’ Lucy could hardly believe she was about to ask this, ‘– monsters through there, are there?’

‘Not unless you want them to be. So go already.’

Lucy Smith closed her eyes and wished with all her heart. Then she walked towards the back wall of the office and pushed open the red door with the gold metal trim…

* * * *

Intense, blinding white light immediately burst into her vision and Lucy had to shield her eyes against it. She was also aware of an intensely cold air – as if she had stepped into a refrigerator. A flurry of soft, cold pinpricks batted against her face. It felt like – no, that was impossible. There was no way she could believe it was snowing inside Tony & Frank’s… Pulling her coat tightly around her body she blinked until faint outlines began to appear through the all-white light. What met her eyes stole her breath faster than the freezing atmosphere.

A vast, gently undulating snowscape stretched out before her. Rolling hills dotted with wind-bent trees and hardy dry-stone walls were visible from the left, while to the right snow-covered cliffs fell dramatically to a midnight blue, half-frozen sea. Between hills and ocean a tiny village huddled, its lights studding the view like a host of sparkling stars. And not very far from the natural snowdrift that now half-claimed her shoes stood a bandstand.

It was beautiful – like a perfect scene from a Christmas card – and Lucy turned back to look at Tony and Frank. But the Founders were nowhere to be seen, along with the red and gold door that had brought her here.

And just like that, Lucy Smith was alone.

She tried to rationalise it but could find no explanation that worked. This couldn’t be the car park on the out-of-town retail park where Tony & Frank’s stood alongside a cinema and other chain restaurants. There it was midnight, or thereabouts; here the midday sun reflected by the snow was dazzling. So where was she? And how on earth could she get back?

Silver Bells, Silver Bells

That song again! But this time it sounded incredibly close and was playing at the right speed. As Lucy looked a couple appeared on the wooden platform of the bandstand, dancing together to the music. They looked happy and in love. Lucy was instantly drawn to them. She began to walk towards the bandstand, her shoes crunching and squeaking in the freshly fallen snow. Tiny lights began to appear along the white-painted cast iron sides of the bandstand, one at a time, like stars bursting into life in a marshmallow-white sky, until the whole structure was ablaze with twinkling light.

The song swelled and changed as Lucy neared the bandstand’s steps. It was no longer the familiar recording she had fallen in love with. It was now a tender, intimate duet between two people in love – the couple on the bandstand who hadn’t even noticed they were being watched. The man twirled his partner, momentarily breaking hold to perform a solo spin – and Lucy gasped as she recognised him.

‘Bing Crosby?’

The man stopped dancing and gave Lucy a little half-salute. ‘Hey there. Pleased to meet you, Miss–’

‘Lucy,’ said his partner. ‘Miss Lucy May Smith.’

Lucy knew that voice. It was unmistakable – a much-missed sound she still longed to hear three years since it disappeared from her life… ‘Gran?’

Gran gave a grin that was uniquely hers. ‘Hello poppet.’

‘What are doing here? You’re –’

Gran held up a hand. ‘Ooh, shh-shh, we don’t like to use the D-word around here. People get proper uppity. I had to be here, Lucybobs. I had to see you.’

‘But – what are you doing with Bing Crosby?’

Gran’s cheeks reddened like they always used to when she’d been found out. ‘Well, I assumed it was the foxtrot but it could have been the quickstep…’

‘Gran…’

‘He’s a friend,’ she beamed, mouthing, From the other side. ‘Lovely, isn’t he? We clicked right away. I think he might like me for more than my fancy footwork.’

For the last three years Lucy had dreamed of one more chance to see her grandmother. It made no sense whatsoever. So why try? ‘Oh Gran, I’ve missed you so much. I didn’t get chance to say goodbye before you…’ Lucy stopped as a horrible thought occurred. ‘Wait a minute – am I dead?’

‘Of course not, dear. But I am glad you chose our door.’

‘Me, too. So, where are we?’

‘I haven’t the foggiest, dearie. But it’s rather lovely, eh?’

‘Then why am I here?’

‘Didn’t Tony and Frank tell you?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘They really are forgetful, those two. You’re here because you want something to change. And I want that for you, too. So much.’

‘Hey, Edith, this your grandkid?’ Bing was leaning against one of the bandstand’s barriers, puffing on a tobacco-stuffed pipe.

‘It is, Bing. Isn’t she pretty?’

‘Beautiful,’ Bing replied, flashing a huge smile at Lucy. ‘So, you ready?’

‘What for?’

‘To choose.’

Another choice? Lucy’s head hurt. How was any of this helping her, other than granting one secret wish to see her Gran again? ‘I don’t know.’

‘Edith, the kid needs some help,’ Bing said.

When Lucy looked up at him she saw a younger man standing beside the famous crooner. He had hair the colour of a clear midnight sky and winter-blue eyes that twinkled in the light from the bandstand. He smiled at her and the silver and diamond-star box she still held glowed again.

‘Lucy, this is Seth. Dance with him.’ Gran’s cheeks bloomed like roses. ‘He’s rather lovely. And he dances like a dream.’

Seth smiled – and Lucy felt the world spin a little. ‘Would you like to dance with me?’

‘Is this the choice?’ Lucy asked, thinking that it might just be the easiest one she’d faced lately. Could she dance? She’d never tried before. But even if it was her first and only attempt, dancing with the handsome stranger seemed the most perfect idea.

Seth shook his head. ‘No. But dancing helps to focus your mind.’ He held out his hand and it was warm and familiar when Lucy took it.

Soon it will be Christmas Day

For the first time in her life, Lucy felt free. In Seth’s arms she moved effortlessly around the magically lit bandstand, the fairy lights blurring into twirling, swirling arcs of spun gold. She felt no fear, no pain from her newly broken heart. Just joy.

I could stay here forever, she thought, just as the music came to an abrupt halt. Seth gave a small bow and stepped away.

‘Time to choose, Lucybobs,’ Gran smiled, a wash of wistfulness passing across her face.

‘What’s my choice?’

‘You can stay here. Permanently. And you’d never want for anything, never feel lonely again.’ Gran looked up at the softly falling snowflakes. ‘Or you can go back. Make things different in the way you’d like them to be. It’s your choice.’

‘Would I see you? If I stay here?’

‘Maybe. Sometimes. Possibly more.’

‘And if I go home?’

Gran smiled, her eyes glistening. ‘I will always be with you.’

‘You have a beautiful heart,’ Seth said, stepping forward. Lucy felt her heart lurch. ‘I think wherever you are you’ll find happiness.’

‘Time to choose, kiddo,’ said Bing. ‘What’ll it be?’

Lucy took a breath of icy winter air and closed her eyes. It was time to ask herself the question she’d been too scared to consider.

What do I really want?

TO BE CONTINUED…©Miranda Dickinson 2016

What do YOU think? Should Lucy stay in the beautiful winter world or go back to face real life? Vote NOW in the poll below – and come back tomorrow to find out what happens next!

#WurdyChristmas 2: What Happens Next?

wurdychristmas-free-short-storyWelcome to the second part of my exclusive #WurdyChristmas treat short story, Silver Bells at Tony & Frank’s. Yesterday, I asked you whether Lucy Smith should open the door or walk away…

Overwhelmingly, you voted for her to open it!

What happens when she steps into the darkened restaurant kitchen, following the strange, echoey Christmas song? Find out below – and then vote in the poll at the end to choose what happens next. Happy reading, lovelies!

SILVER BELLS AT TONY & FRANK’S – PART TWO ©Miranda Dickinson 2016

Should she go in?

Lucy stared at the double doors for just a moment, then pushed them open. In the course of her average day as assistant manager at Tony & Franks she would pass through these doors maybe a hundred times and never even think about it. But this entry into the darkened kitchen felt different – as if by choosing to walk in she could alter the course of her life.

What am I thinking?

As the doors swung shut behind her, Lucy stopped in the middle of the black-and-white chequerboard tiled floor and laughed. The events of the night were obviously taking their toll. She wasn’t on the verge of a life-changing adventure – she was recently dumped, exhausted and stuck in a closed restaurant until she could work out a way to get home for Christmas.

‘Get over yourself, Lucy Smith,’ she said out loud.

Almost in reply, the song swelled in volume.

Silver Bells, Silver Bells

Lucy’s breath caught in her throat.

It was still slower than the song she and Gran had giggled their way through Christmas Eve waltzes to. And it still sounded far away, even though its volume suggested it was nearer

But that was impossible. Wasn’t it?

Lucy gazed around the familiar space that in this almost-light now appeared alien. The stainless steel worktables, large flat-top grills imported from New York by the 1950s-diner-inspired restaurant chain and banks of industrial-sized refrigerators formed an unfamiliar landscape, washed in pale blue light. She wondered if any of her workmates had seen the kitchen like this. Maybe Sophie, her manager, possibly Dragan and Malik, the head chefs… Seeing it like this, without its frenzy and noise, felt like a privilege.

Hear them ring… Soon it will be Christmas Day…

Lucy glanced at the clock above the grill. One minute to midnight. But that wasn’t right, was it? It had been past midnight when she’d found herself abandoned in the car park by Aaron. The batteries must need changing. She’d make it her first job on Boxing Day when she returned to work after her too-short Christmas break.

Christmas. She’d only ever envisaged it with Aaron for the last three years but tomorrow – today – or whenever it was – was going to be different. What was she going to do? She’d planned to spend Christmas Day snuggled up with the man she thought she’d be engaged to. It was far too late to make other plans, and her own home was woefully unprepared. Working long shifts at Tony & Frank’s in the run-up to Christmas meant she’d only just bought and decorated the small, slightly wonky tree she’d picked up for half price from the large B&Q across the car park from the restaurant. It reminded her of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree from the cartoon she’d watched over and over on video as a kid with her cousin Kerry, until the ancient VHS tape snapped. ‘More twig than tree,’ Dad would call it.

Mum and Dad would always make room for her at their Christmas table. They never had just family on Christmas Day. Dad said it was Mum’s Italian heritage that dictated every meal should be able to stretch to however many waifs and strays deigned to drop in. Lucy usually loved being part of the eclectic mix of neighbours, friends and virtual strangers her mum invited for Christmas dinner, but now the thought made her shudder. Too many questions. None of which she could answer.

The song had reached an end and for a moment there was silence. Lucy waited. Sure enough, it began again, noticeably louder than before. It echoed around the empty kitchen, calling her closer…

To her surprise, Lucy wasn’t scared, more intrigued to find the source of the music. It definitely wasn’t the sound system – there were no speakers in the kitchen and all the controls were behind the front of house desk by the restaurant’s main entrance. And the music seemed to come from the furthest corner, where Sophie had small office. Tony & Frank’s called it a ‘Team Leader Epicentre’. Most of the staff called it ‘Sophie’s Cardboard Box’. Four wobbly fibreboard walls boxed the tiny space from the main kitchen area. In the summer it was so stifling that Sophie often abandoned it altogether, choosing a booth in the restaurant as her workspace instead.

That’s where the song is coming from!

Following the music, Lucy crossed the kitchen and pulled the bunch of keys from her pocket to find Sophie’s office key. But when she reached the door, it was already ajar. That was odd. Sophie was a stickler for routine – to leave her office unlocked was most unlike her. Of course she may have been distracted tonight. She’d been keen to get back to her new kittens, the thought of her partner Eric cat-sitting them all night apparently terrifying. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ she’d told Lucy, ‘Eric is a total sweetheart but my kittens miss me when I’m not there. If they start to play up, I don’t think he’ll cope. They’re like gremlins who still have fur…’

When she stepped inside, the song seemed to suddenly surround her, the volume rising as if in celebration of her arrival. Surprised, Lucy took a step back and yelped as her shin banged into the leg of Sophie’s desk. Her hand shot to the edge of it to steady herself and her fingers brushed against something cold…

Lucy looked down. By her hand was a small silver box. Over its lid a burst of stars had been engraved, the centre of each one sparkling with a tiny diamond. It looked as if it had been carved from ice and sprinkled with starlight. Beside it lay a velvet drawstring bag. The beautiful midnight blue velvet had been printed with a shower of gold stars, tied with a delicate cord that could have been made of spun sugar. Lucy bent to get a closer look – and noticed the note.

Beside the box was a gold-edged sheet of notepaper, a message written in looping script across its surface in bright purple ink:

Hello Lucy Smith.

Tonight, Christmas magic is yours to choose.

But which gift shall it be?

Silver or velvet? Box or bag?

Choose carefully – your choice will change your life…

Lucy stared at the gorgeous gifts. Both were stunning – she had never seen anything so beautiful in her life. Could one of these really be for her? She could hardly believe it. But then, nothing since the end of her shift at Tony & Frank’s had made sense tonight.

Her fingers hovered over the box and the bag.

Which one should she choose?

TO BE CONTINUED… ©Miranda Dickinson 2016

What do YOU think? Should Lucy choose the silver box or the starry velvet bag? Vote NOW in the poll below – and come back tomorrow to find out what happens next!

SILVER BELLS AT TONY AND FRANK’S – #WurdyChristmas Part One

HERE IT IS! Welcome to my 2016 #WurdyChristmas treat! Over the next five days, I will be telling you a story. But at the end of each episode, YOU will decide what I write next… Anything could happen between now and Friday. Are you ready for a Christmas adventure?

Without further ado, it is my pleasure to present PART ONE of my story. Happy reading – and don’t forget to vote in the poll at the end to decide what happens tomorrow!

SILVER BELLS AT TONY & FRANK’S – PART ONE ©Miranda Dickinson 2016

Four little words.

That’s what Lucy Smith wanted for Christmas. The timing couldn’t be more perfect: three years to the day since her first tentative kiss with Aaron Morgan at a friend’s Christmas Eve party. And he’d insisted on meeting her tonight after her long shift at Tony & Frank’s 1950s-themed American diner restaurant. There could only be one reason why.

Her workmates had given her good luck hugs as they’d hurried out into the frozen winter night – it had been all anyone had talked about this evening. And for once, Lucy had enjoyed being the centre of attention. Tonight was her night – and even though the customers were rowdier than usual and the backs of her legs ached from running between kitchen and tables, she couldn’t stop smiling.

Will you marry me?

Of course he’d want to ask her alone, in the warmth of his new car. Aaron preferred to keep his public displays of affection private and personal. It meant more that way, Lucy told her friends: a secret world just for the two of them. So much of life and love was played out in public these days. Lucy and Aaron didn’t need to follow the crowd.

Will you marry me?

Four little words with the potential to change everything.

Well, she’d been right about that, at least.

Aaron had been waiting in his new car, like Lucy expected. She’d waved off her friends and walked alone across the frosted car park, excited puffs of silver-white breath floating across her shoulder. The glow of his car headlights made the ground sparkle like gold dust as Lucy approached. He’d looked nervous, as Lucy had expected. Both hands on the steering wheel, dark eyes trained on the darkened restaurant building. Lucy instinctively went to the driver’s side, as she always did. It was their thing. No matter who picked up who, the passenger always offered the driver a kiss through the opened window before getting into the car. He’d done it on their second date when Lucy picked him up from the office complex across town and it had been so lovely they’d adopted it as tradition.

She’d expected this, had thought of little else all day. What she hadn’t expected was that Aaron’s four little words would be the first thing he’d say.

‘I don’t love you.’

Four little words that could change everything.

Only not the change Lucy Smith was expecting.

After that it had been a blur – her stumbling replies and his mumbled apologies as little by little her world began to shatter. And then he’d closed the window and driven away, leaving her mid-sentence:

‘But – but you were supposed to drive me home…’

She had no car here. His insistence on meeting her tonight and the promised end-of-shift drinks with her colleagues had persuaded her to leave her car at home. Fifteen miles and a broken heart now stood between her front door and this freezing car park. It was past midnight – no hope of a taxi for hours. She could call her parents but they might be in bed already. And what would she say? They’d been as convinced as she was that tonight Aaron would propose.

Utterly defeated, embarrassed and cold, Lucy turned back to the familiar shape of Tony & Frank’s. The bulk of keys rested comfortably in her pocket. And in the raw ache of her shattered heart, an idea began to glow.

The restaurant was still, faint blue pools of light from emergency bulbs cutting through the gloom. At the far end the two plaster busts of the mythical Founders presided in darkness over the kitchen hatch, the white pom-poms on their Christmas hats just visible. As soon as Lucy entered, her tears fell. With loud, ugly sobs she reached out for the first booth and slid onto the padded seat.

How could she have been such an idiot? Aaron wasn’t distant because he was rehearsing his proposal speech; he was working out how to leave. There was nobody else, he’d said, but his eyes had told a different story. Why else would he want to end their relationship before Christmas? And what was worse – worst than anything – was that Lucy had allowed herself to focus only on him, on their future. As if all she wanted in life was a ring on her finger. When had she become that girl?

Grabbing the nearest napkin she blew her nose loudly. She should try to find a taxi – at least put some lights on and make some calls. Or she could make herself a drink in the kitchen and wait it out until daylight. She was cold, and angry and heartbroken, without transport or any idea of what to do next. Deciding a hot drink was a good idea, she left the booth and made her way through the darkness towards the kitchen.

And then, she heard it.

The faintest sound, at first so quiet it was barely decipherable. But then notes began to form, a melody emerging that seemed oddly familiar. Tony & Frank’s was known for its vintage soundtrack – a key selling point of the restaurant chain. Had someone left the music system on by mistake? Lucy felt certain she would have heard it as she’d locked up if that were true. And then, she recognised it: Bing Crosby and Carol Richards singing Silver Bells. It had been Lucy’s late grandmother’s favourite Christmas song – she remembered as a little girl being waltzed around the tufted Wilton carpet in Gran’s living room to it.

But it sounded – strange. Where was it coming from? Lucy moved towards the kitchen doors and felt her heart contract as the song grew louder.

It’s coming from in there

The song was slower than she remembered, a heavy echo attached to each note, as if it were being played in a steel-lined room a long way away. Reaching the kitchen doors, Lucy rested her hand against the cool metal – and stopped.

Should she go in?

TO BE CONTINUED… ©Miranda Dickinson 2016

What do YOU think? Should Lucy follow the song into the darkened kitchen? Or move away from it and try to get home? Vote NOW in the poll below – and come back tomorrow to find out what happens next!

#LoveThisBook – a lovely day on Twitter

One of the things I love most about social media, when it works positively – particularly on Twitter – is that it gives us infinite scope for spontaneous fun. This weekend, annoyed by list after snobby list of ‘2016 Best Books’ in the literary media (blatantly ignoring anything daring to be ‘popular’), I asked people on Twitter to tell me which books they loved reading this year. Any genre, any age, any book.

What followed was a whole day of bookish loveliness.

Using the #LoveThisBook hashtag, people tweeted their favourite books – a really varied mix of well-known and not-so-well-known titles, across the genres from popular fiction to YA, childrens to non-fiction, series to literary, self-published to traditionally published. Famous authors, debut authors, new authors, established authors – all were represented. I was blown away by the response and had so much fun co-ordinating the discussions.

And then, something really lovely happened. Delighted authors began to reply, leading to heartfelt exchanges and thanks flying back and forth. As an author I know how impossibly wonderful it is to hear that someone loved my books – so to see authors meeting their readers in the #LoveThisBook chat was such a treat. Added to this, tweeters began to chat with other readers, discussing books they’d read and recommending others. After so much darkness and anger on Twitter in recent months, it was fantastic to see people united by a love of books, sharing something positive.

I’ve Storified the discussion HERE – so if you’re looking for your next read you might just find it there! You can still join the fun by tweeting your favourites. Just use the hashtag #LoveThisBook and tweet me @wurdsmyth. Happy reading!

Anna Browne’s Christmas Party – PART FIVE (at last!)

Thanks so much for all your wonderful comments regarding my exclusive free short story. The final part turned into a bit of an epic and that, coupled with a stint in hospital with Flo (who is thankfully back to her sparkly self now) resulted in a very, very long delay in getting this to you…

BUT it’s here now – and I really hope it’s going to be worth the wait! If you want to download the entire story for free, there’s a link at the bottom of this blog post.

So, back to Hillford Hall for the final part of Anna Browne’s Christmas Party…

Anna Browne’s Surprising Christmas Party by Miranda Dickinson

©Miranda Dickinson 2015 All Rights Reserved.

PART FIVE

‘That’s our last song for this set. We’re The Pinstripes and we’ll be back with you after a little break,’ Romily smiled, as her band prepared to leave the stage. ‘I have it on good authority that the buffet is now being served, so please enjoy your food and we’ll see you soon…’

The background music faded up and The Pinstripes left their instruments to filter out into the room. Anna left Nell and Max to catch the band before they headed back to their dressing room.

‘Thank you so much,’ she said, as Romily, Wren, Tom, Jack and Charlie joined her. ‘That was fantastic.’

Romily shook her hand. ‘Glad you enjoyed it. Next set will be in about forty minutes or so, if that’s okay?’

‘Perfect. Please make sure you all have something to eat. I think the caterers have outdone themselves with the buffet – we’ve practically had to reinforce the tables.’

‘Already heading that way,’ Tom grinned. ‘We make it our aim to get to the table before anybody else in the room.’

Jack nudged his shoulder. ‘Talking of which, early birds are getting the worms…’

Anna glanced across the room to where a queue was already forming. ‘Don’t let me keep you, then.’

‘Cheers!’ Jack, Tom and Charlie hurried across the dance floor to claim their spot in the line.

Romily raised her eyes heavenwards. ‘Every gig it’s the same.’

‘Well, I’ll leave you to it. If you need anything in your dressing room – water or extra drinks – just let me know.’

‘We will, Anna. Thank you.’

As Anna moved back to her guests, she noticed Romily grab Wren’s hand and lead her out of the stateroom…

* * * *

‘Be careful – it’s very icy.’

‘My dear, I am more than capable of walking on frosty ground. I have had significantly more years’ experience of it than both of you combined.’

‘All the same, Dorothy, I’d feel bad if you were to slip. Take my arm – to humour me if nothing else.’

Grandma Dot’s frown immediately softened and she beamed up at her handsome escort. ‘Well, Dr Steinmann, when you ask so nicely, how can I possibly refuse?’

Bea James grinned as she followed her grandmother and Jake up the lantern-lit path towards Hillford Hall’s magical entrance. It was an impossibly English scene: a serene winterscape with an elegant Georgian red sandstone mansion at its warm heart. She’d become so used to winters in New York that she’d all but forgotten how beautiful December could be back home.

Home. It was a confusing word for Bea these days. Home was Brooklyn, with her bookshop, Hudson River Books, and her apartment; her neighbour’s crazy cat and her friends who meant the world to her. And Jake – the biggest surprise New York had given her. She was thrilled that Rosie and Ed were here, too – a meeting of her two lives represented by the people she knew in the room. Grandma Dot had been only too happy to come to the event at Hillford Hall this evening, remembering dances she and her late husband had attended here in their youth and longing to see inside the mansion again. Jake, like his brother Ed, was just blown away by the Englishness of everything: the pretty little villages, the beautiful Staffordshire border countryside and now a stately home that could have come straight from the pages of a classic novel.

For Bea, it was nice to be back in England – for the time being. This was going to be her first Christmas here since she’d left the UK to emigrate to America in her late teens. Her parents were overjoyed to have her back and she knew as soon as she saw the old Christmas decorations and settled back into the James family festive traditions she would love every minute. But the Bea James who had returned this Christmas was a world away from the Bea James who had left just before Christmas many years before – and she was very aware of it tonight. The fact was, she felt more American than British these days. It both surprised her and made her a little sad. She’d spent so many years dreaming of living and working in New York before she’d moved there and now she wondered how much of her formative years she had spent thinking about that instead of enjoying being in the country of her birth.

‘This place is amazing,’ Jake said, helping Grandma Dot out of her coat and handing it to the cloakroom attendant.

‘It used to be the local pick-up joint,’ Grandma Dot said, clearly thrilled at the surprise her statement caused Jake. ‘A bit of a lovers’ den, if you will.’

‘Oh really?’

‘Mm-hmm. Don’t believe the lie all those old films tell you about how chaste we all were. The stories these grounds could tell you about the shenanigans we all got up to at Hillford would render you speechless. I myself have rather fond memories of that boating lake…’

‘Dorothy! I’m shocked!’

Grandma Dot smirked like a naughty child and patted his arm. ‘Good. You should be. Shall we go in, darlings?’

Bea planted a kiss on her grandmother’s cheek. ‘I think we should before you bring any more startling revelations.’

She looked up at the elegant staircase rising before them, each step cloaked in thickly piled china blue carpet held in place with shiny brass stair rods that sparkled in the light of the hundreds of fairy-lights curled around the polished mahogany banisters. The entire space seemed to twinkle and gleam, hinting at what awaited them at the party. Tonight was going to be special, she knew, not only for the company she’d longed to enjoy but the experience of spending time in such a beautiful, grand house. And sharing it with the man she loved and the grandmother she adored made the whole night as perfect as it could possibly be…

* * * *

‘Right. Out with it.’ Romily folded her arms and fixed Wren with a serious stare.

Wren looked decidedly uncomfortable. ‘I have no idea what you mean.’

‘Yes, you do. You’ve been on edge for weeks, Wren. What’s going on?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Try again.’

Wren flopped down with exasperation on a chair in their opulent dressing room. ‘Honestly, Rom. I’m fine.’

‘No, you’re not. And neither is D’Wayne. I haven’t said anything because I thought you might tell me in your own time. But you’re not yourself and I can’t watch you being like that without asking why.’

‘Really, there’s nothing to tell.’

Rom kicked off her heels and pulled up a chair opposite Wren. It bothered her that Wren could be so down and not want to discuss it. This behaviour was troubling from the woman who normally wore her heart on her sleeve and wanted to talk about everything – every aspect of the situation and every possible outcome – for hours into the night. ‘I don’t believe you.’

‘I’m really hungry. The buffet’s out and the boys will have cleared it like a plague of locusts if we don’t get out there soon. I had to come straight from work here this afternoon – I’m starving.’

Rom had heard all the excuses before and she was determined not to budge. ‘So I’ll text Charlie and ask him to grab a plate for you.’ She reached over to her bag on the table and pulled out her phone. The tactic worked because Wren let out a dramatic groan.

‘Okay, okay. If I tell you will you promise to butt out?’

Rom considered the bargain. How could she tell if she’d be able to leave Wren alone once she knew what was happening? What if her best friend needed her help? But she’d looked so sad for weeks, as if the light that usually radiated out from her had been permanently dimmed. That couldn’t continue.

‘All right, I promise. Tell me…’

* * * *

Dudley Parker’s eyes were practically on sticks as he surveyed the sumptuous buffet. The tables seemed endless, packed with plates of delicious food. His stomach grumbled contentedly as he waited, plate and cutlery in hand.

‘I feel like a kid in a sweet shop,’ he whispered to his wife. ‘I’ve come over all emotional thinking what I’m going to pick.’

‘Try a bit of everything then. But don’t go too mad. Remember what the doctor said.’

Pah. Dr Thornton’s a proper killjoy. Telling me to eat healthy, when he’s the size of a truck! There should be some law against it.’

Mags rolled her eyes. ‘He’s doing his job, Dudley. And your cholesterol’s scary at the moment. I don’t want you carking it on me.’

‘Spoken like a true romantic,’ he chuckled, kissing her cheek. ‘I’ll be sensible, don’t you worry. I need to keep healthy so I can undo all my good work with your cakes!’

Further along the queue, Rosie and Harri waited. Rosie was acutely aware of the strange quietness over her cousin – and as the line ahead didn’t appear to be moving, she decided to seize the moment.

‘Are you okay, H?’

Harri smiled at her, a tiny betrayal of suspicion in her eyes. ‘Of course I am. Why do you ask?’

‘Oh, no reason.’ Reconsidering her answer, Rosie shook her head. ‘No, actually, there is a reason. Something’s not right with you and Alex.’ She caught Harri’s sigh and hurried on. ‘No, listen. I’m not prying, but I noticed it when you met us at the airport and it’s been bugging me ever since. You don’t have to tell me what it is. I just wanted you to know that I can see you’re not happy and I’m here if you want talk.’

Harri’s blue eyes filled with tears. ‘I should have known you’d spot it. We had a row. A bad one. On the drive over to pick you and Ed up at the airport. You know me and Al, we’re no strangers to arguments. But this one felt – and feels – different.’

‘What happened?’

‘It’s all so – unnecessary. And I wouldn’t mind, but it wasn’t my fault. He overheard me talking with his mum and completely misunderstood. He’s been on edge a bit lately with planning the second coffee shop and I know he’s strung out and tired. But it was like he bundled up all that frustration and chucked it straight at me. The worst of it was, I didn’t even realise he’d heard our conversation until it all came out in the car. I’m angry that he didn’t just ask me about it. I mean, he knows what Viv’s like.’

Rosie gave a wry grin. ‘Everyone knows what Viv’s like.’

‘Exactly. But instead of stopping for one second and just asking me about it before flying off the handle he took offence and assumed the worst.’

The queue shuffled a few steps closer to the buffet table.

‘Can I ask what it was about?’

Harri let out a long sigh. ‘Children.’

‘Ah.’

‘Exactly. I don’t know, Rosie, things were really good between us and even with all the craziness around Wātea 2, I thought me and Al were so strong. But honestly, since you’ve been here, I don’t know any more.’

‘Harri, Alex adores you. It’s plain as day.’

‘Maybe. He isn’t being very adoring at the moment.’

‘Have you talked to him since the argument? Told him how hurt you’re feeling?’

The look Rosie’s suggestion was met by told her everything she needed to know. Harri shook her shoulders as if shrugging off a wet coat. ‘Anyway, there’s nothing I can do about it tonight, so let’s just forget it and enjoy ourselves, okay?’

‘Okay. But you know I’m here whenever you want to…’

‘I know. Ooh, look, the queue’s moved again. Come on, let’s eat.’

With a heavy heart, Rosie followed.

* * * *

The dining room-turned dressing room was ominously silent as Romily waited for an answer from her best friend. Wren had pulled her thick black jumper from her bag that she had arrived in and had wrapped it over her knees like a blanket. She appeared even smaller than usual, dwarfed by the elegant chair in which she sat and the chunky cable-knit of her sweater. Her fingers fiddled with a silver hipflask that regularly made an appearance at gigs, but today she wasn’t using a tiny amount to give her vocal chords a little extra warmth before performing; instead she was knocking back considerable amounts.

‘Go steady with that, Wren. You don’t want to wreck your voice.’

Wren stared impassively at the hipflask in her hands and lowered it. ‘Yeah. Good point.’

‘So, come on then. What’s going on?’

‘D’Wayne and I split up.’

Romily’s eyes widened. ‘Oh no! When?’

‘A month ago.’

‘A month…? Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘We had a lot of gigs. D’Wayne’s still our manager and I didn’t want to make things awkward for everyone.’

Romily let the news sink in. How had nobody in The Pinstripes seen what was happening? The jokes had continued, Wren batting each one away with trademark dryness as she’d always done: but now she knew the truth, Romily couldn’t believe all of the band had been so blissfully unaware of what was really happening. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘Don’t be. I thought we were compatible. I was wrong. It happens.’

‘No, I mean, I’m sorry for not asking sooner. For not noticing.’

Wren unscrewed the hipflask cap and took another sip. ‘I wouldn’t worry if I were you. I didn’t have a clue what was going on until the day we broke up.’

‘Oh hun. What happened?’

Sherise happened.’

‘Who?’

‘Oh you know, Sherise Walters? The mother of D’Wayne’s child?’

‘What?’

Wren reached down into the pocket of her coat, which had been hung over the back of the chair next to hers and pulled out a crumpled white envelope. ‘I found this in his car. It wasn’t hidden: I cleared some stuff off the passenger seat to be able to sit down and the letter was on the top of it all. It’s from her solicitor, demanding money to be paid monthly to Sherise for the care and wellbeing of their son.’

‘How old is this son?’ Romily asked, hoping against hope that it might be an older child from a previous relationship.

‘You see that? That face you’re wearing? That was me when I first read it. Hoping it was just something from his past that he’d somehow omitted to tell me. I could’ve coped with that, you know? We all have skeletons in our cupboards. I assumed we’d been together long enough for anything like that not to be a deal-breaker. But D’Wayne Junior is four months old. And we’ve been together four years. Now, maths was never my strong point, but even I can work out that particular sum.’

‘Oh Wren…’

Wren rubbed angrily at a tear with the sleeve of her jumper. ‘No, I’m fine. At least, I will be. The worst thing is, it wasn’t a surprise. Something had been off with him for a while. He’d hurry out of the room to take phone calls, which wasn’t like him. You know D’Wayne, he’s normally be glued to his phone in full sight of everyone, day and night. He was funny about me answering his home phone, too. He’d go off the deep end at me for picking up a telesales call, but never explain why he was so opposed to me taking calls. Who does that?’

‘Does he know you saw the letter?’

‘He should do. He was sitting in the driver’s seat when I found it.’

Romily stared at her friend. ‘That’s terrible! What did he say?’

‘He tried to tell me the letter had been delivered to him by mistake. I mean, that would probably work as a plausible excuse for ninety-nine per cent of the country, but not him. I’m no expert, but I would hazard a guess that D’Wayne and D’Wayne Junior are probably the only two D’Waynes in the country. So I told him we were over. And we are. That’s it.’

Romily blew out a long, low whistle and began to pace the floor, Wren’s revelation heavy in the air between them. She was torn between seeking out the band’s manager and telling him exactly what she thought of him and protecting her friend by honouring the secret. ‘What do you want me to do?’

‘Nothing. It’s done, Rom.’

‘It might be between you and D’Wayne, but I don’t want him to manage us any more. And I’m pretty sure the others will feel the same when they find out.’

Wren’s eyes narrowed. ‘They aren’t going to find out. I mean it, Rom. I’m still getting my head around what’s happened – I really don’t want everyone else wading in right now.’

‘But at some point…’

‘At some point it’s going to come out, I know. Just not tonight, okay? I just want to enjoy the gig and this lovely venue and turn my head off for a couple of hours.’

‘Guys – what are you doing?’

Romily and Wren turned to see Tom standing in the doorway, an overflowing paper plate of buffet food in one hand. ‘We’re just…’ Romily began, glancing at Wren, who glared back at her. ‘We’ll be there in a bit.’

If Romily had told Tom she was growing an extra arm he couldn’t have looked more bewildered. But when food was as important as it was to The Pinstripes’ lead guitarist, this wasn’t surprising. ‘I’d come now if I were you. Those guests are like gannets. If you don’t grab food soon all that’ll be left is dust.’ He stuffed a mini quiche into his mouth and gave a crumb-spilling grin before heading back to the call of free food.

‘Right, let’s get back.’ Wren peeled the sweater off her knees, put her heels back on and grabbed a mirror from the pile of makeup on the table to check her hair.

Not sure what else to say, Romily picked up her shoes. All of a sudden, she wasn’t hungry. How was she going to keep this a secret from the rest of the band – and, specifically, Charlie? ‘Honey, are you sure you’re okay to carry on?’

Wren snapped the compact mirror shut, the sharp sound echoing like a warning shot around the elegant room. ‘Yes. Can we leave it now?’ Her frown smoothed a little. ‘We’ll talk about it soon, I promise. Let’s just get Christmas out the way first, okay?’

Romily knew no more would be said tonight, but the news sat uneasily within her as she followed Wren back to Hillford Hall’s stateroom…

* * * *

‘So, Miss James, d’ya fancy a dance?’ Jake Steinmann grinned at Bea, giving a bow he hoped was sufficiently like the one he’d seen Prince Charming giving Cinderella in a Disney movie he could just about remember from his childhood. He’d never pictured himself a romantic hero before, but tonight – in this place – he wanted to be. For Bea. She looked so beautiful tonight and the soft light that surrounded her made her luminous.

‘I’d love to, Mr Steinmann.’ She took his hand and let him lead her onto the dance floor as the band began to play Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

‘You look amazing,’ he said.

‘I know.’

Jake smiled. A year into their relationship and he already could guess what she would say before she said it. He loved that. Even after seven years with Jessica he hadn’t always been sure of what she was thinking. He loved that Bea’s sense of humour was always there, no matter what she faced. It mirrored that of his own family, particularly his older brother Ed. Humour, Ed always said, was your best weapon against the bad stuff in life. As long as you could laugh about something, you had hope. Bea subscribed to this theory, too and she was fast bringing Jake around to her way of thinking.

‘What are you thinking about?’

He looked down to see Bea smiling up at him, a slight wrinkle forming on the bridge of her nose the way it always did when she was amused by something. ‘You, me, this awesome house. But mostly you.’

‘Oh well, that’s good,’ she beamed, snuggling her head against his chest as they moved together across the dance floor. ‘Remember the last time we danced like this?’

Remember it? It’s seared onto my psyche. You broke my heart.’

Bea pulled back. ‘I did not.’

‘Oh, so the “I-like-you-but-I’m-going-to-marry-somebody-else” line was just small talk, was it?’

‘As I recall, you had revelations of your own.’

He had to concede on that one. ‘Good point. You looked so sad and lost back then I felt my heart being pulled to pieces.’

‘Aw. You never told me that before.’

‘I never wanted to before. Maybe Grandma Dot’s right: maybe there’s something about this house that brings out the romantic in people.’

Bea hugged him as the song came to an end. ‘I love you.’

‘Even when I’m being a slushy fool?’

‘Even then.’ She took his hand and began to leave the dance floor, but he held back. ‘What’s the matter?’

This could be the perfect moment: Bea in her home country, looking fabulous in the heart of a grand stately home, being watched by her beloved grandmother, surrounded by twinkling lights with all the promise of Christmas to come… He’d considered it on the flight across the Pond from New York, but was it too soon? Last Christmas she’d chosen someone else and he thought he’d lost her forever. Back then he’d prayed for the situation to change, for the impossible to be made possible – and it had happened. Surely that was a sign, wasn’t it?

But what if this wasn’t the night to ask her? What if she hated the ring hiding in his pocket, or the spontaneous question in a room of mostly strangers?

‘Jake?’

The moment passed. ‘Sorry. Jet-lag. I need a drink, do you?’

He knew she was watching him, with that quizzical expression of hers, as they walked back to their table where Grandma Dot was waiting. It would have been wrong to ask the question he’d longed to without thinking it through. Wouldn’t it?

* * * *

‘Hey Anna, we’re heading off.’ Max Rossi bent down to plant a kiss on Anna’s cheek. ‘I need to get this lady to bed.’

Nell grinned and hugged Anna. ‘Sorry to be a party pooper. I need to rest.’

‘You have the best excuse for leaving early,’ Anna smiled. ‘But you’re staying here tonight, aren’t you? So I’ll see you in the morning?’

‘Sure, Nell will be casting her critical eye over Hillford’s breakfast menu.’

‘Max! I won’t at all. I’ll be loving someone else cooking breakfast instead of me. I can’t remember the last time that happened. Anna, this evening has been phenomenal. And your friends are so wonderful. Elsie and Harri particularly. I think we’re going to be having a lot of new friends visit us in San Francisco next year. See you in the morning.’

‘Sleep well.’

Anna watched her friends walk hand-in-hand out of the stateroom. It was getting late and the guests were slowly beginning to leave. Outside it was snowing again, the flakes falling thicker and faster as the evening progressed. Already the silver lanterns had gained caps of glowing snow and the red carpet was being transformed into a pristine white one. Guests who at first moved to the windows to admire the perfect winter’s night scene quickly rethought their plans to stay until the end of the party, concerned for the thickness of the snow forming outside. One by one, they approached Anna, thanking her for a beautiful party and apologising for their earlier-than-usual departures. By the time The Pinstripes had sung their final song, the stateroom was less than half full. But Anna was happy. All of her plans had come to fruition and she had created the Christmas party she’d seen in her mind. It was magical, perfectly Christmassy and although the donations were still being counted, had raised a sizeable sum for the cancer charity Elsie had nominated. She said goodbye to another group of guests and sank into a chair by an empty table, absent-mindedly picking up a handful of silver snowflake-shaped sequins from the winter white tablecloth.

‘Am I late?’

Anna twisted to see the owner of the voice she already recognised. ‘Ben!’

Ben McAra chuckled as Anna threw her arms around him. His coat was cold and smelled of cinnamon spice and freshly fallen snow and she wanted to breathe him in forever.

‘Well, hello Anna Browne!’

‘What are you doing here? I thought you were working late in the newsroom?’

‘I called in a few favours,’ he grinned. ‘I wanted to surprise you.’

‘Well, you did that.’

‘Good job I did, too. The roads will be impassable if this snow keeps up.’ He lifted his eyes to scan the room. ‘Wow, Anna. You’ve outdone yourself here. If you aren’t careful they’ll be offering you a job.’

‘They did, actually,’ Anna smiled, remembering the shocked hotel manager’s reaction when he’d seen the completed room earlier.

‘You’re kidding?’

‘Nope. The manager asked for my CV. He might well ask again tomorrow. It’s a compliment, but I’m not tempted. This was fun: if I had to do it to pay the bills it would lose its appeal. Can I get you a drink?’

‘I think I’ll just go to the room, if you don’t mind? That journey was a beast. I need a shower, a tea and whatever goodies I can raid from the buffet.’ Ben eyed the still-laid tables hungrily.

‘Help yourself. I think most people are getting ready to go home now. I’ll say the official thank you and as soon as we’ve cleared everything I’ll join you.’ She shook her head, the surprise of his being here still making her tingle. ‘Thank you. For driving up tonight. I was missing you.’

Ben wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her to him. ‘I’d better go to our room then, so you can miss me some more…’

* * * *

Rosie reluctantly took a final look at the wintry setting of the party and linked her arm through Harri’s as they turned to walk into a real-life snow scene. ‘Do we have to go? It was such a gorgeous party.’

‘It was. But we probably need to rescue your husband from my fiancé’s comprehensive love of real ales.’

‘Probably a good idea.’

Harri shivered as they stepped out into the snow, giggling when her heels disappeared in the thick white layer cloaking the path. ‘Looks like we should have brought boots!’

She and Rosie clung to one another, wobbling and sliding along the candlelit path. Large snowflakes landed on their shoulders and heads, ice-cold kisses melting on their cheeks.

‘Are you going to be able to drive home in this?’ Rosie asked, letting out a shriek as her foot slipped and Harri just managed to stop both of them falling.

Given how difficult walking was proving, Harri felt a sudden anxiety grip her. ‘I’m going to give it a go. Just out of interest, how are you at pushing cars?’

‘Now’s as good a time as any to learn,’ Rosie laughed – stopping abruptly, her grip tightening on Harri’s arm.

Harri followed the direction of her cousin’s stare to see a dark figure in their path a few feet away. Where had they come from? And with the stillness of the night, how had they done so without making a sound? Harri could see silver-white puffs of breath rising from the shadowy figure. Whoever it was didn’t move and neither did Rosie or Harri: a High Noon standoff in the snow.

‘Let’s go round them,’ Harri muttered. If they stepped beyond the row of lanterns there would be just enough room to get past the stubborn figure. But she felt her heart beating faster. What if the stranger blocked their path?

Slowly, the figure lifted its hands to the hood covering its head, then suddenly yelled and doubled over, a spray of snow cresting over his back like a frozen wave. Harri and Rosie shrieked in surprise, instinctively hugging each other.

And then, the hooded figure began to laugh. He pulled himself back upright and looked behind him.

‘That was a cheap shot, dude.’

Harri forgot her fright in an instant. ‘Alex? What are you doing here?’

Alex removed the hood of his winter jacket and grinned at Harri. ‘Making the most of the snow.’ Another snowball shattered against his back and Alex bent down to bundle a return missile together.

Rosie shook her head, relief sounding in her voice. ‘Ed Steinmann, you big kid.’

From the snowy shadows Ed emerged, breathless with laughter and perhaps more alcohol than he’d consumed for a while. ‘Gotta make the most of the white stuff, Rosie!’ He gave a yelp as Alex’s snowball ricocheted off his arm.

Harri stared at the drunken pair, wondering how they had travelled to Hillford Hall and – more importantly – why they had come. ‘I’m guessing you need a lift home?’ she called over their shouts and laughter.

‘Actually, we’re your ride home, ladies,’ Alex spread his arms wide, wobbling a little as a snowball whizzed past his ear.

Please tell me you didn’t drive here, not in the state you’re in?’

‘Relax, H. We met Stu from the farm at the pub and he offered to bring us out to get you. The road home’s pretty much impassable unless you have a four-by-four. Stu wasn’t drinking and he has his Land Rover.’

‘Oh.’ It sounded a plausible reason, but Harri couldn’t escape a feeling of something darker, an impending storm cloud neither could avoid. She’d thought of little else tonight, the evening’s party providing much-needed light relief but not enough to fully allay her fears. And now Alex was here, at some considerable effort, when it would have been far easier to stay in the cosy confines of the village pub or welcoming warmth of Two Trees Cottage, just a happy stumble away.

Ed appeared at Alex’s side, red-cheeked and happy. They exchanged a look and Ed reached out to his wife. ‘You look cold. Let’s head over to the car park, okay?’

Realising she was being left alone with Alex, Harri’s heart sank. What had they been talking about at the pub? She was pretty certain now that their main motivation for coming to meet her and Rosie had nothing to do with the weather. When Ed and Rosie were out of sight, she faced Alex alone in the swirling snow.

‘H, can we talk?’ His smile had vanished. He wore it so often his face appeared alien without it.

‘Can’t we do this at home? I’m not exactly dressed for outdoor conversation.’ The feeling had gone completely from her toes and the icy water seeping into her ankles and calves threatened to freeze those, too.

‘There’s a bench, back there,’ Alex indicated over his shoulder. ‘We can sit and talk. Just for five minutes. Please?’

Oh wow, now this is serious

Fearing the worst, Harri picked her way over the snowy path to follow Alex, her feet tiny when she stepped in his large footprints.

Not far from where the lantern-lit path curved away to the car park was an old cherry tree, with a bench resting against its trunk. Strings of multi-coloured fairy lights had been woven through its bare branches, casting a rainbow of colours across the snow-covered ground. It could have been the most perfect setting had it not been for the growing sense of dread Harri felt, twisting her stomach like the gnarled brittle branches above her head as she sat down beside Alex.

She remembered the last time she had seen him looking at her the way he was now – back in the porch of her cottage on the most embarrassing night of her life. Back then, he’d told her he loved her, but what if tonight he took it all back?

‘Al, I know things haven’t been right with us recently, but…’

‘Let me say this, okay?’

This is it. The moment he walks away from me…

Harri had dreaded this since their fight and now she could see it playing out before her eyes. She nodded, silently willing him not to say the words she feared hearing.

‘I told Ed tonight about what happened with us. I said it’s challenged everything I thought I understood about me and you. I know you’ve felt it too, H, and we can’t ignore what happened. I hate fighting with you.’

‘I don’t enjoy it either.’

‘Ed insisted we come out here to meet you and Rosie. He gave me a lecture on the importance of being straight with someone that you…’ he hesitated, ‘…care about.’

Care about? This was worse than Harri thought. Now Alex couldn’t even say he loved her.

‘So be straight with me,’ she said, deciding to meet whatever was coming head on. ‘Because I’ve tried so hard to explain what you overheard. Your mum made a throwaway line about grandchildren and I was just humouring her. I thought if I sounded like I was agreeing with her she’d drop it and move on. I wasn’t saying I wanted kids, or that I was with you because I expected children from our relationship. I would never say that. And I’d certainly never say that to her if we hadn’t spoken about it.’

‘I thought you had.’

‘Yes, I know that’s what you thought. But that makes me sad because it shows how little you know me, Al, even after all this time.’

‘That’s what I wanted to say tonight, right now, before we go back and Christmas starts and we don’t have a moment to be on our own. I was angry with you – but that was my mistake, not yours. I hate that it made us step away from each other but I felt like I suddenly didn’t know you. And that scared me because this – us – is really the only thing I understand.’

Harri looked up at the rainbow lights, their tiny brave beacons blurring in the steam from her breath and burgeoning tears in her eyes. ‘Me too. I just wish this thing would go away. We were happy before it showed up. Weren’t we?’

‘Yes.’

She turned her gaze on him. ‘Then you have to trust me, Al. You have to believe that you will always be the first to hear anything about our relationship – and that the very last person in the world I would discuss us with is your mother.’

‘I do. I’m sorry.’ He stared up at the snowflakes tumbling from the night sky. ‘I’m such an idiot. Ed told me I was.’ He reached for her hand. ‘The kids thing spooked me. I’m just not ready for that yet…’

The snow creaked beneath Harri’s frozen shoes as she twisted towards him, feeling warmth and strength as she took his hand. ‘I’m not either. I don’t think I’m ruling it out entirely but right now, I like us. We have more to do, and see, and be, before we even think about that.’

In the twinkling light beneath the cherry tree lanterns, Alex’s gaze held hers. ‘I love you, Harri.’

Tension between them melted like the snowflakes landing on her cheek and Harri let Alex pull her towards him. ‘Then can we stop this?’

He nodded, kissing the tears from her eyes.

And suddenly, the winter night was magical again, soft flakes falling in silent splendour, covering the tracks where party guests had walked, making everything appear new. It was as if the night sparkled with possibility, sprinkled like tiny crystals of moonlight across the silent park.

* * * *

From a window high in Hillford Hall, Anna Browne saw the kissing couple on the bench beneath the snow-heavy cherry tree boughs, and smiled. Tonight was a night to be happy, she decided, a time to hope for better things and to dream of the impossible. And as snowflakes fell past the window, she closed her eyes and let herself be swept up by the magic of the night.

THE END

©Miranda Dickinson 2015 – All Rights Reserved

If you’ve enjoyed this story, let me know!

 The full story is available for free download HERE. Several of my books address the horror that is cancer. Just recently it has robbed us of more wonderful lives with the passing of Lemmy, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, not to mention countless others who might not be famous but are heroes in our lives. Please consider supporting the phenomenal work of Cancer Research UK – you can donate HERE. Thank you xx

Anna Browne’s Christmas Party – PART FOUR

I really hope you’re enjoying my sparkly Christmas treat – it’s been lovely to have your input on which characters I have to write about each day. Today, you voted for NELL SULLIVAN and MAX ROSSI from my fifth novel, Take A Look At Me Now, although a few more characters also split your vote – so watch out for them below…

Here’s PART FOUR – and read on to find out which characters you can vote into tomorrow’s penultimate episode. Happy reading!

Anna Browne’s Surprising Christmas Party ©Miranda Dickinson 2015

PART FOUR

‘Elsie! You made it!’ Anna hurried across the stateroom to gather Elsie Maynard into a huge hug.

‘I was starting to think we’d never get here,’ Elsie grimaced, casting a glance at her companion’s pained expression and quickly changing tack. ‘But Woody saved the day.’

‘Just call me Zorro,’ Woody grinned, planting a kiss on Anna’s hand.

‘Look at this place!’ Elsie said, her eyes bright as she took in every detail of the room. ‘You’ve done an incredible job.’

‘Thank you. It’s come together really well.’ Anna watched her guests mingling, laughing, chatting, making new acquaintances and celebrating old friendships. For weeks during the planning of this party they had been simply names on a list, with little to suggest what they might have in common, or how well they would gel in a shared environment. Ben had joked that it was like organising a wedding reception, where only you were the glue that held everyone together.

‘No matter how well you know everyone there will always be that worrying risk that they might all hate each other when you’re not in the room.’

‘Oh, thanks for that. I feel so much better now,’ she’d replied, pretending to take offence. ‘I’ll make sure the local police have their riot squad on hand, just in case.’

‘Anna Browne, you think of everything…’

The memory of his cheeky smile warmed Anna’s heart as she stood with Elsie and Woody, watching The Pinstripes band working their way through their first set. An older couple were already on the dance floor, the man twirling his wife to Lovely Day, much to the delight of their fellow guests. It was so wonderful to see a couple still so much in love and Anna knew enough about them to know what their love had cost them.

Was she the glue that held everyone together? She was probably the only person in the room who understood why each of her guests were special, but that made Anna feel even more privileged to have been able to bring such an incredible group of individuals together. Some she knew by acquaintance, others she had known for a long time, but one thing united them besides her: each person had amazing personal stories. Her grandmother used to tell Anna and her brother Ruari when they were little to pay attention to the stories people told.

‘A hundred-thousand stories pass you by every day as you walk down the street,’ she’d say. ‘Often the most ordinary-looking individuals carry the most exciting stories.’

Anna considered the countless stories in the room tonight, the experiences, loves and losses that each guest carried with them; and gazed down at her beautiful red dress, evidence of her own real-life adventure.

‘Great band, angel.’ Woody was nodding appreciatively as he watched The Pinstripes. ‘So together and tight. Reminds me of a support band Hellfinger had in Tokyo, ’86…’

Anna smiled as Woody launched into one of his incredible reminiscences. Tonight was a night of stories: hidden, known, shared and yet to be discovered…

* * * *

‘Magsie Parker, you dance like a dream,’ grinned Dudley as he twirled his wife gently underneath their joined hands.

‘We’re the only pair on the dance floor,’ Mags replied, blushing as she saw the group of guests watching approvingly. ‘You could have waited until more people were dancing.’

‘Not when I’m with the woman of my dreams,’ her husband said, chuckling as he pulled her close. ‘I want the world to watch us.’ He grinned over Mags’ shoulder at the lead singer of the band who gave him a huge smile and blew a kiss. ‘Our Rom’s singing up a storm tonight.’

Mags gave a little wave at her niece, feeling a swell of pride. ‘She’s a star. They all are. And to think that motley crew of scruffy teenagers who used to hang out on Our Pol could make music that beautiful.’

‘I reckon that’s your doing, Magsie.’

‘Now how do you work that out?’

‘Well, all those Saturday afternoons they spent nattering on our narrowboat, eating your cakes. I’d say your baking was responsible for making them chase their dreams.’

‘Dudley Parker, you daft beggar! My baking has nothing to do with that. They’re a talented bunch.’

‘I’m telling you, your cakes are magic, bab. They change the way people think about themselves. You look at those customers at the café. Right bunch of misfits they were before they tasted your baking. And now look at them! We’ve had weddings, job changes and even a round-the-world cruise that started out as a conversation over your Lemon Drizzle. It was your cakes that got them talking.’

‘Dudley.’

‘Yes bab?’

‘Shut up and dance.’

‘Right you are.’

* * * *

The last song of the band’s first set ended and the room was filled with warm applause. Battling a sudden attack of nervous butterflies, Anna approached the microphone, cue card in hand.

‘Um, hello everyone and thank you so much for being here this evening. As you know, we’re raising money for a brilliant charity that does so much to help people with cancer and their families. Many of you here tonight have been personally touched by this dreadful disease or know someone who has watched a loved one battle with it.’ Anna’s gaze inevitably drifted to Elsie, who was nodding in agreement; and Harri Langton to her right, who had lost both parents to cancer. ‘I would like to introduce my friend, Nell Sullivan, who has come all the way from San Francisco to be here. Could we give her a round of applause, please?’

The guests did as they were asked, parting as a smiling woman hurried over to Anna.

‘Hey gorgeous,’ she said, kissing Anna’s cheek.

‘Are you ready?’

Nell nodded. ‘Absolutely. Video is cued and ready to go.’ She took the microphone from Anna. ‘Good evening…’

Anna moved back into the crowd, smiling as a handsome, dark-haired man put his arm around her shoulder.

‘Great party, Anna,’ he whispered.

‘I’m so glad you two could make it, Max.’

‘Are you kidding? We had to be here. This party’s practically by royal appointment. I hope the video works. Some of the art collective put it together for us last week.’

‘It’ll be brilliant,’ Anna assured him.

‘You should see the outtakes,’ he grinned. ‘Our elderly neighbours stole the show.’

Right on cue, an old couple appeared on the screen.

‘Is this thing on?’

‘Stop yanking that, Saul Alfaro. The boy knows what he’s doing.’

‘I never in my whole life thought I’d have one of these little microphones like the newscasters on TV. Testing, testing…’ The party guests laughed as the old man leaned over his tie microphone and spoke loudly into it.

The video flashed and the couple were now seated in what appeared to be a very beige living room.

‘I lost my brother to cancer,’ the old man said. ‘And then my niece found a lump. She’s doin’ good now, but we were all so scared for her for so long.’

‘My mother, God rest her soul. And two of my cousins,’ the old lady added. ‘Too many of my friends, also. You’d think if they can put a man on the moon they could cure this disease already. There has to be a way to stop it.’

The video cut to an American diner, where a woman of uncertain years dressed in a tight-fitting leopard-print top and jeans, a white apron tied around her waist, was serving coffee and plates of enormous cinnamon toast slices to her customers.

‘My sister’s husband survived it,’ she told the camera. ‘But I have plenty of friends who didn’t. It’s an evil disease and it respects nobody.’

A view of the San Francisco Bay flicked onto the screen, Nell appearing walking alongside the water with another woman who looked as if she could be her sister. ‘Here in America I’ve seen the great work cancer charities are doing to support cancer sufferers and their families, with counselling, respite care and help after a loved one has been lost. That’s why I’m proud to support Anna’s fundraiser at Hillford Hall tonight. I ask you to please consider giving generously and thanks for watching.’

The film ended and Nell smiled at the gathered guests. ‘We just wanted to show you all that cancer touches everyone, all over the world. This wonderful party tonight has been put together by our lovely friend Anna and I think you’ll agree she’s done a phenomenal job.’

The room erupted in warm applause, causing Anna’s cheeks to redden.

‘So please, enjoy the night, give what you can and thanks so much for being here.’

Anna embraced Nell when she rejoined them. ‘That was fantastic. Thank you.’

‘Hey, you guys should come visit soon,’ Max said. ‘You’d love it.’

‘I might just do that. So, how are you enjoying your stay?’

Nell smiled. ‘It’s so good to get away for a few days. We’ve been so busy lately and I missed home so much. It’s great to be back, catching up with old friends – and staying in a gorgeous stately home isn’t too bad, either.’

‘She thinks she’s in Downton Abbey,’ Max said, wrapping his arms around Nell. ‘I reckon she’ll be installing a servant bell in our apartment when we get home.’

Nell beamed up at him. ‘We might need one, soon. Although I think we won’t be the ones shouting orders.’

Anna gasped as Nell patted her stomach. ‘No! You’re not…?’

Nell and Max giggled together.

Anna squealed and threw her arms around them both. ‘Oh wow! I’m so happy for you! When?’

‘Due April 5th,’ Max said, kissing Nell’s head. ‘It was a bit of a shock, but we’re getting used to the idea now.’

‘So this will be my last trip home for a while,’ Nell said. ‘But you have to come out and see us when little one’s here.’

‘I will! Definitely.’

Stories, Grandma Morwenna said, were everywhere, jumping out at you when you least expected them. Real life was more remarkable than anything you could dream up in the pages of a book. As Anna hugged her friends again she couldn’t help thinking her grandmother was right…

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 sixth novel, I’ll Take New York:

  • Bea James
  • Jake Steinmann
  • Russ O’Docherty
  • Grandma Dot
  • Otis Greene
  • Jessica Steinmann

Comment below, or TWEET ME (using #WurdyParty), or comment on FACEBOOK by 8PM TONIGHT to register your vote! All will be revealed in PART FOUR, coming tomorrow…

Anna Browne’s Christmas Party – PART THREE

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

PART THREE

‘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.

‘Woody.’

‘Yeah, babe?’

‘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.’

‘Philistine.’

‘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)
  • Laverne
  • Annie Legado

Comment below, or TWEET ME (using #WurdyParty), or comment on FACEBOOK by 8PM TONIGHT to register your vote! All will be revealed in PART FOUR, coming tomorrow…

Anna Browne’s Christmas Party – PART TWO

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

PART TWO

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.

‘Anna, please.’

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.’

‘Tom…’

‘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
  • Guin
  • Cher Pettinger
  • Jim
  • Danny and Aoife (counts as one choice)

Comment below, or TWEET ME (using #WurdyParty), or comment on FACEBOOK by 8PM TONIGHT to register your vote! All will be revealed in PART THREE, coming tomorrow…

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!