Category Archives: Writing

HERE IT IS! My Book 9 NEWS!

I know it’s been a long wait, but I’m SO very excited to finally bring you the title and details for my ninth novel! The title will be…

SBTS Holding Cover

Ta-daaaaaa! And you can preorder Somewhere Beyond the Sea HERE…

As many of you know, I adore Cornwall and St Ives in particular. I’ve wanted to set a novel there for many years but I finally found the perfect story to tell. And I’m incredibly proud of the result. It’s a properly romantic story, told from two perspectives, and I think you’re going to fall in love with Seren and Jack.

Here’s the blurb:

Can you fall in love with someone before you’ve even met?

Seren MacArthur is living a life she never intended. Trying to save the Cornish seaside business her late father built – while grieving for his loss – she has put her own dreams on hold and is struggling. Until she discovers a half-finished seaglass star on her favourite beach during an early morning walk. When she completes the star, she sets into motion a chain of events that will steal her heart and challenge everything she believes.

Jack Dixon is trying to secure a better life for daughter Nessie and himself. Left a widower and homeless when his wife died, he’s just about keeping their heads above water. Finding seaglass stars completed on Gwithian beach is a bright spark that slowly rekindles his hope.

Seren and Jack are searching for their missing pieces. But when they meet in real life, it’s on the opposing sides of a battle. Jack is managing the redevelopment of a local landmark, and Seren is leading the community campaign to save it.

Both have reason to fight – Seren for the cause her father believed in, Jack for his livelihood. But only one can win. With so much at stake, will they ever find what they are really looking for?

Somewhere Beyond the Sea is a sparkling tale of love, life and finding magic where you least expect it.

I adored writing this story, and I can’t wait till you can read it. I know May 2018 is a while to wait, but don’t worry, there might be something else I’ll be revealing for you before then…

The cover of Somewhere Beyond the Sea is being designed at the moment – I’ve seen the first design and it’s my most gorgeous cover for years. I’ll be sharing that with you very soon!

Till then, watch my vlogsTwitterInstagram and Facebook page for exclusive snippets, details, behind-the-scenes treats and competitions. It may be eleven months before the book publishes, but I’m going to be packing so many goodies into those months for you. Fancy joining me on the Somewhere Beyond the Sea journey? It’s going to be BRILLIANT fun!

WP_20160909_13_35_46_ProWP_20160907_14_09_38_ProWP_20170118_17_01_58_Pro

Finished! Woo-hoo!

Just a quick post to let you know that I’ve FINISHED writing the first draft of my new book! Woo-hoo!

First Draft DONE

(In case the word count is confusing, I have a scene after THE END in this document that I’ve now snuggled into the middle of the book where it belongs…)

It’s taken lots of late nights (including five all-nighters, which I don’t recommend!), countless cups of tea and coffee, at least three different notebooks on the go at once and not an awful lot of sleep, but my ninth novel is finally written and I’m chuffed to bits with it.

Of course, there are edits to come – a structural edit, line edit, copyedit and final proof edit – but for now my book is out of my head and onto the page. All the locations are there, the cast and supporting cast (always important in my books) and a central town setting that is as much a character as the protagonists themselves. I hope you’ll be able to not just imagine yourself there but also experience the sights, sounds, scents and tastes of this story.

It’s my most romantic story to date, I think, written from the dual perspectives of Seren MacArthur and Jack Dixon. I’ve adored writing both their worlds and their voices came to me really quickly, which isn’t always the case. I think you’re going to love them, along with their friends and families. And a dog. There might be a dog…

I’m doing a final read-through today and then sending it to my editor at PanMacmillan tomorrow. It feels like the end of a mammoth journey, which has included moving house, being without internet for a month, things breaking and scary bills (who said being a full-time author was glamorous?!). In reality it’s only the first stage in a journey, but I think this is the most important – not to mention the most fun – where I get to tell myself the story first, before anyone else sees it. From the moment I hit send on the email taking it to my editor tomorrow, this story stops being just mine. And that’s okay because it’s one of the beautiful things about writing novels – your first draft is a single splash in a pool that then sends ripples out further than you can ever see.

But I might just hug my manuscript a little tonight, while it’s still just me and the story…

Book 9 – latest news from the coalface…

It’s been quiet on here lately and that has been due to a couple of factors. Firstly, we finally moved house after lots of hard work, decorating, unpacking and late nights. But it’s fabulous to be in at last and my new office is wonderful to write in!

Wurdy New Office

The light in my lovely new office is so inspiring – I love writing here already!

We’ve built bookshelves so I’m now surrounded by lovely book friends, which always makes a house feel like a home to me. I even managed a small book rainbow on one shelf – something I’ve wanted to do for ages…

Book Rainbow

A book rainbow – I need more yellow and green books…

The second reason for my web silence has been that I’ve been frantically writing Book 9, which at last has a title. I’m just waiting for the official okay from PanMacmillan and I’ll let you know as soon as I can. What I will say is that the title is absolutely perfect for the story and will also plant a song in your head that you’ll be humming for weeks!

I don’t know why I thought moving house during writing a novel would be a good idea, but oh my life it’s been a challenge. Packing and house stress aside, we also have no internet until almost the end of April, which is the deadline for the book. Lack of internet is good for writing (because no temptation to check Twitter, or Instagram, or Facebook), but quite scarily bad for backing up files, so I have been enjoying the complimentary WiFi of coffee shops, friends and parents wherever I can. My office has been mostly on the road in my car, in cafes and grabbing bits of writing time whenever and wherever possible…

SBTS Car writing

My mini writing mentors LegoElvis and LegoDollyP have been on hand to help…

When I can tell you the title, I’ll tell you where I’ve set my novel and what the story is about. I’m so excited about this one! What I can tell you for now is that it’s a properly romantic story, told from two people’s perspectives: Seren MacArthur and Jack Dixon. Writing in their voices, in present tense (which I haven’t used since Welcome to My World, so a bit of a departure for me) has been wonderful and it’s safe to say that I’ve fallen in love with them as I’ve been writing. I haven’t felt so invested in a pair of characters for a while and I think you’re going to love their story.

SBTS Seren and Jack PostIts

As I’m writing the book, I have a stack of Post-Its with reminders to keep me on track.

For now, here’s a sneaky-peek at a line from the book, which I shared for #onelinewednesday last week (I think it sums up the feeling of the whole book):

SBTS One Line Weds

EEK! I have tingles!

It’s hard work and there’s a lot to write, but my family have been amazing. It’s true that they are a huge part of my writing career – without their support I simply couldn’t do this for a job. But it does mean writing as much as I can, every day. No Easter holidays for me! I’m writing early in the morning, bits throughout the day and through the night into the early hours of the next morning to get the book written. Yesterday (Easter Sunday), I was able to write for most of the day, thanks to my wonderful in-laws looking after Bob and Flo…

SBTS Easter writing

As always, I’ve created a playlist to give a sense of the atmosphere I want for the book.

As soon as I have internet, my vlogs will be back, too. I’ll post one each week to keep you updated on Book 9. Follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook for more sneaky-peeks and exclusives, too. There’ll also be news of an extra project I’ve just had the green-light on, so I’ll tell you all about that as soon as I can. All in all, it’s an exciting – if tiring and slightly nerve-wracking – time and I can’t wait to share all the juicy details with you very soon.

Right, kettle’s on. Anyone fancy a cuppa?

New Home cuppa

MirandaWrites 52 – The Christmas Vlog!

Merry Christmas, lovelies!

Well, it’s been a very strange year, with lots of ups and downs, but one silver lining (pardon the pun) has been the fantastic response from you about the return of my vlogs. For this week’s vlog, I asked for your festive questions – and you gave me some great ones!

Which location makes me think of Christmas? Am I going to write any more novels set in New York? How many notebooks do people buy me for Christmas? These questions and more feature in a very festive vlog with special guests, a #LegoElvis exclusive newsflash (so exciting!) and even a bit of singing from me! Plus, I offer my advice for creating great vlogs for anyone interested in becoming a vlogger.

(I mention Hayley’s vlog – check out her YouTube channel here…)

(Read my Elvis-impersonators-fighting-alien-killer-zombies comedy novel, Elvis vs The End of the World here…)

So get ready for a bit of MirandaWrites festive fun – and thanks so much for watching! xx

#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!

HERE IT IS! The cover for Searching for a Silver Lining!

I have been impatiently waiting to share the cover of my new book, Searching for a Silver Lining, with you… And finally, I can reveal it!

Drumroll, please…

Ta-daaah!

SfaSL FINAL COVERadore it – and I hope you do, too. All the silver grey you see in the picture above will be gorgeous, sparkly silver foil – including the tiny stars. I can’t wait to share my eighth novel with you! It will be published on 20th October 2016 and we’re planning all kinds of exciting things around the time of the launch, so keep watching my website, twitter and Facebook for all the details.

You can pre-order Searching for a Silver Lining NOW in both paperback and ebook editions. Woo-hoo! xx

Reality check…

Do you mind if I get a bit emotional for a minute?

This is just a short post but something happened to me today that I wanted to write down. To remind me that it happens.

As you know, I’m in the final stages of editing Book 8. It’s been hard. Really hard. After writing and editing eight novels you would think I’d expect this but somehow every year I forget once my book is handed in. This year has been brutal. I’m not going to apologise for saying it. Writing a book is hard work, editing it into some kind of coherent story is a long (but necessary) slog. And the final stages of an edit are the absolute worst bit. If you’ve ever written a book, you’ll understand.

Editing Book 8

My edit face – nope, it ain’t pretty…

But then today, right in the middle of it all, someone I’ve never met tweeted me to say they’d chosen my books to read during their week off.

I know how precious holiday reading time is. And how important it is to choose the right book to spend time with. So, hearing that a complete stranger has picked my book completely blows my mind.

As a published writer it’s too easy to get caught up in the tough bits – the hours nobody else sees you investing, the doubts, the heart-searching slog to find the best story – and forget why you wanted to write in the first place. Every now and again glimpses like this appear and they are wonderful.

There’s no great lesson from this, apart from the encouragement that as a writer what you do makes a difference to other people. I’m leaving this post here as a message to anyone slogging out a story – and as a message to a future, sleep-deprived, fed up, final-stage-edit me. Hang in for the good stuff. It happens.

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…