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.
‘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.’
‘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?’
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.’
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘Oh you know, Sherise Walters? The mother of D’Wayne’s child?’
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.’
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.
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?
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.’
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.
‘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?’
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.
©Miranda Dickinson 2015 – All Rights Reserved
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