Authors: Julia Williams
For my gorgeous girls: Katie, Alex, Christine and Steph
And in loving memory of Rosemarie Williams
Table of Contents
The last rays of a winter’s sunset sent streaks of orange and pink across the white fields. Dusk was settling as a motorbike roared its way through the snowy countryside. Large groups of birds took to the air as it sped past, and flocks of sheep ran wildly round in circles. The sound of the engine echoed down the country lanes, disturbing the chilly peace. The leather-clad rider wore a black jacket with a flaming sword emblazoned on his back which, along with his gold and orange helmet, made him resemble a modern day knight. As the rider stopped at the top of the hill overlooking Hope Christmas, he took off his helmet and stared down into the town. The Christmas lights were still twinkling in the High Street. The lamps from the houses down below gave the place a cosy homely feel, as if the whole town were drawing a collective sigh.
The rider flexed his hands, and smiled; the words,
, on one set of knuckles and
on the other, just visible underneath his fingerless gloves. He was good looking, with a dark complexion, devastating cheekbones, curly dark hair which tickled the collar of his jacket, and piercing blue eyes.
‘So Hope Christmas, long time no see,’ he muttered. ‘Uncle Ralph was right, it’s a beautiful little place. I shall look forward to renewing my acquaintance with you.’
He put his helmet back on, revved the engine, and roared down the road and into town, noting the quaint little shops; the antiques market, flower stall, the bookshop and market square where a Christmas tree stood proudly in the centre. The town was deserted, with only one or two brave souls prepared to come out on such a cold night. One of them, a pensioner tootling along on a mobile buggy, stopped to say hello.
‘Well, Michael Nicholas, as I live and breathe. Your uncle said you might be coming. It’s good to see you after all these years.’
‘And you, Miss Woods,’ Michael smiled a devilishly handsome smile. ‘It’s been far too long.’
‘Will you be staying a while?’ she asked.
Michael looked around him. ‘That, I think depends on who needs me,’ he said.
‘I think you’ll find there’s always a need,’ said Miss Woods.
‘Then yes, I think I’ll be here a while,’ said Michael, his smile crinkling up to his blue eyes.
‘I look forward to it,’ said Miss Woods. ‘Happy Christmas.’
‘And to you,’ said Michael, before climbing back on his bike and speeding off to Hopesay Manor.
It was good to be back.
Cat Tinsall unwound the fairy lights from her suddenly bereft Christmas tree, then carefully placed them in the Santa sack which was bulging with the rest of the Christmas decorations. She sat back on her heels and looked out of the large patio door onto her frozen garden, where a lonely looking robin pecked at the crumbs on the bird table. It was a grey cold day, the sort that sapped your soul in early January. She sighed and tried not to feel too bereft herself. Even the Shropshire hills (the view of which was one of the reasons they’d bought this old converted farmhouse when they’d moved up to Hope Christmas four years earlier) were shrouded in grey gloom.
Christmas, her favourite time of the year, was over once more. The bright shiny new year, which had beckoned so enticingly at Pippa’s New Year’s bash through a happy haze of mulled wine and champagne, now seemed less so; reality being grey and drab in comparison. Noel was already back at work, groaning as he’d left in the dark to look at a project the other side of Birmingham, where he’d be meeting Michael Nicholas, Ralph Nicholas’ nephew, for the first time. The kids were at school (Mel to mock-GCSEs for which Cat had seen no evidence of any revision over the holidays), and Cat herself had a pile of proofs to tackle for her new cookbook,
Cat’s Country Kitchen
. They’d been guiltily shoved aside in a pre-Christmas planning frenzy, but she knew she could ignore them no longer. She looked at the picture of herself on the front cover – thanks to the power of Photoshop, looking more glamorous and slimmer then she felt right now. No doubt it would add fuel to the tabloids’ ‘Top Kitchen Totty’ moniker that had haunted her since the launch of her first book,
Cat’s Kitchen Secrets
, three years earlier.
All in all it had been a good Christmas, Cat thought as she carried the Santa sack up the creaking stairs of their old country cottage, to put back up in the loft later. Even Mel’s moodiness had done little to put a spanner in the works. It was weird how a previously model daughter had morphed into the teenager from hell over the last year. From having once enjoyed a close relationship with her daughter, Cat felt constantly baffled by Mel now. Noel was always telling her she needed to relax and not force the issue so much, but she couldn’t help wanting to find out what was going on in her daughter’s head – while realising that the more she pushed, the further Mel retreated from her.
It was just that now, with her mum’s dementia having taken her away from them forever, Cat wanted that closeness with Mel even more. One of the most heart-wrenching sights this Christmas had been seeing Louise looking so bewildered as she sat down to join them for Christmas dinner. It still gave Cat such a pang to see her mother like this; to see her refer to Mel as ‘Catherine’, and watch her wander in to help with the turkey, stirred by some memory of Christmases long ago, then stand around with an air of uncertainty saying, ‘This isn’t my kitchen.’ None of this behaviour was unusual, but somehow it was always worse seeing her mother away from the home, where for the most part there could be at least a pretence that things were quite well. Cat knew she should be used to it by now. But she was not, and probably never would be.
The trouble was, every time she saw her mother, she remembered what they’d had, what they’d lost. It had just been her and Louise throughout Cat’s childhood, a two-woman united team, and Cat had always assumed she would share that same easy closeness forever – and when she had children of her own, replicate it with her own daughters. Mel was proving her wrong about that on a daily basis. Cat tried to think of any major moments of rebellion in her childhood, but there hadn’t been any. There had been no need. She loved her mum, knew how hard Louise had to work, and had no intention of making her life harder than it already was. Whereas Mel … Cat sighed. Where had she gone wrong with Mel? Maybe it was, as Noel seemed to think, that her daughter was jealous of the attention James had garnered as her cooking companion.
The TV company who’d produced her original series,
Cat’s Kitchen Secrets
four years ago, had pounced on James when they spotted how often he was in the background helping her out. With his cute (then) ten-year-old goofy grin, cheeky manner and angelic good looks, they’d realised he was ideal TV fodder. Mel, a gawky twelve-year-old, was far too self-conscious to appear on the TV, even though she’d been given the option to.
None of them could have predicted what a success James would have been. Now fourteen, he was relaxed in front of the camera, and having been a natural cook from an early age, had always showed far more interest in helping her in the kitchen than his sisters. The girls enjoyed baking but couldn’t be bothered to cook a meal, whereas James was developing his own creative ability to cook up tasty food. Although to be fair, his menus did include a lot of pizza and nachos. Consequently, a TV series of his own aimed at kids was in the offing, and he was already (with Cat’s help) writing his second book,
James’ Top Tips for Hungry Teens
Cat had tried really hard to ensure that the attention hadn’t gone to his head. Luckily James was a down to earth sort, just as happy kicking a football about with her friend Pippa’s sons, Nathan and George, as lording it in front of the TV cameras. And as for writing cookery books, that was clearly far too much effort, so Cat was writing most of it for him. Cat tried to make up for the attention James was getting by focusing as much on the other things the girls did, like Paige’s singing or Ruby’s dancing, and so far they seemed unaffected. Paige was so sure she was going to be on
, and aiming at being twelve going on thirty that she couldn’t care less, while Ruby was still too young to notice.
Mel, on the other hand was another matter. One by one, she’d dropped the activities she used to enjoy, no longer playing tennis, attending Scouts, or to Cat’s great disappointment, playing the piano. Instead she spent far too much time mooching about in nearby Hope Sadler where she worked in a café at the weekends. On top of that, having initially mixed with a crowd of pleasant, hard-working girls when they’d first arrived in Hope Christmas, Mel seemed to have dropped them all to hang out with the rebels of the year. From what little Cat had gleaned, they seemed to mainly spend their time in the local parks, smoking and drinking. Mel always denied joining in, but Cat had long since given up completely trusting her daughter. Something she’d never before imagined could happen.
Cat sighed again and climbed up into the loft with the decorations. Time to get back to reality.
Marianne North drove into the large sweeping farmyard of the home she shared with Gabe, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Their ancient farmhouse had never looked more welcoming. Gabe had been home for a week already. It was difficult for him to take any time away from the farm, so he’d come back early, while Marianne had ended up stuck at her mum’s for pretty much the whole fortnight of Christmas, the longest time she’d spent there since university days. But Mum – feeling cheated that her precious grandchildren had missed their first Christmas at Nana’s (Marianne’s protestations that three-month-old twin babies were pretty nightmarish to take anywhere had fallen on deaf ears and despite an invitation to Hope Christmas, Mum had resolutely refused) – had been so martyred about how the twins’ other granny saw so much more of them that Marianne had had to capitulate and trek down to London this year. Gabe’s mother Jean, whom Marianne knew would miss the twins dreadfully, was fortunately immensely generous and said, ‘I’ll survive without you all. I do get to see the twins a lot more than your mother,’ which was true, especially as she looked after them twice a week while Marianne was working. ‘I had a demanding mother-in-law and always promised I wouldn’t be the same. David and I will have a nice quiet time together alone.’