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Authors: Valerie-Anne Baglietto

Once Upon A Winter

BOOK: Once Upon A Winter
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Once Upon A
Winter

Valerie-Anne Baglietto

About the book

Marrying the man of your dreams might b
e more literal than you think.

For Nell Jones the dream wasn’t to last, though, and after struggling for years to bring up her twins on her own, she returns home to her family and the picture-book Welsh village where she grew up.

While Nell’s daughter seems more or less a typical nine-year-old, her son isn’t exactly average. No one can quite say why he is the way he is, until the village ‘psychic’ meets him for the first time. Suddenly, Nell has to question whether the husband who abandoned her seven years earlier was everything he seemed.

Without warning one night, he reappears in her life, throwing everything into disarray again and jeopardising a potential new romance. But whether she wants to or not, and regardless of the consequences, Nell is about to discover just how fine a line it is between fact... and fairy tale.

 

About the a
uthor

Valerie-Anne Baglietto was born in Gibraltar, but came to England with her family when she was three. Since s
he was a little girl, she always wanted to be a writer. Her debut novel THE WRONG SORT OF GIRL won the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writer’s Award in 2000. In total, she had four novels published by Hodder & Stoughton between 2000 and 2005, before motherhood took over her life.

ONCE UPON A WINTER has been a #1
bestseller in the Amazon Fairy Tale chart in the UK. Valerie-Anne’s latest release is THE TROUBLE WITH KNIGHTS IN SHINING ARMOUR. She also has a short story, GENIE OF THE ROCK, in the BELINDA JONES TRAVEL CLUB ‘SUNLOUNGER’ anthology, released summer 2013.

Valerie-Anne
lives in North Wales with her husband, three children and a headful of plotlines.

 

Praise for the author’s previous work

‘A charming b
ook… Very much an author to watch’ 
Bookseller

 

‘A fun read’ 
Company

 

‘A must for old-fashioned romantics’ 
Best

 

‘Heartwarming and funny’ 
Katie Fforde

 

‘Feel-good fiction at its best’ 
Jill Mansell

 

For my children C, B & E, who always dazzle in my eyes.

Part One

 

 

‘Oh, what a tangled web we weave,

When first we practise to deceive . . .’

 

 

Sir Walter Scott

 

One

‘Did you know “rats” is “star” spelled backwards?’

‘Sorry?’ Nell wrinkled her brow, and glanced at the boy lolling through the open window of the Skoda.

The car was at a standstill.

As stationary as a car could get when it was out of fuel.

Nell leaned against it, arms folded across her chest, braced against the cold creeping through the layers of coat, jumper and thermals.

She frowned down at the boy again. ‘“Rats” is what?’

‘“
Star
”, “rats” is “star”,’ he said calmly, and pointed upwards into the inky sky, as if to drive his point home.

The only thing anybody in the world seemed to be driving right now.

The country lane was one of those narrow winding ones that seemed to mean you were that little bit further away from civilisation. There had been no sign of another human being since the Skoda had grumbled to a halt forty minutes ago.

Rescue was on its way, apparently, but as the minutes ticked by Nell began to doubt even that. At least there was one bar on her phone, and still plenty of charge - just in case. She was thankful for that much.

It was a crisp November evening, the star-studded sky so intense and domed, it felt to Nell as if she was in a snow globe in the dark, with the flakes static all around her. The sort of night that confirmed there was an entire universe out there that ought never be taken for granted.

In another scenario, it might have taken Nell’s breath away; but out here in the ‘wilds’ of North Wales, stranded because she had over-estimated the reserve in her fuel tank, she could only curse the cold and her own stupidity, which left no room for awe.

‘Josh,’ whined a voice from the back seat, ‘sit down properly. I want Mum to shut the window. I’m freezing my socks off . . .’

‘No,’ said the boy serenely. ‘If I sit down I can’t see. And, actually, your boots would have to be frozen off before your socks.’

‘It’s like the Arctic in here,’ said his sister. ‘And what’s to see out there? It’s dark.’

‘Moonlight. I’m looking at the moonlight.’

‘Mu-
ummm
. . .’

Nell sighed, and gently nudged her nine-year-old son back into the car. She poked her head in to glance in the back.

Freya, unlike her twin brother Joshua, wasn’t gaining any sort of thrill from the situation. Her slender face, slightly heart-shaped - and clearly expressing how disgruntled she was right now - poked out from under hood, hat, scarf and blanket. She flashed a torch on and off, plainly bored.

‘Aunt
Em’s neighbour’s on his way,’ said Nell. ‘He should be here any minute with the petrol.’

She wished he would hurry up about it. Even though Nell wasn’t one to be easily spooked, there was still a tense knot in her stomach.

If she’d been stranded in a city - any city - in a neighbourhood she didn’t know well, then she might well have panicked in front of the children. After all, she had lived in London long enough to respect and abide by its rules.

Out here, tonight, she was outwardly calm, though; almost blasé.

She wondered if that was an early warning sign of hypothermia. 

‘Who is he?’ asked Freya. ‘This neighbour. Why isn’t Uncle Gareth coming?’

‘Your uncle’s working nights,’ said Nell. ‘And I have no idea who this neighbour is. I’ve never met him. I think his name’s Hugh or something.’

‘Who is Hugh?’ said Joshua, playing with the words. ‘
Whooo is Hughhh? Howdy do, Hughhh. Where are youuu?’

‘Mum, tell him to shut up. He’s annoying me.’

Nell shook her head, with less patience than she usually reserved for her children. Maybe not so blasé, after all. ‘He can hear you himself, he’s right here.’

‘Well, he doesn’t listen to me,’ lamented Freya.

‘And what makes you think he listens to
me
- or anyone else?’ said Nell, and banged her head slipping it back out through the window.

In the distance she could hear the pronounced rumbling of a car engine.

‘Maybe he’ll be good-looking.’ Freya draped herself over the driver’s seat, more animated suddenly. ‘This Hugh.’

Nell pulled a face. A pinched, wincing expression. ‘And if he is, then he won’t be
single.’

‘He might be,’ said Joshua. ‘Because you’re pretty but you’re still single.’

Nell shot a look at her son. Everything he ever said smacked of simple, earnest, childish truth. Yet he obviously saw her through rose-tinted glasses. And technically, in the eyes of the law, she was still a married woman. Everyone, her children included, seemed to forget that.

‘So you reckon Hugh’s going to be my hero?’ she said wryly.

‘Well,’ said Freya breathlessly, ‘you keep saying this is a new start, and in films or books whenever someone has a new start, something exciting happens. The girl meets a boy and they fall in love -’

‘I’m thirty-five years old, Freya. I don’t classify as a girl any more.’ Nell straightened as the headlights of a car flickered into view around the bend in the hedgerow.

If she
were
a girl, she might have felt something other than apprehension right now. The heat of eagerness at meeting someone new perhaps? The lure of a potential romance. Even a little frisson at the thought of a simple, harmless flirtation. But she felt nothing along those lines nowadays. Tall, dark, handsome strangers did nothing except step out of crystal balls and tear your life and your heart to shreds.

Headlights flashed over the sorry little scene, then the approaching car crunched slowly to a halt. The engine was turned off, but the headlights stayed on, so that when the figure of a man clambered out he remained in silhouette for a few moments before stepping forward and coming clearly into view.

Joshua erupted into unrestrained laughter.

Nell sighed, with something close to relief. But she could imagine her daughter’s disappointment. Freya was probably slumped in the shadows of the back seat again, hiding her face with her oversized beanie hat.

The man had to be in his sixties, bald apart from a few silvery wisps fluttering in the night breeze. He smiled and held out a hand.


Ellena Jones, I’m guessing?’ he said, with a strong melodious accent, unmistakably Welsh. ‘I’m Huw with a “w”,’ he added pedantically. ‘Huw Willis.’

‘Hello,’ said Nell. ‘I’m
Ellena, yes, but everyone calls me -’

‘Nell. Sorry, your sister did mention it.’

‘Your bad,’ interjected Joshua, sticking his head out of the Skoda window again.

Huw
faltered. ‘I’m . . . what?’

‘No,’ said Nell quickly, ‘you’re not. Bad. Joshua just watches too much TV. But I always seem to be so busy, and the TV’s so convenient. He just meant you’d made a mistake. It’s an American term. When you do something wrong you say “my bad”.’

‘Oh . . .’ Huw regarded her blankly.

‘So,’ she sighed heavily, ‘I’m hoping you have a jerry can and some petrol?’

‘I do, just hang on a moment.’ He returned to his car with a lithe, steady gait, and reappeared a few moments later with the jerry can.

‘I thought I had more fuel in the tank than I did,’ Nell explained. ‘And I’d forgotten there’d be such a long gap between garages.’

‘Not to worry,
cariad
. You’ve had a long journey, your sister said.’

‘From London.’ Nell nodded. ‘We’ve been on the road five hours. Traffic was slow on the M6.’

‘What’s a “cariad”?’ said Joshua, through the open window, his jet-black hair as glossy as an oil slick.

‘It’s Welsh,’ said Nell, who felt uncomfortable when practical strangers called her ‘love, petal,
duckie’, or anything that smacked of affection when they didn’t know her. ‘It means “dear”.’ She looked to Huw. ‘Sorry, Welsh was never my strong point and it’s been years since I’ve needed to use it . . .’

As
Huw dealt with the empty fuel tank, he looked up at Joshua, smiling. ‘You’ll be having to learn it at school, you know. Are you going to Harreloe Primary, with your cousins?’

‘I
don’t know,’ said Joshua. ‘Mum hasn’t decided yet. I’m special. Teachers don’t know what to do with me.’

‘Joshua!’ Nell cringed.

Huw turned away awkwardly. ‘It’s all right. Emma did mention something . . .’ He tailed off, realising he had put his foot in it.

Nell felt a flush of heat rise up from her chest. Although it was the first trace of warmth she’d felt in almost an hour, it was far from welcome. Her sister Emma, older by a year, should have known better than to discuss family business with outsiders, even kind neighbours who were willing to lend a hand, rather than just the proverbial cup of
sugar.

‘Well,’ said
Huw, ‘we’ll have you back on the road and at Emma’s house in no time.’

‘Thank you,’ said Nell. ‘I really appreciate it.’

‘That doesn’t make sense, though,’ said Joshua. ‘How could it be “no time”? No time would be like . . . right now.’ He blinked. ‘This fast. And even that must be a split,
split
second.’ He frowned at Huw. ‘You’d need a time machine.’

‘Hmm. We could all do with one of those on occasion, lad, couldn’t we?’
Huw pulled his lips into a thoughtful pout. ‘Why don’t you invent one? Seems to me, if you’re special like you say, you’d be clever enough.’

Joshua’s frown dissolved. ‘
D’you think so? I am clever, aren’t I, Mum? All my teachers have always said I’m bright. Luminous, actually. Aren’t I . . . ? Mum . . . ?’

Nell gazed at her son and her vision blurred slightly with the first prickle of tears, the stresses of the day finally catching up with her.

Sometimes, Joshua was
too
bright.

Sometimes he was just plain dazzling.

*

The room was blissfully
warm after being stranded in the bitter cold. Sweet with the aroma of baking. An antique oil lamp burned on the windowsill, spilling an amber glow over the cottage kitchen.

Emma Hayes’s autumnal hair glistened around a face that had always been a magnet for Nell’s envy.
‘This light makes us look as if we’ve got fake tans,’ she said, adding in a theatrical whisper across the reclaimed oak table, ‘Like some mums I know from school. But I won’t mention names.’ She paused, looking thoughtful. ‘Nell, are you OK? You didn’t eat much supper, and you haven’t even touched your cake. I made it especially. Walnut honey loaf was always your favourite.’

After what seemed an entire day on the road, and those dry homemade sandwiches slapped together in a hurry this morning, Nell had left her appetite behind somewhere around Birmingham.  

‘What’s with the oil lamp?’ She nodded her head towards it, dodging Emma’s sisterly concern. ‘I didn’t think Gareth would go in for something antiquey like that.’

‘No . . .’ Emma shrugged. ‘But then the kitchen’s not his domain.’

The tension Nell could sense made her realise just how long she’d been away. Not counting Christmases or any other holiday when she might have trekked up north for a few days. But just how much of an age it was since she had lived in this part of the world, and how the atmosphere in this cottage seemed to have an edge to it now.

Tonight wasn’t the time for in-depth conversations, though. Nell glanced pointedly at the kitchen clock; the sort of timepiece that used to hang in railway stations and now graced mail order catalogues. It was getting late, past the twins’ bedtime. Joshua and Freya were in the lounge with their cousins, their clamour drowning out the TV. Nell suddenly felt exhausted. If someone were to hand her a duvet and a pillow she would collapse then and there.

The last few weeks had been nothing less than the reorganising of three lives. All the paraphernalia that had to be packed up, along with the basic essentials. Nell had recycled or thrown out as much as Joshua or Freya would allow, amazed at the hoard they had managed to cram into the two-bedroom flat, and losing count of the sacks she had lugged down to the charity shop at the end of the road. Everything they had decided to keep had been packed into boxes and loaded on to a van, which earlier that day - according to her sister’s text updates - had deposited everything at their final destination.

Bryn
Heulog
. Less than half-a-mile from where they now sat. The house Nell and Emma had grown up in. The sprawling dwelling on the side of a hill, perched like a sentinel overlooking the village.

And tomorrow would bring a brand new dawn, dreamed Nell, for a strained little family in desperate need of it. Or at the very least, it would mean a change of scenery, and the need to wear
wellies far more often.

Either way, Nell couldn’t deny the sensation permeating her. In the very marrow of her bones, she knew it, even though the village and the hills surrounding it were swathed in darkness.

She had come home.

And home had been waiting for her.

 

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