The Christmas Countdown: The perfect cosy feel good romance, page 1
The Christmas Countdown
The perfect cosy feel-good romance
Books by Donna Ashcroft
Summer at the Castle Cafe
The Little Christmas Teashop of Second Chances
The Little Guesthouse of New Beginnings
The Little Christmas Teashop of Second Chances
Hear more from Donna Ashcroft
Books by Donna Ashcroft
A Letter from Donna
Summer at the Castle Cafe
The Little Guesthouse of New Beginnings
For my mum and dad – thank you for everything xxx
Holly Devine wiped a stray tear from her cheek as she trudged up her Aunt Clara’s snow-covered front pathway, trying not to slip. The snow was deep, and the black suitcase she’d hastily packed only hours earlier jerked her back suddenly as it got stuck in an icy drift. Holly scrambled to stay upright, letting go of the handle as her feet went out from under her. Tumbling backwards, legs akimbo, Holly struck the cold ground with a loud thump and landed in an untidy pile. ‘Ouch,’ she yelped, as her bottom hit the freezing surface and slush began to soak through her coat, chilling her freezing limbs even more. ‘Well, that’s finished tonight off perfectly,’ Holly murmured, swiping at another stray tear and shivering as she took in the white doorstep of Beach Cottage. The lights were off in the front room, but she could just make out a Christmas tree, which was spreading good will and festive cheer into the cosy space. It felt like it was mocking her.
Holly’s mobile went off in the black handbag next to her. She pulled it out – registering her twin sister, Lucinda Devine’s, number – before swiping the reject button. Then Holly heaved herself to her feet, limping a little as she took the last few steps to Clara’s home. She pressed the doorbell and stood back to take in the eccentric purple front door, framed by a facade of white brickwork. The cottage was double-fronted with leaded glass windows and a thatched roof that extended above the porch. Holly had visited multiple times over the years but hadn’t been to see her aunt since her twenty-fourth birthday, over three years before. Funny how tonight, when her life had imploded, it was the only place she’d wanted to go.
Holly rang the doorbell again as a black cat wound itself along the front pathway, leaving tiny footprints in the glittering snow.
‘Cleopatra?’ Holly bent to stroke the cat’s soft fur, before pulling the belt of her thick navy coat tighter around her middle. Normally Holly would be wearing a hat, scarf and gloves, but she’d left Guildford so unexpectedly she hadn’t had time to pack properly. The cat shot off suddenly, heading to the far side of Clara’s house, before disappearing through the metal gate into the back garden. Taking one last look at the front door, Holly followed.
In the summer, Aunt Clara’s garden overflowed with asters, chrysanthemums, daisies, lavender, sunflowers and lily of the valley, which created a beautiful multicoloured border for the kidney-shaped green lawn. Tonight, the trees and flower beds were covered in a thick blanket of snow, which made the space look magical. Tiny pink, white and blue lights twinkled in the darkness, lighting the pathway that led to the back of the plot, where Clara’s huge shed, aka the Gin Palace, stood. Even from here, Holly could see a soft glow of light from the windows, suggesting the shed was occupied. As Holly drew closer and stepped onto the wooden decking, she heard music and giggling. She stopped for a second, wondering if she could face another group of strangers tonight. She didn’t get the chance to decide, because the door of the Gin Palace opened suddenly and Clara Devine stood in the doorway. Despite being sixty-nine, her aunt wore a stylish aqua trouser suit and her white cloud of hair had been trendily coiffed.
‘Holly!’ Clara’s scarlet lips spread into a huge welcoming smile, and her piercing blue eyes sparkled behind her red-framed glasses. ‘Your bedroom is made up already – I did it as soon as you called. We’ll get you settled in a minute, just come and say hello to everyone first. You’ll remember a few people from your visits – it’s freezing out there.’ She stepped back from the doorway and indicated that Holly should come inside, quickly closing the door behind her.
The Gin Palace was a bit like Doctor Who’s TARDIS. While it looked ordinary from the outside – a brick structure with a slate roof and decked porch – inside it was huge. There was a kitchen area to the left of the doorway, complete with sink, dishwasher, preparation area and shelves of ingredients. This was sealed off from the rest of the space by a set of sliding glass doors. The walls of the main room were lined by multiple tall cupboards with intricate panelling and round handles. In the centre stood a huge oak dining table – where four women of a similar age to Clara sat on white wooden chairs, complete with crocheted cushions. Each had a generous glass of gin; two were drinking, while the others knitted. A record player sat open on the carpeted floor, and Tom Jones sang about a sex bomb as Clara skipped across the room.
‘Everyone, this is my brother’s girl, Holly. She’s my favourite relation, probably because she’s the only one who hasn’t threatened to disown me yet.’ Clara laughed as she looped her arm through Holly’s and pulled her closer to the group. ‘That, and she’s a genius designer – graduated top of her class.’ Clara pointed to the other side of the room. ‘The woman with the sharp auburn bob who’s heading to the sideboard to make you a drink is Dee Walker.’ The woman – who looked to be in her early fifties, couldn’t have been more than five foot three and would have fitted comfortably underneath Holly’s chin – poured about half a bottle of gin into a bulbous glass, before adding a dash of tonic and some ice. ‘Dee is a genius in the kitchen – she works at The Sunshine Hideaway, a gorgeous little guesthouse about a mile from here.’
‘Don’t drink it all at once.’ Dee offered Holly the glass and smiled before sitting at the table again, next to a rainbow of a woman wearing a stripy pink, yellow and red coat that had been matched with dark green tights. She had hair the colour of coal and rosy cheeks.
‘That’s Madge Fernsby. You might remember, she popped in last time you were here,’ Clara continued, and Madge waved her fingers without breaking from her knitting. ‘Madge and I retired from the Sunflower Island secondary school on the same day. She taught art – knows everything about the locals and loves telling all. On the seat beside her is the lovely Sally Loughty, our resident Scot. She moved to Sunflower Island last year. Sally worked at Number 10.’ Clara tapped her nose. ‘Word on the street is she used to be a spy.’
The pale woman with a delicate bone structure sipped from her glass before grinning. She wore a leopard-skin turban framed by a haze of frizzy grey hair – and her neck was almost hidden by a thick black necklace. Sally chuckled, the clear tinkle of her sing-song laughter filling the small space. ‘Gossip that I’ll neither confirm nor deny
‘I’m nowhere near as interesting as Aunt Clara – or the rest of you from the sound of it,’ Holly admitted sadly. She placed her suitcase on the carpet next to a small heater, before sipping from the gin glass and almost choking – her drink was so strong.
‘We’ll decide that. Pull up a seat, I’m Jade Kirby. We haven’t met.’ An elegant woman with pink hair that had been chopped into a wild pixie cut put down her knitting and pointed to the chair next to her. She had what Lucinda would call a ‘lucky’ bone structure and legs a giraffe might envy. These had been showcased in loose-fitting yoga trousers in a soft blue colour. ‘We’re The Women’s Institute crew. The only member missing tonight is Beth Middleton. She’s twenty-four and the baby of our group. It’s her daughter’s birthday today and she’s been waist-deep in four-year-olds, so Beth couldn’t make it. You’ll meet her next time.’ As Holly sat down, Jade patted her gently on the shoulder. ‘From the look of your face you’ve had a rough night.’
Holly ran a hand across her eyes, aware they were probably still pink from the crying. She’d checked her make-up part-way through her train journey from Guildford to the south coast, discovering mascara had dripped down her cheeks, and it had taken a lot of scrubbing to remove it. She’d applied a couple of fresh swipes after skidding onto the late-night ferry that had taken her the last few miles of her trip across the English Channel to Sunflower Island – but most of that had rubbed off. ‘I’ve had better evenings.’ Holly took another sip of the gin, which slid down her throat, warming her.
‘Want to talk about it?’ Clara joined them at the table, looking serious.
‘I wouldn’t know where to start.’ Holly swallowed another large mouthful of gin. It was really very good. Warmed, she tugged at the belt of her coat and slipped it off, feeling herself relax a little.
‘You were at a funeral?’ Clara asked, nodding at Holly’s black dress, making her squirm uncomfortably and fiddle with the end of her ponytail. Earlier that day, Holly had thought it was the perfect outfit for the party. The dress was old – she couldn’t remember how many years she’d had it – but the design was classic, and the material was practical and never creased. Demure, it stopped just above her knees, and the neckline didn’t dip as low as her collarbone, but showed off her delicate white neck. Holly looked down at her black court shoes with the low heels. They were comfy. Even after an evening out, her feet didn’t ache, but her shoes weren’t as pretty as the sparkly red stilettos her sister had been wearing tonight. What had happened to her? She swallowed. Just a few years ago she’d have been dressed in something funky and bright.
‘I was at our office Christmas party. Dad likes to have it early because the design agency gets so busy during December.’
‘Oh.’ Clara nodded but her lips tensed. ‘Didn’t you have a good time?’ She sipped some gin, her expression inviting Holly to do the same.
Holly complied. ‘Not exactly. I…’ She closed her eyes, opening them again when they filled with the image she’d spent most of this evening trying to forget. She still couldn’t believe it. Even the long journey to Sunflower Island hadn’t dulled the surprise. Or the indescribable hurt and embarrassment. She sipped more of her drink.
‘What happened?’ Jade asked gently.
Clara shook her head.
‘I’m guessing this has something to do with Lucinda?’ Her aunt’s voice tensed, barely hiding the disapproval she felt for Holly’s twin. ‘And what about your boyfriend, the Italian – Marcel Manero, isn’t it – what happened to him?’
Holly closed her eyes as a lone tear slid down her cheek. ‘I expect he’s still snogging Lucinda under the office mistletoe.’
There was a short silence, before all the women started talking at once and Holly slumped wearily in her seat. Their expressions were shocked, but they lacked the judgement and criticism she’d seen in her colleagues’ eyes tonight.
‘Your sister kissed your boyfriend?’ Clara asked, sounding surprised. ‘And Marcel kissed her back?’
Holly shrugged. ‘Apparently they’ve been seeing each other for weeks.’ Marcel had confessed everything as soon as she’d caught them. All Holly could think of were the evenings when he’d called her, professing to be too busy to meet – had he been seeing Lucinda the whole time? She lived with her twin, but they were rarely in at the same time.
‘I knew your sister had become self-centred – but I never expected her to be callous,’ Clara admitted, looking furious.
Holly almost hopped to Lucinda’s defence. It was a habit so ingrained after twenty-seven years, it had become a reflex. But she couldn’t quite bring herself to forgive what had happened this time. Her mobile went off in her handbag again and she bent to pull it out. Lucinda’s name screamed for attention across the screen, before Clara grabbed the phone from her hand and rejected the call. ‘I’d be tempted to block her, but that’s up to you.’ Clara looked stern. ‘Whatever happens, I think you ought to sleep on this before you decide what to do.’
‘I already know.’ Holly perked up for the first time that evening. ‘I’d like to stay here for a few weeks, if that’s okay?’
‘With me?’ Clara looked delighted.
Holly dipped her head. ‘I need a break. Everyone at the office saw what happened tonight, and to be honest I can’t face them. I don’t want to go back yet. I’ll ask Dad for a leave of absence – I’ve barely taken any holiday this year. I need to figure out what to do with my life.’
‘I’d start by dumping the two-timing Italian toe-rag,’ Sally advised, her Scottish accent broadening in annoyance.
‘Oh, I did that already.’ Holly grimaced, remembering the scene. The party had been held in the reception area of her family’s design business, and while the lovers had probably thought they were being discreet by kissing at the end of a corridor to the left of the main room, when Holly had caught them, all eighty guests had heard the fight. She felt her cheeks warm as she relived Marcel’s words.
‘I couldn’t help myself, dolcezza – she’s so…’ He’d paused, perhaps trying to find the right words. ‘Vibrant, so beautiful.’ At his side, Lucinda had flushed, which had made her look even prettier. Her blonde hair had been styled in shiny waves that ended at her shoulders, accentuating her recent spray tan and tiny, sparkly red dress. Marcel’s eyes had flicked between them and Holly had instinctively known what he was thinking.
How can you possibly be related – let alone identical twins?
‘She is beautiful,’ Holly had agreed, her voice level and calm, despite the fact that on the inside, her heart was breaking.
‘And exciting, so impulsive – a woman who knows exactly who she is and what she wants from life.’ Buoyed by her agreement, Marcel had continued to list Lucinda’s accomplishments, until Holly could hold her emotions in check no longer. She’d exploded suddenly, slapping him full across the face, leaving a red mark as a reminder.
The action had shocked her; it had been so out of character for a woman used to fading into the background. Predictably, her dad had jumped to Lucinda’s aid. Then again, she wasn’t surprised. Since their mother had died when they were only twenty-one and Lucinda had struggled to cope, their dad had become overprotective of her sister. So Holly had run. Leaving the party in tears. Sprinting in her low heels and boring dress, through the human tunnel of colleagues and clients who’d come to watch her humiliation.
‘And as I left,’ Holly told Clara and her friends, ‘as I was throwing my clothes into a suitcase before the taxi arrived or Lucinda got home, as I was figuring out which train and ferry I needed to get, I realised something about what Marcel had said.’
‘What did you realise, dear?’ Clara asked, as she filled Holly’s glass with another glug of gin and a small dash of tonic.
Holly lifted the drink to her lips and knocked
‘Don’t you worry about that, dear,’ Clara said, patting Holly’s hand while the rest of the women from the WI grinned at each other. ‘I’m guessing there’s less truth in that than you think. But it’s something we can help you figure out.’
‘Oh boy,’ Holly whispered, watching as Dee poured her another enormous drink, wondering what the next few weeks were going to bring.
Georgie Grayson winked at Finn Jackson as she hopped off the back of his Harley-Davidson. It was still dark, but a hint of orange in the sky signalled the sun was beginning to come up. Georgie’s blonde curls bounced as she headed across the snowy driveway of her brother’s house, pulling her key from her tiny black handbag. ‘Thanks for the night out, Finn. I can always rely on you to cheer me up.’ As Georgie arrived at the doorstep, she turned quickly, before skipping back across the drive in the pink snow-boots she’d changed into for the journey, to give Finn a chaste kiss on the cheek.
‘Good to hear my reputation as the Sunflower Island lothario is alive and kicking. Be sure to leave me a good review on TripAdvisor,’ Finn joked, his full lips curving into a smile.