“I’m so sorry. I did send you an email…” Frances Heath’s forehead crinkled with concern as she trailed off apologetically.
Anna Vere tried for a valiant smile, the determinedly lifted chin. She felt like stamping her foot and shrieking. Or worse, bursting into tears. “It’s… fine.”
But was it fine? The bed & breakfast where she’d booked her Christmas holiday, in this picturesque chocolate-box-worthy village in the English Cotswolds, was flooded. Or rather, her bedroom on the ground floor was flooded. The carpet had squelched under their feet as Frances had shown her the dire state of the room, the smell of encroaching mildew in the air, pointing out the damp on the walls and the water pooling in the corners as if she was afraid Anna might think she was lying.
“I tried to find alternative accommodation for you,” Frances continued, her arthritic hands pleating together anxiously, “but it’s December twenty-second. Absolutely everything is booked, you know. People love coming to the Cotswolds for the holidays.”
“Of course,” Anna murmured.
She stood there staring, barely able to take in the disastrous turn her holiday had taken. She’d flown in from New York that morning, she hadn’t slept in eighteen hours, and now she no place to stay. Christmas was officially ruined, but it had pretty much been ruined already. A Travel Lodge on the M6 wasn’t really going to change all that much.
“Cup of tea?” Frances asked with hopeful brightness, and Anna murmured a thank-you. Why not? A cup of tea was a Brit’s answer to almost everything. Too bad it wasn’t big enough to sleep in.
She followed Frances back to the front room of the tumbledown cottage of golden Cotswold stone that she’d found on the Internet. It had looked perfect, chintzy and comfortable without being romantic. She definitely didn’t need romantic. Now a Christmas tree perched precariously in one corner and a manger scene took pride of place on the deep windowsill, its bowed glass overlooking the village green, dusk settling over it peacefully.
Frances led her to the kitchen in the back of the house, where a kettle was already hissing cheerfully on top of a bright red, Aga cooking range, along with a rack of freshly baked shortbread decorated with red and green sprinkles. A gray cat sat on the windowsill, its tail swishing back and forth, looking regal and suspicious as only cats could.
The simple comfort of the scene made jet lag sweep over Anna, causing her shoulders to slump and stupid tears to sting her eyes. Where on earth was she going to sleep tonight, never mind the rest of the two-week vacation she’d booked? She didn’t feel strong or stable enough to face this problem.
“So I wasn’t able to find similar bed and breakfast accommodation,” Frances said as she bustled about making tea, speaking in a brisk way as if this wasn’t the enormous problem it felt to Anna. “But then I had a sudden idea. My cousin is just finishing renovating some lovely cottages in the next village, Wychwood-on-Lea. Willoughby Close, they’re called. He renovated the stables of the big manor house there and they’re going to be let in the new year, but they’re empty now. So I thought, why not have you stay there?”
She handed Anna a cup of tea that she accepted with thanks, grateful for the warmth that seeped into her cradled palms. The bus-to-train-to-cab journey from Heathrow had been full of traffic and sleeting rain. Not exactly the magical, snowy Christmas she’d been hoping for, but this was England, after all. Rain was the norm.
“You mean”—Anna clarified—“you have somewhere for me to stay?”
“Well, yes, if you don’t mind being in a different village. Wychwood-on-Lea is lovely, though, right on the river. And the cottages are beautiful, lots of period details. Colin showed me…” Frances trailed off, as she seemed to have a habit of doing, and took a sip of tea.
“That sounds wonderful.” At this point she didn’t have the energy to be picky, as long as there was a bed and a roof. And preferably heating. “How do I get there?”
Frances pursed her lips. “I’ll ask Colin to come here and pick you up.”
“I don’t want to put him out of his way…” And she didn’t want to make laborious chitchat with a complete stranger, not when she was jet-lagged and exhausted. Not when she’d come to England so she could curl up by herself, lick her wounds, and hopefully heal.
“It’s no trouble.” Frances assured her. “Colin’s always happy to help. I’ll ring him now and he should be here in twenty minutes.” Frances bustled off before Anna could say another thank-you.
She sat back and sipped her tea, closing her eyes as she fought another wave of fatigue. Bed. She really just wanted her bed, or any bed. A pillow, a mattress, and a duvet, a good twelve hours of sleep. That didn’t seem like too much to ask.
“Yes, Colin is coming right now,” Frances said in a tone of almost maternal satisfaction as she came back into the kitchen. “I’m sure you’ll be very comfortable at Willoughby Close.”
“Thank you,” Anna said “You’re very kind.”
“I’m sorry this happened at all,” Frances clucked. “And at Christmas, too.” She cocked her head, her bright, inquisitive eyes reminding Anna of a sparrow. “You’ve come a long way, then?”
“From New York City.”
“Ah, lovely. I always wanted to visit. See that Times Square everyone goes on about. Is it as exciting as they say?” Anna opened her mouth to answer but Frances rattled on before she managed a syllable. “But you’ve come on your own, dear? For Christmas?”
Anna steeled herself against the note of pity in the older woman’s voice. Christmas by oneself generally sounded a bit pathetic, but it was what she wanted. Needed, even. She couldn’t face the family Christmas, her parents bustling around anxiously. Not this year, and staying cooped up in her apartment in New York while everyone else went home for the holiday or made bright party plans was too depressing for words. She wanted to get away, at least for a little while. Too bad she couldn’t get away from herself.
“Yes, I’ve been working a lot recently and wanted the break,” she said, injecting a note of finality into her voice. Please don’t ask any more questions.
“Oh, of course. A change is as good as a rest, they say.” Frances nodded, not looking convinced by her own statement.
Anna took another sip of tea, relief pulsing through her when the she heard a man’s voice coming from the front hallway. Her lift, she hoped, was here.
“Oh, it’s Colin.” Frances brightened. “In the kitchen, Colin!”
Seconds later a man appeared in the doorway, seeming to take up all the space and making Anna blink. He wasn’t what she’d been expecting, which was the male version of Frances—well into his sixties, with an affable, chatty manner, a shock of white hair, and lots of wrinkles. Colin Heath didn’t have any of those things.
He was built like a rugby player, big and muscular, his shoulders nearly spanning the doorframe, his movements easy yet powerful. He wore an old flannel shirt and faded jeans stuck into battered work boots, and his eyes were a light, startling blue in a face tanned by working outdoors, Anna suspected, rather than sitting in the sun. Short, light brown hair stuck up as if he’d thoughtlessly raked his fingers through it. He couldn’t be much more than Anna’s own thirty-five.
His blue eyes fastened on hers and his mouth turned up in a friendly, easy smile; two dimples appeared in his craggy cheeks. “You must be Anna.”
It disconcerted her that he knew who she was, which was silly since Frances had probably explained everything on the telephone. “Yes.” For some reason Anna felt herself going all stiff and overly polite. She gave him a quick little smile and then covered her unease by sipping more tea.
“Sorry to hear about the flooding.” Anna couldn’t tell whether he was addressing her or Frances. “Not the best way to spend Christmas, eh?”
She murmured a bland agreement. She didn’t really want to talk about Christmas. Perhaps she should have booked a hotel in London, somewhere sleek and anonymous, where no one would attempt to get to know her. But she’d wanted to escape city life, hole up somewhere cozy and quaint, go for long, snowy walks through the hills—or wolds, considering this was the Cotswolds, a gentle land of rolling hills and movie-set-worthy villages between Oxford and Bath. And there was no snow to be seen.
“Well, at least you’ll have a roof over your head,” Colin said cheerfully. “Although not much more than that.”
Wait—what? Anna stared at him uncertainly.
“Don’t worry.” He assured her. “I’ve got some kit.”
Kit? What was that? This was sounding more and more alarming. And yet somehow the words out of her mouth were, “I’m sure it will be fine.” When had she become such a pushover? When she’d become too tired to fight, which had been about three months ago.
“Shall we get going, if you’ve finished your cuppa? It’s getting dark.”
“Of course.” Anna rose from her seat as Frances fluttered about her.
“I’m so sorry,” she said as she wrung her hands. “I’ll give you a full refund, of course…”
You certainly will. Anna thought sourly. She was starting to feel seriously grumpy. Still she managed to say, “Don’t worry. All I need is a place to stay.”
“Good thing.” Colin chipped in, and Anna shot him another uncertain look. What was Willoughby Close, exactly?
He easily hoisted her suitcase as she followed him out to the battered Land Rover parked in the narrow lane in front of Meadow Cottage. Colin tossed her bag in the back and then opened the passenger side door.
“Sorry, it’s a bit of a tip. I’m not the neatest bloke.”
No, he was not. Anna eyed the sea of paper coffee cups, crumpled napkins and maps, and a browning banana peel on the floor of the Rover. She wasn’t all that squeamish, but she was wearing nice boots. Nudging the banana peel aside with the toe of her designer leather boot, she clambered inside.
“So what brought you across the pond for Christmas?” Colin asked as he started down the lane, his wing mirrors nearly clipping the dry stone walls on either side of the road, although he didn’t so much as blink.
“I just felt like getting away.” Which was his cue not to ask any more questions.
In case he didn’t get the message, Anna turned to look out the window at the ivy-covered cottages streaming by. The rain had stopped and the sky was awash in lavender; a Christmas tree had been set up in the middle of the green, strung with multi-colored lights.
Through the oncoming dusk, Anna saw a mother pushing a baby carriage, smiling down into its quilted depths. She looked away quickly, focusing instead on the pub across the street and its promise of mulled wine and mince pies every evening from now until New Year’s. She hoped Wychwood-on-Lea had a pub.
Fortunately Colin didn’t ask any more questions, at least not until he’d driven down several narrow, winding roads lined by dry stone walls with fields and meadows rolling to the horizon on either side, and then into a village whose sign announced it was Wychwood-on-Lea and runner-up of Britain in Bloom for 2007.
“So where exactly am I staying?” Anna asked as Colin drove down the village’s high street, a quaint, narrow lane with a few shuttered shops, a church, and at its end a village green that had a semi-dilapidated play park, an impressive war memorial, and another lit-up Christmas tree.
“Willoughby Close. Willoughby Manor is just outside the village. They converted the stables to a set of four cottages. I did the renovation work.”
Which was what Frances had told her, but Anna didn’t really feel like she had any more information about her actual accommodation. “But they’re empty now?”
“No one’s moving in until the new year.”
“How come? I mean, I would have thought there would be some interest in renting over Christmas.”
“Oh, they’re not holiday lets,” Colin said as he made a sharp left through some intricate, wrought iron gates. In the distance Anna saw the peaked gables of an Elizabethan manor house silhouetted against the darkening sky. “They’re long-term lets. The first tenant is moving in on January first.”
“Right…” She paused, her jet-lagged brain clicking gears a little slowly. “But they’re furnished?” Her voice wobbled as she spoke, unsure if she was stating the ridiculously obvious.
“Furnished?” Light brown eyebrows drew together over his piercingly blue eyes. “No, ah, not exactly.”
Anna tensed. “What does that mean?”
“Not at all, actually.” He had the grace to look slightly abashed. “I gather Frances didn’t tell you the details?”
Anna couldn’t keep the acid from her voice as she answered, “Frances told me I would be quite comfortable.”
“Ah.” He’d swung into a sweeping drive, bypassing the curving graveled lane that led to the manor house to jolt over a dirt track that was more potholes than not. “She was being a bit optimistic, I think.”
“Really.” Anna couldn’t keep herself from resorting to a little soft sarcasm. She was extremely tired, not to mention emotionally more than a little bit fragile. Together it was not a good combination.
He glanced at her, frowning. “Sorry, this isn’t exactly the holiday you envisioned, is it? I mean, obviously…”
Anna felt a lump form in her throat, ridiculously big. She turned to the window to hide how close to tears she’d suddenly become.
The last thing she needed was to fall apart in front of a stranger. “No.”
“I did bring some of my camping kit. A sleeping bag, some pots and pans. The cooking range works…”
Dear heaven. It was worse than she’d thought. “Why don’t you show me the place?” She managed to speak through a too-tight throat.
Colin stopped the Land Rover in a little cobbled courtyard, the former stables framing it on three sides. From the outside, the cottages looked pretty, low buildings of golden Cotswold stone with peaked roofs and mullioned windows, flower pots, empty in winter, by the doors. “Number one is the most finished,” he said and Anna turned to him with a start.
“What do you mean, the most finished?”
“The upstairs bath needs a final bit of tiling work. I was going to do it after Christmas.” He got out of the car and Anna did the same, dread seeping into her stomach. How was she going to spend two weeks in an entirely empty house? Well, she wouldn’t. She’d stay the night and then figure something else out in the morning. There had to a hotel room going spare even on December twenty-third, in one of the quaintest parts of England.
Colin unlocked the door, stepping aside so Anna could enter first. Taking a deep breath, she did. The house was entirely dark, so the smell hit her first—fresh paint and plaster, overlaid by that funny scent of new appliances or cars—it was, she realized as she stood there blinking in the dark, a lonely smell. An empty smell. Maybe if she’d been in a different frame of mind she could have considered this funny or even exciting, a new start, an adventure. As it was, she was starting to feel like she’d swallowed a bowling ball and now had to drag it around in her stomach.
“So.” Colin flicked on the lights and Anna blinked in the sudden brightness, taking in an open plan kitchen and living area. It looked bright and airy, with a woodstove and French doors that led to a little terrace out back. The appliances were gleaming, the counters spotless. It was completely empty.
“Well, then,” Colin said, and his voice echoed through the empty rooms, bouncing off bare walls and stone-tiled floors. “Welcome to Willoughby Cottage.”
End of Excerpt