Excerpt for A Vicarage Christmas by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A Vicarage Christmas

The Holley Sisters of Thornthwaite

Kate Hewitt

 

 

A Vicarage Christmas

Copyright © 2017 Kate Hewitt

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-947636-33-0

Cover design by Rhian Awni at www.reanidesigns.etsy.com

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

The Holley Sisters of Thornthwaite series

About the Author

Chapter One

No one was waiting for her at the train station. Anna Holley knew she shouldn’t feel disappointed; she hadn’t said what train she’d be able to get from Manchester, only that it would be in the early evening. And the vicarage was a five-minute walk from the station, so it wasn’t as if she needed a lift.

Still, she felt it, the self-pitying flicker of disappointment that was so annoying because it was silly. With a sigh, she hitched her backpack higher on her shoulder and started down the platform. An icy wind funnelling through the fells cut straight through her parka and scarf, stinging her cheeks and making her eyes water. Welcome to Cumbria. At least it wasn’t raining.

Four days before Christmas, and in the starless darkness of an early evening, the village of Thornthwaite was nothing more than shadowy buildings huddled against the darker humps of the fells that cut a jagged line out of the horizon. Anna hadn’t been back to Cumbria for three years, and she was amazed at how she’d forgotten how the fells made her feel, the way they rose up and surrounded her. Trapped, that was how she felt. The only way out of Thornthwaite was a single-track road that was often clogged with sheep. One had to drive on it for six painstaking, winding miles before they hit the A66, and then it was another twenty minutes to Keswick, and they were still pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

Still, it was beautiful, if you liked hills and isolation. No one else had got off at Thornthwaite—surprise, surprise—and so Anna walked down the platform alone, turning left over the little stone bridge that spanned St John’s Beck, little more than an ambitious trickle as it wound its way through the village. She then started walking towards St Andrew’s Church, the squat, square Norman tower lit up with Christmas lights at this time of year.

For a second, as she paused at the top of the lane that led to the church and the vicarage beyond, homesickness swamped her—a longing not just for the place, but also a time, when life had seemed simple and easy, and happiness was a foregone conclusion instead of something that always seemed to slip out of her grasp. Feeling that way seemed like a very long time ago now, not that anyone else in her family would share her sentiment. As far as Anna could see, everyone else was busy bustling around, seeming very happy indeed.

Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and started up the lane. The stained glass windows of the church were lit from within and, as she walked by, the strains of a choir-led Christmas carol drifted out. It took Anna a moment to recognize it—“In the Bleak Midwinter”. Yes, that summed her mood up quite well. Not that the weather was much nicer back in Manchester, but at least in Manchester there were lights and people and noise, and it was so wonderfully easy to be anonymous.

Here, in a village of two thousand, when your father had been the vicar of the only church for over twenty years, it was a little less so.

The vicarage loomed up ahead of her, an imposing square house with gabled windows on both storeys, the top decorated with sandstone crenulations. It had been built two hundred years ago, had eight bedrooms and eleven fireplaces, and it was freezing in both summer and winter. It was the only home Anna had known besides the boxy flat she shared with Helen, a woman she hardly ever saw or spoke to, and, looking it at now, she felt a rush of emotions she couldn’t begin to untangle—hope and fear, love and dread.

She stood by the wide, worn steps leading up to the front door with its shiny black paint and ornate gold knob and knocker and wondered what she was waiting for. A welcoming committee? The courage to step into the happy chaos that had always been her home, while she drifted around its edges?

A shiver went through her as the wind continued to blow. She’d forgotten her gloves and her hands were icy, numb at the tip. Taking another deep breath, Anna marched up the steps and opened the door.

The Victorian-tiled porch looked as it always did, vast and lovably shabby, with a clutter of shoes in a basket by the door, another, bigger clutter of mud-spattered wellies on the other side, as well as an old church pew piled with post and church bulletins, plus the latest packet of parish magazines, wrapped in twine. Everything looked achingly familiar, as if she’d only been gone for a few days instead of years.

Anna opened the glass-fronted door and stepped into the downstairs hallway. Doors led off to her father’s study, the living room and dining room and downstairs loo, and a wide, shallow staircase led up to the landing with its towering bookshelf filled with tattered paperbacks. How many times had she and her sisters bumped down the stairs on a pillow or blanket, squealing with both laughter and terror? How many times had Jamie—

But she wouldn’t think about Jamie right now.

“Hello?” Anna called. She could hear Radio Four from the kitchen in the back of the house and Christmas music from the living room. She closed the door behind her to cut off the draught. “Hello?”

“Hello?” Her mother’s musical voice came from the kitchen. “Eileen?” she called, referring to one of the church wardens who always seemed to be stopping for a cup of tea and a natter. “Has the service finished?” Her mother came around the corner, followed by their ancient, grey-muzzled lab, Charlie, and then down the hallway towards Anna, and then she stopped short. Charlie trotted forward, wagging his tail, and nosed Anna’s knees.

Anna.” Within seconds Anna was enveloped in a floury hug. She put her arms around her mother, breathing in the scent of cinnamon and cloves. “I’ve just been making yet another batch of mince pies. We’re having the choir over for mulled wine and mince pies after the Service of Lessons and Carols.” Her mother stepped back to scrutinize her, eyebrows drawn together. “You look pale—”

“I’m cold,” Anna said lightly. “It’s freezing out there. And in here.”

“Come in the kitchen. You know it’s always warm in there. Esther and Rachel are coming over in a few minutes, for the choir party. We’re going to decorate the tree tomorrow night, when everyone’s here, even the new curate. He couldn’t come until December—something to do with the new bishop. I can’t keep track of it all.” Nor could Anna, but before she could offer a reply, not that she would, her mother continued, “Rachel’s got out all the decorations. We were looking at the ones you all made in nursery—pine cones and glitter galore. I was covered in gold dust as soon as I opened the box.”

Anna had followed her mother back to the kitchen which was as cosy as she’d promised, the rumbling, red Aga emitting a wonderful warmth. Charlie flopped in front of it as Ruth Holley bustled around, spooning homemade mince into pastry cases, occasionally glancing at the Aga or the clock. “They should be coming over here in twenty minutes or so and I’m covered in flour… Anna, darling, can you stir the mulled wine? I’m afraid it’s going to burn.”

Anna went over to the Aga, stepping over Charlie’s inert form, and stirred the vat of mulled wine simmering on its hot plate. It smelled deliciously Christmassy, of orange and spices and rich, red wine.

“So, how are you?” Ruth asked as she put a star-shaped piece of pastry over each mince pie, her fingers flying. “I feel as if I haven’t talked to you in properly in months. You’re always so busy.”

“Work,” Anna offered, half-heartedly. She wasn’t that busy, but she wasn’t very good about calling home.

“Do you know, even after four years, I’m not exactly sure what it is you do? Legal librarian.” Ruth shook her head, marvelling. “I’d never even heard of such a thing until you got the job. Do you know Edith Mitchell researched it and wrote it up for the parish magazine? Everyone wanted to know what it is you’re doing. We’re all so proud of you.”

“Thanks,” Anna murmured. She leaned over the big pot of mulled wine and breathed in its comforting scents. She could do with a glass or two.

“I’ve kept the magazine for you. I’m not sure where…”

“It’s fine.” Anna straightened.

The kitchen looked as lovably messy as it always had, with the colourful jumble of mismatched pottery visible in the pantry, whose door had been taken off to be sanded down some twenty-odd years ago and never been put back on. The chairs around the big, rectangular table didn’t match either; when one broke, her parents had bought another from a charity shop, or someone gave them a cast-off, and so now six entirely mismatched chairs, some tall-backed, some spindle-legged, gathered around the table of old, weathered oak.

Ruth opened the Aga and banged in two pristine trays of star-topped mince pies. Her mother was messy and always flying about, doing a dozen things at once, but she was an astonishingly good cook.

“So.” Ruth stood up, brushing a wisp of grey hair out of her eyes and planting her hands on her hips as she gave her third daughter a good, long look. “You haven’t told me how you are yet.”

“I’m fine,” Anna began, and before she could say more, not that she had anything planned, her mother was off again.

“I gave your bedroom a quick tidy. Daddy laid a fire but I think some birds must have nested in the chimney because it smoked dreadfully, so make sure you have a hot water bottle to take to bed with you.”

“Okay.” Anna had a sudden, piercing memory of the five of them lined up in the kitchen while her mother handed them each a fleece-covered hot water bottle. Everyone had a different colour; hers had been purple.

“Why don’t you take a moment to freshen up? Trains always make me feel so dirty. The choir will be arriving soon, and I know everyone is desperate to see you—”

“Oh, Mum.” Anna’s heart flip-flopped at the thought of being put on inspection practically the moment she arrived. “I’m really rather tired…”

“Oh, but, Anna, we’ve told everyone you’re coming and you haven’t been back in years.” Her mother’s face crumpled a bit, and Anna bit her lip.

She knew she’d hurt her parents by staying away. Weekends in Manchester weren’t the same. Her parents always made the effort to visit for a weekend every few months, and her sisters had come down a couple of times as well. Anna was the one who tried to avoid going home. In a way, she was surprised her mother noticed.

“I know you’re busy,” Ruth continued hurriedly. “I’m not saying you aren’t, darling. It’s just everyone really would like to see you.”

Would they? Anna wondered. Would they really?

Ruth gave her another quick hug and then turned her around to aim her towards the door. “Go have a moment to relax. Shall I make you a cup of tea?”

The kitchen was still a disaster zone, and her mother had guests coming in about ten minutes. Yet she would gladly make Anna a cup of tea and bring it upstairs on a saucer with a homemade piece of shortbread if Anna said yes.

“I’m fine, Mum,” she said. “I’ll have a glass of wine when everyone comes.”

Ruth brightened. “Lovely. I’ll pour yours first.”

Anna grabbed her bag from the hall and headed upstairs. The house smelled of the fresh evergreen that was looped around the banister, as it had been every Christmas that Anna could remember, tied to the burnished wood with little velvet bows.

Her bedroom was the small one over the kitchen; when she’d been about seven, she, Esther, and Rachel had all drawn straws to see who got the biggest bedroom at the front of the house, opposite their parents. Esther had, and Rachel had taken the second biggest by the stairs, and Anna had gone to this bedroom, a comfortable little square, warmed by the Aga below, its sashed windows overlooking the back courtyard with the old oil tank and the clothesline.

Anna didn’t mind the lack of view; she’d always liked her room. She’d preferred it to the far grander bedrooms with their gabled windows and ornate fireplace surrounds. This room was warm and cosy and small and a little bit forgotten, tucked away by the corridor to the bathroom. Kind of like her.

It felt strange to step into it now; the air smelled of coal smoke, from her father’s aborted fire, as well as her mother’s lavender cleaning polish. The duvet cover was new, a blue plaid that was pretty enough but not the one from Anna’s childhood, which had been grey and purple stripes. All her things were gone save for a few Famous Five books from her childhood, and a dusty blue ribbon for winning the high jump at her school’s field day when she was thirteen that still hung from the mirror.

Anna put down her bag and then went to the bathroom with its ancient and enormous claw footed tub and pipes that squeaked and moaned when she turned the hot water tap; the water didn’t heat up for a good five minutes. Ah, home.

She’d just come out of the bathroom, having washed her hands and face, when she heard an explosion of chatter downstairs, and a half-hearted bark from Charlie, who clearly wanted to get in on the action. Male laughter, and then the thunder of feet up the stairs.

“Anna!” Rachel catapulted herself towards Anna, hugging her tightly and making her stagger. “It’s so good to see you.”

Esther stood behind her, hands on her hips, smiling in a stern sort of way. “It’s only been three years, after all.”

“I saw you in August,” Anna protested as Rachel gave her one final squeeze and then stepped back.

“But you haven’t been back to Thornthwaite in three years,” Esther remarked, typically. She’d probably been tracking everyone’s movements on a spreadsheet.

“Well, I’m here now,” Anna said as lightly as she could. She was battling a weird mix of dread and deep happiness, the two emotions so closely twined it was hard to separate one from the other. But this was always how she’d felt about home. About family.

“Come downstairs,” Rachel said, tugging on her hand. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

“Anna already knows him, Rachel,” Esther said, rolling her eyes.

“Knows who?” Anna said with a flare of alarm.

She was not good about meeting new people. She wasn’t even good at meeting people she already knew. Chitchat was her absolute nemesis.

“You’ll see, you’ll see,” Rachel said, her feet practically dancing as she tugged Anna along. “It’s all happened so fast… and I haven’t talked to you in ages.”

“True.” Anna knew Esther and Rachel saw each other all the time, since they both lived in Thornthwaite. She was the odd one out, and always had been. Their younger sister Miriam was such a free spirit, as well as the baby of the family, and so even though she was in Thornthwaite even less than Anna, she had a place. A role. Neither of which Anna had ever felt she’d had… but that was probably her fault. “Who am I meeting, exactly?” she asked as she followed Rachel down the stairs, feeling apprehensive.

She’d really been hoping to hide in her bedroom while the choir came in, but perhaps she could still do that. She’d meet whoever it was Rachel wanted to meet, and then hightail it upstairs before the party got started. She was no good at parties.

“Rachel’s latest,” Esther said, following them down the stairs, and Rachel made a sound of protest.

“You make it sound like I’ve had a string of guys, and you know that’s not true.”

Esther didn’t reply and Anna’s steps slowed as she saw who was standing at the bottom of the stairs. Dan Wells. She took in the slow smile meant for Rachel, the warm hazel eyes, and her stomach plunged like a lift headed straight for the basement.

“Anna, you know Dan, of course,” Rachel said, her voice ringing with the pride of a new girlfriend. “And, Dan, you know Anna…”

“We’ve met once or twice.”

Anna forced a smile. She’d never been friends with Dan, although he’d been three years ahead of her in school, in Rachel’s year, and of course she’d known him as the local vet. He’d given Charlie all his jabs and he’d also put down their beloved cat, Felix, when he’d been suffering and in pain a few years ago. He’d been Thornthwaite’s only vet, having taken over the practice from his father, since he’d qualified five years ago. And before that…

Before that he’d been her secret and overwhelming teenaged crush. But thankfully no one knew that but Anna herself.

Chapter Two

It’s good to see you, Anna.” Dan transferred his warm, engaging smile to her as he stretched out a hand for her to shake. “It’s been awhile.”

“Yes.” Anna shook his hand as quickly as possible, since her palm was clammy. Her heart was starting to hammer, and she had the awful feeling of marbles in her mouth that made speaking nearly impossible. She hated how this always happened to her. Hated it, and yet was helpless.

Everyone seemed to be waiting for her to say something, but she had no idea what. She opened her mouth to try, and nothing came out.

Fortunately, or not so fortunately, there was a commotion in the front hall as the members of the choir started to come in, pumped up and boisterous after the service of Nine Lessons and Carols.

“Anna!” Diane Tomlinson, a senior member of the choir who used to babysit the Holley girls when they were small, caught sight of Anna and bustled in, enveloping her in a tight hug before she could take a breath. “It’s so lovely to see you, my angel. It’s been so long.”

Anna nodded, letting out a sigh of relief when Diane released her. But the other choir members were swarming in, exclaiming over her, over Rachel and Dan, over everything. Anna managed to just smile and nod—the noise and commotion prohibited actual conversation, thank goodness.

Esther was giving her a strange, piercing look, and Anna avoided her gaze. How she’d managed to disguise her social anxiety as mere shyness for twenty-two years was testament to how chaotic her family life was. It was easy to get lost in the noisy mix, and so often no one noticed she wasn’t speaking at all.

Ruth came in from the kitchen having tidied her hair and changed her floury jumper, and was bearing a heavy-laden tray of mince pies.

“There’s mulled wine in the kitchen… help yourselves. Anna, do you want to dole it out?”

Anna nodded, grateful for that semi-reprieve. The kitchen was quiet, Charlie having retreated to his place by the Aga after an introductory sniff of everyone, and Anna managed to dole out cups of mulled wine with little more than a smile and a murmured hello. That she could manage, especially when it wasn’t a crowd of people all surrounding her and listening to her, expecting things.

“So what do you think to Rachel and Dan?” Esther asked when the initial stream of guests needing drinks had trickled off, and they were alone in the kitchen. Esther had folded her arms and was leaning against the kitchen counter, giving Anna one of her knowing, speculative looks. Esther always saw too much, and yet at the same nothing at all.

Anna took a deep breath and let it out slowly, forming each word in her mind before she said it. “They’re dating, I gather?”

“Yes, they have been for about three months.”

“Rachel never told me.”

Esther shrugged. “I think she wanted to tell you in person.”

“Hmm.” It was easier to talk to Esther in the kitchen than out in the crowd, and the marbles-in-the-mouth feeling thankfully had dissipated. But Anna was still left with a leaden feeling about Dan and Rachel. She’d had a crush on Dan since she was about eleven. He’d always been so gentle in school, sporty and successful without being one of those callous jocks. He’d taken the time to hold a door, say hello, listen. And there had been a couple of times when he’d been especially kind to her, when the mean girls of year eight had ganged up on her, and she’d hidden behind the Eton Fives courts, not wanting anyone to see her cry. Dan had.

“Is it serious?” Anna asked, stirring the wine, and Esther shrugged.

“Seems to be.”

Anna glanced at Esther, who seemed a little pricklier and more brusque than usual. “How are you and Will?” Esther had married local sheep farmer Will Fenton five years ago. She worked for The Farmers Trust, a national charity that supported farmers in environmental practices. It meant she was often on the road, driving up hill and down in her mud-splatted Land Rover, visiting taciturn farmers in far-flung places.

Esther raised her eyebrows, seeming surprised by Anna’s question. “Me and Will? We’re fine. Why wouldn’t we be?” If there was a slightly surly note of challenge in her big sister’s voice, Anna decided to ignore it.

Esther had always intimidated Anna a bit; she was so self-assured and certain about everything, and she’d been incredibly driven in school, always at the top, whether it was lessons, sport, music. Esther was the kind of girl who was picked for everything and seemed unsurprised to be so, about as far as Anna was, hiding behind her books and trying not to be noticed. Sometimes Anna thought Esther was a little impatient, or even fed up with, her shyness. All through their childhood, Anna had hung back while Esther had stormed ahead, bolshy and brave.

“I don’t know,” she told Esther, backtracking quickly. “I just asked.”

“Well, we’re fine,” Esther said, and it made Anna wonder if they really were.

“Now someone whispered in my ear that my little Anna was here.”

Her heart lurched as her father came into the room, his weathered face wreathed in smiles, his arms opened wide.

“Hi, Dad.” Anna let herself be enveloped in a big hug, breathing in the familiar, beloved scent of pipe tobacco, his not-so-secret vice, and bay rum aftershave.

Tears stung her eyes, surprising her. She’d seen him just a few months ago but it was different at home. Everything felt different at home, which was part of the reason she’d avoided returning to Thornthwaite for so long.

“You all right, Anna Banana?” he asked, using her childhood nickname. He drew back from their hug, squinting ta her. “You look like you need some fattening up. I prescribe a cup of mulled wine and at least three mince pies.”

“Three?” Anna said with a little laugh.

“I intend to have at least four. You know they’re my favourite.”

“Yes, I know.” Just about every baked item her mother made was her father’s favourite.

“How’s the big city, anyway?” he asked as he helped himself to the mulled wine and two minced pies cooling on top of the Aga. He popped the first one into his mouth in one bite.

“Big. Cityish.” It was an in-joke between them, from a shared love of Fawlty Tours, to add “ish” to just about any word to describe something. “How’s Thornthwaite?”

“Oh, you know. Villageish.”

They grinned at each other and Anna felt some of the tightness in her chest ease. Maybe coming home wouldn’t be as hard as she feared after all.

“Now you can’t all hide in the kitchen,” Ruth chided, coming in with an empty platter. “Roger, you need to circulate.”

“I am circulating,” her father said, and popped the second mince pie into his mouth. “With my daughters.”

Ruth rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “You know what I mean.”

“I’ll circulate,” Esther said, and pushed off from the counter. Ruth watched her with a slightly worried frown.

“Is everything all right with Esther?” Anna asked, and her mother turned to her with a sigh.

“I think so. Not that she tells me much about anything. You know Esther.”

Yes, she knew. Esther liked to boss people around and organize everything, but she was notoriously closed-lipped about her own life.

“Come on, Banana,” Roger said, loping an arm around her shoulders. “Let’s go make chitchat.” The understanding smile made Anna realize he knew this was hard for her. He just had no idea how hard.

“Yes, go on, you two.” Ruth shooed them out, smiling, and so Anna had no choice but to walk with her dad out of the kitchen and towards the dining room, where everyone had gathered.

The high-ceilinged room was garlanded with fresh evergreen, a cheerful blaze roaring away in the fireplace. Anna knew almost all the choir members by name, but whether she knew them, they knew her. Even after so many years as a vicar’s kid, it was disconcerting to be addressed in an entirely familiar fashion by someone she only vaguely recognized. Even the choir members who had joined since she’d left Thornthwaite for uni ten years ago seemed to know who she was, as well as all the details of her life, or at least the ones she’d shared with her parents.

After just ten minutes of nodding and smiling and offering the occasional word, Anna was starting to feel dizzy. And then the marbles-in-the-mouth feeling came back and, even worse, Diana Tomlinson asked her in a ringing voice when she was going to bring a boyfriend home, and it just happened to be during one of those silences that naturally fell upon a crowd every so often.

The only sound was the crackling of the logs in the grate and the ticking of the grandfather clock as everyone waited for Anna’s answer.

“Umm… ummm…” Her face started to flame and someone in the crowd gave a kindly laugh.

“Cat got your tongue, Anna? Maybe there is someone.”

Anna stared at them all in helpless misery, knowing she wouldn’t be able to manage a word.

“I’m sure my Anna is beating off the boys with a stick,” her father said in his genial way.

Anna saw the frowning concern in his eyes and felt the awful welter of shame. She was such a disappointment, even if her parents would never say as much.

“Hugh,” her father called, turning to a red-faced man who had scoffed two glasses of wine already. “Where did you say you were going for New Year’s? Edinburgh?”

The conversation duly started up again, like someone flicking a lever, and Anna took a step back from the crowd, feigning a fascination with her cup of mulled wine. People left her alone, which was what always happened after one of her spectacular conversation fails.

Everyone stepped around her for a while, as if she was an unexploded land mine they all had to avoid, or maybe just something messy and unpleasant they’d rather not step in. And then they eventually forgot about it, or pretended to, and tried again. Rinse and repeat. It was a cycle Anna had been desperate to break out of, and things had been a bit better in Manchester, without all the expectation of being known, without the burden of shared memory and grief. Unfortunately, she was still essentially the same.

She edged through the door, wondering if she could escape upstairs without anyone noticing, or at least caring. People would just feel even sorrier for her, but that was okay. She was used to it. Another step, and she was in the doorway. Then she was in the hall, and she was turning for the stairs when she saw Rachel and Dan sharing a kiss under the mistletoe that had been helpfully placed above the front door.

“Anna!” Rachel let out a little laugh and stepped back from Dan, smiling and blushing.

Anna averted her eyes; she didn’t want to see Rachel and Dan in some kind of clinch. Her crush on Dan had been of the schoolgirl variety, hopeless and yearning, but it had been intense. And it wasn’t as if she had a ton of experience with the opposite sex as it was.

“You’re not leaving the party already?” Rachel exclaimed. Her second oldest sister always seemed surprised by Anna’s proclivity to stand on the sidelines, mainly because Rachel was such an out-and-out extrovert herself.

“I’m… tired,” Anna hedged, cringing inside, as she noted Dan’s narrowed look of concern.

“Why don’t you hang out with us instead?” Rachel suggested. “We were going to sneak upstairs and watch Netflix anyway.” One of the vicarage’s bedrooms had been turned into a private sitting room for family, since the downstairs rooms were so often used for meetings and guests.

Anna envisioned the three of them squashed on the sofa, watching a rom com, and tried to school her expression into something that wasn’t a wince of horror. “Actually… I think… I’ll take a walk.” The words came out in awkward, staccato bursts. “Thanks anyway,” she added, grateful that she was starting to sound more normal. Another deep, even breath.

“A walk?” Rachel looked incredulous. “It’s freezing out.”

“It’s been… so long… since I’ve been back. I’ll be fine.” And not trusting herself to say anything more, Anna hurried towards the front hallway, grabbed her coat and scarf and a spare pair of mittens from the drawer that was always full of mismatched ones. She stuffed her feet into mud-splattered wellies and then yanked open the door, shutting it as quietly as she could behind her before heading out into the night.

If anything, it had become colder in the hour since she’d arrived back in Thornthwaite, colder and darker. She set off down the lane, the church now silent and empty, the stained glass windows sightless and dark. Anna shivered. She had no idea where she was going. Thornthwaite at eight o’clock at night did not exactly offer a host of amusement.

The village had two pubs—The Bell Inn and The Queen’s Sorrow, which had something to do with Henry VIII’s last wife Katherine Parr, whose residence had been in nearby Kendal. The Bell tended to be a bit rougher, if Thornthwaite could be considered to have a rough element, and The Queen’s Sorrow was the go-to pub for ladies’ nights out, pub quizzes, and even the VSA’s termly meetings.

Out of instinct, Anna headed for The Queen’s Sorrow, needing somewhere warm to go because wandering through the village on a freezing winter’s night was not an option. But then right in the middle of the little stone bridge crossing St John’s Beck, she stopped, because she was sure to know someone at The Queen’s Sorrow and the last thing she wanted right now was to have to make chitchat with a well-meaning parishioner. She craved anonymity, but how did she get that in a village of two thousand where she’d spent the first eighteen years of her life and her dad was the vicar? She went to The Bell.

The Bell was on the corner of Thornthwaite’s two main streets, the unoriginally named High Street and the far more interestingly titled Finkle Street, which Anna knew from the town’s well-versed historian came from the Danish word for corner. And Finkle and High did form a sharp, steep corner on which The Bell beckoned with its bright red door, raucous laughter heard from within.

Taking a deep breath, Anna opened the door and stepped inside. Thankfully, no one took any notice of her at all, which was both a surprise and a blessing. The pub was far too busy, and people seemed far too drunk, to care about a slight young woman swathed in a parka coming through the door.

Anna squeezed her way between a group of twenty-something men in football jerseys singing a laddish song and a couple of fortyish women wearing makeup and tight tops who looked like they were on the prowl. This was a whole side of Thornthwaite she’d never even known existed. Until this moment, she’d never stepped so much as a toenail in The Bell before.

Amazingly, she found a bar stool, right down at the end. A man was sitting next to her, elbows braced on the scarred oak of the bar as he sipped thoughtfully from a pint, his gaze distant and distracted. On the other side a couple of women were having an intense discussion, their dyed heads bent close together.

Anna slipped onto the stool and surveyed the rows of bottles behind the bar, amazed that she’d dared to get this far. But then speaking to strangers had never been a real problem; crowds of unfamiliar people didn’t scare her too much. No, it was the people she knew who rendered her petrified and speechless.

After a few minutes of being overlooked by the bartender, a beefy man in a tight white t-shirt, the man next to her lifted his shaggy head and called out in a surprisingly educated sounding voice,

“Pardon me, but I believe this young woman would like some service.”

Anna blushed and squirmed as the bartender swung his narrowed gaze towards her. “Yeah? What you want, love?”

“Um…” Her mind went blank. Totally, stupidly blank.

The mulled wine seethed in her stomach, but she could hardly ask for that.

“White wine? Red wine? Cider?” The man next to her suggested helpfully in a murmur. “Or perhaps something soft?”

“Cider,” Anna said definitively. She hadn’t drunk cider since her student days, but so what? She felt a bit reckless all of a sudden.

The bartender looked bored. “What kind of cider?”

Mind blank. Again. “Ummm…”

“Can I recommend the elderflower?” the man next to her said. He had a funny, lopsided, and strangely endearing smile. “Refreshing and not too sweet.”

“Thank you—”

“And”—he added, his smile deepening to reveal a dimple in one lean cheek—“would it be too forward to ask if I can buy it for you?”

Chapter Three

Anna stared at the stranger in shock, because she couldn’t remember the last time someone had offered to buy her a drink. And he didn’t look like the kind of guy who was buying a drink expecting something; he just seemed nice. Still, she wasn’t sure how to respond.

“I won’t, if you’d rather I didn’t,” he said as his smile became even more lopsided. “Just tell me to mind my own business.”

“I don’t care who pays for it,” the bartender informed them curtly, “but what is it you want, love?”

“I’ll have the elderflower cider,” Anna said. She offered the man an uncertain smile. “And yes, you can pay for it, if you’re of a mind to.”

“I am.”

The bartender disappeared to fetch her drink, and the man held out his hand. “Simon.”

“Anna.”

They shook hands awkwardly and then Anna settled more comfortably on her stool. Tucked in the back of a bar she’d never been in before, with a friendly stranger, she felt more at ease in Thornthwaite than she had in a long time. No one’s assessing eyes were on her, no one was looking expectant or hopeful or, worse yet, disappointed. No one was looking at her at all, except for Simon, who was smiling, having no preconceived notions about her at all. Hopefully.

“So are you visiting here, Anna?” Simon asked, and she shook her head.

“No, I live here. Or I should say lived here. I’m in Manchester now. I’m just back, visiting my family.”

“You’ve got me there, then. I’m—what do they say? An offcomer?”

“Yes.” Anna looked at him appraisingly. Slightly shaggy, sandy brown hair, a cleft chin and dimples, and hazel eyes that looked both friendly and warm. He was like the human equivalent of a Golden Retriever, the kind of person one instinctively trusted and liked. And yet he had none of the pathetic eagerness of a dog desperate for affection… no, Simon the Offcomer seemed perfectly happy to sip his pint of bitter and let the silence stretch on.

The bartender returned with her cider and as Anna lifted the glass, Simon raised his. “Cheers.”

“Cheers,” she said, and took a sip.

“Well?” Simon asked when she’d put the glass down. “Your verdict?”

“Refreshing and not too sweet. Thanks for the recommendation.”

“Anytime.”

They sipped in silence for a few minutes while Anna wondered whether she wanted to keep the conversation going. Would her parents have noticed her absence? Would her mother be worried? The next ten days back in Thornthwaite stretched on endlessly. Her mother would be trying to make everything as Christmassy and wonderful as possible, her father would be his affable, cheerful self… and Anna would be quietly suffering, straining to seem like each moment spent back here wasn’t costing her.

Why had she agreed to come for so long? Her mother had practically begged her, telling her that Dad had the whole week off after Christmas, and they had some news to share. What news, Anna couldn’t even imagine. Getting another dog? Buying a timeshare in Majorca?

“So what brings you to The Bell?” Simon asked. So, they were going to keep talking.

“Well…” Anna hesitated, wondering how much to share. Simon was a stranger, but a nice one, and somehow she didn’t think he’d judge her. “I had to get away,” she confessed in a split-second decision to unburden herself and tell the truth.

“Family holidays?” Simon surmised with a grimace. “They’re not always easy.”

“No.” Anna ran her finger along the rim of her glass, pensive. “But mine aren’t what you’d think. No drunken fights or snippy comments… nothing like that.”

Simon settled himself more on his stool. “What, then?”

“It’s just so hard,” Anna said in a rushed whisper. She stared at her glass, not quite able to look at him. “Everything seems so perfect on the outside—like a Sainsbury’s ad or something.”

“But underneath?” Simon prompted after a pause, his voice gentle.

“Underneath, it’s all wrong,” Anna admitted. She felt a rush of guilt at saying that much. “Not wrong, exactly, but… it’s as if we’ve papered over this huge, gaping crack and no one is ever going to acknowledge it.”

“I think plenty of families do that. It’s normal, even if it’s not right. And eventually you have to find a way to fill the crack or fall in it.”

“Yes, exactly.” Anna turned to look at him, surprised and gratified by his perception. “But the trouble is… what if you’ve already fallen in?” Until she’d said the words she hadn’t realized just how much she meant them.

Saying it out loud was like acknowledged the gaping wound in her chest that she’d pretended to ignore, staggering on and on. Acknowledging it meant it was still there, it was still serious and maybe even life-threatening, but at least she could dress it. She could see a doctor, get help. Couldn’t she?

“Is that what’s happened to you?” Simon asked. His gaze was steady and kind, without even the hint of judgment or, worse, pity.

Anna let out a long breath. “Yes, I think so.”

“And have you tried to get out?”

“I don’t think I can.” Anna let out a shaky laugh and took a sip of her drink. “I think this metaphor might have gone on a bit too long.”

“You’re undoubtedly right,” Simon agreed with an affable nod. “Most metaphors do.”

“So why are you in The Bell just four nights before Christmas?” She didn’t know if she regretted telling Simon as much as she had; it had felt weirdly freeing, confessing that much.

Maybe she should seek some kind of therapy. She’d always been afraid to, but now she wondered… although chatting for five minutes to a stranger in a bar was a far cry from lying on a sofa, spilling her secrets.

“I just moved here and I don’t know anyone,” Simon answered with a shrug. “I thought I’d try my local.”

Anna eyed his beat-up cords and button-down shirt. “I think you’ll find more congenial company at The Queen’s Sorrow.”

Simon chuckled. “You don’t think I fit in here?”

“Well, you haven’t looked at the TV screen once to check the football score, and it’s Man U playing West Ham.”

“Ah, caught out.” He shook his head in mock regret. “I’m more of a cricket man, myself.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“Are you stereotyping me?”

“No…” Anna protested, and then laughed. “Well, maybe a little bit. Let me guess. You went to Oxbridge?”

“Only for a postgraduate degree.”

“You went to boarding school.”

“Day school but, yes, it was private. All boys. Somewhat awful.”

Were they flirting? It felt a bit like it, in a very non-threatening and mild way, which was probably all she could handle. “What brought you to Thornthwaite? Do you work at Sellafield?”

Most people worked at the nuclear power station about half an hour away.

“No, different field altogether. What about you? You said you live in Manchester?”

Was he avoiding answering her questions? “Yes, I’m a legal librarian.”

“A legal librarian? I didn’t know such a thing existed.”

“That’s what most people say. I keep the research and information current for a law firm. It’s a rather solitary job, just me and my computer in a cubbyhole, more or less.”

“You like it?”

“Yes.” She liked the familiarity of it, the safety, and the consistency. But did it make her heart beat harder, in a good way? No. Not much did.

“So, Anna, about this crack you’ve fallen into,” Simon said after a moment, and she let out a bit of a groan.

“Not the metaphor again.”

“Sometimes it’s a bit easier to use metaphors.”

“Yes, I suppose.”

“But, if we’re not using metaphors, what exactly do you mean? Do you get along with your family?” He looked so genuinely concerned for her, his hazel eyes crinkled at the corners, that Anna found herself blurting out the truth.

“They think I do. They think everything is pretty much fine. I feel like I’m the only one who realizes—” She stopped abruptly, feeling she’d said too much. Simon was going to think she was a complete nutter, and maybe she was.

“Who realizes…”

Anna drained her half-pint of cider. “If I’m going to tell you anything more,” she said, “I need another drink.”

“Then let me be forward again and buy you one.” He raised an arm to flag down the bartender. “Same again?”

“Why not?”

Simon watched as Anna stiffened her shoulders and stared ahead resolutely. He didn’t want to get her drunk, but he could tell when someone needed to talk. All part of his training, not that he’d tell Anna that right now. He didn’t know quite what she meant about falling into a crack, but she was hurting and he wanted to help her. That was the whole reason he’d changed careers and moved up to the back of beyond from London. To help people. And to feel needed.

The bartender came back with Anna’s cider, and she took it with murmured thanks. She was a lovely woman, with porcelain skin, her cheeks flushed a delicate pink, and a cloud of dark hair. Her eyes were dark too, a deep navy, although it was hard to tell in the dim lighting of the pub. Perhaps they were grey. She was swathed in a parka and wellies, but she seemed slender, as if a breath of wind might blow her away and, in Cumbria, that could very well happen.

“So, you were telling me,” he prompted after she’d taken a sip. “You’re the only who realizes…”

She shot him a look that wasn’t suspicious, not exactly. “Are you a therapist or something?”

“No.” Not exactly.

He smiled, wondering if he was pushing too hard, but he was curious about her. There was something so contained and intense about her sadness, as if she kept it so tightly inside that the pressure of it was slowly killing her. He hoped that wasn’t the case.

He also hoped, in some small way, he could help. Because he knew what it was like to watch someone suffer, and feel totally helpless. He never wanted to feel that way again, ever. Which meant he might have gone into the wrong career. Simon acknowledged this point wryly as he took a sip from his own half-pint and waited for Anna to say something.

“I’m the only one who realizes that something is wrong. That everything is wrong.” She closed her eyes briefly, shaking her head. “It’s all built on a fake foundation.”


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