ONE DAY TO GO AND ONE LAST SNEAK PEEK AT CHRISTMAS PETS & KISSES
Golden Christmas by Helen Scott Taylor
Every Christmas Vicky hides so she doesn’t have to celebrate the date she lost her husband and son. She doesn’t want to see anyone but when she finds a dog’s lost ball she meets Jon, a wounded ex-soldier who’s struggling with his own problems. This brave man touches Vicky’s shattered heart and makes her realize she can’t hide forever. With his support, can she find the strength to love again?
Music pounded in Vicky’s head in time with the thud of her feet on the dirt path as she ran. She concentrated on the rhythm to fend off the memories that circled just below the surface, like demons trying to grab her ankles and drag her down.
Cold nipped her cheeks, and her breath billowed in smoky plumes as she ran up the incline to the higher path. The thermometer outside her rental property had indicated it was around freezing, even though the sky was bright blue and the sun was on her face.
As she reached the top of the ridge, the rolling English landscape of the North Cotswolds lay before her. Rosemoor Hall, a Jacobean manor house, presided majestically over its twelve acres of manicured gardens, the golden hues of its Cotswold stone walls shining in the sun.
Every year she rented an isolated country property a week before Christmas, and this year she was staying in the manor’s gatehouse. She stocked up on groceries and if she were lucky, could go for the whole time without seeing another living soul.
Fifty acres of gardens, parkland, and farmland lay around the manor house, and she had access to all the land. Apparently the house was open to the public during the summer season, but at this time of year it was closed up, giving her miles of empty paths to run.
Vicky surveyed the historic house and briefly imagined the interior—the huge fireplaces, the four-poster beds, and the antiques the house likely contained. Once she had a passion for old houses and loved visiting them. Her interest started at school when she did a history project on the Victorians. She’d even kept a journal of the visits she’d made to various historic houses around the country. But that felt like a lifetime ago now.
Her feet slapped against the frozen ground, giving a satisfying jolt with each step, and Vicky tried to focus on her music again. She managed for a few minutes before her attention wandered back to the scenery. Giving up on the monotonous tune, she pulled out her earbuds. The sun was surprisingly warm for December. Where it touched the whitened grass by the house, streaks of green appeared as the ice melted.
As she ran on, the front of the house came into view. A man with a golden Labrador stood on the half-acre rectangle of frosted grass outside the front door. Tall and lean, clad in jeans, a blue winter jacket, and a dark wool hat, the man drew back an arm and hurled a yellow tennis ball.
“Go on, girl. Fetch it.” His voice rang out, deep and cultured, a note of enthusiasm and pleasure in his tone.
The dog streaked off across the icy grass and grabbed the yellow tennis ball in its mouth, then loped back to the man, sat, and dropped the ball obediently into his outstretched hand.
“Good girl.” The man bent and smoothed the dog’s head, talking more softly so Vicky couldn’t make out the words. Then she realized her feet had stopped moving and she was standing still, watching.
She blew out a breath of irritation with herself. She didn’t want contact with anyone who might be happy and celebrating Christmas. She just wanted to be alone to mourn.
Pulling her attention away from the scene below, she continued, focusing instead on the distant trees dotted across the acres of parkland, huge old oaks and sweet chestnuts, their bare branches skeletal against the blue sky.
Yet the strange attraction of the man drew her attention again. In her peripheral vision, she saw him toss the ball a couple more times and pet his dog, but she made sure she kept running.
When she reached a fork in the path, she decided to take the right turn, away from the house and the unwanted distraction. Yet her feet went the other way, carrying her along the route that circled the house, keeping the man and dog in view.
She was closer to them now, only fifty yards away. Elevated on the bank in her bright pink-and-blue running gear as she was, he must have noticed her, but he didn’t look her way. He drew back his arm and tossed with incredible power. The tennis ball arced through the air, bounced on the chest-high stone wall surrounding the lawn, and hit a tree.
The Labrador took off after it, jumped up at the wall a few times, then stood with its front paws against the interlocking rocks and barked.
“Get the ball, Honey.” The man stared after the dog, but he didn’t move to retrieve the ball. Couldn’t he see he’d thrown it too hard and it was lost outside the wall?
Vicky halted and stepped off the path to get a better view. From up here, she could see the yellow ball was stuck in a tree, wedged between a branch and the trunk.
Should she say something? She didn’t want to get involved and have to talk to anyone, but the dog was frantically jumping up at the wall now. It had obviously seen the ball but couldn’t reach it.
“Go on, girl. Fetch it, Honey.” The guy bent and held out his hand to receive the ball.
What was he, some kind of idiot?
Vicky sucked in a chilly breath and shook her head. She should have taken the other path. “The ball’s in a tree,” she shouted.
The man’s head jerked up as if he hadn’t seen her. “Oh, thanks. I didn’t know.”
He reached behind him and grabbed something resting against the wall at his back—a white cane.
Vicky pressed a hand over her mouth with a burn of shamed surprise as he held the cane in front of him and walked forward slowly.
No wonder he hadn’t seen her. No wonder he hadn’t noticed the ball was out of his dog’s reach. She felt bad now for thinking he was an idiot.
“I know where the ball is,” she shouted. “I’ll get it for you.”
Vicky ran down some lichen-encrusted stone steps to the lower level and jogged across the crisp grass to where the dog was standing up against the wall, whining.
“Hey there, girl.” She pulled off her gloves and patted the dog’s silky head. Then getting a firm hold on top of the wall, she pushed her toe in a gap between the rocks, climbed up, and worked the ball loose from the tree before dropping it to the eager dog.
She jumped down and turned to face the man as he reached her. He was a good-looking guy, his lips curved in a friendly smile. His eyes were dark brown and looked perfectly all right, except they didn’t move normally. It was strange to be standing here in front of him and know he couldn’t see her.
“Thanks. I let rip a bit with that last throw. Usually when I do that, it bounces back off the wall. I must have aimed too high.” He pulled off a glove and held out his hand. “Jonathan Bramwell.” He nodded back over his shoulder. “I have an apartment in the house. I assume you’re staying in one of the estate cottages over Christmas.”
The word Christmas stung Vicky as she slipped her hand into his strong, warm grip. “Yes. I’m staying in the gatehouse.” To avoid Christmas, she added silently.
“This is Honey, who’s very grateful to have her ball back.” Jonathan’s smile widened as he stroked behind the dog’s ears. “Say thank you to…” His head came up, almost as if he were looking at her. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
“Say thank you to Vicky, girl.”
Honey nuzzled Vicky’s hand, her tail wagging and her intelligent brown eyes warm and friendly.
“It was my pleasure, Honey.” Vicky stroked the dog’s velvet ears and realized it really was a pleasure to pet this sweet dog. Not much touched her these days. She was surprised such a simple thing affected her so much.
“Do you need to get back quickly?” Jonathan asked.
Vicky shook her head and realized he couldn’t see that. “No. I was out for a run.”
“Come inside and have a cup of tea, then,” he said, a hopeful note in his voice. “When you have time, I’ll give you the guided tour, if you like. I do that in the summer when we’re open to the public. I know Rosemoor Hall like the back of my hand, so I can do it from memory. The place hasn’t changed much since I was a kid,” he added with a laugh.
Vicky was already shaking her head again, the motion instinctive as she stepped back to distance herself. The old Vicky would have jumped at a private tour of such a beautiful manor house, but since the accident that took her husband and son, she couldn’t summon enthusiasm for anything. She didn’t want to have to make small talk because it invariably got around to family.
“You don’t have to stay long,” Jonathan said.
Honey pursued her, nudging Vicky’s leg with her nose, a pleading look in her eyes. Or perhaps Vicky imagined that.
“Thank you for the invitation, but I don’t want to cause you any inconvenience.”
“You won’t. It’ll be nice to have someone to talk to.” Jonathan pulled off his wool cap, revealing shaggy dark hair, and rubbed at a scar on his forehead. “Actually, you could do me a favor, if you don’t mind. I have a migraine coming on and I can’t find my medication. If you could spare a few minutes, I’d be eternally grateful if you’d take a look. I think the packet might have fallen down behind the cabinet.”
Vicky hesitated for a moment, but how could she refuse?
• • •
Three steps up from the grass to the gravel, then fifteen steps to the house. Jonathan counted silently, noticing the change in temperature as he moved from the sunny lawn to the shadow of Rosemoor Hall. He held his cane out and tapped the wall, a sharp ringing sound against the Cotswold stone, once, twice, three times before the corner, then he turned along the side and continued until the hollow tap of his cane on the wooden back door.
He reached for the handle and turned it. The fresh, clean, frosty air gave way to the familiar smell of polish and seasoned wood inside the house. The footsteps behind him stopped as he held the door open.
Jonathan felt bad asking a complete stranger for help, especially a woman who was reluctant; he could hear it in her voice and her hesitant steps. It went against every instinct he had to impose on others, but it was a matter of survival. The migraines were bad enough if he took the medication; he didn’t want to suffer twenty-four hours of even worse pain. He could call one of his cousins, but they both led busy lives and he didn’t want to impose.
“I’m sorry,” he said, catching Vicky’s subtle floral fragrance as she walked in and passed him. “It won’t take long.”
“It’s okay. I’m not in a hurry.”
He noticed the embarrassment in her voice. Even people he’d known before he lost his sight were uncomfortable around him now. Some didn’t know what to say, and he understood how they felt. In the old days, he’d have probably been the same way.
He caught Vicky’s fragrance again, and it summoned an image of a tall, slender woman wearing a yellow summer dress with flowing dark hair over her shoulders. Of course, Vicky wouldn’t be dressed like this in December. She’d said she was running. The image morphed, and the woman in his head now wore form-fitting Lycra.
He pressed the side of his fist to his mouth and cleared his throat as he banished the evocative image and the flash of desire. It had been four years since a woman who wasn’t either a member of staff, family, or a medical professional had entered his apartment. Sometimes he wondered if he’d ever meet a woman who was interested in him again. Not that Vicky was here for a social visit, of course. He was certain she’d much rather be outside running.
Four steps along the flagstone corridor, the grit on the soles of his shoes crunching. He’d forgotten to wipe his feet, but it was too late now. He tapped his cane on the wall and found the opening to the bottom of the narrow wooden staircase. This used to be the servants’ staircase when he was a boy—a lifetime ago.
He gripped the handrail, the wood sliding beneath his palm, polished smooth by thousands of hands over the last four hundred years. Familiar with the run and rise of each stair, he mounted them quickly and stepped onto the carpet in the upper hallway.
“My apartment is just down here.” With a hand to the wall, he took eight steps, then touched the varnished door that he only ever locked in the summer when members of the public visited the house.
Jonathan pushed on the door, and Honey’s sleek body brushed his leg. He angled his head and listened, half fearing Vicky had doubled back and gone, but the faint rustling of fabric and her sigh reassured him she was still there.
In his rooms, Jonathan could move about easily. He kept everything in its place and had a clear mental map of the space. “My medication is in a tray on my chest of drawers in the bedroom. If you want to follow me.” He’d thought he had a few hours before the headache got worse, but it was bad already.
An uncomfortable prickle of heat up his neck made him feel like a teenage boy asking a girl to his room for the first time, awkward and clumsy and not sure what to do.
His fingers rose to the scar on his forehead. He massaged the ridge of skin that marked the near-fatal head injury. He hated being blind and scarred. Sometimes he even forgot he was the lucky one. He’d escaped the twisted wreck of the Army Mastiff alive after it ran over an IED. Three of the men under his command had died there.
About the Author
NY Times and USA Today bestselling author Helen Scott Taylor lives in South West England near Plymouth in Devon between the windswept expanse of Dartmoor and the rocky Atlantic coast. As well as her wonderful, long-suffering husband, she shares her home with a Westie who digs up the garden searching for voles, and an elderly cat who adores treats.
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