The Christmas Wish
"A book that I couldn’t put down. Pretty awesome… I read it in one sitting... I have no words to describe the emotions it invoked." 5 starsThe Karibbean Kollective
Christmas is coming but it doesn’t feel that way for Esme. Jilted by her cheating fiancée Warren and mourning the death of her beloved grandmother she’s determined not to let life beat her and books a trip to Lapland, on a holiday that her grandmother had always dreamed of taking.
Beneath the indigo skies of Lapland, love is the last thing on Esme’s mind but she can’t ignore a spark with Zach, a broodingly handsome actor, also nursing a broken heart. But when Esme is bombarded by messages from Warren promising he’s changed and she discovers that Zach is hiding something-will her head be turned? And when a trip to the northern lights reveals the full extent Zach’s own secret past is there any hope that Esme will get the happy ending that her grandmother wished for her?
Readers are falling in love with The Christmas Wish
"Put a smile on my face!... I've LOVED it!... the most heart-warming of stories… loving every single page… drawing you in and not letting you go until the end of the very last page… totally captivated!" Chat About Books, 5 stars
"I absolutely loved this story. Got me feeling festive and ready for Christmas already! I lost myself in this story… It was perfect!... A brilliant heart-warming ending too… Beautiful." Between the Pages Book Blog
Release date: October 22, 2018
Print pages: 318
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The Christmas Wish
The front door was scuffed and scratched and it wore a faded version of the same bottle-green paint that had been slick and smart while Granddad had been alive. The honeysuckle that had once prettily garlanded the frame was burdened by the husks of dead flowers, with tendrils that stretched and crept and snagged, like the thorns in Sleeping Beauty that kept the prince from Aurora. Two empty milk bottles stood on the scrubbed grey doorstep along with a note in a spidery hand that read: One extra please. Esme shook her head with a small smile. Who even saw milk floats out on the roads these days? She’d been away for three years, but while her life had changed beyond recognition, it seemed that nothing much had changed here in the sleepy village of Little Dove Morton. But that was OK; it represented reassuring familiarity and that was what she’d come for.
Her attention turned to the windows. All looked quiet within – not that she’d expected anything else. But something nagged at the back of her mind – all wasn’t as it should have been. Her grandma had always been so fastidious about the whiteness of her nets and yet today they had more than a hint of grey about them. Esme’s gaze went back to the honeysuckle that badly needed pruning, the peeling green paint of the front door and the weeds on the path beneath her feet. Perhaps Grandma was struggling of late. Perhaps she’d welcome a little help around the place and some company in the evenings. Esme raked her teeth over her bottom lip and hoped all that would be true. Now that she was here, she wondered if she ought to have phoned ahead. You couldn’t just turn up at someone’s house in a state, even if that someone was the grandma who’d always told you they loved you most in the world.
But she was here now and she didn’t have anywhere else to be. She raised her hand to the knocker and took a deep breath. Before she’d touched it, the door was flung open and her grandma stood on the step, cheeks pink with delight, her silver hair still cut into the same cute bob pinned on one side with the diamanté grip that Granddad had given her the Christmas before he died. For a moment, Esme was ten years old again, standing on the doorstep with her overnight bags ready to be spoiled with home-made chocolate puddings and snuggles in front of the television with her granddad. Except she wasn’t, and that girl had been gone for a long time.
‘Esme!’ Grandma cried. ‘What a lovely surprise!’ But then her smile faded. ‘What on earth is wrong?’
The reply got caught somewhere in Esme’s throat, and suddenly she couldn’t see for the tears she’d sworn she wouldn’t shed. She threw herself into her grandma’s open arms and breathed her in, the smell of lavender soap and talcum powder and the safety of childhood.
She was in the only place she wanted to be right now.
She was home.
Esme opened her eyes. The autumn sun streaming in through a chink in the curtains was mellow, like apples aged in a hayloft, illuminating the dust that spun in the beams. She took in the details of the old bedroom, so familiar and yet rendered strange by absence: wallpaper patterned in delicate florals; the old sheepskin rug covering the floor and worn flat by years of bare feet; the antique dressing table she’d once been mortified to spill blue nail varnish over, layered by generations of polish and the stains of her accident still visible; the old iron bedstead creaking as she shifted. In that bright moment, all her troubles seemed distant. She was safe and warm in the arms of the past, a place where Warren didn’t exist and couldn’t hurt her. How wonderful it would be to stay here forever so she wouldn’t have to face the present again. As for the future, she barely had any interest in that right now either.
There was a faint tap at the door and then it opened, the swollen wood dragging on the carpet. Her grandma appeared with a chintzy cup and saucer that rattled as she carried it to the bedside table.
‘I thought you might like tea,’ she said, setting it down.
Esme pushed herself up and reached for the drink. ‘How did you know I’d be awake?’
‘The sun always comes round to this window at this time of the morning and it’s hard to stay sleeping when it fills the room.’
Esme’s smile was a faint, brief shadow. Of course it did – how could she have forgotten all those teenage weekend visits when she’d complained about not being able to stay in bed because of where the spare bedroom was? A peculiarity of Thimble Cottage’s location that had always been a natural alarm clock to wake Esme for a day of fun with Granddad during her prepubescent years had become a torture to be endured when she’d wanted to sleep the day away during her teenaged ones. And Esme had made no bones about how much it annoyed her. She coloured at the memory. God, she’d been a royal pain in the butt at that age. It was a wonder her grandparents hadn’t put a stop to her visits entirely. More than a decade had passed but she felt like that much of a pain now, though the reasons were very different.
Her grandma gave a strained smile as she sat on the edge of the bed. ‘Do you feel like telling me what happened now?’
Esme shook her head, eyes burning again. After the previous night, how could there be any more tears? She’d lost so much, so many of her dreams had been shattered – the wedding that would now never happen, the life she’d mapped out for herself that she’d now never have. She’d wept so much for those things that there couldn’t possibly be anything left. And yet, the mention of what had driven her back to Little Dove Morton after three years away tightened her throat once more. Fat teardrops spread dark pools on the bed sheets.
Grandma rubbed a gentle hand over Esme’s. ‘When you’re ready; there’s no rush at all.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Esme whispered.
‘That I haven’t been to see you in so long.’
‘You’re here now, that’s the only thing I care about.’
‘You’re not angry? I didn’t give you any warning…’
‘How could I be angry with my best girl? I’m happy you chose to come here to see me instead of suffering in silence alone – I couldn’t bear to think about that. Whatever ails you, I’m glad you chose me to help. And when you’re ready to receive that help, I’ll be ready to give it.’
Esme gave a jerky nod. Words of gratitude and love whirled in her head, just out of reach, and even if she could grasp them they wouldn’t have been big enough or profound enough to express what was in her heart for Matilda Greenwood, the grandmother who would never let her down, who would always make space in her life for Esme, no matter what.
Matilda took the cup and saucer from Esme’s shaking hands and placed it back onto the bedside table.
‘It’s a little hot right now,’ she said, her understanding instinctive. Esme’s fragile mental state would be all the worse for anything drawing unnecessary attention to it, making it an issue they would have to discuss sooner rather than later. Her grandma understood – she always understood – that Esme would talk when she was strong enough, and that time wasn’t now. ‘I’ll leave you to finish up when it’s cooled. And if you like, have a lie down afterwards – the sun will move round the house soon enough and you look as if you need some extra sleep.’
Esme didn’t need a mirror to tell her that her eyes were gummed and swollen from hours of crying. It didn’t matter because there was only Grandma here to see and she’d never judge.
‘There’s a lovely pack of bacon in the fridge from the farm shop,’ Matilda continued. ‘For when you feel hungry. I can easily get some eggs.’
‘Don’t go out on my account. I don’t think I’ll be able to eat much today.’
Matilda patted her hand again. ‘Get some rest.’
Esme nodded shortly again and turned onto her side, tears soaking the pillow where she settled. Her grandma rose slowly from the bed, her steps across the room stiffer and slower than Esme remembered, and closed the door, the wood dragging on the old carpet as she left the room.
It was mid-afternoon by the time Esme felt able to go downstairs, too late for a bacon breakfast but her grandma cooked one anyway. Esme had asked her not to, knowing she’d struggle to eat any, which would only add to the list of reasons her arrival was bad news for her grandma, but the remarkable woman who was Matilda Greenwood, née Smith, the woman who had brought up Esme’s father practically alone while her husband, Stanley, travelled the world as a merchant sailor, would have none of it. The villagers had gossiped and wondered why he stayed away, and they hadn’t stopped until he’d finally come home to stay, but Matilda hadn’t given it a moment’s attention. And as the salty smell of frying bacon drifted through the house, and the old radio babbled in the corner with the silken tones of Matilda’s favourite presenter, Esme sat at the table and sipped hot, sweet tea, and it was like salve for her soul. The future lightened by degrees, so that the long tunnel of hopelessness she’d constructed for herself shrank before her eyes, and she could almost see the pinpoint of light beckoning her to something better.
‘Do your parents know you’re here?’ Matilda spooned beans onto a plate next to two crisp rashers of bacon.
Esme shook her head. She had refused to discuss much of what had brought her back to Little Dove Morton and, so far, Matilda had seemingly been content to wait for explanations. But this time, Esme knew she wanted an answer. ‘Would it make any difference if they did?’
‘I think so.’ Matilda turned back to the stove, adding a golden-yoked egg to the plate.
‘They made their feelings clear the last time we spoke.’
‘It takes two to have a fight.’
‘It wasn’t a fight… it was a difference of opinion.’
‘A difference of opinion?’ Matilda wiped a hand on her apron. ‘Hmm. A difference of opinion so strong that it’s stopped you going home when you’re in trouble?’
‘For landing on your doorstep like this.’
Matilda waved a vague hand as the pan hissed and spat. ‘You know I’d never turn you away. I do think your mum and dad would want to know what’s going on though.’
‘Trust me, I don’t think they’re as bothered as you imagine.’
‘I’m not sure they know the full extent of the situation you were in.’ Matilda stopped and paused, her back still showing to Esme. ‘I suspect none of us really do, and if they did know perhaps things could be sorted. All it would take is a phone call—’
‘Sorry… Maybe some day, but not yet. I can’t…’
‘Stubborn as the day is long.’
‘That’s Mum, not me.’
‘And where do you think you get it from?’
Esme tried to smile but it wouldn’t come. ‘Maybe. I can’t phone them yet and that’s that. It’s just too complicated for me to think about.’
‘But you will think on it?’
‘Good.’ Matilda turned to face her. Slowly, with that same stiffness Esme had noticed before, she brought a plate loaded with bacon, eggs, black pudding, beans and fried bread to the table. Esme suppressed a groan – there was no way she could eat even a fraction of that.
‘I know,’ Matilda said, plonking the plate down in front of Esme before lowering herself into the opposite chair. ‘You don’t need to eat it all, just take what you can.’ She reached for the teapot. ‘Would you like a top-up?’
Esme nodded, the world looking warmer and brighter by the second. Returning here had been instinctive, but now she knew this was the only place that could heal her. She watched as tea spilled from the spout of the old chipped pot that her grandma would never part with, its lid stained from years of use, and she took comfort in the fact that whenever she wondered if she’d made the right decision in leaving Warren, she would only have to think of this moment to know that she had.
The kitchen in Thimble Cottage was warm, the air scented with dark sugar and rich fruit and spicy sherry. The autumn that Esme had spent with her grandma was making way for winter, and the hills outside the village were crisp with frost in the mornings now, the sunlight bright and clean as it cascaded down into the valleys. It was too early to decorate, but the house was transforming, gradually, falling into the yuletide festivities by deeds and chores, sights and smells and discussions. Christmas was still six weeks away but it felt imminent as Matilda began to get ready for it in the same ways she always had.
‘I should have started this earlier,’ she said now, shaking her head as she laboured over a huge mixing bowl.
‘I’m sure we don’t even need a Christmas cake this big.’ Esme brought over the dried fruit she’d just weighed.
‘We do if we’re expecting guests.’
Esme didn’t reply, but returned to fetch a net of oranges from the pantry.
Matilda stopped mixing and looked up. ‘Are you nervous?’
Esme put the oranges down. ‘Not nervous, exactly. I’ll admit to being apprehensive.’
‘And you’re telling me the truth when you say you haven’t heard from that man this week?’
Esme made the sign of a cross over her heart. ‘Not a peep. A whole week… perhaps he’s finally given up. It has been over two months since I left, after all, and I would imagine that’s enough time for anyone to get the message.’
‘You could have gone to the police,’ Matilda said, returning to her task, ‘nipped this in the bud before he’d had time to upset everyone. He might have been in prison by now and it would have served him right.’
Esme frowned. This wasn’t a new conversation. It was hard to understand why her grandma hadn’t been able to let it go since Esme had first made the admission. Esme had almost come to terms with her broken engagement. The future she’d planned and longed for as Warren’s wife had been snatched away from her but she was putting it behind her now – at least she was trying to. She supposed her grandma was probably more devastated on Esme’s behalf for all that she’d lost than Esme herself was. It was hard to see injustice done to those you loved, harder than bearing injustice yourself. If things had been the other way around and someone had hurt Matilda in that same way, perhaps Esme would have been just as angry, just as reluctant to let it go. ‘And say what? Warren hadn’t done anything criminal.’
‘He intended to,’ Matilda said tartly.
‘Well, we can all intend things but unless we do them they’re only intentions, and you can’t be arrested for an intention.’
‘I’m quite sure you can—’
‘Warren’s not a terrorist, Grandma. Just a pain in the arse.’
‘He’s an idiot – did he think he’d never get found out?’
Esme took the wooden spoon from Matilda and started to mix. ‘Sit down, you look shattered.’
‘You’re stubborn. This is making my arms ache and I have sixty years on you.’
‘Don’t remind me,’ Matilda said, taking a seat and wiping a handkerchief over her brow. She looked pale today, and even though Esme had asked repeatedly if she was feeling under the weather, Matilda had stoically denied any problems, claiming only that she had too much to do.
‘There’s plenty of time to get things ready, and for all the things you don’t have time to make, there’s a Waitrose in Buxton; I’d have been happy enough to drive you there. Honestly, Mum and Dad would barely be able to tell the difference.’
Matilda looked sternly at her granddaughter. ‘I’ve never bought a factory-made pudding in my life and I’m not about to start now.’
‘So you’d rather be in bed the whole of Christmas Day because you’re exhausted than suffer a perfectly decent pudding from a supermarket finest range?’
‘This is too important – everything has to be perfect.’
Esme stopped mixing and smiled. ‘It’s perfect that this Christmas is even happening and you don’t need to stress on my account. We’ll work things out, and whether we do or don’t isn’t on your head.’
‘I wouldn’t want to…’ Matilda paused and Esme waited. It wasn’t often her grandma couldn’t find exactly the right words for a situation but she seemed to be stuck now.
‘I want things to be right,’ she said finally. ‘I would hate to think I was leaving you in a mess with no support.’
‘Leaving me?’ Esme gave a little laugh. ‘Where on earth would you be going? If there’s a world cruise on the cards you’d bloody well better take me with you.’
‘I’m not getting any younger.’ Matilda’s tight smile came and went. ‘Every morning I wake to see the sun rise I count as a lucky extra these days.’
‘Don’t be daft! You’ve got more energy than anyone I know.’ Esme tapped the wooden spoon on the side of the bowl. ‘Stop it now, you’re freaking me out.’
‘I’m being practical. One day you’ll reach the age where these thoughts occur to you too, but you won’t be scared, you’ll just be mindful of all the things you’d like to see done before you go.’
‘Like getting me and Mum and Dad talking again?’
‘But that’s not your responsibility.’ Esme pushed the bowl to one side. ‘Where’s the recipe book?’
‘Here,’ Matilda said, brushing her hand across an old leather-bound tome. ‘But I don’t need it to tell you what comes next.’
‘OK, what comes next?’
‘Nothing for now; let it sit. Come and talk to me.’
Esme stood the spoon in the mixing bowl and sat across from her, hands folded over one another on the table. Her cheeks had the bloom of health and she’d put on weight in the weeks she’d been living with her grandma, but, as her grandma had commented, she’d been so thin when she’d arrived back that it was almost dangerous. Esme had rubbished the assertion, of course, but what she hadn’t said was that Matilda had been closer to the mark than she could have imagined. Esme had often felt weak and ill before she’d come back to Little Dove Morton. Warren had been the one constantly telling her she was too fat, even when she’d lost so much weight at his insistence that she weighed less now at twenty-eight than she had as a gangly fifteen-year-old. But he was so pleased each time she’d announced the shedding of another pound and he’d kept telling her how much sexier she’d be, how he’d love her more and how proud he’d be to show her off to the world. What would he say if he could see her now, full of her grandma’s home-cooked dinners and jammy puddings?
‘What do you want to talk about?’
‘You,’ Matilda said firmly.
‘I’ve already told you everything.’
‘Sometimes I wonder if that’s true.’
Esme held in a sigh. ‘Why wouldn’t it be? There’s no reason for me to hide anything now.’
‘I can’t help feeling you’re still suffering from that dreadful episode.’
Esme reached across the table with a smile and took Matilda’s hand in hers, sensing hollow bones beneath paper-thin skin, tendons and veins and frailty, and it suddenly struck her, though the evidence was always in front of her eyes, that her grandma was very old. ‘I’m getting there,’ she said, trying not to think of Matilda’s mortality and, selfishly, of what that might mean for her own future. ‘Thanks to you. I don’t know what I would have done without you.’
‘I hope you would have found a way to get away from him, even if I hadn’t been here.’
‘But nobody would have kept me safe like you have. I’m sure I would have ended up back there, if not for you.’
‘It’s lucky we live in the back of beyond.’
A cold shudder of doubt crept over Esme at the thought of Warren finding her now. If he knocked at the cottage door today, what would she do? She could sit smugly in her grandma’s kitchen, where the air was warm and spiced and full of hope and say it wouldn’t change a thing, but he had a quality that was like witchcraft, a power over her she couldn’t explain or even understand, and she wasn’t certain that she would be able to resist if they were face-to-face right now. She shook off the thought. Grandma would keep her safe, as she’d always done.
‘So, you see, we’ll be just fine here in our little cottage.’
‘I’d feel happier if your mum and dad were part of your life.’
‘And they will be, as soon as we’ve met up and sorted things out.’
Matilda gave a tight smile. ‘Just see that you do.’
Esme looked towards the window. It was easier said than done, but she was hopeful too. She’d never wanted to be at loggerheads with her parents in the first place – it was a situation she’d been forced into. At least, from where she stood she’d been forced into it. They’d say she’d been the stubborn one, but perhaps there had been a reluctance to compromise on both sides. At least there was dialogue now, and that was a huge development.
She turned back to her grandma with a smile. ‘Remember when you always used to say to Granddad that you wanted to go to that place in Lapland to see the Northern Lights?’
Matilda blinked. ‘What’s that got to do with the price of eggs?’
Esme laughed. ‘But he thought it was the daftest idea he’d ever heard, didn’t he? Couldn’t understand why you’d want to go somewhere so cold.’
‘He said it was cold enough here in the Peaks and to go somewhere worse was madness.’
‘He might have had a point there.’
‘And I never did get to go – miserable old sod.’
‘You loved him really.’
‘More than my own breath. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t drive me mad from time to time and it didn’t mean we always saw eye to eye.’
‘I suppose that’s what true love is about.’
‘It’s certainly what marriage is about. You learn to compromise. I’m not bitter that we didn’t go – we just compromised.’
‘What did you get out of the compromise? He got to stay out of the cold, but what did you get?’
‘A quiet life,’ Esme’s grandma said with a smile. ‘That was good enough for me.’
Esme paused. And then she grinned. ‘We should go.’
‘To see the Northern Lights in Lapland. Next year or something. It should be our Christmas present to each other.’
Matilda stared at her. ‘I’m far too old to go traipsing around the North Pole now.’
‘You don’t have to go to the North Pole then. I’m sure there are other places you can see them.’
‘It would still be freezing.’
‘You’d be fine – I read about it. They have sleds to take you out into the snow where it’s perfectly dark and you can sit covered in furs so you’d be plenty warm enough. It would be just like a scene out of Doctor Zhivago.’
Matilda shook her head. ‘You’ve gone mad!’
‘I haven’t!’ Esme laughed. ‘I just think we should go – make some serious memories. I want to take you; please say yes.’
‘I’m far too old for that sort of thing.’
‘You’re only as old as you feel.’
‘Which is very old these days.’
‘I don’t believe that for a minute. You never stop buzzing around the house. Come on, you know deep down you’d love it!’
‘Is this because you want to go?’
‘If it will make you agree then, yes, it’s because I want to go. But I won’t go without you so if you want to make me happy then we have to make it a definite plan.’
Matilda let out an exasperated sigh, but it hid a smile. ‘It’s lovely to see you so much happier. It’s good to see you making plans too – it means you’re really on the mend.’
‘So that’s all the more reason to say yes. Just imagine how disappointed I’ll be if you don’t – and I’m sure you don’t want that on your conscience.’
‘That sounds like bribery to me.’
‘Think of it as encouragement rather than bribery.’
Matilda eyed her warily now, pulling the mixing bowl towards her and taking up the spoon again. ‘I’ll think on it, and I can’t say fairer than that.’
It had been three years since she’d spent Christmas with any of her family, and while it had been easy to slot back into her grandma’s life, Esme’s parents, Dennis and Coral, were an entirely different matter. Esme had never figured out why, but they’d hated Warren from the start. She’d put it down to silly, old-fashioned ideas about the age gap – Warren was ten years older than Esme and she was an only child who’d been doted on as she’d grown up on the outskirts of the spa town of Buxton, where her dad had moved to for work, just a few miles from her grandma’s home. They’d told her that the age gap had nothing to do with it and it was as simple as the change they’d seen in her as soon as she’d started to date Warren, that she was neglecting her friends and family, that she pandered to his every whim, that she was always where he wanted her to be whenever he called. As far as Esme was concerned, this wa. . .
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