When Anna takes on the role of companion to the owner of Wynthorpe Hall, on the outskirts of Wynbridge, she has no idea that her life is set to change beyond all recognition.
A confirmed ‘bah humbug’ when it comes to Christmas, Anna is amazed to find herself quickly immersed in the eccentric household, and when youngest son Jamie unexpectedly arrives home it soon becomes obvious that her personal feelings are going all out to compromise her professional persona.
Jamie, struggling to come to terms with life back in the Fens, makes a pact with Anna – she has to teach him to fall back in love with Wynthorpe Hall, while he helps her fall back in love with Christmas. But will it all prove too much for Anna, or can the family of Wynthorpe Hall warm her heart once and for all...?
Join Anna for a festive journey festooned with sleigh rides and silver bells and help her discover her happy-ever-after.
Most people, at some point during their adult lives, struggle to come up with what to put on their Christmas list, but not me. Asking for the same present every year since I turned eighteen has ensured that I’ve never encountered that particular problem and now, almost twenty years later, it’s still my first choice.
My longed-for gift of working every day of December, including right through the Christmas holidays, might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for the last two decades it’s proved an absolute sanity saver for me. However, this is one present that I have to sort for myself and it simply has to be wrapped up well in advance of the Big Day. So, to give myself the best possible chance of securing the right post, I begin the search when the first leaves fall in autumn, and this year was no exception. By the middle of November I had the choice of two situations, but it was the isolated location of one of them which left me powerless to resist.
'And just how remotely situated would you say Wynthorpe Hall actually is?’ I asked, during the brief telephone interview with Angus Connelly, the hall owner, who was keen for me to take the temporary job he had to offer.
'Very,’ he cautiously replied. ‘And is that going to be a problem do you think, Anna? Because this really isn’t the sort of place where you can just pop round the corner for a bag of sugar, I’m afraid. It’s more like a forty-minute round trip into town and there are no other houses nearby.’
Little did he know it of course, but his words were music to my ears. The other job I had been offered was back in central London and although the pay and perks were vastly different, so was the atmosphere at this time of year. The city would already be awash with lights, cheesy tunes and festive cheer and as far as I was concerned that was far too hefty a price to pay for an extra zero on the salary. Hunkering down in the barren and frosty Fenland landscape, without so much as a carol singer in sight, would be a much appreciated soothing balm to my troubled soul and I mulled it over with relish.
‘Of course I appreciate that compared to some, we don’t have much to offer in terms of inducements,’ Mr Connelly continued, no doubt taking my hesitation for a refusal, ‘but the work is light and it will be quiet here for most of the time. My wife, Catherine, is recovering well from her surgery now so—’
'And that’s what I don’t really understand,’ I interrupted. ‘According to your email your wife had knee surgery some weeks ago. Surely if she’s up and about she doesn’t need someone to look after her now, especially as you just said yourself you have no grand plans for Christmas this year.’
I know I sounded blunt, but I needed to secure a position that would keep me busy and occupied. I couldn’t abide wasting time during any month of the year, but especially during December. Twiddling my thumbs would lead to thinking, and thinking when the decorations were out of the loft was the one thing I never allowed myself to do.
This telephone call was my one opportunity to ascertain that I wouldn’t be besieged by free time, or conversely that I wouldn’t be roped into helping to prepare some grand country-house Christmas either, and therefore I was determined to have everything settled in my mind, every wrinkle smoothed out, before I made my final decision.
'Well, you see the thing is, I can’t help thinking she’s started to overdo things a bit,’ Mr Connelly elaborated, lowering his voice a little. ‘She won’t have it of course, but I think she’s taking on too much. She insists she’s just pottering about, but I’m afraid she’s going to suffer in the long run and she’s come so far. I’d hate to see her slipping back to square one.’
His voice trailed off, but the tenderness in his tone had penetrated my heart and unexpectedly made my eyes mist up a little.
'If she had someone here she could delegate to,’ he continued with a sigh. ‘Someone discreet and unimposing with whom she could do things, someone who could keep a subtle eye on her . . .’
'Well, I am discreet,’ I acknowledged.
'So you’ll come?’ he quickly cut in. ‘She doesn’t want to let me or the rest of the staff do much for her at all so she may take some talking round to begin with, but you’ll take the job, won’t you?’
I thought back over the last three contracts I had worked, caring for a succession of rather spoilt under-eights in various cities dotted around the country and the idyll of a child-free, low-key Christmas in the sticks looked and sounded more appealing than ever.
As an experienced ‘Girl Friday’ I could turn my hand to a variety of jobs including nanny, housekeeper, secretary, companion and carer. I loved all of my chosen roles, most of the time, and this position, according to the advertisement in the recruitment pages of The Lady magazine, looked as if it combined practically all of them, along with the added benefit of avoiding anything to do with a commercial city Christmas of course.
Even if my charge was initially going to need careful handling, this was exactly the sort of brief and straightforward arrangement I was looking for to tide me over until January when I would be ready to jump back on the treadmill as soon as Twelfth Night was ticked off the calendar.
'All right,’ I said decisively, ‘I’ll take the job. I’ll see you next Friday afternoon, Mr Connelly.’
'Oh that’s marvellous!’ he exclaimed. ‘And please, call me Angus.’
'And you’re quite sure you don’t want to come and have a look at the place first, just to make absolutely sure you’ll be happy here?’
I had already had a brief glimpse at Google Maps to confirm the hall really was the perfect spot to see out the silly season for a ‘bah humbug’ like me, and with regards to my happiness, I didn’t think a few weeks was anywhere near long enough to warrant taking it into consideration.
'No,’ I reassured him. ‘But thank you. That really won’t be necessary.’
'Well in that case,’ he sighed, sounding well pleased, ‘we’ll see you next week.’
The weather had turned foggy and frosty by the following Friday and the driving conditions from my last post in Winchester to my new one bordering the furthest reaches of Wynbridge couldn’t have been worse. I hadn’t planned to stop en route at all, but as the three-hour journey turned into four I began to flag, and knew that if I wanted to present myself in the best possible light at the door of Wynthorpe Hall, I was going to need to freshen up first.Like the sound of Sleigh Rides and Silver Bells at The Christmas Fair? Keep an eye out for the other stops on the blog tour for your chance to win a copy to read for yourself.
My heart thumped hard in my chest as I crossed the bridge into the little market town and my eyes fell upon huddles of locals rushing about with clipboards, strings of lights and boxes of enormous baubles. The hall might have been planning a simple festive celebration, but here in town it looked suspiciously like the preparations for Christmas were already in full swing.
'What can I get you?’ asked a waitress wearing a cupcake-patterned apron as I bagged myself a tucked-away table in a place called The Cherry Tree Café. ‘We’re just about to start serving lunch if you fancy something hot.’
The delicious aroma wafting from the kitchen was enough to set my stomach growling and although I didn’t normally eat a hot meal at lunchtime I thought the chill in my bones justified the extra calories on this occasion. I had only walked a short distance from the car to the café, but my winter go-to ‘first impression outfit’, comprising of a grey pencil skirt and soft cream cashmere jumper, did little to stave off the chill, even though I was still wearing my Burberry quilted jacket.
'We’re launching our special Winter Warmer menu today,’ the woman continued, sensing I was about to crumble. ‘The soup is butternut squash, served with pumpkin bread, and the roasted vegetable quiche comes with a twice baked cheesy jacket potato and winter salad.’
'In that case, I’ll have the quiche please,’ I surprised myself by saying, ‘and a coffee.’
'I’ll have your coffee sent straight over,’ she smiled, watching as I rubbed my hands together and blew on my fingers. ‘It’ll warm you up.’
It didn’t take long to thaw out inside the cosy café and as I hungrily devoured the delicious quiche I watched with interest as customers bustled in and out, most of them taking with them a slice of something sweet packed inside a cherry-patterned box, doubtless destined for afternoon tea at home.
'Are you always this busy?’ I asked the curly-haired waitress who came to clear away my dishes.
'Always,’ she grinned, ‘but especially on days like this. It’s the grand switch-on tomorrow night, so the market is heaving. Are you going to be in town for the party?’
'Oh no,’ I said, perhaps a little too quickly. ‘I’m just passing through.’
'That's a shame,’ she tutted. ‘It’s going to be quite a celebration.’
'I can imagine,’ I said, looking out of the window as two enormous trees were being hoisted into place at either end of the market. I quickly averted my gaze, pretending to be engrossed in something on my phone.
'Would you like another coffee?’
'No thank you, but the lunch was delicious.’ I replied, suddenly noticing the time on the screen. ‘I really should be getting on. I’m expected at Wynthorpe Hall this afternoon.’
‘Not passing through far then,’ she grinned. ‘You aren’t Anna by any chance, are you?’
'Yes,’ I frowned, taken aback. ‘Yes, I am.’
'Angus is so pleased you’ve agreed to take the job,’ she continued, plenty loud enough for everyone to hear and as if we were picking up the thread of a former conversation.
So much for being discreet.
'He’s been really worried about Catherine rushing her recovery.’
'Which is ironic really, isn’t it, Lizzie?’ added the other waitress, who had tuned into the conversation, ‘because usually she’s the one fretting over him.’
'He’s known around here as Mr Toad, isn’t he, Jemma?’ Lizzie expanded. ‘Because he’s always up to mischief with some crazy scheme or another.’
'But he’s an absolute sweetheart,’ Jemma beamed. ‘Completely eccentric of course,’ Lizzie laughed, ‘but thoroughly lovely.’
I didn’t know what to say. I’d literally just arrived in the county and already my presence was common knowledge and my employer was being described as a comical, if somewhat exasperating, fictional character. It was an unusual situation to say the least. I was used to the anonymity of city living and working in places where my employers’ idiosyncrasies weren’t commented on.
'Did I hear that right?’ boomed a man’s voice from the other side of the café. ‘Are you the lass who has taken the job up at the hall?’
'Yes, Chris, she is,’ confirmed Jemma, before I had a chance to even open my mouth.
'Then would you do me a favour and take their fruit and veg order with you when you go? I’m rushed off my feet today, what with the deliveries taking twice as long in this fog, and the tree-decorating to oversee ahead of tomorrow night.’
'All right,’ I agreed, too shocked to refuse as I fumbled in my bag for my purse.
I thanked and paid the Cherry Tree ladies for my lovely lunch, then led Chris Dempster, who declared himself the very best fruit and veg trader in the local area, over to my car where he proceeded to dump my suitcase on the passenger seat and stock the diminutive boot with enough produce to feed a small army.
'I won’t ask you to help,’ he said, taking in my outfit. ‘Not in that gear.’
I picked up a large bag of potatoes and hauled it onto the back seat, keen to show that despite what he may have assumed about me, I was certainly no princess. He chuckled and raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment.
'Are you sure this is their order?’ I asked, taking in the bulging bags of carrots and sack stuffed with sprouts when I had got my breath back. ‘There seems to be an awful lot here for so few people.’
'They’re no doubt stocking up ahead of Christmas,’ he said, tapping the side of his nose and making my heart hammer in my chest again.
'But that’s weeks away,’ I said with a squeak, my cool facade slipping a little in my panic. ‘And Mr Connelly told me they’re planning a rather low-key Christmas this year.’
‘Well, I shouldn’t worry,’ Chris grinned, before adding with a throaty chuckle, ‘this lot won’t last five minutes at the hall. That cook of theirs likes to keep the troops well fed. By this time next week you’ll no doubt be heading back for more of the same.’