Sealed with a Christmas Kiss (3 page)

BOOK: Sealed with a Christmas Kiss
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Maddy looked hurt. ‘I just want it to be nice. That’s all.’

Realizing she’d inadvertently stepped on a landmine, Kate poured a larger glass of wine than she meant to for Maddy, who took it with both hands and a relieved expression. Last-minute
nerves, perhaps. Maybe it was time to change the subject. If Morag was around, she could take Maddy to visit the Highland ponies; they were always a hit. Roddy could take Leo off and show him the
forestry, or something. Hopefully he’d have picked up on the atmosphere.

‘Here’s to the first wedding at Duntarvie House.’ Oblivious, Roderick raised his glass to Maddy and Leo.

Kate stifled a snort with a cough, gave him a very hard stare and clinked glasses with the happy-couple-to-be, noticing as she did so that Leo was looking distracted and Maddy despondent. Hardly
the best advert for wedded bliss.

Outside, the snow continued to fall: tiny but persistent flakes, which quickly covered everything in sight.

She’d judged it just right – Maddy, like most girls she knew, had been a pony-mad teenager, and Morag’s beautiful Highland ponies were the perfect
distraction. Dwarfed by an ancient, battered waxed jacket and one of Kate’s woolly hats, Maddy still managed to look beautiful. She was standing in the stable beside Freya, Morag’s
prize brood mare, who was heavily in foal and quite alarmingly rotund. Freya looked through her long grey forelock at Kate, accepting Maddy’s cuddle but clearly hoping there might be
something else in it for her. Kate rifled through her pockets, finding a dusty sweet. Freya whiffled it up gratefully.

‘I could just stay here all day.’ Maddy’s voice was muffled, her face buried in Freya’s neck.

‘I quite often pop up for a bit of horse therapy when things are getting a bit much,’ admitted Kate.

‘It’s just we seem to be doing nothing but argue since we won this wedding competition. I don’t understand why – Leo seemed happy enough when he found out we’d
won.’ She paused for a moment before continuing. ‘Well, he didn’t seem to
, anyway.’

‘Men quite often don’t make sense,’ Kate shrugged, ‘and men and weddings seem – from what I’ve seen – to be a bad combination.’

‘I just don’t know, Kate.’ Maddy’s pretty face fell. ‘If he spent as much time on me as he does on bloody work – sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ve no
idea why I’m telling you this.’

‘It’s okay – it happens to me all the time. I think I’ve got that sort of face. Maybe I was a priest in a past life, or something.’ Kate gave her a cheer-up sort of
smile. ‘It’s just pre-wedding stress, I’m sure. It’s not even four weeks. Once you’re off on honeymoon, it’ll all be worth it.’

‘I hope so.’ Maddy looked doubtful.

Locking the stable door behind them, Kate took a deep breath. If they were going to have weddings all year round at Duntarvie, she was going to have to get used to stressed-out couples, and she
was going to have to work on letting it all go over her head.

Back at the house, with Maddy and Leo safely installed in their room, Kate collapsed onto the ancient sofa in the sitting room. The fire was burning brightly and the three dogs
were melting gently on the rug, tongues out, basking. Even Willow, her year-old spaniel, only managed to half-raise her head and give a few faint beats of her tail in greeting.

She had ninety minutes until she needed to be back on duty again, and the Saturday papers were lying in an enticing heap on the table. Having made a coffee to counteract the afternoon wine, she
curled up for a moment to recover.


‘Ughhh. What?’ Kate sat up, head fuzzy.

‘Where have you been?’ Roderick, clean-shaven, dark hair flopping into his eyes, was ready to face the guests.

The fire had died down a little and Kate looked across at the table. Her coffee was stone cold, undrunk. She’d dropped off as soon as she sat down – something that seemed to be
happening a lot recently, which was probably down to the ridiculous hours they were putting into getting the house up to scratch.

‘Oh, darling. I came back and assumed you were all sorted, ’cause there was no sign of you upstairs.’

That was the trouble with living in a house this size, thought Kate. In a normal house, you didn’t lose your partner in the west wing.

‘So I jumped in a shower and got myself sorted and now it’s – ’ he checked his watch – ‘half an hour until Tom and Susan are due, and the happy couple are
expecting you to do your lady of the manor bit.’

‘Bugger.’ Kate scrambled out of the depths of the sofa, newspapers dropping onto the floor.

‘Leave them. I’ll sort this place out a bit and stick the dinner in the oven. You go and get sorted.’

Thankfully she’d washed her hair that morning, and a quick shower was enough to make her respectable. She stood in front of her wardrobe in panic. There was a selection
of super-glam dresses from her old life of clubbing and nights out in Cambridge, and rather more woolly jumpers, cute T-shirts and cardigans from the day-to-day outfits she wore here on the island.
Nobody dressed up here much, although if it was one of the occasional island fundraising roof-raisers, suddenly everyone dug out outfits which could out-sparkle the most glamorous London party.
She’d known Maddy and Leo were coming for a couple of weeks now – why on earth hadn’t she thought about this sooner?

Black skinny jeans were a good start – but with her chipped toenail varnish, definitely not the peep-toe heels. They were hellish to walk in, anyway. It’d have to be the black velvet
heels, and – oh, what was that on the floor of the wardrobe? The red chiffon shirt. With a black camisole underneath . . . where was it?

Having managed to scramble together an outfit, she flipped up her dark curls with a silver comb and a couple of grips, and smudged on a bit of eyeliner. She tapped her phone, checking the time
– four minutes until she was due downstairs. Oops. With a final slick of lip gloss, she hurtled out of the room.

‘Gorgeous,’ Roddy whispered into her hair, pulling her close for a second after she strolled into the sitting room, trying to look cool and collected.

‘Thank you, darling. Just something I threw together.’ Stepping back to give him a twirl, Kate gave him a cheeky smile. He knew her well enough by now to realize this was very
probably true, and he gave her a wink of acknowledgement.

‘Maddy, Leo.’ With his usual immaculate timing, Roddy caught the door for them almost before they appeared, Maddy looking slightly hesitant. Duntarvie House was big enough to get
lost in, especially on a first visit. Kate realized they would have to make signs for wedding days, to make sure they didn’t end up with wedding guests wandering into the kitchen – or
her favourite spot, the beautiful old library, full of ancient books which had belonged to Roddy’s dad.

Mixing a gin and tonic for Maddy and whiskies for himself and Leo, Roderick looked quite at ease. It was at times like this, when other people were in the equation, that Kate suddenly realized
how strange this world still was to her. She found herself straightening cushions in a manner that reminded her of her mother. If she wasn’t careful, she’d be dusting imaginary specks
of dust off the mantelpiece. She took a mouthful of her drink and swallowed, trying to remind herself that she belonged.

Glass in hand, her long strawberry-blonde hair half-tied back in a Pre-Raphaelite fashion, Maddy was admiring the paintings which lined the oak-panelled walls of the sitting room. Roderick,
guiding her by the elbow, was talking to her about his ancestors. Kate couldn’t make out what they were saying from a distance, but it was clear that he was putting her at ease. She watched
as Maddy chatted away happily.

Leo, standing with his back to the fire, looked at Kate expectantly, clearing his throat. She had literally no idea what to say to him. Small talk with wedding guests was something else she was
going to have to work on. He didn’t seem the type for polite conversation about the weather.

‘So, did you manage to get your work stuff sorted out earlier?’

He looked momentarily confused. ‘Work?’

‘Your call, when I collected you from the boat. We left you in the car?’

‘Oh. Work. Yep, all sorted.’

‘Great.’ Oh God, this was like pulling teeth. He had to be fantastic in bed or something, because otherwise she had no idea what on earth Maddy saw in him.

‘So is that you off duty for the weekend, now? No more work calls?’ This was desperate. Displaced by the dogs, who’d finally roused and were keen to investigate the interesting
new smells on this stranger, Leo stepped sideways towards the window that looked down onto the beach. It was pitch dark now, and the snow was still falling. At this rate they were going to end up
snowed in.

Leo’s pocket emitted several bleeps, breaking the awkward silence.

‘Yep. Yes, that’s me off duty.’ He patted his pocket hard, as if to silence it. ‘No idea what all that is.’

‘You’re in the only part of the room that gets a mobile signal. That’s probably a whole afternoon of messages arriving at once.’
And hopefully one of them urgently
requiring you to leave the island immediately
, Kate thought.

Maddy and Roderick returned from the far end of the room, easy in each other’s company.

‘You two okay?’ Roddy, sensing Kate’s discomfort, put a calming hand on the small of her back. She felt herself relaxing into him, tension disappearing. He knew what to say to
keep boring Leo happy.

‘Yep, great.’ Leo touched his pocket again, unthinkingly.

‘Yes, lovely. Just chatting about work and things,’ Kate said brightly.

‘No more work, Leo. You promised.’ Maddy’s tone was warning, but she smoothed it over with a smile.

‘Nope, definitely not. Just got to pop to the – where’s the toilet?’

His pocket bleeped again, insistently.

‘Just across the hall, down the passageway to the left.’ Roderick waved vaguely.

‘The door next to the portrait of the man in a kilt with a Jack Russell,’ said Kate, helpfully.

‘Uncle Hector.’ Maddy, having just had the family tour, had clearly been paying attention. She gave Roderick a knowing smile.

‘That’s the one. Another drink, Maddy? Your glass is empty.’ Roderick took her glass, making for the drinks cabinet. Kate looked at her own empty glass with a slight raise of
the eyebrows. Maddy was very small, very beautiful and very charming, and she suddenly felt rather lacking in all of the above.

Leo disappeared from the room, hand in pocket. She got a distinct impression that the only thing he urgently needed was a work email fix, not a visit to the loo.

‘Let’s get this party start-e-e-ed . . . ’

Kate had never been more relieved to hear Susan’s terrible singing voice echoing through the hall. There was a clatter of bottles and the thud of boots, as Willow shot up from her bed with
an excited bark. Kate jumped up, ostensibly to let in her guests but mainly to escape the increasingly strained atmosphere.

In the hall, having let themselves in, stood Tom MacKelvie and his wife, Susan. They threw off their coats, leaving puddles of melted snow on the floor. Willow, circling, her tail flapping
madly, licked them up. Susan was dressed beautifully as ever, her dark hair cut in a close crop which emphasized her huge eyes. She was wearing a short shift dress with opaque black tights, and had
exchanged her snow-covered wellingtons for a pair of vertiginous heels which took her to over six feet tall. She gave Kate a much-appreciated hug, looking over her shoulder into the sitting

‘What’s the goss?’ she whispered low enough that nobody else could hear.

‘She’s lovely. He’s – weird,’ Kate mouthed back, paranoid that she’d be caught out.

‘There’s a man here with no drink.’ Tom half-embraced his best friend, Roderick, and held his hands out in a gesture of desperation.

Leo returned from the bathroom to a room suddenly filled with life. Kate watched him reach out to Tom, shaking hands, smiling as Tom explained his role as gamekeeper on the Duntarvie Estate.
Clearly it wasn’t Leo that was the problem, it was her. Everyone else seemed to get on with him just fine. She looked sideways at Susan, who was draped across the arm of the sofa, chatting
away to Maddy about her wedding plans. Kate couldn’t shake a feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but she was the only person who seemed to notice it. She poured herself a tonic
water, topping it up with ice and lemon. Something made her uncomfortable, and she wanted to be on her guard.

Over dinner the wine flowed, but Kate kept her glass half full. Nobody noticed that she was topping up everyone else’s glass but not her own, and by the time she pulled
the salted caramel tart out of the larder, the mood varied from pleasantly mellow (Roddy) through to surprisingly plastered (Leo). He was definitely more communicative with several drinks inside
him, and as Kate set the tart down he turned to her with a grin.

‘Tart’s on the table, eh, Kate? Dress rehearsal for my stag do.’

‘Leo! You’d better be joking.’ Maddy glared at him, pulled up short from her conversation with Susan, who cocked her head at Kate, frowning slightly.

Kate shook her head in a response which was almost imperceptible. Their friendship had been forged over a long year in the close-knit island community, and Susan had been delighted when Kate and
her best friend Roddy had finally admitted how they felt about each other. It was a relief to know that Susan had her back.

Leo smirked at Kate, a knowing expression on his face. ‘’Course, darling.’

Kate balled her hands into fists behind her back. He was an absolute
, and nobody else seemed to think so. And if she was Maddy, she’d be running at a hundred miles an hour in
the opposite direction, not down the aisle with that tosser. She took a deep breath.

Later that night she’d probably lie in bed thinking of numerous witty, tart-based retorts. Instead Kate bit her tongue and passed the jug of cream around the table, smiling politely.

‘Coffee, anyone?’ Susan pushed her chair away from the table, its legs screeching on the wooden floor.

Kate gave her a thankful look and sat down to eat her pudding, realizing as she did that she had no appetite.

BOOK: Sealed with a Christmas Kiss
8.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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