Sealed with a Christmas Kiss (7 page)

BOOK: Sealed with a Christmas Kiss
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Passing over the stone bridge, she looked up towards Ted and Morag’s stables. The house sat, reassuringly square, atop the hill. The field that stretched out beyond was dotted with the
shapes of numerous rotund Highland ponies.

If things had been different, all this could have belonged to Morag
, Kate remembered. Years ago Roddy’s father had been in love with her, but too cautious – or too shy
– to tell her how he felt. He’d watched his best friend, Ted, woo the woman he loved and take her away to start a new life in London, where they’d married and lived happily
together for many years. Now they were back here, living in the stables that had been bequeathed to Morag in Roddy’s father’s will.

Kate drove past the cottage, not noticing Morag waving from the gateway of the stable yard. She drove on, slowing up unthinkingly, the habit of old ingrained. She turned the car left down a
stony driveway and bumped down a little track. There was Bruar Cottage, her first home on the island of Auchenmor. She pulled up the car, flipping the keys in her hand, feeling for the big old
metal key that would open the dark-red front door.

The air inside was cool and damp. She’d timed this right. Another couple of weeks and she’d have found the place in a different state – it was due to be renovated, one of the
cottages that would be rented out to tourists and wedding guests as part of the packages they’d be offering. She flicked on the light. Most of the furniture was still there – even the
little pieces she’d found in the charity shops in town and lovingly repainted with pale, chalky colours. There hadn’t been much point moving them up to the big house when she’d
left – they were normal-house-sized, and Duntarvie was so enormous it dwarfed everything. Including, thought Kate with a frown, her relationship with Roddy.

She stepped through the doorway into the sitting room. It was freezing, and the central heating would take forever to get going – if it was even working. It had always been
temperamental.

On the fireplace was a leftover box of matches, and when she looked down it was with relief – thank goodness for being disorganized. If she’d finished sorting this place out, she
wouldn’t have left half a basket of logs and a half-box of firelighters. Scrumpling up an ancient copy of
Grazia
that had been discarded on the bookshelf, she got to work. If there
was one thing she could do well, it was light this fire. It was satisfying to get to work on something – within a quarter of an hour, she sat back on her heels, feeling pleased with
herself.

‘Kate?’

She looked up from the flames. Susan was standing in the doorway, the discarded shopping bags in her hand, a questioning look on her face.

‘I thought I’d light the fire first.’

‘Okay. You left the shopping in the doorway, that’s fair enough.’ Susan cracked open one of the bottles of rosé and disappeared out of the room for a moment, returning
with two glasses. She filled them almost to the top and handed one to her friend.

‘You want to explain why you’ve apparently forgotten where you live? Did I miss a memo?’

Kate took a massive gulp of wine. It was remarkably sweet, like strawberry fruit squash. She took another swig for good measure.

‘Roddy asked me to marry him.’

Susan leapt across the room in a bound, managing not to spill a drop. She wrapped her arms around Kate with a shriek, then realized after a second that the body she was hugging was stony and
unmoving. She pulled back, holding Kate at arm’s length, and looked at her.

Kate didn’t quite know what to do with her face. She hid her expression behind the wine glass, taking another mouthful.

‘Okay. I thought you’d maybe had a bit of a falling-out – I told Tom as much when I got back to the house. He told me to come and administer wine and sympathy, and that
he’d put the children to bed. But Kate – he’s asked you to
marry
him?’

‘Yeah.’ One mumbled little word.

‘Ohh-kay. And it’s not “congratulations, excellent news” we’re going for, but “pass me the wine and comfort food”?’

‘I dunno. Oh God, Susan, I know you think I’m insane. It’s just—’

‘Oh come on, Kate. People get married after two
weeks.
You two are made for each other – it doesn’t matter if you’ve only been together a year. Life is for
living.’

‘It’s not that. He only bloody asked because Maddy and Sam turned out to be a washout, and we’re supposed to be doing a showcase wedding for Sian’s stupid
website.’

‘I’ve known him since we were tiny, Kate. Roddy doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to. God, you ought to know that.’ Susan reached into the carrier bag, peeling
open the huge bar of chocolate. She snapped off a strip of squares, passing them across to her friend. Kate shook her head.

‘His main priority is Duntarvie House, Susan. I come second to a stately home.’

Susan looked at Kate. She shook her head slowly, popping a square of chocolate into her mouth.

‘No. You’ve got this one wrong. He loves you. In fact, let’s just point out the facts here, sweetie.’

Kate swung round so she was facing her friend directly, curling her toes up onto the battered old sofa. The fire was roaring now, and the room was warming up.

‘So the guy you love, who completely adores you,’ Susan counted out her points on her fingers, eyebrows arched, ‘who you have
finally
moved in with after months of
making your point about being independent – so, he wants to marry you. And the problem is . . . ?’

‘You remember when we got together? When Fiona tried to convince me he was only after someone to carry on the family name?’

‘Yes. And I remember that everyone told you she was a conniving cow, and you were ridiculous to believe her for even a second.’

It was easy for Susan to say that – she’d known Roddy all her life, and she knew his ex-girlfriend well enough to make confident statements. The expression of smug satisfaction on
Fiona’s face when she’d planted the final seed of doubt was one Kate could still remember. All those insecurities hadn’t gone away after all; they’d just been hiding in her
subconscious, waiting to pounce.

‘Come on, Kate. If Roddy was given a choice between you and Duntarvie Estate, he wouldn’t even think about it for a second.’

Kate stopped plaiting the tassels on the cushion she was hugging for a moment. There had been a point a few months back when they’d come seriously close to walking away – when the
stark reality of being responsible just seemed too much for Roddy to cope with. The repair bill for the roof lining had been so steep that they’d both seriously considered giving it up,
starting afresh somewhere else, leaving the house to become a tourist attraction and not a home. Kate had been the one to talk Roddy into staying when he’d wanted to sell up, walk out, and
have a normal life. She’d reminded him how many families relied on the estate for their livelihood, the tenant farmers who’d lived there all their lives, the workers at the fishery and
the forestry. If they had given up, they’d have been making a choice for everyone.

Knowing when to keep quiet, Susan reached across, topping up Kate’s glass as she stared into the flames.

Susan had a point – all right, several of them, really. Kate had spent so many nights here when she’d first moved to the island, texting Emma back home in England, desperately trying
to disguise her homesickness. Then, as the months had moved on, she’d settled into island life, and to coming home in the evenings to this little sofa where she’d sat, curled up with a
hot chocolate, watching DVDs or re-reading her favourite books. It seemed so tiny in here now, compared to the vast sitting room at Duntarvie House. That room’s fireplace alone would take up
half the wall in here. It had been a real shock to the system, moving from such a tiny cottage into the big house.

‘Did I ever tell you about my wedding day?’

Kate shook herself out of her thoughts, focusing again on Susan, who was leaning back against the cushions, fingers linked together, her arms stretched out above her head. She looked like a
cat.

‘I’ve seen photos. It looks like it was a gorgeous day—’

‘Ah, the camera lies. My dad got drunk and flirted with one of the bridesmaids. I cried all morning because the flower arrangements weren’t perfect. Tom cut himself shaving and had a
piece of loo roll stuck on his chin for half the getting-ready photos – his best man thought it was so funny he didn’t tell him. It was a total nightmare, if I’m
honest.’

‘You’re not really selling the idea to me.’ Kate gave half a smile.

‘No, but it’s the first time since I got here I’ve seen your face crack.’ Susan clinked her wine glass against Kate’s.

‘You don’t think I’d be taking a massive risk?’ Kate swirled her wine, watching the liquid whirlpool round, talking half to herself.

‘You only get one life, Kate. You took the leap and moved up here in the first place. Don’t bottle it now.’

Kate put down her glass, taking a deep breath with closed eyes. She’d given up her old life and moved to the island of Auchenmor. There was a gorgeous man standing in a castle right now
who happened to love her. A bloody
castle.
And a Christmas wedding would be really quite gorgeous . . .

‘Right. You’re right. What’s the worst that can happen?’

‘That’s the spirit. I’m going to text Tom, tell him to let Roddy know you’ve not hijacked a rowboat to make your way back to the mainland.’

‘I should probably text him myself . . . ’

‘Let him sweat a bit,’ said Susan, authoritatively. ‘Keep him on his toes. Meanwhile, I’ve got a leave pass for tonight and we’ve got a ton of wine and chocolate to
get through – we can call this an impromptu hen night.’

5
Moving Backwards

Kate woke as the low morning sun hit her in the face. Opening her eyes, she felt the light burn into her head like a hot knife. She screwed them closed again, groaning. Her
mouth was dry as sand and her back completely rigid. This wasn’t bed. She tried to turn around, but instead of Roddy’s sleeping form, there were the back cushions of the sofa. The
cottage sofa – where she’d – oh, God.

The fire was a pile of cold grey ash and the room was freezing cold. On the other sofa, sprawled out under makeshift covers, was Susan. Kate clambered out from beneath her old duvet, which
smelled faintly of damp. It was like being back in the first year of university.

In the kitchen, she got two glasses of water and fished in her handbag for some paracetamol. Thank God there was a pack.
Please let them work fast.
Her head felt like someone was
banging a mallet on it in time with her pulse.

‘Ughhh.’ A groan came from the sitting room. Kate took Susan her drink, popping out a further two painkillers from the pack and handing them over silently. Susan swallowed them
obediently before shuffling into a semi-upright position.

‘Tom’s going to go mad – he doesn’t know where you were, does he?’ Kate felt a sudden wave of panic. ‘How much wine did we drink in the end?’

‘I texted him last night and told him not to expect me back. Don’t you remember?’ Susan laughed.

‘I remember singing Spice Girls songs and showing you I could do the splits. Then it all goes a bit fuzzy.’

Susan waved a hand towards the fireplace. All three wine bottles lay empty, along with the remnants of a carpet picnic of crisps, sweets, microwave curry and chocolate.

‘Ringing any bells yet?’

‘I don’t want to think about it. I feel a bit queasy just looking at that lot. And – oh, shit.’

‘What’s up?’

‘Roddy. I just stormed off. What the hell is he going to think?’

Susan eased herself upright, looking seasick. ‘He’s fine. I think I told Tom to tell him you’re with me. I think.’

Kate shot her a look of concern. She’d stormed out and left Roddy, telling him she didn’t want any of this. In the cold light of a hungover morning, with her temper cooled, she was
realizing that she might have been a bit hasty. Maybe he’d been in touch. She reached into her bag, finding her phone. Pulling it out, she realized it was dead. There was no way of knowing if
he’d been in touch, except by doing the walk of shame down the hill to Duntarvie House – with this elephant-sized hangover, there was no way she’d be safe to drive. She closed her
eyes, feeling a wave of nausea wash over her.

As it turned out, Tom was swinging down the drive in his 4x4 with both the children strapped in the back.

‘You two aren’t fit to be let loose with a bottle of wine, never mind a gallon of the stuff.’

Kate slid into the back seat beside Mhairi, their toddler. She was chewing on a gingerbread Christmas tree and offered it, companionably, to a nauseated Kate.

‘It’s fine, sweetheart, you have it.’

‘Mama have?’ Mhairi strained forward, sticky biscuit in her fat little fist.

‘Mummy’s a bit delicate today, my darling. You have it.’

‘Daddy said you and Kate would have big headaches today, Mummy.’ Jamie, with the wisdom of a newly-six-year-old, looked at Kate, sizing her up.

Tom snorted with laughter as he pulled the car to a stop in the courtyard of Duntarvie House. ‘I think Daddy was right, Jamie. What do you think, Mummy and Kate?’

Kate gave a seasick smile. ‘Daddy knows his stuff. I think I might have to have a little nap.’

She stood for a moment as the car scrunched away on the gravel, still aware of the sound of her heart thudding in her ears. She felt weirdly nervous. The kitchen light cast a familiar, welcoming
glow in the midwinter gloom. She approached cautiously, half expecting to see Roddy peering out from the window, but there was no sign of him.

She opened the big wooden door which led into the hallway. Despite the early hour, one of the forestry workers had already delivered a huge Christmas tree, at least 25 feet tall. It was balanced
at an angle against the staircase and gallery above. The whole place was filled with the unmistakable scent of pine needles, the parquet floor covered with muddy boot prints and scattered pieces of
fir tree. It was Jean’s day off, and if she got back tomorrow to find the place looking like this she’d go mad.

BOOK: Sealed with a Christmas Kiss
3.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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