House of Christmas SecretsBy: Lynda Stacey
Many thanks go to Mr Gerald Aburrow and Dr Mark Giles, the true owners of Wrea Head Hall. You’ve both been so unbelievably supportive throughout the publication of both House of Secrets and its sequel, House of Christmas Secrets and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Wrea Head Hall Hotel, your home is the most beautiful and inspirational setting that I could have wished for. I always feel very spoiled when get the opportunity to stay at the Hall and I constantly encourage everyone that I know to go and stay with you too.
As always a huge thank you goes to my husband, Haydn. I couldn’t write any of my books without your support. Our brainstorming sessions over dinner are always fun, we tear the books apart and put them back together and always for the better. You really are the best husband I could have ever wished for, you’re the anchor in my life and the one person in the world who I could not live without.
Many thanks to author Jane Lovering who critiques all of my work. On some days you pull me along, kicking and screaming and on other days we get to eat afternoon tea and drink Prosecco, which is always fun.
To both Kathy Kilner and author Victoria Howard who read my manuscripts over and over. You both give me the valuable (honest) feedback that every author needs and for that I thank you both.
To my cover designer: you are amazing. Thank you. I love them all. x
To my editor: thank you for all your hard work. You add the sparkle and the shine to each and every one of my novels and I love every moment of working with you. x
To the Tasting Panel readers who passed this novel: Melissa B, Sigi, Elena B, Jo O and Barbara P.
And finally to the team at Choc Lit: you’re the best. Thank you so much for all your support and encouragement. You have no idea how much it’s appreciated. xxx
Jess hovered in the hotel’s grand hall and leaned against the huge inglenook fireplace. She brushed her dark, wild Afro hair away from her face, more out of habit than need, before allowing her hand to run across the stone mantel. Her fingertips traced the detail in the antique carved stone, and she tipped her head to one side in order to study it more closely. She had lived at Wrea Head Hall now for almost eighteen months, yet each and every day she found another thing of beauty that she hadn’t previously noticed.
Kneeling down by the tiled hearth, she felt herself shiver as she plunged her fingers into the thick pile of the new carpet. Everything was new and had been replaced after the fire that had almost destroyed the whole hotel just over a year before and now, instead of the dark blues that had previously run throughout the grand hall, everything was decorated in warm reds and golds, giving the whole room a rich and luxurious finish. Jess looked up to the ceiling, thankful that the ornate plaster had survived, along with the carved bosses within it that were painted gold on the white background. So much had been lost, yet miraculously much had also been saved or repaired. Even the Wren oak panelling had been restored, and Jess smiled at its beauty, grateful that the insurance had covered the work, and relieved that skilled craftsmen had pulled out all the stops to bring the Hall back to its former glory.
Jess picked up the long, cast iron poker, and began to stab at the embers in the grate, before carefully choosing a log, lifting back the fireguard and throwing the wood into the flames that already danced up the chimney. The sudden addition of another log created new flames of gold, orange and blue that wrapped themselves around the wood. For Jess the flames held a mesmerising magic and comfort that she couldn’t explain, and many a night she’d come down here with Jack after the guests had all gone to their beds. Together they’d sit on one of the settees, cuddling up, holding hands and simply staring into what remained of the embers.
‘Never waste a log,’ Jack often said to her; it was a saying he’d picked up from Madeleine’s father shortly before his untimely death. The saying always made Jess sigh and she wondered what life at the hotel would have been like had Morris survived. Would she be living here? Would she have got to know Jack? Would they have fallen in love? And what if they hadn’t, where would she be now and what would she be doing? She held a hand to her heart and acknowledged that she had so many reasons to be happy. Yet, she was fully aware that she was only happy because others, including herself, had previously suffered. She thought back to the year before, to how her sister Madeleine’s former boyfriend had terrorised them all and every single day she wished that Liam had never existed, that Madeleine had never met him and that he’d never got involved with their precious family. After all, he’d killed many of the people they loved and had almost succeeded in killing the rest. His obsession with Madeleine had caused each and every one of them more pain and heartache than Jess could have ever imagined.
Feeling a little warmer, Jess moved back from the fire, sat on the upholstered fender seat within the inglenook and thought about the past. It was times like this, as she sat watching the flames, that she’d think of her mother, of Madeleine’s father and of all the people that Liam had killed, while all the time feeling ridiculously overwhelmed and grateful to have survived his clutches.
‘This year we’re just going to have a nice, normal Christmas,’ she whispered to herself in full knowledge that the happenings of the year before had been somewhat extraordinary. In fact, she thought that this Christmas might end up being what most people would classify as boring. But she didn’t care; after being kidnapped, after thinking that both she and Maddie might die, any kind of boring would be absolutely perfect. The only good part of the Christmas before had been Christmas Eve, the wonderful meal that Nomsa had cooked and the fact that both Bandit’s grandmother, Emily, and his father, Arthur, had come back to live at the Hall, where they belonged. It still seemed such an amazing coincidence that Bandit, the former gamekeeper of the hotel and the man Madeleine had fallen in love with, was a direct descendant of the family who had owned Wrea Head Hall for generations, before Maddie’s father had bought it and turned it into a hotel.
‘Penny for them?’ Madeleine asked as she walked into the grand hall and threw herself onto one of the red and gold settees. ‘Come on, spill the beans.’
‘You’re miles away. Are you okay?’
Jess knew that Madeleine was concerned for her, knew how many times she’d begged her to go for counselling after the trauma of being kidnapped, but Jess didn’t want to talk about it, not to Madeleine and certainly not to a stranger. All she wanted was to be left alone. She watched as Maddie lifted a hand to pat the seat beside her.
‘Come and sit with me for a while, you look completely done in,’ Maddie said, moving up and making room. Jess stood up, moved across to where Madeleine sat, but then stopped and stared at the hundreds of sparkling lights that shone out from the Christmas tree. Even though it was only just after three o’clock, the early evening light was fading fast, making the tree lights shine out brighter, and Jess knew that before long the darkness would once again surround the Hall and the hotel’s guests would gather for dinner, a time that always felt special.
‘I know it’s only just December, but I was dressing the tree and making it look beautiful while no one was around,’ Jess began to explain. ‘You know, making it symmetrical, just the way Emily likes it.’ The tree stood twenty feet tall in the corner of the grand hall in full view of the grand staircase and next to the ceiling high, stained glass mullion window, so it could be seen by everyone as they arrived at the hotel.
Jess stood staring at the tree with her cardigan pulled tightly around her. She then sighed, tutted, walked over to the tree and moved a bauble from one branch to another. ‘It has to be perfect for her, Maddie.’ She turned to face her sister. ‘She’s ninety-three and so very frail. I don’t think she’ll see another Christmas, not after this one and … What about the wedding? What if she isn’t here for my wedding?’ Tears began to drip down Jess’s face. They glistened against her dark mocha skin and she wiped them away in haste, angry that she’d allowed herself to cry. ‘I don’t know why I’m crying, it’s not like she’s died already, is it?’
Madeleine stood up and tucked her shoulder length blonde hair behind her ears. ‘You’ve done all you can for Emily, Jess. She knows how much you love her.’ She put an arm round her sister’s shoulders, pulling her into an embrace. ‘You’ve been by her side every moment you could during the past year, as well as covering reception when I’ve needed you. I’ve seen you sitting in the garden with her, hour after hour, taking drinks and cakes to her room, and the hours you’ve spent pushing her round the shops, not that you ever bought anything, but you took her anyhow, because she liked to look.’ Madeleine squeezed her shoulders. ‘Honey, she couldn’t have wished for a better homecoming, or a better companion. I know she loves and appreciates you.’
Jess cuddled into Maddie and closed her eyes. Was that what she’d been to Emily, a companion? She shook her head; it hadn’t been like that at all. Emily had helped her come to terms with her own life, just as much as she’d helped Emily. What’s more, she genuinely loved Emily. She loved spending time with her and it truly felt as though she were part of her own family rather than Bandit’s.