Jimmy Choo’s finest. Pleated white satin. Four inch heels. £500 a pop. For that, you’d expect them to be waterproof, thought Leah Harvey. Or at least to come with jet packs so she could fly out of this godforsaken frozen wasteland, and off to the nearest hotel. Ideally one with a spa, hot and cold running chocolate and Greek god waiters who hand-feed you peeled grapes.
Instead, she was here. In the snow. On Christmas Eve. In the middle of Scottish countryside so remote even the bloody sheep looked like they’d need a sat nav to find their way home.
The lights on the dashboard flickered on and off, casting a final ghostly neon glow before fading into nothingness. She turned the key in the lifeless ignition for the fifteenth time; held her frozen hands in front of the now defunct heating vents, and swore. Long, loud, and with such creative use of foul language that eventually she honked the horn to drown herself out. A self-imposed bleep machine to hide the fact she could make a flotilla of sailors blush.
She undid her seatbelt, noticed that the elegant satin of her ivory dress was now crushed and creased beyond redemption. Not that it mattered. It’s not like she’d be using that particular piece of haute couture again.
Climbing out of the cocoon of the car, her feet immediately sank ten inches into freezing cold snow. Her bare shoulders shook with cold, and her fingers and toes decided they weren’t even connected to her body as the chill factor took hold. More swearing. This time without the bleep machine. Nearby foxes were probably holding their paws over their cubs’ ears.
Great, she thought, turning round to kick the broken-down piece-of-crap car that belonged to her cheating bastard husband-to-be, scuffing the Jimmy Choos in the process. Just great. The perfect end to a perfect day. A gust of icy wind howled up the skirt of her dress, frost nipping at places it had no right to be. Not on the first date, at least. She should be wearing bearskin in weather like this, not a skimpy stretch of silk masquerading as underwear.
She had two choices, Leah decided, teeth chattering loud enough to turn her into a one-woman percussion section. Option One: stay in the car. Wait for help that might never come, as nobody had a clue where she was. Including her. Freeze overnight, and potentially get pecked to death by starving crows she’d be too weak to fight off. The only things left of her would be satin stilettos and her engagement ring.
Option Two: do a Captain Oates and head off across the field to the light she could just about see in the distance. A light must mean habitation, which must mean a human being. Possibly a psychopathic serial killer, or maybe a sex-starved sheep farmer planning Christmas dinner with his collection of blow-up dolls, which, she decided, hitching up the soggy hem of her gown, was still preferable to the crows-pecking-out-eyeballs scenario. She headed for the light.
As she trudged through the fields of snow, she conjured up a playlist of Christmas songs in her head to try and cheer herself up. Or at least help her resist the urge to simply lie down in the ice and sleep. Feed the World. Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire. Merry Christmas, Everyone…Yeah, right, she thought, slinging her bag over her shoulder and continuing the slow, painful trek to her saviour.
A saviour who probably had one eye, a large collection of shotguns, and slept with his teeth in a jar.
Roberto Cavelli had just finished reading a letter from his mother when the knock came at the door.
The contents of the letter didn’t surprise him – mommy dearest urging him to move on, remarry and give her the grandchildren she so richly deserved. She’d been telling him the same thing for the last two years, and he’d come no closer to settling down. Plenty to bed, none to wed; which suited him fine. But this time she played all her guilt cards: she was getting older, she’d been so ill, she didn’t know if she’d even be here by next Christmas…As if, he thought, smiling. Dorothea Cavelli was about as ill as a prize-winning ox in the prime of its life. And she was equally full of bull.
Find a wife, she kept telling him. Pretty much every day, but with special intensity at Christmas, Easter and, her personal favourite, his birthday – because, quote, ‘you’re not getting any younger, darling’. Since when had 34 been declared officially old? Had there been some kind of United Nations ruling that he’d missed out on? Would he be euthanised at 35 if he hadn’t started to procreate? And how come the fact that his twin brother Marco was still playing the field seemed okay with her? He was only an hour younger, for Christ’s sake. How come he got a pass on the next-generation nagging?
Well, he didn’t want a new wife, thank you very much. He still missed the old one. And even if he did, even if he admitted he was starting to feel the slow spread of loneliness creeping across his heart like a silken cobweb, it wasn’t that easy. You couldn’t just go and buy one from Wives R Us. Well, you probably could, but that wasn’t the kind of marriage he’d ever be interested in.
Rob knew that not everyone found love behind every door; and not everyone found their soul mate…definitely not twice. He’d had it once, and he’d let it slip away. Some people just weren’t meant to have it, simple as that. And some people – like him – simply didn’t deserve it. He’d got used to the idea, learned to function alone, to fake a contentment that he didn’t feel. It was over for him. He understood that, and accepted it as part of his fate. His mother, apparently, hadn’t. She always had been a stubborn old coot.
So while the letter didn’t surprise him – in fact it was depressingly predictable, the way she chased him all over the world to give him a ticking off – the hammering on the door did. He stayed at this cottage for the same two weeks every year. Hiding away for Christmas. Giving himself the greatest gift of all – time away from the sympathetic eyes of his family; from the work that dominated his life; from the ghosts of Christmas past. And during all that time, he’d never once heard a single knock. No visitors, no neighbours, no TV – exactly the way he liked it. Just him, several bottles of very good whiskey, and a suitcase full of books. In fact, when he’d first heard the noise, he’d assumed it was another snowfall – waves of the stuff had been thudding off the roof all night.
When he realised it was actually someone banging on the door to the cottage, he instinctively glanced at his watch. After 11pm. Practically the witching hour out here in the Aberdeenshire wilderness. Man, woman and beast would all be tucked up in bed. Who on earth would be traipsing around in the snow on Christmas Eve? Nobody in their right minds, that’s for sure, he thought, walking cautiously towards the door.
Maybe, he thought, as he moved away from the comfort of his spot in front of the fire, it was Santa. With an army of marauding elves. They must have heard about the 50-year-old Glenfiddich he was hiding and formed a raiding party.
Well, he wouldn’t go down without a fight. Even to a fat man in a red suit.
Please God; please Santa; please Buddha…Please anyone out there who’s listening – let there be someone in, prayed Leah. And let them open the bloody door. I don’t care if they’re evil or have two heads or want to slice me up and eat me with a nice bottle of Chianti. As long as they let me get warm first, I’ll go willingly. Anything for a hot drink and a pair of bloody bed socks.
It had taken almost twenty minutes to stagger there, and she knew she was in serious trouble. She couldn’t feel anything other than pain: stabbing fingers of cold, all through her body, like daggers of ice. Not just going-clubbing-without-a-jacket cold, but proper this-could-be-your-last-Christmas cold. Real, genuine, get-her-a-tin-foil-blanket-or-she’ll-die-of-hypothermia cold. The kind you just never encountered in the city, where there was always a McDonald’s to nip into, or a bus shelter full of drunks willing to share their body heat. This was different. And if she’d been capable of thinking straight, she’d have been terrified.
If there was no one in – if the cottage was abandoned, with lights left on to scare off the admittedly unlikely burglars – she was done for. The soul-destroying walk would have been for nothing, and the crows would get her after all. The bastards.
The door finally swung open. She felt tears of relief spring to her eyes, then freeze immediately on her mascara-clumped lashes. She looked up, saw the orange glow of a hissing log fire inside; felt the spill of its light and warmth spreading toward her. Even that tiny lick of heat was enough to make her skin tingle with hope.
Standing right in front of her, silhouetted in the flickering shade and wavering shadows cast by the blaze, was God. Or at least it looked that way to Leah. Surely this creature was too divine to be a mere mortal? Well over six foot; midnight black hair; chocolate drop eyes, a strong jaw just the right side of stubble, wearing a thick cable knit sweater and carrying a glass of whiskey. He certainly looked Almighty enough for her right now.
“Hallelujah…” she muttered, and collapsed into his arms.
The last thing Rob expected to see when he opened the door was a woman. No, not just a woman – a bride. A very, very beautiful one at that. Even shaking in her stupidly inappropriate heels she barely scraped five three, but what she lacked in height she made up for in curves. Curves he could clearly see under the satin dress that was soaked onto her like paint; curves that were currently covered in goosebumps; curves that were in fact starting to turn blue.
londe hair, piled up on her head in a tiara, trailing around her face in tendrils; huge eyes gazing up at him like he was the second coming. Lord, those eyes. The colour of the whiskey in his glass. Pure amber. Lashes tipped by ice flakes; lips parted and shaking as she stared. The Snow Queen looking for her groom.
How on earth had his mother managed this? She was a resourceful woman, but surely even she hadn’t been able to deliver a wife for Christmas?
Before he had time to pull a sentence together, the blue-tinged bride on his doorstep muttered one word – he wasn’t sure, but it might have been ‘Hallelujah’ – and fell forward against him. The whiskey glass was knocked from his hand, splashing him with wildly expensive booze and smashing to the floor.
He scooped the woman up into his arms and carried her inside, using one foot to kick the door shut against the howling wind and gusts of icy sleet trying to get in and join the party.
He gently laid her down on the sofa, stroking the melting snow from her cheekbones. She was so pretty…And so cold. Tearing his eyes away from the ample breasts that were now almost peeking out of the strapless satin sheath she was wearing, he grabbed one of the crocheted woollen blankets that were draped on the backs of the furniture, and covered her up. She was in danger of hypothermia. And he was in danger of developing a self-worth problem if he carried on letting his eyes go where they had no right to be. This was not an appropriate time for his libido to come out and play.
He rubbed her hands, leaned over her. Heat. She needed heat. The fire was roaring. The blanket was warm. And he was feeling surprisingly hot himself. Her fingers were like icicles in his grasp, and the breath coming from her lips was still so cold it was clouding into steamy gusts in the air. He edged closer – inches from her face, searching for any kind of response. Suddenly, her lids snapped open, and those amber eyes latched onto his.
He expected to see shock. Fear. Anxiety.
Instead, she murmured ‘thank you baby Jesus, Amen’. Kissed him full on the lips. And promptly passed out.
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