Christmas at Bay Tree Cottage

Will Santa ever get to read those notes from little Maya if the chimney isn’t fixed? How will the smoke carry her heart-felt messages if they can’t light the fire …

‘The perfect Christmas read to touch the heart’ Bestselling author Christie Barlow

The countdown to Christmas is usually a magical time, but Elena James is fed up with living on a building site! The renovations on her beautiful cottage – like her heart – have been frozen in limbo ever since she was unexpectedly widowed.

Elana calls in a professional, Luke Stevenson, to help finish the cottage, so her little girl can send letters to Santa up the newly-repaired chimney. Luke’s kind, capable and sexy – but he’s also ten years younger than Elana. So why has her heart decided it’s finally time for a thaw?

The perfect read to curl up by the fire with … for fans of Rebecca Boxall.

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EXCERPT:

Prologue:
‘Daddy, you’ve been gone a while. I was worried you wouldn’t make it back in time for Christmas!’
Maya’s sweet little voice rose up in the darkness reflecting a real sense of relief, closely followed by the love and joy bubbling up inside of her.
‘I know, Princess, it’s complicated. Some journeys take longer than others. Have you been a good girl?’
‘Yes, Daddy. Well, mostly. It’s still dark outside, is it snowing?’
‘No, no snow today.’ Maya wriggled down the bed, snuggling in as Niall tugged the duvet a little higher, tucking it in around her.
‘It’s still early, baby, you need to go back to sleep now.’
‘Will you stay with me?’ Her voice was a whisper, sleep beginning to wrap itself around her once more. ‘You won’t go away?’
‘I’ll be here when you need me, Maya. Daddy’s always here.’
Niall lay down next to his daughter and within seconds her breathing settled into a slow, rhythmic pattern.
‘I’ve missed you, baby, and I’m sorry.’ His words seemed to echo around the room, even though his voice was barely audible. In his head all he could hear was the haunting strains of Maya’s favourite Christmas song by the infamous Wizzard. The words seemed to overtake his thoughts as he began to relax. When the snowman brings the snow—

Elana

Christmas is Coming

It’s not that I’m a Christmas grouch, or anything, but this back-to-back festive cheer with the first of December still a week away is beginning to grate just the teensiest bit. Admittedly, a few of the oldies do get my foot tapping but the last thing I need until I meet this deadline is to be distracted. The clock is ticking and that awful, cold-sweat-panic is beginning to set in. There are bills to be paid and having to do Christmas on a tight budget is yet another pressure.

‘Maya, can you turn that music down just a little bit, please? Mummy’s trying to work.’

‘OK, sorreee.’ The sound of her lilting voice drifting into the study makes my heart squish up with love, tinged with that now all-too-familiar sadness. The volume reduces by a few decibels, only to be replaced by shrieks of laughter as Maya and her best friend, Amelie, continue stringing beads for the Christmas tree. The tradition she’s always known still has to be upheld. At the moment it’s all about Christmas magic, until the year that she’s ready to face the dreaded truth – that Santa isn’t real. And this could be the last one, assuming we make it to the twenty-fifth without her caving in to the rumours. Even at the tender age of six-and-a-half, some kids are so knowing these days and want to grow up much too quickly. Others, like Maya, are content to hang onto their childhood as long as they can and choose to ignore the rumours they hear at school. I guess it’s all about that inner desire to believe it’s a time when wonderful things can truly happen, no matter how old we are.
Oh, Santa, what would I wish for? To turn back the clock, but then what would be the point? I give myself a shake, this isn’t helping at all.

Once again my concentration is shattered beyond redemption and all it took was one line from a stupid Christmas song. The oldies are the best, but not when all they serve to do is to bring back painful memories. My head tells me firmly not to go there. I refuse to get maudlin as we approach the second Christmas without Niall. He would be disappointed in me. I thought I was doing much better this time around and avoiding the slippery slope that always seems to be one step away. It’s a ride I’ve taken so many times since the funeral but wallowing is a luxury I can’t afford. Maya not only needs me to be strong, but to be in the moment with her. We missed too many moments in those early months after Niall was taken from us. The therapist I’d been seeing helped me to understand that when a loss occurs without warning the adjustment is always going to be difficult. Niall was strong and healthy, and … amazing. So full of life. But I wasn’t there with him when he took his last breath, crushed in a tangle of torn metal wedged beneath a barrier on the motorway. My stomach does an involuntary somersault as I try to push the horror away, realising no good comes of re-living the worst moment of our lives. The investigation concluded that one of the tyres had a blowout and his efforts to avoid careering into a lorry had actually caused the car to roll. In my heart I wondered if his reactions weren’t as sharp as normal, because he was over-tired and he paid the ultimate price in his haste to hurry home to us. He’d been working long hours to keep the money coming in to pay for the renovation work on our dream cottage on the edge of the Forest of Dean. Anything we could do ourselves to save paying someone, we did, and that meant spending evenings and weekends stripping walls, filling and painting. He kept saying it wouldn’t be forever, but it turned out that for us it was our forever.

Reaching out for the coffee mug, I take a large gulp. It’s cold, but I need the caffeine hit. The funny thing is that even now I still find myself listening for his key in the door, as if what’s happened is nothing more than a nightmare from which I’m going to awaken. Tears these days are few and far between, there are none left to shed and I’m glad about that, at least. But the last thing I need now is to be using up energy I don’t have trying to be bright and breezy for Maya if I let myself regress. We’re at that sensitive time in her life when she’s changing in so many ways. At the moment she claims with a fierce determination that she believes in Santa, but I’m not sure whether it’s more about the desire to hold onto that belief, rather than the innocent, wide-eyed acceptance of the fairy-tale. Losing her dad was loss enough; perhaps this is one step too far and she feels as if the life she knew is slipping away from her.

I turn back to the flashing cursor in front of me, switch screens and begin typing.

Diary Log – day 481 since Niall left us. We’re doing OK. 10 days to hit my deadline and 31 days to Christmas. When did life become all about numbers?

I glance back at the entries above, reflecting that my therapist, Catherine Treadwell, would be proud. Gone is the anger once reflected in my daily entry, but gone also is any real sense of commitment to moving on. I’m in limbo. Reality now is worrying about money first and everything else second. Niall’s life insurance policy paid off the mortgage on this place but with only one salary coming in now, I’m living from month to month. Every penny of our nest egg went towards the renovation work, but we weren’t worried when the money ran out. We thought we had time on our side to turn Bay Tree Cottage into the perfect home. Except that, even if all the work is eventually carried out it never will be perfect now, will it? How can it be, without Niall?

***

‘Mum, can we light the log fire tonight?’ Maya looks up at me with eager eyes.

‘I think we should wait until the weekend, darling. There isn’t really time to appreciate it on a school night, is there? Besides, I’m not even sure whether there are any logs left in the store. I promise to get it sorted as soon as I can.’

It was Niall’s job, sorting the fire. He would have booked the chimney sweep in early autumn and had the logs all ready and waiting, stacked neatly against the back wall of the garage. Ironically, last year I was much more organised. I suppose it was one of my coping mechanisms during those raw, early weeks and months. Keep going; keep doing something – anything, so I didn’t have to listen to what was in my head. But I feel bad. Maya will remember that this time last year we spent every evening huddled together on the sofa in front of the fire, reading. Hour upon hour we escaped into alternative worlds inspired by some wonderful authors. Roald Dahl’s Matilda, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, and Maya’s favourite, Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch, a story of tenderness and triumph.
It was the very worst of times, but I focused on getting us through it one day at a time. My gut instinct, immediately after the accident, had been to sell the cottage just to escape that prevailing sense that something was missing. Niall was no longer here and it would never, ever be the same again. But soon realisation dawned that Maya needed a sense of continuity; the memories trapped within these walls were a lifeline for her, although a cruelly painful reminder for me. In a way she feels her dad is still here and I can’t take that away from her.
In a strange, surreal way, last winter brought us even closer together on a level that wasn’t really about the mother/daughter relationship. It was the bond of loss and of adjustment. I enjoyed the tales we read together equally as much as Maya had done, desperate to escape our stark reality. Watching TV wasn’t even an option, as I couldn’t connect with the images flickering in front of me long enough to stop my mind from taking over. But reading a book out aloud, well, it wrapped us both in a cocoon.

Before heading into the kitchen to think about our evening meal I add chimney sweep, logs and fire-lighters to my to do list. Clearly, it’s important to Maya for her to mention it and maybe it’s something we both need at the moment. Guilt starts to creep into my head, a niggling worry that seems to be there at every turn these days. I’m conscious that what she needs is more time from me and I wish there was a magic wand I could wave to solve my money worries. Pride won’t let me take the money Mum and Dad offered and, besides, what I need is a permanent solution. Unless work picks up, either I look for a job that pays more money, but still allows me to work from home, or we move to a place that’s cheaper to run. The latter option would break Maya’s heart because she isn’t ready to let go.

Everyone understands that coping with the death of a spouse is heart-breakingly tough, but the reality is so much more complicated. It’s the problems that those around you don’t even give thought to, which threaten to steal away the ground beneath your feet.
I switch screens again, noting that it’s three days since my last entry.

Diary Log – day 484. Christmas is coming. Will it be our last one here? Quality time with Maya v holding onto memories. It’s a decision I still can’t make. So for now we stay.