Unable to face Christmas with her family and the famous sister who stole her fiancé, Annie Powell books into a remote cottage in the Scottish Highlands.
Mac Hartman isn’t looking forward to the holidays either but when Annie turns up on his doorstep, he is instantly attracted to her.
As Annie exited the airport, following signs for Edinburgh City By-Pass, each passing mile upset the delicate equilibrium that she had fought so hard to regain over the past few months.
Her parents had assured her that she didn’t need to rent a car while here but she wanted- no, she needed the freedom and independence that it gave her. This Christmas was going to be hard enough to endure and she felt like she needed the means to escape sometimes.
It was nice to be back in Edinburgh however, it was familiar and homey and packed with memories from her childhood.
But the closer she got to the Grange, the tighter her chest felt.
Everyone would be there and in the case of her parents and her brother, that was fine, welcomed in fact. It was her sister and him, that she didn’t want to see.
She had long ago accepted that her sister, Amelia, was a fickle and selfish creature, but she had never expected to find her with Simon, in Annie’s bed, no less.
Being cheated on was a betrayal too far but to have the two people she was closest to both betray her… she still didn’t know how to handle that. This would be the first time since that fateful day that she would see them again, and the very thought drove an icicle of pain into her heart, leaving her breathless. She pulled the car over to the side of the road and sat quietly for a while, as she tried to compose herself.
Whatever happened, she couldn’t let them know how much they had hurt her, that would be like letting them win, and she was damned if she’d let them know they had broken her spirit. She had to do this.
Besides, her parents loved Christmas, and it wasn’t their fault that her sister was a class A bitch. They had assured her that Amelia and Simon would tone things down, be nice and be ‘understanding’ towards her.
Annie still didn’t know why her feelings required understanding; it seemed pretty fucking obvious to her, that a person who has been betrayed is liable to rip some heads off. What she didn’t understand, never had in fact, was why Amelia was so easily forgiven for the myriad of insensitive things she had done over the years.
Simon wasn’t the first boyfriend she had stolen either, although she usually worked her magic on them early on in a relationship, when their loss wasn’t devastating to Annie. She had come to expect it, in fact, and when they were kicked to the kerb a week later, she took a perverse kind of pleasure in it.
‘That will teach them not to be so fickle next time, and not throw something good away, for the faint chance of something better. Well, someone better,’ she would think.
Sometimes she even tried to put a positive spin on it. ‘Better to know now that he‘s a cheating scumbag, rather than after ten years of marriage.’
She couldn’t really blame men for preferring Amelia to her; Amelia had been an actress since she was five, and acting in big, blockbuster movies since she was 9. At 31 (Hollywood age, 24) she was still drop dead gorgeous and had that Hollywood glamour and confidence working for her, not to mention a stylist, a designer wardrobe, a massive bank balance, botox and plastic surgery.
Amelia had dated her fair share of A-listers too, like Ryan Gosling and Zac Effron who, Annie had to admit, was way too young for Amelia and it was kind of icky. Not quite as icky as when she dated Tom Cruise briefly, who was 20 years older, but icky nonetheless.
What man wouldn’t want to date ‘England’s Sweetheart, Amelia Powell’?
And she wasn’t even English. Granted, they didn’t have much of a Scots accent but they were Scottish, born and bred. When questioned, Amelia, in her usual patronising manner, just explained that the concept of the United Kingdom having more than one country was difficult for Americans to comprehend, so they just thought of it all as England.
Sean Connery didn’t seem to have any difficulty being called scots, she had thought, but she kept those thoughts to herself; sometimes it was easier to just smile and nod.
When Annie’s episode had passed and she was feeling calm again, she realised that she couldn’t do this. Spending two weeks with her family, pretending not to remember that she was supposed to get married in mid-January, was just too much to ask of anyone, she decided. She pulled back into traffic and headed for Bruntsfield to find a coffee shop, where she could sit for a while and decide what to do, while a slice of horribly calorific cake soothed her battered ego.
She found a café, ordered at the counter and as she claimed a table to wait for her order, she overheard the people behind her, talking about spending Christmas in Aviemore. One lady and her family were heading up there, to escape the yearly tug-of-war between her family and her in-laws.
“So we’re opting out this year,” the woman declared. “Besides, it’ll be nice for Bruce and I to spend a Christmas by ourselves for once, before this one comes along. It might be our only chance until she’s old enough for college.”
“It’s a girl then?” her friend asked.
“Well no, it’s too early to tell apparently, but I’m hoping. Bruce is going mental, I swear he’s more excited by the baby than I am! Just the other day he…”
Annie had tuned them out, finding their happiness painful to listen to, but Christmas in somewhere like Aviemore sounded lovely. She had images of a remote cabin, a log fire and a snow covered landscape. Lack of internet access might also help her write; she had a deadline looming and hadn’t penned anything decent since ‘the discovery’ as she termed it. Her deadline had already been pushed back twice, thanks to her understanding editor, Kelly, arguing for her, but there would be no third chance. If she didn’t produce a manuscript by February 5th, she would lose her contract and face a financial penalty.
Her brother would understand; he knew her better than anyone. Her parents would be hurt but this wasn’t about Amelia and Simon, this was about work, and her February deadline. They would understand that, right?
Of course, she had already tried using that excuse for not coming and it hadn’t worked
‘Amelia will pay your fine!’
‘Mum, it isn’t just a fine, I’ll lose my contract. I love working with Holder & Sons and if I leave, I’ll lose Kelly!’
She only raved about Kelly every third phone call, so perhaps it was telling that after two years working with the same editor, her mother still didn’t know who she was.
‘My editor,’ she said with a resigned sigh.
‘Family trumps an editor, darling. Editors are ten a penny but family is precious.’
‘Kelly is one in a million. She gets me and what I’m trying to say, and believe me, I’ve tried a lot of editors over the years.’
Editor trouble was what made her look around for a new publisher and join Holder & Sons in the first place, and she was damn sure that she had told her mother all about her problems at the time.
Regardless, work was her excuse and her mother wouldn’t get a chance to object this time, Annie would be sending a text, then turning her phone off.
She pulled her tablet computer out of her bag and set about searching for an available holiday let.
Mac Hartman had endured a hard year but he had finally succeeded, turning the family estate into a thriving business, after estate taxes nearly bankrupted them. He had worked day and night, finding a viable way to make the estate pay for itself, pouring his own money into the facilities and finally, publicising it.
While still technically in debt to him, last month the estate had turned its first profit and the forecast for December was even better, with all the units rented for the last two weeks of December. The final booking had only come in an hour ago in fact, and he was immensely relieved.
January would be quiet again, with only 30 percent of the units let, but the profits from November and December should see it through, and thanks to two weddings in February, he expected to break even again. Come the summer, when various activities would be available on the estate, such as hiking, fishing and horse riding, he expected the business to be self-supporting enough to begin paying him back.
His plan for the estate was to turn the unoccupied properties into holiday lets, including turning the main house into self-catering apartments of varying sizes, ranging from one bedroom for couples, to six bedrooms, sleeping 14 with pull-out beds, for larger holiday groups, such as stag, hen and wedding parties. The licence to perform weddings had yet to come through and was still a thorn in his side. The two February weddings were friends of the family, hence why they booked before the licence came through, but he still didn’t want to let them down.
It wasn’t a hotel though. They had facilities to cater for large events, but outside caterers would be called in and temporary staff hired to wait tables.
Each apartment and cottage had its own kitchen and guests were expected to cater for themselves. Housekeeping could be arranged throughout a stay, but that was at an additional cost.
The main house had been built in a square, with central gardens and courtyard in the centre, and a large archway in the south wing, at the rear of the property, which was large enough for a tall van to drive through if necessary, which helped with mowing the lawn.
Each ground floor apartment on the outer side had its own small garden area and decking, but the central courtyard was open to everyone.
He had saved the south wing of the house for himself and his family, dividing it into four apartments so their garden at the rear was private. Although he didn’t need the space right now, he hoped that one day he would have a family, and his three spare bedrooms could be put to good use. His mother’s apartment was just two bedrooms, for her and any friends she might like to come and visit her. The apartments earmarked for his brother and sister were three and four bedroom respectively but since neither showed any interest in returning to the estate right now, they were rented. Between his three spare bedrooms and his mother’s, he could house them if they came to visit.
Although pleased with his progress and the 100 percent occupancy, he wasn’t looking forward to Christmas, and intended to remain holed up in his apartment on Christmas day, watching action movies and denying that it was anything other than a normal day.
The family had abandoned him too, all preferring to spend Christmas alone this year but he couldn’t blame them for that, because it was exactly what he wanted to do as well. If they had asked to come and stay, he would have said yes and endured it because they were family but honestly, it would have been hell.
When the main door buzzer rang in his apartment, he groaned. The final guest had checked in and been given their keys an hour ago, so this was probably someone who wanted something from him. It was amazing how many people in self-catering accommodation, expected a stocked fridge or a mini-bar. They did provide some complimentary staples in a basket, such as local eggs, cheese, bread and a bottle of red and white wine, and he wondered if that gave them the impression that he cared about hospitality.
It had been the head housekeeper’s idea but he was considering finishing it since it seemed that old adage, give an inch and they’ll take a mile, was true. Mostly they came knocking wanting more wine, as if he was an off licence or something! When he refused, since he didn’t have a licence to sell alcohol and he wasn’t about to keep giving it away, they got huffy.
With a sigh, he got up and went to see what they wanted. When he reached the intercom, he realised that the person was outside, meaning that she had come from one of the cottages and was either too drunk or too lazy to drive into the local town and purchase her own food and drink. Rather than buzzing her inside, he left the apartment and went to meet her, hoping that the cold would keep her from lingering for too long as she tried to persuade him.
As he opened the door, he noticed that she was wheeling a large suitcase and carrying a laptop case over her shoulder, but he didn’t think much of it, other than that she was either very lazy and couldn’t carry a bottle of wine back to her cottage, or she was in for a shock when she realised that he would not be furnishing her with enough wine to fill that suitcase.
“Can I help you?” he asked, although his tone suggested nothing like a desire to help.
She looked a little taken aback at his gruff voice but persevered.
“Um, I booked a cottage under the name of Annie Powell?”
He frowned. “The Powells checked in two hours ago.”
“There must be some mistake, I made that booking, for one person and as you can see, I only just got here.”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Look, Miss, I really am sorry but all our units are occupied.”
“But I booked and paid for it!”
When he looked sceptical, she let go of her case and began rummaging in her large handbag. He noticed that she was exceptionally pretty, in an understated way. Her hair looked very dark brown or black and was cut to mid shoulder length, she wore a little makeup but her dark lashes framed sapphire blue eyes, and the cold had brought an appealing pink sheen to her cheeks.
He wondered what she looked like underneath that bulky coat she wore, since he had a feeling from her jeans and boots peeking out below the hem, that she might have a very attractive figure.
He felt the pull of attraction to her, of an intensity that he hadn’t felt for a long time.
She pulled out a tablet computer, opened the cover and handed it to him.
“Here, that’s the email confirmation I was sent from Hartman Hall Holiday Homes.”
Although he really didn’t need this right now, the email did look like one that his website would send and anyway, he was starting to feel bad about leaving her out in the cold, since the snow was coming down quite heavily now.
“Why don’t you come inside and I’ll see if I can figure this out.”
“Thank you.” She gave him a grateful smile and he opened the door wide for her to enter. He led her to a door off the reception, which served as his office. “Take a seat,” he said as he turned his computer on.
She took her scarf off and began blowing into her hands to warm them. She didn’t remove the black woollen coat however, and he regretted that.
“Can I get you a warm drink?” he asked, hoping to coax her out of the coat.
“No, thank you; I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble.”
“Really, I’m fine, thank you.”
She was thanking him an awful lot, considering that he hadn’t done anything for her yet.
While the computer booted up, he got out the file of check-in slips for today and looked through them. While some of the handwriting was bad, there was clearly no one called Powell that had checked in today. There was however, a Farrell, which might explain his initial confusion.
With the computer ready, he opened the bookings file and looked through the listings with today’s check-in date. Farrell was there, as was Powell. One by one, he matched the names from the check-in book to the bookings and discovered that while he had given Mr and Mrs Jacobs the Rose Cottage, they didn’t have a booking.
It was a rookie mistake; they came saying they had a booking, he gave them the last one without checking his records or asking to see their confirmation, thinking it had to be theirs.
“It seems I gave your cottage away,” he admitted. “I’m so sorry. I’ll go and ask them to leave.”
He wasn’t looking forward to this, especially since he remembered the family’s thrilled smiles as he showed them around Rose cottage. They probably thought they’d had an upgrade but in reality, they hadn’t booked anything at all, and now they and their two kids had to find somewhere else to stay. This close to Christmas and near a popular ski resort, that wouldn’t be easy.
Miss Powell was staring out of the window and frowning.
“I really am sorry,” he tried to reassure her. “They’ll be gone in no time, then you can settle in.”
“How many of them are there?”
She looked over at him and he could see that her frown was caused by concern, rather than upset.
“Don’t move them. It’s late and it’ll be harder for them to find somewhere, while I haven’t even unpacked yet. If you agree to refund my card, I’ll go back to town; there has to be something available, a hotel or a Bed and Breakfast.”
She got to her feet and took hold of the handle of her suitcase.
“Sorry to have bothered you.”
He couldn’t believe it, he had fouled up and she was giving away her booking and apologising to him.
“Wait,” he called as was about to disappear through the door, back into the hallway. She turned back. “There is another option.”
She looked curious.
“It’s one of the family units but the owner is away at the moment.”
“I don’t think I could sleep in someone else’s bed, not without their knowledge.”
“Well it isn’t her bed yet, not really.”
She was frowning again and he realised that he wasn’t explaining himself very well. Miss Powell seemed to have the effect of turning him into a tongue tied teenager again.
“She hasn’t been back since the renovations were finished,” he clarified. “And she isn’t due back until January; she’s on a round the world cruise with her friend.”
She seemed to be wavering, biting down on her lower lip as she weighed up her options.
“The weather is getting worse out there, I can't in all good conscience let you drive in this.”
“Are you sure she won’t mind?”
“You know her that well?”
“I do.” He picked up her case, as if that settled the argument.
“Then, thank you.” She followed him as he led the way to the rear of the house.
“So, you’ve worked here for a while then?” she asked.
He had avoided telling everyone else who checked in that he was part owner of this estate, because he didn’t want them to know he had so much invested in the venture, and partly because he hadn’t come to terms with the reason he was part owner. With Miss Powell however, it was something else that held him back.
A lot of women liked him, while others liked his money, and sometimes it could be hard to tell which was which. Something told him that Annie would like him for him, but he wanted to be sure.
“Not that long, but I’ve known the family forever.” Which technically speaking, was true.
“Well I haven’t exactly seen much of it, but from what I’ve seen, you have a lovely place here.”
“Thank you. A lot of time and effort went into the renovations.”
“What’s the rest of the estate like?” she asked.
“You’ll see for yourself tomorrow but if I do say so myself, it’s spectacular.”
“Then I hope I get a chance to see it before I go.”
“Why? You’re not agoraphobic, are you?”
“No,” she laughed. “But I’ll just stay for tonight and try to find somewhere else tomorrow.”
He thought they had been over that. “No, please, this is my fault. We’ve only been open a few weeks and we’d hate for bad reviews to start appearing online; I could lose my job! You wouldn’t want that, would you?”
He could tell from her smile that she knew he was joking, at least in part.
“Well, such Scrooge-like behaviour is in keeping with the season.”
“Ah yes, but Scrooge learned the error of his ways.”
They had reached a door that said S2, and he unlocked it.
“That’s me,” he said, pointing to the next door along the hall, S1. “Just knock if you need anything.”
He led her inside and turned the lights on as he went.
“Bedroom, bedroom plus en suite, bathroom, lounge, utility room, very large closet-slash-space I didn’t know what else to do with and finally, the kitchen.”
To his delight, she was looking around but not into the rooms he was pointing out, she was looking at the ceiling roses, the crown moulding and the door handles, most of which were original in this part of the house; the replicas were used in the public rooms.
Most of the furnishings in this apartment were new, since his mother had expressly said that she didn’t want painful reminders, so the antiques were spread through his and the other family apartments. The new furnishings were quality pieces however, chosen with care to please his mother and now, he hoped, Annie.
He knew it was ridiculous to care what she, a virtual stranger, thought but since his mother had been away, he had yet to see her reaction.
“So?” he asked.
“It’s gorgeous,” she exclaimed with a smile. “Does the fireplace in the lounge work?”
“Well yes and no; it’s gas, which isn’t exactly authentic, but it looks realistic and it’s convenient.”
“Sounds perfect,” she said.
“Well, I’d better find you some bedding and towels and what not.”
“Great,” she smiled, still paying more attention to her surroundings than to him, which now upset him a little.
He headed towards the short corridor that led to the front door, but turned back as a thought occurred to him, and was pleased to catch her checking out his behind. Perhaps he wasn’t the only one feeling the attraction.
“Shall I leave the door on the latch so I don’t disturb you?” he asked, shaking her out of the stupor she seemed to be in. Her gaze left his bottom and her cheeks reddened when she saw his smug smile.
“Oh, uh, yes, whatever you like.”
He hurried away, so that he could return to her sooner rather than later.
I hope you liked that taster and that it put you in the festive mood.
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