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A Novel Christmas by Lynsey M. Stewart (1)

Chapter 1

Cal

I was going to die and it wasn’t going to be pretty. I instantly regretted not applying the extra coat of lip gloss before I boarded. To be fair, I never thought my time would come to an end on a plane so small it looked like something a child was controlling with a remote back at the airport, tongue sticking out in concentration, a will-he-or-won’t-he conundrum of what would be more enjoyable—continue to fly it, or see what happens if it crashes to the ground. I looked out the small window of the tiny plane to distract myself. It didn’t help. All I could see was water below. Angry. Rolling. Grey. Definitely freezing. It made me shiver just looking at, and for a second I wished I’d packed another pair of Christmassy pyjamas. The plane wobbled, and I realised fleecy pyjamas with a flashing Rudolph nose wouldn’t help me when I plunged to my death in the icy water below.

Fuck. What was that sound? Maybe a cog sticking. The engine clanking? A tiny wing breaking off?

‘I couldn’t help but notice that you’re a nervous flyer.’ I opened one eye to glance at the elderly man beside me.

‘Did my vice-like grip on the arm rest give me away?’ I replied, trying to un-scrunch my face to smile at him. Who was I kidding? I just flashed him a terrified grimace.

‘No, it’s the little scream you make every time the plane dips.’

‘I scream? God, I’m sorry,’ I said, breaking my grip to smooth my blonde waves behind my ear. ‘I’ve always been a nervous flyer and I’ve never been on a plane quite so small. Still, it’s something to check off the I conquered my fears list.’

‘When you’ve lived on the island for twenty years you get used to it. I always forget there are still people who get nervous,’ he replied, jiggling his eye around with his finger. He looked tired. He had rolls of skin underneath his eyelashes that looked like tiny wasp nests and a red nose that resembled a strawberry. He must have spent his life outside. I guessed he would be in his late seventies. A farmer. The cord trousers and quilted jacket gave him away. I looked at his feet and saw a pair of well-worn wellies.

‘Goodness, twenty years. You must love it here. What do you do?’ I asked.

‘Potato farmer. Odd-job man. I sell produce. Meat, vegetables. I help a few people on the island.’

Ha! I was right. I had an author’s eye for detail. An enthusiasm for individuals. A predisposition to people-watch and gather stories at first glance. Other people might describe it as being nosy, but I couldn’t help it. I was desperate to know everything about people. Back home, I could chat to someone on a packed tube by asking them if they were enjoying their book. I could strike up a conversation with someone on an afternoon stroll, wondering why they chose that breed of dog or who influenced their passion for the music that was thundering from their earbuds.

‘So, as you’ve been here so long, you would be a great person to show me around. Give me all the gossip, show me all the sights,’ I said. He chuckled lightly before rubbing his arms. I wanted to offer him my blanket, which I’d thrown over my legs to try to stop the December chill, but I knew he would scoff at that and hand it right back. He was made of the hard stuff, probably had more than a handful of stories about digging up spuds when he had the flu or a dislocated shoulder.

‘Not much to show, my lover.’ I smiled to myself. I’d always loved the Cornish accent. It conjured up the summer sun, walks on the beach and clotted cream teas I’d enjoyed on holidays as a child. ‘Unless you like potatoes?’ He laughed to himself and I followed, glancing at his broad smile.

‘What’s not to love? Jesus!’ The plane dipped and tipped before the pilot corrected it and stuck up his hand to say sorry like a taxi driver would on the busy streets of London after cutting you up to escape a traffic jam.

‘It’s a good job the journey only takes half an hour,’ he said. ‘This is real flying. Every breath of wind catching the wing.’

‘Lovely,’ I replied, giving him that grimacing smile again.

‘What’s a girl like you doing in these parts anyway?’

‘A girl like me?’ He glanced to my Louis Vuitton cashmere blanket and my Gucci disco bag before his eyes settled on my Prada boots. I wrinkled my nose at him and jokingly scowled. ‘Whatever are you trying to say?’ He blew out a breath and wiggled his finger underneath his nose, itching or dislodging something, I wasn’t sure. ‘Are you making a judgement about me? How very dare you!

‘Let’s just say you don’t get many women round here who carry all that gubbins around.’ He pointed to my bag. ‘Flashy gear. Very nice, but not very practical when you pull up potatoes for a living.’

‘You mean to tell me you don’t have a Louis Vuitton picnic set at home or a snazzy Burberry suit that you wear on special occasions?’

‘Ha! No, my lover. Certainly not. Although, we are seeing more of your type on the island. It’s becoming very popular since Karensa opened.’ He gave me a lingering look like he already knew exactly why I was on this tin can of a plane and precisely where I would be going as soon as it landed.

‘News travels fast on such a small island,’ I replied, arching an eyebrow.

‘Like lightening. You must be Miss Dixon.’

‘Please, call me Caroline. Or Cal. Most people call me Cal.’

‘Well, Cal. It’s very nice to be meeting you.’ He held out his hand, and I met it with mine. Calloused skin, hard and sharp against my soft creases, told more of his stories. A hard worker. Dedicated to his family. Working all hours to feed the six of them. An image of an old farm flashed in my mind, period costume, bustiers and lace. Romping in the stables. Yum.

‘And you too,’ I replied, taking my phone from my bag and jotting down the ideas in my notes app. I felt slightly bewildered. Was this some Cornish magic at work? Mythology and pixies, Jack the Giant Killer or King Arthur’s spirit encouraging story ideas that had recently been nonexistent or flimsy at best.

Writer’s block.

Urgh.

Someone should re-name it writer’s bitch. Because it was. A total motherfucking bitch.

‘We had some of your kind up here a few months back.’

‘My kind?’ I replied, eyes wide and smiling.

‘Writers. Authors. What’s the politically correct term nowadays?’

‘I think it may be wordsmiths of epic greatness,’ I replied.

He chuckled a little before looking at me longer than was necessary. I looked behind me, which was ridiculous because behind me was no one. Nothing. Apart from a visual reminder that we were flying above the sea. Cue stomach lurch. ‘Is everything OK? You’re looking at me a little strange.’

‘Sorry. I was just thinking.’ I wasn’t sure what that meant. He was looking at me like I was the answer to a million crossword puzzles. Perhaps authors are mystical here too? ‘Karensa held a writing retreat recently,’ he said.

‘Yes, my publisher organised it.’ I wasn’t asked. ‘No contemporary romance authors were allowed.’ It still stung a little, but to be fair, my publisher had ring-fenced it for a weekend of developing crime thriller plot twists. Not my bag. Not my bag at all.

‘Well, from what I gather, it was a group of more serious authors. Thrillers, detective series, crime. I don’t remember there being any of that romance malarkey going on.’

‘Oh, it was just for very important writers who write very important words,’ I replied, digging my tongue into my cheek. He completely ignored me and continued.

‘A couple of authors have been out here now. Helps the writing process, apparently. Inspires them, whatever that means. Your publisher’s daughter got married here last summer, and they fell in love with the place. As soon as he heard about Drew’s…new circumstances, he got in touch and asked if he could use one of the cottages when an author needed to bash out a book.’

‘So eloquently put,’ I laughed. ‘Bash out a book. I wish it were that easy.’

‘Well, it’s all a bit artsy-fartsy for my liking. But, if it brings in some extra income for Drew, I’m all for it. God knows he needs some luck.’

‘Drew is the owner of Karensa isn’t he?’

‘Yes, poor lad. It’s a lot of work for him. He has some help, but he’s doing a lot of the renovations and upkeep himself. He’s a hard worker. Born to lead a project like this.’

I’d read some information my publisher had given me about where I would be calling home for the next month. The brochures were all geared towards a beautifully private, luxury wedding venue on the small island of Costentyn in Cornwall. I thumbed through glossy pictures of what looked like a cluster of barn conversions that could be hired out entirely or split up for smaller wedding parties. Future husbands and wives could get married under a canopy threaded with white orchids or inside an amazing atrium decorated with fairy lights, even a tipi decorated with feathers was an option. If you had the money and wanted a spectacular venue, Karensa was it.

And it wasn’t just a wedding venue; it also boasted three small holiday cottages that could be rented for weeks at a time, completely self-sufficient…almost. The cottages had everything you needed. A home from home with the option of a continental breakfast basket left on your doorstep every morning and a wood-fired pizza delivered for those evenings when the wealthy were just far too busy to cook. Guests could have access to a private plane, opening up the wonders of Cornwall, or they could even take advantage of a chauffeur-driven Land Rover to the beach.

It seemed idyllic. Mythical. Fascinating.

Luxurious.

Hopefully, inspiring.

‘You said the owner needed some luck. Isn’t the business going well for him?’ I asked. ‘It seems so beautiful in the brochure; you’d think he’d be inundated with bookings.’

‘You ask lots of questions!’

‘I’ve been told that before,’ I said. Many times. It was the writer in me.

He shifted in his seat. ‘Drew’s had to scale back. His circumstances…changed. He’s taking on extra bookings for holidays, which he can manage at the moment. Plus, this whole author inspiration…thing.’

Jackson’s LTD, the publishing house I was signed to, was owned by Gerry Jackson, a well-respected editor who initially set up the company in his living room. He was let go by a publisher when it went bankrupt in the nineties. Later, he approached authors he’d worked with to join him and went from strength to strength. He was a multi-millionaire, but despite his wealth, he was still very much hands-on and had a passion for great books. He also had high expectations and even tighter deadlines. When I stopped delivering books on demand, he offered for me to come out to Karensa for a month without distractions in the hope I would return with a completed manuscript sent to his inbox before I’d shut the luxury cottage door.

‘Do the authors leave inspired? Please tell me they leave inspired,’ I said, making the sign of the cross.

‘If all this beauty around you does not inspire you—’ he pointed out the window, and I saw that we were approaching the coastline, waves rolling and crashing against the sand, the heather whipping around in the wind, flashing deep purple, ‘—then you need to find a new profession.’ Suddenly, seeing the expanse of what was so much bigger than my world stretching out in front of me made me feel rather small. ‘Isn’t it amazing? Look at that. Really see it. All you need to do is describe what you see. That would make a perfect book.’

I sat back and looked out of the tiny window opposite me. It was breathtaking. I could easily describe it in a book. Set up the chapter. Make it as beautiful as the scenery, so much so that readers could settle back in their reading nooks, pull over a cosy blanket, close their eyes and be taken to precisely the same place they were reading about. Easy. Writer’s block? Pfft. I didn’t have the heart to point out to the farmer beside me, who didn’t class romance as a credible genre, that I would need to intersperse the beauty of the scenery with the vision of a couple ravishing each other’s rudey bits in time to the roll of the waves.

‘I think Drew is meeting me at the airport. Or runway. Or field…’

The man laughed. ‘We don’t just land on a patch of ground and hope for the best.’

‘I would hope not,’ I replied, suddenly aware that the plane was about to make its descent. ‘That wouldn’t help my fear of flying at all.’

‘Think happy thoughts,’ he replied. ‘It’ll be over in no time.’

‘What’s your name?’ I asked as he flashed his kind eyes.

‘Brian.’

‘Keep talking, Brian. You’ve been a fabulous distraction from my impending thoughts of death.’

‘My pleasure, Cal. My pleasure.’

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