A BLACKSTONE CHRISTMAS
“My cousin, Hannah, runs this huge old manor house as a B&B in Somerset, and she just won’t take no for an answer about us staying the night. Are you going to be okay with that?”
I hoped my wife would tell me the truth about what she wanted to do. Brooke was the most undemanding person I had ever known in my life, so it was a crap shoot on whether I’d get this right or not.
“I will definitely be okay with it if you are, Caleb,” she answered serenely, stretching languidly among the sheets, where she looked far too sexy to even consider letting her leave the bed, let alone our hotel room.
A day ago we were honeymooning in Hawaii, today London, but it didn’t matter to me. I had my Brooke, and I’d go anywhere she wanted. This trip to London was for her, so it was going to play out exactly however she decided it would. Once she’d told me she hadn’t been back to the land of her birth since she’d left to live with her grandmother at fifteen, and how much she missed London, especially at Christmas, I knew where we’d be spending our first holidays together. Being able to give her even the simplest gift of a visit back home to England felt like I was winning.
“I know we said London, but their place is a good three hours by car, I can just call her back and say we can’t swing it this trip if you’d rather just stay in the city—l don’t want to force my family on you—”
She put two fingers over my lips and pressed down, effectively shutting me up without saying a word—something at which she was an expert. “You never force me to do anything, and I very much want to meet them. I need to know everything about my new husband—who spoils me rotten constantly—and that includes getting to know his English cousins, especially if one of them runs a B & B in a huge old manor house in Somerset.” She moved her fingers away and replaced them with her sweet lips instead. “Now come back into bed and warm me up,” she murmured softly. Her kiss kept my mouth silent, but who needs words when you have the most beautiful wife in the world naked in the sheets, hopped up on pregnancy hormones, with nothing but time to give her what she just asked for?
Have I mentioned what a lucky bastard I am? Or how, for like the first time in forever, I am digging the holidays this year? Merry effing Christmas, and glad tidings of great joy, Blackstone. Don’t fuck with good fortune when your wife needs you to fuck her instead. I am probably going to hell for that filthy thought, but I’ll worry about that at another time. I’m on my honeymoon with the love of my life, who at this very moment has her gorgeous naked body pressed right up against me in the bed.
Say what you will, but one thing about me is never in doubt. I am a man who definitely knows where his priorities lie.
Five hours later.
The unusual winter snow draped over the hills and dales like a white fur coat.
Even though winter was probably not the very best season for its full potential of beauty, I still soaked up the sight of the English countryside like drops of water melting into a dry sponge. The surprise Christmas snowfall was merely an added treat. I did not realize how much I’d missed the sights and sounds of home—and because so much time had passed since I’d experienced it—the blast of the reconnection was truly overwhelming for me. I struggled to control the rush of my emotions, and the pull of tears that threatened to spill over as I stared out the window at the lovely countryside of my homeland. The urge to tears was nothing new. I lived with it daily due to my PBA. It was easier to control these days now that I understood what had happened to me in that accident, thanks to Caleb and his endless research. If he hadn’t figured it out, I would still believe I was just an emotionally damaged freak with no explanation whatsoever for my overreactive behaviors.
“Are you okay, baby?” Caleb whispered against my ear. He was so intuitive, and had been from the first. My husband amazed me with his patience and kindness whenever I had one of my “episodes.” Quite simply, Caleb was the very best cure for my unwelcome melancholy feelings, hands down.
I nodded yes and gripped his hand with both of mine. I kept my eyes out the window and focused on the beauty of the scenery. “I hadn’t realized how much I missed…just seeing it—being here. Thank you for bringing me.” I let Caleb’s strength and love support me through the moment until the intense emotions melted away, ever grateful he’d hired a driver to take us to Somerset, so I could have him beside me in the back seat where I could touch him. Caleb’s touch worked miracles on me even though I was dealing with the effects of pregnancy hormones on top of my PBA. The next months were going to be veryinteresting.
“Good. I’m glad we came then. And I will always take you wherever you want to go,” he said as he drew me back to lean against his strong chest, “as long as I can get the information out of you,” he teased.
I nodded again, still focused on the countryside as he held me close. “Can you tell me a little about your family before we get there?” I asked, content and warm with Caleb wrapped around me like a blanket and the comforting view out the window.
“Sure. I think you’re going to like them a lot. They already love you, and they haven’t even met you yet.”
I took a deep breath as I settled, listening to the steady voice of my husband as he described the people he clearly adored:
There was Hannah who ran the B&B at Hallborough House, the ancestral estate of the Greymonts, set along the scenic Somerset coast. He told me about her physician husband, Dr. Fred Greymont, and their three children—two older boys, Colin and Jordan, and a little girl, Zara, about five or six. Hannah also had a brother, Ethan, who had a country home nearby and would also be there with his American wife and baby daughter. Caleb and Ethan were about the same age and kept up with each other on Facebook, and even did some business between their two companies. He mentioned that Ethan and his wife, Brynne, hadn’t been married all that long, describing their posh country wedding last year at Hallborough, and how all of Caleb’s family had come over for the wedding. It was the final family trip for their father before he passed away. I’d also meet Jonathan Blackstone and his wife Marie. Jonathan and Caleb’s dad had been close, and the backbone of the relationship between the American and British Blackstones.
It was a lot to take in, but I was grateful for the distraction. I was looking forward to meeting them all, they sounded so lovely, but truth be told, the country-manor-turned-B&B—Hallborough House—was what I found the most intriguing of all. There was something about the name of the house that rang a bell with me. I had my suspicions as to why, but couldn’t be sure until I saw it with my own eyes.
Brooke had been quiet in the car on the drive up from London, as if she were deep in thought, or maybe she was just processing the emotions from being back in England after such a long period of a time. We hadn’t really done much at all since arriving in London, except for a quick stop to collect our warmer clothing, and a fantastic Christmas dinner last night in Covent Garden at a new place called Frog. In December, Hawaii and England are on such opposite ends of the thermometer, I’d called ahead and had a shopper pull together winter wardrobes for both of us, so we’d be set up for the wintry weather the minute the Gulfstream landed.
But it wasn’t the snowy weather causing my Brooke to tremble. I’d sensed excitement from her as we came through the gates of Hallborough and up the drive to the front of the stately manor house. I had to help her out first, so I could deal with paying the driver and our luggage, but when I turned back to her a few moments later, I got the best surprise of the day. My wife was grinning from ear to ear as she took selfies standing in front of Hallborough House.
“So, I gather you like the house.”
“It’s beautiful.” She gestured for me to come to her. “Take a selfie with me. I want pictures of us here.”
I complied, but had to wonder why she was so excited by the house itself. But before I could ask, I felt little arms wrapped around my legs from behind along with the excited thumps from wagging dog tails.
“Who is that grabbing me, and why are there wolves attacking?” I teased.
She popped her head around with a giggle. “It’s Zara, and they’re just dogs, not wolves. This is Rags and that one is Sir, Auntie Brynne’s dog,” she explained patiently with a pat to each dog’s head as she named them. “They like playing outside in the snow.”
“I don’t blame them. I’d play in the snow too if I had their fur.”
She just stared up at us in all her adorableness.
“Well, I am very sorry I didn’t recognize you right away because you’ve grown so much since I was here the last time.” I crouched down to her height so we could speak eye to eye. “How old are you again?” I asked.
“Five.” She held up one hand with her fingers splayed out.
“Are you sure you’re not twenty-five? You’ve grown a lot.” I thought it was sweet she called me ‘uncle’ when I really wasn’t. Obviously her parents had referred to me that way. Charmed the hell out of me, regardless.
She giggled again and nodded her head. “I am five right now, but I’ll be six on my birthday,” she explained patiently. She focused her attention on Brooke before asking, “Are you Uncle Caleb’s native wife?”
Brooke bent down to join our little conversation, stifled a laugh and answered, “Yes, I am his native wife. I’m Brooke, and I’m pleased to meet you, Zara.” She held out her hand.
“Pleased to meet you, and welcome to Hallborough House, we hope you enjoy your stay here with us,” Zara answered back, shaking Brooke’s hand with complete sincerity, as if she’d done it many, many times before. It made sense since she was used to guests coming into her home constantly, but seeing a little girl take on the role of concierge was priceless.
“Was it your mom or your grandpa who said Brooke was a ‘native’?” I couldn’t resist asking, and I knew she would tell me. Zara was honest to a fault underneath all that charm. If I ever had a daughter, I hoped she might be like her. This kid was one in a million.
“Uncle Ethan said it,” she informed us.
Not a surprise. I knew Ethan would get a laugh out of the fact I married a Brit, especially since he’d recently married an American.
Zara took each of us by the hand and steered us toward the house. “Let’s go in now, the boys will come for your bags and take them to your room.” Hannah and Freddy were obviously raising their kids right, teaching them to help with the family business.
“Do you know what ‘native’ means, Zara?” Brooke asked as we walked, our footsteps crunching along the snowy ground.
“Yes,” she said with a serious nod of her head, “It means you know the Queen, and can say your words properly.”
I just about died laughing right there in the snow.
It simply wasn’t possible for us to have been made any more welcome by Caleb’s family. Hannah greeted us at the door with open arms before doing the introductions all around. They were all there waiting impatiently for us to arrive, but it felt more welcoming than anything. They were just happy to see Caleb again, and to meet his new wife. The fact I was British, only made for some fun jokes to break the ice.
I could see that the UK Blackstones had been blessed by the same good genetics as the US ones. Hannah’s brother, Ethan, had similar features to Caleb and his brothers, and just as easy on the eye.
Handsome men, every single one of them.
There was a darkness to Ethan though, almost unrecognizable at first, but definitely present. I could relate; the same dark shadows bounced around inside my head too. Seeing those shadows lift the instant his lovely wife, Brynne, or his baby girl came into view, gave me hope. Caleb did the same for me.
Little Laurel was such a gorgeous baby, and came right into my arms when I held them out. I needed to get in some baby practice because I’d have my own in less than six months, which was still a concept I was getting used to. I almost didn’t want to let Laurel go when it was time for her to have a nap, but it was a good excuse to ask if I could have a tour of the house.
Hannah was more than happy to take me around, and Zara, her miniature assistant-in-training who slayed me with her charm when she informed me that the stunning portrait on the staircase was painted by Sir Tristan Mallerton in the early 1840’s. When I asked her who the people in the painting were, she answered without missing a beat, “Sir Jeremy Greymont, Lady Georgina Greymont, and their children, Roderick and Anna-Marguerite.”
“Are you sure you’re really five? I don’t believe it. You know too much to be just five,” I teased.
She giggled up at me and nodded yes, swinging her hand clasped tightly to mine, as we toured the magnificent house I was sure my parents had visited on one of their many weekends to the country.
“How long has Hallborough House been operating as a B&B, Hannah?”
“Twelve years this coming spring.”
And twelve years made it a definite possibility.
“My parents loved to take weekends in the country. They went everywhere, and stayed in places just like this when I was away at school. I think they might have even come here, because my mother used to send me postcards of the places they visited. I remember there was a beautiful house in Somerset, and I still have the postcard somewhere.”
“We have postcards in the gift shop,” Zara said.
“Well, then I must look at the gift shop’s postcards and see if they are the same as mine.”
“I can do better than that for you,” Hannah said with a grin. “How long ago would your parents have come here?”
“It would have been about nine or ten years ago I’d guess. They were killed in a car crash seven years ago, so not recently,” I explained as they led me to a bright room with a garden view that housed the gift shop. I could imagine the ladies of years past using it as a sitting room because of the great light pouring in from the Gothic arched windows.
Hannah went to a bookshelf and began ticking through the volumes while I studied the postcards on a rack beside the desk. Some were of other sights in the area such as Kilve Beach, and a very old seaside church that reminded me of Stone Church on Blackstone Island where Caleb and I were married just a few weeks ago. I found one of the house that I thought could be the same as the postcard I had, but I couldn’t be certain.
“Let me see,” Zara asked.
I showed it to her, and she looked less than impressed, but informed me that building on the house was started in 1785 and finished in 1789.
“You are just a fount of information, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” She was dead serious.
Ask a stupid question, Brooke. Zara was as hilarious as she was adorable.
As I looked around at the beautiful room I could finally appreciate what drew my parents to leave the city and come to places like Hallborough for a getaway. I also found it ironic that they had died on one of their country weekends away, but I’d always taken comfort in the fact they were together and doing something they enjoyed immensely. “Can you check the registry for their names?” I asked Hannah hopefully.
“Of course, but even better are the photo albums. They may have a picture in one of the albums. Let’s take a look, shall we?” She pulled out two leather volumes and brought them to the desk. “These are the years you mentioned, please have a look through.” She gestured to the books on the counter.
I approached carefully, almost afraid to be disappointed, but too curious not to look. “You take pictures of your guests? I asked as I opened the first book.
“Only if they want to, of course, but most do. It’s a tradition to take a Polaroid or two and make a page in the book with a message or whatever they want to share with other guests about their stay. The Polaroid stays with the book, but most everyone gets a picture of the finished page with their mobile, so they can take it with them too.”
“Oh, that’s lovely,” I whispered, afraid to hope I might see a picture of the two people I still missed on a daily basis.
I turned pages slowly, reading the messages and seeing the happy smiles of lovers and friends and families who had all come to this place a decade ago on their travels from somewhere else.
I finished the first book and closed it before handing it back to Hannah who placed it back on the shelf.
“Feel free to look through any others if you’d like. The year is written on the spine.” She gave me a hug and said, “We’re so happy you and Caleb are here with us this year.”
“Thank you,” I managed to get out before my throat seized up.
“I’m going to take this little monkey to the kitchen and leave you to it. Come find us if you need anything at all,” she said gently, probably sensing that I was getting emotional. Zara gave me a sweet little wave as she left with her mum.
Once I was alone, I took the second book to a chair by the window and sat. For a few moments I just looked out at the beauty of the grounds covered in snow before I opened the photo album and started looking at pages.
Seven page-turns into the book and there they were. In life…in color…in a picture I had never seen before. Susanna and Michael. My mother laughing up at my dad as if he’d just said something incredibly clever. Happy. That’s how they were in the picture. So happy. My eyes filled with tears, growing blurry to the point I couldn’t even read the message on the page in the familiar hand of my mother’s writing until I gave myself a minute.
Once I was able to read it, the message wasn’t anything remarkable at all, just how much they’d enjoyed their weekend at Hallborough and that they would love to come back again someday. That never happened, obviously, but that wasn’t the point. The important thing was that they had been here and enjoyed themselves together…spending time with each other and finding happiness in those precious moments they were given.
The warm weight of Caleb’s arms came around me from behind. I was so absorbed in my trip down memory lane, I hadn’t even heard him come into the room.
“Your parents came to Hallborough,” he said softly as he studied their picture.
“They did.” I reached a hand up and cupped his cheek, needing to touch him.
“That’s why you were so excited about seeing the house. You suspected they came here.”
“You caught that from me?” The level of Caleb’s intuitiveness amazed me. It must be why he was so good in business. He could read people.
He kissed the top of my head. “I like to think I can know what you’re thinking but I don’t. I just sense changes in your body language, and you were trembling when we drove up to the house, and then taking happy selfies in front of it two minutes later. When Hannah said you were in here looking through the photo albums for your parents, I figured it out.”
“I’m glad you came to find me.” I got up from the chair and went into his arms and let him hold me. Caleb’s touch was my lifeline now. He balanced my highs and lows with his ever-present strength and love.
“Me too. I love seeing you so happy, it’s the best gift you can give me. Well, that, and our baby,” he said sweetly against my forehead.
“I love you, Caleb Blackstone, and I needed this trip so much more than I could have ever imagined, but you imagined it. You know me better than I know myself sometimes. Thank you for bringing me here, but more than that, for loving me the way that I am.”
“I love you, Brooke Casterley Blackstone, and that is my most important job. It’s what I do best.”