Read Christmas at Claridge's Online

Authors: Karen Swan

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Contemporary Women, #General

Christmas at Claridge's

For Andrew and Eilidh,

 

who will no doubt read this book out loud all the way up the M6.

Contents

Prologue

 

NEW YEAR’S EVE, 2013

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

 

PORTOFINO

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

 

PORTOBELLO

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

 

TWO MONTHS LATER

Chapter Forty-Five

 

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

 

Karen Swan Author Q&A

Players

Prima Donna

Christmas at Tiffany’s

The Perfect Present

An extract from The Perfect Present follows . . .

Chapter One

Prologue

April 2003

She awoke with a start. Her dream had been greedy, sucking her into a deep, motionless sleep, and her heart pounded heavily within her chest at the sudden fright. Above her
head, the thin blue paisley curtain fluttered wildly like a trapped bird at the open window, the room falling into sporadic darkness as battle-fresh storm clouds surged across the sky, blocking the
moon’s earthly gaze. She blinked and lay perfectly still, watching the curtain flap and flail and listening to the ghostly sounds outside as the gusting wind skimmed the sea’s skin and
sprayed droplets through the air, misting the sheet so that it clung to her body like a shroud.

The bang came again and she jumped – not because it was particularly loud, but because it was out of place. The storm had been forecast and everything was tethered. That gate had been
locked. She had done it herself.

In one move she was up on her knees, her face scrunched against the wind as it found her in the narrow window and whipped her long dark hair around her like Medusa’s snakes. She saw the
dark green trellised gate bang against its metal post again before sweeping back on its hinges, ready for the next attack. Her eyes lifted to the frothing surf behind it as rearing white horses
stampeded the inlet, throwing themselves against the basalt rocks, while the gate crashed closed again and again and again – the drummer boy to the sea’s cavalry charge. If she was
going to get any sleep . . .

Her bare feet touched the cold tiled floor as she pulled on the white dotted cotton nightdress it had been too muggy to wear before the storm had broken. She opened her door soundlessly and
looked down the long hall. Shadows played in silence, interrupted only by the caprices of the clouds, and downstairs a Viennese wall clock ticked. She ran lightly, the pads of her feet making a
tiny sticky patter only the mice could hear.

She moved like a ghost through the kitchen, automatically reaching high for the back door keys that were stored safely on a hook. But they weren’t there. Tentatively she put her hand to
the handle and pushed down. It was unlocked.

She hesitated, listening for further sounds that would indicate activity or reasons to be outside in the storm, but everything around her seemingly slept on. But . . . she looked at the handle
again; someone was up. With a deep breath, she stepped outside, immediately hunching herself into a stoop as the hot wind lunged at her in snappy gusts. Her hair flew across her face, and she had
to release one hand from clutching her nightie to pin her hair back behind her ear as she looked across the gardens for signs of life. She was alone. The chickens were nestled together in the
furthest corner of their coop, the tree branches empty and there was no sign of the black and white stray cat with ginger tail and eyebrows either. She hobbled over the cobbled-mosaic path, as
above her, the olive and cypress trees bent low as if in greeting, the wild daisies in the stone walls nodding their heads in frantic unison.

She reached the gate mid-swing, only just stopping it from slamming again. Replacing it on the catch, she reached down to re-attach the chain that she knew she had secured earlier. Padlocks
didn’t just unlock themselves and there certainly wasn’t enough power – even in these winds – for the gate to force it. To open it required a key that was left on the same
hook with the back door keys. Who was out here?

She looked across the small, narrow road that divided the property from the rocky shore, searching for an untethered boat on the savage swell or an uprooted tree – anything that might
explain why anyone would come out in this weather. But the moon was eclipsed by buffeting clouds suddenly and the garden plunged into darkness. Shadows were swallowed whole and the wind howled as
it victory-lapped the lone villa.

That was why she saw it, the barest flicker of a candle further down the shore path, the only light out there. Her eyes focused with pinpoint accuracy as she keened into the headwind, trying to
see the dot of light in the distance. No one would willingly choose to step outdoors during a storm like this. Something had to be wrong.

Letting the chain drop heavily from her hand, she opened the gate again and crossed the narrow road, darting straight into the protection of the fig-tree-lined tunnel on the other side that
would take her down to the stepped terraces and the bar area, and then beyond that, swirling down in a vortex of cobble steps towards the beach and boat stores.

The ground was wet beneath her feet as spray – all that was left of the waves pounding the rocks and tors and walls – fell like mist, making her hair and nightie cling defiantly to
her skin in spite of the wind’s assaults. Her hands smacked against the jagged walls for blind guidance as she headed towards the solitary flicker that she could see now was coming from the
tall, round folly on the small bay’s furthest promontory. With relief, she knew the dark path she was on would lead directly to steps that descended to the headland; the door was only locked
at the bottom, where it opened onto a small concrete bathing platform a metre above the sea.

Disorientated by the dancing, whirling darkness, she reached the first steps before she expected to, almost falling headlong down them and having to grapple with the wall for support, grazing
the skin on her forearms. She closed her eyes as the sting smarted, her hands clasping the cuts as her heart pounded from the near miss. A shiver shot over her skin; she was shielded from the
warmth of the Saharan-sourced wind here and the chill of her damp hair and skin began to creep.

A sudden noise – a sob? – beneath her made her catch her breath. She strained to hear more and made out the dull sweep of skin on stone, as if something or someone was being dragged,
and then a sharp scraping as though furniture was being moved. She waited, her breath held, one hand slapped over her mouth as an insurance policy. There came the sounds of hurried breathing, of
panting.

She froze, suddenly certain that whoever was down there, and whatever they were doing, it had nothing to do with the storm. Although the small windows on the stairwell were open to the elements,
with only iron bars at them, the steps themselves ran down a central spine, blocking the floor below from sight and protecting everything in there from the weather. Whatever was happening down
there, in the dead of night, amidst the storm, it was happening in secret.

She looked behind her into the enveloping blackness, knowing she should turn back; knowing that whatever was going on, it had nothing to do with her; she wasn’t supposed to see this. She
was eighteen. Her whole life was spread before her like a beautifully laid picnic.

The breathing around the next corner grew more ragged and desperate, building . . . She turned to go. She had to get out.

‘Help . . . me.’ The whisper reached out to her – only her – in the darkness.

She spun round, her eyes wide and black with fright. Had they heard her? Had she heard correctly? Above the wind, she didn’t know if she could trust her ears. But she could trust her eyes.
Every instinct was telling her to turn and run, to leap over the steps three at a time and escape back to the safety of the storm. There was fear here. She could feel it reaching up the stairs like
ivy and entwining her.

She was unseen, but already a part of this. Even as her head screamed at her to run, her feet began to move, spiriting her forwards and downwards in silence as the storm raged above. Shaking
palpably, instinctively sensing that each step she took was a step away from her own path, she turned the corner.

Two pairs of eyes met hers. And she stepped out of the shadows.

NEW YEAR’S EVE, 2013
Chapter One

The red leather-clad phone on the table buzzed waspishly jolting Clem out of her meditation on the rain. She read it with a sigh.

‘Where ARE you? If you’re not here in five minutes, I’m coming to get you.’

The sender hadn’t signed off, but then, she didn’t need to. Stella and she practically maintained an open line to each other. Her hand fell back onto the silk pouch
resting on her lap and she looked out into the slippery, gleaming night. It was just gone nine thirty and she’d made a solemn pinky-promise to get there soon after eight, but for all her
hard-partying reputation, she loathed New Year’s Eve. It was the second worst night of the year in her book.

‘Wardrobe crisis,’
she texted back.

The reply was instantaneous.
‘Bollocks! We decided on the sequin skirt and mohair jumper. Move it!’

Clem’s eyes fell down to her copper sequinned mini skirt – which flashed her extra-long still-brown legs – and the winter-white sweater that slipped off one still-brown
shoulder. Stella always knew when she was lying.

‘Shoe crisis,’
she half-heartedly tried again whilst sliding her feet into the metallic bronze python stilettoes lying abandoned beside the sofa and pushing herself to
standing. At 5 foot 9 inches in socks, the shoes took her above 6 foot and her gaze drifted out the windows onto the reflections in the puddles on the pavements outside. It really was raining very
hard she noticed for the first time. Stella’s flat was only a couple of streets away, but she’d be soaked if she walked there, and what were the chances of catching a cab on the
Portobello Road on New Year’s Eve?

The phone buzzed again.
‘Pythons. And FYFI Josh just arrived and been ambushed by bosomy blonde in red.’

‘What?’ Clem screeched to the empty room. With sudden focus and impressive speed, she raced into her bedroom, digging beneath the piles of dirty clothes for her bag and a coat. Her
hands found the rabbit-fur jacket (or
‘lapin’
as Stella insisted on saying, making it sound like an exotic tea) and she held it up questioningly She’d bought it on a whim
in the market last week and worn it home in the rain so that now the fur looked like it came from a rabbit that had died of myxomatosis. Hmm.

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