House-sitting in a castle over Christmas is a dream come true for Anna and her seven-year-old son Freddie. But there’s one Christmas present Freddie wants more than anything, and it’s the one thing Anna can’t give him – his very own dad.
As Anna settles into her new surroundings and a much slower pace of life, she is soon befriended by the local villagers and the castle workforce who provide a welcome distraction. Before even a Christmas cracker is pulled, Freddie shows an eager interest in the castle workforce; green-fingered Simon, salt of the earth Luke and charming castle manager Julius. Could one of them make Freddies Christmas wish come true and repair Anna’s, broken heart?
At the most magical time of the year, everyone needs a Christmas miracle if they’re to make it to Christmas Day . . .
Lucy’s husband Colin arrived at the shop with their young son, Benny. He’d had to leave the car further away from the shop to keep clear of the flood. Benny kept complaining about having water in his boots.
‘I told you not to splash in the puddles,’ Colin said mildly. ‘I’ve brought him with me as the girls have gone out,’ he explained to Lucy and then, seeing Anna and Freddie, said, ‘Hello, sorry to meet you in such tragic conditions.’
‘I can’t believe it’s flooded so badly.’ Anna didn’t know how to deal with this disaster. It was so hard to take in the sudden change in the village. Yesterday it had been so charming with its pretty cottages painted in soft colours and the spotless little shops. ‘I know it’s rained a lot, but I never thought there would be so much damage.’
‘The river wasn’t managed properly,’ Colin sounded exasperated. ‘I won’t go into it now. The emergency services are doing what they can, but it’s a bit like shutting the door after the horse has bolted. But we who live here must do all we can to see people are warm and dry for Christmas.’ He turned to Lucy; ‘I suppose we could put Benny on a camp bed in with us and free up his room for someone.’
‘We could,’ Lucy said slightly doubtfully, looking at Benny.
Freddie and Benny were eyeing each other up. Anna remembered Lucy telling her both boys were the same age.
‘Now what else has to go to the house? I thought we should put a notice in the shop window to let everyone know that all the cakes are at our house. Of course, they’ll know about the flood, and if they feel their cakes have been contaminated, you’ll have to give them their money back.’ Colin said, ‘but they were well away from the water and in a tin, so I’d say they are all right.’ He smiled at her, ‘Oh, and will you have the Gateau des Rois ready for the Twelfth Night, some people like them earlier, remember?’ Colin reminded her.
‘Oh, heavens, I’d forgotten those,’ Lucy was shocked; she bit back tears of exhaustion. ‘I can see all this mess, but I haven’t processed the fact that I won’t be able to bake here for some time and we’ve got all the Christmas cooking to do,’ she wailed.
‘I can help with the gateaux,’ Anna said. ‘I was an au pair in France before uni just after Christmas. It’s a French custom for the Epiphany.’
‘What kind of cake is that?’ Freddie asked.
‘It celebrates the three kings reaching the manger after baby Jesus was born. I think it had a paper crown and whoever gets the little figures inside is king or queen for the day,’ Anna explained.
‘That’s right, in France you buy them in the boulangerie, but we started doing them a couple of years ago, and it’s become very popular,’ Lucy went on. ‘I just don’t know how…’ Her voice tailed off in despair.
Colin put his arm round her, holding her close. ‘This won’t defeat us, love, we’ll carry on, but we’ll have to bake at home, and people can come and collect their cakes there. No one will lose out.’
‘If you give me the recipe I can make some too.’ Anna didn’t bake often but she enjoyed it when she did, and she hadn’t as much to do here, as she would have at home, so she could easily do it. ‘People could even collect them from the flat in the castle if that would help.’
Lucy threw her a wobbly smile. ‘Thanks, Anna; I might well take you up on that. We’ll work it out somehow; I just feel gutted, we were woken at five this morning, and it’s been hell ever since, and it’s not even teatime. But at least our house is safe, warm and dry not like some of the poor people like Mattie who must have lost so much.’
‘It’s a lot to take in,’ Anna said. She thought of Mattie’s cosy cottage where they’d had coffee with her. Whatever was that like now? ‘Somehow being Christmas makes it even worse,’ she said.
Simon came into the shop then and looked round in horror. ‘Oh, Lucy, I’m so sorry,’ he seemed stricken as if he’d stumbled into a war zone, which in a way he had, a war produced by nature, which, in the end, was more powerful than human beings.
‘Don’t be kind or I’ll burst into tears and probably won’t be able to stop,’ Lucy said, making Benny run to her side and cling to her as though her tears might wash her away.
‘We’ll all work together,’ Simon said with determination. ‘Support each other. Now I’m going to take Anna up to the castle, as Marian is meeting us there and we’re going to see what we can do for those who have nowhere to spend Christmas.’
‘What has Julius said about it?’ Colin asked.
‘Haven’t managed to track him down, he’s somewhere on a mountain, nor can I get hold of Nell and Tessa, so I’ll have to make the decisions myself. If there weren’t so many valuable things in those main rooms, I’d have no hesitation letting our friends and neighbours into the castle. But Julius isn’t back until tomorrow, Christmas Eve, and by then it will be too late to find somewhere for the people in the village to spend Christmas. It seems unfair that anyone has to doss down on the floor of the church hall when there are empty beds up at the castle.’
While the adults had been talking, Benny and Freddie thought it rather fun to go out into the water and splash each other by seeing who could stamp the hardest and become the wettest – Benny had seemingly forgotten about his wet socks.
Lucy quickly put an end to this game and, turning to Anna, said, ‘If Freddie would like to come home with us we’d love it. We’re only down the road in a large white house, Wildwood House. The wildwood’s long gone unless you see the garden sometimes, just the house remains,’ she joked. ‘You can’t miss it. If you’d like to, Freddie, that is?’ She smiled at him.
‘I’ve got a new computer game. It’s best with two people playing, but Dad and Mum don’t understand it, and my two sisters don’t like it, anyway they’re not there,’ Benny said eagerly.
‘Can I go with them, please, Mum?’ Freddie looked hopefully at Anna.’
There’s something delightfully old-fashioned about this story, which may not appeal to everyone at other times of the year but at Christmas and New Year, its unashamed sentimentality hits the mark.
Its a simple story of a widow and her young son, house-sitting at a castle over the festive period with a charming cast of villagers and plenty of adventures. It took me a while to get into this story, but once I did, I liked it.
Freddie’s wish for a father is transparent and leads to a few embarrassing incidents and tears for his mother, Annie. In the spirit of the season, Freddie’s gets his Christmas wish, even if it happens a little later than expected.
I received a copy of this book from Aria Fiction via NetGalley in return for an honest review.
Minna has had an exciting career in fashion journalism and now writes full time while enjoying time with her grandsons and working as an occasional film and TV extra. She lives in London.