A Sparkly Festive Story
First published in Woman’s Weekly, 2018, as a three-part serial
Zach Peters was not in the best of moods. The traffic out of London had been murder – the M25 had been its usual chock-a-block self, and it had taken him three hours to traverse what should have been a forty-minute stretch.
It was his own fault, he knew. Friday afternoons were always bad, but he’d really wanted to get home despite the fact Liam had done his best to dissuade him. “They’ve forecast more snow, mate. Why not stay for the weekend?”
“I need to get back.” The prospect of snow had made Zach even more determined.
“I can’t see why.” Liam had shaken his head. “It’s not like anyone’s waiting for you.” Liam had never been blessed with tact.
Zach had known it would be pointless telling him that was exactly why he needed to get back. Liam would never get it. Liam was a hedonist who was at his best around people, the more the merrier. He loved the drama and craziness of London whereas Zach had only ever tolerated it because of the band. He and Liam were the founder members of No Strings Attached – Liam played Sax and Zach trombone. They’d played together for as long as he could remember and the jazz band they’d formed at uni with three other musicians had gone from strength to strength. They’d finally gone professional nine years ago when he was twenty-seven.
They’d done really well. There’d been enough work to give up their day jobs although the dream hadn’t panned out as well as they’d both hoped. Maybe dreams never did.
Those days were gone now. Zach was amazed sometimes that he and Liam were still such good friends. They were so completely unalike. Maybe that was why it worked. They had been the yin and yang of the band. He had been the balm to Liam’s craziness.
Nowadays Zach yearned for peace. He wanted his own bed and the fresh Hampshire air of home.
It was only the beginning of December, but the city had already been hotting up for Christmas. Two days of London had been enough. Despite the horrendous journey he was glad he’d left when he had. They’d been right about the snow.
At least he was on the home stretch now. The last and also the most picturesque part of his route was through the New Forest. He knocked the gears back down to fourth, partly because of the speed limit, although he was under it already, and partly because the snow was coming down thick and fast now and stopping time would be trickier. You never knew when a pony or a donkey would wander across the road, totally oblivious to the cars that sped through the centre of their home.
The engine spluttered a couple of times. It had done that earlier and he’d put it down to impurities in the fuel. He’d filled up at Fleet. Odd that it was still doing it now though. He stared out at the snow – it was mesmerising, swirling down in endless flakes against the windscreen. The sooner he was home the better, he thought, just as the engine gave another couple of splutters, and then cut out completely.
Still not unduly worried, Zach let the car coast to the side of the road. Or at least, what he could see of it. The white edges had already merged into the verge. He was pretty sure the car would start again. But it didn’t. On the fifth attempt, wary of flattening the battery, he gave up and reached for his phone, which was on the passenger seat beside him.
Time to make use of his RAC cover. His heart gave a jolt as he saw the display on his phone said No Service. Peering out of the windscreen, which was already half covered he realised he was approaching Godshill. Godforsaken might have been a better name for it, Zach had often thought. It was a total black spot as far as phones went. Typical. What were the chances of breaking down here?
Ah well, he would just have to walk for a bit – until he got a better signal and could phone for assistance. It wasn’t the end of the world. It wouldn’t be dark for another hour.
Lucy Snow was also driving home. Ringwood was her hometown although she didn’t live there any more. In fact, it felt like a failure to be coming back tonight. Get real, Lucy she berated herself. It was a failure.
She had moved away six years ago when she’d married Michael. He wasn’t with her today. They hadn’t spoken for a week, except for once, briefly on the phone (he worked abroad) when she’d told him she was going to stay with her brother and sister-in-law and the marital home would be empty until after the festive season.
“The estate agent has the keys,” she’d added, sensing he was about to protest. “So we’ll still get viewings if there are any.” Which was unlikely. Who’d want to go house hunting in December?
“Right,” he’d said, in a coolly distant voice that had nothing to do with the fact he was in Abu Dhabi, and she was in England, “I hope you have a nice time.”
“I will,” she had murmured, too proud to say the words that were on the tip of her tongue, which were, ‘that’s not very likely, is it? Not with things as they are between us.’
But they no longer wanted the same things from their marriage. He had made that crystal clear during that last terrible row. What was the point of talking about it any more when Lucy knew in her heart that there was nothing left to say?
The snow had already lace edged the trees and sprinkled the heathland on either side of her with a dusting of soft white. Now it was settling on the road itself. Thankfully she only had a few miles to go. She was just thinking that she wouldn’t have fancied being stranded out here tonight when she saw the broken down car. It was pulled up onto what Lucy assumed to be the grassy bank. There didn’t appear to be anyone inside. She hoped the driver was OK.
She was about a mile further on when she saw the solitary figure walking at the side of the road. It was hard to tell at first whether it was a man or a woman, shrouded as they were in a big coat and hood. She slowed. She didn’t fancy picking up a strange man. You never knew, these days. But her conscience wouldn’t let her ignore someone completely – not on a night like this.
As she pulled alongside, the figure turned, and she saw that it was a man: youngish; tall; well dressed. That was an expensive ski coat. Lucky he’d had that in his car. She lowered the electronic window on the passenger side remotely.
“Are you OK? Do you need any help?”
He gave her a half smile. “I broke down about a mile back.”
“You don’t have breakdown cover?”
“I do, but there’s no signal. So I can’t call them.” His voice was gravelly. Oddly familiar. He looked familiar too.
Lucy peered at him through the dusk. She hesitated. Half of her instincts were yelling, ‘Don’t risk it. He could be an axe murderer.’ The other half were saying, ‘You’ve been watching too many horror films. Don’t be ridiculous.’
Besides, she knew that to be true about the signal. She had a friend who lived out here. It was hard to get Wi-Fi too. “Where are you headed?” she asked.
“Fordingbridge. It’s the turning by the Post Office, just off the High Street.” He paused. Snow was settling on his head. “My aunt Florrie owns the Post Office,” he added randomly.
Lucy nodded. She knew Florrie – everyone did. But that wasn’t why he looked familiar. She knew him from somewhere else. A good somewhere. It would come back to her in a moment.
She made a decision. “I’m on my way to see my brother in Ringwood. I can drop you back if you like?”
“I’d be eternally grateful. Thank you.”
She undid the central locking so he could get in. At close range she could see he had snowflakes on his eyelashes and nice eyes. There was a little mole on the side of his nose.
He was looking at her properly too. There was a pause and his brow creased. “Hey, haven’t we met before? Aren’t you Dan Langton’s sister? Lucy?”
“I am – yes.”
“I used to play rugby with Dan, and I went to his wedding.” He smiled properly now. “I’m Zach Peters.”
Relief flooded her. No wonder he seemed familiar.
“Of course.” She had a vague memory of him with a leggy blonde. He looked older than the last time she’d seen him, which she supposed he would – Dan and Jo had been married ten years – but it was more than that. He looked as though the world had swallowed him up and spat him out. He was the same age as Dan so he couldn’t be more than thirty-six, two years older than she was. But his world-weariness made her warm to him, more than maybe she would have done.
“I’m Lucy Snow now,” she said, even though it felt bittersweet to say the words. “And yes that really is my name. So no wisecracks.”
He clipped on his seat belt and held his hands up. “I wouldn’t dream of it. Not when you’ve been so kind. I was beginning to think no one would come past at all.”
“Maybe there’s been an accident at the other end and they’ve closed the road. It can be a bit of a black spot, that crossroads.”
It was inevitable, Zach supposed, what with it being so close to Christmas, that the first thing she asked him about was his festive plans.
He felt a bit of a heel telling her that his priority was to try and miss as much of it as possible. No doubt she was off to some huge family knees-up. But to his surprise she was sympathetic.
“If I could get away with it, I’d be doing that too,” she remarked. Her face shadowed and then she went on softly, “Christmas isn’t all tinsel and turkey, is it?”
“No,” he said with feeling. There was a little pause and to fill it, he asked her brightly. “So how are things? Are you still in the area?”
“No, I moved to Kent when I got married.”
“Ah. So how long are you staying with Dan and Jo? It’s been ages since I saw them.”
“It’s a bit open ended actually.” She sounded tense and he realised he’d picked the wrong subject. He tried again. “Are you enjoying…?”
“How long is…?”
They spoke at the same time and he gestured for her to go first.
“I was going to ask you how long it was since you’d seen them,” she said. “They have a little boy now called Tom.”
“Wow. Really. Amazing. How old is he?”
“No! Time flies.” It was warm in the car. He smiled at her. “I bet he’s cute.”
“He’s absolutely adorable.” The wistfulness in her voice was at odds with her words. There was another pause.
Zach let it hang. He had learnt long ago that if you wanted to know stuff about people you just sat quiet and listened. Not that he did particularly want to know stuff about her, but hey, she had just picked him up – for which he was incredibly grateful. They still hadn’t seen another car. Also, there was something about her that was rather lovely, and after tonight he probably wouldn’t see her for another decade or however long it had been. If she wanted to talk he was happy to hear it.
They were driving slowly now. It was hard to see anything through the eternal snow. The sides of the road had disappeared completely. There was only the odd bush to tell them where it might be.
“I’m moving back to Hampshire actually,” she said. “Things didn’t work out in Kent.” There was a world of sadness in her voice. “Me and my husband – well, it turned out we didn’t want the same things.”
“Ah,” he said. “That’s a tough one.”
“Are you married?”
“No.” Then because he felt obliged to tell her something in return, he added, “I was.”
He could have told her anything, Zach thought, and those lovely blue eyes would have widened in sympathy. He could have told her that Sian had died of some terrible illness or been in a car crash. He’d said both of those things to inquisitive strangers before now. It was a good way to cut the conversation dead. But on impulse, he told her the ugly truth. “My wife left me for another bloke. She told me on Christmas Eve last year.”
“What…? That stinks!” She sounded so outraged on his behalf he almost smiled.
“Did you know him – the guy in question?”
“Vaguely. Through work.” That was an understatement, but he didn’t want to get into that.
“I’m not sure whether that makes it better or worse,” she said.
“It maybe knocks your pride a bit more,” he said thoughtfully. “But it would still hurt the same, I guess, however it happened.” He paused, wondering how she had managed to elicit more information from him than anyone else had got in a year and whether he should be asking how it had happened for her. He had never been good at talking. It had been one of Sian’s many gripes.
“I thought you liked the strong silent type,” he’d joked once, before he’d realised she was looking for a way out, not a way to fix things.
“Strong and silent, not totally incommunicado,” she’d shot back. “It’s like having a relationship with a corpse.” Had he really been that bad?
He was still contemplating this when Lucy began to speak again. She seemed to be encouraged by his silence, not put off by it.
“There was no one else in our breakup,” she murmured. “And it still hurts like mad.”
“It’s early days,” he offered and when she nodded slightly and swallowed he felt the need to add more. “Maybe there’s the chance of a reconciliation?”
“There isn’t. No, there definitely isn’t.”
He waited. They were if possible driving even more slowly – 15 mph. After another few moments she said, “When we got married we both wanted the same things. We wanted a big family. Well, I did. Michael was a little less keen.”
Her knuckles were tight around the steering wheel. “He was an only child, so I understood him having reservations. He said the thought of a big family was a bit overwhelming.”
She sighed. “A few months ago, he told me he doesn’t want any children at all.”
“I see,” he said, and it seemed so totally inadequate a thing to say. There was a part of him that wanted to add, ‘Better to find out now than later. You’re still young.’ But he knew what it was like when complete strangers offered you clichés. When Sian had gone some of his friends had said, “You’re better off without her, mate.” And some had crossed the road to avoid talking to him. He’d preferred the ‘road crossers’ to the ‘cliché-mongers’.
“Is there no chance he’ll change his mind?” He felt out of his depth, but he was also moved by her distress.
“I don’t think so… Gosh…” It was as if she had suddenly woken up and realised where she was, who she was talking to. “I won’t bore you with the details. Sorry. I don’t know why I’m telling you. You’re just such a good listener.”
Blimey. That was a turn up for the books – to coin a cliché. He’d never been called that before.
“Apparently it’s sometimes easier to talk to strangers than it is to talk to people who know you,” he said.
“Yes.” She blinked several times.
He would have hugged her if they hadn’t been driving. It seemed inappropriate to touch her arm or shoulder, so he didn’t. He could only hope that it had helped her to unburden herself. Just a little.
They were coming to the edge of the forest – he could see the familiar landmark of the pub ahead of them, its lights twinkling out in the dusk.
“They probably haven’t had the gritters in Fordingbridge except for the High Street,” he said. “So if you want to drop me there, that would be great. I’d hate you to get stuck.”
She turned to smile at him. “If you’re sure? OK, I will. Thanks.”
For the rest of the journey, the conversation was lighter. Maybe she was embarrassed, he thought, regretting what she’d told him.
But when she did finally pull over by the Post Office to let him out, she seemed cheerful enough. “Thanks for your company. I hope your Christmas works out OK, Zach.”
“Thanks for the lift. And ditto.” He gestured up his road, which was ablaze with festive lights. Apart from his house, which stood out like a dark monolith between the displays. “Spot the bah humbug,” he said, and she smiled.
Then she was gone, and he thought, how strange life was. He felt better for having talked about Sian. For having been told he was a good listener. His heart felt lighter as he turned into his street and headed for the sanctuary of home.
Lucy drove carefully back out on to the main road. He’d been right about the gritting. Still, she’d be at Dan’s in another twenty-five minutes, tops. In some ways it had been good to have Zach’s company. It had distracted her from what would otherwise have been a pretty hairy journey.
It had also been good to talk – the poor bloke probably hadn’t bargained for that, she thought. Having her dump all that on him. She had told him stuff she hadn’t told her closest friends.
The saddest thing of all was that Michael had once been her closest friend.
Not to mention lover, husband, partner, and soulmate, all wrapped up in one amazing package. She thought she’d won the lottery when they’d met.
So had he. “I know it’s corny, but I feel as though you’re the one I’ve been waiting for all my life.” He’d said it on their second date, when they’d stayed up all night talking – just as they had on the first one.
Neither of them had wanted to leave. And that feeling, so strong and so powerful – had increased and increased, the longer they’d known each other. Despite the negativity of some people – including her parents – ‘The candle that burns twice as bright, lasts half as long, Lucy.’
Lucy knew they didn’t mean to be unkind. They just hadn’t wanted to see her get hurt. They’d been afraid things were moving too fast. So had some of her friends.
Jo hadn’t. Her lovely sister-in-law was the only one who’d been totally supportive. “When you know it’s right, you just know,” she’d said. “You go for it, my darling.”
So they had, Lucy and Michael. Their whirlwind romance had turned into a wedding proposal, and they’d been married inside the year. And they had been so happy until she had begun to drop hints about starting a family.
There’d always been a reason why it wasn’t a good time: ‘let’s get settled in the house first’; ‘let’s wait until my job’s more secure’; ‘let’s wait until I get another contract’.
Her mind flicked back to that last bitter row. “I’m sorry, Lucy. I’m just not ready for a family.”
“Then when?” She was thirty-six. The ticking of her biological clock was getting louder.
“I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready.”
His eyes had been so distant. So cold, and however hard she’d looked she couldn’t see her soulmate any more. She could only see locked doors, stop signs and endings.
Zach’s hand closed around his keys as he went up the front path, and he felt around automatically for his phone, which didn’t seem to be in either of the deep pockets of his coat. He frowned. He had a distinct memory of locking up the car, and stuffing both phone and wallet into his pocket. But he hadn’t zipped it.
His wallet was still insitu. Maybe he hadn’t grabbed his phone, after all. Maybe it was still lying on the passenger seat of his car. That seemed unlikely when he’d known he would need it.
He unlocked the front door. He was so distracted he didn’t see the cardboard box of stuff for the charity shop (mostly Christmas decorations) that he’d left just inside it until he’d tripped over it. He put out his hands to save himself, but it was too late. He sprawled forward, cracked his head on the banister, saw stars that definitely weren’t of the Christmas variety and ended up in an ungainly heap on his hall carpet.
* * *
Lucy was on the outskirts of Fordingbridge when she heard a series of pings: the sound of two or three texts coming through on a mobile. But it clearly wasn’t hers because it was set to silent when she was driving.
She frowned. Zach must have left his phone behind. She’d only dropped him off five minutes ago. It would be better to take it back now, she decided, turning the car around carefully. The snow was still falling fast out of the dark sky. By tomorrow morning it might be impossible to drive.
She headed back, parked at the top of Cranbrook Road where she had dropped him off and walked down, her footprints overlaying the imprints of his on the fresh snow. Not that it would have been hard to spot his house, because, as he’d helpfully pointed out a few minutes earlier, it was the only one that wasn’t lit up like a Christmas tree. Clearly there was some sort of festive lights competition going on between his neighbours.
When she reached his front door she realised it was slightly ajar. Hesitating, but only briefly, she rapped the brass doorknocker.
There was a muffled grunt from the other side, which she took to be an invitation. She stepped into a dimly lit hall and stopped short. Baubles, tinsel and silver beads littered the carpet and Zach was sitting at the foot of the stairs with his head in his hands.
“Um, hello…” She stopped in her tracks. “You forgot your phone. I just brought it back…”
“Thanks…” He looked up at her, blinking rapidly. “I feel like a prize idiot.” He gestured to the mess. “I just took a tumble.”
“Gosh. Are you OK?” She picked her way over the debris. “Did you hit your head?”
The cut on his forehead answered that question. She knelt down in front of him. “You should really get checked out. Did you knock yourself out?”
“I don’t think so. Although I certainly saw stars. Several of them,” he quipped, gesturing to a silver sparkly one close by. Sadly, I didn’t see them quickly enough. I shouldn’t have left the box there. It’s my own stupid fault.”
“You might need a stitch in that.” She frowned. “I’ll take you to A&E.”
“No. I’ve caused you enough trouble already.” He waved a hand. “Really. I’m fine. But I appreciate you bringing my phone back.”
Lucy hesitated. “At least let me check that cut.” She smiled at him. “It’s OK. I’m a first aider. It’ll be good practice for me.”
Zach gave in and let her lead him into his own kitchen. It was usually better to take the path of least resistance, he reckoned, where a determined woman was concerned.
Anyway, she was nice. She was also, to his relief, brisk and efficient. She swiftly procured the nearest thing to medical supplies he had in the house, a wedge of kitchen roll and some tepid boiled water from the kettle and set to work.
It was odd having a woman so close to him. He’d avoided women since he’d split up with Sian. He’d avoided everyone if he was honest. He could smell her faint cologne as she leaned over him, something sultry and exotic.
“I’m not hurting you, am I?”
“It’s not as bad as it looked. It’s stopped bleeding anyway.”
“Good.” He was feeling lightheaded. But that was probably the shock.
“I’ll make you some tea,” she murmured, looking at his face, her eyes clouded with concern. “You’re a bit pale. You’re probably in shock. It’ll help.”
She bustled around. Fortunately, he hadn’t been away long so there was some in date milk in the fridge. She was tactful enough not to comment on the stacked up take-away containers and the beers that were also in there.
It felt surreal, watching her in his kitchen. But in a good way. By the time he’d drunk the oversweet tea – maybe it was true about that being good for shock – he felt a lot better.
“Thank you,” he said, when she finally got up to leave. “I really appreciate it.”
“It’s no problem. Is there anyone you can call? I still feel that maybe we should have gone to A&E and got you checked out properly.”
“No one close,” he murmured. Which was true in every sense of the word.
“Well, would you call me then?” she asked. “Tomorrow, I mean. Just to put my mind at rest that you’ve survived the night.” She handed him a business card, which said Lucy Snow – Virtual PA. Black letters on a gold background. Classy.
He nodded, touched by her concern and hooked out a business card too from his wallet. It was an old one, with the name of the band, No Strings Attached, and the silhouette of the five of them in the background.
“You’re a musician?”
It was on the tip of his tongue to say, ‘I used to be.’ But he didn’t. He just nodded again. And besides, he guessed it didn’t matter that he was no longer in a band. He would always be a musician.
“Until tomorrow then,” she said, and he was left with just the trace of her scent and the memory of her smile in his kitchen.
When Lucy finally arrived at Dan and Jo’s she was met by an ecstatic Tom. “You’ve been ages. We thought you’d crashed.” Her eight-year-old nephew flung his arms around her.
“No, we didn’t.” Dan and Jo exchanged glances. “Let her get in the door, Tom.”
“I’m sorry. I should have called.” Lucy felt suddenly stricken. Of course they’d have been worried. It was a foul night for driving.
She went into the bright warmth of the house, the bright warmth of their welcome. Even their old Labrador, Georgie, seemed pleased to see her, wagging her tail from her spot by the wood burner.
“Actually,” Lucy said, with a frown. “I’ve had quite an adventure. I picked up a hitchhiker and it turned out it was someone we all know. Well, you two know him better than I do. He was at your wedding!”
An hour later, after she’d filled them in about Zach’s car breaking down and all that had followed, and Dan was putting an over excited Tom to bed, she sat down with Jo in the lounge for some girl talk.
Jo touched her hand. “I can’t believe you didn’t know Zach Peters was a musician,” she said, her eyes bright with glee. “No Strings Attached were really well known. In jazz circles anyway – they were brilliant. It was a shame they split up.” Her voice dropped reflectively. “Zach plays the sax.”
“Does he? We didn’t really talk about work.” No – they’d skipped that level, she thought, and they’d gone straight for the deep stuff. She hadn’t realised at that point though, that she’d ever see him again.
“Anyway, enough about your eventful journey…” Her sister in law’s eyes softened. “How are you? I mean, how are you really? I don’t want any brave face nonsense.”
Lucy thought about the empty house in Kent – about Michael’s coldness the last time they’d spoken. She gave a small sigh. “I’m OK. All things considered. Although this wasn’t what I thought I’d be doing that’s for sure… I don’t mean coming to stay with you guys,” she added quickly. “That’s the good part. It’s a relief to get out of the house to be honest. Hopefully someone will buy it really quickly and Michael and I can go our separate ways.”
“And it really has come to that.” Jo’s voice was sombre. “You don’t think there’s a way back for you two?”
“Not without one of us making a major compromise,” Lucy said. “And I don’t think I can live without having children. I’ve wanted to be a mother all my life.” She could feel her voice husking over the words. Suddenly tears were very close to the surface. “And it’s what Michael said he wanted too when we got married,” she finished softly. “It’s not me who’s changed.”
There was a little pause. Lucy was aware of the Christmas tree lights flashing through their sequence, red, gold, amber, green and blue, lighting up the room. There was already a smattering of cards on the mantelpiece above the log burner, even though it was only the first week of December. They would be written out to Dan, Jo and Tom. Dan, Jo and family. That’s what she had wanted too. Cards, Christmas… a life that was all about family. But it was never going to happen now. Not with Michael. Now that he’d said he didn’t want one.
“I’m sorry,” Jo said, breaking into her thoughts. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“You haven’t,” Lucy said, realising it wasn’t true when a tear rolled down her cheek. She brushed it away and rummaged for a pack of tissues. “I guess there’s a lot going on,” she added, meeting Jo’s gentle gaze.
“I’ll say.” Jo rose from the couch. “I’ll get us a night cap. Hot chocolate makes everything look better. Shall I put a whiskey in it?”
Lucy wasn’t sure whether it was the nightcap that did the trick or just the fact she was finally out of the marital home, which had felt very hollow and sad lately,
but she slept better that night than she had for weeks.
In the morning over breakfast, she and Jo and Dan discussed her plans.
“I’m taking Tom to his Saturday club when he’s finished building a snowman,” Jo said. “They’re rehearsing for a Christmas show so he doesn’t want to miss it. Dan will be around though.”
Her brother smiled at her. “Do you have to work, sis? Or are you giving yourself the weekend off?”
“I thought I might have this weekend off. In fact, I’m planning to head to the rental agents in town and see what’s about.”
They both looked at her. “You don’t need to do that. You can stay with us,” Jo said.
“I know I can. And I’m very grateful. Believe me. But I also know that these things take ages to sort out – especially over Christmas. I don’t want to outstay my welcome.”
“You won’t,” Dan said. “But you’re right. If you want somewhere for January, it’s a good plan to start looking now.” He sipped his coffee. “I’ll run you up there if you like?”
“We might be better off walking,” Jo said, as Tom came dashing into the kitchen with a sprinkling of snow in his hair. He skidded across the floor, leaving a trail of wetness.
“Do you want to see my snowman, Auntie Lucy?”
“Of course I do, sweetheart.”
In the end they all walked into town. It wasn’t much more than a mile between Tom’s Saturday club and the rental agency and there was a jovial atmosphere – loads of people were out and about, enjoying the novelty of snow and as the small roads hadn’t been gritted, there wasn’t much traffic.
They had a snowball fight on the way. Tom started it by hurling a snowball at his dad. Within seconds they were all joining in, laughing and shouting at each other across the freezing air.
Lucy realised that some of the darkness that had shadowed her for the past few weeks had lifted. It felt good to be in her hometown with the support of her family around her. She knew it wasn’t going to be easy in the weeks ahead but at least she felt as though she had made a start. Moving back to Ringwood was a major step.
They dropped Tom off safely, but when they finally reached the rental agents, they discovered the front door was locked and there were no lights on inside.
“They should be open,” Jo said, looking at the times on the door.
“The staff probably had trouble getting in,” Lucy remarked.
“Yeah.” Dan rolled his eyes. “Three inches of snow and the whole country grinds to a halt.”
“Never mind. We can look online,” Lucy said, clapping her hands together to shake off the snow. “Or maybe come back in a bit? Let’s go for a coffee somewhere. My treat.”
They were drinking it when Lucy’s phone buzzed. It was a number she didn’t recognise but she answered it curiously.
“Hi, it’s Zach. Just reporting in. So you know I’m not dead.” His voice was wry, but she could hear the warmth in it, even above the buzz of coffee shop chatter.
“Zach. Thank you. That’s a relief. How’s your head?”
“It’s fine. And it’s me who should be thanking you. I was wondering if you’d like to come out for a drink with me one evening – or maybe dinner? So I can thank you in person.” There was the briefest of pauses. “No strings attached,” he added, and Lucy wondered if she’d ever be able to hear that phrase again without thinking of his band.
“I’d like that,” she said.
They made the arrangements for the following Wednesday. “Just to make sure my car’s in working order,” Zach said. “I’ll keep you posted.”
When she disconnected, Lucy found herself under the curious scrutiny of Jo and Dan.
“Are you going on a date with Zach Peters?” Jo asked with a gleam in her eyes.
“No, not a date. I’m still married, remember!” Lucy felt herself flushing as she explained.
“You’re separated,” Dan reminded her. “Because you and your husband have decided you don’t have a future. There’s a world of difference.” He steepled his hands and looked at her. “Shall we go and see if the rental agency is open yet?”
They were, but they didn’t have anything in Lucy’s price range – not for January anyway.
“Everything goes a bit dead in December. It’s too close to silly season,” the agent told her. “We’ll probably have a flood of properties after Christmas. Do leave your details and I’ll update you.”
Lucy was disappointed but not all that surprised. She knew there was no rush, but it wasn’t fair to impose on Dan and Jo for more than few weeks. There wasn’t enough room. Their parents were coming back for Christmas too – they lived in Tenerife and flew back for family occasions. It would be quite a squash when they arrived.
Besides, having finally made the decision to leave the marital home she wanted to be independent. She felt slightly in limbo, and knew she would until the house was sold, but getting her own rental would help, even if it was tiny.
She hadn’t heard from Michael. Presumably he’d fly back from Abu Dhabi before Christmas. She wasn’t sure what his plans were – but he’d probably see his parents, who lived close to the house in Kent. She tried to put him out of her head. It was too painful. Everywhere she went there were painful reminders of Christmas – cards for your loved ones were for sale in every newsagent. Adverts for big family gatherings popped up on television constantly. You couldn’t even escape the festive season on social media.
People posted recipes for mulled wine, chestnut sprouts, and mince pies and she kept getting adverts for Michael’s favourite cologne on her timeline. Clearly she had bought it online before.
Lucy consoled herself that it would have been worse in Kent, where they had spent so many happy Christmases. Moving here had been the right thing to do.
“So, what are you wearing to go out with Zach tonight?” Jo asked her on Wednesday lunchtime.
She had just come into the spare bedroom where Lucy was working on her laptop. Dan had set up a temporary desk in there for her, bless him, well it was really a dressing table, but it was the right height and more peaceful than the kitchen table.
“I hadn’t given it a thought,” Lucy said, not entirely truthfully.
“You liar.” Jo bounced up and down on the bed like a child. “Do you want to borrow my new black top?”
“It’s not a date,” Lucy said, smiling. “But yes, OK to the top.” They both giggled.
“Do you think Zach will mind signing a copy of one of his CDs for me if I give it to you?” Jo asked after a few seconds.
“I’ll certainly ask him.”
Zach was happy to sign the CD as it turned out. “Although it does feel bittersweet,” he told her as they ate pizza at an Italian in Ringwood later that night.
“I bet it does. Sometimes I think that when we look back on an era that’s gone, it’s the times when we were the happiest that hurt the most.”
“That’s exactly how it is,” Zach said, giving her a direct look. “This is the first December in years that I’ve not been booked up solid playing gigs.”
“And you miss it?” she asked.
“Very much.” His eyes clouded. She was wondering whether to ask him why the band had gone their separate ways when he put down his napkin.
“It was our trumpet player who had an affair with my wife,” he said. “There was talk that we might replace him. But actually it would have been easier to replace me. He was part of the sound – well, we all were, but he was more a part of it than me, if that makes sense. We were divided about what to do. I guess that’s really why we broke up. I felt betrayed.” He hesitated. “Not just by James but by the others. Liam, who’s the lead singer was the only one who supported me.”
“You were betrayed,” Lucy said, realising suddenly that they were doing that deep thing again. They’d bypassed the trivia – the stuff you’d usually talk about when you didn’t know someone very well – and they’d gone straight for what was really in their hearts.
“How about you?” he asked. “What’s it like being back? Any news from your husband?”
“None.” She told him about the problems she was having getting a rental.
“I might be able to help you out there as it happens. My cousin has his own agency. It’s in Bournemouth, but they’d cover this area. And a lot is online anyway.”
Thank you. I’d love his number.”
He smiled at her. “I can do better than that. I can introduce you. He’s coming for supper on Friday. It’s our annual duty meet up. Why don’t you come too? I’ll tell him in advance. With a bit of luck he’ll be able to bring some details over to show you.”
So that’s how she ended up seeing Zach twice in one week.
Jo was thrilled. She was definitely starry eyed where Zach Peters was concerned. Dan was encouraging too. “Like I said before, you’re a free woman, Sis.”
“It’s business, not pleasure,” Lucy told them both firmly.
Jo rolled her eyes. Dan just raised his eyebrows. “Good luck with the property search. Sounds ideal.”
Over the next couple of weeks Lucy looked at three properties. Zach went with her to see two of them. “It’s a nice diversion,” he said when she jokingly suggested he must have better things to do. “I’m not keen on this time of year, as I said. But if you’d prefer to go on your own…?”
“I wouldn’t,” she assured him. “It’s handy to get a second opinion and I don’t like to keep asking Dan and Jo – they’re both full on, what with looking after Tom and their jobs.”
They were coming back from a viewing one evening – they’d been in Zach’s car, and he was about to drop her off – when Lucy saw a familiar car parked behind hers on the road outside her brother’s. She barely had time to take in the fact that it was Michael’s when the driver’s door opened, and he got out.
He didn’t look happy. She saw the expression on his face lit briefly by the streetlight above before he rounded on her.
“What are you playing at, Lucy?”
“What am I playing at?” She was so shocked that for a moment she couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
“Gadding about with other men.” He glared at Zach who’d also got out. “So, this is your famous musician.”
“I’m not gadding about. Besides it’s none of your business who I see.”
“You’re my wife.”
Zach was coming round the side of the car towards them. Before Lucy had a chance to warn him or even think that this might not be the wisest plan, Michael rounded on him.
“She’s taken, mate?”
“You’ve got this all wrong,” Zach began but he didn’t get the chance to say any more because Michael punched him.
Fortunately, he’d stepped back so he didn’t get the full force of the blow. But after that everything went into slow motion. Lucy was aware of Zach staggering backwards. She was aware of the front door of the house banging behind her and of Dan hurtling across the front garden towards them. She was aware of a voice yelling at Michael. It took her a few seconds to realise it was hers.
Lucy blinked rapidly. She could hardly believe what had just happened. Her ex had never been the violent type, yet he had just punched a totally innocent bystander in the middle of the street.
Although clearly Michael didn’t think Zach was innocent. “Stay away from my wife,” he was yelling at a shocked Zach.
“Stop it,” Lucy grabbed his arm. “He’s my friend. That’s all. He’s been helping me find somewhere to live.”
Her brother, Dan, was also admonishing Michael, but her husband was unrepentant. “You’d do the same in my shoes, mate.”
Lucy shook her head. Even if she had been out with Zach in the romantic sense, which she hadn’t, it was none of Michael’s business. They were separated for goodness sake. She hadn’t even spoken to him for a month. The more it sunk in the more her shock turned into anger.
“How dare you just turn up out of the blue?” she said. “How dare you hit one of my friends!”
Michael glared at her. Meanwhile Zach, who, fortunately, didn’t seem to be too injured, was rubbing his chin, and opening the driver’s door of his car.
“It’s OK. I’m out of here.”
Lucy nodded. She didn’t blame him. What a horrible ending to what had been a really productive evening. She’d loved the flat Zach had just taken her to see. She’d begun to feel the future might be a little more certain. Of course, she’d known she’d have to talk to Michael sooner or later, but she had never expected this.
She turned back to him. “What are you even doing here?”
“I phoned this morning. I talked to Dan.”
Her brother sighed. “Yes he did. I’m sorry. I forgot to tell you.”
“You forgot to tell me he was coming down…but…”
“I didn’t tell him I was coming down,” Michael interrupted, looking faintly guilty. “I didn’t realise I had to make an appointment to talk to you.”
She sighed. “You don’t. Of course you don’t…”
“Look, I’m sorry I hit that guy. It was a shock. Seeing you with him. I thought I’d lost you.”
She wanted to tell him that he had. But it had nothing to do with Zach. He’d lost her when he said he no longer wanted to be a father. And he must have read her face too because he said, “Can we talk, Lucy. Please?”
“We should go inside.” Over his shoulder she caught her brother’s gaze, and he nodded in answer to her unspoken question.
A few minutes later she and Michael were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table. Jo and Dan had retreated to the lounge to give them some space. Once again, Lucy felt as though she was imposing too much on them, pushing them out of their own kitchen.
Yet she couldn’t squash the rising sense of hope that had begun in her when Michael had asked if they could talk.
Zach’s head was still spinning when he got home. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d got into a fight. Not that it had actually been a fight, had it? Just a stray punch from a jealous husband. Good grief. He’d thought he’d left all that madness behind when he’d moved out of London.
They’d had the odd bit of trouble when the band was playing gigs. Some starry-eyed groupies would take it too far and an irate partner would turn up and object with his fists. Usually when there was alcohol involved.
Although to be honest that was a scenario that Liam had got into far more often than he had. For a start Zach had the advantage of being the only married member of the band. Had being the operative word, Zach thought ruefully. He wasn’t married now, was he, and he’d almost forgotten that Lucy still was.
Clearly it wasn’t quite as over as she’d led him to believe.
They’d got close amazingly quickly in the last couple of weeks. Not in the biblical sense – he’d never so much as touched her, despite what her husband had surmised. But he liked her a lot. She was incredibly easy to talk to for one thing. She was also sassy, smart and independent. All traits he really valued in a woman.
She was lovely. He sighed. Yeah, but she was also married. Hell, the last thing he needed was to be cited in a divorce case. If there was a divorce case.
He scrolled down to her number on his phone. He should probably delete it. Maybe even block her. He didn’t need this kind of trouble.
Michael had spent the last twenty minutes pouring out his heart to Lucy.
“Being in Abu Dhabi has given me a lot of time to think,” he finished.
“I’m sure,” she said, remembering the only time she’d been there. There hadn’t been a lot to do while Michael was working. She’d felt trapped because leaving the air-conditioned apartment for the stupefying heat outside wasn’t an option. “It’s been the same for me, coming back to Dorset,” she said.
He nodded. “Have you had enough of Kent? Do you need a change of scene?”
She swallowed. Deep down, she had never wanted to go to Kent in the first place. But she hadn’t told him because back then she would have gone to the ends of the earth for him. She’d been so in love.
“It’s not that I don’t like the house in Kent. I mean what’s not to like?” It was in a great neighbourhood; it overlooked a golf course. It had a state-of-the-art kitchen.
“But it’s got no soul.” He had put into words exactly what she was thinking. It was ages since they’d done that.
She smiled at him. “That’s exactly it.”
“We had an offer on it today.”
“We did? Really? Why didn’t you tell me?”
He waved a hand. “We’ve been talking about more important things. I needed to know how you felt, Lucy. I wanted to know if you’d be prepared to give us another chance. We’re good together.”
“Yes we are,” she said, feeling a flicker of hope.
His eyes warmed. “Let’s accept the offer on the house. Let’s start again. Come to Abu Dhabi with me. I’ve just had my contract extended for another two years. You’d love it, Lucy. Once you got used to the lifestyle. You wouldn’t have to work. They’re paying me megabucks.”
She could feel her heart sinking. There was so much excitement in his voice, but the idea of moving to the emirates, away from the home she’d so recently re-embraced, filled her with dread.
Michael’s face dropped as he took in her expression. “You don’t want to…” His voice was flat. “Would you even give it a try?”
“I need to think about it. It’s a massive decision.”
“Of course you do. I totally get that. There is absolutely no rush to decide.”
She got up. “I’ll make us another coffee.”
While she filled the kettle, her thoughts, drifted unbidden towards Zach. Michael had hit him quite hard. She should really have phoned him and apologised. Or at the very least texted to check he was OK. Lovely Zach. He’d been so kind. They had appeared in each other’s lives at exactly the right time. Both of them needing support and unconditionally giving it. She wished he hadn’t got caught up in this.
She was still thinking about him when Michael came up behind her. He slipped his arms around her waist and laid his chin on her shoulder. His familiar touch and scent sparked off a dozen emotions.
Sweetness and love from long ago. The vows they had made in that dusty old church. A promise to stay with each other through the good times and through the rockier times too. He had done his part – he had come down here specially to see her. Her mind fast forwarded to Christmas – she and Michael, and Dan and Jo and Tom and their parents – all opening presents under the tree and playing silly games and eating turkey.
And afterwards…. Well, maybe the emirates wouldn’t be so bad. Hadn’t she read somewhere that it was one of the safest places in the world to bring up kids? They would be together again. They would be financially secure.
“I love you so much, Lucy.” His voice was a whisper in her hair.
“I love you too.” She turned round to face him. “Abu Dhabi would be a great place to bring up our children.”
And there it was: the doubt flickering in his eyes – and that little frown creasing his temples.
The truth hit her like a shock of cold water. “You don’t want that, do you…?”
“You know I don’t.” He gave a deep sigh. “We’ve been through all this…”
“But I thought… Why did you come back?” Her head was swirling. The idyllic picture of Christmas was disintegrating.
Behind her the kettle clicked off. They’d gone from having a future to not having one in a little less time than it had taken to boil a kettle.
Lucy cried herself to sleep, but she kept waking up from dreams in which Michael turned from a sweet and loving family man into a stranger with cold eyes. She dreamed she was in Abu Dhabi and snow was falling onto the hot pavements where it sizzled and evaporated up into the blue sky.
In the morning she crept downstairs expecting to find him on the sofa, which was where he’d intended to spend the night. But there was just a crumpled throw and the pillow Jo had given him was on the floor.
Lucy picked it up and held it to her face. She hadn’t thought there could be any more tears but still they came. She was still weeping when Jo came into the room.
“I’ll make us a cup of tea, darling,” she said, coming across and hugging her. “Come on.”
“What I don’t understand,” Lucy said, as they sat beside each other on the sofa, “Is why he came down at all. I mean what was the point if nothing had changed. What did he hope to gain?”
Jo bit her lip. “Dan and I think he may have come down because he knew Zach was on the scene. Dan had inadvertently let it slip when they were speaking on the phone.
“So that’s why he called Zach ‘my famous musician’. I did wonder.” The memory of Michael’s furious face when they’d first got out of the car flashed into her mind. Suddenly it hit her. “He was jealous, wasn’t he?”
“Maybe.” Jo’s face was pensive. For a moment neither of them spoke. Then she added. “So what will you do now?”
“Exactly what I’d already planned to do,” Lucy said. “Sign on the dotted line for the flat I saw last night. I can move in on January 7th. Nothings changed, has it?”
She kept her voice bright, but inside she felt very bleak. Things had changed. She felt as though she’d lost Michael all over again. She had been starting to accept that their marriage was over. But now the pain was as fresh and raw as it had been when they’d decided to split up.
With a little sigh she got out Zach’s phone and called him. The least she could do was apologise, but he didn’t answer. She wasn’t surprised.
Then when he didn’t answer either of her friendly texts a couple of days later she realised he must have decided to sever the contact between them. And she couldn’t really blame him.
It was four days until Christmas. Lucy was putting on a brave face for the sake of Dan and Jo and especially Tom – who was counting the sleeps until Father Christmas came. But inside she was dreading it. She hadn’t heard from Michael, apart from a brief email telling her he’d accepted the offer on the house. She hadn’t heard from Zach either.
This was going to be one of the saddest Christmases ever, she thought, consoling herself with the thought that at least it couldn’t get any worse.
But it turned out she was wrong about that too.
On Christmas Eve it got cold again. There were murmurings from the forecasters about having a white Christmas. Their parents were flying into Heathrow later this afternoon. Jo and Dan were out getting last minute bits and pieces.
But Lucy had stayed behind. She wasn’t in the mood for Christmas shopping. “I’ll take Georgie for a walk instead,” she said. “I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.”
The Labrador wagged her tail enthusiastically. The good thing about living in Ringwood was that they were only a short drive from the forest. So twenty minutes later, Lucy was walking along a path that threaded between gorse bushes with Georgie trotting ahead.
Shaggy New Forest ponies were dotted about, their winter coats woolly, but Lucy didn’t envy them as her breath puffed into the crisp forest air. It had got cold again. Too cold for snow, she thought, glancing upwards. The sky was an icy blue bowl above her head and the puddles in the dips of the path were frozen.
They weren’t a million miles away from the place where she’d picked up Zach, she thought, wondering once again how he was. Over the past couple of weeks they had talked about Christmas a lot and she knew he was dreading it as much as she was.
“It’s the first year I haven’t been doing back to back gigs,” he had told her. “It feels weird.”
“So, what will you be doing?”
He had shrugged. “No fixed plans.”
“You’ll see your cousin though?”
“He’s taking his kids to Lapland.” He’d smiled at her. “Don’t look so worried. I like my own company.”
She’d been contemplating asking him to spend it with them. She knew Jo and Dan would have loved it. But then Michael had turned up and that had been the end of that.
Maybe it was because she was distracted, or maybe it would have happened anyway, but a moment later, Lucy skidded on a patch of ice. She felt her legs go from beneath her, tried to right herself, and then there was that awful moment when she knew it was too late. She fell heavily on her back, but there was a second in that limbo land of shock before the pain crashed in. She stayed where she was, gasping. As time and space came rapidly back into focus she realised she’d something to her hip, possibly her ankle too. Fortunately, she was wearing gloves and her thick coat had helped. But the ground was like concrete.
She felt sick. Gingerly she moved and pain shot through her. Oh great. Just what she needed, Christmas in hospital with a broken hip.
‘Don’t catastrophise,’ she berated herself. It was probably just bruising. Besides, she had a more immediate problem. Getting up.
Georgie had come to see what she was doing on the ground. Was it some sort of game? She sniffed uncertainly. Lucy stroked her head. “If this was a film, you’d run off and get me some help.”
Georgie pricked her ears. Clearly she didn’t have a clue what Lucy was talking about.
Besides, Lucy didn’t think there was much help in the immediate vicinity. She hadn’t seen a single other person. Perhaps they were all Christmas shopping.
With a little sigh she reached for her phone. Thank goodness she hadn’t landed on it. Although there wasn’t much of a signal. She’d also forgotten to charge it last night, so she only had sixteen per cent battery. Wonderful.
She dialled Jo’s number, and got an automated message, which said, try again later. She had the same result with Dan’s. They must be in a bad signal area.
She tried a text. A few seconds later, her phone pinged with an answering one, but it turned out to be just a notification that said, ‘text not sent.’
Fourteen per cent battery.
It was at this point that she started to panic.
How long did it take to die of hypothermia? She was already shivering violently. Part cold, part shock. She didn’t know anyone else in the area but if she could get hold of someone – anyone – they could get a message to Dan and Jo.
She scrolled through her phone again. Zach? He hadn’t answered any of her previous calls. Please let him answer now.
Zach had just got in from the supermarket when his phone rang. He couldn’t answer it because he was laden down with bags. He had just bought his Christmas supplies, which consisted of half a dozen boxed pizzas and several cans of beer. He had no intention of stepping over his threshold again until Boxing Day, which as far as he was concerned, couldn’t come quick enough.
He put the bags on the worktop at the same moment as his phone pinged with a notification of a new voice mail.
Curious, he picked it up. He didn’t recognise the number, but he listened to the message. It was a woman – she was upset, and it was hard to make out what she said. Lucy…? He’d deleted her number, which was why he hadn’t recognised it, but he hadn’t blocked her. Thank God he hadn’t. She was clearly in trouble.
He phoned her back. “Don’t try to explain now,” he said. “The signal isn’t great. But I got the gist. Just tell me exactly where you are.”
As he spoke he grabbed his keys from the side. Looked like he was going out again after all.
Lucy had managed to get up. It was very painful to walk, mostly because of her ankle, but it was amazing what you could do if you had to.
It would have been easier if she’d had something to lean on. The forest was littered with sticks. So far she’d only found one that was the right length, but it hadn’t been strong enough and had broken when she tried to lean on it.
Thank heavens Zach was on his way. She could have cried with relief when he’d phoned her back. It might take him a while to find her, she was about half a mile from the road.
Zach had at that moment just parked beside Lucy’s car. He knew the forest well. He’d spent his childhood playing in it with his mates. A maize of paths crisscrossed each other, but there were only two main ones and it sounded as though she was on one of them.
As he walked, he called out the dog’s name, which they’d agreed might help and it was the dog that he saw first. A very waggy Labrador. It was a shock to see Lucy a minute or so later. Her face was deathly white. She wasn’t sitting still as he’d advised either. She was making very slow progress. It was an even bigger shock to feel his own reaction. His heart overrode all common sense. He just wanted to scoop her up in his arms and carry her. He resisted the urge to do this – he probably couldn’t carry her all the way back to the car. But he did hug her. In fact, he never wanted to let her go and for a few moments she hugged him back. Probably pure relief he thought, remembering her husband and forcing himself to step away.
“I think we should call out the air ambulance,” he said.
“No. They’ll be ages. We’ll both freeze to death. I can walk if I can lean on you. If I’d broken anything that wouldn’t be possible, would it?”
She looked up at him, her eyes teary but determined.
They were in A&E for three hours. Lucy would have been perfectly happy if it had been six. She felt as though they were in a bubble, she and Zach, where time had stopped, where they managed to close out the hubbub of people around them and catch up on everything that had happened.
She had apologised for Michael’s behaviour and Zach had said it didn’t matter. His head was perfectly fine.
They had done their usual trick of bypassing the superficial and they had talked about their lives. They had talked about their erstwhile partners, and they had talked about their hopes for the future.
“This is by far the strangest Christmas Eve I’ve ever had,” she said to him now.
“Me too.” He took hold of her hand. “But it’s all right, isn’t it?” He smiled at her. His eyes were tender. And she knew in that moment that he was going to kiss her. She also knew that the time, the place, the fact that poor Georgie was patiently waiting in his car – well just for a second, that didn’t matter. There would be time enough for reality to crash back in later.
When they finally drew apart, Lucy’s heart was saying, oh wow, oh wow. She could see the same thing reflected in Zach’s eyes.
Then suddenly they were both laughing at the craziness of it all.
“What a way to spend our first Christmas Eve,” he said, stroking her hair.
“The first of many, I hope,” she said softly.
“Oh, absolutely,” he said, and kissed her again.