Liberty has never been a risk-taker. She loves the routine of her quiet life in the charming village of Willowbrook, with her Labrador, Charlie. But the arrival of a mysterious gift prompts Liberty to make some changes: starting with a daily challenge to say yes to everything for the month of December…
Fearless and independent, Alex could hardly be a less obvious fit for peaceful village life. But after an accident cuts short his promising motorcycling career, he finds himself in Willowbrook in search of new direction.
When the pair become unlikely housemates, sparks fly at Damselfly Cottage. Will living together prove impossible – especially when the first snow falls? Or, cut off from the outside world, can they help each other find what it takes to be brave this Christmas?
Wednesday, 26 November
Liberty was ready for this.
Every year she wondered who delivered them, who sent them, and why. Well, this time she would find out.
The cottage was quiet. Outside, the night was a dark blanket tucked around the woods, and she pictured the wildlife curled up asleep. Although she usually left the porch light on, today she hadn’t. Deliberately.
Liberty shivered and pulled her quilt tighter around her, wishing she could read a book to keep busy, but she didn’t want the light to betray her. So she sat in the dark, waiting. Her eyelids were heavy. If it weren’t for the mystery person who visited once a year on this day and always before dawn, she would still be in bed. She picked a loose thread off the leg of her blue pyjamas. Perhaps they weren’t coming this year, she thought, as the minutes stretched on. Perhaps she’d wasted her time getting up ridiculously early. The clock in the hall ticked a lullaby rhythm and she leaned her head against the window frame . . .
She’d almost nodded off when the throaty purr of an engine made her eyes snap open. She sat up and spotted headlights coming towards her. Whoever it was cut their engine, the crafty devil. No wonder Charlie, her ever alert Labrador, hadn’t heard them in past years. He barked if he sensed a squirrel a hundred yards away, but right now he remained asleep in the kitchen.
Wide awake, Liberty watched as the small van dipped its lights and rolled silently towards the cottage. She strained to see the driver, but they were only a dark silhouette. She couldn’t even tell if it was a man or a woman. They got out, bouquet in hand, and approached the cottage. Her heart jumped in anticipation of the beautiful gift – and of finally clearing up the mystery.
Liberty opened the window. ‘Thank you for the flowers!’ she called cheerily. ‘I just wondered who –’
The figure jumped, dropped the bouquet and ran.
‘ – sent them,’ Liberty finished under her breath. Okay, that wasn’t the reaction she’d expected.
She hesitated. She couldn’t very well chase after them – could she? She looked down at her pyjamas and dressing-gown. She wasn’t exactly dressed for it, and she didn’t know who that person was.
But the sound of their van starting helped her come to a swift decision. If she did nothing, they’d get away and she’d never know who was behind this. She couldn’t let that happen. She was so close to getting an answer, she refused to give up now.
She raced to the front door, adrenalin pumping. The noise woke Charlie, who barked and came galloping into the hall. By the time she got outside, the van was already skidding away. Cursing, she grabbed her keys. Charlie followed, and it was easier to let him jump into the car too. She thanked her lucky stars that her beaten-up old Citroën 2CV started first time, and excitement mingled with nerves. She’d never done anything like this before.
‘Who is it, Charlie?’ she asked, as she yanked the gear stick into first and drove after the van. ‘And why on earth did they run away?’
She wasn’t sure why it made her so angry. Perhaps because she’d been close to seeing their face. ‘I just want to know who’s sending me the damn flowers! Is that too much to ask?’
Charlie blinked nervously as she careered round the bend. She knew the country lanes like the back of her hand, but she didn’t normally drive so fast. In fact, since her friend Carys’s accident six months ago she was more careful than ever. The van swung out onto the main road and shot away, but Liberty was catching up. She put her foot down, trying to keep up. The road was deserted, thankfully.
‘It’s a florist’s van,’ she mused, squinting to read the name, ‘but it’s definitely not Natasha, is it?’
‘It’s okay, Charlie. Don’t worry.’ She gave him a quick pat, then returned her attention to the road ahead. She gripped the steering wheel, determined not to let the van out of her sight. The mystery person was driving at lunatic speed. Liberty’s heart was going nineteen to the dozen and she tried not to think about the risks of skidding or her brakes failing and the car spinning out of control. In all those American television programmes she’d watched as a girl, car chases had seemed exciting, but in fact speed made her queasy with fear.
Finally, they reached town and the van pulled up behind a flower shop. The driver – a woman – shot Liberty a glance before scooting inside the building. Liberty screeched to a halt, then jumped out and ran after her, shouting, ‘Stop! Wait!’
Charlie bounded with her, barking his support. When the woman tried to shut the door, Liberty stuck her foot out to block it. Pain shot through her as the woman tried again to push it closed.
‘Okay, I’m scared now,’ said the woman. ‘Why did you follow me all this way?’
Liberty fought to get her breath back. Seriously, if she didn’t have a black toenail after this she’d be very surprised. Still, she kept her foot firmly wedged in place. She was determined to get answers to the questions she’d been storing up for years. ‘Why did you drive like a maniac? I hope you don’t break the speed limit like that every day.’
Guilt shaded the woman’s blue eyes. ‘Of course not. I was trying to get away because you’re not supposed to know who sent your flowers.’
Charlie was still barking at her side. Liberty shushed him, then turned back to the woman. ‘Why not?’
She remained tight-lipped.
Liberty went on, ‘I just want to know who they’re from. It’s my birthday today and they’ve been coming every year since I was eighteen, but there’s never a card or a name, and you wouldn’t believe how many hours I’ve spent trying to work out who they’re from, but I still have no clue and – and anything you can tell me, no matter how small, well, I’d like to know. I’d really like to know.’ She paused to catch her breath, then added, ‘Please?’
The woman bit her lip, and pushed a hand through her fringe. ‘Fine,’ she said, with a sigh. ‘Come in. But not the dog.’
Liberty hesitated. She didn’t have Charlie’s lead with her to tie him up, but she was afraid that if she went back to the car the florist might change her mind and close the door. ‘Sit,’ she told him. He obeyed. Improvising, she yanked the belt out of her dressing-gown and used it to attach him to the drainpipe. It wasn’t ideal, but he was a well-behaved dog – most of the time. ‘Now stay there, okay? Good boy.’
Inside, she looked around. They were in a back room, sparse, with a bench littered with leaves and the ends of stalks. Another doorway led to the main shop and Liberty could see shelves stacked with silver buckets of flowers. It was bigger and more spacious than her friend Natasha’s flower shop in Willowbrook. The air was cold, but the clouds of colourful flower heads were a warming sight. They were gorgeous. But, then, she should have guessed they would be. The flowers she received each year were always stunning: neon-coloured gerberas, her favourite flowers, interspersed with spikes of greenery and exotic blooms she couldn’t name but which looked as if they’d been plucked from a tropical jungle. Artful and elegant, they always made her heart lift.
She pulled off her slipper and rubbed her foot. ‘They don’t show how much that hurts in the movies.’
‘Perhaps because they’re not wearing slippers in them,’ said the woman, as her gaze swept over Liberty’s dressing- gown and fleece pyjamas. She had long hair, white-grey at the roots fading into ice blue at the tips. It looked stunning. ‘Sorry, but you scared me. And with your dog . . .’
‘That’s okay,’ said Liberty, and put her slipper back on. ‘This shop is gorgeous. Do you deliver my flowers every year?’
The woman nodded.
‘Well, first, thank you. They’re always beautiful.’ ‘You’re welcome.’ The florist’s gaze didn’t quite meet hers.
‘Please tell me who they’re from.’
The woman’s mouth pinched. ‘I don’t know.’
‘There’s never a card. Is that deliberate?’
She nodded. ‘They’re to remain strictly anonymous. Those were the instructions I was given.’
Instructions? It all sounded so carefully planned. Calculated, even. ‘Why?’
The woman shrugged. Liberty decided to try a different tack. ‘Can you remember when you were given those instructions? Did someone come in personally?’
She threw Liberty a sidelong look, which suggested she shouldn’t reveal this information. ‘I inherited the order with the shop when I moved here ten years ago.’
So the person behind this had set it all up twelve years ago when she’d turned eighteen. ‘So, wait – they’ve paid in advance? Or do you send them a bill each year?’
‘That’s confidential. Listen, I’ve already told you more than I should. You’re not supposed to know who the sender is, okay?’
Sighing, Liberty couldn’t hide her disappointment. ‘I just really wanted to know.’
The woman’s expression softened. ‘I must admit, it is strange, and I’ve never known another order like it – except one-offs for Valentine’s Day. But perhaps the mystery is supposed to be part of the gift. It is quite exciting, don’t you think?’
‘I suppose,’ Liberty conceded.
‘They’re expensive flowers, I’ll say that much. Whoever ordered them doesn’t skimp.’
‘And gerberas are my favourite,’ Liberty agreed. ‘They must have known that because you always include them.’
‘I’m sorry I can’t help you any more.’ The florist glanced at her watch. ‘Listen, I’ve got a list of deliveries to make, so if you don’t mind . . .’
‘There’s just one more thing,’ Liberty said quickly. ‘How long did they ask for this order to keep coming? I mean, it’s been twelve years already, and I’m thirty today. Is that – is that the end of it?’
The woman pressed her lips together. ‘No, it’s not. But that’s all I’m going to say.’
Liberty felt a rush of relief she hadn’t been expecting. ‘Right. Well, er, thanks. And I’m sorry if I scared you.’
Liberty pushed open the door to leave, relieved that Charlie was still patiently waiting where she’d left him.
‘Enjoy your birthday,’ the florist called after her.
Liberty drove home slowly and sensibly, mulling over the crumbs of information she’d gleaned from the florist. But she had more questions than she’d received answers to. What if she moved house? Would the flowers still reach her? And what if something happened to the sender? Was it just one person?
She turned off the main road and wound her way through the woods until she pulled up outside the cottage. The bouquet was on the porch where the florist had abandoned it. Liberty took the flowers inside and arranged them in a vase, then noticed the time. She was running late and her morning routine was completely out of the window, which was unsettling because Liberty loved her routine: she hadn’t walked the dog or had breakfast or even showered, and there wasn’t time to do all three. She compromised with a short walk (Charlie seemed so disappointed and confused when they turned back) and a super-quick shower (thank goodness for dry shampoo), then hurriedly made tea and toast with peanut butter and jam. No way was she missing out on that: she’d be growling at customers if she didn’t have breakfast.
While she ate, she tried not to think about the day’s significance. Thirty was a milestone. It made her feel . . . She couldn’t put her finger on it. Unsettled? Adrift?
This time last year her best friend and housemate, Carys, had been waiting for her in the kitchen with a sparkling silver envelope. ‘Happy birthday, Lib!’ She’d looked so excited that Liberty had guessed the envelope contained a special gift.
Even so, her jaw had dropped when she saw two train tickets for Paris. ‘I thought we’d have a long weekend. We can go sightseeing and do some Christmas shopping, if you like.’
‘That is such a lovely gift,’ she gasped. ‘Thank you, Car.’ Tears of joy had made Carys’s smiling face blur, and Liberty had hugged her. Then she remembered. ‘But I don’t have a passport!’
Carys handed her an application form and winked. ‘So get one.’ She’d thought of everything.
But Carys wasn’t there now. She’d been in a coma since the car accident six months ago when an idiot who’d been driving way over the speed limit had hit her car head-on.
Liberty had known her birthday would be difficult without Carys, she’d prepared for it, but the house was quiet, and there was no gift waiting for her on the kitchen table.
She shook off the thought and began to make a list of who could have sent the flowers, just as she’d done dozens of times before. ‘It can’t be a secret admirer because I’ve been single over a year now,’ she said out loud, ‘which has been plenty of time to make a move. Unless they’re too shy . . .’
Charlie glanced up, then carried on eating his own breakfast.
‘And it can’t be Carys.’ Her best friend had always sworn it wasn’t her and now it simply wasn’t possible. ‘Which leaves . . . just about anyone else I’ve ever met, and an infinite number of reasons why.’ She put her pen down, frustrated. For Heaven’s sake, who could it be? She carried her cup and plate to the sink. And why were they doing this? Did the sender think she needed cheering up? Did they pity her? She scrubbed her plate harder than was necessary. Oh, God, she hated the thought that someone felt sorry for her. No, it couldn’t be that. ‘Oh, dammit! Why won’t they just say who they are, and put me out of my misery?’
She slotted the plate into the drainer and looked out of the window at the back garden. She’d really hoped this would be the day when the sender finally revealed themselves. It was a big birthday, after all. She’d hoped they’d come forward, maybe deliver the bouquet personally this time.
And she’d hoped it would be a man.
A secret admirer, someone who’d known her a long time but kept their distance for some mysterious reason, yet now couldn’t hold back any longer and simply had to admit the feelings he’d been harbouring for her. Someone handsome, kind.
Oh, Liberty. She’d been foolish to imagine an admirer waiting in the wings. It had been bound to end in disappointment.
Charlie trotted over to her. She reached down to fuss him and steal a quick cuddle. The Labrador nuzzled close, as if sensing her disappointment. A glance at her watch told her she had to leave for work so she got up. As she passed the bouquet, she touched the petals of a golden gerbera. They were as soft as the green velvet dress she was wearing.
‘But they are beautiful,’ she said softly, ‘so thank you, whoever you are.’
Perhaps you could simply enjoy them, her mum had once suggested, years ago when Liberty was fretting over who the sender could be. She closed her eyes and tried to do that now, savouring the feeling of having been singled out, trying to appreciate the thought behind the gift and the attention that had been paid to selecting her favourite flowers. Someone cares about me, she thought, and warmth filled her. This is what I need to hold on to. This feeling of being . . . cherished. Someone’s focus. It doesn’t matter who sent them in the end. I’m lucky to receive them.
Despite the disruption to her morning routine, Liberty arrived at work on time and her spirits lifted, as they did every morning, when she pushed open the door of the Button Hole. It was almost a year now since she’d left her old job in a department store and she adored working here. Outside, the late November sky might be grey and the light weak, but Evie’s patchwork and quilting shop was a bright star in the high street, an Aladdin’s cave of colourful fabrics and sewing materials. Here, among the giant cotton reels and buttons that hung from the ceiling, and the display quilts that decorated the walls, Liberty felt perfectly at home. When she gazed around she saw infinite possibilities for exciting new designs. And in the back room those designs became real: bespoke quilts made for their online customers all over the world. This shop was her happy place.
Her boss, Evie, was leaning on the counter chatting to Natasha, who owned the florist’s across the road. Both greeted Liberty with bright smiles and hugs – although it wasn’t easy to hug Natasha now she was eight months’ pregnant.
‘How are you feeling?’ Liberty asked.
Natasha was petite, and her bump was neat but big beneath her flowery tea-dress. ‘Like I’m being kicked about. I’m sure this baby’s going to be a gymnast. I swear it keeps doing forward rolls and stretches.’ She tucked her blonde hair behind one ear.
‘How long until your due date?’
‘Four weeks. Luc’s getting overprotective and keeps telling me to stop work and put my feet up, but there’s so much to do in the shop that I need to carry on for another couple of weeks. I’ve packed my hospital bag, though, just in case. And Evie’s on standby to look after Lottie when I go into labour.’
‘Sounds like you’ve got everything organised,’ said Liberty.
Natasha’s cheeks glowed pink, but she was moving slowly now, and Liberty wondered if her pregnancy was wearing her out more than she was letting on. Or perhaps it was just tiring to work full time as well as look after an active toddler.
‘Happy birthday, Lib!’ Evie thrust a gift into her hands. It was wrapped in a square of cotton material and tied with an orange ribbon.
‘Thanks, Evie. Gorgeous fabric,’ Liberty murmured, as she untied the bow.
‘I know you don’t normally read thrillers, but trust me, this one’s brilliant.’
Liberty turned the hardback over and skimmed the blurb.
‘What do you normally read?’ Natasha asked.
‘Small-town romance,’ said Liberty. ‘I love them. And cowboy heroes. The kind who look mean and hard but have a hidden soft centre.’
‘The ones who seem like they can’t be tamed?’ Natasha’s blue eyes gleamed.
‘Exactly,’ said Liberty.
‘I like those too.’
Natasha gave her a pair of pyjamas in beautiful brushed cotton, downy soft and patterned with cotton reels. ‘They’re beautiful, Nat. Thanks.’
‘I know you like a quiet night in quilting and watching a good film. These should be perfect.’
‘Yes, I’ll wear them lots.’ She smiled.
But as she spoke, an uncomfortable feeling crept over her. She told herself it was about missing Carys, but it wouldn’t be dismissed. It niggled insistently. Her friends’ gifts were thoughtful and showed how well they knew her – but was this how she’d expected her life to be at thirty? Pyjamas, cosy nights in, and heroes who existed only in her imagination?
‘Right. I’d better get back,’ said Natasha. ‘I’m changing the window display today. Going for something nice and Christmassy. See you both soon!’
‘We need to think about a new window display too,’ said Evie, when she’d gone. She pulled her long plait forwards and twisted the end around her fingers as she eyed the window thoughtfully. ‘It’s the first of December on Monday.’
Liberty tucked her gifts behind the counter. ‘Last year’s display was eye-catching.’ When she’d started work there last December the window had been filled with giant baubles and fabric-covered gifts.
‘It was, but this year I’d like to give people ideas for small projects they can make to give as presents. Customers are always telling me how much satisfaction they get from making gifts.’
Liberty gave this some thought. ‘How about starter kits for cushions? We could include instructions, squares of fabric and matching thread. And I could make up a few finished cushions for the window display so they can see how they’ll look in different colourways.’
Evie’s eyes lit up. ‘That’s a great idea. They can either buy the kit and make it, or give it away to someone who enjoys crafting.’
They set to work, choosing which fabrics to use, and cutting out squares.
‘Did you get another mystery bouquet, then?’ asked Evie, as she sliced through the fabric.
Liberty picked up the four-inch squares and stacked them neatly. ‘I did, and I got up early so I was there when it arrived.’ She told Evie about the chase.
Her boss’s eyes widened. ‘You followed her all the way to town? Well I never . . .’
‘Why is that so hard to believe?’
She reached for another bolt of fabric and measured a four-inch strip. ‘I don’t know. I suppose I had you down as someone careful and sensible.’
In other words, dull, thought Liberty, for the second time that morning. ‘Well, it was all for nothing because she wouldn’t tell me who they were from.’
Evie’s mouth twisted in sympathy, then she brightened. ‘Perhaps that’s a good thing,’ she said, and her hazel eyes shone. ‘You know – the mystery of it. If you knew who they were from it wouldn’t be anywhere near as exciting.’
Liberty smiled. Evie always looked on the bright side, no matter what the situation. ‘It’s romantic, too – don’t you think?’
‘Definitely,’ said Evie. ‘I’d love to be sent flowers from a mysterious anonymous person.’
The shop bell jingled as their first customer arrived, and the morning passed quickly. At lunchtime, Liberty nipped out to the bakery next door to buy lunch.
‘We’ve got some delicious new Christmas fillings if you want to try something different,’ said Marjorie. ‘Turkey and stuffing, smoked salmon and prawn, Brie and cranberry sauce?’
‘I’ll just stick with the usual, thanks.’ Liberty paid for the coronation chicken sandwich and vanilla slice.
Marjorie laughed. ‘I dread to think what will happen if you come in one day and we haven’t got it.’
Liberty was alarmed at the thought. ‘That won’t happen because you always keep one aside for me.’
‘True. You’re a creature of habit, Liberty, and a very easy customer!’
She took her paper bag with a smile, but as she left the bakery Marjorie’s words played on her mind.They reminded her of something her ex had said when he’d broken up with her last year: You’re too set in your ways. She and Carys had laughed it off because he’d dumped her for a party girl, who had ditched him two weeks later, but now she asked herself if he had been right. Was she stuck in a rut?
Her routine was the same every day: she got up, walked Charlie in the forest, and drove to work. She helped customers in the shop, and ran sewing workshops. Then she went home, and spent her evenings working on her own quilts. All this used to be more fun with Carys for company, of course – they’d shared Damselfly Cottage for five years before the accident – but even now she couldn’t imagine an evening without sewing. Her online name was Liberty Homebird, and for good reason. People loved the pictures she posted of her sewing projects with the log fire burning in the background. They said her cosy cottage looked dreamy, a world away from their city lives. But had she allowed her life to get too cosy?
Things had changed so much since Carys’s accident. Problems that used to seem small had doubled in size now she had to face them alone. She’d never been a risk- taker, but now she was cautious in the extreme, and the thought of socialising with strangers made her break out in a sweat. And although she visited her just once a week, Carys was constantly at the back of her mind. What if she died in the night? What if she never woke up? What if she woke up but wasn’t Carys any more? The gnawing questions were exhausting, and Liberty found comfort from the uncertainty in her quiet, familiar routine.
But thinking of her friend in a coma made her wonder: what if today was her last?