Curl up by the fire with an extract from the ultimate seasonal romance by Mandy Baggot, One Christmas Kiss in Notting Hill
Beaumont Square, Notting Hill, London
BANG! CRASH! RATTLE!
Isla Winters’ eyes snapped open and she fought to push the sheaves of auburn bed-hair off her face. It was still dark, no light at all coming from behind the curtains . . . and there were noises coming from downstairs.
Shuffling and drawer opening and . . . was that the fridge door being thumped shut? What time was it? What day was it? She opened her eyes wider, hoping it would somehow help her hear better. Pieces of glitter fell from her hair and on to her face, then the pillow, then the sheets . . . those do-it-yourself Christmas cards had a lot to answer for. Swinging her legs out of bed, she then groped about on the chair beside her dressing table for the long cherry-red jumper she had taken off last night. It was freezing and she shivered, pulling the wool item over her chemise-clad body. She liked winter, she needed to remind herself of that. It was the season to be jolly, it snowed (well, sometimes), the shops were stacked with festive chocs and novelty present suggestions that should never have been invented. It was party season! Life sparkled! But she did prefer it when the central heating had kicked in and she was wrapped up and two macchiatos down.
She caught sight of the alarm clock on her nightstand: 5 a.m. Hannah was never up at 5 a.m.
Drawers were definitely being opened downstairs. But she wasn’t going to panic. It had to be Hannah, didn’t it? Although she hadn’t heard her disabled sister’s stairlift. She always heard the stairlift. Sometimes she even woke because she thought she’d heard the stairlift. No one had told her subconscious to stop being overprotective.
Creeping out on to the landing, Isla tip-toed as ballet-dancer elegant and mouse-like quiet as she could manage on the chilly wood floor towards Hannah’s room and gently pushed the door. It opened a crack, but not enough to confirm an occupant in the bed. Isla pushed a little more forcefully, and the hinges let out the kind of noise you would expect to emanate from a hyena trapped in the mouth of a lion.
‘What’s happened? Isla?’
Hannah tried to sit bolt upright. It took her three or four moves, arms hitting the string of fairy lights and Christmas themed bunting she had tied above her bed. By the time she’d managed to make it to a sitting position Isla was inside the room, her fingers to her lips.
Hannah smiled, sleep-coated eyes blinking, short crop of light brown hair looking the same as when she had gone to bed. ‘Is it Christmas yet? Is Father Christmas here?’ The joke had been started around mid-November.
‘No,’ Isla replied. ‘But someone is.’
‘What?’ Hannah asked, more responsive now. ‘Someone’s downstairs? What time is it?’
‘Five o’clock,’ Isla reached for the phone on her sister’s bedside table, knocking off a pile of loom bands and baubles in her haste. ‘I’m calling the police.’
‘Wait,’ Hannah said, hand reaching out and catching Isla’s. ‘Don’t do that.’
‘Hannah! Someone is in our kitchen!’
‘I know,’ Hannah said. ‘But Mrs Edwards hasn’t been sleeping lately and she’ll be awake and that means she’ll see the police coming and the last time the police came they were here for Mr Edwards . . . you know . . . when they thought he’d died in suspicious circumstances.’ Hannah raised her eyes.
‘With the pestle and mortar.’
‘Hannah, right now, Mrs Edwards’ disposition isn’t at the forefront of my mind. Didn’t you hear me? There’s someone in our kitchen!’
‘Okay,’ Hannah said, breathing deeply. ‘Give me a second to get in the chair . . . or help me down on to the floor and I’ll crawl to the stairlift. Crawling will take less time and be much quieter.’ She sniffed. ‘We should have hung those really loud jangly old Christmas bells of Mum and Dad’s over all the doors. They’re perfect burglar alarms, you know.’
Isla raised her eyes. ‘The bells wake us up every year if there’s even a draught. And you know I absolutely hate you crawling.’
‘Pah!’ Hannah said, waving a hand in front of her face. ‘It’s the twenty-first century, get over the feeling-sorry-for-people-who-can’t-walk vibe, already.’ She grinned. ‘Actually, crawling is surprisingly liberating. You get to feel a deep empathy for snails and, last time, I found a little black top under my bed I thought I’d left at Creepy Neil’s.’
A crash from downstairs had them both refocusing. Now was the time to panic. What was immediately to hand that she could wallop an intruder with? Isla swapped the phone she held for a pottery Hugh Grant that one of Hannah’s regular customers at the florists had thrown for her. It was twelve inches tall, solid as a brick and Hugh’s nose could definitely be used to gouge out an eye if necessary.
‘What are you doing with Hugh?’ Hannah exclaimed.
‘I thought it might scare away whoever’s downstairs.’
‘It’s actually a very good likeness, and don’t be so mean about Valerie’s artistic skills. She’s still waiting for her carpal tunnel operation, you know.’ Hannah shifted closer to the edge of the bed and put on a pathetic-looking face. ‘Help me get down and crawl.’
‘No,’ Isla said, turning towards the door. ‘You stay in bed and . . . if I don’t say I’m okay within five minutes, you call the police, whether it’s going to upset Mrs Edwards or not. Got it?’
Hannah nodded. ‘Got it.’ She sniffed. ‘Isla . . .’
‘Be careful. I don’t know what I’d do without . . . Hugh.’ She stifled a laugh against her bird-print bedspread.
Isla shook her head and made for the landing. Sometimes she wondered if Hannah’s spine wasn’t the only thing that had been injured in the accident. She seemed to be completely blasé about the possibility of an intruder in their home. Okay, so whoever it was was not being very ninja in their style and, to her, that ruled out serial killer. But she was worried that by the time she got downstairs the would-be thief could be gone with her MacBook . . . or, if it was a surprise makeover team, the whole kitchen could be painted the colour of liver.
Holding her breath, Isla slid each bare foot down on to the oriental-patterned carpet runner that tracked up the centre of the stairs. Avoiding the creaky seventh step from the top, Isla strained to listen to where the noises were coming from. Crockery chinked, cutlery rattled. Was that the coffee machine? Who broke into someone’s home and made an espresso?
It was party season! Life sparkled! But she did prefer it when the central heating had kicked in and she was wrapped up and two macchiatos down
Feeling slightly less afraid of a robber with a taste for her Krups, the weighty Hugh Grant gripped in her left hand, Isla moved softly down the hall towards the kitchen at the back of the house.
She paused at the door and looked into the dark. The blue illuminated ring on top of the coffee machine provided the only light. Someone was there. Someone her height, wearing what looked like a cap and a thick coat. What to do? Speak? Let Hugh Grant do the talking? She could put on the lights. If she quietly stuck out her right hand she could reach the switch on the wall just inside the kitchen door. She inched forward, the clay model raised, other hand snaking across the wall and then, she hit the button . . .
BAM! The spotlights in the ceiling flooded the room with brightness and, adrenalin pumping, Isla lunged with Hugh Grant like she was holding a sabre.
‘Argggh! Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! It’s me! It’s just me, bro!’
Heart racing like Mo Farah on the home straight, Isla stopped, staring into the face – well, the hands across the face – of twenty-something Raj, their postman. He nudged the kitchen cupboard door with his elbow and two Christmas cards Isla had stuck on last night fell to the worktop.
‘Raj!’ Isla exclaimed. ‘What are you doing here?’ She slid Hugh Grant on to the kitchen worktop, a hand clutching her chest, determined to keep her heart where it should be.
‘Just making coffee . . . just coffee,’ he stammered, blowing out terrified breaths. ‘Hannah, she said it would be all right. She gave me a key, innit.’
Isla leant her body against the countertop. Her sister had given their postman a key to their house . . . and not said a word. She shook her head then stopped. That was typical of Hannah.
‘She didn’t tell you,’ Raj guessed, holding his hands up. ‘I’m sorry. I was just moaning ’bout the coffee at the sorting office last week and how I’s got to start even earlier now it’s December, you know – cards, parcels, all that stuff Yodel can’t do for Amazon – and Hannah said, if I had time . . . if I was this way, I could, like, come in your crib and make a coffee before I start my round.’
Total Hannah. Despite being the one that everyone wanted to protect, her sister had a penchant for taking people under her wing. Sometimes it was endearing, other times it was annoying, like now, when their postman had trodden dirty slush from the last snowfall over the kitchen tiles and woken them up.
‘I’ll go,’ Raj said, taking a step towards the back door, hands pulling his cap further down over his head. ‘I’ll get coffee from that new café. It’s Moroccan, innit, infused with orange blossom . . . and that’s no bad shit, man.’
‘Raj . . .’ Isla began, now feeling a little mean.
‘It’s okay, we’re sweet, bro,’ Raj said, backing away, eyes on the pottery statue, hands held up in surrender.
‘Raj! Don’t you go anywhere!’ It was Hannah’s voice at full volume. ‘I’m coming down!’
‘I should go,’ Raj said, directing the statement to Isla.
‘No,’ she sighed. ‘Honestly, it’s fine.’ And she would never hear the end of it from Hannah if she let him leave now. She could hear the whirr of the stairlift which meant her sister had crawled to the top of the stairs, dragged herself into the seat and was on her way down.
‘Let’s put some more water in the coffee machine, shall we?’ Isla suggested.
More about the author
Curl up by the fire with the ultimate seasonal romance, from the bestselling author Mandy Baggot!
‘I absolutely love Mandy’s books’ Milly Johnson
Imagine the perfect Christmas Kiss…
His strong arms around her waist, her hands on his face, the snow slowly starts to fall…
It’s enough to make Isla Winters cringe! While her sister can’t get enough of this – increasingly common – sight on the streets of London, Isla’s too busy trying to stop Hannah’s wheelchair from slipping on the ice, and making sure she’s not too late to her dream job at Breekers International.
But everything changes with the arrival of Chase Bryan, fresh from the New York office. He’s eager to learn everything about Isla’s beloved Notting Hill, but as the nights get colder, will cosying up to him come at a price?