“Would you like it wrapped?”
“The scarf. Is it a gift for someone?” The shop assistant blinked, drawing Camilla’s attention to the larger-than-life false black lashes that surrounded her big blue eyes.
“Oh! Yes… yes, please.”
Camilla nodded and watched as the younger woman, who could well have been a university student with a Christmas job, produced a perfect square of gold foil paper then wrapped the gift effortlessly, before adorning it with a shiny red bow.
“There! How’s that?”
“Fabulous, thank you so much.”
“Would you like a bag?”
“No, thanks. I’ll tuck in here.” Camilla held up her Marc Jacobs leopard-print cotton-canvas tote – that had cost her over three hundred pounds in July, then she’d spotted in the sales a week later with fifty percent off – and the shop assistant nodded her approval.
Camilla slipped her credit card from her purse and slid it into the payment machine on the counter. As she went through the familiar process of typing in her pin then waiting for the transaction to be processed, she gazed around the department store. Bright strip lights in the ceiling gave everything a surreal glow and bounced off shiny surfaces, mirrors and metallic clothes stands. (She was surprised the shop workers didn’t have permanent migraines.) People shuffled around like penguins, weighed down by their shopping bags, picking up items then discarding them as their eyes were drawn to other, better gifts. Strategically placed Christmas trees dressed with this year’s must-have festive decorations reminded shoppers that Christmas was on its way and that they didn’t have long to find the perfect presents for colleagues, friends and loved ones. And from the speakers around the store, carols blared, adding to the sense of urgency while disguising it as a time of fun, relaxation and togetherness.
Scarf paid for, Camilla tucked her card back into her purse then took the gold package from the counter and carefully put it into her bag. She wished the shop assistant a merry Christmas, but the woman was already peering at the next customer. Camilla sighed; a handsome young man carrying a box of luxury crackers and a pair of corduroy slippers had quickly replaced her.
She pushed her way through the crowds, which wasn’t easy as she was going against the flow, then emerged onto the cold street where she gratefully filled her lungs with the icy December air.
Despite her best intentions, she had failed to complete all of her Christmas shopping by mid-November, and instead, it was the first weekend of December and Oxford Street was heaving. Still, there was no time to regret being disorganised; she had gifts to buy, so she’d better get on with it.
She hoisted her tote onto her shoulder then set off towards Selfridges. The regal exterior of the department store always lifted her spirits with its towering stone columns and the ornate clock at the building’s main entrance. The window displays were as famous as the store itself, and the Christmas ones always attracted a lot of excitement and attention.
Camilla stopped in front of the nearest window and smiled. It featured a ski lift with Santa Claus in his traditional red suit the middle, with skis strapped to his feet, and on either side of him sat two mannequins. They wore festive outfits and ice-skates as if they were ready to slip off the lift and onto the ice at any moment. Beneath the lift was a pile of soft white snow that looked good enough to dive into headfirst, and tiny white reindeer frolicked at the front of the window.
Camilla moved along and found a space at the next window. This time, Santa Claus was decked out in a red sequin outfit with his fur trimmed hat perched at a jaunty angle on his head. He was emerging from a white personal jet and in each hand he held a lead, at the end of which were two grey toy poodles. In this scene, one of the mannequins wore checked pyjamas while the other wore a knee-length fur gilet and high waisted blue trousers. Suitcases lay scattered around them and some of them were open, spilling their contents – including hot water bottles, fluffy socks and hats – onto the snow. The scene was framed by towering evergreens decked with sparkling white fairy lights. As she gazed at the plane, Camilla wished, not for the first time, that she’d arranged to go away for Christmas. After all, it wasn’t as if she hadn’t had offers…
Harlan Wright, a long time friend of Camilla’s, had invited her to New York for a ten-day trip. A native New Yorker, he jetted around the world with his freelance photography business. The first time Camilla had met him, at a bar in Soho, he’d raved about her looks and told her she could be the modern day Elizabeth Taylor with her delicate features and cropped dark hair. Camilla had been three Manhattans in by then and suspected he was hitting on her until he’d introduced her to his boyfriend, Lance Havisham, a movie extra who’d appeared in lots of films Camilla had never heard of and didn’t think she ever wanted to watch.
She’d also been invited to spend Christmas with Malcolm Ferguson, a Scottish Venison farmer. They’d been introduced by a mutual acquaintance at an international rugby match. Malcolm was a giant of a man with a fashionably bald head and thick sandy beard, and had once played rugby himself, but been forced to quit because of a shoulder injury sustained when he was kicked by a pregnant doe. Camilla quite fancied Malcolm, but apart from a physical attraction to him, there wasn’t much else she was drawn to and she’d worried that accepting his invitation to snuggle in front of a smouldering yule log while sipping Scotch might send the wrong message.
Then there had been William Roscoe, the wealthy Englishman ten years her senior, who reminded her of Hugh Grant. She had a very soft spot for William. In fact, she had, up until October, wondered what it might be like to allow her friendship with him to develop into something more permanent. Though she hadn’t admitted this to anyone else, of course. He had money, a large house in Kent, and a villa in Malcesine on Lake Garda, and he’d asked her to fly to Italy with him and some friends to enjoy Christmas at the lake. But she’d hesitated when he’d invited her, not really sure why at the time, although she’d told him it was because her mother would need her at home to help with the festivities.
In reality, there was another reason why she couldn’t bring herself to accept, and Camilla knew it was a very silly reason indeed. It had something to do with a particular vet…
“Penny for them!”
Camilla turned to find her close friend, Allie Jones, smiling at her from beneath a woolly russet beret.
“Allie…” Camilla flung her arms around the other woman’s neck, delighted to have been rescued from her thoughts.
“You okay, lovely?” Allie asked as Camilla released her.
“Yes… well, kind of. It’s just great to see you. Is Chris with you?” Camilla peered over Allie’s shoulder and scanned the crowds for the George Clooney lookalike.
“No, I came into London alone today so I could shop in peace. Jordan and Chris are looking after the café.”
“Well if I’d known, I’d have caught the train with you.”
Allie smiled. “It was a bit last minute to be honest but now we’re here, why don’t we go shopping together?”
“That’s a great plan.” Camilla hooked her arm through Allie’s. “And how about if we start with a glass of bubbly in the Selfridges Champagne Bar?”
Allie’s blue eyes lit up. “You had me at bubbly!”
“Come on then.”
They made their way through the crowds admiring the window displays, and into the department store, with Camilla nursing a secret delight that she’d bumped into her friend, because Allie would take her mind off her own musings as well as helping her to make the most of the festive atmosphere.
* * *
“I don’t think I should have had two glasses of champagne, Camilla. You’re a bad influence.” Allie giggled as they wandered around brightly-lit Wonder Room in Selfridges. “What if I accidentally buy something really expensive?”
Camilla smiled. “You deserve it.”
“Not if I bankrupt myself and Chris in the process.”
Camilla shook her head. “I’m sure he’d live in a cardboard box as long as it was with you.”
Allie blushed and her eyes took on that far away look she got whenever Chris was mentioned. “I’m so happy, Camilla. I still have to pinch myself every morning when I wake up and see his handsome face on the pillow next to me, just to make sure I’m not dreaming.”
“You deserve to be happy, Allie. You weren’t for a long time.”
Allie had spent years single after the death of her husband Roger. She had focused on being a mother to her children and on building her business The Cosy Cottage Café. Her daughter, Mandy, lived in London where she worked in publishing, and her son, Jordan, helped run the café along with his boyfriend, Max. That summer, author Chris Monroe had returned to the village of Heatherlea for his mother’s funeral and realised that the feelings he once had for Allie – before her marriage to Roger – were still there. Luckily, the feeling was mutual. They were so in tune that Camilla often thought they could have been together for years not months, as if time had fallen away and they’d never been apart.
“And what about you, Camilla?” Allie squeezed her arm as they stopped in front of a glass display case full of sparkling diamond engagement rings. “Still no one special?”
Camilla suppressed a groan. She loved her friends and her sister, Dawn, but they often asked her about her own love life and it wasn’t something she’d ever liked to discuss. Mainly because she felt that if she kept it to herself, then it would remain uneventful and within her control, just the way she liked it.
“Nope. You know me, Allie. I’m independent and that’s the way I want to stay.”
“Just because you have a relationship with someone, it doesn’t mean you have to lose your independence.”
“I know. But I do worry that I would. If I ever fell in love.” She sighed. “Which is never going to happen.”
“Never say never.” Allie leaned forwards to look at some of the rings. “Ooh! I almost forgot about the vet. Still nothing going on there?”
Camilla cringed. For the past month, since Halloween in fact, she’d done her best to avoid these questions from Dawn and her friends and had become adept at changing the subject quickly to divert their attention.
“Let’s go and look at the Cartier watches. You know they make some of the finest—”
“Oh no you don’t!” Allie shook her head. “Not today, Camilla Dix. I know you’ve avoided this question since the Halloween party at the vet’s house… What’s his name again? Tom Stone isn’t it? Anyway, I want to know what happened and I’m not moving until you tell me.”
Allie crossed her arms and stood facing Camilla, her blonde eyebrows meeting above her nose and her mouth screwed into a pout. Camilla couldn’t help herself; she burst into laughter.
“What? What’s funny?”
“You, you daft woman. Scowling doesn’t suit you, Allie. You’re far too sweet for that.”
“See… distraction techniques again. Just tell me what happened.”
“Okay. Okay. I will. But it’s not a pretty story.”
Camilla took a deep breath and glanced around to check that no one was in danger of accidentally eavesdropping, then she met Allie’s curious gaze before exhaling.
“So you really want to know?”
“Okay then. On Halloween, I went to the party…”