* * *
It was Christmas Day and there was nothing but endless grey skies and crashing waves. Not a Christmas tree in sight nor a twinkling light. But it wasn’t much comfort to Charlotte as she turned and made her way down the long empty beach, back towards the cottage her grandmother had owned.
She’d left it to Charlotte in her will and it was in the furthest western reaches of Ireland, with literally nothing between it and America except the Atlantic ocean.
In the end she’d come here because she’d always found solace at her grandmother’s cottage, even though Charlotte had been only four or five when she’d died. The cottage felt like a link to someone she remembered vaguely as being very maternal, and Charlotte had used it as frequently as she could over the years.
She felt tears threaten and willed them back, refusing to give in to the weakness. She’d stockpiled enough cheesy DVDs to last her a week, and food to last her at least until the shops opened again. She was planning on curling up under her duvet and not emerging until it was at least January the sixth.
She pulled the zip of her parka up as far as she could and trudged back towards the cottage behind the sand dunes. As she got closer she frowned. There was smoke coming from the chimney that she could see peeping just above the dunes. She’d cleaned out the fire from the previous night and left it set, but she was certain she hadn’t lit it.
She hurried her pace, cursing herself for not locking the door. But she’d always felt so safe here. The nearest neighbour was at least three miles away.
She was breathing hard by the time she came over the dune and stumbled to a stop.
There were vehicles outside the tiny cottage. A sleek four-by-four. And a van.
She saw a man come out dressed in overalls and ran down the other side of the dune, shouting, ‘Hey! What on earth is going on?’
The man stopped and looked to the doorway, where someone else had just emerged. Charlotte foll
owed his gaze and her heart stopped dead. Salim. Dressed in black jeans and a snug black Puffa jacket. He looked as out of place here as an exotic animal.
Another two men and a woman emerged from the cottage, and she could see him saying something to them and shaking one of the men’s hands. They got into the van and another four-by-four she hadn’t seen and drove away.
Somehow, fearing she was dreaming, Charlotte made her legs work and approached the cottage. Salim didn’t disappear. He looked at her steadily, but when she got close she saw lines of strain around his mouth. And his eyes.
She shook her head. ‘Salim...?’
He said nothing, just stood back and gestured with a hand for her to go into the cottage. As if it was his. As if it was perfectly normal.
She could smell the peat on the fire, and the distinctive scent grounded her in reality slightly. But when she stepped through the door reality slipped out of her grasp again.
Her jaw dropped. The fire was burning merrily. The entire open-plan downstairs area was decorated with holly and ivy and strings of lights. There was a smell of mulled wine and spices. Candles were burning, sending out a soft golden glow.
Charlotte looked into the kitchen and saw the table set with linen and cutlery finer than her grandmother had ever owned. The oven was on and she smelled cooking meat. Turkey. Food was piled up on the sideboard. Vegetables, wine, cake. Dessert. Fruit.
In the corner of the living room stood a Christmas tree bedecked with lights and glittering ornaments. There was one present under the tree—a small wrapped box.
Finally, Charlotte’s heart seemed to kick into action. She looked at Salim. ‘What is all this? Why are you here?’
Charlotte knew fatally that if this was some grand gesture just to get her back into his bed then she wouldn’t have the strength to say no...
Salim came and stood in front of her and she couldn’t take her eyes off his. They were so intense. She noticed now that he was pale.
‘I did it because I wanted you to have a better memory of Christmas than the one that made you hate it so much...’
Her heart lurched. She was fragile enough to crumble at the slightest thing and this was pushing her to the edge.
‘You didn’t have to do that just because you felt sorry for me...’
He frowned. ‘Sorry for you? The last thing I feel is sorry for you.’
Charlotte wanted to ask why again, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear the answer. Or she did, but she was afraid it might not be what she wanted to hear.
‘But...you were just crowned.’ She struggled not to let her imagination run riot. She thought of something and sucked in a breath. ‘You haven’t abdicated already?’
He shook his head. ‘I’m not going to abdicate.’