Could the festive road trip from hell actually lead to love?
Catherine Birch is a lonely workaholic who hates Christmas. This year, she is being forced to celebrate with her best friend’s family in the Highlands of Scotland. Having missed her flight, Catherine reluctantly ventures on a road trip with beautiful stranger Holly Daniels.
Although polar opposites, the intense attraction between them is unmistakable. Just as Catherine begins to think spending Christmas with Holly might not be so bad, a raging snowstorm leaves them stranded in the middle of nowhere. Huddled together, with little chance of rescue, they forge a pact: if they escape, they’ll make this a Christmas to remember. But will it be remembered for the right reasons?
Season’s Meetings is available for pre-order from the Bold Strokes Books website now (the link is provided after the excerpt). Ebook copies of Season’s Meetings will be available for advanced download on December 1st 2014 from the Bold Strokes Books website. Pre-ordered paperback copies of Season’s Meetings ordered from the Bold Strokes Books website will be shipped on December 1st 2014.
Season’s Meetings will be available from other retailers from December 16th 2014.
Catherine Birch handed over a crisp note to the taxi driver. “Keep the
change.” She climbed out of the warm car and was immediately
chilled by the icy evening air. She made her way up the stone steps to
the apartment doors, pulling her coat up close to protect her face from
the bitter wind. She hated the cold.
Jeff the night porter opened the door and gave a nod. “Evening,
Miss Birch. Not another late night at the office?” he asked.
Catherine gave a tired sigh. “I’m starting to think fifteen-hour
working days are normal.”
His expression showed he was concerned. “You need to take it
easy sometimes or else you’ll burn out.”
“Night, Jeff. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She walked into the elevator
and pressed the twentieth button. The circle lit up.
“Good night, Miss Birch,” he said, as the elevator doors closed.
She’d lived in the apartment for seven years, and Jeff had worked
as night porter for the entire time. He’d known her from when she was
fresh out of university brimming with potential and eager to go out
into the world and make herself a success. He’d seen the five years
Paula and she had spent living together in the apartment. Three years
of happiness followed by two of hell. He’d also witnessed the last year
and a half after Paula had left. Catherine had thrown herself into work
to avoid being alone in the apartment.
The elevator reached her floor. She took out her keys and opened
the door to her apartment. Darkness greeted her and invoked the usual
feeling of despair. It had been this way since Paula left.
She locked the door, dropped her keys onto the dresser, and
switched on the hallway lights. Her apartment remained mostly empty.
Paula had taken all of her belongings, and Catherine hadn’t gotten
around to replacing them.
Every room in the apartment had white walls that she’d once
considered light and refreshing. Now they were void of any sort of
decoration and made the space feel large and cold.
The mirror Granny Birch had given her as a present hung on the
wall above the dresser. It had a vibrant rainbow mosaic border and
remained the only thing in the hallway with colour. Catherine studied
her reflection carefully. Her hair remained tied up in a professional
bun without a single wisp being out of place. She scrutinized her hair
carefully, searching for any of the stray grey strands that seemed to
have appeared overnight a few months ago. She found none.
Her eyes appeared larger through the lenses of her slim-framed
designer glasses, but there was little sparkle in them. Her eyelashes
were coated in black mascara that maximised their length and curl. Her
eyebrows remained as she liked them, thin and perfectly styled. As she
assessed the crow’s feet around her eyes and the rest of her face for any
signs of future wrinkles, she nibbled on her lower lip. They didn’t look
any worse, but they were still there. She promised herself as soon as
they got noticeably worse she’d deal with them.
“Botox,” she whispered under her breath. She cringed at the
thought of having a needle inject her face. “Shit.”
Her complexion still looked pale even with the additional
colouring from the variety of makeup she wore. She’d lost a hell of a
lot of weight since Paula had left. In fact, she couldn’t remember a time
when she’d been this skinny.
At work, her personal assistant, Eve, had been badgering her
for months about her poor eating habits, but she’d dismissed them
as interfering ramblings from the old woman. In truth, she had little
interest in eating. Everything tasted bland and she got no enjoyment
from the mundane task. Be that as it may, she made a silent promise to
herself to try eating substantial food more often.
She turned her attention away from the mirror and walked into the
living room. The room consisted of a single brown leather chair, which
had originally come as a pair. A large flat screen TV stood on a stand
in a corner but had been unused since Paula’s departure. Three large
bookshelves covered the back wall of the otherwise bare room, their
shelves groaning beneath the volume of books filling them. An iPod
and its docking station stood beside the phone and answering machine
on a small table. Those were the few things that made up her living
room—in which not much living was done.
The answering machine’s red flashing light blinked at her from
across the room. She didn’t usually get many calls, but recently she’d
come home to a new voicemail every night from the same irritating
person. She crossed the room and reluctantly pressed play.
“Hi, Cat. It’s Beth, again. If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you
were ignoring me…but you wouldn’t do that, would you? Especially
not to one of the mothers of your only goddaughter.”
Catherine rubbed her face with her hands, feeling guilty. She’d
received all of the messages but had felt too exhausted and been too
busy to reply. “Give me a break, Beth,” she said. The bedroom offered
no respite for Catherine as she got changed; Beth’s voice was as
relentless as she was in person and followed her.
“I know the excuse is you’re busy at work and haven’t had a
chance to reply.”
Catherine pulled her shirt over her head. “I haven’t.”
“That’s fine, but I want you to know one thing. I’m not going to
give in and I’m not going away. Eventually, you’ll have to speak to me
if only to get some peace. Florence is five now. You haven’t seen her
since she was three.”
Catherine pulled up her pyjama bottoms. “It hasn’t been two
“Two years, Cat. She’s started preschool. She can write her own
name and tie her own laces. She never shuts up. And you’re missing out
on it all. At this rate she’ll be going on eighteen before you next see her.
Can you remember what she looks like?”
Catherine made her way to the kitchen. “Yes, I remember what
she looks like,” she said, annoyed at being harassed in her own home.
“This is why I don’t return your calls.”
“We want you to come and stay with us for Christmas and New
Catherine froze, her heart began to pound, and her mouth went
dry. You didn’t just say that! She grabbed a glass off the draining board
and poured the dregs from the already opened bottle of red wine. She
lifted the glass to her lips and gulped the liquid down.
“This is your first Christmas without Granny Birch. I know you
probably want to hide, pretend Christmas doesn’t exist, spend the time
drinking it away and reading books, but we’re not going to let that
Catherine placed the empty glass on the counter and wiped her
mouth. “Why not? It sounds perfect.” She opened a cupboard, took out
a new bottle of red, and with trembling hands began opening it.
“You’re coming to spend it with us in our home, which you also
haven’t seen since we moved in. There’s going to be us three and a few
other close friends. You’ll get to see Florence open her presents. You’ll
get to eat a proper Christmas dinner instead of a nasty frozen microwave
meal for one. Please, Cat? Please say yes? For Katie, Florence, and me,
please? Have a think about it and I’ll phone you tomorrow evening so
we can talk. We love you.”
Catherine poured another large glass of wine, not bothered that it
hadn’t had time to breathe. She picked up the glass and hesitated before
picking up the bottle and carrying them both into the living room. She
sat in her chair, listening to the silence and drinking.
She loved Beth, Katie, and Florence, but she couldn’t spend
Christmas and New Year’s with them. It’d be unbearable.
She’d always been forced to spend the holidays with Granny
Birch. Family responsibility, tied with the ongoing threat this was
probably her last Christmas on earth, had meant Catherine had been
unable to refuse. When Paula and she were together, it’d been pleasant
The last two years had been quiet affairs shared with only Granny
Birch and herself. She’d stayed over at Granny Birch’s house in the
room she’d inhabited since she was nine. They’d spent their time
eating, drinking, playing cards, and reading lots of books. Which were
the same things they’d spent the last twenty-two years doing. As much
as Catherine complained about it, she’d secretly always enjoyed going
back home and spending time with Granny Birch.
Six months ago, Granny Birch had passed away, leaving Catherine
all alone. She’d gone back to her house only once, to choose some
mementos to keep. They were now stowed in two large boxes in the
unused dining room. She hadn’t been sure what to do with the house.
It’d been her home for some years, but primarily it’d been Granny
Birch’s home, and when she’d last visited it’d been a different place.
It’d been empty, with only haunting memories for company. In the
end, she decided to sell the house. She’d never return to live there, and
the house and garden, which had been Granny Birch’s pride and joy,
deserved to be maintained and appreciated.
The house was snapped up by a young family wanting to escape
the city. Catherine felt sure Granny Birch would’ve approved of them.
The money from the sale of the house, Granny Birch’s inheritance, and
her parent’s inheritance all sat in her savings account growing with
interest. With the exception of university fees and the purchase of the
apartment, the majority of the money in her savings account remained
untouched. She earned far more each month from her salary than she
could spend and so a large percentage of her wages also went into the
“I miss you, Granny Birch. I can’t believe you’ve left me here all
alone.” She poured another glass of wine and sipped it. “How the hell
am I going to get out of Christmas? Beth’s plain evil when she sets her
mind to something.”
For the next two hours, she tried to come up with a decent excuse
to get out of spending Christmas with her only best friend and her lovely
family. The more she thought about the sickly sweet celebrations, the
presents, the tree, the colourful decorations, the holiday spirit, and the
good cheer she’d have to fake, the more she drank to console herself.
She decided to continue ignoring Beth’s calls for the time being. There
were four weeks until Christmas, and if she tried hard enough, she
might succeed in avoiding speaking to her altogether.
“Bah, humbug.” She scowled at the empty wine bottle on the floor.
“I love you, Beth, but I’m not spending Christmas with you. No way.”
She sliced the air dramatically with one hand. “And another thing—”
Her trail of thought was interrupted. She felt unwell and knew she’d
made the fatal mistake of consuming the entire bottle of wine on an
empty stomach. “I need to go to bed.”
She sluggishly crawled off her seat, returned the glass to the sink,
and discarded the wine bottle in the recycling bin. After stumbling into
her bedroom, she collapsed on the bed and quickly fell asleep.
Catherine glared menacingly at the staff team seated silently
around the conjoined rectangular tables. The latest regional sale figures
were in, and Catherine’s inept supervisor had demanded she talk to
the team and resolve the issues immediately. She’d spent the last forty
minutes ranting, motivating, strategizing, and basically being a royal
bitch to them.
Catherine loathed Jonathon Bowler-Hays and resented he’d been
promoted two years ago to the position of Executive Regional Director
of Sales over her. The professional rejection still smarted and often
flared up in situations like this one when she was left to do all the hard
and dirty work while he was nowhere to be seen.
Jonathon was the grandchild of the organization’s founder, and
that prestige had gotten him everything. He had no concept of what was
involved or how to fulfil his current role. It was Catherine who ended
up doing all the hard work, enforcing policies, and formulating intricate
sale strategies, while Jonathon kept the title and reaped all the rewards.
Catherine straightened her shirt with both hands. She disliked this
part of her job but also happened to be rather good at it. “So, if we don’t
dramatically increase our sales before the Christmas break, January’s
going to be a bleak month. With the current economic situation I’m
sure I don’t need to emphasise how difficult finding a new job is. If you
want to still have a job in the New Year, you’ve got to sell more in the
next two and a half weeks than you did for the whole of last month.”
Tom, a lanky man with thinning blond hair, raised his hand.
Catherine nodded curtly, giving him permission to speak.
“Isn’t that basically a threat, Catherine?”
Catherine folded her arms and regarded him coolly. “No, Tom. It’s
an honest prediction of what’s likely to happen. I’m not here to be nice,
to be liked, or to tell you comforting little lies. I’m here to get results.”
“But it’s so close to Christmas,” Alice said in an infuriatingly
nasally whiney tone. She was plump with grey hair and a bright red
nose from her incessant nose blowing. Large novelty Christmas tree
earrings hung from both earlobes. “What you’re asking is practically
“What I’m asking is difficult, but not impossible,” Catherine said.
Exasperated by the attitude and glares she was receiving, she tried to
boost their morale. “If we follow the strategies and give our all, we
can achieve our targets. We’ve a distinct advantage. While all the other
departments and sale companies dramatically slow down and take
their eye off the prize in the lead-up to Christmas, we can reap the
benefits. Unfortunately, there are going to be some restrictions. From
this moment on, no more annual leave requested before Christmas will
“Just because you have no family or friends doesn’t mean you can
take it out on us. We should be getting ready to celebrate Christmas,
not being threatened with redundancy and certainly not being given an
impossible task to complete. My daughter’s Christmas play is coming
up, and there’s no way in hell I’m missing it because you won’t authorise
my leave. I’ll go to HR,” Alice said, slamming one of her hands on the
table. Murmurs of agreement were voiced until Catherine’s glare cut
“Tell me where exactly in your contract it states leading up to
Christmas you can be lazy and forgo your responsibilities?” She
paused, staring each person down in turn. “That’s right. It doesn’t.”
Catherine began to pace up and down, daring someone to interrupt or
argue with her. Her temper seethed beneath the surface, and it wouldn’t
take much to send her over the edge. Spoilt, selfish, lazy idiots. “Feel
free to speak to HR, Alice. They’ll tell you, as stated in your contract,
all annual leave must be requested with one month’s prior notice. Any
requests previously granted within a shorter period were done so at my
discretion.” The expression on Alice’s face gave Catherine tremendous
satisfaction, but the dangling earrings, which blatantly contradicted
the strict formal dress policy, only fuelled her anger. “And as for
the comment regarding my personal life, from this moment onward,
A loud knock was followed by the door bursting open. Eve,
Catherine’s personal assistant, barged straight in. She paid no attention
to the staff and focused solely on Catherine. Her brown face looked
drawn, and her usual bossy disposition seemed quelled.”My apologies
for interrupting, but I’ve been made aware of a serious personal
situation. There’s a phone call waiting.”
Catherine’s seething temper calmed to mild annoyance. “Okay.
Whoever the call is for may be excused from the remainder of the
Eve grimaced and looked at the floor. Her tone remained soft, but
with an edge of urgency. “The phone call is for you, Catherine.”
Catherine opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t find the words.
For me? There isn’t anyone to call me. The last time she’d received a
message like this from Eve was when the hospital had phoned to tell
her about Granny Birch’s passing. She had no family left.
“Catherine? Shall we go?” Eve asked.
Catherine swallowed hard and nodded. She started toward the
door and then hesitated to glance back. “Meeting’s over.”
She followed Eve out into the hallway and in the direction of her
own office, struggling to keep up with the quick pace. For an oldie
who frequently moaned about arthritis, Eve could sure move when she
“I don’t have any family, Eve,” Catherine said. “There’s no one
who’d call me.”
Eve didn’t slow down. “Beth’s on the phone. She says it’s urgent.”
Fear and guilt crashed down over Catherine. “Beth? Is she okay?”
Fear suddenly rendered her paralysed to the spot. “Is Florence okay?
Nothing’s happened to her, has it?”
Eve walked the last few steps past her own festively decorated
desk and opened the door to Catherine’s office. “As far as I’m aware,
Florence is fine.”
Catherine’s relief was short-lived as another thought struck her.
“Is Katie okay? What’s happened?”
Eve shook her head. “You need to speak to her, Catherine. I don’t
Catherine took a deep breath and nodded. Not daring to ask any
more questions, she entered her office. Eve closed the door behind
her. Catherine tentatively walked over to her desk. The red light was
flashing on her phone.
Feeling weak, she sat in her leather chair and picked up the handset.
She tried her hardest to ignore the disturbing thoughts churning over in
her head. Whatever it is, I need to find out instead of torturing myself.
She drew a deep breath, held it, and slowly released it as she
pressed the button next to the red light. “Hello?”
“Cat?” a familiar voice asked calmly.
“Is Florence okay? What’s happened?” Catherine asked. She
covered her eyes with her spare hand, bracing herself for the answer.
The line remained silent for a few long seconds as if Beth was hesitating.
Oh, shit! If she can’t say it, then it’s got to be bad.
“Please don’t be too angry with me?” Beth asked sheepishly.
Catherine’s tense shoulders slumped; her hand lowered from her
eyes and clenched into a fist on the table. “There’s no emergency, is
“Well, it depends on how you look at it. I’ve called you every
night for over a month. I was beginning to think you were dead in your
apartment and nobody had realised. That, in my opinion, is classed as
“I was ignoring you, Beth. If I was dead in my apartment don’t
you think Eve would’ve noticed?” Catherine glanced up. The floorto-
ceiling glass walls of her office normally had blinds drawn to give
her privacy. She’d not had time to close them this morning, and from
her desk she had the perfect vantage point to spot Eve, watching her
from behind her desk. In a flash, Eve’s face disappeared behind her
computer screen, but her grey hair bobbed above the red tinsel framing
the screen. “I should’ve known she was in on it, too. I’m going to make
her suffer for this.”
“Eve had nothing to do with it—”
“Yeah, and I’m Santa Claus,” Catherine said. Her temper was
rising again because she’d been made to look a fool.
“I’m glad you brought up the subject of Christmas. That’s why
Catherine bit a fingernail. How could she have been stupid enough
to use Santa as an example?
“Please agree to come and spend the holidays with us? I promise
it won’t be anywhere near as bad as you think it will.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I’ve already got plans.”
“No you haven’t, Cat.”
“Actually, I have.”
“What are your plans and who are they with?” Beth asked in her I
know you’re lying to me tone that Catherine hated.
“It’s going to be a quiet affair and you don’t know these friends.
I’m spending it with Chris and his friend.” Catherine nibbled her bottom
lip, waiting to see if Beth believed her blatant lie.
“Would that be Kris Kringle and one of his little helpers?”
“Beth, I love you. There’s no way I’m coming to stay with you,
though. Nothing you can do or say is going to change my mind. I’m
adamant. Seriously, you need to accept it.”
After what felt like a lifetime of silence, Beth finally spoke.
“Okay, I understand. I accept there’s nothing I can say that will change
Catherine sat back in her chair, startled. This was too easy. She
began to grow suspicious. “Good.”
“I’m sorry, Cat.”
“For what?” Catherine asked. Her palms grew sweaty and she
blotted them on her trousers.
“I’ve tried to be reasonable with you. I’ve given it my best shot,
but you’re right. I can’t change your mind. You’ve left me no choice.”
Beth sighed dramatically. “I’ve got to use my secret weapon. I’m sorry.”
Catherine felt a chill slither down her spine. Secret weapon?
The realisation dawned on her a split second too late for her to react.
“Hello, Aunty Cat. I miss you lots. I got your Christmas present
today from Tim the postman, but Mummy Beth and Katie won’t let me
open it. It looks big. What is it? Is it a puppy?” Florence asked without
pausing to take a single breath.
Catherine could hear Beth’s whispered voice in the background.
The conniving witch!
“I’ve been such a good girl this year. Mummy Beth says you and
Santa are both coming to see me. It’s going to be the bestest Christmas
ever—’specially if I get a puppy from Santa. I’d call him Bob. Are you
coming to visit, Aunty Cat? Please? I miss you.”
It was over. Catherine’s steel resolve melted into a gooey mess.
“Yes, I’m coming to visit, Florence. I miss you, too.”
Damn you, Beth!
Twelve minutes later, Catherine placed the handset down and
buried her head in her hands. I’m screwed. Beth had refused to let her
off the phone until she’d promised Florence she would spend Christmas
A gentle rapping sounded on her office door, but Catherine chose
to ignore it. She wasn’t finished wallowing in self-pity yet.
The door creaked open and someone came inside the room.
Catherine knew only one person would dare to venture inside without
her granting permission. Peering through her hands, Catherine asked,
“Why would you do this to me? You’ve ruined everything.”
Eve gave a loud tut as she walked over to the desk and placed
down a steaming cup of fragrant coffee and a small dish. “Stop being
Catherine glared ferociously at the cup, the delicious looking
muffin, and finally at Eve. “Bribery? Or are you feeling guilty? Which
you should feel, by the way.”
Eve sucked her teeth in annoyance and sat opposite. “Neither. I
happen to know what’s best for you.”
Catherine sat back in her chair and folded her arms defiantly.
“I’m thirty-one, Eve. I’m more than capable of deciding what’s best
for myself. You’re my assistant at work. In no way does that give you
permission to interfere or meddle in my life.”
Eve raised an eyebrow. “I made the pumpkin muffins last night.
Eat it and then we’ll talk. You’re always cranky when you haven’t
“I’m not cranky,” Catherine said, scowling. “And I’m not
hungry either.” A loud, ravenous growl sounded from her stomach.
Embarrassed, she tightened her folded arms.
A twitch of a smile touched the corners of Eve’s mouth. “How did
the meeting go?”
“Awful. They’re lazy and workshy,” Catherine said. She reached
across the table and drew both the coffee and muffin closer. She
deliberately didn’t look at Eve as she bit into the muffin. It tasted
delicious and she had to physically restrain herself from gorging on it.
“Well, it certainly looked intense in there,” Eve said. She
absentmindedly began tapping her glittery red fingernails on the desk.
“So am I booking you a flight for Beth’s or not?”
Catherine wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Yeah.
There’s no way I can get out of it unless I’m lucky enough to break my
leg or something.”
Eve gave a loud tut. “Here you go.” She pushed some papers
across the desk.
Catherine scanned the text from the first page quickly. “You’ve
already booked the tickets. I should’ve known.”
“You wouldn’t have wanted them to be sold out now, would you?”
Eve smiled sweetly.
Catherine skimmed the rest of the pages, making mental notes. A
taxi was booked for Friday evening after the office Christmas party and
would take her to the airport. The flight was two hours, and thankfully,
she was seated in first class. Beth had already promised to pick her up
from the airport and drive her to their house, which was situated in the
middle of bloody nowhere. “What about presents and things?”
“They’ve already been purchased, wrapped, and posted. Beth
and Katie have some decorative candle holders and Florence has a
SpongeBob SquarePants pirate ship.”
Catherine looked up. “A pirate ship?”
Eve smiled. “Yes, I’ve had it on good authority she wants one.”
“Not as much as she wants Bob the puppy,” Catherine said dryly.
“If I make a list can you get me a few things and ship them up to Beth’s,
“I’ll have to send them before tomorrow afternoon or they won’t
get there on time.” Eve frowned and sat back in the chair. “What things
are you after?”
Catherine scribbled a quick list of items and handed over the
sheet. Eve started reading and Catherine waited for her response. The
first few items were fairly mundane, but the more Eve read, the higher
one of her eyebrows arched.
“A drum kit and a crate of red wine?”
“Don’t worry. The wine’s for me,” Catherine said. “Make a note
the drum kit is a New Year’s Day present for Florence and can’t be
“What on earth are you up to?” Eve asked.
“I want to make sure my lovely goddaughter starts her New Year
with a fun hobby. What child doesn’t want to learn to play the drums?”
And Beth’s New Year starts with a bang.
“You’re wicked,” Eve said as she continued to read. Suddenly,
she snapped her gaze from the paper to Catherine. “I’m not getting
Florence a puppy called Bob, Catherine. That’s not going to happen,
and you should be ashamed of yourself for suggesting it,” she said, her
Jamaican accent becoming more pronounced with her irritation.
“It was worth a shot.” Catherine shrugged. In her mind she could
picture the expression on Beth’s face. That would ensure this was the
last invite I ever get for Christmas. “You’re a spoilsport.”