A feel-good, festive read to keep you cosy this winter. For fans of Heidi Swain, Sarah Morgan and The Archers.

Recently divorced, the family home sold and her son all grown-up, Clare is at a crossroads. She’s dedicated her whole adult life to her family, and now it’s time she did something for herself.

In the lead up to Christmas, Clare decides that a bit of time in the countryside might be just what she needs, so she moves back to Little Bramble, the village she grew up in. But living with her mum for the first time in years – and not to mention Goliath the Great Dane – can be challenging.

When Clare finds herself running the village Christmas show, it feels like she has purpose in her life again. Bringing together people from all sides of the community, and all walks of life, will Clare manage to pull off a festive feat like no other? And will she find the new start in life – and possibly love – that she’s been looking for?

‘Look at me, Mum!’

Clare Greene’s heart fluttered. She turned, expecting to see her son, but instead her gaze fell on the empty space in the back garden where the swing used to be. Th e house and gar-den were full of ghosts and, as she made her way round one final time, she was being assaulted by memories and voices from the past.

Closing her eyes, Clare could picture her son, Kyle, swinging high, remember her anxiety that he’d fall off and hurt himself. But his laughter as he’d soared through the air and the joy on his face as he’d called to her, keen to garner her approval, had made the fear worth it. Her ex-husband, Jason, had taken the swing down years ago, but it had stood there for a decade, from the time Kyle was seven, and he’d had so much fun on it. Kyle was twenty-one now and at university in Bath studying performing arts – a grown man and no longer her little boy.

A cold wind whipped around the garden, tugging at her coat, and she shivered. Time had passed so quickly: she was forty-five and often felt that her life had passed her by, that she had practically sleepwalked through the days. If only it were possible to have some of that time back to savour the good times . . .

Her heart lurched and she pressed a hand to her chest. Looking down, her eyes found her wedding ring. As difficult as it would be, she really needed to take it off . Jason had re-moved his when the divorce was finalised, sighing at the white mark that remained on his finger. Just like the emotional scars left by the end of their marriage, it would take some time for physical marks like that to go.

She trudged back up the garden to the semi-detached house, went in through the French doors and closed them behind her, lifting the handle slightly until it clicked, then turned the key. Th ere was a knack to locking these doors. They should have had them fixed years ago, but it was one of a list of jobs that had never been done and now it would be someone else’s problem. But the new owners would also have so much to enjoy here. Clare had loved her home and was sad to leave it, but she knew it was time, even though her throat tightened as she realised she would never walk on the lush green lawn again, never sit on the patio as she savoured her morning coffee, never listen to the jazz drifting from next door on sunny afternoons. Her fragrant roses would be tended to by someone else, the shed would house the tools and bikes of others, and the birds that flocked to the feeders would become accustomed to different humans.

Slipping out of her garden shoes and into her plimsolls, she made her way through the open-plan kitchen diner with its large fi replace and driftwood mantelpiece, her soft rubber soles seemed strangely noisy on the wooden boards, the sound, echoing around the empty house, making it feel as though she had company. The furniture had been moved into storage and the clothes and belongings she couldn’t bear to part with, such as Kyle’s baby photo albums, from a time when people had actually printed photographs, were packed in her treasured Mini Countryman, the remaining finance on it cleared with some of her half of the house sale. Th e car had seemed to groan under the extra weight but she felt compelled to take them with her.

She passed the lounge where she had given birth to Kyle three weeks before his due date, taken by surprise as she’d thought the pains were practice contractions. He’d slid out onto the rug, red and furious at his early arrival. Kyle’s entry into the world had been dramatic and he hadn’t changed a bit; he still enjoyed being the centre of attention. Clare had been just twenty-four then, so young and innocent, convinced that life had plenty to offer and that she was destined for some-thing special, even though she hadn’t had a clue what that something would be.

How things changed.

In the hallway, where the October sun streamed through the window above the door, she took slow deep breaths, treasuring the sights, sounds and scents of home, storing them safely in her heart. Who knew when she would have a home of her own again? When her vision blurred, she knew it was time to get moving.

Her mobile buzzed in her pocket, making her jump, and she pulled it out to check the screen, expecting a message from the removal company. When she saw Kyle’s name, her heart lifted.

Hey Mum,

Hope you’re OK. I know today will be difficult, but you can do it! When one house door closes another one opens and all that. Let me know when you’re safely at Nanna’s.

Love you millions! X

Clare hugged her mobile to her chest for a moment, thanking the universe for the gift of her precious boy. Whatever happened, she had a wonderful son and she would always be grateful for that. After fi ring off  a quick reply, she slid her phone back in her pocket then opened the door and stepped outside, put the key in an envelope and posted it through the letter box, preparing to start the next chapter of her life.

Clare was ten minutes away from the village where she had grown up, but it would probably take her twenty to get there because she was stuck behind a tractor. Her Mini ambled along through the narrow country lanes and her feet ached from braking and pressing the clutch as she had to stop/start the car. Behind her, a row of cars was building and she knew it wouldn’t be long before some of the drivers started beeping at her, pressurising her to overtake. But Clare knew better; these lanes could be deadly and visibility was poor. Th ere was always the risk of crashing into some idiot taking the bends at sixty miles per hour.

The whole journey from Reading to Little Bramble in Surrey only took about forty minutes, but she had to admit that she hadn’t made it very often, particularly over recent years. Th ere had always been an excuse, whether it was a dinner with Jason’s colleagues from the prestigious law fi rm in Reading where he had been a partner, or an author event at the library where she had worked for twelve years as a library assistant (a job she had adored until they’d had to make some staff  redundant six months ago due to cutbacks), or generally just feeling too tired to make the eff ort. A lump formed in her throat from the guilt. Her mum was seventy-five, fit and healthy, a busy member of her local community, but she wouldn’t be around forever and in some ways she’d taken her mum for granted. They hadn’t ever been that close but, even so, she was aware that she could have made more of an eff ort to visit.

She turned the radio on and listened to the DJ chatting to a celebrity author called Cora Quincy about her latest self-help book. Cora was all of twenty-five but spoke as if she’d lived a long and difficult life. Admittedly, Clare had read about Cora (a fashion model turned actress turned author who’d married someone from a boyband Clare could never remember the name of) online, and knew that she had endured a challenging childhood, but even so, her tone was slightly patronising. Clare had been married for almost as long as the woman had been alive – surely she had more life experience to draw on, more wisdom in the bank? And yet here she was: homeless, jobless, clueless about what came next.

The traffic came to a standstill as the tractor stopped to make way for an approaching car. Clare pulled up the hand-brake and turned, gazing at the hedgerow to her left, almost bare of leaves now in October’s colder days. Dark twigs poked out of the hedge, threatening to scratch any vehicles that got too close, and others stretched up to the sky like gnarled brown fingers. Beyond the hedges were fi elds where farmers grew corn and vegetables, where livestock roamed and nurtured their young.

As a child, Clare had thought she’d grow up to be a vet or own her own stables. She’d loved the wildlife around the village, had been a keen horse rider who had spent Saturday mornings at the stables then worked on Sundays at the local farm shop just outside Little Bramble, where she got to feed the chickens and ducks in her breaks, care for the motherless lambs in spring and play with the fluffy collie pups. Yes, she’d had a good childhood, even if she hadn’t been as close to her mum as she’d have liked. At university, she’d studied English Literature (after deciding at sixteen that taking A levels in the sciences was not for her), met Jason, and her ambitions had slipped away like smoke on the breeze. She’d been so infatuated with him, so taken by his apparent maturity and intelligence that she’d have followed him to the end of the earth if he’d asked her, so when he’d proposed, she’d accepted with-out hesitation.

The tractor started moving again and Clare released the handbrake and set off again at a snail’s pace.

‘Oh, absolutely!’ Cora’s decisive tone burst from the car speakers and broke into Clare’s thoughts. ‘I’d spent far too long worrying about what everyone expected of me, trying to be that perfect creature that pleased the world, and then one day . . . BOOM! I had an epiphany! I was like, alleluia! Eureka! And all that jazz.’ She giggled, clearly very pleased with herself.

‘And so . . . do you have a message for our listeners?’ Darryl Donovan, the long-time Radio 2 DJ asked.

‘I do, Darryl, I really do. Whoever you are and whatever you’ve been through, put yourself first. Decide what YOU really want and go for it! I realised, and your listeners can too, that I had to live my life for me before I could be with anyone. If you don’t love yourself, how can you possibly love anyone else?’

Clare rolled her eyes. It was all very well saying that at twenty-fi ve. It was a message Clare had heard many times in the past, but not one she’d ever managed to take on board. She’d been a daughter, a wife, a mum, a library assistant (although that had been something for her because she’d enjoyed it so much) so her roles had been centred around others and she’d been content with that. Th e idea of shaking off  those responsibilities and doing things solely for herself seemed unimaginable.

Now, for the first time in her life, Clare realised that she felt very much alone.

Clare had always been a daddy’s girl and tried to make her father proud whenever she could. When he’d died ten years ago, he’d left a gaping hole which she’d struggled to fi ll. She didn’t have a close relationship with her mum. Elaine Hughes had always been busy with her own life – for many years with her job as a drama teacher, then later on with her work as a chief examiner and as chairwoman of the village amateur dramatics society. With Jason bringing his and Clare’s marriage to an end, she was no longer committed to making him happy, but this in itself was another difficult loss to deal with. And then there was Kyle: her darling son, her reason for everything, her joy. But Kyle was grown up and had gone off to university leaving Clare feeling redundant in that aspect of her life as well, especially after losing her job. Her whole life had changed when she’d least expected it. She’d been prepared for Kyle leaving home, but losing her job and her marriage at the same time was too much.

Would it be possible for Clare to start again and live her life for herself? Could she turn things around and discover what it was that she really wanted?

Th e left indicator on the tractor started flickering and it pulled into a layby, so Clare put her foot down on the accelerator and drove past it, singing along to the uplifting track from the eighties that the celebrity had chosen as her theme tune.

Perhaps the young woman wasn’t so naïve after all.

Sam Wilson unclipped the soft leather lead from his yellow Labrador’s collar then watched as she ran ahead, her long tail wagging, nose pressed to the ground. He looked forward to his twice daily walks with Scout it was his time out, his time to breathe deeply and enjoy the peace and quiet. He’d have walked anyway, but having Scout for company made the walks around the countryside surrounding Little Bramble even better. Th e two-year-old Labrador was good company: she enjoyed being outside as much as Sam did and she didn’t feel the need to fill their time together with random chatter or demands. As long as she was fed and walked, could snuggle on the sofa and was praised for good behaviour, Scout was happy, and that made Sam happy too.

Moving to the village over three years ago had been a fresh start for him and for his younger sister, Alyssa. After years of living in London, renting flats and saving hard, Sam had wanted to put down roots and settle somewhere qui-et, friendly and beautiful. Little Bramble was perfect, and when a colleague in London told him that a former university friend of hers was looking for a partner to invest in her village veterinary practice, Sam had felt a flicker of hope that he hadn’t experienced in a long time. He’d travelled to the village to meet Miranda Fitzalan and had liked her blunt no-nonsense approach, her devotion to the animals in her care – and the very reasonable asking price for a share of the practice. Miranda’s former business partner had decided to retire to Spain and she was looking for someone keen to enjoy being a part of village life. Sam’s years of saving and investing his money wisely had fi nally reaped a reward.

Scout came running back to him, a chunky stick in her mouth. She dropped it at his feet and looked up at him, wagging her tail, her mouth open in what looked like a wide smile.

‘You want to play, do you?’ He reached out and rubbed her soft head and she barked in reply. ‘OK then, girl. Ready?’

He picked up the stick then swung his arm back and threw it as far ahead as he could, laughing as Scout scampered after it, knowing that this process would be repeated many times before they reached home again. Repetition and routine were the things that kept his life moving forwards and he didn’t think to want for more.

Thank you to @zaffrebooks for letting me share the first chapter with you and if you want to know more why not check out some of the other great reviews from bloggers on the tour!

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