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Leah Fleming
Winter’s Children: Curl up with this gripping, page-turning mystery as the nights get darker

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Christmas Eve (#ulink_08486122-a936-558b-b4aa-55968012d991)

Sutton Coldfield, December 2000

When the doorbell rang on Christmas Eve, at first Kay and the Partridge family were too busy wrapping up last-minute presents to answer it.

‘Tim’s forgotten his key again,’ Kay shouted to her mother-in-law. ‘Trust him to be home late!’ Since their house had been sold, they were living with Tim’s parents until the move to London in the New Year. ‘Evie, go and open the door for Daddy!’ she yelled to their small daughter, who was as high as a kite on chocolate decorations that had been destined for the Christmas tree. Kay hoped Tim had stopped off at the garden centre to pick one up. He’d promised to dress it with Evie a week ago but the firm had wanted him to go north to secure a deal in Newcastle.

‘Is that you, darling? You’re so … late!’ she yelled down the stairs. There was no response so she trundled down to hear his excuses. Evie was standing at the foot of the stairs looking puzzled.

‘A policeman’s come, and a lady one, they want to speak to you,’ she said smiling. ‘Has Daddy been naughty?’

Kay looked beyond her child to the open door and her knees began to buckle. The expression on the two faces said it all …

At the Eve of All Souls (#ulink_c8f47a1f-8bf6-5512-9c95-3bd3317f8ad5)

Yorkshire, November 2001

She glides through Wintergill House, drifting between the walls and closed-up passageways. No floorboards creak, no plasterwork flakes as she brushes past, only a tinge of the scent of lavender betrays her presence. The once mistress of the hearth lists where she wills. She knows every nook and cranny, every dust bowl and rat run, loose boards and lost tokens, cats’ bones crumbling in the roof spaces.

Hepzibah Snowden patrols her kingdom as she did in her own time, keys clanking on her leather girdle, a tallow candle in the pewter hold, still checking that the servants are abed and Master Nathaniel, lord of her nights, is snoring by the fire. She knows her dust is blown into every crevice of the old house, circled by the four winds of heaven. The autumn mists rise from the valley but Hepzibah has no eyes for the outdoors. Her spirit imbues its benign presence only within the confines of these stone walls.

November is the month of the dead. The barometer falls and daylight shortens its path across the sky. She knows the year is beginning its slow dance of death when the leaves curl and rust and sap sink to the roots.

The air is stale, silence reigns. The house is empty of joy. These tenants, an old woman and her son, ignore the patches of damp, the peeling plasterwork, loose slates on the dairy roof. It is a cold, empty and barren hearth. No servants warm their master’s bedpans with hot ashes. No wife warms the master’s buttocks. No horse’s muck steams in the cobbled yard. She hears no shepherd’s cough or stable boy’s whistle. They have made another dwelling of the barn.

It saddens her heart to see all Nathaniel’s toil fall into disrepair. The Lord in His wisdom hath rained down such a plague upon these pastures of late. Now not a living beast bellows from the byre; not a sheep bleats across the meadows. The Lord hath shown no mercy to Godless Yorkshire. All was lost to the summer slaughter in the killing fields below. Now is only silence and tears.

Hepzibah peers out from the window into the dusk. There is another out there she fears. Watching. Waiting. Her erstwhile cousin patrols around the walls, ever searching. The restless spirit who hovers between two worlds. The tortured soul who roams the fells with fire burning in her eye sockets. Blanche is out there in the gathering darkness, waiting to sneak through any open door, seeking what can never be found

Hepzibah shakes her head, safe in the knowledge that this fortress is ringed against this troubled spirit by circles of rowan and elder, by lanterns of light no human eye can see, by sturdy prayer and her own constant vigilance. For she is appointed guardian of this hearth. It is both her pride and penance to stay on within this place.

Each year the two of them must play out this ancient drama with dimmer lights and ever-fading resolve; an endless game of cat and mouse for nearly four hundred years. When, O Lord, will Blanche Norton’s spirit be at peace? Who will help me guide her home?

Soon the yule fires will burn and the seasons will turn towards the light. Hepzibah senses her own powers must fade in a Christmas house without the brightness of a child.

Wintergill House needs new life or it will crumble. It is time now to open her heart for guidance and cast her prayer net far and wide.

Wintergill waits for the coming of another winter’s child.

Yet with such a coming there is always danger, Hepzibah sighs. For if her prayers are granted she must summon her most cunning ploys to protect such an innocent from Cousin Blanche’s consuming fire.

Lord have mercy on Wintergill.

Yorkshire, November 2001 (#ulink_67e2067a-5f6b-58cd-910e-3fec8cb101aa)


1 lb Bramley apples

1 lb mixed dried fruit (currants, seedless raisins, sultanas, dates)

8 oz chopped mixed peel

1 lb finely chopped suet of choice

1 lb demerara sugar grated rind and juice of 2 lemons

2 oz chopped nuts, almonds (optional)

1 tsp ground spices (ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon)

4 tbsp whisky, rum or brandy (optional)

Chop the apples, add the lemon rind and juice, and mix with the dried fruits together in a bowl. Add the peel, nuts, spices, suet and sugar.

Stir in alcohol and leave at room temperature covered with a cloth overnight. Restir the mixture. Heat in a low oven for an hour.

Pack into clean, dry jars, cover with wax discs and Cellophane or pretty cloth circles and store in a cool dark place.

Makes about six 1 lb jars.

Sutton Coldfield, October 2001 (#ulink_5b88f1e2-5623-511c-8ccc-2a723f44b010)

‘There’s a Place for Us.’ Kay stood transfixed in the supermarket aisle lost in the West Side Story tune in her head until her mother-in-law nudged her with a basket. ‘Oh, there you are, Kay … chop chop! You’ll be late for Evie at the school gate again.’ Eunice was hovering over her. ‘They’ve got a special offer on Christmas cake ingredients …’

‘Christmas already?’ Kay felt the panic rising. It was only October, not yet half term. Her head was spinning at the thought of the coming season. She looked at her watch and knew they must dash. Evie got upset if there was no one waiting for her. After the checkout she pushed her trolley into the car park with a sigh as she looked around the familiar tarmac where a flurry of women were bustling shopping into their boots. Eunice was loitering by the car door with that impatient look on her face.

I don’t want to be here any more, Kay thought. Ever since Tim’s accident she’d been living in a daze of indecision knowing this wasn’t the place for them any more. Then there was that summer painting exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral that still haunted her.

It was just one of Terry Logan’s Yorkshire landscapes: sheep grazing in snow by a stone wall, taking her straight back to Granny Norton’s cottage in the Dales where she’d spent the long summer holidays. Oh, for open space, grey-green hills and daydreaming by the beck … Suddenly she felt such a rush of nostalgia for her childhood. If only she could snuggle back into that dream, back to the old farmhouse set like a doll’s house high on a hill; a house with windows on fire, catching the low evening sun as it drifted across the snow; a sunset of pink, orange and violet torching the panes of glass, a winter house amongst the hills.

She sat in the car with tired eyes averted from the halogen town lights. Always the same haunting dream calling her, tapping into her deepest yearnings. Why was it always the same stone house set above a valley? What did it mean? Was there somewhere waiting for them?

For nine months they had camped out with her in-laws and she could face it no longer. Since the terrible events in America only weeks ago, nothing felt safe in the world. Eunice was protecting them both like lost children … doing her best to keep them close by and Kay had gone along with it for Evie’s sake.

Now with a certainty she’d not felt for months, she knew it was time to move on and away.

‘I need hills around me,’ she whispered with a sigh.

‘What was that?’ Eunice Partridge edged closer.

‘Nothing,’ Kay replied. ‘Just thinking aloud.’
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