Once Upon a Christmas
As settlement for her father’s debts, Caitlyn Hosier is forced into a marriage with the village recluse—a man no one has seen all the years he's lived in the manor house. A man surrounded by rumors. A man with a vicious temper. A man said to be a monster. A man who hates Christmas.
Hayden Shade hides his scars behind a mask, but the past never ceases to haunt him. A new life and a new start seem too much to hope for. Does he even deserve one? Surely not with a woman so wholly beautiful as Caitlyn. He longs to build a life-long relationship, but he daren’t allow her to see the real him until he knows for sure she loves him.
Desperate to find happiness with the man she's fated to marry, Caitlyn determines to uncover the real Hayden Shade. There must be something good behind the mask. But what if there's nothing more to him than the monster she could never love?
Hayden Shade sat with his back to the window; as always his body deliberately obscured from view. Not simply because this gave him the advantage over everyone else. He had excellent reasons for being hidden. The deformity which had plagued him since early childhood necessitated wearing a mask, keeping to the shadows, or bathing the room in almost complete darkness. All three worked, but his preference was darkness.
It saved him the trouble of explaining the mask he wore. Or why the hood of his cloak always covered his head and face.
A knock echoed in the quiet room.
Hayden’s chin snapped up and he stared across the room. “Come.”
Torrance, his butler, opened the door, his figure silhouetted against the light from the hallway. “Mr. Hosier is here to see you, sir.”
“Send him in.”
Hayden leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers, phrasing what he would say in his head. He ran his business from home, communicating via phone with the office and, if a face-to-face consultation was necessary, people came to him. After all, he was the boss. Therefore if he wanted to work from home, he would.
Home was a large country estate, fifty miles to the west of London, which he’d bought and renovated three years ago. What little family he had left remained in the Scottish Highlands. He hadn’t seen them in well over two decades, and that suited him fine. First they’d sent him to a specialist boarding school, where he’d been shunned and teased, before they’d disowned him and tossed him into the foster care system. It was their loss.
Some would argue that he could live anywhere and communicate with the office. Not so. It would take far too long for someone to come from London to Paradise. Besides, no one knew him here. He’d left the past behind, aside from the constant and very obvious reminder he lived with every moment of every day.
No doubt the locals were curious about the owner of the manor they never saw, but they respected his privacy, as he did theirs.
A small, grey man crept into the room, interrupting his chain of thought.
Hayden had always thought of the man as a mouse. Now he knew the truth, the man was a rat, not a mouse. “Mr. Hosier. Thank you for coming in.”
Frank Hosier, accountant, tiptoed over to the desk, his hands clasped in front of him. “You wanted to see me, sir?”
“Yes.” Hayden resisted the temptation to tell him to stop simpering, and raised a hand as the man bent to fold himself into a chair. “Don’t sit down.”
Mr. Hosier straightened, his nose twitching. He wrung his hands together. “How can I help you?”
Hayden cut straight to the chase. “The tax office called. Apparently, I owe five million in back taxes. Now, I thought they’d been paid. That you, as my accountant, had paid Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs the money they were due. So I did some checking. Would you care to tell me what I found?”
The man in front of him hunched his shoulders, almost visibly shrinking. “I can explain.”
“I would really love to hear that explanation.” Hayden would have narrowed his eyes and stared the man down, but as he was hidden in the darkness there was no point. Instead he raised his voice. “Because I assume it really is a fascinating story. Why did you feel the need to pocket my money and use it as your own? If you needed an advance on your wages, all you had to do was ask. I’m sure we could have made some deal. Instead, you stole from me. Why?”
“My wife was sick. The medical bills…”
“Don’t lie to me and make the situation worse. We don’t pay medical bills; the National Health Service covers most things apart from hospice care. Besides, I happen to know your wife is quite well. The truth is she left you for another man twenty-two years ago, when your daughter was a child, and you now live with a woman you aren’t married to. Am I right?”
Hayden sighed. So like the man to quibble and argue. “Why can’t you just be honest with me and admit the truth? Did you waste my money gambling on horses or dogs? Or are you more of a poker man?”
Mr. Hosier shrank even further. “Horses…”
Finally, the truth. It was like getting blood out of a stone. “So, what do we do now?”
“I’ll pay the money back. A few good bets and I’ll easily make it on the accumulator.”
“You don’t have any money, and I refuse to give you any more of mine. My problem is, I’m an honest man and embezzling is a crime. Defrauding me, never mind HMRC, breaks several laws. I should call the police and let them and the courts deal with you. They won’t be lenient and, I’m afraid, it will mean a hefty prison sentence.”
The man pulled into himself even further. “Please, sir, there must be another way.” The simpering tone became more of a whine. “My family depends on me. And it’s almost Christmas. Can’t we come to some arrangement? Make a deal of some kind? Give me time to find the money?”
“It’s not Christmas for three more weeks.” Hayden drummed his fingers on the desk, irritation with his soon-to-be-ex-accountant growing by the second. “There is one possibility to avoid my pressing charges. However, a deal of this magnitude comes with a price of its own.”
“Anything.” The desperate man in front of him grovelled, wringing his hands.
“You must attend counselling for your gambling addiction.”
“I can do that.” Mr. Hosier bobbed his head eagerly.
Hayden allowed himself a small smile as he contemplated the vermin in front of him. “Now, tell me about your daughter.”
The annoying bobbing slowed to a stop. “Her name is Caitlyn. She’s my blonde angel. If it wasn’t for her, I would have given up long ago. She has such a sweet singing voice, she loves dancing, reading, and playing the piano.”
Hayden smirked. “You allow me to marry Caitlyn, and I will drop the charges. Of course, you’ll have to find other employment, but I’ll give you a reference. Oh, and you will have no contact with your daughter for at least six months.”
Mr. Hosier’s face fell and he crumpled. “But—but she’s my only child, my heart. Without her I…”
“I’m sure she’ll agree that it’s for the best. After all, it’s marriage to me or see her father go to prison for the rest of his life. I want a decision by three o’clock this afternoon. I will make the arrangements for the marriage by special license to avoid waiting for several weeks.”
He waved his hand. “Go home, talk to her and don’t forget to empty out your desk from the main building. As of right now, you no longer work for me. Your reference will be in the post.”
Mr. Hosier turned and trudged across the room to the door. He paused and glanced back. The man appeared positively broken. Then he left with a soft whimper, closing the door behind him.
Hayden flipped open the laptop and brought up Caitlyn Hosier’s social media page. The girl liked taking selfies, but then what young woman didn’t? He smiled as he read her latest escapade—a trip to the coffee shop in town. She’d tried the gingerbread latte for the first time and wasn’t entirely sure whether she liked it or not. The gingerbread man that came with it however, she had marked as to die for.
He clicked on her profile and read again all the information she had posted about herself. She’d listed her age as twenty-six and her faith as Evangelical Christian. She attended one of the bigger churches in town, actually the same one he listened to online on a Sunday morning and evening. They also shared many things in common—foods, films, music.
It should prove for an interesting match. Of course she’d want to marry in a church, and he’d had the chapel restored as part of the renovations to the house. He’d always known that one day when he married, it had to be done properly in the sight of God.
Marriage was a covenant between three people, the bride, the groom, and the Lord. A triangle, as well as a circle of never ending love. And a necessity to produce an heir, which he needed.
He stood and ambled to the window, leaning on the cane. Christmas was a holiday he shunned. At least the decorating part—he had his own, very private, way of celebrating. His live-in household staff had tried decorating in previous years. However, he’d found it was far easier to simply give them two weeks paid leave and live off the ready-prepared meals his housekeeper left him in the freezer.
This year, as always, they would leave on the evening of the twenty-first and return on the morning of January fourth—unless he tired of their company and dismissed them earlier. And if the maid continued singing Deck the Halls as she laid the fires at five in the morning, he might actually do that before the week was out. The silence Hayden always insisted on would then once more encompass the house. Just the way he liked it.
Except this year, God permitting, he wouldn’t be alone.