Radio Littleton had reported it as the coldest Christmas the region had seen in years. The snow had reached record levels by Christmas morning, and it was still falling. The wind blew the fat flakes in and out of the puddles of streetlight like confetti.
But Charlie Kearney couldn’t feel the cold. He didn’t see his breath fogging in the air. All he could see was Nick Bostock, the former love of his life, kissing their mutual friend Seph Rose in the circle of light cast by one of the park lanterns. When they broke apart and smiled at each other, Charlie’s chest tightened like a vise.
They turned and vanished together into the shadows.
“Charles? Are you okay?”
Charlie started. A small figure swathed in several overcoats stood just behind him. Black eyes twinkled up at him from under a home-knitted bobble hat.
“Auntie Mia? What are you doing here?”
“Oh, just walking off some of that Christmas pud,” she said, patting her belly. Her brow creased with concern. “What’s wrong, love? You look like you’ve had a shock.”
“Nothing. Just…” He almost spilled everything. I was right. Nick didn’t really want me. He just thought he did. And now I don’t know what to do. He forced a smile. “Nothing.”
The old woman seemed to look right through him. She smiled softly and put a mittened hand on his elbow. “Remember when you fell off your bike outside my house, Charlie Kearney? You were, what? Seven?” Charlie nodded. “Well… That hurt, too, didn’t it? But it got better.” Her smile widened. “So will this. I promise.”
Charlie couldn’t find an answer, so he just nodded, swallowing the pain he hoped wasn’t showing on his face.
“Now,” she continued, patting his arm, “why don’t you head home? Get the kettle on. There isn’t much that isn’t eased by a cup of hot tea.”
Charlie smiled despite himself. “You should get home, too, Auntie Mia. It’s cold out here.”
“I will, love. Don’t you worry. Oh, where are you going?” she added when Charlie turned to follow the path past the church.
“I’m going home,” he said. “It’s quicker to walk through the park.”
“Oh, but you don’t have to walk, love. That nice young man of yours is waiting to give you a lift.”
“Your glamorous French friend.” Mia’s rosy cheeks dimpled as she smiled. “Jack, was it?”
Charlie blinked. “Jacques is here?”
“Just down there, love,” Mia said, pointing toward the road. “Now run along. He’ll be getting cold, too.”
Charlie peered through the falling snow, frowning. When he turned to ask her again, he found he was alone in the park. There weren’t even any footprints.
He shook his head and hurried toward the road.
Jacques’ hire car was pulled up at the curb. He leaned against the driver’s door with his hands tucked into his armpits. He was wrapped in a silk scarf the same ice blue as his eyes and a black wool overcoat that made his almond skin glow. The cold had brought pinkness to his pale cheeks. Snowflakes caught in his white-blond hair like jewels. When he spotted Charlie, a flash of warmth sparked in his cold, cold eyes. It sent a rush of confusing pleasure through Charlie’s chest. He told himself he was just grateful not to have to head back to his home at Arnold House alone.
“Jacques? I thought you were on your way to Heathrow.”
“Roads are blocked,” he said with an expressive shrug, his accent rolling over Charlie like liqueur coffee. “My flight tomorrow is canceled. Such is winter in this country. But the lady, uh”—he gestured toward the park—“I did not know her name. I think, a friend? She said you would be here. That you would need a lift?”
“Uh…” Charlie glanced back toward the park with a frown, but Mia was nowhere in sight. “Yeah, please, Jacques. If you don’t mind.”
“Of course, mon ami,” Jacques replied, opening the driver’s door.
“Are you well?” Jacques said after a few moments of driving in silence.
Jacques didn’t speak again on the journey back to Charlie’s parents’ house. Charlie could smell his light, lavender cologne and the drying wool of his coat but didn’t turn to look at him—didn’t dare in case Jacques saw everything in his expression. In the short time they’d known each other, Jacques seemed to have acquired the knack of reading him all too well. It was a talent rendered even more frustrating since Charlie could never guess what the Frenchman was thinking.
Jacques parked in the driveway of Arnold House, but Charlie made no move to get out. He stared at the Georgian mansion that was his childhood home, trying not to think about how he’d taken for granted he’d be returning to it with Nick, ready to reintroduce him to his parents—ready to finally tell them the truth.
He could feel Jacques watching him, but he still couldn’t move.
“What are you going to do?” Charlie eventually asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
“I will get a room in an ’otel,” Jacques said. “Then a new flight Monday.”
“You haven’t Tweeted anything yet, have you?”
Jacques shook his head. “Non. I was waiting for your message…as agreed.”
Charlie bit the inside of his cheek then finally met Jacques’ ice-blue gaze. “Could you come in for a moment?”
Jacques blinked. “Why?”
“Please. Just for a minute.”
Jacques lifted an eyebrow but shut off the engine and climbed out into the falling snow. He followed Charlie around the side of the house to the kitchen entrance. The large room was deliciously warm. The air was heavy with the smells of roast turkey, Christmas pudding and brandy. The sound of the TV drifted through the open door to the snug, along with the low tones of his parents in conversation. Charlie moved over to the door, quietly closed it then turned to face Jacques. He was eyeing the remains of the Christmas feast piled on the table and the general chaos of cooking heaping on the counters.
“Where is everybody?”
“The staff are all home with their families,” Charlie said, reaching for an open bottle of red wine and pouring himself a large glass. “Dad always insists on cooking Christmas dinner himself. Look, Jacques…” Charlie swallowed a large mouthful, taking a breath and willing his face to be blank. “Could you stay? For a little longer?”
Jacques raised his other eyebrow. “But the plan was—”
“New plan,” Charlie said, dredging up his best and what he hoped was his most winning Hollywood smile. “Can we keep this up a bit longer? Just a few weeks.”
Jacques stared at him a long moment. “So your Nick said no? After that performance in the library?”
Charlie winced, downed the wine and put the empty glass aside. “Apparently my test to make sure he really wanted me and not Curtis Bane worked a little too well.”
Jacques frowned delicately. “And Curtis Bane was…?”
Charlie gave him a look. “The role that launched my career. The action movie.”
Jacques’ thin lips twitched. “I always hated that one.”
“I know. You said.” Charlie felt a more genuine smile curve his mouth. “Most women aged twenty-five to forty-five would disagree. Plus, plenty of men they haven’t polled yet, too, I’m sure.”
“That is only because your shirt rips open when you are rescuing that annoying child from the explosion.” Jacques waved his hand dismissively. “And, yes, you have a very nice chest, mon ami. But you are better at the drama, non?”
“Drama doesn’t pay…or not enough,” Charlie said, heaving a sigh and staring at the floor. “Look… I know we had an agreement. But yeah…Nick…” He swallowed. “He’s not in the picture. And I don’t start shooting that superhero movie until March… What?”
The corner of Jacques’ mouth had turned up in a half-smile. It lit the ice of his eyes like sunlight, and Charlie blinked, startled.
“Pardon. I’m just trying to imagine the… Oh, what is English word? Tights.”
“Power Knight is a very prestigious role, actually,” Charlie replied, trying to sound arch but smiling. “But seriously, my management are monitoring every Tweet, every post, every bloody TikTok video. It’s vital my profile stays trending, Jacques. I thought us”—he motioned air-quotes in the air with his fingers—“‘breaking up’ would play well if I was then able to announce my engagement to Nick…”
“Engagement? Oh, mon cher.” His face was serious again. “I did not realize you felt so much for this man you hardly know.”
Hurt spiked through Charlie’s chest. He looked away. “The world is watching, is all. I’ve got that premiere in London, then I’m opening the village fête here in February. The press will be everywhere. They’ll want to see who I’m with.” He raised his eyes, looking imploringly at Jacques. “So, what do you say? Could you, you know, stick around? Be my fiancé a bit longer?”
“We agreed until Christmas only—a few weeks to encourage your profile, maybe entice this Nick person. And I wanted…” He paused, lowering his gaze. “I needed Art to move on. He wasn’t going to do that unless I proved I had done so first. So, that was the plan.” He shrugged. “Two out of three?”
“Has Art got the message?”
“I have had no contact.”
“Since?” Jacques’ face was blank. “Jacques?”
Jacques looked away. “Yesterday.”
“Well then. We’ve still got some work to do, right?” Jacques narrowed his eyes. “Please,” Charlie said, stepping closer. “Could you stay? Just until I figure out what I’m doing?”
Jacques’ face softened a fraction. “I have the Cupid Collection launch to prepare for. I need to find a new studio and, ah”—he threw up his hands—“there is so much to do in Paris. And we can’t very well carry on this charade in two different countries.”
“Could you not do it here?”
“Comment?” Jacques frowned.
“Yeah,” Charlie said, excitement and desperation building together. “Get all your stuff sent over and prepare the collection here. Bring over the models and everything. There’s enough room.”
Jacques’ eyes lit up for a moment but then cooled again. He shook his head. “I could not possibly intrude on your parents’ hospitality.”
“Are you kidding? My mum would love it.”
“And your father?”
Charlie winced. “Leave him to me. Please, Jacques,” he said, surprising himself and Jacques by grasping his hand. “I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t important.”
“But we are lying to them,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“It’s making them happy,” Charlie whispered in reply, glancing toward the door. “All they’ve ever wanted is for me to get married. Me bringing you home has pleased them in a way none of my films ever has.”
“But I do need to work. You understand that?” His face was serious. “I cannot be gazing at you all the time…as nice as that would be.” He squeezed Charlie’s arm through his coat. A flicker went through Charlie’s body, which he staunchly ignored.
“You do what you need to do,” Charlie said. “Just please, come to the premiere? And the fête?”
Charlie held his breath as Jacques visibly pondered his proposal. Finally, he nodded. “Very well,” he said, “we can continue a little longer.”
“Thank you,” Charlie started emphatically but Jacques brought up a finger to quiet him.
“But just until Valentine’s Day, d’accord?” he said, his eyes hard. “I have to be back in Paris for the show by then.”
Charlie examined his face for a long moment, wondering at the discomfort behind his ribs. But he made himself nod. “Until Valentine’s. Deal.”
Jacques gestured to the snug. “Shall we?”
Charlie nodded eagerly, took Jacques’ arm and drew him to the door.