- Clare Revell
- Clare writes inspirational romance, usually of a suspenseful nature. Her books are available through her publisher Pelican Book Group and Amazon. She is married with three kids and lives in the UK. She loves watching sci-fi, crime drama, cross stitching, reading and baking.
Thursday, 1 December 2016
The First Noelle - Delia Latham
The First Noelle:
Noelle Joy stopped celebrating Christmas ten years ago, when Trevor Holden skipped out on their long-planned Christmas Eve wedding. He destroyed her trust in men, crushed her belief in God, and left her cynical about love. Gone is the bright, cheery spirit of the girl she thinks of now as “the first Noelle.” Stronger and savvier, the new Noelle would never be found waiting at the altar for a groom who didn’t show.
When a famous-but-mysterious architect commissions her to decorate his mansion for a holiday event, Noelle finally returns to her hometown. Even as she finds an unexpected peace in facing ghosts from the past, her fiercely private client disturbs her. Michael Holliday is kind and considerate, but far too handsome…and hauntingly familiar.
Holliday didn’t choose Noelle to make his home a Christmas wonderland by accident. She’s the only one who can do the job he has in mind—and once she’s in his mansion, he never wants to let her go. But he’s hiding a secret that could destroy any chance of a relationship with the beautiful decorator.
A false persona. A shattering secret. Can love break down these insurmountable walls?
With lunch and cleanup behind them, Noelle followed her mother from the kitchen into the living room.
A wide swath of pure silver streaked a section of the beautiful black hair Nancy Joy always wore with ultimate grace in a classic French twist. Despite that delicate bow to a departure from youth, her beauty was undeniable.
As if unable to keep from touching her daughter, she drew Noelle into a warm embrace. “It’s wonderful to have you back in Hope Springs, darling. This house hasn’t been quite ‘home’ without you.”
Noelle cleared her throat against a gargantuan lump. Since she’d walked through the door several hours earlier, she’d battled what promised to be a regular gully washer of tears.
So many memories lived within the walls of this house—mostly warm, wonderful ones that she’d deliberately buried over the past decade while keeping the events of that one dark day at the edge of her mind. Holding onto the pain kept the naïve, gullible girl she thought of now as “the first Noelle” from resurfacing. That girl would destroy the strong, successful woman Noelle had become.
She returned her mother’s hug. “It’s always good to see you and Dad, but being in Hope Springs is not easy.”
“I know, darling. I know.” Her mother reached up to brush a strand of hair almost the identical color of her own off Noelle’s face. “But facing our monsters is the only way to shrink them down to proper size, which usually isn’t nearly as large as in our imaginations.”
Noelle rolled her eyes and emitted an indelicate snort. “This one was pretty big in reality, Mom. I’m not sure it can be shrunk any smaller by coming back home.”
Mom sighed. “I don’t mean to downplay what happened, sweetheart. No young woman should ever have to endure that kind of hurt and humiliation. But you didn’t let it destroy you. You’ve already beaten that particular boogeyman, so coming back here offers an opportunity to kick it to the curb, once and for all.”
“Fine, Mom.” No one ever won an argument with the Reverend Joy’s wife because she was almost always right, and Noelle didn’t feel up to giving it a shot today. She kissed her mother’s cheek, grabbed her purse off a small table in the entry, and reached for the doorknob. “I won’t be more than a few hours. Probably less, depending on this guy’s ability to make clear what he needs in a reasonable length of time.” She forced a strained smile. “Tell Dad I’ll expect those steaks to be grilled to perfection, like always.”
Mom’s laughter soothed the seeping wound in Noelle’s heart, scraped raw by her return to an old haunt. Her unchanged bedroom. The space still housed photo albums oozing pain from every page, stuffed animals with talon-clawed memories attached to their cutesy grins and cuddly bodies, even a closet full of clothes drenched in all-too-vivid images that messed with Noelle’s cool façade.
Probably a good thing Daddy had been unable to free himself from the annual board meeting at the church. Seeing her father would have weakened her to a degree beyond that already brought about by simply being in Hope Springs. She needed this break to meet with her client and look over the job. The familiar professionalism she wore like an armor would create a bit of balance, give her a better grip on her emotions.
Daddy’s voice had calmed her every fear as a child and bolstered her through the hormonal ups and downs of a young girl entering womanhood. Those soothing tones wouldn’t be as likely to undo her once she tucked a session of cool, calm, collected professionalism into the day.
Back in her car, she fed Holliday’s address information into the built-in GPS. The route took her a good distance further up the mountain and miles off the main route. Noelle hadn’t known the beautiful, secluded area existed, despite having lived so close for the first twenty-two years of her life.
She pulled to a stop at a pair of imposing gates fronted by a guard shack. To her surprise, her heart pounded with expectation. Her mind wouldn’t be quiet either, tossing out a horde of unanswered questions.
Was Holliday an older man, or was he young for his accomplishments? Was he handsome? Maybe he was hideous, like the fairy tale beast, and that’s why he maintained such a fiercely private existence. Was he kind, as seemed to be indicated by the media-inspired title? Or was that all hype? Perhaps the whole Phantom Philanthropist thing was a ruse to hide his real personality, which might be anything from a mouse to a monster.
A man’s voice crackled across the air. “Identification, please.”
Holliday should be expecting her. Why all the cloak-and-dagger? Well, his house, his rules. She dug out her driver’s license and the guard took it, his alert gaze darting back and forth, side to side, as if expecting an attack.
Noelle bit back a giggle when he broke from his fastidious survey of the surrounding countryside to peruse her license, seemingly line by line. What did he expect to find there?
At last, he returned her ID and gave a single, terse nod. “When I open the gates, follow the drive and park by the front steps. A valet will take your car.”
Sure enough, a uniformed valet met her at the base of a series of steps leading to massive oak doors that would have served well in any medieval castle. The man actually smiled as he took her keys. Having passed the intense scrutiny of the portly guard, it seemed she’d earned a bit more friendliness.
“Mr. Holliday will meet you at the door, Miss Joy.”
Potted plants lined each side of the wide steps— gorgeous bursts of azalea, bonsai-shaped miniature wisteria, hoya, plumeria, fuchsia, and a number of plants Noelle didn’t recognize and was almost certain shouldn’t survive the cold of the Northern California mountains. Holliday must have a sizeable greenhouse.
The door opened as she reached the top step. A man stepped outside but seemed reluctant to venture beyond the shade of the overhang. He towered well over Noelle’s five feet, nine inches. Muscles strained at the cloth of his sleeves and across his chest.
“Good afternoon, Miss Joy.”
Something caught in Noelle’s heart, and she swallowed repeatedly. Had she heard that voice before? Why did it make her want to cry…or maybe scream and throw rocks through the beautiful stained glass windows that fronted the huge estate?
She allowed her gaze to travel beyond the broad chest to a firm, square chin, and upward. Nicely shaped lips curved into a smile that seemed a little shaky around the edges and revealed perfect white teeth. A straight nose, not too long, or too short. High cheekbones.
For some reason, she avoided his eyes, instead moving on to take in slightly longish, golden-brown hair with a smidgen of gray at the temples.
“Miss Joy?” A hint of concern tinged the oddly familiar voice.
Noelle swallowed again and forced her cowardly gaze to his, only to be caught in a dizzying vortex of confusion and familiarity. I know this man. I’ve met him before. Where? She stood up straighter, hiked her chin, and mentally donned the ice cloak that had stood her in good stead over the course of her career. Holliday wasn’t the only one with a media-dubbed moniker. She had one of her own, and the Ice Princess of Design wouldn’t be put off by a furrowed brow and a tense expression. “Mr. Holliday. I’d like to get started right away, if you don’t mind.”
Forced to meet his gaze—his eyes were hazel, but somehow she’d known they would be—she saw a flicker of something that made her breath a little shallow. She was way off her game. Was it because those eyes held a strange familiarity?
“Of course. Come in, please.”
He indicated she should precede him into the house…no, the mansion. “House” didn’t even begin to describe the residence. Noelle had seen a great number of multi-million-dollar homes in her line of work but nothing that compared to the one in which she now stood.
“This is…quite lovely.” She was careful to maintain the chill in her tone. “Professional distance at all times” was the mantra by which she’d lived for the past decade. It had served her well. No need to change it now, just because something about Michael Holliday made her skin tingle and sky-rocketed her heartbeat. “If anything needs improvement, it’s well hidden.”
His low laughter sent something almost unbearably electric skittering up her spine. “It isn’t improvement I’m looking for, Miss Joy. It’s a mood, a certain look…an ambiance, if you will. And since my event will be held on Christmas Eve, it must be themed very specifically around that holiday.”
She nodded, despite the rock of dread that landed in her stomach with a thump. Up until now, the only Christmas event she’d ever created had been her doomed wedding a decade earlier. After that, she never again celebrated the holiday she’d once loved most. She refused to have a tree in her home and never sent a Merry Christmas card to a single soul. Stockings, mistletoe, and hot apple cider—things she’d once loved—were now just unavoidable traditions she muddled through every year while counting down the hours until the bells stopped jingling, the carolers’ songs died away, and her favorite radio station started playing real music again.
Joy Designs absolutely never, ever, ever accepted a design job with a Christmas theme. She opened her mouth to tell Michael exactly that but remembered just in time that she’d already signed the contract, without checking into the specifics of what Holliday needed or for what occasion. She uttered a pathetic inner moan. Christmas. She’d signed a legal contract saying she and her team would create a holiday environment somewhere in this castle-sized home.
Noelle steeled her spine and pasted on a smile she was certain didn’t fool the handsome architect for even a split second. Well, the contract had not included a clause that said her smiles had to be genuine. Then again, she hadn’t realized it mentioned anything about a Christmas event either, because she barely noticed anything other than Holliday’s name. She knew better than that. Now she had no choice but to design a winter wonderland in this massive mansion.
How do you spell squeeeee? Is it even a word? Well it is now. This is one of those books which pulls you in and swallows you whole. I'd guessed part of the story, but not the twist which came with it. Needless to say this is another fantastic read from the pen of Ms. Latham. Definately one to be read over and over again.
What I love most about Christmas:
Besides the overwhelming commercialism, there's not a lot I don't love about Christmas. The beautiful decorations, the bright, cheery lights, the excited smiles on the faces of happy children...and, of course, the fattening food that's absolutely everywhere and impossible to resist! But my favorite slice of Christmas is that it softens people, makes them kinder and nicer and more like we all should be every day of the year toward one another. The spirit of CHRISTmas...that's what it's all about.