The Magic of Christmas
‘This year, you’ll have to help create your own Christmas magic.’
Billionaire Jack Mancini has pulled himself up out of the worst circumstances to become a self-made CEO. The one thing Jack can’t face is Christmas. Carols, Christmas trees and cheer only remind him of his dark past. But when he’s asked to stay in London for Christmas by the only person who understands his pain, Jack’s fierce loyalty demands that he agree.
Ever since tragedy struck, Grace Robertson has done everything she can to give her younger brother the life he deserves, ignoring her own passions to focus on her housecleaning business. The two things Grace lets herself indulge in? Fantasising about her handsome employer Jack and playing his beautiful grand piano when she’s finished cleaning his house. When Grace is caught playing the piano, the last thing she expects is for the man of her fantasies to offer her everything she’s ever wanted.
But even as the line between fiction and reality blurs, it seems that the darkness that haunts Jack is inescapable. If only Jack would let in just a little bit of Christmas magic…
‘You know I’d never put you in this position if it wasn’t so important to me.’
Jack Mancini flinched. His hand curled into a fist on his lap, scrunching up the starched linen serviette as he stared across the table at his adoptive father. He always looked forward to their weekly luncheon but Amadeo’s request was tantamount to betrayal.
‘I can’t believe you’d ask this of me.’ Jack sought for a way out—any way of avoiding the steel jaws of the trap Amadeo had sprung. ‘What about our plans for Japan this December?’
‘I’m sorry. I won’t be going to Japan now.’ One finger tapped against the table. ‘Look, Jack, I know it’ll be hard on you—’
‘Hard?’ His head jerked back swiftly. ‘We both know that’s an understatement.’
‘It’s time to—’
‘Won’t it be hard on you?’ Jack fired.
Amadeo met his gaze steadily. ‘I love Vanessa. You must’ve realised that by now.’
Love? Even though he knew Amadeo had been seeing Vanessa Clarke frequently, he hadn’t expected this. Hadn’t both he and his father agreed love was an emotion that only led to hurt?
‘I want to spend Christmas with Vanessa. I want a new beginning and I want you to have one too.’
Looking away from the challenging glint in his father’s eyes, Jack tried to stop the roiling of his gut. He’d never successfully banished the fresh assault of pain as each December approached.
‘We both need to let go of the past.’ The intensity of Amadeo’s regard didn’t diminish. ‘Being with Vanessa’s made me realise I haven’t done myself or you any favours by avoiding Christmas celebrations and—’
‘Stop.’ The word emerged more forcefully than he’d intended.
‘No, son. I’m not going to stop. I’ve been wrong to allow our sorrows to dictate the way we spend Christmas. I shouldn’t have run away from the festivities and I shouldn’t have let you either.’
There were no words strong enough to cut through the knots of torturous memories roping their way around Jack’s neck and threatening to choke him.
Each December they’d travelled to Nepal, India, China—even Antarctica for God’s sake! They’d gone anywhere in the world they could think of where they wouldn’t be confronted by streets filled with Christmas decorations and the strains of cheerful carols. Christmas was too painful a reminder of loved ones they’d lost.
Jack had been happy he’d found a kindred spirit.
Hell! The only reason he’d broken into Amadeo’s home that December long past was because it’d been the only one in the neighbourhood that hadn’t been decked out with wreaths and lights.
He swallowed past the thickening of his throat and stared at his half-eaten linguini while his father continued.
‘I didn’t believe I’d ever find a woman I could love like I’d loved Katherine. Vanessa’s proved me wrong.’
Jack liked Vanessa, but how could Amadeo be prepared to risk exposing his heart again to the possibility of agonising loss?
‘I have every intention of becoming part of Vanessa’s family and I want you to be part of her family too.’
You’re the only family I want. The words were forming on his lips and he held himself back. The only thing Amadeo had ever asked of him before today, was that he return to school and apply himself—and that hadn’t been an unreasonable request considering he still should have been at school.
‘They’re all keen for you to be part of the family Christmas celebrations,’ Amadeo coaxed.
Oh, he just bet they were—especially Vanessa’s youngest daughter. ‘Imogene will be there,’ he said tightly.
‘She’s a predator.’
‘That’s far too harsh, Jack. You took her to bed. Despite your reputation for brief affairs, she hoped for more. I’m sure she’s got the message by now.’
She hadn’t. ‘The blasted woman was as good as stalking me two months ago—turning up at every damned event she could inveigle an invitation to. I think I spotted her sitting in a car parked across the street a few weeks ago as well but by the time I walked out to confront her, she’d driven off.’
‘I’m sure you’re wrong, but I’ll mention your concerns to Vanessa.’
It was Amadeo who was wrong. Vanessa was a level-headed woman and her other two daughters seemed normal enough, but Imogene was a huntress who’d made Jack her prey. Far from accepting the terms he’d set out—a single no-strings night in bed—she was determined to make a trophy of him. Her behaviour since that night had convinced him she was unhinged and he couldn’t understand why nobody else could see it.
‘Please come,’ his father entreated.
Jack steeled himself to make the right decision for Amadeo.
There was no choice.
Jack owed everything he was to the man he sat opposite. Amadeo had put his faith in a street kid who’d snuck into his basement and stolen from his fridge in order to survive one of the coldest winters on record. He’d worked to get to know Jack and had instilled a sense of self-belief in him when every foster parent and teacher had written him off as a lost cause.
Even if complying with this one request from Amadeo invoked all sorts of demons from Jack’s past—and he had to spend time with Imogene—it was the least he could do for his father.
‘I’ll be there, but only for the Christmas dinner. Don’t ask me to stay for the whole day.’ A couple of hours would be excruciating enough.
Hell! Staying in London in December would be sheer torture.
Amadeo cleared his throat and his eyes were suspiciously moist. ‘Thanks, son.’
Jack gave a terse nod and refused to be moved by his father’s emotion. He couldn’t pretend to be happy about Amadeo’s request.
‘I’m planning to propose to Vanessa tomorrow.’
What? The bombshell detonated every cell in Jack’s body. ‘But, you always said—’
‘I was a fool.’ The words were decisive. ‘I’d sworn off romance because I never again wanted to experience the pain of losing someone I loved. Katherine wouldn’t have wanted me to live that way.’ Amadeo’s tongue clicked against his palate in self-directed anger. ‘I stymied my own happiness, and I’ve been an abysmal role model for you in matters of love.’
‘Never. Don’t ever say—’
‘I will say it because it’s true.’ He slapped the palm of his hand against the table. ‘This Christmas I want us both to celebrate.’
How could Jack celebrate? The wounds he carried from the season opened anew each time he saw a decorated tree and every time some well-meaning person wished him ‘Merry Christmas’.
‘Jack, it’s only since I’ve met Vanessa that I realise you’ve closed yourself off to love the same way I did.’
‘Love isn’t for me.’ Jack focused on his wine glass.
It’d been unbelievable to observe the speed at which the older man had fallen for Vanessa, and although Jack was pleased Amadeo seemed to be happy, he couldn’t help but worry how his father would cope when something happened to cut his happiness away from underneath him.
The wealth of regret echoing from that single word made Jack look back at his father. Amadeo’s expression of remorse weighed Jack down.
‘Love is for you,’ Amadeo said earnestly. ‘I hope you can put your differences with Imogene behind you and open yourself up to the welcome that’ll be extended by Vanessa’s family. I hope you won’t despise me for having kept the love of family from you for all these years.’
Angry indignation rose in Jack’s veins. ‘You haven’t kept anything from me. Thanks to you I’ve made something of myself, just like you always told me I could.’
‘And I’m exceptionally proud of you.’ A sad smile spread across Amadeo’s face. ‘But, does being one of the youngest billionaires in Britain truly make you happy?’
‘My wealth helps me to help others.’ It also gave him the security that’d been so lacking in his early childhood.
‘In all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never formed a close relationship with anyone except me.’
‘Don’t.’ Don’t go there.
This was too deep. Too uncomfortable. Despite their closeness, Amadeo was crossing into forbidden territory—coming dangerously close to ripping scabs off a trauma Jack had never discussed.
‘I know you had a shocking childhood, Jack, but you’re not that child anymore. Stop pushing people away and start giving them a chance to get close. We all need friends.’
‘I don’t need friends, Amadeo.’ He’d failed one friend with almost disastrous consequences and he’d never have another. He couldn’t live with himself if he failed again.
His father picked up his wine glass then set it down without drinking. His expression became pensive. ‘You never voiced any disappointment when you weren’t selected for a second time on the national rugby team, but I know it cut you.’ His lips twisted in indecision before he ventured, ‘There was a reason the selectors left you out.’
An unseen hand clawed into Jack’s chest and fisted around his heart. It’d been a blow at the time but he’d moved beyond it. ‘I know I had the talent,’ he said, without false modesty. He’d been the fastest, fittest member of the team and no other player had made more tackles in a series.
‘When you wore the number six jersey, you were the best blind-side flanker this country has ever seen. The only reason you weren’t reselected was because you were a team player on the field, but off the field you never got close to the other lads. You never partied with them. The selectors felt it was in the best interests of team cohesion to choose someone else.’
Jack had always suspected that was the reason.
‘You get on well with people but you don’t let people get close to you.’
There was a damned good reason for that, but not one he was prepared to share. In an automatic, defensive reaction he told his father, ‘I have relationships with women.’
He’d known many women, yet as he tried to remember the last woman he’d slept with, he couldn’t picture her face let alone recall her name.
‘Relationships? Christ, Jack, you don’t have relationships. One night spent in bed with a woman does not constitute a relationship!’ His father leaned forward. ‘I’d love to see you form a serious relationship, but if you’re not ready, at least try to make some close friends.’
‘Back off, Amadeo.’
But the warning was too late. The box of memories normally kept shoved at the back of Jack’s brain was pushed to the front. The key turned. The lid sprung open.
Jack’s jaw clenched. He’d failed Lizzie.
Lizzie had been more than his friend. She’d been the most important person in his life. Lizzie’s features now swam in his vision. Her laughter rang in his ears before it morphed into her screams … A tight constriction spread through his chest as if he was drowning and needed to gasp for air. Trying to pull himself together, he focused his attention on the intricate pattern of the silver serviette ring which lay on the table next to his plate.
The uncomfortable silence hanging in the air was only broken by a faint chinking sound when the base of Amadeo’s wine glass knocked briefly against the edge of his plate. Jack saw his father raise the glass to his lips, sip the cabernet merlot and then set it back down.
With an obvious air of resignation and a twist of his lips, Amadeo changed the topic. ‘How’s your latest business acquisition going?’
Although he no longer had any appetite, Jack forced himself to pick up his fork and stab at some of the linguini. ‘There are always a few bumps with any company takeover, but they’ll iron out easily enough.’
‘The business columnists say you’ve saved hundreds of jobs.’
‘They’re right.’ More often than not, the media printed anything for a headline, and Jack was frequently in the spotlight. It was aggravating but unavoidable.
These days the attention was due to his corporate success or being linked with beautiful and sometimes famous women. When he’d taken to the rugby field, he’d first attracted media attention because he was Amadeo Mancini’s adoptive son and later due to his skill. But few people realised Jack had made national headlines at the tender age of four—well before his adoption by Britain’s rugby coach.
Nobody apart from those involved in the adoption process had any idea that Jack Mancini had been Jack St. Michaels, the pre-schooler a nation had wept for one Christmas twenty-six years ago.
Amadeo knew how those tragic events had shaped Jack into a man who had an intense dislike of Christmas. But even Amadeo didn’t realise there’d been another, even more harrowing, event that had scarred Jack at eleven years of age. He didn’t know about Lizzie.
The Christmas nightmare he’d lived through then was Jack’s alone and he’d never talk about it with anyone.
Jack Mancini turned the corner into Oxford Street and cannoned straight into someone.
Jack couldn’t see properly. A long strand of sparkling tinsel flew straight up at his face and his hand shot out in a reflexive action to swipe it away. Simultaneously, there was a tug at his shirt as the person he’d rammed into grabbed at the fabric to try to steady themselves.
Jack cursed as buttons ripped off making his shirt gape open.
Looking down, he saw he’d barrelled straight into a guy who’d been carrying a box of damned Christmas decorations. It was only late October but of course this guy and other workmen were already starting to put up the Christmas finery so London’s most famous street could be lit up from the first week in November.
Bloody hell! It seemed Christmas was intent on confronting him at every turn today.
The man lay sprawled on the pavement and a seemingly endless number of large gold and silver balls bounced then rolled into the gutters—along with several of Jack’s buttons.
Pedestrians uttered loud profanities as they dodged the balls, but none of them stopped to help.
That’s Christmas spirit for you! Jack thought with disgust.
‘I’m sorry.’ He extended a hand to help the man up.
‘I’m okay.’ The bearded guy got to his feet and brushed down his trousers—his green trousers.
‘I should’ve been more aware of where I was going.’
‘No harm done. I think you’ve come off worse than I have.’ The man pointed to Jack’s shirt. ‘My apologies.’
The problem of his damaged shirt was temporarily forgotten as Jack looked more closely at the chap. The guy’s beanie was askew and Jack blinked.
No! Seriously? The guy’s ears looked pointed.
Jack shook his head as his victim pulled the beanie back down securely over his ears.
Surely he was mistaken? The guy had to be in some sort of fancy dress costume.
‘Would you mind helping me gather up the Christmas balls?’ the man asked.
Christmas hit a solid blow to Jack’s gut.
The sight of shining giant baubles and thick rolls of gold and silver tinsel made him break out in a cold sweat but, as it was his fault the decorations littered this part of Oxford Street, the least he could do was help pick them up.
Stooping down to collect them, Jack shoved them back into the box quickly. Looking at them was bad enough. Having to touch them was even worse. Jack struggled to control all outward signs of his aversion to this supposedly festive season.
‘Hope you’re not going anywhere important.’ The man pointed again to the damaged shirt.
‘Back to the office.’
‘You might have to go home and change first.’
Jack could easily walk into a shop and buy another shirt, but for some reason the thought of diverting home appealed. Perhaps he needed some time alone to get his head around Amadeo’s news. ‘I will.’
‘Oh well—’ the guy shrugged, ‘—these things happen for a reason, you know.’
What a load of rubbish! There was no reason for this to have happened except that Jack’s mind had been on his lunch time discussion and he’d rounded the corner too quickly.
Anyway, Jack didn’t believe in fate. He was master of his own destiny.
As soon as the decorations were back in the box, the man he’d knocked over gave him a broad smile and a wink. ‘Thanks for your help. May the magic of Christmas find you this year.’
The magic of Christmas!
Huh! Jack only just refrained from scoffing a ‘Bah Humbug’ at the guy.
Christmas be damned.