(The Cotswold cottage in The Holiday)
I read a post on Mary Balogh's website about Christmas stories and romance (http://www.marybalogh.com/the-magic-of-christmas-stories/) not long ago in which she states: "Christmas is a character in my stories - a central benevolent force for love and joy" and what better time to "hear what at its heart it is saying about the meaning of it all - that love is always there and love is all that matters." That's exactly how the Christmas setting works in Sarah Morgan's One Enchanted Moment (Christmas Ever After). It's as much an integral part of this romance as Alec "Shipwreck" Hunter, Skylar Tempest, Alec's loving, funny, and warm family in Honeysuckle Cottage in the Cotswolds, Skylar's driven and emotionless family back in New York, and the community of friends gathered on Puffin Island, Maine, to celebrate the Christmas season.
Skylar is en route to an exhibition of her artwork in a pricey Knightsbridge art gallery, signs of the holiday season all around her, and the opening scene as she walks out of the hotel with the snow falling around her, the 'midnight blue sky', 'frosted white streets', 'elaborately decorated windows' shining with 'fairy lights', shoppers to-ing and fro-ing hurriedly, bundled up in wool against the cold, her glittery silver dress and white coat really was reminiscent of a miniature Christmas scene in a snow globe, a bit whimsical, a bit fantastical, a frozen snapshot of life just before it all changes. And just like a charming little snow globe, Skylar's world is about to be shaken up too.
It begins with a rather terse, cold phone call from her mother (who eschews coming to Skylar's exhibition in favor of planning the final details of yet another 'intimate' Tempest family Christmas event - only forty for Christmas lunch, more formal eighty of the world's movers and shakers for Christmas dinner), yet another reproach for wasting her life on a her little 'hobby' (Skylar's passion to create art that comes to life as jewelry, ceramics, paintings), a very public flamboyant proposal of marriage by Skylar's 'rat boyfriend', newly elected Senator Richard Everson, and her subsequent refusal of his proposal.
Skylar has two goals in life: to pursue her art and to find love, not particularly marriage but love, a love entirely opposite of her parents' sterile corporate merger marriage:
“Your parents have been married thirty-five years and never share a cross word.”
And never a loving one, either. Never, not once, had she seen her parents show affection.
They didn’t hold hands.
They didn’t kiss.
There were no lingering glances, no suggestion of a bond of togetherness.
She wanted so much more. (3037)
She had hoped maybe, just maybe, to have found that with Richard, only to discover that their affinity, the shared hopes and dreams were a figment of her imagination, insubstantial wisps of a dream, learning he'd been scripted and coached by her parents to fit her ideal man. Since she had failed miserably to meet their lofty career ambitions in a family of lawyers, then she could at least meet their 'relationship ambitions' by marrying someone exactly like them. Richard's attempts to diminish and dismiss Sky leaves her feeling betrayed, very hurt, and very foolish:
"This hobby of yours is fine, but you are wasting your life. You paint pictures and make jewelry and that wouldn’t matter except that you’re smart and there are so many other more useful things you could be doing. Things that would make me proud.”
She felt dizzy. “You’re not proud of me?”
“You’re not exactly saving the planet, Sky. Even you can’t pretend that what you do is important.” (3051)
It's an epiphany for her, the scales falling from her eyes. She sees Richard the rat's true colors.
She felt as if she had emerged from a deep sleep.
“The last necklace I made was taken from a broach left to a client by her grandmother. It had been sitting in a drawer for a decade and she wanted it made into something contemporary that she could wear. Something relevant to her life that would remind her of someone she’d loved very much. It was important to her. Emotions are important.” But she knew he wouldn’t understand that.
To him, money, power and influence were the important things. He was like her parents. (3063)
Worse, her refusal of his proposal brings out a dangerous volatility in Richard she'd recognized in the past year but had managed to defuse. Not this time.
“Richard, you need to get control of yourself.” Her voice was sharp. “Take some breaths.”
“You are a spoiled bitch.”
She flinched as if he’d hit her and then realized in a moment of suspended disbelief that he actually was going to hit her.
His hand came up and instinctively she sidestepped to evade the blow. Her heel caught on the edge of a box and she fell heavily, smacking her head on the corner of the table.
Pain exploded in her skull. Her vision went dark and there was a distant humming in her head.
Something warm and wet trickled down her face and she opened her eyes dizzily, trying to see through the pain.
He stood over her, hands raised to ward off the accusation he was clearly afraid she might make. “I didn’t touch you.” There was a hint of panic in his voice. “I didn’t touch you.”
He made no move to help her.
Showed no concern for her well-being, only his own.
“You wanted two words? I’ve got two perfect words for you. Fuck off.” She lifted her fingers to her head and they came away sticky. “Go. Now.” (3135-3148)
Unbelievably, he tells her maybe the blow to her head will help her come to her senses and leaves her bleeding and lying on the floor, without knowing or caring whether she'll be all right, worried only about any bad publicity or embarrassing scenes she might make.
The last person in the world Sky expects come to her rescue is grumpy, moody, aloof, cynical Alec "Shipwreck" Hunter, a friend and colleague of Brittany Flynn (Some Kind Of Wonderful), maritime historian, author, star of TV documentaries, part-time resident of Puffin Island, Maine, and co-chair of their mutual antipathy club. Alec reminded me of Josh Bernstein from The History Channel's Digging For The Truth.
Of all the people who disapproved of her, her parents and Richard included, Alec Hunter led them all. He made no secret of the fact he thought she was shallow and frivolous.
It was the cruelest irony that he’d been the one to be by her side at her lowest moment. (3301)
Alec, drafted by Brittany and Emily (First Time In Forever), to drop by Sky's exhibition because they couldn't be there, has two simple goals after the failure of his first marriage: never to hurt anyone ever again and to keep all his relationships superficial. High maintenance women like his ex-wife are to be avoided at all costs.
Another legacy of his marriage was his aversion to overpolished, high-maintenance women. His relationship with Selina had been six months of sex, followed by an elaborate wedding and two years of bitter arguments that had culminated in an acrimonious divorce.
At her insistence he’d attended two sessions of marriage guidance counseling, ostensibly to “learn about himself.” What he’d learned was that he didn’t like his wife any more than she liked him.
He’d also learned that he was better off alone.
He was too selfish to make a commitment to a woman.
He liked his life too much to sacrifice it for a relationship. (3173)
As for Skye, well. Alec has lumped her in the same category as his ex-wife. They tolerate each other for the sake of group friendship with Brittany, Zach, Emily, and Ryan, but in word and deed, he considers her a brainless, vain "waste of space", a spoiled and privileged '"princess."
The opening salvo between Alec and Sky, when he discovers her alone, nearly unconscious and bleeding in the little storeroom she and Richard had retreated to after his proposal, perfectly demonstrates their mutual enmity and dislike.
“Sky? Open your eyes.” He tried to scoop her up and then dodged as she swung her fist toward his face.
“Touch me and I swear the next thing you feel will be my stiletto in your balls.”
“You might want to work on that pickup line, princess.” (3210)
I admit it. I laughed out loud at this exchange, and I loved Sky's sharp wit in the face of adversity and her refusal to be cowed, even at her lowest point. Their verbal jousting was some of the best banter I've read in a while.
"Why are you helping me? You hate me. Hence the reason you call me princess.”
“I seem to remember that last time we met you called me an asshole, so you’re not exactly complimentary.”
“Asshat, not asshole.”
“I think the exact phrase you used was ‘Professor Asshat.’” He rose to his feet. “Don’t move. I’m going to get a taxi by the back entrance. I’ll make sure no one sees you. (3251)
But, it's also the beginning of a lowering of guards and barriers between these two, a chance to see each other clearly without preconceptions and prejudice. Actions speak louder than words, and Alec's tenderness, genuine caring, and worry for Sky's well-being as well as her eventual acceptance after her initial surprise and shock of being offered succor at the hand of her enemy say more about their character than any verbal swords they cross. That snow globe? Yeah. Consider it shaken and stirred.
From a festive London snow globe city scene to the next setting of Christmas card perfection in Alec's family home, a charming Cotswolds cottage known as Honeysuckle Cottage in Brockburn-on-the-Water, Alec and Sky surprise each other even more.
She stirred and turned her head, absorbing her surroundings.
Tiny lights glowed in shop windows, illuminating honey-colored stone. Glossy green wreaths studded with plump red berries decorated the doors and a large Christmas tree dominated the village square. (3739)
Honeysuckle Cottage stood as it had for several centuries, its stone walls glowing a soft gold in the sunshine. A large evergreen wreath studded with berries hung in the center of the door and two large bay trees placed on either side of the stone steps sparkled with tiny lights.
“This is your home?” Sky stared at the house. “It’s the most idyllic cottage I’ve ever seen, apart from Brittany’s. It reminds me of the house in that movie The Holiday.” (3764)
Christmas with the Hunters at Honeysuckle Cottage is nothing like any Christmas Skylar has experienced - warm, cozy, untidy, loud, funny, impromptu, surrounded by family, not catered, no seating arrangements, thank you very much. A feast is prepared and shared, family stories are bandied around the table, relatives hug and kiss and slap on the back, past Christmases are remembered. Gifts are thoughtful and meaningful or outrageously funny, and ugly Christmas sweaters are worn even if it's wrong-side-out.
Sky's family Christmases are events, lunch and dinner with 120 people you don't know or care about, perfectly wrapped boxes without gifts inside, displayed only for effect. There are seating charts, files of information to be memorized on each guest - guest list A (movers and shakers) and guest list B (those deemed not as useful/important) - no family photographs, no snowball fights, all very formal, "scripted and planned."
“Family Christmas” sounded cozy and warm, like something from a fairy tale. It conjured up images of prettily wrapped gifts stacked beneath a tall tree festooned with twinkling lights and homemade decorations, while excited children fizzed with anticipation.
Christmas at her parents’ house felt more like an endurance test than a fairy tale, more corporate than cozy. The “tree” would be an artistic display of bare twigs sprayed silver and studded with tiny lights, part of a larger display planned and executed every year by her mother’s interior decorator. Stark, remote and not to be touched at any cost. The “gifts,” artfully stacked on various surfaces for effect, would be empty boxes.
Any child hoping to find something magical under her family tree would be disappointed.
Those gifts summed up her family, she thought. Everything had to be shiny and perfectly wrapped.
Appearances mattered. (2783)
At Honeysuckle Cottage, Alec is constantly surprised and off balance by this Skylar Tempest, a woman he had no idea existed. Far from the glitzy, 'fairy princess' Skylar, she is warm and friendly with his parents, patient with his effervescent sixteen-year old sister, revels with the dogs, ignores the fur and wet snow Churchill and Nelson smear all over her white coat, and jokes with Uncle Harry who wears 'flashing reindeer antlers' on his head. She doesn't complain that the food is full of carbohydrates, or of being too cold or being bored by 'the rustic country life.' In fact, she romps with the dogs, is a fearsome snowball fighter, and lets Nelson sleep on the bed with her. One by one, his misconceptions about Skylar are knocked down. In a cottage of the Cotswolds, Alec and Sky becomes friends first and lovers afterward.
It's at Puffin Island, at Alec's private retreat and among friends - Brittany, Emily, Zach, and Ryan - that their relationship continues to evolve and change. For someone like Sky who has become used to apologizing for not fitting in with her family, for being dreamy, for being artistic instead of practical and driven, for forgetting to turn her phone on because she's caught in a creative frenzy, for the million and one ways she is Skylar Tempest, being with Alec who is patient, kind, and accepting of who she is is a revelatory experience. After a particularly nasty phone call from her father, "The Judge", (because she always feels as if she's on trial, and he never rules in her favor), Alec tells her to just ignore her phone, but she can't.
“But that puts him in control.”
“He is in control.”
“Of your life?” He walked back toward her and she shook her head.
“Not the decisions I make, but he controls the approval ratings and the mood of the household. I’ll be blamed if we have an ice storm at Christmas.”
“I assume you’re not talking about the weather.”
She gave a humorless laugh. “When we were young, my brothers and I used to issue weather warnings to each other as shorthand for his mood. ‘Stormy today’ or ‘cloudy with a chance of sunshine.’ Although there wasn’t much sunshine. My father is a very serious man. (4629)
With Alec, Sky finally finds someone who likes her the way she is.
She never had to apologize with Alec.
She’d stopped asking him if her hair drove him crazy.
She’d stopped excusing herself for the fact her work was spread all over his garden room.
She never paused before pulling her camera out of her pocket. (7026)
One night of 'silent sex' in a Cotswold cottage extends into a few weeks of no strings sex on Puffin Island, entirely "physically based. Fun. No emotional ties. Angst-free", "the diet version of a relationship. Relationship-lite. Nonfat." Alec's first marriage left him with scars of inadequacy, a conviction that he was selfish and unable to make anyone happy in a committed relationship. Until Skylar came along and made him feel "as essential as sunshine" and then no strings progressed to "fun and sex and friendship."
And over that time he’d learned a great deal about her. He’d learned that although she was beautiful, she wasn’t at all focused on her appearance. That she was equally happy in an oversize down jacket as she’d been in that incredible silver dress the night of her exhibition. That she was exceptionally creative, but lacked the basic insecurity that plagued so many creative types.
He knew she was happy in a crowd, but equally happy on her own and, like him, she could easily lose track of time when she was working on a project. Usually when he was with someone, he needed his own space, but with Sky he’d never once felt trapped.
She talked, sometimes with no filter, but she was also a good listener.
He’d shared with her, he realized, more than he’d ever shared with a woman.
He knew she was happy in a crowd, but equally happy on her own and, like him, she could easily lose track of time when she was working on a project. Usually when he was with someone, he needed his own space, but with Sky he’d never once felt trapped. (6763)
If London is the Christmas snow globe and Honeysuckle Cottage is the holiday card, then Christmas on Puffin Island is Christmas morning - all the warmth, the love, the support, the friendship, the wonder, the magic, the hope, the peace, the renewal, the promise.
“I used to think that being in a committed relationship meant sacrifice. That it forced you to make difficult choices. Then I spent time with you and realized that it’s not about choosing one life over another. It’s about sharing that life with someone you love. You were the one who showed me that was possible. I want that someone to be you.” (7543)
“When I was with you, I was me. Because I wasn’t trying to impress you, I didn’t feel the need to be anyone other than who I am. I didn’t care if you judged me, and it turned out that you didn’t. You taught me to accept who I am. You taught me that having a passion and wanting to pursue it is valid. You were never impatient about what I did. You made me so happy.” (7543)
I loved One Enchanted Moment. I loved the way Sarah Morgan pokes at fairy tale and fantasy in Alec's misconceptions about Sky. I loved the themes of enduring friendship, of love as a liberating force in all its incarnations - between friends, partners, parents and children - of the importance of acceptance of ourselves. I especially loved the symbolism of the unbroken circle Brittany alludes to: constant, infinite, eternal, and expanding to include more than the original three.