Authors: Caroline Anderson
âThere's an icepack in my freezer if you think he needs it,' she told James, and he went and investigated and came back with it a moment later, wrapped in a tea-towel, and laid it over Rory's knee.
âI think it's fine,' he said, peering at it as he covered it, âbut it won't hurt to be careful. And as for you, young lady, I think you've had enough biscuits.'
âI think we all have, probably,' Kate said with a laugh, and offloading his daughter onto his lap, she put them back in the kitchen and came back, removing the towel as she did so and shaking out her hair. It tumbled over her shoulders like wet rope, and she sighed. âI'll never get a comb through it,' she said, and looked up to find him watching her oddly.
Very oddly, as if he, too, was having X-rated thoughts, and the breath jammed in her throat.
Oh, help. If this wasn't one-sided, if they were going to become crazily aware of each other all the time, it was going to make working with him a nightmare.
She looked away hastily, scooped up their cups and turned off the television. âSorry, guys, I have to get dressed and sort my hair out. You'll have to go home.'
âWhatâproperly home?' Rory said, looking aghast, and James, catching his expression, looked gutted.
âNext door, silly,' she said with a grin. âGo on. Off you go. I won't be long.'
âThen can we come back?'
âRory,' James said firmly, steering him towards the door with a hand on his shoulder and propelling him through it. âThanks for the tea and biscuits.'
âMy pleasure,' she said, blowing a kiss to Freya, and he shut the door and left her in peace.
Except it didn't feel like peace, it felt curiously empty and lonelyâ¦
James heard the door open and saw Kate come out of her house. Opening his door, he hailed her.
âKate! I need to speak to your parents.'
âWhy?' she asked, turned back and coming towards him. âIs there a problem?'
âNo, not at all. I just need to sort out something about rent.'
âJames, they won't take anything.'
âThen we'll move out.' He was adamant about it. âThey must have a tariffâsome kind of letting fee.'
âNo, they don't,' she said a little too quickly. âIt's only used for the family. We call it a holiday cottage, but it's really just a guest annexe. And you're my guest, so that's fine.'
Was she lying? Impossible to know, but there were all sorts of overheads. âI need to pay the running costs, at least,' he protested. âI need to speak to them, Kate. Today.'
âWell, come with me, then, I'm going over there now.'
So he rounded up the children from in front of the television and they all trailed across the farmyard and into the lovely old Tudor house that was her family home.
Sue was in the kitchen, up to her elbows in flour. âDan's coming for lunch tomorrow, so I thought I'd get ahead a bit,' she told Kate. âHe's got a new girlfriend.'
âOh. Good. About time. Dan's one of my foster-brothers,' she explained to James. âHe's been a bit of a nightmare, but he's lovely now and things are really starting to work out for him.'
Andrew came in then, and before James could say a word, she greeted him with, âHi, Dad, James has some notion about paying the overheads on the barnâhe seems to have some fixation about rent, but I explained that we don't rent it out. I told him you'd sort out the meter readings and things.'
âOf course. I'll see to it. Don't worry about it, James, it's all very straightforward.'
âCan't I just rent it from you?'
âOh, no. That would cause havoc with the tax man. No, we'll just read the meter. That'll be the easiest thing.'
Her father didn't miss a beat, so if they were lying to him, they were doing it very proficiently, he thought, and gave up arguing. He'd buy them something as a thank-you when they were finally able to go home again. Whenever that might beâ¦
âOn the subject of the barn, Kate said something about the family using it over Christmas. Is that right? Because if it is, we can move back to our house for a while. We can always wash at my mother's, but I don't want to be in the way. It sounds like you'll have quite a crowd.'
âYou won't be in the way, and of course you won't take the children back to that cold place over Christmas and unsettle them even more,' Sue said adamantly. âIn fact, what are you doing for Christmas?' she asked, and he realised he hadn't even considered it.
âNo plans,' he said. âMy mother's spending it with her sister. My aunt was recently widowed and she hasn't been well. That's been arranged for ages. As for me and the kids, well, we haven't really thought about it, have we, kids?'
âI've thought about it,' Rory said, running his finger through the dusting of flour on the kitchen table that Sue was rolling the pastry out in. âI want a big tree, and a stocking, and I'm going to write a letter to Father Christmas. Kate, will you help me write it?'
âWhat about me?' he asked, but Rory shook his head.
âI want Kate to help me,' he said stubbornly.
James couldn't argue any more. It might never happen, but anyway he had better things to worry about, because Freya had seen a dog come in and was trying to wriggle out of his arms.
âDoggy!' she was saying insistently, and he looked down a little uncertainly at the black Labrador sniffing at her toes.
âIs it OK with children?' he asked, and Sue chuckled.
âIf you don't mind them being washed. Mungo's a sweetie. She'll be fine with him.'
She was more than fine. She was in love. She stroked and patted and giggled, and he wagged and slurped until she was washed from end to end, and they ended up curled up together in a heap on an old blanket beside the Aga while she pulled his ears gently.
âChildren need germs,' Andrew said, reading his mind, and James just laughed and let them get on with it. Frankly, to see them both so happy, Rory helping Sue put dollops of mincemeat into the little pies while Freya stroked Mungo's ears and crooned to him, was such a relief after the last year and a half that he didn't care if they caught something dreadful.
It would almost be worth it just for this one morning.
âThere, all done. Now I'm going to put them in the oven and clear up. Kate, if you're not doing anything, why don't you and James and the children take the dogs for a walk down by the river? There might be some ducks.'
âCan we feed them?' Rory asked excitedly, running over to Kate and looking hopefully up into her eyes.
As if she could resist that, even if she'd wanted to. She smiled at him and got up. âSure. Mum, got any bread?'
âIn the breadbinâthere's a bit of corn bread that's past its sell-by date. James, have you got boots?'
âThat's fine,' Kate said. âWe have boots here in every conceivable size from tiny tots up to something huge. What size are your feet?'
âEasy. Come on, then, lazybones, up you get,' she said to him. âFreya? Coming to feed the ducks with Mungo?'
âDoggy coming?' she asked, and Kate nodded. âHe's coming. So's Badger.'
âHave you got a badger?' Rory asked, and she thought if his eyes got any bigger they'd fall out of his head.
âNo. Just a dog called Badger. We've got badgers on the farm, thoughâand foxes and rabbits and squirrels and pheasants andâoh, all sorts.'
âGood grief,' James said faintly. âIt sounds like a wildlife park.'
âIt is a bit. Then there are the farm animals. I'll show you those, if you like, kids. They belong to my uncle. He's got sheep and goats and cows.'
She was wrong about the eyes. They could get bigger without falling out.
âRight, boots. James, try these. Rory, what size are your feet?'
It took a few minutes to sort them all out, then they needed thick coats and scarves and gloves, and then they were ready, the dogs bouncing and wagging their tails at the door. She took them down the lane to the ford so the kids could splash in the river, and they shrieked and giggled and everything was going fine until Freya fell over and got her mittens muddy.
Then James scooped her up, cleaned her off and sat her on his shoulders, and they walked back up round behind the farm to see the animals, and Rory climbed on a gate and scratched a goat's ears and Kate thought she'd never seen such a transformation from the children she'd first met.
âThey seem to be having fun,' she said to James when he put Freya down and let her feed the ducks on the pond.
âThey are. There hasn't been enough of that in the last few months. We had a good time in the summer, but that seems ages ago, and since Rory started school and I've been trying to find a job and a childminder, it's all been a bit more fraught. And as for the boilerâ¦'
He rolled his eyes, and she smiled ruefully. âI had a car like your life once. Every time I started it, something else fell off or went wrong.' She felt her smile fade. âStill, at least I could sell the car.' Unlike his life, or her marriage.
He gave her a wry grin. âHey, it's not all bad. We're getting thereâparticularly, this week, thanks to you. I don't know what we would have done without the barn.'
âYou would have found a way. Tom and Fliss have got a flat. They could have put you up. There are lots of options.'
âI'm more than happy with this one,' he said softly, and she followed his gaze to the children who were standing on the path by the pond, the dogs lined up in front of them sitting at attention, eyes fixed hopefully on their hands while they fed the ducks and the dogs in turn. And then he shifted his gaze to her, those strangely piercing blue eyes staring right down into her soul.
âMore than happy. I owe you, Kate. Big time.'
She tried to smile, but her lips wouldn't really co-operate, and her lungs had forgotten how to work. âI'll bear it in mindâI'm sure there'll come a time when I need a favour.'
âMake sure you ask me.'
It was one of those odd, timeless moments when the world seems to come to a halt. Their eyes locked, and she could feel herself swaying towards him, drawn in by his warmth and sincerity and downright sex appeal, and then suddenly there was a shriek and a splash and the children were laughing, and as if the spell had been broken he stepped back, dragged his eyes away from hers and turned towards them, and the mood was gone.
Thank goodness. The last thing she needed was to get sucked in by him and his children. No matter how much she adored them.
Any of them.
Oh, no, no, no! Stop it!
She called the dogs, and James gathered up the children and the bread bag and they headed back to the house.
âPerfect timing,' her mother said as they went back into a kitchen that smelt comforting and homely. âI've made a big pot of Saturday soup, and the bread's cooling on the rack. Wash your hands, all of you, and come and sit down.'
That was it?
She didn't even bother to ask if they had plans, just laid the table and settled them all down like a mother hen with her chicks under her wings while Andrew carved up the loaf, and James felt the lump in his throat growing ever bigger.
âI don't like soup,' Rory told Kate doubtfully, but she just laughed and leant over, her dark head next to his.
âYou'll like my mother's Saturday soup. It's got bacon and beans and all sorts of stuff. Everybody likes Saturday soup,' she told him confidently, and, sure enough, he did. Not only liked it, he went back for more.
So did James, and even Freya had a respectable helping. Then Sue put an apple pie down in the middle of the table, and a steaming jug of custard, and it just got better.
âSo what are you wearing for the wedding party tonight?' Sue asked Kate as she passed her a bowl, and for a second James thought she was going to drop it. And the look in her eyes wasâ
âOh, damn. I'd forgotten. Is it really tonight?'
âYesâoh, Kate, you can't have forgotten! You bought the present weeks ago.'
âI know. Umâthe red dress, I suppose? It's sort of Christmassy and dressy enough. Fiddle. I'd really forgotten about it.'
Her mother gave her a keen look. âWill you be all right?' she asked softly, and Kate lifted her shoulders a fraction.
âI suppose so. I'll have to be, won't I? I justâ'
âHate going alone?'
Her smile was wry. âAbsolutely.' And then she turned to James and said, âMy brother's brother-in-law is getting married to my ex's sister. And he'll be there.'