Authors: Caroline Anderson
âOh, darling.' She wrapped her arms round him and gave him a hug, and he snuggled into her and stayed there for ages, his face buried in her chest, his little knees pushed up against the sides of her thighs while she rested her cheek against his hair and rubbed his back gently and thought of James crying in the night, and she had to blink the tears away.
She could be his mummy, she thought longingly. She'd love to be his mummy, and Freya's, and live with them and James, and be happy ever afterâ¦
She heard a car pull up, and lifted her head. âThat sounds like your daddy now,' she said, and he sat up away from her and stared at the paper.
âI don't want to write to Father Christmas any more,' he said, getting down and screwing up the letter and throwing it at the bin. âHe's rubbish.'
And without another word, he ran away upstairs and went into his room, banging the door shut.
âHi. I'm sorry I've been so long, but I had to sort out a hire car. Everything all right?'
Kate was sitting at his kitchen table smoothing out a sheet of paper, her eyes anguished, and he felt a sudden flicker of dread.
âWhat? What is it?'
âWe were writing to Father Christmas,' she said, her voice hollow.
He glanced down at the table. âDear Father Christmas, please may I have,' he read in Rory's shaky script, the paper crumpled and torn. He looked up at Kate. âHave what?'
âa mommy for christmas,' she said, and closed her eyes. A tear slid down her cheek, and he sighed sharply and rammed his hands through his hair.
âI can't give him a mummy,' he said desperately, his voice cracking. âThey don't just grow on trees. What does he want me to do, get a mail-order bride?' His voice cracked again, and he slammed his fist down on the worktop. Damn. Damn, damn, damn.
âSo what did you say to him?'
âI told him Father Christmas only does toys, so he said he's rubbish and ran up to bed. James, I'm so sorry. I didn't know what to say to him.' She scrubbed away the tear with her fingertips, but it was joined by another one and he went over to her and rested his hand on her shoulder.
âDon't cry,' he said gruffly. âIt isn't your fault. I'll go and talk to him.' He dragged in a breath. âWhere's Freya?'
Thank God for small mercies, he thought. Leaving Kate there, he ran upstairs and went into Rory's room and found him in a huddle in his bed, Beth's teddy clutched against his chest, sobbing his heart out. âHey, come on, where's my brave boy gone?' he asked softly, gathering him into his arms.
âI just wanted a mummy,' he said, and James felt his heart break all over again.
âI know, but we can't always have what we want, and we've got each other and Freya, and we can be happy, Rory. We can. We don't need Father Christmas for that.'
He wasn't sure if he was saying it to his son or to himself, but if saying it could make it true, he'd say it over and over and over again. He lay down beside Rory and pulled him closer, and he snuggled up tight and gradually his little chest stopped hiccuping with sobs and he drifted into sleep.
James didn't. He lay there, emotionally drained and physically exhausted, and wondered when they'd ever get out of the dark tunnel that seemed to be going on for ever.
A light touch on his shoulder startled him, and he turned his head to find Kate looking down at him, her eyes shadowed.
âAre you OK?' she whispered, and he nodded.
âHe's asleep. I'll come down.'
He got up off the bed, tucked Rory in and followed Kate down to the kitchen. There was a wonderful smell drifting from the hob, and she'd laid the table.
Like a normal family, he thought a trifle hysterically, and had to stop the runaway thought in its tracks.
âIt's only spaghetti sauce that I had in the freezer, and I've got some fresh pasta. I'll cook it now, if you're hungry?'
âStarving,' he confessed. Dropping into a chair, he propped his chin on his hands and sighed. âWhat a mess. The house, the car, and now this. When's it going to end, Kate?'
She poured boiling water into a pan, dropped in the pasta and sat down opposite him, sliding a glass of wine across the table to him. âJames, don't give up. You're getting there. It's just because it's Christmas. It's always hard on families in your situation, but it'll soon be next year, and things will pick up.'
âWill they? I need that job, Kate,' he told her, and he could hear the desperation in his voice, but he was powerless to do anything about it. âI have to work. It's the only thing that keeps me sane and grounded, the only thing I seem to be able to do well.'
âThat's rubbish!' she exclaimed. âYou're a wonderful father, James. I've seen you with your children, and you adore them, and they adore you. You're really close, and yet they're normal, well-balanced children.'
âNot according to my mother,' he said.
âYour mother's struggling, James. She's lost her husband, her sister's lost her husband, you've lost your wifeâshe's going through a bad time, and she's terrified she's going to make it worse by something that she does or doesn't do. She doesn't really think you should give them up, she's just worried for you all and can't see a way out.'
âShe's not alone, but we'll get there, you're right. I just need to sort the kids out with some better arrangement.'
âWhat about asking Helen?' she suggested. âMaybe she could have them to stay?'
He shook his head. âI've tried that. She won't. Her husband doesn't mind her looking after other people's children during the day, but at night he draws the line, and I can understand that. It doesn't help me, but I can understand it. I think the only answer is a nanny, but I can't get one this close to Christmasâeven if I had anywhere to house one. How's the pasta doing?'
âOh!' She leapt up, drained it and sighed with relief. âI think it's OK still. Sorry. Rightâparmesan?'
He needed that job.
If ever a man needed a future to look forward to, that man was James.
He didn't make love to Kate that night, just sat with her on the sofa for an hour and then kissed her goodnight at her door. And she'd thought they'd moved beyond that. He hadn't worn his wedding ring since the night of the wedding party, and she'd foolishly allowed herself to attach some significance to it.
Stupid. Clearly there was no significance to it. Maybe he'd just lost it, but, whatever the reason, he wasn't with her tonight. She guessed he was too raw, and Rory's plea to Father Christmas must have brought thoughts of Beth back to the surface.
Damn. Well, she'd known in her heart he was still grieving for her, she'd known it wasn't for ever, but she still felt ludicrously lonely with the bed to herself. Still, that was her problem. Getting the job was his, and if there was a way she could make it work for him, then she had to try it, for all their sakes.
The following night she went over to see her mother while James was putting the children to bed and talking to his mother. âHow do you fancy a job?' she asked, and her mother laughed.
âI don't. Why?'
âI just need James to have reliable child care, and for that he needs a nanny. You must know someone. I wondered if you wanted to come up with a shortlist of people you'd trust.'
She laughed again. âIt would be a short list.'
âOK. I will. Is this about the new consultant's post?'
Kate nodded. âI can't put him forward for it until he's sorted, but he needs it so desperately. He's sad, and Roryâ' She broke off, and her mother tipped her head on one side.
So she told Sue about the letter, and her mother clicked her tongue sympathetically. âPoor little mite. Of course, you could solve the problem at a stroke.'
âFor what? To be his nanny?'
âNo. To be his wife.'
She sat back abruptly. âHisâMum, you're being ridiculous. He doesn't want another wife. He's still grieving for the first one.'
âIs he? When you came back from the wedding he didn't look to me like a man who was grieving for his wife.'
Damn. Her mother saw too much.
âIt's just physical,' she said, looking down at the table and chasing a few grains of salt around with her fingertip. âI know it's not going anywhere.'
âBut you'd like it to.'
âI don't know,' she lied, because she couldn't bear to admit out loud just how much she loved them all, how much he'd fallen for a man and a family wrapped in grief, and how much her heart was breaking every dayâ¦
âI spoke to Tracy's boyfriend yesterday,' James said as they paused in a break in their clinic the following morning. âHe said he really missed her, but he just felt sick whenever he thought about it. I suggested he go along with her to see her counsellor, because he's part of her problem, really. If stress is triggering it, and breaking up with him is stressing her, it won't help her at all.'
âHe's going to talk to her. They're only very young, but they seem to care about each other quite genuinely. We'll have to wait and see. I've done what I can, and at least he's prepared to talk to her now.'
Kate smiled at him, her eyes warm, like caramel. Not toffee. Not any more. The sharp shards seemed to be gone, and the warmth gave him hope. âWell done,' she said, and he felt a glow inside.
Crazy. She wasn't interested. She'd gone over to her parents' last night, and after his mother had gone he'd hoped she'd come through to see him, but she hadn't, and he'd ended up going to bed and reading and wishing he was with her.
Of course he could have tapped on the door himself, but since she'd told him on Monday that she couldn't recommend him for the job without reservation because of his child-care issues, she hadn't been near him. Well, not in that way.
And he missed her. Stupid.
And stupid, of course, for having suggested to her that she might not want to have such a close relationship with him. If he hadn't done that, then she might have come in last night, but maybe not. It put her in a difficult position, after all, if the hospital board was going to be asking her what she thought of him and they were involved to that extent in their personal lives.
Was that really the word for the most amazing, astonishing, mind-blowing sexâno, scratch that, relationshipâhe'd ever had in his life? Hell. He'd loved Beth to bits, but they'd never had what he had with Kate. He'd never felt that he'd die if he couldn't hold her, that the day was colourless if he couldn't be with her, that the nights were endlessâ¦
âHow did you get on with your mother?' she asked, bringing him slamming back down to earth, and he scrubbed a hand through his hair and shrugged.
âOK. We had a long talk, and she's not really happy.'
âBut she will do the weekend?'
He nodded. âYes, she'll do the weekend. She did mention your parents as back-upâwill they be there?'
âYes, of course, and they won't mind at all. And if it all goes haywire, I'm sure Mum will step in.'
He felt a wave of relief, but it was short-lived. She couldn't support him for the consultancy if her family was having to pick up the pieces, andâ
âHey, cheer up, it might never happen,' she said, grinning at him. âWhat are you doing this evening?'
He stared at her. âThis evening? I have no idea.'
âDone your Christmas shopping?'
He must have looked blank, because she laughed and rolled her eyes. âMen. It's Thursdayâlate-night shopping, the last before Christmas Day, which is next Thursday, a week today, in case you've managed to miss that. Want to go to town?'
âWhat about the children?'
âBring them. They'll love it. We've only got a clinic, we can be away by five-thirty if we're lucky. You can buy them supper in town, and they can go on the roundabout and see the carol singers and the Christmas lights. Go on, it'll be fun!'
A week today.
âOK,' he said, a little dumbfounded, but for the rest of the day it was all he could think of.
children came alive.
She'd never seen them like that, and it was wonderful. Rory was so excited he could hardly speak, and little Freya in her buggy had eyes like saucers.
âWhat's that music?' Rory asked, his head cocked on one side, and James lifted him up and pointed down the street.
âThe Salvation Army band and choir. They're playing Christmas carols.'
âMe see!' Freya shrieked, and he lifted her up, too, so she could see them.
âWhy don't we get closer?' Kate suggested, and they threaded their way through the crowd, James holding Rory by the hand and Kate pushing the buggy, and it suddenly occurred to her that to an outsider they'd look just like any other family.
James lifted Freya up onto her shoulders, then hoisted Rory up onto his, and they watched the Salvation Army until Freya became restless. âShall we go and do some shopping, then?' James suggested, and as they turned away, he dropped some money in the collecting tin.
âI want to give them some,' Rory said, struggling to get down, so James gave him a few coins, and then Freya wanted to do it, and by the time they got away his pockets were all but empty.
âSo much for my car-park money,' he said drily, but Kate had a purse full of change so it wasn't an issue.
âHow about the roundabout?' she suggested, and Rory tipped his head and looked up at her.
âIs it like the one at the park?' he asked.
âSort of, I expectâthere's one here with music and lights and things, like a fairground ride.'
âWow! What's a fairground?' he asked.
âWhy don't we have a look?' James suggested, so they did.
Rory's eyes boggled. âWow! I want to go on it.'
âMe go!' Freya yelled, struggling to get out of the buggy, and then cried when the man said she wasn't big enough.
âSorry, darlin',' he said kindly. âWhy doesn't your mum put you on that one?'
Oh, Lord. Trying hard to remember how to breathe, she gave James a shrug, and led Freya across the cobbles to the other ride. It was a tiny roundabout, with little carriages set in a circle, pushed by an elderly woman with a big warm smile, and she tucked Freya in, fastened her straps and pushed her gently round while she shrieked and giggled with delight.
And Kate stood and smiled at her and wondered what it would be like to have the right to be called her motherâ¦
Hell. She'd looked horrified, and then she'd shrugged dismissively and walked away, leaving him with a great lump in his throat and a huge
that wouldn't go away.
But was that what he really wanted? Kate, as the children's new mother?
Rory's mummy for Christmas?
Ludicrous. She wouldn't have him, so there was no point suggesting it. She'd made her feelings on the subject quite clear when he'd suggested jokingly that she should be their nanny.
In your dreams
, she'd said with a wealth of feeling, and although he knew she was fond of the kids, there was no way she was going to be interested in taking them on. Even she wasn't that soft.
The ride came to an end, and he held out his hand to a thoroughly over-excited Rory, bubbling like champagne, and went to find the woman who was beginning to haunt not only his dreams but every waking hour as well.
âAgain!' Freya demanded, but James shook his head and lifted her out, and they headed up to the shops.
âDo you have a list?' Kate asked him, ever practical, and of course he didn't.
âI need something for my mother,' he said, utterly at a loss because out of the blue now he felt he didn't know her at all.
âGet her something pretty,' Kate suggested. âShe's having a hard time. Spoil her a bit. How about a pamper day?'
âA pamper day?'
Kate laughed. âYou don't have to say it as if it's toxic!' she said, and he chuckled wryly.
âSorry. I would just never have thought of giving my mother that sort of thing.'
âMaybe because you've never really thought of her as a woman, just as your mother,' she said.
Was that true? He realised that it probably was. And while he was on the subject of his mother, he also realised that he probably hadn't given her a choice about helping him, and he'd been so tied up in his own grief and misery he'd utterly failed to notice hers. She'd lost his father only four years before Beth had died, and he'd been so tied up with his new job and his new wife and his new house that he hadn't really been there for her.
And then she'd had to support him through his own grief, and now her sister was widowed and ill, and he was expecting her to drop everything and deal with a stroppy toddler and an active little boy so he could carry on with his life.
So what kind of a son did that make him?
Selfish and unthinking, he decided, and it didn't taste good.
He bought her a pamper day, as Kate had suggested, and some smellies, and then she took the children off so he could find them a few presents. He also wanted to get something for Kate, and then he saw a pretty little jumper very like her favourite. His favourite, too, and she'd said only the other day that it had a hole in it. This one might be just the thing to replace it.
He didn't even look at the price. He owed her so much that the price was irrelevant and, anyway, he found he was enjoying it. It was such a long time since shopping had been more than a chore, and he was getting into his stride. He found another jumper which he thought would suit his motherâKate had said get her something pretty, so he did, and he picked up all sorts of little bits and pieces for the childrenâstockings to hang under the tree, and all manner of things to fill them, and a wooden jigsaw for Freya and a train set for Roryânot the mother he'd asked for, but there was nothing he could do about that, he thought bleakly, and then caught sight of Kate's dark head in the crowd and felt his heart squeeze.
âI'm shattered,' he said with a groan, unloading the car after he'd brought the children in and got them off to bed.
Kate laughed and eased her shoes off. âMe, too. It's surprising how much more tiring it is when you've got to keep an eye on a toddler. I'd forgotten. It's a while since I've helped Mum with little ones. I think they had fun, though, don't you?'
âYes, I'm sure they did, and it's all thanks to you. It was a great idea.'
He hung the bags full of presents in the under-stairs cupboard, out of reach, and turned back to her. âFancy a cup of tea?'
âI'd love one. I'm parched. I'll make it.'
She filled the kettle and put it on, and then glanced up at the window and saw him watching her reflection. The light wasn't good enough to read his expression, but there was a curious stillness about him. She turned round slowly and met his eyes.
âWhat's the matter?' she asked softly, and if she hadn't been watching him so carefully she would have missed the shrug.
âNothing. I was just thinking how much difference you've made to our lives.'
She didn't know why he'd kept his distanceâbecause she'd said what she had about his child care being unreliable? Probably, and he'd seemed to imply that he wanted a little space between them, although he'd suggested in the end that they should keep work separate and carry on as they were, but they hadn't. Because of circumstances getting in the way, or because she'd destroyed something special between them?
She didn't know, but she couldn't let him stand there in the middle of the kitchen with that rather lost look in his eyes without giving him a hug.
She slid her arms round him, and after a second she felt his arms close around her and his head come down, his cheek resting against her hair.
âThank you for tonight,' he murmured. âIt's really been fun. I wouldn't have thought of taking the children Christmas shopping if you hadn't suggested it, and they've really had a ball.'
He sighed, and she tipped her head back and stared into his eyes. âWhat is it?'
âOh, my mother. It occurred to me when you suggested I didn't think of her as a woman that I probably hadn't so much asked as told her she was helping me with the kids so I could get back to work. And I'd never asked her about her feelings or if she felt up to it. I just made her promise to help me, and I shouldn't have done.'
âSo what are you going to do?'
âI don't know. Find an alternative, certainly, but what? Got any suggestions?'
âI might have. I asked Mum to think about it and see if she could come up with anyone.'
âAnd has she?'
âNot that she's mentioned yet, but when I asked her to draw up a shortlist, she said it would be.'
He chuckled, his eyes crinkling at the corners and softening the bleak expression they wore all too often. Then the crinkles faded, replaced by an unspoken question, and she went up on tiptoe and pressed her lips to his.
âDo you really want tea?' she said, and held her breath.
The corner of his mouth tugged down with irony. âTea?' he said softly. âI don't think so. I think the only thing I really want is you.'
She stared up at him as his eyes darkened, wondering if she was reading more into his words than she should. Yes. Of course she was. She was simply a diversion, something good to take the edge off his loneliness, a physical release that helped him deal with his emotional stress.
He didn't really want her. Not like that.
She stepped back and held out her hand. âDitto,' she said with a smile, and led him through the connecting door to her house.
He had two hours off at the end of Friday afternoon, and he collected Freya and his mother and took them to see Rory in his school nativity play. He was a shepherd, and when Freya saw him she shrieked and giggled and pointed, and James cuddled her on his lap and shushed her, but nobody minded.
And his mother really seemed to enjoy it.
He was looking at her through different eyes, he realised, and for the first time in ages, he gave her a hug as they came out of the hall and got their refreshments and waited for Rory to join them.
âThat was such fun,' she said wistfully. âI haven't been to a nativity play since you were tiny.'
âThat's a long time ago.'
âIt is. Decades.' She smiled up at him. âRory was lovely.'
He grinned, full of paternal pride. âHe was. He's a great little guyâand here he is. Hello, tiger.'
âHiâhello, Grandma! Did you see me?'
âWe all saw youâdidn't you hear Freya calling you?'
He giggled. âShe's naughty.'
âNo, she was just excited,' he said. âShall we go home, then? Where are your things?'
âHere,' he said, holding up a carrier bag stuffed with paintings and a shoebag with a sock hanging out of it.
James rescued the sock, took the carrier bag from him and led them out to the car. He had to drop them off, and then he was due back at work. He just hoped the weekend went without a hitch.
Sue still hadn't come up with any solutions, and his mother had agreed to cover for him on the understanding that Kate's parents would help her out if necessary, but before he could go back to work that evening he needed to take them home and get them settled and introduce his mother to Sue so she was reassured.
He couldn't believe it had never occurred to him that she'd be apprehensive, and he felt so guilty.
They'd have to have a long heart to heart at some point, but for now, he just gave her a hug as he left to go back to work. âI'm really sorry I've put you in this position,' he said softly. âI feel awful asking you to do it, but it's the last time, I promise. I'll find someone else.'
âDon't be silly,' she said, trying to sound brave and failing. âWe'll be all right. As you said, they aren't little hellions like you were.'
He grinned a little off-kilter. âNo. That would be a nightmare.'
She chuckled and pushed him towards the door. âGo on, go to work. Sue's promised to give me a hand if I need it, and I'm sure I'll be all right.'
He hoped so, because the last thing he needed was any more screw-ups. He'd spent last night with Kateâor the early part of it, anywayâand it had been amazing. Again. Neither of them had mentioned work or children or anything remotely contentious, and it had been bliss. And now they were going to be working together all weekend, and he found he was looking forward to that, too.
OK, it was the weekend before Christmas, the height of the party season and prime time for accidents and hernias and intestinal disasters, but he loved it. He thrived on it, and the busier, the better.