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Authors: Abby Clements

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Meet Me Under the Mistletoe (21 page)

BOOK: Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
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‘A warm red could work,’ Rachel said, glancing around at Lily’s bright colour scheme. ‘We could paint the skirting to match, and, if there’s any money left, get a couple of cushions to match and tie it in. Jay, will the new shelving go here?’ she asked, pointing to the battered wooden unit.

‘Yes,’ he nodded. ‘It’s a little bigger, but it will make more of the space, and there’ll be an extra shelf to display her photos on, but the width will be the same.’

‘What about the floor?’ Zak said, pushing back the ripped lino with the toe of his trainer.

‘I know a discount flooring place,’ Jay said. ‘And this colour should be an easy enough match.’

Milly pulled the hood on her grey marl sweatshirt up over her head and the sleeves over her hands. ‘Right, shall we hit the shops?’ she said. ‘It’s freezing in here.’

‘Right, cups of tea and then let’s get going,’ Rachel said, putting on the kettle.

Milly and Jay put down the bags of shopping, and Zak sat down at the kitchen table. ‘We bought loads,’ he said, with a smile.

Rachel and Milly had found a good-quality red wallpaper on sale at the local department store – and, with what they’d saved, had bought a roll of patterned yellow trim to complement the sunflower print.

‘This was an absolute bargain,’ Milly said, bringing out a golden-yellow rug. ‘And it should warm things up a bit in the living room, keep the heat in better than the floorboards.’

‘The snake’s my favourite,’ Zak said, pulling an animal-shaped draft-excluder out of a carrier bag. Rachel had spotted it in a charity shop – it was almost new and the perfect size to block the gap under Lily’s back door and stop the icy breeze.

Milly put on an apron and started laying newspaper down. ‘I texted Nikki and she’s coming to join us after school.’

‘Great,’ Jay said, taking Lily’s cookbooks off the set of shelves that the council workmen had dented and damaged. ‘Wow,’ he said, taking one from the pile and opening the front cover. ‘So this is her secret.’ He held it up for Rachel and Milly to see.
‘Lily’s Caribbean Christmas,’
he said, reading the words on the front cover.

Milly looked over at her mum, her eyes shining with tears, and Rachel gently took her hand.

At around midday Jay and Sean brought the new set of shelves from Jay’s workshop. They were made from a warm, hazelnut-shade of wood, and sanded to a really smooth finish. ‘Let’s put them over here for now, while we’re still working,’ Jay said, nodding over to the living room.

Zak was crouched on the floor making a banner for them to hang by the door. Rachel had pencilled the letters for him to colour in. ‘Welcome Home, Lily!’ Sean, Nikki’s dad, read out the message. ‘She’s going to love that.’

Zak smiled. ‘Yellow’s her favourite colour, so that’s why I’ve done a lot of it.’

Nikki and Milly were chatting to one another as they scraped away at the wallpaper. Rachel got up from where she had been crouching down putting in the new tiles and went over to see the new furniture. ‘That’s gorgeous,’ she said, running a finger over the wood. ‘Are they your own design?’

‘Thanks,’ Jay said, ‘yes. The idea is that no two pieces of furniture are quite the same, I make them to fit the house and suit the people who use them.’

‘Do you …’ Rachel said, an idea forming in her head. But her thoughts trailed off as she caught a snatch of the conversation going on behind her.

‘So, Milly, have you heard any more from that guy?’ Rachel heard Nikki whisper. ‘The one back home.’

‘Yes,’ Milly said, under her breath. ‘Loads. But shhh – my mum’s only over there. I’ll tell you about it later, OK?’

Rachel’s brow furrowed. A guy – back home. So she’d been right to think that something must be going on. But why hadn’t Milly said anything about it?

CHAPTER
21

 

Wednesday 13th December

‘How about a walk today?’ Patrick said.

‘Sure,’ Laurie said, trying to play it cool. While she wasn’t normally keen on walking unnecessarily, she couldn’t wait to see Patrick again. Plus she’d also started to go slightly cross-eyed sewing clothes for the fashion show on Saturday – a break and a bit of fresh air would do her good.

‘Great. There’s a path that runs up to the ruin of a windmill,’ he said. ‘with a view of the village where I grew up. The snow’s melting a bit now, but it still looks lovely out there. I could come by yours at midday?’

Laurie hurriedly put together an outfit that said ‘country chic’ and that she’d actually be able to walk in. She’d gone for skinny jeans, wellies, and a tight, black cashmere jumper with a fake fur gilet. Underneath she was wearing her favourite red lingerie.

Patrick arrived at noon. He leaned in to give her a kiss on the lips hello. Couldn’t they just – she turned to look at the stairs, it was such a short distance upstairs to the bedroom. But no, she told herself, just because his touch, his kiss, his smell, melted her – it was still probably better not to rush things.

She glimpsed Patrick’s silver Audi parked in the driveway out the front.

‘So we’re driving to the walk, are we?’ she asked. Good, but bad – people only drove to walks when they were going on really, really long ones.

He looked over at her and smiled. ‘Yes, it’s a little way away,’ he said. A sharp bark came from the front seat and Laurie saw that the sheepdog from the pub was in the back seat. ‘I borrowed Gadget,’ Patrick said, ‘to keep us company.’

Laurie raised an eyebrow. Gadget was fine, for a dog. But dogs and mud and her designer jeans seemed like a recipe for disaster. Couldn’t they just go somewhere normal for this date, like for lunch?

‘The walk’s beautiful,’ Patrick assured her. ‘You’ll enjoy it, I promise.’

As they got into the car Patrick said, ‘So, sounds like you have a busy weekend coming up. How are the preparations going for the fashion show?’

‘Fine, thanks,’ Laurie replied. ‘Still loads to do, but we’re on track. Are you going to Diana’s drinks on Friday?’

‘Definitely,’ Patrick said. ‘Love a Christmas party.’

Patrick didn’t say a word as they drove out of the village, and neither did she, but the atmosphere in the car was calm. Around them, the snow had started to melt, but the trees and fields still had a thick dusting of white, with a sprinkling of black birds on them. Laurie glanced back at Patrick – he must have practically poured her, drunk, into bed the other night; she thought of the trail of clothes she’d left. Normally she’d be mortified, but for some reason she wasn’t. It just didn’t seem a big deal – perhaps this was what relaxing felt like?

They stopped and parked in a lay-by near the top of a hill. They let Gadget out of the back seat, and Patrick led Laurie by the hand to a look-out point by the side of the road. Snowy fields and hills stretched out for miles around. It was the perfect Christmas scene.

‘So that’s where we’re headed,’ Patrick said, pointing at the ruins of a windmill on a faraway hill. ‘From up there you can see my village.’ Laurie took in the expanse of fields, threaded through with a stream, that lay between where they were standing and the ruins of the windmill – their destination.

‘That speck?’ Laurie said, squinting. ‘It looks like it’s a hundred miles away.’ She reached into her bag and took out her Gucci shades, putting them on to dull the glare of the winter sunshine on the remains of the snow. Patrick challenged her with a look. ‘OK, I trust you,’ she said, smiling and holding her hands up. ‘If you say it’s going to be fun, then I believe you.’

And it was fun, at least at first. They’d walked across the first field in a leisurely way, arm in arm, the cool air sharp but refreshing, and chatted easily as Gadget padded along beside them. But as they crossed the fence into the next field, Gadget spotted a stray sheep and dashed over, barking at high volume to terrorise it. As Patrick ran after him, Laurie continued on and got one wellie boot stuck in a frosty, muddy ditch. She couldn’t lift it out without her sock-clad foot coming out, so was, essentially, glued to the spot. ‘Help!’ she yelled.

Patrick got Gadget on the lead, and returned to Laurie, helping her keep her balance while he prised her stuck-fast boot out of the ditch. ‘Countryside hazard,’ he said, putting her boot back on. ‘Don’t let it put you off.’

The next field sloped down, and they began to descend into a valley. A partially frozen stream, lined with trees, lay at the foot of the hill. They passed a robin perched on a fence post, who flew away as Gadget bounded towards it.

Patrick took her by the hand again.

‘Race you to the water,’ he challenged her.

Before Laurie could protest, Patrick had set off. She ran after him, crunching over the grass and picking up speed as the incline got sharper, until, metres from the stream she passed him by, holding her hands up and letting out a celebratory cry. Without a means to brake, she crashed victoriously into a tree trunk by the stream, then bent over in breathless laughter.

Patrick caught up with her. ‘Hey,’ he said, panting, as she slowly got her own breath back. ‘You’re pretty fast.’

‘Used to running away from boys,’ Laurie joked, swinging her hair, her back to the tree.

‘Oh yeah?’ Patrick said, moving closer and pinning her arms gently against the rough bark.

He pressed his body against hers. ‘I’d like to see you try and get away from this one.’

She half-heartedly attempted to make her escape, and Gadget barked by her side. Then, looking up, she suddenly felt the closeness of Patrick’s face, his mouth, his lips just inches from hers.

He leaned in and kissed her, lingering on her lips. As Laurie stopped her play-struggle and reached a hand up to his hair to pull him closer she kissed him more deeply, not wanting it to end.

‘So tell me one thing,’ Patrick asked, as hand in hand they began the ascent up a sweeping mud path to the windmill. ‘How is it that you don’t have plans, this close to Christmas?’

‘My mum lives in Spain,’ she said.

‘And don’t you have any other family? What about your dad?’

Couldn’t they just go back to kissing? Laurie thought. Were all these questions really necessary?

‘Not an option,’ she said, bending down to pick up a stone in her path, and turning to throw it back down the hill, towards the stream.

As she walked up the hill with Patrick she thought back to the time, nearly ten years ago, when she’d last seen her dad. Back then she’d still thought that they could fix things.

That Christmas Eve, Laurie had clutched her umbrella and walked with purpose down the unfamiliar west London street, the address she’d found in the Internet records clear in her mind. As she passed the big, semi-detached houses the enormity of what she was doing began to sink in; she would be seeing her dad again, after years of not talking. After he’d left her mum when Laurie was thirteen, she’d sworn this day wouldn’t ever come. But in her twenties, she’d begun to hope. She peered into the windows, saw the tall Christmas trees in high-ceilinged living rooms and felt a pang of envy. These were the kind of houses she had always wanted to live in. Like Rachel’s family home.

When Laurie reached number fifty-six, she took a deep breath and rang the bell. But when the door opened, it wasn’t her dad, but a boy of about ten, who stood there staring at her.

‘Is Duncan Greenaway in?’ Laurie asked, summoning up her courage.

‘Dad!’ the boy called out over his shoulder. ‘There’s a woman here to see you.’

A woman with dark-red hair, about twenty-five, the same age Laurie was then, stepped forward into the hallway. ‘He’s helping Mum with the car, Andrew,’ she said to the boy. She looked up at Laurie and smiled. ‘Sorry, my dad’s busy with something, can I help?’

As Laurie’s eyes met hers, she saw her own features echoed in the other woman’s face.

‘God, it’s pouring out there,’ she went on, ‘would you like to come in?’

Instead of Laurie’s dark colouring, the woman in front of her had her dad’s eyes – clear and blue.

‘No,’ Laurie said, pain building in her chest. ‘I won’t stay.’ A wave of intense shame overwhelmed her. ‘But thanks anyway.’ Laurie turned and walked away.

‘So here we are,’ Patrick announced. ‘We made it.’ He draped an arm around Laurie’s shoulders as they reached the ruins of the windmill. She fought back the tears the memory had brought to her eyes.

‘And there,’ he continued, ‘is my village. No place like home, is there?’

CHAPTER
22

 

Wednesday 13th December

‘What’s all this about?’ Lily said, laughing as she put a hand up to the spotty scarf that was covering her eyes. ‘What you up to, blindfolding an old woman here?’

Jay led her gently into her own flat, and as he untied the scarf and let it fall away, she opened her eyes and took in the scene.

Lily was silent.

The moment seemed to last for ever – Rachel wondered if they’d done the wrong thing – they’d come into her flat without asking, and changed things. Zak gripped on to her hand, waiting for a response. Lily was staring right at the banner he’d made.

Lily’s eyes moved from the banner, to the kitchen and living-room walls that had been damaged, now freshly wallpapered and painted. Her gaze dropped to the floor, where the lino had been replaced with new tiles, and there was a bright new rug in the living room. As they drifted finally to the set of shelves, her hand went to her mouth. ‘Oh my,’ she said. ‘Oh my, my, my.’ She bit her lip and looked as if she might start crying.

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