All I Want For Christmas
Shopping with GJ was just what Zoe needed to cheer herself up . . .
ZOE looked back at Father Christmas. Katherine and Maria had come out of the back room and now they were gawping at him, too.
“He’s mine; hands off,” Zoe felt like saying.
Blimey, where had that come from? She wasn’t interested in men. She was a career girl. She didn’t have time for a man.
“It’s OK, ladies. I’ve got this in hand.” Zoe smiled and they retreated, clearly reluctantly.
She turned back to the man in question.
“What did you just say about making my Christmas wish come true?”
His glance flicked to the envelope he’d handed her moments earlier.
“It’s in there. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Adam Turner. My dad is Martin Turner.”
“Of Turner’s Estate Agents,” she finished. “The very same.” They shook hands.
“I don’t usually go around dressed as Father Christmas,” he added. “I got offered a seasonal job. I’d popped in to see Dad and he asked me to deliver these. He said you were keen to find somewhere.” “I am. And thank you.” He gave a little bow, and before she could stop him he’d walked out of her salon.
Katherine and Maria appeared immediately. They had clearly been listening on the other side of the door.
“He was hot. Did you get his number?” That was from Katherine.
“No. It was just business.” Why was she blushing? Fortunately, her two o’clock appointment turned up at that moment and there was no time for discussion.
Zoe showed her client into the treatment room, but before she followed her in, she tore open the envelope and pulled out two more prospective properties.
They were both on the expensive side, but it had been nice of them to think of her. Interestingly, she wasn’t as disappointed as she’d expected to be. She wondered if that had anything to do with Adam.
Of course it didn’t. But it was interesting how often he cropped up in her thoughts for the rest of the afternoon.
The following Saturday Adam came in again. This time he was minus the Father Christmas outfit.
Without the wig and beard, he had brown hair and was quite a snappy dresser. Zoe had inherited Granny Janet’s love of fashion, and Mr Turner gained top marks.
His eyes had the same twinkle in them, though, and of course there was the height. It must run in the family.
Zoe’s heart skipped a beat and she gave him her best professional smile.
“What can we do for you today, Adam?” She hoped he wasn’t after one of Maria’s massages.
“I was wondering if you could help out with my elves.” He glanced over his shoulder as the shop door opened again.
Zoe realised that he was accompanied by two very leggy blondes, dressed in skimpy elf outfits, one of whom stepped forward and put a hand on his arm.
Her heart plummeted. So much for that, then.
“Of course. How can we help?” She smiled politely at the women and they both giggled.
To her relief they both wanted Christmas nails to go with their elf outfits.
At least she wouldn’t have to find out which one was Adam’s girlfriend. Clients had a tendency to chat about their most intimate secrets when they were relaxed in the haven of her treatment room.
She passed them over to Katherine and exited rapidly.
“You sound disappointed,” Granny Janet said when she told her about it at their usual Sunday lunch catch-up. “You liked him?”
“He was OK,” Zoe said. Then she added, “Yes, I did. But that’s mad, isn’t it? I’ve only met him twice.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t like him.” GJ patted her arm. “I’m worried about you. You’ve lost weight. What’s going on?”
“Too much dashing about. I haven’t done it on purpose. What with it being our busy time plus the house hunting, I sometimes forget to eat.” She tailed off, wishing she didn’t feel so sad.
GJ regarded her thoughtfully across the table. Then she slid another couple of roast potatoes on to her plate. “Eat these.”
“I’m full,” Zoe replied, smiling.
“Life-work balance is very important, you know,” GJ went on idly, leaving the potatoes where they were. “You need to have more fun. There’s no rush to move. It’s better to get the right place than to rush into the wrong one.”
“I know.” Zoe felt her eyes fill with tears. “The girls and I had a catch-up on our goals last night. But there’s a part of me that wishes we’d never started Mission Christmas.”
Unbeknown to Zoe, Katherine was beginning to think the same. She’d lost nearly a stone, but the closer it got to Christmas the harder it seemed to get.
There were food adverts everywhere. Christmas chocolates, cakes and treats of every description blazed out of the television. She even got bombarded on social media.
There was a lot they could eat on the Slimming Stars eating plan, but not much of it was dessert orientated. Unless you counted fresh fruit, and there was only so much of that you could eat.
If she’d been the kind of person who thought an apple was a satisfying dessert, she wouldn’t have put on weight in the first place, would she?
It was now Thursday evening. Paul was working late again.
So she was doing what her mother would have called extreme baking.
This was very therapeutic, because it involved making several things simultaneously, which required concentration and made it impossible to be sad.
Her kitchen was now full of the scents of cinnamon, vanilla and cloves, and there were bottles of sugar-free flavourings lined up on the worktop.
She’d made a diet version of mulled wine, which smelled glorious.
It would have been better if Paul had been here to share it, but he wasn’t.
She’d given up on low-fat mince-pies, as low-fat pastry was tricky. But she had made quite a successful batch of Christmas pudding cakes, which used a bran type of cracker instead of flour.
Her mission tonight was to perfect a low-fat Yule log. The first two she’d tried had been too dry to roll up without cracking, although they had been quite tasty. She’d eaten the evidence before Paul got in.
Not that he’d have noticed, she thought with a little stab of pain. He’d been so distant lately that they might as well have been living separate lives.
If she asked him what was wrong, he insisted that he was just busy. But there had to be more to it than that.
Katherine knew in her heart that she needed to sit him down for a proper chat to ask him what was going on, but there was a big part of her that was too scared of hearing the answer.
Maybe it was better to be in denial for another month. She couldn’t bear it if they split up before Christmas.
She forced her mind back to her cooking frenzy. The latest Yule log looked good.
Once it had cooled on the rack, Katherine rolled it up successfully with a smattering of jam and cream. She was supposed to be using low fat crème- fraiche, but she’d run out, having used it all up on the earlier versions.
Never mind, at least the Swiss roll itself was low fat. She dusted it with icing sugar, and popped a miniature plastic Father Christmas sleigh with reindeer on top. It looked great.
Slightly cheered, she took a picture of it with the Christmas pudding cakes and sent a photo to Maria and Zoe. Zoe answered instantly with the word
YUM in capital letters. Maria didn’t answer at all.
Katherine wasn’t surprised. Something was going on with Maria. She’d been distracted lately.
Katherine had asked her once, but Maria had said she was fine and gone scarlet.
Something to do with a man, then, Katherine had concluded, and left it at that. She had enough man problems of her own.
Katherine couldn’t bear it if they split up before Christmas
Maria and Noah were about to eat dinner in Maria’s recently revamped lounge diner.
One of Maria’s hobbies was interior design. If she hadn’t been a masseuse she’d have done it professionally. She liked nothing better
than to bring rooms up to their full potential, and it was surprising how little it took to transform them.
Her maisonette, which was part of an old Victorian house, was rented, so a major refurbishment was out of the question, but it was amazing what you could do with a lick of paint and the right accessories.
Maria changed her décor regularly. Last weekend, in view of the fact it was coming up to Christmas, she’d painted it scarlet and green.
Maria hadn’t gone too overboard with the scarlet – just a feature wall – and she’d up-cycled a desk light using the same colour. Cushions and a throw completed the look, and her dining table had co-ordinating accessories.
On Saturday she’d get her tree. Last year she and Noah had gone to one of those places where you get to dig them up.
She imagined them doing that again. Later they would sit by it and wrap presents and write out cards by the fire. They had done that last year, too.
“What do you think?” she asked Noah now as she opened the bottle of wine he’d brought and showed him what she’d done. “Do the colours work for you?”
“They look great.” He suppressed a yawn. “Sorry, I’m not bored, I’m just tired. It’s been a long day.”
He gave her a flash of his gorgeous smile.
“Are we going to eat soon? I’m starving.”
She forgave him his lack of interest. How many men were enthusiastic about interior design? Besides, at that moment she’d have forgiven him anything.
The last few weeks had been like a wonderful dream. She had never in a million years thought they would get back together, but that was exactly what had happened.
When they’d gone out for that coffee, the first thing he’d done was to apologise.
“I knew I’d made a mistake soon after I started seeing Lucy,” he said, and a frown had appeared on his handsome face.
That didn’t stop you going out with her for the next four months, Maria thought.
“I kept thinking about you when I was with her,” he continued, staring into the distance, as if remembering. “All the fun we’d had. The places we went. The laughter.”
He turned his intense gaze back towards her.
“We were good together, weren’t we?”
“I thought so.” She hadn’t meant to say that. She’d meant to be cool and indifferent, but after that the floodgates opened and he bombarded her with feelings.
“It was the biggest mistake of my life, splitting up with you,” Noah admitted. “I’m not expecting you to forgive me, don’t get me wrong.”
He laid a hand over hers on the café table.
“I just wanted to tell you how I felt. How I still feel.”
Maria didn’t reply at first. She was shocked. Not to mention conflicted. He certainly looked contrite.
Before she could decide how to respond, he signalled to the waitress.
“I’ve said my piece. I’ll get the bill and leave you to it. Thanks for meeting up.”
He was standing up before she found her voice. “Wait a minute, Noah.” The rest, as the saying went, had been history.
They’d been taking things slowly. She hadn’t told anyone in case it didn’t work out, but it was working out.
They’d had the most fantastic time since he’d been back in her life. She’d cooked him meals and he had taken her out. It had begun to feel as though they’d never been apart.
Maria had even missed her last couple of dance lessons.
She wasn’t too worried. Part of her motivation had been so she could show Noah she’d moved on. But now he was back in her life.
As she dished out the dinner, she noticed a letter on the worktop that she hadn’t opened. It had come this morning and it had the rental agent’s crest on it.
She could guess what it was about. Rent review time. Her landlord increased it annually and it was always around this time of year. He didn’t usually put it up too much.
“That smells delicious,” Noah commented as she put his meal in front of him.
He smiled at her across the table.
Maria wondered whether it was too early to ask him if he had any Christmas plans. The last thing she wanted to do was to come across as being clingy, but they’d had such a wonderful time last year.
They’d spent it with her parents, who had a lovely place in the Cotswolds.
They’d welcomed Noah being part of the celebrations. In fact, they’d been almost as upset as Maria when they’d split up.
She hadn’t told them he’d left her for someone else. She’d said they were still friends and her mum asked after him regularly.
Her mother, at least, would be thrilled they were back together.
Zoe and GJ were doing some late-night shopping in Salisbury. Ostensibly they were there because GJ needed new decorations, but Zoe suspected this was a ruse designed to get her to have some fun.
It was fun. In the square the huge tree glittered with lights and there was a party atmosphere.
The Christmas market was in full swing and the square was packed with wooden chalets, Germanmarket style, which sold mulled wine, mince-pies and all manner of festive fare.
Zoe breathed in cinnamon and cloves. She could smell roasting chestnuts, too, drifting across the frost-tipped evening air.
“Let’s get some chestnuts,” GJ suggested, catching her hand and pulling her towards the stall.
Next door to it was a stall that appeared to be selling nothing but Father Christmas figurines.
They were of every nationality you could imagine: fat ones, thin ones, smiley ones, ones in green cloaks and blue cloaks as well as the more traditional red. There was even a three-feet-high one with a gargoyle face.
“That’s enough to give the kiddies nightmares,” Zoe joked. “Imagine having that in your living-room.”
“It’s supposed to ward off evil spirits,” the stallholder told them. “It’s for putting in your front porch, or somewhere near the door.”
“I should think it would ward off most of my customers,” Zoe replied, laughing. “Perhaps we’d better stick to a traditional one.”
It felt good to laugh. GJ squeezed her hand.
“Everything will work out in the end,” she said. “You just wait and see.”
Maria didn’t open the letter from the agent until Noah had left. She’d just finished washing up.
Noah wasn’t very good on the domestic front, but she didn’t mind. It was nice to have someone to look after again.
He hadn’t stayed long. She told herself that his swift departure had nothing to do with the fact that she had just asked him about his Christmas plans.
“I haven’t decided yet,” he’d said.
She’d heard the reservations in his voice, but some stubborn streak had made her carry on.
“I thought we could spend it with my parents again. We had a great time last year, didn’t we?”
He had yawned and glanced at his watch.
“I think I’ll make tracks, Maria. I could do with an early night.”
“OK.” She was determined not to be a clingy girlfriend and ask him to stay a bit longer.
The pause had drawn out between them until he’d got up and given her a perfunctory kiss.
“Will I see you later in the week?” she’d asked.
“Sure you will.”
Maria had bitten her tongue to stop herself from asking when.
For the first time since they’d got back together she questioned whether she had done the right thing letting him back into her life.
Was it her imagination, or was he becoming distant again?
To distract herself from thinking about it, she got on with the clearing up, then she opened the rental agent’s letter.
It wasn’t the standard spiel she’d been expecting. It was something much more shocking.
It took a couple of reads for it to sink in. The gist of it was that she should take this letter as notice of termination of her tenancy agreement.
They were sorry to inconvenience her, but the landlord was selling the property.
Once she’d recovered from the shock, Maria’s first instinct was to phone Noah, but there was no reply. Perhaps he had turned his phone to silent, which he often did if he was getting an early night.
She messaged him just in case.
Please could you phone me? I’ve had some bad news about my flat.
There was no response to this, either.
Fleetingly she considered texting Katherine. She’d found the picture of the Yule log she’d sent when she’d picked up her phone, but Katherine would be busy with her other half. Maria didn’t want to interrupt them.
She would see the girls at work tomorrow. There was nothing she could do about it tonight anyway.
“What a total Scrooge of a landlord,” Katherine said when Maria told them about it on Friday morning before they started work. “I can’t believe he’d want to throw you out on the streets at Christmas.”
“Surely that’s illegal,” Zoe echoed.
“Bad timing, but definitely not illegal,” Maria replied, feeling warmed by their outrage. “The owner’s selling apparently. And technically it’s not Christmas. It’s New Year, because I’ve got a month’s notice.”
Noah had phoned her that morning and he’d been very sympathetic.
“Don’t worry. I can help you out. I have to get off to work, but we’ll talk later.” So he did still care, then. There was plenty of room at Noah’s. Not that she’d been there much lately, as he preferred to come to hers. Noah wasn’t exactly domestic.
“Have you got somewhere to go?” Katherine was asking now. “If you get really stuck you can stay on our sofa.”
She looked a bit strained, Maria thought, wondering if she was OK. There hadn’t been time for a proper catch-up lately.
“Thanks,” she said, knowing she wouldn’t impose, but she was touched that she’d offered. “I should be all right. I’ve got a few options.”
Katherine nodded and turned towards Zoe.
“I hardly dare ask.” She laughed. “I don’t suppose your gorgeous Adam has come up trumps yet, has he?”
“He’s not my gorgeous Adam,” Zoe said with a frown. “I just got an e-mail from Turner’s. It’s a property that’s so new on the market they haven’t got photos up yet, but it sounds ideal.
“It’s on the outskirts of Moreton Minster. It’s got everything I need, including a garden that backs on to fields, so Mr Timms will be safe. It’s in the right price range and . . .”
She paused for effect. Katherine leaned closer and Maria followed suit, curiosity bubbling up inside her.
“It’s called Christmas Cottage,” Zoe finished. “Now if that’s not an omen, I don’t know what is.”
“When are you seeing it?” Katherine asked.
“At lunchtime. It’s empty, but the agent’s got the keys. Good places don’t hang around for long. If I like it, I’ll put a deposit down.” She glanced at her watch. “Don’t we have work to do?”
If Zoe hadn’t had back to back appointments she’d have slipped out to see Christmas Cottage before lunchtime.
It had an open fireplace, apparently, and an archway that led through to a tiny snug. She pictured herself putting up a tree in the corner.
She had never managed to fit more than a tabletop-sized one in at the flat, but this year she was going for the full works. This year she’d have a full-size one.
“This Yule log definitely doesn’t taste low-fat,” Maria told Katherine over their coffee break. “Can I have the recipe?”
“Of course. I’ll e-mail it.” “I’d love it, too,” Zoe said. “I’ll do you a copy.” Katherine narrowed her eyes, “You’re not dieting though, are you, boss? You look as though you’ve lost weight lately. Have you?”
“A bit,” Zoe confessed. “It’s probably all the house hunting I’ve been doing. I keep forgetting to eat.” Katherine rolled her eyes. “If only,” she murmured, and Zoe cursed herself for being so tactless.
“It’s excitement,” she said now. “Knowing that my dream home is within touching distance.”
It was true. Excitement was fizzing around her veins.
The excitement was still there at lunchtime when she and GJ drew up outside Christmas Cottage.
It was exactly as the agent had described. It was an old coach house which had been converted into a cottage, and it was adjacent to a plantation of fir trees that stretched back from the road.
She wondered if they had given the cottage its name.
Although it looked tiny, it had a front and back garden, and when Zoe ran up the path and peered into the front room, she could see the archway that Martin had mentioned, and the fireplace.
“It’s perfect,” she said, turning back to GJ who had followed her more slowly and who was now puffing slightly.
“Are you OK?” she added.
“Just not as fit as I used to be.” GJ beamed.
“Martin’s here,” Zoe said as the crunch of tyres on the unmade road heralded his arrival.
As the car door slammed and he got out, Zoe hurried to greet him with a big smile on her face.
He didn’t reciprocate. In fact, he seemed to be shaking his head.
“I’m sorry, Zoe,” he said. “I just had a call from the office. Our system hadn’t been updated this morning, and apparently this property has already been let.”
It was a somewhat dejected group who met up to compare notes at the Old Police House on December 1. It was a lot busier than usual, several of the tables being occupied by party goers.
Zoe put the tray of drinks on the table and forced herself to smile. She was still smarting a bit from the disappointment of finding her perfect home only to have it snatched away at the eleventh hour.
Martin had been very apologetic.
“It was a glitch on our system. I didn’t realise anyone else had even seen it. I’m so sorry.”
“These things happen,” she’d said.
The girls had been sympathetic, too.
“Another one will come along,” Katherine said. “One that’s even better.”
“Yes, don’t give up hope,” Maria added. “There are still three weeks until Christmas.”
“That’s true.” Zoe sighed. She knew GJ was right. It would be better to wait for the right place than to move into the wrong one. It was just a pity that she’d been so close.
Even the fact that Adam had popped in this lunchtime asking if she was around
hadn’t cheered her up.
“He seemed keen to catch up with you,” Maria had said when Zoe got back from buying a sandwich. She’d handed her a piece of paper with his number scrawled on it.
Not that keen, Zoe thought, being as he hadn’t answered his phone when she’d called him.
“If it’s any consolation, I’ve put on weight this week,” Katherine said, screwing up her face.
“I’ve been experimenting a bit too much with my low-fat cakes. I’ve only just found out that dried fruit has got shedloads of sugar in it.”
“You’ve still lost a stone, though,” Zoe consoled her.
“Correction. I had lost a stone. Now I’m back to thirteen pounds. It’s so hard.” Katherine frowned. “Mind you, now we’ve added some exercise into the mix it might help.” She glanced at Maria. “My mum’s talked me into going to a ballroom for beginners day, would you believe? She and Dad are going to some New Year’s do and she doesn’t want to let him down.”
Maria clapped her hands. “You’ll love it. I guess it’s time I updated you on my goal, too,” Maria said.
“Yes, please do,” Zoe said hopefully. “We need good news. How is the dancing going? Have you learned the tango yet?”
“Not yet, no. But that’s because I’ve missed a couple of lessons. I got a little bit side-tracked,” Maria said ruefully. “I haven’t told you before because I thought you’d disapprove, but I’m back with Noah.”
She looked anxious, Zoe thought. She hoped Noah wasn’t up to his old tricks.
“It’s going well,” Maria continued, almost as if she had read Zoe’s mind. “I really think he’s changed.”
Zoe hoped she was right. Before she could ask anything, Maria went on.
“Actually, Noah’s been helpful with the flat hunting. He’s found me another flat. It belongs to a friend of his.” Her face clouded as she glanced at Zoe. “It feels a bit ironic when you’re the one who’s looking for a flat.”
“And you’re the one who’s supposed to be learning to dance,” Katherine said pointedly, “but I’m learning ballroom. Have we swapped goals or something?”
Zoe shook her head. “No, we haven’t.” The last thing she wanted to do was add fuel to the fire by telling them she’d lost a stone.
“It’s just a blip,” she continued.
They all sipped their drinks and Zoe glanced around them at the festive décor.
There were gold and silver paper chains strung across the bar and one of those old-fashioned glitter balls on the ceiling. Bunches of holly and sprigs of mistletoe hung over random tables.
Her thoughts flicked back to Adam. If he’d really wanted to speak to her he’d have phoned her back.
She felt her phone buzz in her pocket. Her heart sped up as she pulled it out, but she didn’t recognise the number.
It wasn’t Adam, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t good news. She’d signed up with another rental agent earlier in the week. One that was a little further afield. She answered the call. “Is that Zoe Wilkins?” a woman with a faint Dorset accent asked.
“Yes, it is.”
“I’m calling from Salisbury District Hospital. We’ve just admitted a Janet Cartwright. She’s listed you as her next of kin. She came in suffering from chest pains.”
Zoe clutched the phone very tightly to her ear. Suddenly everything in the pub was muted: the sparkle of baubles and tinsel; the sounds of the festive music hushed, as the words echoed in her head.
“What ward is she in?” Her own voice sounded strange in her ears, but her fingers were oddly steady as she wrote it down. “I’m on my way.”