All I Want For Christ­mas

Shop­ping with GJ was just what Zoe needed to cheer her­self up . . .

The People's Friend - - News - by Della Gal­ton

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.”

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