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The Italian's Christmas Child(2)

By:Lynne Graham

At four feet ten inches tall, Holly, like her mother, lacked height. She pulled on warm black winter tights under the bright red satin and corseted dress. Thrusting her feet into cowboy boots rather than the heels Pixie had sported for her party a year earlier, Holly scowled at her gaudy, busty reflection in the mirror and jammed on the Santa hat in a defiant move. OK, she looked comical, she acknowledged, but her appearance would make Sylvia laugh and overlook the disappointment of not having her own daughters around her to celebrate Christmas Day with, and that was what was truly important.

Planning to spend the night on the sofa in Sylvia’s tiny living area, she packed her rucksack and carefully placed what remained of the decorations and the food into a box heavy enough to make her stagger on her final trip to the car. At least the food wouldn’t be going to waste, she thought with determined positivity, until a flashback of the ugly scene she had interrupted with Ritchie and the receptionist at his insurance office cut through her rebellious brain.

Her tummy rolled with nausea and her battered heart clenched. In the middle of the day as well, she thought with a shudder. She couldn’t imagine even having sex, never mind going at it on a desk in broad daylight. Possibly she wasn’t a very adventurous person. In fact both she and Pixie were probably pretty strait-laced. At twelve years old they had shuddered over the ugly chaos of broken relationships in their mothers’ lives and had solemnly decided to swear off men altogether. Of course once puberty had kicked in, with all its attendant confusing hormones, that rule had failed. At fourteen they had ditched their embargo on men while deciding that sex was the real danger and best avoided outside a serious relationship. A serious committed relationship. Holly’s eyes rolled at the memory of their mutual innocence. And so far neither she nor her friend had managed to have a serious committed relationship with a man.

All that considered thought about steering clear of sexual relationships hadn’t done her many favours either, Holly reflected with helpless insecurity. There had been men she really liked who ran a mile from what they saw as her outdated expectations and then there had been the others who stayed around for a few weeks or months, eager to be the first into her bed. Had she only ever been a sexual challenge to Ritchie? How long, for instance, had he been messing around with other women?

‘Did you expect me to wait for you for ever?’ Ritchie had shouted back at her, blaming her for his betrayal because she had held back on having sex with him. ‘What’s so special about you?’

Holly flinched at that ugly recollection because she had always known that there was nothing particularly special about her.

It was snowing as she drove off in the battered little hatchback that Pixie had christened Clementine, and she groaned. She loved the look of snow but she didn’t like to drive in it and she hated being cold. Thank goodness for the car, she acknowledged, as she rattled out of the small Devon town where she lived and worked.

Snow was falling fast by the time she reached Sylvia’s home, which was dismayingly dark. Perhaps the older woman was out at a church service or visiting a neighbour. Jamming down her hat over the mass of hair fighting to escape its confines, Holly rapped on the door and waited, stamping her feet to keep warm. After a couple of minutes she knocked again and then she followed the communal path to the little house next door, which was brightly lit, and knocked there instead.

‘I’m sorry to bother you but I wondered if you knew where Mrs Ware has gone and if she’ll be home soon,’ Holly asked with a friendly smile.

‘Sylvia left this afternoon. I helped her pack—she was in such a tizzy because she wasn’t expecting anyone,’ the elderly little woman at the door told her.

Holly frowned, her heart sinking. ‘So, she went to her daughter’s after all, then?’

‘Oh, no, it wasn’t the daughter who came, it was her son. Big tall chap in a suit. He’s taking her back to Bruges or Belgium or some place,’ the neighbour told her less certainly.

‘Brussels. That’s where Stephen lives. Do you know how long she’ll be away?’

‘A couple of weeks at least, she seemed to think...’

As deflated as a pricked balloon, Holly walked back to her car.

‘You watch yourself driving home,’ the old lady called after her. ‘There’s to be heavy snow tonight.’

‘Thanks, I will,’ Holly promised, forcing a smile. ‘Merry Christmas!’

And a very merry Christmas it was going to be on her own, she thought unhappily, annoyed to find that her eyes were prickling with tears. After all, Sylvia was going to have the best possible Christmas with her son and the grandchildren she rarely saw. Holly was really, really pleased that Stephen had swooped in from abroad to save the day. He and his wife were rare visitors but he had at least made the effort and now his mother wouldn’t have to spend her first Christmas as a widow alone. Holly sniffed and blinked back the tears, scolding herself for being so selfish. She was young and healthy and employed. She had nothing to complain about, nothing at all.

Maybe she was simply missing Pixie, she reasoned, as she drove with care on the steep, icy road that climbed up over the moors. Pixie’s kid brother was in some sort of trouble and Pixie had taken time off to go and stay with him and sort it out. It was probably financial trouble but Holly wouldn’t ask any awkward questions or offer unwelcome advice because she didn’t want to hurt her friend, who was deeply attached to her horribly self-centred sibling. Everyone had problems, she reminded herself doggedly, tensing as she felt the tyres of the car shift into a near skid on the slippery surface and slowing her speed even more. She had far fewer problems than most people and had no excuse whatsoever for feeling sorry for herself.

Ritchie? Well, that wasn’t an excuse. So, she had got hurt but then Pixie would point out that she was too soft in that line, too prone to thinking well of people and being knocked back hard when they let her down. Pixie was more of a cynic, strong on distrust as a means of self-defence, except when it came to her own brother.

Holly peered out of the windscreen because visibility was fading fast with the wipers unable to keep up with the heavy snow. She wasn’t the dramatic type, she assured herself, as the car coasted down a hill that seemed steeper than it had seemed when she drove over it earlier that evening, but the weather was foul and the light snowfall she had dimly expected now bore a closer resemblance to a blizzard.

And then without the smallest warning, and to the accompaniment of her strangled scream, the car glided in the most terrifying slow motion off the road into a ditch where it tilted over and wedged fast with a loud, nerve-racking crunch of metal. After switching off the engine, Holly breathed in slow and deep to calm herself. She was alive, no other car was involved and nobody was hurt. There was much to be thankful for, she told herself bracingly.

Sadly that was a conviction that took a beating once she climbed out with some difficulty, owing to the angle the car had crashed at, to inspect the damage. The side wing of Pixie’s elderly vehicle was crushed up against a large rock, which had presumably been placed to mark the entrance to the lane. My goodness, how much will the repairs cost? was her first fearful thought. It was her responsibility, not Pixie’s.

A spark of fear assailed her only after she had examined her surroundings. The road was deserted and lay under a covering of unbroken snow. It was a bad night and it was Christmas Eve and she didn’t think there would be much passing traffic, if any. As she stood there nursing her mobile phone and wondering what she was going to do, Holly had never felt more lonely. She had no close friend she could ring and drag out in such dreadful weather on such a special night. No, she was on her own, sink or swim. Consternation gripped her when she couldn’t get a signal on her phone to use it. Only then did she turn round to look again at the lane she stood beside and there, like a faint beacon in the darkness, she saw the lights of what could only be a house and relief filled her to overflowing. Hopefully it was occupied and the occupant had a landline she could use to call for a breakdown truck.

* * *

Vito was savouring a glass of award-winning wine and wondering what to do with the evening when the knocker on the door sounded. Taken aback, he frowned because he hadn’t heard a car and there were no lights outside. Did the local caretaker live within walking distance? He peered out through the spyhole and saw a red-and-white Santa hat. Someone was definitely at the wrong house because Vito hated Christmas. He yanked open the door and enormous blue eyes like velvet pansies looked up at him. At first he thought his visitor was a child and then his eyes dropped and took in the swell of breasts visible between the parted edges of her coat and he registered that, although she might be very small, she was all woman.

Holly stared up in wonderment at the male who appeared in the doorway. He looked like every fantasy male she had ever dreamt about meeting all rolled into one spectacular package. In fact he was so gorgeous with his black hair, designer stubble and dark, deep-set, mysterious eyes that he made her teeth clench in dismay because he didn’t look approachable or helpful or anything that might have encouraged her. That he wore a very formal dark business suit with a white shirt and natty gold tie didn’t help to relax her either.