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Only Twelve Days

Only Twelve Days


Book excerpt

Prologue

December 1977

Sally drummed her fingers on the desk and glanced at the clock for the umpteenth time. It was well past six o’clock; where on earth was Joey’s father? Couldn’t he have telephoned when he realised he was going to be so late? All the other children had gone home an hour ago.

   Jane Miller, who ran the small nursery, had warned her Mr Roberts had a demanding job, which sometimes kept him a little late. Fine! She didn’t mind hanging around for ten minutes or so, but this was ridiculous. If only she’d had asked exactly how late he might be, before Jane’s hasty departure.

    But there had been so little time. Responding to Jane’s telephone call to take over the nursery due to her suddenly feeling unwell, Sally hadn’t been given the chance to say very much at all. Once she had arrived, Jane simply hurried off, saying she would ring later in the morning.

   Sally recalled how nervous she felt being thrust among twelve young children. However, before hurrying out the door, Jane briskly reminded her that she was attending the local college to train as a nursery nurse and this would be good practical experience.

   On the whole, the day had gone quite well. The only real problem had arisen when she had asked the children to write a letter to Santa, telling him what they would like for Christmas. Knowing Jane, a retired schoolteacher, had taught the children to read and write, it had seemed a good idea, especially with Christmas being only a few days away.

   However, after reading Joey’s letter, she wasn’t so sure. Instead of the usual gifts, such as toys and sweets, he had asked Santa for a mummy, as he didn’t have one. Quite upset, Sally set aside her original intention of inviting the children to read out their letters. Instead, she had told them she would post them to Santa that evening.

   When Jane rang later in the morning enquiring if everything was all right, Sally took the opportunity to ask about the children. “Is there anything important I should know? I don’t want to do the wrong thing.”

   Jane told her they were all healthy children and played happily together. “Though, perhaps I should mention Joey sometimes needs a little extra attention. His mother died when he was one year old and because he can’t remember her, he believes he never had one.”

   “Miss Hughes.”

   Joey’s voice jolted Sally back to the present. She looked down at the anxious expression on the little boy’s face. 

   “You won’t leave me here by myself, will you? Mrs Miller always stays with me when my daddy’s late. He can’t help it.”

   “No, of course I won’t leave you. We’ll wait here together until your daddy comes to collect you.”

   Another half an hour crept by. Sally was really angry now. Just what was the man playing at keeping his child waiting all this time? She glanced out of the window just in time to see three men hurrying towards the front door of the building that Mrs Miller shared with two small companies.

   “What does your father look like, Joey?” she asked.

   “He’s big,” he answered, his arms outstretched.

   “Well I think he’s here now.” She could see that one of the men was quite portly. “Come along I’ll help you with your coat, then you’ll be all ready for him when he comes in.”

   She was fastening Joey’s coat when she heard footsteps rushing down the hall.

   “I’m so sorry I’m late, Mrs Miller. Please forgive…” the man’s voice trailed off.

   Sally, still attending Joey, didn’t look up. “You must be Joey’s father. Mrs Miller was unwell and had to leave.” Her tone was brisk. “I’m Miss Hughes and I would like to speak to you about…”

   The anger in her voice resided when she looked across at the man standing in the doorway. He was tall, rather handsome underneath that worried frown and… slim. This was definitely not the man she had thought to be Joey’s father. By big, Joey must have meant tall. 

   “Yes, and I can only apologise for being so late,” he said, feeling more than a little embarrassed. Obviously she had been going to complain about his lateness.

   “My name is Bill Roberts and I’m really sorry, Miss Hughes. I… I had no idea Mrs Miller wouldn’t be here. I usually telephone if I’m going to be so late, but today I got caught up in a couple of meetings and couldn’t get away. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

   “It’s quite all right,” she replied, hoping he wouldn’t hear the tremble in her voice. “I wasn’t doing anything else. I err… I didn’t really mind at all.” She could feel her cheeks burning. She wasn’t making a very good job of this.

   “Come along then Joey, we mustn’t keep Miss Hughes any longer. I’m already in her bad books.” He took Joey by the hand and he began to walk towards the door, but a sudden thought made him turn back. “Perhaps I could give you a lift home?”

   “There’s really no need, I don’t… I haven’t got far… What I’m trying to say is, I only live a short distance from here.” What must she sound like? He will think Jane has left his son in the care of an idiot.

   “Please, I insist. It’s my fault you’re so late. It’s the least I can do.”

  “Well then, thank you. I’ll get my coat.” She rushed across to the cloakroom, pulling her lipstick and hairbrush from her handbag. Why hadn’t she worn something better this morning?

   When Jane telephoned she had simply dropped everything in her haste to get to the nursery, totally forgetting she was wearing a sloppy sweater and an old pair of jeans. Her plan had been to do some revision that morning. Why didn’t Jane say Mr Roberts was so handsome? But then why would she? All Jane ever thought about were the children. If Mr Roberts had pointed ears, Jane wouldn’t have turned a hair, so long as he was a good father to his son. “Better, but not good,” she murmured, tugging the brush through her long, auburn hair. “But it’ll have to do.” She pulled on her coat and hurried outside.

   As Joey was skipping up and down the pavement, she took the opportunity to give his father the letter he had written to Santa. She had already handed the others to the parents earlier in the evening.

   “The children were writing letters to Santa Claus this morning. This one is Joey’s.” She hesitated, wondering whether she should tell him of the contents or leave him to find out for himself. In the end she simply said, “He’s only asked for one thing.”

   “I can guess what it is,” Bill didn’t get the chance to say anything further before Joey bounded across towards them.

   “Can we go for a pizza, Daddy?” he asked.

   “Yes, of course we can, son.” He smiled at Sally. “But we’d better take Miss Hughes home first… unless you would like to come with us.”

   The words were out before he could stop himself. Why on earth had he said that? An attractive young woman like Miss Hughes must have lots of boyfriends. Why would she want to come out with him, a widower with a four-year-old son?

   Sally hesitated. There must be a thousand reasons why she should say no. But at that precise moment, she couldn’t think of a single one. Besides she really wanted to go with them. Joey’s father was very nice. She rather liked his shy, pleasant manner, so she found herself saying, “Yes, thank you. I would love to, and please call me Sally.”

   “In that case, my name is Bill and we’re delighted you’re joining us, aren’t we Joey?”

   Joey grinned and nodded his head. He liked Miss Hughes.  

  At the restaurant, Joey chatted excitedly, telling Bill everything that had happened during the day. His words tumbled over each other. It was easy to see how much the child loved his father.

   “We all wrote a letter to Santa and Miss Hughes is going to post them for us, aren’t you Miss Hughes.”

   “Yes I am, Joey,” she said. She felt sorry for him. Santa Claus couldn’t supply a mother to order, no matter how good his intentions. She hoped the little boy wouldn’t be too disappointed on Christmas morning.

   Sensing her discomfort, Bill changed the subject. “What’s wrong with Mrs Miller? I hope it isn’t anything serious. She’s a nice lady and has been very good to us.”

   “She has a bad dose of ‘flu,” said Sally, relieved the conversion had moved from the subject of Joey’s letter. “I’ve promised to stand in for her until she recovers.”

   “I must send her some flowers,” said Bill. “They may cheer her up a little.”

   “What a lovely thought, I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.”

  Bill glanced at Joey. “I must say, you’ve made quite an impression on my son. He’s not normally so talkative with strangers. He’s very shy when meeting anyone new.”

   “Thank you,” said Sally. “I must admit Joey and I got along well today.” Sally found herself liking Bill more and more. She was usually shy herself, especially in the company of men. But somehow, Bill was different. Perhaps it was because she sensed he was lonely or shy – perhaps even both. She was rather disappointed when it was time to go. But it was getting late and Joey looked tired.

   Outside, she gave Bill her address and they set off in the direction of her home. She was sorry when they turned the corner into her road. “My flat is number ten, the one on the end. Tell me, will you be bringing Joey to the nursery tomorrow?”

   “Yes, we usually get there about eight-thirty, if that’s all right. We tend to be first in and last out,” he joked.

   “Eight-thirty it is then,” she replied.

   Standing by her front door, she watched his car disappear down the road. Already she was looking forward to seeing him again the next morning. Nevertheless, she was a little curious at why she should be feeling this way about someone she had met only a couple of hours ago.

   “I don’t suppose he’ll give me a second thought,” she murmured, slamming the door shut behind her.

   However, Bill was thinking about her as he drove home and he thought about very little else all evening.

 

Day One 

The next morning Sally rose early. After a leisurely shower, she applied her make up carefully before checking out her wardrobe. She wanted to look her best when Bill brought Joey to the nursery.

   Pulling out a few dresses, she realised they weren’t at all suitable for spending the day with twelve youngsters. They would be expecting her to play with crayons, paints and goodness knows what else. In the end she decided on a pretty blue blouse and jeans. Though the outfit was much more suitable for a nursery, it wasn’t exactly glamorous.

   She took a final look in the mirror and realised she wearing far too much make-up. Removing some of it, she glanced at her reflection again and frowned. Jeans, flat shoes, hair tied up in a pony-tail and virtually no make-up, Bill would think she was a real frump. 

****

Bill hadn’t slept very well at all. He had spent most of the night tossing and turning, recalling his meeting with Sally. She was very attractive. He reminded himself of how her long hair had framed her face, as it fell gently to her shoulders and how her large brown eyes sparkled when she smiled. Even when her hair had been tied back as it was when he first arrived at the nursery, she had looked good. He also thought it rather strange that he had felt so comfortable when talking to her. His shyness usually left him feeling embarrassed and lost for words in the presence of young ladies.

   Yes, he quite liked Sally… Well, he liked her a great deal if he was honest. But had she really liked him or had she simply agreed to go for a meal with them last night because she felt sorry for them both?

   Plumping up the pillow, he hoped that wasn’t the case and tried to push the idea from his mind. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help wondering whether it was really possible for an attractive young woman like Sally to be interested in someone like him – a widower with a four-year-old son. After all, she only looked about twenty, twenty-one at most.

   It wasn’t as though he considered himself old – or at least he hadn’t until now. He was only twenty-eight for goodness sake. But since his wife Julie had died, he had totally lost touch with young women. He grimaced. It was not as though he had ever been in touch with young women. He had always been too shy. Over the years he had come to feel more comfortable with the Mrs Millers of the world.

   After spending most of the night wondering what to do, he had come to the conclusion he must put Sally out of his mind. Mrs Miller would be back at the nursery very soon and once that happened, he probably wouldn’t see Sally ever again. Come to think of it, he was taking Joey to his parents’ home later this afternoon. He had almost forgotten about that since meeting Sally Hughes.

   Joey was spending a week with his grandparents, so he wouldn’t be back at the nursery until next Friday. Surely he could cope with seeing Sally for that one day. By the time Bill had shaved and dressed, he was convinced Sally was well and truly out of his system.

   Joey was carrying his advent calendar when he came downstairs to breakfast. “Look Daddy. There’s a little star behind this door. Now there’re only eleven days left until Christmas.”

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