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A Valentine For Daisy
By Betty Neels
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe hazy sunshine of a late July afternoon highlighted the steady stream of small children issuing from one of the solid Victorian houses in the quiet road. It was an orderly exit; Mrs Gower-Jones, who owned the nursery school and prided herself upon its genteel reputation, frowned upon noisy children. As their mothers and nannies, driving smart little Fiats, larger Mercedes and Rovers, arrived, the children gathered in the hall, and were released under the eye of whoever was seeing them off the premises.
Today this was a small, rather plump girl whose pale brown hair was pinned back into a plaited knot, a style which did nothing for her looks: too wide a mouth, a small pert nose and a determined chin, the whole redeemed from plainness by a pair of grey eyes fringed with curling mousy lashes. As Mrs Gower-Jones so often complained to the senior of her assistants, the girl had no style although there was no gainsaying the fact that the children liked her; moreover even the most tiresome child could be coaxed by her to obedience.
The last child seen safely into maternal care, the girl closed the door and crossed the wide hall to the first of the rooms on either side of it. There were two girls there, clearing away the results of the children's activities. They were too young for lessons but they spent their day modelling clay, painting, playing simple games and being read to, and the mess at the end of the afternoon was considerable.
They both looked up as the girl joined them. "Thank heaven for Saturday tomorrow!" exclaimed the older of the girls. "Pay day too. Ron's driving me to Dover this evening; we're going over to Boulogne to do some shopping." She swept an armful of coloured bricks into a plastic bucket. "What about you, Mandy?"
The other girl was wiping a small table clean. "I'm going down to Bournemouth - six of us - it'll be a bit of a squeeze in the car but who cares? There's dancing at the Winter Gardens."
They both looked at the girl who had just joined them. "What about you, Daisy?"
They asked her every Friday, she thought, not really wanting to know, but not wanting to be unfriendly. She said now, as she almost always did, "Oh, I don't know," and smiled at them, aware that though they liked her they thought her rather dull and pitied her for the lack of excitement in her life. Well, it wasn't exciting but, as she told herself shortly from time to time, she was perfectly content with it.
It took an hour or more to restore the several playrooms to the state of perfection required by Mrs Gower-Jones; only then, after she had inspected them, did she hand over their pay packets, reminding them, quite unnecessarily, to be at their posts by half-past eight on Monday morning.
Mandy and the older girl, Joyce, hurried away to catch the minibus which would take them to Old Sarum where they both lived, and Daisy went round the back of the house to the shed where she parked her bike. It was three miles to Wilton from Salisbury and main road all the way; she didn't much like the journey, though, for the traffic was always heavy, especially at this time of the year with the tourist season not yet over even though the schools had returned.
She cycled down the quiet road and presently circled the roundabout and joined the stream of homegoing traffic, thinking of the weekend ahead of her. She went over the various duties awaiting her without self-pity; she had shouldered them cheerfully several years earlier when her father had died and her mother, cosseted all her married life, had been completely lost, unable to cope with the bills, income tax and household expenses with which he had always dealt. Daisy had watched her mother become more and more depressed and muddled and finally she had taken over, dealing tidily with the household finances and shielding her mother from business worries.
In this she had been considerably helped by her young sister. Pamela was still at school, fifteen years old, clever and bent on making a name for herself but understanding that her mother had led a sheltered life which made it impossible for her to stand on her own two feet. She knew that it was hard luck on Daisy, although they never discussed it, but she had the good sense to see that there was nothing much to be done about it. Daisy was a darling but she had never had a boyfriend and it had to be faced - she had no looks to speak of. Pamela, determined to get as many A levels as possible, go to college and take up the scientific career she had decided upon, none the less intended to marry someone rich who would solve all their problems. She had no doubts about this since she was a very pretty girl and knew exactly what she wanted from life.
Daisy wove her careful way through the fast-flowing traffic, past the emerging tourists from Wilton House, and turned left at the centre of the crossroads in the middle of the little town. Her father had worked in the offices of the Wilton estate and she had been born and lived all her life in the small cottage, the end one of a row backing the high walls surrounding the park, on the edge of the town. She wheeled her bike through the gate beside the house, parked it in the shed in the back garden and went indoors.
Her mother was in the kitchen, sitting at the table, stringing beans. She was small like Daisy, her hair still only faintly streaked with grey, her pretty face marred by a worried frown.
"Darling, it's lamb chops for supper but I forgot to buy them ..."
Daisy dropped a kiss on her parent's cheek. "I'll go for them now, Mother, while you make the tea. Pam will lay the table when she gets in."
She went back to the shed and got out her bike and cycled back to the crossroads again. The butcher was halfway down the row of shops on the other side but as she reached the traffic lights they turned red and she put a foot down, impatient to get across. The traffic was heavy now and the light was tantalisingly slow. A car drew up beside her and she turned to look at it. A dark gray Rolls-Royce. She eyed it appreciatively, starting at the back and allowing her eyes to roam to its bonnet until she became aware of the driver watching her.
She stared back, feeling for some reason foolish, frowning a little at the thin smile on his handsome face. He appeared to be a big man, his hair as dark as his heavy-lidded eyes ... it was a pity that the lights changed then and the big car had slid silently away before she was back in the saddle, leaving her with the feeling that something important to her had just happened. "Ridiculous," she said so loudly that a passerby on the pavement looked at her oddly.
Pamela was home when she got back and together they set about preparing their supper before sitting down in the pleasant little sitting room to drink the tea Mrs. Pelham had made.
Excerpted from A Valentine For Daisy by Betty Neels Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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