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How could the room be reduced to this state when she had only been gone for a minute? Blossom White surveyed the scene in front of her, and tried to make herself heard above the rampaging infants. There might be only four of them but they were making enough noise for a couple of dozen children. 'Harry! Simone! That's enough. Stop throwing cake at Rebecca and Ella this instant.'
The twins ignored her and continued to pelt two-year-olds Rebecca and Ellawho appeared to be screaming with delight and not distresswith lumps of chocolate gateau.
Jolly Aunty Blossom went out of the window as a good dollop of gooey cake landed splat on her forehead. Forgetting she had promised herself that with her sister, the children's mother, in hospital she would be patience itself with her nephew and nieces, Blossom sprang across the room and seized the elder children in a firm grip.
Her fingers itching to smack small bottoms, Blossom contented herself with hissing ferociously, 'Did you hear what I said? That's enough. No TV after tea for you, now. You're straight to bed after your bath.'
'We want to watch our programmes.' Harry's angelic facewhich was all at odds with his volatile and difficult naturefrowned at her and he wriggled in her grasp.
'No deal, Harry. Not until you can do what you're told.'
'Mummy always lets us.'
Mummy no doubt lived in a state of perpetual exhaustion. 'I'm not your mummy, and I tell you what to do, not the other way round. Understand?'
This was clearly a new concept for her nephew, along with the other side to Aunty Blossom he was seeing, and he responded to it by erupting in a storm of tears, the three girls joining inafter a startled moment or two.
How Melissa copes with two sets of twins under the age of five I just don't know, Blossom thought grimly. She had been in charge of them for one day and she felt like a wet rag. Glancing at the fragments of cake and cream splattered on Melissa's white walls, and the table swimming in spilt orange juice which was steadily dripping onto the varnished floor-boards, Blossom contemplated the idea of joining in with the children and bawling her head off. Instead she said firmly, 'No more crying. We're going to clear this mess up together, Harry and Simone, OK? Who can clear up the most?'
'Me, me.' Harry's tears stopped like magic.
Sending the older two to fetch the kitchen cleaner and kitchen roll, Blossom stared at her younger nieces. They too had stopped crying and were engaged in licking their small hands clean of chocolate, giggling as bits continued to drop on the floor from their clothes and hair.
Whisking them up in her arms, Blossom carried the little girls into the sitting room where she popped them in their playpen until she could deal with them. She'd never agreed with the concept of playpens before Melissa had had the children, but now she was all for them. It might be a bit like putting a child in a cage, but she was now of the opinion it also kept hard-worked mothers sane.
Returning to the dining room, she found Harry and Simone busily clearing up. It took a while. Eventually, though, the room was restored to order, all four children had been bathed, read to and were asleep, and Blossom staggered downstairs for a cup of coffee. She had been trying to make one earlier while the children were occupied eating their teaa big mistake.
Suddenly, after the mayhem of the day, she had a chance to sit and think, and she almost found herself wishing the children awakealmost. Ever since her brother-in-law Greg had called her that morning in a blind panic to say that Melissa had been rushed into hospital with terrible stomach pains, she had had her sister in the back of her mind whatever she'd done. Now all was quiet and still, fear for Melissa became paramount.
She had rushed to the house in a leafy suburb of Sevenoaks from her flat in London in record time early that morning, to find Greg tearing his hair out.
'She was all right last night,'he'd said desperately, meeting her at the front door with Rebecca and Ella in his arms, and Harry and Simone just behind him, a slice of buttered toast in each of their sticky hands. 'And then she woke about three, saying she felt sick, and half an hour later the pain kicked in. Within a short while she couldn't stand or move, she was so bad. The doctor thinks it might be her appendix. He says it can happen like that sometimes, with no warning whatsoever.'
'Well, I'm here now, and I'm staying until I'm not needed,' Blossom said firmly. 'You get off to the hospital and forget everything here.'
He'd gone like a shot but, Blossom reflected ruefully now, she hadn't meant he forget them so completely he didn't let her know what was happening. Reaching for the telephone at her elbow, she called the hospital, and after being transferred twice she eventually spoke to a Sister Pearson, who informed her very kindly that Melissa was at present in Theatre. 'Mr Robinson, the consultant in charge of your sister, thinks she may have suffered a severe attack of appendicitis, and that the appendix might possibly have ruptured. He felt an operation to find out what was what was the safest option.'The Sister paused. 'I'm afraid your brother-in-law is a little tense at the moment. Shall I get him to ring you later, once your sister is out of Theatre, and he can give you some news?'
'That'd be great, thanks.' Blossom replaced the receiver and reached for her coffee. She could imagine Sister Pearson was mistress of the understatement. Greg would be climbing the walls, no doubt. He was a brilliant physicist with a top job in a major electronic firm in London, but on a practical, day-today level absolutely useless. Highly strung and mind-blowingly academic, he barely existed in the real world. But ever since he and her sister had set eyes on each other at university they had been inseparable. That Greg relied on Melissa utterly and completely was indisputable; he wouldn't know what day it was unless she told him. She was his sun, moon and stars.
Oh, Melissa, Melissa. Blossom leant forward, the mug of coffee in her hands and her eyes tightly shut. She had to be all right, she just had to be. Anything else was unthinkable. Although not identical twins, Blossom and Melissa were nevertheless very close, in spite of Melissa having married Greg at the age of twenty-two and moved here. Blossom, on the other hand, had chosen the career path and stayed in London, carving a hard-won niche for herself as a freelance fashion photographer after years of blood, sweat and toil.
Blossom raised her head and glanced mistily round the sitting room, before reaching for her handkerchief. It wouldn't be fair if anything happened to Melissa now, not when she had finally got the family she had waited for for so long. Right from their honeymoon Greg and her sister had tried for a baby, but Melissa had endured one miscarriage after another. She and Greg had spent a fortune going to the best doctors, both abroad and at home, but as the years had crept by they had eventually accepted it was just going to be the two of them. And then Melissa had found herself pregnant with twins just after their seventh anniversary, and lo and behold Rebecca and Ella had followed twenty months later. In spite of the timing, Melissa had been ecstatic.
Telling herself she couldn't give way to the flood of tears threatening to burst forth, Blossom forced herself to go into the kitchen to make a sandwich. She had eaten nothing all day, and her stomach was still twisted in a giant knot, but she was feeling distinctly lightheaded now. It wouldn't do to be anything but one-hundred-per-cent fit if one of the children woke up and needed her. Especially if it was Harry.
She reached for the loaf of bread in the bread binhomemade. She didn't know how her sister did it, but Melissa insisted she wanted the children to have nothing but good, home-made produce every day. She had just set it on the kitchen table when the doorbell rang. No more than a second later, it rang again.
Worried it would wake Harry, who was the lightest of sleepers, Blossom galloped to the front door, mentally cursing whoever was standing on the doorstep. Wings she didn't have!
He had dark hair, the bluest of blue eyes and a tall, lean frame that seemed to go on for ever. Six-foot-four at least, Blossom thought inconsequentially. Maybe six-five. Suddenly she was vitally aware that she was in her oldest jeans, and that her white shirt bore evidence of everything the children had eaten during the day. And she hadn't stopped to put any make-up on that morning. Or do anything with her hair other than drag it back in a ponytail. 'Hello,'she managed weakly. 'Can I help?'
'I'm Zak Hamilton.' He extended a tanned hand which emerged from the crisp sleeve of a pristine clean and definitely designer-cut pale blue shirt which had never come within a mile of grubby little hands and mouths. Neither had his immaculate pale-grey trousers, come to that. 'Greg works for me?'he added helpfully as Blossom continued to gaze at him.
Zak Hamilton. Of course. This was the big boss of Hamilton Electronics. She remembered Melissa saying the son had inherited the company six years ago, when the father had died unexpectedly, and that since then it had mushroomed into a huge giant of a success. Zak Hamilton had the Midas touch, Melissa had stated, partly due to the fact that he was intimidatingly intelligent and forward thinking, but also because he wasn't afraid to take a risk now and again. It had been he who had head-hunted Greg within months of inheriting the firm, making him an offer he couldn't refuse. She also remembered she'd got the impression Melissa wasn't very fond of Greg's boss, although her sister hadn't actually said so. Greg, on the other hand, couldn't speak highly enough of him. He sang his praises all the time.
Pulling herself together, Blossom said, 'I'm Melissa's sister, Greg's sister-in-law.' And then felt slightly idiotic. Of course she was Greg's sister-in-law if she was his wife's sister. Any fool could have worked that out, and this man was no fool.
'Hi, Greg's sister-in-law.'He looked amused. 'Do you have a name as well as that title?'
Here we go. She just hated telling anyone her name for the first time, but especially this man somehow. 'Blossom White.' She waited for the blue eyes to register surprise and for his amusement to increase. Neither happened. Instead he continued to survey her steadily. 'Melissa and I are twins,'she added hurriedly. 'Although we don't look it. Our mother thought it kind of cute to call the elder twin, my sister, Melissawhich means "bee"and the younger Blossom. The bee going to the blossom, you know? She thought the elder would look after the younger, I guess.' The number of times she'd explained this.
'Did it work?'he asked with what seemed genuine interest. 'Not really.' It was more the other way round, if anything. Melissa had always been the shy, retiring one whereas Blossom rushed in where angels feared to tread. Well, until Dean, that was. She had changed a lot since thenin her private life, at least. In her work she had to be as loud and confident as ever. Aware he was still staring at herprobably thinking what a gawky mess she was compared to Melissa, who was always beautifully turned out in spite of the childrenBlossom said, 'You've come to ask how things are?' Another daft question in the circumstances.
He nodded. 'Greg was going to call, but he hasn't.'
'I can't tell you much, except Melissa is having an operation and I'm waiting for Greg to call to say how things went.'
He looked concerned, genuinely concerned, and to Blossom's horror she felt her nose prick and the tears she had banished earlier bank up behind her eyes. 'They they think her appendix might have burst or something.' Don't cry. Whatever you do, don't cry. Not now. Not in front of him.
'I'm so sorry; I didn't realise it was serious.' His voice was rich, deep, and carried the slightest of accents which she couldn't place. 'Can I do anything to help at all?'
Taking a deep breath, she realised she'd been terribly rude in not asking him in, which wasn't like her. Mind, she didn't feel like herself with Melissa perhaps at death's door. 'No, everything is under control,' she lied politely. 'But perhaps you'd like to come in for a coffee or something?'
He didn't hesitate. Blossom admitted to being a little taken aback. He must realise she'd had a day of it from the way she looked, surely, and that she wanted nothing more than a hot bath? But perhaps he assumed she always looked like something the cat wouldn't deign to drag in. 'You'll have to excuse the state of me,'she said somewhat stiffly as she led the way into the sitting room, remembering too late she hadn't got round to cleaning the playpen after Rebecca and Ella had gone to sleep. 'The children had a battle with chocolate cake.' She indicated the state of the play pen with a wave of her hand. 'As you can see.'
He nodded thoughtfully. 'I wondered what it was on your forehead. Obviously the chocolate cake won.'
Well, that wasn't very tactful. She forced a tight smile, reminding herself this man was Greg's boss. 'I'm not used to looking after four young children,'she said in a voice that was just off-frosty. 'And Harry's something of a handful.'
He nodded again. She didn't know if it was a 'that's pretty obvious'nod, or a 'poor you'nod, but she rather suspected the former. That being the caseand especially because he was standing there looking like he had just stepped out of a top magazine for the well-dressed manher voice remained at the same temperature when she said, 'If you'll excuse me a minute, I'll see about the coffee.' And left the room with as much dignity as she could muster in the appalling circumstances.
Once in the hall, she shut the sitting-room door firmly behind her and then darted into the downstairs cloakroom. Looking into the small round mirror, she groaned softly.
It was as bad as it could be. Wild, scarecrow hair, shiny pink faceexcept for the bits smeared with chocolate cakeand she even had a couple of leaves from the weeping-willow tree lodged in her hair, from when she had romped with Harry and the girls in the garden before tea. She had been trying to tire the four of them out before bedtime but in the event the only person who had nearly collapsed with exhaustion was her.
'Great, just great,' she muttered at the scowling reflection in the glass. And then she shrugged. What did it matter how she looked with Melissa so ill? Zak Hamilton would have to take her as he found her. She would give him his cup of coffee and then politely make it clear she expected him to leave.
In spite of herself, though, she found she couldn't leave the cloakroom without washing her hands and face, and brushing her hair with the brush Melissa kept in the cabinet for when the children needed quickly sprucing up. Looping her hair back into a ponytail that was now sleek and shiny, she quickly checked herself once more and then made her way to the kitchen.
Instant coffee would have to do. She reached for the jar she had bought herself on her last visit to the house two months before, when she had babysat the children over a weekend while Melissa and Greg had gone to Paris for their wedding anniversary. She had been too shattered coping with the children to bother with the coffee-maker, and she saw now the coffee hadn't been used since. Melissa was the original earth-mother; 'instant' didn't feature in her sister's vocabulary. It made up the main content of hers.
She had just spooned a generous amount into two china mugs festooned with poppies when the telephone rang. Snatching up the kitchen phone, she said breathlessly, 'Yes?'
'Blossom? It's Greg. She's out of Theatre, and the consultant is happy with how things went. The appendix was on the point of bursting, so it's as well he operated immediately. She'll be in a few days, though. Something to do with her blood.'
'Oh, Greg.' Blossom found she had to sit down fairly quickly on one of the stools at the breakfast bar, her ears ringing. 'Have you spoken to her? How is she feeling?'
'She's out of it, will be till morning, according to the staff. In spite of that I think I'd like to hang round a bit longer, if that's OK with you? Can you cope with the kids?'
He sounded so lost and shaken, Blossom's heart went out to him. 'Of course,' she said. 'You stay as long as you want. The kids are fine and they're all asleep. Have you eaten anything?'
'Eaten?' he repeated vaguely. 'Oh, yes, I think so. Some sandwiches. Look, I have to go. I'll see you in the morning.' And he put the phone down. Typical Greg.