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Bill Vincent eyed her hopefully. "Can you do me an enormous favour, Kate?"
"Of course, if I can. What's the problem?"
"Could you possibly hang on with young Abby Cartwright for a while? Her father's on the phone from the hospital -"
Kate winced. "Not the baby already?"
"Weeks early, hence the panic. Fortunately the grandparents were arriving today anyway. Abby's uncle is fetching them from Heathrow, and will collect her on the way back."
"Which means Uncle's not likely to collect Abby any time soon, then," she said, resigned.
"Afraid not. I've got a Consortium meeting, or I'd stay myself -"
"Better if I do it," said Kate promptly. "I'm her teacher, the one she knows best. She's new this term, and so shy she's finding it hard to make friends. I'll take her home with me."
The Head smiled, relieved. "Thanks a lot, Kate. Will you give Tim Cartwright the glad news? I'll look after your class."
Kate picked up the phone in the office to reassure a distraught Tim Cartwright.
"I'm on a hospital payphone, Miss Dysart, so I'll be brief," he told her. "Julia's desperately worried about Abby and wants me to go home, but I hate the thought of leaving her. Mr Vincent said you'll take care of Abby, but are you really prepared to do that until my brother-in-law arrives? He could be late."
"No problem at all, Mr Cartwright," said Kate soothingly. "You stay with your wife and tell her not to worry. I'm taking Abby home with me. Laurel Cottage at the end of the village. But could you contact her uncle, please, and give him my phone number?" Kate waited as he made a note of it, cut short Tim Cartwright's fervent thanks and went back to her class to report to Bill Vincent that everything was sorted.
When the other children streamed out to join waiting parents Kate called Abby Cartwright from the window. The child turned quickly, her blue eyes anxious behind her spectacles, fine flaxen hair escaping from its bunches.
"Abby," Kate said gently, "your father won't be picking you up today. He's just taken your mother to the hospital to have the baby - "
"But he can't come yet, Miss Dysart, it's too soon!" said the child in alarm.
"You know it's a boy, then?" Kate smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry. Baby brother's in a hurry, that's all. Your uncle's coming to collect you on the way back from the airport."
"Then he's gone to fetch Grandma and Grandad," said Abby with relief. Her face fell. "But do I have to wait here at school until they come?"
"No. I'll take you home with me."
After Kate had collected her belongings and surrendered the classroom to the caretaker who doubled as cleaner, she said goodbye to her colleagues and took Abby out to her car. Because the village school was too short of space for a car park her elderly little runabout was outside in the village street, as usual, and as Kate approached it with Abby a man emerged from a sleek foreign vehicle parked a short distance away.
Kate stared in utter amazement, convinced for a moment that she was seeing things. But Alasdair Drummond, even taller than she remembered in a formal dark suit, was too solid a figure to be an apparition.
"Hello, Kate." He strode towards her, hand outstretched, his smile familiar and self-confident.
Kate touched the hand briefly. "This is a surprise, Alasdair. What on earth are you doing here?"
"I came to see you, Kate."
He expected her to believe that?
When she made no response his eyes narrowed. "I realise I should have got in touch first, but I've been to a funeral, so on impulse I came out this way afterwards on the chance of seeing you."
Kate turned to the child beside her. "I'll just pop you in my car, Abby, while I talk to this gentleman for a moment. Shan't be long."
Kate fastened Abby into the passenger seat, closed the door and looked up at Alasdair Drummond, displaying none of the over-the-moon delight he'd obviously expected. At one time she would have given her soul to see him turn up out of the blue like this. But not for many a long year, and certainly not here, where they were attracting far too much attention from her departing colleagues.
"One of your pupils?" asked Alasdair.
"Yes." Kate explained the situation briefly. "So I'm afraid you've come out of your way for nothing - I can't even ask you to my place for a coffee."
"I'd hoped for a lot more than coffee." His eyes held hers. "Take pity on an old friend, Kate, and have dinner with me tonight."
He had to be joking!
"Sorry, Alasdair." Not that she was, in the slightest. "Even without the present complications I'm much too busy. I'm going home tomorrow for half-term - "
"I know. Your brother told me over lunch yesterday."
Kate's eyes narrowed. "You've seen Adam?"
"He's auctioning some furniture for me."
And Adam hadn't seen fit to mention it?
Kate caught sight of Abby's anxious face through the car window. "Look, I really must go."
Alasdair caught her hand. "I'll ring you later. Adam gave me your number."
Less pleased with her brother by the minute, Kate detached her hand, said goodbye, got into her car, backed it away carefully to avoid contact with the pristine Italian paintwork of Alasdair's, and, with a cool little wave to him, turned to the child in apology as she drove off. "Sorry about that."
After the shock of meeting Alasdair Drummond again, Kate was halfway home before her attention returned to the tense, silent child behind her. "Are you all right, Abby?"
The little girl looked up at Kate, her eyes desperately worried behind her spectacles. Her lower lip trembled. "Does it hurt a lot to have a baby, Miss Dysart?"
Kate chose her words carefully. "I can't speak from personal experience, Abby, but all six of my assorted nephews and nieces arrived without much trouble. Don't worry. I'm sure your mother will be fine," she added firmly. And sent up a fervent prayer that she was right.
Kate's home was one of a pair of small cottages a mile past the village itself. Situated deep in rural Herefordshire, Foychurch was a friendly place, with inhabitants who made Kate so welcome to the close-knit community from her first day at the village school that she'd soon felt as much part of it as she did at home in Stavely.
When they arrived Kate unlocked the front door, which opened directly into the sitting room, and ushered her guest inside.
"What a sweet little house, Miss Dysart," said Abby in admiration.
"Just right for one," Kate agreed, as she took the child's coat. "Sit down and make yourself at home, while I make some tea and find something for you to drink."
The phone rang while Kate was in the tiny, galley-style kitchen.
"Miss Dysart? Jack Spencer. Tim gave me your number. I gather my niece is with you?"
"That's right, Mr Spencer."
"Look, Miss Dysart, I'm really sorry about this, but I'm stuck here at Heathrow for a while. My parents' plane is delayed."
"I assure you it's no problem. I'll keep Abby safe until you arrive, whatever time it is." Kate supplied her address, then joined her little guest.
"That was your uncle, Abby. I'm afraid he won't be here for a while. Your grandparents' plane is delayed."
Abby perched on the edge of the sofa with her fizzy drink, eyeing Kate in distress. "I'm sorry to be such a nuisance, Miss Dysart."
Excerpted from Sweet Surrender by Catherine George Copyright © 2003 by Catherine George
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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