Read an Excerpt
'Please, Mummy please '
The huge blue eyes were filled with such desperate longing, it was unbearable.
'But it'll be horribly crowded, darling. We'll have to stand in a big queue for heaven knows how long.'
'I don't mind.'
'We might be gone for hours.'
'Misty doesn't mind, either. Do you, Misty?'
Another set of blue eyes but without the sparkle. Framed by the same gorgeous, golden curls, but this face was much thinner and there were shadows caused by the kind of pain no child should have to endure. The brave smile as this little girl shook her head in agreement was even more unbearable. It was enough to create the unpleasant prickle of tears at the back of Lizzie's eyes.
She swallowed them away with a skill born of long practice.
'It's 'portant, Mummy. I have to tell Santa what me and Misty want for Christmas.'
'Christmas is weeks away, Holly. Santa will be there every day from now on. It's the first day of the big sale today and that's why it'll be so crowded. We could go next week.' 'No-o-o.'
'Cos it's Santa's first day and he might 'member what I tell him and he might forget when he's listened to lots and lots of other girls and boys. Me and Misty's secret might fall out of his head, like things do for Nanna.'
There was a snort from the corner of the room, but no comment. Lizzie hid a smile. She also stifled a sigh, trying to think.
It would be overheated and stuffy in the famous department store, Bennett's. There would be a huge queue with dozens of children waiting with their parents for their turn to sit on Santa's knee and whisper secrets. Happy, excited, healthy children and she'd have to stand there for far too long. Feeling the pull back to this small hospital room. But if she stayed, she'd feel guilty. Holly needed her too and she was going to get even less of her mother's time in the next few weeks.
'For heaven's sake,' came a firm voice from the same direction the snort had come from. 'Go, Lizzie. You'll be seeing more than you want of four walls like this in a couple of days. I'll stay here with Misty.'
'Are you sure, Mum? You've done so much already today. You must be exhausted. How's your hip?'
The older woman smiled, looking up from a pile of felt fabric she was sorting in her lap. 'I'm fine. Think about yourself for once, love. Go and have some fun with Holly. Bring me back some of that lovely Bennett's shortbread and I'll be happy.'
Holly was whispering in her sister's ear and Misty was nodding. Smiling as she whispered back. They both looked at their mother and the solemn expression on two small faces told Lizzie that the secret was of the utmost importance.
She had to swallow hard again. Her two precious daughters who should look identical but were becoming more different every day.
How ironic that she'd chosen Misty as the name for the twin who was fading away before their eyes.
What was the secret wish that Santa had to know about as soon as possible?
That this was going to work? That Misty would be well again?
Hope might be a vital ingredient in what made something successful. Lizzie took a deep breath. She smiled. 'Come on, then, Tuppence. Let's go and see Santa.'
Jack Rousseau had no idea whether he was heading in the right direction.
Why on earth had he thought he might as well pop into Bennett's because it was right beside the bank and get finding the only Christmas gifts he needed to purchase out of the way? He should have spent a pleasant Sunday morning in the markets last week, when he had still been in Paris, and found something original enough to make both his housekeepers smile.
Instead, he was here in London and it was freezing and grey outside and way too crowded and warm inside. And he only had an hour or so until he was due at the 'meet and greet' at Westbridge Park, the prestigious hospital where he was due to start his temporary specialist position tomorrow.
The sensible thing to do would be to give up and come back another time. Preferably when the sale had finished. Late at night, too, so there wouldn't be so many noisy children and pushchairs to avoid. He should have stayed downstairs and chosen something in the perfume department and ignored the flash of inspiration that had sent him in search of kitchenware. Now he was trapped on an escalator, looking down on a sea of humanity and Christmas decorations.
Was anybody quite as unlucky as he was in having the whole world building up expectations to a day that held a memory as unpleasant as the spectacular ending of a marriage? He had avoided the whole business now as far as humanly possible for many years. A bonus in the form of cash had always been suitable for the people he'd needed to find gifts for so why had he chosen this year to break his routine?
There had to be a thousand trees in this store. Incroyable. There was a whole forest of them when he stepped off at the top. Green trees. Silver and white ones. Even a fluorescent blue thing that looked very wrong. They were all covered with bows and balls and twinkling lights and it was all too much. Jack ducked between two of them and found himself in, of all places, the lingerie department.
Pausing to catch his breath and find an easy escape route, he found the shapely mannequins, wearing Christmas hats and very little else, quite a pleasant distraction. Jack was rather taken with a red and black striped bustier with built-in suspenders that were holding up some fishnet stockings.
A perfect Christmas gift for the woman with the right credentials. What a shame Danielle had given him that ultimatum only last week. She knew the rules, he explained silently to the mannequin, so why had she gone and ruined everything by demanding a commitment he would never make again? With a grimace that embraced both the current emptiness of his bed and the fact that he was trying to communicate telepathically with a plastic woman, Jack sighed and turned to scan the crowds once more, looking for a 'down' escalator.
There was a long queue of people making a human barrier halfway across this floor and Jack turned his head to find out what the attraction might be. A fashion parade perhaps? In the lingerie department?
No such luck. He should have guessed by the fact that everyone in this queue had small people attached to them. There was a Christmas grotto over there by the lifts and a Father Christmas was enthroned on a crimson velvet chair. A photographer was adjusting lights as a mother tried to persuade a toddler to sit still on Santa's knee to have his picture taken.
A nearby child was whining. 'When's my turn, Mum?'
Another was crying. The rising level of high-pitched, excited voices was starting to make him feel distinctly uncomfortable, like fingernails on a blackboard.
The stairs would be faster. Turning on all the charm he could muster, Jack edged rapidly through the press of humanity, excusing himself repeatedly. The vast majority of the people were women and they responded admirably to a bit of authority tempered with a smile.
That they continued to stare at him after he'd passed by went unnoticed.
He almost made it. If it hadn't been for the little grandma practically fainting in his arms, he would have been half way down the stairs by now.
Instead, he found himself searching for a chair. 'Is there somewhere she could sit down?' he asked the saleswoman who had come rushing to help.
'Here. This way.' The face over the trim black skirt and frilly white blouse was anxious. The woman, whose name tag said 'Denise', was holding aside the curtain that was being used to screen the back of the Christmas grotto.
The chair was solid and wooden and the elderly woman sank onto it with a relieved groan.
'Keep your head down for a moment,' Jack said. He supported her with one arm, using his free hand to find her wrist.
'Shall I call for an ambulance?' Denise asked.
'No!' The elderly woman shook her purple rinsed hair. 'Please don't do that.'
'Give us a minute,' Jack said. 'I'm a doctor.'
'Oh-h-h.' Denise smiled for the first time. 'That's lucky.'
Jack thought of the minutes ticking past and how hard it might be to find a taxi once he made it outside but he wasn't going to contradict Denise. He could feel a rapid and rather weak pulse in the wrist he was holding and he noted the faint sheen of perspiration on the woman's pale face.
'What's your name?' he enquired.
'I'm Jack,' he told her. 'Dr Rousseau. Tell me, has anything like this ever happened to you before?'
'No. I'm as healthy as a horse. I don't want any fuss. I just came over a bit funny, that's all.'
'Yes. I'm starting to feel a bit better now, though.' 'No pain in your chest?'
'You're puffing a bit.'
'I walked up all those stairs. My great-grandson's here somewhere, with my daughter. He's waiting to see Father Christmas.'
This was where the man in the red suit must come when he was allowed a breather, Jack decided. There was a small table beside the chair with a carafe of water and some glasses.
'Do you think I could have a glass of that water, dear?' Mabel asked.
Denise did the honours. Jack stayed where he was, thinking through his options. If he could rule out anything serious, like a cardiac event, he could probably leave Mabel and escape downstairs. Or maybe they could take her downstairs. It was rather stuffy in this small, curtained space. He was in a corner and his back was right against one edge. Right beside the red velvet throne, judging by how clearly he could hear voices.
'Hello there, dear. What's your name?'
'And how old are you, Holly?' 'I'm six.'
'And what it is you want for Christmas?' 'It's not just for me.' The six year old girl sounded so earnest she was breathless. 'It's for Misty, too.' 'Who's Misty?' 'My sister.'
'And how old is Misty?' 'She's six, too.' 'Oh you must be twins.'
Santa didn't sound half as bright as Holly, Jack thought. He still had his fingers on Mabel's wrist and her pulse was jumping a bit. Maybe he should send for an ambulance. Just because she wasn't experiencing any chest pain, it didn't mean she wasn't having a heart attack. The pulse was faint enough to make him concerned about her blood pressure as well. Of course, if she'd nearly fainted, it would have dropped considerably but it didn't pick up in the next minute or so, he'd need to do something.
'How old are you, Mabel?'
'Are you on medication for anything?'
'Just my blood pressure. The doctor's given me some new pills for it. I just started them yesterday.'
'Hmm. That might well have something to do with how you're feeling. Can you remember the name of the pills?' he asked.
'They're in my purse. Oh, no where is my purse?'
'You must have dropped it!' Denise exclaimed. 'Don't worry, I'll go and have a look right now.'
Jack watched with dismay as the saleswoman ducked through the curtain and disappeared. She might be gone for a long time and he could hardly abandon an elderly woman having a vagal episode, could he? He was trapped. Closing his eyes for a moment, he could hear that Holly was still chattering to Santa.
'It's cos we were born at Christmas. I'm Holly and she's Misty. Like, you know, misty-toe.'
Misty-toe? Jack felt his lips twitch and some of his frustration evaporated. He was stuck for the moment so he might as well try and enjoy it.
'And you and Misty want a daddy for Christmas, you said?'
A daddy? Jack blinked and started listening a lot more carefully.
'Yes, please. Is that OK? Mummy says we don't need one really but I'm sure she'd like it. You can manage that, can't you? I told Misty you could. She wanted to come too but she's too sick.'
'Ah I'm sorry to hear that.'
So was Mabel. Her head was up and she was clearly eavesdropping on the secret conversation behind them as well. At the mention of the sick sister, she looked straight at Jack. Horrified? More like expectant.
As if he could do anything about it. He was a specialist surgeon, not a paediatrician. Unless they needed new body parts transplanted, he didn't have anything to do with small people.
He had to admit he was getting curious about this child, though. It wasn't hard to straighten a little and move his head to where there was a gap in the curtain that would allow him to have a peek.
He could see the back of Santa's head and the arm that was around the child on his knee. He could see a mop of blonde curls around a very pretty face that was staring very intently at the man hearing her wish. She had the biggest, bluest eyes Jack had ever seen. Give her a set of wings and a little halo on a headband and this Holly would make a perfect Christmas angel.
How sad that she had a twin sister who was so sick.
Santa must be feeling the same way. He was certainly giving this child a little more time than others might have had.