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'We need to talk.'
Amelia sat back on her heels and looked up at her sister with a sinking heart. She'd heard them arguing, heard her brother-in-law's harsh, bitter tone, heard the slamming of the doors, then her sister's approaching footsteps on the stairs. And she knew what was coming.
What she didn't know was how to deal with it.
'This isn't working,' she said calmly.
'No.' Laura looked awkward and acutely uncomfortable, but she also looked a little relieved that Amelia had made it easy for her. Again. Her hands clenched and unclenched nervously. 'It's not me—it's Andy. Well, and me, really, I suppose. It's the kids. They just—run around all the time, and the baby cries all night, and Andy's tired. He's supposed to be having a rest over Christmas, and instead— it's not their fault, Millie, but having the children here is difficult, we're just not used to it. And the dog, really, is the last straw. So—yes, I'm sorry, but—if you could find somewhere as soon as possible after Christmas—'
Amelia set aside the washing she was folding and got up, shaking her head, the thought of staying where she—no, where her children were not wanted, anathema to her. 'It's OK. Don't apologise. It's a terrible imposition. Don't worry about it, we'll go now. I'll just pack their things and we'll get out of your hair—'
'I thought you didn't have anywhere to go?'
She didn't. Or money to pay for it, but that was hardly her sister's fault, was it? 'Don't worry,' she said again. 'We'll go to Kate's.'
But crossing her fingers behind her back was pointless. Kate lived in a tiny cottage, one up one down, with hardly room for her and her owndaughter. There was no way the four of them and the dog could squeeze in, too. But her sister didn't know that, and her shoulders dropped in relief.
'I'll help you get their things together,' she said quickly, and disappeared, presumably to comb the house for any trace of their presence while Amelia sagged against the wall, shutting her eyes hard against the bitter sting of tears and fighting down the sob of desperation that was rising in her throat. Two and a half days to Christmas.
Short, dark, chaotic days in which she had no hope of finding anywhere for them to go or another job to pay for it. And, just to make it worse, they were in the grip of an unseasonably cold snap, so even if they were driven to it, there was no way they could sleep in the car. Not without running the engine, and that wasn't an option, since she probably only had just enough fuel to get away from her sister's house with her pride intact.
And, as it was the only thing she had left, that was a priority.
Sucking in a good, deep breath, she gathered up the baby's clothes and started packing them haphazardly, then stopped herself. She had to prioritise. Things for the next twenty-four hours in one little bag, then everything else she could sort out later once they'd arrived at wherever they were going. She sorted, shuffled, packed the baby's clothes, then her own, then finally went into the bedroom Kitty and Edward were sharing and packed their clothes and toys, with her mind firmly shut down and her thoughts banished for now.
She could think later. There'd be time to think once they were out of here. In the meantime, she needed to gather up the children and any other bits and pieces she'd overlooked and get them out before she totally lost it. She went down with the bags hanging like bunches of grapes from her fingers, dumped them in the hall and went into the euphemistically entitled family room, where her children were lying on their tummies watching the TV with the dog between them.
Not on the sofa again, mercifully.
'Kitty? Edward? Come and help me look for all your things, because we're going to go and see Kate and Megan.'
'What—now?' Edward asked, twisting round, his face sceptical. 'It's nearly lunch time.'
'Are we going to Kate's for lunch?' Kitty asked brightly.
'Yes. It's a surprise.' A surprise for Kate, at least, she thought, hustling them through the house and gathering up the last few traces of their brief but eventful stay.
'Why do we need all our things to go and see Kate and Megan for lunch?' Kitty asked, but Edward got there first and shushed her. Bless his heart. Eight years old and she'd be lost without him.
They met up with Laura in the kitchen, her face strained, a bag in her hand.
'I found these,' she said, giving it to Amelia. 'The baby's bottles. There was one in the dishwasher, too.'
'Thanks. Right, well, I just need to get the baby up and fold his cot, and we'll be out of your hair.'
She retreated upstairs to get him. Poor Thomas. He whimpered and snuggled into her as she picked him up, and she collapsed his travel cot one-handed and bumped it down the stairs. Their stuff was piled by the door, and she wondered if Andy might come out of his study and give them a hand to load it into her car, but the door stayed resolutely shut throughout.
It was just as well. It would save her the bother of being civil.
She put the baby in his seat, the cold air bringing him wide awake and protesting, threw their things into the boot and buckled the other two in, with Rufus on the floor in the front, before turning to her sister with her last remnant of pride and meeting her eyes.
'Thank you for having us. I'm sorry it was so difficult.'
Laura's face creased in a mixture of distress and embarrassment. 'Oh, don't. I'm so sorry, Millie. I hope you get sorted out. Here, these are for the children.' She handed over a bag of presents, all beautifully wrapped. Of course. They would be. Also expensive and impossible to compete with. And that wasn't what it was supposed to be about, but she took them, her arm working on autopilot.
'Thank you. I'm afraid I haven't got round to getting yours yet—'
'It doesn't matter. I hope you find somewhere nice soon. And—take this, please. I know money's tight for you at the moment, but it might give you the first month's rent or deposit—'
She stared at the cheque. 'Laura, I can't—'
'Yes, you can. Please. Owe me, if you have to, but take it. It's the least I can do.'
So she took it, stuffing it into her pocket without looking at it. 'I'll pay you back as soon as I can.'
'Whenever. Have a good Christmas.'
How she found that smile she'd never know. 'And you,' she said, unable to bring herself to say the actual words, and getting behind the wheel and dropping the presents into the passenger footwell next to Rufus, she shut the door before her sister could lean in and hug her, started the engine and drove away.
'Mummy, why are we taking all our Christmas presents and Rufus and the cot and everything to Kate and Megan's for lunch?' Kitty asked, still obviously troubled and confused, as well she might be.
Damn Laura. Damn Andy. And especially damn David. She schooled her expression and threw a smile over her shoulder at her little daughter. 'Well, we aren't going to stay with Auntie Laura and Uncle Andy any more, so after we've had lunch we're going to go somewhere else to stay,' she said.
'Why? Don't they like us?'
Ouch. 'Of course they do,' she lied, 'but they just need a bit of space.'
'So where are we going?'
It was a very good question, but one Millie didn't have a hope of answering right now…
* * *
It was an ominous sound.
He'd heard it before, knew instantly what it was, and Jake felt his mouth dry and his heart begin to pound. He glanced up over his shoulder, swore softly and turned, skiing sideways straight across and down the mountain, pushing off on his sticks and plunging down and away from the path of the avalanche that was threatening to wipe him out, his legs driving him forward out of its reach.
The choking powder cloud it threw up engulfed him, blinding him as the raging, roaring monster shot past behind him. The snow was shaking under his skis, the air almost solid with the fine snow thrown up as the snowfield covering the side of the ridge collapsed and thundered down towards the valley floor below.
He was skiing blind, praying that he was still heading in the right direction, hoping that the little stand of trees down to his left was now above him and not still in front of him, because at the speed he was travelling to hit one could be fatal.
It wasn't fatal, he discovered. It was just unbelievably, immensely painful. He bounced off a tree, then felt himself lifted up and carried on by the snow—down towards the scattered tumble of rocks at the bottom of the snowfield.
With his last vestige of self-preservation, he triggered the airbags of his avalanche pack, and then he hit the rocks…
'Can you squeeze in a few more for lunch?'
Kate took one look at them all, opened the door wide and ushered them inside. 'What on earth is going on?' she asked, her concerned eyes seeking out the truth from Millie's face.
'We've come for lunch,' Kitty said, still sounding puzzled. 'And then we're going to find somewhere to live. Auntie Laura and Uncle Andy don't want us. Mummy says they need space, but I don't think they like us.'
'Of course they do, darling. They're just very busy, that's all.'
Kate's eyes flicked down to Kitty with the dog at her side, to Edward, standing silently and saying nothing, and back to Millie. 'Nice timing,' she said flatly, reading between the lines.
'Tell me about it,' she muttered. 'Got any good ideas?'
Kate laughed slightly hysterically and handed the three older children a bag of chocolate coins off the tree. 'Here, guys, go and get stuck into these while Mummy and I have a chat. Megan, share nicely and don't give any chocolate to Rufus.'
'I always share nicely! Come on, we can share them out—and Rufus, you're not having any!'
Rolling her eyes, Kate towed Amelia down to the other end of the narrow room that was the entire living space in her little cottage, put the kettle on and raised an eyebrow. 'Well?'
She shifted Thomas into a more comfortable position in her arms. 'They aren't really child-orientated. They don't have any, and I'm not sure if it's because they haven't got round to it or because they really don't like them,' Millie said softly.
'And your lot were too much of a dose of reality?'
She smiled a little tightly. 'The dog got on the sofa, and Thomas is teething.'
'Ah.' Kate looked down at the tired, grizzling baby in his mother's arms and her kind face crumpled. 'Oh, Amelia, I'm so sorry,' she murmured under her breath. 'I can't believe they kicked you out just before Christmas!'
'They didn't. They wanted me to look for somewhere afterwards, but…'
She shrugged. 'My pride got in the way,' she said, hating the little catch in her voice. 'And now my kids have nowhere to go for Christmas. And convincing a landlord to give me a house before I can get another job is going to be tricky, and that's not going to happen any time soon if the response to my CV continues to be as resoundingly successful as it's being at the moment, and anyway the letting agents aren't going to be able to find us anything this close to Christmas. I could kill David for cutting off the maintenance,' she added under her breath, a little catch in her voice.
'Go ahead—I'll be a character witness for you in court,' Kate growled, then she leant back, folded her arms and chewed her lip thoughtfully. 'I wonder… ?'
'You could have Jake's house,' she said softly. 'My boss. I would say stay here, but I've got my parents and my sister coming for Christmas Day and I can hardly fit us all in as it is, but there's tons of room at Jake's. He's away until the middle of January. He always goes away at Christmas for a month—he shuts the office, gives everyone three weeks off on full pay and leaves the country before the office party, and I have the keys to keep an eye on it. And it's just sitting there, the most fabulous house, and it's just made for Christmas.'
'Won't he mind?'
'What, Jake? No. He wouldn't give a damn. You won't do it any harm, after all, will you? It's hundreds of years old and it's survived. What harm can you do it?'
What harm? She felt rising panic just thinking about it. 'I couldn't—'
'Don't be daft. Where else are you going to go? Besides, with the weather so cold it'll be much better for the house to have the heating on full and the fire lit. He'll be grateful when he finds out, and besides, Jake's generous to a fault. He'd want you to have it. Truly.'
Amelia hesitated. Kate seemed so convinced he wouldn't mind. 'You'd better ring him, then,' she said in the end. 'But tell him I'll give him money for rent just as soon as I can—'
Kate shook her head. 'No. I can't. I don't have the number, but I know he'd say yes,' she said, and Amelia's heart sank.
'Well, then, we can't stay there. Not without asking—'
'Millie, really. It'll be all right. He'd die before he'd let you be homeless over Christmas and there's no way he'd take money off you. Believe me, he'd want you to have the house.'
Still she hesitated, searching Kate's face for any sign of uncertainty, but if she felt any, Kate was keeping it to herself, and besides, Amelia was so out of options she couldn't afford the luxury of scruples, and in the end she gave in.
'Are you sure?'
'Absolutely. There won't be any food there, his housekeeper will have emptied the fridge, but I've got some basics I can let you have and bread and stuff, and there's bound to be something in the freezer and the cupboards to tide you over until you can replace it. We'll go over there the minute we've had lunch and settle you in. It'll be great—fantastic! You'll love it.'
'Love what?' Kitty asked, sidling up with chocolate all round her mouth and a doubtful expression on her face.
'My boss's house. He's gone away, and he's going to let you borrow it.'
'Let?' Millie said softly under her breath, but Kate just flashed her a smile and shrugged.
'Well, he would if he knew… OK, lunch first, and then let's go!'
It was, as Kate had said, the most fabulous house.