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The Loving Gift

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«The Loving Gift» - Кэрол Мортимер

Carole Mortimer is one of Mills & Boon’s best loved Modern Romance authors. With nearly 200 books published and a career spanning 35 years, Mills & Boon are thrilled to present her complete works available to download for the very first time! Rediscover old favourites – and find new ones! – in this fabulous collection…He is determined to marry her!Just because spontaneous David Kendrick fell in love with Jade at first sight, doesn’t mean she has to go along with the idea! Escaping to the sanctuary of a quiet Devon village, the last thing Jade thinks she needs is this impulsive, handsome man stirring up her emotions and turning her life upside down!But Jade can't resist David's determined pursuit of her—even though she knows she is not yet free from the terrible shadows of her London past…
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The Loving Gift Carole Mortimer

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‘YO HO HO! Yo ho ho! Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!’ boomed the tall, rounded figure in the unmistakable red suit as he ambled into the room, the obligatory sack of toys thrown over one broad shoulder. ‘Have you all been good boys and girls this year?'

The loud cries of ‘Yes!’ from the hundred and fifty children who filled the room, that instantly followed the teasing question, almost drowned out the gasp of stunned surprise made by the woman standing at Jade's side but, completely attuned herself to any minor or major disaster that might befall any of the pupils at what had so far been a very successful preparatory school Christmas party, Jade was instantly alerted by Penny's sudden tension.

Jade anxiously surveyed the room, seeing only the excited faces of the children as they eagerly awaited the calling of their name to go up and collect their present from Father Christmas, most of them lingering to tell him what they would like on Christmas night.

She turned back to Penny with puzzled eyes, her concern deepening when she saw how ashen-faced the other woman had become. And Penny's attention seemed to be focused on the jolly Father Christmas as he happily distributed the carefully chosen presents to each child. Which was all the more surprising, considering that the man behind the flowing white beard and artificially glowing red cheeks was, in fact, Penny's own husband!

The only reason Jade could even imagine for Penny's behaviour was if the Father Christmas disguise had come astray and revealed to the totally enrapt audience that only a mere man lay beneath it, and that man was their own headmaster. But the wig and false beard were firmly in place, the rouge unsmudged on the padded cheeks, and the pillow beneath the red coat and wide black belt hadn't slipped an inch since Simon had got himself ready half an hour earlier.

Then what was bothering Penny? Because something certainly was as she took over the task of organising each child going up to collect their gift, her dazed gaze more often than not fixed on ‘Father Christmas’ as he enthusiastically distributed the gaily wrapped parcels.

Jade didn't find an opportunity to talk to the other woman for some time. ‘Penny—–'

‘And who is this last little girl we have over here?’ boomed that overly jocular voice of ‘Father Christmas’ with lilting emphasis.

‘Penny, what—–’ The sudden silence that had fallen over the room, quickly followed by childish giggles, halted Jade in mid-flow, and she slowly turned her attention back into the spacious hall that had housed the Christmas party.

One hundred and fifty—one hundred and fifty-one, pairs of eyes were riveted on her, one hundred and fifty of them with laughing expectation, the hundred and fifty-first pair glinting with mocking blue humour.

‘What would you like me to bring you on Christmas night?’ Father Christmas/Simon prompted huskily.

‘Oh, God,’ Penny muttered weakly at Jade's side.

Oh, God, indeed. Simon had to have been at the sherry he always kept locked away in his office, for visiting parents, to be acting in this outrageous manner. Maybe Simon's role as Father Christmas was the reason Penny was looking so stricken. Jade had never seen Simon partake of more than one polite glass of sherry at one time, with no effect on him whatsoever, but Penny was obviously deeply concerned by his behaviour now—and with good reason.

‘What's your name, little girl?’ he prompted persistently, and the titters from the watching children increased.

Jade's mouth pursed disapprovingly. Penny and Simon had been very kind to her since she had begun working for them on a temporary basis at the beginning of the winter term, but Simon's drawing attention to her, and himself, in this way, was totally uncalled for. Maybe Simon was one of those worst of things, an unpleasant drunk. Although at the moment his eyes merely glittered with devilish humour.

‘Come and sit on Santa's knee and tell me your deepest desire—for Christmas,’ that teasingly provocative voice encouraged again.

Jade felt really uncomfortable now, her cheeks fiery red as she knew she was what she seemed to be: the centre of attention, the other members of staff deeply amused by this unexpected turn of events, the children fascinated by the show. And if there was one thing Jade hated it was to be the cynosure of all eyes.

She plastered a polite smile on suddenly stiff lips, green eyes flashing warningly. Not that Father Christmas—Simon—seemed to be at all deterred by her ferocity, his grin widening wickedly. Good grief, how much of the sherry had he had?

‘Come on, little girl,’ he provoked. ‘Don't you realise how busy I am at this time of year?'

Not too busy that he couldn't spare a few minutes to guzzle down what appeared to be a bottle of sherry! ‘I appreciate that—Father Christmas,’ she spoke softly, huskily, her natural tone, a voice that her young pupils listened to with eagerness, and which few other people took note of. Although at the moment that certainly wasn't the case! ‘Which is why we really mustn't keep you any longer,’ she dismissed with bright lightness.

‘Oh, I have more than enough time to listen to what you would like to be waiting for you at the foot of your bed on Christmas morning,’ he drawled mockingly.

Jade didn't know how to cope with this situation any longer, turning desperately to Penny, dismayed to see that the other woman was still completely speechless. If it wasn't for the fact that approximately one hundred and fifty children were watching the exchange, the incident would have been relatively easy to deal with—but one just didn't go around punching Father Christmas on the chin in front of so many starry eyes! Instead she had to settle for what she hoped would be a verbal dressing-down.

‘The space at the foot of my bed is already firmly occupied,’ she bit out quietly, green eyes flashing with unaccustomed irritation. She absolutely hated having this attention drawn to her! ‘So I think I'll give any gifts you might have in mind for me a miss this year, thank you.'

The Father Christmas was shaking his head even as she spoke. ‘Father Christmas has to bring you something—doesn't he, children?’ he boomingly encouraged their involvement in the conversation.

The excited cries of ‘Yes!’ filled the room once more.

His persistence was unnerving, and Jade once again turned to Penny, only to find that the other woman had now gone a ghostly white. Which wasn't surprising!

Penny's young sister Cathy had been a friend of Jade's since college, and when she had told Jade about the temporary post at this private preparatory school it had been convenient for all of them that Jade was able to fill in until the usual teacher of the reception class returned from maternity leave at Easter.

The last three months had been rewarding both professionally and personally for Jade, and until this moment she hadn't had reason to regret her move from her London home to a rented cottage in Devon.

Now she was beginning to wonder if it might not have been better for all of them if Cathy had never mentioned the vacancy to her—it was a sure fact that there would be repercussions from this incident, if only personally.

Jade gave a tight smile. ‘I'll make you up a list when I have more time,’ she dismissed curtly. ‘Right now we have to prepare the children for going home,’ she added briskly. ‘We—–'

‘Oh, surely you can spare just a few minutes to whisper a little something in my ear?’ ‘Father Christmas’ moved agilely across the room to her side—much more agilely than the true bulk could possibly have allowed!—his arm moving strongly about her waist as he pulled her firmly up against him, the twinkle in the blue eyes definitely lecherous now. ‘Come on now, sweetheart.’ He bent down to her much shorter height. ‘Tell me what you would like me to bring you.'

No Father Christmas—and especially a married one!—had any right to be talking to her in this flirtatious way!

Jade gave a furious sigh as she moved closer to the wig-covered ear nearest to her. ‘I'd like to take away the key to your drinks cabinet and throw it in the village pond,’ she muttered, all the time smiling brightly for their audience, although she could see her colleagues—the braver ones, at least!—were having trouble controlling their mirth now. Ordinarily Jade would have been one of the first to laugh at herself, but not when she was being made a spectacle of.

Blue eyes gleamed wickedly as he moved back slightly to look down at her. ‘Really?’ he drawled mockingly. ‘That wouldn't do you too much good at the moment—the village pond is frozen over!'

She glared. ‘Perhaps a little icy air might do you some good just now!'

‘Oh, I doubt it,’ he taunted. ‘Father Christmas isn't too bothered about the cold.'

‘Only by too much alcohol, obviously,’ she returned tartly in a fierce whisper.

He feigned hurt surprise. ‘I haven't touched a drop since—–'

‘At the most half an hour ago,’ Jade scorned, feeling deeply for Penny during this embarrassing display. How uncomfortable the other woman must feel at the exchange. And, even allowing for ‘Christmas spirit', it was going to be difficult for them all to work together after this it had gone far beyond the realms of a practical joke.

‘Father Christmas’ shrugged. ‘I may have had a little nip of brandy to keep out the cold—–'

‘I thought you said Father Christmas wasn't affected by the cold,’ she reminded tartly.

‘I'm not,’ he grinned. ‘Not once I've had my nip of brandy!'

She frowned. ‘Simon—–'

‘My, that's quite a list you have there once you got going,’ he said loudly enough for their audience to hear, smiling jovially at them all. ‘Anything else?’ he encouraged brightly.

Considering that she was normally a non-violent person, Jade had an unaccountable urge to hit him! ‘I want you to stop this right now,’ she grated between clenched teeth.

‘Why?’ he taunted unconcernedly. ‘I'm thoroughly enjoying myself.'

‘I'm glad one of us is!’ She tried to move away from his arm about her waist and suddenly discovered he was much stronger than he looked in the loose-fitting tweed jacket and plain trousers that were his everyday garb. ‘You're going to regret this in the morning,’ she warned with impatient rebuke.

‘What's that saying?’ he grinned. ‘“Tomorrow never comes"?'

She chanced a glance at Penny's ashen face. ‘Oh, I think it might do for you,’ she muttered.

He turned to give the other woman a considering look. ‘Hm, Penny does look a little green around the edges,’ he mused. ‘Maybe I should ask her what she would like on her bed Christmas morning?'

‘A sober husband, I should think,’ Jade bit out angrily, having found it was impossible to escape that confining arm about her waist—and goodness knew, without being too obvious, she had tried!

Blue eyes gleamed wickedly once again. ‘Maybe you would be interested in listening to what I'd like in my bed on Christmas—–'

‘I don't think so,’ she interrupted quickly, unnerved by this streak of flirtation with danger that she had never guessed existed inside a man who, while full of good humour, never failed to be thoughtfully kind.

‘Perhaps not,’ he lightly accepted her rebuke. ‘We wouldn't want to be overheard.'

We have already made enough of a spectacle of ourselves,’ she cut in abruptly, grateful to see that Penny at least seemed to be coming out of her daze, some of the colour back in her cheeks as she began to organise the children's home-going, at the same time providing an adequate diversion from what had been proving to be very entertaining for their avid audience; some of their colleagues even looked slightly disappointed that they were obviously going to miss Simon's imminent dressing-down, Penny obviously intending to wait until they were alone before tackling him.

‘Talking of spectacles, are yours really necessary?’ he took advantage of the noisy organisation around them to whisper seductively in her ear. ‘Or are they just a deterrent against interested males?'

‘If they are, they aren't working!’ she snapped, her eyes flashing darkly, annoyed that he should have guessed that she really only needed the glasses for reading but chose to wear them constantly.

‘And your hair.’ He looked at her consideringly. ‘I bet it looks very sexy when it's left free about your shoulders.'

She drew in an impatient sigh. ‘My hair happens to be a frizzy mess when not kept in this style,’ she claimed defensively, irritated that he should find anything wrong with the neat coil she always wore about the crown of her head. She had always worn her hair like this when she was working, although she had to admit it had perhaps become a little more severe lately…

He continued to look at her questioningly.

‘I refuse to believe those silken-looking tresses could ever be a frizzy mop,’ he finally decided.

‘Believe what you want.’ Her cheeks still burnt from the lie. ‘But for goodness’ sake pull yourself together and start acting like the headmaster you are.’ She looked about them again uncomfortably, feeling guilty for not joining in the preparations for home-time, but if she should leave Simon to his own devices now, heaven knew what he would do next!

‘I am?’ He frowned vaguely. ‘Oh, yes,’ he grinned. ‘For a moment there I almost thought I was Father Christmas. I know there are several things I would like to give you that—–'

‘Oh, for goodness’ sake!’ Jade rolled her eyes heavenwards. ‘I hope Penny gives you hell for this,’ she muttered.

He turned to smile indulgently at Penny as she helped some of the younger children put on their coats. ‘She probably will,’ he acknowledged philosophically.

Jade wasn't feeling quite so hot now that they were no longer the centre of attention, although there was still the problem of how they were to face each other again after the holidays. Or how she was going to face Penny! The poor woman must feel devastated by Simon's behaviour.

‘You should be ashamed of yourself,’ Jade told the man at her side emotionally.

‘I probably will be later,’ he shrugged unconcernedly. ‘Right now I'm enjoying myself too much to feel anything else.'

Who would have believed that the gentle giant of a man whom all the children loved and respected so much could possibly behave in this outrageous fashion?

‘Well, you'll have to go on enjoying yourself without me.’ Jade felt no compunction about putting him down now that there was activity and noise about them. ‘I have work to do,’ she dismissed firmly.

‘And you think I haven't?’ he returned in a pained voice. ‘What about all those toys I have to finish by next week? The reindeer to feed and water? The—–'

‘Simon, for heaven's sake,’ she sighed her impatience. ‘Why don't you just take yourself off to your office and sober up? We can cope with anything that comes up here.'

Laughter gleamed mockingly in his eyes. ‘I'm sure you can; you, especially, seem more than capable. But don't you think I should wave goodbye to all the children as they leave?'

The children would probably love it, but would he behave long enough to complete the task without mishap?

‘I promise I will,’ he chuckled softly at her side, causing Jade to turn to him sharply.

‘If you can read my mind that well, you know what I'm thinking right now,’ she flashed.

‘I do indeed,’ he drawled. ‘But you're asking the impossible.'

Her eyes widened. ‘I am?'

‘Hm,’ he nodded. ‘A thousand miles between us couldn't possibly change the way I react to that clear green of your eyes, how I want to release your hair and run my fingers—–'

‘Please!’ Jade snapped agitatedly, moving abruptly away from him. She was well aware of the fact that an excess of alcohol was supposed to loosen the tongue, but this was ridiculous! Surely Simon hadn't always felt this way about her? It certainly hadn't been apparent from his almost fatherly concern for her to date.

‘You're right,’ he said briskly, drawing himself up to his full padded height of over six feet. ‘The children must come first. We can continue this interesting conversation once they've gone.'

If Jade had her way she would be long gone from here before Simon found her again. And, once on her own, she would have to give serious thought as to what was going to happen next term. She couldn't just walk out on her job, she refused to let people down in that way, also knowing it would be confusing for the children in her class to have yet another change of teacher. Damn Simon for indulging in his secret vice when he should have been preparing for his role as Father Christmas!

She looked on a little dazedly as, walking away from her, he fell easily into playing his seasonal role, his booming voice calling out good wishes to the children as he was surrounded by them as they went outside.

Jade's legs felt weak, and instead of joining in the revelry outside she sank weakly down into a nearby chair.

She liked working at the Kendrick Preparatory School, and after only one term of being here she was disappointed that it wasn't to be a permanent position. She even liked living in this small Devonshire village, where she was on a first-name basis with all her delivery men. And after living in town all of her life, the last four years of that in London in an apartment on her own, where she had to go out to the shops to buy all her needs, she hadn't expected to adapt so readily to country life. She willingly admitted that it had been the warm hospitality she had received from Penny and Simon that had helped ease her into this totally different way of life.

Penny, loving Simon as she undoubtedly did, couldn't be blamed for thinking Jade must have encouraged Simon's behaviour of a few minutes ago in some way. She couldn't possibly be expected to believe—as Jade herself found it difficult to!—that her mild-mannered husband could behave so recklessly without encouragement of some sort, even with the artificial confidence of alcohol.

It all had such repercussive consequences, also endangering Jade's long-standing friendship with Cathy, the other woman having no choice but to side with her sister. And she had even tentatively been looking forward to Christmas among her new friends. She had been invited to several functions at Penny and Simon's over the holiday period, their two children home for the holidays to complete the family unit. Cathy would also be trying to come down for a few days later on. Now all of that looked very precarious, although at this moment a long and lonely festive season seemed the least of her worries; her job was in jeopardy, a job that meant more to her than any of the people here could realise.

‘Would you like to start clearing up the mess?'

Jade gave a guilty start as she looked up at Penny, feeling ill at how pale and exhausted the other woman looked. ‘Penny, about what happened earlier—–’ she began awkwardly.

‘Yes. I—I'm sorry about that,’ Penny answered vaguely, not at all her usual authoritative self—and who could blame her? ‘I—could you and the others tidy up here?’ She looked uncertainly at the debris in the room from the end-of-term party. ‘I have to go and look for Simon,’ she added agitatedly.

Jade gave a pained frown. ‘I just want to try and explain—–'

‘Could we talk later?’ Penny's voice was sharp; a small, pretty, blonde woman, slightly overweight, and looking all the more attractive because of that, she possessed the sort of organising mind that more or less kept the school running on a day-to-day basis. ‘I really do need to find Simon,’ she frowned.

That shouldn't be too difficult: she just had to follow the sound of the booming ‘Yo ho hos'!

‘I quite understand.’ Jade nodded heavily. ‘But I do need to talk to you afterwards,’ she added firmly.

‘Of course.’ The other woman nodded, her mind obviously elsewhere. ‘I'll just go and find Simon,’ she repeated distantly before disappearing out of the room in search of her husband.

Jade felt even more deflated than she had before; despite her reluctance to discuss it now, Penny was obviously deeply disturbed by Simon's behaviour. But weren't they all? At least none of the children had guessed that ‘Father Christmas’ was more than a little inebriated. But it would only need one of the pupils to mention to their parents Father Christmas's more than seasonal familiarity with one of the teachers for more than Simon's relationship with Penny to be in jeopardy; most of those parents were well aware of the fact that Simon annually took the part of Father Christmas!

The Kendrick school was one of the best of its kind in the country, and Jade had instantly felt comfortable and at ease working in such a happy and contented atmosphere. It wouldn't remain that way for long if people were to learn that Simon took the occasional secret tipple. He risked so much for what appeared to be no more than a craving for something that completely changed his personality—and not for the better!

But Jade put a brave face on the incident when the others returned from outside—Penny and ‘Father Christmas’ conspicuous in their absence—as she helped to organise the clearing-up process, relieved when the only thing left to do was clear away the carol books in a cupboard. She smiled as she thought of the angelic faces of the children as they had all gathered around the piano to sing Christmas carols beside the flamboyantly decorated tree, each child having made at least one decoration to adorn it. There was something so magical about the innocence of children at this time of year, and it was virtually impossible not to feel drawn into the fantasy.

‘Dare I hope that at least part of that smile is for me?'

Jade spun around with a start, disconcerted to suddenly find herself face to face with ‘Father Christmas’ once more. And he didn't look in the least repentant!

‘Penny was looking for you,’ she told him sharply, watching him warily.

He nodded, taking up most of the doorway to the store-cupboard. ‘She found me,’ he drawled.

Her frown turned to puzzlement; if Penny had managed to locate him, what on earth was he doing wandering around loose again in his condition? ‘You haven't upset Penny again, have you?’ she asked suspiciously.

He shrugged. ‘She was crying her eyes out when I left her just now.'

Green eyes widened incredulously. ‘And you just left her?'

‘Well—not exactly. But I needed to see you again before you went home,’ he excused himself.

‘Penny—was—crying—her—eyes—out—and—you—just—–!’ Jade's incredulity turned to disgust as she stared at him in disbelief.

‘I told you, I needed to see you before you left,’ he insisted.

‘To apologise?’ Her eyes flashed warningly at his utter selfishness.

He did manage to look a little shame-faced. ‘I suppose I did go a little over the top a short while ago, but I was only—–'

‘Over the top?’ Jade repeated with soft anger. ‘You were utterly outrageous!'

He grinned. ‘I don't normally act in that impetuous way, it's just that—–'

‘I'm well aware of the way you normally act,’ she snapped, wishing she could have the usual Simon back again, instead of this virtual stranger.

‘—I was attracted to you the moment I entered the room,’ he concluded as if she hadn't interrupted so vehemently.

‘That you were—–! My God, Simon!’ Jade choked emotionally. ‘You've really gone too far now. That scene you created a little while ago I could maybe excuse because of the amount of alcohol you've apparently consumed, but to come here to me now, when Penny is obviously broken-hearted, is inexcusable.'

‘I was only—–'

‘Don't you dare touch me!’ she warned harshly as he would have reached out for her.

‘But I—–'

‘Don't say I didn't warn you!’ she choked at the same time as her hand made contact with the side of his face in a resounding slap.

Jade stared at him in horror after the uncharacteristic violence—and then she swayed dizzily as he began to laugh, a loudly triumphant laugh that convinced her he wasn't drunk, after all, but bordering on the insane! The strain of owning and running the school must have become too much for him. No one in their right mind laughed when they had been slapped the way he just had!

And then her own horror turned to a pained groan as Penny suddenly appeared in the doorway. She was terrified that the other woman would actually think she had been encouraging Simon in this madness. ‘Penny, I'm so sorry about all this, but I—–'

‘You have no reason to be sorry about anything,’ the other woman dismissed easily, gazing affectionately at the man in the Father Christmas suit as he still grinned idiotically, the only sign of her recent tears a slight puffiness about her eyes. ‘He always did have a warped sense of humour,’ she excused him indulgently.

Jade had never noticed it before! ‘I still wouldn't want you to think that I encouraged him,’ she insisted pleadingly.

Penny smiled. ‘I'm sure he didn't need encouraging.’ She shook her head.

It was wonderful that Penny could take her husband's errant behaviour in her stride—Jade wished she could come to terms with it as easily!

‘You really are incorrigible.’ Penny shook her head with rueful disapproval at the grinning ‘Father Christmas'. ‘If you have—–'

‘Darling, surely there has to be a better place for this conversation than a store-cupboard?’ Simon chided lightly as he appeared in the doorway behind his wife—wearing his usual school attire of tweed jacket and tailored trousers.

Jade froze as she stared at him, turning slowly to face the man in the Father Christmas suit. If it wasn't Simon—and she knew now without a doubt that it wasn't!—then who was he?


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