When I wake, light is just beginning to poke its pale wintry fingers into the room, and my first thought is: It’s Christmas Day!
Yawning and still half-asleep, my mind floats back to my childhood when it was all really thrilling. Every Christmas Eve, when we were small and still believed in Santa, Dad would take my brother, Richard, and me for a walk around the grounds. In fact, there was rather more jumping up and down and giggling at the daftest things than actual walking, we were so excited by this time.
Before we left on our big adventure, Mum would fuss that we were properly bundled up against the cold (she always stayed behind to heat the tomato soup for our return in the big, draughty kitchen) and Dad would be holding an old-fashioned lantern to light our way.
We were on a grand mission: to spot Father Christmas and his reindeer flying across the night sky above our house.
We never did get lucky, needless to say. But that didn’t seem to lessen the excitement of our festive expeditions.
It’s a long time since I felt that level of breathless anticipation.
Then two more memories – much more recent this time - pop into my head, making me throw back the duvet and leap out of bed.
Flying to the window, I catch my reflection in the free-standing antique mirror – eyes sparkling and hair the colour of conkers swinging around my rosy cheeks.
And Rob . . .
This Christmas might even be more exciting than looking for Rudolph and his mates.
Pulling back the curtains, the glorious scene before me takes my breath away. It snowed last night and now the rolling parkland beyond my window looks like a beautiful, old-fashioned Christmas card.
My heart does a little skip. Something even more magical happened last night.
I asked Rob out and he actually said yes!
I’m so happy, I feel like dancing around the room - like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol when he realises he’s not dead after all and – even better - he hasn’t missed Christmas!
Then I remember Dad’s still in hospital and my heart snags painfully.
The crisis is over. He’s going to be okay. But we’ll be having the first Christmas ever without him to carve the turkey and read out all the silly cracker jokes in a range of funny voices . . .
But I’ve got to be upbeat for Mum’s sake. Since Dad had his heart attack, Mum and I have grown closer than we’ve ever been before, united in our terrible fear that Dad might not recover.
We’ll do the Christmas lunch together and hopefully Dad will be back home soon.
Later, after helping Mum prepare the turkey for the oven and peeling a bucket load of sprouts, I head upstairs to get ready.
Rob will be here later for lunch and I can’t wait to see him. He was a friend long before we got together, and Mum had already invited him to today’s Christmas celebrations, along with his dad, Mick. Our lovely friend, Sylvia, who’s Mick’s partner, will also be here – along with my best friends, Ellie and Jaz and their loved ones.
Standing in the shower, taking extra care washing and conditioning my hair, I think back to the previous night, recalling how downcast I was feeling at Ellie’s Christmas Eve party.
Jaz’s relationship with her boyfriend, Harry, has been a little rocky lately. But then last night, in front of all the revellers at the party in The Little Duck Pond Café, he actually got down on one knee and begged her to stay in Sunnybrook, instead of moving away to a new job, as she’d planned to do.
The whole place erupted in cheers when she said yes, and Harry swept her up and swung her around, almost knocking a whole table of crockery flying. And then they kissed amid a lot of appreciative wolf-whistling.
I stood there on my own, smiling at the pair of them. They looked so unbelievably happy. Ellie, too, had found her perfect match in Zak. She adored Maisie, Zak’s daughter, and they’d become a proper little family.
Despite feeling so happy for both my best friends, I couldn’t help the painful lump that rose in my throat.
Would that kind of happiness ever be mine?
Maybe there were some people in life who were just never meant to find their soul-mate . . .
The thought of Christmas Day without Dad there was also preying on my mind. Things just wouldn’t be the same.
By this time, I was fighting to stop the tears spilling over and I headed for the door, intending to leave, not wanting to spoil Ellie’s lovely party. Then I felt an arm round my waist and someone said, ‘If you’re planning on going, will you do me a big favour?’
It was Sylvia and with a mischievous smile, she asked me if I’d call in at The Swan Hotel on Sunnybrook High Street and check on Rob. When I asked why, she said he was at a mate’s engagement celebration but that she suspected he wouldn’t be in a party mood.
I frowned and asked why not.
‘I think it might be love that’s getting him down,’ she said.
‘Really? He never mentioned anyone.’
She smiled. ‘Well, no, he wouldn’t. Because that someone is you.’
My heart lurched with disbelief and wonder. I’d liked Rob for a while but my stupid crush on scumbag Ethan Fox had made me blind to how gorgeous Rob actually was.
So with Sylvia’s encouragement, I phoned Rob on his mobile and said I knew he was at a party but I needed his help with something important. If he could meet me by the duck pond, I’d explain everything . . .
I was taking a risk, I knew. He might be enjoying the party too much to leave. He might even have met someone there. But I was buoyed up by what Sylvia had told me and determined to put my plan into action.
The snow was falling steadily as I walked over the village green to the duck pond. And then there was Rob, a tall figure walking across the snowy grass towards me, hands dug deep in his coat pockets.
My heart did a funny little flip.
I started walking towards him and the gap between us got smaller as my heart started pounding faster in my chest.
He stopped a few feet away.
‘Hi, Fen. You okay?’ He was smiling but there was a wariness about his expression.
I nodded. ‘I’m good, thanks. I just need your help with being brave.’
He frowned. ‘Okay,’ he said, drawing out the word like a question.
‘You see, I need to ask someone something and I’ve never done it before so it’s a bit – well, nerve-racking, really. So I thought if I did a Wonder Woman on the ice over there’ – I nodded at the duck pond – ‘I’d feel pretty invincible.’
Weeks earlier, Rob had told me his secret to feeling confident was adopting a ‘power pose’ in front of the mirror. He used Superman but he thought Wonder Woman was more apt for me!
‘I hate slippery surfaces,’ I added. ‘Usually I avoid them, but I’m going large tonight.’
His face cracked into a grin. ‘You’re going large?’
I nodded. ‘Oh, definitely. I’m totally sick of going small – if that’s even an expression.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s not. But never mind. You were saying . . . ?’
‘Yes, so if you wouldn’t mind helping me onto the ice? Then your job is done.’
‘You can leave the rest up to me.’
‘I hope I haven’t dragged you away from a good time,’ I said as we walked towards the icy pond.
He shook his head. ‘Not really. This is much more festive.’ He glanced up at the snow that was drifting down, catching in his dark blonde hair and clumping on his long lashes.
‘Right, here goes. Help me on, please.’
He took my hand and a funny sensation like an electric shock shot through me, despite the fact that we were both wearing gloves. Even through a layer of leather (mine) and sheepskin (his), holding Rob’s hand still made me feel weirdly breathless.
He slid onto the ice with me and I let go of his hand and slithered over to the centre, hoping and praying I wasn’t going to fall flat on my bottom and ruin the moment. Worse, the ice might crack . . .
I stood there, planting my feet in a Wonder Woman position and - raising my arms triumphantly in the air - I shouted ‘Power!’ as loudly as I could.
Then I laughed because it felt really silly but actually very good at the same time.
Rob laughed, too, and I slithered back over to him.
‘All prepared?’ he asked. ‘To do your brave thing?’
I swallowed, struggling suddenly to meet his lovely blue-green eyes. ‘I think so.’
‘Are you doing it here?’ He looked suddenly vulnerable.
So quickly I said, ‘Absolutely. I need you here when I do it.’
I cleared my throat and despite being covered in shyness, as I always am in situations like this, I forced myself to look deep into his eyes.
‘Rob, will you have dinner with me some time?’
He grinned and started clapping. ‘Hey, well done. You did it. A great practice run. So . . . who’s the lucky guy?’
I stared at him for a good few seconds before I realised he was totally winding me up.
I whacked his arm. ‘You, of course.’
He smiled. ‘Well, in that case, yes, please. I’d love to have dinner with you, Fen.’
I started laughing with sheer relief and happiness. ‘That’s the first time I’ve ever asked a man out on a date.’
He frowned. ‘Oh.’
‘You didn’t tell me it was a date.’
He looked so solemn my heart lurched. I can’t have got this so wrong, can I?
Then Rob bridged the gap between us and pulled me into his strong arms, and I stared up at him, my heart racing at the feel of his body next to mine, my lips inches from his lovely mouth.
He gave a low chuckle. ‘Fen, of course I want to go on a date with you. I thought you’d never ask.’
I frowned, pretending to be annoyed. ‘I’m not used to being wound up all the time.’
He laughed softly and leaned closer to kiss me. A soft brush of his lips against mine. ‘Then I suggest you get used to it pretty quickly. Because it’s going to be happening . . . a lot!’ He growled this last word and my pulse quickened.
A thrill ran through me. I got the distinct feeling we were talking about something entirely different now.
Then he pulled me against him, bringing his beautiful mouth down on mine, and as I tangled my hands in his snow-dampened hair, it flitted through my mind that if this were the ending of a romance novel, it would be absolutely heart-stoppingly perfect.
But then I forgot about love stories altogether and got on with the process of real living – which involved kissing Rob back with more passion than I’d ever felt in my life . . .