The Loving Gift
Table of Contents
‘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!