As you may know, I recently wrote a rural romance novella especially for a delightful Christmas anthology called OUR COUNTRY CHRISTMAS with four other best-selling Aussie romance authors -- Darry Fraser, Penelope Janu, Fiona Lowe and Eva Scott.
A feel-good collection of Australian Christmas stories that will warm your heart with the magic of the holiday season.
My contribution to Our Country Christmas is a gorgeous little story called THE CHRISTMAS WISH.
The book goes on sale in stores all around Australia on Monday (or can be purchased as an ebook worldwide), and I wanted to give my readers an exclusive first peek of my story, The Christmas Wish.
Returning home, schoolteacher Brielle hopes a quiet Christmas will quash the ever–present feeling that she no longer belongs anywhere.
For single dad Luke, romance is off the agenda – no matter how appealing his one-time antagonist Brielle has become. It's not only his heart that's at risk – it's that of his young daughter too.
But after a Christmas wish is cast, the spirit of Christmas conspires to create some holiday magic.
So, without further hesitation, here is the first chapter of The Christmas Wish!
THE CHRISTMAS WISH
Brielle was too flustered to take in the schoolyard and buildings as she approached. She was late, as always, so she half-walked, half-skipped across the basketball court to the administration office where she was scheduled to meet with the principal five minutes ago.
Her surroundings faded to a blur as she focused on the quaint orange-brick building ahead with a clock tower stretching upwards from the roof. Her breathing quickened the faster she trod.
You’d think after being late to most appointments for a huge portion of her life, Brielle would be used to it. But she wasn’t. Her heart was racing and her mind was already trying to come up with an adequate excuse.
It was one thing to be routinely late and know it, but to reveal to others that it was a usual occurrence was another thing altogether. Especially when starting a new job in a new school.
Sure, Alpine Ridge Primary School was actually an old school, opened 1898, in an old town. Her hometown for many years. A school she had attended for two years herself back in the day. But, to date, she hadn’t taught here, so to her, it was new.
But that was okay. Brielle was used to new because she hadn’t managed to stay at one school for longer than twelve months since her first teaching assignment five years ago. Not that she was bad at her job. No, she was bad at staying in the one spot for too long. It made her antsy.
And antsy didn’t feel … safe.
Brielle raced up steps, pushed through doors, and marched into the administration office.
The secretary lifted his head. ‘Morning, Brielle. Samantha is expecting you.’ He pushed his thick-rimmed glasses onto his nose and frowned. ‘Head straight through to her office.’
Brielle managed a tight smile and attempted to slow her puffed breathing as she strode up the hall. This building smelled of must, dust and, as she went by the toilets, the unfortunate scent of boys’ urinals.
Samantha, principal of Alpine Ridge Primary School for the last thirteen years, turned to face Brielle as she entered. A phone was pressed to her ear.
‘Oh, she’s here,’ she said into the handpiece. ‘Thanks for your time, Paul.’
Brielle clenched her jaw and resisted an eye roll as she stood awkwardly in the doorway, not really knowing what to do with her hands.
She was only five minutes late—okay, maybe more like fifteen—and already Samantha had rung her parents.
That was the problem with small towns—there was always some kind of familiarity between the residents. In this case, Samantha had known Brielle’s parents for fifteen years.
But what caused the bubbles of resentment to form inside Brielle was that she was twenty-six years old. A teacher for five years now. Out of home and living away from Alpine Ridge for eight years if you didn’t count the fact that she had recently, albeit temporarily, moved back in with her parents.
But that wasn’t the point. She was an independent woman and didn’t need her parents called because she was five minutes late to her first day of work.
Most importantly, she didn’t need her parents stressing about this all day long and giving her an earful this afternoon when she arrived home.
Yes, believe it or not, adult or not, this was the relationship she had with them.
Why did she decide to move back here again? All the reasoning she had last week when she was offered the temporary maternity-leave position, where she convinced herself that coming home might remedy the aimlessness and loneliness she had been feeling for a long time, flew right out her ear.
‘I was just talking to your father to check you hadn’t been involved in some terrible accident on the way here,’ Samantha said.
Talk about an overreaction.
Brielle smiled. ‘I’m fine.’ Quite obviously. ‘And I apologise for being late.’ It was the traffic? No, there was no traffic in a town with a population of seven hundred. I slept in? No, that would make her look flimsy. ‘I got caught behind a tractor that didn’t have the courtesy to move over to the side and let me pass.’
Samantha nodded and gestured to the seat across from her desk.
Brielle sat and smoothed the material of her skirt.
‘As we discussed briefly last week on the phone, you will be taking over a grade two-three composite classroom for the last eight weeks of term. The regular teacher, who had planned to make it through to the end of the year, had her baby come earlier than anticipated. So, I thank you for accepting the position at such short notice. However, I expect you to actually be on time from here on out.’
Brielle swallowed hard. ‘Of course.’
‘Our main priority is to have as little disruption to the students as possible.’ Samantha stood. ‘Come, I’ll take you to your classroom. I believe Jenny, who you are replacing, has prepped all her class plans to the end of the year, so they will be available for you to use if you wish. But you can prepare your own as long as they are consistent with the curriculum.’
Brielle stood and followed Samantha. ‘Of course.’
Their walk through the school grounds was brisk. Alpine Ridge Primary was a shady school with lots of leafy trees, now that Brielle had time to take it in. They weaved around small demountable buildings connected by cement pathways until arriving at her room.
Samantha unlocked the door and headed inside, flicking the lights on. That familiar classroom smell greeted Brielle as she headed in—crayons, white board markers and the faint sour scent of spoiled fruit left uneaten in lunch boxes.
‘Here we are,’ Samantha said. ‘I already emailed you all the information on bell times, lunch duty schedules, internal policies and expectations. Your students should start arriving in twenty minutes or so. It’s only a small class of fourteen. We haven’t had any real behavioural issues with anyone.’
Brielle glanced around at all the colourful pictures covering the walls. A blank whiteboard sat at the head of the room ready for the new day. Her desk, littered with stationery, trays and folders, was set in the top corner of the room.
‘As you know, we are heading into the Christmas season. Each year we hold a Christmas fete on the school oval and have parents participate with stalls. We are looking for volunteers to organise it. Jenny is usually in charge of it and does a fantastic job every year, so she’s left some big boots to fill.’
Desperate to prove herself after the belittling phone call to her parents and her lack of punctuality, Brielle said, ‘I love Christmas. I’d be more than happy to help out.’
Samantha smiled; the first of the morning. ‘Excellent. I’ll email you with all the particulars, so you can get started on that right away. It’s only seven weeks away.’
‘Sure. That shouldn’t be a problem.’ This year Brielle would be on her own for Christmas anyway. Her parents and little sisters were fulfilling a lifelong dream of cruising along the Danube through Europe for six weeks, so a Christmas fete to organise would be a welcome distraction.
After running through some general housekeeping rules, Samantha left Brielle to her own devices. Within five minutes, her first student arrived: a seven-year-old boy named Brock Peters. Of course the father wanted to meet the new teacher and chat for a while, as did most parents after that.
Before Brielle knew it, it was nine thirty, the class was restless, excitedly chattering with one another at their desks like caged budgies, and she had nothing planned.
She clapped loudly three times and all the children’s heads spun to face her. ‘Good morning. My name is Miss Lane and I will be your teacher for the rest of the year.’
‘Good morning, Miss Lane,’ the class chorused.
She wrote her name on the whiteboard, then clasped her hands together and looked out over the small class of unfamiliar faces. ‘Can you please tell me, one by one, your full name and what you like to do for fun when you’re not at school?’ She pointed to a little girl with long black hair and big blue eyes who was seated in the front row. ‘You can go first.’
In a soft voice, she said, ‘My name is Poppy. And I like to help Daddy feed the baby animals on the farm because they’re so cute.’
Brielle stared for a moment, then finally blinked. She certainly didn’t get responses like that in the city. ‘That does sound cute. Lovely to meet you, Poppy.’ She pointed to the child next to her.
‘My name is Melissa. I like to ride my bike on the big jumps my brother made in the backyard. I jump real high. But sometimes I fall off and it hurts.’
Brielle smiled. ‘Sounds like fun. Not the falling off part, though. Good to meet you, Melissa.’
Around the room they went until she’d heard from each and every student. ‘Okay, so who can tell me what big day is coming up soon?’
Most of the class thrust their hand high into the air as though they’d burst if they weren’t able to give their answer. She pointed to a boy called Fletcher. ‘My birthday is in five days.’
‘That is a big day. But I’m thinking of something else. Something that many of us celebrate.’ The hands flew up again and she pointed to Poppy.
Brielle grinned. ‘Absolutely. I want to start making some beautiful drawings of Christmas that we can hang up around the classroom.’
Sure, she felt like a supermarket selling hot cross buns in January, considering Christmas was still ten weeks away, but what child didn’t love Christmas? Heck, she still adored Christmas. And besides, it was a distraction for the children, leaving her a good half hour to catch her breath, read through the lesson plans, and work out what they would do for the rest of the day.
After the Christmas pictures, she arranged for the class to make name cards that they would wear until she could match each of their faces to names by memory. Fourteen names wasn’t a big stretch, but she needed all the help she could get.
For the rest of the afternoon, they played a rotation of maths games, followed by spelling activities, and ended with a small story written about space, which was a required curriculum subject this semester.
When the final bell for the day rang, Brielle was exhausted. After the haste to finish up at her substitute position in Melbourne, pack up her small apartment and rush to get back here in time, not to mention the weighty anticipation of starting at a new school, it had only caught up with her now.
She dismissed the class to their parents waiting on the front veranda and stretched her neck from side to side, attempting to ease the tension from her muscles.
Poppy came running back in once everyone had left, holding the hand of a very large man. Large in height and breadth. Such shoulders. She eagerly met his gaze.
Familiar blue eyes stared back and she flinched.
Luke Reynolds is Poppy’s dad?
In all her urgency to catch up throughout the day, she had completely forgotten that her best friend, Macie, had said during a quick phone call last week that her niece would be in her class.
‘Luke,’ she said. ‘It’s been a long time.’
His focus on her was intense, like he was studying her as a jewellery maker might study the facets of a diamond.
She stroked loose strands of hair behind her ear and shifted her feet, feeling a little wobbly to be on the receiving end of that gaze.
‘Brielle Lane. I hadn’t realised you were Poppy’s new teacher.’
She giggled nervously. Luke had always had that effect on her. ‘Here I am.’
‘Yes. Here you are. Until the end of term?’
His voice was so much deeper than she remembered. It was as though his vocal cords had been rolled across gravel.
She cleared her throat, nodded. ‘Yep.’ Her heart was beating faster. Luke always had that effect on her too, though the reasons for it now were not the same as the reasons for it when she was a shy teenager.
Now it was because her blood was running hotter and rushing in a different direction. He was delicious, every last part of him, from his dark hair, big blue eyes, a strong square jaw that all by itself epitomised strength, right down his long hard body to his shoes.
But this couldn’t be right. Did she really just use delicious to describe her teenage foe? Her adversary from hell? The one man who used to make her blood boil for different reasons altogether?
No matter which way she looked at it, his broad shoulders, the dark, rough growth on his chin, and those eyes—okay, she had already mentioned the eyes, nothing had changed there—he was delicious.
And her fast-beating heart obviously found that revelation shocking because it was completely out of sync with her mind and memories. This shock had the strange effect of muddling her thoughts and disconnecting her brain from her mouth.
Snap out of it, Brielle. You’re his daughter’s teacher. Bloody well act like a professional. Besides, he’s horrible, remember?
She drew herself up straighter.
‘Good to run into you again,’ he said. ‘I guess I’ll be seeing more of you for the next couple of months.’
She nodded. ‘Good to see you too.’
He took Poppy’s hand. Such a big, protective paw when held against Poppy’s much smaller and paler fingers. A pang went through her.
‘See you later, Miss Lane.’
She managed a tense smile. ‘Bye, Luke. See you tomorrow, Poppy.’
By the time Luke had left, her cheeks were flushed with heat. Her insides were all tangled, and she wasn’t exactly certain what to make of it. It was like a war was raging inside her between her body and mind.
Her body had very much enjoyed every little bit of that interaction with Luke while her mind wanted to tear it from the pages of her memory and never look at it again.
Stupid body. Why did grown-up Luke have to look so incredible? In the eight years since she had last seen him, he had matured, filled out.
But it didn’t matter what he looked like, he was in the no-go zone for a number of reasons.
For one, he was her best friend’s older brother. That on its own meant he was off limits. Seriously, how awkward would that be?
And two, she loathed him. He had made her life hell when she was a teenager. At this moment, she couldn’t remember exactly why, but there were bound to be many examples if she thought about it hard enough.
But thinking about Luke was something she was not going to do on account of point two above.
No, she was going to focus her thoughts on more worthwhile subjects like settling back into her hometown, getting through the rest of the term with her new, wonderful bunch of schoolkids, and the upcoming Christmas fete.
I hope you enjoyed the excerpt of The Christmas Wish! If you want to read more along with the other four stories that are included in Our Country Christmas anthology, you can find paperback books in stores around Australia from Monday 24 September 2018. For ebook and International purchases, you can download ebook editions from your favourite e-tailer.
You can find links at the HarperCollins website here.