A Betty Neels Christmas: A Christmas Proposal\Winter Wedding

BOOK: A Betty Neels Christmas: A Christmas Proposal\Winter Wedding
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A Betty Neels Christmas

During this season of giving, Bertha and Emily are about to receive the greatest gift of their lives…love.

And they will discover that Christmas wishes
do
come true, and “handsome princes” do
indeed
exist.

A Betty Neels Christmas
BETTY NEELS

Romance readers around the world will be sad to note the passing of
Betty Neels
in June 2001. Her career spanned thirty years and she continued to write into her ninetieth year. To her millions of fans, Betty epitomized the romance writer, and yet she began writing almost by accident. She had retired from nursing, but her inquiring mind still sought stimulation. Her new career was born when she heard a lady in her local library bemoaning the lack of good romance novels. Betty's first book,
Sister Peters in Amsterdam,
was published in 1969, and she eventually completed 134 books. Her novels offer a reassuring warmth that was very much a part of her own personality. She was a wonderful writer, and she will be greatly missed. Her spirit will live on in all her stories, including those yet to be published.

A CHRISTMAS PROPOSAL
CHAPTER ONE

T
HE
girl standing in a corner of the crowded room hardly merited a second glance; she was small, with light brown hair strained back into an unfashionable bun, a face whose snub nose and wide mouth did nothing to redeem its insignificance, and she was wearing an elaborate shrimp-pink dress. But after his first glance the man standing across the room from her looked again. Presently he strolled over to stand beside her. His ‘Hello' was pleasant and she turned her head to look at him.

She answered him politely, studying him from large brown eyes fringed by curling lashes. Looking at her eyes, he reflected that one soon forgot the nose and mouth and dragged-back hair. He smiled down at her. ‘Do you know anyone here? I came with friends—I'm staying with them and was asked to come along with them. A birthday party, isn't it?'

‘Yes.' She looked past him to the crowded room, the groups of laughing, gossiping people waving to each other with drinks in their hands, the few couples dancing in the centre. ‘Would you like me to introduce you to someone?'

He said in his friendly way, ‘You know everyone here? Is it your birthday?'

‘Yes.' She gave him a quick surprised look and bent her head to examine the beaded bodice of her dress.

‘Then shouldn't you be the belle of the ball?'

‘Oh, it's not my party. It's my stepsister's—that pretty girl over by the buffet. Would you like to meet Clare?'

‘The competition appears too keen at the moment,' he said easily. ‘Shouldn't you be sharing the party, since it's your birthday too?'

‘Well, no.' She had a pretty voice and she spoke matter-of-factly. ‘I'm sure you'd like to meet some of the guests. I don't know your name…'

‘Forgive me. Hay-Smythe—Oliver.'

‘Bertha Soames.' She put out a small hand and he shook it gently.

‘I really don't want to meet anyone. I think that perhaps I'm a little on the old side for them.'

She scrutinised him gravely—a very tall, strongly built man, with fair hair thickly sprinkled with grey. His eyes were grey too, and he had the kind of good looks which matched his assured air.

‘I don't think you're in the least elderly,' she told him.

He thanked her gravely and added, ‘Do you not dance?'

‘Oh, I love to dance.' She smiled widely at him, but as quickly the smile faded. ‘I—that is, my stepmother asked me to see that everyone was enjoying themselves. That's why I'm standing here—if I see anyone on their own I make sure that they've got a
drink and meet someone. I really think that you should…'

‘Definitely not, Miss Soames.' He glanced down at her and thought how out of place she looked in the noisy room. And why, if it was her birthday, was she not wearing a pretty dress and not that ill-fitting, over-elaborate garment? ‘Are you hungry?'

‘Me? Hungry?' She nodded her head. ‘Yes, I missed lunch.' Her eyes strayed to the buffet, where a number of people were helping themselves lavishly to the dainties upon it. ‘Why don't you…?'

Dr Hay-Smythe, hard-working in his profession and already respected by older colleagues, a man who would never pass a stray kitten or a lost dog and who went out of his way to make life easy for anyone in trouble, said now, ‘I'm hungry too. Supposing we were to slip away and have a meal somewhere? I don't imagine we should be missed, and we could be back long before this finishes.'

She stared at him. ‘You mean go somewhere outside? But there isn't a café anywhere near here—besides…'

‘Even Belgravia must have its pubs. Anyway, I've my car outside—we can look around.'

Her eyes shone. ‘I'd like that. Must I tell my stepmother?'

‘Certainly not. This door behind you—where does it lead? A passage to the hall? Let us go now.'

‘I'll have to get my coat,' said Bertha when they were in the hall. ‘I won't be long, but it's at the top of the house.'

‘Haven't you a mac somewhere down here?'

‘Yes, but it's very old…'

His smile reassured her. ‘No one will notice in the pub.' He reflected that at least it would conceal that dreadful dress.

So, suitably shrouded, she went out of the house with him, through the important front door, down the imposing steps and onto the pavement.

‘Just along here,' said the doctor, gesturing to where a dark grey Rolls-Royce was parked. He unlocked the door, popped her inside and got in beside her. As he drove off he asked casually, ‘You live here with your parents?'

‘Yes. Father is a lawyer—he does a lot of work for international companies. My stepmother prefers to live here in London.'

‘You have a job?'

‘No.' She turned her head to look out of the window, and he didn't pursue the subject but talked idly about this and that as he left the quiet streets with their stately houses and presently, in a narrow street bustling with people, stopped the car by an empty meter. ‘Shall we try that pub on the corner?' he suggested, and helped her out.

Heads turned as they went in; they made an odd couple—he in black tie and she in a shabby raincoat—but the landlord waved them to a table in one corner of the saloon bar and then came over to speak to the doctor.

‘Ain't seen yer for a while, Doc. Everything OK?'

‘Splendid, thank you, Joe. How is your wife?'

‘Fighting fit, thanks to you. What'll it be?' He glanced at Bertha. ‘And the little lady here? A nice drop of wine for her?'

‘We're hungry, Joe…'

‘The wife's just this minute dished up bangers and mash. How about that, with a drop of old and mild?'

Dr Hay-Smythe raised an eyebrow at Bertha, and when she nodded Joe hurried away, to return presently with the beer and the wine and, five minutes later, a laden tray.

The homely fare was well cooked, hot and generous. The pair of them ate and drank in a friendly silence until the doctor said quietly, ‘Will you tell me something about yourself?'

‘There's nothing to tell. Besides, we're strangers; we're not likely to meet again.' She added soberly, ‘I think I must be a little mad to be doing this.'

‘Well, now, I can't agree with that. Madness, if at all, lies with people who go to parties and eat too much and drink too much and don't enjoy themselves. Whereas you and I have eaten food we enjoy and are content with each other's company.' He waited while Joe brought the coffee he had ordered. ‘Being strangers, we can safely talk knowing that whatever we say will certainly be forgotten.'

‘I've never met anyone like you before,' said Bertha.

‘I'm perfectly normal; there must be thousands exactly like me.' He smiled a little. ‘I think that perhaps you haven't met many people. Do you go out much? The theatre? Concerts? Sports club? Dancing?'

Bertha shook her head. ‘Well, no. I do go shopping, and I take my stepmother's dog out and help when people come for tea or dinner. That kind of thing.'

‘And your sister?' He saw her quick look. ‘Stepsister Clare—has she a job?'

‘No—she's very popular, you see, and she goes out a great deal and has lots of friends. She's pretty—you must have seen that…'

‘Very pretty,' he agreed gravely. ‘Why are you unhappy, Bertha? You don't mind my calling you Bertha? After all, as you said, we are most unlikely to meet again. I'm a very good listener. Think of me as an elder brother or, if you prefer, someone who is going to the other side of the world and never returning.'

She asked, ‘How do you know that I'm unhappy?'

‘If I tell you that I'm a doctor, does that answer your question?'

She smiled her relief. ‘A doctor! Oh, then I could talk to you, couldn't I?'

His smile reassured her.

‘You see, Father married again—oh, a long time ago, when I was seven years old. My mother died when I was five, and I suppose he was lonely, so he married my stepmother.

‘Clare was two years younger than I. She was a lovely little girl and everyone adored her. I did too. But my stepmother—you see, I've always been plain and dull. I'm sure she tried her best to love me, and it must be my fault, because I tried to love her, but somehow I couldn't.

‘She always treated me the same as Clare—we both had pretty dresses and we had a nice nanny and went to the same school—but even Father could see that I wasn't growing up to be a pretty girl like Clare, and my stepmother persuaded him that it would be better for me to stay at home and learn to be a good housewife…'

‘Was Clare not a partner in this, too?'

‘Well, no. She has always had lots of friends—I mean, she hadn't time to be at home very much. She's really kind to me.' She laid a hand on a glimpse of pink frill which had escaped from the raincoat. ‘She gave me this dress.'

‘You have no money of your own?'

‘No. Mother left me some, but I—I don't need it, do I?'

The doctor didn't comment on that. All he said was, ‘There is a simple solution. You must find a job.'

‘I'd like that, but I'm not trained for anything.' She added anxiously, ‘I shouldn't have said all that to you. Please forget it. I have no right to complain.'

‘Hardly complaining. Do you not feel better for talking about it?'

‘Yes, oh, yes. I do.' She caught sight of the clock and gave a little gasp. ‘Heavens, we've been here for ages…'

‘Plenty of time,' said the doctor easily. ‘I dare say the party will go on until midnight.' He paid the bill and stowed her in the Rolls once more, then drove her back and went with her into the house. Bertha shed the raincoat in the hall, smoothed the awful dress
and went with him into the vast drawing room. The first person to see them was her stepmother.

‘Bertha, where have you been? Go at once to the kitchen and tell Cook to send up some more vol-au-vents. You're here to make yourself useful—'

Mrs Soames, suddenly aware of the doctor standing close by, became all at once a different woman. ‘Run along, dear.' She spoke in a quite different voice now, and added, ‘Don't be long—I'm sure your friends must be missing you.'

Bertha said nothing, and slipped away without a glance at the doctor.

‘Such a dear girl,' enthused Mrs Soames, her massive front heaving with pseudo maternal feelings, ‘and such a companion and help to me. It is a pity that she is so shy and awkward. I have done my best—' she managed to sound plaintive ‘—but Bertha is an intelligent girl and knows that she is lacking in looks and charm. I can only hope that some good man will come along and marry her.'

She lifted a wistful face to her companion, who murmured the encouraging murmur at which doctors are so good. ‘But I mustn't bother you with my little worries, must I? Come and talk to Clare—she loves a new face. Do you live in London? We must see more of you.'

So when Bertha returned he was at the other end of the room, and Clare was laughing up at him, a hand on his arm. Well, what did I expect? reflected Bertha, and went in search of Crook the butler, a lifelong friend and ally; she had had a good supper, and now,
fired by a rebellious spirit induced by Dr Hay-Smythe's company, she was going to have a glass of champagne.

She tossed it off under Crook's fatherly eye, then took a second glass from his tray and drank that too. Probably she would have a headache later, and certainly she would have a red nose, but since there was no one to mind she really didn't care. She wished suddenly that her father were at home. He so seldom was…

People began to leave, exchanging invitations and greetings, several of them saying a casual goodbye to Bertha, who was busy finding coats and wraps and mislaid handbags. Dr Hay-Smythe was amongst the first to leave with his party, and he came across the hall to wish her goodbye.

‘That was a splendid supper,' he observed, smiling down at her. ‘Perhaps we might do it again some time.'

Before she could answer, Clare had joined them. ‘Darling Oliver, don't you dare run off just as I've discovered how nice you are. I shall find your number in the phone book and ring you—you may take me out to dinner.'

‘I'm going away for some weeks,' he said blandly. ‘Perhaps it would be better if I phoned you when I get back.'

Clare pouted. ‘You wretched man. All right, if that's the best you can do.'

She turned her head to look at Bertha. ‘Mother's looking for you…'

Bertha went, but not before putting out a small, capable hand and having it shaken gently. Her, ‘Goodbye Doctor,' was uttered very quietly.

It was after Bertha had gone to her bed in the modest room on the top floor of the house that Mrs Soames went along to her daughter's bedroom.

‘A successful evening, darling,' she began. ‘What do you think of that new man—Oliver Hay-Smythe? I was talking to Lady Everett about him. It seems he's quite well-known—has an excellent practice in Harley Street. Good family and plenty of money—old money…' She patted Clare's shoulder. ‘Just the thing for my little girl.'

‘He's going away for a while,' said Clare. ‘He said he'd give me a ring when he gets back.' She looked at her mother and smiled. Then she frowned. ‘How on earth did Bertha get to know him? They seemed quite friendly. Probably he's sorry for her—she did look a dowd, didn't she?'

Clare nibbled at a manicured hand. ‘She looked happy—as though they were sharing a secret or something. Did you know that he has a great deal to do with backward children? He wouldn't be an easy man… If he shows an interest in Bertha, I shall encourage him.' She met her mother's eyes in the mirror. ‘I may be wrong, but I don't think he's much of a party man—the Paynes, who brought him, told me that he's not married and there are no girlfriends—too keen on his work. If he wants to see more of Bertha, I'll be all sympathy!'

BOOK: A Betty Neels Christmas: A Christmas Proposal\Winter Wedding
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