A Penny For Christmas Chapter 17

By Anthonia Nicol

‘Penny, are you sure this is what it says on the laptop? The soup’s on fire!’
With a serious look on her face, Penny read through the instructions again.
‘Add two teaspoons of salt, a dash of cooking wine, and a cup of beef stock.’
Sarah looked at her suspiciously. ‘You said a cup of cooking wine and a dash of beef stock.’
‘I did not,’ Penny said, crossing her heart.
‘Hmmm. Either way, we’ve messed this up. We need to try again,’ Sarah said, taking the pot off the stove.
Penny was alarmed. ‘Mum, we can’t start afresh! Dad will be leaving for work in thirty minutes. Dad always leaves on time. I wanted him to taste our cooking!’
Sarah feigned a shocked look on her face. ‘We should have gone with something familiar, then.’
Penny gave a disgruntled look. ‘Dad doesn’t like oatmeal and all those other horrid meals we had in our former house.’
Sarah had started making an English breakfast; ham, eggs, bacon, and toast. That combination was Christopher’s favorite, or at least used to be.
‘You have stayed with your dad for five seconds, and now you know what he likes?’ Sarah teased.
Penny smiled. She had never seen her mum so relaxed, and dare she think it, happy.
‘Well, it’s been a month, and he has a routine,’ Penny pointed out before she figured out what her mum was making. ‘An English Breakfast! Mum, you are a genius!’
‘Oh, I just hope he likes it,’ she wished, racing across the kitchen.
‘Mum?’
‘Yes, Penelope?’
‘Why didn’t we have an English Breakfast in our other house?’
Sarah paused before she answered.
‘We couldn’t afford an English Breakfast, baby.’
‘Mum?’
‘Yes, Penelope?’ Sarah answered, retrieving a jar of salt from the top shelf.
‘Dad is watching us.’
The jar slipped from Sarah’s hands and fell on the floor, spilling all its contents. Suddenly she was nervous and trembling so much that she had to hold on to the kitchen cabinet for support.
He didn’t move. He just leaned against the kitchen door with his arms folded, and Sarah salivated. What a specimen of a man! She turned away in an attempt to regain her composure.
‘Mum, are you alright?’ asked Penny, with a sheepish grin on her face.
Sarah heard the laughter in Penny’s voice and could see that her eight-year-old was enjoying herself.
‘I’m fine, baby. Err. Good morning Chris,’ she managed to say, without looking at him.
He remained quiet. Penny signaled her mum to say more with her eyes. It was clear what her daughter wanted.
‘I…We made breakfast, ‘Sarah stammered.
‘Mum, look at him!’ she whispered.
Sarah shook her head in fright.
Penny rolled her eyes.
‘Dad, will you do us the pleasure of joining us for breakfast this morning?’
‘I have to go to work now, Penny,’ he replied, softly. ‘Where’s Mrs. Donohue?’
‘She called in sick,’ Penny, promptly.
‘Dad, but you always leave at 7:30, and it’s 7:05. We still have time. Pleaseeeeee!’
Chris walked towards them. Sarah stiffened because her heart was racing and her breathing quickened. What was wrong with her?
He carried Penny into his arms and stroked her hair. ‘Alright. You win. I will have that delicious looking English breakfast you made.’
‘Actually, Mum made breakfast. I only err instructed,’ Penny corrected, placing her head on his shoulder as she loved to do so often.
Chris smiled and walked towards the door. ‘The one who instructs is just as important as the one who makes the meal.’
Somehow that statement didn’t resonate well with Sarah. The butterflies in her stomach turned to painful knots. She fell to the floor and scraped the salt into the trash can. As Chris’s voice faded away into the distance, she felt her chest tightening when she realized that he didn’t acknowledge her presence.
Christopher had an enviable relationship with the girls, and as they dug into breakfast and chatted away, Sarah watched them with a relaxed demeanor. No, she watched Chris.
She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He combed his sleek black hair to perfection to match his perfectly ironed black suit and white shirt. There was a time when it was her job to pick out his clothes for the day. A heavy sigh escaped her lips.
‘Mum, why are you sighing?’ Penny asked, jolting her back to reality.
‘Wha..at?’ she asked Penny.
Everyone was looking at her.
‘You were looking at dad, and you sighed. Is it because he’s very handsome today?’
She sprang up to her feet and started clearing the dishes.
‘Dad!’ Penny whispered in Christopher’s ear. ‘I think mum loves you!’
A wry smile formed on his lips.
‘Penelope, you need to let daddy go to work now,’ Sarah said, looking at the pile of dishes.
‘Dad,’ Daisy said, handing her plate over to Sarah without looking at her.
‘When is Mrs. Donohue coming today?’
Chris had a puzzled look on his face.
‘She called in sick today. I believe that is why mum made us breakfast. I thought you knew that.’
Chris looked at Sarah. ‘It was a delicious breakfast.’
Sarah couldn’t stop herself from blushing. ‘Thank you, Chris.’
Daisy snorted. ‘If she doesn’t come, who will stay with us today?’
Chris’s expression turned serious, and Sarah responded quickly.
‘I will, Daisy. I will make lunch and…’
‘And what?’ Daisy cut in. ‘And stay till it ‘s time to wander off again?’
Daisy turned to Chris. ‘She’s never home in the afternoons, dad.’
Sarah froze for a moment then carried the dishes to the kitchen while Penny glowered at Daisy.
‘Mum goes shopping in the afternoons. She always brings back groceries,’ Penny said, in defense of her mum.
‘Every afternoon, Penny? That’s what she wants us to believe,’ Daisy countered.
‘Yes!’ Penny continued. ‘She helps Mrs. Donohue get groceries. Why do you always have to fight with mum? Can’t you see she’s doing better?’
‘It’s alright,’ Chris said, trying to calm both girls. ‘I will speak with mum and make sure she stays with you today. Everything will be alright.’

Sarah was shocked to find Christopher sitting on her bed when she retired to her bedroom in the attic, after her chores.
Yes, she got the attic.
A small room directly under the roof that a man of Christopher’s height would struggle to fit in, so if he was here to speak with her and not waiting till he returned from work, something was amiss.
His silence made her nervous, but she had to wait for him to speak first.
He did after a heavy sigh.
‘When we made this arrangement in the hospital, you said you were fine with it.’
Sarah nodded quickly. ‘I…’
‘Was I asking for too much?’ he continued, looking out the window and watching the snow as it made white patterns on the roof.
‘No, you weren’t. I..’
He turned to her. ‘I don’t trust you, Sarah. Leaving them with you bothers the hell out of me, but today I have no choice but to beg you to stay with them.’
Her chest tightened again.
‘Christopher, they are my kids too. I would never dream of hurting them. I had the intention of saying with them today.’
‘Today?’ Christopher cut in. ‘And other days? What would happen if Mrs. Donohue called to say she was taking an early retirement, which might come any moment now. Then what?’
Sarah shook her head. ‘I promise I won’t give you anything to complain about from now on. Please don’t be angry.’
Chris snorted. ‘It’s too late for that. I’ve been angry for eight years.’
Sarah forced herself to meet his eyes. ‘Please give me a chance.’
Chris hissed as he rose to go. ‘You had years of chances. You still took the wrong path. He’s dead, and you are still taking the wrong path.’
He was standing by her and turning the doorknob. ‘I’ll be back late. I have a series of meetings. Kindly suspend your ‘grocery shopping’ till either Mrs. Donohue or, I am with the girls.’
‘Christopher, please,’ she pleaded, but he was out the door.
If there was any doubt in her mind about how Christopher felt about her, they were gone.
Tears slid down her face as his words haunted her. He despised her.
Her phone vibrated itself off the bedside table and onto the carpet, but she was in no hurry to pick the call.
It was him.
She took a few seconds to compose herself before she answered.
‘Hello,’ she said before she lost her resolve. ‘I can’t do this anymore! I can’t. Daisy hates me. Christopher detests me! Your plan isn’t working.’
‘I didn’t call to hear excuses, Sarah. If you fail, everything we have worked on will go down the drain. There is no room for failure. Are you coming today?’
She swallowed hard. She knew what the man would say.
‘No, I have to stay with the kids today, or Christopher will be mad. Is this not what you asked me to do?’
‘Find the time. Don’t keep me waiting.’
He cut the call.
She put the phone on the bedside table with shaking hands. The words echoed in her mind as she thought of ways to sneak out without the girls finding out. She had no choice.

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