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  • Writer's pictureSheila Claydon

Empty Hearts (extract from Chapter 3)

By trying to make a new start, Holly just may find a family of her own.

Holly is struggling to pick up the pieces of her shattered life when she is offered the chance to travel to Moscow to research a new book. That she will also have to look after diplomat Dirk Van Allen’s five-year-old son, Peter, seems a small price to pay...until she meets them both.

Determined to find a way into Peter’s stony little heart, Holly thinks that softening his father’s attitude towards her might help. When Dirk sees through her ploy and starts to play her at her own game, she realises she is way out of her depth with this mysterious, intriguing man.

“Please hurry.” Peter, finding his tongue at last, pulled at Holly’s sleeve. “Look, lots of people are already skating.” He pointed to a crowd of people, warmly wrapped in coats and scarves, skating in time to the music blaring from the loudspeakers that lined the pathways. Holly sank on to a wooden bench with a sigh of relief. She was already cold, and finding Dirk’s sudden change of mood a strain. “You both go on,” she urged as they fastened their skates. “Let me watch for a while so that I can see what I’m letting myself in for.” “Five minutes, that’s all you have!” A glimmer of humour returned to Dirk’s eyes as he glanced down at her. “After that you’re skating, right, Peter?” “Right!” Peter laced up his own boots, his face flushed with pride as Dirk spoke to him like an equal.

* * *

Holly watched their peculiar lurching gait as they crossed the snow-covered grass turn to a smooth glide as they stepped on to the ice. Other skaters whirled past her, their faces flushed and full of laughter. Even tiny children, younger than Peter, seemed fully competent. It looked so easy that she decided perhaps she was worrying unnecessarily, and yet she didn’t want to make a fool of herself in front of Dirk. “You haven’t even put your boots on yet!” His voice was accusing in her ear. “Peter is already on his second circuit and he’s sent me to fetch you.” Holly tried to hurry but she found the boots difficult to fasten under Dirk’s amused gaze. Her fingers were soon numb with cold as she fumbled to tighten the laces. “Here, let me,” he told her with a grin. “They’re not the easiest things in the world to fasten.” “I’ve nearly finished.” Holly bent further over her skates, face pale with anxiety. The last thing she wanted was for Dirk to touch her again. “Don’t be silly.” He moved her hands firmly away from the red boots and lifted her leg on to his knee. “There’s a knack to winding the laces round the eyelets, and unless you get it right you end up skating on your ankles.” His fingers were warm and deft as he tightened the skates, and he didn’t look at her as he worked, merely pushed down one foot and lifted the other one. It was still clad in its warm, fur-lined boot which he tugged away gently, exposing her toes to the cold air. “Hurry up with the other boot,” shouted Peter who had just jumped off the ice, impatient at their delay. “Two minutes of this and Holly’s foot will freeze.” For answer, Dirk circled her toes in his warm hand, rubbing them gently. Holly stiffened. as a sensation of warmth swept over her. Instantly she tried to snatch her foot away, forgetting the encouragement she had given Dirk the previous evening, but he merely tightened his fingers and looked up with a grin. “Disturbs you, does it?” “No, it doesn’t! I’m just ticklish.” She blushed furiously, angry with him and at herself for being so obvious. It was a great relief when the boot was finally fastened. Dirk was still grinning as she stood up. “Do you want a hand?" “No, thank you. I can manage perfectly well.” She took a tentative step away from the bench, anxious to avoid his outstretched arm. The boots gripped her ankles like giant hands, displacing her weight, unbalancing her, and she stumbled slightly. “You ought to help her.” Peter looked anxious. “No, don’t.” Holly gestured him away indignantly, the sudden movement proving her undoing. Flat on her back, she glared up at Dirk who was laughing openly. “I think this is one occasion when pride has to take a back seat,” he chuckled, hauling her to her feet. “Peter will be disappointed if you don’t skate, and you can’t do it alone.” Holly gave up. The vast frozen pond filled her with alarm and she knew that he was right. She held out a reluctant hand. Peter grabbed it, unable to understand her fear. “It’s easy, really it is. Let me show you.” “Don’t, Peter!” Holly’s voice rose to a shriek of alarm as he threatened to unbalance her. “Let your father help me. He’s stronger,” she added weakly as Dirk slipped an arm round her waist. “An invitation and a compliment!” he teased her. “It must be my lucky day!” Holly didn’t answer as she moved stiffly beside him, concentrating on remaining upright, anything to avoid closer contact. But as they stepped on to the ice, her legs shot from under her. Forgetting her intention of keeping Dirk at arm’s length, she clutched at his coat in alarm. “Just relax.” He dropped his bantering tone and held her tightly. “It will take you a while to get your balance, so put your arm around me. That’s better, now we’re doubly secure.” His hand was warm across her back, firm at her waist. She concentrated on his instructions, willing herself to ignore his hands, forget her unexpected reaction to the touch of his fingers on her foot.

“You’re skating! You’re really skating!” Peter darted round their rather jerky progress in excitement, his cheeks as red as his bright woollen scarf. “Can’t you let go now, Father? See if she can do it on her own.” “I doubt it.” Dirk looked down at Holly with a grin, relaxing his hold slightly. “Don’t!” She clutched at his coat, her sudden panic-stricken movement swinging her round to face him. Dirk tightened his grasp and grinned over her shoulder at Peter. “You can see my problem, can’t you? Perhaps you’d better skate off on your own so as not to waste the morning.” “All right.” Peter darted off in the direction of several small boys playing tag. “He’s too young to be alone.” Unsuccessfully, Holly tried to move away from Dirk, her skates skidding awkwardly on the ice. This wasn’t what she had planned at all. Dirk should be skating with Peter. “Nonsense! He’s perfectly safe. And, besides, I don’t want him to see how much I envy him his nanny!” Holly was startled by the declaration. “Don’t look so surprised,” he told her. “I’m only following up last night’s invitation.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Oh, yes, you do.” He tucked an escaping curl back into her hat before letting his fingers trail down her cheek, coming to rest on the straight line of her mouth. “Ah, don’t, Holly.” He rubbed his thumb gently across her lips. “Such a pretty mouth to look so stern.” Holly forgot that they were still on the ice and turned away, her cheeks scarlet with mortification. She was right out of her depth and it was her own fault. She had behaved stupidly. She ceased her regrets as a passing skater jogged her, sending her legs in wildly opposite directions. Instinctively she grabbed at Dirk, allowing him to pull her close again. “See, you can’t resist me!” He settled his arm round her waist, laughing at her gasp of indignation. “But as Peter is about to join us again, you’ll have to wait!” He propelled her into the mainstream of skaters, giving her no time to protest.

* * *

They skated for a long time until Holly’s legs ached and her face was pink with effort. Even Peter seemed to be flagging, and finally she begged Dirk to stop. “I don’t think I can manage another step,” she gasped. “My feet feel like lead!” He looked concerned, the teasing expression fading from his eyes. “I’m sorry. I should have realised that you’d get tired. Skating uses different leg muscles from walking.” He wove his way between groups of laughing skaters and swung towards the bank, half-lifting Holly on to the snow, his arms still tight around her waist. For a moment she felt the full length of his body against hers, warm and protective, and then she was alone, the bench hard under her aching legs. Dirk loosened his skates and changed them for warm boots, tucking his blue cord trousers into the fur lining so that his legs seemed longer than ever. Peter, perched beside her on the bench, was chattering about a game he’d played with a group of boys, and she nodded absently as she tugged at her laces, trying to dispel a sudden feeling of depression. “Having trouble?” Dirk had pulled off Peter’s boots and was now offering to do the same for her. She hesitated, knowing that her hands were too numb to do more than fumble with the laces but unwilling to submit further to his ministrations. Dirk, however, didn’t wait for an answer but tugged at her boots with firm hands. She wiggled her toes in relief as he freed them, but a moment later she was gasping with pain as cramp locked them into position. “Press down on to my hand,” he ordered, pulling off his wet leather glove and pushing his palm against her toes. “Go on, harder. It will soon go. It’s a combination of the cold and all those overworked muscles.” “I’m all right now.” Holly winced as the circulation began to flow through her foot, filling it with pins and needles. “Let me carry on rubbing your toes for a little longer.” Dirk frowned as she slipped her feet into her boots. “It will take a moment for the blood to start circulating properly.” “No!” Holly’s refusal was sharper than she intended because Dirk’s palm, warm against her foot, his other hand massaging her instep, had produced the same tiny shivers of sensation she had felt earlier, reminding her that her long-denied body had not been rendered entirely unresponsive. She turned away, confused by the sudden conflict of her emotions. “I think I prefer you on the ice,” Dirk teased her, aware of her discomfort. “You’re far too prickly once you’re on firm ground. Perhaps your parents named you wisely after all!” Holly glared back at him, frightened by the strange reaction of her body and angry that he had noticed it and deliberately stroked her foot seductively while she was helpless. He was insufferable, and so ready to believe that all women would find him attractive that it was laughable. She wouldn’t feel sorry for him a moment longer. If he wanted to dull the memory of his own loss with meaningless and well-publicised affairs, then he could count her out. She had been crazy even to think that she could fake a flirtation. Peter would just have to take his chances. Perhaps today had given him a start. She thrust her hands in her pockets and turned into the wind, ignoring Dirk’s chuckle of triumph as she started to trudge towards the exit. “I think you forgot something.” He caught up with her, her skates dangling from his hand. “Thank you.” Holly reached for them, her voice stiff and unforgiving, but instead of the hard steel of the blades she found her hand engulfed in Dirk’s as he swung her skates over his shoulder. “Stop sulking,” he commanded, his eyes belying his stern expression. “You’re setting Peter a bad example.”

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