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'Good morning, everyone. If I could have your attention.'
As Dr Nick Tremayne strode into the staffroom at the Penhally Bay Surgery on a sunny Monday morning in mid-September, GP Polly Car-rick slipped unnoticed to a chair and sat down. Although it was two hours until her first scheduled appointment, Polly had come in early for the meeting, hoping to use the extra time to make an impression on the mountain of paperwork growing on her desk.
'Could we move along, please?' The bite of impatience in Nick's voice was symbolic of the edgy, unpredictable mood he had been in during the last few weeks. 'Patients will soon be arrivingand I have an upcoming meeting. Before then, I have a couple of items to discuss with you.'
The senior partner, Nick's restlessness was evident as he waited for the room to quieten and the on-duty staff to settle. Finally, a hush descended, broken only by the clink of teaspoons against mugs and the familiar metallic ping as the tin containing practice manager Hazel's home-made biscuits was opened with customary eagerness.
'The last couple of years have brought many changes, not only to Penhally in general but to this practice in particular as we continue to expand and extend the services offered to patients.' Nick paused, an aloof smile on his face as his dark gaze scanned the room. 'Luca d'Azzaro is joining us today, filling the gap created by Adam's departure two weeks ago. Some of you met Luca during his familiarisation visit in August, but for those of you not yet acquainted, he moved to Cornwall from Italy three years ago, working since then in St Piran.'
A frown of consideration knotted Nick's brow. 'I won't be betraying any confidences when I tell you that Luca's ambition was to be a paediatric surgeon, but a change in circumstances led to him switching specialty and qualifying as a GP. His references are exceptional and, having done surgical and trauma rotations during his training, he will be an asset in our minor injuries unit. I trust you'll all extend a warm welcome and offer any assistance Luca needs.'
Murmurs of agreement rippled around the staff-room, which was situated on the first floor of the ever-growing and increasingly busy Penhally Bay Surgery. Polly tuned out Nick's voice as he moved on to the next item on his agenda. Luca's arrival meant that she was no longer the newest member of the team. She'd joined the practice nine weeks ago and had settled well, enjoying the job and receiving a warm welcome from the rest of the staff.
Settling in Penhally itself had presented a bigger challenge. She was no stranger to the north Cornish village, having spent the first seventeen years of her life here. Most of them had been unhappy, tormented years. At least, after her mother had died when Polly had been four, leaving her alone in the charge of Reg a man singularly un-suited to the role of father. A shiver ran down her spine. Polly wrapped her arms around her waist, as if by doing so she could protect herself from the remembered pain. This was neither the time nor the place to poke around in old wounds.
News of the new GP post in Penhally had come out of the blue. When Kate Althorpgodmother, friend, confidante, and the only person with whom she had kept in touch after leaving Cornwall thirteen years agohad phoned, Polly had thought she was joking.
'I know how difficult the last few years have been, Polly, and I'm so proud of you for overcoming yet another ordeal,' Kate had told her, bringing a lump to Polly's throat. 'In your last email, you said you needed a complete change and wanted to get right away from London.'
'Yes, I did. I do. But Penhally?'
'I know, my love, but all the bad you once knew here has long gone. I've recommended you to the team and told them about your professional skills. There will be an interview, of course, but that's just a formality. The job is yours.. if you want it,' her friend had continued, countering her protests. 'Starting over is never easy, as you know from past experience, but here you have people waiting to welcome you back with open arms. And I'm at the head of the queue.'
The lump in her throat had swelled to mammoth proportions. 'Kate '
'Please come, Polly. You're a wonderful doctor. Penhally needs you. And I think you need Penhally. Don't let the shadows of the past continue to cloud your future,' Kate had advised, genuine emotion in her voice.
Although doubts and anxieties had remained, Polly had gone through the interview, agreed terms and signed a contract. Which was why, thirteen years after she had left, vowing never to set foot in the village again, she had found herself back in Penhally.
The meagre possessions she had salvagedall she had left to show for her years of independence and her follylooked lost in the Bridge Street flat where Nick's daughter Lucy had once lived and which was now rented out. Kate, ever thoughtful, had stocked the flat with basic supplies and fresh flowers for her arrival. 'Polly?'
Nick's impatient voice, accompanied by a gentle nudge from Chloe Fawkner, who had come to sit next to her, roused Polly from her introspection. She looked up, uncomfortably aware that she had no idea what her boss had said. Everyone was looking at her and a blush heated her cheeks she hated being the centre of attention.
Trying not to squirm, Polly met her boss's enigmatic gaze, hoping she didn't look as flustered as she felt. 'Yes, Nick?'
'Thank you, Polly. I'm glad you agree,' he replied, turning away.
Amusement rippled round the room and, with a sinking heart Polly wondered what she had unwittingly agreed to. Chloe sent her a sympathetic smile. Besides Kate, it had been Chloe, physiotherapist Lauren Nightingale and their partners who had gone out of their way to include her, both professionally and socially. It was the social stuff she struggled with.
Polly remembered Chloe and Lauren from school. And Sam Cavendish, a part-time GP in the practice, had been in her year. Not that he would have noticed her. No one had. She'd been the quiet, skinny loner who'd lurked in the background.
In the weeks since she had returned to Penhally, Polly had come to know Chloe as a dedicated professional, very caring of her mums-to-be, kind to her colleagues and a good friend to Kate. Chloe had matured into a beautiful woman, with long, dark hair and big green eyes. Polly couldn't help but envy her looks and curvy body. Or the fact that Chloe was so evidently in love with, and loved by, her wickedly handsome husband, oliver Fawkner, another of Penhally's GPs.
With Nick busy talking to Croatian GP Dragan Lovak, Polly quizzed Chloe on the details she had missed from their boss's talk.
'What have I agreed to do?' Polly whispered.
Chloe leaned closer to murmur her reply. 'Babysit our new doctor.'
Polly slumped back on her chair and stifled a groan. It was the last task she would have chosen. Surely one of the more established doctors would be better suited for the role? oliver had been Polly's mentor for the first few days. He'd been kindness itself, warm in his welcome, and whether or not he had sensed her nervousness, Oliver's easygoing nature and irreverent humour had set her at ease. The least she could do was extend the same courtesy to Luca, although her shyness and anxiety would make her task harder. With patients, she was fine, able to project her work persona, but she continued to find any kind of social interaction difficult.
The morning briefing came to an end, and the staffroom emptied as everyone dispersed to their own rooms and designated tasks. There was no opportunity to talk to Nick. Used to keeping in the background rather than pushing herself forward, by the time Polly had urged herself to act it was too late, and her boss was already out of the door.
'I'll bring Luca along and introduce you in time for your first consultation, Polly,' he called over his shoulder, before jogging down the stairs.
Sighing, Polly found herself alone in the staff-room. After making a mug of white tea with cranberries, she went downstairs to her consulting room and closed the door, determined to do battle with the neverending paperwork.
As she settled at her desk and sipped her tea, her mind drifted to the new doctor and the little Nick had said about him. She couldn't help but wonder what had caused Luca d'Azzaro to give up his surgical career and why he had turned to general practice instead. Polly shook her head. Such speculation was pointless. And Luca's decisions were none of her business.
Polly glanced at her watch and a frission rippled down her spine, a curious flicker of what? Apprehension, unease, excitement? She didn't know. She'd never experienced such nervy anticipation before. Why now? And why had Nick chosen her to help Luca settle in? All too soon she would meet the mysterious new doctor for herself.