Read an Excerpt
It was six o'clock on a glorious June morning and the sun was already shining from a blue sky. But it wasn't sunshine which woke Louisa, it was a persistent thumping on the door knocker and presently the doorbell.
She sat up and peered at the clock by the bed. Far too early for the postman, and the milkman had no reason to make such a racket. She turned over and closed her eyes, still not quite awake, and then shot up in bed as the knocker was thumped again. She got out of bed then, flung on a dressing gown and went quickly downstairs. Whoever it was must be stopped before her stepmother was awakened, besides, neighbours living decorously in the quiet little street would complain.
She unbolted the door and was confronted by a man tall and broad enough to blot out the street beyond him. She had the impression of good looks and angry blue eyes as he spoke.
'And about time, too. Must I stand here for ever, banging on your door?'
'Not unless you want to. Are you drunk or something? It's barely six o'clock in the morning.'
He didn't look drunk, she reflected. His clothes were casualtrousers and a thin pulloverand he needed a shave. Louisa, who had a vivid imagination, wondered if he was an escaped prisoner on the run.
'What do you want?' she added stupidly. 'And go away, do.'
'I do not want anything and I am only too anxious to go away, but if you will look behind that bay tree beside the door you will see someone whom I presume belongs to you. She was half in and half out of your gate.'
Louisa nipped down the steps and peered round the tub. 'Oh, Lord, it's Biddy.'
She glanced at the man. 'Our housekeeper.' She bent to touch Biddy's cheek. 'She's all right?'
'She appears to be suffering a severe migraine. Be good enough to open the door wide and I will carry her in.'
Louisa pattered ahead on her bare feet, down the elegant little hall, into the kitchen and through the door at the end into the spare room. She flung back the counterpane and covered Biddy after he laid her on the bed.
'I'd better get our doctor '
'No need. Let her sleep it off.'
He was already walking away, and she hurried to keep up with him.
'Well, thank you very much. It was kind of you to stop. I hope it hasn't made you late for work.'
He didn't answer, only walked through the hall and out of the door without looking round.
'You have no need to be so ill-tempered,' said Louisa, and closed the door smartly on his broad back. If she had stayed for a moment she would have seen him cross the street and get into the Bentley standing there, but she went back to see Biddy, putting the kettle on as she went.
An hour later Louisa went upstairs to dress. Biddy would be fit for nothing for quite a few hours; Louisa would have to wake her stepmother before she left for work and break the news to her that she would have to get her own breakfast.
Downstairs once more, Louisa crammed down cornflakes and tea while she got early morning tea for her stepmother and then nipped upstairs once again.
Her stepmother's bedroom was shrouded in semi-darkness, cluttered with discarded clothes and redolent of an overpowering scent. Louisa pulled back the curtains and put her tray down beside the bed.
She said, 'Good morning, Felicity,' in a voice nicely calculated to rouse the supine figure on the bed. 'Biddy isn't well. She's in bed, and I don't think she'll feel well enough to get up for the rest of the day. I've brought you your tea and laid breakfast for you in the kitchen.'
Mrs Howarth moaned softly and dragged herself up against her pillows.
'Louisa, must you come bouncing in like this? You know how delicate my nerves are. And what's all this about Biddy? Of course she's not ill. How am I supposed to manage without her? You'll have to stay home '
Louisa looked at her stepmother who was still an attractive woman, even with her hair in rollers and no make-up. 'Sorry. Sir James is booked solid all day and his nurses won't have a moment to answer phone calls and check in the patients. You can go out to lunch. I'll be home around six o'clock, and we can have a meal then. I dare say Biddy will be all right again by tomorrow. A migraine,' said Louisa.
'You could have brought me my breakfast,' complained Mrs Howarth.
'I'm just off,' Louisa told her. 'I'll take a quick look at Biddy before I go.'
Biddy was awake, feeling sorry for herself. 'Miss Louisa, I dunno how I got here '
'Well, you got as far as the gate,' said Louisa. 'Someone passing saw you and thumped the knocker.'
'The missus didn't hear?'
'No, no. I told her that you were very poorly. Once your head's better, you'll be quite yourself again.'
'Bless you, Miss Louisa. I got an awful 'eadache.'
'Yes, but it will get better, Biddy. Try and go to sleep again. I've put some milk here by your bed and some dry biscuits.' She stooped and kissed the elderly cheek. 'Poor old Biddy. I must fly or I'll get the sack.'
'You ought not to be working,' said Biddy. 'There's money enough; spends it all on herself, she does. It ain't fair.'
'Don't worry about it, Biddy. I like my job, and I meet lots of interesting people.'
'You ought ter 'ave a young man.'
'No time,' said Louisa cheerfully. 'Now, have another nap, Biddy, and don't try and get upwhatever Mrs Howarth says.'
Louisa caught her usual bus by the skin of her teeth, raced up Castle Street as fast as she dared without actually running and hurried through the dignified portals of Sir James Wilberforce's consulting rooms. She heaved a sigh of relief as she opened the waiting room door; it was empty save for a pretty girl in nurse's uniform who was putting down the phone as Louisa crossed the room.
'You're late,' Jilly said unnecessarily. 'He wants you in there as soon as you arrive.' She added at Louisa's questioning look, 'He's in a good mood.'
Louisa tapped at the door of the consulting room and was bidden in Sir James's fruity voice to enter. He was standing looking out of his window, but turned to look at her as she went in. He was a short, stout man with a wealth of silver hair and a round face with small, bright eyes. His patients loved him despite his forthright manner.
He wasn't alone. The man standing beside Sir James turned when he did and gave Louisa a cool stare. Immaculate in his sober grey suit and silk tie, he looked very different from the man who had thumped the door knocker so fiercely that morning. Well, not different, thought Louisa, only the clothes. He was just as tall, his person was just as vast, and his eyes just as cold.
Sir James peered at her over his glasses. 'Good morning, Miss Howarth. I mustn't keep you from your work, but I must make you known to Dr Gifford. He is to become my part-time partner, taking over when I am on holiday or called away for any length of time. We shall see him once or twice a week, and you will work for him as you do for me.'
He beamed at her, and she realised that she was expected to show some sort of pleased acquiescence.
'I'll do my best,' said Louisa inadequately, and stared at Dr Gifford's waistcoat. 'How do you do?'
He said smoothly, 'I'm sure that Miss Howarth and I will work well together.'
Sir James said cheerfully, 'Oh, I'm sure you will. She is most reliablea splendid worker. Not easily put out either.' He chuckled. 'Copes with emergencies '
Louisa shot a look at Dr Gifford. He was smiling. She didn't much care for the smile. She said rather tartly, 'Fortunately, these occur very rarely.'
'Ah, well,' said Sir James cheerfully. 'One never knows what lies round the corner. Thank you, Miss Howarth; I expect you will wish to get on with your work.'
Louisa murmured and slid away. For a big girl she was very light and quick on her feet. Dr Gifford, listening gravely to his colleague's observations, considered her at his leisure. Big, but beautiful with it. All that tawny hair piled up in a rather haphazard arrangement, that lovely face with its wide grey eyes, haughty little nose and too large mouth which lifted at its corners, and a nasty temper when roused, he reflected.
Louisa went back to her desk and began the day's work: answering the phone, booking patients, greeting them with just the right amount of friendly sympathy they hoped for, offering them cups of coffee, cheering the faint-hearted, providing the social side of the practice while Mrs Grant, Sir James's head practice nurse, dealt with the more tiresome aspects of it. They got on well together, she and Louisa. Mrs Grant was a motherly woman, and she was comfortably plump with a bright rosy-cheeked face and iron-grey hair.
Louisa sat down at her desk, and since there were no patients for the moment Mrs Grant popped out of her little treatment room.
'Jilly's gone for coffee,' she said. 'She may be pretty but, my goodness, she's slow. What was all that about? Sir James introduced me to Dr Gifford; he looks nice enough.'
'I'm sure he's a very pleasant kind of man,' said Louisa, not meaning a word of it. 'Jilly must be delighted '
Mrs Grant cast her a shrewd look. 'Jilly is delighted with anyone wearing trousers. I suppose a pretty face is good for the practice.' She smiled suddenly. 'You're pretty enough for several Jillys.'
Louisa said without conceit, 'But I'm big, aren't I? Men like wispy girls.'
Mrs Grant laughed. 'Not all of them, love. My Ronny settled on me, didn't he? And I'm not exactly sylphlike, am I?'
Jilly came back then, and Louisa, sitting watching her as she came into the room, had to admit that she was extremely pretty. Probably some of the younger patients, especially the men, found her very attractive.
'Well, what did you think of him?' she asked Louisa.
'Dr Gifford? Well, he must be a good man if Sir James wants him for a partner. We didn't speak, only to say how do you do.'
'Oh, I know he must be a good doctor,' said Jilly impatiently. 'But didn't you think he was frightfully good-looking? And he smiled.'
'Why shouldn't he smile?' asked Louisa matter-of-factly, and then added, 'I must get on; Mrs Wyatt's due in five minutes.'
Jilly wasn't to be put off. 'Don't you like men? Haven't you got a boyfriend?'
'Well, of course I like men. And I do have a boyfriend. Now, do let me get on.'
She began sorting the morning's workpatients' notes, phone calls to make, accounts to deal with. She turned to the computer and stared into its blank face. She wasn't sure that Percy would like to be described as a boyfriend. It would be beneath his dignity, and smacked of a relationship which he would never tolerate. Nor would she, for that matternot that he had ever asked her opinion.
Percy, an inch shorter than she was, would have liked to call her his 'little woman', only great strapping girls such as she could never be that. It was a pity that he had taken it into his head that her continued refusal to marry him was merely what he called 'womanly wiles'. Once or twice she had longed to give him a good thump and tell him to find some meek girl who wouldn't answer him back, but she had been well brought upthere were some things one just didn't do.
She sighed, and then smiled nicely as the next patient came in.
The last one went two hours later and Sir James went away to do his hospital rounds, taking Dr Gifford with him and leaving a pile of letters on Louisa's desk.
'See to that lot, Miss Howarth. Leave them on my desk and make out the cheques. Oh, and bank the cheques that have been paid, will you? I shall be back some time this afternoon.'
She watched Dr Gifford's broad shoulders disappear through the door; he had given her a thoughtful look and said nothing, but she hadn't expected him to. Before starting on the letters, she allowed herself to wonder if he disliked her. Hopefully she wouldn't see much of him. She wondered where he had a practice, and later, over their lunch sandwiches, she asked Mrs Grant if she knew.
'Didn't Sir James tell you? A country practice not too far from here. Blandford way. Took it over when his father retired. Very rural, apparently, but lovely country.'
She bit into a cheese sandwich. 'He's well thought of, so I'm told.'
'Married?' asked Jilly, pausing on her way home. She only worked in the mornings, and did that halfheartedly. Louisa thought that Sir James employed her because she was young and pretty and that was what the patients liked. That she was pretty herself, even if she was twenty-seven, was something she didn't regard.
'No, I don't think so,' said Mrs Grant. 'But don't waste your time on him, Jilly, he's as good asto the Thornfolds' youngest daughter. It'll be a grand wedding.'
'Will she like being a GP's wife?' asked Louisa.
'If she loves him then she will,' declared Mrs Grant.
Not an easy man to love, reflected Louisa, and began to tidy up before going back to her desk.
When she got home again that evening she found Biddy on her feet once more, looking very much the worse for wear but nonetheless preparing dinner.
'Your Mr Witherspoon's coming,' she told Louisa. 'So the missus told me to do something special.'
'He's not mine,' said Louisa crossly. 'And why must he have something special?'
'Dunno, Miss Louisa. The missus is 'aving a rest; tired out after the 'airdresser's.'
Biddy spoke without rancour. Mrs Howarth was no longer young, but she was still very attractive, even beautiful when she had her make-up on and her hair freshly dressed. Louisa agreed cheerfully; she got on well enough with her stepmother although there was no affection between them. Felicity was selfish and lazy and extravagant, but she was easygoing, too, and good company, and she could be very appealing, with her charming smile and her look of helplessness. And she was small and slender so that Louisa always felt at a disadvantageoverlarge and clumsy, conscious of her generously built person.
It was a nuisance that Percy would be coming to dinner. He had begun to take it for granted that he was welcome whenever he chose to invite himself.