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'Ben!' She spun around, her heart tripping and a smile she couldn't hold breaking out at the sound of his voice. 'I didn't think you'd come.'
Hoped, yes, stupidly much, even though she'd known it was an outside chance, but here he was, the answer to a maiden's prayerswell, hers, at leastand her knees had turned to mush.
'Oh, you know me, ever the sucker,' he replied with that lazy, sexy grin that unravelled her insides. 'I had my arm twisted by one of my patients, and it would have been churlish to refuse. Besides, if I remember rightly, the food's amazing.'
So, he hadn't come to see her, then, but what had she expected? Two years was a long time, and so very much had happened. Too much.
Stifling the strangely crushing disappointment, she looked away from those piercing eyes the colour of a summer sky and glanced behind her at the barbeque. 'It certainly smells fabulous. I wonder when we can get stuck in? I haven't eaten since breakfast, and that was before seven.'
'Sounds as if your day's been like mine,' he murmured, and she realised he'd moved closer. Much closer, so that she could not only hear his voice more clearly, but smell the clean, fresh scent of his skin. He never wore aftershave, but he didn't need to, not to enhance him, because the combination of soap and freshly laundered clothes, underscored by warm, healthy man, was a potent combination.
She felt herself sway a little towards him and wrenched herself back upright. 'Sorrymy heels are sinking into the grass,' she said, not untruthfully, but it gave her an excuse to shift her position and move a fraction away from him. Just far enough so she couldn't smell that intoxicating blend of citrus and musk.
'Sohow are you?' he asked, his voice still soft, and even though she knew it was silly, that it didn't matter how nice he was to her, her heart opened up to his gentle enquiry.
His smile was wry. 'No, I don't, or I wouldn't be asking. How's general practice working out?'
She tried to inject some enthusiasm into her voice. 'It's fine. Great. I was on call last night and I had a surgery this morning, so I'm a bit tired today, but it's OK. I'm really getting into it.'
She tipped her head and looked up at him curiously. 'Why?'
'My registrar's leavingdecided for some reason to throw away a promising career in favour of maternity. I don't suppose I can tempt you back to A and E?'
Oh, she was tempted. So tempted. To work alongside him againwell, opposite him, to be exact, their heads and hands synchronised, fighting together to save a patient against all odds, their eyes meeting from time to time, his crinkling with that gorgeous, knee-melting smilebut there were too many reasons why not, and one of them was insurmountable, at least for now if not for ever.
She shook her head regretfully and tried to smile. 'Sorry, Ben. Anyway, I still get to do emergency medicine, and we've got a really busy minor injuries unit.'
'What, sprains and jellyfish stings with the odd heart attack thrown in for good measure?' he teased. 'That isn't emergency medicine, Lucy.'
'We do more than that, and it's enough drama for me,' she said, ignoring the little bit of her that was yelling liar! at the top of its voice. 'And anyway, we've been thinking about expanding. We're already too busy in our minor injuries unit, so why not expand and make it a state-of-the-art MIu? Still walking wounded, but a bit more sophisticated than what we've got. Maybe have a dedicated space for one of the community physios instead of her just sharing the nurses' room, and ideally get our own X-rayI don't know. And while we're at it, expand our minor surgery. We'll have to talk to the trustsee if we can convince them it's a good idea. We could take some of the heat off St Piran, especially in the summer with all the tourists.'
She was babbling, trying to ignore the bit of her that was screaming Yes, take me back! but he was listening as if she wasn't talking utter rubbish, and he nodded slowly.
'Sounds as if you've given it a lot of thought, and it certainly makes sense. Our A and E's running flat out, and if you've got good minor surgical facilities as well, that's all to the good. You'd need that for all the stitching of wounds in the MIU, and you could maybe take on some more complex minor surgery. I'm sure they do loads of things in the day surgery unit that don't really need a GA. If the simpler things could be done out in the community under local anaesthetic, it would shorten the waiting list, but the X-ray idea's brilliant. People often sit for hours just to be told they've got a sprain. If you could filter some of those out, maybe put casts on undisplaced fractures or reduce the odd dislocation, it could really take the heat off us. I like it. I like it a lot. I'm all for people being seen quicker and closer to home, and I'd be happy to help in any way I could.'
'I may well take you up on that in your new capacity as head honcho of A and E,' she said with a smile, her heart giddy at the idea of working with him again in any capacity at all. 'All I have to do is convince the bean counters.'
He grinned. 'I wish you luck,' he said drily. 'Whatever, I'm more than happy to advise you, if you want, and if you need any help with leaning on anyone in the primary care trust or the hospital trust for funding, give me a shout. I won't guarantee I've got any influence, but you're welcome to what little I have.' He hesitated for a moment, then added softly, 'I see your father's here. How is he, Lucy?'
Oh, lord. Her father. She shook her head slowly. 'I'm not sure, really. Sometimes he seems fine. Other times he's moody and preoccupied, as if he's still sad inside. I just get the feeling he hasn't let go. Hasn't grieved properly. I mean, it's been nearly two years, Ben, but he still doesn't talk about Mum. Not naturally, in conversation. And I want to talk about her. She was my mother, I loved her. I don't want to forget her.' She looked round, spotting her father at the barbeque, turning sausages and talking to Kate.
Kate was the backbone of the practice, his practice manager and her mother's friend. His friend first, from way back when, but nothing more than that. Sometimes she wondered if Kate would have liked it to be more, but she didn't think there was any chance of that. Not on her father's side, at least. Not unless he could move on.
'I didn't know if he'd be here. Do you think he'll object to my presence?'
'No,' she said quickly, although she wasn't sure. 'Don't be silly. It's a fundraiser, you have every right to be here. Besides, you haven't done anything wrong, and you don't have to talk to him.'
'No, I suppose not. I just didn't want to make him uncomfortable.'
She shrugged. 'It's his problem, not yours. Anyway, he's got other things to think about, and so's Kate Althorp, our practice manager. That's her, next to himdark hair, in the pale pink top.'
'Yes, I've met her in the past. Nice woman.'
'She is. She practically runs this thing every year. Did you know her husband James was our lifeboat coxswain? She lost him, and Dad lost his father and brother, in the storm in '98.'
His brow creased into a frown. 'I didn't know that. I wasn't living here at the time, and the names didn't mean anything to me. I just remember there was a group of schoolchildren studying the rockpools and they were cut off by the tide, and some of the rescuers died.'
Lucy pointed across the harbour to the headland jutting out, crowned by the lighthouse and the church. 'It was over there.'
He was looking at the headland, his brow furrowed. 'What on earth were the kids doing out there anyway? Weren't they supervised?'
'Oh, yes, but the teacher's watch had stopped and they didn't realise the tide was coming in until it was too late. Add in the huge sea, and you get a disaster.'
'Absolutely. I'm sorry, I didn't realise any of them were connected to you. I just remember one of them was a local doctor.'
She nodded. 'My uncle. They were trying to rescue the children from the bottom of the cliff over there, and it all went wrong. Philmy unclehad abseiled down the rocks and got most of them up, but the storm had got really wild by then and he was swept off the cliff by a huge wave and suffered severe head injuries. My grandfather had a heart attack and died on the clifftop just after they brought Phil's body up.'
Ben's eyes searched hers, his expression sombre. 'That must have been horrendous for you all.'
She nodded. 'Especially my father. Apart from Mum and my brothers and me, they were his entire family. He'd lost his mother a couple of years before, and his brother wasn't married. And his father was only sixty-eight.'
'And Kate's husband?'
'James? He was swept off the rocks. They sent out the inshore lifeboat to pick up the kids on the rocks at the end of the promontory, but James had a broken rib so he wasn't on the lifeboat, so he went down out onto the rocks to help a girl who was too scared to move. They threw him a line and a life-jacket, and he got it on her and tied her to the line, but the same wave that killed my uncle swept several of them out to sea and his body was never recovered.'
Ben made a sympathetic noise. 'How awful for Kate.'
'I'm sure it was, but she seems to have dealt with it pretty philosophically. As she said, the sea was going to get him one way or another. At least he died a hero.'
Ben nodded. 'It must have left a huge hole in the community.'
'Oh, yes, but my father never talks about that night. It's as if it never happened. He's always like that. Anything bad that happens, anything personal, he just shuts down.'
'I'm surprised he comes to this event.'
Lucy gave a rueful laugh. 'Oh, I don't think Kate gives him a choice. They've been friends for ever, and she pretty much organises this event every year. He just does what he's told. And anyway, it's for a good cause. The lifeboat's been part of Penhally for generations, and there's nobody who hasn't lost someone close to them or someone they knew well at some time in the pastsorry, I'm going on a bit, but I'm quite passionate about it.'
'Don't apologise. I'm all for passion. The world would be a much duller place without it.' He grinned and added, 'You can get passionate with me any time you like.'
Innocent words, said to lighten the mood, but there was something in his eyes that was nothing about lifeboats and all about passion of another sort entirely, and she felt her heart skitter. Crazy. She hadn't seen him for nearly two years, and their brief relationship had been cut off abruptly, but if it hadn't
'Mr Carter! You came!'
He turned to the grey-haired woman with a cast on her arm and smiled and shook her other hand. 'I said I would.'
'Lots of people say that. Most of them aren't here. And you're with our lovely Dr Lucy. How are you, dear? Keeping well, I hope? I haven't seen you for a while.'
'No, you've defected and moved to Wadebridge, Mrs Lunney,' Lucy said, grateful for the distraction. 'You look well on itwell, apart from your arm. I take it that's how you met Mr Carter.'
She smiled. 'Yesand I'm getting married again because of it! All my neighbour and I had ever done was say hello over the fence for the past six months, but when I broke my arm Henry was just there for me, doing all sorts of little jobs without me asking, and thenwell, let's just say he was very persuasive! And we're getting married next month, when I've got this cast off.'
Lucy hugged her gently. 'That's wonderful. I'm really pleased for you. Congratulations. I hope you'll both be very happy.'
'Thank you, dear. Now, you two enjoy yourselves. I'd better get back to Henryhe's a bit out of his depth here, and they'll be giving him a bit of a grilling, checking him out. You know what they're like! I'd better rescue him.'
Ben chuckled. 'You do thatand congratulations. I'm glad something good came out of your broken arm. Now,' he said softly as she walked away, 'Mrs Lunney's typical of the sort of cases we don't need to see at St. Piran. Simple, undisplaced fracture, and she had to come all that way and sit and wait for an hour and a half before she was seen and given pain relief. Crazy. You could have had her sorted out and on her way by the time she arrived at St. Piran.'
'Don't. I'm working on it, Ben, and Dad's very keen.' Partly because he didn't want anyone who didn't have to go there being sent to St Piran. Since her mother
He lifted his head and cocked an eyebrow towards the food. 'Looks like we're on,' he said, and she fell into step beside him, dragging her mind back to the present.
'Thank goodness for that. I'm going to fade away in a minute! That piece of toast was much too long ago.'
They joined the queue, many of them known to her, either as patients or old friends of her family, and several of the villagers recognised Ben from their trips to the A and E department, so as the queue moved steadily towards the food they were kept busy chatting.
She picked up two plates and handed one to Ben, and then they were there in front of the massive oildrum barbeque, and her heart sank. She'd hoped her father might have moved on to do something else, but he was still there beside Kate, turning sausages and piling up steaks and burgers, and he lifted his head and paused, a sausage speared on a long fork hovering in mid-air.
Ben met his eyes and inclined his head the merest fraction in acknowledgement.
'Dr Tremayne, Mrs Althorp,' he said, and Lucy felt her pulse shift up a notch. It was inevitable that they'd end up running into each other, but now, watching as they eyed each other in silence like stags at bay, she conceded that maybe Ben had been right about not being here.
For an awful, breathless moment she thought her father was going to make a scene, but then he handed the fork to Kate, muttered something to her and walked off.