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It had been a mistake coming back to Bluebell Cove for Christmas, Francine Lomax thought as she stood on the snow-covered path of the house that she hadn't set foot in for months.
When she unlocked the door there was silence inside, no one to greet her, which wasn't surprising as they hadn't known she was coming. She bent and picked up a trainer left lying in the middle of the hall, putting it into a nearby cupboard. Then she gathered together the last delivery of mail before Christmas which was lying behind the door, and placed it on the hall table in a neat pile. There was a letter from Ethan's solicitor amongst it and her insides trembled at its implications.
A doll belonging to Kirstie was sitting upright on the bottom step of the stairs and the choking feeling that she kept getting was back. It was all so familiar, yet she felt like a stranger in her own home.
Her baggage was still outside in the hire car that she'd picked up at the airport, and as she went to bring it in Francine was aware that there was music and laughter coming from somewhere not too far away, the sound of people enjoying themselves.
There might be silence in the house, but there were those out there who were making the most of the festive season and she was reminded of the vow she'd made to herself not to put the blight on the children's Christmas by arriving without warning and bringing her melancholy with her.
When she'd carried her suitcases upstairs she put them in the spare room where she would be sleeping and then went down again to await the arrival of her husband and children.
She'd been missing Ben and Kirstie dreadfully and their father too because it had been so much longer since she'd seen him, but she had only herself to blame for that. The last thing Ethan had wanted was for her to go stomping off to live in Paris, in contrast to being just a frequent visitor as had been the case when her parents had been alive, and as Christmas had approached she'd begun to wish she hadn't agreed to the children coming back to Bluebell Cove so early to spend it with their father.
Yet that was how it was going to have to be because of the rift between Ethan and herself that was getting wider all the time, so wide that the divorce she'd asked for was under way with wheels slowly turning in the background.
Bitterness had soured a marriage that had been happy and fulfilling until she'd lost her parents tragically in a coach crash while they had been holidaying in the Balkans. As a result she had inherited her childhood home in France, and ever since had been desperate to live there.
The marriage might have stood a better chance if tiny cracks hadn't already been appearing in it ever since Ethan had taken over as head of The Tides Medical Practice that cared for the health and well-being of the inhabitants of Bluebell Cove. He had seemed prepared to put his commitment to his new position before everything else.
His acceptance of the responsibility had come about because of the early retirement due to poor health of the woman who had given her life to the practice and had felt that Ethan was the only person she could trust to continue the work there to the same high standards as herself.
But the niggles that had sometimes arisen because of that had been as nothing compared to his reaction to the heart-breaking homesickness that had overtaken her at the loss of her parents and swept her into the situation that now existed between them. So if the revellers out there were full of the Christmas spirit, she wasn't.
She could still hear the music somewhere nearby and supposed it was possible that her family might be involved in whatever was happening out there on a snowy Christmas Eve.
Snuggling back into the winter coat that she'd travelled in and zipping up fashionable boots that had the stamp of Paris on them, she decided to go and see what was taking place in the direction of the square where a big spruce that was decorated and illuminated every year at Christmas time.
Standing in the shadows, she saw that those present were lined up in pairs behind a man and woman who looked as if they were dressed as bride and groom.
It was odd, to say the least, but sure enough Ethan and the children were there with Kirstie and Ben partnering each other for what was about to take place, her daughter bright eyed and excited in a stylish pink dress that she hadn't seen before, and her son ill at ease.
Ethan was partnering a tall slender girl with brown hair, brown eyes and very pale skin. The last time Francine had seen Phoebe Howard she'd been pregnant, facing up nervously to the prospect of becoming a single mother, but she looked happy enough at the moment.
He was looking down at her, smiling at something she'd said, and Francine thought that if Ethan was finding comfort in the arms of another woman it wasn't surprising. He'd had no joy in hers for many long months.
Neither he nor the children had noticed her, they were too engrossed in the moment, and she continued to stay out of sight, registering as she did so that the smiling bride was Jenna Balfour, the daughter of the woman who had been in charge of the village medical practice before Ethan had taken over. Incredibly her bridegroom was Lucas Devereux, of all people, her husband's closest friend.
At that moment the local school's band struck up and the two of them began to dance through the village in the direction of the headland overlooking the sea, with the rest of the revellers following behind.
Tears pricked Francine's eyes. She'd been happy here for twelve years with Ethan and the children as they'd come along. Bluebell Cove was a beautiful place with countryside in abundance and the mighty Atlantic close by.
But ever since she'd inherited the house in France it had been there that she wanted to be, and although Ethan had understood, it hadn't stopped him from reminding her frequently that he'd just taken on a huge commitment by becoming senior partner in the village practice.
That he owed it to Barbara Balfour to keep the faith. In other words, he didn't intend to leave Bluebell Cove and move to France on the sudden whim of his grieving wife.
There had been no hint of what was to come on his part when she'd first suggested it. He'd been reasonable and understanding, promising they would have lots of holidays there. But as the months had gone by she hadn't changed her mind about living there permanently, insisting he owed her that because hadn't she spent twelve years in Bluebell Cove for his sake?
In the end he'd wearied of being told he was selfish and after one more heated exchange of words she'd gone, taking the children with her.
That had really tipped the balance of Ethan's patience and concern. He loved them just as much as she did, he'd told her coldly, would expect to see them regularly, and all her hopes that he might relent and follow them had turned out to be futile.
For Kirstie and Ben there'd been no problem. They'd always liked visiting their grandparents in France, and as their parents had kept their disenchantment with each other from them as much as possible, going to live in the charming house on the outskirts of Paris had been an exciting interlude in their lives.
They'd settled in at the school where she'd enrolled them without any problems, having picked up the language over the years on their visits to their grandparents, and life would have been perfect if only Ethan had been there with them.* * *
The headland was graced by another huge Christmas tree and those at the front of the line of dancers had already whirled around it and were on their way back to where they'd started from, which meant that in a very short time her family was going to become aware of her presence.
Kirstie was the first to see her as she and Ben drew near, and her delighted cry of 'Maman!' stopped her husband in his tracks and brought her children out of the ranks and into her waiting arms.
She could see above their heads that Ethan had started dancing again and was almost out of sight without even greeting her. Maybe it was to remind her that their life together was coming to its close, that she'd got what she wanted, a return to her roots that he wasn't going to be part of.
When she looked up he was observing her above the heads of the now dispersing dancers and the choking feeling was there again. He was still the only man who made her pulse leap, with hair dark and crisply curling and eyes blue as the sea on a summer day as its tides came and went on the sandy beach below the headland.
He'd lost weight. They both had over past months, but tall and trimly proportioned he would still make heads turn when he walked past, His women patients who wished he had a more important role in their lives than that of G.P. wouldn't be having any second thoughts regarding that.
There was no sign of Phoebe and she breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing they needed was an audience at their first meeting in months. She hadn't expected it to be like this.
She'd imagined him opening the door of the house they'd once shared and being able to tell in those first moments of meeting just how pleased or otherwise he was to see her standing there, but this was nothing like that. Lots of folk they knew were milling around them in the snow-covered square.
As their glances met she felt tension pulling at her nerve ends. But in a grim sort of way it was as if her distaste for the circumstances of their meeting was being diverted by the sound of a woman's voice asking anxiously from behind, 'What's the matter, Bradley?' to be followed by a terrified plea of 'Somebody help us, please!'
She swivelled round quickly and saw Bradley Somerton, the elderly organist who performed at the village church on Sundays, being supported by his wife, who was the one crying for help. He was gasping for breath with face purple, eyes bulging, and was choking. His mouth was wide open and she could see that his tongue was swollen and blocking the airway.
'Go and fetch Dad!' she cried to the children, and as they sprinted off she asked the organist's wife what he'd been eating to cause such a situation. At the same time she took hold of him, pulled him upright, and from behind gave him the treatment for a choking fit, arms tightly locked at the top of the rib cage and a sudden strong compression. It often did the trick, but not this time. No food or anything else came shooting from his mouth.
'He's allergic to seafood!' his wife cried, 'but he didn't eat anything like that at the wedding reception, which is where we had our last meal.'
A shadow fell across them and Ethan was there.
'Help me to lay him flat, Francine,' he said urgently, 'and then find something to prop his feet on to raise them.' He turned to the man's horrified wife. 'Has he got the emergency syringe of adrenaline with him that he's supposed to carry at all times?'
'Jacket pocket!' she cried, and within seconds he was injecting the lifesaving medication into the limp figure lying in the snow.
'It's anaphylactic shock,' he told Francine grimly, 'and unless the injection relieves the constriction of the lungs and airways in the next few seconds, we're going to lose him. We've been along this road once before, but the attack wasn't as severe as this. I might have to go to the surgery to get further supplies of the adrenaline if he doesn't respond. It's fortunate that it's just across the way. Can you ring for an ambulance? Even if he comes round all right from the one injection, I don't want to take any risks.'
She'd been checking the man's pulse and heartbeat, which were pounding out of control, and nodded at the request, explaining as she did so, 'I didn't get the chance before. Thank God you were near and knew his case history. But this kind of thing comes on almost immediately after eating food that the person is allergic to, so what has he been eating that his wife doesn't know about?'
'Bradley didn't partner me in the dancing,' his wife explained weakly. 'So maybe he's been to the stall that's selling food and drinks over there.'
The two doctors were only half listening. Francine was making the phone call and Ethan was watching keenly as the choking began to slowly subside and the tongue began to go forward once more leaving the airways clearer.
He gave a sigh of relief. The whole incident had taken just a matter of minutes, seconds almost, but if he and Francine hadn't been there
She was switching her phone off and placing a comforting arm around the shoulders of the organist's wife and he thought for a moment that it had been almost like how it used to be with the two of them caring for the folks in Bluebell Cove.
He was still doing that, but she wasn't, and as he noted thankfully that the stricken man's heartbeat and pulse had stabilised he wondered what had brought her back to the place where she'd once been happy and contented.
When the ambulance had left, the children had gone to seek out their friends and for Francine and Ethan the brief feeling of togetherness that the incident had created hung between them like a question mark.
She was pale and shaking after the urgency of the situation, the need to act fast because a life had been at stake, and he placed his arm around her shoulders, held her close for a second and said gently, 'What a homecoming for you, Francine. Do you think that you and I deserve top marks for effort now that Bradley will live to see another day? We were right back on line like we used to be, weren't we?'
'Yes, professionally maybe,' she agreed stiltedly as panic took hold at the thought of him describing her presence back in his life as a homecoming, 'Though I'm only here on a visit.'
'Why didn't you let me know you were coming?' he asked, his voice tightening with disappointment.