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Employed as a paediatric consultant at Heatherdale Children's Hospital, Ryan Ferguson was used to the demands of the job, but today had been in a class of its own. Relieved to finally be away from work he pulled up outside the elegant town house that was home to him and his two small daughters.
Rhianna and Martha would be fast asleep at this late hour, but he was grateful that they would have been tucked up for the night by Mollie, his kindly housekeeper, who in spite of the time would have a meal waiting for him.
Ryan's work centred mainly on children with neurological illnesses and injuries and his dedication to his calling was an accepted fact by all who knew him. His intention to bring up his children as a single father was more of a surprise, as there were many women who would be only too willing to fill the gap in his life.
Today's non-stop problems had been serious and in some cases rare, with almost a certainty that the dreaded meningitis would be lurking somewhere amongst his young patients and the battle to overthrow it would begin.
With the workload as heavy as it was, it was becoming obvious that they needed another registrar on the neuro unit to assist him and Julian Tindall, his second-in-command.
A rare shortage of nursing staff due to a bug that had been going round hadn't helped, and as he'd performed his daily miracles the hours had galloped past. Now he was ready to put the day's stresses to the back of his mind and enjoy the warmth and peace of his home for a few hours. Home was in the delightful small spa town of Heatherdale, tucked away amongst the rugged peaks and smooth green dales of the countryside, with Manchester being the nearest big city.
The moment he was out of the car and had collected his briefcase from the back seat he moved swiftly towards where warmth and hot food would be waiting for him, casting a brief glance in the direction of the property next to it as he did so, and his step slowed.
A town house like his own, it had been empty for years and he was amazed to see a car parked outside and a flicker of light coming from inside, as if from a torch or a candle. He frowned. He doubted it was thieves, as there would be nothing in there to steal. Could be squatters, though, and the thought was not appealing.
When his housekeeper opened the door to him she couldn't wait to tell him the latest neighbourhood news. When she'd returned from picking the children up from school there had been the car parked outside, and shortly afterwards a bed had been delivered from a nearby furniture store.
'Wow!' he exclaimed as he closed the door behind him. 'Surely they've had it cleaned first? It must be filthy after being empty for so many years. The amount of lighting inside has to mean that they've not had the electricity switched on and are using candles or a torch. It seems an odd state of affairs. Once I've changed into something less formal, I'll do the neighbourly thing and go and introduce myself, ask if there is anything I can assist them with.'
When he knocked on the door of the run-down house that was a blight in the crescent of much-admired Victorian town houses there was no sound for a moment. Then the door swung open slowly and his jaw dropped at the sight of a slender stranger with long dark hair that swung gently against her shoulders and a face blotched with weeping.
'They haven't been,' she cried desperately as he was on the point of introducing himself. 'The cleaners haven't been and the place is full of spiders' webs and the dust of years. I will have to find a hotel for the night.'
'Are you alone here?' he asked carefully.
'I'm Ryan Ferguson, and my family and I are your new neighbours.' He held out his hand in greeting. The tearful stranger shook it limply but didn't volunteer any information about herself. She seemed extremely distracted, which was no wonder considering the situation.
He got the impression that she wanted him gone but he could hardly go back to his own comfortable home and leave her in such a state.
'Can you recommend a hotel not too far away?' she asked. 'I just can't spend the night in here. I've had a bed delivered but haven't taken the wrappings off it so it should come to no harm for the present.'
Ryan was still standing in the doorway and would have liked to see just what a mess the inside of the house was in, but he could hardly go barging in without an invite.
'You must be exhausted. I'll take you to a hotel if you would like to lock up. My car is parked out front like yours, so I will lead the way and you can follow.'
'Thank you,' she said unsteadily. 'I do apologise for breaking into your evening. I shall be onto the cleaners first thing in the morning.'
'I'm only too pleased to be of assistance,' he told her. 'If you will just give me a moment, I'll go and get my car keys.'
When Mollie opened the door to him again he explained, 'This is our new neighbour, Mollie. I'm taking her to a hotel as the house isn't quite ready to move into.'
'Oh, you poor dear,' Mollie said, observing the strange woman standing hesitantly at the kerb edge. 'What a horrible thing to happen, and on a cold, dark night like this.' She turned to Ryan. 'I'm just about to dish up your meal before I go home for the day. There's plenty to spare, so can we not offer the young lady some hospitality?'
'Yes, of course, by all means,' he said, forgetting his weariness for a moment.
Their new neighbour shrank back.
'I couldn't possibly intrude into your evening any more than I am doing,' she said.
Ignoring her reluctance, Ryan insisted.
'You are most welcome. How long is it since you last had something to eat?' 'I can't remember.'
'If that's the case, you need food now.' He stepped back to let her past him to where Mollie was hovering near the kitchen door. 'If you want to wash your hands you'll find anything you need in the cloakroom at the end of the hall. Mollie will have the food on the table when you're done.'
'Thank you,' she croaked meekly, and disappeared.
Mollie was ready to go by the time his unexpected guest had removed the day's surface grime and once they were alone silence descended in what was a tastefully furnished dining room.
When they'd finished eating Ryan said, 'There's a fire in the sitting room. Make yourself comfortable while I make coffee.'
She nodded and said uncomfortably, 'The food was lovely. Thank you so much.'
He was observing her gravely. 'Are you going to tell me who you are? The house next door has been unoccupied for many years so it was a surprise to find signs of life there when I came home. Are you actually planning to live there?'
'Er, yes,' she told him hesitantly. 'My name is Melissa Redmond. The house was left to me by my grandmother when she died some years ago. I've had no interest in living out here in the backwoods until a short time ago when my circumstances changed dramatically.
'I'd arranged for a firm of cleaners to come in and make it liveable, and for the power to be connected, but when I got here late this afternoon nothing had been done and I was frantic.'
'Yes, I can understand that,' Ryan said slowly. Melissa didn't look quite as bedraggled in the warm glow of the lamps in his sitting room as she had when she'd opened the door of the mausoleum next door. The colour had returned to her cheeks and she seemed a lot calmer. His curiosity about his new neighbour had definitely been piqued. He wanted to know more.
When he came back with the coffee cups she was asleep, overcome by the comforting warmth of the fire. So it looked as if he wasn't going to find out any more about her for now.
An hour passed and Melissa hadn't stirred out of the deep sleep of exhaustion that had claimed her. There was no way she could be allowed to go back to the chill of the house that had been empty for so long, neither did Ryan want to rouse her to go to a hotel at that hour. Instead, he went and found a soft fleece, laid it gently over her, and went up to bed with the intention of checking on her at regular intervals. That turned out to be a wise precaution as the first time he went downstairs, she was awake and about to disappear through the front door.
'Melissa, wait!' he cried. 'You can't stay in that place tonight. I have a spare room that is always kept ready for visitors. I insist you stay in it. I won't be able to sleep knowing that you're not somewhere safe, and I've had a very exhausting day that I need to recover from before the next one is upon me.'
'My nightwear is in my case next door,' she protested faintly.
'I'll find you some,' he offered. Was he going insane to let a strange woman wear something that had belonged to Beth?
He pointed to a gracious curved staircase and said, 'If you would like to go up, I'll show you to the guest room. While you are settling in there I'll find something for you to wear.'
Ryan dug out one of Beth's plain cotton nightshirts to lend to Melissa. He avoided taking out any of the prettier nightgowns that Beth had favoured.
Melissa took it from him with a subdued smile and said with tears threatening, 'I hope that one day I'll be able to repay your kindness, Ryan.'
He smiled. 'Don't concern yourself about that. Tomorrow is another day and it just has to be better than this one has been for you.'
With that brief word of comfort he left her and went to a room across the landing. Closing the door behind him, he looked down at his sleeping daughters and wondered just what Rhianna and Martha would think when they saw there was a visitor for breakfast.
* * *
As she lay sleeplessly under the covers of the bed in the spare room, Melissa's thoughts were in overdrive. The future that had looked so bleak seemed slightly less so because of the kindness of a stranger who had taken her in, fed her, and offered her a bed for the night.
So much for keeping a low profile in her new surroundings! The hurts she had suffered over recent months had made her long for privacy, for somewhere to hide. But her meeting with a man with the golden fairness of a Viking and eyes as blue as a summer sky had put an end to those sorts of plans.
It seemed Ryan had children who no doubt were fast asleep, and was in sole charge of them, so where was their mother? Wherever it might be, it was not her business. She had to fix her thoughts on tomorrow and the cleaners, the electricity people, and accepting the delivery of her few remaining belongings some time during the day. With those thoughts in mind she drifted into an uneasy sleep.
The sound of children's voices on the landing mingling with her host's deeper tones brought Melissa into instant wakefulness in the darkness of a winter morning. She dressed quickly in yesterday's clothes and prepared to go down to where she could hear the sounds of breakfast-time coming from the kitchen.
Pausing in the doorway, she saw that Ryan was at the grill, keeping an eye on sizzling bacon, and two little girls were seated at the table with bowls of cereal in front of them, observing her with wide eyes of surprise as she said, 'Thank you so much for last night. I feel a different person this morning after the meal and the rest. I'm off to find out what happened to the cleaners and the electricity services.'
He smiled across at her. 'Not before you've eaten. You have no facilities for preparing food next door, so take a seat.'
Rhianna, at seven years old and the elder of his two young daughters, was not a shy child, and burst out, 'Who is this lady, Daddy? She wasn't here when we went to bed.'
'No, she wasn't,' Martha, two years younger, chirped beside her. At that point Ryan took charge of the conversation.
'Her name is Melissa and she's going to live next door to us,' he explained. 'Melissa, these are my daughters, Rhianna and Martha.'
'She can't!' Rhianna protested.
'Why not?' he asked.
'No way,' he said laughingly as he pulled out a chair for Melissa to be seated, as if there had been no hesitation in joining them on her part. 'There aren't any ghosts in Heatherdale, I promise you that, Rhianna. Now, who would like a bacon roll?'
'Me!' the children both cried.
With the day ahead momentarily forgotten, Melissa smiled as the memory surfaced of how, when she'd been at junior school, she and her friends used to pass a creepy-looking empty house on the way there. They had been convinced that there was a human hand on the inside window ledge. It had only been when one of their fathers had gone to investigate that it had been discovered that the 'hand' had been a pink plastic glove. There had been much disappointment amongst the children.
She had done as Ryan requested and seated herself opposite him. As she smiled across at his children she saw that they both had the same golden fairness as their father, but their eyes were differentbig and brown and fixed on her.
Making her second contribution to the occasion, Martha asked, 'Are you some children's mummy? We haven't got one any more. Ours was hurt by a tree.'
Ryan had just put cereal and a bacon sandwich in front of Melissa and was about to join them at the table. He stilled, and she saw dismay in his expression.
'Just get on with your breakfast, Martha,' he said gravely, 'and no more questions.'
'It's all right,' Melissa told him. 'I don't mind. They are delightful.' She turned to his small daughter.
'No, Martha, I'm not a mummy, but I do love children. My job is all about making them well when they are sick.'
Their interest was waning to find that she didn't fit their requirements, but not their father's. The stranger at their table was full of surprises. What kind of a job was it that she'd referred to?
Bringing his mind back to their morning routine on school days, when the children had finished eating he told them to go and put their school uniforms on and have their satchels ready for when Mollie came to take them to school.
'Will Melissa be here when we come home?' Rhianna asked.
She answered for Ryan. 'I'm afraid not, Rhianna. My house needs cleaning and sorting. But once that's done everything will be fine and you can come to see me whenever you like.'
Rhianna seemed happy with that answer and she and Martha hopped off to get ready for school.
'Your daughters are adorable, Ryan,' she said with a warm smile.
'They're the light of my life. A life that would not be easy if Mollie wasn't around,' Ryan replied. 'She's a good friend as well as my housekeeper. I have a very demanding job but it's totally rewarding and somehow I manage to give it my best, while organising things at this end to make sure that Rhianna and Martha are happy, though the result is not always how I want it to be. Still, I mustn't delay you. We both have busy days ahead of us.'
She couldn't have agreed more. As she looked around her at his delightful home, the gloom of yesterday came back. Dreading what the day would hold for her, she wished Ryan a stilted goodbye and went to ring the cleaning firm and the electricity company.
As Melissa waited for the cleaners to arrive, her mind drifted back over her recent past. She recalled how only yesterday, stony-faced behind the wheel of her car, she had driven away from the house that had always been her home in a select area of a Cheshire green belt without looking back.