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The longing to be back with someone who loved her was so strong that Kate Barrington could almost taste it as she drove through the last few miles of the countryside where she'd been brought up.
She wanted to feel her mother's arms around her. To be back in her bedroom beneath the eaves of Jasmine Cottage so that she could weep away the anger and feeling of betrayal that had been with her over the past few days.
She was feeling as low as she'd ever felt in her life. Mentally because the wedding that she'd been dreaming of was not to be, along with the relationship that went with it, and physically because she felt ill.
It had come upon her the night before. Aching limbs, high temperature and vomiting, which had made her even more anxious to leave the southern counties where she'd been based for the last two years. There was nothing to keep her there any more. The job had folded at the same time as the wedding plans.
As she pulled onto the drive of the old stone house, loosely described as a cottage, with its four large bedrooms and spacious downstairs accommodation, Kate's mood was lifting. Here she was hoping to shut out some of the unhappiness that had erupted into her life. Any second the door would be flung open. Her mother would be there with arms outstretched and nothing would seem quite so bad.
She'd left a message on the answering-machine the night before to say she was coming home, and thought if there wasn't a fatted calf to greet her there would at least be some of the good home-cooked food that she'd missed so much while she'd been working away.
As she began to heave her cases out of the boot she saw that the door remained closed and the house had an empty look about it. Her heart sank. Where was her mother? she thought fretfully as her head throbbed and she shivered in the afternoon of a chilly autumn day.
If her mother had received her message she wouldn't have budged an inch. She had been begging her to come home ever since she'd split up with Craig. But there'd been as much to do in cancelling a wedding as there'd been in organising one, and she'd only just finished tidying up all the loose ends.
The house felt cold when she went inside and Kate wondered if it was because the heating wasn't on, or if it was the chill of disappointment that was getting to her. Whatever it was, the empty rooms were telling their own tale. Her mother was not there, and after coaxing the central heating boiler into life, Kate switched on an electric fan heater in the sitting room and lay on the carpet in front of it to get warm.
As she gradually thawed out, her eyelids began to droop and just as she had decided that the sensible thing to do was to go to bed with a hot-water bottle, fever and exhaustion took over and she fell asleep.
She awoke when the light was switched on and as she lay with her eyes closed against the sudden brightness, Kate heard a deep voice say in surprise, 'So what have we here?'
It didn't have her mother's lighter tones, and with eyes bright and cheeks burning with a temperature that was still rising she sat upright and found herself gazing up into the dark hazel eyes of a man dressed in a smart suit, with shirt and tie to match.
'Who are you?' she croaked. 'Where is my mother?'
He gave a quirky smile. 'One thing I am not is the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper, so there's no need to look so alarmed. Your mother is fine. That is presuming that you are the prodigal daughter. I'm Daniel Dreyfus and I'm staying here for the time being.'
'As a guest or a lodger?'
'I'm lodging here.'
'But why? Mum isn't in the habit of taking in lodgers.'
'So I believe, but she took pity on me. I've recently moved into this area and am having a house built. I needed somewhere to stay until it's ready to move into and there was nowhere available, so your mother made her kind offer.'
This was all she needed, Kate thought from her sitting position on the carpet. She was in no fit state to be coping with strangers. She'd come home seeking solace and had arrived with a virus of some sort. Her mother wasn't there and this stranger was living in the house.
'Where is my mother?' she asked.
'She's been called away because of an urgent message yesterday afternoon to say that your grandma has been taken ill. She set off immediately and wasn't here when you left your message last night. I only picked it up myself this morning, but you were already on your way when I tried to get in touch.'
'What's wrong with my gran?' she asked anxiously.
'Her heart, I think. Don't worry, she is recovering well. Your mother and I didn't have much time to talk. She phoned me at the surgery and asked me to hold the fort at this end. She had no idea that you were on your way.'
'What were you doing at the surgery?' she questioned, irritable now she was reassured that her mother and grandmother were OK. 'Are you sick? I'm fighting off some sort of bug of my own, so I can do without any other germs coming my way.'
The quirky smile was back. 'I work there. I'm the village doctor. Peter Swain, who was there before me, has retired. I took over the practice three months ago after a stint in the Middle East.'
What next? Kate thought wretchedly. Everything was going wrong. The really big catastrophe being Craig breaking off their engagement because he'd said he didn't want to be tied down, and then her finding out he was having an affair with her flatmate. She supposed she'd been too trusting and should have seen it coming, but it didn't hurt any less.
Then she'd picked up this virus thing. She who was never ill from one year's end to the next. Her gran was poorly too. It seemed as if it was her heart again. And to cap it all, this lodger person who was acting as if he owned the place was a doctor. She could do without that.
'I hope you're not using my room,' she said ungraciously, and began to get unsteadily to her feet.
'Of course not,' she heard him say smoothly, and that was the last thing she remembered.
Daniel caught Kate as she crumpled and was immediately aware of the fever in her. When he swept her up into his arms she lay limp and unresisting and he thought that with her short, spiky blonde hair and over-bright blue eyes, which were now closed, Kate looked nothing like her mother.
He carried her upstairs and opened the door of a bedroom that had been shut ever since he'd moved in. Pushing it back with his foot, he walked across to the bed and laid her gently on top of the covers. Then he went to forage in the top of the wardrobe for a blanket to put over her.
Kate was coming out of her faint and found herself in the same situation as before, looking up at him from a horizontal position. 'What happened?' she asked weakly.
'You fainted. So I carried you up here and laid you on the bed.'
She groaned. How embarrassing! What next?
'I want to check you over as you are certainly far from well. I'm going to get my bag out of the car so don't move,' he ordered.
If she hadn't felt so ghastly Kate would have argued. As it was she just lay there limply and waited for him to come back.
'How long since you've eaten?' he asked as he took her temperature.
'No wonder you're feeling weak.'
'I kept vomiting.'
'Mmm. I see. Have you had this sort of thing before?'
'All right. So if you can manage to get undressed and slide under the covers, I'll go and sort out a hot-water bottle, a cup of tea and some toast. We'll see if you can keep that down, and then we'll try some paracetamol to bring your temperature under control.'
When he came back upstairs Kate was under the covers and shivering. She hugged the hot-water bottle to her thankfully. As she was sipping the tea and nibbling on the toast the phone in the hall downstairs rang and as he went to answer it she called after him, 'If it's my mother, don't tell her that I'm sick. She will have enough to cope with, looking after my gran.'
It wasn't her mother. The call was from Jenny Barnes, the mainstay of the reception desk at the surgery.
'Is everything all right, Dr Dreyfus?' she wanted to know. 'The waiting room is full and Dr Platt keeps sighing.'
'I'll be there in a few minutes,' he told her. 'I came back to get a medical book and found someone here who is not at all well.'
'You don't mean Ruth?'
'No. It's her daughter, who's arrived home unexpectedly and has a virus of some sort.'
'You mean Kate is back?' she exclaimed. 'She was a locum here for twelve months before she moved into hospital work. She's a sweetie.'
'Not at the moment she isn't,' he told her dryly as it registered that they were both in the same profession and she hadn't thought to mention it. In fact, she'd looked more put out than ever when he'd told her that he was in charge of the village practice.
'I'm needed at the surgery,' he told Kate when he went back upstairs and found her dozing after managing to get the tea and toast down. 'I'll be back as soon as I can and in the meantime stay put. I've brought your mobile up and have put it on the bedside table so that you won't have to get out of bed if your mother does ring.'
He paused in the doorway. 'Have you taken the paracetamol?'
'Yes,' she said meekly, and wished he wouldn't be so doctorish. Her heart was bruised and hurting. She didn't want to be taken over and organised. She wanted to be comforted. But this Daniel Dreyfus person wasn't to know that, and when he came back she would remember her manners and thank him for looking after her. Someone, somewhere must be on her case to have sent a fellow doctor to her in her hour of need.
A tear rolled down her cheek but he wasn't there to see it. The man who'd taken over the village practice and moved in on her home ground was halfway down the stairs and wishing that Miriam Platt, the other GP at the surgery, would cheer up.
He'd inherited the fifty-year-old widow with the practice. Peter Swain, who was now retired, had asked him to keep her on, and he'd agreed to do so unless for any reason he found her unsuitable. She was a good doctor, but person-ality-wise she was depressing. The slightest thing to go wrong had her sighing and he wished she would lighten up.
Miriam worried him. He wished she would talk to him. Tell him why she was always in such low spirits. The practice revolved around the two of them and if she had any problems that he could help with, he would be only too pleased.
He was aware that they needed another doctor, that they were short-staffed, and that his absence this afternoon wouldn't have gone down well with Miriam. But he couldn't have left that poor girl in the state she was in. For one thing, he liked Ruth Barrington. She was a pleasant, kindly woman, and for her sake as much as anything he'd stayed to sort her daughter out.
Ruth had been asked by her old friend Peter if she could accommodate the new doctor until his house was ready. She'd agreed and he was enjoying some good food and the pleasure of living in Jasmine Cottage for the time being.
He'd known that Ruth had a daughter somewhere and had sensed that she was concerned about her in some way, but she hadn't said why and he hadn't expected her to confide her anxieties to a stranger.
And now the daughter had appeared. Whether she was back for good, or just visiting he didn't know. But Kate hadn't been overjoyed to find him established in her mother's house, even though he'd explained that it was a temporary arrangement.
He was approaching the surgery where Miriam was moaning and patients were waiting to be seen, so she was going to have to sort herself out until his working day was over.
'So is Kate all right?' Jenny asked the moment he appeared.
'No. Not really,' he told her. 'I would say that it's some sort of virus she's got, and as we all know it is usually a case of keeping the temperature down and letting it run its course.'
'Does Ruth know she's poorly?' Jenny asked, not letting go until she had the full story.
'She's at her mother's in Newcastle-on-Tyne. The old lady has been taken ill, too. So I'm in charge at this end.'
As she passed over the notes of those who had come to consult him, Jenny said, 'Is there anything I can do to help with Ruth being away?'
He smiled, admiring how the villagers were always ready to rally round when needed. No one would be left to suffer alone in this place. He was amazed at the community spirit, but he had a feeling that on this occasion the patient would want to be left alone.
'Er no, not at the moment. Thanks just the same,' he told her. 'Kate just seems to want to sleep.' With that, he went into his room and buzzed for his first patient before Miriam had a chance to cast her frowns upon him.
As he waited, he recalled how the local people had been wary of him at first. Peter had been their doctor for as long as some of them could remember. But they'd had time to get to know him and now they had his measure, knew him to be competent and briskly kind.