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'Pull over, Mike fast! I've lost him,' Maggie said tersely as the monitor shrilled a warning.
Automatically, she braced herself as the ambulance veered off the road and onto a rutted verge then jerked to a halt, but her concentration was focused entirely on Walter Dinnis and the fact that he no longer had a pulse.
With the ease of too much practice she delivered a precordial thump to the centre of his chest and began the compressions that would keep oxygenated blood circulating around his brain and vital organs, knowing that Mike would be joining her at any moment.
The back doors swung open and her fellow ambulance officer leapt in to join her, positioning himself to take over cardiac thrusts on their elderly patient without needing to be asked. That left her free to peel the gel off the backing strips and position them on the retired fisherman's skinny chest, ready for the electrodes.
'Prepare to shock,' bleated the automated voice, and Mike held both hands clear while the machine discharged 200 joules through the uselessly quivering heart.
'Damn! Back into v-fib. No viable rhythm,' Maggie muttered under her breath. 'Come on, Walter. You can do it,' she said encouragingly as the machine charged up again, the high-pitched whine still audible over the sound of Mike's rhythmic counting as he performed the lifesaving thrusts. 'Two hundred again, Mike. Clear!'
The jagged trace returned again without any semblance of order, telling them both that there was no blood being pumped into any of the elderly man's vital organs.
'No! Don't do this!' she said fiercely, an image in her head of the white face of his terror-stricken wife watching them take her husband away. Betty would be following them at any moment in their daughter's car and the last thing she needed was to come up the hill out of Penhally and find the ambulance pulled up at the side of the road. The man had survived working his whole life in one of the most dangerous professions in the world he'd been a familiar figure around Penhally all her life and it all came down to this moment.
'You're not going to die on me!' she told him fiercely. 'Charging to 360 and clear!'
The wiry body arched up alarmingly as the jolt of electricity was discharged into his heart, but this time, after several seconds of ominous silence, the blessed sound of sinus rhythm was restored.
'And make sure it stays that way, Walter, or Betty will never forgive me,' Maggie muttered sternly to her patient as Mike closed the doors again and made his way back to the driving seat. She folded the printout strip detailing the successful attempt at cardioversion into Walter's file. 'Let's get him to St Piran's asap!' she suggested with a swift glance towards her colleague.
Out of the corner of the windscreen she caught sight of a jumble of bright colours behind some gorse bushes and turned her focus on them with a frown. It wasn't until Mike was pulling back onto the road that she suddenly realised what it was she'd been looking at.
'A kid's bicycle that's what it was,' she whispered under her breath, then smiled when she turned back to check Walter's oxygen perfusion, glad to see that it was once more above ninety per cent and he was conscious again.
The expression in his eyes was dazed and confused and she quickly set about reassuring him, but at the same time the image of that brightly painted bike against the sere winter grass stayed with her.
In fact, now that she thought about it, there had been more than one of them in the field behind the high stone wall, and she wondered idly what they were doing this far out of Penhally. The road was steep and winding and the riders would definitely have had to walk their bikes for most of the distance-no mean feat for a youngster.
By the size of the bikes, the children they belonged to weren't very old but, then, this was half-term week for all the local schools and the whole group of them was probably exploring or building some sort of den in the corner of one of the fields or under one of the familiar trees that had been permanently deformed by the sharp bite of winter gales and the prevailing winds.
At that age, the youngsters were unlikely to be up to anything dangerous, but they could definitely be up to mischief if the traditional holiday-time rise in callouts was anything to go by. In spite of the fact that it was still mid-February, they'd already had to transport one lad injured in a fall on the rocks below the lighthouse and another rescued from an unplanned swim off the harbour wall at half-tide.
Walter's heart behaved itself for the rest of their journey and as they did a speedy handover at St Piran's A and E, Maggie marvelled at the way a brain could function on so many levels at once. Especially a female brain, they'd been told during one set of lectures during her paramedic training. The males in the room had jeered, but she'd proved it time and again when a male colleague had been concentrating on monitoring one set of injuries, only to completely lose track of other emerging symptoms.
She had certainly tried to make sure that she kept her standards up, trying not to miss anything significant, no matter how small, but that didn't stop her brain from cataloguing something extraneous such as those bicycles.and filing it away.
Now they were on the return journey, providing unofficial transport back to Penhally for Maureen, another ambulance service worker, who'd been released after day-case surgery for the repair of an inguinal hernia.
And there were those bikes again, still there behind the gorse bushes, even though it was getting dark.
'Some kids are going to be in trouble with their mums when they get back late tonight,' she murmured under her breath, while Mike and Maureen chatted with the ease of long-time colleagues.
She could easily understand how the time could get away from the youngsters while they were enjoying themselves, with the February nights still drawing in far too fast, but she could all too easily sympathise with the mothers who would be worrying about them. These narrow roads weren't ideal for cycling at any time of the day, but after dark they could be lethal, few of them having any street lighting once you left the town itself.
'Door to door, ladies,' Mike announced as he drew up in a parking space outside the surgery and hopped out to unlock the double doors at the back of the ambulance with a flourish before dropping the steps. 'Come on, gorgeous. Time to get home and put your feet up while the old man makes you some tea.' He leant a little closer and added, 'And you tell him the surgeon said he's not allowed to get fruity until you've had your check-up.'
'You watch it, Mike Barber, or I'll tell Brian what you said,' Maureen warned, but there was a gleam of humour in her eyes. Her years in the service, first as a technician, like Mike, then as office staff, when the children had started arriving, had obviously taught her not to take any nonsense. 'My Brian'll soon sort your cheek out.'
'You know he would, too,' Maggie commented, when the older woman had walked gingerly across the car park to where her husband was waiting next door outside the front of Althorp's with a car full of children. 'And you wouldn't want to be messing with someone Brian's size. Have you seen the muscles on him? It must be something to do with all that physical labour in the boatyard.'
'I've got plenty of muscles of my own,' Mike pointed out, flexing his biceps inside his grass-green uniform, stung by what he obviously saw as a slight on his manhood.
'Yeah.' She hid her grin when he rose to the bait, the way he always did, 'But you buy those sorts of muscles with a few months of gym membership. His are the real thing, built up over a lifetime of use.'
She continued tidying the last few items away before they locked up and set off back to the depot for the end of their shift. With any luck they wouldn't have another callout before it was time to clean out their vehicle and hand over for the night.
'Hey, Maggie! Mike!' called a voice just as the two of them were walking forward to the cab.
'Mrs Furse hello,' Maggie called back, then walked towards the motherly figure when she beckoned, pleased to see someone who had been one of her own mother's dearest friends.
'How many times do I have to tell you to call me Hazel now that you're all grown up?' she chided, giving Maggie a swift hug. 'I haven't seen the two of you for weeks, except for fleeting glimpses as you've been on the road somewhere, so I'm glad I caught you. Have you got to leave straight away or have you got time to come in for a drink? You really ought to meet our new locum. He's-'
'A drink, Hazel?' Mike interrupted gleefully. 'You wicked woman. What are you suggesting?'
'Tea, coffee or water, Mike Barber, as you very well know,' the practice's head receptionist said quellingly. 'And you behave yourself or I'll be having a word with your mother.'
He pulled a face. 'That's put me properly in my place.one of the penalties of living in the same town all your life.'
'But it can't be too bad a place if so many people want to come back here to live. Dr Nick, for example,' Maggie pointed out, as they followed Hazel up the stairs to the staffroom, trying to take her mind off what was about to happen. It wasn't an accident that they hadn't called in at the practice over the last two and a half weeks. It had been a deliberate ploy on her part to put off as long as possible the meeting that would bring back one of the most distressing days of her life.
'Nick's far from the only one to come back-there's also our newest recruit to the practice. He's an old Penhally boy, too,' Hazel said with a broad smile for someone who had just followed them into the room. 'Maggie, I don't know whether you'll remember him from when you were both at school here. He would have been several years above you. It's-'
'Adam Donnelly,' she whispered with her heart in her throat when she met those serious dark eyes for the first time in more than a year.
He was wearing a smart charcoal-grey suit that made him look every inch the respectable GP, but the shirt wasn't commonplace white but a clear blue that drew attention to the almost navy blue of his eyes. Had he remembered that she'd been the one to tell him that would happen?
At least she'd never been silly enough to tell him just how much those deep blue eyes had always affected her. That had been one of her secrets, as was the fact that she'd been head over heels in love with him long before he'd disappeared off to medical school.
Unfortunately, even though she tried to force herself not to react, those dark eyes still elicited the same
response they always had for all the good it would do her.
'Maggie,' he said with a nod of acknowledgement, but that single word in that unforgettable husky voice was enough to rip all the scars wide open again. The last time she'd heard it she'd been wrapped in his arms, believing.
'My goodness, you've got good memories!' Hazel exclaimed. 'You can't have seen each other since Adam went away to medical school, because his mother moved away from Penhally after. Oh, it must be ten years or so ago,' she finished hastily, clearly uncomfortable that she'd all but brought up the storm when Adam's father had been one of those who had died.
'We have met since then, Hazel,' Maggie said, taking pity on the poor woman's embarrassment. She held Adam's gaze deliberately as she continued lightly, 'We happened to bump into each other one day about a year ago when I went up to London to do one of my courses.' Nonchalant, that was what she'd been aiming for, but however it sounded it was better if everything was out in the open. After all, if she had known then that he.
'And then we got involved when there was an accident on the underground,' Adam added, but his casual tone sounded far more genuine than her own. 'We were on the spot and were able to provide some assistance until the people with the proper equipment could arrive.'
Maggie marvelled that he could make the whole incident sound so inconsequential. It had given her nightmares for months as she'd relived every second of.
'So, people, is it tea or coffee today?' Hazel asked as she bustled across to the kitchenette to fill the kettle.
'And there might even be some biscuits left in the tin as Nick's been out on patient visits all afternoon.'
Maggie had been waiting for her chance to refuse, but the mention of Hazel's biscuits changed her mind in a hurry.
'What sort of biscuits? Your special Cornish fairings? ' she asked, eager for a taste so reminiscent of the happier days of her childhood. 'I'd love one.'
'If you've got some spare, I wouldn't mind having one, too, Hazel,' said the elegant older man on the other side of the room as he looked up from scanning a handful of envelopes by the practice mail rack. 'Your famous biscuits are one reason why I agreed to come out of retirement to help young Nick when the Avantis went back to Italy and he didn't have enough staff to run the practice properly.'
'It's very kind of you to say so, Dr Fletcher,' Hazel said with an extra wash of pink to her cheeks. 'The Cornish fairings are Nick's favourites,' she added with a happy smile as she gave the tin an experimental shake then opened it.
'They're fast becoming my favourites, too,' Adam said with a grin as he managed to take two at once, and the mouthful Maggie had just taken turned to dust in her mouth at the unexpected glimpse of the grin that had captivated her right from the first time she'd seen it.
Then she'd been a lowly fifteen-year-old and Adam had been one of the seniors, heading into his last year at school. He'd been so far out of her orbit that he shouldn't have even noticed the skinny little girl staring at him while her heart had tried to beat its way out of her flat chest.
But he had noticed her and had sent her a grin exactly like the one he'd just sent to Hazel, and she'd been utterly captivated.