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'Fancy seeing you here, Dr Lovak,' Melinda said with a grin as Dragan wound down the window of his car. 'Anyone would think I had matched my call lists to yours.'
Knowing that she'd done exactly that when she'd phoned him after her morning's surgeryexcept his first call had taken a little longer than he'd expected, which was why he was arriving at the boarding kennels just as she was leavingDragan smiled back. 'Tut-tut, Ms Fortesque. Suggest things like that and people might start to talk.'
'If they do, I'll just tell them I wanted to check on my favourite patient and see how her leg's doing. Isn't that right, Bramble?' Melinda looked over Dragan's shoulder at the flat-coat retriever they'd rescued a few months before, who was lying on a blanket in the back of his car.
The dog's tail thumped loudly, and she gave a soft answer ing woof.
'Hear that? Bramble says she'll be my alibi.' Melinda leaned in through the open window and stole a kiss from Dragan. 'Though I think people might have already started to guess, amore mio. Do you know how many people this last month have told me what a wonderful doctor you are?'
'Funny, that. People have been singing your praises to me, too.' He stole a kiss right back. 'But that's the thing about living in a place like Penhally. Everybody knows everything about everyone.' Or nearly everything. So, despite the fact that they'd kept their relationship low-key, he was pretty sure that everybody in Penhally knew that the vet and the doctor were an item.
For a moment, he could've sworn that worry flashed into Melinda's gorgeous blue eyes. But then the expression was gone again. No, he must be imagining things. What did Melinda have to hide, anyway? She'd come to England on holiday years ago, had fallen in love with the country and decided to settle here and train to be a vet.
Not so very different from himself. Although holidays had been the last thing on his mind when he'd walked off that boat seventeen years ago, he too had fallen in love with England. And he was as settled here in Cornwall as he'd ever be anywhere. The wild Atlantic wasn't quite the same as the Adriatic, but at least the sound of the sea could still lull him to sleep at night.
'Do you have time for lunch?' she asked.
He shook his head. 'Sorry. I'm already behind schedule. And I really can't keep my patients waiting.'
'Of course you can't.' She stroked his cheek. 'I'll cook for us tonight, then. Your place.'
He turned his head to press a kiss into her palm. 'That would be lovely. Though you don't have to cook for me, Melinda. I'm perfectly capable of doing it.'
She scoffed and put her hands on her hips, shaking her head at him as he got out of the car. 'Dragan Lovak, you know as well as I do that you never cook. That if I let you, you'd live on bread and cheese and cold meats and saladeven in the middle of winter.'
He flapped a dismissive hand. 'Well. Food doesn't have to be hot. It's fuel.'
'It's much more than that,' she told him. 'You don't just shovel down calories like a Ferrari taking on petrol at a pit stop. Food is a pleasure. Something to be enjoyed.'
Since Melinda had been in his life, Dragan was beginning to appreciate that. Not only because she was a fantastic cook: her enjoyment of food had taught him to notice flavour. Texture. Aroma. Things he'd blocked out in the dark days and that he'd more or less trained himself to ignore since then. 'Are you on call tonight?' he asked.
'No. It's the turn of the other practice to cover tonight. What about you?'
'No. And I'm not on late surgery, either.'
'So we have the whole evening to ourselves. Bene.' Her eyes sparkled. 'I'll pick up something at the Trevellyans' farm shop and bring it over to cook when I've finished surgery, yes?'
Recently she'd spent more nights at his little terraced cottage in Fisherman's Row than at her own flat above the veterinary surgery, just round the corner. Maybe, Dragan thought, it was time that he gave Melinda her own key. Time that they took their relationship to the next level. Time that he asked her to move in with him.
Though it was taking one hell of a risk. Since his family had been killed during the war in Croatia, he'd kept people at a distancejust close enough to be polite and pleasant and easy to work with, but far enough away to keep his heart safe. He reasoned that if he didn't let people too close, he wouldn't get hurt if he lost them, or if they walked away.
He'd kept his private life extremely privateuntil Melinda Fortesque had entered his life. With just one smile, the Italian vet had cracked the fortress round his heart wide open, and she'd walked straight in.
But although part of him wanted it so badlyto ask her to live with him, be his love, make a new family with himthe fear flooded in and stopped the words before he could say them. What if it all went wrong? What if he lost her? He didn't think he'd be able to pick up the pieces again. Not this time.
'Dragan? You are cold?'
On a sunny spring day like this? Hardly. He summoned a smile. 'No. I'm ' No. This wasn't the right time or the right place for that particular discussion. 'Late for my appointment,' he finished wryly. 'I'll see you later.'
'OK. Ciao.' She blew him a kiss. 'Zlato.'
His mouth must have dropped open, because she laughed. 'You're not the only one who can speak several languages, you know.'
Italian was Melinda's native tongue and he knew she also spoke French and Spanish as well as English, albeit with a slight Italian accent.
But she'd just called him 'darling' in his own tongue.
How many years had it been since he'd heard that word spoken?
'Dragan?' She was looking worried. 'What's the matter? I said it wrongit doesn't mean what I think it means and I've just mortally insulted you?'
'No.' He forced himself to smile. 'You said it perfectly. I wasn't expecting it, that's all.' And it had brought back memories he usually kept locked away.
She shook her head. 'I can see it in your eyes. I hurt you. I didn't mean to'
'Hey.' He got out of the car and slid his arms round her, held her close. Rested his cheek against her soft, silky hair and breathed in the sweet scent he always associated with her. 'I know you didn't, piccola mia. It's all right.'
'I looked it up on the internet. How to say "amore mio" in Croatian. I just wanted to well, to please you,' she said softly.
'You did. You do.' He was so close to telling her how much she meant to him. How he really felt about her. Just how much he loved her. But the first time he said those words, he wanted it to be perfect. Romantic. At the top of the cliffs, with moonlight shining over the Atlanticor maybe at sunrise. A new dawn, a new beginning. He hadn't quite worked out the details. But the middle of the car park of the local boarding kennels really wasn't the right place for a declaration of love.
Especially when he was supposed to be working. And so was she.
He let her go. 'I'll see you later. Have a nice afternoon.'
She lifted herself on tiptoe and kissed him. 'You, too.'
The touch of her mouth against his made him forget his good intentions. He wrapped his arms round her again, let the kiss deepen. Lost himself in the warmth and sweetness of her mouth.
Until a polite cough interrupted them.
'My apologies,' he said to Lizzie Chamberlain, the owner of the boarding kennels. 'I, um ' What could he say? He was meant to be here to check on her mother and talk about the consultant's report she'd just received. Yet here he was, kissing the vet stupid in the middle of the car park.
Lizzie just smiled. 'It's nice to see you both looking so happy.'
Melinda's face was bright red and his felt as if it were a matching shade. And he couldn't think of a single word to say.
Luckily Melinda's brain cells seemed to snap in a little more quickly than his. 'Grazie,' she said.
'We've thought for a while that you two were more than just good friends,' Lizzie commented. 'But you kept everyone guessing.'
Melinda's fingers twined around Dragan's. 'It's very new,' she said softly. 'Dragan and I we both like a quiet life.'
'And you want time to get to know each other properly without the village grapevine interfering and people asking you when we're going to hear the bells at St Mark's,' Lizzie guessed.
'Essattamente! Melinda beamed at her. 'I knew you would understand. Thank you, Lizzie. We appreciate your kindness in keeping it to yourself.' Her fingers tightened briefly round Dragan's, and then she let his hand go. 'I need to go and see a man about a dog.'
She meant it literally as well, Dragan knew; he liked her sense of humour.
Melinda smiled. 'Ciao.' And then she was gone.
'She's such a lovely girl,' Lizzie said as Melinda drove out of the car park. 'And a brilliant vet. She's got such an affinity with animals.'
'So she was here because you're worried about one of your rescue dogs?' Dragan asked. 'A kitten, actually.' He blinked. 'A kittenhere?'
'You know Polly, who helps me in the mornings? Her son Jamie was out with his friends last night when he heard this tiny mewing sound at the side of the road. They spent half an hour searching with the lights from their bikes and their mobile phones, and they found the kitten. Tiny little thingabout three weeks old, Melinda reckons. It was dehydrated, had a terrible cut on its head and its nose was rubbed raw. Jamie didn't think the vet would come out at that time of night, so he brought it over to me.' She smiled. 'Melinda said I did the right thing. Washed the cut out, fed the kitten with a dropper and nursed it for most of last night.'
'And Melinda thinks the kitten will pull through?'
'With good nursing and a bit of luck, yes.'
'Jamie brought the kitten to the right place, then,' Dragan said. Lizzie's work with rescue dogs was legendary in the area, and he was sure she'd give the kitten the attention it needed. And Melinda, no doubt, would find the kitten a home.
Just as she'd done when they'd rescued Bramble, just before Christmas. Despite being bitten, Melinda had made a fuss of the dog, calmed her down and then taken her into Theatre and set to work fixing the dog's broken leg.
Lizzie smiled. 'Your Melinda's wonderful, you know. She's so good with people. Since she's let Tina help her out on Saturday mornings, there's been a world of difference in her attitudeI don't get those surly teenage grunts and glares any more, and she does her homework without complaining. Your Melinda's taught her a lotshe's given Tina the time the teachers just can't nowadays and answered all her questions. And she's lent Tina some books about poultry since Turbo Chick arrived.' The chick had got its name because it was enormous and nobody believed it could possibly have come out of an ordinary chicken's eggexcept Tina had been videoing the eggs as part of a school project and had actually filmed the chick bursting out. 'She's a gem.' His Melinda.
Funny how that phrase made him feel all warm and fuzzy inside. A feeling he'd never thought to have again. Dragan smiled. 'I don't suppose I could persuade you that we're just good friends.'
'After seeing you kiss her like that?' Lizzie teased. 'And you've changed, too. You've smiled a lot more since she came to the village.'
Dragan raised an eyebrow. 'My name's pronounced Dra-gahn, not Dragon.'
Lizzie laughed. 'You know what I mean. Mum adores you but she worries that you're a little too quiet. Too serious.'
'But if I started roaring around on a motorbike or bought a Maserati like Marco had, or wore trendy clothes and had my ear pierced, everyone would say I was having a midlife crisis,' Dragan said with a smile.
'I think,' Lizzie said, 'if you started roaring round on a motorbike, you'd have all the teenage girls in the village mooning over you.'
He laughed it off. 'Flattery. At thirty-five, I'm practically double their age. Much too old.' Then he sobered. 'Before we go in to see Stellahow is she really, Lizzie?'
Lizzie grimaced. 'Up and down. Sometimes she's bright and interested in what's going on. Other days, it takes her an hour to get dressed, she can barely walk from the sitting room to the kitchen, and you can hardly understand a word she says.'
Dragan nodded. 'I had the consultant's report through yesterday.' It was the reason he was doing a house call todayto discuss it with Lizzie and Stella, knowing that Stella would find it hard to get down into the village and Lizzie simply couldn't drop everything and ferry her mother about. 'It annoys me when these consultants think they have to write in medical jargon all the time. Especially when they're sending their report to a patient. I know they have to be accurate because they worry about lawsuits, but this is ridiculous.' He shook his head in exasperation. 'I swear they'd call a spade "an implement for displacing an admixture of organic remains".'
'I did look some of it up,' Lizzie admitted. 'But "hypophonia" was beyond me.'
'It means the voice is very quiet"phonia" refers to the voice and "hypo" means "under". Literally, under-voicing. Stella's pronouncing her words properly, not slurring them, or they would have called it "dysphonia". It's the volume that's the problem,' Dragan explained.
'Movement backwards. They're concerned about how easy Stella finds it to walk or move about. That was the test where they asked her to walk forwards and backwards along a line, yes?'
Lizzie nodded, looking worried. 'The consultant said that I should think about Mum's care needs. But we've had the occupational therapy team out and they said there wasn't much more that they could do. They've put grab rails in her bedroom and the bathroom and a seat on the bath, and they've raised the level of her chair so she can get out of it more easily.' She bit her lip. 'I don't want her going into a home. She's my mum and I want to look after her.'
'Nobody's saying she has to go into a home,' Dragan said gently. 'But I did notice what the psychologist said in the report about the mood swingsas you know, depression's common in Parkinson's.' 'But she's not going mad.'
'Of course she's not,' Dragan said. 'That bit about perceptual problems means she doesn't necessarily see things how they really are. Which can be a strain on you.'
'I'm fine,' Lizzie said.