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'Que l'enfer?' Shocked by the sight that greeted him as his destination came into view, Dr Gabriel Devereux drew his car to a halt at the side of the cliff road and stepped out.
What had happened to the small Cornish town of Penhally Bay? His one previous visit had been in the summer when he had spent a weekend looking around and finalising details for his year-long contract to work as a GP in the local practice. Penhally had recently been twinned with St Ouen-sur-Mer in Normandy, France, where he had been filling in for the last ten months at his friend Francois Amiot's busy medical clinic.
As part of the twinning process, people from different occupations and ways of life were crossing the Channel, exchanging jobs and skills, building bridges and friendships, bringing the communities of the two towns together, socially, commercially and culturally. None of the other doctors in St Ouen-sur-Mer had been prepared to move their families for a year, but for Gabriel it had been too good an opportunity to miss. Taking this post in Cornwall was a heaven-sent chance to put even more distance between himself and the unresolved issues that had seen him leave Paris for St Ouen-sur-Mer in the first place.
Ruthlessly banishing any thoughts of home, Gabriel's gaze narrowed as he concentrated on the scene of devastation below him. In the summer, Penhally Bay had been an attractive, hilly, seaside town bustling with tourists and basking under sunshine and clear blue skies. The rows of houses, shops and businesses along the curving seafront, painted in an array of pastel colours, had watched over the boats that had bobbed gently in the harbour. Now He shook his head in disbelief. This cloudy late October day, the scene could not have been more different.
When his new boss, Nick Tremayne, the senior partner at the Penhally practice, had emailed a week ago to confirm the date to begin work, he had mentioned a flash flood, but Gabriel had not fully grasped the seriousness of what had occurred. A man of few words, Nick had not gone into detail, but Gabriel could see that the event had been far more cataclysmic than that one brief email had implied.
After breathing in a lungful of fresh, salty, Cornish air, Gabriel climbed back in the car and drove down the hill to the town. He passed the promontory on which the church and the lighthouse stood, before heading along the seafront that formed a horseshoe round the harbour. At the far western end of the arc were the lifeboat station and the surgery where he would be working from Monday. Halfway around the seafront, he slowed as he neared the bridge. Here, the river Lanson, which flowed down the hill between Bridge Street and Gull Close, effectively cutting the town in two, spilled its waters into the harbour.
This central area appeared to have borne the brunt of the flooding with damage obvious to houses in Bridge Street and around the seafront. The end wall of the Anchor Hotelon the corner of Gull Close and Harbour Roadhad come down under the force of the water. Standing forlorn and closed for business, the remains of the building were shored up with scaffolding, and demolition notices warned that the property was unsafe.
Twelve days on, the waters had receded and the clean-up operation had begun, but the empty houses and shops were all too apparent, as was the debris that had washed down the angry river in full spate. Ruined and discarded belongings sat forlornly outside abandoned properties, full skips awaited collection and disposal, while redundant sandbags remained by doors and gateways.
The town bustled with life, however. These people clearly had spirit, banding together and refusing to allow the difficult circumstances to defeat them. It was past lunchtime and the Saturday market was thriving. People were shopping in the stores that had evaded damage, a few were fishing off the harbour wall or working on their boats, while dedicated parties were continuing the task of restoring order after the flood. Gabriel planned to do all he could to help in the days and weeks ahead but first he needed to find the house that was to be his base for the next year, move in and find his feet.
As he reached the outskirts of town, his memory guiding him down a narrow, hedge-lined lane, he experienced a flicker of uncharacteristic nervousness. He hoped he would settle here, that he would be accepted a stranger and a foreigner in this tight community. Penhally Bay was not the cosmopolitan metropolis of London where he had spent time during his medical training. Would the people here judge him on his skills as a doctor or on being different? He hoped the former was wary of the latter.
Half a mile farther along the lane, he came to the turning he was seeking and steered the car between the twin gateposts that marked the unpaved driveway. To one side was Gatehouse Cottage, the single-storey thatched lodge which Nick Tremayne had told him belonged to the physiotherapist at the surgery. Gabriel frowned, unable to remember her name. There were no signs of life from the cottage so he hoped his arrival had gone unnoticed. The drive curved away from the lodge and fifty yards farther on the impressive but not-too-large Manor House came into view, sheltered and surrounded by mature shrubs and trees. Gabriel paused, admiring the traditional fifteenth-century building, feeling now the same contentment he had experienced when he had first been here in late July.
Symbolically, the clouds overhead cleared, and low autumn sunshine filtered down from a patch of pale blue sky, highlighting myriad colours in the old, lichen-spotted granite blocks and dark roof slates from which the Manor House was built. Instinct told him he had been right to come here. This was what he needed. A place where he could work with his customary enthusiasm for the job he loved a refuge where he could be alone and decide what he was going to do about the rest of his life.
He parked his car at the rear of the building, out of sight should anyone approach up the drive. He had arrived a day early and planned to take time to himself before announcing his presence. After finding the keys to the houseleft for him by the solicitor acting for the owners, who were working abroad long termhe collected together his essential belongings and let himself in. He knew the house had been empty since the last tenants had departed at the end of August, so he was surprised to find the air smelling fresh and the surfaces clean of dust. Someone had been thoughtful enough to make preparations for his arrival. The knowledge warmed him.
Upstairs, he selected a bedroom with a lovely view over the surrounding countryside. Whoever had taken care of the house had anticipated his choice, because clean linen was folded neatly on the huge four-poster bed and fresh towels were hanging on the heated rail in the en suite bathroom. Bars of unfussy, masculine soap, still in their wrappers, sat on the basin and in the generous shower cubicle. Appreciating the welcoming touches, and making a mental note to discover the identity of and thank the unknown cleaner, Gabriel stripped off his clothes and headed for the shower.
Hot water jetted down, easing the kinks out of his body, soothing his muscles and restoring his jaded spirit, making him realise how much tension remained coiled inside him.
'You're sure this is what you want?' Francois had asked him as he had come to see him off the day before. 'I don't want you to feel obligated to go to Cornwall because none of the rest of us are willing to uproot ourselves.'
'It's not that,' Gabriel had reassured his friend.
Frowning, Francois had helped him load his bags into the car. 'You're worried about interference from home?'
'Always.' His smile had been wry, hiding the inner turmoil that had plagued him for months. 'I need the distance, the space to make some decisions.'
'You know I'll watch your back. I won't be giving out details of your whereabouts to anyone. Especially now we know what Yvette is capable of to achieve her ends.'
Gabriel had nodded in gratitude. 'Thanks, mon ami. But you and I will keep in touch.'
'Try to get rid of me! I want regular texts and emails.'
He would miss Francois and his wife, having stayed with the couple for the last ten months. 'You and Celeste take care.'
'We willand we really appreciate the way you stepped in when we needed you,' Francois had told him.
'That's what friends are for.'
After shaking hands and exchanging a brief hug, Gabriel had driven away from St Ouen-sur-Mer filled with nervous anticipation for what lay ahead. One chapter was overa new one was about to begin.
Now, remembering that conversation, he closed his eyes and tipped his face to the shower spray. Today was the first day of the rest of his life. It was up to him what he made of it whether he went his own way or allowed old ghosts and new pressures to trap him into something he knew he didn't want. This posting to Cornwall had bought him some extra time. Time he intended to use wisely, making the decisions that would set the course of his future.
Shutting off the water, he stepped out of the cubicle and reached for a towel, hesitating when he heard a noise downstairs. It had sounded like the front door closing. Frowning, Gabriel waited, listening. Yes, there was definitely someone moving around inside the house. More curious than concerned, he wrapped the towel around his waist and left his bedroom, moving silently down the stairs to investigate the trespass into his new domain. The noises were louder now. He tiptoed in the direction from which they came, pausing in the shadows of the unlit passageway to look through the door into a large, homely farmhouse kitchen.
A brindle-and-white greyhound lay on the stone-flagged floor, its head on its paws, solemnly watching the movements of the woman who was moving about as if she owned the place. Guessing her age to be in the late twenties, Gabriel's gaze lingered on her with as much intensity as the dog's, warmth and pure masculine appreciation spearing through him, catching him by surprise.
A bunch of home-cut flowers, dahlias and chrysanthemums amongst them, were arranged haphazardly in an old stoneware jug on the table, while several carrier bags littered the polished wooden work surfaces. Humming an unrecognisable tune, the woman busied herself stocking the kitchen cupboards with her purchases, her movements athletically graceful. Tight white jeans accentuated the length of her legs and lovingly moulded the rounded swell of her derriere. As she turned round, still unaware of his presence, he could see how the super-soft angora jumper she wore skimmed her shapely frame, outlining the curves of full, firm breasts. The lavender colour set off the natural paler highlights in her light brown hair and lent an amethyst glow to what he could see, even from this distance, were gorgeous grey eyes. Gabriel was mesmerised. Who was this woman?
Picking up a carton of milk and a box of eggs, she twirled her way to the fridge on trainer-clad feet, presenting him with a delectable view of her feminine curves as she bent over, her hips swaying provocatively to the music she heard in her head. Left loose, her wavy hair cascaded round her shoulders in a darkly golden curtain. She flicked it back with one hand as she rose and returned to the counter, still humming to herself as she delved into the carrier bags once more.
Intrigued, Gabriel stepped into the room. The dog was the first to acknowledge him. Anxious brown eyes turned his way, then the too-thin creature whined and all but crawled towards the woman, who leaned down to stroke it with gentle care.
'What's wrong, Foxy?'
Knowing whatever he did was going to startle her, Gabriel cleared his throat, announcing his presence as he walked forward. 'Hello.'
With a shocked cry, the woman swung round, the pack of pasta shells in her hands dropping to the floor. Beautiful smoky grey eyes widened between long, dark lashes as she stared at him, and lushly kissable lips parted in surprise. Her tongue-tip peeped out to moisten them as she stepped back a pace, one hand dropping to calm the fretful dog pressed against her legs, the other curled to a fist at her throat. Gabriel felt her gaze skim over his scantily clad frame and an unexpected but immediate wave of attraction crashed through him.
'I'm sorry.' He offered a smile with the apology, unable to look away from her. 'I didn't mean to scare you. I heard a noise down here and had no idea anyone was around.'
'OK. Um hello,' she greeted after a moment, her voice melodious but with a husky undertone that appealed to him. Hell, everything about her appealed to him. 'You must be Dr Devereux. I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow,' she continued, bending to pick up the fallen pasta, fumbling briefly as she set it awkwardly back on the counter. With a sudden smile that had the same effect on him as a punch to the solar plexus, she held out her hand. 'I'm Lauren Nightingale your neighbour at Gatehouse Cottage and also physiotherapist at the Penhally Bay Surgery.'
This was the woman Nick Tremayne had spoken of? Ooh la la! 'Lauren, it is a pleasure to meet you. Please, call me Gabriel,' he invited, trying to pull himself together and remember his manners.
Closing the remaining gap between them, he took her graceful hand in his. Her grip was strong, her fingers slender but capable. Looking down, he noted how much paler her warm, satiny skin was than his, how her bones were far more delicate. A jolt of electricity zinged up his arm and along his nerve endings at the contact between them. That Lauren felt it, too, was apparent by the way she bit her lip, her pupils dilating, her body momentarily swaying towards him before she caught herself and pulled back, withdrawing her hand. Gabriel released her with reluctance.