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A summer sun was shining when Laura Ar-mitage drew back the curtains in the master bedroom of the house that her uncle had given her. Its mellow golden rays were spreading far and wide from the ripening corn in distant fields to the shores of the tree-lined lakeside nearby, but to the woman at the window the brightness of the morning was blotted out by dark uncertainties about the future.
A month ago she and her children had moved into a spacious old house that she'd had renovated in the beautiful lakeland village of Swallowbrook. She'd been offered the position of practice manager at the medical centre in the village and, desperate to leave London, she'd accepted the opportunity to take up where her uncle, who had held the position before her, had left off. He had gone to spend his retirement in Spain and as a parting gift had given her his house.
The children, eight-year-old Sophie and six-year-old Josh, loved the place after the noise and bustle of London. The lake, beautiful in all weathers, was encircled by a bracelet of rugged fells that attracted walkers and climbers from far and wide all the year round, especially at this time, while down below them an assortment of craft of all types and sizes sailed the lake's clear waters.
The children's favourite pastime was when the three of them sailed to its far reaches on one of the pleasure launches that went to and fro all the time during the hours of daylight. But wherever they went, whatever they did, there was always the same question coming from Sophie, 'Mummy, when is Daddy coming home?'
'Soon,' she would tell her gently. 'He is just so busy looking after the sick people.'
As she gazed unseeingly out of the window Laura thought that she would love Swallowbrook as much as they did if only Gabriel was there with them. Without him life had no meaning. But a horrendous turn of events had taken him from them and until he surfaced again she had no idea if the light of a marriage that had already begun to fade had been extinguished completely.
He knew that she'd taken her uncle up on his offer of the house called Swallows Barn, and that she was now employed at the practice from nine o'clock in the morning to when the children came out of the village school in the afternoon.
When she'd told him about her uncle's generosity he'd been less than enthusiastic, 'Fine, if that's what you want, Laura, but when I get out of here I intend to go straight to the town house.' And with a bleak smile he'd added, 'I take it that it's still there? That it hasn't been repossessed?'
'No. Of course not!' she'd said steadily, holding back the tears that she had never shed in front of him on the nightmarish visiting days when they'd sat across from each other at a small table without touching and behaving like strangers.
She'd never wept in front of the children either, determined that nothing should spoil their youthful innocence. Her tears were shed in the long hours of the night in the big double bed that was bereft of the presence of the husband she'd adored.
'I've taken the job in Swallowbrook to help pay the bills while you're not around,' she'd told him that day. 'The gift of my uncle's house clinched it with regard to moving there, but from what you've just said it would seem that you aren't intending to join us. I thought you were desperate to see the children, Gabriel, knowing how much it must have cost you to refuse to let me bring them with me on days like today.'
'I am desperate,' he'd said grimly, 'but first I want to get a decent haircut, and to be able to turn up looking the same as when they last saw me. Yet it doesn't mean that every day I'm without them isn't hell on earth.'
'And what is every day without me like?' she'd asked, stung by the lack of any mention of herself.
'An exercise in accepting that I was never there when you needed me, and in the end for a fleeting moment I mistakenly thought you'd turned to someone else,' he'd said in the same flat tone.
'Yes, and when you came home early for once and found me in another man's arms, you felt entitled to become judge and jury without providing the opportunity for any explanation, and nearly killed someone who did want my company,' she'd parried, without raising her voice in the crowded visitors' area.
They'd gone over the same ground countless times while they'd been waiting for the court hearing, and it was only the fact that he had resuscitated and brought back to life the man he had attacked when he'd found him holding her close that had saved Gabriel from a longer sentence than the one he was serving now.
He had dragged her free of his hold and with one fierce blow had sent Jeremy Saunders reeling backwards and his head had hit the big marble fireplace behind him with an ominous crack. When they'd bent over him they'd discovered that his heart had stopped beating and it had been then that Gabriel had come to his senses and his medical training had kicked in.
She turned away from the window and slowly made her way downstairs, the hurt of that conversation as raw as ever, and saw that it was time to look forward instead of back if the children were to get to school on time.
They had settled into life in the country as to the manner born, with Sophie her usual caring self where her small brother was concerned. She was like Gabriel in both looks and personality, dark hair, hazel eyes, quick thinking and determined when it came to life choices, even at such an early age.
Josh was more like her, or rather how she used to be. She was no longer steadfast and tranquil, wrapped around with the contentment of the joys that life had brought her in the form of a husband she adored and who adored her in return, and a small son and daughter to cherish.
They'd lived in one of London's tree-lined squares, not far from where Gabriel had practised as a consultant oncologist working entirely within the NHS and very much in demand, so much so that over the last few years she had begun to feel like a one-parent family because he was never there.
Both of his parents had died of cancer when he'd been in his teens and on choosing medicine as a career he had decided to specialise in oncology. Every life he was instrumental in saving from the dreadful disease helped to make up a little for the loss of those he had loved.
She had always known and accepted that was the reason for his dedication to his calling, but as time had gone by the ritual of him arriving home totally exhausted in the early hours of the morning and being asleep within seconds of slumping down beside her on the bed that was so often empty of his presence had begun to tell.
Then it would be back to the hospital again almost before it was daylight and their physical relationship had become almost non-existent as it had seemed that his obsession with his career was going to drive them apart if he didn't ease off a little to give them some time to be a family.
It had been of all things a swelling in her armpit that had brought everything to a climax. Gabriel had already left the house and been on his way to the hospital one morning when she'd been drying herself after coming out of the shower and had felt something under her arm that hadn't been there before.
Immediately concerned, she'd phoned him to tell him about it and on the point of performing a major operation on a cancer patient he'd said, 'Pop along to the surgery and get them to have a look at it, Laura. I'm just about to go into Theatre.'
She'd put the phone down slowly. No woman on earth would want to find a lump in the place she'd described, but she was the lucky one, or so she'd thought. Her husband was one of the top names in cancer treatment, so it was to be expected that anything of that nature with regard to his wife would have his full attention, but instead he 'd told her to see her GP who, knowing who her husband was, had observed her in some surprise.
He had tactfully made no comment and after examining the swelling had told her, 'It could be anything, Mrs Armitage, but we doctors never take any chances with this sort of thing, so I will make you an appointment to see an oncologist. Have you any preferences?'
'Er, yes, my husband,' she'd told him, and his surprise had increased, but it hadn't prevented the appointment being made for the following day.
When she'd arrived at the hospital Laura had seated herself in the waiting room with the rest of those waiting to be seen and when a nurse had appeared and called her name she had followed her into the room where Gabriel was seeing his patients.
He'd been seated at the desk with head bent, having been about to read the notes that he'd just taken from the top of the pile to acquaint himself with the medical history of his next patient. When he'd looked up she'd watched his jaw go slack and dark brows begin to rise as he'd asked, 'What are you doing here, Laura? Can't you see that I'm busy?'
'I need to see you,' she'd said implacably.
'Whatever it is, surely this is not the right place to discuss it,' he'd protested. 'Can't you wait until I come home?'
'No, I can't, that's why I'm here, Gabriel. You're never there, and it isn't anything domestic I want to discuss. I'm here as a patient.'
'What!' he'd exclaimed. 'Why? What's wrong with ?' His voice had trailed into silence as for once his quicksilver mind hadn't been working at top speed, and then realisation had come. 'The swelling in your armpit? You've been to see the GP?'
'Yes,' she'd told him woodenly. 'He managed to conceal his surprise at me consulting him when I'm married to one of the country's leading oncologists and made me an appointment. I'm surprised that my name didn't register with your secretary, but she wouldn't be expecting me here as a patient, I suppose.'
'Let me see it,' he'd said as remorse washed over him in shock waves, and as he'd felt around the swelling they were both acutely aware that it was the first time he'd touched her in months and it had to be for something like this.
'It's difficult to say,' he'd announced as she'd replaced the top that she'd taken off. 'It could be hormonal, or muscular strain, even a benign tumour, so don't let's jump to any conclusions until we've done the necessary tests, which I'll set up for tomorrow. Okay?'
'Yes,' she'd said, and without further comment was about to depart.
'If you will hang on for a few moments, I'll run you home,' he'd offered contritely, but she'd shaken her head.
'No, thanks. I'll be fine.' And before he could protest, she'd gone.