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Tom finally found Perdy curled up in a chair with a book in the corner of the room; her face was wary, and she was clearly trying to be quiet and keep out of the way. Not for the first time, his heart burned in his chest. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Eloise should have been here beside him, making a proper family: the two of them and their precious daughter. And Perdy should have been a normal child, messy and laughing and seeing rainbows in every corner instead of shadows.
He clenched his jaw for a second, willing the anger to die down. Stop being an idiot, he told himself. You know it's irrational, being angry with Eloise. Just stop blaming her for getting that tropical fever and dying.
But he couldn't.
On my own, he thought, am I making a complete mess of bringing up Perdy? Eloise hadn't exactly been a hands-on mother, but at least he'd been able to talk to her and come to a joint decision; on his own, he had nobody to bounce ideas off, nobody to warn him that he was doing the wrong thing.
He smiled at his daughter, but she didn't smile back. Had he made the wrong decision, bringing her here, away from London? Maybe he should've toughed it out instead of dragging his daughter off in the middle of the school year to make a new start in a place where nobody knew them. But London hadn't really been healthy for Perdy, either. All that pity for the poor motherless child had made Perdy withdraw further and further inside herself.
And he hadn't been able to reach her.
Seeing the ad for a locum GP in a coastal town in Norfolk had seemed like the answer to his problems. Three months. Long enough to give Perdy a chance to settle and give them both the new start they so badly needed. He could rent out their little terraced house for three months; if it worked out in Norfolk, he could find a permanent job there and they could sell up, but if Perdy missed the bustle of the city too much they could still move back. Doing it this way kept all their options open. And Joe and Cassie Rivers had been so warm, so welcoming, even offering him somewhere to stay; the way they'd put it, they needed someone to house-sit while they were in Australia, so he and Perdy would be doing them a favour.
But although they'd been here for almost two weeks now, Perdy was still quiet. She'd been perfectly polite to everyone, but it seemed she'd put up this huge glass wall.
And Tom didn't have anyone to ask to help him break it down.
His own parents were old, growing fragile; he couldn't lean on them. And Eloise's parents...well, they were the reason why his wife had been the way she was, why she'd never been satisfied with her achievements but had always striven to do more. No way was he going to let them do the same thing to his daughter.
'Hey.' He sat on the arm of her chair and ruffled her hair. 'You OK?'
She looked up from her book. 'Yes, Daddy.'
He tried again. 'What's it about?'
She shrugged. 'A boy who has to dig holes.'
He could've guessed that from the title and the picture on the front cover. Clearly she didn't want to discuss it; she kept glancing back at the page, as if wanting to be polite to her father but desperate to get back to her story.
Hell, hell, hell. He didn't want polite. He wanted her to love him, the way he loved her. He wanted a normal child, one who was noisy and messy and cheeky… and secure.
He reached down to hug her, breathing in the scent of her hair. His little girl. She'd been the light of his life for the last eight years. Even now he looked at her and marvelled that she was his. 'OK, honey. I'll let you get back to your reading.' Though he wasn't going to stop trying to get through to her. He'd push just a little, each day. To let her know that he was there, that he'd still be there when she was finally ready to talk. He swallowed hard. 'You do know I love you very, very much, don't you?'
'Yes, Daddy. I love you, too.'
They were the words he wanted to hear but her voice was quiet, colourless, and he didn't quite believe them. The loss of Eloise had broken his little girl's heart, and all the love inside her had seemed to drain away. And he didn't know how to begin to fix things.
Should he try to find her a new mother, maybe?
No. It wouldn't help Perdy and it certainly wouldn't help him. Eloise had broken his heart, too, and he never wanted to get involved with anyone again. Though that wasn't because he thought he'd be in love with his wife for the rest of his days; at times, he really hated Eloise. And then he felt guilty for resenting her so much, and the cycle of hurt began all over again.
'Don't read too late. You've got school tomorrow. Jammies, teeth and bed in twenty minutes, OK?'
A nasty thought struck him. Perdy was quiet and booky. A bully's dream. Was she…? 'Is school all right?' Please, God, let her have made friends. Children who could make a better job of protecting her against the world than he had.
She nodded, and Tom had the distinct feeling that, if anything, his little girl was trying to protect him. Maybe he'd call her teacher tomorrow after morning surgery, have a quiet word with her and find out how Perdy had really settled. 'OK, honey. I'll let you get on with your book. And in half an hour I'll come upstairs to tuck you in.'
This time her smile was pure gratitude.
And it broke the pieces of his heart into even smaller fragments.
Amy wrapped her hands round the mug of hot milk, but it wasn't soothing her or making her feel warm. It wasn't keeping the nightmare away.
The same nightmare she'd had for months. Seeing Ben on the operating table in front of her. Trying so hard to fix the nerves in his spine and the crack in his vertebra, trying to keep the emotion blocked off while she worked, trying to stem her growing horror when she realised that she couldn't do it. And Laura's voice in her head, full of pain and betrayal and misery: I trusted you…
The dream always made her wake in a cold sweat.
Worse still, because when she woke she knew it hadn't been a dream.
Every single bit of it had happened.
She shivered, more from misery than cold. Right now she couldn't see a way forward. A way to get rid of the shadows.
Fergus Keating had told her to take three months off.
What on earth was she going to do with herself for three whole months?
Though she knew the head of neurosurgery was right. She wasn't capable of doing her job properly, she was a liability to the team, and she needed to sort her head out. He'd been kind enough to refuse her resignation and suggest a sabbatical instead.
He'd also suggested that she tried going to counselling, but she couldn't see the point. Talking to someone wasn't going to get Ben's mobility back, was it? Or make her best friend forgive her. Her best friend of half a lifetime, who never wanted to see her again. She dragged in a breath. The loss of Laura hurt more than anything else. Now was the time she should've been able to support Laura through a rough patch, listen to her, be there for her. But how could you support someone when you were the one who'd caused all the problems?
Fergus's other suggestion sat more easily with her: to get out of London, away from everything, and give herself enough space to decide what she wanted to do. And Amy knew exactly where she wanted to go.
Not that she was selfish enough to call her favourite aunt at four in the morning.
Somehow, she managed to stumble through the day, promising herself that she wouldn't ring before the evening. That she'd pull herself together before she rang.
And at five to seven she punched the number into her phone with shaking fingers.
Please, please, let her be there.
'Cassie Rivers speaking.'
'Aunt Cassie? It's Amy. I was wondering… can I come down at the weekend and stay for a bit, please?'
Amy's aunt blew out a breath. 'Love, you know you're always welcome here, but I'm afraid Joe and I are off to Australia, the day after tomorrow.'
Of course they were. Her cousin Beth's first baby was due in a month, and Cassie and Joe wanted to go and spend some time with their only daughter and their very first grandchild. Cassie had been bubbling about it for weeks. What kind of selfish, thoughtless person could forget about something like that?
The same kind of person who'd wrecked her best friend's life.
She dragged her thoughts back together. 'Sorry, Cassie. I wasn't thinking.'
But maybe some of the misery in her voice communicated itself to her aunt, because Cassie said gently, 'More like you're too tired to remember. You drive yourself too hard, love.'
And had done so ever since she'd started her neuro-surgeon's training. She'd wanted to be among the best in her field. She'd been bang on target, until she'd screwed up so badly with Ben. And since then everything had fallen apart. Not that she'd talked to anyone about it; even if her parents hadn't been thousands of miles away in the States, she couldn't have talked to them about her failure, and she hadn't wanted to lean on her aunt and uncle. In the circumstances, talking to Laura wasn't an option: so she'd just had to suck it up and deal with it by herself.
She'd failed at that, too.
'I'm OK,' she said neutrally.
'Look, love, even though we're not going to be here you're welcome to come and spend some time here. How long were you thinking of staying?'
'I'm not sure.'
'A few days? A week?' Cassie suggested.
'I'm, um, taking a sabbatical. Maybe a couple of weeks, if that's OK?'
A fortnight isn't a sabbatical, it's a break. But you're not on holiday, are you?' Cassie asked perceptively. 'What's happened?'
'I just need a bit of time to think things through,' Amy prevaricated.
All right, love.'
Amy heard the subtext clearly: I won't push until you're ready to talk about it.
'Stay for as long as you like. We'll be back in six weeks, and you're more than welcome to stay after we get back,' Cassie continued. 'You can house-sit for us while we're away. And your being here means we won't have to put Buster in kennels.'
Typical Cassie. Putting it in a way that made Amy feel she wasn't doing all the taking—and in a way that she couldn't refuse. 'Thanks, Cassie. I'd like that. And I'll make sure I take him for a walk every day.' The chocolate Labrador was elderly now, but Amy could still remember her aunt and uncle getting him as a pup, when she'd stayed for the summer holidays before her finals.
'Joe's locum is staying, too, but there's plenty of room—he won't get in your way.'
Joe's locum was the real house-sitter, Amy guessed. So Cassie probably hadn't even booked Buster into kennels in the first place. Are you sure you don't mind?'
'Of course we don't, love.' There was a pause. 'Amy, why don't you throw your stuff in a bag, get in the car and come down right now? It sounds as if you could do with a good meal and a chat.'
Amy almost cracked. Unconditional love and support was something she wanted so badly—but something she knew she really didn't deserve. Not after what she'd done. Besides, Joe and Cassie were so excited about Australia and the new baby. She couldn't bring herself to worry them with her own problems when they were about to go to the other side of the world. 'Thanks, but I have a few things I need to sort out in London.'
All right, then we'll talk now.'
Panic made Amy catch her breath. 'You must be in the middle of packing. Don't let me hold you up, Cassie. Honestly, I'm fine. I just need a bit of time off. You know how you're always nagging me about working too hard.'
Cassie didn't sound so sure about it, but to Amy's relief she didn't push it. 'Well, we'll leave the key in the usual place. And I'll text you when we get to Australia. You know you can me call any time—though remember we're nine hours ahead of you, in Melbourne.'
'I will. And thanks, Cassie.' For the bolthole. For the breathing space. For not pushing her.
Any time, love.'
'Give my love to Beth. I hope she gets an easy delivery—and I want to see a picture of the baby as soon as you're allowed to take one, OK?'
'You can count on it, love,' Cassie said. 'Drive safely.'
'I will,' Amy promised. 'Have a good trip.'
On Thursday morning, just as the rush hour ended, Amy left London for Norfolk. By lunchtime, she'd reached the large seaside town where her uncle had lived ever since Amy was tiny. The place where she'd spent many happy summers. The place that might just help her to sort her head out.
She parked on the gravelled area in front of Marsh End House; there was no other car there, so she assumed that the locum was on duty at the surgery, unless maybe he didn't have a car. She went to the fifth large cobble stone in the flower border to the right of the front door and lifted it; as she expected, the front door key sat underneath it. She let herself in and heard a volley of excited barks from the kitchen; as soon as she opened the door, Buster nearly knocked her flying.
She knelt down on the floor and made a fuss of him. 'You're meant to be a staid old dog, not a bouncy pup,' she admonished him with a smile. 'Look at all the grey in your face. And you're still just like you were twelve years ago.'
Buster responded by resting his front paws on her shoulders and licking her face enthusiastically.
'You big old softie,' she said. 'OK, let me bring my stuff in and have a cup of tea and then I'll take you for a run.'