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Giovanni Moretti stood at the top of the narrow cobbled street, flexed his broad shoulders to try and ease the tension from the journey and breathed in the fresh, clean sea air. Above him, seagulls shrieked and swooped in the hope of benefiting from the early morning catch.
Sounds of the sea.
He paused for a moment, his fingers tucked into the pockets of his faded jeans, his dark eyes slightly narrowed as he scanned the pretty painted cottages that led down to the busy harbour. Window-boxes and terracotta pots were crammed full with brightly coloured geraniums and tumbling lobelia and a smile touched his handsome face. Before today he'd thought that places like this existed only in the imagination of artists. It was as far from the dusty, traffic-clogged streets of Milan as it was possible to be, and he felt a welcome feeling of calm wash over him.
He'd been right to agree to take this job, he mused silently, remembering all the arguments he'd been presented with. Right to choose this moment to slow the pace of his life and leave Italy.
It was early in the morning but warm, tempting smells of baking flavoured the air and already the street seemed alive with activity.
A few people in flip-flops and shorts, who he took to be tourists, meandered down towards the harbour in search of early morning entertainment while others jostled each other in their eagerness to join the queue in the bakery and emerged clutching bags of hot, fragrant croissants and rolls.
His own stomach rumbled and he reminded himself that he hadn't eaten anything since he'd left Milan the night before. Fast food had never interested him. He preferred to wait for the real thing. And the bakery looked likethe real thing.
He needed a shower and a shave but there was no chance of that until he'd picked up the key to his accommodation and he doubted his new partner was even in the surgery yet. He glanced at his watch and decided that he just about had time to eat something and still time his arrival to see her just before she started work.
He strolled into the bakery and smiled at the pretty girl behind the counter. 'Buongiorno—good morning.'
She glanced up and caught the smile. Her blue eyes widened in feminine appreciation. 'Hello. What can I offer you?'
It was obvious from the look in those eyes that she was prepared to offer him the moon but Gio ignored the mute invitation he saw in her eyes and studied the pastries on offer, accustomed to keeping women at a polite distance. He'd always been choosy when it came to women. Too choosy, some might say. 'What's good?'
'Oh—well ' The girl lifted a hand to her face, her cheeks suddenly pink. 'The pain au chocolat is my favourite but the almond croissant is our biggest seller. Take away or eat in?'
For the first time Gio noticed the small round tables covered in cheerful blue gingham, positioned by the window at the back of the shop. 'Eat in.' It was still so early he doubted that his partner had even reached the surgery yet. 'I'll take an almond croissant and a double espresso. Grazie.'
He selected the table with the best view over the harbour. The coffee turned out to be exceptionally good, the croissant wickedly sweet, and by the time he'd finished the last of his breakfast he'd decided that spending the summer in this quaint little village was going to be no hardship at all.
'Are you on holiday?' The girl on the till was putting croissants into bags faster than the chef could take them from the oven and still the queue didn't seem to diminish.
Gio dug his hand into his pocket and paid the bill. 'Not on holiday.' Although a holiday would have been welcome, he mused, his eyes still on the boats bobbing in the harbour. 'I'm working.'
'Working?' She handed him change. 'Where?'
'Here. I'm a doctor. A GP, to be precise.' It still felt strange to him to call himself that. For years he'd been a surgeon and he still considered himself to be a surgeon. But fate had decreed otherwise.
'You're our new doctor?'
He nodded, aware that after driving through the night he didn't exactly look the part. He could have been evasive, of course, but his new role in the community was hardly likely to remain a secret for long in a place this small. And, anyway, he didn't believe in being evasive. What was the harm in announcing himself? 'Having told you that, I might as well take advantage of your local knowledge. How does Dr Anderson take her coffee?'
All that he knew about his new partner was what David had shared in their brief phone conversation. He knew that she was married to her job, very academic and extremely serious. Already he'd formed an image of her in his mind. Tweed skirt, flat heels, horn-rimmed glasses—he knew the type. Had met plenty like her in medical school.
'Dr Anderson? That's easy.' The girl smiled, her eyes fixed on his face in a kind of trance. 'Same as you. Strong and black.'
Ah.' His new partner was obviously a woman of taste. And what does she eat?'
The girl continued to gaze at him and then seemed to shake herself. 'Eat? Actually, I've never seen her eat anything.' She shrugged. 'Between the tourists and the locals, we probably keep her too busy to give her time to eat. Or maybe she isn't that interested in food.'
Gio winced and hoped it was the former. He couldn't imagine developing a good working partnership with someone who wasn't interested in food. 'In that case, I'll play it safe and take her a large Americano.' Time enough to persuade her of the benefits of eating. 'So the next thing you can do is direct me to the surgery. Or maybe Dr Anderson won't be there yet.'
It wasn't even eight o'clock.
Perhaps she slept late, or maybe—
'Follow the street right down to the harbour and it's straight in front of you. Blue door. And she' ll be there.' The girl pressed a cap onto the coffee-cup. 'She was up half the night with the Bennetts' six-year-old. Asthma attack.'
Gio lifted an eyebrow. 'You know that?'
The girl shrugged and blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. Around here, everyone knows everything.' She handed him the coffee and his change. 'Word gets around.'
'So maybe she's having a lie-in.'
The girl looked at the clock. 'I doubt it. Dr Anderson doesn't sleep much and, anyway, surgery starts soon.'
Gio digested that piece of information with interest. If she worked that hard, no wonder she took her coffee strong and black.
With a parting smile at the girl he left the bakery and followed her instructions, enjoying the brief walk down the steep cobbled street, glancing into shop windows as he passed.
The harbour was bigger than he'd expected, crowded with boats that bobbed and danced under the soft seduction of the sea. Tall masts clinked in the soft breeze and across the harbour he saw a row of shops and a blue door with a brass nameplate. The surgery.
A few minutes later he pushed open the surgery door and blinked in surprise. What had promised to be a small, cramped building proved to be light, airy and spacious. Somehow he'd expected something entirely different—somewhere dark and tired, like some of the surgeries he'd visited in London. What he hadn't expected was this bright, calming environment designed to soothe and relax.
Above his head glass panels threw light across a neat waiting room and on the far side of the room a children's corner overflowed with an abundance of toys in bright primary colours. A table in a glaring, cheerful red was laid with pens and sheets of paper to occupy busy hands.
On the walls posters encouraged patients to give up smoking and have their blood pressure checked and there were leaflets on first aid and adverts for various local clinics.
It seemed that nothing had been forgotten.
Gio was just studying a poster in greater depth when he noticed the receptionist.
She was bent over the curved desk, half-hidden from view as she sifted through a pile of results. Her honey blonde hair fell to her shoulders and her skin was creamy smooth and untouched by sun. She was impossibly slim, wore no make-up and the shadows under her eyes suggested that she worked harder than she should. She looked fragile, tired and very young.
Gio's eyes narrowed in an instinctively masculine assessment.
She was beautiful, he decided, and as English as scones and cream. His eyes rested on her cheekbones and then dropped to her perfectly shaped, soft mouth. He found himself thinking of summer fruit—strawberries, raspberries, redcurrants
Something flickered to life inside him.
The girl was so absorbed in what she was reading that she hadn't even noticed him and he was just about to step forward and introduce himself when the surgery door swung open again and a group of teenage boys stumbled in, swearing and laughing.
They didn't notice him. In fact, they seemed incapable of noticing anyone, they were so drunk.
Gio stood still, sensing trouble. His dark eyes were suddenly watchful and he set the coffee down on the nearest table just in case he was going to need his hands.
One of them swore fluently as he crashed into a low table and sent magazines flying across the floor. 'Where the hell's the doctor in this place? Matt's bleeding.'
The friend in question lurched forward, blood streaming from a cut on his head. His chest was bare and he wore a pair of surf shorts, damp from the sea and bloodstained. 'Went surfing.' He gave a hiccup and tried to stand up without support but failed. Instead he slumped against his friend with a groan, his eyes closed. 'Feel sick.'
'Surfing when you're drunk is never the best idea.' The girl behind the desk straightened and looked them over with weary acceptance. Clearly it wasn't the first time she'd had drunks in the surgery. 'Sit him down over there and I'll take a look at it.'
'You?' The third teenager swaggered across the room, fingers tucked into the pockets of his jeans. He gave a suggestive wink. 'I'm Jack. How about taking a look at me while you're at it?' He leaned across the desk, leering. 'There are bits of me you might be interested in. You a nurse? You ever wear one of those blue outfits with a short skirt and stockings?'
'I'm the doctor.' The girl's eyes were cool as she pulled on a pair of disposable gloves and walked round the desk without giving Jack a second glance. 'Sit your friend down before he falls down and does himself more damage. I'll take a quick look at him before I start surgery.'
Gio didn't know who was more surprised—him or the teenagers.
She was the doctor?
She was Alice Anderson?
He ran a hand over the back of his neck and wondered why David had omitted to mention that his new partner was stunning. He tried to match up David's description of a serious, academic woman with this slender, delicate beauty standing in front of him, and failed dismally. He realised suddenly that he'd taken 'single' to mean 'mature'. And 'academic' to mean 'dowdy'.
'You're the doctor?' Jack lurched towards her, his gait so unsteady that he could barely stand. 'Well, that's good news. I love a woman with brains and looks. You and I could make a perfect team, babe.'
She didn't spare him a glance, refusing to respond to the banter. 'Sit your friend down.' Her tone was firm and the injured boy collapsed onto the nearest chair with a groan.
'I'll sit myself down. Oh, man, my head is killing me.'
'That's what happens when you drink all night and then bang your head.' Efficient and businesslike, she pushed up the sleeves of her plain blue top, tilted his head and took a look at the cut. She parted the boy's hair gently and probed with her fingers. Her mouth tightened. 'Well, you've done a good job of that. Were you knocked out?'
Gio cast a professional eye over the cut and saw immediately that it wasn't going to be straightforward. Surely she wasn't planning to stitch that herself? He could see ragged edges and knew it was going to be difficult to get a good cosmetic result, even for someone skilled in that area.
'I wasn't knocked out.' The teenager tried to shake his head and instantly winced at the pain. 'I swallowed half the ocean, though. Got any aspirin?'
'In a minute. That's a nasty cut you've got there and it's near your eye and down your cheek. It's beyond my skills, I'm afraid.' She ripped off the gloves and took a few steps backwards, a slight frown on her face as she considered the options. 'You need to go to the accident and emergency department up the coast. They'll get a surgeon to stitch you up. I'll call them and let them know that you're coming.'
'No way. We haven't got time for that.' The third teenager, who hadn't spoken up until now, stepped up to her, his expression threatening. 'You're going to do it. And you're going to do it here. Right now.'
She dropped the gloves into a bin and washed her hands. 'I'll put a dressing on it for you, but you need to go to the hospital to get it stitched. They'll do a better job than I ever could. Stitching faces is an art.'
She turned to walk back across the reception area but the teenager called Jack blocked her path.
'I've got news for you, babe.' His tone was low and insulting. 'We're not going anywhere until you've fixed Matt's face. I'm not wasting a whole day of my holiday sitting in some hospital with a load of sickos. He doesn't mind a scar. Scars are sexy. Hard. You know?'
'Whoever does it, he'll be left with a scar,' she said calmly, 'but he'll get a better result at the hospital.'
'No hospital.' The boy took a step closer and stabbed a finger into her chest. 'Are you listening to me?'
'I'm listening to you but I don't think you're listening to me.' The girl didn't flinch. 'Unless he wants to have a significant scar, that cut needs to be stitched by someone with specific skills. It's for his own good.'
It happened so quickly that no one could have anticipated it. The teenager backed her against the wall and put a hand round her throat. 'I don't think you're listening to me, babe. It's your bloody job, Doc. Stitchhimup! Do it.'
Gio crossed the room in two strides, just as the teenager uttered a howl of pain and collapsed onto the floor in a foetal position, clutching his groin.
She'd kneed him.
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Posted January 16, 2010
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