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Annie slid into a pew of the cool, cavernous Spanish church and let the peace wash over her bruised and battered soul.
In two days' time, her holiday would be over and she would be returning to England and Penhally Bay. Which meant work and reality.
Despite her parents' entreaties that she join them on at least part of their Christmas and New Year worldwide cruise, Annie had insisted that she wanted to take this break on her own. Once and for all, she had told them gently, she needed to put her heartache behind her, including the break-up with her fiance Robert and especially the horribly cruel reason behind it. The last thing she needed was to be on a luxury liner filled with happy families or, even worse, spend Christmas in Scotland with her sister Fiona and her young family. Even staying in Penhally Bay for the holiday season would be more than she could bear.
But her holiday to the small whitewashed village in Andalucia had helped. She had spent the days tramping the narrow streets and walking the hills, tiring herself out until she had fallen into bed too exhausted even to dream. Although nothing would ever take away the terrible void in her life, she was beginning to feel she could face the future. Whatever it might bring.
A group of excited children accompanied by a heavily pregnant woman disturbed the silence. As Annie looked at the brown-faced children with their heads of shiny dark hair, she felt her heart tighten. One little girl in particular caught her attention. Unlike the others, she was subdued, her thumb stuck in her mouth as she looked about her with wide-eyed solemnity. She hung back from the rest of the group, resisting the pregnant woman's attempts to pull her into the circle.
Annie followed the youngsters with her eyes, wondering once more what it would have been like if she had been able to have children of her own. She eyed the expectant mother's bump enviously. She must be nearly at term and Annie would have given anything to be in her position.
She would even have been prepared to adopt. God knew, there were enough children out there who needed the pent-up love Annie had to give and she knew she would have made a good mum, if only she had been given the chance. She sighed. But men didn't seem to think that way. Was it so very different for them? After she had accepted that she'd never be able to conceive naturally, she had suggested to Robert that they consider adoption. But he had been horrified at the idea, and over the following months he had withdrawn from her bit by bit until she had finally forced the truth out of him. He couldn't face a future without children. His own children. It had been a double blow to her when he had left. She had thought he had loved her. Well, no more. From now on it was just her, by herself. And she would manage. More than manage, she told herself firmly. She would throw herself into her work at Penhally Bay. She would make a good life on her own. It was the start of a new year and a new beginning. Of that she was determined.
Squaring her shoulders, Annie slung her bag over her shoulder and stood up. She had only taken a few steps when she heard a cry of pain ringing out and she swung round to see the heavily pregnant woman bent over, clutching at her stomach.
Instantly, Annie was by her side.
'What is it?' she asked. 'Are you okay?'
The woman stared at Annie with enormous brown eyes stretched with pain and fear.
'Bebe,' she gasped. And then doubled over again.
'When is your baby due?' Annie asked, keeping her voice calm, but the woman just frowned at her and shook her head. It was obvious she spoke no English. Annie bit back a sigh of frustration. Although she had learned a few words of Spanish, it wasn't up to the demands of the occasion. She needed someone to translate. And soon.
'She say the baby is coming. Now.'
Annie placed a hand on the woman's abdomen and felt the contractions. She counted slowly. They were coming one after the other, at two-minute intervals. She was absolutely right. The baby was on its way.
Annie lowered herself to the level of the little girl. 'What's your name, sweetheart?'
'Maria.' She gestured to the woman. 'This is my cousin, Senora Lopez.' She removed her thumb for only as long as it took to impart the information.
'Okay, Maria, I need you to be my helper. Can you do that?' When the little girl nodded her head, Annie continued, raising her voice above the babble of excited voices.
'Has your cousin other children?'
Maria nodded again. 'Three.'
'Ask her if they were normal deliveries. Then find out if anyone has a phone. We need to call an ambulance.'
An older woman with a nut-brown face pulled a mobile out of the pocket of her cavernous overall and, muttering something frustratingly incomprehensible to Annie, punched numbers into the phone. Hopefully she was calling an ambulance.
In the meantime, Maria had spoken to the labouring woman and listened to her reply.
'She say her other children all come quickly. This baby not supposed to be here for another few weeks.'
'Okay Maria, Well done. I need to find somewhere private for Mrs Lopez to lie down. Could you ask if there is such a place?'
As Maria spoke to the watching, chattering audience, Annie felt her hand being squeezed tightly as another contraction racked Senora Lopez's body. It was clear that the baby was going to be born right here. Annie guessed it would take time they didn't have for the ambulance to get here from the nearest town. The narrow, winding roads weren't built for speed.
Suddenly the crowd of chattering women parted and a dark-haired man pushed his way through. Annie only had time to note deep brown eyes and high cheekbones. The man spoke in rapid Spanish to the distraught woman holding Annie's hand and Annie saw her visibly relax.
'Mi hijo,' the older woman with the mobile said, nodding down at him. 'Medico.'
My son. Doctor. Annie felt a wash of relief. At least she wasn't on her own any more. She prayed he could speak English. It would take the responsibility of translating from Maria. Although the little girl was doing her best, waiting for her questions and commands to be translated was frustratingly slow.
The man bent over and scooped the woman into his arms as if she weighed nothing. His mother gestured him to follow her while the other women took control of the children. Annie noticed that little Maria followed behind, obviously feeling as if she had a stake in the drama.
'I'm a midwife,' Annie said as she followed the dark-haired man with his burden to the rear of the church. 'Do you speak English?'
For a second, he stopped and looked at Annie. His mouth quirked. 'Si. Yes, I speak English. I am Dr Raphael Castillo, obstetrician. My mother has called an ambulance, but it will be some time before it gets here. It has to come from the city and the roads aren't very good. Have you made an assessment?'
'I haven't had a chance to examine her properly, but the contractions are coming one after the other. She could deliver at any time.'
He nodded. 'I think you are correct.' He smiled, flashing even white teeth. 'Looks like it is going to be you and me delivering this babyright here.'
As he spoke, Senora Lopez cried out again, followed by a string of Spanish words. Dr Castillo responded in the same language as he laid her down on a couch in the priest's room.
'She says the baby is coming,' he said, stripping off the jacket of his suit and rolling up the sleeves of his white shirt. 'There is no more time.'
Noticing a sink at one end of the room, Annie crossed to it and began to scrub her hands. Dr Castillo, speaking to Senora Lopez over his shoulder, joined her. It was obvious from the look on Senora Lopez's face that she knew that the baby was going to be delivered in this tiny room. At least it wasn't a stable, Annie thought wryly. Then while the dark-haired doctor finished rinsing the soap from his hands, Annie examined the woman.
'The head is crowning, Dr Castillo,' she called over. 'I'll deliver the baby if you tell her what to do.' She turned to Maria, who had slipped in beside them. 'Go and see if you can find some towels, sheets anything. Something to wrap the baby in.'
As Maria ran off, Annie turned to him. 'How many weeks is she?'
'Thirty-nine,' he said. Although heavily accented, his English was perfect.
'How sure of her dates is she?'
'She is certain. By the way, her name is Sophia.' Then he turned back and said something to Sophia. Annie didn't need to understand the words to know that he would be telling her to push.
Just as Maria and the doctor's mother appeared at the door with a bundle of shawls and scarves, the baby's shoulder appeared. But then, to Annie's horror, the baby's progress down the birth canal halted. It was stuck. She felt her own heart rate rise. Where was that ambulance? But in the same moment Annie realised that even if it turned up in the next few minutes, it wouldn't help. Sophia was in no position to be moved right now.
She looked up and found Raphael Castillo's calm brown eyes on hers.
'What is it?' he asked quietly.
'The baby's stuck,' she said. 'I think we have a shoulder dystocia.' Seeing the answering look of concern in Raphael's eyes, Annie knew he grasped the gravity of the situation. If they were in a hospital, it would be serious enough, but here, without instruments, not even a pair of forceps, there was every chance they could lose the baby. She stood aside to let him examine Sophia while Maria and the older woman watched silently from the doorway. Sensing something was wrong, the labouring woman called out in panic. Raphael's mother rushed to her side and spoke softly to her. What ever she said seemed to reassure the woman and she flopped back down.
After another couple of minutes of Sophia pushing and the baby not making any progress, Annie was certain they were in serious trouble. It seemed as if Raphael had arrived at the same conclusion.
'I'm going to ask my mother to help me pull Sophia's legs above her shoulders. Then I want you to press down just above the pubic bone as hard as you can.' His expression was grim, but his voice was calm. Somehow Annie felt confident that if anyone could save mother and child, he could.
As soon as Sophia's legs had been manoeuvred into position, Annie followed his instructions. With a cry of pain, Sophia gave a final push and the baby slithered into the Annie's arms, giving a gusty cry a few seconds later. Annie and Raphael's eyes locked over the exhausted mother. He grinned widely, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and Annie's world tilted.
'A healthy baby girl,' he said, repeating the words in Spanish to the new mother.
Quickly Annie checked that the baby's breathing was unrestricted before wrapping the tiny infant in a shawl and passing Sophia her daughter to hold.
''Gracias, gracias, Raphael,' Sophia whispered, nuzzling her newborn. She looked up at Annie. 'Gracias, Senora.' In the distance Annie could hear the sound of a siren approaching. They just had time to deliver the placenta before the ambulance crew hurried in.
Raphael spoke to the paramedics as they prepared to transfer Sophia to the hospital, and Annie studied him surreptitiously. He really was the most gorgeous-looking man she had ever seen in her life! His black wavy hair was worn slightly too long and a lock fell across his eyes.
He swept it away impatiently with long, tapered fingers. He had high cheekbones, an aquiline nose and his olive complexion showed off even white teeth. He wasn't overly tall, but every muscle was clearly defined under his white shirt. Tailored trousers clung to thighs that looked as if they had been honed by hours in the gym. All in all he exuded sex appeal. Annie had never met anyone like him before. Quite simply, he took her breath away.
'Well done,' he said to Annie over the cries of the infant. 'I am sorry, I don't even know your name.'
'It's Annie,' she said. 'Annie Thomas. And there's no need to thank me. I was glad to help. Although I'm relieved you appeared when you did. I'm not sure I would have copedeven with my two helpers here.' She nodded at the older woman and the young girl, who were now fussing over the baby.
'My mother' he indicated the older woman with a nod of his head 'called me. Fortunately, I was waiting for her in a cafe nearby. She wanted to say a prayer before we went home for lunch.'
His mother glanced up from Sophia and the baby and Raphael introduced them. Senora Castillo nodded vigorously and said something to her son in rapid Spanish.
'She says you must come for lunch too.' By this time Sophia and her baby were being loaded onto a stretcher, with Raphael helping.
'Shouldn't we go with them to the hospital?' Annie asked.
He looked at her and grinned. 'I will go with them. There is no room for you. Anyway, you are on holiday, no? I am sure you have other things you would like to do. Even if you don't care to join my family for lunch.'
Annie felt unreasonably disappointed. But whether it was because she wouldn't be able to follow up her patient as she was used to doing, or whether it was because Raphael was about to disappear from her life for good, she didn't know. Not that she was in any mood for romance. Not when she had just decided to get her life back on track. The last thing she needed was more complications in her life.