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When Hugo Lawrence pulled into the drive of the house where he had lived for the last year and a half on a temporary basis it was a strange feeling to know that it was now his, and that those who had occupied it before had gone on to a new life.
The grey stone detached house, appropriately named Lakes Rise because it was in an elevated position above one of the biggest lakes in the area, had belonged to his widowed sister Patrice and her two young daughters.
Patrice had lost her husband Warren from an undiagnosed heart defect eighteen months previously and stricken with grief had been totally unable to cope, so much so that for the children's sakes as much as anything he had moved from general practice in southern England to take up a similar position in the village of Swallowbrook where she lived, to keep a protective eye on the bereaved family.
Living with them day in day out, comforting and coping as he'd tried to lessen their insecurities and wipe away the tears that the loss of an adored husband and father had brought about had been a gruelling experience and caused him to take a long, hard look at the pain and sorrow that loving too much and too well could cause.
He and his sister had lost their parents when they were in their early teens and as the eldest Hugo had always been very protective of his young sister, often having to put his own life on hold over the years for her sake and never begrudging it.
Patrice's happy marriage had given him five years' respite from that crushing feeling of responsibility towards his sister, and now, with her recent move to Canada, he had begun to breathe easier once again. Not that he begrudged the time he'd spent helping her pick up the pieces, but at least now she had a fresh start to look forward to and he had his own place to start putting down some roots.
When Patrice had talked about putting the house up for sale he had said not to, that he would buy Lakes Rise. He loved the job and got on well with the other two doctors in the practice, and it was a very attractive property, but it was the lake nearby, breathtakingly beautiful beneath the towering fells, that attracted so many walkers and climbers and had him spellbound.
Now he couldn't wait to unlock the door, go inside, and celebrate becoming a permanent resident of Swallowbrook with no strings attached.
A shower and a change of clothes, followed by a nice meal with a bottle of wine was what he had promised himself, and after that a good book or watching television. Then maybe to round off the evening a stroll down to The Mallard, the local pub, for a convivial chat with some of the friends he had made since moving here, and finally to bed in the spacious master bedroom of his new home with not a worry on his mind.
But first he wanted to unload the stuff he'd brought with him from his flat down south and stack the bulkier items in the garage for the time being. With that in mind he went round to the back of the car and was opening the boot when a woman's voice hailed him from the bottom of the drive.
Daylight was turning into dusk but when he looked up he could see her beneath the light of a streetlamp. She was tall and slender and appeared to be quite young.
She seemed to be wearing a red cape of sorts with a hood, had black boots with incredibly high heels on her feet, and was holding onto the handle of a large flower-patterned suitcase that she must have been dragging along until she'd stopped on seeing him.
'Could you help me, please?' she asked in a voice so weary he was expecting her to cave in any second. 'Would you happen to know where I can find Libby Gallagher of Lavender Cottage just along the road there? She doesn't appear to be at home, and you are the first person I've seen to ask since getting off the train. Where is everyone?'
'In the process of having their evening meal, I would imagine,' he replied dryly. 'The village will be lively enough later when the locals and visitors gather inside and outside the pub.'
'Please don't mention food,' she groaned, without making any attempt to move closer. 'I'm starving.'
He made his way down the drive towards her. 'Was Libby expecting you? It isn't like her not to be there if she knew that you were coming.'
'She knows I'm coming back to Swallowbrook and has offered to let me stay with her and her husband until I find somewhere to live, but we hadn't exactly arranged when I was going to arrive.'
'In other words, she wasn't expecting you?'
'Not exactly, no.'
He held back a groan. Libby and Nathan were at their house on the island in the middle of the lake. Since their Christmas wedding the two doctors had gone there every weekend with Toby, Nathan's adopted son.
The three of them loved the place, so he wasn't going to break into their weekend solitude on behalf of this stranger who hadn't bothered to tell them she was coming to join them. She would have to find somewhere to stay for the next two nights as far away from him as possible!
'I know where they are,' he told her stiffly, 'and they won't be back until early Monday morning as they don't like to cut short their weekends for any reason, which means that you are going to have to find somewhere to stay. They have a couple of rooms to let to bed and breakfast visitors at the pub, so I should try there. And now if you'll excuse me.'
As he started to unload the boot it was clear that she wasn't taking the hint. Instead she said, 'It seems as if you know them well, but that's what this place is like, isn't it? Almost everyone is acquainted, or so Libby tells me.'
Hugo sighed. He wasn't in the mood for small talk, but at least he could be polite and in answer to her first comment. He said, 'Yes, I know Libby and Nathan very well. My name is Hugo Lawrence. I'm a GP too and work with them both at the practice.'
'Oh, well, then, you might have heard them mention me,' she said slowly. 'I'm Ruby Hollister, shortly to join you all there as a trainee GP.'
Hugo looked her over once more and frowned. Surely this couldn't possibly be the girl that Libby and Nathan had been so keen to have as part of the medical team at the surgery, who had got a first at one of the top medical colleges in the country.
There had been a few practice meetings of late about taking on another doctor as Libby was pregnant and intending doing fewer hours at the practice in the near future, prior to becoming a stay-at-home wife and mother to Toby and the baby, when it came.
Apparently Ruby Hollister had lived in the village with her parents until her teens and then they'd moved away, but like Libby she had always had leanings towards practising medicine amongst the lakes and fells.
'Ah, now I understand,' he said, gathering his wits fast. 'I knew that you were about to join us, but was away all last week and wasn't aware that it was to be so soon.'
She was leaning on the case. He could see weariness in the droop of her shoulders and knowing that he couldn't just send her off to the pub to find accommodation now that he knew who she was, he pointed to the house and said reluctantly, 'I think you had better come inside while we sort out where you are going to stay until Libby and Nathan come home from their weekend away.'
'You're very kind,' she said meekly, and removing the case from her grasp he took charge of it with one hand, unlocked the door with the other, and ushered her into the sitting room where at his invitation she perched on the edge of a nearby sofa and looked around her listlessly.
Why she was so weary he had no idea, but he knew complete exhaustion when he saw it and he was seeing it now. Waving goodbye to his evening of joyful relaxation, he asked, 'Which would you prefer, a brandy or a cup of hot, sweet tea?'
'Tea would be lovely, thanks,' she replied, fixing him with huge brown eyes, 'and I could really go for a slice of toast if you have any bread in the house after being away.'
'I think I could just about manage that,' he said dryly, far from thrilled at the prospect of entertaining his newest colleague all evening.
But when he appeared with the tea and toast it was to find her asleep, huddled against the cushions still in the red cape, and with the high-heeled boots placed neatly on the carpet beside her.
He went upstairs and taking a blanket out of the linen cupboard on the landing covered her with it from head to toe, then went to make the meal he had promised himself, with an extra portion for his unexpected guest when she woke up. When he'd finished eating he went to sit across from her with a book.
Why had she arrived so unexpectedly like this? he wondered as he watched her sleeping soundly beneath the blanket. Obviously she had made some arrangement with Libby and not kept to it, because as head of the practice Libby would not have gone away for the weekend if she'd known that Ruby was arriving today.
The minutes ticked by and she still slept. As ten o'clock drew near Hugo thought there was still time to check if they had a room vacant for a couple of nights at The Mallard. He would willingly cover the cost if they had in order to retrieve the privacy that he'd been so looking forward to. But there was no way he could rouse this girl into wakefulness and bundle her out of his house into strange surroundings for the night.
As ten o'clock came and went he picked her up into his arms, carried her upstairs, and laid her gently on the top of his bed still wrapped in the blanket, with the thought uppermost that at least she would be safe there with him dozing downstairs and everywhere locked and bolted.