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Spending two weeks in Spain with her best friend had been great, but as Libby Hamilton drove the last couple of miles to Swallowbrook village, nestling in a lakeland valley below the rugged beauty of the fells, she was happy to be back where she belonged.
A month ago, on what was not as frequent an occasion as she would like it to be, she had met up with Melissa Lombard for lunch in Manchester, and on seeing how pale and tired Libby looked, the only person she'd ever told what a mistake her tragically brief marriage had been had said, 'I'm going to our villa in Spain for a couple of weeks. That husband of mine can't go with me. There is a big audit due at the office and he's in charge. So why don't you join me, Libby? It would be lovely if you could.'
She'd hesitated and Melissa had said coaxingly, 'Surely they can manage without you at the Swallowbrook practice for once, and if they can't, they can get a temp. I'm no doctor but I think I can safely prescribe two weeks of lazing in the sun to bring some colour back to your cheeks.'
'It would be a change, I suppose,' Libby had agreed wistfully. 'I haven't had any time off since Ian had the dreadful accident. It's as if I haven't been able to stop and think since the funeral. I guess I've been using work as an excuse these past few months.'
Melissa had nodded gravely and gone on to say sympathetically, 'So what better reason for joining me could there be than having spent months of hard graft without a break?'
Libby had smiled at her across the table and told her friend, 'You have just talked me into two weeks in Spain, Mel, but not a moment longer. Our senior partner, John Gallagher, retires at the end of the month and I've taken over as senior partner. He has virtually given up already, but I know if I ask him he'll take up the reins again for two more weeks while I have a break.'
Driving back now, alongside the fells beneath a harvest moon, she was feeling much more like her old self after a healthy dose of sun, sea and a complete rest. Yet as was always the case on the rare occasions she was absent from the practice, coming back to Swallowbrook and her cottage across the way from the surgery was heart-warming, and today was no exception.
The practice building had once been her childhood home. In those days it had been a farmhouse, but in her late teens it had been put up for sale due to her father's neglect of it after her mother had died, and it was now the village medical centre in the middle of the lakeside beauty spot.
When the lease had run out on the old practice premises and somewhere else had needed to be found, the spacious farm building had been an ideal choice. The outside of it was mostly unchanged, but the inside had been modernised and now provided health care for the hardy folk of Swallowbrook and the surrounding areas.
When the transfer had been made six years ago John Gallagher had been senior partner, with his son Nathan, also a doctor, working alongside him, and two years later Libby, who had gone straight into general practice after receiving her doctor's degree, had joined them as the third and youngest member of the trio.
But it had turned out that one of them had itchy feet, and where she had been content to stay in the place she loved best, Nathan Gallagher had other ideas in mind. He was three years older than her and she'd worshipped the dark-haired, dark-eyed, dynamic doctor since her early teens, but in those days she'd been just a kid with a brace on her teeth as far as he was concerned.
Though she'd never admit it to him, one of the reasons she'd joined the practice had been so that she could be near him, and another had been because the building had once been her home, and to be as close to it as she could she'd bought an empty farm cottage across the way.
When she'd joined the practice Nathan had seen that the girl who had always been hovering while they had been growing up had become a slender blonde with eyes like brown velvet and the warmest smile he'd ever seen. They'd shared a brief flirtation but he was aware that Libby had long since had a crush on him and didn't want to lead her on.
And besides he'd had his hands full with a fiancée who had been pushing hard for a gold band to go beside the solitaire diamond on her finger and he had begun to feel that the engagement had been a mistake because he hadn't been as keen on the idea as she had been.
When he'd informed Libby that he was leaving the practice to go and work abroad she'd been devastated. 'The engagement is off,' he'd told her, and it would have been news she had been happy to hear if it hadn't been followed by, 'So I'm free to work in Africa, which is something I've always wanted to do. I've agreed to take up a position in a hospital in a small town out there where doctors are needed urgently.'
'How long will you be gone?' she'd asked with the colour draining from her face.
'As long as it takes, I suppose, but my contract is for three years.'
He'd noted the effect that the news of his departure had had on her. 'Why don't you come along?' he'd suggested casually. 'There's always room for one more doctor out there.'
'No, thanks,' she'd replied hastily before she did some crazy thing like letting her longing to be wherever he was take over, and had gone on to say, 'It wouldn't be fair to your father, two of us gone from the practice at the same time, and my father is still around, don't forget, forever sick and remorseful at having to sell the farm. Also it has always been my dream to practise medicine in the place that was once my home. I feel I owe it to our community.'
She was almost home. As Libby took the next bend in the road it was there, Swallowbrook, beautiful in the moonlight, a familiar cluster of houses built out of lakeland stone, and outside The Mallard, the local pub, there was the usual gathering of fell walkers and locals seated on wooden benches, drinking the local brew.
Down a side turning not far away was Swallowbrook Medical practice and across the way from it Lavender Cottage, where recently she'd spent far too many lonely nights at the end of long busy days.
The cottage was semi-detached. The property next to it had been on the market for quite some time and as she turned onto her drive she was surprised to see a van belonging to one of the big furniture stores in the nearby town pulling away from in front of it.
Her eyes widened. It was almost ten o'clock, deliveries weren't usually made so late in the evening. It seemed from the number of lights blazing out into the night from the cottage next door that she was to be blessed, or otherwise, with new neighbours.
But she had other things to think about besides that, such as the longing to be back in her own bed after a quick cup of tea. The flight home hadn't taken long, but the airport procedures at the UK end had been slow and then there had been a thirty-miles-plus drive home after she'd collected her car from where it had been stored while she had been away, so now she was ready to flake out.
She hoped that the people who had moved into next door would be sociable and easy to get on with. Yet wasn't she the last person who should be concerned about socialising? She could barely remember what it was like to enjoy herself in the company of others.
After losing Ian in a fatal riding accident, a lukewarm marriage had come to an end, and since then the practice had been the only thing in her life that she could rely on for comfort and stability. As long as the new neighbours didn't intrude into that she supposed she would cope.
The surgery had been in darkness when she looked across, which was hardly surprising in the late evening, and as it was Friday would be closed all over the weekend. But as the head of the practice she would need to be there bright and early on Monday morning. Maybe during the weekend she would get the chance to meet the newcomers, but the main thing on her mind at the moment was sleep.
After the cup of tea that she'd been longing for on the last part of the journey home Libby climbed the stairs to her bedroom beneath the eaves and in moments was under the covers and ready to drift into oblivion when someone down below rang the doorbell.
She groaned softly but didn't move. When it rang a second time she slipped a robe over her nightdress and went quickly downstairs. Before opening the door she peered into the porch and with the moon's light filtering in saw the broad-shouldered outline of a man and beside him was a small child dressed in pyjamas.
It all looked innocent enough, she decided. The two of them must be part of the family who'd moved in next door, and without any further delay she unlocked the door.
'Hello, Libby,' Nathan Gallagher said easily, as if it had only been yesterday that she'd last seen him. 'We saw your car pull up a while ago and had no intention of disturbing you, but Toby needs his bedtime drink of milk, won't settle without it, and it's the one thing I've overlooked in the provisions I bought in the store this afternoon. I noticed you had a couple of pints that someone had delivered and wonder if you could spare one?'
She could feel her legs caving in at the shock of seeing him there.
'Come in,' she croaked, opening the door wide, and as they stepped inside she added, 'I'll get you one from the fridge.' With her glance on the tousle-haired small boy at his side she paused in the doorway of the kitchen. 'So it's you and your family who have moved into next door? You found yourself a wife while in Africa? It seems strange that your father never mentioned a thing!'
'Not exactly,' he said with a wry smile, and she wondered what that meant. Maybe the child's mother was a partner rather than a wife and she'd been rather quick to be asking those kinds of questions in any case.
Obviously Nathan hadn't come for a cosy chat about what he'd been doing during the last few years. Taking a pint of milk out of the fridge, she handed it to him and came up with a question of a more basic kind.
'Are your beds made up? Tell your little boy's mother I can lend you some bedding if you haven't had time to get them sorted.'
'Thanks, but everything is fine,' was the reply. 'We've been here since early this morning. As soon as Toby has had his milk he will be settling down for sleep in a small single bed next to mine. It's been a long day so I don't think either of us will need much rocking.'
'How long have you been back in the UK?' she asked as he was about to depart with the little boy clutching his hand tightly.
'A month. We've been in London until now on business, but I was anxious to get away from the crowds. I want Toby to grow up in Swallowbrook like we did, and the vacant cottage next door to yours seemed to be the perfect answer.'
Answer to what? she wondered. Whatever it was it wouldn't be anything to do with her. He'd asked her to go out to Africa with him all that time ago because they were short of doctors, not because he'd wanted her near, and at the time she'd come up with a few reasons for refusing.
It was like a knife in her heart seeing him with his small son. It meant that he'd found someone that he did want, while she'd been letting common sense fly out of the window by agreeing to marry Ian, whose interests had revolved around his horses and pleasure, and seen her career as a hindrance to his lifestyle, instead of giving it meaning.
With no wish to remind herself of how all that had ended she switched her thoughts to the mother of the child and wondered where she was. She probably had other things to do, having just moved into next door, and curious though she might be, there was no way she was going to ask Nathan why the sleeping arrangements he'd described didn't sound as if Toby's mother was included in them.
When Libby went back upstairs to bed the feeling of tiredness had been replaced by bleak amazement as she recalled those incredible moments with Nathan and the silent child. Wide-eyed and disbelieving, her gaze was fixed on the dividing wall between the two properties.
He would be sleeping at the other side of it, she thought. Just a short time ago she'd seen him in the flesh, heard him speak, watched him smile a strange smile when she'd asked him if he had married while out in Africa.
He'd said, 'Not exactly,' and she cringed at her unseemly haste in asking the question only seconds after he'd appeared at her door. It would have been the last thing she would have come up with if he hadn't had the boy with him.
Had his father known for the last month that he was back in England and not told her? If that was the case, it would have been on Nathan's instructions. John would never do anything like that to her.
Tomorrow she would have to prepare herself for meeting the little boy's mother with pleasantness and a warm welcome to Swallowbrook, while hoping that she would be able to hide her true feelings, and with those kinds of thoughts to cope with she got up and put the kettle on for a second time.