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The Awakened Heart
By Betty Neels
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe dull October afternoon was fast becoming a damp evening, its drizzling rain soaking those hurrying home from work. The pavements were crowded; the wholesale dress shops, the shabby second-hand-furniture emporiums, the small businesses carried on behind dirty shop windows were all closing for the day. There were still one or two street barrows doing a desultory trade, but the street, overshadowed by the great bulk of St Agnes's hospital, in an hour or so's time would be almost empty. Just at the moment it was alive with those intent on getting home, with the exception of one person: a tall girl, standing still, a look of deep concentration on her face, oblivious of the impatient jostling her splendid person was receiving from passers-by.
Unnoticed by those jostling her, she was none the less attracting the attention of a man standing at the window of the committee-room of the hospital overlooking the street. He watched her for several minutes, at first idly and then with a faint frown, and presently, since he had nothing better to do for the moment, he made his way out of the hospital across the forecourt and into the street.
The girl was on the opposite pavement and he crossed the road without haste, a giant of a man with wide shoulders, making light of the crowds around him. His "Can I be of help?" was asked in a quiet, deep voice, and the girl looked at him with relief.
"So silly," she said in a matter-of-fact voice. "The heel of my shoe is wedged in a gutter and my hands are full. If you would be so kind as to hold these ..."
She handed him two plastic shopping-bags. "They're lace-ups," she explained. "I can't get my foot out."
The size of him had caused passers-by to make a little detour around them. He handed back the bags. "Allow me?" he begged her and crouched down, unlaced her shoe, and when she had got her foot out of it carefully worked the heel free, held it while she put her foot back in, and tied the laces tidily.
She thanked him then, smiling up into his handsome face, to be taken aback by the frosty blue of his eyes and his air of cool detachment, rather as though he had been called upon to do something which he had found tiresome. Well, perhaps it had been tiresome, but surely he didn't have to look at her like that? He was smiling now too, a small smile which just touched his firm mouth and gave her the nasty feeling that he knew just what she was thinking. She removed the smile, flashed him a look from beautiful dark eyes, wished him goodbye, and joined the hurrying crowd around her. He had ruffled her feelings, although she wasn't sure why. She dismissed him from her mind and turned into a side-street lined with old-fashioned houses with basements guarded by iron railings badly in need of paint; the houses were slightly down at heel too and the variety of curtains at their windows bore testimony to the fact that subletting was the norm.
Halfway down the street she mounted the steps of a house rather better kept than its neighbours and unlocked the door. The hall was narrow and rather dark and redolent of several kinds of cooking. The girl wrinkled her beautiful nose and started up the stairs, to be stopped by a voice from a nearby room.
"Is that you, Sister Blount? There was a phone call for you ..."
A middle-aged face, crowned by a youthful blonde wig, appeared round the door. "Your dear mother, wishing to speak to you. I was so bold as to tell her that you would be home at six o'clock."
The girl paused on the stairs. "Thank you, Miss Phipps. I'll phone as soon as I've been to my room."
Miss Phipps frowned and then decided to be playfully rebuking. "Your flatlet, Sister, dear. I flatter myself that my tenants are worthy of something better than bed-sitting-rooms."
The girl murmured and smiled and went up two flights of stairs to the top floor and unlocked the only door on the small landing. It was an attic room with the advantage of a window overlooking the street as well as a smaller one which gave a depressing view of back yards and strings of washing, but there was a tree by it where sparrows sat, waiting for the crumbs on the window sill. It had a wash-basin in one corner and a small gas stove in an alcove by the blocked-up fireplace. There was a small gas fire too, and these, according to Miss Phipps, added up to mod cons and a flatlet. The bathroom was shared too by the two flat-lets on the floor below, but since she was on night duty and everyone else worked during the day that was no problem. She dumped her shopping on the small table under the window, took off her coat, kicked off her shoes, stuck her feet into slippers and bent to pick up the small tabby cat which had uncurled itself from the end of the divan bed against one wall.
"Mabel, hello. I'll be back in a moment to get your supper ..."
The phone was in the hall and to hold a private conversation on it was impossible, for Miss Phipps rarely shut her door. She fed the machine some ten-pence pieces and dialled her home.
"Sophie?" her mother's voice answered at once.
"Darling, it isn't anything important; I just wanted to know how you were and when you're coming home for a day or two."
"I was coming at the end of the week, but Sister Symonds is ill again. She should be back by the end of next week, though, and I'll take two lots of nights off at once - almost a week ..."
"Oh, good. Let us know which train and someone will pick you up at the station. You're busy?"
"Yes, off and on - not too bad." Sophie always said that. She was always busy; Casualty and the accident room took no account of time of day or night. She knew that her mother thought of her as sitting for a great part of the night at the tidy desk, giving advice and from time to time checking on a more serious case, and Sophie hadn't enlightened her. On really busy nights she hardly saw her desk at all, but, sleeves rolled up and plastic apron tied around her slim waist, she worked wherever she was most needed.
"Is that Miss Phipps listening?"
"Of course ..."
"What would happen if you brought a man back for supper?" Her mother chuckled.
"When do I ever get the time?" asked Sophie and allowed her thoughts to dwell just for a moment on the man with the cold blue eyes. The sight of her flatlet would trigger off the little smile; she had no doubt of that. Probably he had never seen anything like it in his life.
Excerpted from The Awakened Heart by Betty Neels Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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