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The Doubtful Marriage
By Betty Neels
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE waiting-room was full and smelled of wet raincoats and old Mr Stokes's eucalyptus cough lozenges; he had chronic bronchitis and treated himself with a variety of cures from the chemist until he finally gave in and went to the doctor. He sat glowering at the people around him, his eyes on the green light over the surgery door; he was next in.
But when the light changed it flickered on and off, a signal for the girl sitting behind the desk in the corner to go into the surgery. She got up without haste to obey the summons, aware that Uncle Thomas wanted her to see to Mrs Spinks's varicose ulcer. She smiled at him as she went in; smiled, too, at his patient and urged that lady to the curtained-off cubicle behind his desk. Mrs Spinks eased her stout person on to the chair and extended her leg on to the stool provided for her.
"Busy this morning," she commented. "We keep you on the go, don't we, love?"
The girl was bending over her leg, dealing with it with kind, gentle hands. She was a very pretty young woman, with chestnut hair piled on top of her head, large brown eyes, a straight nose and a generous mouth. She was wearing a white overall with a blue belt buckled in silver and when she stood up it was apparent that she was tall and splendidly shaped.
She said in a pleasant voice, "Oh, I think the doctor and I wouldn't know what to do with ourselves. When are you to come back, Mrs Spinks?"
She helped her to her feet and ushered her out through the door behind them, tidied the cubicle and went back into the surgery where her uncle was dealing with Mr Stokes. There was nothing for her there; Mr Stokes was barely half-way through his testy list of grievances while her uncle listened patiently, as he always did.
In the waiting-room a dozen pair of eyes watched her as she crossed to the desk again. The doctor's niece had been living in the village since she was a little girl; they all knew her well. A nice young lady she had grown into, they considered, and one of them as it were, despite her years at the London hospital where she had gone for her training. High time she was married; she and the squire's only son had been courting for the last year or two, and even though he was away from home a good deal that was time enough for them to get to know each other. At least, that was what the ladies of the village said. They held old-fashioned views about such matters - a year or so to get acquainted, another year's engagement and then a proper wedding in church with the banns called and bridesmaids. Anything less wasn't seemly.
Matilda smiled impartially upon them all, sifted through the patients' cards and counted heads. If Mr Stokes didn't finish his grumbling pretty smartly, morning surgery was going to be very behindhand, and that meant that her uncle's morning round would be even later, which would lead inevitably to gobbled sandwiches and a cup of coffee before afternoon surgery. That did him no good at all; he worked too hard and long hours, and just lately she had begun to worry about him. He wasn't a young man and was all she had in the world; he had been father and mother to her since the day she had gone to live with him after her parents had been killed in a car accident.
Mr Stokes came out, still muttering, and she ushered the next patient in.
Finally the waiting-room was empty and she poked her head round the surgery door. "Coffee in the sitting-room, Uncle. I'll clear up while you're on your round."
He was sitting at his desk not doing anything, a tired, elderly man, short and stout and almost bald, with a cheerful, chubby face and bright blue eyes.
"A busy morning, Tilly." He got up slowly. "An-other couple of months and it will be spring and we'll have nothing to do."
"That'll be the day! But it will ease off soon -
January and February are always busy, aren't they?" She urged him gently to the door. "Let's have that coffee before it gets cold. Would you like me to drive? I can clear up in ten minutes."
"Certainly not - almost all the visits are in the village anyway. You've got the list? There may be a call from Mrs Jenkins - the baby is due."
They sat down on either side of the log fire and Tilly poured the coffee. The room was comfortable, albeit shabby, but the silver on the old-fashioned sideboard shone and the furniture was well polished. As she put down the coffee-pot, an elderly grey-haired woman came in.
"I'm off to the butchers," she observed. "A couple of lamb chops, Miss Matilda, and a nice steak and kidney pudding for tomorrow?"
"Sounds splendid, Emma. I'll give you a hand as soon as I've tidied the surgery." As Emma trotted off, she added, "I don't know how we'd manage without Emma, Uncle. I can't imagine life without her." Which wasn't surprising, for Emma had been housekeeping for her uncle when she had gone to live with him.
She filled his coffee cup again and sat back, her feet tucked under her, planning what she would do in the garden once the weather had warmed up a little.
"How would it be ..." she began, to be interrupted by her uncle.
"I forgot to tell you, I've had a letter from someone who was at St Judd's when I was there - oh, it must be ten years ago. He was my houseman for a time - a splendid fellow and very clever. We've kept up a casual friendship since then but we haven't met - he's a Dutchman and has a practice in Holland, I believe, though he comes over to England fairly frequently. He's in London now and wanted to know if he might call and see me. I phoned him last night and asked him for the weekend."
Excerpted from The Doubtful Marriage by Betty Neels Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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