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Gemma looked up from the paperwork she was sorting and saw old Doris Trefusis jerk her head towards the door. And her heart hiccuped against her ribs, because there could be only one person she was talking about, and she wasn't ready!
How silly. She'd thought she was prepared, but apparently not, if the pounding of her heart and the shaking of her legs was anything to go by.
Since his mother's stroke yesterday evening, she'd been psyching herself up for Sam coming down from London, but nothing could have prepared her for the emotional impact of her first sight of him in years. Ten years, nine months, two weeks, three days and four and a half hours, to be exact.
Long, lonely years in which she'd ached for him, hungry for any scrap of news, any snippet that would tell her what he was up to. Then last year his distraught mother had told her he'd been hurt in a stupid bike accident and she'd misunderstood and thought for a fleeting second that he'd died. Not for long, but it had devastated her, the pain of loss slamming through her and bringing home to her just how much she still loved him.
But that was ridiculous, because she didn't know him, not any moreif she ever really had. They'd been little more than kids, but he wasn't a kid now. Lord, no.
Not that he'd really been one then, at nineteen, but he certainly wasn't now, she thought, her heart lurching as he came into view. She was standing in the shadows at the back of Reception and she watched spellbound as he sauntered in, tall and broad, more solid than he had been in his late teens, but every bit as gorgeous. A slight limp was the only sign of his injuries, if anything only adding another layer of attraction, and that cocky smile flickering round his mouth was tearing her composure to shreds. But it wasn't for her. He hadn't seen her yet in her shadowy corner, and his smile was for Mrs Trefusis.
'Morning, Doris!' he said, and his deep, husky voice, so painfully familiar, made her heart turn over. 'How are you? Looking as young and gorgeous as ever, I see!'
Their diminutive and elderly cleaner put the magazines she was tidying back in the rack and looked him up and down, her mouth pursed repressively even though her eyes were twinkling. 'Good morning, Dr Cavendish.'
Gemma saw his mouth twitch and his eyebrows shoot up. Dr Cavendish? Whatever happened to young Samuel? I get the feeling I'm still in trouble with you, Dorisor does it have to be Mrs Trefusis now?'
Doris tutted. 'You can hardly expect a warm welcome, Samuel. You've been gone so long, and your poor mother'
He snorted. 'My poor mother has had my support continuously since my father walked out seventeen years ago, as you very well know.'
'From a distance. You should have been here, Sam,' she chided gently.
Did his smile lose its sparkle? Maybe, although it didn't waver as he went on, 'Well, I'm here now, so you can start by offering me a cup of tea. I'm as dry as a desert.'
Doris sniffed. 'I'm not sure you deserve one.'
He grinned and gave her a slow, lazy wink. 'You're just saying that. You love me really,' he said, and Gemma watched old Doris Trefusis melt under the megawatt charm.
'Go away with you,' she said, blushing and flapping her hand at him. 'I'll bring it inDr Tremayne's half expecting you. I might even be able to find you one of Hazel's fairings if those doctors have left you any. She made an extra batch specially when she knew you were coming home.'
'What, to help lure me back in?' he said drily, glancing at Hazel Furse, the practice manager, with a wry smile. Then, as if he'd only just become aware of her presence at the back of Reception, he turned and met Gemma's eyes, his face suddenly expressionless.
That was all, just the one word, but it stopped her heart in its tracks. Oh, Sam. Were your eyes always so blue? Like a Mediterranean sky at night, cobalt blue, piercing through me.
'Hello, Sam.' Her voice sounded forced, and she had to swallow the sudden lump of emotion in her throat. 'Welcome home.'
His jaw tightened, and he nodded. 'Thank you. Hopefully it won't be for too long. Mrs Furse, would you be kind enough to tell Dr T. I'm here, please.'
'Sam! Good to see you! I saw you drive up. Come on in. Doris, I don't know if you could rustle up some tea '
'It's all in hand, Dr Tremayne. Kettle's already on.'
Without another word to her, Sam turned his back on Gemma and limped into Nick's surgery, the older man's arm slung round his shoulders, and the door closed behind them.
She let her breath out then, unaware that she'd been holding it ever since he'd come in, holding back a part of herself that was too vulnerable, too tender and delicate and scarred to let him see.
He was back. Sam was back, but not the way she'd always dreamed of, had waited breathlessly for ever since she'd returned to Penhally last year in the hope that he might find out she was here and come back to her. Instead he'd come back for yet another family crisis, another duty visit, another call on his endless good nature and sense of responsibility that nobody else ever seemed to recognise.
But he hadn't come back for her, and she realised now, after seeing him, after the way he'd looked at her, that he never would. And the pain was devastating
'Are you all right?'
She opened her eyes and saw Kate Althorp, one of their midwives, watching her with concern in her all-too-intelligent eyes.
'I'm fine, Kate.'
'Are you sure? You look a little pale.'
'I'm fine,' she said again, more firmly, because if Kate didn't let her go and get on, she was going to do something stupid like burst into tears in Reception. And there was no way she was letting anyone see her show so much as a flicker of emotion.
Even if her heart was being torn in two
Sam stood at the window and stared back along Harbour Road at the devastation left behind by the flood last autumn, putting Gemma's face out of his mind. 'What happened to the Anchor Hotel?' he asked, although in truth he didn't care. It and its patrons had never appealed to him, and he was sure it had been mutual.
'It's been demolishedthe new additions that were never properly builtand they're rebuilding it. There were a lot of properties damaged around the bottom of Bridge Street and Gull Close. There are lots of people still out of their homes.'
'It must have been quite something.'
'It was. It's a miracle the bridge survived. The noise was tremendous.'
'I'm sure. I missed all the news, I'm afraidI was in hospital.'
'Yes, I know, your mother said you'd had an accident on your bike. I see you're still limping a bit. How are you?'
'Really?' He shrugged. 'Better. Frustrated by the slow progress, but better. SoI gather your crew are all married now?' he said, changing the subject to one he was more comfortable with, and Nick smiled, his lean face relaxing slightly.
'Yes, they are. And Jack and Lucy have both got families. In fact Lucy's decided she doesn't want to come back, so there's a job here if you're at a loose end '
Sam snorted softly and shook his head at his old friend and mentor. 'I owe you a great deal, Dr T., but not that much.' Not while his wife was working here. 'Anyway, I'll be busy.'
'Yes, of course. How is your mother? She was pretty bad when I saw her yesterday evening, on her way in, but I phoned this morning and they said she's doing well.'
'Yes, she is, thanks. They've got her in the specialist stroke unit, and they scanned her straight away and put her on mega clot-busters, and she's improving already.'
'That's excellent. We're lucky to have the stroke unit. It's a real asset, but she'll still need some support for a while. Is that going to be a problem for you?'
'Not really.' He'd spent the last few months torn between physio and a desk job he loathed, trying to earn his keep at the charity he'd been working for when he'd been blown up and wondering where the hell to go from here. Next to all of that, this further infringement of his personal choice was small potatoes.
But his mother's lifewell, that was certainly going to change, and if she had her way, change his with it. 'She's OK,' he said, trying to sound convincing. 'It's her left side, mostly her hand and her face, but that's just the visible stuff. I have no idea what else might have been affected or what she'll get back with this intensive treatment. Hopefully she'll make a full recovery, but I expect the full extent will reveal itself in time. I would have thought there are bound to be some after-effects.'
'Any idea of the cause?'
He shook his head. 'Not as yet. They're looking into itshe's having an echocardiogram and a carotid scan, and she's on a monitor, but so far they've drawn a blank. Her blood pressure's dreadful, too, and she's put on weight. Her diet's always been atrociousshe's addicted to chocolate, always has been, and the only reason she isn't enormous is that she hardly eats anything else. God alone knows what Jamie's been surviving on, there's no food in the house to speak of, and she's obviously depressed.'
'We'll sort her out, Sam, once she's home. Don't worry. And how's your brother coping?'
Sam turned away from the window and eased into a chair with a sigh, toying with one of Hazel's biscuits. 'By running away from it, I think, but he's been worrying her for a while. He's a nightmare. It's all too familiar, I'm afraid. Been there, done that, as the saying goes. I gather he's in trouble with the police as well, just to add insult to injury.'
'He is. He's got in with a bad crowdGary Lovelace amongst others.'
Sam frowned. 'Lovelace?'
'Yesdo you remember him? Proper little tearaway as a child, and he's no better now. He's a year older than Jamie, I think.'
He trawled his brains. 'I remember the nameprobably the father's. Always in and out of the slammer for one thing or another. Petty stuff mostly, if I remember. So Gary's leading my little brother astray, is he? Damn.'
'I think he's willing to be led,' Nick said wryly. 'I've tried, Sam. I can't get through to him. I don't know him like I knew youbecause my children have all grown up now, I hardly see his generation, whereas you were always in the houseusually in the kitchen eating us out of house and home or getting up to mischief in the garden. I can remember a few spontaneous bonfires '
He gave Nick a crooked grin over the rim of his mug. 'Hmm. My "SAS" phase. Sorry about that.'
'Don't be sorry. You never really did any harm, and you were always welcome. Annabel had a really soft spot for you, you know.'
He met Nick's eyes with a pensive smile. 'I was very fond of her. You must miss her.'
'I do. She was a good woman. She used to worry about you, you know, and how your mother relied on you so heavily. It was no wonder you went off the rails. You had more than enough on your plate.'
'Yeah, well, that doesn't change, does it? I can't believe I'm back picking up the pieces all over again.'
'I can. You were a good boy, and you've turned into a good man, just as I knew you would.'
'Oh, that's just so much bull, Nick, and you know it. I wouldn't be here at all if I had the slightest damned excuse to get away.'
'Yes, you wouldand your mother needs you. She misses you. Lots of people do.'
He gave a wry snort. 'Hardly. They all remember me as a hell-raiser. Even Doris Trefusis tore me off a strip on the way in, and I have no doubt Audrey Baxter won't waste a moment telling me I'm not welcome home.'
'Ah, noyou'll be spared that one. Mrs Baxter died in the flood.'
'Really? Poor woman.' He gave a wry smile. 'Not that she'd say that about me. She was always horrible to meshe made damn sure everyone knew everything I ever did, to the point that I used to do things in front of her and place bets with myself that my mother would know before I got home.'
'You were just misunderstood.'
He wasn't so sure about that. He grunted and looked around, not wanting to get into the past he was so keen to avoid. 'Sowhat's going on here? It looks a bit different to the last time I saw it. I haven't been in here since I did work experience when your brother was the GP.'
'Well, it's certainly changed since then. We reopened it five years ago.' He paused, his face troubled, and Sam realised he looked suddenly a great deal older. As well he might. Then he seemed to pull himself together and stood up. 'Come and have a look round. I doubt if you'll recognise it now. We've extended out the back, built a new minor injuries unit and X-ray and plaster rooms, but we're also planning to build another extension on the side into what used to be Althorps'. The boatyard burned down in September, and it worked in our favour because we were able to buy part of the sitedo you remember Kate Althorp? James's widow?'
'Vaguely. I know the name and I remember James dying in the storm.'
A quick frown flitted across Nick's brow. 'Yes. Well, her brother-in-law wanted to sell up, and without the income Kate's half was redundant, so they cashed in on the insurance and sold the site. We bought enough land at the side of the surgery to extend it further, and to provide some more consulting rooms so we can extend the facilities offered by the MIU, which will give us a much better use of our space here. Come and see. You'll be impressed, I hope.'
He wasbut he wasn't fooled. Nick was angling, but Sam wasn't biting. Under any other circumstancesbut they weren't. They were what they were, and what they were was too damned hard to contemplate. They were standing at the top of the stairs discussing Nick's vision for the future of the surgery as a multi-disciplinary health centre with dental and osteopathy services when Nick was called to the phone, and he left Sam there and went into a consulting room to take the call.