- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
He had promised to look after her now he wants so much more.
"Promise me you'll take care of her." Simple as that. Except for Dr. James Slater, fulfilling his vow to look after his best friend's wife after he died in Afghanistan has never been simple. Especially now that lovely, vital Connie has asked him to help her have a baby. He can't just father her child and then walk away—he wants and loves her too much for that. Only, how can he even ...
He had promised to look after her now he wants so much more.
"Promise me you'll take care of her." Simple as that. Except for Dr. James Slater, fulfilling his vow to look after his best friend's wife after he died in Afghanistan has never been simple. Especially now that lovely, vital Connie has asked him to help her have a baby. He can't just father her child and then walk away—he wants and loves her too much for that. Only, how can he even begin to tell her ?
No bleeps, no clipped instructions or clattering instruments, no hasty footsteps. Just a blissful, short-lived hush.
James stretched out his shoulders and felt the tension drain away. The relief was incredible. He savoured it for a moment before breaking the silence.
'Great teamwork, guys. Thank you. You did a good job.'
Someone chuckled. 'Would you accept anything less?'
He grinned. Fair cop, but it worked. Their critically injured patient was stabilised and on her way to Theatre, and for what seemed like the first time that day the red phone was quiet. Time to grab a break.
He glanced up at the clock. Ten to four? No wonder he was feeling light-headed. And his phone was jiggling again in his pocket.
'Right, this time I'm really going for lunch,' he said drily. 'Anything less than a MAJAX, you're on your own.'
There was a ripple of laughter as he tore off the thin plastic apron, dropped it in the bin with his gloves and walked out of Resus, leaving the rest of the team to clear up the chaos and restock ready for the next emergency. One of the perks of being clinical lead, he thought wryly as the door dropped shut behind him. God knows there were few enough.
He took the shortcut to the coffee shop, bought a coffee and a soft wholegrain roll stuffed with ham and salad, added a chocolate bar to boost his blood sugar and headed outside, drawing the fresh summer air deep into his lungs.
One of the best things about Yoxburgh Park Hospital was its setting. Behind the elaborate facade of the old Victorian building a modern general hospital had been created, providing the community not only with much needed medical facilities, but also a beautiful recreational area. It was green and quiet and peaceful, and he took his breaks out here whenever he could.
Not nearly often enough.
He found an empty bench under the trees and settled down to eat his lunch, pulling his phone out simultaneously to check for messages. It had jiggled in his pocket more than once in the last hour, but there were no messages, just two missed calls. From Connie?
He frowned slightly. He hadn't heard from her in ages, and now two missed calls in the space of an hour? He felt his heart rate pick up and he called her back, drumming his fingers impatiently as he waited for the phone to connect.
She answered almost instantly, and to his relief she sounded fine.
'James, hi. Sorry, I didn't mean to disturb you. Are you at work?'
'Yeah—doesn't matter, I'm on a break now. How are you, Connie? You've been very quiet recently.' Well, not even that recently. Apart from the odd email saying nothing significant and a couple of ridiculously brief phone calls, she hadn't really contacted him since she'd got back from Afghanistan after Christmas. It wasn't just her fault. He hadn't contacted her, either, and now he felt a flicker of guilt.
She laughed, the soft musical sound making him ache a little inside. There'd been a time not so long ago when she'd never laughed
'What, you mean I've left you in peace, Slater?'
'Something like that,' he said mildly. 'So, how are you?'
'Fine. Good. Great, really. Ready to move on.'
The silence stretched out for a heartbeat, and then she said, 'Actually, I need to talk to you about that.'
She sounded oddly hesitant, and his radar started beeping.
That troubling silence again. 'I don't think it's something we can do over the phone,' she said eventually. 'I'd thought you might be off today as it's Sunday, and I thought maybe we could get together, it's been a while, but obviously not if you're working. Have you got any days off coming up?'
'Tomorrow? I'm off then for a couple of days. I don't get many weekends at the moment—crazy staffing issues—but I can always come over and see you tomorrow evening after you've finished work if it's urgent.'
'No, don't do that, I'll come to you. I'm not working at the moment so I've got plenty of time. And it isn't really urgent, I just—I wanted to talk to you. Can I pop over in the morning?'
Pop? From a hundred and thirty odd miles away? And why wasn't she working? 'Sure. Why don't you stay over till Tuesday, if you're free? We can catch up.' And I can find out what the hell's going on that's so 'not urgent' that you have to come tomorrow morning.
'Are you sure? It would be lovely but I've got the dog, don't forget. Can you cope with that? She's very good now—housetrained and all that, but I can't put her in kennels at such short notice.'
Had she mentioned a dog? Possibly, but it didn't matter. He had a secure garden. She'd be fine. The dog was the least of his worries.
'I'm sure we'll cope,' he said. 'Come. It'll be lovely to see you.'
'Thanks. When do you want me?'
He crushed the inappropriate thought. 'Whenever you're ready,' he said. 'Give me a call when you're an hour away, so I can be sure I'm at home. I'll see you tomorrow some time.'
'Great. Thanks, James.'
'No worries. Drive carefully.'
Ending the call, he ate the soft, squishy roll, drank his coffee and tasted neither. All he could think about was Connie and her non-urgent topic of conversation. He ripped the wrapper off the chocolate bar and bit into it absently.
What the hell did she want to talk to him about? He had no idea, but he was beginning to regret his invitation. He must have been crazy. His place was a mess, he had a zillion and one things to do, and catching up with Connie just wasn't on his agenda—especially not like this. The prospect of being alone with her for thirty-six hours was going to test him to the limit. Not that he wasn't looking forward to seeing her. Not at all.
Just—maybe a little too much.
Crushing the cup in his hand, he headed off back to the department, his thoughts and emotions tumbling.
Connie. His old friend, his ex-colleague, and his best friend's wife.
No. His best friend's widow. The woman he'd promised to take care of.
'When it happens, James—'
'If it happens—'
'When it happens—promise me you'll take care of her.'
'Of course I will, you daft bastard. It won't happen. It's your last tour. You'll be fine.' Famous last words.
The ache of loss, still raw after two years, put everything back in perspective and gave him a timely reminder of his duties and responsibilities. It didn't matter what else he'd had planned, whatever his personal feelings for her, his duty to Connie came first and right now she needed him.
But apparently not urgently. Tomorrow would do.
Savagely tossing the crushed cup into a bin, he strode through the door and headed back to work.
'Well. We're going to see James. What do you think of that, Saffy? Do you think he'll understand?'
Saffy thumped her tail once, head on Connie's foot, eyes alert as she peered up at her. Connie reached down a hand and stroked her gently, and Saffy groaned and rolled over, one leg lifted to reveal the vulnerable underside she was offering for a tickle.
'Hussy,' she crooned, rubbing the scarred tummy, and the dog's tail wagged again. She licked Connie's ankle, the contact of her warm, moist tongue cementing the already close bond between them. Almost as if she understood. No, of course she didn't, Connie told herself. How could she, even though Connie had told her everything there was to tell about it all in excruciating detail.
'Sorry, sweetheart,' she murmured, straightening up and getting to her feet. 'No time for cuddles, I've got too much to do.'
If she was going to see James tomorrow, she needed to pull herself together and get ready. Do some washing so she had something other than jeans and a ratty old T shirt to wear. Pack. Make sure the house was clean and tidy before they left.
Not that it was dirty or untidy, but now the decision was made and she was going to see him, to ask him the most monumental and massive favour, she needed to do something to keep herself busy or she'd go crazy.
She'd rehearsed her speech over and over again, gone through what she was going to say until she'd worn it out. There was nothing left to do but clean the house, so she cleaned it until it squeaked, and then she fell into bed and slept restlessly until dawn.
God, the place was a tip.
He'd been going to tackle it last night, but as usual he'd been held up by admin and hadn't got home until ten, so he'd left it till this morning. Now, looking round it, he realised that had probably been a massive mistake.
He blitzed the worst of it, made up a bed for her and went back downstairs.
Better. Slightly. If he ever had any regular time off he might stand a chance, but right now that was just a distant dream. He glanced at his watch. Ten to ten. Supermarket now, or later, after she'd arrived? She was an early riser but the journey would take her a good two hours.
Now, he decided, if he was quick, and ten minutes later he was standing there in the aisles and trying to remember what she liked. Was she a vegetarian?
No, of course she wasn't. He recalled watching her eating a bun crammed with roast pork and apple sauce at the Suffolk Show, the memory still vivid. It must have been the first year he'd been in Yoxburgh, and Joe had been on leave.
And he'd been watching her eat, his body throbbing with need as she'd flicked out her tongue and scooped up a dribble of apple sauce on her chin. He'd dragged his eyes away and found Joe staring at him, an odd expression on his face.
'Food envy,' he'd explained hastily, and Joe had laughed and bought him another roll from the hog roast stand.
He'd had to force himself to eat it, because he hadn't had food envy at all, just plain old envy. He was jealous of Joe, jealous of his best friend for being so ridiculously happy with his lovely wife. How sick was that? How lonely and empty and barren— Whatever. She wasn't vegetarian, so he picked up a nice piece of fillet steak from the butchery counter, threw some other stuff into the trolley and headed home, wondering for the hundredth time what she wanted to say to him. She'd said she was ready to move on, and now it was in his head a disturbing possibility wouldn't go away.
Was there someone new in her life?
Why not? It was perfectly plausible. She was a beautiful woman, she was alone, she was free to do whatever she liked—but even the thought of her replacing the best friend a man could wish for, the kindest and most courageous man he'd ever known, made him feel sick.
Dismissing the pointless speculation, he drove down Ferry Road towards the little community grouped around the harbour mouth, turned onto the gravel track that led past a little string of houses to his cottage and pulled up on the drive next to a four-wheel drive he'd never seen before, just as his phone pinged.
Damn. He'd meant to be here, but she hadn't rung—or had she, while he'd been vacuuming the house?
Yup. There was a missed call from her, and a voicemail.
'I've arrived. Couldn't get you on the phone earlier, but I'm here now so I'm walking the dog. Call me when you get home.'
He dialled her number as he carried the bags into the kitchen and dumped them on the worktop, and she answered on the second ring, sounding breathless.
'Hi—did you get my message?'
'Yeah. Sorry I wasn't here, I went food shopping. I'm back now. Where are you?'
'On the sea wall. I'll be two ticks, I can see the cottage from here,' she told him, so he opened the front door and stood on the porch step scanning the path, and there she was, blonde hair flying in the breeze, a huge sandy-coloured dog loping by her side as she ran towards him, her long limbs moving smoothly as she covered the ground with an effortless stride.
God, she was lovely.
Lovelier than ever, and that took some doing.
His heart lurched, and he dredged up what he hoped was a civilised smile as he went to meet her.
She looked amazing, fit and well and bursting with energy. Her pale gold hair was gleaming, her blue eyes bright, her cheeks flushed with the sea breeze and the exertion as she ran up, her smile as wide as her arms, and threw herself at him. Her body slammed into his and knocked the breath from him in every way, and he nearly staggered at the impact.
'Hey yourself, Princess,' he said on a slight laugh as his arms wrapped round her and caught her tight against him. 'Good to see you.'
She hugged him hard, her body warm and firm against his for the brief duration of the embrace, and he hugged her back, ridiculously pleased to see her, because he'd missed her, this woman of Joe's. Missed her warmth and her humour, missed the laughter she carried with her everywhere she went. Or had, until she'd lost Joe.
Don't tell me you're getting married again—please, don't tell me that.
Swearing silently, he dropped his arms and stepped back, looking down at the great rangy hound standing panting at Connie's side, tongue lolling as it watched him alertly.
'So—I take it this is your rescued dog? I'd pictured some little terrier or spaniel.'
Connie winced ruefully. 'Sorry. Teensy bit bigger. This is Saffy—Safiya. It means best friend. Joe sort of adopted her in Afghanistan on his last tour. He was going to bring her home, but—well, he didn't make it, so I brought her back.'
Typical Joe, he thought with a lump in his throat. Big tough guy, soft as lights. And he'd just bet she'd been his best friend, in the harsh and desolate desert, thousands of miles from home. A touch of humanity in the inhumanity of war.
He held out his hand for Saffy to sniff. She did more than sniff it. She licked it. Gently, tentatively, coming closer to press her head against his shoulder as he crouched down to her level and stroked her long, floppy ears. A gentle giant of a dog. No wonder Joe had fallen for her.
He laughed softly, a little taken aback by the trusting gesture, and straightened up again. 'She's a sweetie,' he said, his voice slightly choked, and Connie nodded.
'She is. I had to bring her home.'
Of course she'd had to, because Saffy was her last link to Joe. If Joe had been soft, Connie was softer, but there was a core of steel in there, too. He'd seen plenty of evidence of that in the past few years.
He'd seen her holding herself together when Joe was deployed to Afghanistan for what was meant to be his final tour, and then again, just months later, when he came home for the last time in a flag-draped coffin—
'So, this is the new house, then,' she said, yanking him back to the present as he opened the gate and ushered her and Saffy through it.
He hauled in a breath and put the memories away. 'Hardly new. I've been here over two years. I'd forgotten you hadn't seen it.'
'No, well, things got in the way. I can't believe it's that long,' she said. She looked slightly bemused, as if the time had somehow passed and she'd been suspended in an emotional void. He supposed she might well have been. He had, for years. Still was in many ways, and it was a lonely place.
Take care of Connie.
Guilt ate at him. He should have been there more for her, should have looked out for her, emailed her more often, rung her. It had been months, and he'd just let it drift by. Too busy, as usual, for the things that really mattered.