If they hadn't written matching online dating profiles, midwife Ruby Fisher would never have admitted her attraction to gorgeous Dr. Ellis Webster! He promised her late husband he'd look after herand he's the last guy she should fall for
Ellis doesn't do permanenthe's due in Africa soon! He must shake off this uncomfortable desire for lovely Ruby. Except his plan to help her start dating again fails spectacularly because she's the only woman he just doesn't want to let go of
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'Here?' Ruby asked.
'It's a sandy beach, we're below the high tide line, the tide's coming in right now and the wind's in the right directionso I'd say it's just about perfect,' Ellis said.
Well, it would've been perfect if it hadn't been drizzling with rain. But today was what it was, and the weather didn't matter. Just as it hadn't mattered a year ago. The day that had blown a hole in all their lives.
She smiled. 'Tom always did say you were the practical one.'
And the one with itchy feet who could never stay in one place for long.
Except for the last eighteen months, which Ellis had spent in London solely because of Tom, his best friend since their first day at infant school. They'd gone to university together, and trained together in the same London hospital. When Tom had been diagnosed with leukaemia, that had been the one thing to bring Ellis back to England. He'd wanted to be there for his best friend and support him through to the end. Ellis had promised Tom in those last agonising months that he'd be there for Ruby, too, and support her through at least the first year after Tom's death. Including today.
Which was why he was walking on the beach on a drizzly September day with Tom's parents and Ruby, on the first anniversary of Tom's death, to help them scatter some of Tom's ashes in his favourite place. A place that brought back so many happy childhood memories that it put a lump in Ellis's throat.
'Thanks for looking up all the information for us,' Ruby said. 'I wasn't sure if we had to get permission from someone first or even how you go about scattering ashes.'
'Hey, it's the least I could do. I loved Tom, too,' Ellis said. And when Ruby had first broached the subject about scattering Tom's ashes, he'd known exactly where Tom would've wanted it to be.
He spread a couple of waterproof blankets on the beach for the four of them to kneel on, and took four brightly coloured spades and buckets from a plastic bag.
It might be a dark day, the final goodbye, but Ellis wanted to remember the brightness. To remember Tom as he was before he was ill and to celebrate the close friendship they'd shared over the years.
'I remember you boys doing this when you were small,' Brenda said with a wobble in her voice as she dug into the sand and filled her bucket. 'You both loved the beach. It didn't matter if it was summer or winterif we asked you what you wanted to do, you'd both beg to come here and make sandcastles.'
The lump in Ellis's throat meant he couldn't speak. He remembered. Days when life was simple. Days when his parents had been as carefree as Tom's. Though Tom's parents, he knew, wouldn't react in the same way as his parents had when it came to the death of their child. Brenda and Mike would talk about Tom with love and keep him alive in their hearts, rather than stonewalling everything.
Working in companionable silence, the four of them made a sandcastle. Just as they had when Tom and Ellis were small boys: only this time Tom's widow was taking Tom's place.
When they'd finished, Ellis produced a flag from his bagone made from an ice-lolly stick and a photograph of Tom. It was one of his favourite memories: the day they'd opened their A level results together, whooped, and known they were both going to train as doctors in London. For Tom, it had been the next step towards a dream. For Ellis, it had been the next step towards escape from a home that had come to feel like a mausoleum.
'He was eighteen years old then,' Mike said softly as Ellis handed him the flag. 'With the whole world before him.'
How very little time Tom had actually had. Not even half a lifetime.
And how very much Ellis wished his best friend was still here. 'He was special,' Ellis said, his voice cracking.
'Yes. He was,' Mike said, and put the flag on the top turret.
Brenda and Ruby both gulped hard and squeezed each other's hand.
Ellis finished digging the moat round the outside of the castle; and then the four of them took turns scattering Tom's ashes in the moat and covering them over with sand. Ruby sprinkled rose petals on the top.
Then Ellis moved the blankets back a little way, set up the two huge umbrellas he'd packed in the car when he'd seen the weather report, and uncorked a bottle of champagne.
'To Tom,' he said when he'd filled their glasses. 'And may our memories of him make the smiles outnumber the tears.' Even though right now it felt as if the tears were more than outweighing the smiles, Ellis was determined to celebrate his friend rather than be selfish about his loss.
Mike, Brenda and Ruby echoed the toast, even though their smiles were wobbly and Ellis could see their eyes were shiny with tears they tried to blink away.
Then the four of them sat and watched as the tide came in, slowly sweeping the sand-castle away with the ashes, and tumbling the rose petals and Tom's photograph in the waves.
Afterwards, Ellis drove Tom's parents home.
'Will you come in for something to eat?' Brenda asked on the doorstep.
'Thanks, but ' Ellis tailed off. Even being in this town made him feel stifled. He hated it here. What he really wanted to do was drive as fast as he could back to London. Away from the dark memories.
'Of course. You'll want to drop in to see your own mum while you're here,' Brenda said.
Ellis didn't have the heart to disillusion her, so he just smiled. Today of all days, he really couldn't face his parents. They'd be aware of what he'd just been doing, and they'd be thinking of Sally. And, as always, they'd retreat into coolness rather than talk to him or even give him a sympathetic hug. Even though Ellis understood whywhen you'd lost someone you loved so very much, sometimes withdrawing from everyone seemed like the only way to keep your heart safe from further hurthe still found it hard to deal with. He always felt as if he'd lost more than his beloved only sister, twenty years ago; he'd lost his parents, too. And although he'd remained reasonably close to his older brothers, his choice of career had put a distinct rift between them. Tom's parents had been Ellis's greatest support through his teen years, and he'd always be grateful to them for it. And for Tom's sake he'd look out for them now, the way they'd looked out for him.
Brenda hugged him. 'Thank you for being there for us.'
'Any time.' And he meant it. 'Just because Tom's ' He couldn't say the word. He just couldn't. 'Not here,' he said croakily, 'it doesn't mean you're not still part of my life, because you are. You know I think of you as my second set of parents. I always will.'
Tears glittered in Brenda's eyes. She patted his shoulder, clearly too moved to talk, and then hugged Ruby.
'I'll text you when we get back to London,' Ruby promised.
But she looked quizzically at Ellis when he drove straight out of the town and back towards London. 'I thought you were going to see your parents?'
'Look, don't feel you have to get me back to London if you want to see them. I can always go back to Brenda and Mike's and wait until you're ready, or get the train back.'
That was the point. He didn't actually want to see his parents. Especially not today. Part of him lambasted himself for being selfish, but the realistic part of him knew it was necessary self-preservation. 'Another time,' he said.
'If you're sure.'
'Oh, I'm sure,' he said softly. 'My parents are complicated.'
She reached over and squeezed his hand briefly. 'I know,' she said, equally softly.
In the months since Tom's death, Ellis had opened up a little to Ruby and told her about the tragedy that had taken the sunshine out of his world. How his older sister had taken a gap year before university, teaching in a remote school. Sally had fallen pregnant by accident and hadn't realised it at first; when she'd been so sick, everyone had assumed it was a virus. But by the time they'd realised she was suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe form of morning sickness, it was too late. She'd grown too weak, developed complications, gone into organ failure and never regained consciousness.
And Ellis's parents had never recovered from losing their only daughter. Their remaining three sons simply hadn't been enough to bring them back from the cold, emotionless life they'd led from that moment on.
Ellis and Ruby drove back in companionable silence, listening to Nick Drake. The kind of mellow, faintly melancholy stuff Ellis had enjoyed listening to with Tom. It went well with the rain and his mood.
Back in London, he parked in the street outside Ruby's house and saw her to the door.
'Thank you, for today, Ellis. I don't know what I would have done this last year without you,' she said.
'Hey, no problemand you've helped me, too.' He hugged her. Bad move. Now he could smell her perfume, the sweet scent of violets. And she fitted perfectly in his arms.
She's your best friend's widow, he reminded himself silently. No, no and absolutely no. Don't even think about it. You do not make a move on this woman. Ever. Hands off.
'I'll see you at work tomorrow,' he said. 'Call me if you need me.'
'Thanks, Ellis.' She reached up and kissed his cheek.
For a moment, Ellis desperately wanted to twist his face to the side so the kiss landed on his mouth. For months now he'd wanted to kiss Ruby. But he held himself back. The feelings he'd developed towards her over the last year were completely inappropriate; plus he risked losing one of his closest friendships if he asked her out. He was pretty sure that Ruby saw him only as a friend, so wanting more was just stupid. Especially as he knew he wasn't a good bet when it came to relationships.
His normal job, working for a medical aid charity, meant that relationships were tricky. Either he had long-distance affairs where he hardly ever saw his girlfriend and the relationship ended by mutual agreement because his girlfriend just got fed up waiting for him; or they were short, sweet flings that ended when he moved on to another assignment. Except for his marriage to Nataliahe'd thought that would be the exception to the rule, that maybe he could have the best of both worlds after all. How wrong he'd been there. So nowadays he didn't do more than short, fun flingswhere everyone knew the score before they started and nobody ended up disappointed.
When Ruby was finally ready to move on, Ellis knew she'd want more than just a fling or a long-distance relationship. More than he could offer her. Asking for more than friendship would just ruin a relationship that had become really important to him over the last eighteen months. And to have her solely as his friend was way better than not having her in his life at all, wasn't it? So he'd just have to keep himself in check.
'I'd better go,' he mumbled, and left before he did something really reckless and stupid. Like kissing her.
And he brooded all the way home. His current job as an obstetrician at the London Victoria was only temporary, covering another registrar's maternity leave, and his contract was due to end in a couple of months' time when Billie was due to return. He'd already agreed to do a month's assignment for the medical aid charity, helping to set up a new medical centre in Zimbabwe, when his temporary contract at the London Victoria ended. Going to work abroad again would mean he'd be out of temptation's way and he wouldn't hurt Ruby.
Then again, Ellis had promised Tom that he'd look after Ruby. Until he knew that she was ready to move on and had found someone else to share her lifesomeone who was good enough for her and would treat her as she deservedhow could he desert her?
It was a tricky line to walk.
So he'd just have to bury his feelings, the way he normally did, and everything would be just fine.
* * *
Ruby watched Ellis drive away, feeling guilty. For a moment she'd been tempted to kiss him on the lips instead of on the cheek.
How could she possibly want to kiss another man? And especially how could she have thoughts like that on the first anniversary of her husband's death? How mean-spirited and selfish and plain wrong was that?
She closed the door with a grimace of self-disgust.
Plus she knew that Tom had asked Ellis to look out for her. Letting Ellis know that she was starting to see him as more than a friend might make everything go wrong between them. He'd always been such a perfect gentleman towards her. Trying to push their friendship in another direction might mean that she lost himand she didn't want that to happen. She liked having Ellis in her life. Liked it a lot.
Though she had a nasty feeling that she was going to lose him anyway. Ellis had always had itchy feet, according to Tom, and she knew that Ellis wanted to go back to the medical aid charity. The place where he'd always felt he'd belonged.
Losing Tom had ripped Ruby's heart to shreds. Over the last year, she'd gradually put the pieces back together, and it would be very stupid to let herself fall for someone who'd made it very clear that he didn't do permanent. Someone who didn't want the same things she wanted. Someone she knew she'd lose to his job. Yes, he would come back to England from time to time to see herbut she'd be lonely in London, waiting for him. Yet, if she went with him, she'd end up feeling horribly homesick and missing her family. Neither option was right for her. Which meant that Ellis really wasn't the right man for her, much as she was attracted to him, and she needed to think with her head rather than her heart.
Now they'd scattered Tom's ashes and she was back in London again, Ruby didn't quite know what to do with herself. She wished she'd asked Ellis to go somewhere for dinner with her or something; right now, she felt so lonely.
She mooched around for the best part of an hour, not able to settle to reading or doing crosswords. Even cleaning the bathroom until it sparkled didn't make her feel as if she'd achieved anything; she was in limbo.
Then the doorbell rang.
Her heart leapt. Had Ellis come back? No, of course not. How stupid of her to think it.
She opened the door to see her best friend, Tina, bearing what looked suspiciously like a box of home-made cake.
'With today being what it is, I thought you could do with some company tonight,' Tina said, 'and this.' She lifted the box. 'Lemon cake.'
Ruby's favourite. And Ruby knew without a doubt Tina had made it especially for her. It was probably still warm.
'There isn't anyone in the world I'd rather see right now,' Ruby said, meaning it. Not even Ellis. Because with her best friend Ruby knew she wouldn't have that edge of guilt and faint shame that she seemed to feel around Ellis nowadays, outside work. 'Thank you. Thank you so much.' She hugged her best friend, hard.