Renowned consultant Alexander Fitzgibbon had made it clear from the start that their relationship was to remain strictly professional. Yet Florence couldn't help but wonder what lay behind his cool, efficient exterior. If only she could break down the barrier and reach the man behind it.
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Florence, cleaning the upstairs windows of the vicarage, heard the car coming up the lane and, when it slowed, poked her head over the top sash to see whom it might be. The elegant dark grey Rolls-Royce, sliding to a halt before her father's front door, was unexpected enough to cause her to lean her splendid person even further out of the window so that she might see who was in it. The passenger got out and she recognised him at once. Mr Wilkins, the consultant surgeon she had worked for before she had left the hospital in order to look after her mother and run the house until she was well againa lengthy business of almost a year. Perhaps he had come to see if she was ready to return to her ward; unlikely, though, for it had been made clear to her that her post would be filled and she would have to take her chance at getting whatever was offered if she wanted to go to work at Colbert's again; besides, a senior consultant wouldn't come traipsing after a ward sister
The driver of the car was getting out, a very tall, large man with pepper and salt hair. He stood for a moment, looking around him, waiting for Mr Wilkins to join him, and then looked up at her. His air of amused surprise sent her back inside again, banging her head as she went, but she was forced to lean out again when Mr Wilkins caught sight of her and called up to her to come down and let them in.
There was no time to do more than wrench the clean duster off her fiery hair. She went down to the hall and opened the door.
Mr Wilkins greeted her jovially. 'How are you after all these months?' he enquired; he eyed the apron bunched over an elderly skirt and jumper. 'I do hope we haven't called at an inconvenient time?'
Florence's smile was frosty. 'Not at all, sir, we are spring-cleaning.'
Mr Wilkins, who lived in a house with so many gadgets that it never needed spring-cleaning, looked interested. 'Are you really? But you'll spare us a moment to talk, I hope? May I introduce Mr Fitzgibbon?' He turned to his companion. 'This is Florence Napier.'
She offered a rather soapy hand and had it engulfed in his large one. His, 'How do you do?' was spoken gravely, but she felt that he was amused again, and no wondershe must look a fright.
Which, of course, she did, but a beautiful fright; nothing could dim the glory of her copper hair, tied back carelessly with a boot-lace, and nothing could detract from her lovely face and big blue eyes with their golden lashes. She gave him a cool look and saw that his eyes were grey and intent, so she looked away quickly and addressed herself to Mr Wilkins.
'Do come into the drawing-room. Mother's in the garden with the boys, and Father's writing his sermon. Would you like to have some coffee?'
She ushered them into the big, rather shabby room, its windows open on to the mild April morning. 'Do sit down,' she begged them. 'I'll let Mother know that you're here and fetch in the coffee.'
'It is you we have come to see, Florence,' said Mr Wilkins.
'Me? Oh, wellall the same, I'm sure Mother will want to meet you.'
She opened the old-fashioned window wide and jumped neatly over the sill with the unselfconsciousness of a child, and Mr Fitzgibbon's firm mouth twitched at the corners. 'She's very professional on the ward,' observed Mr Wilkins, 'and very neat. Of course, if she's cleaning the house I suppose she gets a little untidy.'
Mr Fitzgibbon agreed blandly and then stood up as Florence returned, this time with her mother and using the door. Mrs Napier was small and slim and pretty, and still a little frail after her long illness. Florence made the introductions, settled her mother in a chair and went away to make the coffee.
'Oo's that, then?' asked Mrs Buckett, who came up twice a week from the village to do the rough, and after years of faithful service considered herself one of the family.
'The surgeon I worked for at Colbert'sand he's brought a friend with him.' 'What for?'
'I've no idea. Be a dear and put the kettle on while I lay a tray. I'll let you know as soon as I can find out.'
While the kettle boiled she took off her apron, tugged the jumper into shape and poked at her hair. 'Not that it matters,' she told Mrs Buckett. 'I looked an absolute frump when they arrived.'
'Go on with yer, loveyou couldn't look a frump if you tried. Only yer could wash yer 'ands.'
Florence had almost decided that she didn't like Mr Fitzgibbon, but she had to admit that his manners were nice. He got up and took the tray from her and didn't sit down again until she was sitting herself. His bedside manner would be impeccable.
They drank their coffee and made small talk, but not for long. Her mother put her cup down and got to her feet. 'Mr Wilkins tells me that he wants to talk to you, Florence, and I would like to go back to the garden and see what the boys are doing with the cold frame.'
She shook hands and went out of the room, and they all sat down again.
'Your mother is well enough for you to return to work, Florence?'
'Yes. Dr collins saw her a few days ago. I must find someone to come in for an hour or two each day, but I must find a job first.' She saw that Mr Wilkins couldn't see the sense of that, but Mr Fitzgibbon had understood at once, although he didn't speak.
'Yes, yes, of course,' said Mr Wilkins briskly. 'Well, I've nothing for you, I'm afraid, but Mr Fitzgibbon has.'
'I shall need a nurse at my consulting-rooms in two weeks' time. I mentioned it to Mr Wilkins, and he remembered you and assures me that you would suit me very well.'
What about you suiting me? reflected Florence, and went a little pink because he was staring at her in that amused fashion again, reading her thoughts. 'I don't know anything about that sort of nursing,' she said, 'I've always worked in hospital; I'm not sure'
'Do not imagine that the job is a sinecure. I have a large practice and I operate in a number of hospitals, specialising in chest surgery. My present nurse accompanies me and scrubs for the cases, but perhaps you don't feel up to that?'
'I've done a good deal of Theatre work, Mr Fitzgibbon,' said Florence, nettled.
'In that case, I think that you might find the job interesting. You would be free at the weekends, although I should warn you that I am occasionally called away at such times and you would need to hold yourself in readiness to accompany me. My rooms are in Wimpole Street, and Sister Brice has lodgings close by. I suppose you might take them over if they suited you. As to salary.'
He mentioned a sum which caused her pretty mouth to drop open.
'That's a great deal more'
'Of course it is; you would be doing a great deal more work and your hours will have to fit in with mine.'
'This nurse who is leaving,' began Florence.
'To get married.' His voice was silky. 'She has been with me for five years.' He gave her a considered look. 'Think it over and let me know. I'll give you a ring tomorrowshall we say around three o'clock?'
She had the strong feeling that if she demurred at that he would still telephone then, and expect her to answer, too. 'Very well, Mr Fitzgibbon,' she said in a non-committal voice, at the same time doing rapid and rather inaccurate sums in her head; the money would be a godsendthere would be enough to pay for extra help at the vicarage, they needed a new set of saucepans, and the washing-machine had broken down again.
She bade the two gentlemen goodbye, smiling nicely at Mr Wilkins, whom she liked, and giving Mr Fitzgibbon a candid look as she shook hands. He was very good-looking, with a high-bridged nose and a determined chin and an air of self-possession. He didn't smile as he said goodbye.
Not an easy man to get to know, she decided, watching the Rolls sweep through the vicarage gate.
When she went back indoors her mother had come in from the garden.
'He looked rather nice,' she observed, obviously following a train of thought. 'Why did he come, Florence?'
'He wants a nurse for his practicea private one, I gather. Mr Wilkins recommended me.'
'How kind, darling. Just at the right moment, too. It will save you hunting around the hospitals and places '
'I haven't said I'd take it, Mother.'
'Why not, love? I'm very well able to take over the household againis the pay very bad?'
'It's very generous. I'd have to live in London, but I'd be free every weekend unless I was wantedMr Fitzgibbon seems to get around everywhere rather a lot; he specialises in chest surgery.'
'Did Mr Wilkins offer you your old job back, darling?'
'No. There's nothing for me at Colbert's '
'Then, Florence, you must take this job. It will make a nice change and you'll probably meet nice people.' It was one of Mrs Napier's small worries that her beautiful daughter seldom met menyoung men, looking for a wifeafter all, she was five and twenty and, although the housemen at the hospital took her out, none of them, as far as she could make out, was of the marrying kindtoo young and no money. Now, a nice older man, well established and able to give Florence all the things she had had to do without Mrs Napier enjoyed a brief daydream.
'Is he married?' she asked.
'I have no idea, Mother. I should think he might beI mean, he's not a young man, is he?' Florence, collecting coffee-cups, wasn't very interested. 'I'll talk to Father. It might be a good idea if I took the job for a time until there's a vacancy at Colbert's or one of the top teaching hospitals. I don't want to get out of date.'
'Go and talk to your father now, dear.' Mrs Napier glanced at the clock. 'Either by now he's finished his sermon, or he's got stuck. He'll be glad of the interruption.'
Mr Napier, when appealed to, giving the matter grave thought, decided that Florence would be wise to take the job. 'I do not know this Mr Fitzgibbon,' he observed, 'but if he is known to Mr Wilkins he must be a dependable sort of chap! The salary is a generous one too not that you should take that into consideration, Florence, if you dislike the idea.'
She didn't point out that the salary was indeed a consideration. With the boys at school and then university, the vicar's modest stipend had been whittled down to its minimum so that there would be money enough for their future. The vicar, a kind, good man, ready to give the coat off his back to anyone in need, was nevertheless blind to broken-down washing-machines, worn-out sauce-pans and the fact that his wife hadn't had a new hat for more than a year.
'I like the idea, Father,' said Florence robustly, 'and I can come home at the weekend too. I'll go and see Miss Payne in the village and arrange for her to come in for an hour or so each day to give Mother a hand. Mrs Buckett can't do everything. I'll payit is really a very generous salary.'
'Will you be able to keep yourself in comfort, Florence?'
She assured him that she could perfectly well do that. 'And the lodgings his present nurse has will be vacant if I'd like to take them.'
'It sounds most suitable,' said her father, 'but you must, of course, do what you wish, my dear.'
She wasn't at all sure what she did wish but she had plenty of common sense; she needed to get a job and start earning money again, and she had, by some lucky chance, been offered one without any effort on her part.
When Mr Fitzgibbon telephoned the following day, precisely at three o'clock, and asked her in his cool voice if she had considered his offer, she accepted in a voice as cool as his own.
He didn't say that he was pleased. 'Then perhaps you will come up to town very shortly and talk to Sister Brice. Would next Monday be convenientin the early afternoon?'
'There is a train from Sherborne just after ten o'clockI could be at your rooms about one o'clock.'
'That will suit Sister Brice very well. You have the address and the telephone number.'
His, 'Very well, goodbye, Miss Napier,' was abrupt, even if uttered politely.