Authors: Caroline Anderson
She kept her eyes firmly to herself after that, but it didn't help. She'd seen him now, and it wasn't an image she was likely to forget in a hurry. It didn't help, either, that they then went to the ward and she had to watch everyone falling over themselves to find an excuse to talk to him. Well, the women, anyway. The men were giving him wary looks and reassessing their chances with the nurses they'd been hoping to get lucky with, if she knew anything about ward dynamics.
And he was charm itself, but she noticed with interest that he kept a slight distance without being unfriendly, and she also noticed the reappearance of a wedding ring since they'd finished surgery. They'd be disappointed, she thought, and wondered if that curious twinge she'd felt when she'd seen the ring could possibly be put down to it.
Ridiculous. Of course not. She wasn't interested. She didn't do relationships with work colleagues. With men, full stop. Not any more.
âRight, time for a quick check of yesterday's post-ops and we can go and have some lunch before my clinic this afternoon. It'll give me a chance to fill you in on our schedule,' she said, and took him away from his fan club.
And she wasn't sure if that quiet sigh that eased from his throat as they turned and walked down the ward was one of relief or disappointment.
âSo how was your day, Rory?'
â'K, I s'pose.'
âDo anything interesting at school?'
âNo. Can I watch cartoons?'
âSure, but just for a little while, then you need a bath and bed.' James stifled a sigh and gave his son a quick one-armed hug. âAre you hungry? What did you have to eat?'
Rory shook his head, heading for the sitting room. âWe had fish fingers and chips.'
James frowned. Fish fingers and chips? OK occasionally, and goodness knows he'd resorted to that on numerous occasions over the past eighteen months, but if this was what the childminder was going to give the kids every day for supper he was going to have to say something, and he dreaded it. It had been hard enough to find anyone with space who could take Freya all day and pick Rory up from school and keep him till he finished. The last thing he needed to do was make waves.
âWas Freya all right?'
Rory shrugged uncommunicatively. âS'pose,' he mumbled, dropping down onto the floor and turning on the television, his back to his father.
James put the kettle on, went back into the sitting room and stared broodingly down at his sleeping daughter, still lying where he'd put her when they'd got in a minute ago, out for the count. She was oblivious to the noise of the cartoon, but she'd been up in the night and she was exhaustedâand there were tear stains on her downy cheeks.
Oh, damn. Why? Why him? Why Beth? Why any of them?
He wanted to throw back his head and howl at the moon, but it wouldn't get them anywhere and the kids had enough to deal with without their father going off the rails, so he scooped Freya gently into his arms, carried her up to her bedroom and undressed her, changed her nappy and slid her into her cot without waking her.
He'd bath her in the morning. For now she needed sleep more than anything, and he needed to spend some time with Rory and brush up on a few things for work, then phone the childminder and talk to her about their diet.
And then he could go to bed.
âSo how was your new registrar?'
Kate gave her father a fleeting smile. âOh, very goodâif you don't count the fact that he was an hour late because he'd failed to send a vital form back to HR.'
âOops,' her mother said softly from the Aga. She stirred the gravy thoughtfully and cast her daughter a searching look. âWill you forgive him?'
âNot if it happens again,' she retorted, and then sighed. And of course her parents both noticed.
âSo what's the problem with him?'
âI have no idea,' she said quietly, her thoughts troubled. âFamily problems, I think. Personal commitments, he described them as at his interview, but he looked tired today as if he'd been up all night.' As well as drop-dead gorgeous.
âI don't know. We can't ask that sort of thing any longer, butâ¦he has a ring,' she said slowly, for some reason holding back on saying yes because she just felt, somehow, that he wasn't married. Not any more. Soâwhat, then? Divorced? Widowed? Divorced, most likely. Sharing custody. A messy divorce, thenâthe sort of divorce that had led children to this house and her parents over and over again, to be loved and cared for and put back together again until things were a little straighter at home.
If they ever were. Sometimes it just didn't happen.
âSounds as if there's a story there,' her father said, handing her a plate laden with tender slices of roast chicken and crunchy golden roasties. He pushed the bowl of steaming Brussels sprouts towards her and stuck a spoon in it.
âOh, I'm sure there is,' she said, toughening up. âThere's always a story, but I don't want to hear it. He shouldn't have taken the job if he couldn't hold it down. His personal life is nothing to do with me, and I don't want it affecting his work. If he can't keep it sorted, he shouldn't be there.'
âI think that sounds a little harsh,' her mother said, sitting down at the other end of the battered old farmhouse table and setting the gravy jug down in the middle. âI know you don't want to get involved, and I realise he has to do his job, but surely, if there was some mix-up?'
âHe didn't send in the right forms. If he does that with a patient, fails to get the paperwork in order, then tests could get missed and results disappear and people could die.'
âI'm sure he'll be aware of that,' her father put in, which earned him a look that he returned evenly until finally she sighed and smiled and gave a tiny nod of concession.
âYes. Yes, of course he's aware of it. And he's a brilliant surgeonâfantastic. Neat, quick, decisiveâhe'll be a real asset. I'm not surprised he was a consultant. God only knows what he's doing as a locum registrar.'
âHolding his family together, perhaps?' her mother suggested softly, and Kate felt a stab of guilt.
Was that what James was doing? Holding his family together?
âThen why not say so?'
âMaybe he's a very private man. Maybe he doesn't want to talk about it. Maybe it's messy and embarrassing or just too hurtful to talk about.'
Like her own divorce.
âMaybe,' she conceded, wondering.
âCut him a little slack, Kate,' her mother advised. âGive him timeâfor the children.'
âWe don't even know if there are any children,' she pointed out, but she had to bear it in mind, just in case. She couldn't do anything else, because without her parents, who weren't her parents at all, her life would have been very, very different.
âOK, enough about work. How are you guys? Good day?' she said, handing over the conversation to them. Piling the hot, steaming sprouts onto her plate, she poured over the gravy, picked up her knife and fork and started eating as she listened.
He couldn't sleep.
Apart from the fact that he was kicking himself about the bloody form he'd failed to send in, and the heart-rending interview he'd had with Amanda Symes at her sleeping husband's bedside in the high-dependency unit, there was an image of Kate Burgess in her underwear burned onto his retinas, and every time he closed his eyes he could see it, the smooth skin, the sleek curvesâand the ugly, wicked scar that snaked over her ribs.
Surgery. Emergency surgery. A thoracotomy?
Looked like it. He'd dragged his eyes away and finished dressing, and then for the rest of the day he'd felt as if his eyes were burning through her clothes. It was a wonder they hadn't caught fire, and he was stunned at himself.
He hadn't looked at another woman since he'd met Beth eight years ago, and he sure as hell didn't need to be fantasising about a woman who wouldn't be out of place in
The Taming of the Shrew
No. That was unfair. She'd been right, he should have been there on time with all his boxes ticked. It had been unprofessional, and all the excuses in the world wouldn't make it right.
He swallowed the disappointment that he'd let himself down at the first hurdle. Stupid, stupid oversight. And now, of course, she'd be worried that his paperwork wouldn't be up to scratch.
Well, he'd just have to prove her wrong.
He rolled to his side, punched his pillow and rammed it into the side of his neck, then closed his eyes and saw her again. Naked, except for a few scraps of outrageous underwear and a scar that raised more questions than he wanted answers for.
He was on time the next day, but he looked exhausted.
âHow's Stephen Symes?' he asked without preamble, and Kate gave him a searching look and smiled pointedly. âGood morning.'
âMorning. Sorry,' he mumbled. âSoâMr Symes?'
âHe's back on the ward. He spent the night in HDU but he's OK. The histology's back.'
âBad?' he asked, and she nodded.
âAs it can be,' she told him, and the muscle in his jaw tensed. âIt's a grade three, dirty marginsâbut we knew that at the time, knew we hadn't got all of it. And the histology indicates that it's aggressive, which is borne out by the liver involvement. So it's Stage IV, as we suspected, and we're talking palliative care. Oncology is onto it.'
âHave you spoken to him, or have they? Told him the news?'
âI thought I might let you do that, as you were the one who operated, and as you spoke to his wife yesterday afternoon. I gather from what she said over the weekend that he was the sort of man who wanted all the answers, and when I spoke to her yesterday after you'd discussed the operation with her she told me he'd want to know the truth.'
âHow much of it?'
âNot enough to terrify him,' she said, and something flickered in his eyes. âJust give him the bare bones, and let the oncologist and onco nurse fill him in on the treatment plan and likely course of events. It's their department, not ours.'
âIs his wife here?'
âNot at the moment. She's gone homeâshe's coming back shortly.'
âRight. Where is he?'
âBay two, bed four.'
She arched a brow and handed him the notes, and he took them and glanced at the results, then shut the file and walked away, pausing to wash his hands and rub them with alcohol gel. He took his ring off to wash it before putting it back on, and she was relieved to see that he was fastidious and she didn't need to keep an eye on that, at least.
But she couldn't stop herself keeping an eye on that ring, and she found herself wondering about him again as he replaced it and twisted it round, just once, thoughtfully, before squaring his shoulders and heading towards their patient.
Crazy. She was wondering altogether too much. She watched him walk up to Mr Symes and pull the curtain a little to screen him from his neighbour, then shake his hand, his face serious. He didn't let go of his hand, though, didn't distance himself as he delivered the news, and she stood there and watched the man's face through the gap in the curtain as it all sank in, and wished it could have been different.
He spent several minutes with him, and then came back to the nursing station, his eyes bleak.
âOK?' she asked, and he nodded.
âIt wasn't exactly unexpected. He said he'd had an idea that was what it was, so he wasn't expecting a miracle, but that sort of news is always a shock. I think he just needs time for it to sink in before we tell him much more, or it'll go straight over his head.'
âWe can go through it again. I'm sure we'll have to, to answer all his questions.' She sighed. âIt's such a waste. If only he'd reported his symptoms sooner, before it'd had time to metastasise.'
âBut you don't, do you?' he said flatly. âEven if you knowâeven if you're a doctorâyou just assume it's IBS or something you ate and it becomes part of life to have an irregular bowel pattern, because nobody wants to believe that it can be anything sinister.'
There was something odd about his voice, and that bleak look in his eyes was even bleaker. He sucked in a breath and straightened up, his eyes going blank. âSoâwe need to contact the onco nurse and the oncologist, get some treatment set up for him asap.'
âI've done it,' she told him. âThe oncologist is on his way down. I'd like you to speak to him and tell him exactly what you've told Mr Symes, and I'd like you to be there when he talks to them. His wife's on her way. I've asked her to join us, so she can be involved in the discussion.'
He nodded. âGood. Thanks.'
He was about to say something when she caught sight of the oncologist striding down the ward towards them, and she opened her mouth to greet him and was cut off by his exclamation.