Authors: Caroline Anderson
âJames? What the hell are you doing here?' he asked, shaking his hand warmly.
It was the first time she'd seen James smile with his eyes, and the change was astonishing. âWorkingâlocuming, as of yesterday. How are you? I'd forgotten you'd moved up here. How's it going?'
âFine, great. What about you? I haven't seen you for ages, not sinceâwell, last September, I suppose. I didn't realise you'd left London now as well.'
âNo,' he said, the smile fading. âWe're OK, Guy. We're getting there. We've moved to be closer to my mother and my in-laws.'
The smile was back, softer this time. âFreya's fine. Doing well, and Rory's started school. We ought to meet up.'
âThat would be good. Come over some time. Sarah would love to see them again. Soâwhat have you got for me, Kate?' he asked, getting back to business, and Kate saw James's smile retreat once more as she spoke.
âCA bowelâterminal ileum, caecum and attachment to the rear wall over the right femoral artery. We did a hemicolectomy to remove the obstruction and James dissected out what he could, but it's only a short-term fix to give him some symptomatic relief. He's almost certainly got liver mets. We're waiting for some blood results to confirm that but he's jaundiced and there are small but palpable masses in the liver.'
Guy winced and gave James a keen look. âOuch.'
James shrugged, and Kate picked up swirling undercurrents. She'd known there was something, but now Guy was watching James closely and those curious blue eyes were flat and shuttered. âIt was a bit tricky, but he's come through it well, considering,' he said gruffly. âI've told him what to expect within reason and without putting the fear of God into him, but you'll need to go over it and dot the Is and cross the Ts.'
âShall we go and talk to him, then, in a few minutes? I'd like to see the notes first.'
âOf course. I'll be back in a minute.' James handed over the notes and excused himself, and Guy flicked through them and sighed.
âTough one, this, for him to start with.'
âSo it seems,' she said, fishing, but before he could say any more they were interrupted by a soft voice.
She turned and saw Amanda Symes standing at her side, her eyes strained and red-rimmed and her face pale. âMrs Symesâthank you for joining us. This is Dr Croft. He's the oncologist who's going to be taking over your husband's care. He's going to go through things with you both.'
âOh. Right. Umâand the other doctor? JamesâDr McEwan, was it? I'd like him there, he was so kind to me yesterday.'
âI'm right here,' James said, appearing again from nowhere and smiling gently at her. âHello again, Amanda. Shall we go into the office?'
It wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't known exactly what was in store for them.
As it was, he was only too painfully aware of every twist and turn in the road ahead, but Guy led the discussion and he really didn't need to have anything to do with it.
Except, of course, he felt involved for all manner of unsound and unprofessional reasons. He put them on one side and forced himself to concentrate on this case, this man, this spouse whose life was about to be turned upside down, this family that was going to be torn apart by fate.
But not his. Not this time.
next few days were tough.
Rory was OK-ish and coped with the change of routine just like he'd coped with everything the last year and a half had thrown at him, with quiet stoicism, but Freya was slower to settle. She'd spent time with the childminder before he'd started the job, to give her time to get used to her, but the new regime of long days and early starts was making her tired and grizzly.
At least the food issue wasn't an issue, really. Helen had given them fish fingers and chips at Rory's suggestion because they'd gone home via the park to feed the ducks and had needed something quick, and she'd been meaning to ask him for a list of things the children liked. And the next night they'd had roast chicken with lots of veg, which he was more than happy about.
But on Wednesday night, as they'd arranged, his mother picked them up from the childminder straight after school and took them home with her to her little flat because he was on call, and that unsettled Freya even more.
âShe just wouldn't go to bed,' his mother told him unhappily on the phone the next day. âI know it's difficult, but I think it would be better if I came to you in futureâfamiliar territory and all that. It makes the bedtime routine more normal and I can't bear it when she's so unhappy.'
All of which made absolute senseâexcept his spare bedroom was a storeroom at the moment, and it would take a mammoth effort to clear it.
An effort he didn't have the time or inclination to make, but he knew he had to stop stalling and get to grips with the house, so he ordered a little skip on Friday and in the evening systematically went through all the stuff in the roomâold paperwork, things from his student days, some of Beth's things that he'd keptânothing important, nothing sentimental or relevant or remotely useful, just things he hadn't got round to dealing with before the moveâand first thing in the morning, he carted them downstairs and threw them all out.
He was heading towards the skip with the last armful when Kate walked up the drive towards him.
Hell. He stopped, horribly conscious of the state of the house, the task he was undertaking and the mess he was in, but she just smiled and waggled his mobile phone at him.
âYou left this on my desk. I found it this morning when I popped in to check up on something. It's got several missed calls, so I thought you might want it. I would have called you, but HR said it was the only number registered to you, and I didn't want to call your mother and worry her. They gave me your address.'
I'll just bet they did, he thought, wondering how she'd sweet-talked that out of them, and what else she'd managed to get them to yield up. Not that it mattered.
âThanks.' He dropped the last of Beth's possessions into the skip with a quiet sigh and took the phone from her, then added, âWant a cup of tea?'
He didn't know why he was asking, except she'd gone out of her way to return his phone, he was dying of thirst and he'd decided he didn't actually care whether she was impressed or not by where he lived. It was none of her damn business.
âThat would be lovely,' she said, looking slightly surprised. âThank you.'
He ran a mental eye over the inside of the fridge and wondered if he had milk. Probably. And maybe even teabags. And perhaps at a pinch he might even find a biscuitâ¦
He led her through to the kitchen and put the kettle on, wincing at the dishes piled in the sink, but she stood in front of them, looking out of the window, and totally ignored the mess.
âWhat a lovely garden.'
âIt isâor it will be when I get round to doing anything with it. That's one of the reasons I bought the house. Well, that and the fact that it's got four bedrooms, so my mother can come and stay when I get the spare room straightâif I ever get round to that, either. I have a hell of a to-do list!' he added wryly.
She turned and studied him. âIs that what you're doing with the skip?' she asked, and he busied himself with the mugs so he didn't have to meet her eye.
âYes. I've been lazyâused the spare room as a glory hole. Thought it was time for a sort out.'
She didn't need to know what he'd been sorting out, and he didn't volunteer anything further. He carefully avoided telling her why his mother needed to stay as well, or anything else about his child-care arrangements. It was none of her business, and if he possibly could, he'd like to keep it that way. Keep all of it that way, except of course she couldn't fail to notice the absence of a woman's touch. He'd never been good at the stage-setting part of houses, unlike Beth, who'd been fantastic at it and would have had the place licked into shape in no time.
And she certainly wouldn't have had dishes stacked in the sink! Oh, well, he'd get a dishwasher just as soon as the kitchen was refitted, but one thing at a time, and washing up never hurt anyone.
The kettle boiled and he poured the water onto the last two teabags in their mugs, poked them with a spoon and lifted them out. âMilk?'
âI might even have some biscuits,' he said, rummaging in the cupboard, but she shook her head, and her hair, long and loose today so it hung down round her shoulders, swung and bounced and gleamed in the sunshine and did something odd to his gut.
âI don't need a biscuit, thanks. The tea's fine.'
âOK.' He straightened up, and suddenly there was a curious tension in the air between them, a strange electric current that drew his eyes to hers and made his heart beat just a little harder. He needed spaceâmore than an arm's length between themâso he didn't feel tempted to reach out and see if that hair felt as soft and smooth and heavy as it looked.
âUm, come through to the sitting room,' he said, holding the door for her, and led her to yet another scene of chaos.
Rory was lying on his stomach in front of the television, watching cartoons again, Freya was sitting in a pool of Lego bricks and constructing a rather wobbly tower, and the cushions were all pulled off the sofa and propped up against it to make tunnels and hidey-holes. And there was an ominous smell.
He closed his eyes and sighed.
âHave you guys trashed this place enough?' he asked mildly, putting his cup down and picking up two of the cushions. and Freya ran over to him and pulled them back off the sofa.
âDaddy, no!' she wailed, even though she hadn't been playing with them at the time. âHouse!'
He stopped and sat down, scooping her onto his lap. âI'm sorry, sweetheart. It's just we need to sit down. Look, this is Kateâshe's a friend of mine,' he said, wondering if that was pushing it too far, but Freya looked up at Kate and studied her dubiously, Rory swivelled round and sat up and stared, and Kate, to her credit, ignored the cushions, sat on the floor in front of the sofa and stared right back, a smile playing round her lips.
âHi, guys,' she said softly. âDid you make a den? I used to do that.'
âDid you get into trouble?' Rory asked soberly.
The smile became rueful. âI don't remember, so probably not very much. Soâwho are you guys?'
âI'm Rory,' Rory said, âand she's Freya. Dad, she needs her nappy changed.'
âI know,' he said, wrinkling his nose and smiling at Kate, a little bemused by the change in her. âSorry. Will you excuse us for a minute?'
âGo right ahead,' she said.
He took Freya out and dealt with the nappy and found her and Rory a cracker, which was the closest thing he could get to a biscuit, and some juice, then went back in to find Kate sitting cross-legged on the floor next to Rory in the midst of all the toys, watching cartoons with every appearance of enjoyment. Bizarre.
He raised a brow, and she laughed a little self-consciously and got up and perched on the edge of the sofa.
âSorry. I like cartoons,' she confessed, and he rolled his eyes and handed her her tea with a reluctant smile, trying not to think about how that laugh and the faint touch of colour accompanying it had softened her features and brought warmth and something else to those surprisingly lovely caramel eyes.
Something that made him think of things he'd put out of his mind a lifetime ago.
âI should drink it fairly fast, it's getting cold,' he said hastily, and dropped into the other corner of the sofa, wincing as he hit the unprotected springs. âSweetheart, can we please have the cushions back for a bit?' he asked Freya, and she nodded absently, her attention drawn by the television.
He sorted them out before she changed her mind, and Kate settled back into the cushions and smiled at him. âThis is a lovely house.'
He gave a stunned laugh. âWell, it probably will be, but it's a bit of a project. I wanted something we could make ours and, let's face it, there's plenty of potential here. Not much else, though.'
âOh, it'll be beautiful. It's got fabulous high ceilings. I love Edwardian houses.'
âI've never had one before. I'm beginning to think it might have been a mistake.'
He laughed. âNo, not really. I'm sure it'll be lovely eventually.'
She tipped her head on one side and regarded him thoughtfully. âIt must be a bit of handful having two very young children and a new job and trying to do the house up all at once,' she said softly.
And he thought, She doesn't know the half of it, and I'm damned if I'm telling her.
âIt's OK,' he said, reluctant to suggest for a moment that it was anything other than plain sailing. She didn't need to know the number of times this last week he'd come
close to throwing in the towel. Except, of course, he couldn't afford to. Eighteen months out of work had left him sailing pretty close to the wind. His investments had buffered them, and he was careful, but the house was going to take a substantial sum to fix it up and, besides, it was time to get their lives back on track.
And if they were really lucky, they'd all survive the experienceâ¦
He hadn't said âwe'.
Not once, unless he'd been referring to the children as well. âI bought the houseâwhen I get it straightâif I ever get round to it. I've been lazy.'
As if there wasn't a Mrs McEwan.
There was certainly no evidence of a woman's touch in the rundown and desperately outdated house, although the furniture obviously came from better times and there was no lack of homeliness or warmth. And the children were lovely once they opened up, especially Rory. Funny and charming and sweetly innocent, and the spitting image of his father. Freya had been just as charming, but more wary of her.
James had been a little wary, too, she thought as she drove home. As if he hadn't really wanted to invite her in, but hadn't felt there was a choice. He'd almost been defiant about itâ
this is me, take it or leave it
And his blunt honesty had sneaked under her guard.
Her mother was just unloading shopping from the car when she turned into the drive, so instead of going into her own home in part of the converted barn on the other side of the farmyard, she went over and helped her mother carry the food into the big farmhouse kitchen, the dogs trailing hopefully at their heels.
âBeen at work?' her mother asked, and she gave a little smile as she put the bags down on the table and patted the dogs.
âSort of. Earlier. I've just been to see Jamesâhe left his phone behind last night and I dropped it in to him.'
Her mother straightened up from the fridge. âAnd?' she asked, getting straight to the point.
âHe's got two little childrenâRory, who's about five, I suppose, and Freya, who must be coming up for eighteen months or so. Toddling about and starting to talk, and definitely got a personality.'
âDon't sound so surprised. Babies are born with personality.'
And she knew that, of course, and over the years she'd seen enough small children in her mother's care to be well aware, but somehow Freya's personality had taken her by surprise. She was so
, such a determined little thing, and very much her daddy's girl.
But, then, that wouldn't be surprising, would it, if she didn't
a mother in her life?
âAnd the mum?' her mother asked, as if reading her mind, and Kate shrugged thoughtfully.
âI don't know if there is one.'
She tutted softly, her face pleating in a sad frown. âPoor little mites.'
She thought of the dishes in the sink, the chaos in the sitting room, the garden that still, even in December, had garden furniture and toys lying out in it, and she thought of the dark shadows round his eyes and the weary grey pallor of his skin, as if all the sun had gone out of his life.
And then she thought of the way she'd greeted him on his first morning, less than a week ago, and felt a wash of guilt.