Authors: Caroline Anderson
Oh, if only she'd knownâ¦
With a soft sigh, she got to her feet and started to clear the table.
It was a messâbits of this and thatâbut enough to make another meal. She took the tray of containers through to the kitchen and put it down. âShall I put these onto a plate for you to have tomorrow?' she suggested, and then she looked up and realised he was standing motionless, staring out of the window into the black night.
She could see his face reflected in the glass, drawn and expressionless, and she shrugged and left him to it, finding a plate in a cupboard, piling the remains of the food onto it and covering it with a bowl.
It was ridiculously easy to find space for it in the fridge. It was all but empty, and she wondered when he found time to shop for food.
Not your problem, she told herself, and scraped the plates into an empty container before putting them by the sink.
âDishwasher?' she said, but he didn't move.
âJames? Do you want me to go? Or just go to hell?'
He made a strangled sound that could have been a laugh, and turned towards her. âNow, there's an idea,' he said, and then smiled a little crookedly. âHowever, since I need your goodwillâjust leave them there, I'll do them later. We haven't got a dishwasher yet. It's on the list, like everything else. Do you mind instant? I think the real coffee's probably on its last legs. I forgot to put it back in the freezer.'
âInstant's fine,' she agreed. âWhere's your bin?'
âUnder the sink,' he said, taking the empty containers and ditching them. âYou don't have to do that.'
âWell, someone does, and you're making coffee. Have you got a cloth? The table looks as if we've had a food fight.'
His mouth kicked up at one side, and he wrung a cloth out under the hot tap and handed it to her. âYou can't hurt the table, it's sealed,' he said, and turned back to the kettle, dismissing herâbut not for long. She hadn't had all her answers yet, not by a long way, and she wasn't going until she hadâ¦
over, of course. She'd barely started. He knew that, and they went through to the sitting room with their coffee, settled down at opposite ends of the sofa and he waited for her to get back into her stride.
It didn't take many seconds.
âTalk to me about your child-care arrangements,' she said bluntly, and he felt his right eyebrow climb, but of course she didn't back down, just fixed him with that implacable gaze and waded on in.
âYes, I know, I shouldn't ask, but since I had to cover for you this morning, and as I'm sure it won't be the last time, I need to know that you're doing everything you can and that there's nothing else that could be done to make things smoother.'
âYou have shares in child care?' he said, with only a trace of sarcasm, but she caught it, of course, and gave him one of her patented looks with those toffee-shard eyes.
âYou want my help? Work with me here, McEwan,' she said firmly, and he gave up. At least talking about his problems kept his mind off his libido.
âI have a childminder. I drop the children off on my way to work, she takes Rory to school, keeps Freya all day, fetches Rory from school and I pick them up from her at the end of my day. When I'm on call, my mother stays here and does it for me.'
At the moment, but he wasn't sure what the hell he was going to do after the fiasco this morning.
âSo what went wrong today?'
âFreya,' he said reluctantly. âShe didn't want to me to go to work in the nightâthe pager woke her. We sleep with the doors open, and she heard it go off, heard me talking and getting dressed, and kicked off. And then this morning she wouldn't let me go, my mother said she was too upset to go to the childminder and she couldn't look after herâher sister's not well and she had to go to visit her in hospital in Cambridgeâand, well, she wouldn't back me up. Said Freya didn't want me to go, poor little thing, she'd lost her mummyâwell, I do know that, I have noticed,' he said, unable to kept the sarcasm out of his voice, âbut in fact she hasn't lost her mother, she's never really had one, she just didn't want me to leave. We've had a couple of bad experiencesâan au pair who was a living nightmare, and a crÃ¨che that she hated. I thought the childminder might be the answer, once she got used to the idea.'
âHence taking a locum job?'
He nodded. âA short-term contract, just to see if I can make the arrangements work this time. I thought I could, with my mother to rely on as back-up, butâ¦' He broke off with a short sigh, staring down into his coffee, but there were no answers in the bottom of the mug, just the dregs of an indifferent brew that frankly he couldn't be bothered with.
He put the mug down on the coffee-table and sat back, searching her eyes for clues to her reaction, but there were none.
âSo that's my sorry, pathetic little tale. Does it answer all your questions?'
God, he sounded so bitter, but he couldn't deal with this. He had so much on his plate that Kate analysing his child-care arrangements was just the last straw. He knew they were inadequate. He knew it wasn't ideal, but what the hell else was he supposed to do?
âIt sounds as if you've done everything you can to smooth the way for them. I'm sorry I was hard on you, butâ'
âThe patients have to come first? I know that.'
âActually, no. Without a doctor to treat them, the patients don't get better, so the doctor has to come first. Which is why I wanted to know if there was anything that could be improved, to make your arrangements more robust.'
âShort of fostering them out or giving them up for adoption, probably not,' he said with an attempt at humour, but her face paled and she drew back.
He frowned at her thoughtfully. âDid I say something?'
She looked away, shook her head and put her cup down with a clatter on the table, her usually rock-steady composure obviously unsettled. âNo. No, of course not. It's late, I'd better go. Umâthank you for telling me all of this. I realise it can't have been easy.'
âKate? I was joking. There's no way on God's earth I'd give my kids up. Although it has been suggested.'
Her eyes flew back to his, wide with shock. âWhy? Who by?'
He shrugged. âFriends? My mother, even, at one point. I think she still believes it would be better for them in some ways.'
So much emphasis on such a tiny little word, scarcely audible over the indrawn breath, and yetâ¦
She gave a tiny shrug. âUnless there's no choice. Adoption isn't always bad. Sometimes it can be a miracle. Butânot just because you don't want them.'
âBut I do want them,' he assured her, âso it won't ever happen. Not while there's breath in my body. I love my kids to bits, and I'd go to the ends of the earth before I'd give them up or let anything bad happen to them.'
Her shoulders dropped, and she smiled and stood up, tugging her jumper down unconsciously, still ill at ease. âGood. Right, now I have to goâthings to do before tomorrow. And I'm sorry I was so hard on you. If there's anything I can doâyou know, if you have a problem, if things don't go rightâ¦'
âI thought I had to sort it unless it was a matter of life or death?' he said wryly, and he saw something very human and rather desperate going on in her eyes. As if she was torn between her role as his boss and the warm and caring woman he was beginning to realise she hid under that crisp exterior.
âIt's only an offer of help in an emergency, so don't push it,' she said, dragging back control of the situation, and he smiled and held her coat for her.
âThank youâand thank you for the curry,' he said quietly. âIt was a good idea, and I really enjoyed it.'
She looked up, her eyes soft, and her lips curved up in a warm, genuine smile. âMy pleasure. Your turn next time.'
There was going to be one?
âDone,' he said quickly before she changed her mind.
âAnd next time I promise I won't bully you.'
He grinned and reached for the doorknob. âI'll hold you to that,' he said, and for a second he found himself contemplating kissing her goodnight.
Not a proper kiss. Just a peck on the cheek, a brush of his lips against that soft, baby-smooth skin.
He yanked the door open, held it until she'd started her car, then shut it firmly. It was cold out there, a definite nip in the breeze, but inside him a fire was starting to smoulder, and it was the last thing he needed.
He cleared up the kitchen, washed up the dishes and went to bed.
There was ice on the windscreen the following morning, and he had to scrape it off before he could take the kids to the childminder, and then he got caught in the traffic and so, of course, he was late.
Kate was going to skin him, and all the ground he'd made up the night before would be down the pan.
Oh, well, he thought, at least he'd find out how sincere she'd been about helping him through this, but when he arrived on the ward he found her talking to the police, and she turned to him with relief in her eyes, his lateness apparently not the first thing on her mind.
âAh, Mr McEwan. The police would like to talk to you about Peter Graham, the man in the fight.'
âOh, right. Sure.'
âIf you're happy without me?' she said, and left them as if she couldn't get away quick enough. Things to do?
Or something else?
He spoke to the police, told them what little he knew, accompanied them while they spoke to the patient and then sent them away when the patient became distressed.
âDid they get what they needed?' Kate asked, her eyes not nearly as casual as her voice, and he looked at her keenly. She looked away. Interesting.
âNot really. He says he doesn't know the man.'
She lifted her head and met his eyes again briefly. âWell, maybe he doesn't.'
âI think he does. I think we should keep a close eye on his visitors. One of them might be trying to stop him talking.'
She stood up abruptly. âWell, you do whatever you feel is necessary. Would you go and check on Tracy Farthing, please? I've got a meeting,' she said, and walked away, leaving him even more convinced there was something going on.
He could always suggest a curry at her place and grill her like a kipper until he found out the truth. He had a feeling it was something to do with the scar on her ribs, but short of coming out and asking her, which would mean admitting he'd looked across into the female changing room on the first day and spied on her, there was no way he was going to find out until she was ready to tell him.
He had a feeling hell would freeze first.
And talking of freezing, he ought to buy some de-icer on the way home, ready for the morning. Tomorrow, if he was late, he might not get off so lightly.
It was bitterly cold.
She drove home at the end of the day, wishing Peter Graham had never come onto their ward, wishing it had happened when someone else had been on take so she didn't have to be reminded, and she looked at the dark windows of her little home and felt a shiver of something cold run over her.
The lights were on in the farmhouse. She could go in there, sit down with them, spend the evening with them. Her father would walk her back later and stay while she put the lights on without needing to be asked, but she couldn't keep relying on them. She had to deal with this on her own. It had been years. It was time she got over it.
She got out of the car and the security lights on her barn came on, flooding the yard with light.
There. She could see the door, she didn't need her parents to hold her hand. She let herself in, turned on all the lights and went up to her bedroom, changed into jeans and a jumper and went back down. Her fridge, although better filled than James's, was still a little on the scanty side and nothing much appealed to her.
She poured herself a glass of wine, sat down and flicked on the television, then her mobile phone rang. She glanced at the screen and saw James's name. âWhat's the problem?' she said without preamble, and she heard him sigh.
âKate, I'm sorry to trouble you but my boiler doesn't seem to be working. I thought it was a bit cold this morning, but tonight it's just plain off and there's a smell of gas in the kitchen.'
âTurn the gas off!' she said quickly, and he gave a weary chuckle.
âDon't panic, Kate, I'm not a total dunce. Can you give me the name of a plumber?'
âNo, but I know someone who can,' she said with a smile, ridiculously pleased that he'd phoned her, stupidly happy to hear his voice again afterâoh, an hour? âYou need Fliss Whittaker, Tom's wife. You know, from A and E?'
âI know Tom. His wife's a plumber?'
His voice sounded incredulous, and she laughed. âNo. Well, she's all sorts. She's a nurse, but she's done property developing and she knows everyone in the trade. She'll sort you out if anyone can. I'll text you their number.'
âThey won't mind you giving it to me?'
âOf course not. They're lovely. If they don't answer, leave a message and they'll ring you back. They'll be putting the kids to bed. They have a lot. I forget how many, but six or seven.'
âGood grief,' he said faintly, and she laughed.
âQuite. The only person who thinks it's reasonable is my mother. Let me know how you get on. And if they can't help you, if you need anything else, ring me back. It doesn't matter how late it is.'
âI will. Thanks.'
She returned the phone carefully to its cradle, then stared at it for a moment before she realised she had a silly smile on her face.
Stupid. And, anyway, it was nothing to smile about. He had two small children in a house without heating, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and the forecast was awful, and this close to Christmas she doubted he'd get anything done unless it was a very simple repair.
Oh, well. He could always go and stay with his mother, she thought, and then remembered the trouble they were having over the business of Freya going to the childminder, and realised that that was unlikely to work.
Not your worry, she reminded herself fiercely, and turned her attention back to the television.
âSorry, mate, it's shot. You need a new boiler, and half of your radiators are on the point of giving up. You need a complete new system to bring it up to scratch, and there's no way I can get to you now until after Christmas, and that means putting someone else off.'
James stared at the plumber in disbelief, then stabbed his fingers through his hair and let out a huff of desperation. âUmâwhat about a temporary fix?' he asked, clutching at straws, but Joe shook his head.
âSorry. Can't do it. The burner's gone and it's such an old boiler it's a miracle it's still going. I wouldn't fix it even if I could. It's a miracle it hasn't blown up.'