Authors: Caroline Anderson
He stood and looked at her, and she realised what she'd said and coloured. âUmâI'm adopted,' she said, and after a long moment he nodded slowly.
âThat explains itâyour reaction when I said what I did about giving up the children.'
âOh. Yes. Sorry. I overreacted a bit.'
âNo. You were absolutely right. They're my childrenâmy babies. You can't overreact to the idea of losing themâand for the record, I wouldn't ever do it. Hereâyour wine.'
âSwap,' she said, handing him a plate of hot buttered toast, and they took their little feast through to the sitting room, sat down in front of the glowing woodburner and ate in a silence broken only by the crackle of logs and the distant barking of a dog.
âIt's so peaceful here,' he murmured, putting his plate down and settling back into the sofa with a sigh. âI can't believe I'm sitting here, drinking your wine, eating your foodâ¦'
âNot my food,' she corrected with a smile, and he grinned crookedly and stared into the flames.
âThank you, Kate,' he said softly. âI don't know what we would have done without you. I can't tell you how grateful I am.'
âDon't be grateful. Just look after your children, get your boiler fixed when you can, and life will sort itself out. It always does, one way or another. You know the saying, when one door closes, anotherâ¦'
âSlams in your face,' he finished, and gave a quiet snort. âOr in mine, anyway,' he added.
âJames, give it time,' she advised, not really knowing what to say to him but worried that he was expecting too much, too soon. âYou'll get there.'
âI wish I could believe you.' He rested his head back, closed his eyes and sighed. âIt's so nice here. Like a real home. I had one, once. A real homeâwith love and laughter and the promise of so much still to come. One minute we were sailing along in smug suburban satisfaction, the next it was all goneâlike a tatty old jigsaw in a charity shop, with a bit missing.'
Oh, God, she thought, what do I say? What
I say? Nothing. So she said nothing, and just waited, giving him time and trying not to cry for him.
âIt's not even Beth,' he went on after a long pause. âIt's all the other things. Company. Someone to go to dinner with, or a film or just a walk in the country. Someone to talk to after the kids go to bed, so I don't just go stir crazy and surf the net or go to bed at nine because there's nothing else to do and then lie there alone wondering if I'll ever have a sex life againâ¦'
Oh, yes. She could easily identify with all of that.
Especially, since he'd come into her life, the lying alone and wondering bit.
âI need to go,' she said, getting to her feet and scooping up the dirty plates and her glass. âKeep the wine, there's only a dribble left. You may as well finish it. Give me a yell if you need anything. I'll leave the door open my side.'
And dumping everything in the kitchen, she headed back next door before she said or did anything stupid.
His mouth twisted. âYou mean I'm not late,' he said wryly, and she smiled back, unable to resist his rather rumpled charm.
âWhatever. How are the kids? Did they sleep well?'
âLike logs. They're so confused, they don't know whether they're coming or going, and I think they've just given up trying to make sense of it. Freya didn't make a sound when I handed her over to Helen this morning.'
âShe was probably too tired.'
âProbably.' He chuckled and scrubbed a hand round the back of his neck, looking a little awkward suddenly. âLook, about last nightâI'm sorry about the self-pity thing. I didn't mean to wallow all over you like that. I was just at the end of my tether, and you threw me a lifeline and all I could talk about was my tragic and barren existence, so I'm sorry if I came over as ungrateful, because I'm not. I owe you. Big time.'
âIt's a pleasure. Right, getting down to business, if you haven't got anything else urgent, could you take a look at Tracy Farthing? I was just about to go up there and check on her. Trina called. She's looking a bit peaky, and complaining of epigastric pain. You might want to have a look at her stomach aspirate and see if there's anything to worry about. Trina said she thought there was evidence of a slight gastric bleed, but that might just be post-op.'
âI'll have a look,' he said, and headed towards the doors, leaving her to do the ward round without him. That was fine, she thought. He could catch up later.
Steve Symes had been discharged to Oncology now, old Mr Reason was doing fine now his abscess had been drained and the only patient apart from Tracy causing them the slightest concern was Peter Graham, the man who'd been kicked in the gut.
He was making slow but good progress, his bowel sounds were returning and they were starting him on free fluids today. Kate normally spent as little time as possible with him, but this morning, for some reason, she hesitated before she walked away.
âThis guy who kicked you, Peter,' she said softly. âDoes he bear you a grudge?'
âNah. Wrong place, wrong time,' he said, but his eyes were shifty and she found herself agreeing with James.
âWell, that's good, because I don't want to send you out there and find you end up in the wrong place at the wrong time again. You might not be so lucky next time.'
Did she imagine it, or did he swallow a little nervously? She left him to it and made her way back to the nursing station with the notes. The senior sister, Ali, was there, and Kate put the notes down and said, âCan I have a word, Ali?'
âSure. What's the problem?'
She frowned. âWhat's wrong with him? He was fine earlier.'
âI think he knows the guy.'
âAh.' Her face cleared. âSo do I. Do you want me to have a word with the police if they come in again?'
âIf you catch them. And in the meantime, can you keep an eye out for his visitors in case any of them are dodgy or threatening, or he looks worried while they're here?'
âOf course. I'll give you a head's up if anything odd happens.'
âTell James,' she said, the fingers of dread plucking at her again. âHe's bigger than me.'
Ali laughed. âSure thing. Oh, he rang. He thinks Tracy's got a little gastric bleed. He said, do you want him to do an endoscopy and fix it?'
âThat would be a good idea, if he thinks it's bad enough. We don't want to go in again unnecessarily. I'll ring him.'
Kate turned round, her hand on her chest, and gave James a mock scowl. âYou made me jump. I was going to call you about Tracy.'
âI've booked a slot in the endoscopy suite for ten to fix it. I'm pretty sure we can do it that way, it's only slight. Want to join me?'
âCould do. I've got a meeting but I know what I'd rather be doing! I'll send my apologies.'
âAnd we might even get time for coffee,' he murmured. âI've just realised I didn't manage to get any breakfast.'
She frowned at him. âAnd you didn't have supper. You need to eat, James. You'll fade away.'
âHardly,' he snorted, then cocked his head on one side. âSoâif I need to eat, and you need to eat, is it my turn for the take-away tonight?'
She felt her heart kick up a little speed, and tried for a casual smile. She should say no. She should sayâ
âYour place or mine?'
He chuckled. âRather one and the same, isn't it? Perhaps we'd better make it mineâjust in case the kids call out.'
She nodded. âWhatever. Right, I have to get on. I've got letters to dictate and a whole pile of forms to fill in before I can sneak out and see you do Tracy's gastroscopy.'
âI'm doing it?'
âSure. Your patient, James, and I'm sure you're quite big enough to do it yourself.'
He tipped his head slightly. âYou're not in the least bit territorial, are you?'
âNot if it means someone else gets to do my work,' she said with a cheeky smile, and, waggling her fingers at him, she headed to her office to wrestle with the hated paperwork.
He got a page that afternoon in his clinic from Ali, and rang her.
âThere's a man with Pete Graham and I don't like the look of him,' the ward sister said. âNastyâyou know what I mean? I don't really want to start anything with him, but Kate said to call you.'
âI'll come. Alert Security, just in case. I don't want him trying anything.'
âOh. James, he's starting to shoutâ'
âCall Security. I'm coming,' he said, and ran up to the ward. If the man hit Pete again, so soon after his surgeryâ¦
âGet off me!'
âNot a chance,' James said, joining in the fray and pressing the man firmly down onto the end of Pete's bed so the security guard could cuff him. âCall the police.'
âThey're on their way,' Ali said, but he hardly heard her, because Pete was looking pale and shaken, holding his side andâ
âDamn, he's going off. He must have hit him. Pete, stay with me. What happened, mate?'
âHit me,' he whispered threadily.
âIs this the man who hit you before?'
âBrother,' he mumbled, and slid into unconsciousness.
âYou're his brother?' he said in disbelief to the man the security guard had wrestled upright.
âHe took my girl, all right?'
âI don't care what he did, you don't kick him and nearly kill him and then come in here and have another go! Get him out of the way, please, we're going to Theatre. Ali, let's move!'
They moved. They moved like the wind, wheeling the bed down to Theatre. Someone must have phoned ahead because the doors were standing open and Kate was changed and scrubbing.
âI'll start, you scrub,' she snapped, and took over. By the time he was gowning up, Pete was under and she was ripping opening up the careful layers of sutures that James had put in on Monday night. It hadn't healed much in three days, but by the time she was in, the blood was welling in his abdomen.
âHave we got any blood on order?' he asked, and she nodded.
âSix units on the way up. Ah, it's here. Can you get it in fast, please, someone? Suction, James. I can't see a bloody thing. Thanks.'
âThereâthe liver, just where I repaired it.' He swore viciously. âI'd left that lobe, I thought it would heal, but that's gone out the window now, hasn't it? Damn.'
âI might be able to save it. Let me try.'
She did it. To his amazement, she did it, suturing the tear so carefully that he could scarcely see the stitches, and the bleeding stopped.
âVery beautiful. Your great-grandmother would be proud of you,' he said, and she grinned behind her mask, her eyes crinkling up and sending heat shooting through him.
âMy great-grandmother would have a fit to think of a girl doing this,' she said. âBut my mother would be proud of me, and that's good enough for me.'
And then he realised her eyes were sparkling, and she blinked and looked away, and he took the instruments out of her hands and took over, closing the wound and replacing all his careful stitches before straightening up and standing back.
âThank you,' he said to the anaesthetist. Stripping off his gloves, he followed her out and found her slumped in the staffroom, coffee in hand, reading the paper. She put it down when he came in and met his eyes.
âAll right?' she said.
âI am. Pete is. What about you?'
She smiled softly. âI'm fine, but I suppose we should go back to our clinic. They'll be wondering what's going on and Jo will be sinking without trace. I tell you what, I'll be ready for that take-away tonight. I don't know what happened to lunch.'
âYou need to eat, Kate, you'll fade away,' he mimicked, and she threw the paper at him, stood up and walked out, a smile she tried to hide peeking out around the edges of her faÃ§ade. He put the paper back on the table and followed her, whistling softly under his breath.
Life was suddenly looking a whole lot betterâ¦
It was funny how quickly something could become a habit.
He brought supper round to hers in the end that night because the children had settled without a murmurâa lovely Thai curry which he had delivered, much healthier than the Indian cholesterol-fest she'd taken to his place, in deference to their livers, he saidâand they ate it in the kitchen, with the communicating door open so they could listen. Then the following night, because there was a bit left in the bottle of wine he'd brought round, she took it back and they sat and watched the television for an hour and argued about a documentary and she went to bed with a smile on her face.
They weren't on call that weekend, blissfully, and she decided to give herself the luxury of a lie-in on Saturday morning.
She reckoned without the sound of James's children, though, all the little shrieks and squeals and the sound of running feet on the landing. And his deep, gruff voice shushing them, then the giggles because he must have caught them and picked them up, because the shrieks got louder and the running feet stopped.
She realised she was smiling. Nuts. She should be cross at losing her lie-in, but she found she wasn't. Far from it. It was lovely to hear the sound of happy children.
Especially James's happy children, after all they'd had to endure recently.
She got up, showered quickly and went downstairs in her scruffy old robe, her hair twisted up in a towel, and put the kettle on to boil while she got dressed. Then she heard a crash and a scream, and without even thinking about it she whipped the door open and ran through, to find James sitting at the bottom of the stairs with Rory on his lap, rubbing his knee and hugging him, while Freya hovered on the top step with her eyes like saucers.
âFreya, sweetheart, come here, he's all right,' she said softly, running up the stairs to her and scooping her up. She carried her back down and sat on the bottom step next to them with the toddler snuggled on her lap. âAre you OK, Rory?'
âI fell downstairs,' he said, hiccuping, and James pulled his head in hard against his chest and rubbed it lovingly.
âYou're all right, darling. It's OK. Let's just put some ice on it.'
âIt's OK now,' he said. Wriggling off his father's lap, he got to his feet and limped through to the kitchen. âCan I still have the last cake?' he asked, and James rolled his eyes and grinned at her.
âIs that what this is about? The last cake?' she asked, and he chuckled.
âYeah. I thought he'd get dressed, but he just ran and opened the stairgate and slipped on his pyjamas. They always fall down, he's got such a skinny little bottom. He's OK.'
He'd said that so many times she wondered who he was trying to convince, but, following Rory into the kitchen, it seemed that he was probably right, because the boy was sitting at the table with his legs swinging, munching happily on a muffin and looking victorious.
âF'eya muffin!' Freya said, holding out her hand and opening and shutting it like a little starfish, but Rory wasn't giving up his muffin for anyone, and James was starting to look desperate, so she intervened.
âI tell you what, I've got some lovely chocolate biscuits next door,' she told them, and Rory stopped eating and Freya stopped crying and swivelled her head round and looked up at her hopefully. James just shrugged.
âWhatever,' he said, and she carried Freya through, Rory limping behind them, and they had tea and biscuits in her sitting room in front of cartoons, and it was just like having one of her brothers there with his kids.
Except for one very glaring difference. None of her brothers, whether blood, adoptive or foster, had ever made her feel the way James did. Good job, too, she thought, because her thoughts were seriously X-rated, but he just looked so good in those lovely washed-out old jeans with the top button undone and a T-shirt dragged on hastily and those somehow curiously sexy bare feet propped up on her coffee-table as if he belonged there.