"LOOKS DESERTED TO ME." The taxi driver, plainly doubtful, looked questioningly at Dr. Arabella Smith as he put her cases down near the heavy, glazed doors of the Abbey Surgery.
Purple shadowed, steeply roofed and only yards from the road, half hidden by a fine yew hedge and fronted by a gently sloping courtyard, the place was impressive enough and, certainly, looked very well maintained. And certainly deserted.
"Yes," Arabella said. "Thank you." Yet she was uneasy, almost afraid. But at least she'd arrived. She told him, "I'm early."
There was no-one about but it was Sunday afternoon and it was true that the trains which she'd expected to be delayed had all run entirely to time and that now, instead of finding keys waiting as she'd been told, she would have to wait for her keys.
"If you're sure it's all right." He was past middle age and fatherly, and he frowned at the obviously locked doors of the closed and shuttered building. But he was in something of a hurry; his radio was squawking incomprehensibly and he couldn't stay to hold Arabella"s hand.
She stared after the car as it turned slowly out of the driveway. She'd spoken to the senior partner only once, but her father, also a GP, had made enquiries. He'd gleaned glowing reports. Dr. Meredith, Helen Meredith, was a most admirable person, a gifted diagnostician, who, approaching retirement, still ran a tight ship.
Now she pondered the luggage: two huge cases with wheels and a carrying bag which was so heavy that in the short time it had taken her to find the taxi rank the narrow strap handles had creased her palm to a painful red. She wasn't dragging that bag another step.
She'd arrived, and now the luggage could sit where it was while she looked around. She undid and re-pinned the pale tortoise shell clasp which held back the gilded drift of her hair and, that done, set off to explore.
She followed the neat path that went round to the left of the building. She was here to replace one of Helen's assistants who"d had a gliding mishap and was now strung up, braced and wired, in one of the specialist orthopaedic hospitals. Arabella repressed a shudder. He'd crashed into the side of a hill, but was on the mend. Broken, and horribly so, but on the mend.
At the rear of the property the land sloped away, and that what was the ground floor at the front was here the first floor, and reachable at each end of the back wall by an exterior staircase. Both staircases led to round-arched doors in the weathered stone wall, but only that approached by the nearer steps seemed likely to be in general use: the stones were clean swept and moss free and the lock on the door was bright. This, Arabella supposed, was her front door.
She climbed to the top step and sat down.
Suddenly she was bathed in sunlight. The dark clouds gone, the air was scented, delicate, and there was a slight breeze. Down the steps in front of her was a yard of grass grown cobbles, and beyond that a low wall and what was perhaps a formal shrubbery.
Arabella closed her eyes and breathed in, then breathed in again. And again. Then, wrapped in what might have been the warmth of a man"s strong arms and lulled by the soft fragrances of what might have been a briar rose, she thought someone called her name. Perhaps it was Ian. She was walking, floating, happy, which was remarkable in itself and at the same time puzzling, for what she had once thought she'd felt for Ian had long ago faded, died away, unnoticed and un-mourned, leaving only the fear which had compelled her at all costs to avoid him.
Still wrapped in warmth, Arabella smiled but she didn't open her eyes. Whoever it was, she wouldn't let him go.
The air sparkled. "Ian?" This was really rather like a dream.
"No?" A man"s voice, she told herself. Vibrant.
Vibrant, and very cold. "That's what I said."
She held her breath. Of course it wasn't Ian. For a fraction of a second Arabella opened her eyes. Then she jerked upright, her eyelashes fluttering with the effort of remembering quite where she was, though why she should be sitting on a narrow stone stairway she really couldn't imagine. This was a stranger, casually dressed, whose calculating gaze was concentrated on her startled face.
She wasn't dreaming. She sat back again, bewildered. He'd come from . . . what? Playing polo? Watching a rugby match? Though he hadn't the bulk of a . . .
Arabella looked down at the tall man and realized, embarrassed, that he had spoken again. He was waiting, frowning, his forehead lined, his mouth down turned and his eyes as cold as the grey ice of a lake in winter. Did he want proof that she was Arabella Smith?
"I've got a card." She was searching for her wallet, shaking her head. "Cards, with photographs."
He hadn't moved an inch. He was still looking at her hard, his manner inscrutable and just that tiny fraction short of offensive. "There's no need. I'll take your word."
"Who am I?" He put out his hand. "Clayton Richards. I'm here to see that you get inside."
His grip was firm, for a moment extremely so, and Arabella seemed to jolt downwards, as though in a fast skyscraper lift, to find herself in enveloped in a fire she couldn't begin to fight. But only for a second. Released, they faced each other, Arabella wary as his eyes searched, scrutinised. He seemed very unimpressed.
"It's kind of you, truly kind, but I don't really need…"
"I think you do. I'm your landlord. I've got your keys." Clayton Richards pointed up beyond her shoulder to the huge iron bolt by the bright security lock. "They open that door up there and the internal doors. You haven't got a car?"
"I have. At least I shall. I'm collecting it from a dealership." She felt chilled by his manner. She didn't have to explain, but she was uncomfortably aware that she might be making a wrong impression and that her behaviour must seem random, disorganised, and certainly not that of an efficient doctor. She blinked, then said firmly, "It's all fixed."
"Good." His tone was dismissive. "I brought your cases round. They were in the middle of the path and I could see them from the road."
An attentive landlord. "Perhaps," she said a little primly, "you felt I should have been more careful."
"Perhaps I felt you should," he said evenly. "What were you thinking of?"
"Thinking of? When I left the cases?" Which, she had to remind herself, were nothing whatsoever to do with him. Though her luggage didn't seem quite what was on his mind.
"No, not when you left the cases." Despite the reasonable tone there was no sign of any real emotion. "When I found you."
Arabella was suddenly cold, afraid, her dark blue eyes briefly shadowed. "While I was . . ." Then she found she couldn't go on to say that she'd been asleep, though she undoubtedly had. "Perhaps I was day dreaming. I thought that I was walking, floating." She shook her head.
"You were talking to someone you knew." And he was staring but saying nothing more at all as she realised she'd been, what, remembering Ian? And that half asleep she must have spoken aloud. And if so, what might she have said that could justify this disapproval, this ticking of boxes, this implied interrogation?
Arabella frowned, staring back, distinctly uncomfortable. Then she shrugged, managed somehow to smile. "I think I fell asleep. I mean that I must have, and I must really have been dreaming." He would think her mad, but mercifully it didn't matter what he thought.
"Don't bother to explain. Here." He was handing her the keys and his eyes conveyed a poor opinion confirmed. "Would you mind opening the door? They're newly cut and I'd like to be sure they actually work."
Arabella put out her hand. Bemused and incredibly awake all at the same time, she avoided touching his fingers and the keys clicked together castanet-like as she took the double ring. First thing, she told herself, she'd get two new sets of keys made. Not one. Two. Then one set could go in the car.
"Perhaps you should put them on a string around your neck." His eyes were on her throat. "This isn't a place to be locked out of . . ."
She stiffened, said, "Don't worry, I'll take the greatest possible care."
Arabella didn't reply. It was as though he kept reading her thoughts. She tried to look professional and dignified and together. This man wasn't a colleague or a patient and she was alarmed that she found him so utterly intimidating.
But he seemed unconscious of her reaction. "If you stand to one side," he told her, "I'll put your things through the door and then I'll go and you can dream and float as much as you like."
Even that had been made to seem something of a threat. He was clearly wanting to say goodbye. She'd unlocked the door with no difficulty.
He didn't exactly push through. "I'm told that the place has been left ready." Then he was past her and he'd put the cases and the bag inside and he looked at her over a broad shoulder. "There."
"Thank you, and please don't worry. I really will manage everything properly."
"I have to admit that you look as though you might." But his glance was a flash of intimidation.
Arabella said faintly, "Obviously I'm above the shop." She glanced back down the steps towards the sun lit terrace. "Do you do the gardening?"
"No." His abrupt reply wasn't encouraging. "And I shan't be inspecting your digs. The rooms are for you to deal with while you're here. I hope you settle in comfortably and I'll see you tomorrow."
There was an unpleasant silence. He said coolly, "I can't have made it clear that I'm one of the partners you've come to help out."
"Really?" Arabella heard her shock and felt her cheeks burn. "No, you didn't make that clear. You said you were…"
"The landlord. And you're looking confused. Don't tell me, you're appalled?"
"No, not at all." She spoke too quickly, started again. "But now that I know exactly who you are . . . how do you do?"
His eyes narrowed, silver dark. "Very well. Unlike Frank Elgin, I'm afraid." He was turning to go. "I'm looking forward to working with you, but for now it has to be goodbye."
For a moment there had been almost a flicker of human feeling. Frank Elgin was the damaged partner. Arabella said faintly, "Goodbye, and thank you."
At the foot of the steps he nodded, acknowledging her words, then strode away to where the neat path curved towards the drive.