The sound of male voices outside in the corridor filtered through into Rachel’s somewhat confused and disturbing nightmare. She had initially been on a boat; a yacht to be more precise, sailing down the river toward the Island. Lou and the girls were on board and the sun was shining, so it started as a sweet dream. Then things changed, and the yacht was overrun by Damaris and a bunch of Portuguese sailors clutching cutlasses between their teeth. She was just being made to walk the plank when Mark turned up in a speedboat, except that it wasn’t Mark, it was Dr Hussein and then when she looked again it was Sam, and Damaris had turned into Adele. A smirking Adele.
Rachel shook her head in the vain hope that her thoughts would become less muddled. “It’s just my subconscious jumbling everything up together. I’m probably still in shock.”
She looked around the room; everything seemed as it was before she went to sleep, apart from the fact that there were now two men bickering outside in the corridor. “Hello?” she called. “Is that you Mark? I’m awake now.”
The door opened and Mark peered round it, a very serious expression on his face. “Are you okay? Did we wake you?”
“Out of the way Marky boy. Medical professional coming through. You must be the lovely Rachel? I am the equally lovely Ben and I am here to make you all better again. How do you do?”
A vision in a pure white and very neatly tailored nurse’s uniform; Ben was all that Lou had described and more. His immaculately coiffed blonde hair was set off by a real tan that put Damaris’s patchy brown to shame. Rachel took his outstretched hand and was surprised by the strength of his grip.
“Not all poofs are pansies darling, I work out every day and kick box for fun. I’ll never be quite as macho as darling Marky here, but I get by. Out you go Mark. I have a patient to see to and I don’t want you slavering away while I’m doing it.”
Mark looked over at Rachel, who nodded her assent. Looking more than a little downhearted he backed out of the room. Rachel pulled back the duvet again; she was beginning to feel like the bearded lady at a circus, and wondered if she should start charging admission fees. For all the high camp, Ben was actually a very good nurse; he checked over the scratches on her legs and face, then very gently removed the dressing on her thigh. “Oh! Poor you! That must have really hurt!”
“I didn’t notice it at the time. I’m still not sure if Damaris would have actually run me down if Mark hadn’t thrown me into the bush. Her driving was pretty erratic.”
“Blind as a bat and too vain to wear her specs. One of these days she’ll get caught speeding but Daddy will buy her a ‘get out of jail free’ card; she’ll bat those baby blue eyes and flash a bit of cleavage at the judge and hey presto, she’s back on the streets careering around like a loon again. She’s been after Mark since he moved down here with Sorrel. That was before she had the boob and nose jobs, and the tummy tuck, mind you. I don’t know why she doesn’t just have laser eye surgery and be done with it. She’ll be on the Botox next; her Mummy already looks like she’s been embalmed. Have you met Mummy yet?
Rachel shook her head, entranced by the flood of words and wondering whether Ben would make a good subject for one of her village articles.
“Pure poison, darling. Common as muck and forgets that those who’ve lived in this Village for years know exactly what she was before she married old Davenport. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she was the village bike, more like a tatty old kid’s scooter. Damaris is the brightest of the bunch I’m afraid, her dopey brothers haven’t got the sense they were born with. That’s why Mummy keeps them tucked away at boarding school – it’s actually more like a posh Borstal really. There! All done! You’ll be pleased to know that your wound is looking healthier this evening. I will come again before surgery in the morning, and if you’re very good and have continued progressing I may even let that big lug outside carry you into the lounge to watch TV. Bed rest for tonight though. Are you two an item?”
“I – no – I split up with my partner just over a month ago. Lou asked me to come down for a rest and to get away from seeing my ex and his new girlfriend every day. I’m not with anyone. I don’t want to be with anyone. I’m totally off men.”
“Hmm. Not convinced. Still, you’ve plenty of time if you’re here for another three months. Time to get the old one out of your system and choose between your two lucky suitors.”
“Oh yes darling, Dr H is rather smitten with you too. Said he was intending to ask you out for a drink when you’re back on your feet. Might have a bit of competition with your bezzie mate though. Lou has the hots for the Doc too. Anyway, must dash. I’ll pop in whilst old Mother Kneller is scrubbing the floorboards in the morning. Remember, bed rest this evening and no shenanigans with our Marky! Toodle pip!”
And like a white whirlwind he was gone. Mark tapped gently on the door. “Is it safe now? Am I allowed in?”
“Of course,” said Rachel, pulling the duvet up to her chin and leaning back against the pillows. Mark sat down gingerly at the end of the bed. “I’m really sorry about the infection. I thought I was doing the right thing with those Steri-strips but apparently, I didn’t get all the bits out first. How does it feel?”
“Sore, but Ben says it’s looking okay. Did you get the tablets from the chemist?”
“Yes. I left them on the kitchen table, Ben distracted me.”
“Not like that!” said Mark, looking highly offended, “I’m not his type at all.”
Laughing, Rachel shook her head. “I didn’t think for one moment he was, but you have to admit he’s rather larger than life. Have you had a good day?”
“Your Portuguese friends have kept me rather busy, and then I was – I was – well, worrying about you. I’ll get your tablets. Lou said she’d phone me when dinner is done and I’ll fetch it from hers. Are you allowed to get up yet?”
“No, Ben says I have to wait till tomorrow. Could you help me out to the bathroom though, Mark?”
Rachel had thought that he might take her arm and walk her out as Lou had done earlier but no, in a moment she felt herself lifted out of bed and carried to the bathroom as if she were light as a feather. Mark put her down in the doorway. and she hurriedly pulled down her nightshirt to cover what modesty she had left.
“I’ll get the tablets; call me when you’re ready to go back.”
Left alone in the bathroom again, Rachel decided that the scratches on her face were looking less red than before. She fluffed up her fringe a little, put on some deodorant and grimaced at her reflection.
“Are you okay in there?”
Staggering slightly, Rachel made it to the doorway only to find herself picked up and carried back to bed again. She had to admit, there was something rather reassuring about being looked after in this way. Sam would never have done anything like this. He’d disappeared for a week the first time she had a cold because he didn’t want to catch her germs. His tolerance level for illness hadn’t improved over time.
Stop comparing, Rachel!
Mark placed her very gently on the bed. He sat down again, a bit closer than he had before, and took one of her hands in his. “Can I just say a few things?”
“Fire away. I’m a captive audience after all.”
“Damaris is not my fiancée, not even my girlfriend. I went to dinner at her parents’ house once, but only then because she tricked me into it by saying it was a dinner dance. I’m really sorry about the bush but I thought she was going to run you down.
“She sent me flowers.”
“Oh! Did she? That was kind of her.”
“Not really. The flowers were hideous and the card that came with it was insulting. She claims that you have a habit of picking up waifs and strays. Which am I?”
“Neither. You are the things that she aspires to be but will never attain. You’re real. She isn’t.”
Rachel blushed and tried very hard not to look him in the eyes, very aware that there was a large possibility that he might kiss her, and though the idea of that was quite appealing, it was all too soon. “Thank you,” she said quietly, trying to formulate sentences in her head that wouldn’t sound too trite when she uttered them. “Mark, we’re both adults – and – it isn’t just the infection that is making me feel hot and bothered right now…”
Mark sighed and raised his eyes heavenwards. “Why does there have to be a but?”
“Because I’m a month out of a long-term relationship, because Sam broke my heart, and I’m not in a good place right now, because I don’t know you very well yet, you are my best friend’s big brother and I would hate it if anything went wrong, and because my leg hurts like hell. Have you got those tablets please?”
“Rachel, I’m so sorry. Here they are. I’ll get you some fresh water – or juice – do you want juice? Or wine? You shouldn’t really take this stuff with wine – bad idea.”
“Water would be lovely. Thank you.”
Rachel gave a sigh of relief as Mark took her glass off to the kitchen to refill it. She tried to look at the situation as analytically as possible. Mark was gorgeous; funny, extremely sexy, bright and obviously very good at his job. He was Lou’s much-loved brother though, and if she had a fling with him and it didn’t turn out right, well there would be more heartbreak for both of the., Lou and the girls would hate her and she’d be homeless. And deep at the heart of it all, there was still Sam. She didn’t know if she still loved him – or hated him even. He was still there though; still standing between her and anything she tried to plan for the future.
Mark came back with the water and she took it from him, knocking back the pills in the hope that they would put her to sleep again. He sat down on the edge of the bed and took her hand in his again. “Okay. I think I understand. I think we are attracted to each other but it’s a physical thing right now and you aren’t in any state to do anything other than sleep, eat …”
“… and go to the bathroom.”
“Yes, that too. Anything I know about you I know from Lou and vice versa. If we can, let’s put the physical thing to one side for now. I’ve taken a few days off so I can be here …”
“Mark! You didn’t have to do that!”
“I did it because I wanted to – and I do feel responsible. Damaris was my stalker and it was me that pushed you into the hedge after all. When you feel a bit better, maybe we could go out for a drink, for dinner perhaps? Just as people who are getting to know each other. Sort of a date maybe?”
Rachel smiled and squeezed his hand. “Yes, I’d like that – although Dr Hussein has beaten you to it. I’ve already promised him I’d go out with him for a drink.”
“I shall have words next time I see him. Lou’s got a bit of a thing for him and I don’t want my little sister’s heart broken in two again.”
She frowned. “I didn’t realise it was that serious. I would never do anything to hurt Lou. Just don’t leave me alone with him though. He has very lovely eyes and an extraordinary bedside manner.”
She yawned and felt her eyelids beginning to feel very heavy; the painkillers must be very strong. Mark got up, and letting go her hand gave her a brief but loving kiss on the forehead. “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you up a bit later when I’ve fetched dinner from Lou’s, then after that you can have the benefit of my best interrogation techniques.”
“That’s not what I meant by getting to know each other better.” Rachel protested. Mark grinned, winked and left the room.