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'And if it doesn't work out,' Josh said kindly, 'I'll let you borrow my little black book.'

'Little!' Toni's exclamation was scathing. 'What is it, volume fourteen?'

Janet moved to sit on the couch. 'You're very quiet, Sophie. Are you OK?'

Sophie nodded. She glanced at the first sentence of the article she still hadn't managed to focus on. 'The conservative estimate of people in New Zealand with hepatitis C is 40,000 and increasing steadily,' she told Janet with concern. 'It's an epidemic that's being largely ignored.'

'Mmm.' Janet was clearly not enthralled.

Neither was Sophie. She dropped the glossy paper and excused herself. At least she had a full afternoon clinic of patients to distract her. There was nothing when she arrived back at her empty house, totally exhausted but still not prepared to allow herself another bout of introspection and critical self-analysis. This time she headed straight for the wine cask. The only way out of all this was to do something really courageous. Like put it all behind her and move on. To find a substitute. Like a career. It hadn't been so long ago that the thought of general practice long term had been very inspiring. Maybe it would be enough on its own. Sophie nodded decisively and raised her glass in a private toast.

Maybe she could try for the third partnership at St David's. But what if Oliver was serious about Christine, which seemed like more of a definite possibility after the clues he had dropped today? Could she see and work with him every day? Receive that silver embossed invitation to his wedding? See photographs of gurgling little Spencers in pride of place on Toni's noticeboard? Not likely. No way!

A career at St David's as a substitute would have to be a temporary measure. A means of getting through a sticky patch. A focus that could allow the chaos of her emotional life to settle into some semblance of order. And preferably get buried. It had worked for a while as a means for getting her over what she had thought to be simply a physical obsession with Oliver Spencer. It could work as a means of starting again. She was at rock bottom after all. The only way now was up. It could work. It
had
to work. That test paper on high blood pressure was probably a good place to start. She would see if she could tackle it without noticing the handwriting or wallowing in images of the writer.

Sophie arrived at St David's on Wednesday with the strength of her new determination carefully maintained. She went straight to her own office, removed a manila folder from her bag and then marched purposefully two doors down the corridor. Oliver's door was open. He was browsing through a medical journal.

'Here's the assignment you set for me on the management of hypertension.'

'That was quick.' Oliver held out his hand for the folder. 'What did you do? Stay up all night?'

'Something like that,' Sophie muttered. She had caught sight of the wedding invitation samples, now spread out on the blotter that marked the central area of Oliver's large desk. 7 didn't have any major distractions,' she couldn't help adding.

Oliver grinned. 'The cupids are cute, aren't they?'

'Gorgeous.'

'Now I'm trying to decide on a honeymoon destination.' Oliver seemed unperturbed by Sophie's sarcastic tone. 'A week in Fiji, do you think? Or maybe Norfolk Island?'

'I hear Hanmer Springs is very romantic,' Sophie said coolly. 'I guess it depends on how far you want to go.'

'Exactly.' Oliver's glance speared Sophie with unexpected challenge. 'How far do
you
want to go, Sophie?'

Sophie was spared having to respond to the odd query by the angry voice outside Oliver's door.

'I don't
want
coffee. And I
don't
want any bloody paracetamol.'

A door slammed and both Sophie and Oliver turned in dismay to see Toni walk past, a steaming mug in one hand, something curled in the palm of the other. She smiled wryly at her audience.

'Well, I tried.' She carried on towards the kitchen.

Sophie was still staring, as though she expected Josh to rush past the door on his way to apologise to Toni.

'Hangover, I expect,' Oliver said lightly. 'He looked a bit pale and his eyes were decidedly bloodshot this morning.'

'Really?' Sophie's tone was unsympathetic. 'And it's only Wednesday.'

'I think he's still having hassles, trying to get rid of Deborah,' Oliver mused. 'He should have taken my advice and been honest with her in the first place.'

'It must be nice to be right all the time.' Sophie could hear both of Toni's phones ringing. Maybe Janet was late this morning. The boys had been difficult to get off to school lately. Sophie sighed. 'I'd better go and answer those calls. I have a feeling it's going to be one of those days.'

Oliver picked up a large black bag that was beside his chair. 'Time I escaped, then. Half of the Bay Villa Rest Home is down with flu. It should keep me out of mischief all morning.'

Sophie kept ahead of him. 'Let's hope Josh gets his act together, then. I don't fancy having to cope on my own.' She ducked into the main office and reached for the phone. The other one had stopped ringing. Oliver paused briefly on the other side of the counter as she picked up the receiver. His smile was warm.

'You'll never have to do that, Sophie. Don't worry.'

'Hello?' A voice called faintly. 'Hello? Is anyone there?'

'St David's Medical Centre,' Sophie responded automatically. She watched the front door swing shut as Oliver strode out. 'Sophie Bennett speaking.'

'Sophie? Oh, thank goodness. It's Pagan Ellis here.'

Sophie blinked. She wouldn't have recognised the voice.

'I feel awful, Sophie. Something terrible's happening.'

'Calm down, Pagan. What's happening? Are you bleeding?'

'No—I just feel terrible.'

'Can you come in? I haven't got anyone booked until 9.30. How soon could you get here?'

Pagan arrived at 9.15 by taxi. She looked pale and distressed. 'I'm so hot,' she told .{Sophie. 'I've got a splitting headache and I hurt all over. And I keep getting these contractions.'

'You've got a dose of flu.' Sophie told her a short time later. 'And you're running a high temperature. Have you taken any paracetamol?'

'God, no! I can't take any drugs,' Pagan moaned. 'It might be dangerous for the baby.'

'A high temperature might be more dangerous,' Sophie told her. 'I'll get you some in a minute. How long have you been noticing these contractions?'

'Since last night.'

'Are they painful?'

'No. It's the only bit of me that doesn't hurt.' Pagan was close to tears. 'Oh, I feel sick.'

'Have you timed the contractions at all?'

'Just before I rang you. I'm getting them every five to ten minutes.'

'I'm going to get Dr Cooper to come and have a look at you, Pagan,' Sophie told her gently. 'I'm really not experienced enough to deal with this on my own.'

Pagan seemed unconvinced of Josh's ability despite his thorough examination. He showed no signs of his earlier bad temper even when faced by Pagan's doubts.

'I'm only just twenty weeks pregnant. I'm not supposed to be going into labour,' she sobbed. 'I want to see a specialist.'

'Exactly what I was going to suggest,' Josh told her calmly. 'I don't think you're in labour, Pagan. Your cervix isn't effaced at all and you've been getting these contractions for some time. You're obviously unwell with what looks like a viral illness and it's making your uterus irritable. To be on the safe side, I think we should get you admitted to Women's and have the experts keep you under observation for a while.'

'Oh, yes, please,' Pagan whispered. 'Can I go now?'

Josh nodded. 'We'll call an ambulance for you.'

Sophie's first scheduled patient had to wait twenty minutes and Toni caught her attention as she grabbed the file.

'I've squeezed an extra one in for you at 10 a.m. Can you cope?'

'Sure.' Sophie could see that both Toni and Janet were stressed. It was definitely one of those mornings.

Whatever the level of stress being experienced by both the practice manager and the nurse at St David's, it was nothing to Sophie's reaction on discovering who her 10 a.m. appointment was with. Christine Prescott sat on the other side of Sophie's desk and smiled shyly.

'I hope you don't mind me coming here—as a patient, I mean.'

'Not at all.' Sophie endeavoured to make her smile welcoming.

'I don't really have a GP,' Christine explained. 'I travel so much, being a drug rep, but I'm giving up the job soon and I expect we'll be settling in Christchurch.' Christine's smile was almost embarrassed. Sophie understood why when her attention was caught by the twisting movement of Christine's fingers. Twisting that was directed to the ring on the third finger of her left hand.

Sophie swallowed, to try and ease the sudden tightness in her throat. 'You're engaged?' Her voice came out with a croak.

'Mmm.' Now Christine definitely looked embarrassed. 'And not a minute too soon, it would seem.'

'Oh?' Sophie wasn't even attempting a smile now. She could sense what was coming. Like the chill that descended when the black clouds of a southerly blast built up to breaking point.

'I'm pretty sure I'm pregnant.' Christine bit her lip. 'That's why I popped in. I want to be sure before I tell my fiancé.'

'Of course.' Sophie noticed the slight tremor in her hand as she picked up her pen. 'How old are you, Christine?'

'Twenty-two.'

'And do you know the date of the first day of your last period?'

'Not exactly. It's about five, no, probably six weeks ago.'

Sophie glanced at the calendar on her wall. About
two weeks before Oliver had been away to Hanmer Springs, then. That figured.

'Have you been using any form of contraceptives?'

Christine sucked in her breath. 'We did
try
to remember.' She glanced at Sophie appealingly. 'You get a bit carried away sometimes. You know how it is.'

'Mmm.' Sophie didn't know at all. She had never been carried away by an irresistible physical passion. Maybe she should have tried it. Maybe if she had it would be her with an engagement ring on her finger again and Oliver Spencer's baby starting to grow inside her. Sophie felt sick.

'We can do a urine test for you right now, Christine. It should be quite conclusive but we'll back it up with a blood test if necessary.'

Christine watched Sophie select the testing kit and a specimen jar from her cupboard.

'I feel a bit shocked, to tell you the truth. I'm not sure how my fiancé is going to feel about it.'

'It's always a bit of a shock if it's not planned,' Sophie said calmly.

'Oh, we're planning to have children,' Christine said confidently. 'It's just that we weren't planning on starting quite so soon.'

'Take this sample jar with you.' Sophie shoved it across her desk. 'The toilet's just opposite the main office, on the right as you go down the corridor.'

The rest of the morning passed in something of a blur for Sophie. Fortunately the patients had only minor complaints. She didn't go near the staffroom when she had finished. She had no appetite for lunch. She had no desire to attend the Wednesday afternoon tutorial session at the hospital either, but at least it
allowed her to escape from St David's for a few hours.

Oliver was swinging his large, black bag as he sauntered in from the car park. Sophie tried to get past with just a chilly nod but Oliver didn't let her get away with it.

'I hope Josh's bad mood wasn't that contagious,' he called. 'I was planning to enjoy my afternoon.'

Sophie stopped in her tracks. How dared he be so cheerful? She supposed Christine hadn't contacted him with the news of her positive result yet. Would he
still
look so cheerful when he learned of his impending paternity?

'I'm sure you will.' Sophie met his bland gaze angrily. 'You might even get some good news. Maybe I should offer my congratulations in advance.'

'What?' Oliver was frowning now. 'What on earth are you talking about, Sophie?'

'I saw Christine Prescott this morning,' Sophie snapped. Rules about confidentiality didn't apply between doctors, did they? 'Nice ring, by the way, but you'd better get on with sending out those invitations.'

Oliver wasn't frowning now. He was staring at Sophie as though he'd never seen her before.

'And I wouldn't recommend the hot pools as a honeymoon destination,' Sophie added triumphantly. 'Not a good idea for a pregnant bride.'

The colour drained out of Oliver's face with remarkable speed. 'God, Sophie,' he said in a shocked tone. 'You don't really think that I—'

'I've got to go,' Sophie interrupted. 'I've got a tutorial on antenatal care to go to. Appropriate, wouldn't you say?'

'Sophie, listen.' Oliver's facial muscles were working overtime. 'Christine Prescott may very well be pregnant but—'

'She
is
pregnant,' Sophie interrupted again. 'Very definitely. About five weeks. She would have conceived about the weekend of—'

'But it's
not
my baby!' Oliver exploded. 'It
can't
be! Christine Prescott means nothing to me, Sophie. I've never even
touched
her. I've never wanted to!'

Sophie allowed a full two seconds' silence to tick past. 'Oh, Oliver,' she said sadly. 'And you were the one who convinced me how important honesty is. How important commitment is.' She shook her head and turned away.

'Shame on you, Oliver Spencer.'

 

CHAPTER NINE

The
large wall clock gave the time as being only 9 o'clock.

The first patient for the morning had yet to enter the premises but the St David's Medical Centre staff looked as if they'd already had enough.

Janet had rung in to say she'd be late. The boys were sick and the babysitter couldn't get there until 9 a.m. Josh seemed even grumpier than he'd been yesterday morning and now Toni was tight-lipped.

'All I did was ask if he was feeling any better,' Toni muttered indignantly to Sophie. 'He didn't have to snap at me.' She snatched the referral letter she'd just finished out of the computer's printer tray. 'Sometimes I wonder why I bother getting out of bed.'

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