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'Hi, Janet. Did you have a good weekend?'

'No. It was an unmitigated disaster. I've just been telling Toni all about it.'

'What happened?' Sophie tried not to sound eager to hear but at least there was someone else who hadn't enjoyed their break from work.

'Dennis,' Janet said gloomily.

'Oh.' Sophie sat down with her fresh coffee. Dennis was a real-estate agent Janet had met several weeks ago when he had marketed a neighbouring property. So far the dates had been very successful. Dennis was wealthy, stylish and very keen on Janet. 'I take it the evening at home with the boys didn't go so well?'

Toni giggled. 'Rory told Dennis that he was a dork.'

'Oh, no!' Sophie bit her lip.

'If the boys hadn't built that possum trap in the back garden it wouldn't have been a problem.'

'Have you got possums?' Sophie queried.

'Not that I know of.' Janet grinned. 'Adam and Rory just wanted to make a trap. They dug this big hole and covered it with twigs and leaves. Then it started raining and they came inside and forgot about it.'

'They didn't tell Janet they had built it near the woodshed,' Toni added.

'And Dennis very helpfully offered to get some wood in for the fire while I was getting dinner ready,' Janet continued. 'He stepped in the possum trap and fell face down into the muddiest part of the garden. Rory and Adam were watching from the upstairs window. Dennis was naturally furious at their amusement, and when I hauled them down to apologise Rory said it wasn't their fault that I was going out with a dork.'

Sophie laughed. Even Janet was sounding amused.

'He said he was going home to change his suit. Only he never came back.'

'Not father material, then,' Sophie noted.

'Apparently not.' Janet looked resigned. 'I don't know why I keep trying.'

'Because the boys need a father,' Toni reminded her. 'You've been saying so for years.'

'Yes—but I don't think I need a man,' Janet groaned. 'The good ones are too hard to find.'

'You're telling me.' Toni smiled at Sophie. 'At least one of us has got lucky.'

'Why don't you get the boys into a club of some sort?' Sophie suggested quickly, trying to deflect the attention from herself. 'Something with a male role model. Like rugby or Scouts.' ;

'They're too young for Scouts,' Janet responded. 'They'd like to go to Cubs but the uniforms are awfully expensive. A lot of their friends go.'

'Sounds ideal,' Sophie encouraged. 'What's the cubmaster like?'

Toni grinned. 'Is he single?'

'I believe so.' Janet rolled her eyes. 'I've also heard that he likes knitting.'

Toni laughed, getting to her feet. 'Come on. Time to get back to the grind. Forget the cubmaster. Nobody's that desperate. Even me!'

 

The last of Ruby Murdock's results came back on Thursday. The last few days had seen a kind of unspoken truce between Sophie and Oliver. They had both withdrawn to a space that precluded any interaction of a personal nature. Oliver hadn't flirted—not once—and Sophie had relaxed her guard enough to smile a little more often.

'You've got diabetes, Mrs Murdock,' Sophie confirmed, having explained the results. 'You've also got a rather high cholesterol level.'

'Oh.' Ruby looked apprehensive but then smiled at Sophie. 'I expect you'll want to give me some pills, then, dear.'

'Not immediately.' Sophie glanced at Oliver who nodded encouragement. 'It's quite possible that these issues can be successfully treated with some lifestyle changes.' Her gaze included Felicity King who was sitting beside her mother. 'That's why I thought it would be a good idea if Felicity came in with you today. We want to get your cholesterol level down and help you lose some weight. That means you need to make changes to your diet and your level of activity.'

'I've been going for walks,' Ruby protested. 'Every day since I saw you on Monday. Today will be the third time.'

'That's great, Ruby,' Oliver nodded. 'It's a very good start. Keep it up.'

Ruby beamed. 'It was Dr Bennett's green prescription. I feel I have to do it.'

'I have the list we made on Monday, Mrs Murdock.' Sophie caught Felicity's eye. 'All those wonderful dinners Felicity makes for you. Did you read that pamphlet I gave you on high-fat foods?'

'I did,' Felicity said. 'And I've told Mum I'm not doing any more roasts for her. Or pies.'

Ruby gave her daughter a wounded look. Felicity sighed heavily.

'There are some very good low-fat meals you can buy in the supermarket,' Sophie suggested. 'I know they're a little expensive but you just need to heat them up in the microwave. I use them myself quite often. It's very easy and you don't need to change everything at once. We'll tackle one step at a time.'

'Felicity likes cooking for me,' Ruby stated. 'Don't you, dear?'

'Well, actually, Mum...' Felicity cast an appealing glance at Sophie. Oliver cleared his throat and stood up.

'I'll leave you to it, Dr Bennett. I'm sure you'll all sort out a great plan.'

Sophie made sure she caught Oliver before her next patient.

'How could you?' she groaned. 'I ended up mediating emotional warfare between mother and daughter.'

'Good practice,' Oliver grinned, and suddenly the tension of the last week evaporated. The warmth was there again. The barrier was down. Oliver's expression became more serious. 'How did it go?'

'I think we made some progress,' Sophie said hopefully. 'Ruby's got the idea that she might be asking a bit much of Felicity. She's going to get her exercise by walking to the supermarket every other day. It's only ten minutes away and that'll save Felicity having to take her shopping once a week. She's also going to try cooking for herself once or twice a week. She didn't look very happy about it all, though.'

'Did Felicity look any happier?'

'No.' Sophie sighed worriedly. 'I think her mother's very good at making her feel guilty. It's going to be an effort for both of them to make changes.'

'When are you seeing Ruby again?'

'Next week. She'll need lots of encouragement to keep going. Janet's going to monitor her weight and throw in a few pep talks.'

'Good. It can be a big effort to make changes.' Oliver's gaze dropped suddenly to Sophie's left hand and she felt a familiar prickle. Ruby Murdock wasn't the only one capable of stirring up guilt feelings.

'How's the finger?'

'Fine.' Sophie waggled the digit in question. 'I was going to take the steri-strips off today.'

'Great. I'll do it for you.'

'There's no need.' Even the thought of Oliver's hands touching her own deliberately caused a minor sensation of panic, panic that could actually be stirrings of the desire Sophie had thought she had successfully suppressed.

'I'd like to have a look. After all, I did treat it. Come on, to the treatment room.' Oliver was holding the door open. 'I've only got the repeat prescriptions to do for the next half-hour and they won't mind waiting.'

'I've got some reading I really need to do on Type Two diabetes,' Sophie protested. 'I was just going to make a start.'

'That can wait, too,' Oliver declared. 'You've been buried with your books or dashing off to tutorials or workshops all week. Anyone would think you were suddenly trying to avoid us all.'

Sophie had no answer to that. She doubted whether any protest would sound convincing enough. It was, after all, quite true.

'Now, let's have a look.' Oliver cradled Sophie's hand in his as he unwound the gauze bandage. He inspected the cut on her finger with close attention. 'Looks lovely,' he pronounced. His grip on her hand tightened as he glanced up. 'Just like the rest of you,' he added softly.

Sophie was still speechless. So it had just been an interlude, a few days' respite in the campaign Oliver had launched to draw her into his bed. This was the opportunity she had waited for all week. The chance to put Oliver Spencer in his place. To let him know precisely what she thought of the male gender's attitude to sex in general and Oliver Spencer's attitude in particular. She knew her lips had parted but the right words weren't available.

She could feel the distance between herself and Oliver closing. Slowly. Too slowly. Sophie knew perfectly well that Oliver Spencer was about to kiss her. She also knew that she
wanted
Oliver Spencer to kiss her. Wanted it desperately.

'Ooh, sorry! Am I interrupting something?' Janet's wildly curly head was just visible past Oliver's shoulder. He adjusted the distance between himself and Sophie smoothly, transferring his eye contact to his practice nurse.

'Not at all, Jan. I'm just going to take these steri-strips off Sophie's finger. You couldn't find a bit of plaster or something, could you? It'll still need to be kept covered.'

'I've got just the thing.' Janet produced a sticking plaster adorned with Disney characters. She peered at Sophie's finger. 'I didn't realise you had to use yourself as a guinea pig in those minor surgery workshops.'

'You don't.' Sophie tried to smile but her lips trembled. 'Some of us are just a little over-enthusiastic.'

Oliver caught her eye. The movement of his eyebrows and mouth suggested that she might be referring to what Janet's entrance had circumvented. 'Enthusiasm can be a very good attribute,' he said quietly. 'I'm all in favour of it myself.'

'That's fine,' Sophie agreed, meeting his gaze squarely. 'Provided someone doesn't end up getting hurt.'

Oliver stuck the plaster down gently. 'There. I'm afraid you still won't fit your ring on.'

'Just as well you weren't wearing it when you cut your finger,' Janet observed. 'It would have been painful getting it off.'

'Maybe it was painful anyway,' Oliver muttered. Sophie gave him a sharp glance which caused his lips to curve unrepentantly. 'I mean, after five years it could have been almost ingrown.'

'You're as bad as Josh,' Janet admonished. 'You both seem to be allergic to anything long term in the way of relationships. What's so wrong with a bit of commitment?'

'Oh, nothing at all.' Oliver glanced back over his shoulder as he dropped the rubbish he had collected into the bin. 'As long as it's going somewhere. Do you play chess, Jan?'

'No.' Janet winked at Sophie. 'But I'm considering taking up knitting.'

'Try chess,' Oliver advised as he headed for the door. 'You'll find out that both winning and losing can be exciting. But there's nothing worse than a stalemate.'

'I'd settle for a mate.' Janet grinned cheekily after Oliver had gone. 'Stale or otherwise.'

'No, you wouldn't,' Sophie contradicted firmly. 'That's why you're still single. You're waiting for exactly the right person. Like me.'

Janet glanced at Sophie with a curious expression. 'But you never had to wait. You've got Greg.'

'Mmm.' Sophie fought off a wave of despair. 'I guess I'm not in any position to hand out advice. But don't listen to Oliver either. It's not about winning and losing. If a relationship is going to mean anything, I think it has to be more than just a game.'

Oliver thought it was a game. He didn't even care if he won or lost. He just wanted to play.

And he wanted to play with Sophie.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Sophie
wasn't going to play with Oliver Spencer.

She wasn't going to play with any man. Subterfuge went against all her basic principles and it was no wonder she felt so disturbed. Being less than honest was lowering herself to Oliver's level. A flirtatious comment here, a double meaning or lie by omission there. Deception, for whatever reason, was unacceptable and even self-protection wasn't a good excuse. Sophie Bennett knew what she wanted out of life and out of a relationship. Nobody, and particularly Oliver Spencer, was going to manipulate her into settling for anything less.

When you stopped looking for them, opportunities presented themselves quite easily. Sophie hadn't anticipated the direction the conversation would take when Janet pointed out a page in the magazine she was browsing through at lunchtime.

'Look at that!' she exclaimed. 'Milford Sound. Isn't that the most beautiful place you could ever imagine?'

'You have to tramp for days to get there,' Toni told her. 'Heavy backpacks, sore feet. You'd be too exhausted to appreciate the view once you got there.'

Sophie laughed. 'It's not that bad. I love tramping.'

'Do you?' Josh looked surprised. 'I hadn't picked you for a hardy outdoors type.'

'I'll bet Graham loves tramping, top,' Oliver observed drily. 'I can just imagine him throwing up a tent single-handed.' He sipped his coffee thoughtfully. 'And making a fire with just a few twigs to rub together.'

'His name's Greg,' Sophie corrected wearily. 'He's not a Scout.' She threw Oliver a long-suffering glance. 'And he did love tramping. We just haven't had time for anything like that for years.' Sophie fiddled with the sticking plaster on her finger. 'In fact, we haven't really had much time together for years.'

'That sounds like a bit of a problem,' Toni sympathised.

'Oh, I don't know.' Josh was grinning broadly. 'Sounds like a great way to keep a relationship going. Don't see each other.'

Toni ignored Josh. 'You'll have more time once you get married,' she reassured Sophie. 'Maybe you can go tramping on your honeymoon.'

'There isn't going to be a honeymoon,' Sophie heard herself announce quietly.

'Why—is Greg too busy?' It was Oliver's turn to sound sympathetic. 'We can always give you some time off here. No problem.'

Sophie kept her gaze on the table. 'It's not just that,' she said determinedly. 'There are other things.'

There was a short silence around the table.

'Have you had a row with Greg?' Janet asked tentatively.

'Not exactly.' Sophie bit her lip.

'You haven't broken your engagement, have you?' Toni sounded horrified. 'But you've been together for years! You love each other.'

'There are different kinds of love,' Sophie said cautiously. 'Different levels. I don't think what Greg and I have is strong enough for marriage.'

'Nonsense.' Oliver was looking worried. Did he think Sophie might blame him publicly for changing her mind? 'You're just getting cold feet now that you've finally taken the plunge and set a date.'

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