“You always knew I couldn’t do it, didn’t you?” Nicky didn’t know whether to be furious or relieved as she said that, but she was definitely disappointed in herself and angry with her dad for not making it clear that she was biting off more than she could chew.
Then she remembered that he had tried and she hadn’t wanted to listen and wished she hadn’t snarled at him. Luckily her Dad only shook his head resignedly in the way she’d seen so often when he’d been dealing with his highly volatile wife and daughter. That reminded her yet again that her mum was dead and buried and the ever-present guilt that she was adding to his burden when all she’d ever wanted was to prove that she could stand on her own two feet and make a success of her life joined the tangled mix of her emotions as he said.
“I did tell you that running your own practice when you were barely out of veterinary college would be a big ask, but you’ve always specialised in tackling those and triumphing so I’m sure this is only a temporary blip. To be honest, it’s a relief to get away for a while; and I need to get your gran and granddad sorted out because I took my eye off the ball there. There were too many memories at home, and the atmosphere at work isn’t the pleasantest, so I’m fine about being here as long as you and your gran and granddad need me and probably a fair while after any of you want me. And we’ll have no more talk about ‘can’t do it’ when all you need to do is learn the business side and how to deal with staff even when they’re being annoying.”
“I’m sorry. “ She blinked back tears because she was sorry for so many things that she didn’t know where to begin to apologise. Sorry that she’d been too much of a coward to face being around to share the burden that he’d carried anything like as much as she should have been. Sorry that her mum had had to die inch by painful inch from the evil thing that was motor neurone disease. Sorry that she hadn’t been able to cope with her claiming that she’d be fine in a few weeks so the increasingly lengthy hospital and hospice stays were only because the doctors were fussing. Sorry that when she had come home she’d fallen head over heels in love with a man who was only ever going to be in love with himself. Sorry that what she’d done when she’d caught him had made the atmosphere at the veterinary practice that her dad and his best friend had built up with such love and care not just impossible for herself but so awkward for her dad that he’d needed to escape. Sorriest of all that she’d rushed into buying this veterinary practice down by the sea because she’d been so desperate to get away from all the memories and then had such a massive row with the locum that he’d walked out because he claimed that he didn’t need her attitude problem.
Actually, she wasn’t that sorry that he’d done that because she still couldn’t convince herself that he was much of a loss. And anyway, she didn’t have an attitude problem. She’d happily admit that she knew what she wanted and didn’t want and if her employees couldn’t cope with that then it was probably best for everyone if they did leave. Only she knew that that sort of attitude wouldn’t go down well with some of her more traditional customers and she’d now realised how much she didn’t know about running a veterinary practice. She was very much afraid that she’d alienated the receptionist too and it was all such a mess that it had been all she could do not to fling herself at her dad as soon as he’d walked in and sob out all the misery and frustration in the same way that she’d done when she’d been a kid.
“So we’ve got a locum in down in Somerset and Mum and Dad are fine about me staying at theirs as long as you need me, and God knows that they’ve got enough space.”
“It is a bit run down, isn’t it?” She’d put her foot in it there too, which was yet another sign that she couldn’t do anything right these days. Maybe people had been right to say that she’d needed to take some time off after the funeral but if she’d learned one thing from Sarah King it was that you couldn’t rely on having enough time to do all the things you wanted to. If you wanted something then you had to go out there and get it right away. There was only one thing that she wanted right now that she could have and she was determined to make it happen and show them all; even if she couldn’t quite define who ‘them’ were or why it was so important to show them.
She was going to make this little practice in the sleepy Dorset village of Little Studland where her dad had worked when he’d been starting out the success that it had been until the last vet had died of old age. His widow had kept the practice going with a succession of locums but you couldn’t say that it had thrived, any more than her gran and granddad had been thriving while all their attention had been on her mum.
“I’ve seen it looking a lot better, but at least they’ve agreed to your idea to convert the carriage house and the house into flats and for them to move over to the carriage house once it’s finished so the work won’t affect them. You know what your gran’s always been like about change, so that’s a massive achievement.”
“Have you managed to have a look at my short list of contractors?” She asked eagerly.
“Yes, and I agree with your first choice. She may be young, but her references are amazing and she came across really well when I spoke to her on the phone. She seemed genuinely excited about the project and very eager to work with us and keep things flexible and work around mum and dad. Or mostly mum, if I’m being honest because it’s always been her little kingdom. Best of all, she can start in a few weeks time.”
“I’m glad I’ve got something right, but what else was I supposed to do when the stupid man kept ignoring everything I’d asked him to do?”
“It’s too late to worry about that now. What matters is the future.” The way that Michael King so carefully didn’t criticise her was almost worse than if he’d said that she should have waited and watched and listened and introduced changes gradually rather than rushing in with all her book knowledge and grand plans. She was all too well aware of that now, but there was one thing that she could put right, so she pulled herself away from her dad, and glanced at her watch to check that there was still half an hour before surgery. Then she headed out into reception, smiled at Mary the receptionist who’d been effectively running the practice for the last thirty years and said a hesitant.
“Please can you give me five minutes or so?”
Mary tensed as if she was expecting a row, then nodded and followed Nicky into her newly decorated consulting room and settled herself on one of the high stools when Nicky gestured her to.
“Look.” She said because one thing that she did know how to do was to admit when she’d been wrong, and she was never too proud to do it. “Dad didn’t tell me to do come and talk to you but I know I’ve messed up, and I’m sorry. I can see now that I haven’t listened to you anything like as much as I should have done because I was too carried away with all my plans and tried to do too much all at once. In fact, I probably deserved Charles to walk out like that.”
“No you didn’t, and I hope you’ve told the agency what happened because we’d have been in a right mess If your dad hadn’t been able to come, and that’s not professional or fair on the animals.”
“You knew dad when he worked here, didn’t you?” Nicky played for time because she hadn’t expected that either, and it made such a change to have a nice surprise that she was scared to take it at face value.
“That’s right, Miss King.” Mary’s careful neutrality made it clear how much work she’d got to do if she wanted to build the good working relationship that they needed to have.
“I’d far rather you called me Nicky, and I want you to take the lead from now on when we get bookings. Can you decide who’d be happier with Dad while they get used to me and who won’t care who they see as long as they know their stuff?” She didn’t ask for the patients who’d give her a fair chance because she’d long ago learned that life wasn’t fair and it was up to you to go after anything you wanted. She’d also concede that she might have gone in a bit too hard this time, but she’d got a chance to put it right and she intended to grab it with both hands.
“Dad’s planning to stay till we find the right permanent replacement.” She went on when Mary nodded but didn’t say anything. “And I really will listen to your advice and value it if you’re prepared to give it to me.” Not only had she managed not to cry again, she felt better enough to wish that she’d washed her face and cursed the fair skin that would make her red eyes and nose so obvious. She’d need to redo her makeup before evening surgery, but this had mattered too much not to do it right away.
“Oh, bless your heart,” Mary looked as if she wanted to hug her but didn’t quite dare. “Don’t let Charles upset you because everyone knows that he was only jealous because he knew he’ll never be half the vet you are. And you’re so clever that you’ll learn all the other side in no time. I was only saying to Phil over at the shop the other day that no one ever has to tell you anything twice and you’re lovely with the small animals and the children. Really kind and nothing’s ever too much trouble for you.”
“Were you really?” At any other time, she’d have flinched at the idea of being gossiped about. Right now, she was so desperate for reassurance that she’d take anything that she could get.
“Of course I was, and you’re going to do just fine, you wait and see. There’s always bound to be teething troubles with anything new and I think you’ll find that most people around here won’t miss Charles at all. All the older ones already know your dad and you’re a King, which counts for a lot around here.”
“So you’re not going to leave?”
“Of course not. Where else would I get a job locally at my age? Let alone one I enjoyed anything like as much.” Mary was her usual practical self, and better still she relented enough to add softly. “It’d take a lot to make me leave this place. I’ve watched our customers starting with hamsters and then getting their first kitten or puppy and then bringing in their own kids with their pets or taking over their parent's farms. We’re part of the community.”
“And that’s a big thing around here too.” Nicky nodded because that was something else that she hadn’t expected and needed to get her head around fast if she was to have a chance of making a success of this. After growing up in a Somerset village she’d been sure that she understood village life, but it had been much bigger and with far more new buildings and incomers but no shop or pub. Little Studland had both and everyone knew each other and most of them worked locally. More confusingly, you could tell an Incomer because they called it Little Studland rather than Windy Bay; which was a little cove a mile or so away that people kept telling her that she must go and see because it was so beautiful and was usually quiet even at the height of the tourist season.
“Anyway,” she went on because time was ticking away and they had a business to run. “How do you think we should handle tonight’s list? Dad’s itching to get started.”
“I expect it’ll bring back happy memories of when he was your age and just married.” Mary smiled tenderly. “Poor Sarah; and it’s so hard on you that of course, I understand how much this matters to you. No one’s expecting you to be the life and soul of the party, or to have the head space to worry about other people’s feelings.”
“Thanks,” Nicky said unsteadily; and managed to control herself till they’d sorted out the work schedule for the rest of that day and the following one.
Then she indulged herself with another little cry in the loo before she fixed her make-up and got down to the business of being the vet that Windy Bay needed and deserved and proving herself yet again. Sometimes, it felt as if she’d never done anything except prove herself; which made it seem all the more of a shame that it didn’t seem to be getting any easier despite all that practice.
It got harder still late the following afternoon because the light was fading as she drove the bright red Fiat that everyone kept telling her wouldn’t stand up to the winter weather back down a succession of windier and narrower lanes. Somehow, she’d taken a wrong turning on her way back from a smallholding where a ewe had been struggling to give birth to triplets for hours before they’d had the sense to call her. The first lamb had been in a one foreleg and head presentation and well and truly stuck, and all three lambs and their mum had been in distress long before she’d been able to get there. It didn’t help that it was a hobby farm that was being run by a newcomer who’d taken early retirement from his city job. He hadn’t recognised the signs and she reckoned that he’d have been far happier if her dad had been there. But she’d managed to get the lamb’s head above his leg after a lot of gentle manipulation and now there were three gorgeous lambs and a shattered-looking mum.
She didn’t have much more energy than that poor ewe, but she was feeling so triumphant that she was singing along loudly and tunelessly to the radio as she relived the wonderful moment when she’d looked at them and seen the relief on their owner’s face. It was fair to say that not quite as much of her attention had been on the road as it should have been as she rounded yet another bend. So it probably served her right when she had to slam on her brakes to avoid a Land Rover that was so battered and covered in mud that it was hard to tell what colour the paintwork ought to be. She swore under her breath as she looked behind her as she prepared to reverse back around the corner to the nearest passing place, then relaxed marginally when the other driver started to go backwards even though he had much further to go. At any other time, her feminist principles would have been up in arms, but she was grateful as she edged forward as he reversed with what seemed to her to be unfair ease and then eased the Landy into a farm gateway and raised a hand to her in friendly acknowledgement as she passed him.
She returned the gesture and added a smile which vanished when she drew level with him because a pheasant chose that moment to run across the road in front of her; all beautiful plumage and no sense at all. She swerved, and for a second she thought that she’d managed to avoid the Land Rover. Then she swore as her wing mirror clipped the side of it. The good news was that it hadn’t come off, but it had left a long scrape on the Land Rover’s muddy paintwork and she felt like crying as she pulled in at the side of the road as soon as she could. Then she hurried back towards the driver who was entitled to be angry with a stupid woman who’d been as sure that she was used to country driving as she’d been about so many things that she was now increasingly sure that she couldn’t do anything like well enough.
“Are you okay?” The man asked as he got out of the car. At least he wasn’t cross, but things had got worse still because he’d been pointed out to her in the village shop so she knew that he was the new Lord of the Manor and had a lot of power and influence around here long after that title had become an anachronism in most places. He was also tall and lean and had one of those ageless faces that seem to study the world with amusement laced with the faintest hint of cynicism and always, always know what to do about everything they come across. Not superior, exactly, but she definitely felt inferior as he smiled at her and she didn’t like it.
“I…” She began then remembered that you shouldn’t admit liability and looked at the Land Rover instead.
“No harm done. See, the mud’s protected it beautifully.” His grin as he wiped the side of the car to prove his point made her revise her earlier view of him as an anachronism to quite unfairly sexy and she almost managed to smile as he added. “Good stuff, mud. The only problem is that I’ll now either have to clean the whole car or find some more mud.”
For a ridiculous moment, she was tempted to scoop up some of the mud that was so abundant by the farm gate and smear it on and declare ‘job done.’ Then he went on. “You’re the new vet, aren’t you? I’m Toby Druett.”
“And you own the Manor.” She heard herself saying as she went right on giving a masterclass in how to make a bad situation worse. Luckily, he didn’t seem bothered. In fact, she was starting to get very curious about what it would take to bother him as he nodded and said a cheerful.
“Don’t worry, there’s absolutely no droit de seigneur around here these days, so you’ll be quite safe with me. And you’re not in any mood for bad jokes, are you? What’s happened? A bad lambing? Those Mortons up at Sea View Farm are devils for not calling the vet in fast enough because they’re trying to save money and aren’t sure what they’re doing yet. I’d be keeping a much closer eye on them if they were my tenants and asking one of the old guys to mentor them as a condition of them keeping their tenancy… Sorry. You don’t need to have to listen to me riding my hobby horse on top of everything else.”
“Really?” She asked eagerly because his frustrated fury matched her own and suggested that she hadn’t quite failed at everything.
“Definitely. Why do you think they called you out even though there are two vets much closer? You’re not doing opening special offers, are you?”
“No; and BOGOF isn’t really a vet sort of thing, is it?”
“You might be able to do it with hamsters. Buy two and get dozens and dozens of them free.” He offered, allegedly helpfully, then paused for a minute or so while he considered and then went on. “When did you last have a proper meal? The pub in Little Studland is having a pie night tonight and a group of us our age are meeting up to compete to see who’s had the worst day. You’d be very welcome to join us, and I suspect that you’re quite likely to have a chance of winning.”
“I’ve…” She began, then thought of the unappealing choice between yet more paperwork and another meal when her dad and grandparents discussed the upcoming renovation with exasperation on her father’s part and veiled resentment on her grandmother’s. Her grandfather kept his mouth shut and his head down; exactly as he had as far back as she could remember but he’d always be on his wife’s side. Anything she said or did seemed to be wrong there too, so she usually sat in a frustrated, resentful silence rather than risk making things worse.
“I’d like that.” She said quickly because she needed to be part of the community if she was going to be a good vet and his sad smile and gentleness and charm had had absolutely nothing to do with her decision.
“Then follow me down to the village because you’ll be fine as you are.”
She ought to be because she’d changed out of her overalls and sturdy work boots and checked her reflection before she set off. All she’d need to do was nip into the loo and add some lipstick and perfume and brush her hair out of its workaday braid and she’d be ready to meet some people her own age. Which would be nice, now that she came to think of it, because she’d been feeling pretty isolated long before she’d broken up with Liam. That had worried her mum and dad; so really this was practically her duty.
“Thanks for being so good about it.” She said huskily
“Why wouldn’t I have been when it was hardly your fault? I wasn’t pulled in as tight as I should have been and that flaming pheasant was the last straw, wasn’t it? Trust me, it doesn’t even register on my radar of things to worry about, and it shouldn’t register on yours either.”
“Have you had a bad day as well?” She risked asking, then could have kicked herself because his father had died the week before so he wasn’t likely to have any good ones for a long time, but all he said was.
“I’ll tell you all about it once we’ve both got drinks in our hands and if I go ahead of you then I can break trail and take you back the short way.”
She wouldn’t exactly call the route he took her short, but the roads were a lot less muddy and some of them had room for two cars to pass each other even if they didn’t have signposts or street lights. She made a mental note to drive it again the next time she had some free time and see where else it led her and was feeling a lot more positive as she parked in the pub car park beside Toby’s car, then got out and pulled out her phone.
“I’ll just tell Gran where I am. I said I wasn’t sure when or if I’d be back for dinner and they have their main meal at lunchtime so I won’t be causing her any hassle but she worries.” She explained.
“Ah yes.” Toby very carefully didn’t smile. “You’ll find that people do that a lot around here. If you sneeze at one end of the village then someone will be offering you tissues and some nice homemade chicken soup by the time you get to the other end. They all mean well, but there’s a limit to how much concern a man can handle. Or a woman, obviously.”
She nodded but didn’t say anything, mainly because there wasn’t anything comforting that you could say to someone who’d lost his father to cancer.
“I knew you’d get it.” He said, and she knew she’d got something right for once as she headed across under the trees to ring home in privacy.
“Hi, Gran, it’s me.” She said a minute or so later. “I won’t be back for dinner because I’m going to the pub to meet a group of other people my age. Toby Druett suggested it.”
“Oh, how lovely.”
She’d known her gran would be pleased because she loved her dearly but there was still no denying that she could be, to put it mildly, a bit of a snob and Sir Toby would be a catch for any woman. Not, obviously, that she was interested in him like that, even if he did have a nice smile and a firm, lean body that was well showcased in ancient jeans and a battered Army jumper of a similar vintage.
“It’ll do you a world of good and you can always leave your car in the pub car park overnight if you want to have more than one drink.”
“Good idea, but I’m so tired that I’ll probably stick to soft drinks. Can you tell dad that mum and three lambs are all doing well?”
“Oh, how lovely. Baby lambs are so cute, aren’t they?”
Cute wouldn’t have been the adjective she’d have used to describe that lamb as she’d fought to alter its position before it managed to kill itself, its sisters and its mum. But she’d long ago realised that the easiest way to deal with her gran was to think her own thoughts and seem to agree and then forget anything hurtful she’d said as soon as she could because she never meant to hurt anyone. Sadly, that was all too often a lot easier said than done, but maybe she’d get better at it if she kept practising the technique that her dad and granddad had perfected over the years. Living all together like this definitely wasn’t ideal, but in under a year, she’d have her own beautiful flat with no mortgage to worry about and be well established in an area where most people could only dream of living. She had to remember that and realise that she was lucky in a lot of ways, but right now she had the perfect excuse to escape that tense atmosphere and she intended to make the most of it.
“They are, aren’t they? Anyway, I mustn’t keep Toby waiting.”
That worked as well as she’d hoped it would, so she was smiling as she walked back across to Toby and look around at the surprisingly modern pub with its big garden.
“All okay?” He asked.
“Pretty much so, thanks but I wasn’t expecting a pub like this in a village like this.”
“It’s mainly for the locals but you’ll be pleased to hear that we don’t come over all Wicker Man and burn incomers alive at midwinter.”
“Good to know.” She murmured, deadpan.
“Ah but you’re the prodigal granddaughter so you don’t count as an Incomer. You’ll be on probation and thoroughly watched for a decade or so, but your children will be fully accepted as long as you pass.”
“I can’t wait.” The deadpan expression was getting easier; especially since Toby was grinning as he pushed the pub door open and said.
“You’re not the only one, so let’s get us fed and you introduced to the rest of the returnees.”
“I’m not a returnee.” A tall, bulky man who looked as if he’d be a brilliant rugby player said mock mournfully as he headed past them to the bar. “And I haven’t even got a surname these days. I’m either Jenny’s Colin or Young Doctor Colin. Are you having your usual, Toby? And what can I get for the new vet that no one’s calling young.”
“So what are they calling me? And could I have a bitter lemon, please?” She asked even though she wasn’t sure that she wanted to hear the answer.
“You’re Nicky King- you know, Michael’s daughter and isn’t it lovely for his mum and dad to have him home again - and isn’t she a real chip off the old block? It’s so nice to have a proper vet here again after all those temporary ones.”
She didn’t know what to say to that accurate impersonation of the soft Dorset burr that always sounded as if the speaker had all the time in the world. She also had a horrible feeling that he’d edited out ‘such a shame that she lost her mum a few months back’ but she’d upset more than enough people recently and liked the look of this man so she limited herself to a smile.
“And over there,” Toby said allegedly helpfully. “Is Ben Moore, and I bet Cyndy’s relieved that he moved back down here after she had that nasty fall, and is it me getting old or is he awfully young to be a detective sergeant?” A dark-haired, serious-faced man who she reckoned was pushing thirty was sitting at the corner table beside a young woman with below shoulder-length wavy dark hair and an open, happy face raised a hand in acknowledgement but didn’t comment.
“And that,” Colin finished. “Is my fiancee, Jenny. Wasn’t it lovely of her to come home after her mum broke her ankle and hasn’t she been clever to bring us our lovely new young Doctor Colin?”
“Lovely,” Jenny said with unconvincing severity, “May not be quite the word that the rest of us would use to describe you but it’s nice to meet you, Nicky; and don’t worry about that idiot Charles. In fact, congratulations on getting rid of him so quickly because we were all fed up with him looking down his nose at us as if we weren’t good enough for him.”
A chorus of agreement came from the older people who’d been watching and listening; some of them at least while pretending not to be. That made Nicky feel a lot better as she and Toby helped Colin to ferry the drinks back to what was clearly their table,
“Now, who’s had the worst day? Toby said, with the air of one who was conducting a ritual to open the proceedings.
“Not me,” Colin said without bothering to try to hide his relief. “I could help all the people who came in and I didn’t have a single emergency visit.”
“That counts as the best possible sort of day,” Nicky said soberly because that was the downside of being a doctor or a vet. All too often, people were desperate for miracles, and you couldn’t provide them, or, worse still, you could have done something if they hadn’t left it too late.
“Too right.” They exchanged glances that confirmed understanding and offered support whenever it was needed, and then Toby glanced at Jenny.
“Builders.” She said grimly. “Behind schedule, half the supplies they need are either out of stock or at the other end of the country and we’re bound to hit the storm season as soon as they turn up; assuming that they ever do.”
“And if they do arrive then the builders will have gone off to other jobs and we’ll practically have to drag them back.” Toby joined in, then added. “But I met Nicky and there are snowdrops in bud down by that pull-in just up from your parent's house so spring’s on the way and I’m definitely counting it as a good day”
“Already?” Jenny’s smile was wide and open and uncomplicated. Which, Nicky suspected, summed her up and she swore not to be jealous of her and smiled back at her as she asked.
“Does it count as early here then? We usually get them about this time in Devon. That’s where I grew up.”
“We don’t usually see them for another couple of weeks in the New Forest, which is where I come from.” Ben put in. “But I always lived in town so I didn’t know to look for them.”
“So this must be very strange for you?” Nicky asked with genuine curiosity.
“Not really. I used to come down here to stay with my gran when I was a kid, so I jumped at the chance of a move when the job here came up after I passed my Sergeant’s exams. I’m working with Jenny’s dad part of the time and across the Bay the rest.”
“Across the Bay?” She queried because it sometimes felt as if people were speaking an entirely different language and she had to learn it so that she could fit in.
“That’s what we call Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole. I’m there two days a week and the rest of the time I’m up West, which is the country area of Dorset that we’re in. And my day was… interesting.”
“At least you won’t have had to shoot Santa,” Toby said, straight-faced.
“There is that to it.” Ben said with a shrug that made it clear that he had no intention of adding to Toby’s fun by allowing himself to be wound up.
“Why did you shoot him? Didn’t he bring you what you wanted for Christmas?” Nicky leaned back in her seat and sipped her drink while feeling ridiculously at home with these people that she’d never met before.
“Don’t worry, he’s alive and well and up in Greenland or wherever with all his reindeer. But back in December, I had to shoot a twenty-foot-high inflatable that should have been tethered outside a garden centre on the hilliest bit of the main Dorchester to Weymouth road. He’d broken free in high winds and was bouncing around the road and a menace to traffic and I’m firearms trained so we closed the road temporarily and…”
“And he was all over the papers after he explained to a couple of kids who’d been in one of the cars that had been held up that of course, Santa was real, but he had to use stunt doubles during the Christmas season.” Jenny smiled at him. “And Dad chimed in and told the reporter about how he’d had to help round up the reindeer they used to have in Poole Park when they got out just before Christmas a few years back. When the control room started receiving calls from people who were reporting having reindeer in their gardens they thought it was either a practical joke or people had had a bit too much Christmas spirit, but Dad was on loan over there after he’d just become a Detective Inspector so they thought it’d be funny to send him out to check up on it. Sure enough, when he got there, he was taken round to someone’s back garden where they were filming two reindeer grazing on their treasured roses while their grandchildren who were there for a sleepover watched as if all their dreams had come true. So, obviously, he had to round them up and keep an eye on them till they could get hold of the guy who was organising the Santa train who was responsible for them; and he’s never been allowed to forget that either. Anyway, can we order? I don’t know about you lot, but I’m starving!”
I hope you enjoyed it enough to want to read on! See you soon...