A Doctor's Special Touch
Dr Darcy Rochester is horrified when 'doctor' Ally Westruther sets up her massage business next door. He's got a low opinion of massage, he doesn't think she's qualified in anything more complicated than basket-weaving, and he won't let her put his patients at risk!
Darcy soon learns his mistake. But why does such a talented doctor refuse to practise medicine as well as massage? Why does such a beautiful, caring, passionate woman want nothing to do with love?
`Are you out of your mind?’
Ally’s ladder wobbled to the point of peril.
Until now, the main street of Tambrine Creek had been deserted. At eight a.m. on a glorious autumn morning, anyone without any urgent occupation was walking on the beach, pottering on the jetty, or simply sitting in the sun, soaking up the warmth before winter.
Which left Ally alone in Main Street. It was gorgeous even there, she’d decided as she worked. The shopping precinct of the tiny harbour town was lined with oaks – trees that had been acorns when Ally’s great-grandfather first sailed his fishing boat into the harbour a hundred years before. Now the oaks were at their best, their leaves ranging from vivid green to deep, glorious crimson. They were starting to drop, turning the street into a rainbow of autumn colour.
Which was why Ally had a leaf above her eye right now, caught by her honey-blonde fringe. She’d been in the process of brushing it away when the stranger spoke.
And shocked her into almost falling off her ladder.
She was brushing the leaf from her fringe. She was holding a paint pot, with her brush balanced on the top. That didn’t leave a lot of hands to clutch her ladder. But clutching the ladder was suddenly a priority. She made a grab, subconsciously deciding whether to drop the leaf or the paint pot.
Which one? According to Murphy’s law, some things were inevitable.
So the pot fell, and it hit street-level right at the stranger’s feet. A mass of sky-blue paint shot out over the pavement, over the leaves - over the stranger’s shoes.
Safely clutching her ladder – she’d finally decided maybe she could release her leaf as well – Ally surveyed the scene below with dismay.
The guy underneath was gorgeous. Seriously gorgeous, in a sort of any-excuse-to-put-him-on-the-front-page-of-a-women’s-magazines type gorgeous. Tall, broad-shouldered, with a lovely strong-boned face. Deep, dark eyes. Wavy, russet hair, a bit too long. Yep, gorgeous.
The clothes helped, too. The man was dressed relatively formally for this laid-back seaside village, in neat, tailored slacks and a short-sleeved shirt in rich, cream linen. The man had taste. And he was wearing a tie, for heaven’s sake – and not a bad tie either, she conceded.
What else? He had lovely shoes. Brogues. Quality. Beautifully streaked now, with sky-blue paint.
His shoes seemed to be a cause for concern. Ally clutched her ladder and sought valiantly for something to say.
Finally she found it. She let the word ring around her head a little, just to see how it sounded. Not great, she thought, but she couldn’t think of much else. He’d scared her. Don’t launch straight into grovelling apology, she told herself. So what was left?
`Whoops,’ she said.
The word hung in the early morning stillness. The stranger stared for a bit longer at his shoes – as if his feet had personally let him down – and then he turned his attention back to her.
Involuntarily Ally’s hands clutched even tighter at the ladder. Whew. She was about to get a blast. His deep, grey-flecked eyes looked straight up at her, and they blazed anger.
This man intended to let her have it with both barrels.
Okay. She knew about anger. She’d lived through it before and she could live with it again. She closed her eyes and braced.
Silence. Then: `Hey, I’m not going to hit you,’ he told her.
That was out of left field. She opened her eyes cautiously and peered down.
`I beg your pardon?’
`I said I’m not about to hit you,’ he told her. `Or knock you off your ladder. So you can stop looking like that. Much as you deserve it, there’s no way painting shoes deserves physical violence.’
She thought about that. She agreed. She agreed entirely. She shouldn’t expect violence, she thought, but she had entirely the wrong skew on the world, and she’d had it forever.
`You scared me,’ she said, still cautious.
`So I did.’ His voice was almost cordial. `Silly me. So you decided to paint me in return.’
`It might come off,’ she told him. `With turpentine.’
`Do you have turpentine?’
He sighed. `You’re painting with oil based paint – and you don’t have turpentine?’
`I’ll get some. When the store opens.’
`At nine o’clock. By which time my shoes will be dry. Blue and dry.’
`But I’ve only just started to paint, so I don’t need turpentine yet. Or I didn’t.’ She gazed up at her handiwork, then down to his shoes and her ladder wobbled again.
`You know, if I were you I’d come down,’ he told her. `That ladder isn’t safe. You need someone holding the bottom.’ Then, as if it occurred to him that she just might ask him to volunteer, he added: `Maybe you need to get a different type of ladder.’
`This one’s fine.’ Though maybe he did have a point, she conceded. It was sort of wobbly. Sort of very wobbly. Maybe instead of one that balanced against the shop front, she should get one that was self supporting.
How much did a self supporting ladder cost?
Probably far too much. How much did she have left in kitty? About forty dollars to last until she got her first client.
But he was still worrying. `You’ll kill yourself,’ he told her. `Come down.’
She considered and found a flaw. `The pavement’s all blue,’ she told him. `I might get my shoes dirty.’
`Mm?’ She dared a smile and discovered he was trying not to smile back. She dared to smile a little more – just to see - and the corners of his mouth couldn’t help themselves. They curved upward and the flecked grey eyes twinkled.
Whew! It was some smile. A killer smile.
The sort of smile that made a girl clutch her ladder again.
But the smile had moved on. `Whoever’s employing you should be sued for making you work with a ladder like this.’ He gazed up at the sign she’d etched in pencil and was now filling in with paint. `And to get back to my first point...’
`Which was asking me was I out of my mind?’
`You’re painting a sign,’ he said. `Advertising a doctor’s rooms. Right next to my surgery.’
He pointed sideways. She peered sideways and wobbled again.
He sighed. He caught the ladder and held it firmly on each side, gaining a liberal coating of blue paint on each hand as he did.
`Get down,’ he told her. `Right now. I’m the Dr. Darcy Rochester of the small, insignificant bronze plate on the next door clinic. A nice, discrete little doctor’s sign. As opposed to your monstrosity.’
`Monstrosity. Signs four feet high are a definite monstrosity. And painting them above eye level is ridiculous. For both of us. I don’t want another patient,’ he told her. `I’m worked off my feet as it is, and this is a one-doctor town. If you break your neck you’re in real trouble.’
`I might be at that,’ she admitted. She thought about what he’d said, sorting it out in her head. Figuring what was important. `You’re the Dr. Darcy Rochester in the sign?’
Nice. She’d been wondering what he looked like, imagining who he could be and this was perfect. He so fitted his name.
`Has anyone ever told you that you have a very romantic name?’
`They have, as a matter of fact,’ he said with exaggerated patience. `My mother was a romance addict. She couldn’t believe her luck when she met Sam Rochester. She called my brother...’
`Don’t tell me. Edward?’
`Nothing so boring. Try Byron.’ Then, at her look of horror, he grinned. `He calls himself Brian and anyone who uses Bryon gets slugged. You know, with the amount of paint sprayed on these rungs, if I stay holding this ladder for much longer I’m going to stick here. Get down. Now.’
She didn’t have much choice. She took a deep breath and descended. With care. Another leaf landed on her nose and she blew it aside. It distracted her, but not very much.
He was too near. Too close. And when she took those last couple of steps he was right behind her. He was big, warm and solid, with the faint scent of something incredibly masculine emanating from his person. Like open fires. Wood-smoke.
`Do you smoke?’ she demanded, and he was so surprised that he took a step back. Breaking the intimacy. Which was good.
`You smell like smoke.’
`You smell like paint thinner,’ he told her, trying not to smile. `I don’t ask if you drink it.’
`Sorry.’ She bit her lip. `Of course. It’s none of my business. But if you’re a doctor...’
`I have a wood-stove in my kitchen,’ he said, with the exaggerated patience he might use if she was a too-inquisitive child. `I cook my morning toast on a toasting fork.’
Her eyes widened. That brought back memories. `Really?’
But he’d moved on. Back to business. `You know, I really would like to know what your sign means,’ he told her. `We seem to be going the long way round here. You know what I do. You know about my crazy mother’s addiction to romance. You know I cook my toast on a wood-stove.’ His voice lowered, and suddenly the laughter was gone. `So now it’s your turn. Are you going to tell me why on earth there is a blue sign half written on the building next door to mine saying Dr. A. J. Westruther.’
She gulped. Dr. A. J. Westruther. She’d agonised whether to use the Doctor bit. But she was entitled, and if it meant more clients...
This was a small country town and massage would be a new experience for most. If the label `Doctor’ made the locals feel more comfortable – and scared away those for whom massage meant something totally inappropriate – why shouldn’t she use it?
`Dr. Westruther’s me,’ she told him.
This conversation had been frivolous up to now, she thought. But suddenly it wasn’t. She wiped her hands on the sides of her paint-stained overalls and thought, uh oh. Here goes.
`You’re Dr. Westruther?’
`Ally,’ she told him and put out her hand.
He didn’t take it.
`No one’s employing you to paint a sign?’
`You’re saying that you’re a doctor?’
His brows hiked in disbelief. `You’re a doctor - and you’re setting up in opposition to me?’
`Oh, come on.’ She tried to smile but there was something about the sudden shadowing of this man’s eyes that made her smile fade before it formed. `You think I’d do that? It’d be crazy to set up in opposition.’
`You’re a... dentist then?’ His eyes raked hers, and she saw disbelief that she could be anything so sensible. So... mature?
This was hardly the way she wanted to meet this man, she thought. If this worked out, she hoped that maybe he could send work her way. That was why she’d rented this place so close to the doctor’s surgery. But when she’d visited the town two weeks ago to organised a rental, a locum had been working in Dr. Darcy Rochester’s rooms. The gangly locum who’d been filling in for him had said that he’d tell ... Darcy? about her, but maybe he hadn’t.
As a professional approach, this was now really difficult. She’d imagined a cool, collected visit to his surgery, wearing one of her remaining decent suits, pulling her hair back into a twist that made her look almost as old as her twenty nine years, maybe even wearing glasses. Handing him her card.
It hadn’t happened like that. She hadn’t been able to afford cards. She was aware that she looked about twelve. Her overalls were disgusting. Her long blonde hair was hauled back into two pigtails to keep it free from paint, and she was wearing no make-up. And he was angry and confused.
She had to make things right. Somehow.
`I’m not a dentist,’ she told him. `Urk. All those teeth.’ She grimaced and hauled the ladder along past where she’d been working so he could see what the final sign would be.
After the huge, blue sign – Dr. A. J. Westruther - was another, as yet only faintly stencilled in pencil.
`You’re a masseur,’ he said blankly and she nodded. There was something in his voice that warned her to stay non-committal. Let him make the judgements here.
`You’re setting up professional rooms as a masseur.’
That was enough. `Hey, we’re not talking red light district,’ she snapped. There was enough disdain in his voice to make it perfectly plain what his initial reaction was. `I give remedial and relaxation massage, and I do it professionally. By the way, I’m a masseuse. Not a masseur. Get your sexes right.’
`Let’s get the qualifications right.’ Anger met anger. You’re calling yourself a doctor?’
`Yes!’ Her eyes blazed. Heck, she was committed to this profession. She’d fallen into it sideways but she loved it. She loved that she was able to help people. Finally. And she didn’t need this man’s condemnation. It’d be great if he supported her but she’d gather clients without him.
`It’s illegal to call yourself a doctor.’
`Phone my university,’ she snapped. `Check my qualifications.’
`Doctor of what?’
`Go jump.’ She was suddenly overpoweringly angry. Overpoweringly weary. What business was it of this man what her qualifications were? She was telling no lies. She wasn’t misrepresenting herself.
Maybe it had been a mistake to use the word Doctor in her sign. She’d agonised over it, but heck, she’d abandoned so much. If the use of one word would help her build this new career – this new life – then use it she would.
So much else had been taken from her. They couldn’t take this.
`Look,’ she said wearily, her anger receding. Anger solved nothing. She knew that. `We’re getting off to a really bad start here. I’ve tossed blue paint at you and you’ve inferred I’m a hooker.’
`You did. If you check, you’ll find that I’m absolutely entitled to use the word doctor.’
`You don’t think a doctorate of.. what... basket weaving?... might be just a bit misleading when you’re setting up in a medical precinct?’
`Medical precinct?’ She swallowed more anger. Or tried to. Then she gazed around. There were a total of five shops in the tiny township of Tambrine Creek. Then there was a pub and a petrol station. The oak-lined main street ran straight down to the harbour, where the fishing boats moored and sold their fish from the final shop – a fishermen’s co-op that had existed for generations.
`You know, we’re not talking Harley Street here,’ she ventured. `Medical Precinct? I don’t think so.’
`There’s two premises.’
`Yeah, two medical premises. Yours and mine. Yours is a doctor’s surgery. Mine is a massage centre. It was a tearoom once, but it’s been closed for twenty years. The owner’s rapt to get rent from me and the council have no objection to me setting up. So what’s your problem? Do I somehow downgrade your neighbourhood?’
`There’s no need to be angry.’
`It’s not me who’s angry,’ she told him but she was lying. She’d done with the placating. `Basket weaving,’ she muttered. `I wish it was purple paint I threw at you and I wish it hit your head. Now, are you going to sue me for painting your feet? If so, there’s no lawyer in town but I can’t commend you strongly enough to leave town and find one. Preferably one in another state. I need to get on with my work.’
`You’ve spilled your paint.’
`Of course I have,’ she snapped. `And it was well worth it. Your brogues are drying, Dr. Rochester. You need to go find some turpentine.’
`You’ll never make a living.’
`We’ll see.’ She stooped to lift her now empty paint pot from the pavement and was suddenly aware that someone was watching them. An elderly lady, a basket on one arm and a poodle dangling from the other, was gazing at the pair of them as if she couldn’t believe her eyes.
`It’s Ally,’ she whispered. `Ally Lindford. You’ve come home!’