The second book in the Prescription: Love series, 1996
A BRIDE’S thoughts on her wedding day…
That she looked perfectly ridiculous!
Dr Fern Rycroft smoothed her cloud of white satin and took three deep breaths. Uncle Al was waiting. Sam was waiting. Indeed, it seemed that the whole island was waiting for Fern to do the right thing.
The sensible thing. Many Sam Hubert…
Well, if only they’d be content with this, Fern thought wryly. Fat chance! There were two things that Fern should do to prove herself worthy of the islanders’ regard. One was to marry Sam. The other was to come home to stay.
She and Sam both.
Well, they’d be waiting a long time! Fern’s green eyes grew bleak behind the veil. Live on Barega again? Never!
Uncle Al was fidgeting by his niece’s side, worry etched on his kindly face.
Fern could guess what he was thinking. Fern Rycroft might be twenty-eight and a trained doctor of medicine but, with her huge green eyes, close-cropped, flamecoloured curls and smattering of freckles, she looked very much the same as the tear-stained orphan that Uncle Al had carried home thirteen years ago. Her uncle worried about her as if she was still a child.
But Fern couldn’t guess her uncle’s deeper worry. Albert Rycroft dredged up a reassuring smile for the lovely girl by his side but he saw the same desolation in Fern that had been with his niece through all the years since her family were killed. The same sense of helplessness behind the laughter and the same belief that life was not to be trusted…
Fern’s infectious chuckle, her cheerfulness and bright smile had endeared her to the islanders from the moment Albert Rycroft had brought his niece home. ‘Our Tonic’, the islanders called her, and when Fern had announced her intention of studying medicine they’d joked,
‘Well, you won’t need medicine with your smile, dear. You’re a tonic all by yourself.’
Only Uncle Al saw the misery behind the laughter-the distrust of a world that had snatched her family in one awful night.
‘Now, there’s no need for talking, Fern,’ the elderly farmer said hastily. Even at this late stage he wouldn’t be surprised to see his niece turn and run. ‘They’re all here. You can’t disappoint them now, love.’
Fern looked up at his worried expression and her impish face broke into a smile. ‘Oh, Uncle…’ She hugged him hard, crushing her gown in the process. ‘As if I would. Sam and I have made the right decision.’
‘Of course you have,’ he told her roundly. ‘And all that nonsense between Sam and Lizzy Hurst was long ago.’
‘Lizzy’s part of the island,’ Fern agreed, taking her uncle’s big hand in hers. ‘And Sam and I are no longer islanders. We’ll be back for visits-but we’ve moved on.’ She tucked her arm through his and looked firmly ahead. ‘Now, are you taking me in to marry Sam, or will you have a spinster niece on your hands for the rest of your days?’
Albert chuckled and squeezed her hand. ‘Your aunt and I would have no objection. We’ve loved having you, Fern-you know that. But you’re right. It’s time for you to marry.’
Time for Fern to be safe…
In the choir-stalls, the trumpeter had been waiting for the signal. The tiny church was crowded and there were people out on the headland craning to see. The farming community was stricken by drought and this was a glorious opportunity to thrust worry aside. Faces turned eagerly toward Fern as the magnificent ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ sounded forth.
The bride stood for one long moment at the church door, looking down the aisle at her future.
Then, finally, Fern let her train fall behind her and started forward.
‘What a lovely, lovely bride,’ the islanders whispered to each other, escaping from harsh reality into misty romance, but they were seeing Aunt Maudie’s gorgeously worked dress and veil and they were seeing Fern’s tremulous smile behind her veil.
They weren’t seeing the real Fern.
The real Fern was somewhere else.
Fern certainly wasn’t this vision in white. Someone else was keeping careful step with her uncle and smiling at wedding guests to either side.
The real Fern was numb.
When medical texts had been too heavy to handle Fern had read her share of romantic novels. She knew a bride should glide down the aisle in a haze of emotion. She should see her beloved turn toward her from the altar and she should catch her breath at the sheer sight of him…
How could Fern catch her breath when it was just Sam-the boy she’d known for ever? When it was just the sensible thing to do to marry Sam. The right thing…
Well, she should at least look at him.
Fern forced herself to look toward the altar. At the end of the aisle Sam was definitely turned towards her-and his eyes were almost as anxious as Uncle Al’s.
That was odd…
Sam was the sure one. It was Sam who had badgered Fern for years to take this step. What was he doing being anxious now?
Weddings did funny things to people, Fern guessed. She made a huge effort and gave him a wide, reassuring smile.
Uncle Al had been directed by his wife to walk slowly and he was doing just that. It was taking an age to get to the altar. Time seemed to stand still.
Maybe Lizzy was here…That might unsettle Sam.
Fern turned to search the crowd-and caught the eyes of a man standing almost right beside her…
Who on earth…?
This was a man Fern had never seen before. Immaculately dressed in a deep black dinner suit, the stranger stood out from the similarly dressed wedding guests as a man apart.
There was nothing so different about him, Fern thought, but her eyes were still caught. There was nothing extraordinary. Was there?
He was not overly tall-maybe five feet ten or so-with a strongly built body and broad, muscular shoulders.
Most of the islanders were fishermen or farmers so there was nothing unusual in a good physique.
The man’s thick, gold hair, crinkled and in need of a cut, was bleached blond with weather and sun and his skin was burnt brown-but most islanders were similar so there was nothing remarkable in that, either.
But Fern knew every man on this island and she didn’t know this one.
The man was in his early thirties, she guessed, mentally flicking through the wedding guest list in her head and ticking people off.
How romantic! She should be thinking of Sam.
So why was she still staring at the stranger?
It was his eyes…
The stranger’s eyes were the most direct, mocking eyes she had ever seen. They met hers and somehow locked her to him and it was as if there was some magnetic force holding her in thrall. The stranger’s taunting eyes challenged her with mocking laughter- as if he knew that the real Fern wasn’t some vision in white satin but really a child dressed up in play clothes, playing a part.
He could see who she really was…
For heaven’s sake…Even if Fern was playing a part, she’d better get on with it.
With a small, indignant gasp, Fern tugged Uncle Al forward, sweeping past the unknown guest and turning her eyes from his disconcerting gaze.
She had things to do.
She had Sam to marry…
There was something wrong. Sam’s look of anxiety had deepened.
Fern’s waiting bridegroom looked agonised!
Fern stopped about four feet from her future husband, her face puckering into concern under her misty veil. ‘Sam, what’s wrong?’ she whispered.
‘Fern…Fern, I’m sorry…’
The thickset Sam was sweating and pale. His broad face had a sickly green tinge and his dinner suit looked as if it was too tight and too hot for him. Rivulets of sweat were running down from his receding hairline.
Behind him, the vicar looked on with astonished concern.
‘Sam, what is it?’ Fern whispered.
The trumpet sang out unconcernedly behind them but now Fern’s attention was fairly fixed on her fiancé.
It was too much.
Sam cast his bride an agonised glance, clutched his stomach and bolted…
Fern was left standing alone at the altar.
It wasn’t just Sam.
Fern stood in the centre of the aisle, still holding her uncle’s arm, and around her the church erupted into action. It was as if Sam’s departure had opened a release valve.
There were people pushing past with the same agonised expression that Fern had seen on Sam’s face, hands to mouth or stomach…
The church was emptying as if it was burning.
Fern stared around her, dumbfounded.
The vicar was backing into the vestry.
Someone was sobbing at the end of one of the pews.
The strident trumpet died away. The trumpet player let his instrument fall. The trumpeter stared down at Fern from his place in the choir-stalls for a long moment before, with a small groan, he too disappeared from view.
And then, as Fern gazed around the chaotic church, she saw a girl move quietly from the back pew. She was a slip of a girl-Fern’s age or a little younger-dressed demurely in black with her mass of unmanageable hair tied back severely into a knot.
Lizzy was slipping away, as unobtrusively as she could, and there was no agony on Lizzy Hurst’s face.
On her lips was a smirk of malicious triumph.
It had to be food poisoning…
Fern’s mind worked fast as she gazed round at the confused scene. There was no explaining what was happening except the theory of a massive dose of something bad to eat.
Fern’s aunt was in trouble. Uncle Al turned as Aunt Maud walked unsteadily forward from the front pew and clutched her husband’s arm.
‘Take…take me home, Al,’ Maudie whispered. ‘F-fast! Oh, Fern, I’m sorry but I think I’m going to be sick…’
She turned and ran.
Fern’s uncle looked helplessly at Fern. ‘What…?’
‘Uncle, I think the wedding’s off,’ Fern said unsteadily. ‘Auntie Maud needs you.’
Al closed his eyes in disbelief and then nodded. He followed his wife, leaving Fern at the altar. Alone.
Well, she couldn’t stay here. Fern walked slowly to the main entrance, her fabulous bridal train sweeping unnoticed behind her.
Outside there were people climbing into cars and departing at speed. There were also people who weren’t even trying to make it home. From where she stood, Fern could see Sam’s broad back in the bushes at the side of the church. His shoulders were heaving as his stomach rid itself of whatever was troubling it.
Fern’s heart wrenched in pity. Poor Sam. He’d planned this magnificent wedding for years-and now this!
What on earth had he eaten? What on earth had they all eaten?
She started down the steps towards Sam but then paused.
The voice behind her made Fern jump.
The voice was deep, resonant and, astonishingly, laced with laughter. Fern didn’t have to turn around to know who the voice belonged to. The unknown wedding guest!
‘What on earth have you been feeding your guests?’ the stranger demanded. Then, as Fern stayed silent-staring out at Sam and the surrounding chaos-he placed a cool hand on the bare skin exposed by the dropped shoulders of Fern’s gown and twisted her round to face him.
‘Well, Dr Rycroft?’ he asked. The stranger met her stunned gaze with a quizzical arch of mobile brows. His penetrating eyes demanded a response.
‘I didn’t…I haven’t…’ Through the mist of her veil Fern met the man’s satirical look with bewilderment. ‘Dear heaven…This is awful!’ Her voice broke on a confused whisper.
‘I’ve been to a few weddings but none as different as this,’ the man told her. Incredibly, those eyes were still filled with lurking laughter. ‘It is awful, isn’t it? You should have made it “bring your own basin”!’
Fern gasped. ‘Look, I don’t know who on earth you are but this is hardly a laughing matter!’
‘No.’ The smile finally faded from the dark eyes as the stranger surveyed the scene before them.
It was truly awful. The people unaffected were fully occupied with those who were. There were huddled groups of misery everywhere.
‘I guess we shouldn’t laugh until we know what’s happened,’ the man said slowly. He took Fern’s hand in a swift, decisive tug and pulled her forward from the church door. ‘So, Dr Rycroft…’
‘Look, I don’t know you,’ Fern managed, digging her satin shoes into the ground and resisting his pull. ‘Who the heck are you?’
He grinned, laughter returning with a smile that lightened and warmed and made Fern want to smile right back-no matter how ridiculous a smile would be in the circumstances. Those deep eyes dared her to smile. It was all Fern could do to keep her lips from twitching.
‘Well, I know you, Dr Rycrof,’ the stranger told her. ‘I make it a point to know the names of all brides whose weddings I attend.’ His smile belied the mock gravity of his words.
‘And you attend heaps?’ Fern snapped. She shook her head as if trying to rid herself of a bad dream. She was so confused that she was dizzy.
‘You’re asking if I’m a professional wedding guest?’ That dangerous smile again. ‘Hardly that, Dr Rycroft.’ He released her shoulders, held out a large hand and enveloped her smaller one in a strong, reassuring grip. ‘I’m Quinn Gallagher-the island doctor.’
Fern nodded. At least one piece of the puzzle was falling into place. She’d forgotten this man’s arrival.
Quinn Gallagher was an island blessing.
Barega Island had always needed a doctor but none had been tempted to a place that was cut off from the mainland by two hundred miles of sea and restricted to a population of a few hundred plus occasional tourists. Barega might be an island paradise but it was hardly a lucrative medical practice.
When Fern had announced that she intended studying medicine the islanders were delighted. At last they’d have a doctor. A lawyer, too, if Sam Hubert came back.
Unfortunately neither Fern nor Sam had any such intention.
And Fern had been made to feel so guilty!
‘After all we’ve done for you,’ the islanders had told Fern reproachfully. ‘We’ve accepted you as one of us-it’s the least you can do to come back here and practise.’
She couldn’t It would kill her.
So when Aunt Maud had written and announced that the island had a new doctor Fern had been delighted.
‘Dr Gallagher’s such a nice man,’ Maudie had written. ‘So responsible and caring. He’s a real family doctor. Fern, I know you won’t mind us inviting him to your wedding.’
Of course she hadn’t minded. Fern had been so grateful that she could have kissed the unknown Quinn Gallagher. ‘Invite him, by all means,’ she’d written back.
A family doctor…Fern had conjured up visions of some elderly, retiring doctor who wanted to mix a little fishing and rural tranquillity with his medicine.
So why had Quinn Gallagher decided to practise medicine on Barega?
That had nothing to do with her, Fern thought hastily. What should be bothering her right now was that almost half her wedding guests seemed to be in extremis. Including her fiancé.
‘I…I need to go to Sam,’ she said unsteadily, lifting her veil back from her face and gathering her train over her arm.