A Family Made at Christmas Nov 2017


A family to heal her heart… For physiotherapist April Henderson, gorgeous army doc Riley Callaghan is off-limits. With her life-altering surgery looming, she can't afford to consider anyone else right now. But when Riley is given the biggest news of his life—a son he knew nothing about—April can't help but offer him support. Spending time with Riley and his adorable son, Finn, at Christmas gives April a glimpse of the life she's always wanted. But can she risk her heart when her future is so uncertain?

CHAPTER ONE

‘Hurry up, Riley. It’s your round.’ The hard slap on the shoulder nearly ejected him from his chair. Riley laughed and turned around. Frank Cairney, one of the rehab nurses, was standing with his rucksack on his shoulder. The rest of the team were hovering outside near the door. ‘Should I go and hold up the bar for us?’

Riley nodded. ‘Just a few notes to finish and I’ll be there. Thanks, guys.’

He typed quickly on the electronic record, leaving detailed notes on the plan for Jake Ashford, a soldier injured on duty in Afghanistan and now a resident in the army rehab hospital at Waterloo Court.

It was late afternoon on a Friday. Those who could go home had gone home. But some patients wouldn’t be able to go home for some time—Jake was one of those.

Working in the rehab hospital hadn’t really been on Riley’s career plan. But, due to a family crisis, a fellow colleague hadn’t been able to start when he should have, meaning the hospital needed someone to fill in. Riley’s surgical experience in orthopaedics had been flagged and his deployment had been delayed on a temporary basis for a few weeks.

But today was his last shift. And truth was he was relieved. The staff and support team at Waterloo Court were fantastic, as were the world class rehab services, but Riley liked the pace of emergencies. On Monday he’d be in Sierra Leone, where another outbreak of Ebola seemed to be emerging.

He finished his notes and walked down the corridor to the in-patient beds. He heard the laughter before he saw her familiar frame.

April Henderson had Jake sitting at the side of his bed. Laughing. Really laughing, as if she’d just told him the funniest joke in the world.

Even from here he knew exactly what she was doing—testing Jake’s sitting balance. She was one of the best physiotherapists he’d ever worked with.

She was tireless. She was relentless. She was polite. She was professional.

He’d caught himself on more than one occasion watching that blonde ponytail swishing up the corridor in front of him as she made her way between the ninety patients that were housed in the state-of-the-art unit.

But even now—four weeks later—he really didn’t know a thing about her.

April was the quietest co-worker he’d ever met. Every conversation, every communication had been about their patients. When he asked her about life, what she was doing at the weekend or anything other than work she just shut down.

He’d asked other staff a few questions about her, but no one really said much. Apparently she wasn’t married and hadn’t mentioned a boyfriend. The staff here were a mixture of military and civilian. April was civilian. She’d transferred to the new unit from Waterloo Court. The centre dealt with serious musculoskeletal injuries, neurological injuries and complex trauma, including amputees. The brand-new facility was four times bigger than its predecessor. There were gyms, full of cardiovascular and resistance equipment, two swimming pools, a hydrotherapy pool and a specialist centre where artificial limbs were manufactured onsite and individually tailored to the patients’ needs.

‘Doc?’ Jake caught his eye.

Riley crossed the room, holding out his hand. ‘I came to say goodbye.’ He paused for a second. ‘I’m shipping out again tomorrow.’ He had to be truthful, but he could see the momentary pang in the young man’s eyes. Jake loved the army. Had wanted to serve since he was five. And now, at the grand old age of twenty-three, would be unlikely to ever ship out again.

Jake took Riley’s extended hand. ‘Good luck, Doc—it’s been short and sweet. Where are you headed?’

Riley gave a shrug. ‘At the moment, I think it’s Africa. But you know how things can change. By the time Monday comes around it could be somewhere else completely.’

He glanced down at April, who was leaning against a stool at the side of the bed. ‘Are you coming to the farewell drinks, April?’

It was obvious he’d caught her off guard because two tiny pink spots flared in her cheeks and she stumbled over her words. ‘Wh-what? Er…no…sorry. I don’t think I’ll manage.’

Jake nudged her with one of his dangling feet. ‘Oh, go on, April. When was the last time you could tell me a good night out story?’

The pinkness spread. But the shy demeanour vanished instantly. He’d always found that curious about her. April Henderson knew how to engage with her patients. Really engage with her patients. Around them she was relaxed, open and even showed the occasional glimmer of fun. But around any of the staff? She was just April.

‘I’m not here to tell you night out stories, Jake. I’m here to help get you back on your feet again.’ She leaned forward and put her hands on his bare leg. ‘But don’t think I didn’t notice that deliberate kick.’ She looked up and gave Jake a wide smile. ‘That’s great. That’s something we can work on.’

With her bright blue eyes, blonde hair and clear skin, April Henderson could be stunning if she wanted to be. But there was never any make-up on her skin, never any new style with her hair. It was almost as if she used her uniform as a shield.

Riley watched the look on Jake’s face. For the first time in weeks he saw something that hadn’t been there much before. Hope.

It did weird things to his insides. Jake was a young man who should be filled with hope. His whole life was ahead of him. But there was already a good hint that his injury could be limiting. They still didn’t have a clear prognosis for him, and that was why April’s work was so vital.

He winked at Jake and folded his arms across his chest. ‘I’m completely and utterly offended that you won’t come to my farewell drinks. Four long weeks here, all those shifts together, and you can’t even say goodbye.’

‘He’s right, April.’ Jake nodded. ‘It is shocking. Thank goodness you’re not actually in the army. At this point you’d be getting a dishonourable discharge.’

For the briefest of seconds there was a flash of panic behind her eyes, quickly followed by the realisation that they were kidding with her.

She raised her eyebrows. Gave her best smile. The one reserved for patients in trouble. Both of them recognised it instantly.

‘Uh oh,’ Riley muttered.

April touched Jake’s leg. ‘Well, just so you know, Jake, now that we’ve established there’s some movement and—’ she stood up ‘—your balance is gradually improving, I think I’ll have a whole new plan for you, starting tomorrow.’

Jake groaned as Riley laughed. He couldn’t quite work out why April could chat easily with patients but could barely say a word to him on a normal day.

Jake pointed at Riley. ‘This is all your fault. You’re abandoning me to this wicked, wicked woman. You know she’ll work me hard and exhaust me.’ He said the words with a twinkle in his eyes.

Riley nodded as he glanced at April. Her blue gaze met his. For the first time since he’d met her, she didn’t look away instantly. He smiled. ‘You’re right, Jake. But I’m leaving you with one of the best physios I’ve ever met. She’ll push you to your absolute limit—exactly what you need. If anyone can get you back on your feet again, it’s April Henderson.’ He put his hand on Jake’s shoulder as he leaned forward to fake whisper in his ear, ‘Even if she won’t have a drink with me.’

There was something about that bright blue gaze. Even under the harsh hospital lights that seemed to drain the colour from everyone else, April still looked good. The edges of her mouth gave just the slightest hint of turning upwards. It was the first time he’d wished he wasn’t leaving.

Jake reached up and grabbed his hand, giving it a shake. ‘Thanks, Lieutenant Callaghan. Good luck with your deployment.’ There was a tiny waver in his voice. Almost as if he knew the likelihood was he’d never make another deployment himself.

Riley clasped his hand between his. ‘I’ll look you up again when I come back.’ He started towards the door, then glanced over his shoulder and gave a warm smile. ‘You too, April.’

*

Her heart was acting as though she were racing along a beach, rather than sitting at the side of a patient’s bed.

Darn it.

Ever since Riley Callaghan had turned up on this ward she’d spent the last four weeks avoiding him. It was everything. The little kink in his dark hair. The smiling green eyes. The cheeky charm. Oh, lots of doctors and servicemen she’d met in the last few years had the talk, the wit, the lots of charm.

But she’d had enough to deal with. The diagnosis of her twin sister’s ovarian cancer, rapidly followed by her failing treatment, then Mallory’s death had meant that she had found it easier to retreat into herself and seal herself off from the world. Her own genetic testing had floored her. She had decisions to make. Plans for the future.

Her last relationship had been half-hearted. Mallory had got sick and she’d realised quickly that she needed to spend time with her sister. But, since then, the last thing she wanted was a relationship.

After her own testing, she’d spent a day wondering whether she should just find some random guy, try and get pregnant, have a baby quickly and deal with everything else after.

But those thoughts had only lasted a day. She’d met the surgeon. A date for her surgery would be agreed soon. And she needed to do this part of her life alone.

Then Riley Callaghan had appeared on her ward. All cheeky grins and twinkling eyes. It was the first time in a long time she’d actually been aware of every sense in her body. Her surge of adrenaline. Every rapid heartbeat.

That was the reason she didn’t engage in small talk. That was the reason she kept to herself. She couldn’t afford to let herself be attracted to a guy at such a crucial point in her life. How did you start that conversation anyway? Oh, you want to go on a date? Great. By the way, in a few months’ time I’m going to have my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed and maybe later my breasts. What? You don’t want to hang around?

It didn’t matter that she’d found herself glancing in Riley’s direction every time he’d appeared on the ward. She’d hated the way she’d started stumbling over her words around him, or had trouble looking him in the eye.

But as she watched his retreating back her mouth felt dry. Part of her wanted to grab her jacket and join the rest of the staff for a drink. But then she’d be in a pub, where her inhibitions could lower, and she could encourage the gentle flirtation that could go absolutely nowhere.

She shook her head and turned her attention back to Jake. ‘Can we get you more comfortable? I’ll work on your new programme and we’ll start tomorrow.’

Jake gave her a nod and she helped settle him in a comfortable, specially designed chair for those with spinal injuries.

Her shift was finished but it wouldn’t take long to write up her notes and make the adjustments needed for tomorrow. It wasn’t as if she had anywhere to go, right?

Half an hour later there were a few voices in the corridor behind her. This was a military hospital. When the Colonel appeared, it was never good news.

All the hairs bristled on her arms. She looked around, wondering who was about to get bad news.

‘Ms Henderson?’

She spun around in her chair and jumped to her feet. Her? How? What?

A woman with a pinched face and dark grey coat stood next to the Colonel. She didn’t even know that he knew her name.

‘Y-yes,’ she stumbled.

‘We’re wondering where Lieutenant Callaghan is.’

Her heart plummeted in her chest. Riley? They had bad news for Riley?

She glanced around. ‘He’s not here. But I know where he is. Can you give me five minutes? I’ll get him for you.’

The Colonel nodded and she rushed past, going to the changing room and grabbing her jacket. If she ran, the pub was only five minutes away.

As soon as she stepped outside she realised just how much the temperature had dipped. It was freezing and it was only the middle of November. As she thudded down the dark path a few snowflakes landed on her cheeks. Snow? Already?

She slowed her run. If spots of rain had turned to snow, then there was a chance the damp ground would be slippery.

The pub came into view, warm light spilling from its windows. She stopped running completely, her warm breath steaming in the air around her.

She could hear the noise and laughter coming from the pub already. She closed her eyes for a second. She hated that she was about to do this. To walk into a farewell party and pull Riley away for news he probably wouldn’t want. Did his family serve in the military? Did he have a brother? She just didn’t know. She hadn’t allowed herself to have that kind of conversation with Riley.

She pushed open the door to the pub, the heat hitting her instantly. It was busy. She jostled her way through the people, scanning one way then another. It didn’t take long to recognise the laugh. She picked Riley’s familiar frame out of the crowd and pushed herself towards him. Her work colleagues were picking up glasses and toasting him. She stumbled as she reached him, her hands coming out and landing square on his chest. His hard, muscular chest.

‘April?’ He looked completely surprised. ‘Oh, wow. You made it. That’s great.’ His arm had automatically gone around her shoulder. He pulled her a little closer to try and talk above the noise in the pub. ‘Can I get you something to drink?’

He frowned as he noticed she hadn’t even changed out of her uniform.

She looked up into his green eyes. ‘Riley, I’m sorry, I’m not here for the drinks.’

He pulled back a little whilst keeping his arm on her shoulder. ‘You aren’t?’

Her hands were still on his chest. She really didn’t want to move them. ‘Riley—’ she pressed her lips together for a second ‘—the Colonel is looking for you. He came to the ward.’

She felt every part of his body tense.

‘What?’ His voice had changed.

She nodded. ‘I said I’d come and get you.’

Riley didn’t even say goodbye to anyone around him. He just grabbed hold of her hand and pulled her behind him as he jostled his way through the crowd.

The snow was falling as they reached the main door. Riley spun around to face her, worry etched all over his face. ‘What did he say? Is it just the Colonel?’

April shook her head. ‘He didn’t tell me anything. And there’s an older woman with him. I didn’t recognise her.’

She reached up and touched his arm. It didn’t matter that she’d vowed to keep a distance. This was a completely different set of circumstances. This was a work colleague who was likely to receive some bad news. She’d never leave a workmate alone at a time like this. ‘Let me come back with you,’ was all she said.

And, after the longest few seconds, Riley gave a nod.

*

He started walking quickly but eventually just broke into a run. His brother. It had to be his brother. He was on a training exercise right now somewhere in Scotland, flying out to Afghanistan tomorrow. Accidents happened. As a doctor, he knew that more than most. Unless something had happened to his mum and dad. Could they have had an accident?

He was conscious of the footsteps beside him. The ones that broke into a gentle run when he did. He’d been surprised by April’s appearance earlier—it had made his heart lurch for a few seconds. But it hadn’t taken long to notice the paleness of her complexion. The worry in her bright blue eyes. And she was right by his side. Trouble was, right now he couldn’t think straight.

By the time he reached the ward area his brain was spinning completely. He slowed down to a walk, took a few deep breaths and tried to put on his professional face. He was a soldier. He could deal with whatever news he was about to receive.

The Colonel ushered him into a room where a woman in a grey coat was sitting with a file in front of her.

April hovered near the door—she didn’t seem to know whether to leave or not—and he was kind of glad she was still around.

‘Lieutenant Callaghan. Please take a seat.’

He didn’t want to sit. In fact, sitting was the last thing he wanted to do. But if it would get this thing over with quicker then he’d do it.

He sat down and glanced at the woman. She leaned across the table towards him. ‘Dr Callaghan, my name is Elizabeth Cummings. I’m a social worker.’

He frowned. A social worker? Why did she need to speak to him?

She flicked open her file. ‘I understand that this might seem a little unusual. Can I ask, do you know an Isabel Porter?’

He flinched. This was not what he’d been expecting to hear. He glanced at the Colonel. ‘Sir, my parents? My brother?’

The Colonel shook his head and gestured back to Ms Cummings. ‘No. They’re fine. They’re absolutely fine. Please, this is something else entirely.’

Riley shifted in his chair. He glanced behind at April. She looked just as confused as he was.

Now he felt uncomfortable. He looked back at the social worker. ‘Isabel Porter, from Birmingham?’

The woman nodded.

‘Yes, I know Isabel. At least, I did. Around five years ago. Why are you asking me that?’

Ms Cummings gave a nod. ‘I see. Dr Callaghan, I’m sorry to tell you that there was an accident a few days ago. Isabel was killed in a road traffic accident.’

It was like a cold prickle down his spine. Nothing about this seemed right. ‘Oh, I see. I’m really sorry to hear that. But I don’t understand. Why are you telling me?’ He looked from one tight face to the other.

Ms Cummings glanced at the Colonel. ‘There is an issue we need to discuss. Ms Porter left a will.’

‘Isabel had written a will?’ Now that did sound weird. Isabel had been a bit chaotic. Their relationship had barely lasted a few months. And they hadn’t kept in touch. He hadn’t heard from her at all in the last five years. ‘Why on earth are you telling me this?’

Ms Cummings slid an envelope across the desk to him. ‘Maybe this will help explain things.’ She kept talking. ‘Obviously there’s been a delay. Isabel had no other family. No next of kin, which is probably why she left a will and wrote this letter for you. It takes time to find out if someone has left a will or not.’

Riley glanced at the letter on the table in front of him. He had no idea what was going on. Nothing about this made sense.

April walked over and put her hand on his shoulder. From the woman who’d seemed so shut off, it was such an unexpected move. But the warm feel of her palm on his shoulder sent a wave of pure comfort through his confused state.

Ms Cummings stared at April for a second then continued. ‘It’s apparent that your name wasn’t on the birth certificate. I’m not quite sure why that was. But because Isabel didn’t have you formally named as next of kin, Finn has been in temporary foster care for the last few days.’

Riley shook his head. ‘Who?’

She stared at him. ‘Finn. Your son.’

For the first time he was glad of the chair. If he hadn’t had it, his legs might have made him sway.

‘My son?’

Ms Cummings glanced at the Colonel again. ‘Yes, Dr Callaghan. That’s why I’m here.’

‘I have a son?’

She stared at him again. ‘Finn. He’s five. Isabel never told you?’

He shook his head as his brain just spun. Not a single rational thought would form. ‘No. Isabel never told me.’

Ms Cummings pushed the letter towards him again. He noticed it was sealed. The social worker had no idea of the contents. ‘Well, maybe that’s why she left you the letter.’

Riley looked at the cream envelope in front of him. He picked it up and ripped it open, pulling out a matching cream sheet of paper.

Dear Riley,

I hope you never have to read this. But if you do it’s because something’s happened. I’m sorry I never told you about Finn. You’d already left for Afghanistan and it just seemed pointless. We already knew our time was over and I didn’t need to complicate your life.

I hope I’m not about to spoil things for you. I hope you’ve managed to meet someone, marry and have a family of your own.

Finn and I have been great. We haven’t needed anything at all. He’s a funny, quirky little boy and I can see traits of us both in him every single day. I love him more than you can ever know, and I hope you’ll feel that way about him too.

He knows who you are. I only had a few pictures, but I put them in his room and told him you worked away and would meet him when he grew up.

Please forgive me, and love my darling boy for both of us.

Isabel

He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t breathe. His life had just been turned upside down and on its head. He had a child. He had a son.

And he’d never been told. Rage filled his brain, just as April’s fingers tightened on his shoulder. She could probably read every word of the letter over his shoulder.

April leaned over and spun the letter around to face the social worker, giving her a few seconds to read it. Her face paled.

Ms Cummings looked at him. ‘You didn’t even know that Finn existed?’

He shook his head. The firm touch by April was dissipating the rage that was burning inside. Isabel had been quirky. She’d been a little chaotic. This didn’t seem completely out of character. He just hadn’t had a clue.

‘Where is Finn now?’ April’s voice cut through his thoughts.

Ms Cummings looked up. ‘And you are?’

April leaned across and held out her hand. ‘I’m April Henderson. I’m a friend and colleague of Dr Callaghan’s.’ She said the words so easily. A friend. It almost sounded true.

Ms Cummings shuffled some papers. ‘Finn’s been in temporary foster care in Birmingham.’

Panic started to fill Riley. ‘My son is in foster care?’ He’d heard about these things. Wasn’t foster care bad for kids?

Ms Cummings nodded. ‘We have a few things to sort out. As your name isn’t on the birth certificate, you may want to arrange a DNA test. However, Ms Porter named you as her son’s guardian in her will. Pending a few checks, I’ll be happy to release Finn into your custody. You will, of course, be allocated a local social worker to help you with any queries.’ She lifted something from her bag. ‘As you’ll know, in England we have a number of legal procedures. Isabel left everything in trust—via you—for Finn. But probate takes some time. I can only let you have these keys to the house for a day or so—to pick some things up for Finn. Although ultimately it will come to you, the keys have to be returned to the lawyer in the meantime.’

‘When do I pick up Finn?’

‘Do you have somewhere suitable for him to stay?’

His thoughts went immediately to his temporary army lodgings. He was only supposed to be here four weeks. ‘I’m supposed to leave for Sierra Leone on Monday.’ The words came out of nowhere.

The Colonel interjected quickly. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of that. You have a family emergency. Your son obviously takes priority here. Do you want me to arrange some other accommodation for you?’

He nodded automatically. He didn’t own a property. He had money in the bank but had never got around to buying a place as he’d no idea where he’d eventually end up.

His eyes caught sight of a box in the corner of the room. Red tinsel. It was stuffed full of Christmas decorations. Christmas. It was only six weeks away. His son had lost his mother, six weeks before Christmas.

‘I’ll give you an address. I can meet you at the foster parents’ house tomorrow if that suits.’

‘It suits.’ The words were automatic.

Ms Cummings gave a nod. ‘There’s one other thing.’

‘What’s that?’

She licked her lips. ‘As Ms Porter had no other next of kin and you’re the only person named in the will, it will be up to you to organise the funeral.’

‘What?’

Ms Cummings’ eyes narrowed. ‘Will that be a problem?’

He shook his head. ‘No. Of course not.’

Ms Cummings pushed some papers towards him. ‘Here’s a copy of the will. A note of Ms Porter’s address and her lawyer’s address to drop the keys back. And a copy of the address for the foster family tomorrow. Let’s say eleven o’clock?’

Business obviously concluded, she gathered her papers and stood up. Riley glanced at the clock. In the space of ten minutes his life had just turned on its head.

‘Do you have a picture?’

She looked startled. ‘Of Finn?’

He nodded. Of course of Finn. Who did she think he wanted to see a picture of?

She reopened her file and slid out a small photograph. His mouth dried instantly. It was like a blast from the past. That small innocent face. Thirty years ago that had been him. A whole world he didn’t even know existed.

He didn’t even speak as the Colonel showed Ms Cummings out.

*

April had an ache deep inside her belly. This was a whole new Riley Callaghan in front of her right now.

He looked almost broken. She’d spent the last four weeks secretly watching his cheeky grin, positive interactions and boundless energy. There had been a few emergencies on the ward and Riley thought and moved quicker than anyone. He was a great doctor. Happy to help others. And always itching to get on to the next thing.

It was the first time she’d ever seen him slumped. He just seemed stunned.

His hand reached up and crumpled the letter on the table in front of him. She moved instinctively, brushing her fingers against his, pulling the paper from his and smoothing the paper back down.

‘Don’t. In a few years’ time you might want to show that to Finn.’

He stood up so quickly the chair flew back and hit the floor. ‘She didn’t tell me. She didn’t tell me about him.’ He flung his hands up. ‘How could she do that to me? How could she do that to him?’

April’s mouth dried. She didn’t know what to say. How on earth could she answer that question?

He started pacing, running his hands through his thick dark hair. ‘What do I do? I don’t know the first thing about children. I don’t know how to be a father. What if he doesn’t like me? What if I suck at being a dad?’ He threw his hands out again. ‘I don’t have a house. What do I buy for a five-year-old? What does a five-year-old boy need? And what about my job? Will I still work here? What about school? Does Finn even go to school yet? I move about, all over the place. How can that be good for a kid?’

April took a deep breath. It was clear that every thought in his brain was just tumbling straight out of his mouth. She shook her head and stood in front of him. ‘Riley, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. But there’s a foster mother. She’ll probably be able to help. You have keys to the house. Everything that a five-year-old boy needs will be there. And it will probably help Finn if you take his own things to help him settle.’

The light in the office was dimmer than the rest of the hospital. But Riley’s hurt green eyes were the thing she could see clearest. She was standing right in front of him. Closer than she’d ever wanted to get.

He closed his eyes for a second then nodded. ‘You’re right. I know you’re right. But my son…Finn...he’s been in foster care. Isn’t that supposed to be terrible?’

She gave a soft smile. ‘I think those days are long gone. Foster carers have to go through a mountain of checks these days. Finn will have been well looked after. But the last few days will probably have been a blur.’

He reached out and took her hand in his. It made her catch her breath. It was so unexpected. And more. He just didn’t let it go.

She could almost feel his pain. It was palpable. It was right there in the air between them. Riley Callaghan had just had the legs swept from clean under him. And, to his credit, he was still standing. Just the way she would have expected of him.

‘Will you help me, April?’ He squeezed her hand.

Fear swept through her. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t know anything. Will you help me?’

Help. What did that mean? She was all for supporting a colleague in a difficult situation. But this one was probably bigger than anyone could have expected.

‘Please? I’m out of my depth, April. I know that already.’ His green eyes were pleading with her. Twisting her insides this way and that.

A child. A little boy had just lost a parent. Finn must be feeling lost. He must feel as if his whole world had just ended.

She met Riley’s gaze. ‘I’ll help where I can,’ she said cautiously. ‘I can help you with the funeral.’

He frowned. ‘You will?’

Mallory. She’d organised every tiny detail of the funeral, even though it had ripped her heart out. Who else knew her twin better than her?

She nodded. ‘Let’s just say I’m good at funerals.’

And she squeezed his hand back.

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