Two days later, Francis was waiting in his sitting-room for the arrival of the new doctor. Bracing himself, not just for the barrage of questions and tests which would follow, but also for the inevitable disappointment he would feel, Francis turned to Fiona for distraction.
“You should be careful. If the wind changes, you’ll be stuck with that expression, as if you’re sucking a soor ploom,” he said in a teasing voice. “What’s up, Fiona?”
“Och, it’s nothing,” she said unconvincingly.
“Which means it’s something. I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you a secret if you tell me one in exchange,” he said, smiling. Fiona, however, refused to be drawn, and he knew her well enough by now not to push her. Straight talker as she was, and frank to the point of bluntness sometimes, there were some things that Fiona kept tight to herself.
Looking at the clock, he saw it still wanted 15 minutes to the hour of the doctor’s visit. Fifteen minutes Francis most assuredly did not want to spend thinking about the eventual prognosis.
“Very well, I’ll tell you my secret anyway,” he said. “It’s about Em.”
“You’ve agreed to see her?”
The beaming smile Fiona turned on him was pleasantly reassuring.
“I take it from your reaction that you think it’s a good idea?”
“Francis, it’s a wonderful idea!” she exclaimed.
“She’s coming tomorrow. I haven’t told my mother yet,” he admitted uncomfortably.
“You’d better confess to her sooner rather than later. Your mother hates surprises, but she can hardly turn Emily away.”
Francis was not so sure.
“Would you mind terribly making sure that she doesn’t?” he asked.
“Stand sentinel at the door, you mean? I suppose I should be flattered that you think me capable of facing down your mother.”
Francis smiled in return.
“You’ll love Em. She’s looking forward to meeting you. In her letter she said . . .” For the next five minutes, he lost himself in the pleasure of describing Emily to Fiona, until a rap on the door brought him sharply back to earth.
“He’s here.” His throat dried. A cough began to form in his chest. Despite everything, he could not help hoping that, this time . . .
Fiona shook out her skirts and went to open the door.
“You’ll be fine,” she said to him.
But Francis felt anything other than fine. He stood. The new doctor entered in his mother’s wake. He was much younger than he had expected, maybe no more than thirty. A strong, handsome face, the kind that inspired confidence. Though he tried to quell it, Francis felt a little kick of hope.
“How do you do?” he said, putting out his hand. “I’m Francis Cunningham.”
“Matthew Usher,” the man replied, taking his hand in a firm grip.
“And this is Miss Matheson, my nurse companion,”
Francis said, turning towards Fiona.
He was astonished to see that the normally cool and composed Highland lass was blushing furiously as she took the new doctor’s hand. The doctor, for his part, seemed strangely reluctant to let go of Fiona’s hand. Clearly, Dr Matthew Usher’s visit was going to be interesting in more ways than one.