Prologue: London, England
All was still.
In the sunny hospital room, the doctor raised his gaze to the nurse's, shaking his head slightly. The nurse bit her lip, then moved silently forward, gently pulling the blanket up over the patient's head. In the corner of the room, the man's sole visitor dropped her gaze to the floor, saying a silent prayer. Then she reached out a hand, touching the doctor's arm.
"Dr Beach, I want to thank you for everything you've done." She said softly.
The doctor sighed, glancing at his hands.
"Sometimes you can't fight the aging process." He said sadly. "But I appreciate your remarks, Hannah. We did all we could to keep him going...but sometimes they just don't seem to want to go on."
"He was an interesting soul. A solitary man, but he had a morose sense of humour about him." Hannah Sutcliffe admitted. "I'll miss him."
"Though in my line of work, that sensation happens far too often." She added. "I try to remember them all by name, but sometimes it's hard."
She touched the blanket absently, then,
"I think I'll remember Albert, though." She decided. "He was a strange one."
"Any family to notify?"
"You tell me." Hannah frowned. "Social services have done their best to track down any living members of the Burns family since Bert took sick and it's been a real struggle. As far as I know his wife and his son predeceased him, and his daughter seems to have disappeared into nothing. I was hoping to track her down before...well, before anything happened, but he didn't seem to want me to know. I don't know. Perhaps that was how he wanted it."
She cast the doctor a glance.
"I presume that the body will be released? I mean, there won't be an autopsy?"
"No need for an autopsy." Dr Beach shook his head. "Bert's heart has been failing him for years. The medicine just wasn't enough any more, that's all. No, this is nature's call, I'm afraid. And if you can find his family, Hannah, then so much the better. I hate to think of any patient of mine alone and unclaimed after the fact."
"Well, I have one lead." Hannah admitted. "Bert was a clam but I did hear him mention a woman called Laura once or twice. Apparently this girl grew up with his daughter and they were still in contact. I'd tracked her down and asked her to meet me here today in the hope that Bert would speak to her, but then he arrested..."
She trailed off, shaking her head and absently crossing herself. "God rest him. I hope he has his peace now."
She offered the nurse a smile.
"I suppose I should leave you to...to sort everything out." She added softly. "I'm glad I was here when...it happened, so he wasn't alone. But I will keep trying to track down his daughter. If nothing else, he deserves her to know."
With that she ducked out of the room, making her way slowly along the hallway towards the waiting area.
A voice, tinged with the local accent startled her out of her reverie and she turned, meeting the questioning gaze of a woman in her late forties or early fifties. Thick waves of dark red hair framed a friendly face, if not a beautiful one, and a pair of soft green eyes were glancing her up and down, as if assessing the situation.
Hannah offered a smile.
"Yes, I'm Hannah Sutcliffe." She agreed. "Oh! You must be Mrs Milligan!"
"Laura Milligan, yes." Laura nodded her head. "We spoke on the phone. I understand ol' Bertie is 'ere but they said you were with 'im and that...well, so was the doctor."
She indicated Hannah's badge. "When I saw your Social Care an' 'Ealth badge I knew who you must be. Why did you want to see me?"
Hannah bit her lip.
"Let me buy you a coffee." She suggested, leading the redhead in the direction of the.hospital canteen. "I'm afraid there's not much we can either of us do up here for Albert now...but maybe there's something you can still help me with."
"What?" Laura's eyes became big with alarm. "What are you telling me? That he's...you know, passed?"
"Just about ten minutes ago." Hannah nodded solemnly. "I'm sorry to bring the news. His heart hasn't been strong for a while and of late it's been even more dicky. He arrested and they couldn't bring him back, no matter what they tried. It was his time, it seems, and he was willing to go. He didn't have any fight left in him, bless his soul."
Laura muttered a curse, then,
"Does Sheila know about this?" She demanded.
"Sheila?" Hope flared in Hannah's dark eyes. "Bert's daughter Sheila?"
"In a manner of speaking." Laura looked confused. "Why?"
"That's what I wanted to speak to you about." Hannah said simply, indicating for Laura to take a seat and then taking one herself. "I've tried till I was blue in the face to find Bert's family, and I've come up empty every time. His wife is dead. His son is dead. All I could discover was that there was a daughter, Sheila...but he wouldn't tell me where she was. I don't know if he even knew - his mind did wander from time to time and he'd call me Flo. Maybe he didn't remember. But every lead I followed up seemed a dead end. It was like Sheila Burns disappeared into oblivion and that was that."
Laura pursed her lips.
"I suppose in some ways she did." She agreed. "She doesn't go by that name now. She's married long since an' lives in America. Bertie did know where she was...but their relationship was never quite father an' daughter. Sheila...was adopted, you 'ave to understand, under duress. Bertie was actually 'er uncle and well, the last time they met 'e told her the truth. Far as I know they ain't seen each other since. They were never the pen-pal types anyhow...Sheila left England in the first place to escape from 'er family."
"I got the impression from Bert that he was fond of her." Hannah said pensively. "He'd never really talk about her, as if it hurt him to do it, but the more his mind wandered, the more clues he'd drop and I got the impression he thought he was still looking after her. I don't know the circumstances, of course, and in my job it's not my place to make any kind of judgement. But if you are in contact with Sheila - and from the way you're talking, I guess you must be - I'd appreciate your help in bringing her to England. If for no other reason than to lay Bertie to rest with some real family on hand."
Laura was silent for a moment. Then, at length, she nodded.
"I think she should know, too." She said quietly. "All right. I'll speak to 'er. But if she don't want to come, I can't make her. You 'ave to realise that things in that family are complicated. But I'll try. An' that's the best I can do."
"That's all I ask." Hannah got to her feet. "I'll get that coffee and if you don't mind, I'd like to know as much as you can tell me about this family."
"I didn't realise Social Services kept a file on things like that?" Laura looked surprised. "Not after the bloke is dead an' all?"
"No, this isn't for Social Services." Hannah shook her head. "I've been popping my head around Bert's door for the last two years, three times a week. I was fond of the old guy, if you want to know. He was very much a loner, but I liked him all the same. I felt he had a lot of sadness and regret in his life, and I guess I'm curious to know more. Just for my own peace of mind."
"It might be unprofessional, but I like to know my cases before they're committed to the ground." She added. "And in Bert's case that was always hard to do."
"I see." Laura frowned. "Well, in honesty I don't know much I can tell you. But sure, coffee would be good. An' I'll tell you what I can...though I'm not sure I know the 'alf of it. So long as you realise Sheila is me friend an' I won't be betrayin' any of 'er confidences..."
"I wouldn't ask you to." Hannah promised. "Thank you. And now I'll go see about that coffee. I don't know about you, but I need it."
She bit her lip.
"It's never easy to lose one." She added softly. "Though I see it all the time, I never get used to it. And especially when they're alone. I guess I'd just like to know that he isn't really...and that someone will care enough to be at his funeral besides me. That's all."
"Well, whatever Sheila decides, I'll be there." Laura said simply. "You're right about somethin' - 'e were lonely, after Flo died, an' I saw more of it than Sheila did. I wish I'd 'ad more time to see 'im, in truth, but with four kids of me own, a son takin' off to San Diego an' producin' me first grandkid, an' a daughter gettin' a music scholarship to the Royal 'Olloway, everything kinda got away from me. I knew he was gettin' on but I didn't realise 'is 'ealth was as bad as all this. I'm sorry for it."
"He thought well of you. He always said how good a person you were.
That's why I felt I should get in contact with you."
Hannah assured her. "And thank you for your help. I'd like to think we'll bring Bertie a little bit of peace, one way or another!"
Prologue: London, England
Chapter One: England's Rose
Chapter Two: Delving
Chapter Three: Wissex
Chapter Four: Grace
Chapter Five: Revelations
Chapter Six: Facing Shadows
Chapter Seven: A Change In Plans
Chapter Eight: County Show
Chapter Nine: Trevor Hawthorne
Chapter Ten: A Sea Chest
Chapter Eleven: Binding
Chapter Twelve: Homecoming
Chapter Thirteen: Hawthorne Blood
Chapter Fourteen: Mayfair
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