DISCLAIMER: All characters are not ours, we're simply playing with them. Characters are from the following fandoms: Bad Girls, Judge John Deed, Holby City, Silent Witness and the Kay Scarpetta novels.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Credits to Shed specifically in using dialogue from their episode 7, Series 2 Bad Girls as in the dialogue between Barbara and Nikki when she tells the story of her second husband Peter.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the authors.
BETA: by Hunca Munca and Jen.

Till Death Do Us Part
By Kristine and Richard

Part One Hundred and Thirty One

Time had no meaning for John now, as he drove over to Joe Channing's house. He felt that he was on some perpetual journey, while time lay suspended. The minutiae of his profession, lying on the table in his chambers lay in some other dimension, that was separated from him. He had pulled one rabbit out of a hat in talking to Charlie about her mother, but wouldn't lay bets that he could perform another miracle in talking to Joe Channing about his daughter. He dared not think of the effect that the bombshell would have on Joe. He knew only too well of self evident pride that Joe took in his very glamorous, successful daughter. The trouble was that he found it far too easy to identify with Joe's point of view, as he was a father himself.

As he sat patiently at a set of traffic lights, the irony was not lost on him that he was being called upon to exercise qualities quite different than those which paid him for a living. He normally scrutinized the detailed facts of a case ,nosed out those that were hidden from casual scrutiny, and applied the full scope of his retentive memory of legal precedent. Added on to this, was his sense of where he could find the law that he could not actually recall. Incisive thinking and an ordered memory had carried his career a long way. What he was called on to do was to show different qualities, to be wise and compassionate of speech, to be strong and supportive for others when he did not know if he was being strong enough for himself. All he knew was that he had to steel himself for what he had to do. His sense of irony picked up the stray thought that this was what Helen had to do for a living, and that he had relied on her strength. In a similar way, Connie's livelihood included supporting anxious patients and relatives alike.

He drove his car into the well remembered entrance, and drew up on the gravel drive. John smiled briefly at the huge edifice which was impossibly ornamental in its splendidly gothic style, being built in an era when money was no object. It was so obviously a relic of an aristocratic age, extravagant in its buttresses and sheer grandeur, and somehow typical of Joe Channing's family background. The elderly square-sided Rolls Royce similarly made no concessions to the modern age which, judging by the way it was going, was not necessarily a bad thing. The visible presence of Joe's mansion brought back feelings of gentle nostalgia in John, of uncomplicated days when he and George would call over to receive Joe's generous hospitality and for the two of them to lock horns in debate.. It was then that John had learned that, while politically he was to the right of Genghis Khan, he was certainly not stupid. In fact, he had often seen that hidden verbal gambit come from out of nowhere, and that only with an adroit lightning parry could he hold his own. At moments like these, George would fade into the background, as she tolerantly indulged the men at play or, if the return match was fought at their house, she would busy herself in the kitchen.

John's smile faded when he dragged himself out of the mists of the past to the present , and his spirits dropped further when Joe greeted him effusively. They headed straight towards Joe's comfortable sitting room, whose furnishings and huge bookcase had hardly changed in thirty years. If only times were different, John could bask in that comfortable feeling.

"Do you want a malt whisky, John? I forgot, you don't often drink." Joe offered.

"Well, just this time, Joe. Abstemiousness is all very well but it can be taken too far."

"The politically correct brigade have a lot to answer for," rumbled Joe scornfully, reaching for the nearest pair of cut glass tumblers, and pouring out two generous measures. John is mellowing nicely over the years, he reflected, before continuing to hold forth on his take on the modern world.

"The country has gone to the dogs, John. In my younger days, there was a level playing field and you stuck to it. There were standards, John, but it didn't stop us driving out to a nice country inn. We could drink some of the finest malt whiskies and be damned to puritanical licencing laws. We drove home all right without any trouble. No breathalisers in those days. Now, the country is run by the worst kind of spivs and racketeers imaginable, and to make it worse, they are intolerably mealy mouthed about enjoying some of life's simple pleasures. They want to inflict their miserable existences on other people. And talking about Houghton………"

Joe broke off, grinning all over his face.

"Couldn't agree with you more, Joe, especially about him."

"You know, this feels like the old days. It's a pity George isn't here just to make this meeting complete. I suppose she is working on a case of hers."

"Ahh." Murmured John.

Joe shot a swift, keen look at the younger man. Despite their one time estrangement from each other and lack of contact, he could remember all of John's little mannerisms very well. That utterance meant that he had something to confess.

"Have you seen George recently? In fact the last time I remember seeing her was about three weeks ago when she brought Kay Scarpetta, that very impressive American pathologist friend of hers. I suppose that she's been busy."

"George has been busy all right." Murmured John in ominous tones despite his best attempts.

"You mean in court? I heard about how George and Jo Mills secured Barbara's acquittal , no doubt thanks also to the trial being in your capable hands."

John looked at the expectant, hopeful look in Joe's eyes. It clearly begged John to say that there was some harmless explanation of George's absence. He looked at the man and it worried him that Joe was looking older and more frail than his mental image of the man. It occurred to him that he could quite easily suffer a heart attack. For precious moments, he hovered in an uncharacteristic attack of indecisiveness before the words took shape.

"You had better prepare yourself for news that is not good."

"I don't understand…"

"I've just been to see George in hospital today, as she was admitted there for a serious operation, and I volunteered to see you tonight to break the news to you." John articulated in deliberately slow and measured tones.

"What operation?" Joe gasped, a wild look in his eye. John mentally registered Joe's awareness that the worst fate that could befall him had arrived.

"I hate to say it Joe but I can put it no other way. Unknown to all of us, George has had breast cancer. When she finally came public on it, she went into hospital at very short notice but too late to save her breast."

Joe's mouth hung open and he was speechless. It was as well that he was sitting comfortably, or else he would have collapsed. The silence was torture to John as it exposed him by forcing him to fill the silences. Eventually, Joe broke the silence in a faint gasp which trailed off.

"Will she… "

"George will be in hospital till the weekend, and will hopefully be able to go home but she'll be off work for a bit. She will need a course of chemotherapy. I think she's in the very best hands at the Hadlington hospital. I know that for a fact because two of the people looking after her appeared as witnesses at Barbara's trial……….."

John's voice faded away, as Joe suddenly turned and poured himself a very large measure of neat whisky. He drank it down with a rapidity that surprised and alarmed John. However, he supposed that there was no alternative.

"I'm sorry, John, but I didn't hear what you were saying. She'll live, won't she?"

Joe's eyes were vacant and his hand shook, as he placed the glass down on the side. John spoke clearly and distinctly as he carefully rephrased his remarks.

" They said that George should be able to go home at the weekend but she'll be off work for a bit. She will need a course of chemotherapy. The three surgeons that we talked to will give her the very best care, not only because they are caring professionals but we know two of them as witnesses at Barbara's trial so they aren't total strangers……….."


"I was at the hospital with Jo Mills who accompanied George to hospital."

"I thought that you were at Warwick?"

"Jo phoned me up two days ago so I hot footed it down here."

As Joe refilled his glass, John was fairly sure that Joe had understood that simple statement, after looking glazed eyed at him with incomprehension.

"She must get better. I mean, I always thought that George is in blooming health, so strong, while I am in the autumn of my life, helped along by drinking too much whisky." Joe pronounced in slightly slurred tones, drinking the second measure down with another gulp.

John let Jo carry on with his drinking without comment. He joined him with a smaller measure of whisky, which he sipped. He knew that Joe needed some sort of anaesthetic, to dull his mind, and to cast some kind of foggy numbness to ease the pain and blunten its sharp edges. Why he did not get plastered on his own account, John could not work out afterwards. All he could think of was that it didn't feel right and that some obscure instinct repressed such a temptation.

"I mean, I can remember George when she was little. It was only yesterday." Joe continued, his eyesight trying his best to focus on the portrait picture of her when she was eight. It held pride of place on the mantelpiece and he and his wife towering over her to left and right of her. He swore that if only he could focus his eyes, he could picture the innocent round cheeks and immaculately brushed golden hair of long ago. It fell down over her shoulders and exposed that pleased as punch expression on her face, as if she were the luckiest child on the planet. And indeed, she was, from what he remembered at the time.

"I remember when her mother died. It was such a shock to me. She was the bravest child that there could ever have been." Sighed Joe, talking half to himself.

"I almost envy George her spirit." Murmured John somberly, his own dark memories stirred from their unquiet grave. His words were unheard by Joe except as a generalized response that took the edge off his loneliness and grief.

"I can remember her holding my hand at the church service." Burst out Joe. He was talking in short random snatches of sentences from random thoughts that invaded his mind. "I never felt more wretched in my life when I saw the coffin being carried into the church

"George has a lot to live for," reasoned John smoothly, "and you of all people know how obstinate she can be."

So the evening wore on. Joe was locked into a primal fear, that not only his wife had been taken from him, but so would his daughter. John conjured up as much positive, hopeful spirit as he could to try and allay Joe's fears while a tiny portion of his mind secretly understood how Joe felt. So might he react if ever Charlie's life were ever threatened. They talked away the hours until Joe's voice became sleepier as the alcohol seeped into his consciousness and he finally drifted off to sleep in his chair.

John looked around, and became conscious of his surroundings. Apart from the grandfather clock in the hallway chiming out the hour, an utter silence hung over the house. It felt as if all of them were somehow removed from the busy, bustling world in some other dimension of existence. The low lights cast a glow in the room but left much of the room shadowed in darkness. John took in the details of the furnishings which had hardly changed over the decades and weren't greatly different from when he had first visited, many years ago. He sank back in his chair and waited. He was tired enough on his own account, now he came to think of it.

"How do you feel about everything, John?" Joe suddenly mumbled out of nowhere though the natural resonance of his tones made him still audible. He was slumped deep in his armchair while next to him, the level in the whisky bottle had dropped alarmingly.

For the first time in his life, John's mind went totally blank. He had spent the last two days rushing round from one disconnected event to another, talking to surgeons and trying to remember every last syllable while his memory felt fogged up, unreliable, finally acting as social worker cum councilor. Buried deep below this frenzy of activity were his own feelings. He could not even begin to describe them.

"I'm sorry to say that I don't know. I suppose that I feel somewhat helpless and this goes against the grain. It doesn't usually happen to me. I remember a couple of times when George went through one of her anorexic phases and at least I could do something about it. I could try and understand her and talk to her. I feel very strongly that the spoken word can change things. After all, that is why I set out to become a high court judge. All I know is that I can't help her now the way I want to."

"I'm sure there's a way."

"I can't lose her, Joe" John murmured in a soft tone.

"Well, we'll have to make sure we don't." Joe tried to answer, making a better attempt at adult reassurance than his alcohol intake merited.

What should he do, John wondered? He had gradually sipped at his glass and had refilled it as time had gone on and he doubted if he would pass the breathaliser test if he were stopped, especially knowing how potent Joe's whisky was. He dared not take the chance.

Suddenly, Joe's housekeeper made a tactful entrance into the room and John's tired mind made one last decision. If it weren't inconveniencing anyone, he would stay the night. He knew very well that the bedrooms in Joe's mansion were very large and very cold but that was a minor consideration if he were to ensure that Joe at least got through that most difficult first night.

Part One Hundred and Thirty-Two

As the immediate crisis of George's operation had passed, awareness was creeping into Karen's brooding thoughts that Jo and John were only the most immediate circle of those who knew George, who cared about her. As she sat back in her armchair on Thursday night, she reeled off the names in short order of those who must be told. These included Nikki, Helen, Barbara, Yvonne, Roisin and Cassie. She dismissed out of hand the idea of phoning through the news, as she would have to tell the same story many times over and it certainly didn't feel right. That is where the idea of a gathering came into her mind. She lit a cigarette, and started to puzzle as to over where would be a convenient place. Larkhall certainly had the rooms, but it had nowhere comfortable or friendly. Also, she had to consider that Larkhall was situated south of the river and the others had their lives and jobs situated all over London. At last, the obvious idea came to her mind and, with a smile of satisfaction, she picked up her phone.

"You're being very mysterious all of a sudden, Karen." Nikki enquired, as they strolled to their cars. "You phone me up at home to propose I join you and the rest of the gang in going down to the pub on a Thursday night. Not any pub but the one round the corner of the Old Bailey. It sounds a great idea but there's something that I just don't get."

"It somehow seems fitting, Nikki."Karen said enigmatically. "You wait and you'll find out."

To her intense relief, Nikki's natural curiosity seemed to evaporate. Perhaps, it was just the effect of a long hard week. At least it meant that, at this time of the year, it meant driving through sometimes sunlit streets, instead of through the cold, bleak rain lashed night. Karen smiled automatically at Nikki, as she got into her car but it faded as she reflected on the self imposed task she had in hand.

Hours later, Nikki led the way ahead of Helen and she pushed open the door of the pub. Immediately, she was wrapped up in intensely nostalgic feelings of good will. She and Helen had good mental associations with this pub, the scene of the intermission in the struggles for justice in court. It was where they celebrated their togetherness and inclusiveness in light hearted banter, that was more serious in purpose than they made out. Each of them was sensitive to the needs of each other, and made delicate adjustments as a matter of course. As they entered the large, airy room, she and Helen grinned as they caught sight of Karen, who had commandeered a long table and high backed chairs ready for them all.

"Hi Karen, long time no see." Helen greeted Karen

Helen was right. It had felt a long time since they had seen each other, as they had been so busy with their own lives that time slipped through their fingers like fine sand.

" I'm glad you're the organized one."

"Well, someone's got to be the bossy one." Karen retorted.

The atmosphere was the same as normal as Yvonne's cheering presence made itself felt, soon followed by Barbara's sense of calm, Cassie's mature form of brashness and Roisin's gentler maternal glow. Everything seemed right in the room, as each one of them lent their particular coloration to the whole.

"How are you doing, Barbara?" Yvonne cheerily asked the other woman.

"Working for the local council again. I must admit it is all very quiet and impersonal. Instead of the internal politics of parish life, I have petty minded office politics instead. They really haven't lived."

"I bet they find you a dark horse, eh Babs."

"That's the side of me they don't see."

"Sorry to interrupt you all but I'm buying the first round. What do you all want?" Karen replied cheerily enough.

They gathered round the table, drink in each hand and broke into the general delighted chatter of those old friends, who had not seen each other for some time. Karen's mouth moved to say the appropriate words and her smile seemed convincing. As her act was convincing enough, everything felt congenial to everyone except her.

"I'm surprised Jo and George ain't here, but I suppose they're busy with the next trial. You never know, even the judge might have come here with us if he had the bottle." Yvonne broke in to make casual conversation.

Instead of the round of laughs that Yvonne had expected, a sudden silence descended on the room, while the rest of the pub sounds faded into the background. One glance at Karen betrayed her extreme discomfort for all to see.

"Well, that's part of the reason I fixed this up, as well as meeting you all again. Time flies."

"What's going on, Karen?" Nikki asked quietly.

The other woman said nothing for a little while. She was torn between doing her duty, and not wanting to spoil the convivial atmosphere that had built up. It made her feel whole and relaxed and totally off duty, as nothing else in her life quite succeeded in doing.

"I don't feel comfortable in breaking this news to you all but I have to tell you that George is in hospital for breast cancer. They operated on her but it was too late to save it. I must say that she is comfortable and being looked after."

These hesitantly phrased words hit home like a bolt of lightning. It spoke of every woman's nightmare, and struck so deep that the other five verbally fluent women were lost for words.

"I really hate to spoil the party but I had to tell you. It's been kept under wraps long enough as it is."

"How long?"

Karen gave a big sigh as she confessed the truth under duress.

"George has had it since last Christmas but never told a soul till she told me very recently. She saw a private doctor at short notice and Jo went with her to the hospital."

There was a sharp intake of breath. Five very alert minds were mentally pencilling in the chronology of events, first and foremost being Barbara's trial.

"So all the time George was standing up in court, she was putting her own health on the line." Cassie found herself saying on automatic pilot.

"There's a bit in what you say, Cassie but there's more to it than that." Karen jumped in hastily, feeling very defensive for George, frowning at the other woman. Above all else, she did not want Barbara to feel guilty as if her troubles had kept George from seeking the medical treatment she had urgently needed. "From my experience of working in a hospital, I have seen too many women who have acted in the same way as George, from all walks of life and education. It goes right across the spectrum. The only difference is just how long they leave it. ……. It was one reason why I got out of nursing. Anyway, the latest that I've heard is that she's coming out of hospital on Saturday."

"Is that good news or bad?" Nikki queried.

"It's too early to say but the signs are fairly hopeful, but we have to follow this one step at a time." Karen found herself saying. Jesus, she really did feel as if she were wearing her button up the front nurses uniform instead of her favourite suits. It struck her, as she paused for breath that all the familiar expressions were rolling off the tongue as if it were only yesterday that she had last uttered these words.

"The most important thing is that George is a fighter. You've all seen that. Believe you me, that will to survive will carry you a long way, more than conventional medicine would have you believe."

"She will have John and Jo to help her through this one. They care." Broke in Helen to also strike the positive note.

"And so do we, don't we." Roisin chimed, having carefully listened to every word that was said, while Cassie kept quiet. "She deserves our help."

A glum silence fell on that part of the room. It went without saying that all of their sympathies were with George at a moment like this, the same as any of them, but they felt helpless to do anything practical. Flowers and get well cards were all very well but they seemed to fall well short of the mark.

All of them broke into spontaneous expressions of sympathy, which started to hurt her head as she listened and finally, she cut the others short.

"Look here, now that we're all here, we'll enjoy ourselves, right? Another day, we'll work out what needs doing. George will be looked after, I'm dead sure of that one. It's what we're all best at and all. Right now, I'm buying in the next round even though it's really on George. She likes a good party and that is what she would want us to do tonight."

The tone in Yvonne's voice was her big hearted toughness at its best, as she took charge of the situation. The others colluded with her by pretending to forget the sad news awhile. They knew each other well enough to realize that tomorrow was another day and would be dealt with.

Part One Hundred and Thirty-Three

"I can look after myself, John," grumbled Joe testily." I've slept on it and I've decided that I'm visiting George in hospital today."

"You're sure, Joe?" John queried which irritated Joe especially as he had the worst hangover that he had ever had for years.

"She is my daughter, after all. I must go."

John glanced quizzickly at the determined tone in his voice. This was the obstinate, stubborn behaviour of a generation, which had withstood Hitler's massed armies, and was later hard to live with for the rebellious, up and coming generation. Of course, George had acted in her perverse fashion by inheriting this quality, and sneakily customizing it to her own needs.

"I wasn't myself last night. Forget all that emotional drivel I came out with. There's nothing that a strong cup of coffee can't sort out early in the morning. I must admit that I dislike this damned American habit of eternal coffee but it does have its uses from time to time."

Long experience had taught John to know better than to persist in disagreeing. Last night, the older man had gone on a spectacular bender, and he was clearly suffering the consequences. He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly and gave way.

When the purr of John's engine had faded away, Joe took a good look at himself in his mirror. He had verbally reassured John more heartily than he inwardly believed and felt pretty rough. He splashed water over his face to revive himself, and smartened himself up as his way of facing up to his fears. It was when he was looking for some prop, external or internal, that the brainwave crossed his mind to distract himself. It was only the matter of moments, to fish out the car keys and seat himself in his highly polished, ornamental but rarely driven Rolls. His long experience emboldened him to set it into motion with a shaky but still active sense for the feel of the controls. It gave him pride in himself, as he was seated so high up when compared with the streamlined, low slung, bullet shaped vehicles. Hmmh, he snorted to himself, they were cheap imitations and a direct corruption of the original idea of the freedom of the road. They bore as much resemblance to his car as a damned soap opera did to a Shakespearean tragedy. They had no class, no sense of style. The keen winter air that found its way into the driving compartment started to clear his head, and cheered him up as he poked the accelerator and shot past the nose of some modern machinery with a commendably executed swerve.

Ancient driving instincts took him to the outside of the Hadlington hospital, which he had not visited for a long time. He pulled his car into the side and peered at the new fangled turnstile and, grumbling at the gadgetry, put a coin in the slot, and selected a parking space at a distance from all other cars. It spread over into two spaces and the distinctive silver bonnet stuck out beyond the white painted designated parking area. He carefully locked up each door of his pride and joy with a faint mischievous expression on his face.

Then, looking nervously around in case some wretched hound dared to scratch his car, he bustled himself over to the foyer according to the directions that John had given him.

"Ms Channing? Who shall I say is calling?" asked the nurse in the breathtaking surroundings of the grand foyer.

"Her father," rumbled Joe in tones of immense pride.

The nurse blinked and took another look at the distinguished looking old man, sensing his lifetime's experience of masterful dominance. He was clearly different from the usual patient of a similar age, accustomed to passively accepting his limbo state as a prelude to passing away peacefully. Even though that damned headache hurt him, he graciously let the pretty nurse lead the way throughout the spacious luxury of a private hospital.

Joe turned into George's room with assumed confidence and a wide smile, though her face was tinged with fear when she saw him. Daddy had come to visit her as she somehow expected he would. Her sharp eye detected that despite his bluff, hearty manner, the redness round his eyes suggested that he had been drinking the night before.

"Daddy, how good of you to call."

"Well, seeing that you aren't able to visit me at my house, I thought I'd better visit you here."

Joe's sharp eyes detected that flash of guilt on George's face that someone like Houghton would never notice in a thousand years.

"I meant to phone you or call on you before but I never got round to it."

"John explained everything when he called round last night." Joe answered with a dismissive wave of his hand. The sharp glance from her father told George that she wasn't forced to repeat what John had told him already though he wasn't stopping her.

"Can you believe me that I buried my head in the sand and hoped that everything would go away if I did my best to keep quiet about it?"

"Very easily as I've been proud for so long of my beautiful talented daughter."

Joe put particular intonation on the word 'talented' as he expertly avoided the trap that lay at his feet. George smiled briefly but made no reply.

"Everyone is afraid of losing their looks as they get older and, believe it or not, there was a time that I had the good looks of Lawrence Olivier in his prime."

George looked at him with disbelief as Joe continued. She had not quite erased the belief that parents were born old, which was quite compatible with her own enduring beauty and mother of a grown up daughter. Daddy was different.

"What lovely lilies they are." Joe commented.

"Karen brought them round when she visited me."

"You see, I'm not the one who cares for you." Joe replied brightly.

The conversation meandered onwards. Joe took care not to look too closely in the direction of that portion of George, which had been operated on. George could not help noticing his gaze. The conversation became strained, as they both skated round the matter of the operation until the words that had been at the back of Joe's mind came out without thinking.

"What is troubling you, George?"

"I'm frightened that John won't be able to love me any more."

"Nonsense," boomed Joe." John came round to my house last night and, between you and me, we had a few drinks………."

"Just a few, daddy. You know what your doctor keeps telling you." pursued George, in those affectionately nagging tones that virtuous children adopt for their errant parents.

"Well, more than a few, but we had a good talk, or rather I talked a lot about you but when John wasn't doing his best to reassure me, he let slip that he was a lot more worried about you than he let on. He will love you for who you are, George."

George smiled faintly as Joe struggled in his awkward fashion to reassure her of John's constancy of will. Daddy meant well and was trying his best but it wasn't enough. She was becoming tired by the concentration in keeping up with conversation and, as visiting time came close to an end, George did her token effort to keep command of the situation.

"I'll call a nurse to phone up for a taxi, daddy."

"Actually, that won't be necessary, George. I drove over here and showed some of those young whippersnappers a thing or two about driving, " Came Joe's answer with a mixture of understated nonchalance and bravado, while a wicked smile spread over her face.

"But, daddy, you hardly drive these days."

"Well, today was an exception and for a special occasion." Joe pronounced loftily.

"You haven't done anything which you may later regret. I know you," she declared. She spoke almost severely to Joe with that firm tone in her voice which she had developed when she was young and which John would get to recognize and, in turn, would pass on to Charlie as if it were a female gene.

"Nonsense, it's as easy as riding a bike. Once you get the knack, you never lose it."

Beneath her severe manner, there was something about him in these mischievous moments, which she ought to reprove, but which she couldn't help but find endearing about him. Beneath his gaze, he knew full well what effect it was having on George and that it raised her spirits.

Eventually, Joe had to take his leave and fortunately it was still light outside. As George lay back in her comfortable bed with a paperback, she realized that she worried occasionally about her father, that he was getting old. On balance, it was fortunate that there was recklessness about him to defy the odds. It was becoming more pronounced than ever, as he and John had become close after all the years of separation. It kept him young at heart. It crossed her mind that her divorce from John hadn't just split their own relationship. As she and John had become true friends again and sometime lovers, Joe and John had gravitated back to the way they always were without anything being said. She admired and revered daddy but she did worry about him sometimes.

Part One Hundred And Thirty Four

On the Saturday morning, Tash came to check on George, just to make sure she was indeed ready to go home.

"No offence," George said as Tash examined both her wound, from which the chest drain had been removed yesterday, and the records of her blood pressure and other obs. "But I can't wait to get out of this place."

"I quite often feel the same," Tash said as she wrote in the file. "And I only work here. Now, we need you to come back on Wednesday morning to have the stitches taken out, which is when we will fit you with a false insert to put in your bra. Then we'll probably want to start the chemotherapy on the Friday of the following week, to give you the weekend to recover."

"What will the chemo actually involve?" George asked, not liking the sound of any of this whatsoever.

"Well, you'll come here, and be attached to a drip for a few hours, so yet more interminable boredom I'm afraid. The cocktail of drugs that we'll be giving you, may have several possible side effects. You will probably lose your appetite, which in view of your current weight, isn't something that any of us are particularly happy about. It may also make you extremely sick, either whilst you're having the treatment or in the days following it, and virtually every system your body has will be very much out of sync for the duration of the treatment. I'm talking about your menstrual cycle, your digestion, your sex drive, your moods, everything."

"Is there really a positive side to having chemo?" George was forced to ask, inwardly quaking at all the changes this treatment might have on her.

"Yes," Tash said without any hesitation. "If you don't have chemotherapy, to remove the remaining cancer cells from your body, you will die. If you want me to be brutally honest, I would give you about as long as next Christmas if you didn't have the chemo, and you would be very lucky if you managed to get that far." All the colour had drained from George's face, and Tash put out a hand to reassure her. "But we're not going to let that happen," She told George gently. "You did significantly reduce your chances of long-term survival by not coming forward as soon as you found the lump, but we will do everything within our power to keep you alive for as long as possible."

"That was the stupidest thing I've ever done, wasn't it," George said dully, finally voicing what she was sure everyone had been thinking.

"If it's any consolation," Tash said as she closed George's folder of records. "I nearly did exactly the same in your position. However, I was lucky, and it was only a benign cyst, but I left it for an entire month before seeking help, and I was hounded into doing that by a very good friend. I remember, I was looking after a patient with breast cancer at the time, and Kirstie kept accusing me of having double standards."

"You really can't put a price on good friends, can you," George said with a soft smile, thinking of all that Kay and Karen between them had done for her.

"No, you can't," Tash said a little regretfully, thinking of just how long it had been since she'd looked into Kirstie's beautiful face. "Now, the final thing that I must make absolutely clear to you," Tash continued, returning to her former firm professional voice. "Is that you must, and I repeat must, maintain a healthy diet, if you want any chance of coming through the chemotherapy successfully. You are already considerably underweight, though not as yet dangerously so, and you cannot allow it to get any worse. I do appreciate that this may be extremely difficult, as it appears to be your way of coping with particularly stressful areas of your life. Am I right?"

"Of course you are," George said a little bitterly. "I will try to eat on a regular basis, but I'm making absolutely no promises."

"That's as far as I'm going to get with that one, isn't it," Tash said, sounding a little defeated.

"I'm afraid so," George agreed with her, privately relieved that she would at least have John and Jo to help her on this point.

Having not been permitted to take a shower before the chest drain was removed, George now thankfully scrubbed away all the feeling of having been confined to bed for several days. When Tricia appeared afterwards to re-dress the wound, and to show George what was needed in order for her to do this herself in the coming days, George automatically picked up the bra she had retrieved from her bag, then only to realise that she couldn't wear it.

"That'll have to wait until Wednesday," Tricia told her gently, seeing the multitude of emotions that were crossing George's face.

"I almost forgot that it no longer has anything to support on one side," George said bitterly, the reality of her situation hitting her with full force.

"You'll get used to it," Tricia promised her, handing her the shirt that George had laid out on the bed.

"I'll take your word for it," George said dismissively.

When John came to pick her up at about one o'clock, George was fully dressed and sitting in a chair in her room waiting for him. She had put on a jacket, fastening it to cover both her unsupported breast and the dressing covered space on her left side. As she stood up when he appeared, she automatically crossed her left arm over herself, to hide the obvious lack of flesh on her left side.

"Are you ready to go home?" John asked when he saw her.

"More than," She replied, clearly wanting to get back to familiar surroundings as soon as possible.

"Jo's already there waiting for us," he told her, picking up her bag with his right hand, and tucking her right arm through his left. Tricia was on the phone when they passed the desk, so she simply waved to them, giving George a smile. Both George and John were quiet in the car, neither of them knowing quite what to say. There was still a lot of unanswered questions between them, and John found himself not really knowing how he should treat her.

"You can relax, you know," She told him affectionately, laying a hand over his where it rested on the gear stick.

"I'm sorry," He said a little sheepishly. "It's not often that I'm stuck for words, is it."

"No, darling, it's not," She agreed with him.

When they arrived back at George's house, Jo let them in. She and John had come over on the Saturday morning, to do any necessary cleaning and to put fresh sheets on George's bed. They wanted her not to have to worry about a thing, and to be able to simply relax. George couldn't suppress her feeling of oddness as she entered her own house, a sense of unreality that she couldn't begin to shake. This must be some terrible nightmare, a frightening dream from which she could not awake. When they'd moved into the hall and the door was closed behind them, shutting out the rest of an unforgiving world, Jo took George into her soft and gentle embrace, her face resting against George's hair.

"It's good to have you home," Jo told her, softly kissing her cheek.

"It's good to be home," George replied, perhaps a little uncertainly, as she now had none of the hospital procedures to hide behind. As they both simultaneously put an arm out to John, he tentatively moved into their embrace, returning it as his hitherto buried feelings threatened to overwhelm him. They stood there in perfect silence for a time, all three of them taking comfort from being so close to the others, all of them knowing that this was the beginning of the tortuous days to come.

When they eventually parted, George looked between them with her familiar knowing gaze.

"Are you two all right?" She asked suspiciously. "You're both doing your utmost to hide it, but it feels as though you've been fighting."

"That didn't take you long," John told her dryly. "You must be getting better."

"It's not important," Jo said quietly. "Not now." Thinking that she might just be able to put her finger on the source of their argument, George accepted Jo's reassurances. "You look exhausted," Jo continued, though thinking that utterly washed out was perhaps a more accurate description.

"I am," George agreed with her. "All I've done is rest for the past few days, yet all I want to do now is go to sleep."

"Then that is precisely what you should do," John said firmly, picking up her bag from the floor and moving towards the stairs.

"Would you like a cup of tea?" Jo asked as George made to follow him.

"That would be wonderful, darling, thank you," George replied with a tired smile. "Because if there's one thing hospital can't make, it's real tea." When George and John reached her bedroom, George smiled at the vase of beautifully scented white roses on the dressing table. Seeing her smile, John said,

"I thought they might cheer you up."

"They do," George assured him. "Though I can't help wondering which one of us is paler, me or the roses."

"All you need for the time being," John said, laying his hands on her shoulders and scrutinising her face. "Is rest, and nourishment." This last word was uttered as he fixed her with his familiar, implacable frown.

"Yes, thank you," She said in slight exasperation. "I did receive quite a similar lecture this very morning."

"I'm glad to hear it," John observed with a wry smile. He helped her unpack the few things she'd taken to hospital, but when she hesitated before undressing, John took the initiative. "Would you prefer that I left you to it?" He asked, seeing her uncertainty.

"Yes," She said with more than a little relief. "I'm sorry, I just, don't want you to see me, not yet."

"It's all right," He assured her, gently touching her cheek. "I'll be downstairs." Once she had the bedroom to herself, George exchanged her clothes for a plain cotton nighty, and slid gratefully under the soft, thick duvet.

When Jo appeared with a mug of tea, George sat up to take it from her. After taking a grateful swig, she said,

"So, come on then, what have you two been arguing about?" sitting down on the edge of the bed, Jo simply said,

"He told me about Connie."

"Oh," Was all George seemed able to say. She was pretty sure that she knew why John had told Jo about Connie, but that didn't prevent her from wishing he hadn't.

"I wish you could have told me," Jo added quietly. "On top of everything else, you shouldn't have had to deal with that on your own."

"And I think we both know," George replied carefully. "That at the time, telling you about his dalliance with Connie might just have been catastrophic. You were putting every ounce of willpower you had into fighting for Barbara, and you'd have gone for John's jugular even more than I did."

"I don't know how to feel about it," Jo admitted, feeling more than a little ridiculous. "It's stupid," She continued. "Because I know he's done this a thousand times before, and probably will again."

"Jo," George interrupted her. "Try not to dwell on it. I punished Connie for it in court, and I made John feel unbearably guilty. The best thing we can both do, is to try and forget about it. As you said downstairs, it isn't important, not in the slightest."

At around eight that evening, John went upstairs to see if George wanted anything to eat. She had remained asleep all afternoon, and he had to gently wake her even now.

"What time is it?" She asked, her bleary eyes staring up at him. When he told her, she yawned in surprise.

"I wondered if you might be hungry," John said as he perched on the side of the bed.

"No, sorry," She said, her soft hand slipping into his. "Food is the last thing I want to contemplate. I will tomorrow, I promise."

"I'll take your word for it," John replied dryly, remembering all the other times that she had broken her promise to eat. Pulling herself into a sitting position with a wince of pain, she leaned thankfully against him as his arms went around her. "Is that what you wanted?" He asked, his chin resting on top of her head. The duvet had slid down around her waist, and John could feel just how different it now was to hold her. There was only one breast nestling against his chest, not two, and he did his best not to draw attention to it.

"I'm sorry that I'm consigning you both to the spare room," She said into his shoulder, and he could hear the slight smile in her voice.

"I don't think you did that to me during the whole time we were married," He said thoughtfully.

"No, I didn't, did I," She replied, memories of her own rising unbidden to the surface. "I think that, no matter how scorching the preceding row, I still wanted my man in my bed."

"And do you still?" He asked her perfectly seriously.

"Yes, of course I do," She said, looking up into his face. "Just as soon as I feel a bit more like the woman I used to be." When his lips gently descended on hers, she clung to him almost desperately, the fear that he might leave her one day soon, all but overwhelming her.

Part One Hundred And Thirty Five

George woke early on the Sunday morning, which was almost certainly due to the fact that she had slept so long and soundly the day before. She lay perfectly still, listening to the silence of the sleeping house around her. She was back home, back in her own bed, something that may have seemed a trifle to others, but which was for her a thankful step forward. But when she heard a soft thud, as Mimi left the warmth of John and Jo's bed in the spare room, followed by the dog's usual shake, she couldn't help but smile. But when the little whippet padded across the landing and nosed open George's half-closed bedroom door and began plucking with a paw at the edge of the duvet, George glanced over at the clock to see that it was barely seven o'clock. Putting a hand down, she gently scratched the dog's head. But when Mimi returned to the door and emitted a quiet but insistent whine, George sluggishly pulled herself into a sitting position, stifling a cry of pain as this pulled at her stitches. Emerging from the comforting warmth of the duvet and putting her feet over the side of the bed, she put out her hand to the little dog.

"Do you want to go out?" She asked Mimi quietly, words which started the dog's tail wagging in earnest. Wrapping herself in her thickest, most concealing dressing gown, George followed Mimi down the stairs, and after unlocking the back door, she let her out into the garden. "Don't you dare dig up my roses," She warned Mimi as she slipped passed her ankles. After closing the door to keep out the early morning chill, George quietly made herself a cup of tea, not wanting to disturb either occupant of the bed upstairs. Thinking that she really ought to eat something, she selected a banana from the fruit bowl, but only managed half of it before her stomach felt almost too full.

She stood and watched the little dog out of the kitchen window, though it was barely light. When Mimi came nosing at the back door to be let in, George opened it with a smile, thinking that this little wonder probably kept John well on his toes. Clicking her fingers at the wayward animal, who was heading straight for the most comfortable corner of the sofa, George led the way back upstairs. But as she started the bath running, Mimi leapt up onto the bed, settling into the warm nest of the folded back duvet. As George sank gratefully into the steaming, scented water, she reflected that this was a very simple luxury that hospital just couldn't provide. She lay there, listening to the gently singing birds through the open window, the hot water relaxing her muscles and allowing her thoughts to wander. She occasionally dozed in that fragrant bath, waking an hour or so later to find that the water had cooled. Pulling herself out of the bath, she discovered that the dressing covering her scar was damp around the edges, and definitely needed renewing. After having dried off, she dug out the replacement dressings that Tricia had given her, and sat on the edge of the bed, first peeling away the dampened dressing, then beginning the arduous task of trying to replace it. The angle at which her scar ran, from her breastbone to under her arm, made it very difficult to get the new dressing in the correct position.

Jo and John had drifted languidly into consciousness, both of them having slept soundly because George was again home with them. Whilst John took a shower in the bathroom next door, Jo lay drifting under the duvet, until George's muffled curse reached her ears. Dragging herself out of bed, she walked across the landing and put her head round the half open door of George's bedroom.

"Are you all right?" Jo asked as she moved into the room, seeing that George was having considerable trouble replacing her dressing.

"Jo," George replied, almost in fright, turning her body away from Jo's bleary eyed gaze. "Did I wake you?"

"No," Jo said with a yawn. "But you sounded as though you were having trouble."

"Stupid bloody thing," George said in complete disgust. "My scar is at precisely the wrong angle for me to cover it properly."

"Do you want me to do it?" Jo asked, though knowing exactly the kind of reaction she would receive.

"Not really," George said carefully, not wanting to totally disregard Jo's kindness. "I just don't want you to see it."

"George," Jo said gently, softly rubbing her bare shoulder. "If you really can't do it yourself, it's either me or John. There is absolutely no point in struggling with it, when I can help you." After a long, very tense pause, George said,

"All right, but that doesn't mean I have to like it." Smiling slightly, Jo took the clean dressing from George's hand.

"You might not want to hear it," She said, gently persuading George to turn back to face her. "But you are exactly the same as John, in that you always have to have the last word."

"And you ought to know by now," Quipped back George, trying to ignore the fact that Jo could now see her scar in all its bruised and stitched glory. "That to allow John to have the last word, is the way to make him feel even more powerful and self-righteous than he already does." As Jo carefully fixed the dressing in place, George visibly cringed away from her, screwing her eyes up tight so that she didn't have to see Jo's face.

"It doesn't look as bad as you think, you know," Jo told her gently.

"What, so it doesn't look odd, ugly and altogether unnatural?"

"Admittedly, it will probably look better once the stitches have been removed, and it's had time to calm down," Jo said matter-of-factly. "And yes, it obviously does make you look different. I've never seen anyone with only one breast before, but that doesn't prevent me from still finding you almost unbearably attractive. Under all that fear of the unknown, you're still you, you're still George Channing, the woman who taught me what it meant to fall in love with one of my own sex." George just stared at her, these words from Jo moving her almost to tears. "I don't know quite how it's possible for you to look so tired, after all the sleep you had yesterday," Jo continued, changing the subject to one that was a lot more comfortable for both of them. "But I think you should go back to bed."

"Yes," George agreed with her, pulling on the clean nighty that lay on the bed beside her. "Whoever would have thought that simply taking a bath would be quite so exhausting."

It was the middle of Sunday afternoon when Charlie finally appeared. George had been lazily drifting between sleeping and waking, but had been brought to full alertness by the sound of the doorbell, followed by Mimi's yapping little bark. John was pleased to see Charlie, but he didn't like the slightly narrowed eyes and the determined look on her face that nearly always spelt trouble.

"How is Mum?" She asked, not batting an eyelid at Jo's presence, though it did give her some unanswerable questions later on.

"Why don't you go up and see her?" John suggested. "I was just about to take her a cup of tea." Waiting for John to make the tea, Charlie stroked Mimi, wanting something to do to break the slightly awkward silence. She wasn't looking forward to seeing her mother, but she knew it was something that had to be done, if only to keep up the sham of appearances that they always had tried to maintain. When John handed her two steaming mugs, Charlie went up the stairs, fervently hoping that her mother was asleep, so that she wouldn't be forced to make polite conversation.

When Charlie appeared in the doorway, George looked up in surprise.

"Charlie," She said. "This is a nice surprise."

"I would have come to see you in hospital," Charlie said as she put one of the mugs down on the bedside table. "But I've been busy." Charlie knew this to be the feeblest of all feeble excuses, but George simply accepted it. "So, how are you?" Charlie asked, sitting down in the big armchair in the corner.

"Oh, you know," George said with a slight shrug. "It hurts when I so much as move a muscle, and I can't seem to do anything but sleep."

"And how's Dad dealing with it?" Charlie asked, wanting to get off the subject of her mother as quickly as possible.

"He's worried and slightly terrified just as I am," George told her matter-of-factly. "But whatever happens, he's got Jo to cling to whenever necessary."

"It doesn't bother you that she's here?" Charlie asked, her slight hope that it would, clearly showing in her face.

"No, not in the slightest," George replied, totally throwing Charlie yet another puzzle to solve. "Much as it may surprise you, Charlie," She continued firmly. "I am well aware of your father's relationship with Jo, just as she is of his relationship with me, and believe it or not, it actually seems to work that way." George was extremely careful not to add that she and Jo were also involved, as that was a conversation she really didn't have the strength for.

"Yeah, until you get sick of him again," Charlie couldn't help throwing back. "Let's face it, that's what happened in the beginning, wasn't it. You couldn't handle the idea of Dad loving someone else more than you, so you divorced him."

"There was a lot more to it than that, as well you know," George said quietly. "I will never stop loving your father, no matter what he does. Deep down, I don't think I ever did."

"Mum, even I know that any man, even one with Dad's capacity for picking up women who can keep him amused, cannot possibly love two women, not really love them."

"That is where your relative innocence and total naivety betray you," George said a little coldly. "If you want to know how your father can profess to loving two women at one and the same time, just ask him, I'm sure he'll be pleased to explain it to you."

"Oh, don't get me wrong," Said Charlie a little scornfully. "I can see what you get out of it, at least at the moment anyway. Someone to run around after you, someone to take care of you, someone to start replacing that outer self-confidence that you usually wear like an armour."

"Don't you dare continue with that particularly pathetic line of unfounded argument," George replied bitterly. "I would give anything, absolutely anything I had in the world, for your father not to be affected by what has happened to me. He is doing everything possible to try and make me feel loved, cared for and infinitely precious to him. He is hurting about this far more than I thought he would, and I wish with all my might that it didn't have to be like that. So don't you ever tell me that I like having your father feeling as bitterly guilty as I know he does."

"Guilty?" Charlie asked in angry astonishment. "What has he got to feel guilty about? You're the one who kept this quiet long enough for it to become a matter of life and death. You're the one who thought it was a good idea to let him go off to Warwick, knowing absolutely nothing about what was happening to you. I bet that was why you did it, wasn't it. That was why you left it so long before getting any treatment, so that you could milk as much sympathy as possible out of Dad and Jo and anyone else."

"You really have got a lot of growing up still to do," George said as she pulled herself up to lean against the pillows. "Come here," She said, patting the duvet on the side of the bed. When Charlie did so, and was sitting where her mother had gestured, George said, "Take a long, hard look at what I've got left." Charlie was slightly hesitant to follow her mother's request, but eventually her eyes drifted to the front of George's nighty, where she could hardly miss the fact that only one breast was filling the thin cotton covering her. "Not exactly pretty, is it," George continued a little acidly. "So when you are valiantly hoping that your father will finally give up on me, just try and picture how he will feel when he sees how unattractive I will very likely be to him, because when he does, you might just get your wish."

"Mum, I..." Charlie began, feeling just a little guilty for her outburst.

"Don't try and tell me you're sorry," George told her bitterly. "Because I think after all these years of being referred to as The Ice Maiden, I ought to know better." Charlie stared at her aghast, not having known that her mother knew about that. "You didn't think I was aware of that delightful little accolade, did you," George continued, refusing to let Charlie see just how much she'd hurt her. "Now, why don't you do us both a favour and go? I am tired, and have had quite enough verbal battering for one day." As she turned away from her daughter, sinking back beneath the duvet, Charlie got up from the bed and silently left the room, closing the door behind her.

When Charlie appeared downstairs, John could see that something had happened. An aura of tension seemed to radiate from her, and John found himself wondering who had come off worst in the latest of George's and Charlie's arguments.

"I need to get home," Charlie said without preamble, wanting to escape this house as quickly as possible. "I've got some work to do before tomorrow." Seeing John's swift glance in her direction, Jo took the initiative.

"Would you like a lift?" She asked Charlie. "I've got to drop in at home for something, so it wouldn't be out of my way." This wasn't entirely untrue, so it provided the perfect excuse to try and talk to Charlie.

"Thanks," Charlie replied with a smile, always having found Jo's company to be very restful compared to George.

As they drove through the streets towards Charlie's flat in Paddington, Jo finally raised the subject that was flickering all over Charlie's face.

"Did you argue with George?" She asked into the silence, as the windscreen wipers fought with the sudden shower of rain.

"Is it that obvious?" Charlie replied gloomily.

"Just a little," Jo admitted with a slight smile. Charlie was silent for a while, trying to sort out what she wanted to say.

"Nearly every time I see Mum, she really manages to wind me up, that's all." Jo's expression showed that she thought this to be a pretty lame answer, so Charlie continued to explain. "It's never been what you might call easy with her," She said quietly. "And especially not when I was little."

"Charlie, something you must try to understand," Jo began carefully. "Is that none of us can ever predict how we will feel when we have a child. Even when everything around you, from things you might read to the midwives who are there to help you, are telling you that this is the most wonderful thing in your life, loving your child, and successfully bonding with him or her, is never an easy thing to do. There are times when the last thing you want in the world is to be a mother, because you feel nothing but a total failure for not being able to simply get your child off to sleep."

"I didn't ask her to have me just because Dad wanted a baby," Charlie threw back defiantly. "I didn't ask her to push both Dad and me away just because the only person she could really love was herself." Jo inwardly winced at this last statement. "She was always far too wrapped up in her career to care about either of us," Charlie persisted. "No wonder Dad started picking up every bit of skirt he could lay his hands on."

"I would like to think that I meant a little more to him than that," Jo said quietly, reminding Charlie that Jo had originally been one of her father's little distractions.

"I'm sorry," Charlie said contritely. "Besides, you were never like that. I think Dad loved you from the first moment he met you. That was why Mum finally divorced him, you know," She continued. "Because of you. I suppose she couldn't handle the fact that Dad had finally found someone who was actually capable of loving him back." There was a long, thoughtful silence between them as they sat in the car, caught behind a line of traffic. "When I was younger," Charlie suddenly said, her voice sounding truly wistful. "I used to wish that you'd been my mum."

"Charlie, you have a mum," Jo said quietly, though feeling immensely touched at the compliment.

"I know," Charlie said regretfully. "And just occasionally, maybe once in a blue moon, she really does act like a mum. Like the first time I got really drunk, she couldn't have been nicer to me."

"What happened?" Jo asked with a smile, remembering the occasional times that either Mark or Tom had arrived home very much the worse for wear.

"I was sixteen," Charlie explained. "And Dad thought I was going to the cinema with a couple of friends. When it dawned on me that no way could I go home in the state I was, because I would have risked being grounded for at least a fortnight, I ended up on Mum's doorstep instead. It was pretty obvious just how plastered I was, so she phoned Dad and made some excuse for me being there instead of home with him. I swear I've never felt quite so bad as I did that night, but Mum really looked after me. Then, before Dad came to pick me up in the morning, she said that she wouldn't tell Dad this time, but warned me that if I ever turned up on her doorstep like that again, she would tell him. The funny thing was, she was right, and it worked. Then there was the time I got pregnant. Dad was being his usual optimistic, totally unrealistic self, and when I told Mum, she helped me. I just wish she could have been like that all the time, not just on the odd occasions when Dad either wouldn't or couldn't get through to me."

"George does love you, Charlie," Jo told her sincerely. "It's not something she can explain either to herself or to anyone else, but in her own way, she cares a great deal for you."

"Whenever I'm with her," Charlie said with a shrug. "She makes all the anger come out in me, almost as though I'm a different person."

"And that was precisely how I used to react to her too," Jo said with a slight smile. "George used to have the ability to make me angrier than everyone else in the entire world put together, and she knew it, and would take advantage of it at every given opportunity."

"So what happened?" Charlie asked, wondering just how Jo had managed to overcome her perfectly natural animosity.

"I love your father, and so does she," Jo tried to explain. "This meant that to avoid even more endless years of constant bitterness and recrimination, we had to come to an understanding. John will never entirely commit to one woman, because he simply isn't capable of it, and even two can occasionally stretch his powers of restraint. But in loving John as we do, we have come to understand not only him, but each other."

"Does she really love him?" Charlie asked, not quite ready to believe this.

"Oh yes," Jo said firmly. "That's why she originally tried to do her absolute best for you, because she knew that a child was the one thing in the world that John wanted above everything else. No matter how difficult she may have found her own feelings concerning you, the fact that a child was John's greatest wish was probably what kept her going." Then, as they drew up in front of Charlie's flat, Jo made one last salient point. "You do still have a mother, Charlie, a mother who will always want to do her best for you, no matter how much you might hurt her by the kind of thing I suspect you said this afternoon. Please don't waste that opportunity to find some common ground with her, because that opportunity may not always exist. Try to make the most of your mother, while you still have her."

Part One Hundred And Thirty Six

After Jo and Charlie had left, John made his way quietly up the stairs. Jo had taken the task of trying to get through to Charlie after her argument with George, and now he had the far harder job of breaking down George's usually formidable barriers. There had been something in Charlie's face, something that had told him that she knew she was in the wrong, but that she would go a very long way before admitting it. When he entered George's bedroom, her entire form was submerged under the duvet, telling him more than any words that she was hiding, from him or from herself, he wasn't sure. She had moved over to what was usually his side of the bed, lying on her right side facing the middle, with her back to him as he sat down on the edge of the bed. She didn't acknowledge his presence, and he certainly knew better than to try and talk to her right away. Slipping his hand under the duvet, he gently rubbed her back, feeling the shudder that ran through her body as she tried to keep her crying under control. Then, as he realised what it was that she needed most, he removed his shirt, trousers and shoes, and slid under the duvet on the other side of the bed. George was facing him now, and the look of utter desolation in her eyes frightened him. Putting out his arms, he gently held her to him, being careful so as not to aggravate her still tender flesh. This was closer than they'd been since her operation, and John felt that this state of affairs was long overdue.

She rested her head on his chest as she clung to him, still hiding her grief from him, though he could feel the steady fall of tears on his skin. He occasionally ran his fingers through her hair, thinking that a good, long cry would probably do her good. When he thought that she was beginning to calm down, he said into her hair,

"I love you." Instantly, her body stiffened.

"Don't," She said, lifting her face to meet his. "Please don't say something that I certainly don't deserve."

"Darling, I love you, whether you think you deserve it or not," He replied, her words hurting him deeply.

"I just can't help wondering if Charlie was right," George said, feeling as though she could cry forever. "She pointed out that not even you could possibly have it in you to love two women. John, when you first met me, when I was still only twenty, I possibly did have something about me that was worth loving. But now it's as though there's nothing left, nothing but an empty shell of melted down pride."

"Stop it," John said almost harshly. "I do not want to hear you refer to yourself like that. Now, I don't have the slightest idea of what Charlie could have said to you, to make you feel as low as you do, but whatever it was really is not important, at least not at this moment. I love you, and I know you love me. If you didn't, you wouldn't have made the stupid, feckless decision you did, to try and get through this entirely alone. Part of me wishes that you didn't love me as much as you do, because then you might not have taken such a dangerous risk with your own life. George, this is so much akin to the months after Charlie was born, that it's almost uncanny. You have yet again put your physical health in serious jeopardy, simply because you couldn't talk to me. You couldn't talk to me about the fact that you didn't love Charlie, and now you couldn't talk to me because you were terrified of losing a breast and not remaining sexually attractive to me. Do you really think so little of me, that you imagine I would abandon you, just because you have lost a breast, and therefore look considerably different to what I am used to seeing in you?"

"John, the most terrifying fear I have, is that I might one day lose you for good. If I didn't have you in my life, it really wouldn't be worth living. When we were still married, and I found out about Jo and went away for those few days, I contemplated not coming back, because I knew that I couldn't make you happy anymore. But I did come back, because I realised that no matter how much we'd hurt each other, I needed to still have you somewhere near me, even if that was only in court."

"Is that why you became so distant?" John asked quietly.

"Yes," She admitted miserably. "Because every time I saw you, every time I saw Charlie, it came home to me just how much I'd hurt both of you. No wonder Charlie started referring to me as The Ice Maiden. It was tearing me to shreds not being able to have your arms around me, not being able to make love to you, and I know that I didn't just cut myself off from you, but from Charlie too. Even now she resents what I did to her, and to you, and the terrible thing is that I really can't blame her for it. Do you remember what you said to me, on the night I found out about Jo?"

"I will never forget it," John said darkly, his conversation with Helen nearly two weeks before flashing up in his mind.

She had told him to talk to George about their marriage, to try and put some of the past to rest. Could he do that now? Could he honestly go into that heavily guarded area of his memories, to drag up the one thing he'd done that made him flinch and want to throw up with revulsion and regret?

"You told me," George continued. "That you loved Jo because she had a heart, clearly meaning that I didn't."

"And do you have any idea how often I've bitterly regretted those very badly chosen words?" He asked her. "Never in my life before or since, have I ever said anything quite so reprehensible. But I think the part about that which has intermittently haunted me over the years, is the fact that you didn't argue with what I said. You didn't question it, or try to tell me that I was wrong."

"Because you were right," George insisted. "With both the way I was towards you and Charlie, and the fact that she still bitterly resents everything I am, you must have been right."

"No," He told her, his voice quiet though full of feeling. "The reason that you didn't know how to love Charlie, is because you didn't and still don't know how to even like yourself. That doesn't mean you can't find it in you to love, because no matter how many times I've hurt you, you've somehow managed to love me. When Charlie was born, you hated what you thought you'd become, but you still did your best for Charlie. You did everything for her that a mother can do. You breast fed her, which I know at times you found extremely difficult, and you cared for her just as any other good parent would. That showed me that you did have a heart inside you somewhere, even after you told me how you felt about Charlie. In those last couple of years of our marriage, you became outwardly so abrasive, because I was picking up more and more women and eventually settling on Jo. It went in a vicious circle, because you became angrier the more women I slept with, and I slept with the women because you were cutting yourself emotionally off from me. We still had sex on a fairly frequent basis, because I think we both needed the pretence of being able to keep on making each other happy."

"John, how do I even begin to make everything up to her?" George asked after a long and thoughtful silence.

"I don't think you have anything to atone for," John tried to assure her. "What Charlie needs to learn, is that no one is perfect, and especially not parents. We all make mistakes, and we usually do our best to rectify them. Charlie may find it terribly easy to blame you for what she thinks she missed out on, but that doesn't stop her from coming to you for help, whenever I either can't or won't give it to her. If she truly resented your part in her creation, then she wouldn't do that."

"She comes to me very occasionally because she knows I can be useful to her," George said a little morosely. "But I'd rather she did that than not at all."

"Which brings the conversation back to us," John said quietly, knowing that they had to pursue this line of enquiry, no matter how painful it might be to do so.

"Where did you go for those few days?" John asked, this always having been a source of speculation for him.

"I went to Paris," She told him. "And haunted all the places we'd been to on our honeymoon. It allowed me to really think about what I wanted, from you and from myself. It was pure torture in one way, but in another, it gave me a feeling of almost blissful contentment. We'd been so happy during the fortnight we'd spent there, and I think it was those memories that kept me from doing something utterly stupid. Being in a place where we'd been so happy together, it cleared my mind enough for me to realise that divorcing you was the only way forward for both of us. I knew that I wasn't a good enough mother for Charlie, and I thought that if you could find her a better one in Jo, then that's how it should be."

"I'm so sorry," John said, gently kissing her, and thinking that he had a lifetime's worth of hurt to put right.

"So am I," George replied with feeling. "Both for Charlie, and for this," She said, touching the place where her left breast had been. They held each other close, softly kissing and exchanging the occasional words of love and affection. But eventually George's mental and physical exhaustion began to catch up with her.

"Go to sleep," John told her when she tried to stifle a yawn.

"That's one thing I'm definitely sick of," She said disgustedly. "Being quite so tired."

"With what you've got coming over the next few weeks if not months," John said reasonably. "I suggest you get used to it." Cuddling herself even closer to him, she laid her head on his chest, listening to the rhythmic beat of his heart, the most reassuring sound she had ever encountered.

When George was asleep, John very carefully disentangled himself from her and slipped from the bed, tucking the duvet round her as he left. Swiftly putting his clothes back on, he went downstairs to wait for Jo's return. He needed Jo, he needed to make love to her, to express his love for both of them in joining with Jo's body as nature had always intended. It wasn't all that long before he heard the distinct sound of her car pulling up in the drive, and he went to open the door for her so that she wouldn't wake George with the doorbell. When she moved into the hall and he'd closed the door, she moved into his outstretched arms and as he held her, burying his face in her hair, he knew that for the moment, he was forgiven.

"I'm sorry about Connie," he said into her hair, neither of them having raised this subject since he'd told her about it on Tuesday.

"You always are," Jo replied a little wistfully. "But perhaps this time, I am actually finding myself wanting to believe you. I wish I could understand what makes you do it, but I don't, and doubt that I ever will. But if George can forgive you, when I know it hurt her far more deeply, it would be uncharitable of me not to forgive you too. Just try not to take my acceptance of your wayward attitude to women too much for granted."

"Did you prepare that speech on the way home?" He asked with a slight smile.

"No," She said with a smile of her own. "I was trying to work out how you would eventually explain our situation to Charlie, because explain it to her you must do, and one day soon. She's wondering, John, and it won't be long before she arrives at the correct conclusion all by herself. As her father, and the one she turns to for answers, explaining this to her will inevitably fall to you."

"Not a conversation I shall look forward to with relish," John replied dryly, though knowing that Jo was probably right. When Jo kissed him, he clung to her tightly, some of his residual torment from the conversation he'd had with George flowing through him with a shudder. "Can we go to bed?" he asked, needing the feeling of normality that making love to Jo would provide.

"I don't see why not," Jo replied after a moment's thought, seeing a wild look in John's eyes, the barely restrained emotions that needed to be released.

As they moved up the stairs, it dawned on both of them that they would need to be extremely quiet if they weren't going to disturb George's rest. The thought of the amount of vocal restraint they would need to find in themselves was almost intoxicating. It was as though they were yet again doing something forbidden, something wrong that they simply could not forego. They continued kissing as they rapidly removed each other's clothes, their occupied mouths barely letting out a sound. Their hands followed their old familiar course once they were under the duvet of the spare bed, though their touching was calculated to achieve the maximum response in the shortest time. Neither of them wanted to prolong the overture to the main central act of their lovemaking, because they both needed that joining, that coming together of bodies and souls that made them one for the duration of the performance. With the emotions that they had both held in check for the last few days, their coupling was frantic and frenzied once they finally came together, their intertwining bodies expressing all that was in their minds. They seemed to forget their need to be quiet, their utter devotion to the furthering of their pleasure being their only concern.

George had drifted back into wakefulness as they had mounted the stairs, and she had only become more alert as she realised what they were doing. Their stifled gasps and exclamations of pleasure made her own senses tingle with desire. She didn't attempt to touch herself as she listened to the sounds of their loving, because she didn't think herself currently capable of an orgasm, but the moisture which gradually collected between her legs was testament to just how arousing she found the experience. She loved them both, and to hear them loving each other so entirely was a truly wondrous thing. But once she heard their combined cry of ejaculation, her arousal turned immediately to grief as she became aware of John's heart-felt sobs of terror that he might lose her.

It hadn't surprised Jo when John's sexual release had turned into tears, because she knew this had been coming ever since he'd found out about George's cancer. She held him to her, gently rocking him as she might a child, trying to soothe away his fears, even though she felt most of them herself.

"I can't lose her, Jo," He said as his body trembled. "I can't lose either of you."

"And we will do everything we can to make sure that we don't lose her," Jo promised him. "The battle isn't over yet, John, in fact it's barely begun. We can fight for her survival by helping her through it, because she is going to need us, both of us to keep going over the next few months."

"I just wish there was something tangible I could do," He said, sounding submerged in total despair.

When he became aware of the other figure slipping under the duvet behind him, he turned over to face her, now lying on his back between them. As her arms went around him to join Jo's, he wrapped an arm around her, never wanting to let her go.

"Darling, I'm not going anywhere," She promised him. "Not yet anyway. I'm not going to go down without a fight, I promise you." After a calming silence, Jo ventured a question.

"Did we wake you?" She asked, making George smirk, which was something they hadn't seen in her for far too long.

"In a manner of speaking," She said, giving Jo a wink.

"Oh, please tell me you didn't listen to us..." She stopped, not quite sure how to phrase what they'd been doing.

"And would you have passed up such an opportunity?" George teased her.

"Perhaps not," Jo admitted with a slight blush.

"Of course you wouldn't," John told her with a smile.

"It was the most beautiful thing I think I've ever heard in my life," George said with utter seriousness. "And if there's one thing I definitely have to live for, it's what you two give me by being here. You have no idea just how precious that actually is."

Part One Hundred and Thirty- Seven

Ever since Connie Beauchamp had arrived at St Mary's trailing that perfumed sense of power in her wake, Will had felt his nose put severely out of joint, and the passing sense of time had not dulled these feelings.

"Why does she make a dead set at me?" he had repeatedly asked either himself silently, or alternatively Tom, who he had felt would have been most sympathetic to his point of view.

"Let's face it, you're her registrar and you know as well as I, that you have to find some way to get along with her. Some might say that the seasoned consultant doesn't exist without the scars on his back from twenty lashes from when he was a registrar." Tom had chuckled back to him with dry humour.

"I don't think that's very funny." Will had retorted with stiff-necked displeasure.

"Isn't it?" Tom had replied vaguely. "You'll have to learn to live with it. Mind you, whatever you might think of her personally, there's no doubting her professional ability. Look at this way, would you rather have a more easygoing but a less competent consultant? You'll look back in five years and you'll forgive Connie her ways from all you'll have learned from her."

Will's face had remained expressionless while he had been put out by Tom's obvious favouritism. That woman charms everyone except him, he had reflected. Only he knew the truth about her.

He had reflected back to the time when the top surgeons had been taking it in turns to go AWOL to hang around court all day over that wretched trial. All it had meant had been that he and the other registrars had been run off their feet even more than normal, and that he had had more arguments with his wife over the old perennial, of him being an absentee father and missing those school events that came up with bewildering frequency from out of nowhere. They had the knack of landing at the worst possible time. Some of the nurses had been grumbling, and Will, overhearing the gossip, had said nothing but heard everything as always.

Will could remember the day after the trial had finished when Connie had summoned all

the staff together. She stood, centre stage, as she spoke with a sweet and appreciative smile on her face, trying to make eye contact with all the staff, as if trying to communicate her feelings to everyone.

"I know that not everyone's here but I personally would like to thank everyone for pulling together unselfishly while Tom, Zubin and I have been away. You might know that we have all given evidence in a major trial over the sad and untimely death of one of our outpatients, the Reverend Mills. I want to thank all of you for covering for our absence and, believe you me, all your efforts will not go unrewarded if it is within my powers."

As she spoke, Connie's violet eyes flitted past Will's stony but impassive stare and passed on to his immense relief. For one second, he had feared that that dangerous power mad woman might expose him publicly for his very secret role in the trial, something that he wanted a discreet veil drawn over as soon as possible.

"I have something of a confession to make about the trial. This is the one and only occasion that I will confess to a mistake in my judgment about the cause of his death. There may have been gossip about differences of opinion between myself on the one hand and Professor Khan, Mr. Campbell-Gore and Mr. Griffin on the other. After hearing the verdict, there is nothing stopping the four of us from working as one for the benefit of this hospital. With the benefit of this valuable experience, I can safely revert to being the power mad, dominant woman that I am sure you all think that I am."

Will could have sworn that Connie's smile was also meant for him personally. When the crowd dispersed, he had heaved a final sigh of relief and strolled along to his next errand. At least he was in the clear.

Connie seemed to have turned over a new leaf in the weeks that followed the trial and was all sweetness and light to him. She even graciously accepted his stumbling request to have the afternoon off for some kind of children's special school occasion. Accordingly, it came as a bolt out of the blue when Connie casually strolled up to him, smiled sweetly before speaking in the softest tones.

"Know any good barristers, Mr. Curtis?"

"I don't know what you mean."

"Come come, Will, I think that you and I need to have a little chat about the matter. In my office. Now."

Will's feet took him of their own accord, while the ominous clicks of Connie's high heels sounded in his ears as she made a straight line for her office. Once in the seat in front of her spacious desk, Connie's eyes glared at him and she launched straight into the attack without any preliminaries.

"I've been busy recently and I've had bigger fish to fry but I feel that I can devote all the time in the world to you that you deserve."

Will instinctively that stony self-contained manner of his Army days when he had been hauled up before his C.O. and had been given a good dressing down. He hated himself for reacting that way, as he wasn't supposed to react that way to a woman who had been unaccountably placed in authority over him.

"Well, since you won't talk, let me refresh your memory. Let me cast your mind back to

the events leading back to Barbara Mills' trial when your flapping ears got wind of the fact that I was to be prosecution witness and you couldn't wait to tittle tattle about events at this hospital to that no outsider could have possibly have heard of through the normal channels."

"I still don't know what you mean, Connie."

"Let's get more specific and remind you of to patients that the barrister brought up in court, the Battista operation that I performed on my very first day to save Pat Cowdray's life, and everything about Maggie Thornton right down to the finest detail."

"Barristers are clever people or so I'm told. They must have ways of finding things out."

"In your experience, Mr. Curtis. Somehow I think not."

In the pause that Connie engineered to perfection, Will was dismayed to see that slight smile curve the corners of her lips even while her eyes stared into his soul.

"In that case, how do you account for the *details of my sex life which the defence barrister were paraded before court for all to hear.* Some grubby hack from the News of the world couldn't have done more of a public hatchet job on me. It took someone with that level of vindictiveness to pull that stroke on me. You had better not come on with your 'holier than thou' routine about the way I lead my life as you will be taking yours into your hands, professional or otherwise." Connie stormed at Will as her suppressed anger boiled over in waves of molten lava.

"You had better blame her for telling tales in court, not me." Will flashed back at her as he was finally provoked to lash back at her.

"Oh, the barrister was a she, Will?"

Will felt that sickening jolt as he realized, too late, that that conniving woman had tricked him into making a confession. He didn't know what to say.

"George Channing was very forthcoming about the way you almost tripped over your words in your haste to blacken my reputation. I heard everything I needed to hear from her."

"Why should she make all this up?"

"Oh, women talk, Will. You would be surprised what we are able to find out but we don't always say what we know."

"Why are you bringing this up after all these months, Connie?"

"I told you that your efforts would not go unrewarded if it is within my powers. I didn't say how I would reward you. Still everything comes to she who waits." Connie smirked.

"What do you want from me, Connie?"

At that point, Connie stood up and paced round her room, dressed in her shortest skirt that she could push the boundaries of professional etiquette. She stared down at him as he sat down in her chair.

"Well, just for now, you could end up back on cadaver practice for a month which is something that I intended but that might be considered unfair. Instead, I am offering you a degree of mercy. Just one little slip in your professional standards and you'll get more than a month as I'll take this squalid episode into account. You had better know that I will be keeping an especially sharp eye on your professional abilities and morals. As you know, there is nothing that goes on at St Mary's that I don't find out about sooner or later. Just for now, I'm giving you an oral warning which I'll note down in your records."

"So you mean to dangle me on the edge of professional ruin?" Will shot back, red faced and humiliated.

"You have to do things my way, Will, or didn't you know that by now. You have no choice about that , not while I'm here. That is all, Will, I don't think that I need detain you anymore." Connie dismissed him coldly.

Somehow, Will got himself to his feet, fumbled at the door handle which seemed to conspire with Connie to trap him, and stalked out, red faced and furious. It had not been his day.

Part one Hundred and Thirty-Eight

John was deeply engrossed in tracking down an obscure but important legal precedent, which hovered, indistinctly at the edges of his very tenacious memory. It refused to define itself further than it did, remaining frustratingly enigmatic. Neither name nor associated circumstance would take shape in his mind, despite his best efforts. It was unusual as his craft was based partly on his razor sharp memory or, failing that, on that knack for where to start looking. Eventually he muttered under his breath and threw down his pen in exasperation.

As that concentrated effort of will had failed him, some instinct prompted him to move towards the window, and look out on the view outside. He reached towards the calming effect of the wider perspective of the outside world, to give him peace of mind. This trick had sometimes enabled inspiration to creep up on him, and deliver the answer but not this time. Instead, he became aware that, at a more submerged level, his thoughts had been buzzing away at a similar quest to get to the bottom of why there was such tension between Charlie and George. He had to admit that this unresolved quest had affected his intellectual activity, like some form of background electrical interference.

He cursed his weakness in allowing him to break his golden rule of compartmentalizing his private life from his public duties. It troubled him, as if this lapse was the start of a slide into anarchy and disorder and vowed not to repeat this again if he could help it. Very unusually, for a temperate man, he helped himself to a generous measure of whisky to calm himself down. Very well, so be it, he resolved as the whisky stung this throat. He certainly wasn't going to get anywhere fast, if he continued to stew over his problems. It would have to be dealt with methodically, and his concerns laid to rest.

"Coope," John drawled in easy tones. "Can you find out if Charlie has any business in court today? I wish to speak to her."

'I can find out, judge." Coope answered in her concerned tones. One look at him told her loud and clear that he was unselfishly worried about her, and she was only too glad to oblige. She was aware that, no matter how inscrutable he pretended to be to himself, his varying moods were transparent to her practiced eye. After all, that skill went with the territory of being a personal assistant. Coope also knew the various quirks of all the various barristers and judges, and dealt with them with that dexterity of manner that the fictional character of Jeeves would have respected.

Coope moved silently down to the cramped clerks office, overflowing with court files in every direction but somehow, in an order that was easily understandable to those who worked there. She had a quiet word in the right ear and, sure enough, Charlotte Deed was named as the junior barrister in connection with a grievous bodily harm case. She knew that, contrary to her casual manner, she would arrive in plenty of time.

Sure enough, Charlie Deed strode into the foyer with that happy go lucky manner, that even the hard graft and absence of glamour of a junior barrister's life had failed to dent. Her manner was also surprising, considering her previous argument with George. However, Coope adroitly positioned herself so that Charlie was trapped by the meaning expression on Coope's face. Her face fell, with a presentiment of what was to come even before Coope spoke to her.

"The judge wants to see you in his chambers, Miss Deed."

"Do I have to see him now?"

"It's not my place to tell you what to do," lied Coope, in her most majestically understated manner, "but I think you should go up and see him now."

Charlie swallowed at the mental vision of her father's typically relentless and inquisitive probing for the truth. To avoid him would be only putting off the evil moment.

"Very well, but he'd better make it quick." Charlie retorted in an audibly false tone of bravado. Wordlessly, Coope followed in behind the younger woman to her father's lair.

'I'm glad you could spare me the time, Charlie." John smiled with everything but his eyes. "I wanted us to have a chat about what went on yesterday between you and your mother."

"What about, dad?" Charlie answered, as if butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.

"Charlie, I know that you and your mother have had a very serious row."

"So what else is new?" came the flip reply.

"George's cancer for a start in case you hadn't noticed it." John retorted in that precisely articulated tone of voice. As Charlie made no reply, John pressed home his advantage.

"That's one big reason why I want to know exactly what the row was about."

"I suppose that mum put you up to complaining about me? That's so typically underhanded and devious of her."

"For your information, Charlie, George has been incredibly and totally loyal to you, because she didn't tell me anything of what you said even when I pressed her on the subject. That's why I'm asking you instead."

"That'll be the day."

"I am going to sit here, Charlie, for the rest of the day if necessary, and I will also delay court until I get an answer from you. Now, just what did you say to her that might have made her question her past relationship with you, at a time when this will not serve to help anyone?"

"You're always on her side these days, aren't you."

"That is something I would have expected to hear from you when you were twelve. It didn't work then, and it won't work now. For your information, Charlie, I'm on the side of justice, your mother's justice, your justice and my justice. To do that, I need information."

A sulky expression settled on Charlie's face and her awkward body language betrayed her realization that John had beaten down her powers of resistance. She took her eyes off John, and padded round his chambers. Instinct prompted him to cut her that small amount of slack, so that she could get to face the truth, herself and him in one fell swoop.

"All right dad. You win as you always do."

"Go on." Came the softly spoken reply.

"If you must know, I accused mum of using the illness so she could get you to run round after her until she got sick of you again."

"You can't be serious," John exclaimed as he jumped to his feet.

"Well, it all seemed very convenient, dad."

"Inconvenient, you mean, Charlie. Lets leave this teenage psychologising alone for the moment. Have you actually seen George's operation scars?" John demanded in ringing tones.

Charlie's silence and the deep coloration that swept over her face gave John answer enough.

"So you have seen it?"

"Sort of."

"Welcome to the grown up world, Charlie. You have always noisily laid claim to certain rights in the way you are treated. The other side of the coin is that you have to take the responsibilities that go with them. You are aware that cancer kills people?"

"Not mum. She's immortal, don't you know."

There was something in that ice-cold tone of voice that suddenly made John feel incredibly weary. It was not the tone of voice that rejoiced in George's supposed indestructibility, but was unutterably alienated by it. He could not understand how Charlie, who was so warm hearted to him, turned to stone where George was concerned. He had tried an all out frontal attack, and he didn't feel as if he was getting anywhere.

"You know, Charlie, that at some time in your life, you have to make your peace with your mother. I never had the chance with mine."

That sudden shift in John from parent to child shook Charlie in her turn. She had looked in John's general direction except straight in the eye. By sheer chance, she had seen the torment in his clear blue eyes and had caught the full emotional force of his words. She was silent for a while before thoughts emerged to frame themselves in words and structures.

"It's all very well, dad, it isn't as if I grew up in a normal family with a father and mother and two point four children. You know that my childhood was never like that."

"I know that George and I lived apart for many years. The one thing we did agree on was how best that you should be brought up."

"Then why didn't mum love me like any other mother?"

Charlie's eyes were suddenly wet with unshed tears and John saw in her the child she had been. She had never asked him that question before, but had always dismissed George as the 'Ice Maiden.'

"I've talked to George about her feelings for you. She felt that she wasn't a good enough mother and came to believe that when Jo came into my life, that she would be a better mother than her. Don't forget that in her eyes, Jo took to motherhood like a duck to water and she didn't. The only way she could cope with that and my own misbehaviour was to pretend to distance herself from us."

"She did a pretty convincing act, dad."

"Don't you understand that mothers especially are expected to instantly bond with their babies and to be naturally maternal? Just how realistic is that and where do women turn to if they find that it doesn't work that way? In George's case, she had no one she could turn to so she turned on herself."

"Why couldn't I grow up in a normal family, dad?" came Charlie's plaintive response to John's uncertain venture into psychology.

What's normal, Charlie? Am I normal? I used to think that I was a natural product of the public school system, with all its upright principles deeply engrained in me. I feel that I've stayed where I am, but so many of my brethren and others in the executive have deserted their ideals and become spineless and self-serving. I look around at my friends outside the legal professions like Karen, Nikki, and Helen. I ask myself where they stand in the great scheme of things, and the answer comes back to me that they are as honourable as anyone I have ever known. I know they are right in their outlook but I don't ever ask of them if they're normal."

"They're just names to me. They don't mean anything."

"As your college friends were to me. At the end of the day, you can't let yourself get held back by any mistakes that George and I have made. You have to accept the best of what we gave you and work through the rest, and look to the future. Believe me, Charlie, you must understand. All I am asking of you is that you try to understand."

Charlie shook her head in genuine confusion. A part of her longed to be in agreement with her father even if she was held back. She knew that he was asking more than her understanding, he was asking for her submission. All the same, her loyalty to her old antagonism could not be easily given up, partly because she would have to admit to herself that she might have been wrong all these years. This was a test of just how young and callow she was and how much stiff pride in her held her back.

Part One Hundred And Thirty Nine

On the Wednesday morning, George overslept, and was therefore still hurrying to get ready when Karen arrived. This was George's day for going back to the hospital to have her stitches out, and to be fitted with a false breast-shaped insert to put in her bra. The thought of this positively disgusted her, but she knew that it had to be done. Both John and Jo were unavoidably needed in court, so George had asked Karen to go with her. George didn't like to admit just how terrified she was of today, because she knew that some time before she went to bed tonight, she must finally look at what she had left. If she didn't do it today, she thought that she probably never would. She also had the sneaking suspicion that Karen would try to persuade her to do this, and George knew that if Karen was prepared to be there to absorb some of the shock, she really ought to take advantage of it.

"We've got plenty of time," Karen said as she moved into the hall. "So calm down." George had obviously just got out of the bath or shower, as she was wearing nothing but a towel.

"I can't get this bloody dressing back in place no matter what I do with it," George said disgustedly as she went back up the stairs.

"Do you want me to do it for you?" Karen asked, looking up at her.

"Would you?" George replied in slight relief, thinking that if she could cope with Jo seeing how she looked, Karen was a far easier prospect. When they were in her bedroom, George hung the towel over the radiator and turned to face Karen, who immediately picked up the clean dressing from where it lay on the bed, and fixed it into place with the minimum of fuss.

"That'll look fine once the stitches have gone," Karen observed as George began putting her clothes on.

"I'll take your word for it," George said as she stood in front of the mirror brushing her hair.

"You haven't looked at it yet, have you," Karen said, realising that George would put this off as long as possible.

"Good god, no," George said with a slight shudder. "I might not have much desire for anyone else to see my body the way it is, but I certainly have no desire to see it myself."

"The longer you put it off, the harder it will be," Karen told her.

"Yes, yes, I know," George said a little impatiently. "And I am quite well aware that you will do your best to persuade me to do that today."

"Admittedly, it was a thought," Karen said carefully. "But I wouldn't try to make you do something that I didn't think you weren't ready for."

When they arrived at the hospital, Ric led the way into one of the consulting rooms.

"Before I remove the stitches," He said, as George took a seat in front of the desk. "How are you feeling?"

"Tired," George admitted disgustedly. "All I seem able to do is sleep."

"That's probably the best thing you can do at the moment," Ric told her. "You've had major surgery, so rest really is the best cure. What about the pain?"

"Pretty much non-existent," She said thankfully. "It was very sore for the first couple of days, but now it's only if I do something to pull at the stitches."

"Good," Ric said as he rose from the desk. "Then the next thing to do is to get rid of them." As George lay on the couch and Ric deftly removed the stitches from her scar, Karen watched his fingers at work. This brought back so many memories for her, from the numerous times she'd seen him operate all those years before.

"What're you thinking?" George asked, looking over at Karen to see a very wistful expression on her face.

"Just remembering all the times I've seen those hands in action," She replied with a smile.

"In theatre or out of it?" George asked with a wry little smirk.

"Oh, both," Karen replied without a flicker, making Ric feel ever so slightly uncomfortable.

"You're making him blush," George teased.

"I, never blush," Ric said firmly, tugging free the last of the stitches as Karen laughed. "What we're going to do now," Ric intervened, neatly changing the direction of the conversation. "Is to fit you with an insert for your bra, so that you will at least look relatively normal from the outside. Seeing as Tricia has far more experience with these things than any of us do, I'm going to get her to help you." Putting his head out of the door, Ric called for Tricia who had obviously been waiting for his summons. When she appeared, Ric beckoned to Karen. "Whilst George is otherwise engaged, can I borrow you for a moment?"

When Ric and Karen had gone, Tricia gave George a smile.

"So, you've got this far then?"

"So it would seem," George replied, some of her former bravado departing in the face of what Tricia had in her hand.

"Did you bring a bra with you?" Tricia asked, and George retrieved it from her handbag. "If you put it on as normal," Tricia explained. "I'll show you how this fits inside it." What she held up was something made of a soft, sponge-like texture, in an approximate size and shape of one of George's breasts.

"I don't know what fills me with more revulsion," George said as she turned from Tricia to slip into her bra. "That, thing, or the thought of what my scar probably looks like."

"You'll get used to it," Tricia promised her, though knowing that it was probably going to be an uphill struggle as it had been for her.

"Will I?" George asked her, turning to face her. "Because right now I really don't believe you."

"You will get used to it," Tricia said quietly. "Because at the moment, you really don't have any choice. You haven't looked at yourself in a mirror yet, have you?"

"No, and I get the feeling that this is what everyone wants me to do, yet it's the one thing I want to avoid at all costs."

"You should do it," Tricia told her. "Because it honestly doesn't look half as bad as you think it does."

"I will," George said to placate her. "Just not here."

"Do it only when you're somewhere and with someone that you feel comfortable with. Now, try to fit this in your bra, where your left breast used to be. You'll probably feel a bit lopsided at first, but that'll go with time." The foreign object felt alien against George's skin, and she couldn't imagine how she would ever get used to feeling it there instead of her own living flesh. After finding the most comfortable position for it so that it didn't rub too much against her scar, she fastened her blouse over her chest and asked,

"How does it look?"

"Fine," Tricia assured her. "You really wouldn't know to look at you, well, unless you actually did know."

"So I'll still be able to seduce all the judges onto my way of thinking in court, you mean?"

"I don't see why not," Tricia said with a smile.

As Ric and Karen waited for George to emerge, Ric said,

"I need to ask you to do something for me."

"Go on," Karen invited, again getting the feeling that they'd been here so many times before, his wanting help with a patient and she giving it without a second thought.

"George is obviously trying to put a brave face on things," he began. "But I'm not sure how long that's going to last."

"Especially when you take into account that she hasn't yet seen what you left her with," Karen filled in.

"I need you to persuade her to do that as soon as possible," he said seriously. "I've done my best to warn her, but it's still going to be an enormous shock to see herself looking so different. Please, would you try to be there when she does take that leap?"

"Of course," Karen replied, her professional mask only half-slipping back into place. "Ric, I'm going to be with her, every step of the way, if she'll let me."

"You still love her, don't you," He said, seeing the utter determination in Karen's eyes to get George through whatever battles she had to surmount.

"Yes, and far too much for my own good," Karen acknowledged with a rueful smile. Then, seeming to collect herself, she said, "Would you consider having dinner with me this weekend? I think it's about time we did some catching up."

"Yes," he said, a delighted smile crossing his face. "Though I suspect you have far more to tell me than I have to tell you."

"I wouldn't be too eager to hear most of it," Karen said seriously, wondering just how much she should tell him about what had happened to her in the years since she'd left his ward and his bed.

When Karen and George returned to George's house, they both knew that the moment had come, to shatter all of George's hopes that she might still look even slightly beautiful.

"Please will you stay with me, while I do this?" George asked hesitantly.

"Yes, if you want me to," Karen assured her. But seeing the level of sheer terror in George's face, she said, "You don't have to do this now, not if you're not ready for it."

"I've got to do it some time, darling," George said matter-of-factly. "So it may as well be now." Putting out her arms, Karen drew George against her, holding her close just for a moment, to try and give her the strength to follow through with her intention.

"Come on," George said, gently detaching herself from Karen's comforting embrace. "Let's get it over and done with." As Karen followed her up the stairs, she wondered what reaction George was about to have to seeing what she now looked like. It could be absolutely anything from tears to anger, and Karen had to be prepared to deal with whatever happened.

Once in her bedroom, George drew the stool out from the dressing table and placed it in front of the full-length mirror on the wardrobe door. As she removed her blouse and bra, she kept her gaze fixed steadily on the wall above the bed, refusing to even glance at the mirror until she was ready.

"You might want to put that back on, just over your shoulders," Karen advised her. "That way, if you want to cover up in a hurry, you can do." Shrugging back into her blouse after removing her bra, George held the two halves together as she moved to sit on the stool in front of the mirror.

"Do you have any idea how terrified I am?" George asked, as Karen took a seat on the end of the bed, close enough to offer support, but far enough away to give her space.

"Tell me," Karen invited noncommittally.

"So much rides on this," George tried to explain. "I know it sounds stupid, and I know that you think John will be the perfect gentlemen, in that how I look won't affect him in the slightest, but I can't think like that. I wish I could, but I can't. I can't help thinking that if I loathe, hate and despise the way I look, John will to some degree too. He might say that he loves me, but it's almost to reassure himself as much as it is me."

"Would you prefer not to know?" Karen asked, knowing that if George replied in the affirmative, Karen would have to try to persuade her otherwise.

"No," George said firmly. "I might want to immediately recoil from what I see, but I do need to see it."

As George gently parted the two halves of her blouse, Karen found herself holding her breath. She personally thought that there was nothing wrong with George's scar, but that said nothing for how George would react to it herself. As she took that inevitable step of looking at what she now had left, George felt a wave of nausea sweeping over her. On one side, there was a small, firm, almost perfect breast, the breast she was used to seeing. But on the other side, there was no breast. There was merely a scar, a scar that ran from her breastbone to under her arm, diagonally across a flat expanse of skin, that was as flat as the day she was born. There was no nipple, no darker-skinned areola, no ripe heaviness of flesh that John had loved to fondle, and that had once provided Charlie with her only nourishment. No! George's mind shouted at her, no, this couldn't possibly be her body, not the body she'd once been so proud to inhabit. As the colour drained from her face, she rose hurriedly from the stool, frantically trying to do up the buttons, to hide away from how ugly that empty space appeared to her. As Karen put out a hand to her, George rushed passed her and towards the bathroom, finally losing the meagre contents of her stomach as her body strove to expel this vile ugliness that was now part of her.

When George emerged, having splashed her face with water and cleaned her teeth, Karen took her hand, and pulled her to sit down on the edge of the bed.

"Are you all right?" Karen asked in concern, taking in the distinct lack of colour in George's cheeks.

"No, not really," George said a little shakily. Putting out her arms, Karen tried to offer the only comfort she really knew how to give, but George put up a hand to stop her. "Darling, it's really very sweet of you to be here, but I think I need to do this on my own."

"And I can't agree that you should be alone," Karen told her honestly, not entirely trusting George not to do something thoroughly stupid.

"I know you don't," George replied with a slight smile. "But in this instance, I know that it's the right thing to do, for me. I need to take my own time to get used to this, not something that I think is going to be very pretty. Before you ask, I will be saying exactly the same to Jo and John, because just at the moment, I think I could handle their company far less than I can yours."

"I don't want you to have to go through this alone," Karen said, a few tears rising to her eyes.

"I know," George said quietly, gently touching her cheek. "But it's something I honestly have to do."

"All right," Karen agreed with a heavy heart. "Just promise to call me if you change your mind. Either me, or John or Jo, any one of us would be here like a shot."

Part One Hundred And Forty

George had spent all day on her own, and she knew that this had definitely been the right thing to do. She had needed that time to get used to the sight of what she had left. Once Karen had gone, George had looked in the mirror until she could just about stand to see herself without throwing up. It had taken a while, but she had finally forced herself to come to terms with the fact that she now only had one breast. She hadn't cried, the shock and subsequent mental battle having temporarily robbed her of all the usual emotions. She didn't seem able to cry, such a normal reaction not feeling quite right for this totally abnormal situation. But now, in the middle of the evening, she was lying on the couch, listening to the haunting tones of Tori Amos, and drinking Martini. She wished so badly that she could cry, because in shedding the tears that were clogging her throat, she might be able to release some of the anguish she felt. She kept seeing her flat expanse of chest behind her eyes, the waste of space and the ugliness of the scar barely allowing her room to think.

Karen had been worried about George all day. She hadn't wanted to leave her on her own, but George had insisted, making it very difficult for Karen to do anything else. But by the time she returned home at the end of the working day, she felt that a call to John was probably in order.

"It's Karen," she said when he answered the phone.

"I thought I might be hearing from you," John said as he returned to his chair.

"Did George give you the same speech as she gave me?" Karen asked, thinking that she almost certainly had.

"She did ask both Jo and myself to leave her alone for tonight. She said that time on her own was what she needed. How did it go at the hospital?"

"Oh, the hospital was fine," Karen informed him. "Ric took the stitches out, and they fitted her with a false insert for her bra."

"And when you returned home?" John asked, sensing that this was the main source of George's hiding from even him.

"That, wasn't so good," Karen told him quietly. "She insisted on looking at herself in the mirror."

"Why now?" John demanded sadly. "Why today?"

"It was something she needed to do, John," Karen tried to tell him. "If she'd left it much longer, it would have been even more difficult than it already was." John was silent, trying to sort out his own feelings about what he should do. He partly agreed with Karen in that George probably shouldn't be left on her own, but he also thought that only George could decide what was best for her at the moment.

"What do you think I should do?" He eventually asked, needing Karen's advice more than he ever had done before.

"If you want my honest opinion," Karen said carefully. "I think you should go and see her, now, because I'm really not happy about her being left to her own devices. Neither myself nor Jo would really get to the heart of the matter, because it's the thought of you and your reaction that frightens her most."

"Then that's what I'll do," John said decisively. "If my reassurance is what she needs, then that is precisely what she will get."

When John arrived a little after nine, George's house was in total darkness. He knew that she was definitely in, because her car was still in the drive. Letting himself in and quietly shutting the front door behind him, he walked through the downstairs rooms looking for her. He could tell by the full ashtray and empty glass on the coffee table in the lounge that she had probably been drinking. As the cold chill of suspicion swept over him, he moved quietly up the stairs, hoping against hope that she hadn't taken the opportunity to do something stupid. That was the euphemism, wasn't it, doing something stupid or something silly, when in actual fact, doing something terrible would be far more appropriate. As he reached the slightly open door of her bedroom, the sound of her grief reached his ears, making him partly relieved and partly saddened. He was relieved that she was quite obviously still alive, but deeply saddened to hear such heartrending sobs coming from the woman he loved.

She was submerged under the duvet, lying on what he used to think of as his side of the bed, clutching a pillow to her and crying all the tears that had been kept at bay for the last few hours. She wasn't trying to restrict the sounds she made, because she didn't think there was anyone to hear her. It almost brought tears to John's own eyes to hear the sobs that were wracking her whole body, causing it to tremble and shake with the grief that was swamping her. Moving round to where she lay, John gently detached her from the pillow she was clutching, and turned her to face him. She said nothing as he drew her up into a sitting position and held her against him, because she was barely capable of forming a coherent sentence in her current state. Her arms went around him, clinging to him as a marooned sailor would cling to a piece of driftwood, anything that would prevent her from drowning entirely. Her body shook as he gently rocked her, murmuring soft words of comfort to try and calm her down. But she didn't at first seem able to stem the flood, her terror and anguish having been suppressed for far too long. Only a fair-sized amount of Martini had been able to give her the release she needed, not something she was particularly proud of, especially considering the problems Jo had been having of late. But once she had started, she didn't seem able to stop, the tears coming thick and fast until she could barely control her own breathing, never mind her emotions.

"What are you doing here?" She said, eventually trying to get herself under control.

"I decided that disregarding your wish to be left alone, was perhaps a sensible idea," He told her, gently brushing her hair back from her face.

"I didn't want you to see that," She said, reaching for a handful of tissues from the box on the bedside table.

"George, that's what I'm here for," He told her earnestly. "I want to help you through this, in any way I can."

"I looked at my scar today," She said after blowing her nose.

"And?" He asked, wondering how she would describe her reaction to seeing it.

"It's, it's so ugly," She said in utter despair. "It's utterly repulsive, and makes me feel so old, and completely over the hill."

"None of us are getting any younger," John tried to placate her.

"I don't care!" She replied vehemently. "I used to look pretty sexy on a good day. Admittedly, nowhere near the calibre of Connie Beauchamp, just to pick a name totally at random. But now, I just look, well, awful doesn't really describe it." Holding her against him again, and gently rubbing her back, he asked,

"Will you let me see it?"

"No!" She said in horrified response, pulling out of his embrace and hiding all but her face back under the duvet.

"Is it really such a terrifying thought?" John asked, hoping that her extreme reaction would fade with time and persuasion.

"Yes," She insisted vehemently. "Allowing you to see how ugly I look is the last thing I want to contemplate."

"Okay," He said quietly, trying to calm her down. There was a slightly tense silence between them, until George voiced her most immediate concern.

"Please will you stay with me?"

"Of course," He said, glad to be able to actually do something she wanted of him.

After removing his clothes and cleaning his teeth, he slipped beneath the duvet on her right, assuming that it was far more comfortable for her to lie on her right side than her left. She moved into his embrace without a second thought, and when he kissed her, he could taste the Martini she'd been drinking this evening. Her need for him surprised him, as he had assumed that she would need him to be gentle with her, but her kisses became steadily more passionate, though he could feel a slight sense of restraint hovering just below the surface.

"John," She said a little hesitantly. "I know you might not want to, but please would you make love to me?"

"George," he said affectionately. "When have you ever known me to say no at the thought of making love to you?"

"I know," She said with a nervous laugh. "I think my self-confidence is right at rock bottom tonight, that's all."

"George, if you want me to make love to you, if you're really sure that's what you want, then nothing would give me more pleasure."

"You might not say that if you could see me," She couldn't help saying.

"If it is at all possible," He said very carefully. "I want you to forget about how you look, because right now, it is not what is uppermost in my mind."

"All right," She said after a moment's thought. "But don't even think of going anywhere near my breasts, breast. I think I want to forget that part of me even exists."

"I promise I won't," He assured her beginning to kiss her again, and wanting to make her forget her current situation, if only for one night.

As his hand crept under her cotton nightie, one of her hands dropped to his semi-erect penis, deftly coaxing it to full arousal. Her wondrously lubricated flesh confirmed her hunger for him, and it took him very little time to bring her to a pleading, gasping need to have him inside her. Pushing her nightie up around her waist, he moved over her, careful not to aggravate any lingering tenderness in her scar.

"Forget being gentle," She said as he entered her slickly supple depths. "I need all the passion you have to give." Taking her word for it, he met her thrusts with his own, their combined need for each other surging higher and higher, taking them to the skies and back before they crashed back down to earth with an enormous emotional as well as a sexual release. There might not have been much preliminary touching as was usual between them, but that made their loving no less special, with their combined climax showing their love to be as strong as it had ever been.

As they lay afterwards, drowsily drifting between sleeping and waking, George had a sudden thought that caused a cold feeling of fear to course through her entire body.

"What?" John asked sluggishly, feeling her stiffen in his arms.

"I've just remembered," She said in horror. "I'm not on the pill any more. Zubin took me off it before the operation."

"Ah," John replied, understanding her fear. "Don't worry," he said, trying to reassure her. "I'll get you the morning after pill tomorrow. It's not a problem," He told her firmly, trying to assuage her concern.

"All right," She said, settling down again. "But we'll have to do things a little differently for the time being."

"I'm sure that can be managed," he teased her affectionately. "With a little imagination."

"You want to let my imagination loose on your body?" George quipped with a predatory smirk. "Sounds positively dangerous to me."

"You're not the only one who can come up with something new," he replied, kissing her lingeringly, his brain already going into overdrive.

For the first time since George had returned home from hospital, they both slept relatively soundly, cuddled closer than they had been for far too long. But when John awoke the next morning, feeling thoroughly rested and refreshed, George was no longer with him. As his senses rose to meet the new day, he became aware of the sound of the shower running in the en suite bathroom. Well, at least she wasn't far away from him, something he desperately didn't want at the moment. If he was honest with himself, he wanted to skip court and spend the whole day with her, but he knew he couldn't. The public was as usual demanding justice, and it was his role to ensure they received it, with whatever results the jury might choose to throw back at him. As he yawned and stretched, the noise of the shower ceased, and not long after, George returned to the bedroom wearing a clean nightie, showing that she intended returning to bed for a while.

"Are you all right?" He said, as she brushed her hair.

"Fine," She said as she returned to bed. "Oh, and there's no need for the morning after pill. I think my body wants me to have a baby even less than I do."

"Ah," He said, understanding her euphemism. When he put his arms round her, she snuggled up to him, her fiercely cramping abdomen causing her to wince. Putting his hand down, John encountered the rigid muscle of her knotted belly, and he tenderly tried to massage away some of the pain.

"That is definitely one of the things I missed about you during all those years that we weren't together," George said as she felt his hand on her.

"Oh, I'm glad that I'm useful for something," he replied mockingly. "But unlike you, I have to leave this bed and get ready for court."

"Well, I can't stay here too long," She said regretfully. "Karen's coming to see me this morning, and I sense an idea up her sleeve that I'm not necessarily going to agree with."

"That always was your prerogative," he said affectionately. "To disagree with anything that those who love you might think is a good idea."

"Of course, darling," She said, kissing him lingeringly, and knowing just how lucky she was to have John, Jo and Karen taking care of her interests, even though she wasn't always in the mood to agree with them.

Part 141

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