‘I see.’ Bella turned to the little boy. ‘Did you swallow a lot of mummy’s detergent, Oscar?’

He shook his head. ‘No, ’cos it tasted funny.’ He zoomed the tractor across the couch and grinned at her. ‘I spat it out on the floor.’

‘Good boy.’

Bella ruffled his hair, thinking how adorable he was. It must be wonderful to have such a bright and happy child. The thought naturally reminded her of her own situation and she swallowed her sigh. There was little chance of her ever having a child when she ended up driving away every man she met. She tried to put the thought out of her mind as she asked Louise Starling if she had brought any of the capsules with her.

‘I brought the box.’ Louise handed Bella the box of detergent capsules. She grimaced. ‘I saw something on TV about taking the container with you if your child swallows something he shouldn’t. I remember thinking that it would never happen to Oscar as I’m so careful, but it just goes to show, doesn’t it?’

‘You mustn’t blame yourself,’ Bella said sympathetically. ‘Even the most careful parents can’t always predict what their children are going to do. Right, I’ll go and phone the National Poisons Information Service and see what they advise. However, I don’t think that you need to worry too much. From what Oscar has told us, he didn’t ingest very much of the detergent.’

Bella went to the desk and called the NPIS helpline. They kept a list of household products on file and were able to advise her on the best course of treatment. Fortunately, these particular capsules weren’t highly toxic and, because so little of the detergent had been ingested, they agreed that Oscar wasn’t in any immediate danger. Bella went back and broke the good news to the little boy’s mother then set about treating him, which involved getting him to drink a large tumbler of water. He was as good as gold and drank it all without a murmur, making her smile.

‘You are a good boy, Oscar. I want you to drink another glass of water when Mummy takes you home—will you do that for me?’

Oscar nodded, more interested in his tractor than in what was happening. Bella laughed as she lifted him off the couch. ‘Come with me and I’ll see if I can find you a sticker for being such a good boy.’

He happily held her hand as she led the way from the cubicle. They kept a pile of stickers behind the desk so Bella sorted through them until she found one with a tractor on it. Crouching down, she stuck it onto the child’s T-shirt. ‘There you go. It says, “I’m a star patient!”—which you are.’

Bella smiled as Oscar excitedly showed the sticker to his mother. She told Louise to bring him back if she was at all worried then sat down to write up the child’s notes after they left. It was almost lunchtime and, once she had finished her notes, she would go to the canteen and make herself eat something. She hadn’t been able to force down anything except a cup of coffee that morning and she couldn’t keep going on that alone. If she was to do her job properly then she needed to look after herself. After all, if she was never going to have that family she had longed for then she would need to focus on her career.

It seemed like a poor substitute even though she loved her job but Bella knew that she had to be realistic. Oh, maybe she did have dreams and maybe it was hard to relinquish them, especially the dreams she’d had about her and Mac and the golden future they would enjoy together, but the longer she clung to her dreams, the more painful it would be. She and Mac had had their chance and it hadn’t worked out. The sooner she accepted that, the better.

* * *

By the time lunchtime rolled around, Mac was finding it difficult to contain his frustration. Bella had evaded his every attempt to speak to her. Oh, he had tried—tried umpteen times, in fact—but she had managed to avoid him. It was fast reaching the point where the rest of the team were bound to notice that something was going on, but hard luck. It wasn’t his doing; it was Bella’s. And if people started gossiping about them then she only had herself to blame!

Mac grimaced, aware that he was being very unfair. He had started this by making those accusations. He had spent a sleepless night, thinking about what had happened, and by the time morning arrived he knew that he had been wrong to jump to such hasty conclusions. Bella would never have tried to use him that way—it simply wasn’t in her nature. He had allowed his fear of getting hurt to skew his judgement and he owed her an apology, but the big question was: would she accept it? From the way she had behaved towards him that morning, he very much doubted it.

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