'Let me get this straight. Richard proposed and you turned him down?'
Scarlett turned and leant in close to her friend's ear, taking care to avoid the spiky tips of Mel's short pixie haircut. 'Shh,' she whispered. 'I don't want everyone to know and I'm sure Richard doesn't either.'
Mel's voice hadn't been overly loud but this wasn't a conversation Scarlett wanted the rest of the girls in their party to hear. She worked with most of them and she didn't want to be the subject of rampant hospital gossip and she certainly didn't want to be the one to start a tale.
She flicked a glance over their group but most of the girls seemed to be more focused on getting inside the club than listening to her and Mel. Candice, the bride-to-be, was at the front of the line, the long white veil she wore making it obvious she was the hen on the hen's night. The veil was longer than her dress and Scarlett thought she looked ridiculous but what would she know, hen's nights were not really her thing.
Neither was fashion, she thought as she wriggled her toes, trying to encourage some circulation into her extremities. Her feet were killing her. She'd borrowed a pair of platform stilettos to team with her simple black dress. The shoes and her make-up were the only concessions she'd made to dressing up for the night out but the strappy sandals were proving to be a big mistake.
Scarlett's taste in clothing tended towards timeless classics, she wasn't a trend follower. It was a waste of good money, in her opinion, and her feet were now reminding her of her momentary lapse of reason. She couldn't wait to get inside and sit down. The short walk from the restaurant in Leigh Street to the Hindley Street club was about her limit in five-inch heels.
She couldn't believe she was keen to get into the club. Spending an evening at a male revue, especially one called The Coop, wasn't something she had ever done before and she could only imagine what the experience would be like—although if the guy on the door was any example she wasn't going to need to rely on her imagination.
Candice's name was on the door, allowing them to bypass the queue and giving them free entry. Apparently Candice knew someone who worked here and Scarlett wondered where on earth you'd meet someone who worked in a strip club, but as the cute young shirtless guy on the door ushered them inside she decided she didn't care, all she wanted was to sit down.
'I want to hear all about it once we're inside,' Mel said, as another buffed and shirtless male greeted them and led them to their table. The club was dimly lit and it took Scarlett's eyes some time to adjust to the lighting. A T-shaped stage jutted out into the centre of the club, the catwalk stretching into the tables that were clustered around the stage. A mirrored bar lined the far wall and a dance floor hugged the back wall and was already packed with young women dancing and singing. The noise level was high and almost unpleasant, but Scarlett hoped that might work in her favour. Perhaps the noise would make any sort of conversation impossible.
She followed the girls to their table, which was front and centre at the end of the catwalk, and sank into a chair. Jugs of bright green cocktails were delivered, promptly poured into glasses and passed around, and Mel waited only until everyone had a drink before she continued her interrogation.
'So Richard was lying in his hospital bed, recovering from heart surgery, working up the nerve to propose, and then you knocked him back?' she asked, as she sipped her drink. It seemed Scarlett wasn't going to get out of this.
'It wasn't like that,' Scarlett protested. Surely Mel couldn't believe she'd be that heartless.
'Don't tell me he was down on one knee beside his bed?'
'No.' Scarlett shook her head. 'He was out of hospital.'
'Well, that makes all the difference,' Mel teased. 'How did he take it when you said no?'
Scarlett could tell Mel was enjoying her discomfort but she had made her decision for what she knew were perfectly valid reasons and she wasn't going to marry the guy just because he'd had a mid-life revelation.
'He was okay. What other choice did he have really? It was my decision. He can't change my mind. I think marriage is overrated and it's not for me.'
'Don't let Candice hear you.'
'She already knows. Richard showed her the ring he bought me, he wanted her opinion.'
'He bought you a ring!?'
'What was it like?' Mel's curiosity took another turn.
'Gorgeous,' she admitted. And it had been. A square-cut solitaire, over one carat in size, set in platinum. It was in a traditional setting and was exactly right for her, classic and expensive. 'Almost gorgeous enough that I wanted to accept his proposal.'
'So why did you say no?'
'I was thinking about saying yes but then he started talking about having kids and I freaked out. I don't want kids.'
'Really? How come I never knew that?'
Scarlett and Mel had been friends for years, since meeting on the first day of med school, but Scarlett hadn't realised she'd never shared her feelings about children. She supposed the topic had never come up before now.
'Kids are a huge sacrifice. Believe me, I should know. I've seen what my mother gave up to raise me and my sisters. I've worked really hard to get to this point in my career and I'm not done yet. I'm not going to give it all up to raise a family.'
Scarlett could feel the effects of the cocktails they'd been drinking on top of the wine she'd had at dinner. She could hear her words weren't as crisp as usual, a bit blurred around the edges, a bit of a lisp on the essess. She knew the alcohol had loosened her tongue too. She wasn't normally so forthcoming about her personal life but she and Mel had shared a lot over the years since they'd been paired as lab partners on their first day at uni. They had been the only two who hadn't already known someone—Mel had moved to Adelaide from Tasmania and Scarlett had been a mature entrant.
She'd felt years older than everyone else and hadn't been used to the social nuances of teenagers, even though she'd only just been out of her teens herself. Their isolation had been the only thing they'd had in common initially but they'd both recognised that it hadn't mattered. Over the years their friendship had grown until Mel felt, in a lot of ways, like another one of Scarlett's sisters, only a lot less trouble.
'But you don't have to have kids right now,' Mel countered. 'It could wait until you've finished your final exams.'
'I'd still need to establish myself in anaesthetics before I could take time off and Richard doesn't want to wait. He's forty-three and he's just had a major health scare. It's made him reassess his future.' Richard's recent heart attack and minor surgery had been a big shock to him at a relatively young age and Scarlett knew that coming face to face with his own mortality had been the trigger for his proposal and his reassessment of his priorities.
'You could get a nanny. And a housekeeper. The two of you could afford to pay for whatever help you want.'
'So I get married, have babies and then hire a nanny and a housekeeper.'
'Sounds all right to me.' Mel grinned.
Scarlett shook her head. 'Having or not having kids wasn't my only reason for turning him down. It just didn't feel right. It was more than just his desire to have a family. When he proposed it should have felt like a moment I'd been waiting for my whole life, but I remembered being more excited about getting accepted into my anaesthetics specialty than receiving a marriage proposal, and surely that's wrong. My heart was racing, but not with excitement, I think it was panic. There was no impending sense that this was the next stage of my life and I couldn't wait for it to get started. I could have married him but it would have been for the wrong reasons. At the end of the day, I didn't love him enough.'
She also knew that she'd been scared. Terrified even. She didn't want to have children with someone so much older and who had heart problems. What if he died and left her a single mother? That was exactly what had happened to her own mother and it was not what she wanted in her own future. She didn't love Richard enough to take that chance. It was easier to let him go.
She had thought Richard would be a safe choice, she'd thought he wanted the same things as her. She'd thought his focus was on his career and that because he was already in his forties he wouldn't want children. Wouldn't he have had them by now if that was the case? But when things had turned out differently from what she'd expected, she'd discovered that she didn't love him enough to change her mind. She didn't love him enough to risk everything she'd worked for.
'So that's it. All over?'
'It's the right decision. I know it is. I'm not even sure he loves me either. I think a lot of his plan for the future was driven by timing and circumstances and not so much by his love for me. He had never mentioned wanting children before his heart attack. I think he'd be marrying me for the wrong reasons too.'
Scarlett picked up her cocktail glass. The wait staff was well trained and had obviously been told to make the most of the break in the entertainment to keep the drinks coming. No sooner had one jug been emptied than another was delivered. Scarlett sipped her drink. She didn't really need more but she wanted to let the alcohol numb her a little bit. She didn't want to spend the night thinking about Richard. That chapter of her life was over and she wasn't planning on having any regrets.
She'd been working and studying hard since she was sixteen and she had a few more years to go. She wanted to finish her studies and she wanted time to enjoy the fruits of her labour. She didn't want to be tied down at the moment. Surely that was a sign she wasn't ready for marriage. Surely that was a sign that it was time to have some fun.
'Let's talk about something else. I'm moving forward with my life, starting tonight.'
She looked around at all the women who were getting into the spirit of the evening, not just at Candice's table but throughout the room. She got the feeling she could let her hair down and not be judged. There was a sense of what happened in the strip club stayed in the strip club feel to the night. Maybe it was the effect of the green cocktails but Scarlett decided it was time to join the party.
Another round of cocktails had just been brought to their table and this time it was Scarlett who refilled their glasses before she turned her attention to the entertainment. Another set had just begun and the stripper on stage was young and athletic and, in her uneducated opinion, very good at his job. She felt slightly uncomfortable appreciating the 'talent' of the much younger men on stage but considering she was hardly the oldest female in the room, and she was certainly not the loudest in voicing her appreciation, she decided she would be rude not to enjoy the show.
By the time the set came to a close the green hue of the drink was starting to make her feel a bit nauseous. She wasn't used to drinking much, her job didn't really allow for it, and she knew if she didn't make sure to drink some water she'd regret it in the morning.
'I think I need something other than alcohol,' she told Mel. 'I'm going to the bar. Do you want anything?'
Mel shook her head as Scarlett pushed her chair back and stood up, pleased to find she could feel her toes again after resting her feet. She picked her way through the tables, dodging the good-looking, scantily clad waiting staff. She didn't want to make eye contact with them but there didn't seem to be any other polite place to look as she made her way across the room.
The bar staff was all cut from the same cloth as the waiters. They were all men, all shirtless and all cute. Not one of them had any chest hair or any body fat. They were all waxed and tanned and gorgeous and Scarlett gave them each a quick once-over before they had time to notice her.
The barman closest to her was slicing lemons. He was about three feet away and standing in profile to her. He had a sculpted jaw, small ears and brown hair, cut shorter at the sides and longer on top, that he'd obviously run some product through with his fingers to keep it spiked up. The deejay was playing a faster-tempo dance number now and all the barmen were moving to the music. Nothing choreographed, their movements looked natural and Scarlett wondered if they even knew they were dancing. She watched his hips as he kept time to the beat. His abdominal muscles flexed as he twisted to reach another lemon, drawing her attention away from his butt. His skin was smooth and tanned and his triceps tensed as he slid the knife through the flesh.
He finished dissecting the last lemon and scraped the slices into a bowl, using the back of the knife. He slid the cutting board into a sink as he twirled the knife through his fingers. Scarlett held her breath and watched as the light reflected off the blade. She gasped as he lost control of the knife and it left his hand and spun through the air. She watched it fall and waited for it to hit the floor, waited for it to stab into something it shouldn't.
It landed on the floor behind the barman, where it lay innocuously on the rubber matting. No harm, no foul, but he'd heard her gasp and before he retrieved the knife he turned to look at her. He grinned. A cheeky, quick smile that lit up his face and made Scarlett think he made a habit of mucking around and that he didn't mind getting caught.
He held her gaze and winked at her. Scarlett blushed and quickly broke eye contact but when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw him turn around to pick up the knife she automatically went back for a second look. His jeans had stretched firmly across his butt and Scarlett couldn't help but admire him. His buttocks were round and firm and the denim of his pants moulded perfectly to his backside.
She was still looking as he stood up and turned to face her, catching her by surprise. Her blush deepened and she couldn't pretend she hadn't been checking him out but luckily he didn't seem offended if his broad grin was anything to go by. He didn't seem to mind being stared at but, then, why should he? He was gorgeous and probably very used to it.
She didn't imagine she was the first woman to have been caught perving on him.
Quinn Daniels finished his drink and signalled to the barman for another. His second Scotch would have to be his last for the evening, he was a Keynote Speaker at the weekend medical conference and his address was on tomorrow’s agenda. He needed to keep a clear head.
He waited at the bar, keeping himself a little separate from the rest of the crowd. He let the conversations flow around him, not shutting them out but not totally absorbing them either. They were background noise as he let his attention wander over the room. The bar was in a conference room that was doing double duty as the cocktail reception area and the usual non-descript décor, seen in large hotels the world over, meant he could have been anywhere but to Quinn’s eyes it was the crowd that told him he was home. The room was only half full but already there were more women in the space than he had seen for a long time. His gaze wandered, watching more out of habit than with any real purpose. He was still getting used to being in the company of women, women who weren’t off-limits.
After his second Tour of Duty to Afghanistan he was still acclimatising to Western life. The Scotch in his hand and the women in the crowd were only two of many differences. But it was enough to change the atmosphere. The sounds were different - the men’s voices provided a bass accompaniment to the higher pitched and slightly louder female voices, and the air smelt different too. It smelt of women – perfume and soap, hair spray and make-up - and the room certainly looked different. In Afghanistan he, and everyone else, had spent most of their time in uniform. There weren’t many occasions to dress up but tonight he was surrounded by men wearing suits and ties and women in cocktail dresses. There was plenty of black and a lot less khaki.
A splash of red caught his eye. In a room of predominantly dark colours the red dress burned like fire, casting a warm glow over everything nearby and drawing his eye. The dress was draped around the most beautiful woman he had seen in a long while. The dress began over one smooth, tanned shoulder and wrapped across rounded breasts then pulled in firm at the waist before flaring out and falling to her knees. Her arms were long and slender. So were her legs. She was showing far less skin than a lot of other women in the room but Quinn let his imagination picture what lay beneath the gauzy fabric. She wore her dark hair long and it flowed over her shoulders, gleaming as it reflected the light. Her lips were painted a glossy red to match her dress and the brightness of her mouth stood out in sharp contrast to her olive skin and raven hair. Her colouring was exotic, she was exquisite, and he wondered who she was.
She had paused in the doorway as she surveyed the room. He held his breath as he watched her, waiting to see if she found whoever it was she was looking for. He waited to see where she was heading.
She had perfect posture and a long, slender neck. She looked serene, elegant. Her head turned towards the bar as she scanned the room. Her eyes met his and Quinn felt his stomach and groin tighten as a burning arrow of desire shot through him.
Desire. It was an emotion he thought long-forgotten and the strength of it took him by surprise. His heart rate increased as blood raced around his body bringing him to life.
Did she hold his gaze for a second longer than necessary? He knew he wished it were true but as her gaze moved on he knew it was more than likely his imagination.
He waited, hoping she wouldn’t find who she was looking for. Wishing she was looking for him.
She stepped into the room and moved gracefully across the floor. Her steps were smooth and effortless and she seemed to glide through the crowd. He couldn’t stop watching. It wasn’t a case of wanting a second look. He was unable to tear his eyes away and that made it impossible to look twice. He appreciated the beauty of a female form and hers was better than most. Far better. He knew he was staring but he couldn’t stop.
She turned towards the bar. The bar was busy, it was early in the evening and people were still arriving and for most, their first stop was the bar to fortify themselves as they prepared to mingle. He could see her looking for a spot to squeeze in. He moved a little to his left, creating a bigger space, a more obvious space, beside him as he willed her to accept his silent invitation. He hoped she would prefer to wait at the bar rather than in a queue.
He watched her gaze travel along the bar and find the gap. Saw her lift her eyes and felt his heart beat quicken as her eyes met his again.
Her cherry-red lips parted in a smile revealing perfect white teeth. His racing heart played leapfrog in his chest as her smile fanned the flames of desire still burning within him.
She took a few more steps, closing the distance between them, and slipped into the space beside him.
‘Thank you.’ Her voice was soft and sultry. It suited her. Her olive skin was smooth. Her grey eyes fringed by dark lashes. The colour of her eyes was unusual and not what he’d expected at all but it was her mouth that had him excited. Her lips were full, moist and red. Suddenly Quinn was very pleased to be home.
The bartender delivered his Scotch and he held up a hand, getting him to wait. ‘May I also have…?’ He looked to his left, offering to order.
‘A gin and tonic, with a slice of lime, please.’
The top of her head reached just past his chin, he could smell her shampoo or maybe her perfume. It was sweet but not cloying and reminded him of the gardenia hedge that had grown under his bedroom window in his childhood home. The room around him melted into the background. The conversation around him faded and became nothing but subsidiary noise. There was nothing else that could capture his attention.
But he’d learnt the hard way not to let attraction outweigh reason. He was still paying the price for that lesson. Not that he regretted the lesson. He couldn’t. That lesson had given him his daughters but there was no denying it had changed his life and now it was no longer his own. An occasional and very brief liaison was all he allowed himself now, just enough to satisfy a need but not long enough to allow any attachment. But it was a long time since he’d felt desire.
Desire was dangerous. The way he felt right now he knew desire could outweigh reason. He knew he could lose himself in this woman’s raven tresses and cherry-red lips.
Perhaps that would help to wipe away memories of the Middle East. Perhaps it would help to bring him back to the present. He would still have the dreams but sex was always a good distraction. This woman may be the perfect solution. But sex to satisfy a need was one thing. Sex and desire was another combination altogether.
Ali had noticed him almost the moment she had entered the room. He had an interesting face but extraordinary eyes and it was his eyes that had made her look twice. He had maintained eye contact, almost daring her to look away first. And then he’d moved, just slightly, just enough to make space for her at the bar. Was it another challenge or was he being chivalrous? It didn’t matter. She didn’t want to linger alone, she didn’t want to look out of place or conspicuous, so she was grateful for his silent offer. She hesitated, only ever so slightly, before his eyes convinced her to accept his offer. He had the bluest eyes she had ever seen, so bright their colour was clear from metres away. Hypnotic. Mesmerizing. She felt as though he’d cast some sort of spell over her until her feet moved, almost of their own accord, and carried her across the room and she found herself beside him accepting his offer of a drink.
He was watching her intently almost as though he was committing her features to memory but his attention didn’t make her uncomfortable. It wasn’t intrusive, somehow he made it feel like flattery.
His confidence was attractive. Her confidence had been shaken of late and her pulse quickened as she met his eyes. A sense of excitement raced through her as she looked into his eyes, so blue they appeared to be made from azure cellophane, illuminated from behind. They were intense, compelling, captivating and she was riveted. The external border of his irises was a darker blue and the change in colour reminded her of a tropical sea as it deepened and darkened as it left the white sands of the shore.
He handed her a tall, cold glass, its contents garnished with lime. ‘Will you let me keep you company while you wait for your friends?’ he asked as she thanked him for the drink.
‘How do you know I’m waiting?’
‘I saw you arrive,’ he replied. ‘You looked like you were meeting people but you also looked like you were the first one here.’
Somehow in a room rapidly filling with people they’d seen each other at the same instant. She wouldn’t call it fate, she used to be a big believer in fate but she wasn’t so certain anymore, but even she had to admit there was a nice symmetry to this chance meeting. She smiled. ‘One of my many bad habits, I confess. I’m always early.’
‘I can’t see how that’s a bad thing.’
‘It makes others feel guilty because they think they were late.’
‘Well, I hope they take their time.’ He smiled at her bringing little laugh lines to the corners of his incredible blue eyes.
Was he flirting with her? She hoped so but she didn’t completely trust her judgement.
He extended his hand. ‘I’m Quinn Daniels.’
She knew who he was. Captain Quinn Daniels. She recognised his face, only from a photograph but that was enough. He was one of the conference Keynote Speakers. She planned to attend his session on infectious diseases and immunisation tomorrow. She knew from his short biography in the conference program that he was an Army Medic. An Army Captain. But the black and white head shot in the conference notes didn’t do him justice.
He was six feet, maybe six feet one, of solid muscle. He looked fit. His shoulders were broad and his arms filled out the sleeves of his suit jacket. She could see the muscle definition of his deltoids and biceps under his jacket and his pectoral muscles were firm against his shirt.
He wasn’t typically handsome, his face was broad, his blonde hair cropped short, his jaw firm and clean-shaven, his chin strong. He was rugged rather than handsome but there was something about him that made it difficult for her to look away. It was more than just his eyes. It was something deeper, something powerful, something confident. He looked as though he could take care of himself and by association anyone else he chose to protect.
The bridge of his nose was slightly flattened, as if it had once been broken, but Ali sensed that if it had happened in a fight it was the other guy who would have come off second best. But despite his size and the sense of strength she didn’t get a feeling of menace. She got a feeling of raw masculinity but not danger. He might not back down from a fight but she got the sense he wouldn’t start it. Although she was certain he would finish it. He wouldn’t stand by and watch. He would come to help.
He seemed strong. Interesting. He made her feel brave. She put her hand into his. ‘I’m Ali.’
His fingers closed around hers, his grip was firm but gentle and sent an unexpected rush of excitement racing through her. She didn’t want to let go, it had been a long time since she’d been excited about anything.
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ali,’ he said, and something in his tone made her believe he meant every word. ‘You’re a doctor?’ he asked. She nodded in reply. She didn’t think she could speak, not while he still had hold of her hand, her senses were overloaded. ‘Are you Brisbane based?’ he added as he released her hand.
Ali shook her head and found her voice. ‘No, I’m from Adelaide.’
‘Ah, I should have known.’
‘South Australia has more than her fair share of beautiful women.’
He was definitely flirting.
‘Have you been to Adelaide?’ she asked, hoping that he had a legitimate reason for his flirtatious comment and that he wasn’t just spouting rhetoric.
‘Many times,’ he replied. ‘Do you like living there?’
‘I do,’ Ali nodded. She loved her home town and although many of her friends had moved interstate she had never thought she’d prefer to live elsewhere. ‘But I must admit the opportunity to escape our winter and head north for some sunshine and the conference was too much for me to resist. I’m looking forward to hearing your address tomorrow.’
Quinn smiled. ‘You’re attending my session? You’re not going to ditch me in favour of lying by the pool and working on your tan?’
‘I try not to play hookey until the second day,’ she quipped before she sipped her drink, conscious of the fact she was flirting in return but surprisingly without apprehension.
His phone rang, interrupting the flow of their conversation. He pulled it from his pocket and glanced at the screen. ‘Would you excuse me, I need to take this.’
She watched as he took two steps away from the bar. She wondered who it was. Wondered who had the power to make him search for privacy.
He paused and turned to face her again. ‘I’ll be back,’ he said before leaving her to watch him walk away. As he left he took with him the air of excitement she’d experienced and the evening dimmed a little. She wondered if he would be back. She had no way of knowing.
Ali pushed open the clinic door and unwound her scarf as she felt the warmth of the waiting room begin to defrost her face. She was so over winter, it had been unseasonably cold and long, even by Adelaide Hills standards, and the few days she’d spent in the Brisbane warmth for the medical conference seemed a lifetime ago. Her skin had forgotten the feeling of the Queensland sun over the past six weeks and she couldn’t wait for summer.
She undid the buttons on her new winter coat, a scarlet, woollen swing coat that she’d bought to lift her spirits and help her get through the last weeks of cold weather. Her spirits needed lifting, she needed something to look forward to. She loved her job but lately it had lacked excitement. It had become routine. The last time she’d felt excited about anything had been in Brisbane. The night she’d met Quinn.
She sighed. Her life was a pretty sad state of affairs if a ten minute conversation was the highlight of the past few months. But there was no denying she’d enjoyed it and no denying she had spent far too much time thinking about him. Wondering why he hadn’t come back. Wondering what had happened to him.
Despite telling herself she no longer believed in fate she hadn’t been able to shake off the idea that they had been destined to meet. But even she wasn’t delusional enough not to realise she was romanticising things. Quinn had probably had no intention of coming back, he’d probably thought she was dull and ordinary and had been desperate for an escape, whereas she’d thought he was interesting and charismatic.
She’d spent so much time thinking about him that on occasions since getting home her subconscious had tricked her into thinking she’d caught fleeting glimpses of him. But of course it was just her imagination working overtime because when she’d look a second time she would see it was just another solidly-built man with cropped blonde hair or that the person had disappeared from view completely.
Imagined sightings, unfinished conversations and scant memories were all she had.
She knew she wanted to find love but she was sensible enough to realise it wasn’t going to be Quinn Daniels who would sweep her off her feet. No matter how much she wished it. Daydreams weren’t going to change anything she thought as she shrugged out of her coat. It was time to move on.
She glanced around the waiting room. There were a couple of patients sitting quietly but no one she recognised. She wasn’t actually due at the clinic for another hour as she’d finished her nursing home visits earlier than expected so she assumed they weren’t waiting for her.
‘Ali, there you are.’ The receptionist’s chirpy voice greeted her as she emerged from the back of the clinic. It sounded as though Tracey had been waiting for her but Ali couldn’t imagine why since she was well ahead of schedule. ‘Your mum wants to see you as soon as you get in,’ Tracey added.
The medical practice had been started by Ali’s mum when Ali and her brother were still in nappies. The building that was now the surgery had been their family home but as the practice had expanded their family had moved into a bigger house nearby and the clinic had taken over the building. Ali had spent many hours in the practice, playing in her younger years and helping out with various odd jobs as she got older, and she always knew she wanted to work there one day. Her mum had shown her it was possible to successfully balance a career and a family and that had been Ali’s dream too. Until recently.
Until recently Ali had been quite content working as a GP. She enjoyed knowing her patients and being a part of their lives and the community. But until recently she hadn’t ever expected that she may never have more than this. She was twenty-six years old and at a crossroads in her life. She was restless. Her future lacked direction and excitement and she was at a loss as to how to remedy this.
‘Do you know why?’ Ali asked.
‘She wants to introduce you to the locum. He’s in with her now.’
‘He?’ The locum position was a part-time one, to cover for Ali’s mother who was accompanying Ali’s father to an overseas conference followed by a short holiday. Ali knew her mother was hoping that if things worked out she could then persuade the locum to stay on allowing her to further reduce her working hours. Ali had assumed, incorrectly apparently, that the job would go to a female doctor, part-time hours were highly sort after by working mums, but perhaps the new doctor was also nearing retirement age, like Ali’s mother. ‘Is he old?’
Tracey grinned and Deb, the practice nurse, laughed. ‘Not by our standards,’ she said, ‘but every minute you stand out here he’ll be another minute older. If I were you I’d be hustling in there.’
Ali gave a quick glance over her shoulder at Tracey and Deb as she headed for her mother’s consulting room. They were giggling like a pair of schoolgirls. She frowned, wondering what on earth had gotten into the two of them.
She knocked and opened her mother’s door. The physique of the man in front of her was instantly recognisable and he was far from old. Her heart leapt in her chest.
Tall, solid and muscular, he stood lightly balanced on the balls of his feet. His hair was longer, not so closely cropped, and the blonde was touched with flecks of grey that she was certain hadn’t been there six weeks ago. He looked a little leaner and a little older but when he turned to face her she saw that his eyes were unchanged. They were the exact same extraordinary, intense, backlit, azure blue.
His name slipped from her tongue. ‘Quinn?’
He stared at her. Did he remember her?
Her heart was in her throat making it impossible to breathe. She had dreamt of meeting him again but in her dreams there had been no hesitation. In her dreams he hadn’t forgotten her.
She exhaled. ‘You’re the new doctor?’
‘Are you telling us or asking us?’ Annie demanded.
The rest of the staff who were assembled around the board room table seemed to be sitting in quiet acceptance but Annie Simpson wasn’t having a bar of that. She stared at Patrick Hammond. Was he serious? Was the Hospital Director really telling her, telling them all, that Blue Lake Hospital was going to be the setting for a reality television show? That there were plans to film a hospital drama featuring real patients and real doctors, their patients and their doctors, in their hospital and he expected the staff to get on board?
‘I’m telling you what’s happening and asking if you’re prepared to be part of it.’ For a large man Patrick was very softly spoken and today was no exception. If Annie’s question had irritated him he showed no signs of annoyance.
To be fair, Annie knew Patrick didn’t run his hospital like a dictatorship, most decisions were discussed with senior staff to some degree. Most medical decisions she qualified, the day to day running of the hospital was not something Patrick would normally converse with them about. Annie wondered exactly where a reality television show fitted into the scheme of things.
‘Do we have a choice?’ she asked.
Patrick rubbed one hand over his closely cropped hair. ‘Of course you do. But I would like you to consider what this means for the hospital - money going into the coffers, good publicity, free publicity. With so many country hospitals struggling to stay open having this sort of media buzz can only be a good thing.’
‘Are you sure?’ Annie argued. ‘What if something goes wrong? What if there’s a disaster and the hospital gets sued? That won’t garner good publicity. And it’s not likely the government would close this hospital. We might be rural but we’re not a small six bed outfit. We are a specialist facility in the state’s second biggest town. There would be an outcry if they even mentioned shutting us down.’
‘We might be a large hospital but we’re still government funded and that means we have the same funding issues as everyone else,’ Patrick countered. ‘Do you have any idea how many people watched the last series of RPE?’
Annie had thought his question was rhetorical but when Patrick paused, obviously waiting for her answer, she shook her head. She didn’t have a clue.
‘Two million. Every night.’
That was a huge audience for Australian television. Annie had known RPE, the series filmed at the Royal Prince Edward Hospital in Melbourne, was popular but she hadn’t realised how popular.
‘And Caspar St Claire is one of the stars,’ Patrick continued. ‘This spin-off series is a big deal. He’s a local boy, made good. There will be big interest in what he does, not just locally but around the country. And the television network is compensating us nicely for the opportunity to film here.’
‘So it’s all about the money?’
Patrick shook his head. ‘Don’t be too quick to criticise, there’s a long list of things the hospital needs and the money from the network will go a long way towards providing those things, including refitting a birthing unit for your department. And you do realise Caspar is a paediatrician?’ he queried. ‘As an obstetrician, I thought you’d be pleased to know that I’ve found someone to cover paediatrics while Phil is on long service leave.’
Annie wasn’t ready to let Patrick have the last word. She’d been the subject of media interest before and it hadn’t been a positive experience. She’d moved to this quiet, regional centre to rebuild her life and she wasn’t happy to find that she might be cast back into the public eye whether she liked it or not. Not happy at all. ‘I would be pleased if I thought you’d found a replacement who has come to work but it seems to me you’ve just found one who is coming accompanied by his own circus. I’m not interested in being a part of this.’
‘I have never worked with a circus. Children yes, animals no and definitely not circuses.’
Annie jumped as a deep, masculine voice spoke up behind her and ran like hot, molten lava down her spine. From the seat beside her she heard Tori Williams, one of the anaesthetists, catch her breath and then sigh and Annie didn’t need to turn her head to know that Caspar St Claire was standing behind her and had obviously heard her every word. She could feel his scrutiny just as she could feel the eyes of everyone else in the room. They were watching her, waiting with interest to see what she was going to do. She had no idea what Caspar St Claire was thinking and she didn’t want to turn around to read the expression on his face but he had addressed her and she couldn’t sit there pretending to be deaf. She turned in her seat to find the devil himself watching her. A rather handsome devil she had to admit but that didn’t change the fact that she didn’t want him here.
Of course she recognised him immediately. No introduction was necessary, at least from her side. Patrick was right, RPE was a huge ratings winner and, even if Annie hadn’t actually been glued to her television like everyone else for the last season, she’d certainly caught a few episodes and knew who Caspar St Claire was. But why did he have to turn up here?
‘Let me assure you,’ he said in his ridiculously rich, made-for-radio voice, ‘that my patients always come first and the crew are exceptionally good at being as unobtrusive as possible.’
She wanted to laugh at him. If he thought she believed that for one second he was in for a surprise but the force of his gaze made the laughter catch in her throat. His hazel eyes held hers, challenging her to argue with him but she was temporarily struck dumb. She wished the floor would open up beneath her feet. But of course she wouldn’t have the good fortune for that to happen.
Every medical television show had a resident heart throb doctor and even though RPE was a reality show they’d still managed to find some attractive stars and Dr St Claire was the pick of the bunch. But she hadn’t expected him to be even better looking in real life. His dark hair was probably an inch longer than it needed to be but that extra inch gave enough length to let his hair curl, lending him a youthful look. A just tumbled out of bed look. As she pictured him tangled up in his sheets, running his fingers through his hair to try to tame it ready for the day she could feel the heat of his gaze burn into her as he continued to watch her, waiting for her reply. She felt her cheeks begin to flush as her temperature rose but she couldn’t think of anything to say.
‘Do you have any other objections, Dr Simpson?’
He knew who she was? That shocked her out of her imaginings and back into the real world. Back to reality.
Which was ironic given the reason he was here.
She frowned. How the hell did he know her name?
But she’d have to worry about that later. The rest of the staff was sitting mutely around the table, all watching the interaction, one-sided though it was at present, and there were more important things to worry about than how he knew her name. Far more important things.
‘I’m sure I have a lot more objections Dr St Claire and without more information, a lot more information,’ she stressed, ‘I won’t make a decision about my involvement. When do you begin filming?’
Annie’s eyebrows shot skywards. She needed more time. She wasn’t ready for her department to be invaded by cameras. She wasn’t ready for that exposure. Not again. Not by a long way.
The easiest thing would be to say no, immediately. To tell him she didn’t want to be part of this. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about anything further. She wouldn’t need to wait for more information. There was no way she was going to agree to a media circus in her delivery suites and she should tell him that right now.
She opened her mouth but before she could speak Caspar interrupted.
‘Don’t say ‘no’ just yet.’
Annie stared at him. Was she that easy to read? Although she supposed it was a reasonable guess, given her reaction so far. She was tempted to deny her intentions though, just to prove him wrong. But what if that was his game? She wasn’t ready for this. She didn’t want to play games, she didn’t want to play at all.
‘Let me introduce the show’s producer, Gail Cameron, she will run through the details, answer any questions and take care of the legalities. You don’t have to make a decision today,’ he said as he continued to hold her in his sights, ‘but filming starts tomorrow and it would be great if some of you are on board by then.’ He broke eye contact with her as he looked around the table at the other staff members and Annie felt some of the heat leaving her body as he looked away, almost as though a cloud had passed across the sun, casting a shadow over her. ‘We’re not here to sensationalise things,’ he continued, ‘we’re here to tell stories, to raise awareness and, as I’m sure Patrick has told you, Blue Lake Hospital, and therefore your departments, will benefit financially.’
Annie decided she wouldn’t say ‘no’, not just yet. She didn’t want anyone accusing her of being difficult or obstructive and she was well aware the hospital could always use extra funds. She’d pretend to give the situation due consideration.
And then she’d say ‘no’.
Patrick stood up and moved chairs around making room for Caspar and Gail to sit at the table. Annie couldn’t help but notice that Caspar waited for Gail to sit first and his manners earned him a brownie point but he still had a long way to go in her opinion.
Annie studied him as he stood beside the table waiting for Gail to get settled.
He was wearing a single breasted suit, pale grey in colour, with a plain white shirt and a striped tie. His shoulders were broad and square and filled the suit jacket out very nicely. His shirt was crisply ironed but the suit was a little crumpled. Perhaps, despite being Australia’s latest celebrity pin-up, appearances weren’t at the top of his list of priorities. Annie decided she could like that about the man, even if she didn’t have to like him being here.
He undid the buttons on his jacket and held his tie against his stomach, keeping it out of the way, as sat in his own chair. Annie’s eyes were drawn to his stomach, it was flat and lean. Caspar St Claire was slimmer in real life than he’d appeared on television but then she remembered that the camera supposedly added pounds. Did in fact add pounds. She knew that from her own limited experience.
Gail was speaking, saying something about the types of medical cases they were interested in and Annie knew she should be listening but her attention kept wandering. Caspar was rolling a pen through his fingers and the movement caught her eye. His fingers were long and slender and his hands were large. Annie could imagine him cradling the new born babies in his care, holding them nestled safely in the palms of his hands.
Now that he was sitting down, diagonally opposite her, Annie had less of him to peruse. His head was turned to his left, slightly away from her, leaving her looking at his profile. Leaving her free to study him. There were flecks of grey at his temples, a touch of salt and pepper in his black curls and his olive skin was darkened by the shadow of designer stubble on his jaw. His nose was perfectly straight but maybe a touch longer than it needed to be, which was a good thing, Annie thought, it stopped him from being too good looking.
Was there such a thing as too good-looking? She’d never wondered about that before.
His green eyes were scanning the room, working his way around the table in a clockwise direction as he studied each person present in the meeting and Annie wondered what he was thinking.
He was looking at Colin, one of the orthopaedic surgeons and Annie knew it was only a matter of time before his gaze would land on her. She felt her heart rate increase with that thought. For some reason this made her nervous. Her palms felt sweaty and she wiped them on her trousers.
Caspar was watching Tori now but Tori was oblivious to his inspection. She had her head down, furiously taking notes. That was good, she and Tori had formed a close friendship in the six months since Annie had moved to Mount Gambier and Annie could use Tori’s notes to catch up later on everything she hadn’t heard Gail say.
And then it was her turn. She’d meant to look away before his gaze reached her but she hadn’t and now he was looking straight at her, his green eyes locked with hers. Annie could feel herself begin to blush again under his scrutiny. The heat started over her sternum and she knew it was only a matter of time before it spread to her face but she was unable to break the connection.
Until Tori nudged her with an elbow.
‘Ow,’ Annie complained. But it was enough to get her to glance to her right.
‘Are you paying attention?’ Tori asked. ‘You need to listen to this.’
‘I’ll read your notes later,’ Annie told her but as she turned her head away from Tori she deliberately sought out Gail’s face as she pretended to listen and tried to keep Caspar St Claire out of her line of sight. She’d expected his attention to have moved on to the next person around the table but from the corner of her eye she could see that he was still watching her and she couldn’t help but move her head, ever so slightly, to look back at him.
He appeared to be concentrating ardently and she wondered again what he was thinking. What he thought about her. His expression seemed to be challenging her but she wasn’t sure what his challenge was. Did he want her to question him or back down? If he wanted her to give in on the very first day he was going to be sorely disappointed. She had no intention of giving in, not today and not tomorrow.
She met his gaze as she thought about all the ways she could say no but then his intense expression gave way to a smile and his seriousness dissolved into something else altogether. Something slightly carnal and iniquitous and Annie forgot all about reality television, all about the cameras invading the hospital, all about saying no as his smile raced through her. It lit a fire in her belly that poured through her, warming everything from her face to her toes and everything in between, until she felt as though her insides might melt together in a big pool of lust. She’d thought his serious, brooding expression had been handsome but his smile transformed his face completely and his expression now was cheeky and playful and made her think of sex. Something she hadn’t thought about for a long time.
Sex wasn’t something that had ever been high on her list of priorities. She enjoyed it but she didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. She was quite happy being celibate. But Caspar St Claire made her think of sex. And not the type of sex she was used to. He made her think of hot, sweaty, take-no prisoners sex. Tangled bed sheets and late afternoon sex. The weight of a hard, firm male body. He made her think of multiple orgasms and sex that was so all-consuming she’d be too exhausted to be able to move afterwards. The kind of sex she’d read about in novels and seen in movies but had never experienced.
The temperature in the room felt as though it had increased by several degrees and Annie could feel her nipples harden as her imagination worked overtime. That was enough to make her break eye contact. She looked away hurriedly, almost guiltily, afraid he would be able to see her shameless thoughts.
Her ill-fated marriage had been based on lots of things but desire hadn’t been one of them. She’d been a young, inexperienced bride and her marriage had been more about companionship and less about physical attraction or raging hormones. At the time she’d thought she was making a sensible choice. She had seen her parents’ relationship self-combust repeatedly and theirs had definitely been a physical thing. As a teenager she’d decided she wouldn’t make the same mistake. The trouble was she just made a different one.
But she’d never felt such a strong, unexpected stirring of desire before and to have it triggered by a complete stranger disturbed her. She didn’t want to be affected by him. She didn’t want to be affected by anybody. As far as she was concerned that was asking for trouble.
She was going to put Caspar St Claire and everything he was associated with into a mental box marked ‘Do Not Open’. She didn’t need to worry about him or his business. It was going to be nothing to do with her.
It was pitch black. And silent. There was not a sound. And it was as still as it was silent. There was not a breeze.
Why would there be a breeze six metres under the ground? she asked herself.
How long would the air last?
Hopefully as long as it took for someone to come for her, she thought. She refused to think that Harry wouldn’t come.
She reached out one hand wanting to feel the solid wall of the tunnel. She’d told Harry she didn’t suffer from claustrophobia but that was before she’d been buried alive. Feeling the wall gave her some comfort, some perspective, it grounded her. Perhaps she wasn’t suffering from claustrophobia. If it was claustrophobia then surely feeling the wall behind her would reinforce the idea that she was trapped but she found the solid wall comforting. Perhaps it was simply disorientation.
She laughed and the noise sounded harsh in the silence. There was nothing simple about this situation.
Maybe she was afraid of the dark or of being buried alive? Who wouldn’t be afraid of being buried alive? Surely that was quite a rational, sane fear? She wondered what those phobias were called but she forced herself not to go down that path. She needed to be thinking positive thoughts not naming fears.
There was no sound and no movement but at least that meant the blasting had stopped. That was a positive thing.
Gradually her eyes adjusted to the darkness and her gaze was drawn to her left, down the low-ceilinged tunnel. She could see tiny slivers of light in the distance.
She was drawn to the light like a moth to a flame. She needed that light.
She felt her way along the wall of the mine, reluctant to step away into the darkness, and followed the wall around until she reached the tunnel opening. It wasn’t high enough to stand up in and she had to get on her hands and knees and crawl along. The dirt floor was rough against her skin and she could feel the little stones pressing into the soft skin of her palms and knees but the light kept drawing her forwards.
For a long time the light didn’t seem to get any closer and she wondered whether her eyes were playing tricks on her. But she pushed on. There was nothing else to do.
By the time she reached the light her knees were grazed and she was certain her palms were bleeding but she’d made it. She was under another old shaft but when she looked up the opening was covered. There was no patch of blue sky at the top of this shaft, just tiny holes in a covering emitting pinpricks of light. She stood up and searched the walls of the shaft for a ladder but could see nothing. She stood in the middle of the shaft and ran her hands around the wall just in case but there was nothing but dirt. Light was coming in but there was still no way out. It wasn’t an escape.
She was about to retrace her steps but when she looked at the darkness behind her she decided that the meagre bit of light coming down this boarded up shaft was preferable to the pitch blackness that waited for her at the other end of the tunnel. It wasn’t an escape route but at least there was air and some light. She sat cross-legged on the floor, her back to the wall and waited for Harry.
Something passed across the top of the shaft creating a shadow. Emma was vaguely aware of something blocking the light but before she could look up it had passed. Had she imagined it?
But there it was again and this time it was accompanied by a loud noise. Emma feared it was another blast and her initial reaction was to look for cover. But there was nowhere to hide. Then she realised the noise wasn’t vibrating through the earth but instead it was echoing down the shaft. The noise was coming from above her.
‘Hello, is someone up there? Can you hear me?’
His voice was distorted as it bounced off the walls of the shaft but she knew it was him. No one else would know her name but it wasn’t that, it was the fact that hearing her name on his lips made her heart somersault in her chest.
He was coming for her.
‘Are you hurt?’
‘No. I’m fine. I’m just stuck. I can’t get out.’
He was here. She hadn’t doubted he would come for her.
‘We’ll have you out in a minute. We just need to get this cover off.’
Harry’s words were drowned out by another bout of banging before the cover was levered off and the shaft was flooded with light and his head appeared above her. Even though she couldn’t make out his features just knowing he was there was all she needed.
‘You’re really okay?’ he asked.
‘Yes.’ The word came out as a half-laugh, half-sob but it was pure relief that she felt.
‘Okay, give me a second to work this out,’ he said before his head disappeared from the opening. She could hear him talking to Tony. ‘There’s a ladder running down the wall,’ he said and she knew he would choose to climb down to her.
Now that there was more light, she could see a rusty ladder but it stopped halfway down the shaft. A good three metres from the floor. He might be able to drop down to her but then they’d both be stuck. It wasn’t going to help her. Or Harry.
‘Harry, wait! The ladder doesn’t reach to the bottom,’ she called.
‘Don’t worry, Em, we’ll work something out,’ Harry called down to her even as Tony was arguing the point. Their voices drifted down the mine shaft.
‘We should wait for Search and Rescue.’
‘Why? You heard her, she’s not injured, it’s just a simple evacuation. We just need a way of getting down there. We can have her out before SAR even get here. What else have you got in your ute? Rope? Anything I can use as a harness?’
‘There’s rope and a winch on the front.’
‘Can you bring it over?’ Harry asked. ‘I’ll wait here, I’m not leaving Emma again.’
Despite her predicament Harry’s words sent a warm glow through her. Harry was waiting. He wasn’t going to leave her.
Emma heard the sound of the engine as Tony brought the ute closer. She could hear them working out how to fashion a rope harness for Harry and she could hear Tony trying once more to convince Harry to wait for the Search and Rescue team and then Harry insisting again that he could do this. Harry won the argument and Tony agreed to winch him down to her.
His face appeared at the top of the shaft again.
‘Okay, Em, we’re good to go. Can you slide out of the way into the tunnel a bit? I’m going to come down feet first so I won’t have a good line of sight and I don’t want to land on you.’
She scooted backwards into the tunnel and craned her neck so she could see what was going on. Her heart was in her throat as she watched him enter the shaft feet first. What if something happened to him?
Somehow, despite the makeshift harness, Tony managed to lower him steadily and smoothly. The moment his feet touched the ground she leapt into his arms. The knotted harness rope and the winch cable dug into her stomach but she didn’t care. Never in her life had she been so pleased to see someone.
Her knees were shaky and she clung to him, letting him support her. She’d managed to get off the ground and into his arms but she knew that she was now incapable of holding herself up. Adrenalin coursed through her system. She looked up into his bright blue eyes and her heart skipped a beat.
She saw his blue eyes darken before he tipped her hard hat back and claimed her lips with his mouth, kissing her swiftly and soundly.
His lips were soft but they weren’t gentle. The kiss was hungry, intense and passionate. Emma had no time to think and Harry wasn’t asking for permission. He wasn’t asking for anything. He was demanding a response. And Emma gave him one.
She kissed him back, unreservedly. Her hormones took control, blood rushed to her abdomen, flooding her groin and her legs turned to jelly. She knew she would have collapsed to the ground if she hadn’t been in his embrace.
Eventually Harry broke away, letting her breathe but he didn’t let her go. She was shaking, panting. She wanted more. But it looked like she was going to have to wait.
‘I knew you’d come for me,’ she said, surprised to find she could talk and construct a coherent sentence.
‘If something had happened to you I would never have forgiven myself,’ Harry replied.
‘I seem to be developing a penchant for trouble.’ She smiled up at him, able to relax now she was no longer alone.
‘This is a new thing for you?’
Emma nodded. ‘Yes, bad luck I’m used to, trouble is something different altogether.’
‘It’s a good thing I’m here then.’ He looked down at her and grinned and Emma could not disagree. There wasn’t anyone else she’d rather have beside her right now.
Tony poked his head over the edge of the shaft. ‘Everything alright down there?’
‘Couldn’t be better,’ Harry answered but his attention remained focussed on her. His bright blue gaze was fixed on her face and he was still grinning broadly.
‘Shall I bring you up or do you have other plans?’ Tony asked.
Emma could quite happily have stayed where she was. After being so desperate to get out of the mine, now she had to admit she was pretty comfortable.
Harry laughed. ‘Let me get Emma sorted.’
She liked the sound of that.