Fiona McArthur
Fiona McArthurFiona McArthurFiona McArthurFiona McArthur

Excerpt: As the River Rises

Book 11: Aussie Outback Medical Romance Series

Prologue

Hannah

A thin crack of light appeared around Hannah’s mental door of entrapment, offering a possibility of escape.

An invitation? Dr Hannah Rogan traced the bouncy blue bear holding a birthday cake with a big number one front and centre, and felt the warmth of the sender as if Gracie was right there talking to her. Warmth. Not the Central Queensland heat beating down on her head in the middle of Roma in summer, but freely given, real, friendship warmth. She’d almost forgotten how that felt. It was funny how some people seemed to think if you were a doctor, you didn’t need reassurance or support.

Glancing around to ensure she was alone, she grabbed her phone and pressed the ‘call’ button. Even as she did so, she couldn’t help wincing that the situation had come to this.

Holding the phone to her ear – not on loudspeaker in case he’d paid someone to watch her – Hannah rubbed her other arm as if to calm herself. When had she become so paranoid that somebody might hear her plans?

Stop it, she silently commanded, sliding her hand away when she recognised the protective gesture. What had she turned into?

The call connected. ‘Hannah?’ Gracie’s familiar voice came through light and teasing, but Hannah caught the faint shimmer of her friend’s underlying concern at the last few months of radio silence. ‘Are you okay? You got the invite? I thought you’d forgotten me.’

Hannah’s shoulders drooped just a fraction, her eyes stinging in remorse at the words. Her kind-hearted, wonderful friend had a right to be upset with her.

They’d forged their friendship on mutual trust and professional respect when they worked together, Gracie as the midwife and Hannah as the consultant obstetric GP caring for inland birthing mums in the town of Roma. They’d stuck together in support, the glue set rock solid after a pair of unpreventable emergencies, where they’d combined their skills to manage successfully and save the day against all odds. They’d got tipsy afterwards with relief. And Gracie had become her discreet and reliable friend, one who shared history and stood steadfast. Most precious of all was that Gracie made her laugh.

Yes, Hannah had felt sorely the loss of that friendship when Gracie and her husband had moved away to New South Wales last year.

‘I’ve missed talking to you, too.’ She drew a breath, swallowing the tightness in her throat. ‘I’d love to come to my godson’s birthday.’ Then she made herself add, ‘So much in fact, I’m angling for an invitation to extend my visit to a few extra days.’ Her throat tightened again, and her voice dropped lower. ‘Um, I need to get away.’ 

‘Yayyyy. And we need you here.’ The response made Hannah smile. ‘Awesome. Absolutely. We’ll have you for as long as you want. Though, you know I’ll be nagging you to relocate.’

Gracie had mentioned before about creating a midwifery group practice in her new local area down in New South Wales and she needed a GP. Hannah wasn’t stepping into that role – she just needed space to recover and be inconspicuous. Notoriety didn’t sit well, and nor did being ostracised in her own town by fairweather friends, even if she’d only become notable by association.

‘Come as soon as you can.’ Gracie burbled with delight. Relief seeped through Hannah as her friend enthused, ‘Come now. Help me get organised for the party.’

Hannah wished, but she had work to finish and loyal patients to ensure care for. ‘You’re the most organised person I know.’

‘Not.’ Gracie laughed. ‘It’s harder with a one-year-old. So? When? Your bed’s ready.’

‘Next Thursday. That gives us two days before the party. And can I stay for a week?’

‘Done. Booked,’ Gracie crowed. ‘You can’t change your mind now.’


Chapter One

Hannah

Hannah glanced at the map on her dashboard – fifteen kilometres to go. She was stranded behind a slow-moving tractor, half her brain on driving and half on admiring the green and rocky countryside. She’d left the southbound New England Highway an hour ago.

Now, she edged past a heavy, black metal sliding gate, one that opened with a code box and screamed keep out. The gate seemed at odds with the celestial, and quite beautiful, name of the station – Luna Downs.

Beyond the gate, she could see rolling green hills and clumps of rising monoliths of granite dotting the landscape like little altars. If they were altars, then the supplicants would be the black-and-white spotted cattle. The cows grazed or lounged under shade trees and milled around two newly dug, clay-sided dams, half-full of water. She’d been watching the rainfall down this way with interest, and she’d bet the dam builders were happy the rain had come.

Last year it had been fires. This year they’d been inundated with wet weather. Better watch that, she thought. The last thing she needed was to be flooded in New South Wales and miss work. Her patients would add ‘unreliable’ to the grumbling suspicions they had about her, personally.

Casting one final sideways glance at the boulder-strewn paddocks, she admitted there was something compelling and mystical about the picturesque land behind those long fences. And yet, there was the unfriendly gate. In light of her recent experiences, it wasn’t surprising for her to consider the person inside might have something to hide.

The tractor turned off to the left, and she pushed the thought away and increased speed. Now she was driving uphill, through winding tunnels of green overhangs and then swooping down around bends with tumbling creeks to the side. Every now and then a gateway flashed past, side roads leading to other properties with cattle and stock yards and clearings, and rarely, visible houses.

As she approached the last rise, the overhead tree tunnel opened out into clumps of olive against the gold hills, and a cloud of pink cockatoos cawed in the sky in front of her as she swept the bend. One kilometre to go.

A valley spread before her. A village. It lay inland from the sea, but there was a coolness here she hadn’t expected to find in summer, especially compared to Roma. Because of the recent rain no doubt, the paddocks glowed emerald. They stretched away as she drove slowly down the hill, taking it in. She saw a number of houses and a church spire. The swollen creek snaking on the left and the wide green paddock beside it, the spotted cattle grazing, some sitting as if so full they couldn’t eat another blade of grass.

When she reached the spread of houses that lay on each side of the one main road, after almost eight hours of driving, she’d arrived. Thank goodness.

She crossed the bridge and the ‘WELCOME TO FEATHERWOOD’ sign appeared like a whoop of delight. Population one hundred and seventy. With me, one seventy-one for a while, she thought.

‘Thanks for the welcome,’ she murmured as she gazed around, following the road into the scatter of small houses, some timber, some brick, some a mix of both.

Chimneys perched like ochre gnomes over most of the roofs, as if winter meant wood fires and warm clothes. But with the hot air that rushed into the car as she lowered her window, it was hard to imagine them ever being used.

Hannah breathed the scent of eucalyptus and mowed grass, mixed with the aroma of cows and diesel from maybe a tractor she could hear rumbling in the distance. There was the school on a flat pancake of land past the bridge, with the two small brick buildings edged in white timber. ‘Featherwood Public School,’ she said out loud. She could almost see future Gracie in the tuckshop making lunches, and the thought made her smile.

There was a big hall on stilts beside a small white church kneeling delicately on a slight knoll, with a tall, square, solid-looking bell tower and narrow arched windows. Its lawn was surrounded by a painted picket fence and a matching gate that led through to the graveyard on the right. It contained a scattering of old graves, but they were well kept. Above the church perched a house, probably the manse supervising the town, with a ‘FOR SALE’ sign that was slightly crooked and tattered looking.

Where was Gracie’s house? Yes. There it was. Opposite the church sat the Farmer’s Friend, Gracie’s husband’s rural store.

Eager now, Hannah’s gaze slid past to the farm gate. ‘Ah, just like you said,’ she breathed.

She purred into the store’s driveway, past the shop front to the far gate. Behind that, raised on stumps above the paddock surrounding it, and well back from the road, stood Gracie’s dream home, silver and serene, exactly as she’d described it to Hannah.

The aged-grey wood-sided residence appeared bigger than Hannah had expected. While narrow, it was quite long, stretching back towards the creek, with brightly flowering pots on the front verandah and a freshly painted sky-blue tin roof. The bull-nosed verandah circled the house, and though the walls stood naked in the spotted khaki-silver of old wood, the sturdy wooden rails and the posts holding up the roof were sparkling white.

Three big, brick-coloured chimney pots poked out of the roof, one on each side at the front and one at the back, and she remembered Gracie saying there were fireplaces and that she’d learned to cook on the old fuel stove.

A wiry, petite figure with red hair in a ponytail threw open the front screen door and danced out onto the verandah with a small blond-haired child in her wake. As Hannah drove up to the door, Gracie’s smile beamed out like a lighthouse in the storm of Hannah’s life.

Gracie had one of those faces that radiated sunshine; a glad-to-see-you face. Relief and a strange sense of homecoming soaked into Hannah as she climbed from the car to meet her friend.

Gracie skipped down the stairs. ‘Welcome to Featherwood,’ Gracie cried and flung her arms around her.

***

It took Hannah only minutes to unpack her bags and settle her things into the old-fashioned bedroom with the polished rosewood bedstead and so many colourful heaped pillows at the head of the floral bedspread.

Then it was to the kitchen, where the windows drew the eye over the paddock and back to the road and the store. But Hannah was watching Gracie because she couldn’t believe she was there.

Gracie stood at a scrubbed central table swiping jam on scones and dolloping cream as they both listened to one-year-old Oliver babble unintelligible words at them. He wasn’t shy with her at all.

‘Seems young Oliver has your social aptitude,’ she teased the doting mother.

Gracie filled the jug with milk and put it on the table. ‘If not the language skills, just yet.’

‘Not true. We just don’t understand his language. I need to brush up on my babble.’

Gracie smiled and poured the tea. Then came to sit quietly opposite Hannah at the table, folding her hands in her lap, as if trying not to startle her. ‘Jed will be home after five when the shop shuts. We’ve an hour to talk, though probably more. How are you? Why haven’t you answered my calls?’

Where to start? Hannah didn’t even want to. She blew out a breath. ‘I told you about Beau Porter.’ Even saying his name made her skin grow cold. She’d been such a fool.

Gracie nodded. ‘The hunky bad boy who chatted you up in the car park?’

Beau Porter – Call me Porter. Buff. Handsome. Charismatic. He’d certainly been hunky. And the first time she’d seen him, she’d been poleaxed by his machismo. Except now she’d seen him do things with that impressive strength that chilled her to the bone. ‘Yep, that one.’

Hannah didn’t want to talk about the seismic shift that had happened in her world while she had watched the real Beau Porter disintegrate into drug dependence and wildness, because she was still coming to terms with it. Even though he was safely locked away in jail for the moment. She’d feel angst for the man he had lost if she didn’t feel so sorry for herself.

‘Yes. Well. After the flowers and the chocolate, came the drugs, mostly ice, and he morphed into more of a bad boy than I expected.’ She hadn’t had an inkling that he had criminal fingers in secret pies, or that those white-powdered digits reached as far and as viciously as they did. Or that his paranoia would drive him to have others watch her when he hadn’t been able to himself. In Roma, though. Not here. Hopefully, they didn’t know she was here.

‘He didn’t hurt you, did he?’

Hannah thought about the subtle pressure on her behaviour, the accountability he demanded, the increased isolation from her closest acquaintances. ‘No. Not physically.’ Not me. ‘But I was pretty stupid not to run screaming after the first signs appeared. And things got worse quickly.’

‘Ice dependence is a horrible thing.’ Gracie’s compassionate gaze soothed. Her friend’s engagement in her plight contained no judging, just concern for Hannah. ‘It’s okay if you don’t want to talk just yet. I think you need to, but take your time.’

Yes, she needed time. Years, probably. But she did need to debrief with someone she could trust. ‘Let’s just say he worked into distributing as well as using, and my reputation went downhill when his exploits became public and he was arrested for trafficking.’

‘Ouch.’ Gracie pushed a plate with one heaped scone towards her. ‘Where is he now?’

‘In custody. Waiting for his court case to come up. Drugs, extortion and assault.’

Gracie stiffened and Hannah shook her head. ‘The assault wasn’t against me.’ But she’d seen another occasion, which had been even worse than the one he’d been charged with. Porter off his head with drugs; a young man, one she’d befriended because he’d looked so scared, one of Porter’s hirelings, being kicked on the ground. The one she’d walked out on because she hadn’t been able to stop him, and instead she had run to the law and told the police about the incident. Unfortunately, she couldn’t prove it happened because there’d been no sign of the man when the police arrived. She hadn’t seen that young man since.

‘Sounds like you made a lucky escape.’

She had. Cold trickled down her neck. ‘I hope I have. At least while he’s in jail, he can’t follow me.’

Gracie’s brow furrowed. ‘You’re safe here.’ She leaned forward. ‘And his mud can’t stick to you. Everybody knows you’re an honest and amazing GP. A wonderful human being. What about your dad? What did he say?’

And . . . that was another story. ‘I haven’t mentioned it to him.’

Gracie’s frown deepened as she opened her mouth and shut it again. Yes, Hannah thought, families were complicated. Gracie had nagged her before to give her dad another chance.

‘Who in Roma is giving you a hard time?’

Hannah had to smile at the militant glint in her friend’s eyes. Gracie’s championing made Hannah’s chest tighten with gratitude. And relief. She knew without a doubt that her friend believed she was innocent of becoming involved in criminal activity, if very foolish not to get out sooner.

‘Just whispers. Small-town stuff. Insinuations that I’d known more than I had.’ She spread her hands. ‘That I’d consorted with a drug pusher.’ She met Gracie’s eyes. ‘He changed so much, and suddenly he craved money and power above all things. Craved the drugs. I couldn’t help his addictions because he wouldn’t let me. I saw the sudden uncontrolled violence and finally I left. I grew terrified that he’d spike my drinks and I’d wake up one day not knowing what I’d done.’

‘I believe you. That was never you. You’re not the first person to find herself in that position, and you won’t be the last. I’m mostly angry that anyone would think badly of you.’

It all came out then. The ugliness, the fear and horror. And the guilt. The shame that she hadn’t been able to help or heal him. Hannah dragged her fingers across her damp cheeks. When had she started crying? She shook her head. It didn’t matter. The relief was overwhelming. ‘Thank you, dear Gracie, for listening. I’m sorry to dump it on you, but I am glad I came.’

‘So am I.’ Gracie reached out and touched her hand. ‘This is what friends are for. You would do the same for me. Take time out. Relax – because I think maybe you haven’t done that for a while.’ She smiled. ‘And tomorrow and Saturday, you’ll meet the rest of the women here. You’re going to love Featherwood.’ 

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