Fiona McArthur
Fiona McArthurFiona McArthurFiona McArthurFiona McArthur

Excerpt: Mother’s Day

Book 8: Aussie Outback Medical Romance Series

Chapter One

Jacinta

Ambulance sirens sucked big time when you lived in a dive near Paddington station. Still, Pedro’s crumbling flat beat the heck out of sleeping in the park.

One day, Jacinta McCloud would own a home. And it would be nowhere near an ambulance station. At seventeen she had a way to go, but she was determined it would happen. Her baby would have a safe place to live and play, and no one, ever, no matter what, would be able to evict them onto the street.

The siren wailed again. She thought of her mum every time she heard it and her thin fingers crept to the button on her shirt and tightened around it. Pedro said if you held a button on your shirt until you saw a four-legged animal, then you might, just might, keep something bad from happening to the patient in the ambulance. Jacinta’s whip-smart mind disagreed, but her heart couldn’t take the risk.

Someone should’ve done it for her mum.

There were too many sirens. Too many ambulances. Too many people who didn’t care. The one person who mattered the most had died and left her sixteen-year-old daughter on Mother’s Day last year.

Jacinta’s belly kicked and rolled so she moved awkwardly to rest on her knees, slid her free hand down, and rubbed through the shirt. ‘Morning, baby. Did that nasty ambulance wake you, too? Let’s go find and feed Cat so I can let go of the stupid button.’

The darn cat ate better than she did. She could put on the vegetable soup Pedro liked – all part of the plan to make herself indispensable to a man who had no sexual interest in women, which suited Jacinta just fine. Since moving in, she’d stayed low key, tried to be useful and didn’t cry even when she wanted to. Pedro admired her for that. ‘Thank God you’re not one of those weepy bitches,’ he said.

She’d become bigger and more unwieldy in the five months she’d been here – and she needed to make him glad she was here until she’d sorted plan B.

A sudden, loud, ratta-tap-tap forced her to stare at the heavy reinforced door Pedro was so proud of. Pedro didn’t knock. And his friends used a coded rhythm. Whoever it was, they knocked again.

Like the police knocked.

Like her heart knocked.

‘I’m looking for Jacinta McCloud.’ It was a male voice. Posh. Firm. And determined. He didn’t say police …

Looking for her?

If she stayed quiet he might go away, but then she’d never know who or why. It’s not like she had people knocking on her door every day, looking for her. Jacinta edged closer and squinted her eye to the peephole all good doors in Kings Cross cherished. A man stood there. He was taller than Pedro, over six foot. He didn’t look gay. She’d developed skills at telling that, too. This guy reminded her of those jocks who strutted into the gym and came out all sweaty and muscled – except he was clean, and old. Probably mid-thirties or more.

She couldn’t see his face because he was staring down at something in his hand. She hoped it wasn’t a gun or a knife. She’d seen a few of those since she’d been here.

‘What do you want?’ Her voice came out sounding impolite, which was better than frightened, but there was a decent door between them so she could afford a bit of bravery. Pedro had paid a lot for that door. She’d be safe.

The man lifted his head and she saw his eyes. Blue. A deep, dynamite blue, like the squares on the police tape. He stared back at the peephole. Back at her. But he couldn’t see her like she could see him.

He had thick dark eyebrows and a brick for a chin. With his square-cut hair and long grey coat, he looked like an assassin from the movies.

‘I have a letter.’ He spoke slowly. ‘From her mother. Asking me to find her.’

She froze. Letter?

The words hit like an arrow to her chest and she sucked in splinters of air with the pain of grief. ‘Filthy liar! My mother’s dead.’ The words fired out harsh and cracked and staccato; broken bullets from her heart.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. She should have stayed quiet. She felt like swearing. She’d learned a lot of crude words since she’d come to the Cross, but she’d sworn off profanity. On that horrible night when her mum had passed, Jacinta had whispered, ‘Don’t you freaking’ – though she didn’t say ‘freaking’ – ‘die!’ to her mother.

‘Don’t swear,’ her mum had said. ‘Please.’ So she didn’t. It was the only thing she could do for her mum now.

‘Not lies,’ the man behind the door said. Conviction rang in his tone. She glared back at the peephole. Back at his eyes. He didn’t say anything else. He just stared at her as if he knew she was watching, and something in that look told her he, at least, believed what he said. She knew liars rabbited on to make their case. This guy stayed silent.

The cat rubbed against her legs and she looked down. Four-legged animal. Her hand fell away from the button on her shirt. The tactile distraction helped her focus. Her anger returning, she lifted her chin and faced the closed door. ‘Why would she write to you?’

‘I’m your father, Jacinta. Iain McCloud.’

Jacinta’s breath caught in her throat and her world tilted. For a second there she thought she might be sick.

Her last name was McCloud.

No. No. He was lying. He had to be. She didn’t have a father. She didn’t have anyone except her baby. She was stupid again for even giving him a chance. She turned away from the door. ‘My father is dead.’

‘No!’ His voice stayed calm but determined. Implacable. ‘I’m not dead. I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I have your mother’s letter with me.’ He paused. ‘I want to help.’

Her heart pounding, Jacinta scooped the cat and held her like a shield. Her eyes began to sting but she willed the tears back. She hadn’t cried once since she’d come here.

The cat purred and whirred against her ribs like a small, warm engine, calming her until her brain began to work.

‘Jacinta,’ he said again. ‘I want to help.’

Yeah right. ‘That’s what they all say.’

Jacinta rubbed one hand across her eyes and fiercely held back a sob. The letter would prove he was lying. ‘Slide it under the door.’

A sheet of pale paper pushed into sight and she squeezed the cat. Cat arched and, as if the animal were made of glass, she carefully eased her onto the floor. A ridiculous precaution, she knew, because that was one tough cat. All through the slow-motion action, shock and disbelief shuddered in her rib cage, because even as she bent to pick up the note she could tell.

Her mother’s cheap paper.

Her mother’s clear handwriting.

Her mother’s last letter … to him.

Jacinta’s throat burst into a hundred tiny needles of emotion and she couldn’t swallow.

Thirty minutes later Jacinta stood in the center of a formal lounge room overlooking Sydney Harbour, while her brain scrambled for a frame of reference. She had a father. Unable to stand still, she walked with agitation across to the huge windows to grip the windowsill. She stared blindly out at the Harbour Bridge from a vantage point so close it felt like she could reach out and touch the metal of the structure. But what she wanted to touch was the folded letter in her pocket.

Her eyes blurred until the green Sydney ferries and even the tall ship with waves creaming off its sides passed unnoticed. The letter. She could recite what her mother had written, the words burned into her brain.

Jacinta is your child. For the last sixteen years, I’ve managed without you – but it’s different now. I’m not well and I’m worried about her care if anything happens to me.

Her mother had suspected she’d die. And she hadn’t told Jacinta.

Jacinta turned back to Iain McCloud. He’d been watching her, but when she returned the scrutiny he shifted his gaze to the envelope that had carried the missive. It lay on the coffee table between them crossed with address changes. It wasn’t his fault that he hadn’t received it right away. It was nobody’s fault. Except now, he knew about her and he’d come. Too late to save her mum.

‘I wish your mother had told me. I would have been there for you both,’ he said, his voice a quieter version now.

She didn’t trust him. She didn’t trust anybody. Jacinta scoffed. ‘Sure you would. You probably don’t even remember her.’ She watched him wince with some satisfaction.

‘I remember Adele,’ he said almost fiercely. With no small degree of shock, Jacinta realized that her voice changed like that when she felt strongly about something. It was weird to hear it come from someone else.

‘I remember the summer it must have happened,’ he went on. Then he looked at her and again she could see how much he wanted her to believe him. Maybe deep down she did, but she wasn’t telling him that. No way.

‘Adele was older than me,’ he said. ‘I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.’

Jacinta flinched, but he didn’t see it. She suspected he didn’t see anything in this room as he lost himself in the past.

‘Not at the end she wasn’t,’ Jacinta muttered. Her mother’s years of hard work and illness had been etched on her face.

His gaze shifted to hers. ‘And I want to know that, too. But we have a little time.’

She saw him look at the swell of her belly. He didn’t say, ‘before the baby’, but she knew he was thinking it. The pregnancy had been a shock for him when the door had opened.

It had been a shock for Jacinta when she’d first found out, too. Nick the Nasty had pushed her backwards by her little bulge when he’d realized it was there. ‘You’re pregnant!’ As if she’d done it all by herself to spite him. And she’d looked down and realized it was true. Then he’d said scornfully, ‘Get yourself fixed before it gets any bigger. Or get out.’ And she’d cupped her stomach and run away.

She pulled herself back to the present. Back to the posh room with its expensive harbor view and the man who was supposed to be dead. She watched him run his hand through his tousled hair. Not so immaculate now, are you, buddy?

He was watching her again. ‘Let me support you, at least until your baby’s born. I’m offering a safe place for both of you at a time when you’re vulnerable. Your baby is vulnerable.’

And that was the heart of it.

She couldn’t afford to turn him down. Pedro had been skirting the back door of a paddy wagon for a while now and he could go any time. Then she definitely wouldn’t be safe. Not with his friends. Not with the other drug dealers. Her baby wouldn’t be safe.

‘You look like her,’ he said softly as his eyes stared through her again.

Jacinta turned her head and dispassionately studied her face in the big gold-framed mirror hanging over the marble fireplace. She looked crumpled, her hair dull and her cheeks prominent in her thin face. Maybe she had her mother’s nose. What she couldn’t dispute was she had this guy’s eyes and eyebrows.

Her hair was light brown, almost blonde like her mother’s, but her eyebrows were two dark slashes across her forehead. She’d always wondered where her dark brows had come from. She guessed she should be glad he didn’t have a monobrow.

This was all too much to take in.

Then he said something that made her stare. ‘What’s ironic is that I was the same age as you are now. But I lied to her and told her I was twenty.’ He laughed bitterly. ‘I would have told her anything to make her see me as a man and not a boy. I was so infatuated with her.’ He went on and she turned back to look at this man who evidently did know her mother. Someone who had memories of her when she was young – times Jacinta knew nothing about.

‘Until the day she changed.’ His voice altered. Flattened. ‘When she sent me away.’ He looked at her. ‘Apparently to hide you.’

Jacinta shrugged. ‘Why would she do that? Unless she was scared of you?’ Maybe he was meaner than he looked.

He laughed, but it was an odd, humorless noise. ‘I was the puppy and she was the mistress. I would have done anything for her. But she always said she was too old for me, that I had my life ahead of me. And she chose to exclude me from your life. I wish I knew why.’

He didn’t look like a puppy now. More like a big, square-shouldered guard dog, staring her down. Pretty sure of himself, all decked out in his silk tie. It did put her at a disadvantage to be smelling like Kings Cross and dressed in a grubby man’s shirt, with a pair of old bike pants stretched over her belly.

Survival kicked in. If he was her dad, he owed her – and she’d make him pay. ‘You got a shirt I can wear? I need a shower.’

‘A shirt, please.’ He raised one of those dark brows.

She raised her left brow to mimic him. ‘Spare me,’ she said. She didn’t do submissive.

To her surprise he laughed. Like Pedro had.

‘So where did you meet this Pedro?’

They were sitting at the dining-room table and her new parent had just made an omelet. A pretty good one. And he also made good coffee, which had improved her mood. As had the crazy shower that fell from the bathroom ceiling like a waterfall from a plate-sized shower rose, and the amazing flower-scented conditioner. She’d never smelled anything like it. And the towels! She could have curled up in the swimming-pool-sized bath in those towels and slept like a baby.

Unfortunately, she had to pay the man and answer the questions.

‘Under a park bench. The cops were chasing him and I woke up when he fell down next to me. He pretended to be asleep, as if he’d been there all night. They ran past and after they left, he asked my name. Offered me a place to sleep.’ She shrugged. ‘So, I said yes.’

Iain closed his eyes and she watched his hand tighten on his mug. She could almost imagine it creaking as his knuckles went white. Interesting. She’d have to watch him. But some instinct told her his anguish was for her, not against her.

He gestured to the silver coffee pot. ‘More?’

‘No.’ She shook her head. ‘I read in a magazine that too much coffee could be bad for the baby.’ It wasn’t the worst thing she’d turned down, not by a long shot.

‘That’s true. The baby can have withdrawals from caffeine after birth,’ he said, as if he knew what he was talking about. For a moment he looked as though he was going to ask something else, then changed his mind. Changed the subject back to Pedro.

He studied his long fingers, his face tight. ‘Was he good to you?’ She didn’t pretend not to know what he meant. It’s a bit late to play daddy, she thought grimly.

‘I knew Pedro was gay from the first moment,’ she said to comfort him – unsure why she felt she needed to. She’d been fine, and the truth was it could have been way worse. ‘That was a plus.’

Iain stared at his hand on the mug, not looking at her. ‘How old are you, exactly?’

‘Don’t you know?’ Her voice dripped with sarcasm.

‘I mean, when’s your birthday? I’ve worked out that you’re seventeen, but I’d like to know the date,’ he clarified.

She sighed. Okay, maybe she could stop being a bitch, but it was all a bit much to be ‘saved’ by her new dad. Excuse her if the fact that she just might have the backup plan she’d been searching for took a bit of getting used to.

She sighed. ‘I turned seventeen three weeks ago. Pedro taught me to drive last month.’ She didn’t say she had the feeling it was so she could be the one behind the wheel of a getaway car. She suspected her new daddy wouldn’t like that. Wickedly, she imagined the horrified expression on his face and it almost made her want to say it out loud.

But what if he threw her out like Nick the Nasty had? Then she’d be back on the street. She’d been desperate to figure out what she was going to do when this baby was born. To have actual plans for the future. This was her chance.

‘How long ago did you move into that place? How did you buy food?’

‘Five months.’ Get over it, she wanted to tell him. She’d been glad to have a real roof over her head after the park bench.

‘I work a few hours at the local drycleaners on weekends, ironing fancy clothes to give myself some cash.’ Pedro had said she didn’t have to pay rent, but she’d at least started an emergency fund for when baby was born. Just in case she needed to run.

She’d developed impressive skills with an iron at an early age when her mother had first become ill, and that expertise still helped with the bills. Her back had ached, though, lately.

‘And the father of your baby?’

‘Threw me out when he found out I was pregnant.’ When she looked up she blinked at the cold anger in Iain’s face. She shrugged. ‘It was a good thing, really. Pedro’s turned out to be much safer. It’s okay. I was ready to leave.’

This time it was she who changed the subject. A little mockingly, but she couldn’t help herself. Thinking about her baby’s father made her angry. ‘So, have you always wanted to be a daddy?’

He looked at her and she refused to shift under his gaze. But it was difficult. Then he looked away with a smile and said, ‘Yes.’

That surprised her. ‘So why aren’t you married with two-point-two private school kids?’ She’d seen them, girls with black tunic uniforms and white shirts. Black stockings in the winter and a tie. So up themselves. They always walked by in twos and threes, giving her filthy looks, the street girl. She’d wondered what they talked about. What their homes were like. What their mothers were like.

‘My ex-wife didn’t want to adopt and was unable to have children herself.’

Jacinta wished she’d had some choices. ‘Well, you’re not adopting me.’

He sat back, looked at her, and then laughed. ‘I don’t have to. I have a copy of your birth certificate and my name’s on it.’ Then he shrugged and smiled. ‘We could try to get on for the sake of your baby?’

‘You could just pay for a flat and I could stay there,’ she countered.

‘Or you could stay here.’

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