Fiona McArthur
Fiona McArthurFiona McArthurFiona McArthurFiona McArthur

Excerpt: Red Sand Sunrise

Book 3: Aussie Outback Medical Romance Series

Prologue

Eve

Sunrise promised a new day, and Eve Wilson hoped it would ease the weight of impossible grief in her shoulders as she followed her feet to the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. This was her sanctuary. Among the trees and the wildlife and surrounded by the flowing waters of the Brisbane River. Here she could let some of the anguish wash away with the tide, and find peace when things went bad.

At moments like this she wished she had her family to lean on. As if aware of her need, the iridescent green coolness soothed her as she backed up against the knobby bark of the nearest trunk and allowed her tears to well and sting and drip in time with the nearby fountain. Just yesterday, in the ward, vibrant and excited, Roslyn had spoken to Eve of her plans. Family dreams mulled over while Eve checked Roslyn's observations, gave her medications, and encouraged her away from boredom. They spoke about how the blood clot in her groin had made her leave her job earlier than planned. How Jason worried they wouldn't be able to buy the expensive pram they wanted. Little anxieties, tiny concerns, none of which registered in the scheme of tragedy now that Roslyn was irrevocably gone.

Words from the midwifery textbook rang in Eve's head: 'If the mother's heartbeat cannot be restarted within four minutes of cardiac arrest dramatic action must occur to save the woman.'

Well, an emergency caesarean section on the ward had been dramatic, complete with curtains between patients and blood on the floor, but it hadn't saved the mother. Incredibly it had saved the baby, yet as Eve had walked away from the scene she knew the image of the heartbroken father would be imprinted on her mind forever.

Why? Why did tragedies have to happen? What good could possibly come of this ghastly event? She just wanted to go home and sleep for a week, but tomorrow she would have to forget today's shift in high dependency and front up to the birthing center, go back to being holistic.

Trust in the body. Trust in the women. Trust in herself.

The irony was that work was the place she most trusted herself. To her late mother and high-achieving sister she'd always been 'Poor Eve', the one who couldn't get her life in order. No matter that she had her friends, her flat, her love of music and nature – heaven forbid she call that happy. She just wasn't successful enough, high-flying enough, in their eyes. And now she was almost thirty.

She patted the gnarled tree at her back with open hands like she would tap the bottom of an unsettled baby. Obviously none of that mattered when you compared it to this, she thought as she lightly knocked the back of her head once against the hard trunk.

Could she have done anything differently? If there was a next time, would she be able to help save the mother? How?

If only there was something she could learn from this.

Callie

More than 800 kilometers, or 500 miles away, sitting in her smart office in Sydney's Double Bay, Dr Callie Piper glanced from her computer screen to her patient.

'The test came back positive. Congratulations! You're pregnant.' Callie smiled at the ecstatic woman and subdued the tiny ache inside her own chest. This was great news for the couple after their traumatic miscarriage last year.

The young husband patted his wife's hand as if he didn't know what to do first. 'Thank you so much.'

All Callie had done was read out a result. 'You two are the clever ones. I'm very happy for you.'

He leaned towards Callie. A new, serious responsibility rested on his youthful shoulders. 'We've talked about what we'd do if the test was positive. We'd like to come to you for our antenatal care instead of an obstetrician.'

Crikey, no. What if something went wrong? Like it had for her.

'I'm so sorry. I leave babies to the specialists who deal with them all the time. But I'll give you a referral to an obstetrician. Or there is the hospital if you want to go through the midwifery clinic. They have visiting specialists every week if anything crops up.'

The new mother-to-be chewed her lip, and Callie stifled the guilt. She used to do antenatal clinics, years ago. 'Can't we just come back here?'

Callie printed out the referral and smiled apologetically as she handed it over. 'You can still come for anything that's not pregnancy related. Make sure you all come visit me as soon as you're settled at home after the birth. I can't wait to meet your baby.' And she did look forward to that. She couldn't meet enough healthy, bouncing babies.

The father understood. Saw her concern, probably. 'We will.'

Callie stood, and felt propelled around the desk to give her young patient a brief hug, though it wasn't her usual practice. 'I'm so pleased for you.'

As the couple walked out, hands clasped, whispering to each other, Callie waved with a smile on her face – until she saw her husband, a dark shadow of impatience, moving aside to let them past as they made their way to reception.

'Did you want me, Kurt?'

'Why else would I be here?' Kurt said, striding towards her office. Callie felt her stomach drop. She hated it when Kurt had that look on his face. The whole ambience of the room changed with the downward turn of his mouth, like someone had just blown a cold wind right through her body. It hadn't used to be like this, had it? 'Of course. Come in.'

Five minutes later, in some deep part of her brain she wondered what would have happened if she hadn't invited him in. The sounds of the busy street outside faded as Kurt's words stabbed Callie like tiny knives.

'She's what?' Callie turned to her husband of almost fifteen years and stared at his patrician profile. He tapped the sole of his Italian leather shoe on the marble tiles. Tap, tap, tap. Then repeated his bombshell.

'Pregnant. You know Stella. From next door. I'm sorry, Callie, but I want a divorce.'

Kurt seemed exasperated at her lack of understanding, but then, lately Kurt was often exasperated, at the very least. Because he didn't enjoy the guilt of adultery, some detached part of her soul whispered.

He was quite aptly named, really. Kurt. Frequently curt. And it rhymed with hurt.

Callie felt bile rise in her throat and she glanced helplessly at the door through which her last patient had passed not five minutes earlier. Callie was the patient now. Her symptoms – and apparently the diagnosis – were irrevocable because it seemed her marriage had just miscarried.

Suddenly she became that plain, bespectacled girl from outback Queensland again. The one with the publican father who'd had the affair. The nerd who'd left the remote township of Red Sand behind to study medicine, and never felt like she belonged at university even though she'd graduated with honors.

Callie looked back at her husband. Kurt had been the one to suggest firmly that they settle in an exclusive part of Sydney, when she would have so much preferred a country setting. Maybe she should have fought for somewhere halfway. Somewhere away from other women?

'Stella? Pregnant?' She shook her head. This wasn't happening. This had not been factored into her settled life, her ticking of boxes that should have added up to an untroubled marriage. She thought she'd done everything possible so this wouldn't happen to her, as it had to her mother.

Her eyes were drawn with horrible fascination to the shared wall between her office and the coffee shop next door. Stella could be a few meters or yards away, brewing a latte. Pregnant with the child Callie had always wanted.

Was it because Callie had had a Down Syndrome daughter who had died at birth? Kurt never spoke of it and had made it clear he didn't wish Callie to either. She blinked and looked away from the wall, wondering bitterly if Stella felt in any way bad that Dr Callie Piper's world had just imploded.

There was a knock, then the door from the waiting room opened and her practice manager's head appeared. Callie focused on her like a lifeline. 'Yes, June?'

'I'm so sorry, but your mother's on the phone. She says it's an emergency.'

'Can't she ring back?' Kurt's dismissive arrogance made Callie frown.

He really was a prick. She blinked again. She never normally used bad language. Even mentally. As she lifted the receiver Callie nodded at her apologetic secretary to hang up so the call could come through.

Before she could say, 'Are you all right, Mum?' her mother's distraught words dealt an even worse blow.

'Oh, Callie, I'm so sorry to be calling like this.'

Callie thought she heard a suppressed sob and her belly coiled in sudden dread.

'It's your dad. He's had a heart attack, my darling. And I'm afraid . . . your father's dead.'

Callie closed her eyes and felt the howl rising in her throat like a wave. No. It couldn't be true. Who could have known there was greater agony to suffer? But her mother needed her. She fought through a blanket of pain and focused on the receiver in her hand. 'Hold on, Mum. I'm coming.'

Sienna

In an operating theatre at the Greater Melbourne Research Hospital, 800 kilometers further south again, Sienna Wilson tied the end of the continuous suture and lifted the knot so her assistant could trim the extra material. She checked the closed wound before she stepped back and waved for the scrub nurse to wipe down the suture line and apply the dressing across the abdomen.

Stretching her shoulders, Sienna drew off her double-layered sterile gloves and smiled at the radiant mother and her newborn.

Breech birth lower-segment caesarean section successfully navigated.

She doubted she'd ever have a child, but if she did it would definitely be the caesarean way. Calm, ordered, swift and sure. Not sweating and panting while her body took control. Like those births her sister, Eve, labored through with her patients. Poor Eve. Sienna couldn't imagine how exhausting that must be.

Now where had that come from?

That phone call last night – that's where. Sienna remembered where she was and nodded at the proud father. 'Congratulations. Everything went very well.'

She'd made sure it had.

The father shook her hand and she thanked the staff, surveyed her patients one last time, and then pushed open the theatre door while those left behind sorted the recovery.

Sienna glanced at the clock. 9.15 a.m. This time the next day the funeral would start. She wondered if poor Eve would arrive in time. She rarely did. Sienna hoped that one day her sister would wake up and get her life in order. It wasn't that hard to do if you were single-minded.

No way would she travel to a place like Red Sand just for a funeral, even if Eve was going. Eve had told her that Red Sand was so outback that despite being in Queensland it was an almost equal distance from Melbourne and Sydney

But the distance didn't matter because Sienna wouldn't be celebrating the life of a man who had walked away from his daughters without a backwards glance.

She had a memory flash – 'Happy birthday' in his scrawled handwriting – but she evicted the thought. Their family was well rid of the country bumpkin. Her mother had said that time and again, and Sienna believed her.

She just hoped the other woman's family were kind to poor Eve, who was such a softie. And a little bit eccentric. Sienna shuddered to imagine what she'd wear to the funeral, or if she'd even think about it before she jumped in the car. Her sister's rose-colored view of the world frustrated the life out of Sienna. Well, maybe this trip would fix that.

She refused to feel guilty. She had her own life, her own plan, and she was almost there.

She deserved to be the youngest director of obstetrics in Australia, and the position was so close she could taste it. Only Wallace Waters stood in her way. She'd begun to wonder if the delay was because she was sleeping with his son. She didn't want to marry Mark, for goodness sake, and Mark was just as happy to keep it casual. But she had the feeling Wallace was waiting for grandchildren and a pregnancy would put paid to Sienna's promotion in a flash. Well, not this little black duck.

Sienna strode through the automatic doors to the doctors' car park and sought the flash of her red sports car in the sunlight. She was happy on her own. Happy with her career. If being with Mark was holding up her promotion then he'd have to go.


Chapter One

Red Sand township sat pretty well slap-bang in the middle of Australia. It was outback with a capital O. Hot enough to heat your coffee in the summer and dry enough to make you wish you'd brought your own water to make it with. A little wild on a Friday night, a little quiet through the week, Red Sand was a small, dependable, hardworking hub in the Channel Country of western Queensland.

I should have stayed here, Callie thought. She would have had more time with her dad and less with Kurt.

She swallowed the jagged lump in her throat and watched the coffin being adjusted until it was resting on the planks they would soon remove.

Callie stared at the hovering wooden box as she waited with her mother for the rest of the congregation to arrive, for the minister to start. Dad had never liked religion – or not since he'd committed one of the cardinal sins, anyway.

People were still drifting in from the car park and across from the dirt airstrip as she watched the sun flicker through the top of the nearest gum tree. A pink and white cockatoo landed with a crackle of foliage and a brown-green gum leaf floated towards the assembly. Callie's throat closed over and she imagined herself somewhere else – maybe on a high ridge?

She remembered a relaxation mantra she'd heard once that talked about worries turning into leaves, leaves that rested on her shoulders. A breeze would come up behind her and blow those leaves and all her cares into the wind to be neutralized. She imagined that floating leaf falling on her shoulder and then blowing away over the endless brown plains.

It didn't help.

Sylvia Wilson shuddered beside her and Callie lifted her arm and hugged her mother close. Her mother seemed thinner than she remembered, and Callie tightened her embrace.

She had no idea how either of them would survive this. Of course they would, but at this moment the darkness was overwhelming and it wasn't surprising she could barely think of Kurt or how she could possibly salvage her marriage. Or even whether she wanted to.

Deja vu. Her mother had survived when her husband thought the pasture greener away from the ochre hills and flat expanses of Red Sand. But four years later he'd come back.

Mum had even encouraged Dad to send birthday and Christmas gifts to the two daughters he'd left behind when he returned, so Callie knew about the half-sisters she'd never met.

Remarried to her childhood sweetheart, Sylvia had refused to let anyone ridicule his weakness. In return, Callie's dad had spent the rest of his life making it up to her mother, to her, and to the town that had grudgingly forgiven him for following a passing political journalist to Brisbane.

Growing up, Callie had absorbed all this like the red sand soaking up longed-for rain. She'd shied away from her own lighthearted childhood sweetheart, who had wanted to marry young like her parents had. She'd believed a jealous friend who told her that young love would never last, and run to the city. Chosen the steady and cool-headed man from medical school who planned their life together with perfect logic and precision.

Kurt had been so different to her dad and to the farmer's son, Bennet, that she'd believed herself . . . safer? Now look where that had ended.

The cockatoo let out a shrill cry and soared off in search of mates. Callie savored the familiarity of the sound and mentally returned to the sunbaked surrounds of the graveside.

When she'd arrived in Red Sand two days before, her mother reminded her of their obligation to those never-seen sisters, and Callie had phoned them both. One was even coming for the funeral. Eve Wilson. So strange that her half-sister had her father's surname name and Callie didn't. She glanced around again. Eve couldn't be here yet; Callie recognized everyone else.

The minutes ticked by. If Eve didn't get here soon she'd miss it.

Eve felt as though she'd never get there. She'd been told she was mad to drive 1500 kilometers for the funeral of a man she couldn't remember. Eve didn't think she was mad, but she'd let herself down by not coming while her father was alive.

She'd blown it. She had always wanted to see the town her dad came from, meet the man who'd left when she was still in nappies, who she would only have recognized from the two photographs her mother kept for the girls. She hadn't expected him to die before she got there.

Eve couldn't remember him, the man who'd fallen for their mother, stayed long enough for two daughters to be born and then left, but she'd always wondered at the sadness in her father's eyes in the photos. It was the sadness of a choice gone wrong, her mother had said, and those eyes suggested life hadn't been smooth for any of them, at least not until he'd chosen to return to the world he'd abandoned for their mother. Mum had certainly seemed happy being single in the final years of her life.

Today Eve would finally meet the half-sister she'd never seen – though it would have been easier if Sienna had come too.

Another car and caravan passed the other way. The straight road was ridiculously narrow so she was getting good at slowing and moving half off the strip and onto the red dust at the side whenever a car – or, heaven forbid, a gigantic road train – passed, then swinging her all-wheel drive back onto the strip again.

Finally the ribbon of tar curved a little and a shimmer of white, sand or salt or maybe even water, winked in the morning light between two distant red sandhills. Eve glanced at her GPS hopefully. Not a lot of talking from Irish Sean, the GPS voice. He'd let her down on the conversational side; no forks in the road. But that mirage had to be a lake surrounded by the red sand the town was named after.

Eve chewed her lip. She still had ten minutes until the funeral started, and there wasn't long left to wonder what her half-sister, Callie, was like. She'd sounded upset but sensible on the phone, and in her mind Eve could still see Callie's signature, the perfectly formed, girlish handwriting, added under her father's on their birthday cards. So hopefully there wouldn't be too much awkwardness between Eve and her father's other family.

Was Callie like her mother or their dad? Imagine if she was even a little like Eve herself?

Eve snorted. Her mother had always said, 'Eve is different.' She guessed she believed her. And not just because she had no desire to be a doctor like her sister, and wasn't obsessed with climbing to the top of her profession like their mother. Outside the birthing environment Sienna reckoned Eve's favorite clothes designer was 'Spur of the Moment', and her life goal, 'Whatever Comes'.

But Eve just loved her job – seeing the wonder in a mother's eyes when she'd achieved the incredible birth of her baby. She remained convinced women could do anything if someone believed in them.

In her work she was the low-profile presence in purple scrubs at the back of the room, silent until needed, there to support women in harnessing their inner strength, and to keep them safe. Her job was to stay confident that the mother had the power of birth in her own hands – and Eve was confident of that.

And maybe, just maybe, this half-sister of hers would see the value in what Eve did too. But she was sending her love anyway, even if they weren't kindred souls. She just kind of hoped they were. A signpost offered a welcome, though no buildings appeared, then a small ruby-red sandhill, a slight rise, a few scrubby trees and . . . Eve sighed in relief. Was this the town?

Except for Quilpie, the town she'd passed through hours before, Red Sand township looked more substantial than any place she'd seen since Charleville eight hours ago. From what she could observe as she drove past, there was one short main street of shopfronts, a few boarded-up establishments, and one pub – a long, low verandah-clad building in the middle of the main street. 'The Imperial Hotel', its sign read, and Eve wished she'd seen it when it was her dad's.

She spied the drunkenly askew sign to the cemetery, turned in through the peeling white gates and roared up a dusty track.

One helicopter and three light planes were lined up in a paddock opposite the cemetery, and the crowd of dark-garbed people under scrubby trees gave the instruction she needed as she pulled in behind the hearse and glanced at her watch.

She undid her seatbelt and sighed. Ten minutes late. Again.

There was a ripple of movement behind the trees at the edge of the gravestones, and the gathered mourners parted to allow a tall purple fringed woman in a crumpled orange dress to hurry through.

Callie stepped forwards and lifted her hand until Eve saw her, changed direction and arrived in a little stumble of dust.

Eve awkwardly held out her hand. She was certainly not what Callie had expected. Callie glanced at her mother, who was blinking at the streaks of violet in Eve's hair, then took the proffered fingers and shook hands while her gaze lingered on her new sister's face.

As if driven by an unseen force, Callie's other hand closed in as well. Somehow she knew her father would be smiling. She wasn't sure what she felt, but it wasn't coldness, and she noticed her mother squeeze her shoulder.

'Hello, Eve.' Sylvia Wilson held out her own hand, and to Callie's surprise and probably everyone else's, Eve stepped forward and hugged her.

'I'm so sorry for your loss.'

Sylvia smiled sadly. 'And yours, my dear.'

Eve blinked away tears. 'I'm afraid I didn't really know him.'

Sylvia stroked the colored fringe from Eve's eyes. 'Then your loss is greater than mine, dear.'

The presbyterian minister coughed and the assembled mourners dragged their eyes away from the fascinating drama unfolding in front of them.

****

Twenty minutes later it was done. The boards were removed and Duncan Wilson was lowered into the ground.

Callie felt her mother's fingers slip out from under hers as she bent to throw the first sod.

The red-earth wad landed with a horrid thunk on the lid of the

coffin and scattered into marbles. Callie bit down hard on her lip as she bent down for her own contribution to 'dust to dust'. She'd never thought about the words before and she didn't like thinking about them now. Her hand stilled and she swallowed. Couldn't do it. Eve didn't throw a wad either.

Then it was time to go, and the three women stood in awkward unity to say thank you to the mourners.

Sergeant McCabe, new in town since Callie had left, was a tall tough-looking man in the blue shirt and dark trousers of the constabulary. He inclined his head and shook Sylvia's hand.

'My condolences. I'll miss him.' He patted Sylvia's shoulder and nodded to Callie and Eve. 'Your father was a larrikin – but the best kind.'

'Your father was a good man. A character.' Mrs. Saul from the post office patted Callie's arm as she moved past. She nodded at Eve. 'He'd fix my roof any time the tin came loose and would never take anything for it.'

'And he trained all five of my boys at pony camp.' Mrs. Saul's daughter, Fran, sighed as she too patted Callie's arm.

'Don't know who'll organize our leg of the Desert Races this year.' An old stockman shook his grizzled head as he ambled away, bow-legged, eager to put his disreputable hat back on his head where it belonged and secure his favorite bar stool at the pub.

Callie stood beside her mother and intriguing new sister as people filed past, each with an anecdote about how her father had organized or comforted or rallied around their needs or misfortunes and, with a swell of bitterness in her throat, wished her husband could hear the accolades for a man he hadn't understood.

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