Fiona McArthur
Fiona McArthurFiona McArthurFiona McArthurFiona McArthur

Excerpt: The Homestead Girls

Book 6: Aussie Outback Medical Romance Series

Prologue

Today, Layla had a jellybean up her nose. Last week she'd pushed a pebble in her ear. Dr Billie Green patted the arm of the worried mother because this so reminded her of her own daughter, Mia, as a little girl, when she'd vied for attention in their busy life. But it was pointless to wish that her sixteen-year-old daughter was as adorable as she'd been all those years ago.

Flipping through the sterile packets of instruments for the long-nosed artery forceps, Billie tried not to wonder just what Mia was up to right at this moment as she tilted this little girl's face to the light.

Before her previous patient, Billie had called home and the house phone had rung out. Sometimes it was hard to keep up with her daughter, this was the problem with being a single parent, and the unanswered call meant worrying that maybe Mia was out doing something she shouldn't be.

Focus on the job at hand, she reminded herself. 'Okay, sweetheart. Hold still and I'll get that yucky thing out of your nose.'

With one hand on the tiny chin and the other on the instrument, Billie directed the metal forceps towards the offending object, her lips twitching at the sight of the red-bean-smeared nostril. After initial resistance, the jellybean slid out with a final firm tug. Success. Billie's eyes met those of the mother and they both released pent-up breaths and grinned.

'Thank you, Dr Green.' The mum scooped up her daughter and hugged her with relief.

Billie winked at Layla, then she bypassed the lolly jar that she used when she needed to bribe nervous young patients and chose the rabbit hand print. 'Stamp?'

'Pwease.'

'Good choice. No more nose poking.' Layla solemnly shook her head and held out her hand for Billie to brand with the bright-colored bunny outline. They all looked at it—it was pink and perfect, like a tiny tattoo on the white skin.

Layla's mum hugged her close once more. 'Say thank you to Dr Green.'

'Fanks.'

Billie rubbed the fine strands of blonde hair on her patient's adorable head. 'You were such a good girl. If only every little girl could be so easy.'

Including her daughter. She flicked another look at the clock—nearly eight p.m. She showed them out of her consulting room and there were no more patients waiting. Someone else was, though.

'Dr Green?' Billie's pulse rate jumped as the man in the blue uniform straightened off the wall of her office and stepped forward.

'Yes?'

Gruffly but not unkindly, he said, 'I'm Sergeant Hill. A word with you in private.'

'Of course. Come in.' She looked across at the receptionist, who raised her shoulders in a worried shrug. They'd find out soon enough.

As soon as she'd shut the door she asked, 'Is my daughter okay?'

'That would be Miss Mia Rose Green?'

'Yes.' Cold terror flooded her. It was Mia. Now Billie struggled to contain the fear that closed her throat. An accident? Blood, broken bones? Molested? Her father? 'Tell me?'

'Your daughter's detained at the police station. Though she'll be released into your care as soon as you come to collect her.'

Relief sagged her shoulders until other implications sank in. Trouble, then. Better than physical harm, although she still dreaded the answer to her next question. 'What's she done?'

He sighed and she could tell he hated this. Probably had kids Mia's age as well. 'Were you aware it's high school muck-up tonight?'

'No.' She hadn't been or she'd have made sure someone had stayed home with Mia. The local kids had been getting rowdier every year. Last year's high-school-leaving students had painted the town toilet block iridescent yellow and stuck feathers all over the concrete walls. And the local McDonald's sign had mysteriously flown to the top of the school auditorium. The authorities still didn't know how they'd managed to get it there.

'Your daughter was a passenger in a car that we apprehended this evening. The driver and his passengers accosted a security guard, wearing balaclavas to obscure their faces. They were brandishing toy guns.'

Billie plonked inelegantly into the chair behind her desk. Mia was grounded! And just who had she been riding around with in a car at night? Then the true horror of how she could have been hurt if the security guard had been armed sank in. What if they'd done it to a police car? They could have been shot!

The policeman went on. 'Your daughter's fortunate. No charges will be laid because of her age, but we've taken a statement from all of them. The nineteen-year-old driver will appear in court.'

She'd bet it was that creepy Jensen who'd been turning up late at night wanting to see Mia. 'Who was driving?'

The policeman avoided her eyes and she had the feeling he was the kind of man who would want to know who was driving if it had been his teenager in the back seat. 'I'm not at liberty to say. But you can ask your daughter when you come to the station.'

My word, she'd ask her daughter when she came to the station. Billie checked the clock on her office wall again. Her evening clinic would finish in three minutes anyway. 'I'll follow you in my car.'

She thought she sounded calm—hopefully the policeman couldn't see the steam coming out of her ears—but her car keys dug into her palm as she followed him out and closed her office door with a forceful click. She rolled her eyes at the receptionist as she went past but didn't see her response because she was thinking, How many times have I told you to choose your friends wisely? You wait, Miss Mia, you are in so much trouble. I'm getting you away from here before you make the same mistake I did.


Chapter One

A month later and twelve hundred kilometers away, or about 800 miles, on a drought-stricken sheep-and-cattle station in far western New South Wales, Soretta Byrnes scanned the distance through her kitchen window. The paddock stretched away down the hill: the greenish blue of the saltbush, red dirt, and maroon rocks poking through the cracked soil and dust. She wanted to throw on her boots and head out again, check the ewe she was worried about, just potter around on the quad with the dogs before it got dark to make sure the troughs were still filling with bore water. But she needed to make tea.

It was days like this that she missed Gran the most. It was as if the house had lost its heart. Oh she used the cedar oil, kept the floorboards shiny, did it for the comfort of hearing Gran's gentle voice in her head saying, Just fifteen minutes a day and your house is a home. But a house wasn't a home without people, and hopefully the horizon would yield a small dust ball, two quad bikes and her grandfather before sunset. It was a long way home from their joint boundary with the next-door station in the dark.

Peripherally she heard the creak, creak, of the windmill as it pumped water from the hard ground, but this afternoon her skin prickled with premonition instead of the subtle calming effect the pump's cadence usually had on her. Even the grand old homestead, a home she and her grandfather both had rattled around in since her grandmother had died, felt claustrophobic.

It was her twenty-second birthday today. 'Lucky I'm not precious,' she murmured and swiped a date out of the packet in the door of the fridge. Maybe she could make scones and put a candle on top?

Grandad might like that and she was almost at the sing-and-dance stage of trying to cheer him up. Maybe she had it wrong and he'd remember it was her birthday, breeze in and say, 'Pretty yourself up, sweetheart, I'm taking you all the way into town for dinner.' Highly unlikely. Not that she blamed him.

In the last eighteen months they hadn't seen any decent rain, the dams were dry for the first time in years, and her grandad's dream of climbing out of spiraling debt had shriveled into dust, along with the grass in the home paddock and the weaker sheep. Mustering feral goats was the only thing keeping them going.

She had this mounting dread he'd do something silly like put the place on the market if the rain didn't come soon. The specter of depression, an evilly charismatic black wraith, had touched other drought-stricken families, and, for the first time, she worried about her own grandfather.

Lately he barely spoke to her.

Soretta glared at the empty fridge until the roar of a quadbike coming up the track lifted her head and she moved to the creaking screen door to step out onto the verandah.

The one backpacker who hadn't abandoned them had been known to be a little reckless, but there was something unsettling about the speed of this approach and the hairs on the back of her neck waved again uneasily.

Klaus jumped from the quad almost before it stopped. 'Boss down. Hit an anthill on the quad bike. He landed on a mulga root. Lots of blood.'

She clamped down on the gory picture that sprang immediately to her mind. 'Where?'

'Next-door boundary. We use that holding yard for this muster. Near airstrip. Phone smashed. You get the flying doctor.' Klaus's usual florid face was pale and sickly with shock and stress.

This was bad. Soretta felt the panic flutter in her throat and she squashed it down, too. It would have taken forty minutes for Klaus to get to her. Her grandad had been alone that long. 'Go back to him. I'll bring the utility.'

Klaus nodded, jumped back onto the bike and roared away.

Soretta jerked open the screen door and sprinted up the hallway to the phone on the wall. Her grandad was injured. Klaus's words were screaming like neon lights in her head: hitting the ground at speed, speared by a mulga root, lots of blood. Even Grandad wasn't invincible. He'd be all right. He'd better be all right. He was all she had in the world.

Daphne Prince glanced out the window of the office as the aircraft lifted off with the flight crew from the next shift, and narrowed her eyes as it disappeared into the sunset. Another night on call for any emergencies until they came back, but that was okay. The control room at Broken Hill would phone her at home until seven the next morning. She loved her job, was falling in love with the country even though she'd been a city girl her entire life, and she was fiercely proud of the whole Flying Doctor Service she'd joined. For one thing, having to deal with emergency medical situations with very little help had certainly brought her out of her shell.

'Don't suppose there's any more of that coconut slice?' Rex was holding his hand out dolefully like Oliver Twist. 'Please, ma'am, is there more?'

'Nope. I think you've eaten it all, Rex.' She grinned at the hopeful expression on the pilot's face. Just looking at him made her feel warm inside. She had no expectations, but passing time with the delightful Rex was no hardship. Besides, she had nothing else to go home for.

At least she'd found a job she loved. She might be vertically challenged or suffering from duck's disease, as her ex-husband had told everyone—even here she had the nickname, Legs—but it was useful being small when you were crawling around inside a tiny aircraft for most of your working day.

Tonight was a shame, though. She'd been looking forward to meeting the new female doctor and now it was likely she'd be called out. The doctor and her daughter would have arrived by now to share the other side of the duplex Daphne lived in. It would be good to have another woman around here. There was more than enough testosterone with the boss, Rex, and the other nurses and pilots all being male.

The Mica Ridge base didn't take calls twenty-four hours a day, they were coordinated from Broken Hill, but Daphne and Rex were on call until the team came back. With Morgan here as senior doctor, the base had an extra person during office hours, and with the new doctor his load would be lightened, too. Maybe Daphne wouldn't be needed tonight and as soon as the others returned she'd be able to relax.

The phone rang and Daphne scooped it up. Heard a strangled, 'Come on!' on the other end and instantly recognized the stress of an emergency.

She heard a deep breath as the caller collected herself. 'Daphne. Thank God. It's Soretta Byrnes from Blue Hills Station.'

Daphne switched the phone to loudspeaker so Rex could hear and prepare as she listened and wrote swiftly. Seventy-year-old male. Impact off high-speed quad bike. Lord she hated those quad bikes, Daphne thought.

Impaled by mulga root. Daphne winced. Abdominal wound. Extent not seen by caller. Back paddock Blue Hills Station. Closest airstrip adjoining station. Large blood loss. She looked over at Rex who stood to study the map.

'I'll switch the phone through to Morgan and let him know we're out,' Rex said. 'Just over ninety k. Landing in forty minutes.'

Daphne relayed that. 'Don't move him without a spine board. We'll move him when we get there. Can you try to meet us at the airstrip with the utility and we'll transfer the gear to him?' The caller agreed and hung up and Daphne scooted out from behind the desk. They'd need extra fluids, pain relief if he was well enough, extra sponges for a pressure bandage, and battery packs for basic life support equipment. Rex was gone and pre-flight checks would be well under way by the time she scooped her essentials and headed out the door to the plane. This was always the hardest part. Trying to imagine scenarios, pre-empt disaster, prepare for every eventuality when, really, you couldn't.

She walked as fast as due care would allow; Morgan would skin her alive if she slipped and fell because she was hurrying too much. By the time she'd stowed her extra gear, Rex was pulling the door shut behind her and she held her breath as he squeezed past into the cockpit. Best part of the day really, Rex squeezing past. She smiled to herself then switched back into rescue mode.

Listening to the whirr of the engines as they began to warm, she willed Soretta to stay calm. And willed Soretta's grandfather to stay alive because if he did his part, they'd do theirs.

Soretta wasn't going to move him, but the bleeding wouldn't stop and she decided if they were very careful they could put him on the board that stayed strapped to the back of the ute for emergencies like this. If she didn't move him, it could be too late by the time the plane arrived. It was an agonizingly long time later that she and Klaus finally had her grandfather in the back of the utility. They were nearly there now, but her grandfather's white face glistened with shock and pain as they bounced as gently as Klaus could navigate the potholes, over the rough track to the airstrip on the neighbor's property.

Soretta's face felt tight, petrified like the piece of mulga that had caused such damage, as she settled the blanket around her grandfather's bony shoulders and tried to keep from crying.

One of the hardest things she'd ever done was shift her grandad onto the stretcher board and she hoped she'd done the right thing. His pale face, the beads of sweat as he'd tried to hold back the groans of agony, and the way the bleeding had continued to seep around the wad of dressing she'd held had warned her there was no other option. 'Hang in there, Grandad.'

'Sorry, hon.'

His voice was so damn thready. 'Don't you dare die!' She heard the squeak in her tone as she fought down the panic.

The drone of a plane caught her attention, and she held her breathe as she watched it and prayed like she'd never prayed before. Mentally, she hurried it onto the ground and willed the door to open. Soretta sucked in a breath as her head began to swim. It was okay, she chanted to herself. They'd be able to get him to help before it was too late.

'You were a beautiful baby.' Her grandfather's hoarse whisper held a smile. 'Now you look like your grandmother. Even more beautiful.'

No! That sounded way too much like goodbye. 'Save your strength,' she said, fiercely. 'We're nearly there.'

And then they were coming around the end of the airstrip as the plane taxied towards them. She turned to her grandfather to tell him but his eyes were closed. For a horrific moment she thought he was gone, but then she saw his chest rise as he drew another ragged breath.

Klaus jolted the utility to a stop, but her grandad was unconscious and didn't notice. Soretta willed him to stay with her.

The hatch of the plane lowered, the steps followed, and then there was Daphne. Calm, kind and brilliantly efficient as she hopped down onto the ground and sprinted with her kit across to them. Soretta had never been so glad to see someone in her life.

Soretta eased back as Daphne skidded to a halt beside them. She saw the flight nurse's quick assessing glance that, despite its speed, seemed to encompass her granddad from head to foot. How did she do that?

'I had to move him.'

'I think you did. You did the right thing.' Daphne gently lifted Soretta's hand and the wadded dressing she held clamped against him. She sucked air in through her teeth at the jagged, seeping wound. 'Good job,' she said.

Soretta didn't know if she was talking to her or her grandfather but the relief of handing over responsibility made her head swim again.

Daphne went on in that quiet, steady voice, and some of the rigid tension in Soretta's neck eased a fraction. 'I'll just reinforce this, strap it down more firmly so it won't shift in flight, and get a couple of intravenous lines in.' Daphne shot her a look. 'Can you hold this again firmly while Rex rolls him so I can slip the bandage under?'

Soretta hadn't even noticed the pilot had crouched down beside them. 'Of course.' It was done swiftly, much more securely than Soretta had been able to manage, and then a bag of intravenous fluids was thrust into her hands.

'And this, sweetie. Just hold it up when I say.' Within seconds two bags of fluid were raised over her grandad.

Fifteen minutes later Soretta sat quietly in the spare seat in the tiny aircraft cabin and watched Daphne struggle to keep her grandfather alive as the pilot revved the engines.

Twin IV lines ran fluid into his veins on each wrist. Oxygen blew into the mask on his face and the compression bandage on his stomach had finally stopped seeping. But still her chest felt leaden with anxiety as she listened to the increasing timbre of the plane's engines as at last they began to take off.

Billie Green made the turn into the main road of the outback town and breathed a sigh of relief. She was finally on her way to achieving her dream of joining the Mica Ridge Flying Doctor Service. This was something she'd been planning to do since she was a child.

Mica Ridge, the next biggest town to Broken Hill on the border of New South Wales and South Australia, was a long way from boys in balaclavas, or the past she'd worked so hard to forget. But here, with the Barrier Ranges to her back and the Menindee Plains in front of her, she could feel the sense of impending doom about her daughter seep away. It felt good to come back to the place where she'd grown up. And it felt safe for Mia.

Eighteen years, a daughter and her medical career later, she was returning stronger than when she'd left Mica Ridge as a heartbroken orphan. A lot of that had to do with the elderly aunt who'd believed Billie could do anything, no matter what obstacles appeared. And there had been obstacles.

Billie guessed she needed to practise her aunt's kind of faith in Mia because obviously trying to protect her daughter from the world wasn't working. Today, even during Mia's time as a learner driver at the wheel, she had bombarded Billie with her tirade against moving. Mia had been like an angry bee trapped against the glass as she'd railed bitterly about being uprooted from her friends and familiar surroundings. Her daughter's quite impressive stamina had lasted most of the trip yesterday and today. She'd only been diverted when one of the families of emus had run beside the car or one of the majestic wedge-tailed eagles had soared from the side of the road. Two days of a narky Mia and Billie's head had felt like it was going to explode.

Billie could see Mia's black hair swivelling as they both got out of the car so Billie could drive through the built up area. Apparently Mia didn't think it was a built up area.

'You have to be kidding me,' she heard Mia mutter.

'What did you expect?' Billie said mildly as she met those green eyes which everyone said were so beautiful, and so unlike Billie's blue ones, then watched them widen with horror at the stark contrast a country mining town was proving to be to cosmopolitan Sydney.

Billie lifted her eyes to the skyline for strength. Felt the squeeze of homecoming again. She'd loved those peaks. Apparently, Mia wasn't appreciating the last rays of the sun that tinged the clouds pink and fairy-flossed each jagged ridge rising from the creviced rocks, drawing in the tourists.

They drove off again, and at this time of the day, with the quiet streets of tiny restored miners' cottages and the magnificent heritage buildings from a long-gone mining boom, Billie could see there might be little to excite a teenager. But Billie saw the banks of roses everywhere—how could she have forgotten they bloomed so magnificently out here?—and they were in front of every civic building and every yard as if the hot dry world was just what they'd ordered.

Peace settled over her. There was so much more to this place than Mia knew.

'I can see why you haven't been back since you were my age.' Mia said.

'No you don't.' I would have come earlier except you kicked and screamed so much about leaving Sydney. She didn't say it again. Or comment on Mia's checkered last year. 'The schools are good and outback people are amazing.'

A snort. 'What people?'

Billie suppressed a sigh. 'You'll see.'

As if to support her words, as they drove further down the one wide main street they began to see movement under the huge overhanging verandahs outside the shops. Saw tourists peering into an old-fashioned department store turned into an art gallery, an early 1900s legal firm refurbished and morphed into stylish apartments with scalloped wood and marble ledges, people taking photos of the magnificent clock tower of the post office, and the austerely elegant police station that loomed in a circle of glowing Peace roses.

Then the biggest pub came into view. A grand old lady with upstairs verandahs circled in white lace railings, while downstairs tables spilled out onto the wide footpath under a trellis covered in green-leaved grapevines. Beckoning travelers to share the oasis in the heat.

Even Mia gave a grudging nod.

Billie smiled with relief. It was even better than she remembered. 'See? Not what you expected after the arid land of the last few hundred kilometers.'

'Not as big as Broken Hill.'

'But just as good,' Billie said, remembering the sometimes not-so-friendly rivalry between the two towns.

Mia sat up a higher as she spied a posse of six-packed cowboys leaning on their four-wheel-drive trucks, whip aerials, dish-sized spot-lights and rear-mud flaps all bigger than necessary. They all had Akubra hats glued to their heads in expectation of a good time in town.

Billie remembered them. The boys from the bush. She bit back the smile so her daughter couldn't see her amusement.

At the end of the main block there was a shopping center where once there'd been a horse paddock, and they began to see more townsfolk. Families with toddlers. Elderly couples moving towards the caravans parked at the side of the road. Smartly dressed businesswomen, testimony to a town that had reinvented itself as an artist's mecca and a hub of tourism.

Her daughter offered a seemingly reluctant, 'We'll see.' But her neck stretched sideways as she watched the young men disappear in the rear-vision mirror and the bracelets on her wrist jangled as her hand went unconsciously to her black ponytail.

Billie sighed. She hadn't moved Mia here to fall into the same traps she'd been heading towards in Sydney; she'd hoped her daughter would dive into her studies again with a new school and a clean record, but she guessed change had to come from within.

But there was always hope. Her aunt had always said, 'Anyone could make mistakes,' and Billie's blunders had been monumental.

She turned left towards the Flying Doctor Base, away from the direction her parents' house lay, if it was still there. Those memories were for another day and a quiet moment, but she would go there soon. Lay to rest the gnawing feeling of needing to say goodbye to her late childhood, which had been left so abruptly.

No, today was for the shared housing on the outskirts of town they'd been offered as an easy transition. She didn't think they'd be there long. Billie wanted a more permanent place to live. She wanted to finally put down roots, think of a life for herself as a woman, not just a mother, because soon Mia would finish school. Maybe she could purchase a property with an overseer close to town. The utopia of waking up to no neighbors, no passing cars, a vista to restore her soul, seemed almost within reach. Good grief. Where had that come from?

'Where's the school?' Billie's least favorite tone grated in Mia's petulant voice.

Billie snapped back into parent mode. She was good at that. 'Halfway between here and that pub you were so interested in.'

'Who, me?' But there was a reluctant smile from Mia and Billie relaxed a little. The surly princess act had been getting old.

She checked the house numbers and pulled up outside a modest grey-painted duplex, sensibly constructed with a concrete block that looked more depressing than welcoming, the whole yard encased in a running blank wall of brown colored steel fence. She bit back a sigh. 'We're here,' she said brightly.

Mia looked at the uninspiring duplex and concreted yard. 'Goody.' She rolled her eyes.

Oh, dear. There had been a lot of similar places in the last ten years. 'Let's get unpacked. We've got a big day tomorrow.'

Mia's response was a hunch of her shoulders and a snort. 'You've got a big day. You'll be doing what you've always wanted to do. I'm doing what I'm told.'

'Nice change. How about we unload the car and sort our gear?' Billie's mild comment seemed to have the desired effect because Mia slid from the car and opened the hatchback. They always travelled light. Her rule for so many years. Imagine if she changed that? Let herself accumulate possessions instead of constantly being aware that they'd be moving on?

Billie peered under the lid of the tin mailbox at the head of the path and lifted out an envelope with her name on it. She smiled wearily. 'We have a key. Good start.'

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