Fiona McArthur
Fiona McArthurFiona McArthurFiona McArthurFiona McArthur

Excerpt: The Opal Miner’s Daughter

Book 2: Aussie Outback Medical Romance Series



'So, how'd you end up in Lightning Ridge?'

Adelaide Brand peered over her sunglasses at the chatty white-haired woman behind the counter of the fuel station. Nosy, she wondered, or was it a case of small-town curiosity about strangers? Or was she just being friendly?

Adelaide had been buying diesel every couple of days for the last fortnight since she'd moved to the Ridge, but the times she'd called in here there'd been other customers. Her old Lister generator proved thirsty but reliable, and as an opal miner she needed lights to see by underground.

She nodded at the kind eyes and experienced a flicker of kindred interest. 'I'm addicted to the opals. A new fascination. You?'

'Oh, I followed a miner fifty years ago.' The woman brushed a sticky strand of white hair away with a callused hand. 'We roughed it off the grid for ten freakin' years. But like a lot of the business owners in town, I decided there's more comfort in trade than in digging.'

She laughed loudly, her crooked teeth and sunburst wrinkles affable and uncomplicated. Her stark white hair looked quite beautiful, even tied back off her neck with an old shoelace. She stood about twenty centimetres shorter and maybe ten years older, say mid-seventies, than Adelaide, who was tall at a hundred and eighty centimetres.

Her new acquaintance's aged appearance could be a premature result of the outback's tough sunlight, or it could be a personal lack of interest in slowing the imprint of time on her face. Adelaide suspected both.

The woman had a great smile, though, and Adelaide liked her. 'I retired from nursing but enjoy being busy.'

'Husband?' The EFTPOS skipped as Adelaide's new acquaintance tapped in the amount with a firm hand.

'We're still married, we just live in different parts of the country. Tyler's not interested in opals, or being a tourist. He much prefers armchair travelling and the city.' To spending time with me, she added silently.

'Ha. Go you on adventuring, then.' The proprietor nodded at the small world outside the window. 'Some men like their routines, stayin' home. I reckon most get more settled as they get older.' She gestured with her fingers up the wide street towards town. 'That's why the business part of the Ridge is mostly run by women.'

She handed back the credit card after a long look at the name on it. 'Nice to meet you, Adelaide.' She gave a quick nod of hello. 'I'm Desiree, here weekdays till five. See me for fuel and small equipment breakdowns.' She waggled her brows. 'They call me the engine whisperer.'

In her seventies? 'Nice to meet you, Desiree. And call me Del.'

'We have a Friday-night ladies' get-together out the back.' Desiree jerked her head sideways to indicate the rear of the building. 'As soon as my shop door's closed for the night. Feel free to drop in. It's BYO.'

Somewhere deep in Adelaide's belly, a cold cube of sadness, one she tried to ignore, seemed to warm and soften. 'Thanks. I might do that if my own company gets old.'

Desiree snorted. 'Oh, we all get old, Miss Del. Come tonight if you want.' She paused for a moment, then said, 'Have you got yourself some decent gloves now?' Her gaze slid non-judgementally over the healing scabs on Adelaide's hands.

'I do. Leather ones.' Very expensive driving gloves that Tyler had given her once for the small Virago motorbike she'd moved on from – last decade's crisis.

The gloves, soft plum kid, were not designed for scrabbling in rock, but were soft and supple under the hardy gloves she wore on top. She'd had her daughter post them out and they'd arrived two days ago.

Now Riley had her postal address, which was fine because Adelaide was settled. She'd needed to make sure the family knew she was alive. Didn't want a police hunt for her rotting corpse.

Desiree rocked back on her heels. 'Whose claim are you working?'

'Cooper's. It's mine now.' Her own opal mine. Still couldn't believe it.

'The old Wayfarers Inn?' Desiree's scarce brows lifted. 'Good choice. Some nice colour pulled out of there.'

'Good to know.' And it was. Once she'd decided on the Ridge, Adelaide had paid a broker to find the best claim up for lease, preferably with some form of dwelling, but you never knew the spin involved in the final sale.

The tiny, quirky shack had once been a gin joint and stables, with a twenty-year mining lease inside the acre of fencing. The bargain had only used a fifth of her inheritance from her mother, which left a decent chunk in her personal savings.

There was something incredibly satisfying about owning a shack with fabulous sunsets and endless bush views. And no neighbours. Even more satisfying was leasing the rocky patch of soil inside the fence, which meant she had her very own mine to climb down and dig in.

'See you.' Adelaide lifted a hand in farewell to Desiree and turned, walking out to her battered troop carrier, which also had been a bargain. The bed popped up from the roof, making it ridiculously painful to climb in and out of – no way would Tyler try it – but she'd felt safe up there when travelling. She'd done some solo travelling before settling on the Ridge. Tyler had predicted she'd be back home in a week wanting to sell the uncomfortable vehicle again. She hadn't. And Rocky, her troopy, could manage any road conditions she might come across. It was her lack of four-wheel-driving skills she worried about. She was booked in for an off-road day course with an ex-paramedic in Walgett tomorrow. The woman had been recommended by the previous owners of the Wayfarers Inn when she'd inquired. She couldn't wait.

Her phone rang. Good timing. The service was iffy out at the inn. She knew without checking the screen that it wouldn't be Tyler. He'd be at the gym now. It was her daughter's smiling picture that appeared. 'Riley, darling. How are you?'

'Mother. I'm good. Trying to clear my patients before holidays. How're the gloves working?'

'Wonderful. Much better for my soft hands. Thank you.'

'You're welcome.' She heard the smile in her voice. 'Our hands aren't supposed to be tough. I can't believe you're using a pick-axe underground.' But as well as amusement, did she detect a hint of admiration? Warmth spread as her daughter's voice softened. 'As for posting, well plenty of times you posted care packages when I was at school.'

Inside Adelaide that ice cube melted a little more and began to puddle into liquid. There had been distance and silence from her daughter when she'd left Tyler behind, but it seemed Riley was over that. Or moving on. She was good at that.

Riley was usually in a hurry, so she'd better not hold her up. 'It's not like you to call when you're at work.' Her daughter led a very busy professional life. 'Two phone calls in one week?'

'One of my patients cancelled last minute with the flu, so I've got time. Dad said some certificates came for you.' The smile was back in her voice. 'You been doing courses again?'

Lord, yes, she had. 'Once I leased the mine, I needed to be a legal miner,' she explained. 'They're my certificates for Mine Property Manager and Environmental Mine Operator. I have the digital versions on my phone.'

Riley laughed. 'So cool. All this because you got bored after your retirement party? I never did ask you. Why opal mining?'

Adelaide thought about the path she'd taken to get here. And the fact that her daughter, or her husband for that matter, indeed never had asked why. 'It was that place I wandered into on Wentworth Avenue in Sydney, Gemmology House. It was like a museum, with a stone facade, tall columns and arched windows.'

'A building sent you mining?'

She thought about the treasures in those walls. 'Maybe. Inside, they had those gahnite crystals, you know those sharp, deep-green crystals, the ones Grandma gave us when we visited them at Wilcannia?' She'd been delighted to recognise the gahnite. 'Just seeing those cabinets of precious stones and gems and our gahnite made it special.'

'Wow.' Riley did sound intrigued. 'That's interesting.'

Yes, it was. Hence Adelaide's enrolment in the practical gemmology course, and about four others. 'Well, that was the start. I'd never thought of gems as raw and mysterious until I saw the opals. I'm afraid I have an opal obsession, now.'

In the classes and display cases, she'd discovered the shifting brilliant colours of the black opal, the dark base underlying the spray and sparkle of colour giving the gem such rainbow intensity. The kaleidoscope had fascinated her. Sometimes she thought she could see a whole universe in those colours, pulling her in.

'Opals are pretty,' Riley said.

Adelaide sniffed teasingly. 'Opals aren't pretty. They're magnificent, mysterious, marvellous. And bloody hard work to mine for.'

'I stand corrected.' Riley laughed, and it was so nice to hear her voice. 'Any passion is a good passion. Go you, Mum.'

'I love them,' she said simply, aware that Riley might not want to hear more. Tyler hadn't, so she had stopped enthusing to him.

'You sound happy, Mum.'

'I am.' It was time to change the subject, though, before Riley asked when she was coming home. 'How's Josh?'

'Fine.' Her daughter's tone turned a little flat. 'We're spending some time together over my holidays. There's a couple of charity dos he wants me to go to, and we have dinner with his parents next week.'

'That will be nice.' Not, but she wouldn't say it. Josh was more boring than Tyler's television. A subtle tone pulsed in the distance on Riley's end.

'I've got a call coming in, I'd better go. Talk soon, Mum.'

'Bye, darling.' But she was already gone.

Adelaide walked to her vehicle and started the engine, thinking about the gemmology courses. The birth of excitement, and Tyler, her husband, the ex-business executive, refusing to come. By the time she'd completed that night class, after he'd patted her hand and said new interests were good, she knew she'd found a passion. By the last course, she'd been completely captivated and wishing she'd found these studies forty years ago.

That was when she decided to come to the Ridge. The home of the black opal. She'd asked Tyler to go on a road trip with her – just to see – but he'd raised one cultured brow and with a laugh said, 'Why on earth would we want to do that?'

Adelaide suspected he'd not thought for a minute that she'd go on her own. Or if she did, that she might dabble for a weekend or two at the most. Until Adelaide had packed up and left two months ago to travel. He'd been horrified then – was still horrified – but not enough to follow her.

Instead of growing bored and lonely, she'd travelled and learned something quirky and fun every day. She'd met new people and enjoyed new places. When she took over the inn a month ago she'd learned a lot more. Her new home had solar panels and batteries. Gutters and a rain tank that never caught rain and needed filling with bore water from the tanker, which luckily, came out when needed. She'd learned to work a gas fridge and a turn-of-the-century wood stove and she'd tweaked her cooking skills to match her kitchen. That too had been tricky but satisfying.

Then there was mining opal with two fifteen-metre shafts down a steel ladder to a central underground room and two short side tunnels. Her cabin/inn/shack stood five kilometres out of town, still close enough to pick up supplies or catch up with new friends, one of whom she may have just found in Desiree.

And the neighbours, some definitely working under aliases or nicknames to avoid the law, were far enough away that she didn't hear the parties or have many uninvited guests. She had some, but they were friendly, non-judgemental and live-and-let-live. One thing she could say about those uninvited, two-legged guests was they were never boring.

She also doubted they filled out their census.

Chapter One


'Eighteen starlit nights with you.' Joshua Bouvier's big brown eyes were determined. He was pleased with himself, and pleased with the very expensive 'surprise' cruise tickets he'd just presented to Riley.

In that moment, not-as-tall-as-her, handsome, impeccably dressed Josh looked like his extremely well-off stockbroker father.

'And . . . while we're away, I have a very special question to ask.' This he said archly as he patted his pocket. Good grief. Did he have words written on paper in there, or heaven forbid, a velvet box?

In her Macquarie Street consulting room, Dr Riley Brand's stomach fell. Not the M word, she prayed. Please, not the M word. She'd thought they might go away for a weekend here and there through her holidays, spend some time together, some apart, general fun and relaxation on leave.

Now, with Josh sitting across from her desk in her lunch hour with his eyes unwavering – his plans laid out – she felt guilty. Trapped. And she felt the overwhelming need to run. Like she always did when a relationship threatened to become more than a dinner date and a useful plus-one arrangement.

He wanted to discuss commitment and she wanted out of anything serious that interfered with her scheduled career advancement. He'd also want the big one – kids – and she still had no rush of anticipation at the thought. She'd begun to doubt she ever would.

Familiar guilt wormed its way through her because her clients were searching for the elusive dream of parenthood, and here she was flapping away the idea with her ringless fingers. Her mother said it's because she hadn't found the right man yet. But Riley wasn't sure she'd ever do what her own mother had: put her life on hold until everyone was finished leaning on her. It's one of the reasons she didn't feel she'd ever be as good a mum as her mother. She was pulled out of her thoughts when Josh continued.

'I've been watching the weather. It looks perfect for the Top End. Lazing on the deck through the Kimberleys, jumping into the zodiacs through the gorges, helicopter rides into the sunset – together . . .' He drew out the last word, his smile confident. 'You'll love it.'

She probably would, but not with him. And certainly not with the M word possibly hanging around. 'Sounds amazing.' She tried for an apologetic smile, but could only manage a closed-lip one. 'I can't. I know we were going to spend time together . . .' Because she hadn't really decided until the 'special question' reference. And then there was the eighteen loooong days together with no breaks . . . That was certainly enough for Riley to decide against.

It was time to edge backwards out of this relationship.

She tried again. 'I'm sorry, Josh. I've decided to drive to Lightning Ridge and convince my mother to come home to Dad. The cruise is out.'

'Don't be silly.' Josh's hand brushed in a you're-pulling-my-leg wave. 'You can see Adelaide when we come back. I'll come with you. After we do this.'

If it wasn't so ludicrous, she'd laugh. Take Josh on a road trip to the outback? With sub-standard coffee for him to complain about and constant whining about everything else? No, good grief no. 'I'll need the four weeks. Mum will take some convincing,' she said with finality. But she might go insane twiddling her thumbs for that long.

Josh stared at her. 'You could take extra leave? Do both. We're booked for this cruise, Riley.' He didn't look so sure now, finally seeing the real picture, as opposed to the promising one in his head.

She'd laid the rules down early in the piece. They were exclusive but not permanent. Friends with benefits. Though to be fair, her schedule had played constant havoc with the benefits.

Riley pointed at her computer and the open appointment schedule. 'I've only got four weeks of leave. My appointments are already fully booked for that first week back.'

Josh snapped down the brochure. 'Can't you phone Adelaide?' That was the first whine. 'Convince her from afar.' The second. He did that when he didn't get his way. Truly most annoying.

Riley wanted to crack her neck from the strain of being gentle. 'Mother will take more convincing than a phone call,' she said.

With his eyes stormy and a hint of impatience in his voice, Josh muttered, 'Why doesn't your dad sort this out? He's the one left behind in Sydney. Dumped for a mining claim out west by his wife.'

Yes, her dad had been ditched. The dad she'd always thought of as her hero. And he probably deserved desertion because he hadn't found his feet after retirement as fast as Mum had. He'd fallen down the rabbit hole of Netflix, current affairs and the gym since he'd finished work, but Mum's absence had gone on long enough. Riley had the feeling both her parents were acting out of pride now. 'He's reluctant to look needy.'

Josh screwed up his face. 'I still can't believe your mother's roughing it on a mining lease. Grubbing in dirt off the grid.' That was patent disbelief, Josh thinking, How the heck could she run a coffee machine without electricity? No doubt about that.

He sniffed and Riley's eyes narrowed. She might complain about her parents, but he'd better not. Riley could read Josh like the screen in front of her. He'd just realised she wouldn't change her mind on the cruise. He knew she could be inflexible when she cared enough to make a statement.

That entitlement Josh suffered from had bruised. Everything was supposed to fall into place the way he wanted it to, because it was him. Josh. The only child. The golden child.

And what had she been thinking?

Sitting here looking at this man across the desk from her, Riley suspected she'd drifted close to disaster through laziness. Because Josh being there had been easy and she'd assumed that lack of intent went both ways. She'd been too busy to notice the change in him. Well, it was time to stop now, and take notice.

She glanced at her watch. 'Josh, I really appreciate all the organisation that's gone into this and I can see you were really looking forward to it —'

'It's one-sided. Isn't it?' Josh interrupted. 'This whole relationship.' He threw his hands up. 'You're really not going?'

'You're a great guy, Josh.'

He blew out a big breath. He even rustled the papers on her desk with the gale he sent. She could smell the peppermint he'd sucked before he'd come in to see her. 'I don't like saying it, Riley,' there was a hint of sternness in his voice now, 'but maybe we need a break.' He paused and gave her a look, as if he expected her to be devastated.

He just didn't get it. Gently, she said, 'Not a break, we're breaking up, Josh. You deserve someone much more invested in doing the things you want to do. Invested in the future with you. I'm not.' That might have been a tad blunt, but Riley felt she needed to be to get the message across.

Josh gaped, spun, then turned again before he opened the door, but she kept her mouth firmly closed and finally he left. He shut the door after himself with exquisite politeness. She wished he'd slammed it.

A rush of feelings hurtled through Riley all at once. Guilt. Shame. But yes, the biggest was relief.

Riley held off calling in her first patient of the afternoon. She was often too fanatically on time with her appointment schedule, anyway. Instead, she stared at the printed advertisement for a locum doctor in Lightning Ridge that she'd seen last night.

Her gaze slid to the uterus-shaped stress ball on her desk and she picked it up and squeezed the womb until her French-tipped nails dug into her palms.

'Lightning Ridge? Of all the back-of-beyond places. Really, Mum?' Riley said into the room, blowing out her breath so hard the same papers Josh had jiggled earlier moved again.

'You left me holding the abandoned baby, which is what Dad's been since you went. He needs you. And you need him.' She looked again at the vacancy in this month's Medical Practitioner's Review.

She squeezed the ball, then breathed. Squeezed. Breathed. Tasted the idea that had floated when she first saw it. Since she'd posted her mother's soft leather gloves last week, Riley had been mulling her options. A locum stint would give her an excuse to go. She'd have four whole weeks to convince Mum to return.

She squeezed the foam, and settled. She had four weeks already booked for leave, so getting away would be easy. It would be her first vacation in years. Talk about a change from Josh's luxury cruise along the Kimberley Coast. Instead, she'd be working in a mining town in north-western New South Wales as a GP with male and female patients.

It would take time to convince Mum to come home from her new love of prospecting. Or mining, or whatever you called living rough in a desert and scrambling through rocks for the elusive opal.

The question was, could Riley practise general medicine for four weeks? Could she work in a mullock-strewn whistle stop of rough blokes, miners and grey-nomad escapees like her mother?

There was only one way to find out. At least she'd be close to the leased opal-mining claim and shack, without crowding her mum. Or herself. The stint would give them a chance to talk sensibly. That would be more subtle than Riley trying the conversation via email or phone again, because that hadn't worked. Maybe she'd wait a week after arriving, then just seed the idea of her mum coming home. Hmm.

Did her mum even have running water to nurture a thought seed? Thankfully, the locum placement came with 'digs'. It was a mining town, but she guessed that was a pun for accommodation and not a plot to fossick in. She'd have water and electricity, and hopefully, she'd have the internet.

Stop being a wimp, she told herself. Of course, she could manage. A small voice whispered that Josh would say she wouldn't last. Her spine straightened at that. Josh had no idea of the stock she came from. That her great-grandpa had raised cattle out near Wilcannia and her great-gran had been droving beside him in flood and drought.

It was funny how generations changed. Went to the city. Went soft. The four-week stint would give her the chance to brush up on medical skills she hadn't touched for ten years. She looked at her manicured hands and thought of wrinkled scrotums. Then she laughed again at herself as she looked around at her swanky office. There were no men here. She'd been an obstetrician and gynaecologist for more than a decade. The last five years had focused on infertility – factors increasing the chances of falling pregnant and those that prevented pregnancy – so examining male body parts wasn't part of her brief, except for prescribing tests. Although, there had been surrogacy and donor-gametes studies, and she did have amazing transgender and LGBTQIA+ community clients among her success stories.

Riley squeezed the foam uterus in her hand again. She could do this. And she had an idea for something extra, if the hiring GP agreed. It would be a fast dip into something crazily different and then dip back out again. She'd have to work. She couldn't do kicking her heels on a rock-strewn opal claim while taking time to convince her mum to come home. She knew her mother when she was set on something. Riley was like that herself.

She picked up the phone and put a call through to the professor, her business partner, who was also at lunch, no doubt immersed in a medical journal.

'Grace?' she launched as soon as the call was picked up. 'While I go out and see my mother, I'm thinking of an outreach clinic for remote families, in my break. What do you think?'

'Lightning Ridge? Yes!' Grace gave an enthusiastic response. Her partner had been interested in that concept for a while.

'So, I could offer a few days of an infertility clinic in tandem with the locum GP position for the four weeks?' The idea grew rapidly attractive with Grace's interest.

Grace was always to the point. 'Logistics?'

'I could ask the onsite doctor's surgery if they could take care of the clinic appointments and admin. Surely they'd have a practice nurse for the hands-on stuff. I could do everything else myself, but I'll check.'

They both agreed there would be remote women who could use Riley's skillset within a few hours' travel of Lightning Ridge, instead of coming all the way to the capital cities. If the practice manager at Lightning Ridge was happy to donate a few afternoons, Riley could do the rest.

'I'll set up a flow chart for future referral from out that way, too. Assuming there's a need. It'll smooth the speedbumps for remote families.'

'We'll find the women,' Grace said. 'You get the locum position and I'll put the word out.' The call ended.

Riley scanned Google Maps on her desktop computer, drumming the fingers of her thankfully ringless left hand. Hmm. It would take eight hours and thirty minutes of driving from Sydney, seven hundred and twenty-five kilometres from her home in Mosman to the Ridge. At least it was tarred road all the way.

Road trip.

'Jeez, Mum,' she groaned aloud, but there was only her designer-decorated consulting room to hear. 'Your retirement was supposed to be relaxing for everyone. Why there?'

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