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Winning was supposed to be what mattered.
And it was. The end justified the means, didn't it?
Of course it did. That couldn't be doubted for a heartbeat in this case. The blanket-wrapped bundle in Abbie de Luca's arms was the absolute proof of that. The battle had been hard fought and gruelling enough to have almost destroyed her but she had won.
No. Ella had won. Her precious baby, only just a year old, had fought the killer disease of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia at an age where the greatest challenge should have been learning to sit up and take her first steps. The fact that they were being sent back from the only place in the world that had offered the new and radical treatment so that Ella could continue her recuperation at the Lighthouse Children's Hospital in London was proof of having won the battle. It meant she was a huge step closer to going home.
But was the 'home' they'd left behind still there?
For either of them?
Being escorted off the flight from New York before any other passengers and fast-tracked through customs at Heathrow airport like royalty should be making the triumph of winning all the sweeter.
So why did Abbie feel as if she was stepping onto a new battlefield? One that was only marginally less significant than the life-and-death struggle that had represented most of the three months she had been away with her tiny daughter.
'There's an ambulance waiting for you, Mrs de Luca.' The customs official eyed the wheelchair beside Abbie that the steward from the plane had been pushing. 'Is this all going with you?'
'No. It's going back on the next flight.' Abbie unwrapped Ella just enough to unhook the electrodes from the monitoring equipment. 'It was only a precaution. We didn't even need the oxygen.' They hadn't needed a medical escort either. One of the rare positive aspects of having a paediatric surgeon for a mother, although the negative side of knowing too much had outweighed that far too many times already.
Ella stirred in her arms but didn't wake. Abbie took a moment to check the connections of the central line the baby still had under her collarbone and made sure the syringe driver attached to the tubing hadn't run out of the drugs that were still a necessary part of treatment. Then she tucked it securely back into the folds of blanket and gave Ella a kiss on the few stray wisps of hair she had somehow retained.
As Ella relaxed back into sleep a tiny hand came up to touch her mother's cheek, as if she was reassuring herself that she was safe. She was probably smiling, Abbie thought, watching the crinkle deepen around the tightly closed eyes. Shame nobody could see it because of the mask needed to protect the baby from airborne infections.
The gesture had been enough to melt hearts around her anyway.
'Aww ' The burly customs official was smiling. 'What a wee pet.'
'Adorable ' The steward was blinking hard. 'I'm so happy she's going to be all right now, Abbie.'
'Thanks, Damien.' Abbie had to swallow the big lump in her own throat. Happy didn't touch the sides of how she felt about her daughter's new prognosis. 'And thanks so much for taking such good care of us on the flight.'
'It was a privilege. Have you got someone meeting you now?'
Abbie nodded. 'The ambulance is here. They're taking us to the Lighthouse. That's the children's hospital I work at.'
But the steward was shaking his head. Frowning. 'No I meant You know '
Abbie did know. He meant someone with a personal attachment. Like Ella's father?
'Maybe. It was a bit of a last-minute rush and we weren't sure we'd get onto this flight. The New York team obviously managed to arrange the transfer but I'm not sure who else knows about it.'
She'd tried to ring Rafael but his phone had gone to his message service. Mr de Luca was in surgery all day, she'd been informed.
Could they take a message? No, Abbie had responded. She'd be seeing him soon enough.
Or maybe that should be too soon? She'd walked out on her marriage to fight this battle. Maybe that was why success wasn't tasting as sweet as it should.
Maybe the price had been too high.
'Abbie ' The man who'd been allowed into this private area of the customs hall and was now striding towards them wasn't an airport official.
'Oh, my ' Damien clearly appreciated the attributes of the tall, sexy newcomer. 'Is that Ella's daddy?'
'No.' Abbie shook her head, bemused. 'He's more like my boss.' And clearly a commanding enough presence, even out of a medical environment, to have had rules broken for him.
The steward was grinning as he started to manoeuvre the wheelchair out of the way. 'Tough job,' he murmured, 'but I guess someone's gotta do it.'
Abbie felt her lips curve as she raised her voice. 'Ethan.. what on earth are you doing here?'
'I happened to field a call to Rafael about your arrival time and the ambulance transfer. He's caught up in Theatre so I thought I'd come for the ride and make sure you had a welcoming committee.'
And who could be more appropriate than one of the Hunter brothers, the owners of the prestigious London plastic-and-reconstruc-tive-surgery clinic that employed both of Ella's parents as specialist paediatric surgeons. The clinic that had made it financially possible for Ella to go to the States and undertake the risky, experimental treatment that had been her only hope of a cure.
'Does does Rafael know we've come home?'
'Not yet.' Ethan's gaze gave nothing away. 'The case he's operating on today is putting him under considerable pressure. I didn't want to distract him.' The hint of a smile was sympathetic. 'I'll let him know the moment he comes out, I promise.'
Abbie simply nodded. There was a subtext here. That Rafael would need prior warning before seeing her again? Hearing her voice, even, given that their minimal communication of late had been via text and email? That, without some kind of intermediary, his Italian pride might be enough for him to refuse to see her at all? Maybe their first meeting would involve a solicitor and official documents outlining shared custody agreements for their child. How sad would that be?
'You're good to go.' The customs official stamped their passports and nodded towards someone near the door. 'Mr Hunter shouldn't really be in here. They'll show you out to where the ambulance crew is waiting. Your luggage will be sent by taxi as soon as it's offloaded.'
Ethan picked up the cabin bag by Abbie's feet but his gaze rested on the bundle in her arms. 'You okay? Would you rather I carried Ella?'
Abbie shook her head. 'I'm good.'
She wasn't about to hand her baby to someone else to carry, despite her precious burden feeling heavier by the minute. She was exhausted, that was all. These last few months had taken their toll, physically as well as emotionally, but she couldn't afford to stop being strong.
Not when she was stepping onto a new battlefield.
At least she had an ally. Given what Abbie had heard about his heroic stint in Afghanistan, it was probably overkill in any protection stakes, but there was also the history of the bad blood between the Hunter brothers. If she and Rafael did need an intermediary, someone who was experienced in negotiating the kind of tension that represented the dark side of a loving relationship was ideal.
Not that Ethan gave much away. The slight limp he walked with, which was a legacy of his army days, attracted more than casual stares as they walked to where the ambulance was parked, but he gave no sign of being aware of the curiosity.
And when they were tucked up in the back of the ambulance, on the M4 and heading into the city, he gave no hint that Abbie might be facing any escalating complications in her life.
He and Rafael were friends but they were men. Had they shared anything more personal in the time she'd been away? A late-night card game and plenty of whisky, perhaps, along with commiseration over their disastrous love lives? Maybe Ethan had reminded Rafael that the odds had been stacked against his marriage succeeding anyway. Sure, they'd been very much in love with each other but they'd barely had time to get to know each other properly, had they? They may have chosen to get married themselves but others would no doubt have viewed it as a shotgun wedding when they'd known that a baby was already on the way.
That baby was still asleep, bless her, now safely cocooned in the baby seat strapped onto the stretcher. Ella and Ethan sat facing her, the ambulance crew happy to sit up front, chatting, knowing that their transfer patient had a privileged level of medical supervision in the back.
The traffic slowed as they joined the flow on the Great West Road. A perfect opportunity to test the water, Abbie thought, but good grief.she felt ridiculously nervous about it. She knew she couldn't just dive straight in with what was foremost on her mind but, to her dismay, her voice still came out unmistakably shaky.
'H-how are things going at the clinic?'
'Good. Very busy. You would have seen some of the publicity over our latest charity case?'
'Ah no Sorry, I'm a bit out of touch. I haven't seen much news for ages. Is it a pae-diatric case?'
'Yes. A ten-year-old Afghan girl- Anoosheh-who was noticed when her orphanage was evacuated. She got abandoned on the doorstep as a toddler when her disease became more extreme. Now she's got a neurofibromatosis that's the size of a melon and has disfigured half her face to the extent that she was being used as a servant and kept well hidden from any prospective adoptive parents that visited the orphanage. Not only that, she's probably lost the sight in one eye and is gradually losing patent airways.'
'Oh poor thing.'
'Today's surgery won't be the last but hopefully the result will be enough to show people that there's a little girl in there who just needs to be loved. There's huge media interest and there's been some offers of adoptive homes in the UK already. I imagine there's a pack of reporters waiting to pounce on Rafael as soon as he's out of Theatre. I'll try and head them off but it's just as well he can cope with that kind of pressure while he's operating.'
'Yes he's good at that.'
Because he could detach himself from his own emotional involvement and see the bigger picture?
The way he had even when he'd been dealing with the trauma of his own daughter's prognosis?
Abbie's heart was thumping in her chest. She took a deep breath. 'So he's um okay, then?'
'Seems to be.' There was a short silence, as though Ethan was debating whether to say anything more, and then he slid a brief, sideways glance at Abbie. 'I don't think I've ever seen anyone try to bury themselves in their work so effectively before. He's taken on every difficult case he could possibly squeeze into his schedule. And then some. I've barely seen him.'
Oh, no confessions of heartbreak over a card session, then. No admitting that he might have made a terrible mistake by issuing the ultimatum that if Abbie insisted on taking Ella to the States then their marriage was over.
But the argument he'd felt so passionately justified in upholding had been that their daughter's quality of life outweighed its quantity. That they didn't have the right to put her through so much extra suffering when the chances of success were so small.
Surely the fact that it had worked was enough to justify her decision to go? Wouldn't Rafael be so thrilled to have the prospect of Ella's long-term survival that that ultimatum was now irrelevant?
Maybe. But there was more to it, wasn't there? He was her husband and a proud man. How much damage to their relationship had she done by refusing to respect his opinion and openly defying him?
And worse than that-much worse-she'd taken a sick baby away from her adoring father. She'd seen the pain in Rafael's eyes as she'd walked away with their daughter in her arms. He hadn't expected to see her alive again. How painful would that have been? He had every right to hate her for that.
Abbie had had Ella in her arms and she'd still cried all the way to New York.
So Rafael had shut himself away. She'd guessed that by how distant he'd sounded when she'd tried to call him. By how impersonal his email correspondence had rapidly become. He'd buried himself in his work to the extent that when Abbie had reached out in the darkest days, so far away and so lonely and so desperate for support, the response she'd received had seemed cold and clinical. As if his emotional involvement with both herself and Ella was a thing of the past. Was it all over?
It wouldn't be fair to try and get any further clues from Ethan.
It was Rafael that Abbie needed to talk to.
Needed to see. The longing was getting stronger by the minute, as if her body realised that the distance between them was closing rapidly. She still loved her husband. Yes, they had pushed each other away and there was a lot to forgive on both sides, but the love was still there. It always would be.
Rafael would welcome Ella back into his life, she had no doubt at all about that. But would she be welcome?
The prospect of the rift between them never healing was terrifying.
With a huge effort, Abbie tried to find some inner strength. To feel positive. She even managed to find a smile to offer Ethan.
'So what else is happening? Have Leo and Lizzie set a date for the wedding yet?'
'Yes. It's going to be the last Saturday in April.'
'What? Good grief that's only a couple of weeks away.'
'Tell me about it. A quiet affair might have been easily organised but the kind of splash that goes with a high-society wedding at Claridge's? I'm trying to stay well out of it all.'
Abbie smiled. 'Good luck with that.'
Ethan snorted. 'Yeah I haven't been entirely successful. Lizzie's managed to talk me into being best man. And that means I'll have to come up with some kind of speech.'
'I'm sure you can do it. Even with a tight deadline. But why are they in such a rush?'
Ethan shrugged. 'Guess they didn't want to wait. They're in love.'
There was something in Ethan's tone that made the conversation dry up completely at this point. Abbie didn't know the story behind why the Hunter brothers had been estranged for so many years but, like everyone else associated with the clinic, she was aware of the tension that still lingered between the men. The fact that Lizzie had been the one to persuade Ethan to be best man was evidence that things still weren't easy.
Was that all there was to whatever was remaining unspoken? Was Ethan happy for Leo or did he have doubts that the marriage would succeed? Maybe she and Rafael were being seen as an example of marrying in haste and repenting at leisure.
The lump in Abbie's throat made it too hard to take a new breath. To try and distract herself she leaned over Ella and stroked her baby's cheek softly with her forefinger.
The welling up of love she had for her child wasn't enough to distract her completely. She and Rafael had been in love like that once. Not very long ago, in fact. They should still be in the honeymoon phase of their marriage but look at where they were now.
What should have been a perfect union so quickly blessed with a beautiful child had been blown apart by a cruel twist of fate.
And now Abbie was returning to where it had all happened.
The pieces of that perfect life were going to be in the same place again.