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As Sasha Wilson reached the first sharp hairpin bend on her descent from the top of Takaka Hill into Golden Bay she eased off the accelerator, moving even slower than her previous snail's pace.
A shudder rolled through her chilled body, nothing to do with her friend's entreaties for her to move back to the city where her biggest mistake ever lived but all about the treacherous road conditions. While there was frost on her heart, it was the black ice at every corner and coating most of the road that required her undivided attention right now. As it had done for the more than five hours she'd been driving home from Christchurch. Where her headlights swept the grass and tree-covered banks, blinding-white frozen water glittered back at her.
'Winter sucks,' she growled, and swiped the back of her glove-covered hand across the condensation on the windscreen. 'If only it wasn't so important to be back for work in the morning, I could've waited until the weather cleared.' Then her voice softened and her hand briefly touched the bump over her stomach. 'At least you're tucked up nice and warm in there, Flipper. And safe from that selfish man who accidentally fathered you. The man who wanted me to terminate you.'
Gasp. 'Wash my mouth out.' Flipper wouldn't pick up on her thoughts, would she? Because no matter her own opinion of the man who would remain nameless, she wasn't ever going to visit that on her daughter.
Gripping the steering-wheel, she continued her diatribe. 'It's like someone threw a switch on my life. Winter's always been about chasing the best snow and hurtling down ski slopes, and going to those amazing après-ski parties to rub shoulders with some of the best skiers in the world.'
Not any more. Her skis were in a cupboard at the back of her parents' shed. Her fancy outfits were folded away in cases filling the wardrobes in the tiny cottage she now lived in on the edge of the family orchard.
'We don't even like the cold, do we, Flipper?'
The baby kicked none too gently.
'You're quite the swimmer, aren't you?' Sasha smiled as she sucked in a breath. 'The inside of my tummy must be bruised purple from your feet.' Pregnancy was amazing. Every day seemed different. She already loved her little girl. Completely and utterly. Fiercely. She'd protect her with her life.
On the radio a song finished and the announcer piped up in his false cheery voice, 'Coming up to eleven-thirty on the clock, folks. I hope each and every one of you is tucked up warm and safe by now.'
'I wish. Big time.' Sasha flicked a glove-covered finger in the direction of her radio. 'You obviously haven't listened to your station's weather forecast, buster. It's been blowing a blizzard up and down New Zealand for most of the day and some of us are struggling to get home in the resulting chaos.'
Successfully negotiating a tight bend, she let relief spread through her. 'One down.' The relief evaporated instantly. 'Plenty more to go.' If only she was pulling up outside her house now. She was so over this trip.
A new, cheerful song filled the interior of the car as Sasha leaned forward to peer through the windscreen. 'It's hideous out there, Flipper.' Not even the possums were out partaking in their nightly forage for dinner. She shivered and hunched her neck down into the warmth of her leather jacket.
Her mouth stretched wide as she yawned. She was tired beyond tired. The long drive down to Christchurch on Thursday, the pre-wedding celebrations, in which, as bridesmaid, she had an active role, and then the wedding yesterdayshe'd been on the go non-stop for three days. And then today's endless drive from hell. If only keeping her job wasn't so important that she had to get home. But it funded her decision to return to the one place on earth where she felt safe, where there were people she could trust, where her family lived. Where Mum needed her.
Golden Bay with its small township of Takaka had become her bolt-hole, the place where she could lick her wounds and harden her heart, the district she wanted to settle down in and raise her daughter. Earlier she'd briefly considered calling one of the doctors she worked for and explaining that she'd be a day late getting back, but they'd been adamant she had to prove her reliability if she wanted to get a permanent position at the medical centre. No days off for anything except illness, she had been told on more than one occasion. Her reputation from her long past high-school days just wouldn't go away. Small communities had a lot to answer for. But that was why she was here, that sense of a blanket being wrapped around her and keeping her safe and warm had also drawn her in.
Another yawn lifted her shoulders, filled her lungs. Rubbing her eyes, she spoke loudly in an attempt to banish the loneliness suddenly enveloping her. 'Hey, Flipper, ready to tuck up under our quilt? I know I am.' She really was nuts, talking to the baby like this. But it made a change from yakking to herself all the time. And it was good to talk to her baby even before she was born, right? Who cared? She'd do it anyway. There'd be people who said it was the right thing to do, and others who'd say she was bonkers.
'Unfortunately the cottage will be cold enough to freeze the boll' Oops, mind your language in front of the baby. 'It'd be great if your grandma has gone down to light the fire for us. But somehow I doubt it. She doesn't trust the safest of fireboxes.' Mum had always been overly cautious. Mum. Sasha's mouth drooped into the antithesis of a smile while her eyes misted.
'What has Mum ever done to deserve the disease slowly wrecking her life, taking over her body?' she asked around the lump clogging her throat. Her beautiful mother, who'd always been there for her and her brother, refusing to accept the disease taking hold in her body would never let go.
Sniff, sniff. Life could be so damned unfair. Sasha's hands tightened on the steering-wheel as she leaned forward, all the better to see, but it didn't make the slightest difference. This final stretch of road seemed interminable.
'What the heck?' Red lights blinked from the edge of the road ahead, right on the bend of the next hairpin. Random. Definitely out of place. Suddenly her heart beat a rapid rhythm.
'I don't like the look of this.' Her bed beckoned even harder. Swallowing a yawn and resisting the urge to slam on the brakes, she gently slowed to a stop right beside the rear end of an upside-down truck poking up from the bank it'd gone over. 'Bad parking.' But hardly surprising, given the hazardous road conditions. And why she hadn't relaxed at all despite getting close to home.
Sasha carefully turned her vehicle so the headlights shone onto the wrecked truck, with its black tyres pointing up into the night. Downright eerie. A shiver ran down her vertebrae. For a brief moment she wanted to drive on home to that cold bed and not face what might be waiting in that buckled cab. Not because of her need to be home safe but because all the years working in emergency departments hadn't dulled the fear she might fail someone who desperately needed her help. Neither did her nursing experience make seeing people suffering any easier to deal with. She felt for them, had cried tears for them.
'Get on with it,' she said. 'You can do the emotional stuff later when everyone in that vehicle's safe.' Because the truck hadn't driven itself off the road, and the glowing headlights suggested it hadn't happened long ago.
None of that stopped her muttering, 'Please, please, be empty.' Her churning stomach mocked her. 'Okay, then be safe, not seriously injured.'
Tugging her woollen hat down around her ears and pulling at the zipper on her jacket to try and close the gap caused by her baby bulge, she hauled in a lungful of warm air before elbowing the door open and gingerly stepping down onto the frozen road. Instantly her feet skidded sideways and she grabbed for the door, hung on as she righted herself. This wouldn't be a picnic, and these days, with Flipper on board, she had to be extra, extra careful.
Her cheeks instantly tightened from the cold, while her unease increased. Initially the night seemed silent but now the cracking sounds of hardening ice became apparent. Or was that the truck shifting?
'Nice one, Sasha. Scare yourself, why don't you? Move your butt and stop overthinking the situation.'
Collecting her medical kit and the heavy-duty torch she always carried, she gingerly crunched over to the edge of the bank, and gasped. In the half-light the Golden Bay Freight Lines logo on the side of the truck was distorted but readable. Sam and Lucy Donovan's truck. 'Sam, is that you? It's Sasha.'
'Sam, are you on your own?' Please, she muttered. Talk about needing a lot of favours in one night.
'No, the missus is with me. She's hurt bad, Sasha.'
Damn, damn, triple damn. The Donovans were the greatest neighbours her parents had ever had, always there for them, there for her too nowadays whenever she needed help with Mum's orchard. Which she didn't.
Not because she was stubborn or anything. Of course not.
Sam hadn't finished with the bad news. 'I can't move my legs.'
'I hear you.' First she needed to get more help. Fast. Her heart sank. What were the chances there'd be cellphone coverage? But she couldn't do this on her own. 'Has anyone driven past since you went off the road?'
'Not that I heard.' Sam's voice cracked. 'Hurry, Sasha. Lucy's bleeding from the head.'
Things were looking up. Not. Her heart squeezed for the middle-aged couple stuck in that cab. 'Sam, you'll have to hang in there while I get the rescue crews on the way out.' She swallowed her growing worry. Like worrying helped anybody. Thinking logically was the only way to go.
Tugging her phone free of a pocket, she touched icons. No coverage. Sasha glared upward at the stars blinking out of the now-clear sky. 'Thanks very much. Can't someone up there make it a little bit easier to save my friends?'
Crunch, crack. She jerked. Had the truck moved? 'Sam?'
'Sounds like another car coming.' Yellow light slashed across the white landscape, swept over her. Relief poured through her tense muscles. She glanced upwards again. 'Okay, I take it back. Looks like there was already a plan in action.'
A car pulled up beside her. The driver's window opened a crack. 'What's going on? You need a hand, lady?' a voice she didn't know asked.
I'm not standing out here for the hell of it. The air in front of her face turned misty as she sighed. Give the guy a break. At least he stopped. 'A truck's gone over the bank with two people inside. We need emergency services urgently.' The risk of hypothermia was enough to want to rush everything, to drag Sam and Lucy out regardless of injuries. Which was so not how to go about rescuing them. 'I'm not getting reception. Can you call it in from further down the hill? Or stop at the first house you see? Tell them Sasha Wilson is here.'
'On my way.' The car was already moving away, thankfully cautiously.
But as she watched the lights fade in the distance that loneliness grabbed at her again. Until help arrived, Sam and Lucy's fate depended on her.
'Your problem is? You're a nurse. Not a bad one either. Get on with doing something practical. Sam will be getting desperate.'
With all the ice about the place she wasn't in for an easy time getting down to the truck, something that never normally fazed her. But with Flipper to consider there'd be no leaping over the embankment like a surefooted goat. 'Hey, I can do careful,' she whispered. 'This is one time where I have to go slow and steady.' Now, there was a first. Her lips pressed hard together, the skin of her cheeks tight.
Maybe if she'd gone slow and steady with that greaseball back in Christchurch she'd still be up to leaping over edges without a care in the world. Might not have a baby under her belt. 'Sorry, Flipper. I'm not trying to wish you away, sweetheart.'
Wrong time to be thinking about this, with the Donovans waiting for her. Taking a steadying breath, she let her medical pack slide down the bank. Then, with her torch gripped tight in one hand, she sat down on her bottom and shuffled and slipped down, too.
'Hey, there.' She mustered a cheery tone as she reached the driver's door.
Sam blinked in the light from her torch. 'Am I glad to see you.'
'How secure do you think the truck is?'
'I haven't felt it move at all. From the sound when we hit I think we're jammed against rocks.'
Some good news. At least they weren't about to plummet down to where the road twisted across the hillside directly beneath.
'Sasha, I'm real worried about Lucy.'
The fear in Sam's voice had her squatting down by the shattered window to shine the torch inside. Blood had splattered over most of the interior. Lucy hung upside down, half in, half out of her seat belt, a huge gash across the side of her head.
'She hasn't said a word the whole time.' Sam's voice trembled. 'What if?' he choked.
'Hold that thought, Sam.' Darn, but she hated it when friends were hurting. Placing her free hand on Sam's shoulder, she tried for a reassuring squeeze. 'I'll check Lucy over. But what about you? Where are you hurting?' At least he was upright, though what injuries he'd sustained when the truck had rolled didn't bear thinking about.
'To hell with me. Look after Lucy, will you?'
'Okay. But keep talking to me.' The way his voice faded in and out didn't bode well. 'Tell me where you hurt. Did you bang your head?' He had to have, surely? 'Are you bleeding anywhere? Stuff like that.' Talking might keep him focused and make the minutes tick by a little faster than if he just sat watching and worrying over his wife. Really? That was the theory but theory often sucked. 'Shine my torch so I can see what I'm doing.'
Hand over hand she grabbed at the edge of the truck's grille and made her way to the other side. Not easy clambering over frozen rocks with a bump the size of a basketball under her jacket. Flipper must've got the seriousness of the situation because she'd gone nice and quiet with those feet. Automatically rubbing her tummy, Sasha muttered, 'Thanks, sweetheart. Mummy owes you.'
Reaching through where the window used to be, she felt carefully for Lucy's throat and the carotid. 'There you go. Lucy's got a pulse. She's alive, Sam.'