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'All I want for Christmas is a males-only island. One bearded Santa with all-male reindeer, dropping gifts of boys' own adventure books without a girl in sight. Nothing else. While I waited for the Blythe baby I read of a monastery where they don't even allow hens. Research it for me, Ellen. I'll spend Christmas there.'
Ben Oaklander's secretary was sorting the last of her boss's documents into his briefcase. She didn't blink. After working for Ben for five years, very little made Ellen blink. 'You don't need a monastery,' she retorted. 'Cassowary Island has cassowaries. There won't be a lot else.'
'Except a conference load of obstetricians. I'll bet at least one's female.'
'If you don't like women, why be an obstetrician?'
'I like my mothers. I like my colleagues.' Ben eyed his secretary and finally decided compromise was a good idea. 'Thus I like you. I also like babies, whatever the sex. But that's the end of my attachment.'
'Yet you choose to date,' she said, unruffled. She searched the desk for his USB stick and placed it in his briefcase. Back-up. Not that it'd be needed. Ben Oaklander was nothing if not meticulous. His keynote speech would be backed up four different ways, and he wouldn't refer to notes once.
'That's it. Dating. Nothing more.' Ben raked his long fingers through his dark, wavy hair, leaving it rumpled. Rumpled was Ben's constant state. Sleepless nights delivering babies, plus a hectic research and teaching load meant crazy schedules, a constant five-o'clock shadow, shirts crushed from catnaps during long deliveries
But his rumpled state made not one whit of difference to his innate sexiness, Ellen thought. It was no wonder he had woman trouble. Her boss was thirty-five years old, tall, dark and drop-dead gorgeous. As an obstetrician known for non-interference, Ben spent a lot of time waiting. While he waited in the small hours he used the hospital gym and it showed. His body well, a sixty-year-old secretary shouldn't think what Ellen was thinking about his body.
And then there was his intellect.
Ben Oaklander was fast gaining a reputation as one of Australia's foremost obstetricians. The invitation to be keynote speaker at the international obstetrics symposiumheld in Australia this year for the first timewas a signal to the world that he was on top of his game.
But not 'on top' of women.
He'd dated seven women in the years Ellen had worked for him. Each time there'd been a hint of serious he'd walked away.
'So what's happened with Louise?' she asked.
He sighed. And shrugged. 'Louise organised herself a flight to Cassowary Island as a surprise Christmas gift to me. Then somehow last night a casual walk ended up in front of a jewellery shop. She pointed out the rings she liked. She pointed out that it was two weeks until Christmas. I thought no use not being honest.'
'Uh-oh,' Ellen said. 'Let me guess. She didn't appreciate honesty?'
'She hit me.'
'Ouch.' Ellen peered closer, saw the faint red mark across her boss's strongly boned jaw. Winced. 'That must have hurt.'
'It did,' he said, rueful. But also seemingly bewildered. 'But it was totally undeserved. I spelled it out at the beginning. No strings.'
'It's a bit hard to stop strings forming,' Ellen told him, returning to packing. 'It's nature. They just sneak up on you.'
Louise, the lady in question, was a thirty-four-year-old pathologist. She worked in the same hospital; she popped into the office often. Ellen had seen the normally single-mindedly professional pathologist glancing at Ben's patients, at the mums-in-waiting, at the babies. She'd seen where Louise's dreams were drifting, strings or no strings.
'She'd make a lovely mum,' Ellen said, a trifle wistfully. Her own children weren't showing any signs of making her a grandma. She wouldn't mind if her boss
'With someone else as dad,' Ben said grimly, and snapped his briefcase closed. 'Not me.'
'What do you have against families?'
'I have nothing for them and nothing against them. I just don't have anything to do with them. Or women who want them. Which is why I'm staying on at Cassowary Island after the conference. The rest of the world can celebrate Christmas, and I'll lie on the beach and wait for Santa to drop by with my Boys' Own Adventure. That's not to say I don't wish you a wonderful Christmas,' he said, hauling an exquisitely wrapped box from under the desk. 'Merry Christmas, Ellen. Have a wonderful time.'
'With my family,' she said sadly. 'You know I'd love you' 'No,' he said. 'And it's time you stopped asking. I love you, Ellen, but even for you even for anyone, I don't do families.'
'All I want for Christmas is my dad.'
'That's not exactly a practical wish.' Jess was perched on the end of her small son's bed, listening to his Christmas list with dismay. Until now Dusty's Christmas list had been easy. Fire engine. Spider-Man outfits. Computer games.
She'd thought she had a couple of years until the troublesome teens, but lately they'd been showing signs of emerging. For Dusty wasn't smiling with Christmas excitement. He was glowering, his ten-year-old face trying hard to look mature and solemn, not sulky and childlike. He wasn't quite managing to pull it off.
'You know your dad died when you were three,' Jess said, as gently as she could. 'Not even Santa can fix that.'
'I know that,' he said, intelligent kid speaking to slightly thick adult. 'But all we have is three photos, and even they're blurry. That's what I want. A whole bunch of pictures. And other stuff. Pictures of my my ancestors. And things. Real things. Like a cricket bat he used, so when Mike talks about his dad I can show him something.'
So that's what this was about, Jess thought. Mike Scott was Dusty's new best friend. Mike's dad had died of cancer last year and Mike's mum, an anaesthetist, had moved to London to be closer to her mother. The two boys had become friends in the hospital's after-school child-care programme, two ten-year-olds, smart as paint, both with dead fathers.
Difference? Mike had a lifetime of memorabilia. Dusty had three grainy photos.
Which was hardly surprising. Mike's parents had been happily married. Jess was a single mum. She'd met Nate in her first year in medical school. She'd been desperately lonely and desperately unlucky, in her choice of boyfriend, in her choice of contraception, in life.
She was much better at it now. Life. Somehow she'd scraped through medical school. Somehow she'd managed to raise a normally cheerful, healthy ten-year-old who hardly ever asked anything of her.
Who was looking at her now with the expression she knew well.
He seldom asked for anything, but when he did.
'There's nothing I can do about this,' she said, knowing only an adult answer would do. 'You know your father wasn't ready to be a proper father when you were born, and you know he was killed when you were a toddler.'
'When I was three,' Dusty said belligerently. 'There must be photos.'
'There aren't.' She'd never been able to tell him the whole truth, that his father had never come near, had never seen his son, had even disputed fatherhood. 'Dusty, we weren't photo-taking people.'
'Then someone else must have been,' Dusty said, clinging grimly to his need. 'When he was a kid.'
'Your grandpa was a grouch,' Jess said. Here at least she could be honest. Or a little bit honest. 'I asked if he could let us see something of your dad's childhood and he told me he wasn't interested in sharing.'
And that summed up an appalling interview. Memories flooded back, Jess at twenty-one, using all her courage and failing. She'd hoped Nate had told his father about Dusty, or if he hadn't she'd hoped he'd be pleased he had a grandson. She'd hoped wrong.
She remembered standing in the marble hall of a house that had taken her breath away. Nate had been dead for three months. His child-support payments, tiny and grudgingly given but still desperately important if she was to keep studying, had stopped completely.
She'd known Nate's family was almost obscenely wealthy. She'd known those payments would mean nothing to them, but they'd meant everything to her.
So she'd faced the old man-and watched him turn choleric with rage and disdain.
'How dare you come near me with your lies and your schemes? My son would never have a child with the likes of you. Get out of my house; you'll not get a penny out of me. Nothing.'
It had taken her two years to calm down, to find the courage to write. This time she'd enclosed a picture of Dusty, who looked just like his father, saying that even if he didn't wish to help support Dusty, she'd like some kind of recognition that Dusty had had a dad.
She'd received a lawyer's letter in response, threatening her with a defamation suit.
She could prove it in a minute, she thought. Nate had known it; that's why he'd grudgingly paid child support. DNA testing would be conclusive, either from the old man or from Nate's brother.
But what was the point? Prove paternity she already knew? Pay a fortune she didn't have in lawyer's fees?
Dusty needed to forget it, as she almost had. 'There's nothing we can do,' she told Dusty now. 'I know this is hard, but you need to accept that your dad's dead. So's your grandpa. There's nothing left to show you of your dad's family.'
'You said Dad had a brother.'
'He hardly talked of him. I don't think they liked each other.' She didn't think the whole family liked each other. 'So let's find him.'
'Dusty, he won't want to see us. He's probably grouchy like your grandpa.'
'No, but we could see him,' Dusty said. 'It'd be like an adventure. Just looking. I might be able to take a picture with my zoom lens. Then when Mike asks I can say he's a secret and we had to sneak a look.'
And it'd be something to talk about, Jess thought. A game
'I'll look him up on the internet,' she promised. 'I'll see.'
'It's all I want for Christmas,' Dusty said, belligerent. 'To see my dad's brother.'
'What about a skateboard?'
'Not even a new gaming console,' Dusty said grandly. 'And looking at an uncle would be cheap.'
Sneaking a photograph of this uncle wasn't going to be cheap. It was free.
With Dusty in bed, she searched the internet and up he came. Ben Oaklander.
Nate's brother was in Australia, and information about him was everywhere.
Apparently he was a doctor, an obstetrician, just as she was, only this guy was seriously good. He was five years older than she was, but about twenty years older in terms of career.
She remembered the first time she'd met Nate. He'd been studying law, and she'd been in first year medical school. Her friend introducing her as 'my friend, Jess, who's just started medicine.'
'What, a save the world do-gooder like my sainted brother?' Nate had snapped, but then he'd looked at her, focused, apologised for his bad manners and set himself out to be charming. Which had been very charming indeed.
His brother had hardly been mentioned again.
And here he was. Nate's brother.
Not so much.
She was at a site advertising a conference being held in December, at somewhere called Cassowary Island off Australia's Queensland coast. Keynote speaker, Benjamin Oaklander.
One of Australia's most eminent obstetricians. Youngest professor Contributor to three texts, author of thirty journal articles. Top of his field. Highly regarded researcher.
A picture. He was dark where Nate had been blond. He was about the same height, though, standing tall among a group of colleagues at an award ceremony, and he had the same lovely eyes, a deep, azure blue. He was smiling straight at the camera, and that smile.
She remembered that smile. Dangerous.
But this would do, she thought. There was no need for sneaky zoom lenses when she could show Dusty this.
She closed the computer with a snap.
But then she thoughtit wouldn't do. She knew Dusty. He didn't see the internet as real. He wanted real contact.
Maybe when he was older she'd try and contact this man.
She opened her laptop again.