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Dr Grace Perry hated feeling unprepared. She'd happily lived her entire adult life totally prepared for all situations. She liked being prepared. Loved it, actually. It gave her power and a sense of control.
She loved control.
And order. And predictability.
Otherwise there was just chaos. And Grace hated chaos. Unfortunately there'd been precious little order and too much chaos in the last eighteen months.
So today she planned to take back control.
All she had to do was get the job.
An interview she was feeling totally unprepared for after her early-morning flight from Brisbane and Tash's door slamming condemnation from last night still ringing in her ears.
Grace sighed as she pushed the lift button. How could a sullen fifteen-year-old girl have defeated herbroken herso utterly? Taken her nice, neat, ordered, controlled world and turned it totally on its ear.
Grace hated defeat.
The lift arrived and Grace put the rare moment of self-pity aside as she strode into it and pushed the button for the eighth floor.
Such negative thoughts did not bode well going into the interview of her life. And however hard it had been on her to become guardian to her niece and nephew, it had been a thousand times worse for Tash and Benji.
The doors opened at her destination and Grace took a moment to straighten the dark grey skirt that flared around her knees, balancing out the flare of very feminine hips. She did up the large buttons on her matching jacket.
You can do this, she lectured herself as her strappy pumps sank into plush carpet. You are a fantastic emergency physician with fifteen years' experience and a respected manager.
You are outstandingly qualified.
Opposite the lifts was a large reception desk and she made her way to it.
'Dr Grace Perry to see Dr John Wilkie,' she said, injecting a note of calm assurance as if the interview was no more trifling than a sutured finger or a strep throat.
The starched-looking receptionist peered at her over half-moon glasses and frowned. She consulted her watch and then some paperwork. 'You're early.'
Grace blinked, feeling as if she'd committed some horrible transgression. 'Yes. It's a terrible habit of mine.'
Or it used to be anyway before chaos had taken over.
'Sorry,' she added, feeling the need to apologise to the un-amused woman in front of her. Then she smiled to reassure the receptionist it wouldn't happen again and to vanquish the horrible feeling of being caught on the back foot.
The receptionist sniffed then stood. 'Please follow me.'
Grace did as she was instructedshe didn't dare not to following the woman's brisk march through a series of corridors until they reached a door and entered a lounge area.
'Take a seat. Dr Wilkie's conducting another interview.' She sniffed again. 'He may be a while.'
'That's fine,' Grace murmured, sinking into the nearest lounge chair. 'I have some work to do,' she said, patting her bag.
The receptionist departed and Grace was left to her own devices. Self-directed as ever and rather than think about who was on the other side of the closed door opposite, making a play for her job, she hauled out her laptop, placing it on the low table in front of her. She adjusted her glasses and waited for it to power up.
Twenty minutes later she was fully engrossed in a report when her mobile rang. Distracted, Grace searched through her bag for it. Normally she'd have it attached to her waistband but she had this bloody impractical skirt on today instead of her regulation trousers with their convenient loops so she'd thrown it in her bag.
It trilled insistently as Grace pulled out the entire contents of her bag onto the table in an effort to locate it.
Where could one little phone hide, for crying out loud?
She finally located it and pushed the answer button. 'Dr Perry,' she said.
'Hello, Dr Perry, this is Juanita from Brisbane City High.'
Grace gripped the phone harder as a surge of dread rose like a monster from the deep inside her. 'What's she done now?' She sighed.
'Natasha hasn't shown up today. Again. That's the third time this week.'
Grace shut her eyes. 'I see.' She knew her niece had been dropped at school. There'd been a text from Jo, the nanny, when she'd disembarked in Melbourne that morning, telling her so.
'Right, thanks. I'll deal with it.'
Grace's hand shook as she tried Tash's mobile. It went to the message bank and Grace left a terse message. She rang Jo next and informed her, then texted her niece.
Get your butt to school. Now!
Grace wasn't overly worried about Tash. If her niece ran true to form, she'd be at the local shopping centre.
Hopefully not shoplifting this time.
Grace was pretty sure Tash had learned her lesson from her brief foray into petty crime. But that boy would probably be there too. What was his name? Hayden? Jayden? Braydon? Something like that And that was cause for concern.
Caught up in the drama as she was and the sick feeling that had been fermenting in her gut for eighteen months, Grace startled when the door opened abruptly and two male voices intruded on her disquiet.
'Thanks John, I look forward to hearing from you.'
'No worries, Brent. The successful applicant will be informed by the end of next week.'
The hairs on the back of Grace's neck prickled and it had nothing to do with the way the two men shook hands, slapped backs and generally interacted like the outcome was a foregone conclusion.
And everything to do with Dr Brent Cartwright. Her first love.
She rose abruptly to her feet as if she'd been zapped by some sort of divine cattle prod. Shock waves buffeted her body as twenty years fell away in an instant and the memories flooded back.
His deep, rich voice. The rumble in his laugh. The way he'd looked at her like she was the only woman on the planet. How he'd enjoyed teasing her. The way he'd told stories. His generosity. His intellect. His attention to detail.
The heat of his mouth.
The smell of his neck.
The way he'd filled her more perfectly than any man ever had.
The way he'd shaken his head, his angry words when she'd broken their brief engagement. Broken his heart. Broken both their hearts.
'Ah, Dr Perry,' John Wilkie greeted her from the door. 'Edwina said you were here already. Give us a few minutes, would you?' he requested as he backed through the door and shut it again.
Grace nodded dumbly, her pulse tap-dancing a frantic beat at her temples, but had eyes only for an equally stunned-looking Brent.
Brent stared. He couldn't help it. Grace Perry.
The one that got away.
He was momentarily speechless. Twenty years and yet the memories rushed out at him. Walking hand and hand through
the uni campus as the leaves had changed and they'd fallen in love. Skipping classes. Staying in bed for days in a row. Talking endlessly into the night. Eating cold leftover pizza for breakfast too many mornings to count.
Drinking cheap cafeteria coffee as they swatted up for anatomy exams, desperately trying to catch up on the things they'd missed.
She'd been his first love.
He took a step towards her, reached out a hand. He felt as gauche as a schoolboy. As unsure as the eighteen-year-old man who had considered her way out of his league but had wanted her anyway.
He finally found his voice. 'Gracie '
She stiffened as his endearment yanked her back to the present. 'It's Grace,' she said, taking a step back. 'Just Grace.'
Brent stilled as her don't-touch-me vibe sparked other memories. The cold stab of her it's-over speech. The hard bite of the solitaire engagement ring she'd curled into his palm. The straightness of her spine as she'd turned away from him.
He stuffed his hands into his pockets, embarrassed by the impulse and surprised how, even after all these years, it was automatic for him to reach for her.
But if she could be cool and collected, so could he. 'How are you?' he asked politely. 'You're interviewing for the head of emergency?'
Grace nodded. 'You too?'
'Yes. I've been acting in it for the last four months.'
His voice flowed over her like warm butterscotch sauce oozing into long-forgotten places and Grace's heart banged like a bongo in her chest. It had no right to betray her. It should be sinking in her chest, not thumping merrily along like it wasn't aware of the implications of Brent's words.
What hope in hell did she have of getting the job if there was already someone acting in it?
She groped around for another subject. 'Have you stayed in Melbourne all these years?'
Brent nodded, keeping his face neutral. 'Some of us don't consider that a hardship, Grace.'
It had been twenty years but the slight clench of his jaw still gave him away. She'd pissed him off. She raised her chin and forced herself to shrug.
'It wasn't meant to be a criticism.'
Brent, oh, so familiar with that little chin lift, regarded her for a moment. She'd changed. And yet she hadn't. Her hair was shorter. Her hips were even curvier. She wore trendy glasses instead of contacts. And fashionable clothes. Her make-up had been artfully applied.
But her grey eyes still looked at him the same steady way they always had. The same old frankness was there. And her full lips still parted softly the way they always had, as if silently begging to be kissed.
Her lip gloss was the same too, he noticed absently. It still glistened like dew on cobwebs and its heady vanilla essence curled delicious fingers around his gut. He didn't have to try it to know it would still taste like honey.
But he wanted to.
He wondered how many years apart it would take to erase that tantalising aroma from his memory cells. The one that occasionally drifted elusively through his dreams.
Brent stared at her mouth for what seemed an age and Grace felt heat build everywhere as she ruthlessly suppressed the nervousor was that wanton?urge to trace the outline of her lips with her tongue.
But even more dangerous to her equilibrium was the storm surge of emotions welling inside her. Feelings she'd long since buried spluttered to the surface. The sense of rightness and belonging he'd always stirred inside her. The feeling of completeness when he'd held her.
All of which she'd rejected twenty years ago.
Maybe emotions like that were just too strong to ever truly forget?
She shook her head, fighting to wrest back control.
This was crazy. Certifiable! It had to stop
And then the door behind Brent opened abruptly and John Wilkie was smiling and calling her in, before disappearing back into the room.
'Coming,' she said, dragging her gaze from the searing heat of Brent's.
She turned back to her bag, the contents still strewn over the table, stuffing it all back in, shutting her laptop lid and shoving it in too. Aware of Brent's heavy stare the entire timefeeling it in her breasts and her belly and her thighs.
But mostly in her heart.
Items slipped through her useless fingers, dropped to the floor, rolled out of reach. Grace wanted to weep she felt so clumsy and.
Out of control.
Chaos reigned again.
She forced the last item in and stood, taking a couple of deep, calm breaths. This interview was important. And she was the best one for the job. She needed to be composed. Prepared. In control.
She drew in three more cleansing breaths before turning to face Brent again. 'It was nice seeing you again,' she said politely, before gathering all her bravado and walking past him, her head high.
And her knickers twisted into the mother of all knots!
Nice? Nice! Brent stared after her until the softly shut door completely obscured her.
It had been surprising. Shocking. Startling.
He sat down on the nearby lounge and shook his head. Nice? Damn, it was anything but nice.
Even now his body was stuck back in first-year uni, skipping class to stay in bed with her all day. It was a wonder the two of them hadn't contracted a vitamin D deficiency. Or turned into vampires.
They'd certainly had insatiable appetites!
Brent absently rubbed his jaw as the memories played like an old film reel in his head. He'd never quite managed to erase the images of her. Not through twenty years of distance or even two impulsive marriages and their subsequent fallouts.
And here she was. At Melbourne Central Hospital.
Confounding him again. Making him feel things again. Challenging all his assumptions about her being firmly in his past.
He dropped his head in his hands and shut his eyes. For some reason he'd been so sure they'd never cross paths ever again. Her goodbye had been so finalhe'd never doubted she meant it even when he'd wasted two years harbouring secret fantasies about a reconciliation.
Meeting her today had been a huge jolt.
And very far from nice.
Dear God. What if she got the job? His job. What if he had to see her every day? Hear that laugh he'd loved so much. Watch that sway to her hips.
Smell that damn lip gloss?
Brent opened his eyes on a silent groan, his gaze falling on an object near his foot. He reached for it, realising it was a photograph. Grace must have dropped it from her bag when she was stuffing everything back in.
He stared at the image for a long time, trying to comprehend what he saw. Two children, a boy and a girl. The girl looked about twelve. The boy four, maybe five. Brother and sister?
They were laughing at the camera, their arms slung around each other's necks. Trees and a clothesline could just be seen in the background. They looked happy and loved.
And remarkably like Grace.
The girl more so. They both had her grey eyes but the girl had long blonde hair that fell in a white-blonde curtain to her waist, just as Grace's had back when he'd first known her. The boy looked more like Grace around the mouth. He laughed like her.
Grace had children.
His brain tried to reject the notion but he knew it somewhere deep in his gut. Just like he'd known all those years ago that she'd meant it when she'd said she was never coming back.
Grace had children.
Was she married also? Had she been wearing a ring?
A storm of emotions built inside him and he gripped the corners of the photograph hard. What the hell had happened to remaining childless? To never, ever?