Read an Excerpt
Predictions of earthquakes. Hysteria. One lone doctor. Dr Ben McMahon was busy at the best of times and now there weren't enough hours in the day to see everyone who wanted to be seen. His clinic was chaos.
There was, though, another doctor on the island, even though she'd declared she was no longer practising medicine. Up until now Ben had let Ginny be, but Squid's doomsday forecasting meant he needed her.
The last time Ben McMahon had asked anything of Guinevere Koestrel he'd been down on one knee, as serious as a seventeen-year-old boy could be, pouring his teenage heart out to the woman he adored.
And why wouldn't he adore her? She'd been his friend since she was eight, ever since Ginny's parents had bought the beautiful island vineyard as their hobby/holiday farm and Ben's mother had become Ginny's part-time nanny. They'd wandered the island together, fished, swum, surfed, fought, defended each other to the deathbeen best friends.
But that last summer hormones had suddenly popped up everywhere. On the night of his ill-advised proposal Ginny had been wearing a fabulous gown, bought by her wealthy parents for the island's annual New Year's Eve Ball. He'd been wearing an ill-fitting suit borrowed from a neighbour. Her appearance had stunned him.
But social differences were dumb, he'd told himself. Suddenly it had seemed vital to his seventeen-year-old self that they stay together for ever.
Surely she could change her plans to study medicine in Sydney, he told her. He planned to be a doctor, too. There was a great medical course in Auckland and he'd won a scholarship. If he worked nights he could manage it, and surely Ginny could join him.
But the seventeen-year-old Ginny had smiledquite kindlyand told him he was nuts. Her life was in Sydney. The tiny New Zealand island of Kaimotu was simply a place where she and her parents came to play. Besides, she had no intention of marrying a man who called her Carrots.
That had been twelve years ago. Ben had long since put the humiliation of adolescent love behind him, but now there was a more important question. Ginny had been back on the island for six months now. She'd signalled in no uncertain terms that she wanted privacy but Ginny Koestrel was a doctor and a doctor was what the island needed. Now. Which was why, even though looking at her brought back all sorts of emotions he'd thought he'd long suppressed, he was asking yet again. 'Ginny, I need you.'
But the answer would be the samehe knew it. Ginny was surrounded by grapevines, armed with a spray gun, and she was looking at him like he was an irritating interruption to her work.
'I'm sorry, Ben, but I have no intention of working as a doctor again. I have no intention of coming near your clinic. Meanwhile, if these vines aren't sprayed I risk black rot. If you don't mind '
She squirted her spray gun at the nearest vine. She wasn't good. She sprayed too high and lost half the mist to the breeze.
Ben lifted the spray pack from her back, aimed the gun at the base of the vine and watched the spray drift up through the foliage.
'Vaccination is one of my many medical skills,' he told her, settling a little, telling himself weird emotions were simply a reaction to shared history, nothing to do with now. They both watched as the spray settled where it should, as emotions settled where they should. 'There's a good vine, that didn't hurt at all, did it?' he said, adopting his very best professional tone. 'If you grow good grapes next year, the nice doctor will give you some yummy compost.' He grinned at the astounded Ginny. 'That's the way you should treat 'em, Carrots. Didn't they teach you anything in your fancy medical school?'
Ginny flushed. 'Cut it out, Ben, and don't you dare call me Carrots. In case you haven't noticed, it's auburn.' She hauled her flaming curls tighter into the elastic band, and glowered.
'And not Ginny either. And I'm a farmer, not a doctor.'
'I don't actually care who you are,' Ben said, deciding he needed to be serious if he was to have a chance of persuading her. 'You have a medical degree, and I'm desperate. It's taken me twelve months to find a family doctor to fill old Dr Reg's place. Dr Catherine Bolt seemed eminently sensible, but she's lived up to her name. One minor earth tremor and she's bolted back to the mainland.'
'I'm not kidding.' He raked his hand through his hair, remembering how relieved he'd been when the middle-aged Catherine had arrived and how appalled he'd felt when she'd left. He really was alone.
'Every New Zealander has felt earth tremors,' he told Ginny. 'We're not known as the shaky isles for nothing. But you know Squid's set himself up as Forecaster of Doom. With no scientific evidence at all he's been droning on about double flowers of the pohutukawa tree and strange tides and weird bird behaviour and every portent of catastrophe he can think of. There's something about a shrivelled fisherman with a blackened pipe and a voice of doom that gets the natives twitchy. 'As well as losing us our doctor, I now have half the islanders demanding a year's supply of medication so they can see out the apocalypse.'
She smiled, but faintly. 'So you want me on hand for the end of the world?'
'There's no scientific evidence that we're heading for a major earthquake,' he said with dangerous calm. 'But we do have hysteria. Ginny, help me, please.'
'I'm sorry, Ben, but no.'
'Why on earth did you do medicine if you won't practise?'
'That's my business.'
He stared at her in baffled silence. She was a different woman from the one he'd proposed to twelve years ago, he thought. Well, of course she would be. His mother had outlined a sketchy history she'd winkled out of the returning Ginny, a marriage ending in tragedy, but but
For some reason he found himself looking at the elastic band. Elastic band? A Koestrel?
Ginny's parents were the epitome of power and wealth. Her father was a prominent Sydney neurosurgeon and her mother's sole purpose was to play society matron. Twice a year they spent a month on the island, in the vineyard they'd boughtno doubt as a tax deductionflying in their friends, having fabulous parties.
The last time he'd seen Ginny she'd been slim, beautiful, but also vibrant with life. She'd been bouncy, glowing, aching to start medicine, aching to start life. Ready to thump him if he still called her Carrots.
In the years since that youthful proposal he'd realised how wise she'd been not to hurl herself into marriage at seventeen. He'd forgiven hernobly, he decidedand he'd moved on, but in the back of his mind she'd stayed bouncy, vibrant and glowing. Her mother had carefully maintained her fabulous exterior and he'd expected Ginny to do the same.
She hadn't. The Ginny he was facing now wore elastic bands. Worse, she looked grim. Flat. Old? She couldn't be thirty, and yet How much had the death of a loved one taken out of her?
Did such a death destroy life? 'Ginny'
'No,' she snapped. 'I've come back to work the vineyard, and that's all.'
'The harvest is long over.'
'I don't care. I'm spraying for something, whatever Henry told me I had to spray for. When I finish spraying I need to gear up for pruning. Henry's decided to retire and I need to learn. I'm sorry, Ben, but I'm no longer a doctor. I'm a wine-maker. Good luck with finding someone who can help you.'
And then she paused. A car was turning into the driveway. A rental car.
It must be Sydney friends, Ben thought, come over on the ferry, but Ginny wasn't dressed for receiving guests. She was wearing jeans, an ancient windcheater, no make-up and she had mud smeared on her nose. A Koestler welcoming guests looking like a farmhand? No and no and no.
'Now what?' she said tightly, and she took the spray pack from Ben and turned to another vine. 'Have you brought reinforcements? Don't you know I have work to do?'
'This isn't anyone to do with me,' Ben said, and watched who was climbing out of Kaimotu's most prestigious hire car. The guy looked like a businessman, he thought, and a successful one at that. He was sleek, fortyish, wearing an expensive suit and an expression of disdain as he glanced around at the slightly neglected vineyard. The man opened the trunk and tossed out a holdall. Then he opened the back car doorand tugged out a child.
She was a little girl, four or five years old. She almost fell as her feet hit the ground, but the man righted her as if she was a thing, not a person.
'Guinevere Koestrel?' he called, and headed towards them, tugging the child beside him. 'I'm Richard Harris, from Harris, Styne and Wilkes, partners in law from Sydney. You were expecting me? Or you were expecting the child?'
There was a long silence while Ginny simply stared, dumbstruck, at the incongruous couple approaching.
'I I guess,' she managed at last. 'But not yet.' The lawyer was tugging the child closer and as he did.
Down's syndrome, Ben thought. The markers were obvious. The little girl was beautifully dressed, her neat black hair was cropped into a smart little cut, there was a cute hair ribbon perched on topbut nothing could distract from the Down's features.
He glanced back at Ginny, and he saw every vestige of colour had drained from her face. Instinctively he put out a hand to steady her and she grabbed it, as desperately as if she'd been drowning.
'I didn't expect ' she said. 'I thought this wouldn't happen for months. The legal processes.'
'Our client was prepared to pay whatever was needed to free her to go to Europe,' the man said, clipped and formal. 'We sent you emails. We received no response and we had no phone contact. Our client left the country last Friday, giving us no choice but to bring her. We had a nanny accompany us to New Zealand but the girl gets seasick and refused to come on the ferry.'
He gazed down at the child, and at the look on his face Ben wondered how much leverage had been applied to make such a man do a job like this. A lot, he was sure.
'I don't I don't check emails any more,' Ginny managed, and the lawyer looked at her as if she was a sandwich short of a picnic. A woman who didn't check emails? His expression said she must be as disabled as the child beside him.
But 'No matter,' he said, making a hasty recovery. 'My only fear was that I wouldn't find you, but now you're here this is the official handover. According to the documents we mailed to you last month, you've accepted responsibility for her. Her mother's left for Europe. Her instructions were to deliver her to you and here she is.'
And he propelled her forward, pushing her away from him, a little girl in a pretty pink dress, with pink sandals and an expression that said she didn't have one idea of what was happening to her.
If she weren't a Down's child, she'd be sobbing, Ben thought, but he knew enough about the syndrome to know sobbing was a last resort. But still.
'Oh, my ' Ginny said faintly, and Ben's hold on her tightened still further. He'd seen patients in shock before, and Ginny was showing every symptom.
'Ginny, what is this? What's going on?'
Ginny gave herself a shake, as if trying to rid herself of a nightmare. She, too, was staring down at the child. 'I This is '
She stopped and looked helplessly towards the lawyer and then at the little girl beside him. 'Tell him,' she said weakly. 'Please tell Ben.'
And the lawyer was happy to comply. He was obviously wanting a businesslike response and it looked like he'd decided Ben was the most likely to give it.
'This is Barbara Carmody,' the man said, clipped and efficient, not even looking at the little girl as he introduced her. 'The child's the result of an extra-marital affair between my client and Dr Koestrel's late husband. Her mother raised her with her other two children but unfortunately her husband has finally discovered that the child isn't his. He's rejected her. The marriage has failed and Mrs Carmody has left for Europe.'
'Her parents have deserted her?' Ben said incredulously.
'There are provisions for her care,' the lawyer said smoothly. 'Dr Koestrel's late husband left funds in his will for this eventuality, and there are institutions that will take her. On Mrs Car-mody's instructions we contacted Dr Koestrel for the release of those funds but instead of releasing money she's agreed to take on her care. So here she is. The paperwork's all in her suitcase. If you need to contact her mother, do it through usthe address is with her papers. If you could sign the included documents and forward them to our office I'd appreciate it. If you'll excuse me, I don't wish to miss the return ferry. Good afternoon.'
And he turned back towards the car.
The little girl didn't move. Neither did Ginny.
The man was about to walk away and leave the child behind.
Ben strode to the car, slammed closed the car door the lawyer was attempting to open then set himself between lawyer and car while Ginny stood in stunned, white-faced silence.
The little girl didn't move. She didn't look at the lawyer. She didn't look at anyone.
'Abandoning a child's a criminal offence,' Ben said, quite mildly, looking from the little girl to Ginny and back again. Ginny was staring at the child as if she was seeing a ghost. 'There must be formal proceedings.'
'I'll miss my ferry,' the man said. 'Dr Koestrel has signed the most important documents. Additional paperwork can be sent later.'
'You can't dump a child because you'll miss your ferry,' Ben said, and folded his arms, settling back, not understanding what was going on but prepared to be belligerent until he did.
'Dr Koestrel's agreed to take her. I'm not dumping anyone.'
'So what did you say? Barbara's the result of an affair between some woman and Ginny's late husband? Ginny, can you explain?'
'W-wait,' Ginny managed. She looked helplessly at the little girl and then something seemed to firm. Shock receded a little, just a little. She took a deep breath and reached out and took the little girl's hand.
She led her to the edge of the vines, where a veggie garden was loaded with the remains of a rich autumn harvest. Lying beside the garden was a hose. She turned it on and a stream of water shot out.
'Barbara,' she said, crouching with water squirting out of the hose. 'Can you give my tomatoes a drink while we talk? Can you do that for us?
The little girl looked at the hose, at the enticing stream of water. She gave the merest hint of a smile. Whatever had been happening in this child's life in the last few days, Ben thought, she needed time out and somehow Ginny had a sense of how to give it to her.
'Yes,' the girl said, and Ginny smiled and handed over the hose then faced Ben and the lawyer again.
'James died six months ago,' she managed. 'Of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.' Then she stopped again and stared across at the little girl fiercely watering tomatoes. She looked like she could find no words.