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MELISSA CUMMINGS BUZZED down Balderdash Road in her apple-green Volkswagen Beetle, flipping between stations in search of country music. A little Keith Urban would be nice, or Missy Higgins. All she could find were ads and news.
-fine and warm this autumn afternoon in Melbourne-
-woman and two children missing from their Ballarat home-
-two for one at Carpet Emporium-
Dappled light filtered through the towering gum trees that crowded the narrow road. Melissa rounded a bend and shrieked as a figure darted in front of the car. She swerved, barely missing a boy of about eight years old. She had a fleeting glimpse of carrot-red hair and a blue T-shirt before the kid, his small limbs churning, dived into the thick undergrowth.
Melissa brought the car to a skidding halt, her heart racing.
Where had the boy gone? Was he hurt?
In the rearview mirror she saw a toy fire engine lying on its side across the center line.
Slowly she reversed, winding down the window. "Hello, little boy? Are you all right?"
The hot afternoon was heavy with the throb of cicadas and the resinous scent of eucalyptus. A magpie lifted his black-and-white head and sent forth a liquid warble. Melissa gripped the wheel with one hand and worried at a hangnail on the other with her teeth. Had she actually hit the boy? She couldn't remember feeling any impact. But if he wasn't hurt, why hadn't he come out of the bushes? He could be lying in there, unable to move. What if he needed a doctor?
She turned off the engine and climbed out of the car.
Picking up the fire engine, she wobbled into the bush in her high heels. "Helloo," she sang out. "I'm coming."
Dear God, please don't let him be dead.
The dry grass brushed against her bare legs and left tiny seeds caught on the lace hem of her skirt. She forced herself to move steadily through the thick undergrowth. A trickle of perspiration dripped down her back beneath the sleeveless top. She crept to one side of a shrub and pulled back the leafy branches. A small boy, dirty and disheveled, peered up at her, clearly terrified.
"Thank goodness you're alive." Melissa held out his toy. "Are you hurt?"
The child snatched it from her hand and ran, only to stumble on a fallen limb hidden in the grass. He fell with a cry and rolled to one side, clutching his leg. Blood streamed from a gash on his shin.
At the sight of the blood, spots swam in front of Melissa's eyes. She was going to faint. Deep breath in, deep breath out. First-stop the bleeding. She couldn't even think until the boy's leg was bandaged.
"Don't worry," she said, as much to reassure herself as him. "I've got a first-aid kit in my car."
"Mum! Where are you?" The boy struggled to his feet, ignoring the blood still running down his leg. His ankle buckled under him.
"Josh!" A petite blond woman popped out from behind a bush a few yards away and pushed through the tall grass. She had a leather purse slung over her shoulder, and in her other hand she carried a plastic grocery bag. Her taupe linen top and khaki capri pants were smudged with dirt, and the scratches on her tanned calves were beaded with blood. When she reached the boy she threw her arms around him.
"Mummy!" A little girl of about six, with strawberry-blond hair, emerged from behind a large brushbox tree and waded through the grass to clutch at her mother's legs. Her bare arm below the sleeve of her pink T-shirt sported a cluster of dark purple bruises, and there was another dark bruise across her cheekbone and eye.
"Did you fall and hurt yourself, too?" Melissa started to reach out, but the girl shrank back. "There's a petrol station a few kilometers back. I could get some ice for that eye."
"Callie's fine." The woman curled a hand protectively around her daughter's shoulder as she urged the children back the way she'd come. "Josh'll be fine, too." The boy limped on his sprained ankle and the girl struggled to keep up, but neither made a peep.
Melissa frowned, confused by their reluctance to accept help. "His wound could get worse if you leave it," she insisted, picking her way among fallen logs and scrubby weeds after them. "Infection, tetanus, gangrene-you can't be too careful.You really should go to the hospital. I'd be happy to take you."
"Mum?" The boy stopped and leaned on his mother. His voice quavered and his chin wobbled as he fought back tears. "I could use a Band-Aid."
"Oh, Josh, darling." She hugged him tightly. "Of course you can have a Band-Aid." She turned to Melissa with a well-bred graciousness that not even soiled clothing could diminish. "Thank you for your kind offer of first aid, but no hospital, please."
"Okay," Melissa said carefully. What the heck was going on here? "I'm Melissa, by the way. What's your name?"
The woman hesitated, her hazel eyes searching Melissa's face. Finally she said, "I'm Diane. We'll come back out to the road."
At the car, Melissa grasped her large metal firstaid kit by its handles and heaved it out of her trunk. Then she carried it to Josh, who was sitting on a log in the shade of a gum tree.
Diane helped her lower the box to the ground. "This is the biggest first-aid kit I've ever seen."
"I like to be prepared." Melissa knelt before it and handed out gauze, butterfly adhesives, a tensor bandage, antiseptic ointment, scissors and tape. Her family thought she was a hypochondriac, but in her opinion one couldn't do too much when it came to health and safety.
"Are you a nurse, too?" Josh asked. Tears had dried into tracks down his freckled cheeks.
"Me? No way! I'm petrified at the sight of blood." Melissa glanced at Diane. "Are you a nurse?"
"I haven't practiced since before Josh was born, but, yes, I'm a registered nurse."
"Thank goodness! You can dress his wound." Melissa's stomach was still churning at the sight of Josh's torn flesh. Bits of grass and dirt were caught in the sticky blood oozing from the deep gash.
"Mummy, I'm hurt, too." Callie whimpered and thrust out her arm. In addition to the bruises, she had a fresh scrape on her elbow. "I want you to nurse me!"
"In a minute, darling," Diane said. "As soon as I get Josh patched up."
"I can manage your elbow," Melissa said to Callie, who reluctantly came forward in response to her mother's encouraging nod. "I've got Winnie the Pooh Band-Aids. Do you want Pooh Bear or Tigger?"
Melissa took care of Callie's scrape, then pulled the girl onto her lap while Diane swabbed the debris out of Josh's wound, dabbed on the antiseptic and pulled the gaping edges together with butterfly adhesives. Melissa didn't want to look, but couldn't help admiring the capable, efficient way she worked, covering the cleaned wound and taping a gauze pad into place. Finally Diane wound a tensor bandage around Josh's sprained ankle in a precise herringbone pattern and clamped the end with a metal clip. Brushing the tears from her son's eyes, she said, "You're a brave boy."
Melissa helped Callie to her feet and started repacking the first-aid kit. "If you don't mind me asking, why are you walking way out here in the middle of nowhere?"
Diane gathered up the scraps of wrapping from the bandages, not meeting her gaze. "We-we walked into Tipperary Springs and now we're on our way back to-the farm where we're staying."
"Oh, so you're here on holiday," Melissa said.
"My sister, Ally, manages a cottage-rental agency in Tipperary Springs. Maybe you met her-brown hair, colorful cardigans, quirky brooches?" Diane looked baffled and Melissa decided she must have gone to another agency. "You'll love this area. There's hiking, fishing, hot-air ballooning, the mineral springs-."
She trailed off, frowning, as the oddness of their situation sunk in. The town was five kilometers away, a long distance on a road with no footpath. "Did your car break down? Do you want to use my mobile phone?"
"We came by bus." Once again Diane slung her purse over her arm, hefted her bag of groceries, then took a child by each hand. Looking cautiously both ways, she started walking off.
Melissa followed. "Buses don't run along this road."
"I told you, we walked from Tipperary Springs." The woman looked well-off; it didn't make sense that they'd taken a bus to town and walked from there. And now Josh's ankle was sprained and Callie was drooping like a wilted flower.
"Hop in the car. I'll give you a lift to where you're staying." Diane hesitated and Melissa added,
"Your son's leg could start bleeding again. And you know he shouldn't walk on a sprain."
"I don't mind if my leg bleeds," Josh said bravely.
"Oh, sweetheart." Diane squeezed his shoulder.
"All right," she said to Melissa. "Thank you."
When they'd loaded the kids in the rear and Diane had taken the passenger seat, Melissa pulled back onto the road. Soon the thick stands of gum trees gave way to small farms nestled among rolling green hills. Diane stared out her window, absently fingering a single strand of cultured pearls. "Where are you from?" Melissa asked, trying to make conversation.