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Nine years ago
'London via Africa?'
Dr Georgina Lambert high-fived her best mate, Hamish, and stomped on the eddies of disappointment that threatened to churn her stomach. 'That's awesome news.'
They'd just finished a fabulous hour of surfing and she quickly unwrapped the bulging white paper parcel of fish and chips that sat between them on a beach towel. Better to do that than think about the fact Hamish would soon be leaving Australia. Leaving her.
Breathing in the addictive aroma of salt and fat to block out her sadness, she said, 'I guess this means we're all grown up now.'
Hamish grinned as he brushed his wet, sun-and-salt-bleached curls out of his twinkling cornflower-blue eyes. 'Grown up? Never.'
And that was Hamish to a T. He was the Pied Piper of fun and good times and generous in his inclusion of all. From the moment she'd met him when he'd dragged her out of her college study at university and had taken her to his then girlfriend's party, he'd been telling her she needed to 'take chances and live a little.' Numerous girlfriends, a hundred parties later, along with a tough and gruelling study load, they were best friends.
They had the sort of friendship that grew from sharing lifealtering experiences. Both of them understood the fine line between life and death that most people outside medicine had no clue about.
They knew they could talk to each other about things that would instantly kill a conversation at a cocktail party, and yet they understood that sometimes silence and just being there was all that was required. They made each other laugh and there'd been the odd time when they'd even cried together.
Over the years they'd leaned on each other at different times and Georgina couldn't imagine her life without him.
Returning his smile with an affectionate shake of her head, she said, 'Come to think of it, growing up would be your worst nightmare, wouldn't it?'
He laughed. 'Absolutely. Fortunately, big brothers Ben and Caleb are doing all the responsible stuff, and that has to be enough for the Pettigrew parents.'
She raised a brow because despite his party-boy ways, Hamish was a talented and reliable doctor. 'Not to mention six years of medical school, three years of internship and now a job in A and E at St Thomas's, London.'
He popped the ring pull on his can of drink. 'It's given me some parent cred for sure, and thankfully Ben's impending fatherhood has distracted them beautifully from the "when are you going to settle down?" question.'
Seagulls squawked around them, ever hopeful of getting some of the fish that nestled next to crisp and golden chips. She tore off a strip of white paper, wrapping it around the steaming-hot battered fish.
'I didn't know you were going to be an uncle.' Deep down inside her the hope that one day she'd be a mother flared, as it always did at the mention of a baby. 'London means you'll miss the birth of your first nephew or niece.'
'It's no biggie. Caleb will take his uncle duties seriously enough for both of us.' He shrugged. 'I'll post the kid a Paddington Bear from London.'
And there it wasthe reason they were best friends and not lovers. They both wanted vastly different things out of life. A vague sadness stirredone that always moved inside her whenever she thought about the fact he didn't want a family. Not that she thought everyone should have kids; she didn't. She accepted people's life choices, but Hamish had so much to give and he was really good with young patients.
Despite their close friendship and years of working together, and despite having tried a hundred different questions to try and find out why he was so adamant about staying single and not having children, she was no closer to knowing. She didn't understand his stance at all.
But adamant he was. There was a certain universal irony that a man so easy on the eyes, so genetically perfect that women stopped and stared while their subconscious said, Good genes for baby making, wasn't interested in becoming a father. Over the years, she'd watched as women had unwittingly flocked to him, investing too much of themselves too fast until it was too late. When Hamish dated a woman he was hers exclusively until the day he ended it, and 'ending it' happened frequently.
Perhaps because of his lack of commitment and the fact she wasn't interested in short-term relationships, there'd always been this unspoken rule between them that nothing would ever jeopardise their friendship.
That and chemistry. Or to be precise, a lack of it on Hamish's side, with the exception of one drunk moment that had stopped almost before it had started. He'd only ever treated her like a buddy and over the years she'd realised why. Every girlfriend he'd ever had was a certain body typetall, willowy and perfect.
With her short waist, solid legs and wide hips, she was so far removed from willowy it was a joke. Although initially she may have hoped for more than friendship from him, she'd soon realised friendship was what they did best and she treasured it.
They were mates, at ease with each other and very well aware of each other's foibles.
Munching in companionable silence, their hungry mouths devoured the wickedly wonderful salt-and fat-laden feast until all that was left was greasy paper.
Hamish wiped his mouth and asked, 'What about you, Georgie? You and Jonas going to open a family practice with a white picket fence and have a team of rug rats?'
Her bruised and battered heart limped in her chest and she delayed her answer momentarily by taking a slug of her drink. 'About me and Jonas '
Hamish's gaze scanned her face, his eyes full of worry. 'What?'
This time she shrugged and tried to keep her voice steady. 'Not happening.'
His hand shot out and pressed hers. 'Hell, since when?'
'Since last week. He's going to Sydney to do orthopaedics and his change of plans includes changing girlfriends.'
His eyes darkened. 'I never liked the bastard.'
She hiccoughed, appreciating his support. 'You say that every time I get dumped.'
He squeezed her hand and let it go. 'Yeah, well, that's what friends are for and remember, there've been times when you've done the dumping.'
'True, only this time I thought he was the one.'
He shook his head so hard that salt water sprayed her. 'For God's sake, Georgie, why do you always do this? You're only twenty-six and you've got loads of time to land the guy who wants nothing more than to make babies with you.'
Only she wasn't so sure. Unlike Hamish, she didn't have prospective partners lining up around the block and she knew from experience she didn't attract men from the first signal. She was more of a 'personality' girl than one with stunning good looks.
She thought about how he often talked about his brothers and their enthusiasm for settling down. 'Ben and Caleb sound perfect. It's a shame you don't have another brother for me.' She ate more chips. 'Got any cousins?'
He shot her his cheeky trademark grin. 'Only Richard, and he's less likely to settle down than me.'
'Wow, that's really saying something,' she teased.
'Poor George. You met the wrong Pettigrew.' His grin slowly transformed into something more serious. 'Stop worrying about settling down and just get out there and live your life. If you're still single at thirty-five then you've got something to stress about.'
An image from a movie she'd seen recently flipped into her head. She grinned. 'Is this where we make a pact to marry each other at thirty-five if we're both still single?'
'God, no.' A horrified expression ripped across his face, leaving her in no doubt about his feelings. 'You know I don't want any of that stuff. I want adventure, excitement, fun and good times. And surfing with you.'
She gave him a wry smile and stomped on the crazy sort of sadness that was still lingering from when he'd blithely thought nothing of missing the birth of his niece or nephew. 'Surfing with me is going to be a bit tricky from London.'
Saying it made it real, and tears built behind her eyes. Her best friend, the one person who always championed her, was leaving to cross the world. 'What am I going to do without you around the corner to whinge and moan to after a crappy day, laugh with, surf with and generally fail to solve the world's problems with over wine?'
He leaned forward, his blue eyes filled with sincerity. 'No matter where I am, if you need me, I'm only a phone call away.'
She took in a big, deep, breath and mustered a smile because, no matter how much she would miss him, she wanted him happy and she knew this adventure was what he wanted. 'Same back atcha, mate. Go slay England.'
He gave her a wink. 'That's what I'm planning.'
One year ago
'Okay, girl, here goes,' Georgie muttered to herself as she stood on the veranda of Hamish's beautifully restored California bungalow. The hot afternoon December sun beat in, heating the earthy brown and yellow mosaic tiles, which warmed the soles of her feet through thin sandals. Raising her index finger, she firmly pressed the recessed copper doorbell while her stomach sprang cartwheels. As the brisk ring faded away, her ears strained for familiar firm footsteps.
You should have texted him first.
She turned away from the door, wanting to run back to her car and take off at top speed.
Stop it. Surprising each other is what we do. Stick to the plan, it's now or never.
She spun back, staring intently at the familiar art nouveau leadlight in the front door as if it was going to offer her peace of mind. She sucked in a deep breath.
The door swung open. 'Georgie!'
His malt-whisky voicefilled with deep surprise and absolute delightflowed smoothly around her. Before she could squeak out a 'Hi', Hamish stepped forward, wrapped his arms firmly around her in a bear hug and lifted her off the ground. Swinging her around easily, he did two complete turns before setting her down again.
Twinkling eyes stared down at her. 'God, it's good to see you.'
She caught her breath. 'And you.'
He hugged her again. 'Come in. Come in.'
He ushered her into the house, leading the way down a central corridor until they stood in the light and airy extension. He kept his gaze glued on her. 'I can't believe it's you. I thought you were in Perth?'
Although they'd traded emails and texts, six months had flashed past since she'd last seen him and she found herself staring at him, not quite able to fill the well. His hair covered a little less of his forehead than it used to and a shorter style had taken out a lot of the curls. He had more laughter lines around his eyes but other than that he looked the sametall, toned, sun kissed and radiating enthusiasm for life.
After five years in London and Africawhere she'd visited him twicehe'd returned to Australia and bought this house on a tree-lined street in Geelong. It was close to his beloved coast and only a couple of hours' drive from his parents.
Not that he'd settled down. He spent at least three months of the year away with Giving Back, spearheading groups of doctors for the charity and working in developing countries.
He was very generous in his permanent offer for her to use the house for mini-breaks from Melbourne any time she wished. She'd envisaged using it often but at his housewarming party everything had changed when she'd met Luke. 'Lovely Luke', as all her friends called him, and she'd agreed, happily following him to Perth. The nickname had stuck right up until three months ago.
'I'm back and working in Melbourne.' She smiled at him, hoping he didn't spot the tension that coiled through her like a preloaded spring. Her heart galloped like a racehorse and her stomach swished back and forth like a washing machine. It took everything she had to work at making herself sound normalthe absolute opposite of how she was feeling because everything hung on his answer to a question.
'I thought you were in Peru until February. In fact, I didn't believe Joel Goldsmith when he told me you were back.'
He grimaced. 'Sorry, George, I know we usually let each other know when we're in or out of the country but things have been a bit crazy. Dad had a myocardial infarction so I came home early.'
'Oh, God.' Georgie had only met Hamish's parents a few timesat graduation, briefly in London and once at a charity dinner for Giving Back, but that didn't lessen her concern. 'Is he okay?'
Hamish nodded. 'He was lucky. They were in town doing Christmas shopping and ordering supplies for the guesthouse when it happened, so he went straight to the hospital and they inserted a stent. He's doing great. In fact, he's fitter now than before it all happened.'
'That's good to hear.' Georgie automatically swung round at the sound of footsteps.
A woman who looked to be in her early twenties, complete with bedroom eyes and a boyish figure which was barely covered by a skimpy bikini, appeared barefoot at the French doors. Absolutely nothing about her sagged or bulgedher youth guaranteeing everything held itself up on its own and stayed in its rightful place. She was perfect in every way and she'd probably never met a stretch mark or a full support bra, let alone sculpted underwear.
Georgie's insides slumped and she suddenly felt all of her thirty-four years. This womanShe's a girl.
This girl was the ideal example of Hamish's preferred typeeverything perfectly proportioned and nothing over or undersized in any way. Everything I'm not.
Over the years she'd got skilled at hiding the way each new girlfriend made her feel, so she tilted her head and raised her brows as if to say, Nothing's changed, I see.
Hamish caught the look and winked. 'Stephanie, this is my very good friend, Georgina.'
Although Hamish invariably shortened her name to Georgie or George, he always introduced her by her full name. It was at odds with his easygoing manner and she often wondered why he didn't feel other people should treat her name with the same casual familiarity he always did.
'Hi, Stephanie. Good to meet you.' She gave her a friendly wave, similar to the ones she'd given to the many girlfriends of Hamish's over the years. Girlfriends who'd once been of similar age but were now a lot younger.
Well, she was the grown-up in the room so she planned to be the one in charge. Keeping her gaze on Stephanie's face, she said, 'I just have some business to discuss with Hamish and then he's all yours again. I promise I won't keep him too long.'
Stephanie looked straight at Hamish, managing to combine equal amounts of a disappointed pout with a provocative glance that together said, I'm holding you to that. 'I guess I'll wait out by the pool, then.'
When Hamish didn't disagree, Stephanie turned and disappeared from view.
'We have business to discuss?' Hamish's furrowed brow matched the rest of his confused expression.
She bit her lip. This is it. This was the reason she'd come. The moment she'd been working towards for three long months. She'd expected to have more time, but everything had suddenly been brought forward by his early arrival home and her disquiet that he might disappear again just as quickly. As each year passed Hamish seemed to travel more and more with Giving Back.
I really could wait.
No, you can't. Tick tock, tick tock. There's no time like the present.