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He hadn't expected it to feel so strange, walking into the ER at Willowby Hospital. After all, he'd been here often enough as a childbroken arm, a badly sprained ankle and, on one memorable occasion, suffering hypothermia after he'd been trapped down a well. Bill's fault, that! Bill crying pitiably at the top because her cat had fallen inBill going all girlie on him! Whillimina Florence de Grootehis friend Bill!
Finally producing a daughter after six sons, Bill's mother had named her after both grandmothers, thinking it a nice feminine name, but from before she could talk, Bill had decided she was one of the boys and early on had insisted her name was Bill.
So Bill she'd stayed.
Lost in the past, he was startled when the woman who'd met him at the doorLesley?spoke.
'I'll introduce you to our senior nursing staff, and you'll meet the rest as you move around.'
But once again he was distracted, for there she was!
The wild, vivid, red hair, ruthlessly tamed for her work shift, burst like tendrils of flame from beneath her white cap, bringing smudges of colour to the sterility of the room.
His delighted cry echoed around the still-quiet space and as he strode towards her, Lesleyhe was sure it was Lesleybleating, 'Oh, you know Bill?' as she followed him.
He watched as disbelief chased surprise across Bill's face, then delight dawned in a smile that made the brightly lit room seem even brighter.
'No one told me!' she said, abandoning the patient she'd been shepherding towards a cubicle to give him an allenveloping hug. 'You didn't tell me you were coming,' she added, with a punch on his shoulder. 'But I'm so glad! Gran will be so happy. But what are you doing here? I'm working. Did you just call in to say hello?'
He grinned at her, the pleasure of seeing her again, from hearing the rush of words that was pure Bill, warming him right through.
'I'm working too,' he said, and saw shock dawn on her face.
He nodded again, still smiling broadly because he'd never seen Bill flabbergasted before, but flabbergasted she truly was.
'You've got a patient, I'll explain later,' he said, delighted that he could keep her guessing a while longer.
That drew a scowl but she did return to her patient, fully focussed on work once again, leaving Nick with a strange sense of.. Well, he wasn't sure what it wassurely not Tightness about returning home?
No, he was being fanciful. It was probably nothing more than the pleasure of seeing Bill again.
'You know Bill?' Lesley had been hovering behind him during the exchange.
'You could say that,' he replied, still smiling because somehow seeing Bill had made this decision to come home seem comfortableeven inevitablefor all he'd been thrown into work before he'd had time to settle in because of some emergency in the senior ER registrar's family.
Four hours later he'd had plenty of opportunities to see his old friend in action, her seniority evident in the way she designated duties and handled patients, always busy yet always calm and smiling.
Always attracting his attention whenever she was in sight, but that was nothing more than his natural delight in seeing her again. That she felt the same he had no doubt, for she'd flash a smile at him as their paths crossed.
Until now, when she was coming towards him with determination in her easy, long-legged stride, another scowl on her face.
'Tearoom now, Dr Grant!' she ordered, and he fell in obediently behind her, knowing he'd have a lot of explaining to do but pleased to have an opportunity to sit and talk to her in this small lull.
Had she ordered everyone out, that the area was empty? he wondered, as he followed her into the messy room. He wouldn't have put it past her, but right now he didn't care. All he wanted to do was give her a proper hug, to reaffirm he really was home again.
He caught her in his arms and swung her round, not easily as she was nearly as tall as he wasand only for a moment as she pushed away and glared at him.
'And what's all this about?' she demanded. 'Creeping into town without a word to anyone? And don't tell me Gran knows because I saw her yesterday and you know she can't keep a secret.'
He grinned at the red-headed termagant who'd bossed him around all his young life.
'Neither can you,' he reminded her, 'and I wanted it all settled before I told Gran. In the end, the job came up sooner than I expected so there was no time to tell anyone.'
Gold-brown eyes narrowed suspiciously.
'What is all settled?'
'The contracttwelve months with an option to extend.'
And now Bill was hugging him!
'Oh, Nick, Gran will be so happy. She never says anything but since that fall a month ago she's been feeling fragile and I think that makes her miss you more than ever. I can hear it in her voice when she talks about you.'
And you? Nick found himself wanting to ask, although why he wasn't sure. He and Bill had kept in close touch over the years, with regular emails and infrequent phone calls, very occasionally catching up in person when they'd both happened to be in the same city at the same time. It was what friends did so, yes, he did want her to be happy he was home
'Sit, I'll make coffee,' Bill was saying, so he set the thought aside and sat, happy to watch her move around the little room, totally at home, composedbeautiful really, his Bill, although he'd probably always been too close to her to see it.
Bill shook her head as she set the kettle to boil, disbelief that Nick was actually here still rattling her thoughts. Her first glimpse of him had made her heart thud in her chestjust one big, heavy thud as she'd taken in the sight of the tall, lean man with a few threads of grey in the softly curling brown hair that had been the bane of his younger life. The black-rimmed glasses hid eyes she knew were grey-blue and gave him a serious look.
Her Nick, all grown up and devastatingly handsome now, she realised as she stepped back from their friendship and looked at him as a man.
They'd met in kindergarten class at Wil-lowby West Primary School, a friendship begun when she had punched the boy who'd called Nick Four-Eyes. She'd dragged him home with her that afternoon, made him phone his gran to say where he was, then ordered a couple of her brothers to teach him how to fight.
And so the bond had been forgeda bond that had survived years of separation, though they'd always kept in touch and shared with each other what was happening in their lives.
Was there any tougher glue than friendship?
She found the tin of biscuits and put it on the table in front of him then brought their coffees over, setting them both down before plopping into the battered lounge chair opposite him, unable to stop staring at him and slightly embarrassed that he seemed to be equally focussed on her.
'Well?' she finally asked, mainly to break a silence that was becoming uncomfortable.
'It's been too long since we've seen each other,' he said. 'You've changed somehow.'
'It's been five years and then only for an hour at Sydney airport. Anyway, I never change, you should know that,' she teased. 'I was a skinny kid with wild red hair who grew into a skinny adult with wild red hair. But you, who knew you'd get so handsome?'
It was a weird conversation to be having with Nickstrained somehow. Although they'd gone in different directions after high school, he to Sydney to study medicine, she choosing Townsville for her nursing training, on other occasions when they'd caught up with each other, even briefly, they'd fallen back into their old patterns of friendship as if they'd never been parted.
Yet tonight was different.
'Will you stay with Gran?'
Gran was Nick's relation, not hers, but Bill was in the habit of calling in a couple of times a week, taking Gran shopping or getting library books for her.
With Nick here, Gran wouldn't need her
'No, I spoke to Bob when the idea of the contract first came up. He offered me one of the penthouses at the new marina development he's just completed.'
'The sod!' Bill muttered, thinking of her eldest brother, the developer in the family. 'So he knew you were coming and said not a word to me! What's more, all I've got is a one-bedroomed apartment on the sixth floor in that building, and I bet he's giving you family discount as well.'
'But I am family, aren't I?' he retorted. 'I'm your seventh brother. Isn't that what you've always said?'
It was, of course, but it wasn't their relationship that was disturbing Bill right now, though what it was she couldn't pinpoint.
'It'll be a bit weird working with you,' she said, fairly hesitantly because that didn't seem to be what it was either.
Nick smiled and her heart gave another of those strange thuds.
'You only think that because you're used to being the one bossing me around and in the ER a doctor trumps a nurse.'
She rose to the challenge in his words.
'Oh, yeah? Says who?'
He didn't answer, just picked up his coffee, his smile still lingering about his lips, showing in fine lines down his cheeks and a crinkle at the corner of his eyes.
It was because she hadn't seen him for so long she had to keep staring at him, she was telling herself when the smile turned into a grimace.
'Aaargh! You call this coffee? You haven't heard of coffee machines? How backward is this place?'
'Not too backward these days but budget cuts are everywhere. You want fancy coffee you'll have to provide the machine and the beans, and everyone will use both and one night a junkie will steal the machine and you'll be back to instant.'
'I'll get a small one and lock it in my locker and it will be for my exclusive use,' Nick growled, sounding so like the old Nick of her childhood that Bill felt warmth spread through her.
This was going to be all rightwasn't it?
Bill was pondering this when Lesley burst through the door.
'Critical emergency on the way in, Dr Grant. Can you take the call from the ambulance?'
Forty minutes later Nick was readywell, as ready as he would ever be. Although the town had grown, Willowby Hospital was still little more than a large country health centre. No specialist resuscitation area here, no emergency trauma surgeon on standby, just him and whatever nurses could be spared from the usual stream of patients on a Sunday night.
Him and Bill!
Right now she was setting up a series of trays on trolleys, IV and blood-drawing supplies, chest tubes, ventilator, defibrillator, medications, and was checking the supply of oxygen, the suction tubes, not fussing but moving with swift confidence and precision. Just watching her gave him added confidence about whatever lay ahead.
'The baler they spoke ofit's one of those things that rolls hay into huge round bales?' he asked, and she looked up from what she was doing to nod.
'Though what the lad was doing, putting his arm anywhere near the machine, is beyond me,' she said, before adding thoughtfully, 'I suppose if the string got caught you might think you could pull it loose and give it a tug. I've always thought night-harvesting had an element of danger because, unless you're used to night shifts, your mind might not be as sharp as it should be.'
Images of the damage such a machine could do to a human arm and shoulder flashed through Nick's mind, and he had to agree with Bill's opinion, but further speculation was brought to an end by the arrival of the ambulance and their patient, unstable from blood loss, his right arm loosely wrapped in now-bloody dressings, a tourniquet having been unable to stop the bleeding completely.
Nick listened as the paramedic explained what had been done so farthe patient intu-bated, fluid running into him, morphine to ease the pain, conscious but not really with them, so shocked it was clear the first-response team doubted he could be saved.
Hypovolaemic shock from loss of blood. The young man's heart would be racing, his hands and feet cold and clammy, his pulse weak
'All we need to do is stabilise him enough for him to be airlifted down to Brisbane,' Bill reminded Nick, as if she'd heard the same thing in the paramedic's tone and had the same symptoms racing through her head.
So it began, the flurry of activity to keep the young man alive long enough for surgeons down south to save him. The paramedics had fluid flowing into him through his radial artery but he needed more.
While Bill hooked the patient up to the hospital's oxygen supply and monitors, taking blood to send to the lab for typing, Nick prepared to put a catheter into the left sub-clavian vein, anaesthetising the site, then advancing a needle carefully down beneath the clavicle, a guide wire following it when blood flowed freely into the needle's syringe.
Removing the needle, he made a small incision, his hands working mechanically while his mind raced ahead. Once the catheter, guided by the wire, was in place and more fluid was flowing in, he could examine the torn arm and shoulder in order to find the source of the blood loss.
'The tourniquet is holding back blood loss from the brachial artery,' Bill said, making Nick wonder if their childhood ability to follow each other's thoughts was still alive and well.
He looked across to where she was gently probing the damaged arm, flushing debris and carefully tweezing out bits of dirt and strawthe work a surgical assistant would be doing in a major trauma centre.
'I've been releasing the tourniquet and can see where the artery is damaged but he's so shocked I doubt that's the only source of blood loss.'
They were definitely following each other's thoughts!
He moved round the table, leaving another nurse to control the fluid while a third watched the monitors. He'd have liked to have an anaesthetist present, but that, too, was for city trauma centres, so he used a nerve block to anaesthetise the arm before examining it.
'There,' Bill said, passing him a loupe so he could see the torn artery more clearly.
Two tiny sutures and the tear was closed, but the nurse watching the monitors reported falling blood pressure.
Drastically falling blood pressure
'V-tach,' the nurse said quietly.
The words were barely spoken before Bill had the defibrillator pushed up against the trolley and was already attaching leads to the paddles. Nick set the voltage, gave the order to clear, placed the paddles above and below the heart and watched as the patient's body jerked on the table.
He looked at the monitor and saw the nurse shake her head.
He upped the voltage, cleared again and felt the tension in the room as the body jerked and stilled, then the green line on the monitor showed the heartbeat had stabilised.
A release of held breath, nothing more than a sigh, but he knew everyone had been willing the lad to live.
'He's had three litres of fluidhe's definitely losing blood somewhere else,' he muttered, then turned to Bill. 'We need full bloodhas he been cross-matched?'
'It's on its way,' she said quietly, then nodded towards the door where a young man in a white coat had appeared, stethoscope around his neck and, thank heavens, two blood packs in his hands.
'Rob Darwin, I'm one of two doctors on duty upstairs but Bill said you needed help down here, and when Bill calls, I obey. Her slightest wish is my command.'
He was joking, teasing Bill, but Nick had no time for jokes.