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John Watson smiled at something one of his adventure buddies had just said as the three men trudged their way through the scrub of Australia's Blue Mountains. They'd been up since six o'clock that morning, hiking out to a set of caves before exploring them. Dried mud and dirt was caked on his clothes, and his arm and leg muscles were pulsing with that satisfying pain that came after a good workout. They'd abseiled within the caves as well as doing a bit of climbing and he couldn't remember a more enjoyable day.
'Don't you think, John?' Stephen Brooks asked, and John lifted his head to look at his work colleague. John had only been working at Katoomba Hospital for the past six months and these weekend hikes had become something of a regular occurrence. He frowned for a moment, wondering if he wasn't becoming too attached, not only to the area but to the people he was working with.
Keep your distance. That had been his mantra for the past three years.
'Sorry. I missed what you said.' John stopped walking and hitched up the large coil of rope presently slung over his shoulder. 'Would you look at that view?'
The other two men stopped and nodded. The sun was starting to dip lower in the sky, the reds, pinks and oranges of the approaching sunset starting to seep through the blue. The gum-leaf green of the treetops spread before them, mixed with several shades of brown and yellow rock from the mountains added to the rich palette of colours. If any sight could be completely different from the views he'd grown up with as a boy in England, this was it.
'That's why you should accept the permanent job offer at the hospital,' Stephen added, shifting the equipment he carried to his opposite hand, the medical kit still firmly strapped to his back in a secure pack. 'You can rock-climb and cave and abseil to your heart's content.'
'It's a good perk,' Oliver, Stephen's brother-in-law, added. 'Good hospital, awesome people ' Oliver preened with a wide grin. 'Terrific adventures to be had and you're only two hours from Sydney for when you need a night on the town.'
'We'll even upgrade the tea-making facilities at the hospital. Get you your own pot and bonechina cup and saucer to appeal to your strong British sensibilities.'
'Now you're really sweetening the deal.' John laughed. It wasn't the first time Oliver and Stephen had tried to get him to accept the position of permanent orthopaedic surgeon at Katoomba Hospital but this time, after such a great day and now admiring the beauty surrounding him, he had to admit to being more tempted than before.
Their present serenity didn't last long, all three men snapping to attention when the sound of screeching tyres filled the air as a car, somewhere on the winding roads nearby, was clearly having difficulty staying on the road. The world seemed to stop spinning as the three of them held their breath, waiting, hoping against hope that the sickening crunch of crumpled automotive metal wouldn't be the next sound they heard. Their hope was unfounded and the horrific sound echoed off the mountains, magnifying its horror.
'Over there.' Oliver pointed in the direction of the road.
'Are you sure?' Stephen asked, but Oliver was already making a hasty new track through the scrub. John followed close behind, wondering just how long it would take the three of them to reach the accident site. As they hurried along, heading quickly down the small mountain they'd hiked up, conscious of their footing, a thousand different scenarios passed through his mind, effectively transferring his thoughts from the enjoyable day of adventure to the scenarios he knew went hand in hand with a motor vehicle accident.
All too soon they emerged from the scrub onto the road, not too far from where the sickening smell of burnt rubber, oil and the faint hint of petrol flooded the freshness of the surrounding forest. They sprinted down the bitumen towards a sedan that had careened off the road, bursting through the metal road barrier and meeting its end at the trunk of a thick and sturdy eucalyptus tree. They left their equipment off to the side but Stephen brought the medical bag with him.
Stephen already had his cellphone out, pleased there was reception in this section of the mountains, and was calling for an ambulance and emergency crews. Oliver and Stephen headed for the driver's side so John rounded the car to check the passenger side, astonished to find the door flung wide open. He quickly scanned the area, looking at the leaf-covered ground to see if he could identify a trail where the passenger may have gone. Yes.
'We've got a passenger who's managed to get out,' he told his colleagues.
'This guy is well and truly trapped,' Oliver said. 'Legs are crushed, seat belt has held him firm but we'll need to cut the steering column to get him out.'
'Can anyone else smell petrol?' Stephen asked.
'I can smell it,' John remarked, his senses heightening as he carefully followed the trail. He was peripherally aware of Stephen and Oliver, discussing tactics for quickly evacuating the driver in the case of a car fire. Stephen had grabbed the rope they'd used for rock climbing and Oliver was coming round to the passenger side in order to do a thorough evaluation on the driver who, from John's brief glimpse, was indeed in a bad way. All three men were part of the Blue Mountains retrieval teams so knew the protocols and procedures by heart.
'Hello?' John called as he walked away from the wreckage. 'Can you hear me? Anyone out here?'
His answer was a loud guttural yell, far too high-pitched to have come from a male. He quickly altered his course to head in the direction of the sound. 'Hello? I want to help you,' he said.
'Over here.' The feminine voice panted, and concern ripped through him as he finally spotted the passenger. She had long blonde hair, half covering her face in a messy tangle, and was wearing a long blue dress, now rucked up to reveal her smooth legs. She was sitting down, her back against a tree for support, her knees bent up, and somewhere along the way she'd lost one of her flat satin shoes. And she was pregnant.
John rushed to her side. 'How many weeks are you?'
'And you're having contractions?'
She fixed him with a glare from a pair of gorgeous green eyes. 'I thought the yell and the way I'm desperately trying to control my breathing might have given you a clue, Brit boy.'
John couldn't help the small smile that twitched at the corners of his lips. 'I'm John, by the way. I'm a doctor. Do you mind if I ?' He pointed to her swollen belly.
'Be my guest, Dr John.' She took his hand in hers and guided it to her belly, where he could instantly feel the tightness.
'How many contractions have you had?'
'How far apart?' He gestured to the gold watch on her wrist. 'Have you been able to time them?'
'Three minutes apart. They're intense and I've already had the urge to push. If you have any sort of medical kit and just happen to be carrying an IV bag of salbutamol, that would be a great help.'
John raised his eyebrows at this. 'How many children have you had?' She certainly knew a lot about what was going on.
'This is my first.'
'You're a nurse? Midwife?'
'You're a doctor?'
'Don't sound so surprised, Dr John. Women have been practising medicine for quite some time now.'
John continued to feel her abdomen as well as checking her ankles for swelling. 'No sign of pre-eclampsia. Were you having contractions before the crash?' He took her wrist in his and counted the beats.
'I had Braxton-Hicks' but that's normal and, besides, I still have at least six weeks to go so I didn't think anything of it.'
She continued to focus on her breathing, keeping it nice and steady, relaxing as much as she could in the circumstances.
'I need to go get a few things from the medical kit,' John remarked, but as he stood up the woman reached for his hand, holding it tightly in hers. She looked into his eyes and he instantly saw her fear and concern.
'My my husband?' She shook her head. 'I looked at him after the crash and the sight made me feel illso I got out. I just had to. Is he ?' She left the sentence hanging.
'My colleagues are with him. They're trained and experienced doctors and they're doing everything they can to help him.'
She seemed to relax at this news, leaning her head back against the tree and closing her eyes, but she still held firm to John's hand.
'What's your name?' he asked softly as he knelt down.
'Mackenzie.' As she spoke the word, she clenched her teeth. 'Looks like our three minutes of chatting time is up, Dr John.' And she gripped his hand tighter as the next contraction seized her. She panted, doing her best to control the pain, channelling all her tension into his hand, but John didn't mind. In the middle of the contraction, though, she gave another guttural yell and even through the blue material of her dress he could see the tension in her belly.
'That's a push,' he murmured, more to himself than to her, but Mackenzie opened her eyes and glared at him as the contraction began to subside.
'I know it's a push,' she growled. 'I felt it.' She sighed and leaned her head back against the tree. 'But I couldn't control it.' She whimpered a little as though she was already too tired to continue.
John heard the devastation in her words because they both clearly recognised the difficulty of their present predicament. The birth of a premature baby was problematic enough when surrounded by the best medical equipment in the world, but out here, in the scrub lands, in the middle of nowhere.
'Let me get the medical kit. I don't think we have IV salbutamol but there's definitely an inhaler, although I don't think that's going to help much. Do you have any heart conditions? Respiratory problems?'
'No and no. Go, get the medical kit.' Mackenzie opened her eyes and looked up at him, calling to him as he turned to walk away. 'And, er.. John can you let me know how Warick's doing?'
He nodded. 'Of course.'
'We were arguing.' The words seemed to rush from her lips, her voice wavering, and when she raised a hand to her mouth he noticed it was shaking. 'He wanted me to go with him to his business dinner but I didn't want to go. I didn't feel well but he insisted it would look silly if he turned up without his wife as all the other wives would be there and so I acquiesced and we set off but he was still mad and then he was taking the turns too fast and and '
Tears started to slide slowly down her cheeks and John instantly knelt down beside her once more, taking her trembling hand in his.
'Shh. It wasn't your fault.'
'But I was yelling at him. Telling him that I didn't feel well and that that if he didn't slow down he'd kill us both.' Mackenzie broke down and started to cry. John instantly gathered her close into his arms and held her as she sobbed. 'He's.in.such a.bad way,' she hiccuped between sobs. 'I couldn't help him. I had to get out of the '
'You were thinking about the baby. That's a natural maternal instinct.' Her sobs were starting to subside but were replaced with yet another contraction. John had one arm around her shoulder, the other holding her hand, or rather allowing his hand to be pulverised into a purplish colour by Mackenzie.
When it was over, she sagged against him, snuggling momentarily into the warmth of his broad and powerful shoulders, unable to believe how incredible it felt just to be held, to be cared for.
There were times when she wanted nothing more than to simply be held, to be told everything would be all right. Throughout her life, thanks to her parents' selfishness, she'd been integrated into the New South Wales foster system from the age of ten, which meant Mackenzie hadn't had too many opportunities to rely on other people.
'They'll always let you down,' Bergan, one of her foster-sisters, had told her. 'Be strong. Stand on your own two feet. Don't trust anyone.'
They had been powerful words to Mackenzie and it had taken years for her to realise that at times she needed to trust others, that she simply couldn't make it through her life all on her own.
In medical school she'd found a group of women, all very different from her but somehow all of them had bonded in a friendship that had lasted decades. Then, when she'd been working day and night as an intern, she'd met Warick and she'd taken a huge chance and given in to his constant pleas for her to marry him.
Now Warick was trapped in a car, fighting for his life, while she was about to bring another life into this crazy, mixed-up world. She'd escaped from the confines of the car and, after smelling petrol in the air, had made her way to a safe distance. The contractions had forced a plethora of scenarios to flood through her mind, the worst being that she would give birth to a thirty-one-week gestation baby who wouldn't survive long in this world without medical care.
Then she'd heard male voices and John had appeared. Big, strong, John who was holding her as though she was incredibly important to him. John, who was going to help her while his friends helped Warick. She hadn't needed to ask whether they'd called for back-up because she, too, knew emergency protocols. Help was on the way. She just had to hold on and John was with her. Helping her. Comforting her. Supporting her.
'I'll go and get the medical supplies.' His words were soft and gentle near her ear and he slowly eased her from his strong hold. He looked into her eyes, the fading light still allowing her to see his sincerity. 'I won't be long.' He tenderly placed her head against the tree. 'Just rest and relax. I'll be back before you know it.' His smile was warm and encouraging and filled with a promise she somehow knew he wouldn't break.
'OK.' Mackenzie breathed, accepting the smile he aimed in her direction. Through drowsy eyes she watched him walk away from her, instantly wishing him back. At some point he'd become her strength and right now, given her present predicament, she knew she needed to rely on his borrowed strength to see her through.
She had no idea who John was, whether he was married with a family of his own. She knew he was a doctor with a brilliant bedside manner and a gorgeous smile. In such a short space of time she'd not only come to rely on him, she'd come to trust him.