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'Alexandra Katherine Prendergast, how do you plead? Guilty
The judge paused, drawing out the excruciating moment, forcing her heart to clench with pain.
Just when Alex thought she'd scream with frustration and humiliation, he added in a disbelieving taunt, 'Or not guilty?'
Her mouth was drier than a hot summer's day. Her tongue felt twice its normal size. Tears oozed from the corners of her eyes to track down her sallow cheeks. 'Guilty,' she tried to whisper. Guilty, guilty, guilty, cried her brain, agreed her knotted belly.
'Speak up, Alexandra,' the man standing on the opposite side of the operating theatre table growled. His eyes, staring out at her from under his cap, were cold, hard and demanding. Their hue matched the no-nonsense blue of the scrubs they both wore. 'Did this child die in your care or not?'
'I did everything within my power to keep him alive, your honour. The other doctors told me there was nothing I could've done, that I did nothing wrong. I wanted to believe them, but how could I? He was totally reliant on me and I failed him.' The familiar, gut-twisting mantra spilled over her sore, cracked lips. The old pain and despair roiled up her throat. 'I failed Jordan.' The words flailed her brain.
'Jordan died because of you. Have you done everything within your power to prevent the same thing happening again?'
'Yes,' she croaked. 'Every day I try to save other babies.'
'I sentence you to a lifetime of looking after other people's ill children.' Her judge's eyes were icy, his voice a perfect match.
Alex gasped, shoved up from her pillow and clamped her hand over her mouth. Sweat soaked her nightgown, plastering it to her breasts and shoulders, making it pull tight against her skin as she moved in the bed. Moist strands of hair fell into her eyes, stuck to her wet cheeks. 'I will not throw up. I will not.' The words stuck in the back of her throat as she blinked her way back from the nightmare.
The all too familiar nightmare.
Her fingers shook as she reached for the bedside lamp switch and flooded her bedroom with soft yellow light. Tossing the covers aside she put her feet on the floor and pushed up. Despite the heat-pump being on, the winter air was chilly on her feverish skin. But cold was good. It focused her. Brought her completely back from the nightmare and her guilt. Made her concentrate on the here and now, on today and not the past.
Tugging on a thick robe and slipping her feet into fluffy slippers she trudged out to the kitchen and plugged the kettle in to make a drink of herbal tea. Shivering, she stood staring into her pantry, unable to decide what flavour to have. Her eyes welled up as the floodgates opened, and she blindly reached for the nearest packet and plopped a tea bag into a mug.
The oven clock read 3:46. She'd had little more than three hours sleep before the nightmare hit, slamming into her head in full technicolour. Accusing. Debilitating. Painful. Reminding her that her position as head paediatrician at Nelson Hospital was, in her mind, as tenuous as whatever her next patient threw at her. Taunting she was a fraud and that it was only a matter of time before she made a dreadful mistake with someone's child that would expose her as incompetent.
She had to draw deep to find the belief she was a good doctor, a very good one. The ever expanding numbers of sick children coming to see her, not just from the top of the South Island but all over New Zealand, showed that. Unfortunately the nightmare always undermined her fragile belief in herself.
It also reinforced the truth about her not being mother material, how totally incompetent she'd be in that role. Not that she'd be contemplating that ever again.
Click. The kettle switched off. Boiling water splashed onto the counter as she filled her mug. Strawberry vapour rose to her nostrils. Taking the drink she crossed through the lounge to the wide, floor-to-ceiling window showcasing the lights of Rocks Road and the wharves of Nelson Harbour. Rain slashed through the night, falling in sheets to puddle on the surface ten storeys below.
Alex stood, shaking, clutching the hot mug in both hands, and staring down at the tugboats manoeuvring a freight ship through the narrow cut leading from Tasman Bay to the sheltered harbour. Day and night, boats came and went according to the tides. Now, in early June, they'd be loading the last of the kiwifruit destined for the other side of the world. Men looking like midgets worked ropes and machinery. A tough job. An honest job.
'Stop it.' There was nothing easy or dishonest about the work she did with sick children. 'You did not cause Jordan's death. The pathologist proved that, exonerated you.'
Tell that to Jordan's father.
Behind her eyes a steady pounding built in intensity. Alex cautiously sipped the steaming tea, her gaze still fixed on the wet scene below. Why had the nightmares returned tonight? Exhaustion? Or the nagging need to slot back into her role as head of paediatrics at Nelson Hospital as quickly and effortlessly as possible?
The job was more than a jobit was her whole life, a replacement for the family she wouldn't otherwise have. Lots of staff to mentor, harangue, watch over and care about. Oodles of children to care for in the only way she knew howmedicallyand to love safely from the sidelines. Involved, yet not involved.
The fruity scent of her tea wafted in the air, sweet and relaxing. 'You shouldn't have taken the four-month sabbatical. It put you under pressure to again prove how good you are.'
But all those American hospitals and their savvy specialists showing how brilliant they were had actually boosted her confidence and made her understand once and for all she was up with the play, had joined the ranks of the best in the business of paediatrics. Everywhere she'd gone she'd been applauded for her paper on premature births. The job offers had been overwhelming. An awesome charge for her fragile ego. Even the nagging need to constantly prove to herself that she was good had taken a hike.
In San Francisco, when her old mentor from specialising days had offered her an incredible position at his new private paediatric clinic, she'd been beside herself with pride.
And that, she thought with grim satisfaction, should earn her stepfather's grudging respect. Except, of course, she'd turned it down.
Draining the mug Alex turned away from the window. Time to try for some more sleep. Jet lag, exhaustion from her hectic time in the States, the inability to relax while away from home. All reasons to explain why she ached with tiredness and her mind ran riot with yearnings for what seemed doomed forever. A family of her own to love and cherish.
Alexandra sighed through her throbbing headache as she dropped her handbag into the bottom drawer of her desk. Home, sweet home. Nelson Hospital Paediatric Department. The place she spent most of her life. Her stomach flip-flopped like a fish on dry sand. Nerves? Why? She was happy to be back. Wasn't she? Yes, but what if there'd been too many changes on the ward in her absence? Which regular patients had got well and left? Had any of them passed away?
She shivered. What was wrong with her this morning? To be feeling out of sorts was not the best way to start back on the job.
She'd been determined not to think too much about this job while she'd studied with the best of paediatricians in California and Washington, or when she'd presented her paper to countless meetings and conventions. During that time she'd pretended she wasn't worried about staffing levels and the ever increasing numbers of wee patients entering Nelson Hospital. Instead she'd tried to absorb all she could from her mentors and share her own experiences and knowledge. She'd been entertained, courted and tutored. And all she'd wanted to do was return here. Home. Where she felt safe.
She glanced around the familiar room at the paintings she'd bought at the annual summer art show in the Queen's Gardens downtown. They looked tired. Like her. Dusty. Not like her. She smiled reluctantly. It was great to be backdust, or no dust.
Then reality crashed in on her. Her desk should be littered with stacks of files, notes, memos and all the other detritus that accumulated on a daily basis. Instead there was one small, neat pile in the centre of her desk. The acting HOD from London must've decided to give her a break on her first day back, despite having warned her during their Skype interview he'd be a better doctor than pen-pusher. 'Thanks, John. I owe you.'
Stepping closer she spied a note at the top of the pile and picked it up.
Miss Alexandra Prendergast. Welcome back. I've done the rosters for the next month, signed off the patient reports to date and answered all the mail apart from two letters regarding intern rotations you might like to deal with yourself. I hope you find everything in order.
The scrawled signature read something like Maria Forreel.
Who was Maria Forreel? And why was this woman working in her office? So much for thinking John had done all this. Forreel? What kind of name was that? Was it? Her smile stretched into a grin. Seriously, was it for real? Alex peered closer. Forell? Forelli, that was it. Forelli. It made no difference. The name meant nothing to her.
Alex tugged the chair out from the desk and sank down on it. She had been excited about coming back and yet today felt like the first day at schoolterrifying. Worse, she didn't even know why. 'Probably jet lag.' How many things could she blame on that?
'There you are. How was your trip? Did you do lots of shopping in all those swanky boutiques?' The charge nurse on her ward stood in the doorway with a wide, welcoming smile on her dear face.
'Kay, it's great to see you.' A welcome distraction. 'And yes, I found time to add to my wardrobe. A lot.'
'I'm so-o jealous.' Kay gave the most un-jealous grin possible.
Alex reached into the drawer where she'd placed her handbag and pulled out a small package. 'I hope you like these.'
Kay gaped. 'You bought me something? Oh, you big softy. What is it?' The paper tore under her fingers. 'Oh, my gosh. They're beautiful.' She held up the silver earrings, turning them left and right so the light gleamed off the polished metal. 'I love them. Thank you so much. But you shouldn't have.'
Alex laughed. 'Of course I shouldn't. You'll have to work twice as hard now.' Like Kay could do that. She was already the hardest working nurse Alex had ever come across. She added, 'I'm glad you like them. When I saw them I immediately thought of you.' She had little trinkets for the rest of the staff too.
Kay slipped the hooks into her ears. 'Where's a mirror?' She took the one Alex handed her from the drawer. 'Wow, they're perfect.'
Alex rose, smoothed the skirt of her tailored suit and reached for her white coat hanging on the back of the door. 'So how's Darren? The kids?'
'Busy as ever. Why didn't I appreciate my single, peaceful life when I had it?' Kay grinned again.
'You wouldn't swap a thing.' Whereas I would swap my amazing medical career for exactly what Kay's got. Alex gulped. Her fingers faltered on the buttons they were doing up. What? I'd love a Darren and some kids in my life? Okay, not exactly Darren but a loving, caring man who'd understand my eccentricities and forgive me my mistakes in a flash. I would? Since when? Under her ribs her heart beat a heavy rhythm. Her shoulders drooped momentarily. As if a man like that existed for her. Pressing her fingers to her temples she breathed in slowly. This day was going all weird on her and it was only seven in the morning. Things had better start looking up soon.
'Alex? Are you all right?' Kay was at her elbow, her brow creased with concern.
'I'm fine.' She dropped her hands.
'Are you sure you should be starting back today? You only got back into the country yesterday, didn't you?'
Kay's concern would be her undoing if she let it. 'I'm fine. Raring to go, in fact.' Alex hauled her shoulders back into place and plastered a tight smile on her face, then reminded herself where she was. At work, in her comfort zone. She relaxed. A little. 'I'm a bit tired, nothing else. Rushing from one city to the next took its toll.'
Kay gave an exaggerated eye roll. 'My heart bleeds for you.'
Alex laughed, finally feeling secure with being back at work. Kay always kept her grounded when the going got rough, and today hadn't even started. 'I know I'm early but let's get the shift under way. What's been going on in my absence?'
Instantly Kay's demeanour turned serious. She pointed to an envelope tucked half under the files lying on her desk. 'There's a message you need to deal with before anything else. I believe it explains everything.' She headed for the door. 'Umm, we've had some changes. Big ones.' Suddenly Kay was in an awful hurry to be gone. 'Good ones.'
Good changes? What was wrong with how things were before? She ran a wellorganised and successful department. There wasn't any need to alter a thing. Her unease increased as she reached tentatively for the missive. 'Why? Has something happened?'
Beep, beep. The pager on her desk interrupted. Snatching it up she glanced at the message as she ran out of her office right behind Kay, who was racing for the ward. Then the loudspeaker crackled to life and told them what they needed to know. 'Cardiac arrest, room four.'
'Tommy Jenkins.' Kay shoved the fire door back so hard it hit the wall. 'It's so unfair.'
Alex ducked around the door as it swung back, and kept running. 'Who's Tommy Jenkins? Fill me in. Quickly.'
'He and his mother moved to Nelson to be closer to Tommy's grandparents last month after his father died in a fishing accident.
Tommy has cystic fibrosis and was admitted five days ago with a massive chest infection that's not responding to any treatment.'
'What an awful time to shift the boy.'
'Tell me about it.' Kay scowled. 'He's missing his mates, and isn't happy about getting to know new medical staff.'
Room four was chaos. The boy lay with his head tipped back while a nurse, Rochelle, inflated his lungs with an Ambu bag. Jackson, an intern, crouched astride him, doing compressions on his chest.
'Hand me the tube,' a deep male voice Alex had never heard in her life ordered calmly. 'Now, please.'
'Here.' Kay obliged in an instant.
Alex pushed in beside Rochelle, ready to take over. She needed to be in control of this situation. Staring at the stranger, who admittedly seemed to know what he was doing, she demanded, 'Who, may I ask, are you?' He certainly wasn't the man she'd Skyped with about taking her place on the ward. This man she'd never forget. A strong jawline, a mouth that smiled as easily as breathing. Eyes that demanded attention.
'Mario Forelli.' He didn't look up, didn't falter in suctioning the boy's mouth. 'This lad's arrested.'
Since it didn't look like she'd be pushing this man out of the way any time soon and wanting something to do with her hands she reached for the drugs bag. 'What are you doing here?' Alex asked, feeling even more perplexed, while at the same time recognising the name on that note in her office. Not Maria, but Mario. Not a woman, but a well-muscled, broad-chested, dark-haired male.
'Mr Forelli, as in paediatric specialist,' Kay spoke from across the bed where she read the monitor keeping track of Tommy's status.
'Stop the compressions.' The stranger spoke clearly but quietly as he deftly inserted a tube down the boy's throat.
'How long has Tommy been down?' Alex asked while her brain tossed up distracting questions. Where had Mr Forelli come from? More importantly, what was he doing on her ward? And taking care of all her paperwork? Where was John Campbell? Big changes, Kay had said. Presumably this man was one of them. Alex forced herself to concentrate as she drew up the drugs in preparation to inserting them into Tommy's intravenous line. Right now this lad depended on her being focused on him, nothing or anyone else.