As part of the specialist emergency response team, paramedic Samantha Moore has always been one of the boys, but now her biological clock has kicked in and she wants a baby—fast.
Samantha begins her search for the perfect father and discovers him right under her nose—her SERT partner, Alex.
She doesn't realize that Alex has had feelings for her for a long time, and when he agrees to father her child the natural way, it creates an emotional connection between them. Samantha begins to see Alex as not only the perfect father, but as the perfect husband, too.
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IT HAD finally happened.
Echoes of all the voices that had ever informed Samantha Moore she was crazy; the expressions on the faces of people who learned what a young, intelligent and perfectly presentable looking young woman did for a living; memories of physical pain and the aftermath of trying to deal with experiencing real fear—all came home to roost in a single moment.
She was crazy.
She was also stuck.
Don't panic, Sam reminded herself automatically. Don't fight the rock. You can't win.
It was easy to close her eyes for a moment. To breathe evenly and wait for a well-rehearsed protocol to override the jangled messages her brain was flashing as some basic survival instinct tried to take control. It was easy because Sam felt indescribably weary.
Having reached this point, Sam realised that the normal adrenaline rush had been missing ever since the start of this mission. The call to scramble SERT—Specialist Emergency Response Team—for the second time that day had been less than thrilling. The fact that this was an unusual call for a team that could be deployed to anything from an armed police operation to a shipboard emergency on the high seas hadn't even been enough to spin Sam's wheels today.
Abseiling down the sinkhole in an area popular with cavers had been a breeze. It would have been enjoyable had it come earlier in the shift. Crawling through increasingly narrow spaces in the underground rock formation was a lot less fun, however, and trying to squeeze through the ridiculously narrow gap that Sam was now firmly stuck in was just plain crazy.
She tried to inch herself back the way she had come. A trickle of water on the rock beneath found a way to breach the flap of her overalls that covered the front zip and the measure of environmental discomfort slipped into a new level. Sam's helmet scraped on the rock above and her knuckles dug painfully into her ribs as she tried to free the hand wedged under her body.
"You OK, Sam?"
The deep rumble of the male voice came from beyond this tunnel designed for some nasty, slithery underground creature. How the hell had Sam's partner, Alex, managed to get through here, anyway? He was well over six feet in height and his shoulders had to be twice as wide as hers. It simply wasn't physically possible.
Sam's response was a noncommittal grunt. She turned her head to point nose down again as she tried to flatten and relax her body and wriggle back another few millimetres. The tip of her nose touched the icy runnel of water and she jerked up, only to crack her helmet on the unyielding ceiling.
"Does it ever occur to you, Alex," she said through gritted teeth, "that we might be nuts?"
A deep chuckle was amplified by the confined space. "All the time, mate."
He was still enjoying himself, though, wasn't he? Getting a kick out of overcoming the odds to render assistance to someone in trouble. More than one person in this case. The reminder of why they were here was enough to make Sam try again. And try harder. The effort and pain of a scraped elbow elicited a grunt this time.
"You've got your elbows too far behind your shoulders." The light from the lamp on the front of Alex's helmet was reflecting off wet rock as he peered back at Sam. "Wriggle back and extend one arm in front of you."
Sam resisted the impulse to tell him he wasn't saying anything she didn't already know. It would only provide justification for some smart rejoinder that underlined the fact she hadn't been focussed enough. That she wasn't firing on all cylinders right now. It could well come back to haunt her for weeks, too. As the only female member of an exclusive team, Sam had to make sure she kept up. The incentive to try to get one step ahead at least occasionally was always strong but the extra adrenaline that always kept her thinking fast enough and capable of physical feats that had long since made her 'one of the boys' was just...gone.
The painfully slow backward movement finally reached a successful turning point. Sam eased her arm free and then pushed it forward, finding she now had plenty of space to move in the desired direction. There was room to get onto all fours after the short squeeze and Sam found herself crawling, like some overgrown infant, with the light from her helmet illuminating the shape ahead of her.
"How on earth did you fit through that gap, Alex?" 'Sheer skill," he responded easily. "I'm just too good." 'Huh!" Sam's snort was not without an element of affection. Alex Henry might well be the best in their team of elite paramedics but she wasn't about to encourage any personal trumpet blowing here. "I suspect you're some kind of shape-shifter," she told him. "You can turn into a snake any time you like."
Another chuckle. "Funny you should say that. My last girlfriend said something rather similar."
The corner of Sam's mouth lifted into a private, wry smile. Sonia must have tried too hard to pin Alex down, then. She must have been given the brush-off, probably in the nicest possible way, but women did tend to get rather passionate about staking a claim on Alex Henry.
Hardly surprising given the combination of dark, good looks, a very sharp intelligence, humour and a career that was dramatic enough to make most females go at least a little weak in the knees.
Funny that it had the opposite effect the other way around. The same skills Sam possessed in the way of courage, assertiveness and determination were always enough to scare men away remarkably fast.
"You guys OK?'The shout came from well ahead. From one of those strange people who actually did this sort of underground thing as a sport. He was the member of the group who had been left uninjured by the passage collapse and had been able to return to the surface and summon help.
"We're fine," Alex called back. "Minor hold-up in that last stretch."
"Yeah. Bit tight, isn't it? You can see why the other teams need to go the long way with their gear."
The skills and tools needed to deal with people buried under rock were being brought in by the team of Urban Search and Rescue technicians whose helicopter had landed in this remote part of the west coast of New Zealand's South Island only minutes after the SERT team's arrival.
"You've got a bit of deeper water coming up and then the pit's round the next bend after that."
"How deep's the water?" Sam tried to sound casual but there was no way she was in the mood for any underground diving.
"Only a couple of inches. No big deal."
It felt like a big deal for Sam. The water was running swiftly enough to splash continuously into her face. The volume was enough to make the waterproofing of her overalls inadequate and within seconds the leather gloves she wore felt like concrete mittens. In a few minutes she was going to have to negotiate a tricky climb down a narrow, flexible aluminium ladder that was a permanent fixture on this caving route. Doing it with frozen hands and wet boot soles was not going to be fun.
But who'd ever promised that her chosen profession would always contain elements of pleasure, anyway? And had she ever really enjoyed pushing herself to such limits or had it simply evolved into a way of life? With three older brothers competing for the attention of a father who'd been a legend in the police force, achieving something beyond expectations had been the only way to get noticed.
Sam had been far too young when her mother had died and not being noticed had made for a lonely existence. Maybe the real pleasure to come from testing herself had been in the approval of others and she had merely swapped one tribe of males for another in adulthood.
It was not a pleasant revelation. If the thrill had come from chasing that approval and for some reason that was suddenly no longer enough, then Sam was about to face a major life crisis comparable to the childhood trauma of losing her mother. What did she have to show for her thirty-four years on earth apart from an impressive array of pre-hospital emergency medical skills and a passion for practising them under the most difficult conditions imaginable?
Nothing, that's what.
It was her life. And for the last five years, since leaving a road-based ambulance job, Sam had lived and breathed SERT. Her friends were her fellow team members and their partners, so her social life revolved around people who shared her passion. Her sport and recreation consisted of training in whatever area of skill was deemed useful and any spare time was taken up with minimal attention to life's chores in order to gain opportunities to improve her knowledge base.
She was a SERT geek!
Proud of her status as the only female to make the grade. Happy to be one of the boys and eager to hurl herself into whatever dangerous mission she was lucky enough to score on her shifts.
The appreciative whistle fromAlex broke the downward spiral of Sam's thoughts that were trickling beneath what she needed to focus on as she carefully made her way down the ladder. Sadly, it wasn't her skill in managing to keep the ladder so steady during her descent that he was admiring.
"Will you look at that?" he exclaimed. "I'm beginning to understand why you guys do this stuff."
"Amazing, isn't it?" But the agreement from their guide was perfunctory. "Come on, we need to go this way."
Sam had only a few seconds to scan what had impressed Alex so much. The vertical drop from the higher-level tunnel ended in a huge cave festooned with stalactites over a black pool of water where massive stalagmites protruded like islands in an alien seascape. Shadows from her lamp cast shadows that accentuated the eerie scene but there was no time to do any more than register and file away the new experience. Not far into the tunnel leading away from the other side of the pool was where the accident had occurred.
One man lay unable to move, thanks to a badly fractured leg. Two other men lay either beyond, or beneath, the rockfall, which had been caused by a minor earth tremor.
It was fortunate there was no time to dwell on the possibility of another earthquake.
"Bruce! How're you doing, buddy?" 'Thought you were never coming back, Mike." 'Sorry, mate. I had to wait for the chopper to get here so I could show them where you were. This is Alex and that's Sam. They're paramedics."
"Hope they're good at shifting rock. My leg can wait." 'I'm not so sure about that.'The beam from Sam's lamp revealed an ominous pool of blood glistening on the dark rock beneath their patient. She stripped off her leather gloves and flexed her fingers repeatedly, but they were still too cold not to fumble with the zip on the pack Alex had brought with them.
"I heard someone calling. I think it was Tim." 'Really?" Mike's relief was evident. "How long ago?" 'A while back. I dunno. I've kind of lost track of time a bit. Arrrgh!"
"Sorry." Sam had cut and pulled away the remnants of protective clothing over Bruce's leg. Alex ripped open the packaging for a large gauze dressing and emptied a saline sachet to dampen it. He was ready to cover the open wound with the protruding bone on Bruce's thigh.
"We're going to splint this leg, mate," Alex said. "We need to control the bleeding. We're also going to give you something for the pain and start a drip to give you some fluids. Anything else hurting?"
"No!'Bruce pushed himself up onto his elbows. "Forget my leg. What we need to do is shift some of this rock. I couldn't manage it by myself but with four of us...'He fell back with a groan of frustration but the wave of his hand showed the others where he'd been shifting small pieces of rubble despite his injury.
"There's another crew coming in to deal with the rock," Sam said reassuringly. "They've got the equipment they'll need."
"Where the hell are they, then?" 'They have to come in the long way, Bruce," Mike said. "They couldn't have got their gear through the "squeeze". They'll be a wee while yet."
It had taken an hour for Sam and Alex to make their way through the underground maze to reach their patient. Another hour had been used in getting to the site after the call had come in and it had taken Mike over an hour to get out by himself and raise the alarm. Bruce had to have lost a significant amount of blood from his fractured femur in that period of time, and he could well have other injuries he wasn't admitting to due to concern for his missing friends.
The tunnel they were in now was by no means large enough to make for easy working conditions and loose, jagged pieces of rubble from the collapse added to the difficulties presented. Sam bruised her knee when she knelt to try and establish IV access. She shredded a surgical glove and grazed her knuckles a short time later as she slipped a hand behind Bruce to check for any rib injuries.
Alex was as cheerful as ever. You could put that man anywhere and he would still function with a far higher than average level of competence. He would also remain cheerful and establish a rapport with any patient. Bruce relaxed noticeably with the distraction of conversation and became a lot less anxious when Mike decided to use his waiting time pushing as much rubble as he could back towards the cave end of the tunnel in preparation for the upcoming phase of the rescue effort.
Periodic calls to the trapped men quickly became part of the routine.
"Tim? Can you hear me, mate? Steve? Are you OK?" 'Keep calling,'Alex advised into the silence. "They may be able to hear us and it'll help if they know there's a rescue effort under way.'The lamp beam swung away from Bruce. "Check this for me, Sam?"
"Morphine, ten milligrams," Sam confirmed, holding the ampoule up to catch her own beam of light. "Expiry date's fine."