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This was weird.
As though reality had become a dream. Of course, Wallaby Island usually had that effect on new arrivals. The largest of a collection of tropical islands off the coast of North Australia, it was a picture-perfect mound of exotic rainforest greenery, bordered by white sandy beaches, surrounded by a warm turquoise ocean and almost always bathed in brilliant sunshine.
Susie Jackson was not a new arrival, however. This environment was reality for her and the anticipation created by watching the privately chartered seaplane come in for a smooth landing and taxi to the pontoon at the end of the jetty was due purely to an empathy with the young girl standing by her side. Pressed close enough for the tremor to feel like her own. She tightened the arm around the girl's shoulders with a quick, reassuring hug.
Figures emerged from the small aircraft. The pilot stayed to secure the mooring and it was a single figure who began to walk down the timber slats of the narrow jetty.
That was when it happened.
When the edges of reality began to blur.
So much for the generic 'parent' figure she had expected to greet. Any last-minute words of encouragement for the girl beside her died on Susie's lips and she could only stare as the man striding towards them turned the jetty into a catwalk.
Modelling the latest Armani suit, perhaps, with an appropriate aura of elegance and power. Beautifully tailored dark trousers. A dark tie that had been loosened and a pristine white shirt with the top button undone. The suit jacket slung carelessly over one arm and a slim, black briefcase dangling from that hand. A mobile phone was in his other hand, held to his ear.
Was it the way he was walking? A mixture of casual grace but purpose with an unmistakable air of being very accustomed to attracting a spotlight. Demanding it, almost.
OK, maybe the man was a highly acclaimed neuro-surgeon from Sydney and maybe he was a key figure in tomorrow's opening ceremony because he had donated enough money to help make the new, fabulous medical facilities on Wallaby Island a possibility in the wake of Cyclone Willie, which had devastated the area six months ago, but this wasn't about him right now, was it?
It was about Stella. The girl nervously standing beside her. Without the aid of her crutches. Waiting for the most important person in her life to applaud what was, quite literally, a huge step forward.
The nerves were contagious. Or maybe it was a trickle of apprehension that made Susie's stomach tighten and her mouth feel dry as Alex Vavunis strode closer. The phone was snapped shut and he was close enough
now for Susie to take in the clearly defined lines of his face, the jaw softened slightly by heavy shadow and far more by a charming smile. Dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. Lines on his forehead that suggested this man was used to frowning.
Not that he was frowning right now. Susie was invisible, standing outside a kind of forcefield created by the palpable bond between this father and daughter. What would it feel like, she wondered a little wistfully, to be so important to a man like this?
But then the lines deepened, confirming Susie's impression, and the smile of pride and delighted greeting faded as he focused intently on his daughter's face. For the briefest moment he looked taken aback. As though he didn't quite recognise the person he was looking at. Almost as though he was seeing a ghost.
'Stella! What's all this?'
Stella's tentative smile widened hopefully. Look at me, Daddy, it said. Tell me it's OK to feel this proud of myself.
Susie's smile widened, too. She did this by herself, it said. Isn't it wonderful?
But Alex Vavunis didn't even seem to notice the absence of the crutches. He was staring at Stella's face. Susie watched, transfixed by the changing expression on his face, not wanting to believe what she could see happening. Pleasure giving way to a blink of readjustment. Pride being tarnished by what could only be interpreted as disappointment. Surely not. How crushing would that be?
'You're ' Alex paused, and the transformation from loving parent to authoritarian figure appeared complete. Are you wearing make-up?'
Stella's smile wobbled. 'I It's the camp disco tonight. I told you '
'And what are you wearing? Whose clothes are they?'
Her father made a faint soundof irritation perhaps. As though he knew every item of clothing in his teenage daughter's wardrobe and didn't recognise these.
Maybe he did, in which case Susie might label him as a control freak rather than a caring parent. It was possible to give him the benefit of some doubt, though. What Stella was wearing at the moment was very different to anything she had brought with her to camp but, then, variations on a theme of denim jeans, oversized T-shirts and baseball caps were hardly what a girl would want to wear to her first disco, were they?
'There's a shop at the resort,' Stella was continuing bravely. 'You said I could buy anything I needed and put it on your room account.'
'Yes, but ' Alex took another look at his daughter's attire and sighed.
The sigh seemed to hang over them. The sound of a man who was capable of dealing with any amount of stress and decision-making in matters of life or death but who had not expected and certainly did not welcome having to deal with this particular issue.
Stella didn't sound so brave now. There was uncertainty in her voice. 'What's wrong with what I'm wearing?'
'Nothing,' Susie muttered.
The skirt was gorgeous. Layers of brightly coloured gypsy ruffles that ended at mid-calf. The perfect length and shape for making the first public appearance of that prosthesis discreet.
The lacy white camisole top was also perfect. Just what most teenage girls wore, and while the shop hadn't run to much in the way of lingerie, Susie knew Stella had been secretly thrilled at the boost from the lightly padded and underwired white bikini top.
'It looks like underwear,' Alex Vavunis decreed. He shook his head in a single, incredulous movement. 'Good Greek girls do not appear in underwear in public, Stella.'
Susie could feel Stella's confidence draining. All the excitement and anticipation from revealing her progress and new, grown-up look was evaporating like the hiss of air from a pricked balloon. She glared at Stella's father. How could he do this? Did he have any idea how hard it had been to get to this point? How fragile his daughter's self-esteem was?
A degree of disapproval would have been understandable. Acceptable even. She had been prepared for that after more than one reference from Stella about how strict her father could be, but Susie had brushed aside the warnings. She had heard enough to convince her how proud Stella was of her famous father and how much she loved him. Any parent who inspired such loyalty had to be doing something right and it had been easy to convince herself that he would be as thrilled as she was at the extraordinary progress Stella had made this week.
Oh, Lord! This was her fault.
Susie still had her arm around Stella's shoulders and she could feel the gathering tension. Any second now and her arm could be shrugged off as blame was apportioned. There would be tears, no doubt. What should have been a joyous reunion would be a scene of misery and confrontation for everybody concerned.
'Charles Wetherby was supposed to meet me and arrange transport,' Alex said. 'We'll go straight to the hotel and you can get changed.' He frowned at his mobile phone then looked over Stella's shoulder.
Susie followed the glance. Sure enough, there was Charles in his wheelchair a little further up the path that led to the medical centre. How long had he been there? How much had he overheard?
Enough, she suspected, aware of a wash of relief. The medical director of Crocodile Creek Base Hospital had earned his position as the heart of this community. He never ceased to keep his fingers on the pulse of his realm. Not just the running of a large base hospital that provided a rescue base for the whole of far North Queensland. Or its satellite and now considerably upgraded facilities on Wallaby Island that meant they were able to expand the camps run for sick kids and their families. He also seemed to know anything important that was happening in the lives of his staff.
Susie sent a smile in his direction. A probably unnecessary plea for assistance in defusing this situation. Charles had been the point of contact for the neurosur-geon two years ago when Alex Vavunis had been checking out the possibility of a respite for his daughter who had been undergoing intensive chemotherapy for a type of bone cancer. He would know more about the man's personality than Susie did, so he would be aware of the undercurrents.
And everybody had seen how Susie had been drawn to this prickly teenager in the first week of this current camp. Charles had commented only yesterday about the extra hours Susie was spending on the island this time, but the twinkle in his eye had been approving.
He had seen what Stella's father was apparently blind to. Susie's smile suddenly felt crooked. Maybe Charles had also seen that the project was helping Susie as much as Stella. That she'd been drawn to the teenager because some of the events of this week had left her feeling just as forlorn and left out of the good things in life as Stella clearly did.
Charles rolled onto the planks at the land end of the jetty. The seaplane pilot had finished securing the moorings and was walking towards them from the other end, carrying a suitcase. She and Stella were a little island of femininity getting closed in by men. No wonder Stella trembled and seemed to lose her balance. Standing unaided was new enough without this sense of threat. That was why Susie had the elbow crutches clutched in her free hand. Hidden behind her back.
Amazingly, though, Stella straightened. Regained her balance. Susie loved the way her chin rose defiantly.
'No,' she told her father.
'No?' The echo was dumbfounded. 'What do you mean, " No"?'
'I'm not going to the hotel.'
'It's all arranged.' The words were impatient. 'We have a suite. You didn't want to stay in the dormitories with the other children, remember?'
Of course she didn't, Susie thought angrily. She has to take her prosthesis off at night, doesn't she?
'You refused to even come to camp this year,' Alex continued. 'You only agreed because I'd already gone to considerable trouble to create a window so I could attend the opening of the medical centre.'
Charles raised an eyebrow. It had been an invitation to a major sponsor, the gesture suggested. A courtesy, not an edict intended to create inconvenience.
'You liked the idea of the luxury suite,' Alex concluded firmly. 'And that you could fly back with me on Sunday instead of staying for the second week. It's all arranged, Stella.'
And that was that.
Or was it?
'I've changed my mind,' Stella said. She gulped in a breath of the warm tropical air.' I like the dormitory now And I like my new clothes and and I can wear makeup if I want to. I'm nearly fourteen and Susie said'
'Susie?' The interruption was a snap. A low and dangerous sound. 'Who the hell is Susie?'
'Me,' Susie said. Oh, God, did it have to come out like the squeak of a cornered mouse?
For the first time Alex looked directly at her and Susie felt the eye contact like a physical blow. Sharp and penetrating. She felt like a bug pinned for inspection, and she couldn't escape. Couldn'tfor the life of her tear her gaze away.
Not that she really wanted to. Stella needed an ally here and she was it. She would just have to ignore the way her heart had begun hammering and the odd, prickly internal sensation that felt horribly like fear.
'Susie Jackson.' It was Charles's voice. Calm and strong. A reassurance all by itself. 'Our esteemed physiotherapist, Alex. She and Stella have made a formidable team this week.'
'Charles!' Alex slipped his mobile phone into the pocket of his trousers and extended his hand to greet the man now beside Stella. 'Good to see you.'
'And you, Alex. We're delighted you were able to make it.'
'Good timing, having the opening on while Stella's here for camp. It's about time I saw the place that's made such a difference to my only child's life.'
'Not to mention meeting the people.' Charles's smile drew Susie into the exchange. 'We're lucky there were no last-minute emergencies to keep you in Sydney this time.'
The pocket holding the cellphone got patted. 'There are always emergencies, Charles, as I'm sure you know only too well.'A determined intake of breath suggested resolution. Had he been dealing with difficulties in his unit even as he'd been taking his first steps onto the jetty? 'This time I told them they'd just have to cope without me.'
The charming smile was back but it had no effect on Susie. She wasn't prepared to make allowances for professional hassles. She was getting a rather clear picture of how important this man considered himself and his career and, in her opinion, Stella should be a long way further up his list of priorities.
It was, quite simply, not good enough.
'I might even turn my mobile off,' Alex said.
Susie almost snorted.
'Good thinking,' Charles said mildly. He swivelled to look over his shoulder. 'There's a cart on the way to take you to the resort but if you're not too hot, I could give you a quick tour of the centre.'
Susie found herself nodding agreement. Disappear for a while, she encouraged silently. Let me see if I can repair the damage here.
No such luck.
'We'll go to the hotel first,'Alex said crisply. 'I can't have my daughter out looking like'
'Like what? Stella's voice rose and there was more than a hint of tears in it. 'What's so wrong with the way I look, Dad? Susie said ' Her voice trailed away. Was it too hard to utter the notion that she looked gorgeous?
'Susie said what?'
Alex flicked another glance at his daughter's physiotherapist. His gaze dropped from her loose, shoulder-length hair, which always went a bit too curly with salt water and sunshine, to take in the soft singlet top she wore beneath an unbuttoned shirt, the sleeves of which were rolled up past her elbows. Dropped again, to denim shorts with frayed hems that did nothing to hide the length of her well-tanned legs.
Susie flushed. It wasn't a particularly professional-looking uniform but things were never overly formal in Crocodile Creek, and she was on an island right now with a bunch of kids who were having a holiday. A break from lives that centred around debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses.