Emergency physician Hamish McGregor is about to leave Crocodile Creek to return to Scotland and the job of his dreams. Until the woman of his dreams walks in.
Nurse Kate Winship is here to trace her birth father and pick up the pieces of a shattered life. She's not ready to trust again, not now, and maybe not ever. And Hamish has just three weeks to persuade her to love him for a lifetime...
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
WELCOME TO CROCODILE CREEK!
The writing was gold on green, very patriotic, but what was a woman who'd grown up in a penthouse in inner city Melbourne, and to whom wildlife was a friend's pet galah, doing in a place called Crocodile Creek?
Though flinging her engagement ring at Lindy hadn't really been overreacting — it had been a necessary release of tension to avoid killing either her erstwhile best friend or her stunned and now ex-fiancé, Daniel.
Overwhelmed by the sign telling her she'd finally reached her destination, Kate pulled the car over onto the grass verge and stared at the name of the town, heart thudding erratically at the magnitude of what she'd done, and with apprehension of what might lie ahead.
Could this unlikely place with the corny name — Crocodile Creek, as if! — possibly provide the answers she so desperately needed to rebuild her life?
She then considered the implications of the town's name again. Nah! Surely nobody would build a town on a creek that actually had crocodiles in it.
But she glanced behind her towards what looked like, well, more like a river than a creek — and, just in case, put the car into gear again and drove on.
Up here in North Queensland anything might be possible.
"Go through the town, over the bridge, past the hospital to a big house on a bluff."
The directions the director of nursing had given on the phone last night had been clear enough. The road led through the town and over another rather rickety bridge. Looking out her side window, Kate was tempted to stop again, for there, virtually in the middle of the town, was a sandy beach, lapped by lazy waves that frilled the edge of a blue-green sea. Hot and sticky from this final day of a five-day drive, she looked with longing at the water, but someone called Hamish was expecting her at the house.
Could that be it?
The one perched on the bluff at the southern end of this magical cove?
As a child she'd dreamed of living in a house by the sea, a longing frustrated rather than satisfied by holidays at the beach.
Excited now, she drove on. Yes, that was definitely a hospital on her right. Low set and relatively modern, it was surrounded by palms and bright-leafed plants, but still had the usual signs to Emergency, Admittance and parking areas.
Past the hospital she went, to the house on the hill — by the sea — parked the car in a small paved area to one side, unloaded her suitcase and climbed the steps to the wide veranda.
The front door was open, but she tapped on it anyway, then called out a tentative hello before venturing slowly down the wide hall that seemed to lead right through the middle of the old building.
"Have you any idea how difficult it is to organise a rodeo?"
The big man appeared at the far end of the hall, waving the handset of the phone as he spoke. A soft Scottish accent spun the question from bizarre to fantasy and when he added, "You'll be Kate, then?'in that intriguing voice, Kate smiled for the first time in about six months.
Well, maybe not quite six months. "I will be, then," she said, dropping her suitcase and coming towards him with her hand held out. "Kate Winship. When I phoned last night the DON said Hamish would show me around the house, so you'll be Hamish?"
His large firm hand engulfed hers and the voice said, "Hamish McGregor,'but something apart from the accent made Kate look up — into eyes so dark a blue they looked almost black, here in the shadowy hall of the big old house she'd been told was called 'the doctors' house'.
She removed her hand from his and backed away. One step. Two. Then she realised she must look stupid and backed far enough to turn her panicky retreat into a suitcase retrieval.
"I'll take that."
He only needed one long stride, lifting it from her unresisting fingers.
"We've put you in here. This was Mike's room, but he and — Well, you'll get to know everyone soon enough. Suffice it to say there're more people sharing rooms these days than there used to be, which is why we've room for some of the nursing staff while the nurses' quarters are renovated."
He turned a teasing smile on Kate. "Fair warning, Nurse Winship. There's been an epidemic of love racing through Crocodile Creek these past few weeks, so watch how you go."
"Love! That's the last thing I'll catch," she assured him. "I'm immunised, inoculated and vaccinated. The love bug won't bite me."
He set her suitcase on the bed and turned to look at her, dark eyebrows rising to meet brown-black hair that flopped in a heavy clump over his forehead. The eyebrows were asking questions, friendly questions, but there was no way she was going to answer them. The hurting was too new — too confusing — too all-encompassing. She had to learn to cope with it herself before she could share it with anyone — if she could ever share it.
But he was still watching her.
Diversion time. "Why are you organising a rodeo?"
His smile returned, softening his rather austere features, parting lips to reveal strong white teeth.
All the better to eat you with, Kate reminded herself as a niggle of something she didn't want to feel stirred inside her.
"It's for the swimming pool." 'Of course — a swimming pool for bulls and bucking horses." A deep, rich chuckle accompanied the smile this time. Had she not been immune...
"We're raising funds for a swimming pool at Wygera, an aboriginal community about fifty miles inland. The kids are bored to death — literally to death in some cases — sniffing petrol, chroming, drag racing, killing themselves for excitement."
The smile had faded and his now sombre tone told her he'd experienced the anger and frustration medical staff inevitably felt at the senseless loss of young lives.
"And when's this rodeo?" 'Weekend after next. That's why the house is deserted. Whoever's off duty is out at Wygera, organising things there — not so much for the rodeo as for the competition for a design for the swimming pool. Entries have to be in by today and the staff available are out there registering them and sorting them into categories. All the locals are involved. I'm on call for the emergency service. Did you know we have both a plane and a helicopter based — ?"
The phone interrupted his explanation, and as he walked out of the room to speak to the caller, Kate opened her suitcase and stared at the contents neatly packed inside. But her mind wasn't seeing T-shirts and underwear, it was seeing young indigenous Australians, so bored they killed themselves with paint or petrol fumes.
You're here to trace your mother's life, not save the world. But the image remained until Hamish materialised in the doorway.
"Look," he said, brushing the rebellious hair back from his forehead. "I hate to ask this when you've just arrived, but would you mind doing an emergency flight with me? There are fifteen kids from a birthday party throwing up over at the hospital so the staff there have their hands full."
Kate closed her suitcase. "Take me to your aircraft," she said. "When you've put something sensible on your feet. Nice as purple flowery sandals might be, they won't give much protection to your ankles if we have to be lowered to the patient."
"Are you criticising my footwear?" she said lightly, embarrassed that he'd even noticed what she was wearing on her feet. Embarrassed by the frivolous flowers.
She opened her case again and dug into the bottom of it to find her sensible walking boots. The rest of her outfit was eminently practical. Chocolate brown calf-length pants, and a paler brown T-shirt with just one purple flower decorating the shoulder. But a woman couldn't be sensible right down to her toes — especially not when these delicious sandals had called to her from a shop window in Townsville the day before.
Pulling off the sandals, she sat down on the bed to put on her boots, uncomfortably aware that Hamish hadn't answered her.
Uncomfortably aware of Hamish. "You don't have to wait — just tell me where to go. Is it to the airport? I passed that on the way in." 'Regular clinic flights leave from the airport. And retrievals leave from there if the aircraft is being used. But today it's the chopper."
He didn't move from the doorway and Kate was pleased when she finally had her boots laced tightly and was ready to leave.
She followed him through the house, out the back door and into a beautiful, scented garden. She glanced around, trying to identify the source of the perfume that lingered in the air, but Hamish was striding on, unaffected by the beauty. Too used to it, she guessed.
"We've a helipad behind the hospital to save double transferring of patients," Hamish explained. "The service has two helicopter pilots and one of them, Mike Poulos, is also a paramedic, so we can do rescue flights with just him and a doctor, but when he's off duty and Rex is flying, we take two medical staff."
"Is it a traffic accident?" Kate was glad she'd been running every morning. Keeping up with Hamish's long strides meant she had to trot along beside him.
It was such a strange response she glanced towards the man who'd made it and saw him frowning at his thoughts.
"It was a weird call and, now I think about it, maybe you shouldn't come," he added.
"I'm coming. Weird what way? Domestic situation?" 'No, just weird. The caller said there was an injured man in Cabbage Palm Gorge and gave a GPS reading. You know about satellite global positioning systems?"
"I've heard of it but, generally speaking, street names are more useful in Melbourne. Corner of Collins and Swanson kind of thing."
A glimmer of a smile chased the worry from his face, but not for long.
"Because it's a gorge, we might have to be lowered from the chopper." 'Been there and done that, though not, admittedly, into a gorge. But I have been lowered onto an oil-rig in Bass Strait in a gale, and that's not a lot of fun, believe me."
They'd reached the helicopter, and the conversation stopped while Hamish introduced Rex, a middle-aged man with a bald head and luxuriant moustache, then they clambered into the overalls he handed them.
"It's three-quarters of an hour to the head of the gorge, but until we're over it and get the right GPS reading, we won't know where the bloke is. I can't land anywhere in the gorge itself, and going down on the winch without a landing spot marked isn't an option in that country — too thickly treed. So I'll land where I can at the top of the gorge and you'll have to abseil down."
Rex was talking to Hamish, but glancing warily at Kate from time to time.
"That's fine," she assured him before Hamish could answer. "I'm qualified for that and did a winch-refresher weekend only a month or so ago."
Taken because she'd thought she'd be going back to the emergency department at St Stephen's and on roster for rescue missions...
"We'll see," Hamish objected. "I think I should go down first to find the patient. If he's mobile, we won't need two people."
"No go, Doc!" Rex told him, hustling them into the cabin, handing Kate some headphones then checking she'd found her seat belt. "It'll be dusk by the time we get there and, though it's not as deep as Carnarvon or Cobbold Gorge, Cabbage Palm's no picnic. Even if you find a suitable place to lift him from, I won't be able to do it tonight. And RRS rules say two staff for overnighters."
RRS — Remote Rescue Service, Kate worked out. She hadn't realised when she'd asked the agency for a job at Crocodile Creek that it had such wide-ranging services. She glanced at the man with whom she was about to spend the night. He was frowning again.
"Do you suffer some kind of knight errantry towards women, that you're looking so grim?"
Because he wasn't yet wearing his headphones, she had to yell the question above the noise of the engines. He turned towards her and shrugged, but didn't reply. Which was fine by her. Helicopters weren't the best places for casual conversation.
They lifted off the ground and Kate wriggled around so she could see out the window. The hospital was cradled by the curve of a creek — no doubt called Crocodile — to the west, but to the east there must be a view of the blue waters of the cove. She could see the doctors house on the bluff overlooking the cove, then the stretch of sand and water and another bluff on the northern end, on which perched a sprawling, white-painted building set in lush tropical gardens.
Beyond the creek, on the landward side, was a reasonably sized town, a cluster of larger buildings lining the main road. She'd driven past them earlier, noticing a pub, a grocery store and a hairdressing salon.
The helicopter swung away, and now all Kate could see were the slopes of hills, many of them covered with banana plantations, while beyond them rainforest-clad mountains rose up to meet the sky.
"It's cattle country once we're over the mountains."
She turned to Hamish and nodded acceptance of his statement, soon seeing for herself the open stretches of tree-studded plains. Rex seemed to be following what appeared to be a river, with more closely packed trees marking its meandering course. Then more hills appeared, rugged, rocky sentinels rising sheer from the plains, the setting sun catching their cliffs and turning them ruby red and scarlet.