The Doctor's Rescue Mission
The disaster - A tidal wave has swept across Petrel Island. Houses are destroyed, people injured, homeless... or worse. The rescuers - Dr Grady Reece leads an Air-Sea Rescue team to help the isolated community and finds dedicated doctor Morag Lacy in charge.
Morag and Grady once had a blazing affair and a brilliant future, before she left him to be the island doctor. Grady has never stopped loving her - but she'll never abandon her duty. Could this be his chance to win her back?
The call came as Morag prepared for dinner with the man she intended to share her life. By the time he arrived, Dr. Grady Reece was thrust right out of the picture.
The moment she opened the door, Grady guessed something was wrong. This man’s career was responding to disaster, and disaster was etched unmistakeably on her face.
`What is it, Morag?’
That was almost her undoing. The way he said her name. She’d always disliked her name. It seemed harsh – a name suggestive of rough country, high crags and bleak weather - but the lilt in Grady’s voice the first time he uttered it had made her think it was fine after all.
`We need to talk,’ she managed. `But... your family is expecting us.’ Grady’s brother was a prominent politician and they’d been invited to a family barbecue at his huge mansion on North Shore.
`Rod won’t miss us,’ Grady told her. `You know I’m never held down. My family expect me when they see me.’
That was the way he wanted it. She’d learned that about him early, and she not only expected it but she liked it. Loose ties... no clinging... it was the way to build a lasting relationship.
No ties? What was she about to do?
`You want to tell me now?’ he asked, and she shook her head. She needed a more time. A little more time. Just a few short minutes of the life she’d so carefully built.
`Hey.’ He touched her face and smiled down into her eyes. `I’ll take you somewhere I know,’ he told her. `And don’t look like that. Nothing’s so bad that we can’t face it together.’
There was to be no more together. She fought for control as she grabbed her coat. Together...
Not any more.
He didn’t press her. He led her to the car and helped her in, knowing instinctively that she was fighting to maintain control.
He was so good in a crisis...
Grady was three years older than Morag, and he’d qualified young from medical school. He had years more experience than she did in dealing with crisis.
His reaction to disaster was one of the things that had drawn her to him, she thought, as she stared despairingly across the car at the man she loved - and wondered how she could bear to tell him what she must.
Patients talked to him when they were in trouble, she thought. So must she.
Grady was a trauma specialist with Air-Sea Rescue, a team who evacuated disaster victims from all over Australia. Wherever there was disaster, there was Grady, and he was one of the best. He’d arrive in the Emergency Room with yet another appallingly injured patient, and the place would be calmer for his presence. Tall and muscular, with a shock of curled black hair and deep, brown, weather-crinkled eyes, Grady’s presence seemed to radiate a reassurance that was as inexplicable as it was real. Trust me, those crinkling eyes said. You’ll be okay with me.
And why wouldn’t you trust him? The man was heart-warmingly gorgeous. Morag couldn’t believe her luck when he’d asked her out.
As surgical registrar, Morag’s job at Sydney Central included assessing patients pre-surgery. She’d first met Grady as he handed over a burns victim – an aging hippie who’d gone to sleep still smoking his joint. The man’s burns had been appalling.
Morag had been impressed with Grady’s concern then, and she’d been even more impressed when he’d appeared in the ward two weeks later – to drop in and say hello to someone no one in the world seemed to care about.
That was the beginning. So far they’d only had four weeks of interrupted courtship, but she’d known from the start that this could work. They had so much in common.
They were both ambitious. They both loved working in critical care, and they intended to work in the fast lane for their entire medical careers. They laughed at the same things. They loved the same food, the same lifestyle, the same... everything.
And Grady had the ability to curl her toes. Just as he was doing now. She looked across at her with that quizzical half-smile she was beginning to love, and her heart did a crazy back-somersault with pike. He looked gorgeous in his soft, lambs-wool sweater – a sweater that on anyone else but Grady might look effeminate, but on Grady it just looked fabulous - and it was all she could do not to burst into tears.
She didn’t. Of course she didn’t. Tears would achieve nothing. She turned away and stared straight ahead, into the dark.
The restaurant he drove her to was a secluded little bistro where the food was great and the service better. Grady ordered, still sensing that to do anything other than focus on the catastrophe surrounding her was impossible. With wine poured and orders taken, the waiters let them be.
They must look a really romantic couple, Morag thought dully. She’d taken such care with her appearance tonight. Although dressed for a barbecue, there was little casual about her appearance. Her jeans were figure hugging and brand new. She wore great little Jimmy Choo shoes, high as high, stretching her legs to sexy-long. Her crop tip was tiny, crimson, leaving little to the imagination, and she’d swept up her chestnut curls into a knot of wispy curls on top of her head. She’d applied make-up to her pale skin with care. She knew she looked sexy and seductive and expensive – and she knew that there was good reason why every man present had turned his head as Grady ushered her into the restaurant.
This was how she loved to look. But after tonight... After tonight there’d never be any call for her to look like this again.
`Hey, it can’t be that bad.’ Grady reached out and took her hand. He stroked the back of it with care. It was something she’d seen him do with patients.
Two weeks ago a small boy had come into Sydney Central after a tractor accident and Grady had sat with the parents and explained there was no way the little boy’s arm could be saved. She’d seen him lift the burly farmer’s hand and touch it just like this – an almost unheard of gesture, man to man, but so necessary when the father would be facing self-blame all his life.
She’d loved that gesture when she’d seen it then. And now, here he was, using the same gesture on her.
`What is it, Morag?’
`My sister.’ She could hardly say it.
`Don’t say it at all!’ a little voice inside her head was screaming at her. `If you don’t say it out loud, then it won’t be real.’
But it was real. Horribly real.
`I didn’t know you had a sister.’ Grady was frowning, and Morag knew he was thinking of the brisk business-woman who he’d been introduced to as Morag’s mother.
`Beth’s my half-sister, Morag whispered. `She’s ten years older than I am. She lives on Petrel Island.’
`Off the coast of...’
`I know Petrel Island.’ He was focused on her face, and his fingers were still doing the smoothing thing to the back of her hand. It was making her cringe inside. This man... he was who she wanted forever. She knew that. But he...
`We evacuated a kid from Petrel Island twelve months back,’ Grady said. `It’s a weird little community – Kooris and fishermen and a crazy doctor-cum-lighthouse keeper keeping the whole community together.’
`That’s your sister?’ His tone was incredulous and she knew why. There seemed no possible connection between the placid islander Beth and the sophisticated career doctor he was looking at.
But there was. Of course there was. You couldn’t remove sisterhood by distance or by lifestyle.
Beth was her sister forever.
`Beth’s the island doctor,’ she told him, finding the courage to meet his eyes. `She’s also the lighthouse caretaker. It’s what our father did so she’s taken right over.’
`Beth’s the lighthouse keeper? And the doctor as well?’
`It’s a family thing,’ she told him. Then seeing his confusion deepen, she tried to explain. `Dad was born on the island, and inherited the lighthouse keeping from my granddad. He married an island girl and they had Beth. Then the lighthouse was upgraded to automatic – just as Dad’s first wife died. She was seven months pregnant with their second baby, but she collapsed and died of eclampsia before Dad could get her to the mainland.’
Grady was frowning, taking it on board with deep concern. `She had no warning?’
`There was no doctor on the island,’ Morag said bleakly. `And no, he had no warning. Everything seemed normal. She was planning on leaving for the mainland at thirty four weeks but she didn’t make it. Anyway, her death meant that within a few weeks Dad lost his wife, his baby son and his job. All he had left was two year old Beth. But the waste of the deaths made him decide what to do. He brought Beth to the mainland, and managed to get a grant to go to medical school. That’s where he met my mother. They married and had me, but the marriage was a disaster. Everyone was miserable. By the time Dad finished med. school, the government decided that leaving the lighthouse to look after itself – even if it was automatic – was a disaster. The island was still desperate for a doctor, and the caretaker’s cottage was still empty. So Dad and Beth went home.’
Grady’s face was thoughtful. `Leaving you behind with your mother?’
`Of course.’ She shrugged. `Can you see my mother living on Petrel Island? But I did spend lots of time there. Every holiday... Whenever I could. Mum didn’t mind. As long as she wasn’t seen as a deserting mother, anything I did was okay by her. She’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy parent, my mother.’
`I have met her.’
He had. They’d moved fast in four weeks. Morag’s eyes flickered again to his face. Maybe this could work. Maybe he..
But the eyes he was looking at her with were wrong, she thought, confused with the messages she was receiving. He was concerned as he’d be concerned for a patient. He was using a `Let’s get to the bottom of this’ kind of voice. He was gentleness personified, but his gentleness was abstract. For Morag, who’d had a childhood of abstract affection, the concept was frightening.
`So you spent holidays with your father and Beth,’ he was saying and she forced herself to focus on the past rather than the terrifying future.
`Yes. They were... they loved me. Beth was everything to me.’
`Where’s your father now?’
`He died three years ago. He’s buried on the island. That’s okay. He had a subarachnoid haemorrhage and died in his sleep, and it wasn’t a bad way to go for a man in his seventies.’
`As I said, she’s a doctor, like me. You said you’ve met her?’ Still she couldn’t say what was wrong. How could she? How could she voice the unimaginable? `My dad, and then Beth after him, provided the island’s medical care. Because there’s only about five hundred people living on the island, and the medical work is hardly arduous, they’ve kept on the lighthouse, too. Lighthouse keeping’s not the time consuming job it was.’
`I guess it’s not.’ Grady was watching her face. Waiting. Knowing that she was taking her time to say what had to be said, and knowing she needed that time. He lifted her hand again and gripped her fingers, looking down at them as if he was examining them for damage. It was a technical manoeuvre, she thought dully. Something he’d learned to do. `So Beth’s the island doctor...’
`She’s great.’ She was talking too fast, she thought, but she couldn’t slow down. Her voice didn’t seem to belong to her. `She’s ten years older than me, and she was almost a mother to me. She’d turn up unexpectedly whenever I most needed her. If I was in a school play and my mother couldn’t make it – which she nearly always couldn’t – I’d suddenly, miraculously, find Beth in the audience, cheering me on with an enthusiasm that was almost embarrassing. And when she decided to be a doctor, I thought I could be, too.’
`But not like Beth?’
`Beth wanted to go back to the island. It tore her apart to leave to do her medical training, and the moment she was qualified she returned. She fell in love with a local fisherman and the island’s her home. She loves it.’
`And you?’ he probed.
`The island’s never been my home. I love it but I never thought of living anywhere but here.’ She attempted a smile but it was a pretty shaky one. `I guess I have more than a bit of my mother in me somewhere. I like excitement, cities, shopping... life.’
`My excitement levels don’t match your excitement levels,’ she told him ruefully. `I like being a surgeon in a bustling city hospital. I don’t dangle out of helicopters in raging seas plucking...’
But Grady wasn’t to be distracted. The background had been covered. Now it was time to move on. `Morag, what’s wrong?’ His deep voice cut through her misery, compelling. Doctor asking for facts, so he could treat what needed to be treated.
Her voice faltered. She looked up at him and then away. His hand tightened on hers – just as she’d seen him do with distressed patients. For some reason the action had her tugging away from him. She didn’t want this man treating her as he’d treat a patient. This was supposed to be special.
This was supposed to be forever.
The prospect of forever rose up, overwhelming in its dread. Somehow she had to explain and she had to do it before she broke down.
`Beth has renal cancer,’ she whispered.
She’d shifted her hand back to her side of the table. Grady made a move to regain it, but she tucked it carefully under the table. It seemed stupidly important that she know where her hand was.
He didn’t say anything. She swallowed while he waited for her to go on. He was good, this man. His bedside manner was impeccable.
And suddenly, inexplicably, his bedside manner made her want to hit him.
Crazy. Anger – anger at Grady – was crazy. She had to force herself to be logical here. To make sense.
`I haven’t been back to the island for over a year,’ she managed. `But last time I went Beth seemed terrific. Beth had a bad time for a while. She married a local fisherman, and he was drowned just after Dad died. But she was recovering. She’s thirty nine years old and she has a little boy, Robbie, who’s five. She seemed settled and happy. Life was looking good.’
`But now she’s been diagnosed with renal cancer?’ His tone was carefully neutral, still extracting facts.
`Advanced. Apparently she flew down to Melbourne last month and had scans without telling anyone. There’s massive tumour in the left kidney, with spread that’s clear from the scans. It’s totally inoperable.’
And totally anything else, she thought bleakly as she waited for Grady to absorb what she’d told him. He’d know the inevitable outcome just as clearly as she did. If renal cancer was caught while the tumour was still contained, then it could be surgically removed – removing the entire kidney - but once it had spread outside the kidney wall, chemotherapy or radiotherapy could make little difference.
`She’s dying,’ she whispered.
Her eyes flew up to his. He was watching her, his eyes gentle but she wasn’t imagining it. There was that tiny trace of removal. Distancing.
`I need to go to the island,’ she told him. `Now.’
`Of course you do.’ He hesitated, and she could see him juggling appointments in his head. Thinking ahead to his frantic week. It was what she always did when something unexpected came up.
`Do you want me to come with you?’ he asked.
Did she? Of course she did. More than anything else in the world. But...
`I can call on Steve to cover for me for the next week,’ he told her. `If we could be back by next Sunday...’
His face stilled. `Sorry?’
And now it was time to say it. It couldn’t be put off one moment longer. Somehow...
`Grady, this isn’t going to happen,’ she said gently, as if this would hurt him as much as it hurt her. And maybe it would.
`My sister’s dying. She has a little boy and she’s a single mother. She has a community who depend on her.’
His face was almost expressionless. `What are you saying?’
`That it’ll be a lot... a lot longer than a week.’
`Can you take more than a week off?’ His face changed then, back to the concerned, involved expression that was somehow turning her away from him. It was making her cringe inside. It was his doctor’s face.
`I guess you must,’ he said, thinking it through as he spoke. `The hospital will organise compassionate leave for you for a few weeks.’ He hesitated. `I’ll come for a week now, and then again for...’
`The funeral?’ she finished for him and watched him flinch.
She shook her head. `It’s not going to happen.’
`I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said...’
`Oh, the funeral’s going to happen,’ she said, her anger directing and squarely now against the appalling waste of cancer. `Inevitably it’ll happen. But as for taking compassionate leave... I can’t.’
He frowned, confused. `So you’ll come back in a week or so?’
`I didn’t say that.’ She lifted her hands back onto the table and stared down at her fingers, as if she couldn’t believe she was about to make the commitment that in truth she’d made the moment she’d heard her sister whisper: `renal cancer’. It was done. It was over. `I’m not taking compassionate leave,’ she said bluntly. `I’m going to the island forever.’
It shocked him. It shocked him right out of compassionate doctor, caring lover mode. All the things he was most good at. His brow snapped down in surprise, and his deep, dark eyes went still.
`You can’t just quit.’ Grady’s job was his life, Morag thought hopelessly, and she could understand it. Until an hour ago she’d felt the same way. But she had no choice.
`Why can’t I quit?’ And then, despairingly... `How can I not?’
`Surely your sister wouldn’t expect you to.’
`Beth expects nothing,’ she said fiercely. `She never has. She gives and she gives and she gives.’ Their meal arrived then and she stared down at it as if she didn’t recognise it. Grady leaned across to place her knife and fork in her hands – back to being the caring doctor – but she didn’t even notice. `Petrel Island needs her so much,’ she whispered.
`She’s their only doctor?’
`My father and then Beth,’ she told him. She stopped for a minute then, ostensibly to eat but really to gather her thoughts to continue. `Because my father was a doctor, more young families have come to the island, and the community’s grown. There’s fishing and kelp farming and a great little specialist dairy. But without a doctor... The Petrel Island community will disintegrate.’
`They could get someone else.’
`Oh, sure.’ It was almost a jeer. `A doctor who wants to practice in such a place? I don’t think so. After... after Beth dies, maybe... I’ll try to find someone, but it’s so unlikely. And Beth needs my promise – that the island can continue without out her.’
`So you see,’ she told him, cutting her steak into tiny pieces that she had no intention of eating. It was so important to concentrate. It was important to concentrate on anything but Grady. `You see why I need to leave?’
There was a reason she couldn’t look at him. She knew what his reaction would be. And here it came. `But... you’re saying this might be forever?’ He sounded appalled. As well he might.
`I’m saying for as long as I’m needed. Do I have a choice?’
He had the answer to that one. `Yes,’ he said flatly. `Bring your sister here. You can’t tell me there aren’t far better medical facilities in Sydney than on Petrel island. And who’s going to be treating physician? You? You know that’s a recipe for disaster. Caring for your own family... I don’t think so.’
`There’s no one else.’
`There’s no one else in Sydney?’ he asked incredulously.
`No. On the island. Beth won’t leave the island.’
`She doesn’t have a choice,’ Grady said, the gentleness returning to his voice. Gentle but right. Sympathetic but firm. `You have a life, Morag, and your life is here.’
`And Robbie? Her little boy? What of his life?’
`Maybe he’s going to have to move on. Plenty of kids have a city life. It won’t hurt him to spend a couple of months in Sydney.’
`You mean I should bring them both here while Beth dies.’
`You have a life, too,’ he told her. `It sounds dreadful – I know it does – but if your sister is dying then you have to think past the event.’
`Take care of the living?’
`That’s right,’ he said, his face clearing a little. `Your sister will see that. As far as I remember she seemed a pragmatic person. Not selfish...’
`No. Not selfish. Never selfish.’
`You need to think long term. She’ll be thinking long term.’
`She is,’ Morag said dully. `That’s why she rang me. She’s been ill for months and she’s been searching for some way not to ask me. But it’s come to this. She doesn’t have a choice and neither do I. Without Beth the community doesn’t have a doctor. Robbie doesn’t have a mother. And I’m it.’
Silence. Then... `Your mother?’
`You’ve met my mother. Barbara take care of Robbie? He’s not even her grandchild. Don’t be stupid.’
He looked flatly at her, aghast. `You’re not seriously suggesting you throw everything up here?’ he demanded. `Take over the care of a dying sister? Take on the mothering of a child, and the medical needs of a tiny island hundreds of miles from the mainland. Morag, you have to be kidding?’
`Do you think I’d joke about something like this?’
`Look, don’t make any decisions,’ he said urgently. `Not yet. Get compassionate leave for a week or two and take it from there. I’ll come over and do some reorganisation...’
`I’ll talk to the flying doctor service. We’ll see if we can get a clinic over there once a month or so to keep the locals happy. I can organise an apartment here that’d accommodate your sister. Maybe we can figure out a long-term carer for the kid on the island. He can go to day-care here while his Mum’s alive and then we’ll find someone to take him over long term.’
Great. For the first time since Beth had telephoned, Morag felt an emotion that was so fierce it overrode her complete and utter devastation. She raised her face to his and she met his look head on. He was doing what he was so good at. Crisis management. He was taking disaster and hauling it into manageable bits.
But this was Beth. Beth!
`Do you know what love is?’ she whispered.
He looked confused. `Sure I do, Morag.’ He reached forward and would have taken her hand again, but she snatched it back like he’d burn her. `You and I...’
`You and I don’t have a thing. Not any more. This is Beth, we’re talking about. Beth. My darling sister. The woman who cares for me and loves me and who put her own life on hold for me so many times I can’t think about it. You’d have me repay that by taking a couple of weeks leave...’
`Morag, this is your life.’
`Our lives. Mine and Beth’s. They intertwine. As ours – yours and mine - don’t any more.’ She rose then and stood, staring down at him, her sudden surge of anger replaced by unutterable sadness. Unutterable weariness. `Grady, I can’t stay here,’ she whispered, `I’m going home. I’m going back to Petrel Island and I won’t be coming back.’
He stayed seated, emphasising the growing gulf between them. `But you don’t want...’
`What I want doesn’t come into it,’
`And what I want?’
`What’s that supposed to mean?’
`I want you, Morag.’
`No.’ She shook her head. `No, you don’t. You want the part of me that I thought I could become. That I thought I was. Independent career doctor, city girl, partner while we had the best fun...’
He rose then but it was different. He put his hands on her shoulders and bent to kiss her, lightly on the lips. It was a fleeting gesture but she knew exactly what he was doing, and the pain was building past the point where she could bear it. `We did have fun,’ he told her.
`We did.’ She swallowed. It wasn’t Grady’s fault that she’d fallen hopelessly in love with him, she realised. Beth’s illness wasn’t his fault, and it wasn’t his fault that their lives from now on were totally incompatible.
It wasn’t his fault that now he was letting her go.
For richer and for poorer. In sickness and in health. Whither thou goest, I will go...
Ha! It was never going to work. Beth needed her.
And Grady wasn’t going to follow.
But his hand suddenly lifted to her face, as if there were second thoughts. He cupped her chin and forced her eyes to his. `You can’t go.’ His voice was low, suddenly gruff and serious. The caring and competent young doctor had suddenly been replaced by someone who was unsure. `Morag, these last few weeks... It’s been fantastic. You know that I love you.’
Did he? Until this evening she’d thought – she’d hoped that he had. And she’d thought she loved him.
Whither thou goest, I will go.
No. It hadn’t reached that stage yet. She looked into his uncertain eyes and she knew that the line hadn’t been crossed. Which was just as well. It made the decision she was making now bearable. Just. Maybe.
`No,’ she said softly. `You don’t love me. Not yet. But I do love Beth, and she needs me. The island needs me. It was wonderful, Grady, but I need to move on.
Even then he could have stopped her. He could have come up with some sort of alternative. Come with her now, try the island for size, think of how it could work...
No. That was desperation talking and desperation had no foundation in solid, dreadful reality.
She didn’t need to end this. It was already over.
`What can I do?’ he asked, and she bit her lip.
`Nothing.’ Nothing she could ever vocalise. `Just say goodbye.’
And that was that.
She rose on her tiptoes and kissed him again, hard this time, and fast, tasting him, savouring him for one last moment. One fleeting minute. And then, before he could respond, she’d straightened and backed.
`I need to go, Grady,’ she told him, trying desperately to keep the tears from her voice. `It’s been... fabulous. But I need... to follow my heart.’
Morag felt the earth move while she was at Hubert Hamm’s, and stupidly, after the first few frightening moments, she thought it mightn’t matter.