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Chapter One

Sienna

The last triplet was always tricky. The beam from the operating-room light followed the flash of tiny limbs in the uterus like the final dancer on the stage. This baby did not enjoy the limelight.

Dr Sienna Wilson blew breath up under her mask to shift the wisp of blonde hair that had dared to escape from under her floral theatre hat during the struggle. Scooping the squirming passenger from his mother’s previously crowded womb, she admonished the tiny face, ‘I’m sorry, young man. It’s your time to shine.’ The staff in the theatre exchanged glances with relief.

‘Born 0310.’ Everyone heard the excitement in the scout nurse’s voice despite the early hour, and there were a few smiles.

‘A very determined young man,’ Sienna murmured, as she handed the baby on towards the final team of neonatal specialists. Her clenched belly relaxed with the delegation of the last baby’s welfare and she stretched her neck to see over the screen to the parents. ‘Congratulations. Number three is a boy. And he’s strong.’ No one could see the relief on Sienna’s face under her mask, but it was there along with the thrill of the chase. Worrisome wee people, babies, when they came too early.

She refocused her full attention on the operating field. She needed to ease the huge three-lobed placenta away from where it had nestled and nurtured the triplets for the past eight months.

When she was done, Sienna pointed with a finger to draw the attention of her junior. ‘Looks like we’ve got all the fragments and membranes, but we’ll get the midwives to check straightaway.’ Her voice stayed low, instructional, inaudible to the parents. ‘This over-­distended uterus probably feels as bone weary as we do – if uteruses had bones, that is.’

Cilla, her registrar, nodded. She was a serious little thing, seven years younger than Sienna and a whole lot shorter, hence the nick­names Sienna pretended she hadn’t heard pairing them as Snow White and Doc, but her work ethic endeared her to Sienna, who went on in a normal tone, ‘Why do you suppose babies decide to knock on the uterine door at three a.m.? Why not wait until ­everyone else is awake?’

‘Childish contrariness. Like my two-year-old.’ Dave, the anaes­thetist, rubbed his stubbled chin. ‘He thinks sleep is over-rated.’

‘Poor Dave.’ Her lack of empathy made Dave roll his eyes, because everyone knew Sienna considered combining family and career a recipe for exhaustion. Sienna glanced across at the neo­natal teams working on the three resuscitation trolleys.

She acknowledged with a nod the thumbs up from the over­seeing paediatrician. ‘Good job, people,’ she called. She listened with satisfaction to the soft, petulant kitten cries that drifted towards the big round light Sienna worked under. In her periphery of sound, she could hear the steady blip, blip, blip of the mother’s heart monitor and the hissing gurgle of the wound suction gob­bling fluids.

With this team, she was enjoying her work in Sydney even more than she had in Melbourne. Life didn’t get any better than this.

Cilla began to suture the first layer under Sienna’s approving eye. She glanced at her boss. ‘You were calm. Watching you deliver them made me nervous. How many triplet births have you had?’

‘None myself.’

Dave laughed. Cilla looked confused.

Sienna closed her eyes for a moment. Not everyone enjoyed her sense of humour, or her teaching style, but she was working on it. And Cilla was learning at incredible speed. ‘Sorry. Seven sets for other women. I can remember them all. Four sets in Melbourne and three sets in the six months I’ve worked here.’

She gestured to the personnel busy around the room. ‘You need a good theatre squad – Dave doing his job brilliantly despite his lack of sleep.’ Dave bowed. ‘People moving in and out to take babies,’ she continued, flicking her gloved hand at the paediatric ensemble. ‘Scrub sister anticipating my every request before I make it.’ She waved grandly at the friendly theatre sister she tended to team up with.

‘Thank you, doctor. I must be clairvoyant.’ The amusement in the sister’s voice made Sienna thankful that someone else had a sense of humour despite the ungodly hour.

She watched Cilla insert another suture, dabbing at a swell of blood, all the while scrutinising the edge of the uterus. She needed to keep a close but discreet watch over Cilla’s movements. ‘It’s like a ballet.’ Sienna’s voice became somewhat dreamy. She glanced up again to acknowledge the people, the skills, the technology that encapsulated her world. The urgency, decision making and intrica­cies of obstetrics fascinated her, filled her days.

The scrub sister asked, ‘Any fun plans for the weekend, doctor?’

Sienna’s endorphin high from the birth slipped down a notch like a loop of umbilical cord in a prolapse. Though she disliked to admit it, there was a but here . . .

But . . . she didn’t have a life. Or life balance.

Ha! She pushed that thought away. Balance was something you did with a scalpel before you cut, not something you lived.

She ignored the question. It was the second time it had been asked this week. Scrub sister knew exactly what Sienna would do. Work. Research. Supervise. And that’s if she wasn’t on call.

Again, careful to maintain the sterile field, Sienna craned her head over the top of the screen and spoke to the parents. John and Lulu, a Fijian couple with tightly curled hair, pressed their heads together like two exotic flowers. They looked up. Of course they were dying to see their babies. Babies, who, no doubt, would be curly-tops, too.

‘Congratulations. They all look healthy, and not as small as we feared. We’ll get your babies to you one at a time as soon as we can, maybe even while we stitch you up.’ Sienna thought she sounded more like her midwife sister, Eve, every day. They’d have to call her touchy-feely Wilson when she had those skills honed. Not likely.

She pulled back to where she felt more comfortable and dabbed again at the open abdomen. She really wanted to do the repair herself, but teaching was good for her soul. Good for Cilla’s pro­ficiency if Sienna did take a day off. Cilla could carry a lot of the load if she let her, she just needed more experience at surgery, and a chance to be the senior. She blinked a few times to clear her tired vision. Like that would happen.

Cilla’s eyes creased in concentration.

‘Great tie, there,’ Sienna murmured. ‘That angle is always diffi­cult.’ She directed Cilla’s hand with a wave. ‘Try from that angle.’ Cilla adjusted and Sienna retreated.

‘Perfect. We should be out of here by four a.m. Might even get two hours’ sleep before clinic at eight.’

A long Friday later Sienna stifled one more yawn as she sat in her office doing paperwork and reminded herself that she’d hungered to be Director of Obstetrics at a tertiary centre.

She glanced out the window, where the sunset was pinking Sydney Harbour’s skyline, and watched the tiny puff of low-lying cumulus drift by. Douglas had raved about the different forma­tions at Christmas and she humoured him by remembering cloud ­classifications.

Her phone buzzed. She did not have time for anything else if she wanted to get home before dark for the first time this week. She scanned the caller ID and her eyebrows shot up in surprise. What? Now she had telepathy? Was Douglas in Sydney?

Today had been busy with a hiatus of highs. And now this. As if she’d conjured him. A telephone conversation with her sexy out­back law enforcer, a friend with benefits. No doubt the ­theatre sister would approve. For Sergeant McCabe, she could make lots of time for fun.

‘Douglas? Always a pleasure.’ She could hear the throaty purr in her voice, something she found a tad embarrassing, though she couldn’t seem to help it where Douglas was concerned.

‘How are you?’ His voice reverberated in her ear, the tone deep and divinely Douglas. That hint of sincere concern about her ­welfare.

‘I’m well. But,’ she paused and her mouth tilted, ‘you could come and feel my forehead.’ Apart from when she’d first met him last year, there’d been only those two toe-curling connections. Last Christmas had been her best present ever. The second was Valentine’s Day, when she’d been recovering from the flu – he’d shown her how the sergeant could heal her soul. Beautifully. Tenderly. Sensually.

She heard him give a masculine laugh. ‘I’d love to feel your forehead.’

She wriggled in the chair, her smile spreading. A night in Douglas’s arms is just what the doctor ordered. The thought of his hot mouth close to the end of the phone intensified the whole colour of her late afternoon – to a sultry, shiraz-coloured sunset. It was a shame she couldn’t survive in the places he chose to live. Or he in hers. Her blood pounded faster than it had all day. ‘Are you in town?’

‘No, sorry.’ Regret was clear but not helpful if he was a thou­sand kilometres away.

Sienna forced herself to shrug it off. ‘So why call?’ She could hear the subtle crossness in her tone aimed towards the source of her disappointment.

‘Busy night?’ A pause. ‘Mother okay? Baby?’ She heard the gravelly sympathy enter his voice.

How did he know? ‘Babies, not baby. Triplets. Yes, yes and yes.’ She suppressed the pang that Douglas might be the only one who cared about her physical and emotional health. Apart from her siblings, of course, but she never saw them, either. ‘What can I do for you?’ This came out short, snappy. More at her own weak­ness than anything he’d done.

‘I think we have a medical mystery out here.’ His concern vibrated down the line.

This wasn’t about her, then. Of course. She was not dis­appointed. Definitely not. ‘And?’

‘I think you could help,’ he said in that simple, direct way of his. Like the man himself. No fancy frills.

He was a long way away, she reminded herself, and glared at the phone. Time counted as her most precious commodity. He knew that. ‘You might remember it’s a tad difficult to just up and leave a fairly new seventy-hour-a-week job and the whole depart­ment I’m responsible for.’

For a moment there was silence. One of Douglas’s silences that Sienna had learned not to fill. Outside the window another cloud drifted by along with the time.

Finally, he said, ‘A third family in town has a baby with a prob­lem. It’s only a small town.’

‘What sort of problem?’ she said, despite herself. She couldn’t help it – it wasn’t in her to ignore a mother or baby with a ­problem.

‘Apparently,’ the words came slowly, as if they hurt him to say, ‘it’s called microcephaly.’

Sienna sat back in her seat. A baby born with a small head, which often reduced brain capacity. An irreversible condition. ‘Coincidence or familial?’

‘The mothers are no relation to each other.’ His voice firmed. ‘And I don’t believe in coincidence.’

‘Typical police officer.’ Sienna mentally weighed the causes. ‘Is there any way the father could be the same person? Naughty farmers playing swapsy?’

He’d hate her saying that. She could imagine his grimace. ‘Not these ladies,’ he said, the scowl evident in his voice.

‘Don’t be a prude.’ A delicious memory trickled across her skin. He wasn’t a prude when he was naked. She fanned her face. ‘Sorry. I see that kind of promiscuity occasionally in my job.’

‘We need you to come and find out why.’

She kicked off her new red stilettos; something about talking to Douglas needed the grounding of her feet. She was trying for sens­ible. ‘Sorry. I’m booked solid for the next two months.’

‘You could do some poking around in the medical records like you did in Red Sand. Talk to the families and doctors involved.’ His tone was neutral. Sexy, but neutral, sounding neither dis­appointed nor anxious. ‘Come out for a week or so and check it out.’

She waited for it. Almost hoped. Why couldn’t he say he wanted her to go all that way for him as well? Regardless of her desire for him, the idea of returning to those distances made her shudder. Even to fly commercially meant hours on the road at the end.

Sienna out of the city was like a fish out of water. She felt awk­ward in the outback, though didn’t hate it like she once had when she’d coupled it with the father who had abandoned them as chil­dren for it. She’d got over that one. Of course her city mother and outback father had nothing to do with her reluctance to consider Douglas as a long-term partner. She dragged her thoughts back at the sound of his voice.

‘Could be a perfect excuse to have you visit.’ Was that the best he could do? Then his voice dropped an octave. ‘Come look at some clouds with me.’

Sienna felt herself soften. Almost. He’d had that fixation with weather formations since he was a kid. She kept meaning to ask why. Someday she’d have to remember to do just that. She skipped her thoughts back to his request. ‘Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. You know the time investigations can take. I’m not a half-baked person. Everything needs quality assessment. Specific data. Unshakeable evidence.’

He gave her a moment to add more as she thought it through. ‘Especially in the resource-poor outback. Everything takes so long because of the ridiculous distances.’ She tapped the phone impa­tiently. ‘It would take days to drive there. Before I know it, I could spend weeks out there. A month.’

‘Then fly,’ he reasoned.

‘Nope. Too unreliable. Even when driving things can happen.’ She shuddered at the thought of the dust and dirt and heat, and back here, well . . . There would be people other than herself in her plush office chair. Unless she lent it to Cilla while she played investigator in the outback. Cilla would manage and she wasn’t yet competition. But it had been only six months since Sienna had made the move from Melbourne to Sydney. She’d rather not interrupt the flow of all her new innovations in the hospital. ‘Nope,’ she said, resolute. ‘Not happening.’ She tried not to dwell on the other side of the equation – the babies. Not to mention Douglas and long, sticky, languid nights. She needed to put out that fire. ‘Sorry. I’m snowed.’

‘Blanche wants your help,’ he said.

Sienna’s heart bumped against her ribs. Blanche Mackay. The seventy-something Annie Oakley of Western Queensland. Blanche who owned a goodly slice of the state and a diamond mine in the Kimberleys.

‘That’s not funny.’ She closed her eyes. ‘Not again? She’s already dragged me from Melbourne. I’d hoped she wouldn’t find me in Sydney.’ Blanche could be part-Rottweiler. To give the woman her due, she did champion outback families, but Sienna wished she’d find someone else to solve her remote medical mysteries. Last time it had been a rise in the rate of stillbirths in Blanche’s shire. As fast as humanly possible, Sienna had done what she could to put measures in place to help the climbing stats return to the previous lower rate. Thank goodness for the bonus of meeting Douglas or she would have gone completely mad there until she could hightail it back to her own world.

She assumed her new hospital wouldn’t be so arbitrary in ­seconding her to a mad woman – no matter the carrot offered. Her voice dropped. ‘Don’t tell me she has another cattle station where you are?’

‘The original Spinifex Station the town was named after. Right outside the settlement.’

Sienna picked up a seashell left by a patient’s child and enclosed it in her palm. Trapped it. Like she probably was. ‘I suppose she’s had a good year in the diamond mines and can afford to bribe my administrator?’

‘All of her cattle stations are thriving.’ His amused lilt caressed her ear and Sienna’s hand opened to stroke the shell. She listened dreamily as he said in his deep, sexy voice, ‘We’ve had rain.’

‘I know. I saw that on the news. I’ve been paying attention.’ Since Douglas, she had noticed breaking drought and smiling ­farmers. She heard a bell in the distance and the phone muffled. Was there someone at his door? She could imagine Douglas’s big hand blocking his voice. He’d go. He lived his job, which was only fair, she supposed. She lived hers, after all.

‘I need to go. Think about it,’ he said. Then more softly, ‘Please.’

She wasn’t committing to anything. ‘Bye, Douglas.’

Before she knew it, Sienna’s mind had galloped ahead. Surely Blanche wouldn’t search her out here and expect her to drop every­thing again, she thought. Knowing the woman as Sienna did, something like microcephaly would fire her off like a gun. And that bullet would land smack bang on Sienna’s desk. And ricochet around her life, causing major disruption. ‘Damn it,’ she said to the empty office. ‘Who told Blanche?’

A sudden misgiving drew her brows together. Was it Douglas? She didn’t know how, but she suspected that that was the truth of it. He’d tell Blanche because he knew she’d make it her next crusade and bribe Sienna’s hospital to send her. Did he have an ulterior motive? Of course he did. The babies. But was he also trying to show her she could survive in the outback?

As she sat frowning, an internal email popped up on her com­puter and diverted her thoughts from blame. Her eyes narrowed.

Damn. Now she had an emergency meeting scheduled with the administrator of the hospital before she left that evening. She could guess what that would be about. She’d learned from last time about Blanche’s fiscal persuasive power. And Sienna’s possible lack of choice about going. At least Douglas had given her enough warning to consider how she would create some benefit for her department from the donation.

But that didn’t change the fact that the outback pushed her way outside her comfort zone.

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    October 2, 2017

    Michael Joseph

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    October 2, 2017

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