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  • Published: 30 August 2022
  • ISBN: 9781761040689
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 384
  • RRP: $32.99

The Opal Miner's Daughter


Chapter One


‘Eighteen starlit nights with you.’ Joshua Bouvier’s big brown eyes were determined. He was pleased with himself, and pleased with the very expensive ‘surprise’ cruise tickets he’d just presented to Riley.

In that moment, not-as-tall-as-her, handsome, impeccably dressed Josh looked like his extremely well-off stockbroker father.

‘And . . . while we’re away, I have a very special question to ask.’ This he said archly as he patted his pocket. Good grief. Did he have words written on paper in there, or heaven forbid, a velvet box?

In her Macquarie Street consulting room, Dr Riley Brand’s stomach fell. Not the M word, she prayed. Please, not the M word. She’d thought they might go away for a weekend here and there through her holidays, spend some time together, some apart, general fun and relaxation on leave.

Now, with Josh sitting across from her desk in her lunch hour with his eyes unwavering – his plans laid out – she felt guilty. Trapped. And she felt the overwhelming need to run. Like she always did when a relationship threatened to become more than a dinner date and a useful plus-one arrangement.

He wanted to discuss commitment and she wanted out of anything serious that interfered with her scheduled career advancement. He’d also want the big one – kids – and she still had no rush of anticipation at the thought. She’d begun to doubt she ever would.

Familiar guilt wormed its way through her because her clients were searching for the elusive dream of parenthood, and here she was flapping away the idea with her ringless fingers. Her mother said it’s because she hadn’t found the right man yet. But Riley wasn’t sure she’d ever do what her own mother had: put her life on hold until everyone was finished leaning on her. It’s one of the reasons she didn’t feel she’d ever be as good a mum as her mother. She was pulled out of her thoughts when Josh continued.

‘I’ve been watching the weather. It looks perfect for the Top End. Lazing on the deck through the Kimberleys, jumping into the zodiacs through the gorges, helicopter rides into the sunset – together . . .’ He drew out the last word, his smile confident. ‘You’ll love it.’

She probably would, but not with him. And certainly not with the M word possibly hanging around. ‘Sounds amazing.’ She tried for an apologetic smile, but could only manage a closed-lip one. ‘I can’t. I know we were going to spend time together . . .’ Because she hadn’t really decided until the ‘special question’ reference. And then there was the eighteen loooong days together with no breaks . . . That was certainly enough for Riley to decide against.

It was time to edge backwards out of this relationship.

She tried again. ‘I’m sorry, Josh. I’ve decided to drive to Lightning Ridge and convince my mother to come home to Dad. The cruise is out.’

‘Don’t be silly.’ Josh’s hand brushed in a you’re-pulling-my-leg wave. ‘You can see Adelaide when we come back. I’ll come with you. After we do this.’

If it wasn’t so ludicrous, she’d laugh. Take Josh on a road trip to the outback? With sub-standard coffee for him to complain about and constant whining about everything else? No, good grief no. ‘I’ll need the four weeks. Mum will take some convincing,’ she said with finality. But she might go insane twiddling her thumbs for that long.

Josh stared at her. ‘You could take extra leave? Do both. We’re booked for this cruise, Riley.’ He didn’t look so sure now, finally seeing the real picture, as opposed to the promising one in his head.

She’d laid the rules down early in the piece. They were exclusive but not permanent. Friends with benefits. Though to be fair, her schedule had played constant havoc with the benefits.

Riley pointed at her computer and the open appointment schedule. ‘I’ve only got four weeks of leave. My appointments are already fully booked for that first week back.’

Josh snapped down the brochure. ‘Can’t you phone Adelaide?’ That was the first whine. ‘Convince her from afar.’ The second. He did that when he didn’t get his way. Truly most annoying.

Riley wanted to crack her neck from the strain of being gentle. ‘Mother will take more convincing than a phone call,’ she said.

With his eyes stormy and a hint of impatience in his voice, Josh muttered, ‘Why doesn’t your dad sort this out? He’s the one left behind in Sydney. Dumped for a mining claim out west by his wife.’

Yes, her dad had been ditched. The dad she’d always thought of as her hero. And he probably deserved desertion because he hadn’t found his feet after retirement as fast as Mum had. He’d fallen down the rabbit hole of Netflix, current affairs and the gym since he’d finished work, but Mum’s absence had gone on long enough. Riley had the feeling both her parents were acting out of pride now. ‘He’s reluctant to look needy.’

Josh screwed up his face. ‘I still can’t believe your mother’s roughing it on a mining lease. Grubbing in dirt off the grid.’ That was patent disbelief, Josh thinking, How the heck could she run a coffee machine without electricity? No doubt about that.

He sniffed and Riley’s eyes narrowed. She might complain about her parents, but he’d better not. Riley could read Josh like the screen in front of her. He’d just realised she wouldn’t change her mind on the cruise. He knew she could be inflexible when she cared enough to make a statement.

That entitlement Josh suffered from had bruised. Everything was supposed to fall into place the way he wanted it to, because it was him. Josh. The only child. The golden child.

And what had she been thinking?

Sitting here looking at this man across the desk from her, Riley suspected she’d drifted close to disaster through laziness. Because Josh being there had been easy and she’d assumed that lack of intent went both ways. She’d been too busy to notice the change in him. Well, it was time to stop now, and take notice.

She glanced at her watch. ‘Josh, I really appreciate all the organisation that’s gone into this and I can see you were really looking forward to it —’

‘It’s one-sided. Isn’t it?’ Josh interrupted. ‘This whole relationship.’ He threw his hands up. ‘You’re really not going?’

‘You’re a great guy, Josh.’

He blew out a big breath. He even rustled the papers on her desk with the gale he sent. She could smell the peppermint he’d sucked before he’d come in to see her. ‘I don’t like saying it, Riley,’ there was a hint of sternness in his voice now, ‘but maybe we need a break.’ He paused and gave her a look, as if he expected her to be devastated.

He just didn’t get it. Gently, she said, ‘Not a break, we’re breaking up, Josh. You deserve someone much more invested in doing the things you want to do. Invested in the future with you. I’m not.’ That might have been a tad blunt, but Riley felt she needed to be to get the message across.

Josh gaped, spun, then turned again before he opened the door, but she kept her mouth firmly closed and finally he left. He shut the door after himself with exquisite politeness. She wished he’d slammed it.

A rush of feelings hurtled through Riley all at once. Guilt. Shame. But yes, the biggest was relief.

Riley held off calling in her first patient of the afternoon. She was often too fanatically on time with her appointment schedule, anyway. Instead, she stared at the printed advertisement for a locum doctor in Lightning Ridge that she’d seen last night.

Her gaze slid to the uterus-shaped stress ball on her desk and she picked it up and squeezed the womb until her French-tipped nails dug into her palms.

‘Lightning Ridge? Of all the back-of-beyond places. Really, Mum?’ Riley said into the room, blowing out her breath so hard the same papers Josh had jiggled earlier moved again.

‘You left me holding the abandoned baby, which is what Dad’s been since you went. He needs you. And you need him.’ She looked again at the vacancy in this month’s Medical Practitioner’s Review.

She squeezed the ball, then breathed. Squeezed. Breathed. Tasted the idea that had floated when she first saw it. Since she’d posted her mother’s soft leather gloves last week, Riley had been mulling her options. A locum stint would give her an excuse to go. She’d have four whole weeks to convince Mum to return.

She squeezed the foam, and settled. She had four weeks already booked for leave, so getting away would be easy. It would be her first vacation in years. Talk about a change from Josh’s luxury cruise along the Kimberley Coast. Instead, she’d be working in a mining town in north-western New South Wales as a GP with male and female patients.

It would take time to convince Mum to come home from her new love of prospecting. Or mining, or whatever you called living rough in a desert and scrambling through rocks for the elusive opal.

The question was, could Riley practise general medicine for four weeks? Could she work in a mullock-strewn whistle stop of rough blokes, miners and grey-nomad escapees like her mother?

There was only one way to find out. At least she’d be close to the leased opal-mining claim and shack, without crowding her mum. Or herself. The stint would give them a chance to talk sensibly. That would be more subtle than Riley trying the conversation via email or phone again, because that hadn’t worked. Maybe she’d wait a week after arriving, then just seed the idea of her mum coming home. Hmm.

Did her mum even have running water to nurture a thought seed? Thankfully, the locum placement came with ‘digs’. It was a mining town, but she guessed that was a pun for accommodation and not a plot to fossick in. She’d have water and electricity, and hopefully, she’d have the internet.

Stop being a wimp, she told herself. Of course, she could manage. A small voice whispered that Josh would say she wouldn’t last. Her spine straightened at that. Josh had no idea of the stock she came from. That her great-grandpa had raised cattle out near Wilcannia and her great-gran had been droving beside him in flood and drought.

It was funny how generations changed. Went to the city. Went soft. The four-week stint would give her the chance to brush up on medical skills she hadn’t touched for ten years. She looked at her manicured hands and thought of wrinkled scrotums. Then she laughed again at herself as she looked around at her swanky office. There were no men here. She’d been an obstetrician and gynaecologist for more than a decade. The last five years had focused on infertility – factors increasing the chances of falling pregnant and those that prevented pregnancy – so examining male body parts wasn’t part of her brief, except for prescribing tests. Although, there had been surrogacy and donor-gametes studies, and she did have amazing transgender and LGBTQIA+ community clients among her success stories.

Riley squeezed the foam uterus in her hand again. She could do this. And she had an idea for something extra, if the hiring GP agreed. It would be a fast dip into something crazily different and then dip back out again. She’d have to work. She couldn’t do kicking her heels on a rock-strewn opal claim while taking time to convince her mum to come home. She knew her mother when she was set on something. Riley was like that herself.

She picked up the phone and put a call through to the professor, her business partner, who was also at lunch, no doubt immersed in a medical journal.

‘Grace?’ she launched as soon as the call was picked up. ‘While I go out and see my mother, I’m thinking of an outreach clinic for remote families, in my break. What do you think?’

‘Lightning Ridge? Yes!’ Grace gave an enthusiastic response. Her partner had been interested in that concept for a while.

‘So, I could offer a few days of an infertility clinic in tandem with the locum GP position for the four weeks?’ The idea grew rapidly attractive with Grace’s interest.

Grace was always to the point. ‘Logistics?’

‘I could ask the onsite doctor’s surgery if they could take care of the clinic appointments and admin. Surely they’d have a practice nurse for the hands-on stuff. I could do everything else myself, but I’ll check.’

They both agreed there would be remote women who could use Riley’s skillset within a few hours’ travel of Lightning Ridge, instead of coming all the way to the capital cities. If the practice manager at Lightning Ridge was happy to donate a few afternoons, Riley could do the rest.

‘I’ll set up a flow chart for future referral from out that way, too. Assuming there’s a need. It’ll smooth the speedbumps for remote families.’

‘We’ll find the women,’ Grace said. ‘You get the locum position and I’ll put the word out.’ The call ended.

Riley scanned Google Maps on her desktop computer, drumming the fingers of her thankfully ringless left hand. Hmm. It would take eight hours and thirty minutes of driving from Sydney, seven hundred and twenty-five kilometres from her home in Mosman to the Ridge. At least it was tarred road all the way.

Road trip.

‘Jeez, Mum,’ she groaned aloud, but there was only her designer-decorated consulting room to hear. ‘Your retirement was supposed to be relaxing for everyone. Why there?’

The Opal Miner's Daughter Fiona McArthur

A captivating medical rural romance, where heartfelt encounters and unexpected journeys redefine love and life in the Australian outback.

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