Wedding in Darling Downs
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ĎI thought about you a lot over the weekend.í
Emma swallowed. Her heart tripped. He was bending towards her, his blue eyes capturing hers with an almost magnetic pull. ĎIÖí
ĎThought about me too?í he murmured hopefully.
She had. She couldnít deny it. But would it help either of them if she told him that? Did she need the complication an admission would undoubtedly bring?
Declan leaned closer to her, slowly.
ĎEmmaÖí he said, his voice low in this last second before his kiss.
Her mouth trembled. She lifted her gaze and stared at him, mesmerised by the yearning she saw in his eyes. The desire to be kissed by him was irresistible, and before she could second-guess the wisdom of it all she was leaning into him.
Declan took her face in his hands, his need materialising in the softest sigh before his mouth found hers. The kiss rolled through his blood, and raw need slammed into him like nothing he had ever known before.
Emma clung to him and the kiss deepened, turned wrenching and wild. She felt a need inside her, an overwhelming need to be touched and held by him.
But it wasnít going to go that far. At least not today. She felt Declan pulling back, breaking the kiss slowly, gently, his lips leaving a shivering sweetness like trails of insubstantial gossamer.
A long beat of silence while they collected themselves.
ĎHave we broken every rule in the official partnership handbook?í Declan asked, wrapping her closer.
She licked her lips. ĎPossiblyÖprobably.í
Wedding in Darling Downs
LEAH MARTYN loves to create warm, believable characters for the Mills & Boonģ Medicalô Romance series. She is grounded firmly in rural Australia, and the special qualities of the bush are reflected in her stories. For plots and possibilities she bounces ideas off her husband on their early-morning walks. Browsing in bookshops and buying an armful of new releases is high on her list of enjoyable things to do.
Recent titles by the same author:
OUTBACK DOCTOR, ENGLISH BRIDE
THE DOCTORíS PREGNANCY SECRET
A MOTHER FOR HIS BABY
IT WAS winter. Early morning. And cold.
Emma burrowed her chin more deeply into the roll-collar of her fleece as she jogged the last of the way home across the park.
The cawing of a crow disturbed the peace. Emma slowed her step and looked about her. She loved this time before sunup. The moist atmosphere never failed to lift her spirits. And heaven knew she could do with a bit of that. Mist was everywhere, as translucent and filmy as a bridal veil. It seemed to have a life of its own, breathing up from the earth, softening the stark winter outlines of the trees.
Emma clicked back into the present, regaining her momentum.She hadnít time to be indulging in fanciful thoughts. Another long day at the surgery loomed. But time for Kingsholme to keep functioning as a viable medical practice was running out. Her fatherís sudden death almost three months ago had left Emma in disarray. Both personally and professionally. If she didnít line up another partner quickly, the medical practice that had been founded by her grandfather would have to close. One lone doctor, namely her, couldnít hope to generate enough income to keep the place functioning.
The end result would be for the practice and the beautiful old home that encompassed it to go under the auctioneerís hammer.
The new owner, perhaps someone with an eye to the tourist potential of the district, would probably turn it into a bed and breakfast. And their little town would be left without a resident medical officer.
Emmaís spirits plummeted to a new low. The nerves in her stomach began knotting up again.
I should be able to get a doctor interested enough to work here, she berated herself. Even a decent locum who could fill the gap until a suitable partner came along. Perhaps her interviewing technique was all wrong. The few people who had actually showed, had taken one look at the set-up and promptly, if a bit awkwardly, fled.
Lifting the latch on the back gate, she made her way along the path and ran quickly up the steps to the verandah. She had time for a shower and marginally less time for breakfast. And then sheíd better open the surgery and start seeing patients.
In her consulting room later, Emma threw her pen aside and lifted her arms in a long stretch. It had been another crazy morning. She couldnít go on like this. She just couldnítÖ
A soft tap sounded on her door before it opened. ĎMoiraóí Emma managed a passable smile for the practice manager Ďócome to tell me itís lunch time already?í
Moira Connelly, whoíd been with the practice for at least twenty years, came into the room and closed the door. She looked pointedly at Emmaís untouched cup of tea and the half-eaten muffin and clucked a motherly concern. ĎYou donít eat enough, Emma.í
Emma lifted a shoulder in a resigned shrug. ĎIíll be out in a tick. Perhaps we could open a can of soup for lunch.í
ĎIíll manage something.í Moira flapped a hand in dismissal. ĎActually, I came to tell you thereís a Dr Declan OíMalley here to see you.í
A sudden light leapt into Emmaís green eyes. ĎHas he come about the job?í
Moira shook her head. ĎApparently, he knew your dad.í
ĎOhóí Emma bit her lips together, the grief she felt still raw and unchannelled.
Moira paused, pulling the edges of her cardigan more closely together, as if warding off a sudden chill. ĎI expect he wants to offer his condolences.í
ĎI guess soÖí Emmaís short ray of hope faded into a heavy sigh. ĎGive me a minute, please, Moira and then ask Dr OíMalley to come through.í
Emma watched the door close behind Moira and then swung off her chair and went to stand at the picture window, looking out. She imagined this Dr OíMalley was a contemporary of her fatherís from Melbourne. In earlier times Andrew Armitage had forged a rather distinguished medical career before the call of home had brought him back here to the town of Bendemere on the picturesque Darling Downs in Queensland.
Emma had spent holidays here, been happy here. So it had seemed only natural to come flying home when her world had fallen apart. Her return had coincided with the resignation of her fatherís practice partner. Emma had stepped in, proud to work alongside her father. In the past year sheíd begun to pull the shattered bits of her life together until it was almost making a whole picture again.
Then her father had suffered a massive heart attack, leaving her to cope alone.
Declan OíMalley prowled the reception area. In a few seconds heíd know whether Emma Armitage would welcome his visit or tell him to go to hell. God, he hoped sheíd be reasonable. The situation demanded she be reasonable.
ĎOh, Dr OíMalleyóí Moira fluttered back into reception. ĎSorry to keep you waiting. Emma was just finishing up.í She waved towards an inner corridor. ĎSecond door on your left.í
ĎThanks.í Declan acknowledged the information with a slight lifting of his hand. He paused outside what was obviously Emmaís consulting room, took a deep breath, gave a courtesy knock to warn of his imminent entry, and then moved in with every intention of being at his diplomatic best.
Emma turned from the window. Her throat dried. Every molecule in her body felt as though it had been swiftly rearranged. Sheíd been expecting a man in her fatherís age group, a man in his sixties. But Declan OíMalley in no way fitted that description. He looked in the prime of his life, all six feet of him. Mentally roping off the very mixed emotions she felt, she went forward and offered her hand. ĎDr OíMalley.í
ĎEmma.í Declan ditched formality, enfolding her hand easily within his own. ĎYour father told me such a lot about you.í
Well, itís more than he told me about you, Emma thought, blinking several times in quick succession, long lashes swooping against her pale cheeks.
ĎI can imagine what a difficult time this must be for you.í Declanís words filled an uncomfortable gap. ĎI would have been in touch before this but Iíve been out of the country. Iíve just caught up with things in general.í
She nodded. His voice was deep and resonant. Smooth like red wine. Emma could feel its impact like a thump to her chest, momentarily disarming her. ĎPleaseÖhave a seat.í She indicated a conversation area in front of the big bay window.
As they settled, Emma took several quick, all-encompassing peeks at him, recording short finger-combed dark hair, a lean face, strong features, olive complexion. And blue eyes reflecting a vivid intensity that could see things she didnít want seenÖ
Declan looked at the woman he had to deal with here. Emma Armitage was strikingly lovely. She had amazing facial bones and her hair looked cornsilk-soft, blonde and straight, just brushing her shoulders. But it was her eyes that drew him. They were green like the deepest part of the forest, framed within thick tawny lashes. And they were accessing him warily. He had to step carefully here. He didnít want to embarrass her, hurt her. But heíd come on a mission and, somehow, he had to accomplish it.
But how to begin?
ĎSo, how come you knew my father?í In a lightning strike, Emma took the initiative.
Declan refused to be put on the back foot; instead he cut to the chase. ĎWhen I was an intern at St John Boscoís in Melbourne, your father was my boss. Iím where I am today in medicine because of Andrew. In the early days of my training, I was ready to chuck it. Oh, boy was I ready! But your dad talked me out of it. He was an amazing man.í
A new loneliness stabbed through Emmaís heart. ĎYes, he wasÖí
A pause. Awkward. Until Declan resumed gently, ĎOver the years I kept in touch with your dad. Any career-change I considered, I ran it past him first. He was my mentor and I considered him my friend. And I donít use the word lightly.í
Emma nodded, swallowing past the lump in her throat. ĎI appreciate your taking the time to come here.í Her mouth compressed as if shutting off the flow of emotion. ĎYou must be very busy in your own practice.í
ĎIím between jobs, actually. Thatís another reason why Iím here.í
Emma straightened in her chair, the oddest feeling of unease slithering up her backbone. ĎI donít understand.í
Declanís perceptions whipped into high awareness. Something in her eyes and the defensive little tilt of her chin held him back from explaining further. The last thing he needed was for her to start resenting him before they could speak properly. So, softly-softly. ĎUhÖthis could take a while.í He glanced briefly at his watch. ĎCould we perhaps have a spot of lunch somewhere and talk?í
Emma held back a harsh laugh. He just had no idea. ĎI donít have time to go out to lunch, Dr OíMalley. Patients will be arriving soon for the afternoon surgery.í
ĎYouíre the sole practitioner?í
ĎYes,í she said, thinking that was another story in itself.
Heíd assumed sheíd have engaged a locum, but obviously not. Declan thought quickly. Emma Armitage had a brittleness about heróshe was obviously worked to death. He cursed his lack of foresight and sought to remedy it swiftly. ĎUnderstood.í He gave a brief shrug. ĎIím here and available. Put me to work.í
So, what was he saying? That heíd share her patient list? Emmaís eyes widened. She didnít want to be blunt but she had only this manís word he was a competent doctor. First and foremost, she had a duty of care to her patientsÖShe turned her head slightly, raising a hand to sweep her loose fair hair away from her neck. ĎIs that a good idea, do you think?í
Declan sat riveted. Her little restive movement had briefly exposed her nape, with skin as tender and sweet as a babyís. He tried without success to dismiss the unexpected zip of awareness through his gut. What was the question again? Idiot. Got it. ĎSorry.í He gave an apologetic twist of his hand. ĎYouíll need some ID.í Reaching back, he took out his wallet and spun it open in front of her. ĎDriverís licence.í
Emma nodded, registering that the photo on the licence matched the face of the man sitting opposite her. So he was who he claimed he was.
ĎMy card as well.í He held out the buff-coloured business card towards her.
Frowning a bit, Emma took it, almost dazzled by the impressive array of letters after his name. ĎYou completed your orthopaedic speciality in Edinburgh, Scotland?í
His hesitation was palpable. Then he said, ĎYes. It was always the discipline I felt drawn to.í
She handed the licence back with the ghost of a smile but retained his card. ĎShould I be addressing you as Professor OíMalley, then?í
ĎI wouldnít think so.í In a second his eyes were filled with unfathomable depth and shadows. ĎDeclan will do just fine. Soóí he slid his wallet back into his pocket Ďógoing to let me loose on your patients, then?í
ĎWhy wouldnít I?í Emma felt a curious lightening of her spirits. To be able to share her workload, even for a few hours, would be wonderful. ĎIíll give you the ones who like a good chat.í
ĎI guess I asked for that.í Declanís look was rueful and he uncurled to his feet. ĎIíll grab a burger somewhere and my bag and be back inóí he checked his watch Ďótwenty minutes?í
Swept along by his enthusiasm, Emma stood hastily. ĎTake whatever time you need.í She began to usher him out. ĎYou can use Dadís consulting room.í
Declan stopped, looked down at her, his expression closed. ĎIf youíre sure?í
Emma nodded, leading him down the corridor to the room next to her own. She opened the door and went in.
Declan followed hesitantly. Soft early afternoon light streamed in through the windows, leaving a dappled pattern across the large desk and the big leather chair behind it. A big chair for a big man, Declan thought. A man with a big heart that had in the end let him down far earlier than it should have.
ĎItís been cleaned but basically everything is as Dad left it.í Emma moved across to touch the tips of her fingers to the rosewood patina of the desktop.
Declan felt emotion drench him. Yet he knew what he felt at the manís loss was only a fraction of what his daughter must be feeling. He spun to face her, questioning softly, ĎAre you sure about this, Emma?í
ĎQuite sure. It will be good to see the place being used again.í The words were husky, as though she was pushing them through a very tight throat.
Declan wanted to reach out to her. Hold her close. Feel the press of her body against his. Take her grief into himselfÖOh, for crying out loud! He cleared his throat. ĎIíll see you back here, then, in a half-hour or so.í
ĎFeel free to come straight through and get yourself set up,í Emma said as they left the consulting room and she pulled the door closed. ĎIíll just need to make a call and verify your registration before you take surgery.í
Declan inclined his head, acknowledging her eyes were clearly weighing the effect of her statement on him. He gave a mental shrug. As far as his accreditation went, he had nothing to hide. ĎGood,í he agreed. ĎYou should do that.í
ĎAnd Iíll brief Moira,í Emma added. ĎSheíll make sure the patients find you.í
ĎMoira.í Declan lifted a dark brow. ĎThe lady I spoke to in reception, right?í
Emma nodded. ĎSheís been with us for years. I sometimes think she could treat most of the patients herself.í Her eyes lit impishly, her full mouth hooking into a half smile.
The impact of that curve of her lips hit him like a sandbag to the solar-plexus. He flicked back the edges of his jacket, jamming his hands low on his hips. ĎLetís try to push through early, then.í He paused, his blue gaze roaming over her in an almost physical caress. ĎWe do need to talk, Emma.í
For a second Emma felt as though she could hardly breathe, his proximity sending a warm rush of want to every part of her body. Feminine places sheíd almost forgotten existed. She pulled back, regaining her space. ĎWeíll arrange somethingÖí
Even though the circumstances werenít ideal, it was good to be back in a consulting room with his feet under a desk again, Declan thought. At least he was doing something useful and if it lasted no more than the rest of the day, heíd give it his best shot.
He was amazed how the time flew. He saw a steady stream of patients, each without exception with a comment about his presence in the practice. Heíd answered as honestly as he could, ĎIím helping out Dr Armitage for the moment.í And whether that situation became permanent still depended on so many things. So many.
He called in his final patient for the day, Carolyn Jones. She looked anxiously at Declan. ĎI was expecting to see EmmaóDr Armitage.í
ĎEmmaís passed some of her patients over to me today, Mrs Jones,í Declan offloaded with a cheerful smile. ĎIíll do my best to help.í
Carolyn gripped her handbag more tightly. ĎIÖreally just wanted a chatÖí
ĎThatís fine,í Declan encouraged, leaning back in his chair, his look expectant. ĎIím here to listen.í
ĎI want to go back on my sleeping pills. Iíve tried to do without them for a couple of months now but I just canít manageóí Carolyn stopped and swallowed heavily.
For a second Declan considered a quick consult with Emma. But she had enough on her plate. He could handle this. He leaned forward, speed-reading the patient notes.
The lady was sixty-one but there was nothing leaping out at him to warrant extra caution. He raised his gaze, asking, ĎIs there a reason why you canít sleep, Carolyn?í
ĎIíve a difficult family life. Emma knows about itóí
ĎI see. Suppose you tell me about it as well and see how we go?í
Carolyn lifted her shoulders in a long sigh. ĎMy husband, Nev, and I are bringing up our three grandchildren. Their ages range from seven to ten.í
ĎHard going, then,í Declan surmised gently. ĎWhat circumstances caused this to come about?í
Carolyn gave a weary shrug. ĎThe whole town knows about it. Our son was a soldier serving overseas. He was killed by a roadside mine. Our daughter-in-law, Tracey, took off and then got in with the wrong crowd. Started seeing someone else. She was always a bit flighty.í
Declan raised his eyebrows at the old-fashioned word.
ĎSheís with this new boyfriend now. Weíve heard theyíre into drugs. I donít understand how she could just dump her childrenÖí
Declanís caring instincts went out to his patient. But, on the other hand, there were strategies she could try that might induce natural sleepó
ĎThe children are still unsettled, especially at night,í Carolyn said, interrupting his train of thought. ĎI just canít get off to sleep and then Iím useless the next day.í She paused and blinked. ĎIíve really had enoughÖí
So, crisis time then. Declan thought quickly. As a general rule, sleeping pills were prescribed in small doses and only for a limited time-span. But his patient sounded desperateódesperate enough toÖHe got to his feet. ĎCarolyn, excuse me a moment. Iíve been out of the country for a while. Iíll just need to recheck on dosage and so on.í
Declan came out of his office the same time as Emma emerged from hers. Her brows flicked in question. ĎFinished for the day?í
ĎNot quite.í He accompanied her along to reception. ĎActually, I wanted a word about a patient, Carolyn Jones.í
ĎThe family have ongoing problems,í Emma said quietly.
ĎI gathered that.í Declan backed himself against the counter and folded his arms. ĎCarolyn wants to go back on her sleeping pills. I wondered about her stability.í
ĎYouíre asking me whether sheís liable to overdose on them?í
ĎShe cares too much about those children to do anything silly,í Emma said.
ĎQuite. But stillóí
ĎThe sleepers Carolyn takes are quite mild,í Emma cut in. ĎThey donít produce a hangover effect next day.í
A beat of silence until Declan broke it. ĎYou realize more than two weeks on those things and sheís hooked?í
Oh, for heavenís sake! Emma almost ground her teeth. Declan OíMalley needed to stand outside the rarefied air of his theatre suite and realize family practice was about people not protocol. ĎIf youíre so concerned, make it a stopgap solution. In the meantime, Iíll try to figure out some other way to help her. But if Carolyn canít get sleep, sheíll go dotty. Then where will the family be?í she pointed out.
ĎOKÖí Declan raised a two-fingered salute in a peace sign. This obviously wasnít the time to start a heated discussion with the lady doctor. ĎIíll go ahead and write her script.í He took a couple of steps forward and then wheeled back. ĎAre you around for a while?í
Emma felt the nerves in her stomach tighten. What was on his mind now? ĎMy last patient just left so Iíll be here.í
ĎGood.í Declanís eyes glinted briefly. ĎIím sorry to push it, but we do need to talk.í
Emma twitched her shoulders into a barely perceptible shrug and watched him go back to his consulting room. Then she went into the work space behind reception and began slotting files back into place.
Moira joined her. With the information Emma had discreetly passed on to her about the new doctor, Moiraís eyes were rife with speculation. ĎDo you think heíll stay?í
At the thought, Emma managed a dry smile. ĎI havenít offered him a job yet. And, even if I did, I expect Dr OíMalley has far more exciting challenges than working in a run-down practice in a country town.í
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