To The Doctor: A Daughter
Dr Nate Ethan has all he needs - a job he loves as a country doctor in New South Wales and a bachelor lifestyle. Right now Nate is reserving all his commitment for his patients. Dr Gemma Campbell is about to change all that. Her sister has left her with two children - and one of them is Nate's! Gemma just can't cope anymore and, though it would break her heart, she needs to give Nate his baby and walk away. Except that Nate will do anything to stop her leaving - at first for baby Mia - and then for himself!
"She's your baby."
"I beg your pardon?" Maybe he hadn't heard right. It was the end of a long day and Dr Nate Ethan was thinking of the night to come. This woman was his last patient and then he was free.
Donna would be waiting. That was a good thought. Tonight was the Terama Jazzfest and he was never too tired for jazz.
Meanwhile, it looked as if he had to cope with a nutcase.
"Excuse me?" he said again, and forced himself to focus. Nutcase or not, she might be in trouble. He didn't know who she was and with unknown patients nothing should be assumed.
She could well be a single mum, he decided, noting the absence of a wedding ring. After six years of country medicine he noticed such things almost without trying. She was in her late twenties, he guessed, though the strain on her face made her look older. Faded jeans, a T-shirt that was old and misshapen and the knot of frayed ribbon catching back her mass of black curls suggested financial hardship.
What else? She looked as if she was in trouble, he thought. Her dark eyes - brown, almost black - were made even darker by shadows of fatigue, and her finely boned face was etched with worry.
"How can I help you?" he asked, his tone gentling. Hell, they had it hard, these single mums. A little boy, maybe four years old, was clinging to a fistful of her T-shirt, and she carried a baby that looked no more than a few weeks old.
"I'm not here to ask for help." Her tone was as weary as her face. She seemed like someone at the end of her tether. "I'm here to hand over what's yours." She lifted the baby toward him. "This is Mia. She's four weeks old and she's yours."
Silence. The silence went on and on, stretching into the evening. Outside a kookaburra started laughing in the clump of eucalypts hanging over the river and the laughter seemed crazily out of place.
Would he help?
Gemma was feeling sick. Everything - her entire future - hung on what happened in the next few minutes.
Was he as irresponsible as her sister?
He looked…nice, she decided. But, then, Fiona had looked "nice" and where had that got her?
Maybe, like Fiona, he was too good-looking for his own good. He was seriously handsome, in a way that could make him a candidate for the next James Bond movie. Tall, with great bone structure and a deeply tanned complexion, his size didn't make him seem aloof. His burnt red hair was coiling forward over his brow in an endearing twist, and his deep green eyes sort of twinkled even when he wasn't smiling.
He had great bones, she decided - the sort of bones that made a girl want to…
Whoa. She wasn't going down that road. Never again. That was the sort of feeling that got her into this mess in the first place. The sort of feeling Fiona had had…
And on the other side of the desk…
She was a nutcase, Nate decided. Heck, as if he didn't have enough on his plate.
Donna was waiting.
"Um… I've never met you before," he ventured, and she nodded.
"Then how -"
"Hey, she's not my baby," she told him, meeting his eyes and holding them with a look that was direct and strong. Challenging. "She's yours."
"I don't -"
"My sister is…" She caught herself at that and she bit her lip while the shadows under eyes seemed to darken.
"My sister was Fiona Campbell. She was a locum here until last December. Do you remember her?"
His eyes widened. Fiona Campbell. He certainly remembered Fiona, and he remembered her with a certain amount of horror. "Yes, but -"
"You went to bed with her?"
To bed. His gut gave a stupid lurch. You went to bed with her. Fiona…
Dear God, this was the stuff of nightmares. "Yes, but -"
"There you are, then," she said wearily. "One and one make three. Fiona had your baby a month ago and she died the day after delivery."
This time the silence seemed to reach into eternity. The woman didn't say another word - just sat and watched, giving him time to take it in. The child by her side was silent as well. The little boy held onto her shirt fiercely, as if keeping in contact with her was the only important thing in his life. And the baby was sound asleep, nestled in a swathe of pink blankets and oblivious to the world around her.
She'd been the flightiest locum. Graham, his uncle and his partner in this tiny country medical practice, had been ill and Nate had been desperate. Fiona had been the only doctor who'd answered his advertisement.
So she'd bubbled into his life, sparkling with life and totally fascinating. She had been gorgeously, stunningly beautiful.
She had also been a little bit…mad?
It had taken him time to see it. She'd lived her life to the full, hardly sleeping, partying, accepting dates with anyone who'd asked her and running on sheer adrenalin.
And from the time she'd met him she'd wanted to sleep with him.
"We're made for each other," she'd told him, seductive in her sheer audacity. "You're the most gorgeous doctor I know. And what about me? Aren't I the most gorgeous doctor you know?"
She was at that, he'd conceded. He'd been between girlfriends, she'd been bewitching in her desire to take him to her bed…and, well, a man was only human.
As soon as he'd slept with her, though, he'd known it had been a mistake. A major mistake. There had been layers beneath her surface he could scarcely imagine. She had been driven - and he didn't know why.
So he'd slept with her. Just the once. And that had been it. He'd had the sense to back away fast. And when Graham had recovered and Fiona had left, he'd felt nothing but relief.
But when he'd slept with her…
"We were careful," he said, thinking it through and thinking fast. He was hardly speaking to the woman in front of him. He was speaking only to himself. He knew enough to avoid unsafe sex. "She said she was protected - and I used a condom as well. Of course I did."
"Of course you did, and bully for you." The woman shrugged. "But are you sure she didn't get to it first?"
His eyebrows hit his hairline. "What on earth do you mean?"
"I mean what Fiona wanted Fiona generally got. And it seemed she wanted your baby."
"Is it?" She shrugged again and her shrug was a gesture of bone-weariness. "Fiona told me this is your baby. She said she chose you as the father, and if she decided she wanted your baby then I wouldn't have put it past her to lie about protection - and even damage your condom before you used it. But if you'd like to do a DNA test…"
He was staring at the baby like he'd have stared at a coiled snake. She had red hair. Red hair! "It's impossible."
"She named you as the father, using a statutory declaration before the baby was born." She gestured to her handbag. "She even signed it in front of a Justice of the Peace. Do you want to see?"
"Suit yourself." She rose and proffered the bundle in her arms. "But like it or not, this is your daughter, Dr Ethan. Her mother's dead so that makes her all yours."
To say Nate was dumbfounded was an understatement. He sat in his chair as if rooted to the spot and his head couldn't take it in. He opened his mouth and what came out was feeble. "I don't want a baby!"
"I imagine you don't. But you have one."
"This is ridiculous." He rose but he didn't come around the desk. It was as if he was afraid to come close. This whole scenario was a nightmare. A ridiculous nightmare. And any minute he'd wake up. Please…
"I told you…we were careful."
"Fiona was never careful."