The Most Magical Gift of All

BOOK: The Most Magical Gift of All
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“Sophie.” Imogen ran over to her and grabbed her hand. “Look at what Jack and me did. There are lights, too.” With her large brown eyes shining, the child tugged her toward the biggest faux fir Christmas tree Sophie had ever seen in a house.

Her mouth dried as she took in the tree, dripping with ornaments and tinsel, and then it parched completely when her gaze focused on Jack. He stood on the top of a ladder with a star in one hand and an angel in the other. Sunlight poured through the bay window, picking up the traces of silver tinsel and cobwebs that clung to his polo shirt and the streak of dirt that dusted his cheek. Gone was the uptight doctor who had appeared last night in Parachilna. Right now he looked like a rumpled dark-haired god, whose brooding good looks would instantly tarnish all the gold of the angels with a glance from those stunning eyes.

Her lungs cramped.

Imogen tugged at her hand. “Isn't it beautiful?”

Yes, he is.

Dear Reader,

I love Christmas—the decorations, the smell of a fresh pine tree, catching up with the neighbors at the street party, all the baking! Each year my family gathers for Christmas lunch and as we sit down at the long table with ten conversations going on at once, I realize how fortunate we are that we can all gather in the same place and enjoy the day together.

Not everyone finds Christmas an easy time of year, and for Dr. Sophie Norman Christmas is a minefield of torrid emotions. Eager to escape all yuletide festivities, Sophie decides to go to sunny, warm Australia instead of going home to England. But the moment she steps into the festooned hospital she realizes she's made a huge mistake.

Dr. Jack Armitage loves Barragong, but he's overdue for a holiday and
nothing
is stopping him from getting out of town to kick back, behave badly and just be himself. But the universe has other plans, and suddenly Jack finds himself stuck in Barragong with a little girl who's desperate for love and a happy Christmas, and a beautiful English doctor who needs to rediscover the joy of the season.

I had a lot of fun writing this story and incorporating some Aussie Christmas traditions such as Santa's Sleigh being pulled by six white boomers (kangaroos), the kindergarten nativity play and the community BBQ Christmas party. For more information about Aussie Christmas traditions, head over to my website at www.fionalowe.com.

I hope you enjoy Sophie and Jack's story as they discover that what they thought they wanted from life isn't what they needed at all, and that it is the spirit of Christmas that brings them the most magical gift of all.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy festive season!

Fiona xx

THE MOST MAGICAL GIFT OF ALL
Fiona Lowe

THE MOST MAGICAL GIFT OF ALL

To Diana, with thanks for sharing her stories.

Many thanks to fellow writing mate Kate Hardy for all her help with “UK lingo.”

CHAPTER ONE

‘B
ARRAGONG
.' The florid bus-driver depressed the large black button on the coach's console and the door opened with a long, slow hiss. Pulling a hankie out of his pocket, he mopped his brow as the hot, midday December sun beat through the untinted windows.

Sophie Norman slung her rucksack over her shoulder and took a step down, peering out at a red sign that clearly and officially said:
bus stop
. But apart from the black-top road that stretched as far as the eye could see, straight north to her right and south to her left, there was nothing else that hinted at civilisation: no bus-shelter, no shops, no houses and certainly no hedgerows like back in Surrey. Nothing. Well, nothing if a girl didn't include shimmering heat-haze, large yellow rocks, thousands of hectares of ochre-red dirt and the most amazing jagged ranges that appeared blue one minute and purple the next.

She frowned and rubbed her forehead, trying to ease the dull ache generated by long hours of travel before it kicked into a full-blown headache. Forty-eight hours ago she'd been in Mumbai, fighting for space just to walk down the street, and now she was in the middle of nowhere. Outback Australia; nowhere. ‘How can this be Barragong?'

The driver shook his head slowly as if Sophie was a bit dim and extended his meaty arm towards a smaller road. ‘The town's a kilometre that way. The evening bus pulls into town, but not this one.'

‘Just brilliant.' Sophie silently cursed the medical-recruitment agency who'd failed to tell her not all buses led into Barragong.

‘Someone meeting you?'

She shook her head. Like so much of her life, she was fending for herself and completely on her own. Just the way she liked it. ‘Due to plane delays I didn't know exactly when I was arriving and my mobile phone can't get any connection bars.'

‘You need a sat phone out here.' The driver frowned at her pale skin. ‘You got water and a hat?'

Sophie patted the large hiking water-bottle on the side of her rucksack. ‘Always.'

‘Good. It's an easy fifteen-minute walk so just stay on the road, love, and you can't miss the town.' A wicked grin split the man's jowly cheeks. ‘Oh, and walk around the snakes. They'll be sunning themselves about now and they get a bit grumpy if you step on them. They quite fancy a tourist for lunch.'

Snakes?
Sophie swallowed the shriek that battered her lips and somehow forced her shoulders back. Putting up with a few creepy crawlies was a small price to pay if coming to the middle of nowhere in summer meant avoiding Christmas. ‘I'll be perfectly safe, then, because I'm not a tourist. I'm the locum doctor in Barragong for the next three months.'

He looked her up and down as if really seeing her for the first time. ‘An English rose on the edge of the desert, eh? Good luck with that.'

An unexpected squad of butterflies suddenly collided
with the wall of her stomach. She'd come to Australia because she needed a few months in a place where stepping outside wasn't a death wish. She needed some time to live without fear, and some time to be herself and have fun. ‘I've dodged bombs and rocket fire in northern Pakistan, so how hard can this be?'

He gave her a knowing smile. ‘Just keep your hat on, sunshine.'

Sophie stepped off the bus. A moment later, with a diesel-infused, lung-clogging cloud of exhaust, the coach moved back onto the highway, disappearing quickly into the distance. She jammed her broad-brimmed hat onto her head and walked towards the sign that clearly and reassuringly stated,
Barragong Town Centre. Population 1019
. She smiled at the crossed-out number eight and the added nine; a baby had been born and a family wanted the world to know the news. Although given the lack of passing traffic perhaps it was a Barragong secret.

She hoisted her rucksack up high and trudged forward, glad to have hiking boots between the soles of her feet and the broiling asphalt. After the humidity of the sub-continent, the dry heat was almost invigorating, and the silence deafening: no bombs, no screams of terror, no horns, no motorbikes and no wandering cows. The only other living thing she shared with the road was a sluggish lizard with a stumpy tail and a bright-blue tongue. Slowly the blur of the heat-haze receded and the outline of low-rise buildings came into sight. She picked up her pace, keen to see the town that would give her some breathing space and be home for three months, or until the need to move on again became stronger than the desire to stay.

 

Mostly amiable, occasionally easy-going but always organised, Dr Jack Armitage yelled. Loudly. And with satisfying invective. ‘If she's already left Adelaide and she's not here, where the hell is she? She should have been here last night and I was supposed to have left town this morning. I can't do that until the locum I arranged through you a month ago, the one you
promised
me would be here in good time, has arrived.'

He shrugged off his leather bike-jacket, dropping it onto the nurses' station in the small A&E department of Barragong and District Memorial Hospital, all the while keeping the phone pressed firmly to his ear. It took two long, deep breaths to control the urge to cut off the incompetent recruitment-officer who didn't know his elbow from his…

‘Doctor, we're trying to locate Dr Norman, but we keep getting her message bank.'

Jack's jaw clenched so hard his teeth ached and he ground out the words very slowly. ‘Then find out if the good doctor has even left Adelaide. Ring the station and the bus depot, contact Port Augusta, find out if she hitchhiked—but just do your job and get a doctor here or you'll lose your commission. I need a doctor yesterday because I've got an adventure to start that's already five years overdue.'

He snapped his mobile phone shut and skidded it across the desk, watching it knock into a cluster of small, plastic Christmas trees. December the first. The day the staff always started decorating; they usually had him climbing a ladder to hang the silver balls from the bright-purple tinsel. But this year this day had a huge, red ring around it on his calendar and it wasn't to remind him to decorate. It was the day he rode out of town.

He couldn't believe he was still here. The words,
just
gotta get out of this place
hummed over and over in his head. He should be gone by now. Damn it, but he'd done the right thing. Hell, he always did the right thing, and the one time he wanted to take off, deserved to take off, the bloody locum had vanished somewhere between here and Adelaide. He ploughed his hand through his hair. Weeks of careful and well-thought-out planning, weeks of organisation and working toward this point so Barragong would have contiguous medical care in his absence, had all come to this.

Even his mother had managed to leave town before him. She'd organised all her foster-care arrangements and was having a few weeks off sailing on the high-Pacific seas and yet he was still stuck here. Stuck in a town that had never really let go, a town that had hauled him back once before when he'd thought he'd got away. Now it was sucking him down and sucking him dry. He was sick of being responsible; he wanted his own life, wanted to play up, live hard and be bad—if only for a short time.

‘Jack?' A surprised voice sounded behind him. ‘We thought you'd already left.'

He turned around to see Diana Renaldi, the unit-nurse manager, resting a box marked ‘christmas decorations' on her baby bump, and her husband Max—Barragong's CEO and Jack's good mate—following a few steps behind, carrying a ladder.

‘A slight delay.' He stepped up and relieved Diana of the box and grinned. ‘Still, it gives you time to change your mind, leave the man you dumped me for and run away with me.'

She laughed. ‘The baby and I would overbalance the bike, and besides we never dated. You
never
date any
women in this town, and if I remember correctly it was you who set Max and me up on a date.'

‘Best idea he ever had.' Max put down the ladder, slipped his arm across Diana's shoulder and dropped a kiss onto her forehead.

‘It was indeed.' Jack gave them a wry smile. He might not have a clue about the right woman for himself but Diana and Max suited each other perfectly. They both wanted the same things out of life—babies, a family. He didn't regret for a second that he'd set them up.

He loved his best friends dearly, but settling down wasn't for him. He'd tried it once and been badly burned, and he wasn't in a hurry to attempt it again—especially when there was a world out there with his name on it waiting to be explored. If only he could get out of Barragong.

The sound of crying made all three of them turn around. A woman in her late twenties rushed towards them, staggering under the weight of a child whose chest-heaving sobs told of his pain and distress. A bloodied gauze pad was taped rakishly on the child's forehead.

‘Oh, Jack, thank goodness you're still here.' Kerry Dempsey's frantic voice matched her wide-eyed shock. ‘Lochie fell out of the large gum in our front garden and he's cut his head and won't stop crying.'

Jack swallowed his sigh. He might technically be off the clock but as he couldn't leave town he might as well be busy. He was glad to hear the child's lusty sobs because a quiet child was more of a concern. Ruffling the mop of black hair on the boy's head, Jack instantly shot back in time to five years earlier, remembering how Lochie had come out screaming as the first baby he'd delivered in Barragong. He'd delivered many more since
and seen them through a myriad of childhood illnesses. ‘Come on then, Lochie, let's take a look at you.'

Kerry transferred the boy into Jack's arms and Lochie gave a gulping sob followed by a long, wet sniff. ‘My arm hurts really bad.' The little boy was naturally splinting his right arm, keeping it pressed close to his chest.

Kerry sighed. ‘David promised Lochie they'd put up the Christmas fairy-lights in the tree when he got home tonight.'

‘Couldn't wait for Dad, huh?' Jack tried not to smile but Lochie had been an impulsive kid from day one, acting first and thinking much later, if at all.

Lochie nodded, his face streaked with tears and red dirt. ‘I was helping.'

‘I bet you were, but next time it's better to wait for Dad so you don't end up in here being patched up by me. I'll probably need to take a special picture of your arm, but right now I'm going to shine a light in your eyes.'

He enjoyed working with kids; in fact, if he was ever surveyed about what he enjoyed most about his job, he'd probably say the paediatrics component. Whether it be at work or coaching the under-nines' footy team, he'd learned it was best to give step-by-step explanations to kids—especially with Lochie, who often did the unexpected.

As Jack flicked on the pencil torch he asked Kerry, ‘Did he black out at all?'

The mother shook her head. ‘I don't think so because I heard his scream as he fell, and he hasn't stopped since.'

Jack checked the boy's pupils for size and their response to light. ‘They're equal and reacting, so that's a good start.'

Diana handed him an HIC chart. ‘If you're right
without me for a few minutes, I'll go and pull his file and start the admitting procedure.'

‘Good idea.' It looked like a pretty straightforward case, and he'd handled a lot worse on his own. Jack pulled on a pair of gloves. ‘Time to be brave, Loch.' He slowly eased the tape that held the gauze pad in place off the boy's forehead.

Lochie's protesting shriek bounced off the walls as the gauze pad came away and blood started to trickle down his small face and into his eyes. ‘Don't do that.' His left hand came up to fight Jack's with pinching fingers.

Jack pressed the gauze back against the forehead, cursing how head wounds bled so profusely even if they were superficial. ‘I'm sorry, mate, but I have to look at your head because it might need more than just a plaster.'

‘No.' Lochie's foot kicked out hard, connecting directly with Jack's groin.

‘Ooof.'
Jack barely managed to swallow the four-letter expletive that rose to his lips as white pain shot from his groin to his hips and radiated outward with crushing intensity. With his free hand, he gripped the edge of the trolley, trying not to double over, and somehow forced a breath into stiff and winded lungs.

Lochie's wail hit a crescendo. Kerry's anguished voice tried to calm Lochie and apologise to Jack and all the while Jack's head spun with a rain of silver dots. Focus was impossible.

‘Can I be of help?' The polite and softly spoken question, asked in a clear and precise English accent, broke through the chaos.

Jack raised his head and slowly the silver dots receded as his eyes merged into focus, settling on the most
abundant mass of flame-red spiral curls he'd ever seen. They spilled out of a ponytail in defiant tresses, declaring themselves far too independent to be contained by a mere, inconsequential band of elastic. They tumbled down both sides of an alabaster forehead where they sat close to a pair of luminous eyes which stared straight at him. Their gaze was so clear and full of the promise of excitement and adventure, it was as if they'd thrown a lasso around him and were drawing him into their depths.

Jack felt himself sway towards her as his groin recovered fast and the first non-painful sensation since Lochie's kick surged through him.
The first pleasurable sensation to happen in months.
He jerked back, gulped in a deep breath, but the whoosh of heat tripled—deliciously so.

He knew he was staring but he was having trouble moving his gaze. He'd expected eyes of green or blue with titian hair, but instead they were the rich and seductive colour of fine Swiss milk-chocolate. Ringed with brown, thick lashes, they sat above a snub nose dusted with freckles and a mouth that curved up on one side in a lop-sided smile. Glossy-magazine pretty she wasn't but he didn't care—she'd had him with one glance of those amazing eyes.

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