They once had a summer of passion…
But is it too late to walk down the aisle?
Lauren Fuller hasn’t seen Charlie Ainsworth since he unexpectedly left Horseshoe Bay twelve years ago and burst their bubble of love. Now he’s back, and working together at her GP practice is torment – their chemistry reminds Lauren how good they were together. And when she learns the tragic truth that drove him away, can it finally reunite them forever?
Why I Wrote the Book
With the invention of social media, there are a lot of stories about people tracking down their first love years later. It got me thinking. Although Lauren and Charlie didn't rediscover themselves on Facebook, it was their shared past that drew them back together. Over intervening years, do we romanticise our first love? Or is it because it is our first love that it is more instense than other loves? I pondered all these thoughts when I wote Reunion of a Lifetime. I created Horseshoe Bay but really, it is Sorrento, Portsea and Queenscllif; my childhood holiday towns. For photos, head to Pinterest.
Reunion of a Lifetime
Excerpt From Chapter One
Charles Ainsworth—‘Boss Doc’ to the islanders, Charlie to his friends and on very infrequent occasions to his family—swore as the lights in the operating theatre flickered. ‘Bert filled the generator, right?’ he asked as he slipped a ligature around a bleeding vessel.
‘No worries, boss.’ A dark eyed man with a bush of frizzy hair gave him the thumbs-up from the door. ‘I fill ’em up. No be in the dark this time.’
‘Excellent.’ Charlie might be in what travel magazines called ‘paradise’—a string of tropical, palm-dotted coral islands floating in an aquamarine sea—but from a medical perspective, he was in a developing country and a disaster zone. During the recent cyclone, he’d had to perform emergency surgery on a boy who had been pierced by a stake that had been hurled into his chest by the terrifying and mighty force of the wind. Mid-surgery, they had predictably lost power, but he hadn’t foreseen the generator running dry or him finishing the surgery with Bert and Shirley holding LED torches aloft.
Just another tough day in paradise but at least the kid had survived and only half of the hospital had flooded. If the Red Cross managed to deliver desperately needed medical supplies today, he might be able to breathe more easily. As it was, air was skimming in and out of the tops of his lungs without going deeper and his body was coiled tight, ready to react to the next disaster. He’d been in a constant state of high alert for two weeks.
It’s been longer than that.
He shook away the thought. Emergency aid work was, by definition, disaster management, and he had the dubious honour of being an expert. Once the powers that be recognised someone with the skills they needed, they locked onto them and never let them go. Not that he wanted to be let go—he lived for being busy. The alternative didn’t bear thinking about.
He stepped back from the antiquated operating table that even on its highest extension was too low for his height, stripped off his gloves and rubbed his aching back. ‘Wake him up,’ he said to his current anaesthetic nurse, a local islander who had blessedly trained in Melbourne. ‘And keep a close eye on the drainage bottle.’
‘Sure thing, Charlie,’ Shirley said, her teeth a flash of white in her dark and smiling face. ‘You get some sleep now, yeah?’
He laughed; the sound as far removed from jolly as possible. ‘I’m going down to the wharf.’
‘I see your eyes close. You need sleep.’ She gave an islander shrug—the one that implied it will be what it will be. ‘You can’t will the boat to come.’
‘I can try.’ He wasn’t about to explain to Shirley that there was no point in trying to sleep, because sleep no longer came. If insomnia had been a visitor in the last few months, it had taken up residence since the cyclone had hit. For the last two weeks he’d only cat-napped. An hour here, a half-hour there, all squeezed in between medical emergencies, general hospital work and helping the islanders clean up the havoc Cyclone Samuel had wrought on them. Although some aid had arrived, it was going to take months for the replacement of vital infrastructure. Not that he’d be around to see it. By then he would have been moved on, dispatched to another place of need and leading another team.
He walked into the basic change room that all the staff shared and stripped off his scrubs. He was shoving his left leg into his shorts when the room shifted and he shifted with it, banging hard into the old metal lockers and jarring his shoulder. What the hell! Was it an earth tremor? He righted himself and listened keenly for rumbling but all he heard was birdsong. He was no rooky at natural disasters and birds didn’t sing when there were tremors. Nothing sang then; every animal and insect went deathly silent—the anthem of impending doom.
Trying again, he lifted his right leg, aiming it at the leg hole in his shorts. This time silver spots danced in front of his eyes and then the floor shifted again. He flung out an arm to steady himself and sat down hard on the bench seat. Sucking in some deep breaths, he closed his eyes and waited for the floaters to vanish.
‘You okay, boss?’ Bert asked, suddenly appearing in front of him. ‘You don’t look so good. You need a smoke?’
‘Don’t tempt me, Bert.’ Charlie gave him a grim smile. ‘I just need to eat.’ But just the thought of food made him feel queasy, let alone trying to eat any.
Men’s shouts rent the air, sliding in through the open window, and Charlie’s empty stomach fell to his feet. He didn’t understand a lot of Bislama and his French was tourist-competent, not medical literate, but the last time he’d heard a commotion like this they’d found an islander who’d been trapped under rubble for three days. Despite the joy in finding the man alive, Charlie had been faced with the task of amputating the patient’s crushed leg in the hope of saving his life.
‘Grab my medical kit.’ Charlie lurched to his feet, taking a moment for his head to stop spinning.
‘No, boss!’ Bert grinned at him. ‘This good news. Come on.’
He followed Bert’s brightly coloured shirt through the door and down a short corridor until they were both outside and in the glare of a fearless sun. Under the wind-stripped and almost naked palm trees Charlie glimpsed heaven—a group of men and women dressed in fresh and clean Australia Aid uniforms. All of them clutched the distinctive and life-giving red and blue medical packs. At the back of the cluster he recognised the distinctive height of Richard di Stasio—his boss.
Relief carried him towards them, his long strides steady. ‘You lot are a sight for sore eyes. That is, if you’ve brought IV fluids and antibiotics.’
‘Would we dare turn up without them?’ Richard shook Charlie’s hand and his dark eyes did one of those quick head-to-toe assessments that emergency medicos specialised in. ‘You’re looking a bit rough, Charlie.’
He shrugged as they walked inside. ‘It’s been tough. You saw what’s left of the town on your trip from the wharf? Or what’s not left of it, to be more precise. Half the hospital’s out of action and we’ve got limited power. The fuel for the generator’s dangerously low, the sat phone’s dodgy and I’ve got three patients battling septic shock.’
‘You look a bit shocked yourself.’
‘Nah.’ He ran his hand through his hair and suddenly realised it was longer than it had been in years. ‘No more than usual.’
Richard shook his head. ‘You look like you’ve dropped at least five kilos. Possibly more.’
‘The joys of a fish and taro diet. Listen, Richard,’ he said, suddenly gripped by urgency. ‘I’ll happily give you a full report as soon as I’ve administered those antibiotics to my three sickies.’
‘Keith can do that. You’re handing over to him and then you’re getting on the boat to Port Vila and going home.’
No! Every part of Charlie stilled. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. There’s still mountains of work for me to do here.’
Richard sighed. ‘You know the rules, Charlie. First response teams get pulled out after two weeks when second response arrives.’
‘Hell, Richard, you know as well as I do that you’re the first response team, not me. The only reason I’m on Pipatoa is because I came for a few days of diving after teaching the emergency trauma course in Port Vila. Two days after I arrived, Samuel blew up and I got stuck here.’
‘That’s irrelevant. The bottom line is you’ve done the job of first response without the back-up of a trained team. It doesn’t take a medical person to see you’re completely exhausted. God, man, have you slept at all since the cyclone?’
‘I’m fine,’ Charlie ground out. ‘Besides, you’ve got me pencilled in for Ghana next week, right?’
‘That was before you lived through the most savage cyclone to hit the area in forty years.’
Richard’s brows rose at the belligerence in Charlie’s voice. ‘So, HR’s been on my case because you haven’t taken any leave in eighteen months. Now you’ve lived through the cyclone, the psych’s waded in.’
Charlie’s head ached and his gut cramped. ‘I don’t want to take leave. I want to go to Ghana.’
‘Neither of us has a choice in the matter. Even if HR weren’t getting antsy about your accumulated leave, you’re mandated to take time out of the field and attend three post-disaster counselling sessions.’
‘Hell, Richard, I’m not going to get PTSD.’
‘You know as well as I do no one’s bulletproof. The rules exist to protect Australia Aid workers. As an employee, those rules apply to you.’
‘But you’re the boss.’ Charlie hated the frantic pitch to his voice. ‘You can pull strings.’
Richard shook his head. ‘Not this time, mate. Besides, it’s not the end of the world. There are worse times than summer in Australia to go home.’
It was never a good time to go home. Not that he considered Australia home anymore, or anywhere else for that matter. ‘How long am I on enforced leave?’
‘A minimum of six weeks.’
‘What?’ His bark of disbelief bounced off the walls and came back to bite him.
‘Longer if the psych isn’t happy with your progress, but I’m sure you’ll be back in action before Easter.’ Richard gave him a fatherly clap on the shoulder. ‘Look on the bright side. Your family will be happy to see you.’
‘Oh, yeah. They’ll be thrilled,’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Any chance the psych will visit me in Bali?’
Richard laughed, completely missing the point that Charlie was deadly serious. ‘Send me a postcard from that joint you summered in as a kid. I’ve always thought it sounded like a place I should take my kids.’
Charlie stared at Richard, stunned that he’d even remembered that conversation—hell, he’d forgotten all about it. He guessed it had taken place about three years ago, on the night of ‘the anniversary’. He’d found himself with a bottle of Scotch and, a little while later, Richard for company. He hadn’t told his boss the significance of the date—hell, he never told anyone that—but to prevent Richard from asking too many probing questions about why one of his best trauma surgeons was uncharacteristically nursing a bottle of top-shelf liquor, Charlie had entertained him with stories about his childhood summers on the coast.
He’d used words to paint pictures of the old rambling house on top of the cliff, the white sandy beach far below that squeaked when the sand particles rubbed together, the seventy grey weathered wooden steps that led down to the sea and the roar of the surf that filled the air with the zip and tang of salt. He’d waxed lyrical about the exhilaration of catching a wave and riding it all the way in to shore.
Horseshoe Bay. He hadn’t thought about the place in years. Despite growing up in the privileged leafy suburbs of Melbourne with every possible advantage, his happiest memories were the holidays at Bide-A-While. He’d spent every long, hot summer there and he and his brother had run wild—swimming, surfing and beachcombing—the sun bleaching their hair white and darkening their skin to honey brown.
When he’d turned sixteen, they added bonfires on the beach and parties to their repertoire. He’d shared his first kiss at Horseshoe Bay. He’d ecstatically given up his virginity in the dunes with—God, what was her name? Other than a flash of white skin illuminated by moonlight, he couldn’t form a picture of her, but then again it had been eighteen years ago. His body sagged as the elapsed years unexpectedly clawed at him.
A memory of luminous almond-coloured eyes ringed by jet lashes bloomed in his mind and he smiled. Lauren. He may not remember the other girl he’d had his first fumbling sexual encounter with, but it was impossible to forget Lauren. She’d been his saving grace in the worst summer of his life. Old regret ached but he was an expert at ignoring it. It was pointless questioning why life threw curve balls and disrupted the good things. Turning away from the melancholy memories of Lauren, his mind darted to find something to soothe his intense disquiet about returning to Melbourne.
Bide-a-While! While he worked out his appointments and organised a real holiday somewhere far, far away from that southern city—one that fitted in between the obligatory counselling sessions—he’d ensconce himself with Gran down at Horseshoe Bay. With its clear views to the horizon, and a solid two-hour drive from Melbourne, it might just be the wide safety buffer he needed between him and his parents.