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Sneak Preview--Just One Look

Sneak Preview--Just One Look

Book 14: Escape to New Zealand

Coming September 1, 2021!

Chapter 1 – Priorities

Atlanta, Georgia

Christmas Eve

“It’s not me, it’s you,” the man on the other side of the restaurant table told Elizabeth. That would be Kristoff Erikson, whose patients generally referred to him as a “Greek god.”

Question: why did that tend to mean you looked Nordic—blonde, built, and beautiful? Greeks weren’t Nordic. Anything but. Also, the part about the patients might be because so many of Kristoff’s patients were old ladies. When you were an occupational therapist, you tended to get lots of those, and to spend a lot of your time coaxing stroke survivors to squeeze the rubber ball for just a little longer. “Come on, Adele. Do it for me, OK?” Flashing your white smile and your blue eyes, showing them your charm.

Which was real. That was the crazy part. Kristoff was just that sweet and compassionate and disarming. Everybody loved Kristoff. Including her. For more than three years now, in fact.

Wait, though. What had he said?

“Come on,” she said. “That’s not even funny. I said I was sorry. I am sorry. All right, it’s Christmas Eve, and I said I’d be here two hours ago, but you’re used to that, and at least you didn’t cook anything, right? Plus, we’re getting Mongolian Beef. Your favorite.”

“You’re right that I’m used to it,” Kristoff said. “I learned that one the hard way all the way back at Johns Hopkins, the fourth or fifth time I blew out the candles and went ahead and ate the dinner I’d made. It’s also why we’re eating this dinner two blocks from my place, meaning I could wait to head over here until you actually told me you were on your way.”

“When you’re—” Elizabeth said.

Kristoff put up a hand. “When you’re involved with a neurosurgeon, you have to expect these things. Like, for example, spending the two days before Christmas by yourself. No Christmas traditions for you, because she was on call, and everybody travels at Christmas. Car accidents, kids out of school and doing ridiculous things, and everything else. And knowing she may well get called in tomorrow, too, when your parents are going to be visiting for a few days, seeing as they want to get to know her better. Except they can’t, because she runs out as soon as somebody—”

“Needs her,” Elizabeth said. “Excuse me? Social time, or life and death? How is that even a choice?”

Kristoff sighed, looking now like a very patient Greek god. Surely there was one like that, amidst all the thunderbolt-hurling and wave-churning and so forth. Elizabeth would have asked him, but now probably wasn’t the time. Did she know the answer herself? No, she did not. A neurosurgeon knew a whole lot about neurosurgery, quite a bit about surgery, period, and not much about anything else. Kristoff, though, was well-rounded. Hey, somebody in this relationship had to be.

“You’re right,” he said. “It’s not a choice for you. I get it. But it’s a choice for me.”

She might not be the best at paying attention outside of the OR, but she was getting a prickly feeling on her scalp. The kind you got when you saw that tumor on the films.

Oh, man. It was true. She was definitely getting a tumor-scan feeling. Not good. Not much like Christmas, either. Also, she was ravenous. She’d been in surgery for six hours straight. She could have eaten the tablecloth. If there’d been one.

“Pardon?” she asked, after a distracted moment of thinking that she should have ordered soup, because it would have been here already.

Kristoff said, “Have you ever thought that you should’ve gone with a doctor?”

“You mean as a life partner?” She was seriously starving. Would it be insensitive to interrupt the conversation to order that soup? Probably. “That’s why we’re so great together, though, because you don’t work my hours, and you also pay attention to the things I don’t. But what? Is this going to be a talk about how I don’t appreciate you or your job, because of money or status or whatever? Your work’s important. You help people. You help me. Also, you out-earned me for our first year together, remember?”

“Barely, and only because you were still a resident. How much are you earning now, again?”

“Hey.” She took his hand across the table. “You have all kinds of skills I don’t.”

Kristoff sighed. “How many times have we had this conversation? Elizabeth …”

“So many,” she said, “that I can’t believe we’re having it again. Hey. It’s Christmas Eve! Ho-ho-ho! You know what? Let’s go back to my place, turn the fire on, and do presents tonight. I can’t wait. What did you get me? Something good, I’ll bet.” Fortunately, she’d remembered to order him something, and she’d paid for it to come gift-wrapped, too, which meant it wasn’t still in the cardboard box. A monogrammed bathrobe and a very fancy toilet kit, suitable for taking to a resort, which was happening in March. See? Personal gift. She’d asked around. Monogrammed meant you cared, apparently.

She’d booked the vacation, too. She’d arranged for the time off, and the resort was in Mexico, far enough away that she couldn’t get called back in. She’d pre-purchased scuba lessons, and the booking reference was printed out and tucked under the ribbon. The whole idea had been the result of their last conversation like this, which had happened on Thanksgiving, for similar reasons, and right here.

Turkey was overrated, though, and Chinese food was great. Who didn’t love Chinese food? Plus, it was ready when you were, whatever time that happened to be.

She told him, “Hang on,” then jumped up and went over to the cash register. Only a few solitary customers remained in the hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Well, it was eight o’clock on Christmas Eve. “Hey, Mr. Wong,” she said. “Can I please get some hot and sour soup? Right away?”

The man looked over his half-glasses. “Surgery?”

“Yes. A long one.”

“Coming up.”

She went back to Kristoff, sat down again, and said, “Sorry. Starved. Continue. I’m listening,” she added, because it was true that sometimes, she zoned out. He tended to explain things slowly and with too much detail, while she just wanted to get to the meat of the issue and move on.

He didn’t smile. He waited so long, in fact, that she started thinking about the little girl she’d operated on this morning. A subdural hematoma—brain bleed—after a hard fall during her first time ice skating, which had produced symptoms the next day that her parents had passed off as the flu. By the time they’d brought her in, it had been touch and go. She’d done a craniotomy, though, and the girl was recovering well. Little bodies healed fast. Still, she might just check in again, after the restaurant but before the presents or whatever. Nobody should lose their baby girl on Christmas.

Kristoff said, “Hello. Still talking here.”

“Oh.” She blinked her way back. “Sorry.”

“You know last year?” he asked. “When you missed Christmas dinner?”

“Yes,” she said. “I remember. Sorry. I was …”

“Yeah. Know what my present was?”

“Uh …” She tried to remember.

“It was a ring.”

“No, it wasn’t. I’d remember that. It was a coat. Really nice. I appreciated it. I mean, it was after Christmas, but I still appreciated it.”

“Know why it was a coat?”

“Because you thought I needed a coat, being kind and loving and all? Since my old one was about ten years old, and I never managed to get around to replacing it?”

“It was a coat,” he said, “because I took the ring back. I never even bothered to try.”

“OK,” she said slowly, getting the scalp-prickling again. “Why?” It was good he had backed off. She didn’t need to get married. It just felt like more pressure, another way she could fail to meet his expectations. Even hearing about it after the fact made her panicky. She wasn’t going to say that, though.

He said, “Because I thought it wasn’t going to work. Or I wasn’t sure. But I thought, hey, Kristoff, you’re only twenty-nine.”

“Because I robbed the cradle. How could I help it, though? There you were, all beautiful and wonderful and all.”

He didn’t smile. “I thought, she finished her fellowship barely a year ago. She’s still finding her feet. Give it another year. Well, I’ve given it another year. I’m thirty now, and here we are again. And here’s the main thing. There’s somebody else.”

The blood drained from her head. Not literally. A touch of hyperventilation, that was all. Not enough carbon dioxide in the blood. “What?” she asked. Stupidly, because that wasn’t a sentence you misheard.

“You know what everybody tells me about you?” he asked.

“No. And I don’t care. Who, exactly, else?”

“Everybody tells me something different, that’s what,” he said. “But almost the same, too. ‘You must have balls of steel, dude, to take that on. Little bit of a dominatrix thing, maybe, because there’s no way she’s not the boss.’ That’s one. Or how about, ‘You the man candy?’ Then there’s the person who said, ‘She’s brilliant, and beautiful, too, in her own severe way, almost like a statue. I hope she goes home and relaxes with you.’ I told her that we don’t live together, that I decided a little space was a good idea when we moved down here, and she said, ‘I can imagine it’s difficult. Surgery’s such a grueling profession. So important, but so hard on the surgeons. And on the people who love them, because surgeons can be hard to love.’ Which was a nice way to put it. Everybody saw it but me, but I’m seeing it now, and I can’t stop.”

“Are you seriously sitting here with me on Christmas Eve,” she said, “and giving me the backstory on your new romance? I can tell who said that last one. That’s not anonymous. That was the ‘somebody else.’” Yes, there was still no blood in her head, but also—who did this? What part of “charming, thoughtful, and sweet” was this?

No part, that was what. On Christmas Eve?

He said, “I’m explaining that I don’t want to cheat.”

“Who is this person?” It didn’t matter. She asked it anyway.

He hesitated, then said, “Not a surgeon, obviously. Notice how you can tell, because of the focus on others? But the woman I’m falling in love with. And, yeah, I beat myself up about that at first. I thought, sure, she’s blonde and pretty and sweet, and sure, she looks at you like you’re all she wants, but she’s not Elizabeth. And then I realized—”

“That you didn’t want Elizabeth.”

“Yes. No. That I don’t want high-octane, not anymore. It started out exciting, but three years in, it’s just exhausting. I want a normal life.”

She should be getting mad. Why wasn’t she getting mad? Why was it that all she could do was sit here like a lump of clay? “I’m not high-octane,” she tried to explain. “I’m very quiet, in fact, and I have a …” She took a breath and tried saying it again. “I have a normal life. Busier than some, that’s all. But I have a … I have a house. I exercise. I have friends. I have you. That’s normal, all of it. I’m not a freak. I’m not!”

He took her hand. That hurt, because she could tell he was trying to make this easy on her. Even breathing was hard, like she had shards of glass in her lungs. His voice was gentle when he said, “Elizabeth. You have one friend. Two, if you count his husband. You have a townhouse with no plants. Who has no plants? Not on the balcony. Not on the patio. Not on a windowsill. Your kitchen is the least homey place I’ve ever seen in my life, including at the hospital. And, see—I want plants. I want a dog. I want kids. I want to build a fire in a wood stove, not just push a button, and I want to have somebody curl up on the couch with me and listen to it crackle. I want a kitchen that smells good, because somebody’s cooking in it. I want to come home and have the person I love there with me to share my life. I’ve loved you. I have. But that’s not enough. I’m on hold, always waiting for you, and I can’t live my life on hold.”

Her hand was shaking. Her hands never shook, but it was happening now. Ringless, the fingers slim and strong, the nails cut short and unpolished, trembling against the wood of the table like she’d had too much caffeine—which she had—while his own fingers surrounded hers and held on. His touch was compassionate even now, because he was always compassionate.

She took her hand away. It felt like it belonged to somebody else. “Right,” she said. “I get it.” She considered saying that wood stoves contributed to asthma, but she didn’t. It wouldn’t exactly help. Mrs. Wong came over with the soup, and Elizabeth turned a head that felt like it weighed a hundred pounds and said, somehow managing to form the words, “Could you box it all up, please?”

“Going home for Christmas Eve, eh,” Mrs. Wong said, beaming. “Good idea. Too late to be in a restaurant.”

Elizabeth didn’t correct her. When she’d gone, Kristoff said, “I’ll walk you home.”

“No. Go. Go call your … nurse? And report.”

He said, “It doesn’t matter what she does for a living. This isn’t about her. It’s about us.”

How did she know it was a nurse? Because it was always a nurse, or another doctor. Hospitals sometimes felt like the most clichéd places in the world. “Go tell her,” she said, “that you did it. That you were kind about it. That Elizabeth will be all right, because Elizabeth is always all right. Nobody’s even sure she actually has blood in her veins.”

“I’ll pay for dinner,” he said. “You can take it with you. You’ll need to eat tomorrow, and I’ll bet there’s nothing in your fridge.”

“Stop caring,” she said. “You don’t have to care anymore. Just go.”

She’d go home. She’d eat. And then she’d call and check about that little girl. A hospital was always short-staffed on holidays, and she wasn’t going to let that baby fall through the cracks. 

Priorities.

 

 

Ch. 2 – More Parts

“Elizabeth,” Jordan Abernathy said the next morning. “Why?” His voice sounded as sprightly as always.

Jordan taught middle-school English. That should have made him jaded and bitter. It would have made Elizabeth jaded and bitter, anyway. She remembered middle school. If there was a hell, it was being in middle school forever.

“It’s nine-thirty on Christmas morning,” he told her. “We’ve barely popped the cork for the mimosas. I hope this is just you wishing Clement and me a very merry holiday, because otherwise, I’m worrying, and I hate to worry on Christmas. It’s my very favorite holiday. How can anybody’s favorite holiday be anything else, really? Decorations, cooking, lights, presents, general overindulgence?”

She tried to joke back, but all that came out was, “Can I use your washing machine? I don’t need the dryer. An hour and a half, that’s all, because I’ve got two loads.”

A short silence on the other end, and Jordan said, “Putting you on speaker. Clement, Elizabeth is having a crisis. A Christmas crisis.”

“I am not having a crisis,” she said. “I just have a little problem with my washing machine, and I don’t have any more clean clothes.”

“You’ve had that problem for a month now.” That was Clement’s baritone. “Don’t tell me. You never called the repair guy.”

“I meant to. Haven’t had the time, that’s all.” She tried to make it cheerful. It was hard to be cheerful when you’d downed most of a bottle of wine the night before—the only one in the cupboard, bought for the Thanksgiving dinner you hadn’t had, which meant it was rosé, which Kristoff had loved and she just exactly didn’t—and you only hadn’t drunk the entire thing because you’d fallen asleep in the middle of the last glass while sitting on the floor, and had woken up with your head on the coffee table. Not even with the blinking lights of the Christmas tree washing over your face, the way they’d have done in a movie, because you didn’t have a Christmas tree. You didn’t even have a wreath. A fact that had made her cry last night, she was pretty sure.

It was ironic, actually. She’d been able to drink that much because she wasn’t on call today. She had two days off in a row, because Kristoff’s parents were here, so she’d arranged it. She’d planned to make appetizers, too. All right, she hadn’t made the appetizers, and had realized too late that the grocery stores would be closed on Christmas, but she’d planned it, at least.

She drew a shaky breath, thought, Less drinking, more thinking, and then immediately followed that up with, Except that I hate thinking. I just need to do my laundry. And watch a movie, maybe. I’m fine. Two days off to fold clothes and reorganize my cabinets or whatever. But I am not buying plants. Plants are stupid. There are plenty of plants outdoors, in public spaces for which I’m not responsible, and that’s where they can stay. She said, “Happy birthday—uh, I mean, Merry Christmas. Some holiday, anyway. I’m in your place five minutes, I promise. Got my own detergent and everything. I push a couple buttons, and I’m out of there. Well, I’ll have to come back for the next load, but that’s all.”

Clement said, in the no-nonsense tone she normally heard with his interns, the one he’d learned back when both of them were interns, “Why aren’t you doing your laundry at Ken’s? And why didn’t he call the repair guy?”

“Do not call him Ken,” Elizabeth said automatically. “He’s a wonderful, caring person, not a poseable doll. And I had to stop asking him to do me favors like that. It makes him feel emasculated.”

“Uh-huh. Except that he works half the hours you do, and you wouldn’t have been asking him to donate a kidney. And now even his washing machine is closed to you, apparently. Why?”

She sighed and laid her aching face against the cool stone of the kitchen island. The cool white stone. Yes, her entire enormous kitchen was white. And shiny. So what? Lots of people liked white. It was clean. Also, that was how the townhouse had come, and it was completely functional. It was fine. “He found a nurse.”

“Ouch,” Jordan said. “On Christmas?”

“Well, Christmas Eve. In Mandarin House. To be fair, his parents are here for a visit. If you’re planning to break up with somebody, you don’t want to have to pretend you still love them on Christmas, in front of your parents. Hey, does either of you guys want a toilet kit? And a bathrobe? They were on a list.”

“What list?” Clement asked. “He broke up in a restaurant, so you couldn’t make a scene? Ouch. Except that you wouldn’t make a scene.”

“Yeah, that’s me. The amazing bloodless woman. And you know. When you Google the best ones, and they give you a list, and you click on the expensive one, because it’s obviously the best. It’s a waffle robe. That’s a thing, apparently. The reviews are excellent. The only problem is that both items are monogrammed, because you guys told me to do that. Still, you don’t have to look at the monogram. Think of it as a design element.”

Jordan said, “First, it’s a breakup. You don’t have to be fair. Generally, you drink. Also, you torch the robe. Breakup clothes are bad juju, and nobody needs that.”

“There are people out there who have zero bathrobes, though,” she told him, “and it’s a really nice robe. I’ll donate them, I guess. I’ve got a bag somewhere for that. Of course, I have to take it to wherever and drop it off, but I’ll do that at some point. Also, you’d know this how? Seeing as you guys have been together since college?”

“Hello?” Jordan asked. “Tortured closeted adolescence?”

“Also,” she said, “I already drank.”

“Come over,” Clement said. “With the laundry. We have mimosas and breakfast.”

“I already ate potstickers, too,” she said. “Fortunately, Kristoff broke up with me before our food came, and I got custody.”

“Come over,” Clement said again. “Right now.”

* * *

She didn’t stay for breakfast. She didn’t want them to look at her that closely, was why, or smell her, either. She felt like she still had alcohol seeping out of her pores. She did promise to come back for dinner, though, because they insisted.

“Rules of gay Christmas,” Jordan said. “Welcome the orphan, and the virtual orphan, too. There are always those people who can’t go home, and in the South, there are more of them. Why did I let Clement talk me into Atlanta?”

“Because I’m a Southerner,” Clement said. “Because Emory’s an excellent hospital, and it’s even better now that I’ve recruited Elizabeth down here, since I was smart and did general, which meant I didn’t have to do those extra two years for neuro and could actually start earning money and sleeping. Sleeping’s good. And because it’s not Alabama. Want to be a sad orphan? Try being part of an interracial gay couple in Selma. And speaking of Southern cities,” he continued smoothly, “have you heard from your dad, Elizabeth?”

“Nope,” she said, trying for her surgeon-face, which was oddly difficult to come by today. “He’ll call later, I’m sure. You know he always takes a Christmas shift so somebody else doesn’t have to.”

“So he doesn’t have to think about why he’s alone at Christmas, you mean,” Clement said. “See?” he told Jordan. “Another place we could be and aren’t. Savannah.”

“Savannah’s beautiful,” Elizabeth said. “And changing. Slowly, but still.”

“And yet you’re here,” Clement said. Which was true.

Her dad did call. At three o’clock, right when she was supposed to be going across to the guys’ place.

“Merry Christmas,” he said. A little stiffly, possibly, but her dad tended to have to ease into family time. His house was even neater than hers, because he had a housekeeper. He’d have a Christmas tree, too, that would have magically appeared after Thanksgiving and would disappear after New Year’s in the same way.

She should think about doing that. She had a crew that came to clean once a week—not that there was much to do, but pathogens loved kitchen and bathroom surfaces—but she needed somebody who’d buy groceries and call the washing-machine repairman. And possibly make her food. And do her laundry.

Face it, she needed a wife. Though that hadn’t worked out so well for her dad, when he’d tried replacing her mom. Women didn’t necessarily want to be a guy’s unpaid and too-often-ignored housekeeper, just like Kristoff hadn’t wanted to be hers. Equal-opportunity refusal to be the wind beneath your wings, or something like that. Also, you had to hire a housekeeper, which probably meant advertising, and then interviewing, plus worrying about things like background checks. She needed a wife to hire her housekeeper, was what she needed.

Oh. Her dad. She said, “Merry Christmas. You still at the hospital?”

“Yes. I’ll be here another four or five hours. I only have a few minutes, but I thought I’d call and make sure you’re all right. Are you all good for money?”

“Yes. I’m fine. Well, I broke up with my boyfriend last night, but …”

“Finally,” he said. “That’s good news. You’ve realized that you need somebody who’s your intellectual equal, or who at least comes marginally closer. I’m glad I didn’t have to say it.”

“Except that you just did say it. Also, he broke up with me. I believe I gave insufficient time and attention to our relationship.”

Was that stilted? Yes, it was. Her dad tended to have that effect on her.

He said, “That’s ridiculous. A surgeon can’t compromise. A surgeon doesn’t compromise. It’s not a job, it’s a calling. Next time, find somebody who understands that. A pathologist, perhaps. He’ll understand the demands of your work, and have the time to support you in it.”

“Thanks,” she said. “If any hot pathologists crawl up from the bowels of the hospital looking to be my unpaid assistant, I’ll do my best to snag one. I’m not sure that’s my dream boy, though. Mr. Conscientious. Mr. Follow-the-Rules. Less arrogant than surgeons, though, and less demanding, so there’s that. Why doesn’t that sound sexier?”

“Don’t be crude,” he said. “No man wants a crude wife.”

Nobody’s breaking down the door wanting me for a wife, period, she thought. Also, I’m guessing plenty of men want a crude wife. Just like I might want somebody who’s not quite as … as careful and considerate as Kristoff. The kind of guy you hear about, maybe. If they actually exist.

That kind of guy didn’t tend to be attracted to women most charitably described as “severe,” though. More of a stretch goal, then.

Still. One day post-breakup, and she was already counting her blessings. That was good, right?

Then why didn’t it feel good? Maybe because she was thirty-four, and she was … tired. She was so tired.

Her father said, “Since you’re doing well, I do need to go. I have a bowel resection. Merry Christmas.” Seven words that should never be spoken together. 

 His diction was so careful. He’d ruthlessly eliminated every trace of a Southern drawl from his speech, because he said it sounded lazy. When Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother had visited, he’d looked physically pained every time Memaw had flung out her arms and hollered, “Come give me some sugar, baby girl,” sounding like pure Southern-fried, deep-bosomed South Carolina. When Memaw had died five years ago, which had also happened on Christmas Eve, actually, her father had said, “That’s what comes of all that fried food and sugar. You barely make it to seventy. Pecan pie, for a diabetic? What did she think would happen? She must have weighed well over two hundred fifty pounds, too. No wonder.”

Elizabeth had barely been able to answer at the time, her heart aching with the knowledge that she hadn’t seen Memaw for over a year. She was all the way up in Baltimore, she was a resident, and everybody knew that residents belonged to medicine. “Maybe,” she’d said, “she just wanted to live the way she always had. Especially since she’d lost her daughter and her husband. Maybe she just wanted something to hang on to, and that was Christmas Eve with her grandkids and her special pecan pie.”

“Or maybe,” her father had said, “she had no self-control about anything, and it killed her. You have to be tough in this world, and that’s just one more example.”

That had been a long time ago, though. No point thinking about it now. She said, “Merry Christmas, Dad. I’ll see you soon.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ll be in Atlanta for that conference in mid-March. We’ll catch up over a meal.”

She hung up, and then she went across the street and ate turkey and cornbread dressing and Clement’s candied yams and collard greens with bacon at a table full of laughing, funny, kind men, every one of whom had hugged her when Jordan explained that she’d broken up the night before. She wore her Christmas-cracker crown with the rest of them, tried to take it easy on the wine and didn’t quite succeed, thought about how tomorrow, since she still had a day off, she could call the washing-machine repair people and gain back her laundry independence along with her absolutely-everything-else independence, and tried not to feel completely alone.

But when dinner was over and she was helping to clear the table, Jordan caught her hand as she walked by and said, “Listen. Don’t run off, OK? We’re doing charades and dessert. Chocolate pecan pie with bourbon in it, plus buttermilk pie, which sounded bizarre but turns out to be just gorgeous. Both Southern, you’ll notice. I’m broadening my culinary horizons more for Clement all the time. I must love the guy or something. Also—liqueurs. Indulgence.”

“In case I get called in tomorrow …” she tried.

Jordan said, “Am I or am I not married to a surgeon?”

“Uh … you are?”

“Yes. I am. And unless there’s some sort of mass casualty event—God forbid, obviously—you’re not getting called in tomorrow, because you’re not on call tomorrow. It’s the day after Christmas and a Friday, which means nothing will be happening out there.”

“No,” she said, “it means everything will be happening out there. People taking their new guns out for target practice. People taking their new dirt bikes out for a spin. And by ‘people,’ of course, I mean ‘men.’”

 “Please,” Jordan said. “Make me happy. Stay. I can’t stand to think of you across the street alone on Christmas.”

“Is my house sterile?” she asked. She shouldn’t be asking it here and now, not in the midst of their celebration, but she did anyway.

“Well, yeah,” Jordan said. “I assumed you liked it that way.”

“It’s neat. So I like things neat. What’s wrong with that?”

“Hey,” Jordan said. “You get to have what you like. It’s your house.”

Later, though, when it was just the three of them, and she was sprawled on the couch with a glass of Grand Marnier, because it was Christmas, and Miles Davis was playing something jazzy in the background, she asked them, “Do I have no life?”

“Neither of us has ever had a life, remember?” Clement said. “A hundred hours plus a week for years on end tends to do that to you. It isn’t that much better now, except that our life is surgery, which we love because it matters.”

“Yes.” She might possibly be a little drunk. “But maybe I just don’t know any different, because, you know …”

“Because your father’s a surgeon,” Jordan said, “and he doesn’t have a life. And your mom died when you were four, so you’ve got no examples.”

Yeah, they weren’t going there. “And you do have a life,” she said, “because you have each other.”

“That’s a pretty scary yardstick,” Jordan said. “If you have to have a partner to have a life. Not sure that’s the way it’s supposed to work.”

“You have all this, though,” she said. “A Christmas tree. Decorative elements. Dinner. Fancy dinner. Homemade fancy dinner.”

“Because I married a teacher,” Clement said. “To be my reality check. And so far, he’s willing to pick up the slack.”

“Well,” she said, “I guess I need to figure out how to have a life, too. Or at least get my washing machine fixed. Hey, I have another day off tomorrow and nothing to do with it. I need a project. Maybe that can be it. Organizing my new, full, real-deal life.”

“Yeah?” Jordan asked. “In one day? How do you intend to start?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m not too good at risk.”

“Excuse me,” Jordan said. “Neurosurgery? You cut into brains.”

“That’s controlled risk,” she tried to explain. “Based on a realistic assessment of my knowledge and skill, and evaluation of the limits of what’s possible. Not risky risk. Like … I never roller-bladed, as a kid. Well, I did, but only at a rink. The idea of going downhill, or where there were streets to cross or bumps in the sidewalk? My dad would show me pictures of kids who’d made reckless choices. He had an excellent library to choose from.”

“Here’s the thing,” Jordan said. “You get to write your own story now. He’s not here. And there’s a big difference between a scraped knee and whatever it was he showed you. Seriously? What a tool, scaring a kid into rigid submission like that, and I won’t even mention having you start college at sixteen, because what’s the point in wasting your brainiac time on all that messy childhood? So we’re starting out a few steps behind here. Hmm, what kind of risk would feel more scraped-knee-like? Obviously, we’re still doing our same job, because passion and commitment and devotion and all that.”

“Not to mention eight years of school and seven more of training to get here,” Clement put in. “And two years as an attending. Making a total of seventeen years and half her life.”

“Not to mention that,” Jordan agreed. “So … what? Dating definitely has to come into it. Makeover. Inappropriate sexual encounters in inappropriate places.” He sighed. “Delicious.”

Clement said, “Hey.”

“We can still have inappropriate encounters,” Jordan said. “Even better, because I know you’ll be good at it. That’s the problem with getting your kicks that way. Usually, the other party’s not putting in the full effort. Grab and go. It’s even worse for women, because orgasm is harder to come by, especially with a selfish partner who’s only interested in getting their kicks. The female orgasm can be fickle, right, Elizabeth?”

“Uh … no,” she confessed, for some reason she could not fathom. “Not really. Not for me.”

“Oh,” Jordan said. “Then go ahead and be inappropriate, I guess.”

“That’s not changing my life,” she said. “It’s not getting my laundry done.”

“True,” Jordan said. “But if you’re getting all that delicious buzz, you probably won’t care.”

“How does that help?” Clement said. “She told you she can have an orgasm, so she’s good in that department.”

“Yeah,” Jordan said, “but does it make her legs shake? Or is it, ‘Thank you, Kristoff, that was very nice?’”

“You know what’s inappropriate?” Elizabeth said. “This conversation. No. I need more.”

“Which I just said,” Jordan told her.

“I mean, more in my life. Like a new start, somehow. Marie Kondo, or something like that. Except that I don’t really have stuff. If I looked around and thought, does this item bring me joy, I’d be throwing out my couch and dishes, and then I’d be eating off paper plates and sitting on the floor while ordering the first thing I saw online, the same way I did the first time. No, I think I have to go somewhere.”

“Whoa,” Clement said, serious now. “As in, not Emory?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know. Maybe a vacation, because any other hospital’s just going to be another hospital, right? It’s not going to change my life.”

“No place is, unless you go someplace really different,” Jordan said. “Like where, though? Africa? Antarctica? Someplace way out of your comfort zone.”

“Out of her comfort zone means more than ten blocks away,” Clement said, “not Africa. Do you know this woman at all? She’s living two hundred fifty miles from where she grew up.”

“Anywhere but New Zealand,” she said. “I am not going to New Zealand. Not to Auckland, and not to the rest of New Zealand, either. That’s a no.” She held out her glass for a refill. It was a tiny, long-stemmed, cone-shaped thing like a mini champagne flute that was just for liqueurs. Clement and Jordan even had joyful stemware.

Her own glasses had come in a box from Amazon. They didn’t bring her joy, but they held water, and that tended to be enough for her.

Or it had.

“Why not?” Clement asked. “New Zealand’s beautiful.”

“You’ve heard,” Jordan said. “But as it requires a vacation longer than a week, you’ll never know. Maybe I’ll go to New Zealand. And hello? Stepmother living there? Stepsister?”

“Oh.” Clement looked confused. “Uh … I don’t think I know this.”

Jordan sighed. “Her stepmother was from New Zealand. Her father met her there at a conference. Or in Australia or someplace, can’t remember. She was nice, though,” he said to Elizabeth. “You told me she was nice.”

“She was,” Elizabeth said. “I still don’t want to go there. I was eighteen the only time I visited, and—ugh. It doesn’t bring up positive memories. Anyway, going to another country is ridiculous. I don’t have time. I probably just need a vacation. To one of those meditative spas, maybe. And to get my washing machine fixed, and possibly join a gym instead of just using my elliptical machine. You know. More of a …” She waved the fancy glass. “More of a real life. With more … parts.”

 

 

Ch. 3 – Henry Asks Some Questions

Tokyo, Japan

March

Facing the media was never Luka Darkovic’s favorite thing. All those questions. He reckoned that his actions spoke for themselves. If people needed more than that, he didn’t have much else to give them.

The media was especially not his favorite thing after a Friday night game that had come six days after the last game and with a full day of travel from Australia in there, a game in which he’d been tackled with bone-crunching intensity by two forwards at the same time, in a hit that had resulted in some extremely annoying shooting pains down his left arm that he was going to have to do something about if he wanted to play next week. Not to mention that the forwards had been Japanese, and he was nearly a full head taller and had at least twenty Kg’s on both of them. Embarrassing, was what you’d call that. Not so bad if you were a back, but for a No. 8, whose job was to break the line and run through everything in your way?

Embarrassing.

Here he was, though, sitting at the table beside Hugh Latimer, his captain on the Auckland Blues, and Rhys Fletcher, the coach, fronting up at the postgame press conference. Both he and Hugh were hastily showered and crammed into their dress shirts, their forearms resting on the table, trying to look relaxed. Maybe Hugh actually was. Luka always felt, at these things, like somebody was about to spring something on him. Why else would they have asked him? It was probably going to be about that double tackle this time, and whether he’d lost a step in his thirteenth season.

They could ask. He was ready.

Questions for the coach, for Hugh, that they answered. Praise for the Sunwolves, like you’d expect, even though the Blues had won by seventeen. You respected your opponent, during the game and after it. Discussion of the drop goal that Will Tawera had executed after the hooter had sounded for the end of the first half, and whether that had been practiced. Of course it had been practiced. What did they think, that a first-five pulled a droppie like that out of his hat? He kept the answer off his face the same way he generally did: by staring straight ahead.

A boy stood up from the group of reporters, then. Eight or nine, something like that. A European boy with sleek blonde hair. He said, in an extremely posh accent, “Hello. My name is Henry Willoughby. I’m the reporter for my school paper at the English School, and I’m here to interview Luka Darkovic.”

“Right, then,” Rhys said. “Interview away.” The twitch at the corner of his mouth told Luka that he was going to enjoy this, and Hugh was outright grinning.

Ah. This was the reason Luka’d been chosen for this media duty, instead of getting a massage that might lessen those electric shocks of pain, not to mention having a beer like a normal person before he climbed onto the plane for the twelve-hour night flight back to New Zealand.

“My first question,” Henry pronounced, “is: What qualities are important to succeed in rugby?”

Exactly what you’d expect him to ask. Luka answered, “Same things you need to succeed at anything. Practice. Focus. Determination. You’ve got to be willing to put in the effort, not just go through the motions. Turning up isn’t enough. You’re training to get better, not just because your coach said you should. You’re teaching your muscles and your mind something new every time. A bit of pain tolerance probably doesn’t come amiss, either.”

He could do this in his sleep. That was the one benefit of all those years in the professional game. Any minute here, he’d be telling Henry that it was a team sport, and that you had to focus on the fundamentals.

“What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a rugby player?” Henry asked.

“Physiotherapy,” Luka said. “Sorry it’s not something more exciting,” he added, when Henry looked distinctly disappointed. “Commando, astronaut, brain surgeon, whatever it is you’re hoping for. If I weren’t doing this, I’d just be pushing people to get stronger like the sadistic fella I am.”

Wait. Were you allowed to say “sadistic” to a kid?

Never mind. He’d already said it.

“That’s what he does anyway,” Hugh put in from beside him. “Easy transition.”

“It seems like you’d want to do something more exciting, though,” Henry said, because Henry, clearly, was persistent.

Luka may have agreed with him. He wasn’t going to say so, though. “Think I should’ve been a lawyer instead? Battle it out in court? Nah, mate. Physio’s as good as it’s going to get. Could be worse, eh. My family are avocado farmers.”

“So are you going to do that, too, after you quit rugby?” Henry asked. “Since you’re getting old?”

That got a good laugh from Hugh, and some careful not-laughing from the Japanese press corps. “Mate,” Luka said, “I’m not that old.”

“Except that a No. 8 can’t usually play as long as other positions,” Henry said, “because you get knocked about too much. And you turned thirty-three on Christmas Eve, which makes you the oldest player on the team this season, and you’ve already had seven surgeries. Those are the ones I could find out about, anyway.”

“Good research,” Luka said. “That’s why I keep fit, though, so I don’t get injured, and so the coach doesn’t use me as an inspirational role model for the younger boys and then leave me at home when the plane lifts off. I focus on the moment I’m in, not on what may happen next. None of us knows what’ll happen next anyway.”

There. Sounded good.

Rhys said, “Time for one more question, Henry.”

The boy looked worried, like he had sixteen more of them on his notepad, which he probably did, and wasn’t going to get to ask them. He flipped a page, frowned at it intensely, looked up, and said, “Why aren’t you even married, when all the other players who are old like you have kids already?”

A little stir in the room, a murmur from the polite Japanese, and Luka said, “Why do I feel like I’m on a chat show? Never found the right girl, I reckon. It happens.”

“Except that forwards nearly always have kids,” Henry said, “or at least girlfriends that they met a long time ago. I did a graph on it for my maths project. Backs don’t always have kids, but forwards almost always do, especially when they’re old. My mum says it’s probably because forwards are more serious. She says maybe you don’t because you like to go out with lots of girls instead, and they’re too young to want to get married. Is that why? Because Hugh Latimer has four kids, and his wife is a famous actress, and Iain McCormick has a kid, and his wife is a famous model, and they’re both younger than you. And Marko Sendoa is going to have a kid, and his wife is …”

“Right,” Rhys said. Firmly, like a coach. “Good interview, Henry. Next question, somebody.”

Luka would get stick about this, he knew. Something about gray hair, he was sure. And, yeh, he might have a little frost at his temples and in the scruff at the sides of his jaw, but just because there was frost on the roof, that didn’t mean there wasn’t fire in the chimney.

Good thing he hadn’t said that to Henry. In fact, he’d better delete that from his repertoire entirely. Why had he even thought it? Cheesy pickup line all the way. Used by old fellas with gray hair.

Never mind. On to the next thing.

Fourteen hours later, before he’d even made it all the way home, he was in an MRI machine at Auckland City Hospital. He was familiar with the experience. Henry had undercounted the surgeries. He used the time to have a bit of a nap, then drove to the Ponsonby Countdown, bought a rotisserie chicken, some steak, and some veg, headed home, cooked and ate all of it, and went to sleep.

Henry, he thought, just before he drifted off, you cannot imagine how exciting my life truly is.

Still, he got to play rugby for a living. Until he got even older, anyway.

* * *

A chirp from his phone woke him. He fumbled for it and squinted. Text from Marko Sendoa. Meet me? Ponsonby. You can walk.

He checked the time. Eight-thirty on … Sunday morning. He’d been tired, he guessed. Also, the pain was shooting down his arm again, and when he dragged himself up to sitting and jarred his head, he nearly groaned. He was definitely going to have to do something about that, because he had pins and needles in his hand, too. That was nerve pain, his neck stirred up in some way. He was going to be getting a needle in there tomorrow, he was pretty sure, but that was fine. A needle was good, if it kept him playing.

He’d played every minute of every game for the All Blacks during the last international season, he’d done the same thing so far this season for the Blues,  and he planned to keep on doing it. He didn’t want to give anyone a reason to take him off, not at fifty minutes, and not at sixty, either. He was a full eighty man all the way.

He texted back, Why aren’t you with your wife?

She’s trying to finish a painting, Marko texted back instantly, like he was sitting in the car trying to suss out where to go, because he couldn’t go home. Thought she’d be done before I got back. Says she needs 2 more days and I need to leave her alone this morning, because I change the energy or something.

Huh. Marko’s wife, Nyree, a little bundle of Maori life force, had a baby due in a few weeks. This didn’t seem like future-mum behavior. He texted back, Isn’t she meant to be nesting?

No nesting happening, Marko sent back. Not until the painting’s done. The bub had better not turn up early, because she’s a woman on a mission. I already went for a swim. Can’t think what else to do. Thinking about the toy store. Want to come?

The toy store? Luka squinted at the message, but it didn’t get any less surprising.

Oh. Maybe … All right, this was even odder, but best to be prepared, because—no. That was a no. He texted back, What kind of toys are we talking about?

A pause, then, Mate. Do me a favour. The baby kind.

Luka had been reliably informed—by Francesca, the single-name model he’d dated a while back—that Marko looked even scarier than he did himself. She’d said it in the kind of way that let you know she’d like to find out for herself. Francesca had clearly heard too many Henry-type speculations about rugby players. If Luka and Marko went into a toy store together, the owner was going to think they were robbing the place.

One way to find out. He sent back, If I get breakfast first. Dizengoff. And you buy it.

Done. See you in 20. And a link to, yes, a toy store.

Whatever.

Ch. 4 – Reboot, Take One

Auckland, New Zealand

It was a long, long way from Atlanta to Auckland. Twenty-three hours, in fact. Elizabeth spent it one row behind the bulkhead of the Economy section, so close and yet so far from the good seats. No leg room back here, and when you were five foot ten, you needed leg room.

She was still close enough, though, to hear the bulkhead row’s requisite two crying babies,  and her own row consisted of her in the middle seat, Old Person Number One on the aisle, with cane and limited mobility, making Elizabeth extremely reluctant to ask him to get up and let her out, since she could tell his back hurt, and Old Person Number Two, Number One’s wife, who’d been in the window seat and had some extra … spreadability.

Never mind. Could’ve been worse. They both had New Zealand accents and were cheerful. A New Zealand accent was fine, and she was fine. She could sleep anywhere, babies or no, uncomfortable position or no, which was why she didn’t need to waste money on flight upgrades, and she also had much stronger bladder control than a normal person. If she could stand in surgery for seven hours without using the bathroom, while peering through magnifying glasses and teasing a tumor out from amongst brain tissue, she could sit on a plane and do nothing more taxing than read a medical journal. She was a little stiff when she trundled out to the curb with her single suitcase, blinking against the late-summer sunrise, and a little bleary-eyed, too, but she was also used to being tired. She’d been tired forever.

See? Fine.

Oh, why was she in New Zealand, when it had been the one place she hadn’t wanted to go? She still couldn’t quite believe it had happened, though she’d tried to explain when she’d met with her chief of surgery back in late January.

“It’s a little early for a midlife crisis, wouldn’t you say?” Darrell Godwin had said in his usual austere-but-benign, lord-of-the-manor way. “We want to keep you here. I want to keep you here. Tell me what’s wrong, and I’ll rip this letter up and see what I can do to fix it.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” she said, acutely aware of how crazy and out of control this sounded. Of how crazy and out of control it felt. She colored inside the lines! If she’d ever colored much at all, which she hadn’t. Coloring was good for fine-muscle control, so she had done it some when she was little, but that was it.

She’d had a book with numbers marked for the different colors, which had been useful for helping her recognize numbers and color words, and had also made for a more pleasing result. As long as you colored inside the lines.

The book had all been birds. In a flash of memory, she remembered coloring in the shiny green wings, taking extra care with the blue patch on the bird’s breast, while saying the words aloud to herself. “Ruby-throated hummingbird,” because humming sounded pretty, and the bird was pretty. She’d given the picture to her dad when she was done. She’d thought he might put it on the refrigerator, the way other kindergarten kids’ parents did, but he hadn’t. Still, it had been nice, the bird looking tiny and fragile, hovering beside a pink flower. She’d colored the flower really well.

She didn’t have any plants at her place, but she did have a hummingbird feeder, because she’d been so excited the first time she’d seen one of the tiny things and had heard the zip-zip-zip as it darted around, and she still liked to watch them. Didn’t hummingbird feeders count as proof of having a life? It felt like they should count.

She also couldn’t remember coloring since that book, but so what? Why was she even thinking about this, about hummingbirds and coloring? She didn’t have crises. Or memories, either, because what was the point? She looked forward. She focused. She was a surgeon.

Beautiful but severe. Like a statue.

Hard to love.

“If nothing’s wrong,” Darrell said, reasonably patiently, “why are you leaving the country for a year? That’s pretty extreme. I understand that New Zealand’s beautiful, but do you really think you’ll have time to enjoy that, if you’re doing this …”

“Locum,” she said. “Temporary fill-in. One year, that’s all. And I’m not going because it’s beautiful, or because I want to go to New Zealand, for that matter. I’ll be working, not … touring around, doing wine-tasting or lying on the … the beach, or whatever people do.”

“When they’re on vacation, you mean,” he said.

“Yes. That. I’m not doing that. I’m going because there are a limited number of countries that take doctors with U.S. credentials without any further testing required, and there are fewer that happened to have an opening for a short-term neurosurgeon within my time frame. It was this or the Northern Territory. Australia, that is. If I wanted to go now, and I did want to. It has to be now.”

“The Australia one sounds like more of an adventure, at least,” Darrell said.

“If by ‘adventure,’” she said, “you mean that the heat index tends to be well over a hundred degrees for most of the year, and that the place is full of killer crocodiles, deadly jellyfish, venomous snakes, great white sharks, and spiders the size of cats, then, yes. It’s extremely adventurous. Unfortunately, I’m not.”

“Then why?” Darrell asked. “Look, I know you’re the only female neurosurgeon on staff, and I imagine that’s difficult, but …”

“It’s not difficult,” she said. “I was the only female neurosurgical resident at Hopkins, too, and I did just fine. I still made chief resident, didn’t I? Also, if you imagine that any of my colleagues treats me as anything but a fellow surgeon, you haven’t been paying attention to my reputation. Know what my nickname is?”

Darrell cleared his throat. “No.”

“Oh come on,” she said. “You know you do. The Robot.”

A quizzical expression passed over his face, and she said, “That’s not why I’m going. I just need a … reboot. A temporary change of scene.”

To start over, she didn’t say, and maybe not be quite such a robot. Maybe even make mistakes. Not surgical mistakes, obviously. Personal mistakes. Where my father won’t hear about it, and neither will anybody else I know. Where I won’t have to shrivel in shame forever remembering those mistakes, because I’ll be gone.

And if the very thought paralyzed her and filled her with dread? That was the reason for the reboot.

“You realize we can’t hold the job for you,” Darrell said. “Much as I’d like to. Chances are, we won’t have a spot, not after a year.”

A shiver of fear right down her back. This was roller-skating downhill on cracked concrete. This was so out of control. “I realize it,” she said, keeping her voice level, fighting back the fear. “I’m an excellent surgeon, though. I’ll find a job. If it’s not here, that’s another adventure, that’s all.”

“Yes,” he said. “You’ll find a job.” And sighed. “I just wish you’d stick with the job you’ve got. You know—you almost never find what you’re looking for by going someplace else. That’s why Dorothy tapped her heels together and said, ‘There’s no place like home,’ right? Because everything she’d been looking for was within her all along, or something like that.”

“Sorry,” she said. “Dorothy?”

“The Wizard of Oz.”

“Oh. A movie. I never saw that.”

Now, he was staring at her with the astonishment with which people so often did stare at her. “You never saw The Wizard of Oz? Everybody’s seen The Wizard of Oz. Surgeons from overseas have seen The Wizard of Oz.”

“My father didn’t believe in children watching unrealistic movies. It was more nature and history programs, if anything. Documentaries. That’s how I know about, uh … Australian animals.” Her skin was hot and prickly with embarrassment. This was why she didn’t go in for casual socializing. The “well-rounded” thing again. She was like one of those wolf children people found in the forest, sitting naked on her haunches and cramming food into her mouth while talking in grunts.

“Well,” Darrell said, “he probably has a point there. Baxter’s a fine surgeon. He raised a fine surgeon, too, so he did something right.” He clicked his pen and sighed once more. “You sure about this?”

“Yes. I already told them yes. I start March seventh.”

His gaze sharpened. “Your last day here is March fourth. That’s what’s on the letter, anyway.”

“That’s right. It takes two days to get to New Zealand, is why. International dateline.”

“No,” he said, “I mean—don’t you need some time to sell your house? Rent it? Settle in?”

“Oh,” she said. “No. I’m doing a swap with a professor who’s coming to Georgia Tech on a visiting-scholar thing. We just box up our clothes and toiletries and so forth to make room, then move into each other’s places, drive each other’s cars, the works. Very efficient.”

“Sounds like an easy thing to scam,” he said. “What if he cleans out your place?”

“I checked with the university. He’s legit. We sent valuations—appraisals—and so forth. Credit checks, that sort of thing. We’re each paying for weekly housekeeping, and he’s even paying for somebody to mow the lawn, so it couldn’t be easier, really. His place is a little smaller, but it’s worth about the same as mine, because Auckland’s pricey. It’s in a very good neighborhood.”

“Uh-huh,” Darrell said. “If you say so. Well …” He stood up. “I guess that’s it, then. March fourth. Giving you exactly … one day there before you start work. Well, it’s your funeral.”

“No,” she said. “It’s my reboot.”

She wasn’t going to think about what her father had said. She didn’t need that information in her brain, or the sound of him saying, “If you do this, if you throw your career away, I wash my hands of you. Too much like your mother. You think you’ve convinced her to be rational, and there she goes, letting the emotion run away with her. Making the wrong choice, every time.”

The memory made her shoulders tense, and she relaxed them with an effort. Her father wasn’t here, and for better or worse, she’d made her choice. Her reboot was starting now. On an Uber trip through Auckland, with old names coming back to her through the years. Cabbage tree. Silver fern. Villa. Extinct volcano called Mount … Mount Something, that has a Maori name you’re supposed to call it instead.

She’d been so inwardly charmed, at eighteen, by the idea of a city built around fifty extinct volcanoes, the cones jutting up in the middle of the cityscape, little circles of green space.The city was so much bigger, though, sixteen years later. They were on a freeway now, and then going through a tunnel. Neither one had been here before, had they?

“You on holiday, then?” the driver, a tidy, spare man in his fifties, asked.

“No,” she said. “Here to work for a year.”

“Working holiday visa?” A glance in the rearview mirror at her T-shirt and jeans and somewhat rumpled state. “Nah, that’s not it,” he decided. “You don’t look the type to pack kiwifruit or milk cows.”

Also, she thought, I don’t look under thirty. Not remotely. Which was fine, because she wasn’t. She said, “I’m a surgeon.”

“A surgeon, eh.” Another rearview-mirror look, possibly because she was rumpled, and her hair was in a ponytail. She wanted to tell him that when you were in a surgical cap for most of the day, fashionable hair wasn’t necessarily at the top of your list. She also wanted to tell him to keep his eyes on the road. This tunnel was narrow.

“That’s something,” he said. “If I get in a smash, I could ask for you, that the idea?”

“Hopefully not,” she said. “Bad news for you if you have to do that. I’m a neurosurgeon. Brains and spines.”

“Oh.” He digested that a minute. “First time in New Zealand?”

“No. I spent Christmas here once. It was a long time ago, though.” She answered absently, looking out the window, because they were off the freeway—motorway—at last, driving through a commercial area.

This would be the start of Ponsonby, the fashionable inner suburb rising above the downtown area—the CBD. This would be home.

He said, “Nearly there. Got somebody to meet you?”

She thought, That’s a dangerous question to answer, and said, “My new house. For the next year, anyway.”

“Hope they’ll have a cup of tea for you,” he said. “It’s a long journey. Heaps of cafés  in Ponsonby, though. You’ll be spoilt for choice, and if you’re a surgeon, you can probably afford it, eh. Try Dizengoff, maybe, about halfway down the main road. Always popular. Or Archie’s. Hard to see it, as it’s tucked away into an alley, but they do a good brekkie, I hear.”

So—not so much urban predation as New Zealand friendliness. The friendliness was confusing. She wasn’t used to it.

All the way up the hill to the top, the buildings older here. Shops lined both sides of the street, most still closed up tight this early on Sunday morning. The driver pointed at a place whose door was open, said, “Dizengoff,” and then turned onto a smaller street, full of trees and greenery, the houses set back from the street, and she thought, Nearly there.

One more turn, and a glint of blue in the distance. That would be the harbor, on the other side of the steep hill that dropped off below her house. She’d have a perfect view of it from both dining room and bedroom, and a deck where she could sit and watch the boats coming and going from the yacht harbor and the lights of the Harbour Bridge going on at dusk, not to mention seeing across to the North Shore. She hadn’t been able to believe her luck when she’d seen the pictures.

A few houses lined the seaward side of the little street, some coolly modern, others the older, chocolate-box villa type, all of them white. The driver stopped at a black metal number on a white wooden fence, jumped out, pulled her suitcase from the trunk, and said, “Here you are, then, love.”

“Thank you,” she said, then trundled her suitcase to the gate, unlatched it, and thought, You’ve done it now, Elizabeth. You’re here.

And stop worrying. Neurosurgery is neurosurgery, and neurosurgery is what you’re here to do.

The front door looked to be around the back. Made sense, since all the view was back there. She’d go in and take a shower. Unpack her suitcase. Open the doors onto her new deck and look at the ocean—whoops, the sea. The harbor. Whatever. Take a walk to shake off the stiffness and find something to eat, then do some grocery shopping and drive the route to the hospital so she’d be prepared in the morning.

It was a new place, but all it took was planning. She led an orderly life. New Zealand was an orderly place. It was perfect.

The body of the house sat behind a garage, and the whole thing seemed much smaller than it had looked in the pictures. But charming, she told herself, finding the key under the pot, exactly where Peter had told her it would be. Though there was a roar coming from somewhere, and from inside the house, she heard barking.

Loud barking.

Deep barking.

That would be her new dog.

 

Ch. 5 – A Few Wrinkles

“It’s a few wrinkles,” Elizabeth told herself. She’d have said it out loud, but she couldn’t quite manage it. That was because there was an enormous dog practically in her face.

It had happened in the second between the time she got the narrow front door open and  dragged her big suitcase up over the sill. When she’d been hit between the eyes with … oh, a few things.

First: that the “beautiful Golden Retriever mix” was black, and there was no way a Golden Retriever was supposed to be this big. He had to weigh over a hundred pounds. Probably well over, but it was hard to tell under all the fur. Also, he was wagging a tail the size of a mop, doing a sort of happy dance around her, and bumping her in the legs in his excitement. Not in the knees, because he was too big for that. In the legs. He was the hairiest dog she’d ever seen, and his extremely large, blocky head came to her waist. 

His head was bigger than hers.

Definitely not a Golden Retriever.

Peter, her house-swap partner, had said on their Skype call, in the most casual, cheerful tone imaginable, “No worries about Webster.” (Who hadn’t been in view during the call, and how had she not noticed that?) “He has a dog door, and the dog walker will come every afternoon to take him out for a couple of hours, seven days a week. She’ll brush him every week and take him to the groomer’s, too, and pick up the poo. All you’ll need to do is fill his food and water dispensers, and when you are home, he’s great company.”

“I’ve never had a dog,” she’d tried to explain. She’d already been so deep into this, though, had fallen in love with the location and the view and even Peter’s wife, Jessa, and their five-year-old son, Aiden. Peter had an Adam’s apple and glasses and a shock of straight, light-brown hair that fell over his bony forehead in exactly the way a seismology professor’s ought to. His wife was dark-haired and calm, and they were about the best people you could imagine staying in your home.

Peter said, “He’s the perfect family dog. Best nature in the world. Just wants to lie down beside you, though he’ll happily fetch a tennis ball if you want to throw it, or go on an extra walk with you if you want his company. Otherwise, you’ll barely have to do a thing. You could feel safer, too, being there alone, as he’ll bark a few times if somebody comes to the door.”

Aiden said, “He’s the best dog ever. He just wants to be friendly!”

Had she been sure about it? No, she had not. This was her adventure, though, right? Her reboot. All right, she’d never had a dog. Or a cat. Or a gerbil. She’d researched Golden Retrievers, though, and every single site had said that they were sweet, calm, and loving. Friendly to everybody, and she wouldn’t have to do any of the work!

Well, they’d got the friendly part right, because this Non-Golden Whatever-it-was was definitely friendly. Right now, he was leaning up against her like he’d push her over, his tail going a mile a minute, whacking her hard and sending the purse and house keys she’d put on the coffee table flying.

He was also taking up half the space in here. That was because this was the smallest living room she’d ever seen in her life. No, seriously. Her half of her college dorm room had been bigger than this. Her bathroom was bigger than this. It featured a leather sort-of-loveseat facing the front door, because a couch wouldn’t have fit, a narrow shelving unit on either side of the TV, a minuscule coffee table, and a wicker chair in the corner. That was it, other than all the … all the everything covering the walls.

New Zealand was supposed to be minimalist! She’d read it! She’d even seen it. Her ex-stepmother’s apartment, visited for that single, miserable Christmas vacation back in the dim adolescent recesses of time, had been furnished in cream and chocolate brown. She’d noticed, because she’d liked it. In fact, that was why her Atlanta place was decorated as simply as it was, that and her lack of time. Not that she’d achieved Lauren’s results. Her stepmother’s place had been warm and inviting, and Elizabeth’s … not so much. The design part, though, was the one thing she’d figured she could count on with this move. What was this?

It wasn’t just the pictures in rustic wooden frames that covered the walls, together with sayings like “Love Lives Here” burnt into more rustic wood. There was a ticking red clock with a rooster head sticking up above and two dangly legs that were apparently the second hand, because they moved back and forth like the rooster was walking, and a wall mirror whose frame was made of bright, lacquered red and gold. Not terrible on its own, but right next to it was an enormous piece of fabric art, macrame or something similar, a sludge-green and blue thing made of thick, fuzzy yarn, so hideous that you couldn’t tear your eyes from it, hanging from a heavy branch. She hoped nobody had paid for that. A collection of dolls was set on curio shelves that sprouted from every wall, staring at her out of their glassy eyes like something from a horror movie. Books crammed the shelving, and every other possible item that somebody hadn’t been willing to part with was set in front of those books, like there were a few extra square inches of space left, so why not fill them? Shells. Pretty rocks. Jars of colored sand. More framed pictures. More dolls, sitting propped against the books and staring.

This room was her nightmare.

Two steps over, and you were in the kitchen, which was a single, not-very-long wall with a refrigerator at one end, a two-burner stove in the middle, a small oven, and a dishwasher drawer beneath the sink. If you turned around from the sink, you could set your plate on the tiny table, because, yes, there it was, just that close. She guessed that three people could eat there if they weren’t very big. Or if they took turns.

There were more signs in here. One said, “Happiness is Homemade.” The big one, over the table, was a sort of blackboard-type item with “Recipe for a Happy Home” at the top, then a whole list of things that she didn’t want to read. She definitely saw “Spoonful of Gratitude” on there, though.

Right. It’s an adventure. You don’t cook anyway, you’re never home, and there’s a whole long street chock-full of restaurants a five-minute walk away. Wonderful, clean, sparely decorated restaurants, because the New Zealand style is spare and clean. Like Sweden.

Except for this house.

Stop it. You’re fine. You have maps. She’d created an annotated plan, in fact, of all the highest-rated restaurants on Ponsonby Road and its side streets. The breakfast places opened at six, and the dinner places closed at eleven or twelve. For the first time in fourteen years, she might be eating something other than hospital food.

It was an adventure.

Good thing she hadn’t gone for the Northern Territory. She couldn’t even handle shells and signs. Crocodiles and humidity would have done her in.

She was about to go check out the bedroom, but there was something in the way. Something big and black and furry. Webster had stopped prancing and was sitting in front of her, his block of a head on one side, his tongue hanging out. She said, “Webster. Move.”

He must not know that one, because he just cocked his head more.

Also, there was a puddle of drool on the floor.

She walked approximately three steps and ripped off a paper towel. And then she stopped.

Yes, there was a view of the harbor. There it was, right down there. And the Harbour Bridge, too. Of course, there was also a view of how you got onto the bridge, which would be via the six-lane motorway pretty much directly below her hillside, which was the source of the roaring noise she’d heard, and which hadn’t been in any of the pictures.

Still. If your eyes stopped halfway down, the view was great. The end wall of the kitchen opened up all the way onto a deck, there was a square of fenced green yard below it with a clothesline, and you could just look past the motorway, right? And wear headphones.

She had to look past the motorway. What else was she going to do, pay the mortgage on her house—her beautiful, three-story, three-and-a-half-bath, furnished-in-black-and-white-and-pale-wood townhouse with its patio and balcony and enormous laundry room—and pay to live someplace else? If she could even find someplace else, because Auckland’s rental market was ridiculous.

No. She was living here, in a house that somehow, unbelievably, was worth more than hers. With the world’s hairiest dog, and a motorway roaring beneath her. And a creepy doll collection.

And an amazing view of the sea.

She dragged her suitcase into the bedroom. There was a chair to put it on. That was good, because there wasn’t anyplace else to set it other than the bed, and she wasn’t putting it there, because putting luggage on a bed wasn’t ….

Webster jumped onto the bed. And lay down.

“You’re kidding,” she said aloud. “This is a joke, right?” In answer, Webster thumped his enormous feathery tail, grinned at her, and drooled a little on the duvet.

“Tea,” she decided. “I’m in New Zealand. I’m calm. I’m having tea. Fortunately, the kitchen is very close.”

Tea. Then she’d take that shower, unpack her suitcase, find out where the laundry room was—she suspected the garage, and she also suspected a dash through the wet to get there every time it rained, which would be a lot—go for a walk, and have breakfast.

And deal.

* * *

The girl set down the coffees on their sidewalk table, and Luka said, “Cheers.”

She blushed and looked away. You noticed the blush, because she was a pale blonde, and fragile-looking. Luka barely got a glimpse, though, before she was heading back into the restaurant.

Marko, of course, was grinning and saying, “Can’t decide if that was, ‘You’re so unbearably hot, it’s overwhelming,’ or, ‘You’re clearly dangerous, and I’m running away.’ Or maybe she heard that you date on the younger side, and she doesn’t want to be considered. Since you have gray hair, mate, and she looks about eighteen.”

“Yeh, nah,” Luka said. “Not too chuffed about being with somebody who’s scared of me, or who was starting kindy when I was getting selected for the Blues, either. Henry exaggerated. Twenty-one, at least. Strict lower limit, because I like a confident woman who knows what she’s about.”

“Oh?” Marko said. “Where would that be?”

Luka said, “I’m not talking about my sex life with you, mate, just because you’re frustrated. How do you know about it anyway? You weren’t there.”

“How do you think? Hugh told me. Funniest interview he’d ever seen, that was the report.”

“I couldn’t exactly say, ‘Piss off,’ to an eight-year-old kid, though. I was stuck, wasn’t I.”

“Reckon you feel old, too,” Marko said. “Balding fellas tend to do better when they shave their heads. Make it a statement instead of pathetic. I’m telling you that in case it’s helpful with the confident twenty-one-year-olds.”

“I’m not balding,” Luka said. “I have a full head of hair. A bit of distinguished silver at my temples, that’s all. Premature silver.”

He would have said more, but there was some sort of commotion happening up the street. People shouting. Things crashing.

Danger.

He started to move.

* * *

How had this happened? Elizabeth wondered in despair as she ran. One minute, she’d been opening the front door, her running shoes in her hand, ready to sit on the steps to put them on and go on that walk to get breakfast. The next, the dog had been shoving his way past her and, in a horrifying instant, charging through the gate she somehow hadn’t closed all the way and taking off up the street. The one that led to Ponsonby Road.

She’d been in the country an hour, and she was already killing the dog!

It took her a couple of very long seconds to find the leash, and then she was headed out after him. The door open behind her, the gate open behind her.

Her purse still on the front steps, she realized after a few blocks. Oh, boy. Now she was going to have gotten the dog killed, and gotten the house robbed and the doll collection stolen. And lost all her credit cards. And her passport. All at once! On her first day!

Too late. She was up the hill and already gasping for breath. She couldn’t even see the dog. At least she hadn’t seen its body, though.

Yet.

Please don’t get hit, she prayed, as if it would help. Please don’t get hit. And ran, her lungs on fire, because the elliptical machine was not the same as running uphill after the stupidest dog in the world.

All the way to Ponsonby Road, her chest heaving like a bellows. A complicated intersection with roads coming in from all angles, and she was swiveling, searching, dreading. There wasn’t much traffic yet, not this early on Sunday morning, but there was enough.

An older couple crossing the street saw the leash in her hand, and the man said, “Looking for a big black dog? It headed off down the road, going like billy-o. Looked like it was trying out for the All Blacks. I tried to catch it, but it wasn’t having any.”

She ignored the incomprehensible parts of that, gasped, “Thanks,” and then she was running again. At least it was downhill now. But she still couldn’t see the dog.

Oh. Wait.

Oh, no.

It was like a flip book, or one of those trails of dominoes. Sandwich-board signs slamming to the ground, one by one, all the way down the sidewalk. Pedestrians scattering. And Webster galloping like a Shetland pony, if Shetland ponies galloped, his huge paws stretching out. All four of them off the ground, then gathering beneath him to shove off for the next stride. She was running as fast as she could, but how fast could you go in your stocking feet? After twenty-four hours in transit? If your exercise consisted of thirty minutes a day on an elliptical machine?

Not fast enough, that was the answer. Not nearly fast enough. A woman with a baby in a stroller barely got out of the way, sending Elizabeth’s pulse rocketing even higher, and Webster was gathering speed.

He was going to hurt somebody. She had to catch him. But how?

* * *

Luka didn’t look to see if Marko was with him. He knew he was. Right off his shoulder, exactly where he should be.

He was wearing jandals. Didn’t matter. The thing with the pushchair and the baby had been too close. He got himself in position, and when the dog got there, he met him in a bone-jarring tackle, flinging himself at his chest even as his arms wrapped around him and held on. His feet left the ground and he rolled, and the dog dragged him for a pace or two, but after that? He dragged the dog.

It shouldn’t have been hard, because the dog probably weighed half what he did. And still, it was like taking down a world-class lock with the tryline in his sights. He felt Marko piling on, and together, they got the animal on the ground and kept him there.

Marko said, “Got his collar?”

Luka couldn’t answer. That was because he was gasping, his left arm lit up with stabbing, slicing pain all the way to his neck. The neck itself? It felt like it was broken. He gritted his teeth, though, and got the dog’s collar in his hand. He’d tackled him straight off the curb, and they were wedged between two parked cars, which had helped him stop the dog but had also jarred his entire body with the suddenness of the stop and the unforgiving nature of asphalt. He dragged the dog back onto the pavement, and Marko said, “All right?”

“Yeh,” Luka said, but he didn’t let go of that collar. “Sit,” he told the dog, and he sat. And grinned at both of them, while wagging his tail like it had all been a wonderful adventure.

Luka said, “Stupid bugger,” but the words were drowned out by the applause coming from the pedestrians and diners. Some phones held up, too, clicking away, because people would take a photo of anything, even a runaway dog. Meanwhile, Luka was missing a jandal, and bloody hell, but his neck hurt.

He could almost always ignore pain. He was having a hard time ignoring this. Who exacerbated their rugby injury tackling a dog? If he lost game time for this, he’d …

He’d be narked as hell, that was what. At least it could’ve been something heroic, like grabbing a runaway pram and saving a baby. Instead, he’d sacrificed a few layers of skin and probably a disc for a grinning, panting, shaggy black dog the size of a half-grown bear, who had now plopped himself down on his arse and was industriously scratching his neck with the self-satisfied air of an animal who’d just finished some refreshing morning exercise and was on his way to making new friends.

A woman was running up to them now, her breathing hard, her hair wild, her feet in socks and nothing else. She said, “Oh, thank God. Thank God,” and grabbed for the dog’s collar. And then just stood there like she had no idea what to do next.

Ah. An idiot.

She had a red lead in her hand, but she wasn’t doing anything with it. Luka waited a moment, but she just panted some more, exactly like the dog, so he took it from her and fastened it. “There,” he said, handing it back to her. “You got him? All right? You may want to take more care.”

“I …” she said. “Yes. I know. And yes, obviously I’ve got him, or you got him, but I … I’m not …” She seemed to take him in a little more, and Marko, too, and her face froze.

Brilliant. She knew who they were. It was going to be a celebrity moment.

He really did not need this today.

“You’re injured,” she said, her tone completely different. “Both of you. What’s hurting?”

Marko glanced at him, and Luka gave a shrug back. “Yeh, nah,” he said. “A scrape on the knee, that’s all.”

“Your face,” she said. “That’s a bruise on your forehead. A bad one. We should check you for concussion, because you’re holding your head crookedly.”

Luke could have told her that he’d already had an HIA for that—a head injury assessment—but he didn’t. “Yeh, nah,” he said. “No concussion. Hard head, and the head knock was from earlier. We’re good.”

“You’re scraped, though. And  …” She hesitated, looking around. “I don’t think anybody else is injured, but I should go back up and check.”

“And do what about it, exactly?” Luka asked.

His coffee was going to be cold by now. A glance told him that his breakfast had arrived just in time to get cold, too. And still, he waited. Marko said nothing, just stood there looking big, dark, and amused.

Why? Luka knew why. Because the girl—woman—was still breathing hard, and she was wearing a tight T-shirt, not quite enough bra for somebody whose hair was damp, which meant that her shirt was damp, and shorts that showed off some very shapely legs.

She wasn’t thin. What she was—was tall. And built. Also, she had eyes as dark-bright as sapphires, pale skin, and dark hair that fell in messy waves to her shoulders. Her eyebrows slanted down, her cheekbones were sharply cut, her jawline was, too, her mouth was wide, and her nose was long, aquiline, and jutting right out there to see.

It was a face that would never compromise. She looked like an Icelandic warrior queen. He had no idea if such a thing existed. If it did, though, she was it.

She said, “Well, clearly, to treat them.”

“To treat them,” Luka repeated. What had they been talking about, again?

“And to give them my … my insurance information,” she said. “Or whatever you do when your dog causes an accident.”

“Ah,” he said. “American, eh. We don’t do that here. We just care for people when they’re injured. Seems easier.”

Her chin went up, and he got full-on warrior queen. “I’ll do that, then.”

“What, care for them?” His glance swept over her. “Doesn’t look like you brought your first-aid kit. Why did you take the dog off the lead?”

“I didn’t,” she said. “I opened the door, and he ran out.”

“Take care next time, I reckon,” he said. “If he’s going to run off like that.”

“Thank you.” The blue eyes were flashing now, and the chest was heaving some more. Which was all a very good look, as far as he was concerned. “I’d never have thought of that.” Yeh, that had been said too sweetly. She couldn’t keep it up, though, because next, she said, “I didn’t know he would run out! How could I have known?”

“Because he’s your dog? If you’re going to let him off his lead and he’s going to bolt like that, you’d better get into better nick so you can run faster.”

She gasped. On the one hand, gasping suited her. On the other hand, his neck hurt like not-playing-next-Saturday. She said, “Why? Because I’m so fat?”

“What? No. Why would I say that?”

Marko sighed in a put-upon way and said, “Mate …”

She turned on him. “What, you have an opinion too?” She threw out an arm. She had extremely erect posture. That was why he’d thought the warrior-queen thing, probably. She should definitely be wearing armor. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s have it. What else is wrong with me and my actions? I told you, I’m sorry. I’m extremely sorry.”

“Nah,” Marko said. “No worries. It happens.”

“I didn’t know the dog would run,” she said, “but he did run, so I know now. Thank you for catching him. I just got here—to New Zealand, I mean—and I wasn’t expecting the, ah, running. I’ve never had a dog before.” She took a breath, got a little taller, and said, her voice brisker, “Now, I’m going to walk back the way I came and check whether anybody is injured. If they are, I’ll assess accordingly, and if possible, I’ll treat them.”

She had some kind of accent, Luka realized, that was warring with the I’m-in-charge words. A soft drawl. Southern U.S., maybe? Sounded like something on TV. Sounded bloody sexy, in fact.

“Hang on,” he said. “Stay for a coffee, anyway. A bit of drama, that’s all. We’re all good.” Because, yeh, his neck hurt, but it wasn’t going to hurt any more from having coffee with a woman who could give as good as she got, even under duress.

And if she brought all that passion and take-charge attitude to bed with her? Along with that body? That’d be pretty interesting. There was nothing like a little competition to get the blood pumping, and he’d always enjoyed wrestling.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” she said. “I have to get back and train my new dog, because I’m clearly clueless. And get—what was it? In better nick, so I can run. Thanks for that. Exactly what I needed this morning. Just wonderful.”

 

Coming September 1, 2021

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