Prologue

Loud pounding on the front door of the veterinary clinic surgery shocked Jodi Bowman into wakefulness. She blinked a few times in the muted light radiating from her computer screen. She had fallen asleep at her desk. Again. The second time this week. She yawned and wiped drool from the corner of her mouth. Blurgh. Very classy, Bowman.The pounding continued. She stretched in an attempt to wake her body up as she made her way to the clinic’s front door, rubbing tired eyes with one hand, while she disconnected the security alarm and opened the door with her other. A frantic husband and wife team, shadowed by two children aged somewhere between eight and ten, met her at the door. The husband’s arms were full of a small tan and white body wrapped in a bloodstained white towel.

“Please, Jodi. Our Penny needs your help.”

Jodi opened the door up wide. She loved her job, but some days it smacked of never ending. She smiled wearily. “You’d best all come on through then.”

 

Chapter One

Ninety-eight, ninety-nine…One hundred laps of the seawater baths were part of Jodi’s morning routine, rain, hail, or shine. It was a peaceful start to the day. No thinking, no planning, just stroke, kick, and breathe. No one to talk to, no questions to ask or answer, no phones ringing. Tap the wall, tumble, push off the wall, and feel the rush of watery fingers drag along her limbs. The tickle of bubbles ran along the underside of her body before her head broke the surface and the physical mantra started again. Stroke, kick, and breathe. Touch the wall. One hundred. She gripped the stainless steel handles alongside the diving block. She emerged halfway out of the water, closed her eyes, and willed her breathing to slow. The early morning sun warmed her shoulders and back as water sheeted off.

She hefted herself the rest of the way out of the pool, grabbed her towel, and walked around the edge of the pool’s perimeter. There was no dallying this morning. She briefly stood under the freshwater outdoor shower and rinsed off the salt. Her swim was slightly later than usual. She needed to get home, change, and grab some breakfast before she started work at her veterinary hospital clinic in the seaside town of Yamba.

Turning off the water, she towelled her hair briskly and wrapped it around her waist. When she turned towards the car park she spied a familiar face. Cole Jameson, her veterinary nurse, held two takeaway cups of coffee while sitting on the park bench overlooking the baths.

Jodi walked quickly to erase the distance between them and laid a hand on her heart.

Cole wore a mock-exasperated look, although it was slightly unconvincing given she also appeared to be nervous. Wordlessly, Cole held aloft a coffee cup as Jodi approached.

Jodi sat down heavily, accepting the offered steaming cup. “You’re a lifesaver. What would I do without you?” She took an appreciative sip and luxuriated in the warmth travelling down to her toes. She hummed in delight and closed her eyes to savour the flavour…and Cole’s presence. Although Cole had worked in her practice for going on five years now, she had to admit that being with Cole outside of the clinic environment was somewhat intimate, for lack of a better word. Which felt strange. Cole was straight.

Rarely did they see each other outside of work. Which was probably why she had really never noticed how attractive Cole looked out of her baggy scrubs. And that surprised her. She mentally shook her head and wondered when the last time was she’d noticed any woman for that matter. She reckoned it was probably back in her first year at university, maybe. But Cole…

Cole held up a paper bag, interrupting Jodi’s thoughts. “You’d starve to death and the clinic would be a mess.”

Jodi looked inside and spied a toasted ham sandwich and proceeded to stuff one half of it into her mouth. “Mm. You’re most likely right.”

“I know.”

They sat in companionable silence as Jodi finished her surprise breakfast. “Why are you up so early?”

“I figured you’d need some refreshment after your early start—or, should I say, late night.”

“How did—?”

“And I need to apologize. I picked up the practice mobile by mistake and took it home. So I know you got a call from the Petersens a bit before two a.m. I take it the puppies arrived then?”

“Mm. Six. By caesarean.” Jodi drained the last of the coffee and put the scrunched up paper bag into the cup.

“You should have called me.”

“No point both of us losing sleep.”

Cole sighed. “Perhaps not, but if you’d have called me you might have gotten home earlier.”

“Next time.”

Cole snorted. Jodi acknowledged calling Cole in the middle of the night to meet her at work was most unlikely to happen. Jodi looked after her staff.

They stood and headed towards the car park. Jodi scrunched up her nose. “Don’t feel bad. You can still be a part of it. I’m pretty sure I left an awful mess behind.” Jodi laughed as Cole rolled her big brown eyes. “Thanks for brekkie. I owe you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Go home, get changed, and get your butt back to work so you can help me clean up your mess before we open the clinic.”

Jodi waved. “See you directly.”

 

 

Cole secretly enjoyed surprising her boss after her early morning swim. She’d long known Jodi was a fitness freak but found it funny how she’d never really taken much notice of Jodi’s bodybefore. But watching her glide up and down in the water and stepping out to stand under the shower to clean off after her swim, there was no denying Jodi’s muscle tone and fitness. Perving on her boss in her swimmers was an unexpected bonus to the day.

The morning had gone better than Cole had a right to expect. In truth, she had expected Jodi to take her to task for taking the practice phone home. Although she’d had a slight ulterior motive, she wasn’t about to voice that to her boss and risk losing her job over it. She and Jodi got on well, working comfortably together in the small but demanding practice. Cole had learned the hard way to tread lightly when it came to employer and employee relations—her last position had cost her everything, engagement, job, and home. Never again would she take things for granted. Work was work. Love was love. Oil and water didn’t mix. Simple.

Cole entered the vet clinic via the back door and turned on lights as she went. She rounded the corner into the surgical room and came to a halt. She put her hands on her hips and shook her head. Jodi hadn’t lied. It looked like a bomb had gone off in the room. Bloodied gauze, towels, and discarded tubing were scattered on the table and on one side of the floor. She couldn’t stay mad at her boss for long though, as she knew Jodi had stayed back until late to make sure another of their patients, a Doberman puppy, had stabilized after surgery when it had been brought in by its owners right on closing time. The puppy had been accidently run over with the family car and had sustained internal injuries. It had been a long and tricky surgery and she knew Jodi had stayed on long after she had been sent home.

Cole decided to leave the mess until last, after she had everything else cleaned and sorted. She checked on the animals who had spent the night. Several had near fresh IV bags, meaning Jodi had overseen their care in addition to the puppies’ the previous night.

One of the kennel doors rattled loudly as Popcorn impatiently pawed to be let out. A client, Mrs. Rosa, had asked Jodi if she’d give her beloved dog a home if she became too infirm to care for the little Pomeranian herself. Jodi agreed, never thinking that in a few short years, the elderly woman would succumb to a series of strokes.

Cole lifted Popcorn down from her cage and let her have the run of the office while she refreshed water bowls and bedding, booted up several computers, and gave the floor a quick mop. With Popcorn at her heels, she set the coffee machine up, knowing it would be in much needed service throughout the day.

She was midway through putting a load of soiled bedding into the washing machine when she heard the turning of a key in the back door lock, announcing Jodi’s arrival. Popcorn ran in anticipation to the door, her nails clicking on the tiles.

Jodi’s hair was still damp from her swim and neatly tied up into a loose bun. Her outfit was rounded off with fresh surgical scrubs. Despite the dark circles under her eyes, Jodi had her business face on and strode straight over to the nearest cage. She scanned the patient’s sheet and talked to the matching hospitalized animal. Only when she was satisfied did she look up and smile a greeting to Cole. “Good morning.”

Cole grinned back at her. “Again.”

Jodi smirked. “Yes, again. Thank you, again, for my breakfast.” She picked Popcorn up and gave the dog the attention she craved.

Cole winked at her. “You’re welcome.”

“On the proviso I shout lunch, and you hand my phone back.”

Cole held up her left hand, her little finger pointing to the sky, which Jodi interlocked with her own. They pinkie-shook. “It’s a deal.”

Cole held nothing but respect and admiration for Jodi, knowing how she took each and every patient to heart and gave them the very best care. Long days and nights never seemed to diminish her abilities or her dedication to the job. Silently she retrieved the mobile from her bag and handed it over, albeit sheepishly.

With a last look around, bar the surgical room, it was time to open the front doors to the public. She looked to Jodi for confirmation. “It’s time. You ready?”

Jodi straightened her shoulders and rolled her neck. “Too right. Open sesame.” She disappeared briefly to take Popcorn back to her kennel.

Cole grinned at their long-standing joke that they were a cave that people came to visit, expecting relief, confidence, help, or, sometimes, even miracles. She turned the sign to Openand unlocked the wooden door as well as the screen door. By chance, she looked down and spied an old shoebox on the doorstep with holes punched in its sides. She grimaced briefly, nervous at what the box might contain. No box left on a doorstop ever boded good tidings and good fortune. She retrieved the box and carefully carried it out the back.

Jodi walked around the corner with two fresh mugs of coffee in her hand. “Whatchya got there?”

“A delivery. On the doorstep.”

“Oh.” Jodi stepped closer and Cole cut away the tape holding the box lid down. She opened it up and was greeted instantly by two black and white magpie chicks, necks extended, mouths open wide, screeching and demanding food.

Cole sighed. “Oh, dear. I better dig out some insectivore mix.”

The mooing door chime announced a customer. Jodi set the mugs down and patted her on the shoulder. “I’ll get that. I’ll leave you to see what we’ve got in stock to feed these two.”

Cole mixed up a powdered portion with pre-boiled warm water just as Jodi came through the door with another box.

“Hope you made plenty.”

Cole looked up. “Huh?”

“We got another one.” Jodi lifted the lid to reveal a grey fluffy magpie chick wobbling about and demanding food.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.”

“I know.” The door chime sounded again. Jodi waved. “Got it.”

Cole took the box from Jodi and set it next to the first one.

“You are not going to believe this.” Jodi put another towel-covered box on the bench.

“Don’t tell me…”

“Uh-huh.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake! What? Is it raining magpies?”

Jodi shrugged and grinned. “Looks like it’s gonna be one of those days.”

The door chime mooed again and Cole rolled her eyes. “You better bring me in a cute puppy or kitten next or you’ll owe me dinner as well as lunch.”

A few minutes later Jodi returned, laughing. “Hope you’re hungry!”

“You can’t be serious.” Cole looked up from feeding the four already in the box.

“Serious as a heart attack. Here’s two more for your collection.” Jodi carefully added the newcomers to the box.

Cole snagged a piece of food with the tweezers and held it over the birds. “Damn! I can’t keep track of which of you buggers I’ve fed and who to feed next.” Cole stared into the box where six magpies screamed with gaping beaks, pushing against each other for the mouthful.

Jodi joined her at the counter and peered in, catching a whiff of Cole’s scent and feeling the warmth of her shoulder against her own. She smelled like sunshine and rose geranium. She surprised herself by thinking she actually liked it. “You’ve already fed that one and that one. I’d feed those two next as they’re hungrier.”

Cole looked at her incredulously. “You’re not kidding, are you?”

“Nope.”

“Can I ask how in the hell you can tell?” She offered nuggets of insectivore to the birds that Jodi had indicated. The birds grabbed at the morsels in the tweezers and eagerly gulped them down.

“Have a look at them. See any differences?” Jodi leaned her hip against the counter to put some space between her and Cole.

“Aside from the fact that one has poop on its wings and another on its feet, they all look black and white to me.”

“Look at their gapes.”

Cole squinted and studied the fledglings. “Mm. Most are pinkish, but two have beet red mouths.”

“Uh-huh. Those are the two you need to feed next.”

“Ah, the proverbial light bulb just went off. The hungrier they are, the brighter red the gape.”

Jodi pursed her lips and nodded. “That’s how the parents figure out which of their brood needs to be fed.”

“Interesting.”

“Interesting enough to venture into the bush for a hike one day?” The words were out of Jodi’s mouth before she could stop them, knowing full well what the answer would be.

Cole huffed. “Not that interesting.”

Her brief musing about not minding Cole’s company ended quickly. “While you’re feeding the hordes, I’ll have a quick look at the schedule and ring Pip and Charlie.” Jodi quickly turned and walked towards the front of the clinic, puzzled at the unexpected new interest in wanting to spend time with Cole outside of work, and the flash of disappointment at her offer being shut down.

 

v

 

Jodi put the phone on speaker to free up her hands while she flipped through the patient files.

“Hello. Pip speaking.”

“Hey, Pipsqueak. Whatchya doing?” Jodi put a file down and leaned back into the chair.

“Hey, Jodes. Charlie and I are heading out to pick up a possie.”

“Good, you’re on the road then. Will you be anywhere near Yamba?”

“We could be. Why? What do you have?”

“What makes you think I have anything?” Jodi bit her lip in amusement.

“Could be that I heard the mischief in your voice because you’re more than likely biting your lip.”

“Okay. Busted. I have a box of magpies for you.”

“A box. Of magpies.” Pip paused. “And how many maggies constitutes a box?”

“Six.” Jodi worked hard not to giggle.

Six?” Charlie and Pip said at the same time.

“It was like an assembly line today. There were two left in a box by the front door when Cole got here this morning. Four different people came in nearly right behind one another.”

“Christ,” Charlie grumbled.

“I know,” Jodi said. “I commend people for wanting to do what’s best for wildlife, but this year they seem to be all too keen, picking creatures up too soon.”

“All right. We’ll be there after we finish the possie rescue.”

“Plan on a cuppa when you get here.”

“Will do.”

Jodi heard Charlie say something. “Hey, Charlie. What did you say? I couldn’t hear you.”

“Hi, Jodi. Yeah, sorry. I asked Pip what you meant by too soon.”

“Pip, do you want to explain?”

“No, no. You go ahead. I want to see if you’ve been listening to me at all.”

“Right. I’ll give it a go. So, it’s normal for magpies to leave the nest without knowing how to fly yet. They spend a while on the ground, and that’s where the parents feed them. People don’t realize the parents are still caring for them during this time. The fledglings hop onto low branches and begin experimenting with their wings. They ultimately grow tail feathers and start following one of the parents around, begging for food. People see the babies on the ground, assume they’ve fallen out of the nest, and become intent on rescuing them. What they actually achieve, in most cases, is taking away the babies from their best caregivers, their parents. How’d I do, Pip-smartarse-squeak?”

“Not bad, Stretch. We’ll see you in a while.”

 

Chapter Two

“I’m stuck.” Charlie Dickerson’s muffled voice echoed from the darkened recess beneath the weatherboard house.

Pip Atkins bent over and squinted in an attempt to see what was wrong with her partner. “What do you mean, you’re stuck?”

“Oh, you know, as in can’t go forward and can’t go back kind of stuck.”

“Oh. Well, why didn’t you say so?” Pip grinned when she heard Charlie’s groan.

Native wildlife rescuers, Pip and Charlie had received a call for help just after breakfast from the elderly lady who owned the house, who had called them about a possum her terrier had chased under the house. “Mrs. Billings, would you mind holding this towel for me please? As soon as you see the cage come out from under the house, if you could drape the towel over the top to block out the light and stop the possum from getting any more frightened, I would be most grateful.”

“Of course, my dear.” Mrs. Billings accepted the towel from Pip with her gnarled, lived-in hands. “Only too happy to help.”

Pip touched Mrs. Billings lightly on the shoulder. “Thank you so much.”

“A pleasure, my dear.”

Pip lowered herself flat onto the ground. She commando crawled behind Charlie. “Hey, Yank, any chance you can move to the left just a smidge?”

“Well, I would if it wasn’t for that stuckthing we were talking about a minute ago.”

Pip half smirked. If Charlie’s humour got any drier she’d light a fire. “Not to worry. Just get ready to get a bit squeezy in a minute.” With a few grunts and twists, Pip pulled herself along the ground until she was wedged in right up against Charlie and one of the house supports. With a slight incline of her chin, Pip leaned forward and kissed Charlie. She smiled as a small sigh escaped Charlie’s lips. Sliding half a foot past Charlie, Pip looked back and saw that Charlie’s belt was caught on a metal hook supporting some electrical wires. “Ah, I see the problem.” She moved enough ahead to turn around until she faced Charlie and could reach the snag. With a twist and pull she managed to free her and steal another kiss. “Better now?”

“Much. That’ll teach me to be so gallant and come under the house first instead of you. Stuff the possibility of meeting up with a snake. Next time it’s all yours, short stuff.”

“Well, if there were any snakes in here, I reckon you’ve probably scared them off by now. What say you head on out and help Mrs. Billings and I’ll pick up possie.”

“I’m happy with that. I’ve got more than enough dust up my nose for one day.”

As Pip surged forward, Charlie dragged herself back out.

Ten seconds later, Charlie’s brief gasp stopped Pip still. “Thank you, Mrs. Billings,” Charlie said, “but we might save the towel for throwing over the cratewhen it comes out.”

Pip stifled a giggle as she pictured Charlie’s head covered in the bath towel.

Pip surveyed the ground ahead. The possum’s eyes reflected off her headlamp. She retrieved Charlie’s catch pole, and after several missed attempts, managed to loop the noose around the possum’s head and shoulders. She pulled the growling and hissing creature towards her while dragging herself backward towards the more spacious area under the house where the possum cage waited. She sat up and swung her knees underneath her. With a firm grip and a deft swing and stuff motion, she manhandled the cranky struggling beast into the cage and snapped the lid shut.

Pushing the pole and cage ahead of her, Pip crawled out from under the house, squinting at the harsh onslaught of bright sunlight. She was pleased when Mrs. Billings successfully covered the cage, as opposed to capturing another rescuer.

Pip stood and slapped her pants legs. She coughed as plumes of dust wafted in the air and tickled her nose and throat.

Charlie patted her on the back. “Man. You really did get down and dirty, didn’t you?”

Pip grinned. “I have a magnetic ability when it comes to dirt.”

Charlie dusted her down some more. “So it would seem, sweet.”

“Would you two like a cup of tea?”

Charlie shook her head. “Thank you all the same, but we might take this little one back and get started on his assessment. If it all goes well, when he’s recovered, maybe we could take you up on your offer of tea when we bring him back for release.”

“Oh, that would be most suitable. Thank you again, girls. You have both been quite marvellous.”

“You’re very welcome.” Charlie picked up the cage and Pip the pole, and together they packed the gear into Pip’s white Toyota Hilux dual cab ute. Pip threw Charlie the keys.

They drove in companionable silence for a bit, appreciating the spectacular view of the mighty Clarence River that ran parallel to the road. Charlie pulled the truck onto the river ferry and turned off the engine. When the other waiting vehicles joined them, the ferry pulled out onto the water.

“Thanks for unhooking me.”

“No probs. Did you like the rescue technique, by the way?” Pip got them each a fresh bottle of water.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a little used practice.”

Charlie looked puzzled as she took a sip of water.

Pip bit the inside of her lip trying to keep a straight face. “Mm. It’s called the Billings Method.”

Charlie sprayed water all over the inside of the window. After she left the ferry, Charlie turned left onto a drive that spread out into a staging area for cane trucks. She scowled at Pip.

“Would you please hand me a towel? I need to wipe the window down so I can see.”

Pip reached behind her seat and pulled one from a rescue bag. “Here you go, my darling.” She batted her eyes innocently, grinning inwardly because Charlie now got her Aussie jokes at least half the time.

“You need to eat something.” Charlie handed Pip the muesli bar she retrieved from the centre console.

Pip’s Labrador nosed her shoulder and whined softly. “You’re getting nearly as good as Chilli.”

“Your face tells all when your sugar is getting low.”

 

 

Pip held the vet surgery door open as Charlie carried the possum cage inside.

Jodi and Cole looked up from the service counter. “Ah. If it isn’t the dynamic duo.” Jodi winked at them.

Pip scrunched her nose up. “I’ll swap you—a possum for some magpies.”

Charlie lifted the cage to show Jodi. “Possible dog bite.”

“Why don’t you take it on through, Charlie? You know the way. Cole’ll give you a hand getting things set up. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Charlie nodded just before she headed down the corridor. The hissing, wriggling cargo let everyone know that it was not happy. Cole followed right behind them.

Jodi rounded the counter and gave Pip a hug. “We’ve both been so busy since the flood that we haven’t had much of a chance to catch up. You doing okay, my friend?”

“Yeah. I’m good. We’re both good. Thanks to you. That beer I owe you? I reckon I might need to make it a case. Thanks for, well, setting us straight.”

“As long as you’re happy.”

Pip kissed Jodi on the cheek. “I am. How about I go and freshen up the jug while you and Charlie see to our none-too-happy guest?”

With an affectionate squeeze of her hand, Jodi headed out the back, leaving Pip to make the familiar way to the surgery’s kitchen. So much had happened in the space of a few short months, changes she had never envisaged, let alone believed were possible. She, an intensely private and confessed loner, had been paired up with an exchange work program person from the States for a whole year by the head of the Wildlife Rescue and Education Network. She had gone from objecting to Charlie, to enjoying her company, to finally—after months of working together, the drama of an ex-girlfriend, and a major flood event—admitting she was falling in love.

She stirred a spoonful of sugar into Jodi’s coffee. Thanks to Jodi’s intervention, well… Pip tapped the spoon on the edge of the sink and carried the steaming mugs over to the table. Theirs could so nearly have been a very different story altogether. Yep. Jodi easily deserved that case of beer.

Pip sipped her tea and waited for the rest of the team to join her. Easy laughter preceded their entry into the room. She pulled a chair out for Charlie and received a touch on the shoulder in response. “How’d your assessment go?”

“He has a couple of small, not very deep puncture marks between his shoulders and a bit of bruising. Jodi’s given us some antibiotics, just in case, but thinks they should heal well in the next few days.”

“Uh-huh. And your box of maggies?”

“One still has a touch of down on it, but the others have feathered up. A variety of ages, but all close enough.”

Pip rubbed her eyes. “Well, I suppose it’ll make release a bit easier as they’ll have already formed a group.” Pip couldn’t help but notice that Charlie was a tad quiet. She took a guess that it might have something to do with the upcoming release of her eagle, Big Bird.

 

 

Charlie sipped her coffee quietly, smiling and nodding at the appropriate times while the others conversed. Big Bird’s release weighed heavily on her mind. Yes, she’d been attached to other raptors in her care at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Service in Cody, Wyoming. She’d never before stopped to think about why she favoured the bald and golden eagles, but it was more than likely due to the intensity of their personalities as well as their power. However Big Bird topped them all in those qualities, and in size as well. His wingspan was wider than she was tall, and he was simply magnificent. To bond with such a majestic creature and have him show affection was a high compliment and a gift from the gods. And now she had to make plans to release him back into the wild.

“…party, Charlie.”

Charlie looked up from her empty mug. “I’m sorry. I was kind of lost in my thoughts.”

Pip nudged her with her shoulder and laid a hand on her thigh. “I think we should have a Big Bird release party. What do you think?”

“Oh.” Charlie lifted one shoulder non-committally. “Sure.”

“I know you’re going to miss him. It was clear right from the beginning that you two shared a special connection.” Jodi smiled with empathy.

Charlie nodded. “He’s a very special bird. Pip knows I’ve been struggling with having to release him.”

“All the more reason to have a party when we get back. Hopefully it’ll help take your mind off it.” Pip patted Charlie’s forearm. “What do you say, sweet?”

Charlie sighed. “Okay. I knew I’d have to do it eventually. Maybe a few drinks afterwards will help.”

Jodi giggled. “If you put all the maggies together, they’re sure to make a big bird.”

“Funny, Jodes.” Pip chortled. “Hey, do you want to come along? You have some investment in him as well.”

“I’d love to. I’ve never seen you release anything, and it’d be an honour to have it be Big Bird. This’ll all have to be on a Sunday, though, if that’s okay.”

“Perfect. Cole, you’re invited as well,” Pip added. “After all, you’re the one who rescued him in the first place. Want to go for a hike?”

Cole threw her head back and laughed. “I think I’ll pass. The wilderness and I do not at all see eye to eye.”

“That’s for sure,” Jodi said. “She called me one night after work because a green frog was sitting in front of her door and supposedly wouldn’t let her in.”

“He wouldn’t,” Cole squeaked. “Every time I’d take a step forward, the monster would jump at me. Stop your laughing. He had mean eyes. It was quite scary at the time. Besides, all that exercise thing, traipsing around in the bush, running into spiderwebs and stepping on sticks that all look like snakes. Until they’re not sticks. No, thanks. Just let me know what Sunday you pick. And now I’ve got to go get the surgery room prepped. The boss gets kind of cranky if it’s not set up beforehand.”

Jodi swatted her leg. “You love your job and you know it.”

Charlie saw the affectionate softening of Cole’s face when she smiled at Jodi.

Cole cheerfully replied, “I do, and there are several reasons why, but mainly the fact you don’t make me clean the toilets here.” She cringed and shuddered.

“Ah, but that could change.”

Pip and Charlie left the clinic with the possum and box of magpies while Jodi and Cole playfully bickered with one another.

Charlie tossed the truck keys to Pip. “Your turn to drive.”

“You okay?” Pip got in and slid the key into the ignition. She reached over her shoulder and ruffled Chilli behind the ears.

“Yeah, I’m fine. I have a load of work to do on my immigration application when we get home. Think later on we can look at the map and decide on a release location?”

“You bet, lovely.”

When they got home, Charlie went directly to the massive aviary that housed Big Bird. Pip had had it built for her as a present last year. He greeted her with excited chirps and feather fluffing. “Hey, beautiful boy. Let’s have a look at you.” She slid a heavy leather glove onto her left hand and entered the cage. “Come on. You can fly to me.”

Big Bird continued chirping as he crouched, spread his wings, and glided over to Charlie’s outstretched arm. After he had folded his wings close to his body, she rubbed the feathers behind his head. The eagle bowed his head lower to give her better access to where he liked to be scratched best.

Charlie carried Big Bird to the training perch in the middle of the aviary, the open roof of which they’d erected under the tight but high canopy of gum trees. Not only was the location shaded from the intense sun, but also Big Bird couldn’t see any other birds of prey flying overhead, which could cause him unneeded stress. Once she’d looped the tether around the perch, she removed her glove and watched him settle.

“I’ll be back with some mice in a few minutes.”

She walked back to where Pip had just finished rearranging branches inside a second, smaller aviary to accommodate the new residents. Charlie placed a shallow pan of fresh water inside on the floor and waited while Pip brought the box of magpies in. She opened the lid and together they removed each bird individually, assessed it, and set it on the ground.

A few of the fledglings hopped onto branches and chose a spot to perch. The others squabbled and pecked at each other before finally settling.

“They all look healthy. I’m going to give them a good feed.”

“I’ll walk with you. I want to feed Big Bird some mice.”

“Righto. I’ll meet you back at the house afterwards.”

Charlie grabbed Pip’s shirt and stopped her. “Thanks for understanding. I know I’m being a bit of a baby about letting him go.”

Pip took Charlie’s face in both her hands and kissed her. “There’s nothing wrong with being sooky. You have an amazingly huge heart, my love. Some animals tend to occupy a bigger part of it than others. As you well know, I’m a sucker for the joeys. You’ll always remember your first. I think it’s because they’re the first to put a big hole in your heart when you let them go. But fortunately, the memory stays even though that hole eventually heals.”

 

 

“Good grief! Could immigration make these forms any more complicated?” Charlie tossed the twenty-five page bundle onto the table. “I have to remember every job I had since birth? Seriously?” She pursed her lips.

Pip rubbed Charlie’s back as she set a mug of coffee next to her. “Since birth?”

“Yes.” Charlie picked the forms up and flipped through the pages until she found what she was looking for. “See? Right here—since birth.” She rubbed the back of her neck.

Pip pulled a chair closer to Charlie. “Australia is very picky about who we let in.”

Charlie stared at her in disbelief. “Didn’t England send all their convicts out here in the way back? That doesn’t seem very selective to me.”

Pip chuckled softly. “They didn’t send them all. Even back then there was a pick and choose process as to who came over. So, see? Nothing much has changed.”

“Okay, look at this.” Charlie rustled through the papers again. “I not only have to list those jobs, I have to describe them in detail.” She ran her hands through her hair.

“Charlie,” Pip said in a soothing voice, “you can do this. Just focus on one form at a time. I’ll help as best I can, and together we’ll work through it until it’s done.”

Charlie rested her head on Pip’s shoulder. “You’re already helping by being here. This is so overwhelming.”

“Is it what you want?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’ll be worth the effort, won’t it?”

Charlie sat up and kissed Pip’s cheek. “Every single gut-wrenching, teeth clenching, headachy moment.”

Charlie suddenly felt too hot. Her stomach churned and her breathing increased. The telltale signs of an anxiety attack. She closed her eyes and willed calmness. Heart palpitations thundered in her ears. She got up and paced the kitchen floor.

Under the visa extension Teresa, the WREN coordinator, had obtained for her, she had to leave Australia every three months. Where would she go? Back to the United States each time? That would cost a lot of money she didn’t have. And what was the guarantee customs would let her back in each time? She and Pip had watched hours of a TV show about border patrol over the course of her time here. They would laugh at the poor sods that got turned away. What if that happened to her?

“Charlie?” Pip sleepily padded to her side. “What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“What if I’m not allowed back in after I visit the States? What if—”

“Sweet, it’s late. You shouldn’t be worrying about this right now. Let’s go to bed, baby.”

“Pip, my original visa is up insevenweeks. I have to leave then, or I’ll be deported.”

“And you’ll come right back on the new visa. It will all work out. I promise.” Pip stood and took Charlie’s hand. “Come on. I’ll hold you while you go to sleep.”

Charlie took a deep breath. “Okay.”

She let Pip lead her to bed. Although she heard the steady beat of Pip’s heart beneath her cheek, it still took her a long time to relax and nod off.

 

Chapter Three

Jodi couldn’t remember the last time she’d foregone the endorphin rush of swimming for three cups of coffee before she went to work. But she just couldn’t get her head into it. It was easier to keep the kettle hot. She poured a cup as soon as she rolled out of bed, and another while she still had a towel wrapped around her after a shower. Dressed in scrubs, she carried the third out to the car. When she realized she’d forgotten her keys, she went back in, refilled the half empty mug, grabbed her keys, and continued on her way to the clinic.

She hadn’t been able to find the clinic’s mobile the previous evening when getting ready to head home. It had annoyed the crap out of her that Cole had taken the mobile home again last night, although probably an honest mistake. Cole was meticulous, and for her to have taken the wrong phone home, twice, seemed out of character. There’d been few nights since she’d opened her practice that she hadn’t gotten emergency calls. She’d actually woken up twice convinced she’d heard the phone ringing. But it’d only been the jingle of the chimes outside as wind preceded the summer storm that blew in in the early hours of the morning. She chewed her lip in thoughtful suspicion. She was sure Cole would’ve called her if there’d been anything she couldn’t handle on her own. In a way Jodi hoped Cole had been woken several times by concerned owners, then reneged on that thought. No use having both of them sleep-deprived and exhausted.

Jodi yawned and swallowed the remaining coffee while waiting for traffic to move past the roundabout. It seemed Yamba had one at each intersection, and while efficient most days, there were times it took several minutes to get through one. Not everyone drove straight through and often there were traffic jams within the circle. The car behind her honked its horn, rousing her out of her thoughts. She waved an apology over her shoulder and moved into the circle and continued on her way.

Jodi’s personal mobile rang through the Bluetooth connection in her car. She pressed the button on the steering wheel to connect. “Good morning, my thieving assistant.” Jodi smiled to herself.

“Where are you?”

Jodi tightened her grip on the wheel. “I’m about three minutes out, if the traffic cooperates.”

“Mr. Hanson was waiting at the door when I got here. Rocky had a paralysis tick on him. It was fairly engorged and came off easily.”

Jodi didn’t miss the concern in Cole’s voice. “I’ll be right there. Get a weight and then put an oxygen mask on him.”

“Already done. Seven point nine kilos and he’s on O2 now.”

“Good woman.” Jodi disconnected the call. She knew Cole would have already given Rocky a sedative so he didn’t become anxious as a result of the paralysis. “Damned paralysis ticks. Why couldn’t you have evolved somewhere other than Australia?”

Jodi was out of her car before the engine finished its shutdown. She strode into the surgery and took the stethoscope Cole handed her. Rocky’s heart rate was steady. She was pleased to see his leg had already been shaved and a catheter inserted into the vein, which was connected to an intravenous drip to keep him hydrated.

“I looked him over with a fine-tooth comb. There was only the one. Good thing he has such a short coat.” Cole prepared a syringe with the antiserum and handed it to Jodi, who removed the protective cap from the needle and pushed the yellow medication into the injection port.

“Okay, little man, Cole is going to put you in a nice quiet cage so you can work on getting better.” She nodded at Cole. “I’ll go talk to Roger.”

Jodi walked out into the waiting room and found an obviously distraught Roger Hanson. He pushed himself up on arthritic legs that had steadied him on a prawn trawler for fifty years. “Hi, Roger.”

“Oh, Doc, how is my little Rocky?” His voice was low and gravelly.

Jodi took him by the elbow. “Come on into my office. I’ll get us some coffee and we can talk.”

Roger’s watery eyes were bright against his salt-weathered face. White stubble peppered his cheeks and jaws and complemented his bushy grey eyebrows. He’d been one of the first clients to step through her doors when she’d first opened the surgery. Back then Roger had held a tiny brown and white Jack Russell puppy, barely seven weeks old. He’d found the pup abandoned near his boat, clinging for his life on rocks exposed by a very low tide. Rocky was aptly named and developed his sea legs to accompany Roger on his boat for the past twelve years. The two had never been separated. Until now.

Roger sat rubbing his gnarled hands against one another. Jodi set a mug of coffee on her desk in front of him, which he lifted with crooked fingers, bent and misshapen from arthritis.

Jodi pulled a chair up next to him. Roger was a favourite client. He’d regaled her with story after story of his and Rocky’s adventures on the sea. Over time, they’d become quite close.

“We’re getting him stabilized now.”

“What’s wrong with him? He wouldn’t eat this morning and when I put him outside he got to gagging. Then he had problems standing. I got in the truck and brought him right over. Sorry I didn’t call ahead, but he started panting real hard.”

Jodi patted Roger’s leg. “You did the right thing. Cole found a paralysis tick on him.”

“A tick? I haven’t seen one of those bloodsuckers in years.”

“We’ve been having lots of storms lately which probably instigated a hatching. Unfortunately, even if you’d found it and pulled it off, Rocky would’ve still needed treatment. As the female tick feeds, it injects a neurotoxin that binds to where nerves meet muscles. That’s why he was having coordination problems.”

“He’ll be okay now though, won’t he—since you got it off?”

Jodi offered him a deep sigh and what she hoped would be a comforting expression. “It’s good you got him in here early. But unfortunately, even though we removed the tick, the toxins will continue to affect him. He has the antiserum on board and what he needs is quiet and rest. So I’m going to keep him here for a couple days and monitor him. He’s not a young dog, and Cole tells me the tick was quite engorged, so in all likelihood he’ll need a couple more injections of antiserum before it’s all said and done.”

“Well, you know best. Bloody hell. It’ll be a right bugger not having him with me.” Roger wiped his lips with the back of his hand. “But it’d be worse if he never came home. You just do whatever you need to do for him, Doc.” He nodded as if in agreement with himself. He finished his coffee, set it on Jodi’s desk, and pushed himself out of the chair.

“I promise, he’ll be back with you as soon as we get him over this hump. Rocky is a special little guy. Nothing but the best treatment for him.” Jodi rubbed his arm and smiled.

Roger nodded. “You’ve always been so good to me and ol’ Rocky, Doc. I thank you kindly for that.”

“It’s no drama at all. You two are a couple of my most favourite clients. I’m not about to let anything happen to the seafaring dynamic duo.”

Jodi accompanied Roger to the door and patted his back reassuringly before he walked out. “I’ll call you later.”

Roger waved over his shoulder as he made his way to his truck.

Jodi was fairly certain he was working hard to hold back tears. In all the years she’d known him, she’d never seen the old man cry, even when he’d brought Rocky in with a bloody big shark hook that had pierced clear through his flank, barely missing his intestine. There’d been blood everywhere, yet Roger hadn’t blinked an eye. But even then, she’d been able to send Rocky home that same day with antibiotics and some anti-inflammatory medication. He’d never had to leave his faithful dog behind.

A woman appeared at the door with a young boy who held a small kitten in his arms.

“Good morning.” Jodi forced a smile to her face.

“Hello. I have an appointment for our kitten to be vaccinated.” The boy possessively held the kitten closer.

“Of course. Please have a seat and I’ll have my vet nurse check you in.”

 

 

Cole anticipated that Jodi would spend the night at the surgery to keep close tabs on Rocky. Mentally she shook her head, knowing the previous night’s reprieve, in the guise of secretly kidnapping the phone, would hold little benefit with another potential sleep-deprived night for Jodi.

After making up a new client card and patient file, Cole showed the mother and son into one of the clinic rooms. Jodi met them and proceeded to undertake the tiny feline’s first physical exam in preparation for the vaccination. Cole loved the way Jodi included the small boy in the conversation and the way he responded to whatever question Jodi asked him.

Cole scrubbed her knuckles over her tired eyes. She loved her life. A happy life. A busy life made all the busier by a boss who burned the candle at both ends. Jodi had been the best thing that had happened to her. When she and her fiancé had split and he’d fired her, she had no choice but to leave town and start again. She had moved from New Zealand to Australia and the seaside town of Yamba in New South Wales. Upon arrival, she’d read a help wanted ad for a new vet clinic in the local paper. Within hours of meeting Jodi, she had a contract drawn up and they had set to building up the practice. Jodi helped her study to turn her human nursing skills into qualified veterinary nursing skills, and together, they had never looked back. What with Jodi’s skill and customer service reputation, the practice had grown quickly. It was now busy enough, in Cole’s opinion, that a second vet could be accommodated comfortably.

But Jodi was both proud and particular in the care she offered her patients and their families. Cole had watched her work her fingers to the bone to set the clinic up. She’d been younger then. They both were. But here they were now, a few years down the track, and Cole’s concern was that Jodi’s current pace couldn’t be continued in a healthy long-term way. The greatest challenge now was how was she going to sow the seed and convince Jodi to ease up on the reins and hand over a portion of control to someone else. Cole sighed. An emergency caesarean at three o’clock in the morning was so much easier by comparison.

The phone rang, interrupting her inner musings. She recognized the number. “Hi, Charlie.” She smiled upon hearing her American friend’s accent. She’d been lucky enough to get to know Charlie when she’d spent several weeks working at the clinic and living in the flat above. “I know. I miss seeing your ugly face every day too.” Charlie laughed in response, and Cole smiled. “What can I do for you, my friend?” She listened on and glanced at the closed door. “Jodi’s still with a client, but I don’t imagine she’ll be much longer. I don’t know about her, but I for one definitely want to come over for a sticky beak and to see what you’ve done with the big cage. Will you be home this arvo?” Cole scribbled some notes down. “Uh-huh. As soon as she’s free, I’ll get her to call you. Okay. Bye.”

 

 

Jodi swerved the Land Rover right and then quickly left to avoid another pothole carved out of the dirt road by the recent rains. She tried to avoid another immediately after, but the tyres lost their grip on the washboard surface. The hole was too big for the shock absorbers to do their job and the truck bounced and nearly went off the road.

“Far out, Jodes. Why’d you come down this road? It’s horrible.” Cole had a death grip on the door handle and another on the bag of fish and chips.

On a whim, Jodi had stopped at the fish co-op in Maclean to grab tea for Pip, Charlie, and the two of them.

Jodi grinned. “It’s a shortcut.” She stole a quick glance over at Cole. Truth told, she loved to put the truck through its paces. And to have someone with her made it doubly fun. Although it didn’t look like Cole would agree. Jodi had a sudden impulse to slow down and take Cole’s hand in reassurance. She blinked hard, not exactly knowing where the desire to make such intimate contact came from.

“By what? A minute?” Cole grunted when they hit another pothole.

Jodi refocused on the task. “When it comes to fish and chips, every minute counts. You can’t eat them when they’re cold. Yuck.”

“I’m pretty sure Pip and Charlie have a microwave.”

Jodi shook her head vehemently. “Oh no. It’s not the same.” She hit the brakes. The truck slid to a sudden stop. “Shit. Big one.” She let off the brakes and let the Rover roll down the six inches of hole and crawl back up again after crossing the five-foot washed-out expanse. “Ah. There we go. See? We’ll be there in no time.”

“I won’t have any teeth in my head by the time we get there.”

Jodi signalled for a left turn. “Dentures aren’t bad. Dad’s had them for a long while. Once Mum got him the right glue to keep them from flying out every time he sneezed, everybody was happy. Sure was funny though.”

“Mm.”

Jodi had been torn about leaving Rocky alone to make the trip to Ashby to see Pip and Charlie’s new eagle aviary. But he’d been resting comfortably and was stable. And Cole had grabbed her arm and refused to let go until she got in the truck.

“It’ll be good to see those two. It’s been a while since I’ve been over.” Jodi tried to recall exactly when her last visit had been and couldn’t.

“This is my first time, actually.”

Jodi looked over incredulously. “Serious?”

“Yeah. There’s just never been an occasion to.”

“Mm. I suppose you’re right. Before Charlie hit the scene, Pip pretty much kept to herself. For a long time, I only saw her when she brought something into the clinic.”

“I don’t remember you ever saying you’d been to Pip’s.”

Jodi swallowed as a rush of sadness wormed through her chest. Before Charlie, when she and Pip were both solo, there’d been a few Sundays when she’d felt pent up with the need to get out. So she’d showed up unannounced at Pip’s and they’d tossed back a few beers after hiking Pip’s property.

“Only a handful of times, really. The first time I went over was to drop off a whiptail wallaby joey. Poor Pip was so busy with the ten joeys she already had in care that she couldn’t get away for five minutes to pick it up.”

“But heaven forbid she’d ever say no to another orphan. Sounds just like her.” Cole shook her head. “But now she has Charlie.”

Jodi smiled. “Yeah. She does.” A wash of envy brushed over her when she thought of Pip and Charlie. She gripped the steering wheel in resolution. No point thinking like that—she barely had enough time to do her own laundry most weeks. She certainly didn’t have time to go looking for, or entertaining, a date. “I’m so glad they sorted out their differences. They deserve each other. And I mean that in the best way possible. And here we are.” Jodi slowed and turned right onto the barely perceptible path that was Pip’s driveway. Shrubs and leafy vegetation scraped and squeaked against the Rover’s side as Jodi navigated through.

“I would never have found this place if I was on my own,” Cole said.

“Trust me, the first time I came out here, I drove past it about a zillion times before I finally saw the barest hint of a tyre tread in the dried mud. Sure keeps the place private though.”

“Just like Pip likes it.”

After a few minutes of carefully avoiding low hanging branches, Jodi finally drove out of the thick bush into a small clearing, and the house came into view. The roof peaked sharply over weatherboard walls. A huge veranda wrapped around three of its sides. The windows were all rectangular six-sectioned library glass. Adjoining the house and looking over the enclosures in the backyard was the prep room that Pip had designed wholly for the animals. Jodi knew it was Pip’s pride and joy.

“Wow. It’s gorgeous. What a cute place. I love the old schoolhouse look.”

“That’s because it isan old schoolhouse, ya duffer. The building was for sale in Chatsworth. She fell in love with it, bought it, and had it moved here.” Jodi parked in front of the house.

The prep room door opened up and Chilli bounded out in front of Pip.

“Hey, Pipsqueak.” Jodi wrapped her arms around Pip and squeezed her tightly.

“Cole! Welcome,” Pip said looking around Jodi’s shoulder.

“Hi, Pip. Good to see you.”

“Charlie is feeding the magpies, Jodes, if you want to head down there. I know she’s been busting for you see this eagle aviary.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Cole and I will meet you down there with drinks.” Pip sniffed the air. “And I’ll put the delectables you have in a warmer. We can eat down there.”

“Perfect.” Jodi walked around the prep room towards the shed in back. The outline of the eagle aviary stood out in the distance. “Far out.”

“Is that you, Jodi?” Charlie called from a large cage attached to the shed.

“The one and only.” Jodi didn’t know how Charlie could’ve heard her amongst the hungry pleading from the magpies. She stopped beside the cage and peeked in. “How many do you have in there?”

“Eight. The six you gave us, and then two others we got calls about.” Charlie plucked a piece of meat from the Tupperware container with tweezers and offered it to one of the birds. It gaped widely and flapped its wings against its sides.

“They’re all doing good then?”

“Oh, yeah. They’re mostly a healthy bunch. One has a small healed ulcer on its eye. I’ll have to wait and see if it impacts his coordination and ability to fly or not.”

Jodi nodded.

Charlie quickly fed two other magpies before coming out of the cage. She spread her arms wide and hugged Jodi. “Hi.”

“Pip tells me you want to show me something?”

Charlie’s smile broadened and her eyes twinkled with excitement. She grabbed Jodi’s arm. “Oh my gosh! Wait until you see it. Big Bird loves it.” She bounced from foot to foot. “Let me run this food back up to the prep room and I’ll be back.”

Jodi laughed as Charlie took off like a shot. Her exuberance was infectious and some of the stress and fatigue slid from her shoulders. The clinic and its patients were a constant presence in her mind, especially lately, no matter how hard she tried to push them aside. Even now, while waiting for Charlie’s return, she hastily calculated when Rocky would need his next injection of antiserum.

“Ready?” Charlie suddenly appeared in front of her.

“Absolutely.”

As they passed the other cages and pens that sheltered koalas, out-of-pouch kangaroo joeys, and an assortment of birds, a round building made a sudden appearance. It was so well structured that it seemed more part of the natural surroundings than something man-made.

“It’s beautiful, Charlie.” Jodi marvelled at the sheer height of the cage.

“Come on inside. I want you to really look at it and see if you have any feedback or suggestions from a vet’s point of view.”

Charlie opened a sliding door and they went in.

Jodi spun around in awe. “All I can say is wow. This is magnificent. And it’ll be perfect for all raptors, not just your eagles.”

“I know, right?”

“I only have one suggestion. You may want to mount some perches at different heights on a couple of the poles so the birds get used to landing in various situations.”

Charlie tapped Jodi’s arm. “You’re starting to sound like a regular WREN person. Sure you don’t want to change your career path?”

“No, thanks. I’ll let you and Pip wrestle the wild things.”

“Speaking of wild things,” Pip said from behind them, “Charlie, do you want to show them how much your giant budgie likes it in here?”

“Yes. You all can watch Big Bird fly as a healed bird. In fact, it’s fitting you’re all here. Big Bird is here because of you, Cole, for finding him, Jodi, for putting him back together, and he’s got the ability to do this”—Charlie spun around in a circle with her arms outstretched—“thanks to my darling Pip.” Charlie kissed Pip on the cheek.

“And you, love. He’s at this point largely because of all the work you put in to him.”

Charlie smiled and nodded in proud acceptance of the recognition her efforts had contributed to the bird’s recovery. “Be right back. He’s in the adjoining outside pen so you could see it without him raising a fuss.”

Jodi accepted the bottle of beer Cole handed her. “Impressive, hey?”

Cole shook her head. “This whole place is incredible.”

Pip cleared her throat. “Um, we may want to watch from over by the bird care shed and the safety of the double-glazed window. You know how Big Bird gets around anybody that’s not Charlie.”

Jodi laughed as Cole sprinted over to the small building. The long side of the shed had been accommodated into the structure of the cage. Two sliding doors opened up into a light filled room.

Charlie arrived with Big Bird perched on her arm. He sat quietly and unmoving with his long wedge shaped tail draped over the back of her arm. He wore a hood and couldn’t see anything. She closed the doors behind her and walked to the centre of the cage. She glanced over at them and said, “Here goes.”

After removing the tether from the eagle’s feathered leg, she carefully slid his hood off. The eagle blinked, looked around, but showed no signs of wanting to take flight. His cream coloured bill showed brightly against his reddish-brown head and wings.

Charlie raised and lowered her arm. Big Bird spread his wings and chirped. Jodi caught a glimpse of the one white primary feather that had grown back over the incision site. It was a stark contrast to the rest of his very dark ones. Suddenly, he crouched and pushed himself up, and with several powerful wing flaps, he lifted off and into the air. He flew the length of the cage, spread his tail feathers to slow, and banked right. After a few minutes, he flew to the top of the cage and circled overhead.

Jodi tore her gaze from the eagle and looked at Charlie who glowed like a proud parent. She knew Charlie was absorbing every detail of Big Bird’s flight and committing it to memory. It wouldn’t be long before the eagle was freely soaring the skies.