Eleven years later.
IT was Dr Richard Howell's first day at Lady Lawler Children's Hospital and a mix of excitement, anticipation and uncertainty churned in his stomach like cement in a fully loaded mixer.
It wasn't anything to do with the job, though.
The inevitability of bumping into Joanna again after three years in the UK had unsettled his nerves and filled his mind with memories, not all of them pleasant.
He snapped closed the latch of his briefcase at the conclusion of the interdisciplinary meeting which was held every second Monday morning in the paediatric oncology department. He still felt jet-lagged—he'd only arrived back in Western Australia three days ago—but was sure it wouldn't take long to get back into the swing of his hectic oncology consultancy.
'Coming for lunch?' James Francis, the paediatric surgeon asked as they left the meeting room and headed for the lift. 'The food in the doctors' dining room isn't exactly gourmet but it's far superior to the canteen.'
'Not today.' Richard had seen a notice on the pin board of the ward reminding the staff of 'Shave or Colour for Kids' Cancer Day'. Although he wasn't sponsoring anyone he'd planned to go down and watch, with the aim of giving the participants some encouragement and handing over a donation for a very worthy cause which was close to his heart. 'And I think I'll take the stairs. I need the exercise.'
'Suit yourself.' The surgeon's voice faded as the door of the lift closed. Richard bounded down several steps at a time and took a right turn at the bottom.
He remembered the canteen from when he'd worked at Lady Lawler on his paediatric rotation as a resident. That was thirteen years ago, before he'd met Joanna and six months before he'd received his specialist training position at the Stirling, the largest children's hospital in the state. A year later he met and married Joanna. She'd presented him with a beautiful son the following year and he'd thought life was as perfect as it could ever be...until their world had been tipped upside down. They'd decided to separate and he took up a posting in Birmingham. Two years turned into three. He'd extended his stay for the simple reason he couldn't face coming back—and seeing his wife again.
Yes, Joanna was still his wife though they had been separated well past the official time necessary to apply for a divorce. Joanna had never pursued the matter, though, and he'd not had the desire or opportunity to remarry. So it hadn't seemed important.
But now he was ready to lay the demons of his past to rest by somehow making up for his cruel abandonment of his wife after the heart-breaking death of their son. He wasn't sure how he was going to do it and it had been a difficult decision to make. He was home and there was no turning back.
Richard glanced around the busy hall. There were a couple of familiar faces but no one he knew well enough to sit with. The canteen hadn't changed. Same monotonous menu of sandwiches, salad and a choice of a couple of hot dishes—usually a luke-warm pasta and one of an endless number of variations of chicken and rice. He chose sandwiches and juice and then made his way to one of the few empty tables on the far side of the room.
The 'Shave and Colour' was well under way on a makeshift stage near the exit. Members of the nursing staff seemed to be the main participants.
His attention moved to one of the nurses who sat with her back to them submitting to a complete head shave. What struck him were her incredible tresses. Her hair wasn't particularly long, but it was jet-black, thick and shiny.
This woman has guts, he thought. He couldn't think of a more powerful or personal way to show how much she cared for the children she was sacrificing a truly stunning head of hair for.
Who was she?
Richard had a sudden need to know. He wanted to meet her and tell her how impressed he was with her courage. He was intrigued, and interested in her motivation.
A few minutes later the woman on the stage turned around grinning, her skull as smooth as a billiard ball. Her assured gaze flitted around the room as the canteen occupants clapped and cheered. She waved and smiled at people she obviously knew.
Then her eyes locked on his. The connection lasted only a few moments but it had a profound effect.
It was Joanna.
He hardly recognised her.
She'd always had long hair, braided or swinging half-way down her back. Every time she went to the hairdresser, she'd come home with different coloured highlights and he couldn't believe he'd forgotten the magnificence of her natural hair colour.
And she'd gained weight. She wasn't plump but had healthy rounded curves and colour in her cheeks. She also exuded a self-assurance he'd not seen in her during the eight years they'd been together.
Her appearance now reminded him of how much Sam's illness and tragic death had drained her of her trademark love of life. Now it had returned. He suspected she had managed to come to terms with the painful memories, as well as rid herself of any feelings she had for her estranged husband.
Her eyes were still fixed on his when her smile faded. It was if she was challenging him to pick fault with what she'd done...as if she knew he'd experienced a peculiar grief for her loss, both past and present.
The challenge was oddly exciting.
Richard's heart rate picked up a notch or two and he shook his head, trying to make sense of his jumbled thoughts. Probably jetlag...hunger...first day blues...
Part of what he experienced was raw, physical attraction and it took him totally by surprise. He hadn't felt like this since...
He looked away, unable to sustain contact with Joanna's unsettling gaze any longer. He attempted to finish his sandwich but it tasted like chalk and stuck in his throat as he tried to swallow.
Taking a deep breath, he decided he would go over and say hello. It wasn't as if his return would be a surprise to her. She knew he was coming back and that he would be working with her. He'd made enquiries and found out she'd added oncology nursing to her list of qualifications and she worked on Matilda Ward at Lady Lawler. So he needed to define the boundary between work and any remaining vestiges of their personal relationship.
As he stood Richard took his wallet out of his pocket and extracted a fifty dollar note but by the time he made his way over to the stage to make his donation, Joanna had disappeared, probably back to the ward and her patients. The combination of disappointment and relief left him heavy-hearted but he hoped he'd see her the following day when he officially started on the wards.
His thoughts were interrupted by his pager. He had an appointment with the hospital's medical director in ten minutes and he'd requested a reminder. He put the fifty dollars in the donation box.
It was time to file away his thoughts of the woman he'd once loved so fiercely and possessively and get back to work.