Excerpt

Her Favorite Temptation

“I think you’re making the greatest mistake of your life, Leah. And I will be so disappointed in you if you go through with it.”

Leah Mathews took a deep, calming breath as she faced her parents across their dining room table, trying not to show how shaken she was by her mother’s words. She’d come here tonight to break her decision to them after weeks of putting it off, and while she hadn’t expected it to be pretty or comfortable, she hadn’t expected it to be quite this bad, either. 

“I’m really sorry you feel that way, Mum. But I’m not changing my mind. I’ve been accepted into the clinical immunology course at Monash Medical Centre, and I start in nine weeks’ time.”

Her mother shook her head, her smooth silver-blond bob swinging sharply with the movement. “You have only four years to go before you’re qualified, Leah. Just four years, against all the years of study and training you’ve put in already. Can’t you see how crazy it is to throw it all away on a whim?”

Leah bit back the first retort that came to mind. No one knew more than she did how many years it took to become a cardiothoracic surgeon—she’d been staring down the barrel of all that time for too long, telling herself it was the career she wanted, that she’d come too far to quit now. But the undeniable truth was that she’d entered into the cardiothoracic program at Alfred Hospital for her mother, not for herself, and it had taken her nearly two years to admit as much.

  “Mum, you and Dad both know that being a doctor is tough, no matter what your specialty. Having people rely on you to make life-or-death decisions is scary, the hours suck and it’s almost impossible to walk away at the end of the day without leaving a part of yourself behind. Don’t get me wrong, I knew all that going in. I saw the way you and Dad work and how much it weighed on you, and I still wanted to be a doctor. But I don’t want to be a surgeon. I’m not passionate about it. I don’t enjoy the work. It doesn’t energize me. And I know you’ll tell me that there is no requirement anywhere that people should be energized or passionate about their work, but I want it to be a requirement of my life. That’s the decision I’ve made for me.” She felt a little dizzy when she’d finished speaking, and realized it was because she’d spoken in one big, impassioned rush and forgotten to breathe. 

Her father’s frown formed a deep furrow between his eyebrows. “Are you tired, Leah? Is that it? I know the program can be brutal. Or is something else going on?”

“No, Dad. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. The moment I started I knew it wasn’t for me, and I should have pulled out then, but I didn’t.”

She honestly didn’t know what it was that had tipped the balance for her now, pushing her to finally jump ship. There had been so many things—too many late nights doing work she wasn’t committed to, too many hours of study, too many mornings she’d woken feeling heavy and low and utterly uninspired about facing the day. The fact that she was about to turn thirty may have had something to do with it, too. There was nothing like the prospect of a milestone birthday to put your life under the microscope. 

“I don’t know what else to say to you, Leah,” her mother said heavily, lifting her hands helplessly. “If you came here looking for our approval, you’re not going to get it. This is a mistake.”

“Mum, please try to understand. I did a rotation in clinical immunology as part of my internship. I can honestly tell you that it was the most inspiring, most engaging few weeks of my life. When it was over, I kept visiting the department, because I couldn’t let go. It took me a long time to figure out why that was. Can’t you just be happy that I’ve found something that really connects for me?”

Her mother blinked rapidly, looking at the ceiling in an attempt to stop the tears glazing her eyes from falling. “All I have ever wanted is for you to be all you can be, Leah. I know you sometimes feel burdened by how special you are. I know that sometimes your father and I have pressured you and pushed you, but that’s because we know how much potential you have. I won’t apologize for doing everything I can to help you realize it.”

Potential. How many times had that word been used to whip her into shape over the years?

“And I won’t apologize for doing what I think is best for me.” Leah would have been a whole lot prouder of herself if her voice hadn’t wobbled near the end. 

Ten minutes later, they’d run out of things to say to each other, and she was in her car, heading for her apartment in the inner-city suburb of Prahran. Now that it was over, she was shaking with adrenaline and reaction, her body vibrating with it. She clenched her hands around the steering wheel and told herself that the hardest part was over. It didn’t stop her from feeling sick and angry and sad as her mother’s words echoed in her ears. 

It was nearly midnight by the time she let herself into her apartment. She was due early at the hospital tomorrow, but she still headed for the kitchen and the half-finished bottle of wine sitting on the counter. Red wine sloshed around the bowl of the glass as she poured to the brim. She took a big slug as she walked through the living room and out onto the small balcony, which offered a stunning view of the apartment buildings across the road. 

Spring had sprung in Melbourne, and the night air was refreshingly cool instead of bitterly cold, as it had been for the past several months. She stood at the railing and brooded over the events of the evening. 

She had bowed to her parents’—her mother’s—will all her life. She’d taken extra classes, joined the clubs and associations her mother deemed important, worked hard to justify her parents’ investment in her. But she was thirty in a few weeks’ time. Well and truly an adult. It was time to start living like one.

“It’s my life. This is what I want.” The words had been echoing inside her head all night, and her voice sounded loud and defensive and defiant. It felt good to express what she’d kept bottled so tightly inside herself for so long, and she tried again. 

“I’m a person, not just a string of qualifications and achievements. I want things for myself, too.”

The tightness banding her chest eased a little. She was about to speak again when she heard the scuff of a foot on a hard surface. She glanced to her left and took a startled step backward as she saw a tall, shadowy figure on the balcony of the apartment next door. Barely a foot separated the railings, which meant whoever was there was only a few paces away.

“Bloody hell,” she said, her heart pounding in her chest.

“Sorry,” the shadow said, his voice deep and a little raspy. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I figured this was one of those Shakespearean soliloquy moments, and I was heading inside to give you your space.”

Heat rushed into her face as she realized she’d just revealed her most intimate thoughts to a stranger. “I was thinking out loud.”

“All good. I’ll leave you to it.” He slid open the door to his apartment. Belatedly she registered that he was carrying something with a curved body and long neck.

A guitar.

“I don’t usually talk to myself. It was a bad night,” she said, feeling desperately foolish now. 

“I get it. No judgment here, I promise. You tell it to the mountain. Whatever floats your boat.”

He was gone then, the slide-snick of the door closing after him signaling the end of their conversation. 

Way to look like a complete dick, Brainstein. 

She took a big gulp of wine, wincing as she imagined how neurotic and nutty she must have sounded. Just as well the place next door was a corporate rental and The Shadow was more than likely only a temporary visitor. Mostly the tenants there were either visiting medical professionals doing work at the nearby hospital or the relatives of patients from out of town, wanting to be close while their loved ones underwent treatment. 

Although there had been one woman, Susan, who’d stayed for a whole six months. What were the odds of The Shadow being like her?

The way Leah’s luck was running lately, she figured the answer was high.

Relax. He has no idea what you look like. You have no idea what he looks like. You could run into each other on the street and not know it. You’re in the clear. 

Still, she felt very exposed and silly as she went inside. So much for her moment of catharsis. 

She finished the last of her wine, then shed her clothes, brushed her teeth and climbed into bed. Even though she was tired to the bone, her whirring brain wouldn’t let her sleep. 

There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that she would be hearing from her mother tomorrow. Having had overnight to marshal her arguments, her mother would come out fighting hard. She was relentless when she wanted something, and, more than anything, she wanted her daughter to have the career that had been denied her.  It had taken a while—and a teary confessional moment from her mother—for Leah to piece together that being a cardiothoracic surgeon had once been her mother’s dream. A dream she was attempting to realize through Leah. 

Whether Leah liked it or not.

Yep, the next few days and weeks where going to be unbearable. Really, really uncomfortable.

You are such a wuss sometimes, Brainstein. 

She was. She freely acknowledged it. She’d basked in her parents’ approval from the moment she said her first word at the tender age of six months. She’d learned early that being clever and achieving won love and praise and pretty things.

And she’d seen what it was like to be out in the cold, thanks to her sister, Audrey’s experiences.

Audrey, who had never earned high-enough grades.

Audrey, who had made her tragic, misguided stand when she was sixteen and was still being punished for it.

Audrey, who took everything their parents’ threw at her and still held her head high.

I’m not as strong as my sister.

It was a realization Leah had come to very slowly, literally years in the making. But it had really hit home tonight. Because her sister had been dealing with their parents’ disapproval for years and doing her own thing anyway.

While Leah had had one taste of their wholehearted disapproval and was now lying in bed, vibrating with anxiety.

She set her jaw firmly. She might be anxious right now, but that didn’t mean she was going to change her mind. She’d meant everything she’d said out there on the balcony. This was her life. She had a right to decide what she wanted to do with it.

Now she just had to convince her parents of the same thing.  


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