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Playing For Love - Excerpt

Playing For Love - Excerpt

Book 1: Summer Beach Vets

CHAPTER 1

Sara gripped the armrests on her seat and took slow, deep breaths. Don’t be stupid, she told herself. Thousands of people fly in planes every day and nothing ever happens. Besides, she had already gotten through the worst part—fourteen hours across the Pacific. She was almost there.

She took another deep breath and looked out of the window to distract herself. In the distance, the wide expanse of shimmering blue sea was cut by a spectacular coastline: miles upon miles of golden sand beaches, bordered by the white crests of breaking waves. She could see a dark belt of trees behind the beach and neat rows of houses nestled in the bush, which stretched inwards into the hinterlands.

“First time to Australia?”

Sara turned to find the middle-aged man in the seat next to her smiling broadly. She smiled back. “Yes.”

“Are you coming on holiday?”

I’m coming to escape. The words rose unbidden to her tongue, but Sara swallowed them hastily. “Yes,” she said. “I’m visiting my cousin.”

“Ah, you’ll be doing the tourist sites in Sydney, I expect.” The man nodded. “Climbing the Harbour Bridge, visiting the Opera House…”

“Actually, I won’t be staying in Sydney,” said Sara. “I’m heading north, up the coast, to a little town called Summer Beach.”

The man’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, I know Summer Beach! Been there a few times myself. Beautiful place. And the best yabbies in all of New South Wales, I reckon.”

“Yabbies?” Sara furrowed her brow.

“You never had a yabby?” The man chuckled. “Sort of like a small Aussie lobster. Real sweet taste. Make sure you get down to the Laughing Kookaburra Café when you arrive in Summer Beach and order their house special: grilled yabbies with almonds and garlic.” He smacked his lips. “Bit of lime juice on top. Ripper.”

“Sorry… rip who?”

The man roared with laughter. “Ripper. Aussie slang for ‘really good’.”

“Oh.” Sara gave a rueful smile. “I thought you Australians spoke English.”

The man grinned. “Actually, a lot of the traditional slang is dying out, especially in the cities. And the younger generation is pretty Americanised now, what with all the stuff we get on TV. But you’ll still hear a few words and phrases, especially if you go out to the smaller towns.” He paused and asked, “Where’re you from?”

“Not a small town at all,” said Sara, smiling. “L.A.”

“Hey…” He leaned back and tilted his head, looking at her. “Are you an actress or model or something? You look kind of familiar. Feel like I might have seen you somewhere.”

Sara tensed, her heart rate speeding up. He was Australian, thank God, but he was obviously returning from California. Would he have seen the tabloids while he was there? She gave a nervous laugh. “Um… no. You must have me mixed up with someone else.”

He shrugged. “Guess you’re used to that, living in Hollywood, huh?”

“Yeah.” Sara gave him a weak smile. Then quickly changing the subject, she asked, “Have you climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge?”

“Nah.” He waved a hand. “That stuff’s for tourists. But the Opera House is worth a visit. Named the Eighth Wonder of the World, you know.” He leaned across her slightly and pointed out of the window. “You can see it now.”

Sara turned and was surprised to see that in the time they had been talking, the plane had crossed the coastline and was now making its descent into Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport. As it banked and turned, the city skyline loomed up in the window and Sara caught a glimpse of the Opera House, perched on the edge of Sydney Harbour. Its unique roof of curved white shells looked strange and beautiful in the city landscape. And behind it, the hulking metal structure of the Harbour Bridge stretched across the green-blue water, connecting downtown Sydney with the Northern Beaches.

Sara felt a thrill of excitement. She had seen so many pictures of Sydney Harbour and the Opera House, and watched so many travel shows on Australia—but she had never thought she’d have the chance to visit. She couldn’t believe that she was here at last. For a moment, she was able to forget everything she had left behind her in L.A. and imagine that she was really just here to enjoy a vacation.

“Your cousin meeting you at the airport?”

Sara nodded. “I told Ellie not to come—I was sure I could just get a taxi or use the airport shuttles—but she insisted. She said the shuttles make lots of stops and after fourteen hours on a plane, I didn’t need to add to the journey.”

“She’s right,” said the man. “It’s a couple of hours’ drive up the coast to Summer Beach.” He looked up as the flight attendant began walking down the aisle, performing the last checks. “Ah, looks like we’re coming in to land.”

 

The landing was a lot quicker and smoother than Sara had expected. Still, she was relieved to finally get off the plane and stretch her cramped muscles. She joined the throng of people making their way to Immigration, where she took her place in the line. When her turn came and she walked up to the counter, she was surprised to find herself facing a smiling, blond man who looked like a young Paul Hogan from Crocodile Dundee. He cheerily asked her the purpose of her visit, then casually stamped her passport and wished her a good stay. It was a far cry from the hostile, stony-faced immigration agents back in LAX!

Feeling her spirits rising with each moment, Sara followed the signs to the baggage hall and found an empty spot beside the carousel. It looked like the luggage had come through quickly and a lot of her fellow passengers were already placing their last cases on their carts. As Sara waited for her own case to come past on the giant conveyor belt, she noticed a small brown-and-white shape moving purposefully through the crowd. Her heart melted as she saw the soft, floppy ears, big black nose and happy wagging tail…

A Beagle!

The one thing that had made Sara hesitate when her cousin, Ellie, had offered her the chance of a refuge on the other side of the world was the thought of leaving her beloved Beagle, Coco, behind. She wished there was some way she could have brought Coco with her. But with Australia being a rabies-free country and its strict quarantine laws—as well as the long flight—she couldn’t put Coco through all that stress just for a short stay.

Still, seeing this beautiful Beagle trot past made Sara miss Coco terribly. She vowed to call home as soon as she reached Ellie’s place and check that her pup was okay. Luckily, her friend, Fern, had offered to look after Coco—and if there was one person who was dog mad, it was Fern. The vivacious redhead spent all her free time helping out at the local rescue shelters in Los Angeles. Sara knew that her beloved pet couldn’t be in better hands.

“Hello! Aren’t you gorgeous?” Sara dropped into a crouch as the Beagle approached her. She smiled in delight, reaching out to pat it.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but please refrain from interacting with the dog. He is a Quarantine Detector Dog on active duty.”

“Oh.” Sara withdrew her hand, feeling a little embarrassed. She saw now that the dog was wearing a little red coat with the word “BIOSECURITY” emblazoned across it on each side and was on a leash held by a man in uniform. She stood up awkwardly. “I’m sorry—I didn’t realise. I’ve got a Beagle at home too, you see, and she looks a bit like yours. I was missing her terribly so…” She trailed off, realising that she was babbling and feeling a bit stupid.

The handler’s eyes softened. “That’s okay. I understand.”

Sara watched the Beagle carefully sniff her handbag. “What’s he looking for?” she asked.

“Any fresh food, meat, fruit and vegetables, seeds, plant material, dairy, egg products…” He smiled as Sara’s eyes widened at the list. “Yeah, there are a lot of things you can’t bring into Australia. We’re very isolated from the world here, with a unique environment and ecosystem which can be destroyed by foreign pests and diseases. We work very hard to protect our borders.”

Sara looked down and noticed that the Beagle was now sitting beside her, looking up expectantly. “Oh, how cute! Why is he—”

“He’s signalling to me that he’s found something,” said the handler. “Do you have any food in your bag?”

Sara gulped, digging into her handbag and pulling out an apple. “Oh, I had this… it was a leftover from my meal on the plane. I was saving it for later.”

“I’m afraid you can’t bring any fresh fruit with you into Australia.”

“What happens if you try to bring some in?” asked Sara.

“If you’re found in violation of the biosecurity laws, you can be fined several thousand dollars and risk a ten-year jail sentence.”

Sara’s eyes widened. “Ten years—?”

“Don’t worry,” the handler assured her. “As long as you declare any items you may have and take them to be assessed at the clearance point, you won’t be charged.” He nodded at a silver bin alongside the nearby wall. “Or you can just dispose of the items in the quarantine bin over there.”

Sara made another hasty search of her handbag and pulled out a bar of chocolate. “Is this okay?”

He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “No worries. Chocolate should be fine. Just tick the right box on your arrivals card, make sure you go through the Red channel, and show it to the inspectors when you go through Customs.”

He turned and spoke softly to the Beagle, who sprang up, tail wagging. Sara watched with a smile as the dog was rewarded with a small food treat. Then the Beagle turned eagerly towards the next group of people, keen to start working again.

“What’s his name?” asked Sara.

“Mandu. Aboriginal word for the sun.” The handler gave her a parting smile as he led the dog away. “Welcome to Australia!”

 

The procedure through Customs didn’t take that long at all and Sara soon found herself out in the main Arrivals lobby of Sydney International Airport. She wheeled her case past the line of people waiting for friends and relatives, her eyes searching for Ellie.

“Sara!”

A tall, dark-haired girl in a smart pant suit waved excitedly from the back of the crowd. Sara felt her face break into an enormous grin as she rushed forwards to embrace her cousin. As the only two girls in a large family of boys, they had grown up more like sisters and she had missed their regular brunches together back in L.A. She hadn’t seen Ellie in nearly three months—ever since her cousin had moved out to Australia to take on the job of PR Manager for a new luxury resort that was being built at Summer Beach.

Stepping back, she surveyed Ellie now. Her cousin was looking well—her olive skin tanned and her brown eyes sparkling. Life in Australia obviously suited her. She had her hair in a sleek bun and wore a tailored pant suit that flattered her tall, curvy figure. Sara always envied Ellie her confidence with her body. While neither of them could ever be described as model-thin, Ellie had always worn her curves with pride whereas Sara had always been a bit embarrassed by her generous figure.

Maybe it was because Ellie was much better about going to the gym, thought Sara guiltily, as she admired her cousin’s toned physique. Ellie looked like an Amazonian warrior princess, whereas she herself probably looked like a cream puff princess, especially with her creamy white skin and soft blue eyes. Maybe I’ll do more exercise while I’m here in Australia, thought Sara hopefully. Doesn’t everybody rave about the wonderful, outdoorsy culture here?

“How was the flight? Did you get any sleep? I love your new hairstyle…when did you have it cut?” Ellie gave her another squeeze, then grabbed her case and started wheeling it towards the exits.

Sara touched her hair self-consciously. Unlike Ellie’s dark, glossy brown locks, her hair was a deep honey blonde and Sara wore it loose and layered around her shoulders. “A week ago. You know, just after… I wanted a change, to look different… Not that everyone back in L.A. won’t still recognise me. Maybe I should have just dyed it red,” she said ruefully.

Ellie’s eyes darkened. “The bastard. I could kill him, you know.”

Sara shook her head. “It’s not worth it, Ellie. I guess it was better I found out what a jerk he was before things got too serious. I’m just so grateful that I can get away for a bit.”

“Stay as long as you like,” said Ellie. “I’ve got the room. And I just know that you’re gonna love Summer Beach.”

“Well, I can’t run away from my life forever, can I?” said Sara. She paused as she spied a newsagent kiosk next to the exits. “Hold on a sec—I’m just going to grab a bottle of water.”

As she stepped up to the counter to pay, Sara noticed a rack of celebrity gossip magazines next to the cashier. Her shoulders tensed as she ran her eyes ran down the covers. A few pictures of the big Hollywood A-listers, a story about an up-and-coming rock idol, the usual selection of “candid” bikini snaps showing that stars had cellulite and wrinkles too, but otherwise the covers were filled with local Australian celebrities she didn’t recognise. She breathed a sigh of relief.

On an impulse, she grabbed the top magazine from the rack and added it to her purchase. It would be nice to flip through a magazine for once and not worry about seeing her own face staring back at her or blush in humiliation at what the paparazzi had captured. Why did they always have to be there pointing a camera when she was standing in her most unflattering angle?

“Want a packet of Tim Tams? They’re on special.” The girl behind the counter held up a rectangular packet.

“What are they?” asked Sara, tilting her head to read the label on the packet.

“You’ve never had a Tim Tam?” The girl’s eyes were round. She grinned. “You’re American, right? You haven’t lived if you haven’t had a Tim Tam. This is like one of our true-blue Aussie icons.”

“Chocolate cookies?” Sara said sceptically.

“Not just any chocolate cookie! Well, we call them ‘biscuits’ here, actually. Tim Tams are a classic. It’s like chocolate malted biscuit around a creamy chocolate centre, and then everything’s covered with a layer of melted chocolate fudge. It’s got this rich, caramel sort of flavour.” She laughed. “You get homesick Aussies coming off a plane and the first thing they do is head straight here to buy a packet.”

Sara smiled. “Okay. I’ll take one.” And as she turned away from the counter with her new purchases, she smiled to herself and thought, Welcome to Australia.


CHAPTER 2

Sunlight was streaming through the curtains when Sara opened her eyes the next morning. She squinted around the room, confused for a moment, as she wondered where she was. Then she remembered and a big grin split her face. She was Down Under, in the land of koalas and kangaroos, seven and a half thousand miles away from home.

She sat up and stretched luxuriously, then sprang out of bed. After arriving back last night, she and Ellie had talked late into the night, catching up on each other’s news. When her head had finally hit the pillow, Sara had crashed out, exhausted, and for the first time in days had slept deeply, without any nightmares. Now, as she grabbed a towel and headed for the bathroom, she felt refreshed and optimistic. I can get through this, she thought, nodding to her reflection in the mirror as she turned the shower on. She was going to pick herself up, dust herself off and start again.

Dressed in a T-shirt and a pair of comfortable old cut-offs, Sara wandered out to the kitchen. Ellie had a left a note on the kitchen counter saying that she would be late home that evening because of a meeting. Sara felt a twinge of guilt. She hoped Ellie wouldn’t be too tired at work today—the two of them had gossiped until the early hours of the morning.

Rummaging through the fridge and pantry, Sara helped herself to some milk and cereal, and made a cup of coffee. It was strange seeing the different supermarket brand names on the same everyday groceries: Watties Tomato Sauce, Dairy Farmers Milk, Coles Free Range Eggs, Tip Top Multigrain Toast, Skippy Cornflakes… She had heard that Australia was pretty Americanised now and, on the surface, she supposed that it was—but in many ways, it still felt so foreign.

Sara glanced out the kitchen window. She was excited to get out and explore a bit. Night had been falling by the time they had gotten back to Summer Beach yesterday and she hadn’t seen very much of the seaside town. Ellie had told her that the first place she should check out was the beach, which was only about ten minutes’ walk from here. Sara stood up decisively. She would go for a walk now.

After washing up her breakfast things, Sara slipped her feet into a pair of flip-flops and let herself out of the house. Ellie was renting a cute little fisherman’s cottage, which was sandwiched in a row of beach bungalows. Sara strolled down the street, admiring the houses with their beautifully kept gardens behind white picket fences. Everything is so clean, she thought. And there was a friendly, relaxed vibe about the place, with many windows left wide open and front doors ajar, covered only by fly screen. It almost reminded her of pictures and stories she’d heard of America in the 50s and 60s, when the pace of life was slower and it was still safe to let your children play unsupervised in the streets.

She passed a house where a young woman was wrestling with a baby stroller as she tried to manoeuvre it out of the front garden gate. Sara jumped in and held the swing gate back for her. The young woman smiled gratefully as she reversed the stroller out onto the sidewalk.

“Ta very much,” she said. “It’s a right pain, this pram. Should’ve waited to shop around instead of rushing out to buy one as soon as I got preggers.” She grinned at Sara. “You got any sprogs?”

“I… what?” Sara was baffled.

“Sprogs. Littlies. Kids,” the young woman explained.

“Oh! No, no… I don’t have any children.” Sara smiled. “Gotta get married first.”

“No, you don’t, these days,” said the young woman darkly. “I oughta know. Can’t get Gary to put a ring on me finger—not for quids. But it’s okay. I got bubs here.” She smiled down at the baby in the stroller, then looked up at Sara again. “I’m Libby. Haven’t seen you around—you just moved here?”

“Oh no, I’m only visiting,” said Sara. “I’m from California. L.A., actually.”

“Ah, you’re a Yank. Thought so from your accent. What d’ya think of Oz so far?”

“It’s beautiful,” said Sara, smiling. “And everyone’s so friendly. It’s… it’s almost a bit like a dream. I can’t quite believe I’m here.”

“Reckon I would say the same about L.A.,” said Libby with a grin. “Well, any time you want a chinwag, just come on over to my place. Doors always open. See ya!”

The young mother waved and pushed the stroller away down the sidewalk. Sara watched her go in amusement. She had a feeling that if she ever wanted to visit Libby, she would have to come armed with some kind of Australian slang dictionary! Turning in the opposite direction, she continued on her way.

Sara crossed several more roads and turned a few corners before she admitted to herself that she was lost. She was sure she had been heading in the right direction, but somehow she seemed to have gone wrong. She had been walking for over thirty minutes—she should have reached the beach by now. In fact, looking at the houses around her—which looked worryingly familiar—it seemed that she had simply gone in a huge circle and ended up back near where she started.

She paused on the corner and looked around in frustration. There were signs with street names, but nothing that said: THIS WAY TO THE BEACH. To be fair, this wasn’t a big city like Sydney with enough tourists visiting to make it worthwhile putting up special directions for them. The locals probably knew the way in their sleep.

Sara turned and noticed that there was an old man sitting on the veranda of the house right on the corner. Their eyes met and he gave her toothy smile. Sara hesitated, then let herself into his garden as he waved her over. As she got closer, she could see that despite his age, the old man was still impressively built, with a thick torso dominated by a huge belly and massive, meaty arms that were covered in intricate tribal tattoos. His short, curly hair was startlingly white against his brown skin and he had dark brows above eyes twinkling with humour. But the strangest thing about him was the white-and-yellow flower he wore behind one ear. Coupled with his big, beefy appearance, the delicate flower seemed silly and incongruous.

Sara smiled sheepishly as she realised that she was staring. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. I’ve just never seen a man wearing a flower in his hair before.”

He nodded placidly. “It is the way in Samoa.” He pronounced it Sar-moa. “Flowers are very important for my people. They are part of our identity. Even if they’re born an Aussie like me.” He gave her that toothy grin again. Then he reached up and plucked the flower from behind his ear and held it out to her in the palm of his hand. “This is the tipani.”

Sara looked down and saw what she knew as a frangipani flower. She reached out and gently picked it up, looking at it up close. Its delicate five-lobed petals were creamy white, darkening to yellow in the centre, and it gave off a sweet perfume. “It’s beautiful.”

“Keep it.” He smiled. “I have many more from the tree in my backyard.”

“Thanks,” said Sara, returning his smile.

“The tipani is the flower of love. In Polynesian culture, how you wear the flower tells others about your heart. Behind the right ear means your heart is free and behind the left means it is taken—that is, you are married or have a partner.”

Sara tried to remember which side he had been wearing the flower on. As if reading her mind, he said softly, “I wear mine on the left. My wife, Teuila, is gone now, but my heart will always be with her.”

He said it simply, with no drama or sentimentality, and yet Sara felt a lump come to her throat. How amazing to have experienced a love like that, she thought. She imagined him sitting here, quietly dreaming and remembering their life together.

“You’re lost and looking for the way to the beach?”

Sara blinked at him in surprise. “Yes, how did you know?”

He shook his head, smiling. “Go to the end of the street. Turn right, then take the first left. You will come to a T-junction. The right side leads into town, the left goes down to the beach.”

“Thank you.” Sara put her hand out. “It was nice to meet you… er …?”

“Ru.” He inclined his head and took her hand in one of his weather-beaten ones.

“Nice to meet you, Ru. My name’s Sara.”

He nodded again and, after a moment, Sara bade him goodbye and let herself out of his garden. It had been a strange but enjoyable encounter—almost like her whole Australian experience so far. She followed Ru’s instructions and soon found herself arriving at a T-junction just like he had said. She looked to the right, shading her eyes against the bright sunlight. That must be the way into the centre of town. She could see the tops of buildings, which were the commercial shops and offices of the main street. Sara turned and looked the other way. The road sloped downwards and she could see the glimmer of blue water in the distance.

Feeling a burst of excitement, Sara headed in that direction. There were fewer houses lining the road here, and at the end of the road she passed a large wooden bungalow that had a sign attached to its fence, which read “SUMMER BEACH VETERINARY HOSPITAL” next to a picture of two paw prints. The front garden had been cleared and paved to provide parking spaces, and judging from the number of cars already in place, it was going to be a busy session that morning.

Sara thought of her Beagle, Coco. She had managed to make a quick call home the previous evening and she had been reassured to hear from Fern that Coco was fine. Being spoilt rotten, more like, Sara thought with a wry smile. Still, she missed her dog and wished again that she could have brought Coco with her.

The road didn’t extend much farther beyond the animal hospital. Sara saw it end in another small car park, this time next to a huge, rambling beach bungalow which looked like some kind of café. But her attention was riveted to the side of the road, where the trees and bushes had suddenly dropped away to reveal an open view looking out onto the beach.

“Oh!” Sara stood and stared.

It was absolutely spectacular. A strip of white sand beach stretched out in front of her and, beyond it, the shimmering waters of the Pacific Ocean was such a vivid shade of turquoise, it looked almost unreal. White waves crashed and foamed on the sand, and in the distance, the shore rose up into a series of cliffs. Just in front of the cliffs, a clump of palm trees waved in the strong breeze that blew in off the sea. Arching across all of this was a blue, cloudless sky, dominated by a blazing sun.

It was even better than a postcard. As a California girl herself, Sara had grown up by the seaside, but there was still something about this beach on the other side of the world that took her breath away.

She hurried down the rickety wooden staircase leading to the beach, nearly stumbling in her haste. As she reached the last step, she kicked off her flip-flops and sank her toes into the sand. It was as soft as powder and felt cool against the soles of her feet, in spite of the heat from the sun above.

Sara snatched up her flip-flops in one hand and ran towards the water. She let out a shout of laughter as she met one of the waves head-on. The water surged up to her knees and sprayed into her face, tasting salty on her lips. Tossing her hair out of her eyes, Sara ran along the edge of the sea, giggling as she splashed through the waves.

Finally, she stopped, trying to catch her breath. Her legs were covered in sand and half of her clothes were soaked, her hair tangled and her cheeks red from the sting of the sea breeze, but she didn’t care. She hadn’t felt this carefree and happy in ages.

Sara realised that she had gone a fair way up the beach—she was almost beside that clump of palm trees now. Walking slowly over, she dropped her flip-flops onto the sand and sank down next to them, leaning back to rest against one of the palm tree trunks. Shading her eyes against the glare of the sun, Sara looked back in the direction she had come. The rickety wooden stair she had come down looked like a brown streak in the distance now and that café looked like a little wooden toy house, perched on a promontory above the water.

She sighed as she suddenly thought of Coco again. How her Beagle would have loved it here! So many new smells to investigate, so many new places to explore…

 Sara frowned and sat up, wondering if she was seeing things. She squinted into the distance. Was that her imagination playing tricks on her because she was missing her own dog badly or was she really seeing a Beagle wandering up the beach?


CHAPTER 3

Jumping up, Sara grabbed her flip-flops and headed back up the beach. As she got closer, she could see that this was no mirage. This was a real, living, breathing pup. She ran over and dropped to her knees beside the Beagle, reaching out to pat it gently.

“Hello…” she said. “What are you doing here?”

The Beagle wagged its tail and shoved its cold, wet nose into her hand, wriggling its body in delight. It looked so much like her Coco that it was uncanny. Unlike the black, tan, and white Beagle she had met at the airport, this one was just brown and white, with a pale stripe between its eyes, just like her own dog. It was a boy, though, Sara realised. She felt around his neck. He wasn’t wearing a collar, but the way the fur was pressed flat around his throat suggested that he did wear one usually.

“Are you lost?” Sara asked. “What’s your name?”

The Beagle looked up at her with soft, brown eyes, its tongue lolling out in a wide smile. Sara felt her heart turn over. How many times had Coco looked at her just like that? She laughed and held out her hand.

“My dog, Coco, can shake. Can you?”

The Beagle wagged his tail and held up one front paw. But when Sara reached out and gripped it, he flinched and let out a whimper of pain.

“Oh… what’s wrong?” Sara gently turned the paw over. She was alarmed to see a bloody gash on the paw pad. “Oh, you poor thing! That must hurt horribly.”

The gash was deep, exposing the pink, tender flesh beneath, and blood oozed freely from the wound, dripping onto the white sand. Sara realised that a trail of blood led back up the beach. Her stomach heaved. For a moment, all she could see was her own Coco, hurt and bleeding, and she couldn’t bear it.

Sara looked desperately around. She had to get help. The wound needed to be cleaned and dressed, maybe even stitched. Her eyes narrowed as she saw the rickety wooden stairs again in the distance, leading back up to the road.

The animal hospital.

Yes, she thought. That vet surgery she had passed. She could get help and veterinary attention for the dog there. Turning back to the Beagle, she put her arms around him and gently picked him up. He struggled for a moment, then relaxed into her arms. Sliding her feet back into her flip-flops, Sara started across the sand, walking as fast as she could.

It was tough going. Unlike when she had first arrived at the beach and had run across the sand in giddy excitement, now Sara felt the strain in her calf and thigh muscles as her feet sank into the sand with each step. The Beagle was no lightweight either. He was slightly bigger than her own Coco and felt like double the weight as she struggled her way across the beach. She cursed under her breath and wished again that she had been more conscientious about going to the gym.

By the time Sara arrived at the wooden steps again, she was sweating profusely and panting. Pausing, she leaned the Beagle onto the wooden railing and eased his weight off her aching arms for a second before taking a deep breath and lifting him close again as she started up the steps. At the top, she staggered down the road towards the vet clinic and turned gratefully into the little parking lot.

A cool blast of air-conditioning hit her as she burst into the waiting room. A dozen pairs of eyes looked up at her in surprise. Several people were sitting on plastic chairs laid out in a semi-circle around one half of the room. Some had dogs with them and a few had cat carriers. One of the dogs—a scruffy little terrier that barely came up to her ankle—started barking. The girl behind the reception counter stood up and looked at her expectantly.

“I… I found him… on the beach…” Sara gasped, leaning against the reception counter. “He’s hurt… he needs help…”

“Can he stand?” asked the receptionist as she came around the counter.

Sara leaned down and placed the Beagle gingerly on the ground. He wobbled a bit, but managed to stand on three legs, holding his front right paw off the ground. Sara watched anxiously as the receptionist knelt beside him and examined him quickly—lifting his lips to check the colour of his gums, listening to his heart rate, running her hands over his body.

“If you’ll take a seat…” she said, standing up.

“What?” Sara gaped at her. “But he’s bleeding! He needs help now.”

The girl shook her head. “His vitals are okay and the blood flow isn’t heavy. I’ll wrap up his paw, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait your turn.” She gestured towards the semi-circle of chairs.

“But… surely this is an emergency!” cried Sara.

The receptionist sighed. “Yes, but we have several other emergencies as well. Two of our vets are away and the other one is working on a case off-site, so we’re a bit short-staffed today. Dr Murray will see you as soon as possible. In the meantime…” she picked up a clipboard from the reception counter and thrust it at Sara. “It would be helpful if you could fill this out.”

“But he’s not my dog,” Sara protested weakly.

“Well, just fill in what you can,” said the receptionist as she quickly bandaged the Beagle’s paw. Then she looped a thin, nylon leash around his neck and handed the other end to Sara before hurrying back around the counter to answer the ringing phone.

Reluctantly, Sara led the Beagle over to the nearest chair and sat down. The scruffy terrier approached on the end of his leash and sniffed the Beagle’s butt suspiciously. The Beagle tried to return the greeting, but the terrier stiffened and uttered a low growl.

“Oh shush,” said the old lady who was obviously his owner. She gave Sara an apologetic smile. “Bit of an old grump. His bark’s worse than his bite, really. Come here, Gizmo.” She tightened his leash and hauled him in closer to her.

At any other time, Sara would have found the little terrier amusing, but now all she could feel was the anxiety for the Beagle. What was the vet doing? she wondered, biting her lip. How much longer was he going to be? The Beagle sat at her feet and whimpered softly, the sound nearly breaking Sara’s heart.

She reached down and stroked the velvety ears. “It’s all right, sweetheart. Someone will see you soon.” In her mind’s eye, Sara saw Coco back in California. What if this was her own dog? What if Coco was hurt and in pain somewhere, ignored and neglected? She knew it was silly—she knew that Coco was safe back in her house, with Fern looking after her—but she couldn’t push the images from her mind.

To distract herself, Sara looked down at the clipboard on her lap and tried to fill in the form. There wasn’t much information she could provide. Aside from his breed and gender, there was nothing else she knew about this dog. He didn’t even have a collar and tag with his name. “Found wandering on the beach”, she wrote in the “Notes” section at the bottom of page. Then she added her own name and Ellie’s name, address, and home phone number.

She looked up as there was a commotion by the doorway and a family rushed in, carrying what looked like a Jack Russell puppy. They said something to the receptionist, who immediately got up and disappeared down the hallway.

A minute later, she came back with a tall man striding behind her. He was wearing blue scrubs beneath a white coat and had a stethoscope around his neck, but even without the clothes, Sara would have known that this was Dr Murray. He had an aura of calm authority about him, his gaze keen and intelligent as he looked at the puppy. His sleeves were pushed back to reveal tanned, muscular forearms and the hands which reached out towards the puppy were strong, but gentle. He murmured something to the woman holding the puppy, then turned and gestured towards the back of the clinic.

Sara watched in disbelief as the woman and her two children began following him down the hallway. They had gotten here after her! How come he was seeing them first? Without thinking, she jumped up from her seat and rushed down the hallway after them.

“Hey! Wait!” she cried, reaching out to grab the vet’s arm.

He swung around to face her and Sara dropped her hand in surprise. His eyes were blue, but not soft blue like her own eyes—no, they were a deep cerulean, vivid and intense in a tanned face that was dominated by a strong nose, chiselled jawline and thin, sensual lips. His hair was a rich brown, waving slightly back from his forehead, and his shoulders beneath the white coat were broad and powerful. Sara took a slight step back. She didn’t know what she had expected, but somehow she hadn’t expected the vet to be this… sexy?

Embarrassed by her thoughts and her sudden awareness of him, Sara started babbling. “I… my dog… I mean, it’s not my dog, but I found him… on the beach… anyway, he’s hurt… you need to see him…”

His brows drew together. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve got to attend to this patient first. If you’ll take a seat—”

“I have been taking a seat!” cried Sara. She pointed to the woman holding the puppy. “I got here before them! How come you’re seeing them first—”

“This is an emergency,” he said shortly.

“So is mine! My dog is bleeding. He’s hurt and in pain! You need to do something—”

“This puppy has been bitten by a paralysis tick. Unless he is seen immediately, he could die. Now, I understand your concern, but I assume your dog has been assessed by the nurse, yes?” His eyes flicked over her head towards the receptionist’s counter. “If it had been really serious, she would have come to inform me. Otherwise, we have to treat the cases according to medical priority. This puppy needs urgent attention now. I’m sorry if you find it frustrating, but your dog will just have to wait.”

His tone was soft, but the sharpness in his words still came through. Sara stepped back, feeling like she had been slapped. Flushing with embarrassment, she returned to her seat, not daring to look at any of the other pet owners in the waiting room. She knew that they had been sitting there a lot longer than her and they had all been waiting patiently.

Sara forced herself to sit without fidgeting as the minutes ticked past. Finally, she heard the sound of a door opening and saw the family filing back down the hall. The puppy was not with them. The woman’s eyes were red and the children had obviously been crying. Sara felt a stab of guilt. But before she could think more about it, she saw the tall form of Dr Murray following them. He bent and said something to the two children, patting them on the shoulder, then ushered them over to the receptionist. Then he turned and surveyed the waiting room.

His blue eyes met Sara’s and he gave a curt nod. “I can see you now.”


CHAPTER 4

Keeping her chin high, Sara scooped the Beagle up in her arms and walked past the handsome vet. As he shut the door to the examination room, she carefully deposited the Beagle on the table and stood back as he reached for the dog. She watched as he listened to the dog’s heart with a stethoscope, took his temperature, probed his abdomen, and went through an advanced version of the receptionist’s initial check outside. His blue eyes were intent, his touch gentle but thorough, and he talked softly to the Beagle as he worked. Finally, he picked up the wounded paw and examined it carefully.

“Where did you find him?”

Sara jumped. She had been so mesmerised with watching him that she had almost forgotten why she was here. “Uh… down on the beach. By the water. It looked like he had come a long way… there was a blood trail on the sand.” She approached the table hesitantly, adding, “I think he’s somebody’s pet, though. He looked like he might have been wearing a collar.”

“Yes,” Dr Murray agreed. “He’s in too good a condition to be a stray. But he doesn’t belong to one of the locals. I know all the dogs in town. Maybe he’s here with a visiting family.” He frowned as he looked closer at the paw. “This is deep, but it’s not as serious as it looks. It should heal up nicely.”

Something in his tone made Sara flush. Something about this man just put her on edge in general. “Are you suggesting that I was over-reacting?” she demanded.

He straightened. Sara found herself craning her neck to look up at him. She was no petite flower herself, but this man towered over her. She realised that the blue scrubs he was wearing featured a deep V neckline, which showed a tantalising glimpse of bronzed, muscular chest. Sara flushed again and tore her eyes away.

“I wasn’t implying anything. I was simply stating a fact.” His tone was impatient.

Sara felt her cheeks redden even more. Biting her lip, she stepped back from the table and watched silently as he cleaned the wound and injected a local anaesthetic, then put a few stitches in. Finally he bandaged the paw securely and gave the Beagle a shot of antibiotics to prevent any infections.

He stepped back and looked up at her again. Sara felt a shiver of awareness run through her as those deep blue eyes flicked over her. She was suddenly very conscious of the way she must look—her legs covered with sand, her clothes wet and clinging to her body, her hair in a tangled mess around her face. She wished she had chosen something less revealing to wear that morning than her old cut-offs. They probably did nothing to flatter her full hips and thighs.

What are you thinking? Sara chided herself. As if you care whether he finds you attractive. You’re not interested in him!

“We can keep him overnight while we try to trace his owners. I’m hoping he might have a microchip.” His blue eyes were unreadable as he continued to look at her.

“Uh… yes.” Sara licked her lips. “That’s a good idea.”

“Would you like to be contacted about him? You don’t have to remain involved. We can take care of him from now on. But since you found him…”

“Yes, thank you. I’d like that.” Sara ventured a shy smile.

He didn’t return it, but she thought the deep blue eyes softened slightly. Before he could say anything else, however, the door burst open and a vet assistant stood there, her face taut with worry.

“Sorry, Craig, but I think you need to come and see the puppy…”

He nodded quickly and turned back to Sara. “I’m sorry—”

“No, no… that’s fine…” Sara was already backing out the door. “I… I’ll call later to see how the Beagle is doing.”

She made her way back to the waiting room, which seemed to have swelled with even more pets and their owners. Sara hovered by the receptionist’s counter until the queue of people had dispersed, then went up and asked about payment for the Beagle’s treatment.

The girl behind the reception raised her eyebrows. “The owner will probably take care of that.”

“I’m happy to pay a deposit first,” insisted Sara. “Just in case it takes a while to find him or something.” She patted her pockets. She realised that she had just shoved her driver’s licence and one of her credit cards into her shorts pockets when she left the house. How stupid—what had she been thinking? “I haven’t got any cash on me though.”

“No worries. We take EFTPOS.”

“Sorry… what?” Sara looked down and saw the familiar credit card terminal. “Oh, direct debit. Yeah, I’ve got my card.” She swiped it through, keyed in her PIN number, and paid the amount.

Waving a goodbye to the girl behind the reception counter, Sara let herself out of the bungalow and back onto the street. It was nearly noon now and the sun was beating down relentlessly. Sara walked slowly back to Ellie’s place, her head spinning with thoughts and emotions.

Craig, she thought. His name is Craig. Dr Craig Murray. It suited him, she decided with a smile, remembering the way he had looked after the Beagle. Strong and yet gentle, decisive but patient. Then she stopped her thoughts. What was she doing? She was behaving like some star-struck teenager! Annoyed with herself, Sara quickened her pace and almost jogged the rest of the way back to Ellie’s house.

“Here… have a coffee.”

Craig looked up gratefully as Megan, the receptionist, handed him a mug. This was the first time he had stopped all morning. The backlog in the waiting room had finally been cleared and there seemed to be a lull in the steady stream of patients coming through the front door. They might get an hour of relative peace now before the mayhem started again with the afternoon clinic.

Craig rubbed his neck, trying to ease the tension in his shoulders. He had just finished a difficult laparotomy to relieve a bowel obstruction in a young Staffie and completed the post-operative care orders. Now he hoped to grab some lunch before tackling more admin.

Friday mornings were often hectic but today had been especially bad, with a number of sudden emergencies straining the already heavily booked clinic. At the thought of the emergencies, Craig remembered the woman who had brought in the lost Beagle and felt his pulse quicken. She had been beautiful, in that simple, fresh-faced kind of way. Like a glorious summer’s day. Soft blue eyes, a smattering of freckles across a pert nose, and full, pouting lips that had been seriously distracting. He had felt his body temperature rise several degrees when she had bitten her lips, catching the bottom swell with her tiny white teeth. As for the rest of her… Craig shook his head. Crikey, she should have been arrested, walking around in clothes like that! That wet T-shirt had clung to every curve on her body and those shorts didn’t just tease—they tormented the imagination.

He had been so taken aback by his sudden attraction to her that he had been much curter than he had intended. He winced now as he remembered the expression in her soft blue eyes. She had looked like he had slapped her. She had been a bit hysterical, yes, but he knew it was only out of genuine worry for the Beagle. Besides, he had seen often enough how emotional people could get when their beloved animals were hurt and in pain. I shouldn’t have been so sharp with her, he thought regretfully.

Her name was Sara. He had made an effort to look up the form she had filled in—telling himself that he was just checking in case he needed to contact her again to ask more questions about the Beagle. But who was he kidding? He had wanted, needed to know her name. In fact, he wanted to know more than her name. He wanted to know everything about her.

Who was she? he wondered. She had sounded American—there had been a definite twang in her soft voice. She had given Ellie Monroe’s name and address in her contact details. Craig had met Ellie a few times and liked her. Ellie was American too—was Sara a visiting friend? He was sure he hadn’t seen her around before. Summer Beach was a small place and there was no way he would have forgotten Sara if they had met.

He sighed and stood up, stretching. It was time he stopped daydreaming and got on with work. Still, he couldn’t quite stop himself walking out to reception and saying to Megan:

“If the woman who brought the lost Beagle this morning calls to check on him, put her through to me. I’ve… uh… got a few things I want to ask her.”


CHAPTER 5

For the rest of the day, Sara didn’t let herself think about Dr Craig Murray again. Whenever her thoughts began to stray towards him and their encounter that morning, she would give herself a mental slap. When Ellie came home late that night, Sara told her cousin about finding the Beagle, but kept her description of the vet encounter light and impersonal.

Ellie was tired from her long day so they went to bed early. Sara had no trouble falling asleep, but she found herself wide awake as dawn crept in through the curtains. Maybe I haven’t managed to escape the jet lag as well as I’d thought, Sara reflected wryly. She tossed and turned for an hour before giving up. She sat up and peered at the clock on her bedside table. 6:30 a.m.

The picture of the beach rose in her mind. Suddenly, she longed to feel the sand between her toes again, the sea breeze in her face. Dressing quickly, Sara crept out of her bedroom, left a note in the kitchen for Ellie and then let herself quietly out of the house.

The air still had that early-morning freshness to it and the chirping of birds was the only sound breaking the silence. After the smog and the constant blare of L.A. city traffic, the peace and quiet was wonderful. It was Saturday morning and Sara didn’t see another soul as she made her way to the road leading down to the beach. She had no trouble finding it this time. She paused at the top of the rickety wooden stairs and closed her eyes for a moment, filling her lungs with the salty sea air. I could get used to this, she thought with a smile.

This time, she didn’t run over the sand, but made her way slowly across the beach to the water’s edge. Her legs were still aching from their enforced workout yesterday and she grimaced as she struggled to stop sinking into the soft sand. She could feel her calve and thigh muscles straining and contracting again with each step. Well, if she kept coming for a walk across the beach every day, soon she would have the most toned thighs in Hollywood!

Sara’s smile faded as she suddenly remembered the last time her thighs were the talk of Hollywood. The memory of the humiliation washed over her again, leaving her angry and shaking. She had been a fool. She had really believed Jeff Kingston when he had told her that he loved her for being “down-to-earth and ordinary”, that he adored her “all-woman” figure. She had been dazzled when the handsome actor had shown interest in a nobody like her.

Of course, she had recognised him instantly the day he had bumped into her—literally—in the parking lot outside Whole Foods. Which woman in L.A.—or in the United States, for that matter—didn’t recognise that crooked half-smile which had set fifty million female hearts aflutter? As the star of the hit TV series about a rogue FBI agent, with his square-jawed good looks and twinkling blue eyes, Jeff was the stuff of every woman’s dreams. And when he had instantly dropped to his knees to help pick up her spilled groceries—and the whole thing was conveniently caught by waiting paparazzi—Sara had become the envy of every woman in America.

Theirs was the “fairy tale romance” that captured everyone’s imagination. The handsome celebrity TV star who had fallen in love with the sweet “girl-next-door” and swept her off her feet. Soon Sara found that her every move was being followed, her every outfit photographed. At first it had been flattering—she had never had so much attention before, so much discussion devoted to what she wore, what she ate, what she did. Sara Monroe adds Tabasco sauce to her burgers! Sara Monroe wears Diesel jeans! Sara Monroe likes to check out the Ventura Flea Market for bargains!

But then she found that her every flaw was being dissected in the gossip magazines too. That time when she came out of her house, barefaced and bleary-eyed, one morning? Her face had ended up on a double-page spread the next day, blown up in all its puffy glory. The day she had suffered a rare breakout? That one pimple had practically become front-page news in the tabloids.

And then there was the endless speculation about her weight. Sara had never been as comfortable about her curves as Ellie, but she had learnt to like her body, resigned to the fact that she was never going to be one of those glamorous giraffes that seemed to populate Hollywood. But now every lump and bump on her figure was put under the microscope. She began to get sick of seeing pictures of herself. How did they always manage to get photos of her butt when she was bending over? Where did they manage to find that hideous old college photo of herself looking like a baby walrus? And why did they always have to think that every tummy swell was a “baby bump”? Have you never heard of bloating, people?

Still, the one comfort was the way Jeff had seemed to champion her fuller figure. When he gallantly announced on breakfast TV that he loved her “just as she is”, women everywhere swooned and fell over. Here at last was a man who did not mind a “real woman with real curves”. If Jeff’s stock had been high before, it went soaring after his relationship with Sara went public. Within weeks there was talk of multiple movie contracts and sponsorship deals. Everybody wanted Jeff Kingston as their leading man.

And Sara was happy for him… until she realised that she wasn’t Jeff’s real leading lady. She had lived in a naïve bubble for five months before she walked in on them one day, when she arrived at Jeff’s place early and let herself in with the spare key. Sara could only stand and stare in horror as the tall, willowy blonde rose languidly from the bed and came towards her with a sneer on her beautiful face.

“Did you really think he’d want a fat lump like you?” she had laughed. “It was all for the PR, sweetie. It made him look good, gave him the boost he needed to get to the next level. But you didn’t seriously think he would find you attractive, did you?”

Sara had turned stricken eyes on Jeff, waiting for him to deny it, but she had seen the truth in those famous twinkling blue eyes even before he had given her that sheepish shrug. She had turned and run out of his house, the blonde woman’s laugh still ringing in her ears.

And then Sara had discovered just how fickle the media could be. As soon as their break up was announced, the speculation about her weight began again… this time about whether it was the reason Jeff had ditched her for the obviously thinner model he was now parading around town. Gone were the articles praising her as a role model for “real women”. Instead, she was now an object of pity, an example of someone who had “let herself go” and couldn’t keep her man. Paparazzi camped outside her door, this time to catch as many unflattering photos of her fuller figure as they could.

The last straw had been when Sara received a phone call from a reality TV production company asking if she would star in a show following her attempts at weight loss in order to win Jeff Kingston back. She had swallowed her grief and humiliation, and managed to maintain her dignity as she coolly told them that she wasn’t interested. Following on from that, Ellie’s invitation to come to Australia had seemed like a godsend. Sara had booked her flight the next day.

And now I’m here, thought Sara, coming out of her reverie to see the shimmering blue sea stretching to the horizon in front of her. She was lucky to be able to escape to such a beautiful place and she wasn’t going to let Jeff Kingston spoil it for her, she decided. She was done grieving for the bastard. From now on, she wasn’t going to think about him again.

And, she promised herself, she wasn’t ever going to date a celebrity again. The media interest, the constant pressure on her image, and, most of all, the nagging fear that he might be using her for another agenda… No, she vowed. Never again. She was going to stick to nice, normal guys now.

Like a small-town Australian vet?

Sara blushed at the direction of her thoughts and gave herself that mental slap again. She wasn’t going to think about Dr Craig Murray either. She looked around her and realised that she had come much farther up the beach than yesterday. She had been so lost in her thoughts, she hadn’t realised how far she had walked. She’d passed the clump of palm trees and was now almost at the base of the cliffs.

A movement ahead of her caught her eye and she realised that somebody was coming rapidly down a path which wound down the side of the cliffs. This must be a different entrance leading onto the beach.

Then she also realised, with a jerk of her heart, who the person jogging towards her was.

Dr Craig Murray.