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…
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, and egg products. There are many items you can’t bring into Australia—we are 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 curiously.
“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.
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.