Playing for Love (Summer Beach Vets 1) - Escape Down Under (4 page)




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 instantly 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 an Australian small-town 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.





Sara looked wildly around her. There was nowhere to hide and she couldn’t just turn around and start walking back up the beach. Craig had seen her already. It would be too rude. She tried to compose her face into some kind of neutral expression and met his deep blue eyes as nonchalantly as she could, as he slowed down and came up to her.

He was wearing a light blue T-shirt which moulded itself to his broad chest and shoulders, coupled with a pair of black board shorts that showed off his powerful legs. His feet were bare and his dark brown hair was slightly ruffled by the strong breeze blowing off the sea.

“G’day. Sara… isn’t it?” He smiled at her.

Sara was surprised that he knew her name and even more surprised by his smile. Where was the cold, impatient man from yesterday?

“Uh… yes.” She shyly returned his smile. “I wasn’t expecting to meet you here, Dr Murray.”

“Please, call me Craig,” he said with an easy grin. “Yeah, I usually do a morning jog along the beach. Guess it’s an old habit left over from my Clubbie days.”


“It’s Aussie slang for a surf lifesaver.”

“Sorry, I don’t even know what a surf lifesaver is,” said Sara, laughing.

“They patrol the beach, keep an eye out for anyone who might be getting in trouble in the water, go out to rescue them—”

“Oh, a lifeguard! You were a lifeguard?” Sara raised her eyebrows.

“Don’t look so surprised.” Craig laughed. “I used to be in much better shape.”

“No, I didn’t mean that… I mean, you’re in fantastic shape now… Not that I was looking, of course, but you know, you can’t help it when… er… I mean…” Sara blushed furiously.
Oh help,
she thought.
I need a hole to swallow me up now
. She looked up to see amusement in Craig’s blue eyes. She took a deep breath. “I mean… I thought being a lifesaver would be like a professional job, you know.”

“There are paid lifeguards, but the surf lifesavers are different. We’re mostly volunteers who are part of a community organisation. We train in skills like Powercraft, Aquatic Rescue and Emergency Care, and take part in a roster to patrol the coastlines, so that we can help provide a safe environment for Australian families to enjoy the beaches.”

“Wow,” said Sara. “That’s really amazing that people do all that and give up their free time to volunteer to help others.”

He shrugged. “It’s an Aussie tradition, I guess. It’s what we call ‘mateship’. I used to be really active when I was in my teens and even in vet school, but after I took over the practice, I just couldn’t find the time anymore.” He shook his head regretfully. “I try to still help out when I can, though, with the nippers.” Seeing Sara’s puzzled look again, he explained. “That’s what we call the little ones. They start from five years old and learn things like beach safety and awareness. For example…” His eyes roved over her face in a way that made her self-conscious. “Have you slip-slop-slapped?”

“Have I what?” Sara stared at him, baffled.

Craig grinned. “Slip on a T-shirt, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat. It’s a popular slogan from a big health campaign that started in the early eighties. The UV index is really high here because we’re so close to the hole in the ozone layer and we have sunny weather all year round. Australia has the highest melanoma rates in the world, you know—it’s practically known as ‘the national cancer’.” He sobered. “People like you with fair skin would be particularly at risk.”

“I did forget to put sunscreen when I came out this morning,” admitted Sara. “But I’ll remember for next time.”

“Best to stay out of the sun during the middle of the day too. And wear a hat. That’s what we tell all the kids.” He smiled again. “Anyway, being a nipper is a great way to have fun, learn teamwork and make friends. And get the kids active in the great outdoors.”

“No wonder all you Australians seem to be such beach athletes… if you start at five!” Sara laughed.

“We’re not all beach athletes, sadly,” said Craig. “Australia also has one of the highest obesity rates in the world.”

“Probably not compared to the States,” said Sara wryly. “And at least you guys seem to value your leisure time and do something active with it. Ellie was telling me that her colleagues all think she’s crazy to stay late for work or want to do overtime on the weekends. They actually cheer you on to leave work early and go surfing or something!” Sara shook her head. “That would never happen in the States.”

“Doesn’t happen much in vet hospitals either,” said Craig with a rueful smile.

At the mention of his job, memories of yesterday came rushing back and Sara felt her old shyness returning. There was an awkward silence, then they both spoke at the same time.

“How’s the—”

“Do you think—”

They both laughed.

“You first,” said Craig with a smile.

“I was wondering how the Beagle’s doing?”

“Probably hungry, like all Beagles,” said Craig, chuckling. “He seemed fine when I checked on him last night. One of the vet nurses was staying in overnight to look after that puppy, so she would have let me know if there were any problems.”

“And… the puppy?” Sara asked hesitantly.

Craig’s face darkened. “The tick anti-serum seems to be working, but it’ll be touch and go for a while. We won’t know if he’ll pull through until tomorrow.”

“I… I’m sorry about yesterday,” Sara said hesitantly. “I didn’t realise—”

“That’s okay,” he said quickly. “I was actually planning to apologise as soon as I saw you, but our conversation got me sidetracked… and now you’ve beat me to it.” He gave her a grin which did funny things to her insides. “I’m sorry for being so short with you yesterday. It was understandable that you would be upset and you weren’t to know about the paralysis tick. In fact…” He ducked his head slightly, his blue eyes searching hers. “I was hoping that you might let me take you out to dinner. As a sort of apology.”

Sara drew a sharp breath in. Her heart was pounding as she stared at him. Was he asking her on a date? Did that mean that he liked her? That the attraction she felt was mutual? Or was she reading too much into the whole thing? After, a total hunk like him… he must have his pick of girls. Why her? Anyway, what was she doing, going out on a date? She was leaving in two weeks and heading back to the States. And besides, she’d only just got out of a disastrous relationship. Oh, but dinner couldn’t hurt, could it? It was just a meal together. It didn’t have to mean anything…

Something of her turmoil must have shown on her face because he took a slight step back and his tone changed. “If you’d rather not, that’s fine. No worries.”

“No, no.” Sara found her voice. It was slightly breathless, but she hoped he didn’t notice. “I… I would love to have dinner with you. Thank you very much.”

“Have you been to the Laughing Kookaburra yet?” He nodded at the café perched on the other side of the beach.

She shook her head. “I only arrived in Summer Beach two days ago, actually. I’m staying with my cousin, Ellie.”

“Well, it might not look like much from the outside, but that café does some of the best seafood in New South Wales. Shall we say seven o’clock?”

Sara nodded.

“I’ll come by and pick you up,” said Craig.

Sara smiled, her eyes shining. “I’ll be ready.”

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