Playing for Love (Summer Beach Vets 1) - Escape Down Under (5 page)





“You’re going out to dinner with Craig Murray?” Ellie stared at her incredulously.

Sara gave her cousin a dry look. “Is he such a monster?”

“No, it’s not that…” Ellie said. “Craig’s a really nice guy, actually. I would say he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve met since moving here.”

“I’m surprised you know him,” said Sara. “I didn’t think you’d have gone down to the animal hospital.” If there was one thing Ellie didn’t share, it was Sara’s love of animals, especially dogs.

Maybe it was because Ellie had grown up in a household which had strictly banned pets. Her parents had been fastidious about hygiene to the point of obsession and having any animal in the household had been out of the question. They had brought Ellie up with a disgust for things like cat hair and dog drool. Whenever Ellie had come over to her place back in L.A., Sara had always made the effort to do an extra vacuum and give Coco a bath. Not that her cousin had been horrible to Coco—in fact, Sara often wondered if her cousin secretly enjoyed the dog’s company—but she was definitely not an animal lover the way Sara’s friend, Fern, was. 

Now Ellie made a face. “No way. I haven’t set foot in that place. No, I met him when he came out to the resort. They’re planning to keep a small menagerie of native Australian animals there—you know, a few wallabies, emus, cockatoos—that sort of thing. And he’s sort of the vet on-call.” She gave Sara a sly look. “So
the reason you were so flustered when you got back from the vets yesterday.”

“I wasn’t flustered!” Sara protested, knowing that her cheeks were flaming already. She threw a sofa cushion at her cousin who ducked, laughing.

“Okay, okay… I’m just teasing.” Ellie sobered. “But you do know what you’re doing, Sara? I mean, this is pretty soon after everything that happened with Jeff.”

“This isn’t a rebound thing,” said Sara. “This is different.”

“Different?” Ellie frowned. “But you just met the guy yesterday.”

“It’s… I can’t explain,” said Sara helplessly. “I know I only met him yesterday, but…”

“Ooh, you’ve got it bad,” said Ellie with a grin, which got another cushion thrown at her head.

“Do you want to come too?” asked Sara hesitantly. “I mean, it
Saturday night and I hate the thought of you spending it alone. I feel a bit rude—I’ve only just arrived and I—”

“Don’t be stupid,” said Ellie waving a hand. “Go! Go and don’t feel guilty. I’m perfectly happy here. I’ll get a Thai takeout. Anyway, I’ve got some project notes I want to go over…”

“Ellie!” Sara stared at her cousin in mock horror. “You’re not working on a Saturday night!”

“It’s not really work,” Ellie hedged. “It’s just sort of… you know… advance planning…”

Sara shook her head. Ellie was a total workaholic. It was always like this. Even when they were back in school, Ellie had always been asking for extra homework and assignments. And since they had grown up, Ellie had been so focused on her career, she hardly made time for dating.

“One day,” said Sara, “you’ll meet a guy who will make you totally forget your work and I want to be there to see it!”

Ellie rolled her eyes but didn’t answer. Sara took herself off to her bedroom to change. She examined the contents of her suitcase critically. She hadn’t brought many dresses—well, she hadn’t really expected to be going out anywhere fancy. Mostly, she had packed T-shirts, shorts, and jeans. But she did bring along her favourite beach dress—a cotton voile dress in pale lemon yellow. It was simple but elegant and the colour brought out the warm tones in her skin. Best of all, the flowing lines flattered her fuller figure.

Sara slipped the dress on and then twisted her hair up into a loose bun, which she secured with bobby pins, letting a few tendrils escape to frame her face. She looked at herself in the mirror. A sweep of mascara on her lashes, a dab of concealer and a slick of peach lip gloss on her lips… and she was done.

She rummaged in her case and pulled out a pair of espadrille wedges. She looked down at her toes, then glanced at the clock on the wall. Would she have time to give them a coat of nail polish? Working quickly, Sara launched into an express pedicure. Twenty minutes later, she sat back and admired the bright coral polish on her toes. Carefully, she slipped her feet into the wedges, so as not to smudge the polish. She was just standing up and surveying herself in the mirror again when she heard the doorbell ringing.

He was here.

Her heart jumped and began racing.
Stop it
, Sara admonished herself.
You’re acting like a teenager going out on her first date!
Taking a deep breath, she left her room and walked into the living room as calmly as she could. Ellie was there, chatting with Craig by the open door, but they both looked up as she entered.

Sara saw Craig’s eyes darken as he looked at her and felt a thrill of pleasure. There was nothing in the handsome vet’s eyes but pure, uncomplicated male admiration. After the humiliation she had suffered back in L.A., it was like a balm to her soul. She barely heard Ellie’s wolf whistle as she went up to join them in the doorway.

“You look fantastic, coz,” said Ellie.

“Thank you,” murmured Sara, although her eyes were on Craig.
looked fantastic, she thought. He was wearing a white linen shirt, untucked, over beige chinos. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled back to show his tanned forearms and the collar was unbuttoned to reveal the strong column of his neck and a glimpse of his muscled chest. The clothes were loose and casual but they did nothing to hide the power in his toned physique.

“Have a good time,” said Ellie as she ushered them out.

The door shut after them and then it was just the two of them standing in the street. Twilight was gathering and the street lights glowed softly. Sara felt her old shyness returning and she found that she couldn’t look at him.

“Ellie beat me to it but… you look beautiful,” said Craig.

Sara blushed, then she was annoyed with herself. Honestly, this
worse than when she went on her first date in her teens! She cleared her throat and said, “Thank you.”

“Will you be okay walking in those?” asked Craig, glancing at her wedges.

“Oh… yes, they’re very comfortable.”

“Well, it’s not too far anyway.” He put a light hand under her elbow, his touch sending a tingle through her.

They started down the street together, walking in a companionable silence for a while, until Sara remembered something:

“Did you manage to contact the Beagle’s owner?”

Craig shook his head. “Not yet. We’ll keep trying.”

“I was thinking of popping in to see him this afternoon,” said Sara. “But then I called the animal hospital to check if it was okay and it sounded so busy, I decided you probably didn’t need the extra hassle.”

“It wouldn’t have been a hassle.” His smile was warm. “But yeah, things are a bit chaotic this week. Matt, one of the other partners, is away, and Dan is overseeing the treatment of a blowfly infestation at a sheep station out in the hinterlands. Of course, things are always busier in the summer too. People are out doing stuff with their dogs—or leaving them in backyards—so accidents and injuries are more likely to happen; it’s paralysis tick season; cats are more active… not to mention the wildlife that often gets brought in.”

“Is there just the three of you?” asked Sara.

“We’ve just had a new vet join the practice. Charlie—Charlotte—she’s newly qualified but she’s very good. Has a great way with people, which is just as important, you know, as being able to handle the animals,” he said with a wry smile. “She was on a course the last couple of days, but she’ll be back on Monday. And hopefully Dan too.”

They had just passed the animal hospital and were approaching the end of Beach Road. Instead of going down the rickety wooden steps to the beach, Craig led Sara past the open view to the rambling bungalow at the very end of the street. A crooked wooden sign hung from a post beside the entrance—“THE LAUGHING KOOKABURRA CAFÉ”—and next to the words was a stylised carving of a bird that looked a bit like an enormous kingfisher, throwing its head back, its beak open in laughter.

Craig paused by the entrance and picked up a flower that had fallen onto the post. It was a yellow-and-white frangipani. Sara looked up and saw a frangipani tree spreading its branches above them. Their sweet perfume drifted down. The ground around the entrance was littered with more fallen blooms. 

Craig held the frangipani out to her and Sara took it, remembering the old man, Ru, and what he had said about the positioning of the flower. She could feel Craig’s eyes on her as she raised the frangipani bloom to her face, then tucked it carefully above her right ear.

She might have imagined it, but she thought Craig’s broad shoulders relaxed slightly. She almost didn’t dare look up at him as she said, as lightly as she could, “Aren’t you going to wear one too?”

“Well, if I didn’t think it would damage my manly reputation, I’d wear one behind my ear,” said Craig in a teasing voice. “The right ear,” he added softly as he led her into the café.





Sara looked around with interest as they entered the café. The place was decorated with simple, rustic charm: faded wooden furniture, canvas seats, and potted palms in various corners. There were several tables inside, but most of the people seemed to be sitting at tables outside on the terrace. Craig led the way to the edge of the terrace where an intimate table was set for two, with a small posy of flowers and a flickering candle between them.

Sara caught her breath. She didn’t think she had ever been to dinner in a more beautiful setting. Beyond the table, the view stretched to the horizon, showing a deep indigo sea beneath a sky which was still streaked with crimson and orange. The beach spread below them like a blanket of pale grey and, in the distance, the dark silhouettes of the clifftops formed a dramatic cut out against the evening sky.

The shrill call of a seagull rang out close by and, beyond it, Sara could hear the soft murmuring of the ocean. A breeze stirred her hair, fanning the tendrils away from her face and bringing a whisper of goosebumps across her bare arms.

She sat down and sighed with contentment. “Summer Beach is so incredibly beautiful. I don’t know how anybody who has been here could ever leave.”

“Well, hopefully sometimes they don’t.”

Sara looked quickly at him, but Craig’s blue eyes were in shadow and she couldn’t read the expression in them. Had she heard him right? Or was she just reading extra meaning into his words? Feeling a blush tinge her cheeks, she hastily pulled the menu towards her and flipped it open, just to give herself something to do.

“A man I met on the plane said I must try the yabbies here,” Sara commented, scanning the items on the menu. Everything sounded delicious. She didn’t know how to begin to choose.

“Yabbies?” Craig made a face. “Yeah, they’re a house special here, but I’m not a huge fan of them myself. Order them if you like, though.”

“You know what?” Sara smiled, pushing her menu towards him. “I’m just going to let you order everything.”

Craig raised an eyebrow, then gave her that grin again. The one that turned her insides to mush. Sara didn’t know how she could have ever found Jeff’s fake smile attractive. That was a pale imitation of the real thing on this man here.

“Do you like fish?” he asked.

Sara nodded. “As long as they’re not raw.”

“Okay, how about some barramundi? One of the best Australian fish. Really tender, moist white flesh. And maybe calamari and some bread dips to start?” He picked up the wine list. “What do you say to a Hunter Valley
cabernet sauvignon

Sara smiled. “It all sounds great. I can’t wait.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re not one of those girls who insists on only eating lettuce salad,” said Craig.

“Maybe I
be more like that sometimes,” muttered Sara, looking ruefully down at her figure.

“You’re perfect just as you are.” His blue eyes were serious.

Sara stiffened as memories of Jeff’s words on breakfast TV came back to her.
“I love her just the way she is.”
She looked at Craig. Did any man ever really mean those words? Or was it always just a throwaway line, a thing they said because they knew that was what women wanted to hear?

“G’day, Craig—haven’t seen you round for a while.”

They both looked up as a girl in a black waitress outfit came over to their table, pen and pad poised. She had the most incredible dyed hair—a shade of bright bubblegum pink—and a scary-looking silver spike through one eyebrow, but her smile was wide and friendly. She eyed Sara with open curiosity.

Craig smiled at her. “Hi Kylie. How’ve you been?”

“Oh, you know… usual. Flat out like a lizard drinking. Had this part-timer here that was a total bludger. Thank God the boss finally gave him the boot this arvo. You guys ready to order?”

Sara blinked. She had understood about five words of what the girl said. She watched silently as Craig gave their order. But when he finished, Kylie seemed in no hurry to leave.

She leaned towards Sara. “You new here? I haven’t seen you before.”

“Um… yes, I’m just visiting my cousin, Ellie Monroe,” Sara said.

Kylie’s eyes lit up. “Oh, so you’re a Yank too! Yeah, I can totally hear it in your accent. When did you get here? How long you planning to stay?” Her eyes flicked towards Craig and her smile became speculative. “You’re a quick one, huh? Snagged yourself a handsome vet to take you round to see the sights. I’ll bet—”

“Kylie…” said Craig in an exasperated tone.

“All right, all right… don’t spit your dummy. I’ll go order your tucker.” She stuck her pen behind her ear and sauntered off.

“Wow,” said Sara, watching her leave. “I don’t think I could ever come here alone unless I brought an interpreter with me.”

Craig laughed. “You’ll learn the lingo really quickly. Give it a few weeks and you’ll be talking like a true-blue Aussie.”

I won’t be here in a few weeks
, thought Sara. And the thought filled her with sadness. There was something magical about this place—this small seaside town on the other side of the world, with friendly, warm people who spoke such quaint English and a stunningly beautiful setting that was straight out of a postcard.

She looked across the table at Craig. And

Suddenly, she wished she wasn’t going back to the States next week. Her life in California seemed so far away now. Well, it
far away, she knew, in distance, but that wasn’t what she meant. Far away as in vague, unreal, irrelevant… her old life, her humdrum job… She felt like she had been drifting aimlessly along in a big wide sea and now suddenly she had come ashore onto an island paradise. This was where she wanted to be.


She blinked, coming out of her thoughts. “Sorry,” she laughed. “I was miles away. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, in fact.”

“Feeling homesick?” he asked.

“No, no,” Sara assured him. “In fact, I was just thinking of my life back in L.A. and thinking that I wouldn’t miss much… well, except my dog, Coco.”

“You have a dog?”

“Yes, a Beagle.”

“Ah…” He smiled. “Now I’m beginning to understand better why you were so upset yesterday morning.”

Sara ducked her head sheepishly. “Yeah, I did overreact a bit. I suppose I was projecting things—imagining that it was happening to
dog. I’ve never left Coco for so long before or come so far away. And that Beagle I found looks almost exactly like her.” She sighed. “I was sort of daydreaming on the beach, imagining how wonderful it would have been to be able to bring Coco on vacation with me… but of course, I know the quarantine requirements would be crazy, especially for a short stay. Anyway, I looked up and saw this Beagle walking towards me across the sand and I thought for a moment that I was hallucinating.”

“He was lucky that you found him. Not just for the paw, but a lot longer in the sun and he could have become seriously dehydrated out on the beach.”

She looked at him curiously. “Do you have a dog?”

“I did, growing up. I had a mutt that was adopted from the local shelter. His name was Boomer. A sort of cattle dog cross. Nutty as a fruit bat but brilliant at rounding things up.” Craig shook his head, chuckling. “He lived to fifteen, which was a bloody good age. I’d love to have a dog now, but I work such long hours, it wouldn’t be fair.”

“Couldn’t you have the dog with you at the hospital?”

“Maybe,” said Craig. “But I don’t think Jandals, our resident clinic cat, would be very happy!”

Sara was about to reply when the food began to arrive and she soon stopped thinking about anything but eating all the delicious things placed in front of her. Craig had ordered crispy calamari to start, with chilli mayo and lemon wedges, accompanied by a platter of house-baked sourdough bread and a trio of dips. He had also ordered a bowl of marinated South Australian olives and a salad of butter lettuce, avocado, and cherry tomatoes, tossed in a balsamic vinegar dressing.

Then came the mains: Sara’s was pan-fried barramundi with grilled tiger prawns, roasted baby potatoes, and sautéed asparagus and zucchini. Craig had gone for the chargrilled rib-eye steak with red wine
, sweet onion mash, and garlic mushrooms. There was also a bowl of “hand-cut chips” to share. By the time Sara raised her head from her empty plate, she could barely move.

“Oh my God…” She sighed, leaning back in her seat. “That was incredible. But I think I’m going to need a forklift to get me back to Ellie’s place.”

Craig laughed. “You haven’t even had dessert yet.”

“No… no dessert for me,” protested Sara. “Really, if I eat anything else, I’ll burst.”

“Okay, how about a coffee then?” Craig said, signalling to Kylie.

By the time the waitress had cleared the table and the coffees had arrived, Sara was feeling slightly less like a beached whale. She smiled at Kylie as the waitress placed a
in front of her.

“You want a bickie with that?” asked Kylie.

“Biscuit,” Craig explained at Sara’s quizzical look.

Before Sara could answer, Kylie went back to the kitchen and returned a moment later with a plate of dark brown rectangles.

“Here.” She pointed to the plate. “Got to try these. Can’t come to Oz and not have Tim Tams.”

“Oh, Tim Tams!” Sara cried in delight. “Yes, I bought a packet at the airport. The girl there was telling me what a… er… ‘Aussie’ classic they are.”

“Too right,” said Kylie, nodding. “And you’ve got to do the Tim Tam Slam.”

“The Tim Tam Slam?” Sara looked at her, bemused.

Craig was laughing openly now. He waved Kylie away. “I’ll show Sara how to do it.”

Once the waitress was gone, Sara turned to Craig expectantly. “Well?”

“You sure you want to do this?” He grinned.

Sara nodded.

“Okay, you bite a bit off diagonal ends of the biscuit and then you stick one end into your coffee and you suck it up through the biscuit, like a straw. As soon as you feel the liquid touch your lips, you flip the biscuit round and eat it in one mouthful.”

Sara looked at him. “You’re kidding.”

“No.” He shook his head, his blue eyes twinkling. “That’s the Tim Tam Slam. It’s practically a rite of passage for us Aussies.”

“Okay…” Sara returned his smile. “I’m game.”

She picked up one of the biscuits and carefully nibbled a bit off each end, diagonally. Then she leaned over her coffee cup and dunked the far end into the hot liquid. She pursed her lips around the end close to her and sucked as hard as she could. She could feel the chocolate coating around the biscuit melting under her fingers as the coffee worked its way up through the malted chocolate biscuit. Quickly, Sara pulled the biscuit up, flipped it around, and crammed it into her mouth. There was a burst of rich, chocolaty flavour in her mouth—hot, sweet, and melting—unlike anything she had tasted before. She swallowed it all, laughing and licking her fingers.

“Wow. That was… an experience,” she said, giggling.

“You’ve still got a bit of chocolate on your chin,” said Craig. He reached across the table and gently brushed the corner of her mouth.

Sara froze as she felt the slightly callused pad of his thumb touch the edge of her lips. A shiver of anticipation ran through her body. She stopped breathing. She felt his thumb caress her skin as he gently moved it in a wiping motion. There was something incredibly sexy and yet tender about the gesture. Without thinking, she parted her lips, touching his thumb with the tip of her tongue, and she saw his eyes darken as his gaze dropped to her mouth.

She didn’t know if he moved first or if she did, but suddenly they were both leaning across the table towards each other. Closer… and closer… and closer… Craig tilted his head slightly, his lips hovering mere inches from hers. Sara could feel her heart hammering in her chest, the blood rushing in her ears. It was as if her whole being had shrunk to a pinpoint of longing. All she wanted was to feel the touch of this man’s lips on hers, to know what it was like to be kissed by him…


They sprang apart. Sara found herself breathing quickly. She eased back in her chair, trying to calm the racing of her heart as Craig pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and answered it. She watched his face change as he listened.

“Fine. Start him on a saline infusion. I’ll be right there.”

He looked at her apologetically as he slid the phone back into his pocket. “I’m sorry. It’s that puppy…”

“Go,” said Sara immediately. “I’ll be fine. It’s only a short walk back to Ellie’s.”

He looked torn. “I could walk you back quickly—”

“No,” said Sara. “You can’t waste any time. Don’t worry about me. Honestly, I live in L.A. I can handle walking through Summer Beach on a nice warm evening.” She gave him an ironic smile.

They both stood up from the table and faced each other.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said. He hesitated and, for a moment, Sara thought he was going to lean towards her, but then he gave her a quick smile and headed towards the restaurant cashier.

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