I raced down the stairs and onto the beach, the wind whipping past my face. My boots sunk into the sand and I watched in dismay as the little black and white Jack Russell terrier flew into the surf.
He leapt into the waves with a joyful bark. I doubled my speed, the sand slowing my flight towards the ocean. Above, the sky was grey and the breeze coming off the water was southerly, which meant ice. There was nothing out there for miles and miles, other than Antarctica... and Ziggy.
Point Mambie sat on the southern coast of Victoria, Australia. With a population of exactly one hundred, it wasn’t necessarily a happening town, if you know what I mean. In the summer, it was a hit hard with campers, surfers, and families looking for a quaint beach getaway with the kids. The main street was full of cute little souvenir shops, cafés, ice cream parlours, and craft stores. When the weather was at its hottest, all the cabins, beach houses, and campgrounds were booked, and the only road suffered from gridlock that could put the big cities to shame. Come winter, when the clouds hovered overhead, the Antarctic winds whipped in, and the temperature dropped to zero degrees Celsius, it became a ghost town.
Kinda like today.
My boot caught the edge of a pile of seaweed and I slipped, my feet flying into the air. I cried out as my arse hit the sand, the thud reverberating through my bones. Stunned, I stared up at the swirling clouds—a sign it was going to rain later—and groaned. The pile of kelp was slimy underneath me, the juices soaked into my coat, and it stunk to high heaven.
That dog was going to get it once I finally caught him. It being his most hated thing ever—a bath.
My gaze collided with a dark shadow and the curse word got stuck in my throat. A man stood a metre away, a grey knit beanie on his head and his hands shoved into the pockets of his black coat. I blinked, dazed by his sudden appearance.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice melting over me.
I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realise the guy was the type of attractive that didn’t fit in a small town. He must’ve been at least six-foot-two, and his broad shoulders were a definite sign of hidden muscles. His military-style coat was tailored, and not bought off the rack at a surf shop or army surplus store. His jaw was coated with the beginnings of a beard, halfway between purposeful stubble and unkempt indecision. Piece it all together, and he was likely a lost road-tripper from the city who was looking for the nearest winery. If I walked back up the dune, I reckoned I’d find his BMW parked in the lot.
I noticed everything about him, but it was his eyes that held my attention. They were the colour of a storm cloud—grey and blue all at the same time—and they shone with the power of a thousand storms.
He pulled his hand free from his coat pocket and held it out towards me.
The guy was the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome, which meant he belonged someplace else—especially not on a lonely beach helping me out of a pile of seaweed. I bit my bottom lip and scrambled to my feet, ignoring his offer of assistance. He was just some guy on his way through to someplace better, just like everyone else. This was reality and not a fairytale.
He grimaced and pulled his hand back.
“I’ve got sand all over my arse,” I declared morosely, brushing my palms over the back of my jeans. “Great.”
“You’re forward, aren’t you?” the man asked, his lips quirking.
“I know better than to try to impress men like you. Now that you’ve seen me up close, our brief affair is already over.”
“I wouldn’t count me out so soon,” he fired back with a smirk.
I flushed, but thankfully, the wind had already slapped my cheeks around so the temperature was hidden. Glancing at the water, I flinched as Ziggy paused to shake himself off. Water and sand went flying before he dove in for round two. Luckily, the natural curve of the land sheltered the shore from the breaks surfers favoured, so it looked more like a toddler’s wading pool than a full-on washing machine.
“Your dog?” the man asked as we stared at Ziggy as he leapt through the waves that lapped on the shore.
“He’s a friend’s,” I replied with a sigh.
My shoulders sank. “Every chance he gets.”
“He loves life, which is more than most people can say. I’m jealous.”
My eyebrows rose. “You envy a dog?”
“Sure, don’t you?”
I glanced at the guy out the corner of my eye. His tone suggested something more, but I didn’t pry. After all, he was a stranger. Everyone knew if you let handsome strangers tug at your heartstrings, you’d end up in little pieces in the boot of their BMW.
“What’s his name?” he asked.
I shoved my hands into the pockets of my coat. “Ziggy.”
“As in Ziggy Stardust.”
“David Bowie.” The guy nodded in appreciation. “Cool.” He glanced at me and a strange light flickered through his eyes. “And you are?”
I tensed, thinking about the axe he probably had hidden up the beach. Hot guys never spoke to me, the ginger orphan girl with freckles, lack of social skills, ill-fitting coat, and who wore eau de rotting kelp.
“It’s cool. I’m just a strange dude on an empty beach,” he said staring out over the waves.
“Point Mambie, huh?” I quipped, tugging a strand of ginger hair away from my face. “Long way from home?”
“I don’t really have one of those.” He shrugged. “I travel a lot.”
“I’ve always wanted to travel, but I’m stuck here.”
“We always want what we don’t have,” he mused. “Strange, isn’t it?”
I nodded. Yeah, I could roll with that.
“You live here?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “All my life.”
“It’s a beautiful place.”
“You haven’t seen it during the summer.”
“Why? Is it better then?”
“Depends,” I replied with a shrug. “If clogged with tourists is your jam, then yeah, it’s stunning.”
“So... anywhere good to eat at around here?”
Okay, so now I was the local tourist information ambassador. My heart sank a little, but at least it hadn’t risen very far.
“Not this time of year,” I said, curling my hands into fists inside my pockets. “The local pub does counter meals, but they don’t open until eleven. Same with the fish ‘n’ chip shop. Otherwise, there’s a supermarket just off Main Street. Everything else opens for dinner. I’m afraid it doesn’t get any fancier than chicken parma and dim sims.”
The man laughed and shook his head. “I’m not looking for fancy.”
“I look fancy?” It was his turn to make a face. “I’m slipping. Good to know.”
I raked my gaze over him once more. His jeans were torn, but that didn’t mean much. People bought into designer holes these days. His boots were scuffed, but I could put those into the same category. I didn’t know what his vibe was, to be honest. Did he want me to ask, or was he looking for some solitude? I mean, why else would someone walk along a deserted beach at this hour of the morning if they were out to find a sympathetic audience?
The man pointed towards the water. “You need help fishing him out?”
I glanced at Ziggy and sighed as he began to snap at the latest set of waves.
“No, I just need to get the end of his lead. He usually follows after that.” I glanced at the guy beside me and held in another sigh. He was just a guy making conversation to be polite. “I better go.” I started off towards the water, my gaze searching for the end of the lead.
I turned at the sound of the guy’s voice.
“I’m Sebastian,” he called out.
He smiled, his lips pulling lopsidedly. “Maybe I’ll see you and Ziggy around.”
“Maybe.” Unlikely. It was my turn to feel the same sadness that’d tugged at his voice earlier. All the decent guys left. Always.
When I glanced up, Sebastian had already made it across the beach to the stairs leading up to the carpark. Like I said, interesting prospects didn’t last long in the Point.
Ziggy shook himself, sending water and sand in all directions, then proceeded to kick up half the beach with his hind feet.
His head tilted to the side and he let out a howl before dropping the sand and showing me his belly.
“Nice try, mister. Nice try.”
Glancing up the beach, the hot stranger was gone and I couldn’t help the pang of disappointment that tore through my heart. One day a guy like that would stop for me. I shook my head and tightened my grip on Ziggy’s lead. Fat chance.
Nothing ever happened in Point Mambie. Nothing at all.
Once my mother’s pride and joy, it was now mine. It sat on the main street of Point Mambie, a colonial building protected by heritage laws like all the other buildings on the street. Once upon a time, this place had been a landing point for convict ships from the other side of the world. Now it was a sleepy town on the edge of the world. Not much had changed if you asked me.
The floor was uneven, the walls were lined with rickety shelving, and mismatched bookshelves divided the shop in two. Sections for general fiction, romance, crime, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and children’s books wrapped their way around the inside, and non-fiction, such as travel, cooling, biography, nature, and self-help books, wrapped around the outside. There was even a space by the front for local authors and books that were loosely tied to the area. Just the way my mum had organised it.
Gold lettering was painted on the inside of the windows, the Old English style logo of the shop dominating the outside. Displayed along the front counter—where my laptop sat on the top and Ziggy’s bed was nestled underneath—were some local book-themed handicrafts of bookmarks, book bags, and e-reader cases. On the exposed brickwork behind was a framed poster from the first ever Byron Bay Bluesfest.
This shop held my entire life. It wasn’t hard to imagine since I’d lived in the tiny apartment above it since the age of five. Memories, good and bad, were seeped into every floorboard, every brick, and every page that found its way into and out of the Page Break Bookshop.
The door burst open and a gust of icy air blew between the shelves.
“You’ll never guess!”
I glanced up from the pile of novels I was sorting and stared at my best friend, Vanessa, who’d arrived in a sudden burst of over-enthusiasm. Ziggy raised his head from his bed underneath the front counter and thumped his tail at the sight of his owner.
“What’s that smell?” she asked, sniffing the air.
“Ziggy took an impromptu swim during his morning walk.”
“Again?” Frowning at the dog, she moaned, “Ziggy!”
The scrappy little Jack Russell terrier gazed at her with his big brown eyes and licked his lips. He was banned from treats after his performance but knew Vanessa was good for them, no matter his indiscretion.
“You’re late,” I said, raising an eyebrow.
“You’re going to pull that line with me? Have you seen where we live?”
I glanced out the window at the rainy day beyond and sighed. Nothing moved, except fat raindrops and a wad of stormy grey clouds that raced across the horizon. She was right, just like I’d been right about the weather forecast. In the middle of winter, it didn’t matter what time she turned up. No one else was coming.
“So, you’ll never guess...” she went on, hanging her coat and bag on the hook behind the counter.
Better not tell her about the handsome stranger on the beach, then. I was looking at the instigator of ninety-nine point nine percent of gossip around here. She was a good friend, but loose lips sunk ships.
Vanessa pouted and waited patiently for me to play my part in the circle of life. That was the thing about living in a small seaside town that thrived on its summer tourist trade. There was nothing else to do in the off months except gossip about the other, equally as bored, people who lived here.
“I ran into Marg down the street and she told me the house on the bluff has been rented.” Marg was the real estate agent’s wife and rivalled Vanessa for the crown of town gossip monger.
I paused. “That big fancy beach house?”
I didn’t want to think it, but maybe it was that guy, Sebastian. He looked like he could afford it. Ugh, what was the point? This wasn’t a summer romance, or a winter one for that matter. The only male relationship I had was with my best friend’s dog.
“What? Like a depressing little shit hole?” I retorted.
“What? We all think it.” I made a face and went back to sorting the next pile of books beside me.
Everyone’s business struggled through the off-season, and the complaints never stopped, even when the cash started to roll in. The townsfolk loved the money, then grumbled that their way of life was being exploited. And then there were the animals and the endangered plants people kept trampling on. Me? I didn’t know what to think. Mostly, I’d rather just hang out with Ziggy and save the little penguins than mingle with humanity. It wasn’t a secret that I’d never quite meshed.
“You could leave, you know,” Vanessa said.
“And where would I go?” I snorted as I picked up a battered copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, also known as the most donated book ever. Was it an omen? Unlikely. “This is my mum’s shop. You know I can’t leave.”
“Then stop complaining. Anyway, what’s up your butthole today? Got your period, huh?”
“Vanessa!” I shrieked, causing Ziggy to raise his head and bark.
“You need to get laid.”
“Yeah, by who?” I shot back. “There’s zero cocks around here.”
“There’s plenty of cocks.”
“Then I know what I’m getting you for your birthday. A penis-shaped vibrator. A big one.”
I laughed and rubbed my eyes. “All my dreams are coming true!”
Vanessa sighed and flopped down onto the chair behind the counter. “Who do you think it is?”
“In the beach house? No idea,” I replied. “Maybe it’s some rich prick who’s on a pretentious sabbatical or something.”
“Maybe it’s a hot rich prick.”
“You remember Hugo, right?” I asked. “The guy you married two years ago?”
I glanced at the little diamond on her engagement ring and frowned. “It’s not the size of the diamond—”
“It’s the size of his cock,” she finished for me.
“I was going to say heart,” I complained.
She smiled and leaned back in the chair. “I know. You’re a hopeless romantic, you know that?”
Hopeless was the perfect word.