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With a gasp, Lanie Smith sat up abruptly, her floppy straw hat dislodging onto her lap and her towel a tangle amongst her hastily rearranged legs. What on earth?
A shockingly cold nose pressing insistently against her knee answered that question. The large dog, its long red coat soaked in salt water and decorated generously with beach sand, nudged her leg, then flicked its liquid chocolate gaze hopefully in her direction.
'You lose something, buddy?'
Lanie leant forward, searching amongst the folds of her towel. The dog found its soggy-looking target first and snatched the ball up, backing a quick handful of steps away before going still and staring at her again.
'You want me to throw it?'
Knowing there was really only one answer to that question, Lanie pressed her hands into the sand and climbed to her feet. She shook her head a little, still fuzzy from her impromptu nap.
One minute she'd been reading her paperback the next She glanced up at the sky, looking for the sun, and breathed a silent sigh of relief when she realised it was still low and behind her. At least she hadn't slept for long.
Not that sleeping the day away would have been such a disaster. It wasn't as if she had a million other things to do.
The dog came closer and dropped the ball with a dull plop at her feet. Hurry up.
Lanie couldn't help but smile.
'Okay, okay, buddyhere we go.'
With barely a grimace as her fingers wrapped around the slobbery ballthere was enough water here at North Cottesloe beach to wash her hands, after all Lanie weighed up her throwing options. Back towards the water, from where the dog had obviously come? Or along the shore ?
The deep voice stilled Lanie's movements. The dog momentarily glanced in the direction of the obviously familiar voice before refocussing his rapt attention on the ball.
A man loped across the blinding white sand towards her. He was shirtless, wearing only baggy, low-slung board shorts and a pair of jet-black sunglasses. The morning sun reflected off toned olive skin that glowed with exertion, and he ran a hand through slightly too long dark brown hair as he approached, leaving it standing in a haphazard arrangement.
Lanie found herself patting uselessly at her own brownish hairwhich, in contrast, she was sure had not been rakishly enhanced by the combined effects of sand, wind and the fact that she'd done no more than loop it into half a ponytail before walking out of the house this morning.
'Luther!' the man said again.
The dog moved not a muscle, every line of his body focussed on Lanie's hand.
For the first time the man glanced in her direction.
And it was only a glanceas brief and uninterested as Luther's when he'd heard his owner call his name.
'Are you planning on keeping his ball?' the man asked, shifting his weight from foot to foot as he waited for her response.
Lanie blinked behind her own sunglasses. 'Pardon me?'
He sighed, twisting his wrist to look at his watch. 'Can you please give Luther his ball? Soonish would be great.'
The ball dropped from Lanie's fingers, but the big red dog pounced as excitedly as if she'd thrown it miles away. Now he crossed the short distance to his owner, and moments later the ball was whizzing through the air and into the shallow waves. The dog followed with huge, galumphing, splashing strides.
The man left too, without a backward glance, jogging the exact parallel distance from the lapping waves as he did every single morning.
'You're welcome,' Lanie said to his rapidly retreating broad shoulders.
What a jerk.
She knelt to stuff her towel and book into her canvas tote bag, and covered her windblown hair with her hat. Well, at least now she knew.
In the past weeks she'd come to recognise most of the early-morning regulars at the beachthe dedicated open water swimmers who swam at seven a.m. every day, come rain, hail or shine. The walkersboth the walking-for-exercise and the walking-because-the-beach-is-gorgeous types. The joggers, the surfers, the sunbathersand of course the dogs.
That man was also a regular. Unlike the others, who would greet Lanie with a familiar nod or smile each morning, this man appeared to be absorbed completely in his own world. He went for his run, his dog zipping about the shore in his wakeand then he left. That was it.
Dark and interesting, Lanie had thought whenever she'd seen him. Private. Intense.
She wouldn't have been human not to wonder about a man like that. What did he do? What was his name? Was he married?
Not that she'd harboured any ridiculous daydreams. Lanie was, if nothing else, pragmatic.
But stillshe'd wondered.
And now she had the only answer she needed. So, what was he like? Rude. Definitely.
Oh, well. No great losshe could still add to her beautiful view each morning. A personality deficiency wouldn't impact on that.
With her shoes dangling from her fingers, Lanie followed a path through the green scrub-tufted dunes towards Marine Parade. Small white shells mixed amongst the sand dug into the soles of her feet. When she hit the footpath she dropped her shoes to the ground so she could step into them. The concrete was surprisingly warm, despite the lukewarm winter day.
It was Tuesday, so the Norfolk-pine-lined street was mostly empty, not crammed with cars fighting for every available space as was typical throughout summer weekends. Across the road, multi-million-dollar homes faced the cerulean ocean, with a single cafe nestled amongst their architecturally designed glory. The cafe's white-painted tables and chairs spilled outside, protected by brightly covered shade cloth sails and decorated with blue glass bottles filled with yellow daisies. Lanie's house was a two-minute walk up the hillbut a wave from the grey-haired man amongst the empty tables drew her attention.
'Lanie!' he called out, pausing his energetic sweeping to prop himself against a broom. 'Morning! Did you swim today?'
She smiled as she shook her head. 'Not today.' 'Tomorrow?'
They followed this script every day. 'Maybe.'
The man grumbled something non-distinct, but his opinion was still crystal-clear.
'Tell me what you really think, Bob,' she said dryly.
'Such a waste,' he saidjust as he had yesterdaythen patted one of the table tops. 'Coffee?'
Lanie nodded. Along with her early-morning beach visits, coffee at the eponymous Bob's Cafe had become part of her daily routine.
She slid onto the wooden chair, careful to avoid Bob's scruffy-looking apricot poodle who slept, oblivious, at her feet. Bob didn't wait to take her order, just shuffled inside to brew her 'usual': flat white, no sugar, extra shot of coffee.
On the table was today's newspaper, and automatically Lanie flipped it over as she waited.
A giant colour photograph almost filled the back page: a familiar, perfect, blinding white smile; slicked back, damp blond hair and eyes identical to those she saw in the mirror each dayexcept Sienna's were a sparkling azure blue, not brown.
'Hazel,' her mum always said. 'Not brown. If you only made more of them, Lanie, they'd be your best feature!
'Another gold medal,' Bob said, sliding a large mug and saucer onto the table.
Lanie shrugged. 'I know. She's doing really well. This is a great meet for her.'
Meet. Quite the understatement.
Bob raised his white-flecked eyebrows.
'I mean it,' Lanie saidand she did. 'I'm thrilled for her. Very proud of her.'
Her sister was in London, living Lanie's dream.
No, Sienna's dream. Lanie's dream had ended months ago, at the selection trials.
Lanie held her mug in her hands for a few moments, then raised an eyebrow at Bob, who still hovered.
'It's the relay tonight,' Bob said.
'Uh-huh.' Lanie took a too-quick sip and the hot liquid stung the roof of her mouth. She pressed her tongue against the slight pain, dismissing it.
Bob didn't push, but she felt the occasional weight of his gaze as he swept around her. He was a sports nutpure and simple. Fanatical, actuallyhe had to be to have recognised her that first morning she'd emerged from her mother's house. Lanie Smith was far, far from a household name. Sienna Smithwell, that was another story. A story that could be read in the sports pages, in gushing women's magazines, or even in lads' mags accompanied by pictures of her in far more revealing bathers than her sister wore at swim-meets.
It didn't bother her. Her younger sister was suited to the limelight and she deserved it. Lanie was much happier in the shadows and perfectly satisfied with her accomplishments as a world-class relay swimmer. Besides, she certainly didn't crave the adulation that Sienna seemed to draw like a magnet.
Mostly satisfied. Lanie mentally corrected herself. Mostly satisfied with her accomplishments.
Absently she flicked through the sporting pages, full of photos of winners on podiums.
'Wish it was you?'
She hadn't realised Bob had approached her table again, and she glanced up in surprise. 'Of course not,' Lanie repliedsnapped, really. Immediately she wished she could swallow the words. 'I'm retired,' she clarified, more calmly.
He nodded and drifted politely away againbut Lanie didn't miss the questions, and maybe concern, in his eyes.
She stood and left a handful of coins on the table, trying to ignore how her eyes had started to tingle and squint.
It was the sea breeze.
She slung her bag onto her shoulder and took big, brisk strides to exit the cafe and get home as quickly as possible.
She'd walked past three huge mansions, heading towards the street where her mother's small neat cottage was, when something caught her eye.
The glint of sun off a sweaty, perfectly muscled chest.
He jogged along the footpath on the opposite side of the road. His dog was now on a lead, intermittently gazing up at his owner in adoration.
Lanie felt herself tense, for no reason she could fathom.
She'd slowed her walk, but now she deliberately sped upback to the pace she'd been before.
She didn't care about that guy. Didn't care if he was rude. Didn't care what he thought of her.
Didn't care what Bob thought.
Didn't care what her sister thought. Didn't care what anyone thought.
She held her head high and walked briskly past. With purpose.
But out of the corner of her eye she couldn't help but watch the man.
And notice that he paid her absolutely no attention at all.
It was as if she were invisible.
The knock on Lanie's front door later that night was not unexpected.
She headed down her narrow hallway, her slippers thudding against the hundred-year-old floorboards.
She flung the door open, andas expectedbehind the fly screen stood Teagan. Her long black hair was swept off her face and semi contained in a messy bun on the top of her head, and her eyes sparkled behind red-framed glasses.
Her oldest friend held up a plastic grocery bag. 'I have four types of cheese, olives, sundried tomatoes, and something I believe is called quince. The guy at the deli told me it was awesome, but I remain sceptical.'
Teagan bounded up the hall, as comfortable in this house as her own. As kids they'd split their time between their family's homes, although Teagan's family had long upgraded and moved on, while Lanie's mum had quite happily stayed put in the house she'd grown up in.
Lanie watched as Teagan pottered around the kitchen, locating a large wooden board and helping herself to cutlery.
She didn't bother asking why her friend was here as it was so obvious. Equally obvious was the fact that Teagan had ignored her when she'd politely declined her offer to hang out with her tonight.
'It's just another race, Teags,' she'd told her. 'I'll be fine.'
Apparently she'd convinced Teagan about as well as she'd convinced herself.
Soon they'd settled on the rug in front of the TV, red wine in hand, cheese platter set out in front of them.
'You do know the final isn't until, like, two a.m.?' Lanie asked, her legs sprawled out in front of her.
'That's what coffee is for,' Teagan said between sips of wine. 'Besides, this current job I could do in my sleep. Hardly anyone calls Reception. In fact I'm starting to think they don't have any customers at all. You know ' Teagan paused, leaning forward conspiratorially. 'I reckon it's possible that it's all an elaborate front for something dodgy. I've always thought that my boss has shifty eyes '
Lanie laughed out loud as Teagan outlined a typically outlandish theory. More than once Lanie had suspected that Teagan's preference for temping over a more permanent job was purely to get new materialwhether they caught up for coffee, dinner or a drink, it was guaranteed that her friend would have a new story to tell.
As they ateand polished off the bottle of wine
Lanie flicked from channel to channel of the sports coverageheats of rowing, horses leaping over huge fences across country, cyclists whizzing around a velodrome.
'So, have you made a decision?' Teagan said a while later, her tone much more careful than before.
Lanie shifted uncomfortably. 'Has my mother been in touch?'
Teagan pulled a face. 'God, no. And it isn't like your mum's not capable of nagging you directly.' Lanie's lips quirked unevenly.
Teagan drew her legs up so she sat cross-legged. 'I was just wondering.' She paused. 'Worrying, maybe,' she added softly.
Lanie found herself biting the inside of her lip. When it happened twice in one dayfirst Bob, and now her best friendthat look really couldn't be misinterpreted.
They felt sorry for her.
Her whole focus had been aimed in one direction for so long. But now the pool wasn't calling her to training each morning. Her coach wasn't yelling at her. Her times weren't creeping downor up. She didn't have another meet to aim for.
She had no goals.
Even though she wasn't the slightest bit hungry she reached for the cheese platter, busying herself with slicing bread and cheese and then taking her time to chew and swallow, not looking at Teagan.
She mentally pulled herself into shape.
'I've decided not to go back to my old job,' she said, finally answering the question. 'It's time for a change. Managing the swim school is too much the same thing I've been doing for ever.' She attempted a carefree laugh.
'Although I can't imagine a job where my office doesn't smell of chlorine!'
Teagan, ever the good friend, smiled back, but she wasn't about to let her off the hook. 'So, the new plan is.?'
On the TV a rider toppled off his horse when the big grey animal slid to a stop before a hulking log fence. Lanie watched as he immediately jumped to his feet. She could see what he was telling everyone with his body languageI'm fine!but the commentator was explaining in a clipped British accent that this meant he was disqualified. His dream was over.
The man patted his horse's neck, then leant forward until his silk-covered helmet rested against the horse's cheek.
Lanie knew exactly how he felt.
'I don't knowmaybe I'll finish my business degree,' she said with a shrug. Three-quarters finished years ago, she'd abandoned it leading up to the national titles, intending to defer only for a semester or two. But then she'd made the Australian team, and everything had changed.
'Still living here?' Teagan's wrinkled nose conveyed exactly what she thought of that idea.
Lanie didn't know. She'd moved back in months earlier, after the selection trials. At the time it had seemed sen-sibleshe'd taken extended leave from her job, needed a break from swimming entirely, and without an income she couldn't afford the rent on her little one-bedder in Scarborough without putting a huge dent into the savings she had earmarked for a house deposit. Her mum and sister had been focused on Siennanot unusual in itselfso she'd reasoned that it wouldn't be too bad.