This month, we’re reading:

Just An Ordinary Family

Fiona Lowe

Jodi Picoult meets Liane Moriarty in this tensely negotiated story of family ties, betrayal and sacrifice.

Every family has its secrets…

Alice Hunter is smarting from the raw deal life has thrown her way: suddenly single, jobless and forced to move home to her parents’ tiny seaside town. And now she faces an uncomfortable truth.
She wants her twin sister Libby’s enviable life.
Libby’s closest friend Jess Dekic has been around the Hunter family for so long she might as well be blood. She’s always considered herself a sister closer to Libby than Alice ever could be …

Libby Hunter has all of life’s boxes ticked: prominent small-town doctor, gorgeous husband and two young daughters. But when she is betrayed by those she loves most, it reveals how tenuous her world is…

For Karen Hunter, her children are a double-edged sword of pain and pride. She’s always tried to guide her girls through life’s pitfalls, but how do you protect your children when they’re adults?

As the family implodes, the fallout for these four women will be inescapable…

This title will run until August 31.

Chapter 1

January

Alice Hunter sneezed into her shoulder three times and then, despite the warm summer day, shivered. It was a sure sign she was sick. These were the moments when she missed being a kid.

When she was growing up, her mother had strict rules about illness and one of Karen’s favorite sayings had been, “If you can stand and argue with me about going to school, you’re well enough to go.” Many times, Alice had reluctantly stuffed her bag with books and stomped out the door. But whenever Alice had spiked a temperature, Karen had always tucked her up in bed and fed her chicken soup.

“Table seven.” Jake, the chef and owner of the restaurant, slid hot plates onto the pass-through and frowned. “You look like crap. Don’t give whatever it is to the customers.”

“Gee, thanks. And here I was thinking you might make me some immune boosting soup.”

“You’re lucky I’m not making you work a double shift.”

Not for the first time, Alice wondered how the life she’d envisioned for herself had come to this. Despite her best laid plans, she was back in Kurnai Bay, living in her childhood home and working four part-time jobs. Waitressing during the summer crush was the worst of them.

Alice carried the pasta bowl and the fish plate to table seven, offered pepper and parmesan cheese and smiled against aching teeth. Great. She probably had sinusitis on top of the cold. She considered dropping into the medical practice on the way home in case Libby could squeeze her in for an appointment. Then again, Libby’s patients had to be halfway to septic shock before she prescribed antibiotics. Her twin would recommend saline nasal spray, steam inhalations and a review in three days.

“We need another bottle of water.” The woman at table seven gave Alice the empty bottle.

“Absolutely. I’ll be right back.”

Alice hip-swiveled her way between the closely set tables. When she was halfway to the bar, someone grabbed the back of her T-shirt.

“We’re ready to order. We’ve been ready for ten minutes.”

Get your hands off me, you fat, ugly pig. “Excellent.”

Alice didn’t point out that their menus were still wide open, which signaled to her they were still prevaricating. Nor did she mention she was on an errand for another table and she’d be back in a minute—she’d learned it was faster to just take the order. Then she’d deliver it to the kitchen, collect table seven’s water and return. Waitressing, she had down pat. It was the rest of her life that was a shambles.

Her nose tickled in a raft of irritation and she sneezed into her shoulder.

The customer leaned back, his face aghast. “We’re on vacation. We didn’t come here to get sick. Should you even be working?”

Probably not, but she didn’t have the luxury of not working today. No one in Kurnai Bay did. They had four months to earn a year’s income so they could survive the slower winter months. Once Easter was over, the town returned to the sleepy fishing village it had been since whalers and sealers plied their trade, the sea had been the highway to Melbourne and Sydney, and Canberra wasn’t even a twinkle in Australia’s eye.

Released from work a few hours later, Alice slumped on the same couch she’d lain on as a child—albeit reupholstered—only unlike when she was a kid, no one was home to fuss over her, stroke her forehead and tell her a favorite story. Although it had been years since either Karen or Peter had recounted the story of her birth—her surprise arrival twenty minutes after Libby’s—it was part of the Hunter family’s folklore. Not once as either a kid or an adult had Alice ever begrudged Libby her first-born status. Her theatrical soul preferred the story of her more exciting birth.

Her parents were out of town on their annual Melbourne vacation. They maintained that the big city in January was far more peaceful than Kurnai Bay, and they had a point. In previous years, Karen and Peter had stayed with Alice in her beloved Victorian terrace house in leafy Albert Park. This year, they’d rented a two-bedroom apartment in Docklands through Airbnb. They’d wanted Alice to come with them and although part of her appreciated their invitation, she’d rather walk over shards of glass than visit Melbourne. It hurt a little that her parents didn’t understand that.

Alice’s bug, which had been busy lobbing its fever and energy-stealing weaponry on her body, finally reached her mind. It easily breached the defenses she’d spent months bricking into place. Helplessly, she felt herself tumbling back into the quagmire of despair that had claimed her once before and she’d fought so hard to leave. A sob rose to the back of her throat and combining with her snot-clogged nose, she choked. Coughing violently, she sat up fast. Tubby, the family’s elderly cat, meowed indignantly and sank his claws into Alice’s thighs to stall his slide off her lap.

“Ouch! Play nice, Tubby.” She leaned over the cat and grabbed tissues before lying back on the cushions. So, this was what her wonderful life had been reduced to? She was thirty-three and a half, ambivalently single, back living under her parents’ roof, working minimum wage jobs, and so full of goop she couldn’t cry and breathe at the same time. Hell, she couldn’t even be sick right.

Her phone rang and she snatched it up. “Hi, Libs.”

“You sound like death warmed up,” her twin said.

“Summer cold.”

“Poor you. It’s going around. Thank God, I’m on a half-day. The clinic’s been full of sad-sack tourists for two days and I’m over the monotony of doling out tissues and sympathy. By 11:00, I found myself daydreaming about broken bones and chest pain.”

Alice laughed, immediately coughed and imagined Libby holding the phone away from her ear. She managed a strangled, “Sorry.”

“I was calling to invite you for dinner. Nick’s barbecuing and Jess is coming, but it sounds like you need to stay in bed.”

Libby didn’t say, “and not infect the rest of us” but it was there in her doctor’s tone. Her twin had always been direct and never put up with any nonsense—not even when they were children. Unlike Alice, Libby had always known exactly what she wanted and set out to make it happen. When Alice was compared to Libby’s single-minded determination and competitive streak, she came across as dreamy, vague and aimless.

“Do you need anything, Al? I’ve got some soup in the freezer I could drop-off.”

“Thanks, but I’m fine.”

“If you’re sure. Yell out if you change your mind. I’ll call tomorrow.”

The line fell silent and Alice lay picturing tonight’s dinner. Her nieces and Jess’s little boy would charge around playing on the soft Santa Ana lawn while Nick cooked and kid wrangled. He’d pour Libby and Jess a glass of wine and insist they relax and “catch up,” as if the two women rarely saw each other. The reality was Libby and Jess talked every day and met face-to-face at least three times a week.

A pale green snake slithered through Alice, although she didn’t know if it was headed toward the children, Nick—a prince among men—or Libby’s twenty-year friendship with Jess. Didn’t all the twin studies prove that twins are each other’s best friend? And yet, she and Libby were the exception to the rule.

For the first thirteen years of her life, Alice had struggled to keep up with Libby, who was smarter and more coordinated than she’d ever be, but the one thing that had sustained her was being her twin’s best friend. Everything changed the day Jess arrived in Kurnai Bay and Libby’s focus shifted away from Alice. Suddenly, her twin was just a sister. It was the first time Alice experienced true heartache. Now she was a pro, although she wasn’t certain she was any better at dealing with it.

Karen had tried consoling a sobbing Alice, telling her it was normal for girls to have a wide circle of friends with different interests and that Libby’s friendship with Jess didn’t mean she loved Alice any less. But Alice didn’t see it that way. Jess was everything Alice wasn’t: worldly, street smart, edgy and confident. Dangerous even, although only Alice thought that. Her mother had dismissed her concerns as “nonsense’”

Karen, usually so cautious about people outside of their social circle, happily welcomed Jess to Pelican House. Once, when a frustrated Alice complained that Jess was “always here,” Karen had replied firmly, “Her life hasn’t been as easy as yours.”

Alice’s early years had been a continuous round of therapies—speech, occupational, physiotherapy—with Karen constantly pushing her to practice her reading, writing and times tables. She hadn’t thought her life was particularly easy. She’d gone to bed each night hoping the intense friendship would burn out and that Jess would tire of Libby. But far from fracturing, the friendship deepened, leaving Alice firmly on the outside whenever Jess was around.

Now all three of them were grown and back in the bay, Alice was finding it harder than ever to catch her twin on her own. Not that Nick was the problem—it was Jess who left Alice feeling thirteen again and a third wheel. Or did she just allow herself to feel like that? Was she the problem? She got a definite vibe from Libby that her twin believed she was. Judging by the therapy podcasts she’d been bingeing recently—it was voyeurism catnip—feeling this way was probably due to some deep-seated insecurities from childhood. It seemed everything stemmed from childhood. The problem was, Alice’s childhood had been rock-solid stable and full of love. It was her adulthood that was proving the challenge.

Six months earlier, everything Alice believed to be true about her adult life had blown up with the force of a terrorist’s bomb, shattering her life in ways she’d never thought possible. Lawrence, the love of her life, her partner of three years and the future father of her brown-eyed, curly-haired children, had taken her to their favorite restaurant—the venue of their first date. Giddy with excitement, Alice had spent the day anticipating a proposal and an engagement ring. Instead she got, “It’s not you, it’s me. I just don’t love you enough.”

Whenever she looked back on that cold July night, facing Lawrence across the table as he worked through his printed list of their shared possessions, she still couldn’t fathom how she’d managed to eat a meal and participate in the destruction of their thirty-six months together.

“You take the Creuset cookware and I’ll keep the DeLonghi coffee machine,” he’d suggested.

“Because you don’t cook and I don’t appreciate coffee?”

“Exactly.”

“What about the Emily Kame Kngwarreye? We both appreciate that.” They’d bought the canvas at auction a year before. It was Alice’s first big art investment, but it had also been an investment in Lawrence.

“I don’t want to sell it just yet.”

Through the anesthetizing shock, Alice had managed a moment of clarity. As much as she loved the painting, she couldn’t afford to buy Lawrence out and she needed money to eat. “Then we get it independently appraised and you pay me half.”

Lawrence’s grimace had been the first sign that their separation might leave a flesh wound.

Lawrence still lived in the house Alice had lovingly decorated, only now he shared it with another woman who wore his great-grandmother’s antique diamond. The effect of “not being loved enough” had hit Alice with the devastation of a tsunami. Within hours, she’d lost her home, her job in Lawrence’s family’s high-end art auction house and her friends. That had felled her as much as losing Lawrence. She hadn’t anticipated the loss of their friends, but as they’d been his friends first, they’d closed ranks after the separation and locked her out. Alone and jobless, she homed like a pigeon, desperately seeking reassurance that someone still loved her.

Her life had been officially declared a train wreck by everyone who’d heard the story. And since this was the bay, not only had everyone heard the story, they’d gleefully discussed it at the Returned Soldiers League—RSL—the supermarket, the marina—hell, she was surprised it hadn’t gotten its own segment on Kurnai Bay community radio. People greeted her with sympathy for her circumstances, but it was always overlaid with sheer relief that they weren’t being forced to start over when societal rules declared that your thirties were prime time for career advancement and personal success.

Her parents and Libby had tiptoed around her for a couple of weeks, her mother hovering like a hawk. Then the advice kicked in.

“Today’s the perfect day to get up, shower and go for a walk along the coast.” Her mother threw open the bedroom curtains. “Spring sunshine and a calm sea soothes the soul. I’ll come with you.”

Her dad handed her a piece of paper with a phone number scrawled on it. “The RSL needs a part-timer at the bar.”

“Don’t give him your power,” Libby instructed with the certainty of a woman who’d never been dumped.

Alice had hunkered down, concentrating on getting through each day. For the first time in years, she’d embraced the prohibitive distance between herself and Melbourne. If it wasn’t for those 280 miles, she’d likely have stalked her old home, been caught standing in the yard at 02:00 screaming “Why?” and been arrested for slashing the tires on Lawrence’s and Laetitia’s cars. Who knew isolation was protective?

By the time December arrived—those festive weeks that shine a spotlight on singledom and mark it out as failure—she didn’t fall apart. Her New Year resolutions didn’t include “meeting someone”, but did include plans to pursue her own interests so she was a fully evolved woman. She didn’t need a man to be happy, and besides, she was far too busy juggling four jobs. Who had time to date, let alone the energy?

But on this hot January day, illness was shooting its DNA into her cells with the accuracy of an archer, and its message overrode her single life convictions with targeted precision.

You’re not pursuing any interests and you’re so far from being self-actualized, Maslow would boot you to the bottom of his pyramid. You haven’t contributed any money to your retirement fund in six months. You’re lonely. You’re scared. Alone. Childless. Just an auntie. Abject failure.

McDougall, her parents’ border collie, wandered in and, sensing Alice’s mood, laid his head on her chest. Tubby stretched out a paw as if to bat the dog away but his claws stayed sheathed. Doleful brown collie eyes and challenging green cat ones stared up at Alice—sympathy and provocation. Tubby was having none of her wallowing.

Whether it was the cat’s disdain for her pity party or the pseudoephedrine kicking in with its can-do attitude—or a combination of the two—she unceremoniously dumped Tubby off her lap, sat up and flipped open her laptop. If she wanted a shot at what sixty-four per cent of the adult population took for granted, there was nothing wrong with taking control of her life. She’d be more of a cliché if she sat around eating ice cream than being proactive. Bringing up a browser, she typed in, “best dating sites.” 760,000,000 results came up. Her heart raced and she snapped the lid shut. Tubby gave her a death stare.

“Okay, fine.” She reopened the computer and clicked on a site that explained ten of the most popular dating sites and apps. She quickly ruled out Boomer Singles, LGBTIQ Matchmaker and Hookup Heaven. She was looking for love, commitment and the promise of children. One site boasted over 25,000 marriages so she clicked on the link.

A box appeared on the screen. Name? Email? Zip code? Too easy.

How many children do you have? As she typed 0, the ache she’d fought to banish reappeared.

Date of birth? Alice typed in the unforgiving truth and then her finger hovered over the delete key. Her thirty-fourth birthday was six months away. Was that old? Was the truth overrated? But lying on the fifth question didn’t seem to be best practice so she left the year unaltered. Ethnicity? Boring white Anglo-Saxon, although her father’s swarthy skin hinted at something a little more interesting at some point back in the day. Perhaps she should be answering questions on Ancestry.com instead of here. Religion? Not really. Education level? Post grad. Her fingers flew. She could do this.

Occupation? Alice’s fingers paused, drumming lightly on the keys. What to write? Unemployed art catalog designer? Not quite fully qualified art auctioneer? Waitress? Boat cleaner? She typed “journalist,” justifying she was writing the community events notices for the Kurnai Bay Gazette and the occasional interview and opinion piece.

Income? So much less than it had been.

Height? 5’5”.

Smoke? Never. Karen’s drug education had terrified Alice so much she’d never even been tempted to try a cigarette.

Drink? If you’re offering. She got up and poured herself a glass of wine.

What are you passionate about? World peace. Now you sound like Miss Universe. She hit backspace and gulped down half the glass of wine. What was she passionate about? Once she would have said art history, but that led straight back to Lawrence. Staying solvent didn’t sound attractive nor did sorting the recycling. That was her current passion—bug bear really.

How hard was it for people to sort the bottles and the papers from the waste? Judging by the restaurant bins, which she dealt with at the end of each shift, and the hash the tourists made of the bins in the main street and the caravan park, it was very hard indeed. Did they want the white sand beach and the ocean they loved so much to be a flotilla of plastic bags?

Thinking of the sea, she typed “sailing” as her passion and vowed to dust off the Laser, which she hadn’t sailed in years. Or ask Nick if she could tag along as crew on the Wednesday afternoon race.

The dots at the bottom of the screen did a flashing run and then the words Compatibility Quiz appeared accompanied by seven buttons of graduated colors with the words Not at all, Somewhat and Very well strung under them. Above the buttons it said, How well does this word describe you? Beneath the sentence red words dominated. Stable? Energetic? Affectionate? Intelligent? Compassionate? Loyal? Witty? Very well. Very, very well!

Stylish? Sensual? Sexy? She looked down at her old shorts and stained T-shirt. Had once been all three, although not necessarily at the same time. Was not currently but could be again. Would be when her nose stopped dripping.

Athletic? Compared to Libby, not at all. Compared with the average Australian, very well. Heck, she walked to work.
Content? Very well. The bug mocked her. She changed it to the next button down and refused to alter it again.

Patient? This quiz is testing me. God, there were six more sections like this to complete.

How well does this word describe you: Bossy, irritable, aggressive, outspoken, opinionated, selfish, stubborn? Who in their right mind would ever admit to these things when they’re looking for a prospective partner, let alone a date?

The next section was titled, Talk to us about your feelings and the choices for the seven buttons changed to Rarely, Occasionally and Almost always. In the last month have you felt happy, sad, anxious, fearful of the future, out of control, angry, depressed, misunderstood, plotted against? Do your palms sweat when you meet new people?

Her entire body was a dripping mess of sweat. She closed the laptop and switched on the air conditioner, fanning herself with a copy of the latest edition of the Gazette. It was open on an advertisement for a new resort and the photos showed a family romping on the giant inflatable jumping pillow and swimming in the pool. The three children had curly hair.

The ache inside Alice burned. She wanted children and technically in today’s progressive society she could have a child and raise it on her own without stigma. Women did it all the time, although she had a sneaking suspicion that only a very small percentage—either straight or gay—chose to do it that way. Jess was one of those women and strident in her conviction that she was better off having a child on her own instead of involving a man who, would invariably let her down.

But Alice wasn’t Jess. She wanted a partner—she wanted to be part of a team like her parents, and her twin. She’d watched Libby and Nick in action often enough to know that even with a hands-on partner and grandparents to fall back on, there were times when parenthood was a hard slog. Alice wanted more than just to endure motherhood, she wanted to enjoy it. She wanted to share the experience with someone who wanted it as much as she did.

Whether it was being sick or just the inevitable outcome of circumstances, Alice’s New Year’s resolutions that had defended her single life now fell away, exposing a battered but intact belief. Yes, there were happy women actively choosing to live a single life and Alice admired their convictions. Good for them. But Alice wasn’t one of them. They weren’t her tribe and she’d erroneously hitched her wagon to their cause, thinking it would give her strength and purpose.

The problem was she hadn’t chosen to be single—that decision had been forced upon her. In her fevered state she saw two roads in front of her. The popular and oft-quoted road: “One day when you least expect it, Alice, you’ll meet somebody.” But she couldn’t imagine the odds of randomly meeting The One would be in her favor in a city of four million, let alone in a town of roughly 3,000, even when she factored in the 30,000 summer swell.

The second road was the online match. Why had she been so stridently opposed to it before? She had a vague memory of lecturing some poor bloke at the RSL who’d kindly—albeit misguidedly—tried to make her feel better by telling her about his son who “did the on the line dating, love. Met a lovely girl.” After all, how was using a website to find a match any different from cultures who used a matchmaker? Or family and friends? Most importantly, the website she’d chosen was backed by science!

Social science, not real science.

Alice ignored Libby’s voice in her head and reopened the laptop. She faced the next quiz statement—I am looking for a long-term exclusive relationship.

Absolutely agree.

Then channeling the “fake it till you make it” mantra, she tackled the dreaded profile.

AliceIsWonderland33

I find adventure all around me in the big and little things. The silver flash of a dolphin, the shriek of corellas as they dart across a pink sky and the way a painting can transport me to a different place. I love living the outdoor life on the coast and when I’m not sailing or hiking, I’m enjoying novels and doing the quiz in the weekend papers. Are you up for a trivia showdown? I love robust conversations over cups of tea and debates over red wine. I can’t hold a tune but I don’t let that stop me.

The real Alice was buried in there somewhere.

Libby hung up the phone and chewed her lip. Even when Alice was a hundred per cent well, she didn’t always accept her invitations, but should she be taking her twin at her word that she was fine? Alice hadn’t been fine since that bastard broke her heart and destroyed her dreams. Libby still couldn’t believe what Lawrence had done to Alice, let alone how he’d done it. Against Nick’s advice, she’d texted the scumbag, telling him exactly what she thought of him. He’d replied with an infuriating “Sorry.” It had left her enraged for days. Sorry was so easy. So glib. So not enough. Lawrence wasn’t the one watching Alice barely existing and just going through the motions. Worrying about her. Recently though, her twin did seem happier, but on a scale from devastated to content, it wasn’t that big a shift up the line.

Of course, it could be that right now Alice was frantically paddling under the surface like the rest of the town. The irony of living in a tourist destination was that summer was far from relaxing. It brought sunshine and a shipload of stress for the locals as they created a laid-back environment for vacationers. It didn’t leave much time to think about anything other than the job at hand. Not thinking about things was a new approach to life for Libby, but one she’d been perfecting for almost two and a half years.

It had been a revelation to her how much easier it was to focus on other people’s problems instead of dealing with her own. Thank goodness for patients—they had plenty of problems to keep her occupied. She thought about Jess. Her best friend was far from being a problem—she was a blessing—and her return to the bay had been the lone bright spot in a very dark time. Jess’s company always filled Libby with a mixture of joy and exhilaration. Unlike Alice, who either procrastinated until Libby was ready to scream or acted impulsively, Jess always knew what she wanted and went for it. It was a character trait Libby recognized in herself and she’d admired it in Jess from the first day she’d watched the thirteen-year-old sauntering through the school gates on a hot November morning.

Wearing foundation and eyeliner, a far-too-short school dress and her long black hair cascading across her shoulders in a mass of unrestrained curls, the new girl had broken at least three uniform rules. But that wasn’t the reason everyone took a second glance. Jess’s utilitarian school uniform clung to her curves, leaving nothing to the imagination. It was in stark contrast to Libby’s dress, which fell sack-like from her shoulders, because Karen had insisted on buying a dress one size too big. “It’s expensive and you’ll grow into it.” But her mother’s practicality hid breasts that filled a bra and Libby chafed against the uniform that stripped her body of all signs that she was no longer a child, but a woman. Why couldn’t her mother see that?

But it wasn’t Jess’s sense of style that impressed Libby the most, it was the fact she was her own person. She refused to accept a hard time from anyone and she didn’t conform or care what the other girls thought of her—she walked her own path. Jess’s “I don’t give a damn” attitude was intoxicating. It was a freedom Libby had never experienced. She’d been raised to always consider how her actions might affect others, especially her twin. But recently, she’d had intense moments when she wanted to scream and break free. Do what she wanted without having to worry about anyone else’s feelings.

To be a separate person from Alice.

Libby had made the first friendship move, inviting Jess to Pelican House. After the successful first visit, she’d expected a return invitation, but Jess had continued walking home with the twins and whenever Libby hinted that they go to Jess’s house, her new friend ignored her. This frustrated Libby, because she wanted alone time with Jess and that was impossible at Pelican House. Eventually Libby took the situation into her own hands. Telling her mother she was visiting the van den Bergs, she bicycled to where she thought Jess lived—her friend had been vague about her exact address. At first, she thought she must have the wrong house—weeds dominated the few scraggly plants, the car in the driveway looked like an old clunker and the paint on the clapboards was peeling off in strips—but the other houses in the street didn’t look much different. Libby knocked hesitantly and relaxed the moment Jess answered the door.

“Hi!”

Jess scowled from around the barely open door. “What are you doing here?”

“I thought we could hang out. You know, just us.”

“I didn’t think you went anywhere without your shadow.”

The need to be her own woman rose above Libby’s guilt about leaving Alice behind. “We don’t do everything together.”

Jess didn’t look like she believed her so Libby added, “I do surf lifesaving. Alice doesn’t.”

“Does she do anything except watch you do stuff?”

“Not really.”

“Your twin’s kind of a baby.”

Although Jess had just articulated exactly what Libby thought, the need to defend her twin was instinctive. “It’s not her fault she’s immature. She was sick when we were little.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

Libby hesitated and then gave in to the nub of the problem. “Alice does everything slower than me. She doesn’t have her period yet.”

“Or boobs. Does she even notice guys?”

Libby sighed. “No.”

“Lucky for you, I came to town.” But Jess still hadn’t opened the door any wider.

Libby smiled. “So can I come in? I brought double chocolate Tim Tams.”

Jess snorted. “Of course you did.” But she accepted the packet and finally let Libby in, hustling her down a narrow hall lined with cardboard boxes. Libby glanced sideways into rooms, glimpsing a television balanced precariously on old wooden fish co-op boxes, cereal bowls from breakfast still on the kitchen table along with white bags from the drug store and a bottle of rum. Where were the cut flowers? The lace tablecloth? The computer in its dedicated corner? The books? The aroma of dinner cooking? Nothing about this house said home. Before Libby could think of a compliment—Karen had taught her to always say something nice—Jess pushed her into a room and slammed the door.

Jess’s bedroom was as neat and tidy as the rest of the house was cluttered. Posters of Pink and Justin Timberlake were blu-tacked on the walls and there was a stack of Seventeen and Cosmopolitan magazines by her bed. This stack impressed Libby the most—it was the equivalent of finding a Bardot CD at the thrift shop. Karen had rejected her recent request to read Seventeen, telling her she needed to be fifteen. Libby hadn’t dared ask how old she needed to be to read Cosmopolitan. While Jess curled up on her bed painting her nails black, Libby devoured every copy of Seventeen before moving on to the far more daring Cosmo.

If she’d flashed hot and cold thinking about her crush while she read “seventy-eight ways to turn him on,” it was the “hotter sex for you” that sent her home determined to find something called her clitoris. Before that fateful afternoon, she hadn’t known she had one. It was like stepping into a whole new world and she thanked the universe for introducing her to Jess.

The magazines and other forbidden things in Jess’s room were the first secrets Libby kept from Alice. Her twin wouldn’t understand—she was still drawing butterflies and fairies in her sketch book and watching Saddle Club when Libby railed to watch Big Brother and E.R. While Alice was content to stay a little girl, Libby wanted to date boys and experiment with the divine rush of feelings she got playing with herself in the bath.

When Libby asked her parents for her own bedroom, Alice cried. Libby didn’t feel as bad as she should have for upsetting her twin.

Jess and Libby became inseparable. Although Karen acknowledged Libby’s right to have her own friend, she frequently insisted Alice tag along. It hadn’t worked particularly well when they were thirteen and by the time they were seventeen, it was a disaster. Alice always gave off a critical vibe that made Libby feel as if it was her fault her twin wasn’t enjoying herself.

After one party, Jess said, “Your twin’s such a killjoy. We always have way more fun without her.”

And that was the problem—they did.

It wasn’t that Libby wanted Alice to become best friends with Jess—she didn’t want to share her friend that much. But as they grew into their twenties, she wished Alice could see past “party-girl Jess” and glimpse the Jess Libby admired the most: the woman who’d worked hard to move herself up, out and away from her poverty-ridden childhood.

The clink of the childproof lock closing on the side gate brought Libby back to the present. Thankfully, the three of them had matured and all that drama had faded. Real life had made sure of that, giving them far more important things to worry about. Despite the unhappy circumstances that had propelled Alice’s return to Pelican House, Libby appreciated how much of an effort her twin was making with Jess. Leo helped. He was such a cute and engaging kid, and Alice was a sucker for babies.

Poor Alice. The Lawrence effect hadn’t only stolen her hopes that she’d soon be a mother, it had stripped her of her security—emotional and financial. Unlike Jess, Alice didn’t have a skill set Libby could employ at the medical practice. At least Nick had found Alice some work, but even so, her twin was still struggling to earn a decent wage.

“Daddy! Come for a swim.” Her daughters’ voices drifted through the open window. She couldn’t quite make out Nick’s rumbling reply, but it was probably something like, “Hang tight. I’ll be there in a minute.”

As she pressed a glass against the fridge’s iced water dispenser, filling it for their Wednesday joke, Nick’s shoes hit the boot box with a clunk and his keys dropped into the dish with a tinkle. Then he was walking up to her, his generous mouth creased in a familiar grin.

“Honey, I’m home,” he said laconically.

Most days, Nick arrived home from work before she did so he only had a limited number of opportunities to use the line. He never missed his chance.

She rolled her eyes and stepped into his embrace. He smelt reassuringly of sunshine, salt and teak oil along with a hint of engine grease.

“Good day?” Libby handed Nick the glass of cold water. This was her side of the joke—pretending to be the dutiful 1950’s housewife waiting to honor her man when he came home hot and tired after a long, hard day.

Nick kissed the top of her head. “Not bad. I had to rescue a tourist who’d gotten stuck on a sandbar, but it got me out of the office and onto the water, so that was a win.”

“I bet you had to fight your dad for that job.”

“Yeah. Lucky I took the call.”

“And let me guess, you didn’t rush straight back to base?”

“I might have thrown in a quick line.”

She laughed, knowing him as well as he knew himself.

Salt spray ran in the Pirellis’ veins. In 1923, Nick’s great-grandfather had arrived in Australia from Italy with a battered suitcase and a dream. Over three generations, the family had transformed from the physically rigorous life of professional fishing to the less demanding one of charter fishing and small boat rental. Five years earlier, they’d added luxury yachts and motor cruisers to the fleet. Tourists paid big bucks to sail them around the largest navigable inland waterway in Australia—the Gippsland Lakes. Nick ran the company with his father Rick, who was technically retired, although only during the off season. During the summer, he worked as many hours as his son and the rest of their staff.

Nick gave a contented sigh. “The water’s divine today and the breeze is just strong enough to make it fun. It’s been ages since we sailed together. Let’s go out for a couple of hours and kick back.”

Libby glanced through the glass doors, checking the girls, who were occupied with a water play set. “It sounds great but I’ve already defrosted some meat and invited Jess for dinner.”

Nick’s dark brows pulled down sharply, carving a furrow across the bridge of his nose. “Why?”

His question surprised her. Hospitality was Nick’s religion. Raised by two outgoing parents, he was always meeting people and inviting them round for a home-cooked meal or wood-fired pizza baked in the oven he’d built in the back yard. He regularly adopted the backpackers who worked for him, bringing them home and feeding them up before inviting them to lounge on the couch and use the laundry so they could pretend they were home for a night.

“Because it’s my half-day. I thought it was a good time to catch up.”

Nick drained the icy water, his Adam’s apple bobbing quickly. “Catch up? Jess comes to dinner every Thursday and Sunday. Plus, we saw her last night when she picked up Leo and stayed for a drink.”

“She moved down here to be close to us. We’re her family.”

“Yeah, but even with family, the fish goes off on the fourth visit in one week.”

“Your mother’s over more than that.”

“Yeah, but she’s babysitting.”

“You were the one who suggested at Christmas that Leo spend more time with the girls to offset the fact he’s an only child.”

A sulky look entered his eyes. “All I’m saying is you could have checked with me before you made plans.”

Irritation needled her—she hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary. “And if you wanted to go sailing tonight, you could have given me a heads up and texted at lunchtime.”

“Jeez, I thought it would be a nice surprise, okay?” Nick jerked his hand through his sun-bleached chestnut hair. “Remember spontaneity?”

She did. But it had been such a long time since they’d been spontaneous. Kids and jobs did that to a couple. So did grief, loss and sadness. An ache that had never completely vanished throbbed its dull pain through her. “We can go sailing tomorrow night.”

“Since when are you home early enough on a Thursday? Besides, the weather’s changing tomorrow. There’s a big blow coming in.” His tone oozed the disappointment of a kid whose kite kept slamming into the ground instead of soaring high and free.

These days, few things made Libby truly happy and despite Nick’s reassurances that he was “all good,” perhaps he wasn’t doing as well as he professed to be either. The ache intensified and she fought it with a sudden desire to give Nick what he wanted. If he was happy, perhaps she would be too. “Okay, let’s be spontaneous. Sailing’s on.”

“Yes!” He snaked an arm around her, pulling her in close before lowering his mouth to hers. His kiss overflowed with excitement, enthusiasm and optimism—just like his kisses of old. It was innocent of the heavy weight life had dropped on them two and a half years earlier. A weight that was too slow in relieving its pressure.

“If I get the girls sorted, can you do the food? I’ve got plenty of drinks on Freedom so we only need bread and sausages, some fruit and a packet of Tim Tams. We can go to Bunga Arm and barbecue on the beach.” Nick winked at her. “Shame we can’t stay the night, tesoro mio.”

Libby remembered the first night they’d slept on the beach. It was the third time she’d been out on Andiamo but the first time without the added company of Nick’s mate, Will Azzopardi. They’d dropped anchor and swum off the yacht, but when it was time to return home, the wind had dropped. Nick had tried starting the motor but despite his legendary skills with an engine, it had failed to turn over. All these years later, Libby still didn’t know if it had been a ploy of Nick’s to deliberately maroon them on an isolated beach on a star-filled night or if it was just serendipity. Either way, they’d been together ever since.

Libby pressed her palm flat on Nick’s chest. “Even if we didn’t have to show up at work in the morning, I’m not sure sharing the beach with the girls, Jess and Leo would exactly recreate that night.”

“I thought it was just us and the girls?”

“It can be next time, but I can’t dump Jess for sailing at such short notice.”

Nick crossed his arms. “She can’t come.”

“Wait? What? Why?”

“Leo is why. He’s thirteen months and can barely walk on land.”

Libby didn’t understand. They’d taken the girls out on Freedom plenty of times when they were babies. “But you just said it’s a divine evening and smooth sailing. We’ll stick Leo in a lifejacket and put the girls’ old harness on him. He’ll be fine.”

Nick’s phone buzzed and he pulled it out of his pocket, read the text, then swore. “Looks like it’s a moot point anyway. I have to go back to work.”

Libby didn’t ask why—she didn’t need to. Whatever the minute details, the big picture was always the same: it involved a tourist. It was a common occurrence for them both in January. “I guess I’ll see you when I see you.”

He nodded, gave her a distracted kiss and grabbed his keys.

“Nick.”

“Yeah?”

“The next perfect sailing Wednesday, I promise it’s a family date. Or better yet, we can get Alice or Jess to mind the girls and go to Bunga Arm alone.”

“Sure.”

But the light in his eyes had extinguished and Libby got a sense of having literally missed the boat.

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