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Short Soup

By:Coleen Kwan

Chapter 1


“You’re listening to Port Stephens FM, coming to you from Piper Bay, where it’s a balmy twenty-seven degrees and looking great for the weekend…”

Toni Lau eased her foot off the accelerator as she reached the crest of the last hill before the long descent into her home town. The radio announcer was right about it looking great. The air was warm, the waters of the bay shimmering. A large white vessel edged out of the marina, laden with tourists on a dolphin-watching cruise. On this early summer day the blue water paradise looked picture perfect, but the sigh escaping her lips was heavy rather than carefree.

This wasn’t the trip home she’d envisaged during her years abroad. Half a world away in foggy London, wrapped up in scarves and spreadsheets, she’d dreamed of the warm sea, the clear Australian light, the small town quiet. One day, she’d hoped, she and Nick would take a break from their busy careers and fly back for a visit. Well, she was back all right, but without Nick, her wedding ring, or her job.

“Coming up on the drive show,” the radio announcer warbled, “we ask – is it ever okay to spy on your partner? Can it be justified, or is it a breach of trust?”

Huh. Well, she knew the answer to that. If you got to the point of spying on your partner, then the relationship was already doomed even before you discovered the smutty text messages and photos on your husband’s mobile phone.

A spasm twisted her belly. Damn. Even though she’d been looking forward to seeing her parents again, right now she wasn’t ready to face their well-meaning inquisitiveness. Especially from her mum. She wouldn’t be satisfied until she’d picked over every bone of Toni’s failed marriage.

Her knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. At the next intersection, instead of turning left towards her parents’ home, she hooked right and drove away from the town centre, past the marina and the main beaches, heading east until she pulled up at Fly Point, a small promontory near the lighthouse. She got out and took the steep wooden stairs leading down the cliff face to the beach. Fly Point was rocky, inaccessible, and often deserted, which was why she and Dion had spent so much time here in their teens.

From the last step she jumped down onto the beach. The tide was out, revealing an expanse of smooth sand and weathered grey rock. The heat of the sun soaked into her shoulders. The sunlight was dazzling. Shading a hand over her eyes, she squinted out to sea and saw a man sitting on a rock a short distance to her right, looking out at the horizon. As if he could sense her eyes on him, he turned towards her, rising to his feet at the same time. Against the afternoon glare he was a dark silhouette, his features shadowed, but there was no mistaking who he was.

For a moment the man tensed as he caught sight of her, and then he came bounding towards her, his broad, bare feet kicking up sand.

“Hey, chuckle berry.”

Only one person in the world would call her “chuckle berry”. She peered up at him, a weird constriction crimping her lungs. “Dion?”

He spread his arms wide. “You don’t recognise me?”

Dion Chan. Her childhood buddy. His parents and hers co-owned the Happy Palace, a Chinese restaurant in town, and she’d known him all her life.

She gave a laugh. “Sure I do. Who else would greet me with ‘Hey, chuckle berry’ after all this time?”

Oh boy. She couldn’t stop staring at him. Dion had changed. He used to be elongated and lanky, his jet-black hair all long and shaggy, his body spare and loose-limbed. Now he was broader, more muscular, which seemed to add inches to his height. His shoulders and chest had filled out. His hair was cut short and no-nonsense, revealing a more angular face, all greenness gone, like an image brought into sharp focus. He wore black board shorts and white T-shirt, the thin material clinging to his solid upper body. Toni sucked in another breath. Jeez, why was she nervous about running into Dion again?

He smiled, his whiskey-brown eyes flicking over her, making her aware that the years had changed her too. A lot. “Yeah, it’s been a while.”

“I’m trying to remember how long ago since I last saw you. Were you here when I came up just before leaving for London? No, I don’t think you were.” She was babbling, but she couldn’t seem to stop.

He shook his head, his smile fading. “No, I wasn’t here.”

Now she remembered. The last time she’d seen Dion had been five years ago at her wedding. She had a vague memory of him hanging in the background looking moody, but at the time she’d been too stupid in love with Nick to care about anything else.

“Oh. Right.” Bugger. Since when did she get tongue-tied in front of Dion?

“Welcome back, Toni.” A husky note lurked in his voice. An awkward pause developed before he moved forward and wrapped his arms loosely around her. “It’s good to see you again.”

As their bodies met, she found herself tensing. Over the years she’d received hundreds of hugs from Dion. But this one felt different. Now she was hyper-conscious of his physicality. His biceps were rock-hard, his chin rough stubbled, the mound of his shoulder disturbingly smooth. He smelt of sea and masculinity. Unfamiliar. This wasn’t the Dion she used to know. She pulled away, perplexed.

“Sorry.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I probably need a shower.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s just–” She broke off, unable to explain why she felt so off kilter. “I’m not exactly myself today. That’s why I stopped here for a breather when I arrived.”

He nodded in sympathy. “Not ready to show up at your folks’ place, huh?”

“I’ve been looking forward to seeing them so much, but now I kind of have to gather my thoughts first.”

He pushed sand around with his foot. “Your mum’s been worried about you. Your dad too, though he doesn’t say as much.” He pressed his sole down on the sand hill he’d created. “I know I’ve told you before, but I’m sorry about you and Nick.”

The words sounded flat, rehearsed. She couldn’t decide whether he meant it or not. Dion barely knew her ex-husband. She’d met Nick at Sydney University where they’d both been studying commerce. Nick’s busy social calendar meant he’d only accompanied her to Piper Bay a handful of fleeting occasions. Soon after graduation, she and Nick had married and migrated to London, both of them landing jobs at the same investment bank. They were going to work and travel all over the world, forging their careers, then when they tired of globetrotting they would return to Sydney, buy a house together and start a family. So much for their dreams.

Toni drew in a deep breath. “Thanks,” she replied. “So am I.”

“You’re better off without him.”

“That’s what I keep telling myself.” But it didn’t always help.

He shot her a sharp glance, his eyes not soft any more. He looked like he was about to say something, but at the last moment he changed his mind and shook his head. What? she wanted to challenge him. What were you going to say about Nick and me? I need to know. But he turned away to pick up his beach towel, leaving her to stare after him in disappointment.

“How long are you staying?” He was all politeness now. Unusually polite. In her company Dion had never pulled his punches. She could remember him calling a boy she had a crush on a douche bag – several times – until she told him to nick off. So why was he biting his lip now? Maybe her mum had said something to him, maybe told him of the last time she’d burst into tears on the phone. Ugh, she didn’t want to remember that.

“Just a few days.” She mimicked his casual tone. “I have a job interview in Sydney middle of next week. I need to get back for that.”

Using the towel he wiped some specks of sand from his upper arms. The sun gleamed on his tanned skin. He was summer-dark, sleek and fit, shimmering with vitality.

“Still doing that bean-counting stuff, huh?” The corner of his mouth twitched.

Her back stiffened. “I’m a qualified CPA now,” she couldn’t help saying.

“A qualified bean counter, then.” He lifted his eyebrows. She opened her mouth to shoot back at him before the grin stretching across his face halted her. “Still so easy to tease. Glad you haven’t changed that much.”

She let out her breath. “I’ve changed?”

“Yeah, you’re all …” He waved towards her. “I dunno, all citified and cosmopolitan now. Before, you’d be wearing a singlet and shorts and rubber thongs, and your hair would be in pigtails. Now you’re … all that.”

She glanced uncertainly at herself. Boutique cotton and linen dress. Flat leather Italian sandals. Toe nails varnished pearly pink. Turquoise and silver medallion. Slimline wristwatch. Hair loose and long down her back. Altogether far more fashion-conscious than she used to be. What did she look like to Dion? High maintenance? Precious? She folded her arms across her chest. “I’m still me,” she said defensively. Wanting to deflect attention, she added, “What about you? I hear you’re practically running the restaurant on your own these days. How’s that working out for you?”

“The jury’s still out. We’ll see once the relaunch happens. Either it’ll succeed or both our parents will come down on me like a ton of bricks.”

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