One gourmet party. Six potential couples. The taste of love?
Sam Viravaidya knows he’s thrown his brother Kiet under the bus by asking him to deliver oysters from their farm to a Rainbow Cove Christmas lunch. But his ex-girlfriend will be there and Sam would rather not see her. She broke it off because he needed to ‘grow up’. He suspects she’s right, but he also knows he’d much rather hang out online in SkyDiscHooks creating cities and chatting to the mysterious Velebit. Being an adult is over-rated, and so is Christmas. When his friendship with Velebit grows into something more, Sam doesn’t need to worry about serious. Velebit lives on the other side of the world … doesn’t he?
When Sam discovers Velebit is actually Mick, the local paramedic, he could not be more surprised.
After a devastating factory fire, Mick has fled the city and just wants to settle down to a quiet country life. When Mick discovers his online crush lives nearby, and is just as gorgeous in real life, he’s hooked. But Mick isn’t convinced Sam will stick around for him, and he’s not ready to risk his heart. Will Sam be able to grow up in time to prove he is worthy of Mick’s love, or will their love go up in flames?
Sam carried the cooler box of oysters from the packing shed and placed them into the Rainbow Cove Oyster Farm van. He’d been out on the boat early this morning, with the sunrise shimmering gold and orange on the water, to harvest oysters for his friend Christophe’s Christmas lunch today. He picked the nicest ones he could find this morning, since he couldn’t attend … for reasons, coughs … Sam shook his head slightly. He obviously spent too much time online if he was starting to think in online chat phrasing. Not that he’d admit that to his older brother, Kiet.
‘Thanks. Or no thanks?’ Kiet shut the van doors, turned to him, and gave him a long-suffering look.
Sam held up his hands. ‘I know. I know. I should be the one going to this party, after all, it’s my friends.’ They’d been arguing about this for a couple of weeks, basically since Sam sprung it on Kiet.
‘I told you not to sleep with her. Sex complicates everything, and now she’s been stealing from us, and has done the bolt.’
Sam crossed his arms over his chest. ‘Okay, some of that is not true. Lizzy hasn’t run off. She’ll be at Christophe’s Christmas party. That’s why I don’t want to go.’
‘You should go. She might listen to you, and we can find out what happened to our money.’
Sam huffed out a breath. ‘Firstly, I don’t believe that Lizzy stole from us. She wouldn’t.’ He ignored Kiet’s sneer. ‘And secondly, she broke up with me. I’m, like, the last person she’ll talk to now.’ Apparently, Lizzy thought he needed to grow up, stop playing games online, and be more manly. She hadn’t exactly said it in those words. It was more that he felt the accusation because it was a familiar one. There were plenty of times growing up in this town when he’d been bullied for not being manly enough, or rather, not being blokey enough. He’d lashed out when Lizzy mentioned it, perhaps unfairly, but still, she had to have known it would hurt him. Being bisexual meant he apparently gave off gay vibes—whatever that meant—to his bogan classmates, who threw in a bit of racism thanks to his Thai father, so he was super glad Kiet had sent him to boarding school in Sydney for the last two years of high school. He wasn’t sure he’d have survived another couple of years at Marandowie High. But he had survived, and he’d come back to town and made friends—friends who were having a party that he wanted to avoid because Lizzy would also be there. It was a mess.
‘Fine. I’ll go. Christophe is the farm’s client. We can’t disappoint him, and I’ll see if I can work out what the hell Elizabeth’s motivations are.’ Kiet held up one hand. His determination to call Lizzy by her full name irritated Sam. ‘Stop. Before you defend her, you have to see that the timing sucks. Just as we notice someone has been stealing from the business, she breaks up with you and quits her job.’
‘It’s a coincidence.’ Things between him and Lizzy had been tense for ages. Working and living together, especially in the tiny cottage he and Kiet called home, wasn’t a recipe for success. He and Lizzy bickered a lot, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that she had been searching for a new job for months now. That she kept sleeping with him during that time was a boon to his ego—the sex was good enough to stay for—but apparently it wasn’t enough for Lizzy. Even with all of that, he refused to believe she was behind the missing money. She was too honest to steal from them. Brutally honest at times, hence they’d broken up.
‘Whatever. I’ll find the truth.’ Kiet walked over and thumped Sam on the shoulder, the same way he always said goodbye, then jumped in the van and drove off with a spin of the wheels on the gravel driveway. Sam waited until the van had disappeared down the long driveway and turned onto the road before he let himself relax.
The relief at not having to go to Christophe’s party was huge, and he pushed away the stab of guilt from sending Kiet in his place. His conscientious big brother wasn’t the best at socialising, and Sam knew he only had a couple of hours to himself before Kiet made an excuse to avoid people. He’d be back at the farm soon enough, and they could have a couple of beers together on the decrepit porch overlooking the oyster farm. The view over Rainbow Cove was stunning. Sam would never tire of it. He’d missed it when he’d gone away to finish his schooling, then years at university gaining his science degree in aquaculture, and a Masters degree with a thesis in an incredibly niche area of oyster farming.
He strode back to the cottage to grab a snack and sit down at his laptop for a break. With all the drama lately, he hadn’t logged into his Sky Disc Hooks account for a few days, and he missed it. The online game had everything—chat groups with people from all over the world, including his cousins in Thailand—and enough strategy to make playing the actual game fun. The game was a nod to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and Sam had built his own disc with his own city and farms. Lately he’d been trading with the user Velebit. Velebit had been on SDH for a while before Sam googled his username out of curiosity. It was a mountain range in Croatia, so he assumed Velebit lived near there. After all, his username, Crassostrea, was the Latin name for oysters.
After grabbing a snack, Sam sat down and logged in, careful not to get crumbs near his keyboard. The lack of available time to himself before Kiet came home again meant he broke his usual rule of not eating near his keyboard. A new shipment of platinum had arrived. Sweet. He fiddled around for a while in the game, shifting a few things, and finishing the build of his latest trading shed. Better this than a party with people he’d gone to school with and hadn’t been sensible enough to leave town for good. Sam rolled his neck on his shoulders—he wasn’t usually so cynical; he’d stayed and for his own good reasons. Others might have their reasons too. Maybe he should’ve gone to the party. It might have been nice to chat to a few people, have a beer or two, and enjoy some of Christophe’s amazing food. Well … it wasn’t Christmas yet in the rest of the world, there might be a few people online to chat with, and of course, loads of countries didn’t celebrate Christmas. His Thai cousins would most likely be around at some point during the day. The internet was so great for keeping in touch with friends and relatives who lived overseas. He clicked on the messages icon to see a note from Velebit.
Velebit: Any plans for all that platinum? A little dot flashed to indicate Velebit was currently online.
Crassostrea: I could trade some.
Velebit: Or you could give me a xmas pressie?
Crassostrea: Cheeky! Do you celebrate xmas in Croatia? Sam didn’t know much about that country, except the capital Dubrovnik was a known party hub. He’d traded with Velebit plenty of times over the last few months, and they’d bantered with each trade, but so far they hadn’t ventured into anything personal. Velebit’s trades were clever, and the way Velebit applied strategy showed a bit of life experience. Still, there was every chance Velebit was a genius ten-year-old girl. Who could tell on the internet?
Crassostrea: Your handle is some mountains from there. I assumed.
Velebit: I was born near there. Came to Australia when I was five.
Sam leaned back in his chair, unsure how to respond. Then: Crassostrea: I’m an Aussie too. It didn’t really describe everything, but whatever.
Velebit: Cool. Whereabouts?
Crassostrea: Small town.
Velebit: That’s a cagey answer for someone curious enough to google my username.
Crassostrea: Lol. Anyway, basic safety. You could be an old white guy seeking out young girls.
The answer took ages to come through. Either Sam had offended Velebit or he was typing out a very long response.
Velebit: Old is relative, I’ve just turned thirty. Most people would say being Croatian makes me white. And why am I online on xmas day? I have to work later today and I’m filling in time until my shift. What you are doing online on xmas day? Avoiding family?
Sam shook his head. Crassostrea: It’s complicated.
Velebit: So you’re a teen girl who shouldn’t be chatting online to a 30yo bloke then? Crassostrea: You answered white and old, but not guy. If you’re a girl, you should be careful.
Velebit: Read above. 30yo bloke. You?
Crassostrea: A bored mid-20s queer bloke who doesn’t do xmas. Sam held his breath. Telling someone, even online, that he was queer could go either way. He chuckled at his own bisexual pun, then rolled his eyes at himself. He had no one to share that with, and for all of the arguments he’d had with Lizzy, he missed having someone to share silly jokes with.
Velebit: Makes sense. Hard to meet other gays in a small town. And SDH is basically a queer hook-up joint.
Sam frowned. It was? He’d missed that when he signed up. Crassostrea: And you know this, how?
Velebit: Ex-boyfriend introduced me to it back in Sydney.
Velebit: Plus, think about it. The whole game is basically to make your own place on a disc, then ‘hook up’ with other disc owners to make a bigger city. It’s a giant gay pun.
Sam laughed. How had he not noticed that? Crassostrea: Does that make us two bored queers alone on xmas? How cliched.
Crassostrea: omg, you are old! Who uses rofl anymore?
Velebit: Mate, when I was born, the internet didn’t exist.
Sam opened a new tab and googled. The internet was opened to the public in 1995.
Crassostrea: Are you sure you are only 30?
Velebit: Unless my father forged my birth certificate! 😀 Anything is possible.
Mick hit send on the comment before he could second-guess himself. He didn’t usually tell people about his Croatian heritage. Mick had been born during the Yugoslav wars in the early nineties, and his father had PTSD from fighting in various skirmishes. When rumours of ethnic cleansing flowed through the land, they’d abandoned their home and convinced a cousin in Sydney to help them get refugee status.
Crassostrea: Argh, family.
Mick knew it would be easy to say something throw-away, but something in the way Crassostrea wrote made him want to tell the truth.
Velebit: It’s not entirely my family’s fault. We came to Aus as refugees after the Bosnian War. Google it sometime. Dad has PTSD and drinking makes it worse. This was the first Christmas away from his parents, but the long drive down to Sydney made it impossible, especially when he’d promised his staff they could have the afternoon off and he’d take the shift no one wanted. Because they always went to callouts in pairs, he had Leila on call, but he took one for the team by being in the office. If they got a call, he’d pick up Leila on the way to the job.
Crassostrea: Sorry to hear that. That sucks for him, and you. My dad was an immigrant too. He came here to go to uni … so not the same thing at all.
Velebit: Nope. Mick’s short response bounced into the gap between Crassostrea’s messages. There was a huge difference between some bloke coming to Australia to swan around at university and arriving here with nothing but their clothes and a promise from a relative they’d never met. The cousin was technically his grandmother’s cousin’s grandkid, whose father had come to Aus after WWII. Regardless of the details of the relationship—still a cousin.
Crassostrea: From Thailand, so not the easiest road in the eighties. The White Aus Policy had just ended.
Perhaps not as easy as Mick had first assumed. Australia’s history wasn’t quite as ugly as Croatia’s—a country forged from conflicts of all types including the Balkan Wars, both World Wars and the more recent Yugoslav wars—although that probably depended on perspective. Everything he’d read about what happened to the Aboriginal people sounded dreadful, and the White Australia policy was a stain on the country he’d grown up in.
Velebit: That sounds super tough.
Crassostrea: He didn’t talk about it much.
Velebit: Past tense?
Crassostrea: Died in an accident about a decade ago.
Velebit: I’m sorry. Mick scratched the back of his neck. Was that why Crassostrea was online on Christmas Day? Mick hadn’t expected to find another Aussie online this morning—shouldn’t they all be opening presents and hanging out with family or friends? Or at work?
Mick didn’t wait to examine whether he should talk to a virtual stranger about his family, and just leaped in. Every Christmas he felt this urge to vent about his messy emotions. Crassostrea might just understand. Velebit: The wars in the nineties were rough. My father was a shop owner in a small town. He fought when he could, but mostly he travelled to buy goods for us to sell. He heard rumours of the Serbs killing off Muslim Bosniaks and said the Croats would be next. He really hoped his mother would be alright looking after his father without him.
Crassostrea: Holy shit.
Velebit: Google it. Or not, it’s horrible. Anyway, my mother had a cousin who was in Sydney, and we got them to sponsor us to come here.
Crassostrea: I’m glad you are safe.
Mick started to type thanks when another message popped up.
Crassostrea: Even if all you do is try and cheat me out of platinum! 😉😉
The shift away from the serious topic was exactly what Mick needed. He played this game to avoid real life, not wallow in it. The irony was that his cheating ex-boyfriend Xavier had been the one to introduce him to SDH, but Mick brushed that thought away just like he did every time his brain betrayed him with thoughts of Xavier. What he really needed was to focus on the game strategy …
Velebit: Where is your xmas spirit?
Crassostrea: Same place yours is.
Crassostrea: Talking to a stranger on the internet about personal stuff to avoid real life.
A laugh burst out of Mick, loud in his lounge room, and a rush of emotion clenched at his gut. Whoever said internet friendships weren’t real didn’t get it.
Velebit: What are you avoiding?
Crassostrea: Attending a party with my ex.
Velebit: Sounds awkward.
Crassostrea: Tons! And you?
Velebit: I usually work a shift on xmas Day. It’s good overtime pay, and since it’s just me and my parents … Mick wasn’t ready to finish that sentence. It was too much to explain why he’d left Sydney, too many tangled threads; between his father’s occasional outbursts and the drama with Xavier—not that what happened was really Xavier’s fault—but Mick had needed some space away from it all. Besides, the job here was a promotion and should be good for his career.
Crassostrea: You mentioned PTSD earlier. From the war?
Mick cocked his head to the side. Velebit: Yes.
Crassostrea: That’s rough.
Velebit: It is. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand that it wasn’t my fault, but as an adult, I get it. It was why he’d trained as a paramedic, so he could help when his father had an episode. Maybe he should have taken a few days to go and visit his family, instead of taking on the worst shift of the holiday season—Christmas evening and night—when all the alcoholic nonsense began. No, his staff appreciated the gesture, and it was a good way to begin his time as the local area supervisor. His mentor back in Sydney had always said never to ask the staff to do what you wouldn’t do yourself. Good advice.
Crassostrea: Being an adult is overrated.
Velebit: Says the guy hanging out on SDH on xmas day!
Crassostrea: That’s me. Trying to re-do my teen years by playing games all day.
Velebit: Hey, settle down. Adults can play too. Mick’s cheeks heated a little at the accidental euphemism.
Crassostrea: *coughs* Is that an unsubtle pick up line? Velebit: Only if you want it to be.
Crassostrea: Well …
Mick held his breath.
Crassostrea: You did say SDH was a queer hang out space.
Velebit: I’m not sending you a dick pic. I’m too old for that nonsense.
Crassostrea: LOL. I’m too sensible for that. Although I like the leap from ‘play’ to ‘dick pic’. Dude …
Velebit: I said I WOULDN’T send you one.
Crassostrea: You still went there. Shall we start somewhere less risqué?
Velebit: Undo. I didn’t mean it like that.
Crassostrea: *blushes* How did you mean it?
Velebit: Can we start again? Mick glanced down at the time. Still an hour to fill in until he needed to leave for work. He couldn’t use that as an excuse to log off. Besides, he was having too much fun bantering with Crassostrea to leave now. It was more likely he’d get pulled into this discussion and end up being late for work. He’d better set an alarm.
Crassostrea: Nope. I’m screenshotting this for next time you want a bargain. Velebit: Hey, isn’t that blackmail?
Crassostrea: Not if you sell me some gold ingots.
Mick laughed at the change in subject.
Velebit: We could trade platinum for gold?
Crassostrea: Now you are talking.