A brand-new Merindah Park story about second chances and risking it all for love.
I left the family horse stud behind at 16 to pursue a career as a jockey. I’ve been killing it in a male-dominated industry, and now all my hard work has paid off-my first group one win, the biggest success of my career. But I’m not celebrating. My girlfriend just dumped me in front of a crowded pub, and now I don’t even have a home to go to. The only saving grace is Allira, who I haven’t seen since school, who has offered me a place to stay. If only her hot-as-hell brother would stop visiting-I’m swearing off relationships, with men and women alike, to focus on my career.
I might be a top AFL player, but what I really want to do when my footy career is over is open up my own law firm. My teammates call me ‘Lawless’, but I’m anything but. I work hard to keep my public image sparkling clean; for the sake of my football career and my long term future. But now my foolish friends, and that woman-that stunning, bold, brash, athletic, beautiful woman staying at my sister’s house-are going to put it all in jeopardy. I can’t risk my reputation for the sake of the ones I love … can I?
‘Achievement unlocked. I’m so freaking proud of you.’ Rachel’s twin sister, Serena, squealed down the phone, perfectly summing up the most amazing day in Rachel’s life.
‘Life doesn’t get much better than this.’ Her whole body buzzed with adrenaline, satisfaction, and an overwhelming sense of glory. Fuck, if she could bottle this feeling, she’d be a billionaire. Only one thing could make this achievement better—having her dad around to see her do it. Rachel blinked away the rush of heat behind her eyes. Dad would want her to enjoy this, he’d been her strongest encouragement, and now she’d done it.
‘I’m surprised you didn’t hear the whole family screaming at the telly.’ Serena giggled, and Rachel grinned ruefully at the notion. Merindah Park, the family farm, was over three hours’ drive from Flemington Racecourse.
‘All I could hear was my heart beat in time with Static Alarm’s hoofbeats.’ Rachel breathed in deep, letting satisfaction seep all the way into the marrow of her bones.
‘Congratulations from all of us, and I hope you are going to celebrate quietly.’ Serena’s slightly edgy command made Rachel grind her teeth. No, she wouldn’t let her twin’s judgey comment upset her.
‘I promise not to be too wild.’ She didn’t have to ride again until Tuesday, having a rare Sunday off tomorrow, and she planned to use the free time well. Serena didn’t understand her wilder side, content to be a small-town good girl. Rachel breathed out—she wasn’t being fair to her sister. Just because they didn’t understand each other, that didn’t make Serena’s choices wrong either.
‘You know I didn’t mean it like that, Rachel. You deserved this win. I’m super proud of you.’ Serena’s heart was in the right place, the problem with their lack of twin perfection was Rachel.
‘Thanks. I’d better go. I’m meeting the owners for a drink.’
‘Congratulations, and let’s chat later.’ Serena hung up. Rachel strode into the pub next to the racecourse with a spring in her step, and not just because it was early September. Spring, and the Spring Racing Carnival, was her favourite time of year and she’d just won a spring Group One race. The absolute pinnacle of her career. This was why she got up before dawn every day to ride racehorses in the cold and the dark. Every fall, every disappointment: it was all worth it because of today. Today she’d won the Memsie Stakes, her first Group One win, albeit on a rank outsider. She wasn’t going to let the odds take any of the gloss off the achievement. No one could take this win off her. Her name would forever be in the record book as a Group-One-winning rider. The trainer hadn’t expected Static Alarm to win, and neither had the punters; the filly was only in the field as a lightweight pacemaker for the more favoured stablemate, Darnation. Rachel had done as she was told, and led out the field with a strong pace, only to find the tough filly kept on going, kept finding more in the tank and she’d sped away from the others to win easily.
Since the moment she’d passed the finishing post, Rachel’s grin had been permanently tattooed on her face, like the tattoo she planned to get on her shoulder blade with Static Alarm’s name. Her first major win. Finally, after eight years of race riding and hundreds of minor winners, she had the ultimate prize. Her career would thrive now—the first Group One was surely the hardest to get. Static Alarm’s owners had been celebrating all afternoon, while she’d ridden in the last three races on the card. Fifth, eighth and an unlucky fourth in the last, but those middling results couldn’t take the shine off Static Alarm’s victory. Rachel knew she’d spend all night watching and re-watching the replay, grinning maniacally at the screen like a benevolent version of the Joker. The racecourse had kicked the owners out of the public stands at the end of the day, and they’d invited her to continue the celebration at the pub over the road.
The pub buzzed with several groups of people, their voices loud above the background music. A typical Melbourne corner pub, with a TAB in one corner, and the greasy smells of the kitchen wafting from the other side of the room. It probably had a beer garden out the back with crappy wooden trestle tables, and saggy umbrellas. Rachel looked around at the bar stools and old tables with peeling Formica tops. This pub hadn’t been gentrified like so many others. It had missed the wild upgrades more common in the central city with the latest fad coffees, and upscale hipster menus. This pub kept its suburban charms—if that was the right word for the generally rundown state—and it reminded her of the grubby corner pub in Tranquil Waters, the small town near the farm she’d grown up on; except, this pub was doing a roaring trade with plenty of people creating a loud happy noise for a Saturday night. Another reason to relax and enjoy the day’s achievements.
Rachel walked towards the bar, reading the drinks list to find something to celebrate with. Champagne, that’s what she wanted. She didn’t normally drink, not because she was pious, but because of the calorific content, but damn it, today she had every reason to celebrate. She was fortunate to be a natural lightweight, and watching her intake and weight was a normal part of her job as a jockey. She needed to keep her weight to under 51 kg, lighter than most jockeys because the extra couple of kilograms less gave her more riding opportunities. Consistency in her diet and exercise regime helped keep her weight stable, assisted by her small stature at just a tick over five feet tall. Her phone buzzed in her pocket and she pulled it out.
Lisa: Where are you?
Rachel: At the pub. The owners invited me to celebrate with them.
Lisa: Which pub? Celebrate what?
Rachel sighed, trying not to let doubt seep into her joy. Lisa never watched her ride. She squared her shoulders and texted back a curt response about winning a big race and the name of the pub.
Lisa: What a coincidence. A few other friends are at the same pub. I’m already on the way.
Rachel stamped down the slight irritation as her girlfriend’s response trampled all over the thrill and joy of her win. Rachel had moved in as Lisa’s flatmate last year, it must be almost a whole year ago. Just one more share house in a stream of share houses since she’d left home at sixteen, or more accurately, since her dad had encouraged her to take up an apprenticeship in the city away from … Well, she wasn’t going to think about that now, she’d spent years fucking away that hurt with a wide variety of bodies across the gender spectrum. She’d moved on, and since moving in with Lisa, they’d fallen into a happy routine, slowly graduating from flatmates into a real relationship over the past six months or so, but lately Lisa had shown signs of clinginess. Lisa often complained that Rachel spent too much time with horses and had no time for her, but when Rachel tried to explain that horses were her job and because she was self-employed, she didn’t get paid unless she rode, Lisa dismissed her comments. Lisa seemed to want Rachel to arrange her life around Lisa’s needs, but more often lately, Lisa hadn’t even bothered to turn up when Rachel asked her to come to stuff. And now Lisa was coming here? Rachel sighed, if Lisa actually arrived, Rachel knew she’d be grateful, and she hated her own neediness to spend time with Lisa. Rachel blinked away the old angst, the would she or wouldn’t she turn up nerves, that made her guts ache.
One little text message exchange created all this introspection and interrupted the day’s glory. She lifted her chin. None of that old shit would ruin her day. Lisa would always be welcome to join the celebrations. Rachel pushed aside her doubt about Lisa and smiled, a big fake smile. She waved to Bobby Thomas, the syndicate manager, and he called out.
‘Rachel Bassett—our fabulous jockey. Come and have some bubbly.’
Her smile turned into a genuine grin as she joined the group of twenty owners with all their extras crowding around. A diverse group of people, all brought together by one horse. They stood around the bar, staring at someone’s phone screen watching the replay and cheering Static Alarm home again. Bobby slapped his thigh as the mighty filly dug deep and won. Rachel’s body hummed with the same thrill as when she’d reached the last half-furlong and glanced over her shoulder to see the rest of the field still a couple of lengths in arrears. She’d asked Static Alarm for one last effort, and the filly had responded, flying towards the finish line. Shivers raced up her spine. Yes, she’d definitely be watching this race on repeat!
‘Yeah, the fat man does cartwheels,’ Bobby yelled, and Rachel giggled at his joy. As she tipped her head, she did a double take. Was that Mr Driscoll lingering at the edge of the group? She shifted deliberately to stand on the other side of Bobby, as far from Driscoll as possible. What was he doing here? He wasn’t one of the owners of Static Alarm. His presence sent a chill across the back of her neck. Fuck, he was such a creep. The first time she’d met him, he’d come to inspect her brother’s horse Tsuyoi Red, and his slimy smile, and the way he’d run his eyes over her made her cringe. Not to mention the way he’d called her and her twin sister Serena ‘girls’. Ick. So much for enjoying herself and her grand victory tonight, now she’d have to waste some energy on keeping away from him. She took the offered glass of champagne from Bobby.
‘No problem. I had a couple of hundred on her, so I’ve made more than enough for several bottles.’ Bobby laughed and started to introduce her to the rest of the syndicate. She’d met a few of them before at trackwork, and Sunday stable breakfasts. They probably didn’t remember her. Most people didn’t remember the staff when they came to see their horses. Fuck, when did she get so cynical? Today was supposed to be about celebration, not spent bitching to herself about the life she’d chosen. She took a big gulp of her drink, and the bubbles fizzled on her tongue. The little complex irritations of life shouldn’t get in the way of winning, otherwise what the hell was the whole point? She shouldn’t have to force herself to enjoy success when it finally came. Ahh, that was the key to it. Tomorrow, she’d go back to being just another jockey, with all the same old frustrations. She forced herself to try and ignore all that crap and live in the moment.
‘Nice ride, Rachel. Thanks.’ One of the owners called out, and she tipped her glass in his direction. Rachel couldn’t help the slight cringe as she waited for someone to call out ‘you can ride me anytime’, because she couldn’t live in the moment, no matter how hard she tried. But the comment she’d heard so often didn’t come, and she blew out a breath over her champagne glass. The air whistled a little, a musical note of relief.
‘Ahh, whatever. Girls can’t ride, they aren’t strong enough.’ Driscoll’s voice shouted over everyone’s congratulations. The small victory deflated like a pierced balloon. Thanks a fucking lot, Driscoll, you dickhead. She sipped her bubbles to keep her mouth shut, the taste of happiness turning a little sour on her tongue.
‘She did well today.’ Bobby chipped in.
‘Nah. She just hung on. A front-running ride, and a surprise at that. There isn’t any skill in staying on.’ Driscoll dug deeper. Rachel clenched her fist around the stem of her glass, surprised it didn’t snap off in her hand, as she glared at him.
‘I’m a great judge of pace, thank you very much.’
‘Well, actually—’ Bobby spoke over the top of her, and with a ‘well, actually’ to boot. She sighed. This was why she couldn’t enjoy being a Group One winner—even a win came with the usual snide crap that she hadn’t really earned it, that it was luck, not skill, which got her here.
‘—to win like that shows an excellent ability to judge pace,’ Bobby said. Rachel tried not to roll her eyes, as she dipped her head to thank him for saying exactly what she’d said only a second before. Bobby would be key to her being able to ride Static Alarm in her next race. There was that flicker of cynicism again. Rachel wouldn’t be surprised if the trainer decided he needed a proper—meaning male—jockey for Static Alarm, now the filly had proven herself. None of them counted on Rachel’s stubborn streak. No one else was getting her star filly. She’d done all the work, riding her in trackwork every morning, and all her earlier race starts, including a few wins in lower class races.
‘Why are you here, Driscoll?’ Rachel yelled over the competing voices of the owners. ‘You don’t seem to be celebrating.’
Bobby tapped her on the shoulder and whispered, ‘He’s made an offer for Static Alarm.’
‘I suppose he thinks he can get her cheaper if he makes the owners think she isn’t that good?’
Bobby shrugged one shoulder, ‘Something like that.’
‘My sister-in-law will make a counter offer. Don’t sell to that slimeball.’
Fuck. She blamed the thrill of the day, and subsequent killjoys, for her lack of filter between brain and mouth. She hadn’t wanted to involve Toshiko in a bidding war, she’d only wanted to best Driscoll, who didn’t deserve to own Static Alarm. But the sudden hunger in Bobby’s voice made her curse herself. Bobby, like all good syndicators and agents, could smell money.
‘She’s been putting together a few broodmares for Merindah Park’s new stallion prospect.’ Rachel could at least bring the conversation back to her family’s horse-breeding business. ‘I’m sure she’ll be interested in a Group-One-winning filly.’
‘Hey, Driscoll, you aren’t the only one chasing Static Alarm. And since you aren’t the owner yet, maybe you should leave the real owners to enjoy their win.’ Bobby’s fingers tightened on his beer: the only sign that he didn’t really want to confront the city investor.
‘Thanks. It’d be nice to enjoy the win without being slandered in front of the owners.’ Rachel tapped her glass lightly against Bobby’s pint. Bobby’s eyes stayed narrow and calculating.
‘You’ll be hearing from me.’ Driscoll bumped Rachel with his shoulder as he walked past on his way out. She stumbled forward, her champagne splashing all down her front, soaking her blouse. She bit back another curse word, this one starting with c, and sidled out of the crowd. Usually this type of pub had napkins near the kitchen. She dabbed at her shirt but no amount of napkins was going to fix the fact that her shirt was soaked all down one breast. Given the light colour of both her shirt and bra, Driscoll’s jolt meant the whole pub could see everything, including her nipple. Fucking Driscoll. What a cockhead!
She’d left her saddle bag and the cardigan she wore this morning in a locker at the races. Would anyone notice if she ducked out now to grab her cardigan? She growled under her breath—security would have locked the racecourse by now, killing that option. Damn it. She pulled out her phone to send Lisa a text. If she hadn’t left yet, maybe she could grab her a clean shirt.
‘Hey darl.’ Lisa’s voice rang out from behind her and she spun around, the napkin clutched to her wet top.
‘What’s the matter?’
Rachel sighed. ‘A dickhead bumped my drink and it’s all over me.’
Why had she doubted Lisa? Of course she would turn up, people usually did that when they said they would. The twitchy worry disappeared under the rolling thrills of the day. Rude men in the racing industry was stock standard, nothing to stress about. She shouldn’t let them get to her like this. Lisa leaned in and kissed her, the brief kiss of welcome between long-time lovers. One of the group of owners guffawed in the background. ‘You won’t be getting your ride now.’
Rachel flashed a glare in his direction. ‘I wouldn’t ride you if you paid me, mate.’
‘Hush, Rach, aren’t these guys paying you?’ Lisa asked.
She grimaced. ‘Yes, in a roundabout way. The trainer makes the ultimate decision and I just won the Memsie for him.’ Her grin exploded. ‘Fuck, yeah. I just won the Memsie!’
She clambered up onto a chair, napkins abandoned, and yelled, ‘Attention, please.’
The owners all turned in unison, like at a school dance, with one of them awkwardly out of time, and stared at her. Probably at her saturated breast, but whatever.
‘I’d like to propose a toast to Static Alarm. The toughest damned filly in Victoria.’
The whole group roared and cheered as Rachel leaped down from the chair. Lisa tugged on her hand.
‘Come with me. The rest of my mates are this way, plus I want you to meet someone.’ Lisa started walking and Rachel followed. She needed to spend more time with Static Alarm’s owners to secure the next ride on the star filly, but she let herself be led away. At least this way, her shirt would have time to dry. Her cheeks blazed. Had she just screamed across a pub with a wet shirt clinging to one breast? She tugged the soaked fabric away from her skin, then shrugged. Everyone would remember her now. She giggled ruefully under her breath as Lisa continued to drag her by the hand across the pub.
‘I’d like you to meet Tim. He’s new to town and wanted to meet up with a few of our crew,’ Lisa said. Rachel looked up to a man with slicked back blond hair, well, not quite slicked all the way back. Swept back and glued in place with tons of product. He smiled at her with too many teeth and a lump formed in Rachel’s gut. She pulled her hand away from Lisa’s grip and wiped it down her jeans.
‘Hi.’ She flicked her gaze between Lisa and Tim. Tim stood next to a dark-haired guy in leather pants and neat navy blue shirt, and Rachel smiled tightly. She’d seen that guy before at a few parties she’d gone to with Lisa but couldn’t remember his name. Lisa had friends everywhere, and over the past year, Rachel had expanded her circle of friends in the city far beyond the insular racing circles where she spent her working life. Hanging out with other queer people was so relaxing, Rachel immediately forgot all the dramas with Driscoll. That dickhead—okay, so maybe he wasn’t totally forgotten. She grinned.
‘I’m Rachel. I live with Lisa.’
‘Hey, nice to meet you.’ Tim shook her hand and gave her another one of those smiles. A nervous smile?
‘What brings you to town?’ Rachel didn’t really care, especially as she glimpsed Lisa out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head towards her lover, only to see Lisa clearly sit on another woman’s lap. What the hell?
‘Work. Do you work behind the bar here?’ Tim’s gaze flicked down to her wet blouse, curiosity rather than creepiness in his eyes. Hanging out with gay guys was so much nicer than with the rude men of racing. She could relax some of the tension in her shoulders.
‘No. Some dickhead bumped into me and made me spill my drink.’
‘Oh, so annoying. What type of drink?’
Tim smiled, this time more relaxed and pleasant. ‘At least the stain will come out with warm water and a standard stain remover.’
‘Yeah, no dramas.’ Rachel wasn’t really paying attention to Tim. Lisa was playing with the other woman’s hair, and over the back of Rachel’s neck icy prickles broke out. The gesture felt so familiar, there was a strong, well, wrongness, to seeing Lisa use her gesture on someone else. It made her want to tug at her own ponytail, neatly secured at the back of her head.
‘I’m sorry, Tim. It was lovely to meet you, but I have to go.’ She scooted over to Lisa, and stood awkwardly beside her, twisting her hands behind her back.
‘Hi Rachel. Did you enjoy talking to Tim?’ Lisa looked up with an odd expression but didn’t release her hand from the other woman’s hair. Was Lisa pushing her onto Tim because he was bi as well? No, that didn’t compute. Why would she do that?
‘What are you doing?’
Lisa shrugged. ‘Sophie broke up with her partner last week. I’m comforting her.’
‘Um?’ Rachel gaped at them both as Sophie smiled slyly.
‘Don’t tell me you are jealous? Just because Sophie is prettier than you.’ Lisa’s words didn’t make any sense, and Rachel’s lungs grasped for air, her lips dry as her breath rushed over them.
‘Lisa, why is your ex so confused about this?’ Sophie had that perfect sultry smoky voice. Ex? What was Sophie saying? Lisa just laughed.
‘Rachel isn’t my ex. She’s my domestic wife. I go home to her. You, Sophie, are just for fun.’
Suddenly Rachel reeled backwards. Oh, now she understood. It wasn’t all the time Rachel spent with horses that Lisa resented—Lisa used that time to fool around on her. Lisa resented it when Rachel wasn’t home to keep house for her. Her heart seized. She wasn’t anyone’s domestic anything, it made her sound like a damned servant, her job took up too much time for that. The idea was as ludicrous as Lisa flaunting her cheating in public. Rachel thought she was going to sink through the floor in humiliation. She cleared the lump in her throat and forced herself to keep her gaze steady and strong.
‘I thought we were exclusive.’ Rachel and Sophie spoke at the same time. An awkward silence hung between them, and the general sounds of the pub swirled around in the background. Voices talking loudly at each other, the thumping sounds of decade-old pop music, the hum of the TAB telly playing the races from Sha Tin. Rachel breathed in: body odour, rank alcohol, and way too many conflicting perfumes filled her nostrils. She tried not to gag. Was it the smell, or Lisa’s revelation?
‘Don’t be naïve, Rachel.’ Lisa broke the silence, summing up the situation perfectly. She was goddamned naïve. She hadn’t seen this coming and had thought Lisa’s issues were merely a reflection of her own fucked up problems.
‘I have more pride in myself than to be your “domestic wife”. I’m not your servant. And fuck—’ Rachel’s word flowed quickly as her temper rose, ‘This a dog act, Lisa. I thought we were exclusive.’
‘Yeah, you said you two broke up.’ Sophie’s shrill voice added a touch of melodrama.
Lisa made a sound, a hard laugh, and sneered. ‘You both assumed we were exclusive. We never discussed it. I need more than you.’
Rachel gasped. ‘You are a piece of work, Lisa. You and your …’ She did air quotes, ‘friends, can go and—’
‘Is everything okay here?’
Rachel whirled around to see her friend Allira from Tranquil Waters High School standing there with a gentle smile on her face. She hadn’t seen Allira since that fateful day when she was sixteen, and the sight of Allira’s kind face made heat prickle behind her eyes, as anger and shock turned into an uglier, harsher emotion. The wild ups and downs of the day felt like the sudden jolt when a horse got his tongue over the bit and bolted, out of control and scary as hell.
‘Yeah, thanks. I was just leaving. Forever.’ Rachel turned back to Lisa and Sophie in time to see Sophie push Lisa off her lap.
‘Me too. I can’t stand a lying cheat.’ Sophie echoed Rachel’s thoughts, and if the whole thing didn’t hurt so damned much, Rachel thought she could have become friends with Sophie one day. Her and Sophie, both fucked over by Lisa, and neither of them saw it coming. All the times Lisa had been emotionally honest about her abandonment issues … Rachel understood, thanks to her sixteenth birthday party drama, but was everything Lisa said a lie? Shitballs. Rachel nearly spat out the c word for the second time tonight. Allira slung her arm over Rachel’s shoulders and Rachel hauled in a big breath. She let Allira guide her away as she pressed the ball of her palms into her eyes to prevent the flood of tears. Stupid thoughts. Stupid cheating bitch. What a fucking day this had turned out to be. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows.
‘Can I give you a lift somewhere?’ Allira asked.
Rachel blinked a few times, willing the tears to wait, and saw Static Alarm’s owners still crowded around the bar. They’d become rowdy. She could probably sneak out without them noticing, except she didn’t want to be a liar like Lisa.
‘Give me a moment.’ Rachel paced over to Bobby, plastered on a grin, and tapped him on the shoulder. ‘Hey, Bobby, thanks for the drink. I have to get up early for trackwork tomorrow, so I’ll leave you all to it.’
‘No worries, Rachel. Thanks for looking after our excitement machine.’ Bobby turned back to the raucous group of owners and yelled out another toast to Static Alarm. Rachel smiled, a shaky fake version of her celebration grin stretching her lips awkwardly. No one would notice her leave now.
‘Come on then. Let’s get out of here.’
She followed Allira out of the pub and into the cool spring air of the night. Gooseflesh rose on her arms, and not just from the cold. How much of this was her fault? She’d assumed Lisa felt the same way as her because their relationship slowly evolved without effort. She should have been more specific, although it shouldn’t be necessary to expect monogamy as a baseline. Should it? Oh, damn, now Lisa had her second-guessing everything. Being with Lisa had been a relaxing change to the constant series of fuckbuddies, obviously neither short term nor long term worked out for her. Time to swear off relationships for good. They were too much stress, and besides, she had a career to build. That bitch—wrecking her biggest win with her lies. Tears sprung, hot and wet on her cheeks, and she dashed them away with the back of her hand, leaving soggy trails on her skin. She sniffed.
‘My car is over here. Hey, are you alright?’ Allira asked.
‘Yeah. No. I don’t know. I’m sorry, Allira. Thank you for being here for me. And thanks for stopping me before I said anything too cruel.’ Rachel rubbed her arms. Her own hurt didn’t need to be spread around the place, even if she wanted to retaliate and hurt the people who’d just hurt her. Gratefulness for the way Allira had quietened her rage made her stomach ache, and she pressed one hand against her gut.
‘It’s cool. I work here, and when I saw them confront you, I asked the boss if I could leave early.’
‘Seriously? You’d do that for me?’ Rachel halted, unable to move.
Allira shrugged with a little smile. ‘Sure. Is it weird? I mean, I haven’t seen you since your sixteenth birthday party.’ Allira’s smile disappeared, and Rachel looked away from the pity in Allira’s eyes. Yeah, that shitty party when no one had turned up, except Allira who arrived late. Being queer in a small town sucked. Would she forever be known in this town as the girl with no friends? The one who invited half the school to her sixteenth birthday party, and no one came? Her breath had hitched and she sent a quick thanks to Allira for bothering to be there when no one else would. The lesson didn’t change apparently. From then on, she told herself, she would determine her own future. She would become known in Tranquil Waters as the greatest jockey to be born in town. They’d celebrate her success, and she’d know she got there without any assistance. If no one would show up for her, she’d rely on herself from now on. Mostly the idea had gone well, until tonight, when the one person, Lisa, she should be able to rely on had turned out to be the complete opposite.
‘I’m really glad you were here tonight.’ Rachel didn’t believe in fate but every word she’d said was true. Allira’s timing had been perfect, arriving just as she’d really needed a solid friend. ‘Thank you, Allira. You were always a good friend at school, and I’m sorry we lost touch.’ Rachel thought she might vomit and swallowed back the rising bile. Between the guilt of losing touch with Allira, her one true friend from high school, and Lisa’s cheating arse, Rachel wanted to curl up and hide.
‘Don’t worry about it. Anyone would do it.’ Allira pressed a button to open the car and saved Rachel from saying something sappy. She was certain not everyone would have stepped in to help her. As she slid into the passenger seat, she gasped.
‘Oh, hey. I hope you don’t get into trouble with your boss for leaving early?’
‘Nah. I don’t actually work there. The boss is my cousin and I help out when he’s short-staffed.’
‘Okay. I can get a cab if it’s too much trouble.’ Not that Rachel knew where she’d go. She lived with Lisa, and all her stuff was at their apartment.
‘It’s fine. Where do you want to go?’
Rachel swallowed. She could probably sleep in a spare box at the stables, or something. Or blow some of today’s earnings on a hotel. Today’s victory was more than a symbol of her path to recognition, it also came with a handy pay cheque, her biggest one ever.
‘Do you have somewhere to go?’ Allira’s concerned voice asked the question Rachel couldn’t answer, and she couldn’t hold her tears back anymore. She leaned forward and held her knees, gulping for air as she sobbed, barely aware that Allira rubbed her back in gentle circles.
‘Come to my place. You can sleep on my couch and figure it out in the morning.’
Not capable of words, Rachel nodded.
Jacob knocked lightly on the front door of his sister’s townhouse. Allira lived close to the hospital where she worked at as an intern doctor in the Emergency Room, preferring to walk to work with coffee in hand. For two country kids who’d grown up in a small cottage rented from a local farmer, they had both become terribly citified. Jacob had lived in Melbourne since he was thirteen when he’d won an AFL scholarship to a big private school. He loved visiting his parents in their neat, small home with vegetable garden out the front, and the surrounding paddocks growing endemic foods for his father’s latest agricultural experiments. Being able to buy his parents some land of their own was his greatest achievement as an AFL player, the best part of earning decent money while playing sport. He tamped down the acerbic thought about the need to buy land for his family. Jacob happily paid for their smallholding as a thank you for the way they’d taught him how to balance between modern life with the colonisers and the ancient ways. How to thrive on the opportunities provided by playing sport, and never forget where you’ve come from. He knocked again on the door. He knew Allira had today off, and he’d given her plenty of time to sleep in. Jacob’s stomach rumbled at the thought of the lunch he was about to buy for her. He couldn’t wait much longer to eat, and surely, she’d be awake by now.
‘Coming.’ Her voice sang through the door and he grinned as she pulled the front door open, her black hair swinging loose around her smiling face.
‘Happy birthday, Sprout.’
She laughed, her shiny dark brown eyes dancing with glee. ‘Would you believe it, but I forgot it was today.’
‘I’d believe it. You never know what the date is. For someone with a medical degree, you are so out of touch with the real world.’
She pushed him on the chest. ‘Jacob. I have a big brother to remind me of the boring details of life.’
‘Even your own birthday,’ he teased. He always made a point of making time for Allira, she was five years younger than him and she had a big heart just like their mother. They had an odd relationship, close but unfamiliar, mainly because he’d lived as a boarder in the city during high school, while she’d stayed in Tranquil Waters with their parents. She’d only been eight when he’d left home, a little kid, and each time he came home for the holidays, she seemed to have sprouted, hence his nickname for her. Sprout.
‘Nah, seriously, I have an electronic calendar to tell me where I’m supposed to be. I added today’s lunch to it, but since I’m getting too old for birthdays, I didn’t add that detail to my calendar.’ She laughed.
He rolled his eyes, ‘Yeah, you are positively ancient at twenty-four.’
‘Feels like it some days.’
‘Maybe you shouldn’t work so hard. You have nothing to prove to anyone.’
A frown flashed over her face, gone as fast as it appeared. ‘We always have something to prove, Jacob. It’s the way of the world, unfortunately.’
He nodded. She spoke the truth. It was why he made sure the only time he was mentioned in the media was because he’d played a strong game. He worked hard to play a clean game, purposefully building a reputation for fair play. He’d been voted in the top five of the Brownlow—AFL’s best and fairest award—in each of the last three years, and this season should be his best chance to crack the medal.
‘Nice game on Friday.’ Allira echoed his thoughts.
‘Thanks. It’s good to be in the final eight.’ His team, North Melbourne, had finished sixth on the table, and they had a good chance at making the finals.
Allira shoved him on the arm, ‘Yeah, the next month is going to be so exciting.’
‘Excuse me.’ A quiet voice came from behind him, and he turned around to see a tiny slim woman in tight pants and muddy ankle boots standing on the driveway at the bottom of the steps. Perhaps she only seemed smaller because he was standing at the top of the three front steps to Allira’s tiny townhouse and she was on the driveway below him. Allira pushed him to the side, stepping out of the doorway, and waved enthusiastically at the small person.
‘Hey, Rachel, come in. This is Jacob, he’s my big brother.’
‘Hi.’ She had a streak of mud across her cheek, with fingerprints in it, as if casually wiped away, and a big patch of mud on one shoulder. She turned slightly as Allira stood at the top of the stairs, and Jacob could see the mud extended all the way down across her very tidy arse and slim legs, an adult woman’s heart-shaped arse encased in tight pants. He dragged his gaze away from her body, and tamped down the flush of lust rising inside, to focus deliberately on her face. Somehow the mud made her brown eyes look sharper, a shade lighter than his own, and her gaze pierced his.