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A fortnight after her husband left her for his personal trainer, Petra took up running. She told herself it was nothing to do with Carter or his parting words.
‘‘Just look at you! Can you blame me? If you hadn’t let yourself get so . . .’’ he’d said. ‘‘Forget it. I’m going.’’
Petra began slowly, jogging along the sand at St Clair Beach, until by the time December rolled around, beach-running had become part of her life. At the end of her run she’d treat herself to a takeout coffee from the cafe beside the shark bell and watch the surfers dancing with death on the tops of the waves as she drank it. She watched for sharks, too, but never saw any.
This morning, Christmas music played from the cafe. On the beach, a young couple ran through the waves with their Labrador. Perhaps she should get a dog? A dog would be company. Still carrying her coffee, Petra stepped off the sidewalk.
Whack! Something hit her hard, smashing her sideways. She tumbled into an undignified heap, landing hard on her tailbone. Hot coffee sloshed over her T-shirt and stung her eyes.
‘‘What the — !’
A beach-blond surfer, board under his arm, stared down at her. ‘‘You OK?’’
She nodded shakily. ‘‘I . . . think so.’’
‘‘I didn’t see you,’’ he said, helping her to her feet. ‘‘I just turned around and . . .’’
He demonstrated with his board. ‘‘I side-swiped you, I guess. I’m sorry.’’ He supported her back to the sidewalk. ‘‘Here. You’d better sit.’’
He helped her to a bench, and she plonked down gratefully, feeling dizzy. Her coffee cup lay in the gutter, its contents running into the drain.
‘‘I’m really sorry,’’ he said again.
‘‘It’s my fault,’’ she said, ‘‘I wasn’t looking.’’ Her T-shirt, once white, was streaked brown with coffee. She crossed her arms about her breasts.
‘‘My house, it’s just across the road, see?’’ The surfer nodded at the ageing villa on the opposite corner. ‘‘Please, let me make you a replacement coffee.’’
‘‘I’m OK. Just shaken, that’s all.’’
‘‘No wonder. You hit the ground pretty hard.’’ He put out a hand. ‘‘I’m Damien.’’
‘‘Petra,’’ she said, and they shook.
‘‘Come on,’’ he said briskly, helping her to her feet. ‘‘You need something hot. And sweet.’’ His eyes seemed as blue as the sky; as the sea. She nodded. ‘‘OK.’’
Damien tucked Petra’s arm into his elbow, and, holding his board under the other arm, walked her across the street to his villa. It would have been lovely once, she thought, with those wide bow windows, but now the place had an air of decay; the wooden frames of the windows were cracked, and some of the boards were rotten.
Damien pushed the old gate open with his foot. ‘‘It’s a work in progress. I’m going to do it up. Down here.’’ He nodded at a concrete path that led down the side of the house.
In the shaded path his sun-bleached hair seemed to glow. It was long, almost to his shoulders, and thick with salt. Fighting a ridiculous urge to touch it, Petra followed him.
At the rear of the house, Damien propped the surfboard against the wall and picked up an old boot beside the doormat. Upending it, he shook a key on to his palm.
‘‘I know,’’ he said, catching her expression. ‘‘It’s not very secure, right.’’
‘‘You don’t have anything you’d miss?’’
‘‘My espresso machine, perhaps.’’
Petra laughed. ‘‘How big is your machine?’’ She bit her lip. That sounded bad.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘‘My espresso machine, you mean?’’ He unlocked the door and waved her inside. ‘‘See for yourself.’’
A gleaming chrome and red monster took up an entire benchtop. ‘‘Commercial grade,’’ he said proudly. ‘‘Plumbed in and everything. Have a seat. Let me rinse off my board and I’ll be right with you.’’
She sat on a stool in a square of sunlight. The kitchen was well-loved, almost retro, with cupboards of real wood and a countertop of battered metal. It smelt invitingly of coffee and cinnamon and there was a line of Christmas cards above the stove.
Outside, Damien had peeled his wetsuit to his waist. She knew she shouldn’t stare but she hadn’t seen a shirtless man for ages and Damien was definitely worth watching. Then he turned around. Oh my Lord! What is that? Petra put a hand over her mouth, staring at the crescent shape scars over each shoulder blade.
Picking up a hose, he moved around the edge of the house and out of sight. When he returned to the kitchen he’d removed his wetsuit, and wrapped a white towel around his waist and another around his neck.
‘‘Water?’’ he asked.
He poured them each a glass, handed one to her. Solemnly, he clinked the tip of his glass to hers. ‘‘So, Petra. Your accent — you’re American?
She nodded. ‘‘New York. I followed a man. What can I say? I was young and stupid.’’
‘‘No man now?’’
She shook her head, touched the pale line on her finger where her wedding band had been.
‘‘Ah. Right,’’ he said. ‘‘Hey, do you mind if I take a quick shower? Before making your coffee.’’
‘‘No, of course not.’’
He hesitated, ‘‘Um, hey, you want to shower with me?’’
She spat the water on to the floor.
She was coughing too hard to answer him, so he began pounding her on the back.
She waved him away. ‘‘I’m fine. I’m fine. Ow! Stop!’’
‘‘I’m only thinking of the environment,’’ he said gravely. ‘‘Saving water and so on.’’
Petra set the glass down. Was this gorgeous guy actually hitting on her? Surely he was joking. Laughing at her expense.
Damien extended a hand in invitation. ‘‘You want to?’’
She shook her head. ‘‘I can’t.’’
He looked disappointed. ‘‘No problem. Just thought it might be fun. Look, do you mind if I wash?’’
She shook her head. ‘‘No. Please.’’ She wanted to curl up in a ball of embarrassment.
‘‘Would you like to shower after me?’’ he asked. ‘‘Not with me. I’ve worked that out. I can give you a change of clothes, if you like.’’
She plucked at the T-shirt marked with coffee and sweat. ‘‘Actually, do you have a top? Something you don’t mind losing for a few days. I can drop it off next time I’m passing.’’
‘‘Sure. I’ll just get you a towel,’’ Damien said, and hesitated. ‘‘I hope you didn’t mind me asking, back then. You just looked so . . .’’
‘‘. . . gorgeous. And I thought, why not ask? Didn’t mean to offend.’’
‘‘Gorgeous? Me? You’re talking about me?’’
He laughed. ‘‘Of course. Who else?’’ He left the room, returned with a towel, and tossed it to her. ‘‘I’ll get you clothes once I’ve showered,’’ he said, running a hand through his thick hair. ‘‘Really got to get this salt out.’’ He disappeared and a second later she heard the water running.
Petra pleated the bath towel. Here was this gorgeous guy basically offering himself to her and she’d turned him down. Carter had stolen her self-confidence; now she had to take it back.
Seizing the towel, Petra followed the sound of rushing water into the bathroom. Damien stood in the tiled shower, eyes closed, head tipped to let the water wash over his face. She took a moment to admire his lean tanned body, wreathed in steam. Apart from the scars on his back, his long muscled torso was flawless.
Before she could lose her confidence, she knocked on the doorframe. ‘‘Hey?’’
He glanced over his shoulder. Smiled. ‘‘Change your mind?’’
‘‘Just thinking of the environment.’’
‘‘I’m glad,’’ he said, extending a hand, and helped her in beside him. As Petra stood beside him in the rushing water, she didn’t even care that her clothes were getting wet.
Much later, seated in the sunlit kitchen, they drank coffee. Petra wore a stained yellow shirt and a pair of baggy board shorts and didn’t care at all. She felt happy and hazy and relaxed.
‘‘Thank you,’’ she said softly. ‘‘It’s been a long time.’’ She had told Damien about Carter — not what he’d said; just what he’d done.
Damien squeezed her hand. ‘‘You’ll find happiness. I guarantee it.’’
Petra glanced at the clock and sighed. ‘‘I have to go. Will I see you again?’’
He grinned. ‘‘You able to drop those clothes off tomorrow?’’
Early next morning, Petra went running, ending at the Esplanade where strong winds fountained ocean spray across the road. She stretched down, letting her pulse calm, but didn’t bother with her usual espresso. Instead, she returned to her car to retrieve Damien’s neatly laundered clothes.
Outside Damien’s house she stopped. Where the run-down villa had stood was a modern building of glass and concrete, surrounded by a high block fence.
Petra stared at it, frowning. No other nearby houses resembled Damien’s run-down property. Yes, this was definitely the right place: the outlook from the front gate was the same.
Petra closed her eyes, feeling dizzy. Had she imagined yesterday? Had she made it all up? ‘‘Crazy lady,’’ she whispered. ‘‘Oh my God. I’m delusional.’’
- Rachel Stedman is an award-winning author of fantasy fiction. Her website is www.rlstedman.com. The Sharkbell features in Beyond the City Limits, an anthology presenting short stories with a Dunedin setting.