Childrenâ€™s sticky finger marks blurred the view through the large plate glass window, but even blurred it was completely spectacular. The water in the perfectly curved bay rippled calmly today lapping against the imposing red bluff that defined the entrance, and endless blue ocean lay on the other side. Red, green and yellow fishing boats bobbed on their
|Just Delectable by Fiona Lowe|
moorings close to the white, wooden pier that carved majestically through the water, staking a claim that dated back a hundred years. Today the sea danced around the pier's barnacled criss-cross supports, its surface a shimmering phosphorescence courtesy of the rays from the white-hot sun. Further along, the golden sand of the beach was dotted with shade tents and broad-brimmed hats covered the heads of all those brave or silly enough to be out in the scorching sun. All of it was quintessentially summer in Queensland. Annie shivered and plunged her hands into her blue utility coat, trying to warm up her fingers. Summer in Queensland and she was freezing in the Port Frazer Fish Co-op. For five summers sheâ€™d come home and worked in the icy depths of the co-op, saving her money to get her through the lean times that were the university academic year. Normally, she loved being back in her hometown. Her mum and dad welcomed her with open arms, fed her with mouth-watering meals and generally spoiled her. She enjoyed the annual â€˜catch-upâ€™ up with her high-school friends and the after-hours socialising made up for the non-stimulating job. But this year was different. All her friends had taken shorter uni courses than her so this year they were scattered across the country tackling new jobs and settling into â€˜grown-upâ€™ lives. Her best friend, Jen, had a gorgeous new baby and was rightfully distracted and exhausted in equal measure caring for tiny Ruby. Even her parents were away. They were off exploring the culinary delights of Asia and researching their next cookbook. This meant she was feeding herself and not very well at that. Sadly, she hadnâ€™t inherited the cooking gene like the rest of the family. All of this year's changes had left Annie feeling unsettled and lonely. And conspicuously alone. A memory of vivid blue eyes floated across her mind and she allowed herself a momentary daydream until a gravelly voice broke into her reverie. â€˜More blue swimmer crabs for you to ice, Annie.â€™ Harry, whoâ€™d been an â€˜old handâ€™ thirty years ago when her parents had worked at the co-op, gave her a toothless grin and dumped another tub of freshly cooked crustaceans next to her. â€˜Gee, thanks, Harry.â€™ She was so sick of seafood. She loathed lobsters, crabs gave her the creeps, prawns peeved her and she hated hake. Sheâ€™d had enough. But she had three more long weeks of finger-numbing and mind-numbing work before she could finish up. As she iced the swimmer crabs she spun castles in the airâ€”European castles because they were the reason she was working here. The money she earned would supplement the scholarship sheâ€™d won for a semester at Cambridge University, rounding off her degree in Architecture. She couldnâ€™t wait to visit Europeâ€”an architectâ€™s palette. A place to dream and a place to fill the well of inspiration. She just had to get through the next few weeks. â€˜Shop!â€™ Harryâ€™s voice carried across the chilled air as the bell rang, summoning Annie to the front. â€˜Coming.â€™ Tourists loved to watch the dayâ€™s catch being unloaded and as they walked back along the pier they would call in to buy fresh fish for dinner. With her feet slipping in her overly large white gum boots she schlepped to the counter, slapped on her best â€˜customer serviceâ€™ smile and glanced up. â€˜Morning.â€™ Cornflower blue eyes twinkled at her as a familiar deep voice rumbled around the small space, bouncing off the old timber walls. Warmth streamed through her and she desperately fought the urge to tear off the so-not-stylish paper cap on her head that OH&S regulations forced her to wear. For two weeks â€˜Mr Twinkling Eyesâ€™ had been coming into the shop, smiling, buying fish, chatting and departing. Each time he left her feeling both elated and deflated. For fourteen days sheâ€™d anticipated his daily visitâ€” the highlight of her dayâ€”but the anticipation always exceeded the reality. Their transaction raced past too quickly, the conversation always staying centred on the fish, the weather and the natural beauty of Port Frazer. It was slowly driving her crazy. Outside of work, sheâ€™d looked for him at the usual Port Frazer hauntsâ€” the pub, the bakery cafÃ©, the oyster barâ€” but she'd never spied him. Once he left the co-op he seemed to vanish into thin air but he always reappeared the following day. It was delicious and frustrating all at the same time. Today his eyes danced and his dimples dazzled, as he looked straight into her face. â€˜What do you recommend on this sunny day?â€™ Me. â€˜A steak would be my preference.â€™ Warm, rich laughter floated over her, capturing her melancholy and spiriting it away. â€˜How about tiger prawns?â€™ He pointed to the pile in the case. â€˜They've been frozen. Today's catch is just coming off the boat now. If you prefer fresh, come back at closing time.â€™ His forehead wrinkled in thought. â€˜Iâ€™ve got a few things on this afternoon but I should be able to shoot back just before six.â€™ Her heart tripped in anticipation. She finished at six. â€˜How many do you want? I can wrap them and have them ready for you.â€™ â€˜A dozen would be great. Thanks.â€™ His face creased in a wide smile and laughter lines bracketed his mouth. Right then and there, Annie realised that bones really could melt. She gripped the counter with both hands and locked her knees. â€˜Right then, see you at six.â€™ â€˜See you at six.â€™ He gave her a wave and strode out, sending the clear plastic strips scattering. Yes! Ignoring the stares of her colleagues, she happy danced in her gumboots, anticipation thrumming through her veins at the chance of seeing him twice in one day. *** â€˜Sweetheart.â€™ Her motherâ€™s voice crackled on her voice mail. â€˜Iâ€™ve just found Dadâ€™s diary. He's totally forgotten that he scheduled an appointment with a food critic from Just Delectable magazine. Itâ€™s not good to stuff up these sorts of things, especially with a new book coming out, soâ€”â€™ The line from Indonesia started to bounce back. â€˜Can you ring him on 0407â€”â€™ her motherâ€™s words disappeared into the static. Annie sighed and listened to the message again. Sheâ€™d ducked home for a quick lunch hoping to spend half an hour in the shade, which was thirty degrees warmer than the freezer of the co-op. She tried the message a third time but it didn't help. The line had broken up so badly she couldnâ€™t decode the number. She called her mother on her mobile to ask her to repeat the number. â€˜The mobile phone you have dialled is either turned off or unavailable.â€™ The ever-helpful communications pre-recorded message droned on. Undeterred, she rang the offices of Just Delectable magazine, hoping someone could tell her the name of the critic and when he or she was coming. â€˜Our contributors are freelance and we're not privy to their appointmentsâ€™ the PR person snapped unhelpfully down the line and then abruptly hung up. Awesome. Thanks so muchâ€¦not! The kitchen clock showed almost two. She'd lost her lunchbreak trying to sort out the mess and now she'd run out of time. â€˜Sorry, Mum and Dad, I tried.â€™ Her voice echoed dismally around the empty house as she quickly smeared Vegemite onto two slices of wholemeal bread. Inserting a hunk of tasty cheese in-between the slices, she took a bite and with sandwich in hand, grabbed her keys and raced back to work for an afternoon of filleting fish. *** From a quarter to six onwards, Annie kept her gaze firmly on the shop door. The pier was quiet now with most of the tourists having wandered away, tempted by other pursuits. Only the optimistic anglers remained and they planned to catch their fish not buy it. Some boats were heading out for a night of fishing and others were sluicing down the decks and anticipating a night in port. Crab pots dried in the late afternoon sun and nets spooled on the wooden planks of the pier, waiting to be repaired before they were cast again. Harry paused by the door under the clock that now read ten past six. â€˜Time to head home, Annie.â€™ â€˜I promised a customer some prawns.â€™ She heard the irrational disappointment in her voice and experienced a flash of irritation at herself. What had she expected? That heâ€™d come at six and then they'd stroll home together, deep in conversation, just like sheâ€™d pictured in her imagination? Stupid. â€˜I think he's missed the boat so to speak.â€™ Harry laughed at his bad joke. â€˜Those prawns have been off the ice for a bit now so we can't resell them. Take them home and have them for your dinner.â€™ Great. Just what she needed after a day working with seafoodâ€” more of the stuff. She forced her lips to curve into a smile of gratitude. â€˜Thanks, Harry.â€™ â€˜No worries, love. Donâ€™t paint the town too red tonight.â€™ He grinned as he locked the door behind her. Paint the town red? Harry had a far better imagination than she did. Tucking the white paper package under her arm, she walked the short distance home pausing only once. A ripe mango had fallen from a heavily laden tree and it lay cushioned on the thick, green couch grass of the nature strip just begging to be eaten. She scooped it up and two minutes later she was letting herself into the house. The quietness and coolness rushed her, along with a shot of loneliness. Giving herself a shake, she stowed the prawns in the fridge, the mango in the fruit bowl and then she poured herself a glass of lemon, lime and bitters. With skills learned from years of waitressing, she balanced a book, her drink and a bowl of macadamia nuts before sliding open the door to the deck. She'd sit outside and read for company while enjoying what she hoped would be a vivid scarlet sunset with lingering mauves as the sun dipped below the horizon. Sunsets always restored her joy no matter what had happened during the day. The sudden singsong chime of the doorbell pealed, startling her and making her load wobble precariously. Setting everything back down on the kitchen bench, she walked barefoot to the front door and pulled it open. Astonishment trapped her words of welcome in her throat. Familiar sky-blue eyes widened in delighted surprise while his high-forehead creased in confusion. â€˜Hello. You're Judy Higgins?â€™ She dug deep to find her voice, which seemed to have deserted her. â€˜Ah, no. Judy's my mother. Iâ€™m Annie.â€™ He stared down at her, his face slowly morphing from puzzlement to pleasure and he extended his hand. â€˜Damien Marks. Itâ€™s a pleasure to really meet you.â€™ His smile cascaded over her like sunshine after rain and the long summer weeks with their aching loneliness faded away. All that existed was this moment and his smile. She returned it with a smile of her own, allowing herself to sink into the twinkling pools of his eyes and blissing out on the warmth of his hand against hers. How had he found her? Had he asked Harry where she lived? It doesnâ€™t matter how he found you; the important thing is that he did. â€˜Annie?â€™ He tilted his head in enquiry and she suddenly realised that he must have already asked her something and she'd been so busy high-fiving herself about the fact he'd tracked her down that she hadn't heard the question. She gave an embarrassed laugh. â€˜Sorry, I didn't quite catch that?â€™ â€˜I asked if I could come in. Your parents are expecting me.â€™ â€˜My parentsâ€¦?â€™ Her motherâ€™s voice kick-started her brain as her words came flooding back. An appointment with a food critic from Just Delectable magazine. Itâ€™s not good to stuff up these sorts of things, especially with a new book coming out. Oh, God. Damien hadnâ€™t talked to Harry. He wasnâ€™t here to collect his prawns or to see her. He was the food critic here to dine with her parents. Get a grip! Think. â€˜Oh, right, of course, yes.â€™ She cleared her throat and summoned up her best hostess voice. â€˜Please. Come in.â€™ â€˜Thanks.â€™ He stepped across the threshold, his height immediately filling the entrance and he glanced around smiling again. â€˜Iâ€™ve been looking forward to this appointment for two weeks. I deliberately scheduled your parents last so I could finish my fortnight in the area with a special treat before I head back to London. â€™ He rubbed his hands together gleefully. â€˜Their food and hospitality are legendary in the food critic circles.â€™ â€˜Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™ll be gratified that you hold their recipes in such high regard,â€™ she said trying hard to resist the urge to wring her hands. Explosions of panic were detonating all over her as the significance of her father's scheduling stuff up hit hard. One bad review from a prestigious magazine could really sour book sales, and her parents worked far too hard for that, even if her father was as vague as a violet. Gah! Why was she the only member of the family at home? She was the one who burned water. Sure, she'd designed and built the barbeque area outside but she never cooked on the barbeque. But right now she needed to create some of the legendary Higgins hospitality and conjure up a meal. Not just any meal; a memorable one. With what? The fridge's empty. Ignoring that inconvenient detail, she forged forward. â€˜Damien, may I offer you a drink?â€™ Fortunately, her parentsâ€™ bar fridge was always well stocked. Some alcohol in his veins might just help soften the blow when she told him that not only weren't her parents at home; they weren't even in the country. â€˜That would be great, thanks.â€™ He glanced out towards the deck. â€˜That's one amazing view. Iâ€™ve really been soaking up Port Frazerâ€™s natural beauty after Londonâ€™s greyness.â€™ Annie twirled the cork out of a really expensive bottle of Australian sparkling wine. She figured it was the very least her dad could donate to the cause given heâ€™d landed her in this mess. â€˜But London has other beauties like St Paulâ€™s Cathedral with its Baroque dome.â€™ â€˜London's got stunning buildings and sure, I get pleasure from looking at them but I guess I've been homesick for some wide open spaces.â€™ He accepted the proffered glass and held it up to the light scrutinizing the fine bead before lowering it and breathing in the scent. â€˜Hmmm, lemon grass. Interesting. Cheers.â€™ Her heart sank. If he'd detected that aroma then he really knew his stuff. She was doomed. â€˜Cheers,â€™ she said, her voice sounding overly bright as she clinked her glass against his. Gulping down a big sip of champagne, she offered him the macadamia nuts. After he'd taken a handful, she ate one herself but her anxiety had dented her tastebuds and cardboard held more flavour. With her heart hammering hard against her ribs and her brain coughing up empty solutions, she knew she couldnâ€™t put the truth off much longer. She spun the fine-stemmed glass in her fingers. â€˜Damien, Iâ€™m very sorry. My parents tried to contact you, as did I, but theyâ€™re currently in Asia working on their next book.â€™ His shoulders stiffened and disappointment tinged with irritability streaked across his face. â€˜I see.â€™ She could already picture the scathing review as she frantically tried to come up with a way to rescue the situation. â€˜Butâ€¦â€™ Annie knew she was burbling, â€˜I hope youâ€™ll stay for â€¦â€™ What? More booze? More nuts? She suddenly remembered the prawns she'd brought home. â€˜â€¦a light seafood meal.â€™ Her words came out in a rush. He shot her a teasing look, his eyes sparkling and that mesmerizing dimple of his dancing on his cheek. â€˜I thought you preferred steak.â€™ Heat whizzed through her, reducing her already jumbled thoughts to mush. â€˜But my parentsâ€™ latest release is all about seafood.â€™ â€˜Youâ€™re going to make one of your parentâ€™s recipes?â€™ He sat down across the bench from her, totally at ease and with anticipation written all over his face. â€˜Excellent.â€™ â€˜Hmm, not exactly. This one's more casual,â€™ she said, continuing to wing it. â€˜Iâ€™m a more of a â€œlast minuteâ€ sort of a cook. An â€œopen the fridge and be inspiredâ€ kind of a girl.â€™ She opened the fridge and pulled out the only package. He raised his brows as he caught sight of her almost empty fridge. â€˜And let me guess, youâ€™ve been inspired by prawns?â€™ She met his knowing gaze with one of her own. â€˜Prawns someone didnâ€™t collect.â€™ He grimaced. â€˜Sorry. That was extremely rude of me but in my defence I didnâ€™t want to be late for your parents.â€™ His grin of contrition dissolved her disappointment that heâ€™d forgotten, but it also rammed home the point that her parents had forgotten him. She drained her glass and poured them both another drink. â€˜Can I help? I don't just write about food you know, I love to cook.â€™ â€˜Of course you do,â€™ she muttered under her breath as rising dread crept through her. â€˜Um â€¦â€™ She glanced wildly around the kitchen looking for inspiration. She spied her windfall fruit that sheâ€™d placed in the fruit basket next to a pear. â€˜Can you cut up the mango while I grab some herbs from the garden?â€™ â€˜No problem.â€™ She tore her eyes away from his large, capable hands, which were now caressing the mango. A vision of his hands caressing her projected itself clearly in her mind. Stop it. Seducing the food critic was a seriously bad idea. Still, if the meal didnâ€™t work... She jogged down the back stairs and stood staring in desperation at her parentsâ€™ vegetable garden. Family voices squabbled in her head. Living with â€˜foodiesâ€™ meant every meal was deconstructed and decoded, down to the minute level when all she ever wanted to do was just eat. Now, as she spied a shiny red miniature chilli shining out against the deep green leaves of the tiny plant, those previously annoying conversations started to help. Chilli would work as a flavour! The thought spun around her mind, gaining momentum. Passionfruit and mint would work together too. A thrill fizzed inside her. Apparently she hadnâ€™t always completely tuned out of the family food conversations to spin castles in her head. Something had thankfully stuck. She plucked what she needed from the garden, and holding her apron out in front of her to cradle her produce, she rushed back into the kitchen. Damien smiled at her, his teeth white against the tan of his face. â€˜Do you want these prawns peeled?â€™ Her breath did that strange stalling thing and her brain emptied under the rays of his smile. Concentrate. â€˜Well, Iâ€™m conflicted. Part of me says no because we'll lose colour when we peel them.â€™ Who are you and what have you done with Annie? It was a bit like being taken over by aliens and she hardly recognised herself. â€˜But part of you says yes because it makes the meal a lot less messy.â€™ He laughed as he pulled an apron over his head. â€˜If I leave the tails on will that solve the problem?â€™ â€˜Great idea.â€™ She helped herself to another macadamia nut. This time the crisp, delicate flavour rolled over her tongue and creativity struck. She rummaged through the pantry until she found the macadamia nut oil. Lighting the gas, she gently toasted the nuts in the warm oil. Damien peeled the prawns, his fingers cracking the shells easily but despite their strength they dextrously removed the long, black vein. She stirred the contents of the pan, moving the nuts around the heat and a cosy feeling of shared purpose hummed between them. For the first time in her life, cooking was fun. She sneaked a longer peek at him, loving the way his hair curled at the nape of his neck, how the muscles in his arms tensed and relaxed as he worked. She found herself picturing him on the balcony of a castle, tall and lean against the ancient bricks. â€˜Um, Annie,â€™ his quietly spoken words broke into her thoughts. â€˜You might want to turn the heat off.â€™ Hell! Sheâ€™d been so busy dreaming about him sheâ€™d almost burned the macadamias. â€˜Just what I was thinking.â€™ With a quick flick of her wrist, she snapped off the gas, the action as decisive as if she cooked every day. She immediately drained the nuts onto paper towel and then pulled out a chopping board. Positioning it opposite Damien, she shared the available space and started chopping mint. She was savouring the fresh aroma of the herbs when prawn juice sprayed her on the cheek. â€˜Sorry.â€™ Leaning over, Damien wiped her face with a towel, his hand gently caressing her skin. She found herself leaning forward against his hand, enjoying the sensation and not wanting it to end. â€˜Donâ€™t worry. Iâ€™m used to smelling like fish.â€™ Dumb! The moment the words left her mouth she wanted the kitchen floor to open up and swallow her. â€˜Actually you smell pretty good to me.â€™ His eyes darkened and his shoulders shook with laughter. â€˜But then again, I like fish.â€™ â€˜Hey,â€™ she flicked him with her hand towel in mock indignation. â€˜Be nice to the cook or you wonâ€™t get fed.â€™ He raised his dark brows and grinned. â€˜I thought it was â€œbe nice to the criticâ€.â€™ Damn, even in jest he had her there. She smiled sweetly. â€˜More champagne?â€™ She refilled his glass again and refocused. Ten minutes later, Damien was washing up after peeling the prawns and Annie had set the table out on the deck. Under a setting sun that radiated shards of orange, red and purple and sent them streaking across the sky, she surveyed her handiwork. The prawns lay against a bed of freshly picked baby spinach, surrounded by diced mango, pears and toasted macadamia nuts. Everything was drizzled with the passionfruit dressing. The greens of the salad and herbs and the oranges of the mango and prawns contrasted beautifully against the dazzling white of the square plates. She looked up as Damienâ€™s firm steps sounded against the deck. â€˜It looks fantastic.â€™ Admiration clung to his words and she crossed her fingers behind her back. Let it taste as good as it looks. â€˜Please, sit down.â€™ But he didnâ€™t sit; instead he came around to her and pulled out her chair. As she sat down he leaned forward and placed her napkin on her lap as if he was an attentive waiter in an expensive restaurant. The crisp zip of citrus and salt filled her nostrils and she breathed in deeply, committing his scent to memory. This moment was the best sheâ€™d had all summer. He sat opposite her and raised his glass, catching her gaze in the same way as the French. â€˜Bon appÃ©tit.â€™ â€˜Bon appÃ©tit.â€™ Trying not to bite her bottom lip in anxiety, she watched him fork the food into his mouth. She watched the concentration lines on his forehead deepen and she could clearly see him slowly decoding the flavours of the dressing. A slow smile spread across his handsome face, crawling into his five o'clock shadow. â€˜Passionfruit, chilli, lime and ginger. Good call.â€™ She leaned back, heady with relief. â€˜Iâ€™m glad you like it.â€™ â€˜I more than like it, Annie. It's sensational.â€™ His richly timbred voice wrapped around her and combined with her relief, she suddenly felt light headed. â€˜Iâ€™d love to say itâ€™s something I whip up all the time but that would be stretching the truth.â€™ A deep rumble of laughter rolled around her. â€˜I did wonder when I saw the look of panic on your face and combined it with the empty fridge. But in true Higgins style, you pulled it off. This recipe should be in the book.â€™ His praise sent waves of tingling sensation through her. Sheâ€™d done it. She'd really done it. Not only had she rescued the appointment snafu, Mum and Dad would be both thrilled and shocked that she'd managed to create a meal without a recipe. Damien propped his elbows on the table and leaned in, his expression all interest and curiosity. â€˜So tell me, what is Judy and Barry Higginsâ€™ daughter doing working in the Port Frazer Fish Co-op?â€™ â€˜Summer job. â€™ She twirled the stem of her champagne flute in her fingers. â€˜Iâ€™m furiously saving for a semester at Cambridge to finish off my Architecture degree.â€™ â€˜Youâ€™re an Architecture student?â€™ He didn't bother to hide his surprise. She gave a shrug, used to the disbelief when people found out her chosen career. â€˜I am. I love buildings as much as Mum and Dad love food. I canâ€™t wait to get to Europe and visit the Duomo in Florence, the Tuscan walled-cities, the chateaux of the Loire...â€™ â€˜You sound like me three years ago when I left Melbourne for Europe, except I was going for the wine of the Loire, the wild boar of Tuscany and the foie gras of France.â€™ She smiled. â€˜You havenâ€™t mentioned seafood in there. I thought that would have been on the top of your list, seeing as youâ€™ve been into the co-op every day for the past two weeks.â€™ The palest tinge of pink stained his tanned face. â€˜Well, I do like seafood but buying it every day wasnâ€™t my sole purpose.â€™ â€˜You never asked for sole,â€™ she teased, as a kernel of hope opened up inside her. â€˜Very funny.â€™ He stood up and walked around to her, gently pulling her out of her chair and into his arms. â€˜Can I see you when you come to Cambridge?â€™ She looked up at him, watching the way his eyes crinkled at the edges when he smiled. â€˜Iâ€™d really like that.â€™ He curled a strand of her hair around his finger. â€˜I want to show you Europe and introduce you to all my favourite foods.â€™ She stroked his cheek. â€˜I want to discover amazing buildings with you. Architecture and food.â€™ He gazed down at her, eyes twinkling. â€˜I think there could be a book in that. The first page will be a photo of the Port Frazer pier at sunrise and your Queensland Surprise Prawn Salad.â€™ He leaned down, his lips gently capturing hers in a warm kiss. Over the past two weeks, she'd imagined such as kiss but this one exceeded all of her daydreams. He tasted of chilli, passionfruit and the promise of fun and adventure. On a rush of tingling delight she rose on her toes and returned the kiss, accepting his promise and offering up one of her own. She sighed. Just delectable.