Chapter One

 

HE WAS back again.

From his vantage point on his guard tower, Matty spared a glance from his constant scanning of the bathers in the ocean to confirm that the man he’d dubbed “the lone hottie” was alone again today.

Hottie had been down to Matty’s beach nearly every day this week. He was pure eye candy, but more than his stacked physique, what kept Matty watching him was the fact a man that good-looking never had anyone with him, even on the weekend. He didn’t seem inclined to meet anyone, either.

Matty loved working here, at what he considered the best of Melbourne’s beaches. It was a very social beach, busy with locals and tourists alike. Families with blankets, coolers, and in some cases pop-up tents, played with children in the sand and dipped into the water. Couples walked hand in hand at the water’s edge. And groups of friends played games and horsed around in the waves. Anyone would have been welcomed into the ever-changing flow of impromptu gatherings and volleyball games, or just to plain hang out.

But Hottie kept himself unapproachable, and so far no one had penetrated the wall of reserve he’d built around himself. It made Matty wonder what kept him coming back down.

At that thought, he smiled wryly to himself. He’d never met or spoken to the man, but he instinctively knew from his orientation toward the water and regular presence that the ocean drew him in, that he took some sort of solace from the constancy of the sea meeting sand, water meeting sky.

Matty knew, because he felt the same damn way.

As soon as Hottie had settled himself on a towel, Matty resumed his watch of the public. His gaze drifted back across Hottie once or twice, but he was well-trained and vigilant enough that even such a tempting view wasn’t enough to truly distract him from his job.

From the time he’d been a small child, all he’d wanted to do was become a professional lifeguard. They had been larger-than-life heroes when he’d come down to this very beach, among others, when he was a kid. He’d joined a swim club and ended up competing in high school and college. As a teen he’d given swimming lessons and done stints as a lifeguard at a pool. He’d even been serious enough about it to get his degree in Sports Science while also becoming an EMT. Everything he’d done had been toward that end, and he’d never regretted it. He loved the water and the atmosphere at the beach, and working outdoors for a living was as close to perfect as you could get. But most of all, he loved helping people.

Which was why he couldn’t stop wondering what Hottie’s story was. He’d never been rude enough to use his binocs to see his expression, but his solitary form seemed to have a sad posture to it. And honestly, a guy that fit and attractive never having anyone with him was just strange. Unless… maybe he’d had to leave someone he loved behind, or they’d moved to a different country? Maybe he’d been on the receiving end of a breakup or, God forbid, experienced the death of someone close to him?

Quit being so dramatic. You’re such a queen.

Okay, probably nothing that drastic, but Matty figured that Hottie had recently moved into the area. Or maybe he was here on holiday? Either way, he didn’t seem entirely happy about it, which tugged at Matty’s heartstrings. He wished he could go down and talk to him, ask if he was okay. He supposed next time he took a walk with his rescue can, he could….

Or maybe not. It was one thing to go up to a group of celebrants and make his presence known, work the crowd, or check on a mum with tots, but quite another to make a point of going up to a solo visitor. Feeling vaguely protective, he didn’t want to draw obviously unwanted attention to Hottie. And Matty knew that eyes followed his every move when he descended from his tower. Part and parcel of being in the uniform.

Case in point, he watched heads turn as his tower partner, Caroline, worked her way back up the beach. Since she was built similarly to him and was well-covered by red trunks and her yellow rash guard, he knew it was more because of her presence and the aura around their occupation than her figure.

Hottie had risen and was heading to the water. Interestingly, he glanced over as he and Caroline crossed paths, but that’s all it was. A glance. Hottie was also wearing a short-sleeved rash guard that clung to his torso, revealing impressive musculature. Whatever he did to keep fit, it was certainly working. His visible skin was tanned, but Matty had caught a glimpse of pale skin at midthigh as he rose. To get a tan line that defined, Hottie must spend a fair amount of time outside.

Matty left off his musings and glanced back at the clock. Yep, Caro was right on time. They traded off sitting and walking to keep their focus sharp. He was due for a break, too, this time round. He patted his bum bag, which had first aid items in it, and made sure he heard the jingle of his keys. He’d forgotten his lunch cooler, leaving it in his car this morning, so instead of taking his break in the tower like he usually did, he’d go sit near his car in the shade.

Caro ascended the tower and gave him a nod. “Anything interesting?”

Just Hottie. “Nah. Quiet day for as busy as it is. Okay if I run to the car?”

“Forgot your cooler again, didn’t ya?”

“Yeah, well—” Matty shrugged with a grin. “—we’re all not as sharp as you.” There was a great deal of truth behind his teasing. Caro was very smart and didn’t miss a trick.

“Don’t sell yourself short. Besides, no such thing as a stupid lifeguard, at least not a pro. Unlike the world of Baywatch, they don’t hire us for our looks. Though”—she gave him a quick once-over—“you probably woulda got hired either way.” She winked and pulled out some sunscreen. “Go ahead. Just stay within shouting distance.”

He knew she meant that figuratively, though with the lungs on her, he’d likely be able to hear her well past the parking area if she really let loose. “Thanks, Caro. Be back in a jiff.”

Once he’d descended to the sand, he reflexively scanned his surroundings. He tried to work out which was Hottie’s head bobbing in the water, but at that angle, it was hard to do. So he turned and jogged toward his car and the sub sandwich in the cooler.

By the time he returned after his break, Hottie and his towel were gone.

Ah well. There’s always tomorrow.

Maybe he’d see him then.

 

 

LIAM SHOOK out his towel before laying it on the sand and dropping to sit on it. He kicked off his thongs, then buried his toes in the grains and sighed as he stared out into the blue water. Moving to a new city and a new club sucked, especially when he didn’t know anyone there.

He’d thought he wouldn’t mind moving to Melbourne. Hell, he’d always liked adventure and trying new things, but it blew not having anyone to do them with. His cousin had to stay and work in Canberra, so she couldn’t come with him, and his new teammates were all getting one last vacation in before training and the season started.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been traded to a new club since he began playing rugby professionally. Hell, it probably wouldn’t be the last either. Moving and travel was something he’d accepted as possibilities when he signed his first contract. The money was worth it. Getting paid to play a sport he loved. Not many people could say they were given that opportunity.

Laughter caught his attention, and he turned to see some bikini-clad girls playing volleyball a few meters away. He knew they’d welcome him if he asked to join, but he wasn’t interested in playing or flirting with them. Liam just wanted to absorb some of the peace the ocean always gave him.

Of course, hundreds of other people had the same idea, so the beach wasn’t as quiet and peaceful as he liked, but he was willing to overlook that for a moment. The noise helped remind him that he wasn’t alone, even if he didn’t know anyone. Plus there would be time to make friends within the Melbourne Rebels club. After all, one hundred and twenty-five matches made for a lot of time traveling, and he could find a mate or two among the guys.

Liam wasn’t afraid of that. He was just bored waiting for practice to start, and being at the beach, surrounded by people, helped ease some of his isolation. Not that he was given to putting himself out there.

He’d driven to the beach he’d found and liked, but he knew he would have to go for a run later when the heat wasn’t so bad. Keeping in shape was important in his sport, and running was a major part as well.

At the moment, though, he decided to go for a swim, cool off a little and try to get into the right frame of mind. Training would start in a day or two, and Liam would have to prove himself all over again to his new teammates. Since he lived so close to the water now, maybe he could add swimming to his routine. He’d have to talk to one of the team trainers to see if it would help or hinder his game.

His pulse raced at the thought of getting in the water, but he took a deep breath. It had taken a couple months of therapy to get him to the point where being near the ocean didn’t freak him out. Now he could actually swim without worrying about sharks and getting attacked. He still couldn’t get on a surfboard, which disappointed him because he used to love surfing. Liam shrugged. That obstacle could be worked on later.

Pushing to his feet, he ignored the appreciative glances several women and men threw his way. He hid his grin when he saw a few boyfriends and girlfriends poke the ones looking and frowning at them. It seemed like not everyone appreciated his hard work. Liam wasn’t arrogant, but he knew that all his working out and training gave him a body most men didn’t have. Along with his dirty blond hair and bright blue eyes, he was a magnet for both sexes…. Or at least, that’s what his cousin told him often enough.

Liam didn’t see it, but then again, he never spent time staring at himself in the mirror either. He was just Liam Holmes, rugby player and all-around normal bloke. Oh sure, his looks helped when he wanted to get laid, but they weren’t the most important thing in his life.

No, that would be rugby. He grunted softly. He’d worked his way into the number eight position in his club back in Canberra, and he loved being the big guy in the scrum. But the Melbourne club had a very talented number eight already in Tommy Barbella, so Liam wasn’t sure what his role would be, or even why he’d been traded to them.

As he made his way to the water’s edge, one of the lifeguards walked by him. He glanced over at her, taking in her yellow rash guard and red shorts. The uniform didn’t really flatter her, but no woman looked good in board shorts and a rash guard in Liam’s opinion. But something about her confident stride caught his eye and made him look closer. He squinted. Was that…? Nah. It couldn’t be Caroline Sinclair. She wouldn’t be working as a lifeguard. Not when she could be using her fame to sell surf equipment. Could be her twin, though. Lifeguarding, while a noble profession, would be an unlikely place to find the person she resembled making a living.

She continued toward the tower, where a similarly clad guard was scanning the crowds—the male lifeguard who had been up on the tower when he’d arrived. It was the same guy who had been there nearly every time Liam had come to the beach this week. Liam hadn’t seen the guy close up yet, mostly because he couldn’t figure out a way to check him out without being obvious about it.

Liam had always been an equal-opportunity lover. Men or women, it didn’t matter to him as long as there was an attraction and he could get off, but he tended to go for the guys more than the girls. Lately, he hadn’t been going for anyone because his career took up too much of his time. His refusal to do so had been driving Shelly crazy. She wanted him to find someone special, and had decided that he needed to date more.

Shelly had tried to set him up with her girlfriends and some of her gay friends, but Liam always turned her down. He’d never needed help finding a date or a lover, and he didn’t need help now. Most of the time, he just didn’t have enough energy to go out to the bars after matches and hook up with some stranger.

At thirty, he understood quite well that he’d only stay on top if he kept working at it. Which was why he worked out four hours a day during the off-season, and when he was playing, he worked out two hours in addition to practice and actual matches.

Off in the distance, the male lifeguard greeted the woman, then a cool wave washed over Liam’s toes, distracting him. He walked along the edge of the ocean, letting the water tease his feet and tempt him to come in.

He decided to go in, even though it was a little cooler than he normally liked. Liam waded out until it was up to his waist, then struck out to where a buoy floated maybe twenty meters away. As he swam, Liam allowed the repetitive movements of his arms and legs and the up and down motions of the waves to soothe him. His mind wanted to panic about sharks and other creatures that could attack him, but he kept his focus on his body’s rhythm. Why can I do this, but still not get on a board? There’s not that much difference between them.

Melancholia was all well and good when he had a reason to be depressed, but he didn’t really have one. He was just being silly because he was alone in a city he didn’t know, and he was going to have to start over with a club where he didn’t have any friends.

He knew the guys in the Rebels in passing, having played against them several times over the years he was with the Canberra Royals. But he didn’t know any of them well enough to call them up or drop over to visit.

Liam touched the buoy with his right hand, then bobbed at the surface while catching his breath. He kept a wary eye out for fins or dark shapes in the water. While Melbourne officials did their best to keep the sharks away from the populated beaches, sometimes one would sneak in, and Liam didn’t fancy becoming shark food anytime soon. Being bitten once was enough.

When he was ready, he headed back into shore, luxuriating in the pull and flex of his muscles as he did so. He got close enough to touch the sandy floor under him, then he wandered over to where he’d left his towel and thongs.

Before he picked up his towel, he shook the excess water from his body and his hair. In a way, he shook away his bad mood as well. He wasn’t a child, dependent on his family to make friends for him. Tonight was for more unpacking and updating his address with various family members. If I can get ahold of my parents. Where did they say they were going this week? He’d go out to a pub tomorrow night and see if he could meet people. He wasn’t a very outgoing guy, but he could work a crowd when he needed to.

He shot a quick glance over at the lifeguard tower, but the man was gone. Maybe he’d gone on break, or maybe it was his turn to walk the beach. Liam was a little disappointed that he didn’t get one last look at him before he left, but he planned on coming back tomorrow for another swim.

Maybe he’d see him then.