That night, I find myself sitting between Eliza and Toby in the beer garden of the Beach Hotel, just across the road from Byron Bay’s Main Beach and the glittering Pacific Ocean. The sun’s rays are still potent, so we’re all wearing our sunnies, and it’s blissful being able to kick back and relax after the madness of Christmas yesterday.
I still can’t believe he’s here, I think to myself as I follow his tall, slender frame to the bar, both of us weaving our way through the packed tables.
Sam, Molly, Nathan and Lucy are squeezed onto the bench seat opposite, and we’ve spent the whole of dinner laughing, telling jokes and drinking. I’m going to miss their banter when we part ways, but Toby and I have accepted an invitation to stay with Nathan and Lucy in Manly, the beach-side suburb of Sydney where they live. Both couples have said they’ll organise babysitters so they can take us out in the city. Lucy and Nathan haven’t had many date nights since the birth of their eighteen-month-old son, so they – and Molly and Sam – are making the most of their temporary freedom.
We’ve just finished our beer-battered fish and chips. We’ll be heading inside to watch the band soon, but for now, the sun is still fairly high in the sky and we’re all happily soaking it up.
‘Another round?’ Toby asks the table.
‘I’ll help,’ I say as he gathers the enthusiastic orders.
I still can’t believe he’s here, I think to myself as I follow his tall, slender frame to the bar, both of us weaving our way through the packed tables. And I can’t believe he’s mine…
He is so gorgeous, his skin already tanned from the three-and-a-bit days he’s been in Australia. He’s wearing a pale orange surfer T-shirt and black jeans, and I’m not oblivious to the attention he’s already been receiving from the opposite sex tonight.
We reach the bar and he turns to face me, resting one elbow on the bar top.
‘You having fun?’ he asks, his smile reaching his warm brown eyes as he tucks a stray strand of hair behind my ear.
‘Yeah, are you?’ I ask, grinning back at him.
He nods, still smiling at me as his thumb brushes my cheek.
This is the first time we’ve had a night out together since he arrived, and we haven’t had much time alone. We’re not alone now, either, but I’m still experiencing these sudden little thrills of anticipation at being at a bar with him. To be honest, anywhere other than the house at the moment feels like a treat – the house with its ten adults and four children crammed into it…
Toby and I are still staring at each other, and he’s starting to make a move to kiss me when the bar girl interrupts us.
‘What can I get you?’
He turns to give her his full attention and I squeeze his waist from behind.
‘Just going to nip to the loo,’ I say. He gives me a brief nod, but doesn’t falter in reeling off his order.
I don’t think Mum is convinced about Toby yet. I’ve caught her giving us the occasional perplexed look, and I finally got it out of my sister that she was initially shocked to hear we were romantically engaged – Eliza had to tell her what was going on when Toby flagged up the idea of coming here.
He practically recoils from her, quickly shaking his head, but she’s seemingly unperturbed at his obvious rebuttal.
‘Well, obviously she thought he was too young for me,’ I said at the news of Mum’s reaction. I wasn’t surprised, but I couldn’t help feeling disheartened.
‘Er, she did, yeah,’ Eliza replied, before hurriedly adding, ‘but she’ll come round to the idea, don’t worry.’
I hope she’s right. Her daughters have given her a rocky ride recently when it comes to matters of the heart.
On my way back to the bar, I notice that the empty space to Toby’s left has been filled by a modelesque girl wearing tiny shorts showcasing her long, bronzed legs.
She picks up two of our beer glasses from the bar and raises one eyebrow sexily at Toby, leaning closer to demurely say something in his ear.
He practically recoils from her, quickly shaking his head, but she’s seemingly unperturbed at his obvious rebuttal. She giggles, flicking her dark hair away from her face, and sloshing some of the liquid out of the glasses while she’s at it. I’m close enough now to hear her say a giggling ‘whoops’, but I almost falter in my steps at the sight of her sexily licking the spilt liquid off her hand.
I glance in horror at Toby to gage his reaction, and thankfully he looks put out, but his frown transforms into a smile when he spies me approaching.
‘Nah, we’re good, thanks.’ He nods in my direction. ‘My girlfriend and I can manage.’
Her face falls at the sight of me, but she shrugs and plonks the glasses on the bar before turning her back on us.
On the plus side, this is the first time I’ve heard Toby call me his girlfriend and it’s a bit of a buzz.
‘What did she want?’ I ask with annoyance as we make our way back to the others.
Lucy didn’t want a drink, so luckily we can manage the six glasses between us.
‘She just offered to help me carry the beers to our table,’ he replies.
‘Oh.’ Is that all? She looked like she was offering to jump his bones. Maybe she would’ve made that suggestion later. And if we weren’t together, maybe he would have accepted. She was stunning, after all, and certainly much younger than me.
I hate it when my doubts creep in, but creep it they do. What’s it going to be like when Toby and I go backpacking together? Mum’s response to our age difference was predictable, but other people will no doubt have a similar reaction. The thought makes my heart sink.
I’m already a fish out of water, taking a year out at twenty-eight. It’s tempting to just lie to everyone we meet and claim to be younger… But no, that’s not me. I wish I could be cool and confident about it. Hopefully all it will take is a little time.
As soon as the others have gone, Toby leads me away from the crowded tables.
It’s not long before we hear the rock band start up in the back room. We have our tickets already – Nathan and Sam came into town earlier to buy them – so we pick up our drinks and begin to make our way inside.
‘You alright?’ Toby asks me softly, his brow furrowing. ‘You went a bit quiet after dinner.’
‘I’m okay,’ I reply, trying to smile.
He reaches forward and tugs on Nathan’s T-shirt, prompting him to spin around.
‘Hey, mate, can we grab our tickets from you? We’ll catch you up in a bit.’
‘Sure,’ Nathan replies, nonplussed, digging into his pocket.
As soon as the others have gone, Toby leads me away from the crowded tables.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asks, rounding on me. ‘It wasn’t that girl at the bar, was it?’
I sigh, deflated, and his eyebrows jump up.
‘She was gorgeous, Toby, and so much closer in age–’
‘Rose, for f***’s sake,’ he says, throwing his head back with a groan and staring at the sky. He meets my eyes again and steps forward, placing his hands firmly on my waist. ‘You’ve got to get over it. I love you. I want to be with you. I fancy you like mad, for Christ’s sake, no other girl could ever stand a chance.’
His eyes burn into me with an intensity that makes me prickle all over, and then he bends down and presses his lips to mine. The sun in the sky, the people in the beer garden, the music – it all fades away as he deepens our kiss.
‘Holy sh*t,’ I breathe when he eventually withdraws. I look up at him with wide eyes.
His pupils are big and dark as he stares down at me. A moment later, our mouths are colliding again, even more passionately than before. I think he’s made his point, but I don’t mind if he wants to make it again…
We haven’t kissed like this since our very first time, but the memory of that night in the club is coming back thick and fast. My knees have turned to jelly and I feel completely light-headed. I can’t imagine how I had the willpower to ask him to stop once before, but I’m sure as hell not going to now.
By the time we join the others, my hair has come loose from its bun and my lips look thoroughly bee-stung. Eliza cottons on instantly.
I can barely concentrate on the music. I feel intensely jittery as I lean back against his chest.
‘You two need to get a room,’ she says with a laugh, rolling her eyes.
‘Tell me about it,’ I reply shakily. The thought had already occurred to me…
Toby has been sleeping upstairs on the living room sofa and I’ve been sharing my bedroom with Mum and Eliza. I’ve assumed that we’ll be on our own, backpacking, before we can take our relationship to the next level, but after what’s just happened, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to wait that long.
‘Maybe you should splash out on a hotel room tonight,’ Eliza says with a cheeky grin.
‘I wish. But I couldn’t cope with the look on Mum’s face when we waltz in tomorrow.’ My face burns even now at the thought.
She shakes her head good-naturedly and nods towards the band. ‘Come on, let’s go a bit closer.’
Toby stands behind me, his hand draped casually around my front, but after a couple of songs, his fingers slide under the hem of my navy chiffon top. He rests his palm on my stomach, his thumb stroking backwards and forwards. I can barely concentrate on the music. I feel intensely jittery as I lean back against his chest. He tightens his grip on me.
I notice the girl from the bar dancing sexily nearby, but I barely even bat an eyelid in her direction. The alcohol has loosened me up, and I’m exactly where I want to be. I turn around to face Toby. He doesn’t waste a moment taking my face in his hands and kissing me senselessly. I don’t think I’ve ever snogged anyone in public like this before, but I just can’t seem to help myself. I think I could kiss him forever. Oh no, why is he stopping? He smiles down at me.
‘Shall we go for a walk on the beach when we get back?’ he asks in my ear, the vibration of his deep voice tickling my eardrum.
A thrill darts through me. Is he thinking what I’m thinking?
He raises one eyebrow at me and I nod, biting my lip.
No amount of alcohol I’ve drunk can curb my butterflies after that…
‘Toby and I are going to go for a walk along the beach when we get back,’ I tell Eliza later while Toby runs across the road to flag down a taxi. Lucy’s driving tonight so she’s taking the others home.
‘A walk, eh?’ she can’t help teasing, but I’m grateful that she leaves it at the one comment. ‘Go to Little Wategos Beach,’ she suggests. ‘It’s smaller and more secluded than Wategos.’
‘Remind me where that is again?’
‘Head up the steps towards the lighthouse, but turn left to go down to the beach.’
‘How embarrassing,’ I mutter.
‘That’s right, I know where you mean.’ A group of us took a walk up to the lighthouse and Australia’s eastern-most point yesterday afternoon to try to burn off our turkey roast.
Luckily the moon is full tonight, but when we arrive back at the house to find the others getting out of the car, Sam still urges us to take a torch. Toby goes up to the house to grab one while I wait on the driveway alone, gazing up at the night sky and listening to the wind rustling the nearby palm trees. A black, winged creature flies over my head – whoa, that was a big bat.
I hear Toby’s footsteps on the stairs and turn to look at him, feeling a shiver of anticipation as he joins me. He has a couple of beach towels draped over his shoulder.
‘Grabbed them from the sun-loungers on my way out,’ he tells me.
‘Did anyone see you?’ I ask.
‘Er, yeah,’ he replies awkwardly. ‘Sam did. He started to give me an earful because the current is so strong. But then he realised that we’re not going swimming.’
‘How embarrassing,’ I mutter.
He laughs under his breath. ‘At least it wasn’t your mum.’
We walk in silence for a little while down the steep hill towards the beach. The air is mild, but it’s not humid like the night before last.
‘Have you noticed Lucy hasn’t drunk a single drop of alcohol since I got here?’ he says casually.
‘No,’ I reply with a frown. ‘I’m sure she was drinking wine the other night.’
‘I reckon that was apple juice.’
‘You think she’s pregnant?’ I ask with glee.
‘I’d put money on it. I bet they tell us when we go to visit them in Sydney.’
‘Aw, that’s lovely. Finn is such a cutie.’
The ocean is glinting prettily in the moonlight and there’s something timelessly romantic about the sound of waves crashing against the sand.
‘Yeah, he is,’ he responds warmly.
We reach the cliff steps and Toby leads the way as we climb upwards, pointing the flashlight at my feet and constantly reminding me to watch my footing. Occasionally we catch glimpses of the ocean on our left. To our right is thick bush. I can’t kick my butterflies, and they’re certainly not helped by the thought of the creepy crawlies and critters that lie within the darkness.
Eventually we reach the point where we have to turn left to go down to Little Wategos Beach.
‘Be careful,’ Toby warns, holding out his hand and leading me carefully, step by step. ‘Your palm is clammy,’ he comments, giving me a squeeze. ‘Are you feeling alright?’
‘I’m just a bit nervous,’ I admit.
‘Really?’ he asks with a note of surprise.
‘It’s further than I thought it would be,’ I say, pretending that my anxieties have nothing to do with what lies in store when we arrive at our destination.
The truth is I haven’t had sex for over a year since I broke up with my last boyfriend. Obviously you don’t forget how to do it, but the first time with someone new is always a bit scary. What if we don’t click?
It’s a relief to finally make it off the precarious steps and onto the beach. The ocean is glinting prettily in the moonlight and there’s something timelessly romantic about the sound of waves crashing against the sand. We really don’t need the torch down here. The stars are so bright – so much brighter here in the Southern Hemisphere than they are at home. We can see the whole of the beach stretched out before us, and a look to our left and right confirms that it’s deserted.
We turn left and walk along the sand, my hand continuing to embarrass me with its sweatiness.
‘God, sorry,’ I say, removing it from Toby’s grasp and wiping it on my jeans.
‘Are you sure you’re alright?’ he asks again, concern now apparent in his voice. ‘We don’t have to–’ His voice trails off. ‘I mean, it’s nice to just get some alone time with you, to be honest.’
‘No, I know, I know. I thought that, too,’ I say quickly, awkwardly. What is wrong with me? ‘How about here?’ I suggest, indicating a cluster of large rocks. We’ll be shielded from view if anyone does come onto the beach. Toby lays one of the beach towels between two boulders and sits down. I sit down next to him, and he loops his arms around his knees as he stares contemplatively at the water.
I cast him a sidelong glance. After a moment, he turns to meet my gaze, his eyes dark in the night. I think he wants me to make the first move. I’m not about to deny him.
Our kiss is gentle and tentative, very different to the heated passion from earlier. He caresses my temples with his thumbs and withdraws, kissing me softly once more on my lips.
I nod, sincerely. ‘I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.’
‘I love you,’ he says quietly.
‘I love you, too,’ I reply.
His hands on my face freeze and he tenses. ‘You do?’ he asks, taken aback because it’s the first time I’ve said it aloud.
I nod, sincerely. ‘I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.’
‘Me neither,’ he replies, and I can hear the emotion in his voice. ‘I think I fell in love with you when you came running after me, worried that my dad had given me that shiner.’
I cover my face with my hands. ‘That was so embarrassing.’
‘No, it wasn’t,’ he says with amusement, pulling my hands away. ‘It was sweet. It showed how caring you are. I love that about you.’
We smile at each other, and then we’re kissing again. My butterflies go into overdrive as we fall back onto the sand with a sudden sense of urgency. I want to be with him. In every way. And I don’t want to wait any longer.
I pull him on top of me, desperate to feel the weight of his body trapping mine. I gasp as he moves his mouth to my neck, propping himself up with one arm as he unbuttons my top. I reach up and run my hand along his impressive bicep.
‘Take off your T-shirt,’ I urge.
He complies, sitting up and tugging it over his head.
‘You are so fit,’ I murmur, to which he laughs. ‘Seriously, how did you get to be so fit?’ I ask.
‘Lugging huge sacks of flour around the bakery for years, I guess,’ he replies with a shrug.
‘Mmm,’ I say appreciatively, stroking my palms across his chest.
‘I’m not a piece of meat,’ he jokes, batting me away. ‘Now, let me see your tits. I’ve been after them for months.’
I crack up laughing.
‘You think I’m joking,’ he says with a grin, sliding his hands along my collarbone and down to the swell of my breasts. His fingers and thumbs close over my nipples and I gasp, all humour suddenly gone from my expression. He leans down to kiss me and after that, there’s no going back.
I don’t want to go back up to the house yet. Maybe we’ll stay and see in the sunrise.
‘Oh my God,’ I whisper afterwards, pressing my face against his neck as I pant. I’m a little overwhelmed, truth be told. Turns out artisan bread is not the only thing Toby’s hands are capable of working their magic on.
He presses a soft kiss to my lips and makes to move off me, but I hold him in place. I’m not ready to let him go yet.
‘That was incredible,’ he whispers, propping himself up on his elbows.
‘You’re incredible,’ I say, gazing up at him in awe. His dark features are framed by starlight, like a paper cut-out in the sky. He kisses me gently again, but I deepen it, trying to pour all of the love and affection I feel into this one small gesture. He breaks away and rests his forehead against mine for a moment before moving to settle beside me. This time I let him go because I’m struggling to inhale.
He grabs the second towel and lays it across us like a blanket, pulling me into his arms as we gaze up at the night sky together. I don’t want to go back up to the house yet. Maybe we’ll stay and see in the sunrise. We’ll be knackered today, but it will be worth it. I know I’ll never forget this first time with him.
‘You realise I’m not going to be able to keep my hands off you after this,’ he murmurs. ‘It was bad enough before.’
‘The feeling is mutual,’ I say with a laugh, holding him tighter. ‘I think we’re going to have to put your sofa to good use once the others are in bed.’
‘Right outside Katherine and Simon’s bedroom?’ he asks with alarm.
‘It’s worth the risk, don’t you think?’
He chuckles. ‘Yeah, I guess it is. But I can’t wait to have you to myself once we go backpacking.’
‘I can’t wait for that, either,’ I say, pressing my lips to his jaw, which is rough now with stubble.
We stay there on the beach, staring up at the night sky and wishing on the occasional falling star until the sun starts to come up. And then we drag our weary bodies off the sand and traipse all the way back up to the house. Toby collapses on the sofa – he’ll have all of half an hour, I expect, before the children wake up – and I sneak into my bedroom and quietly undress, trying not to rouse the snoozing bodies of my mother and sister. Eventually I slide under the covers and breathe a sigh of relief. We got away with it.
‘Did you have fun?’
I freeze at the sound of Eliza’s enquiry, spoken mischievously – but quietly, at least.
‘Yes,’ I whisper back. ‘Night, night.’
‘Was he good in the sack?’ she asks.
‘Shhh!’ I urge, trying not to giggle.
‘Yes! Now shut it!’
She stifles laughter and then we both fall silent. I’m just dozing off when she says, ‘I’m happy for you, Rose. I love you, sis.’
‘I love you, too,’ I murmur, my heart so full of love and happiness as I drift off into a blissfully deep sleep.