Six-year-old Alice Hunter was home from school with a cold and snuggled up on the couch next to her mother. Karen Hunter spent her days in a frenzied whirl of activity and it wasn't
often that Alice had her complete and undivided attention. For the last half hour, she'd revelled in that focus, soaking it up like a sponge, so when her mother turned the last page of Animalia and moved to stand, disappointment dived deep, taking hold of Alice with a fierce grip. She knew that once her mother stood and walked into the office, kitchen or the laundry, she wouldn't be sitting down next to her anytime soon.

'Mummy,' she said archly, wriggling in even closer. 'Tell me about the day I was born.' It was Alice's favourite story, although Daddy's kite story came a close second even if it did  make her a little bit sad.

Karen smiled and stroked Alice's hair off her sticky forehead. 'It was a special day.'

'It was.' A zip of anticipation fizzed at what was coming next. 'A very special day.'

'You decided to be born on a Sunday morning and Daddy drove me to the hos-'

'But Daddy lost his keys, remember,' Alice reminded her mother, wanting the full story, not the shortened version. 'And you said, “I can't wait. The baby's coming.” And you walked to the hospital but your legs got tired so you sat on a fence. Daddy found the keys and picked you up in his red car. He drove so fast a policeman got cross with him.'

Karen laughed. 'The policeman was only cross for a minute. When I told him I was going to have a baby and maybe in the car, he turned on his siren. Daddy followed the police car to the hospital.'

'And then the nurse pushed you fast in a wheelchair.'

'So fast. And Daddy ran next to me holding my hand. Five minutes later, Libby was born.'

'And Daddy was kissing you and kissing Libby. And you were cuddling Libby and counting her fingers and toes.'

'Ten of each. I was so excited to be a mummy. I didn't think it was possible to be any happier but then the doctor said, 'Surprise! There's another baby inside you waiting to be born.'

'And that was me!' Exhilaration ran up and down and all around Alice making her tingle and shiver with happiness. It happened every time she heard the story or thought about it.

'And that was you.' Her mother kissed her on the top of her head. 'You were our very special surprise. Daddy and I are very lucky to have twin girls.'

Alice hugged herself with delight. People always asked her and her sister who was the older twin and Libby always replied proudly, 'I am.' Alice didn't begrudge Libby a single second of those ten minutes in the world without her. As far as Alice was concerned, being a special surprise was a trillion times better than being the first twin.

Chapter One


Alice Hunter sneezed into her shoulder three times then shivered—a sure sign she was sick. These were the moments when she missed being a kid. When she was growing up, her mother had strict rules about illness and one of Karen’s favourite sayings had been, ‘If you can stand and argue with me about going to school, you’re well enough to go.’ Many times, Alice had reluctantly stuffed her bag with books and stomped out the door. But whenever Alice had spiked a temperature, Karen had always tucked her up in bed and fed her chicken soup.

‘Table seven.’ Jake, the chef and owner of the restaurant, slid hot plates onto the pass and frowned at her. ‘You look like crap. Don’t give whatever it is to the customers.’

‘Gee, thanks. And here I was thinking you might make me some immune boosting soup.’

‘You’re lucky I’m not making you work a double shift.’

Not for the first time, Alice wondered how the life she’d envisioned for herself had come to this. Despite her best laid plans, she was back in Kurnai Bay, living in her childhood home and working four casual jobs. Waitressing during the summer crush was the worst of them.

Alice carried the pasta bowl and the fish plate to table seven, offered pepper and parmesan cheese and smiled against aching teeth. Great. She probably had sinusitis on top of the cold. She considered dropping into the medical practice on the way home in case Libby could squeeze her in for an appointment. Then again, Libby’s patients had to be halfway to septic shock before she prescribed antibiotics. Her twin would recommend saline nasal spray, steam inhalations and a review in three days.

‘We need another bottle of water.’ The woman at table seven gave Alice the empty bottle.

‘Absolutely. I’ll be right back.’

Alice hip-swivelled her way between the closely set tables. When she was halfway to the bar, someone grabbed the back of her T-shirt.

‘We’re ready to order. We’ve been ready for ten minutes.’

Get your hands off me, you fat, ugly pig. ‘Excellent.’

Alice didn’t point out that their menus were still wide open, which signalled to her they were still prevaricating. Nor did she mention she was on an errand for another table and she’d be back in a minute—she’d learned it was faster to just take the order. Then she’d deliver it to the kitchen, collect table seven’s water and return. Waitressing, she had down pat. It was the rest of her life that was a shambles.

Her nose tickled in a raft of irritation and she sneezed into her shoulder.

The customer leaned back, his expression aghast. ‘We’re on holidays. We didn’t come here to get sick. Should you even be working?’

Probably not, but she didn’t have the luxury of not working today. No one in Kurnai Bay did. They had four months to earn a year’s income so they could survive the slower winter months. Once Easter was over, the town returned to the sleepy fishing village it had been since whalers and sealers plied their trade, the sea had been the highway to Melbourne and Sydney, and Canberra wasn’t even a twinkle in Australia’s eye.

Released from work a few hours later, Alice slumped on the same couch she’d lain on as a child—albeit reupholstered—only unlike when she was a kid, no one was home to fuss over her, stroke her forehead and tell her a favourite story. Although it had been years since either Karen or Peter had recounted the story of her birth—her surprise arrival twenty minutes after Libby’s—it was part of Hunter family folklore. Not once as either a kid or an adult had Alice ever begrudged Libby her first-born status. Her theatrical soul preferred the story of her more exciting birth.

Her parents were out of town on their annual Melbourne holiday. They maintained that the big city in January was far more peaceful than Kurnai Bay, and they had a point. In previous years, Karen and Peter had stayed with Alice in her beloved Victorian terrace in Albert Park. This year, they’d rented a two-bedroom apartment in Docklands through Airbnb. They’d wanted Alice to come with them and although part of her appreciated their invitation, she’d rather walk over shards of glass than visit Melbourne. It hurt a little that her parents didn’t understand that.

The virus, which had been busy lobbing its fever and energy-stealing weaponry on her body finally reached her mind, easily breaching the defences she’d spent months bricking into place. Helplessly, she felt herself tumbling back into the quagmire of despair that had claimed her once before and she’d fought so hard to leave. A sob rose to the back of her throat and combining with her snot-clogged nose, she choked. Coughing violently, she sat up fast. Tubby, the family’s elderly cat, meowed indignantly and sank his claws into Alice’s thighs to stall his slide off her lap.

‘Ouch! Fair go, Tubby.’ She leaned over the cat and grabbed tissues before lying back on the cushions. So, this was what her wonderful life had been reduced to? She was thirty-three and a half, ambivalently single, back living under her parents’ roof, working minimum wage jobs, and so full of goop she couldn’t cry and breathe at the same time. Hell, she couldn’t even be sick right.

Her phone rang and she snatched it up. ‘Hi, Libs.’

‘You sound crook,’ her twin said.

‘Summer cold.’

‘Poor you. It’s going around. Thank God, I’m on a half-day. The clinic’s been full of sad-sack tourists for two days and I’m over the monotony of doling out tissues and sympathy. By eleven, I found myself daydreaming about broken bones and chest pain.’

Alice laughed, immediately coughed and imagined Libby holding the phone away from her ear. She managed a strangled, ‘Sorry.’

‘I was calling to invite you for dinner. Nick’s barbecuing and Jess is coming, but it sounds like you need to stay in bed.’

Libby didn’t say, ‘and not infect the rest of us’ but it was there in her doctor’s tone. Her twin had always been direct and never put up with any nonsense—not even when they were children. Unlike Alice, Libby had always known exactly what she wanted and set out to make it happen. When Alice was compared to Libby’s single-minded determination and competitive streak, she came across as dreamy, vague and aimless.

‘Do you need anything, Al? I’ve got some soup in the freezer I could drop round.’

‘Thanks, but I’m fine.’

‘If you’re sure. Yell out if you change your mind. I’ll call you tomorrow.’

The line fell silent and Alice lay there picturing tonight’s dinner. Her nieces and Jess’s little boy would charge around playing on the soft Santa Ana lawn while Nick cooked and kid wrangled. He’d pour Libby and Jess a glass of wine and insist they relax and ‘catch up’, as if the two women rarely saw each other. The reality was Libby and Jess talked every day and met face to face at least three times a week.

A pale green snake slithered through Alice, although she didn’t know if it was headed towards the children, Nick—a prince among men—or Libby’s twenty-year friendship with Jess. Didn’t all the twin studies prove that twins are each other’s best friend? And yet, she and Libby were the exception to the rule.

For the first thirteen years of her life, Alice had struggled to keep up with Libby, who was smarter and more coordinated than she’d ever be, but the one thing that had sustained her was being her twin’s best friend. Everything changed the day Jess arrived in Kurnai Bay and Libby’s focus shifted away from Alice. Suddenly, her twin was just a sister. That was the first time Alice experienced true heartache. Now she was a pro, although she wasn’t certain she was any better at dealing with it.

Karen had tried consoling a sobbing Alice, telling her it was normal for girls to have a wide circle of friends with different interests and that Libby’s friendship with Jess didn’t mean she loved Alice any less. But Alice didn’t see it that way. Jess was everything Alice wasn’t: worldly, street smart, edgy and confident. Dangerous even, although only Alice thought that. Her mother had dismissed her concerns as ‘nonsense’.

Karen, usually so cautious about people outside of their social circle, happily welcomed Jess to Pelican House. Once, when a frustrated Alice complained that Jess was ‘always here’, Karen had replied firmly, ‘Her life hasn’t been as easy as yours.’          

Alice, whose early years had been a continuous round of therapies—speech, occupational, physio—along with Karen constantly pushing her to practice her reading, writing and times tables—hadn’t thought her life particularly easy. She’d gone to bed each night hoping the intense friendship would burn out and that Jess would tire of Libby. But far from fracturing, the friendship deepened, leaving Alice firmly on the outside whenever Jess was around.

Now all three of them were back in the bay, Alice was finding it harder than ever to catch her twin on her own. Not that Nick was the problem—it was Jess who left Alice feeling thirteen and a third wheel again. Or did she just allow herself to feel like that? Was she the problem? She got a definite vibe from Libby that her twin believed she was. Going on the therapy podcasts she’d been bingeing recently—it was voyeurism catnip—feeling this way was probably due to some deep-seated insecurities from childhood. It seemed everything stemmed from childhood. The problem was, Alice’s childhood had been rock-solid stable and full of love. It was her adulthood that was proving the challenge.

Six months earlier, everything Alice believed to be true about her adulthood blew up with the force of a terrorist’s bomb, shattering her life in ways she’d never thought possible. Lawrence, the love of her life, her partner of three years and the future father of her brown-eyed, curly-haired children, had taken her to their favourite restaurant—the venue of their first date. Giddy with excitement, Alice had spent the day anticipating a proposal and an engagement ring. Instead she got, ‘It’s not you, it’s me. I just don’t love you enough.’

Whenever she looked back on that cold July night, facing Lawrence across the table as he worked through his printed list of their shared possessions, she still couldn’t fathom how she’d managed to eat a meal and participate in the destruction of their thirty-six months together.

‘You take the Creuset cook wear and I’ll keep the DeLonghi coffee machine,’ he’d suggested.

‘Because you don’t cook and I don’t appreciate coffee?’


‘What about the Emily Kame Kngwarreye? We both appreciate that.’ They’d bought the canvas at auction a year before. It was Alice’s first big art investment, but it had also been an investment in Lawrence.

‘I don’t want to sell it just yet.’

Through the anaesthetising shock, Alice had managed a moment of clarity. As much as she loved the painting, she couldn’t afford to buy Lawrence out and she needed money to eat. ‘Then we get it independently valued and you pay me half.’

Lawrence’s grimace had been the first sign that their separation might leave a flesh wound.

Lawrence still lived in the house Alice had lovingly decorated, only now he shared it with another woman who wore his great-grandmother’s antique diamond. The effect of ‘not being loved enough’ had hit Alice with the devastation of a tsunami. Within hours, she’d lost her home, her job in Lawrence’s family’s high-end art auction house and her friends. That had felled her as much as losing Lawrence. She hadn’t realised that as they’d been his friends first, they’d close ranks after the separation and lock her out. Alone and jobless, she homed like a pigeon, desperately seeking reassurance that someone still loved her.

Her life had been officially declared a train wreck by everyone who’d heard the story and as this was the bay, not only had everyone heard the story, they’d gleefully discussed it at the RSL, the IGA, the marina—hell, she was surprised it hadn’t got its own segment on KB community radio. People greeted her with sympathy for her circumstances but it was always overlaid with sheer relief that they weren’t being forced to start over when societal rules declared that your thirties were prime time for career advancement and personal success.

Her parents and Libby had tiptoed around her for a couple of weeks, her mother hovering like a hawk. Then the advice kicked in.

‘Today’s the perfect day to get up, shower and go for a walk along the coast.’ Her mother threw open the bedroom curtains. ‘Spring sunshine and a calm sea soothes the soul. I’ll come with you.’

Her dad handed her a piece of paper with a phone number scrawled on it. ‘The RSL needs a casual at the bar.’

‘Don’t give him your power,’ Libby instructed with the certainty of a woman who’d never been dumped.

Alice had hunkered down, concentrating on getting through each day. For the first time in years, she’d embraced the prohibitive distance between herself and Melbourne. If it wasn’t for those four hundred and fifty kilometres, she’d likely have stalked her old home, been caught standing in the garden at two am screaming, ‘Why?’ and been arrested for slashing the tyres on Lawrence’s and Laetitia’s cars. Who knew isolation was protective?

By the time December arrived—those festive weeks that shine a spotlight on singledom and mark it out as failure—she didn’t fall apart. Her New Year resolutions didn’t include meeting someone, but plans to pursue her own interests so she was a fully evolved woman. She didn’t need a man to be happy, and besides, she was far too busy juggling four jobs. Who had time to date, let alone the energy?

But on this hot January day, the virus was shooting its DNA into her cells with the accuracy of an archer and its message overrode her single life convictions with targeted precision.

You’re not pursuing any interests and you’re so far from being self-actualised, Maslow would boot you to the bottom of his pyramid. You haven’t contributed any money to your super fund in six months. You’re lonely. You’re scared. Alone. Childless. Just an auntie. Abject failure.

McDougall, her parents’ border collie, wandered in and, sensing Alice’s mood, laid his head on her chest. Tubby stretched out a paw as if to bat the dog away but his claws stayed sheathed. Doleful brown eyes and challenging green ones stared up at Alice—sympathy and provocation; Tubby was having none of her wallowing.

Whether it was the cat’s disdain for her pity party or the pseudoephedrine kicking in with its can-do attitude—or a combination of the two—she ceremoniously dumped Tubby off her lap, sat up and flipped open her laptop. If she wanted a shot at what sixty-four per cent of the adult population took for granted, there was nothing wrong with taking control of her life. She’d be more of a cliché if she sat around eating ice cream than being proactive. Bringing up a browser, she typed in, ‘best dating sites’. Seven hundred and sixty seven million results came up. Her heart raced and she snapped the lid shut. Tubby gave her a death stare.

‘Okay, fine.’ She reopened the computer and clicked on a site that explained ten of the most popular dating sites and apps. She quickly ruled out Boomer Singles, LGBTIQ Matchmaker and Hookup Heaven. She was looking for love, commitment and the promise of children. One site boasted over twenty-five thousand marriages so she clicked on the link.

A box appeared on screen. Name? Email? Postcode? Too easy.

How many children do you have? As she typed 0, the ache she’d fought to banish reappeared.

Date of birth? Alice typed in the unforgiving truth and then her finger hovered over the delete key. Her thirty-fourth birthday was six months away. Was that old? Was the truth overrated? But lying on the fifth question didn’t seem to be best practice so she left the year unaltered. Ethnicity? Boring white Anglo-Saxon, although her father’s swarthy skin hinted at something a little more interesting at some point back in the day. Perhaps she should be answering questions on instead of here. Religion? Not really. Education level? Post grad. Her fingers flew. She could do this.

Occupation? Alice’s fingers paused, drumming lightly on the keys. What to write? Unemployed art catalogue designer? Not quite fully qualified art auctioneer? Waitress? Boat cleaner? She typed ‘journalist’, justifying she was writing the community events notices for the Kurnai Bay Gazette and the occasional interview and opinion piece.

Income? So much less than it had been.

Height? 164 cm.

Smoke? Never. Karen’s drug education had terrified Alice so much she’d never even been tempted to try a cigarette.

Drink? If you’re offering. She got up and poured herself a glass of wine.

What are you passionate about? World peace. Now you sound like Miss Universe. She hit backspace and gulped down half the glass of wine. What was she passionate about? Once she would have said art history, but that led straight back to Lawrence. Staying solvent didn’t sound attractive nor did sorting the recycling. That was her current passion—bug bear really. How hard was it for people to sort the bottles and the papers from the waste? Going on the restaurant bins, which she sorted at the end of each shift, and the hash the tourists made of the bins in the main street and the caravan park, it was very hard indeed. Did they want the white sand beach and the ocean they loved so much to be a flotilla of plastic bags? Thinking of the sea, she typed ‘sailing’ as her passion and vowed to dust off the Laser, which she hadn’t sailed in years. Or ask Nick if she could tag along as crew on the Wednesday afternoon race.

The dots at the bottom of the screen did a flashing run and then the words Compatibility Quiz appeared accompanied by seven buttons of graduated colours with the words Not at all, Somewhat and Very well strung under them. Above the buttons it said, How well does this word describe you? Beneath the sentence red words dominated. Stable? Energetic? Affectionate? Intelligent? Compassionate? Loyal? Witty? Very well. Very, very well!

Stylish? Sensual? Sexy? She looked down at her old shorts and stained T-shirt. Had once been all three, although not necessarily at the same time. Was not currently but could be again. Would be when her nose stopped dripping.

Athletic? Compared to Libby, not at all. Compared with the average Australian, very well. Heck, she walked to work.

Content? Very well. The virus mocked her. She changed it to the next button down and refused to alter it again.

Patient? This quiz is testing me. God, there were six more sections like this to complete.

How well does this word describe you: Bossy, irritable, aggressive, outspoken, opinionated, selfish, stubborn? Who in their right mind would ever admit to these things when they’re looking for a prospective partner, let alone a date?

The next section was titled, Talk to us about your feelings and the choices for the seven buttons changed to Rarely, Occasionally and Almost always. In in the last month have you felt happy, sad, anxious, fearful of future, out of control, angry, depressed, misunderstood, plotted against? Do your palms sweat when you meet new people?

Her entire body was a dripping mess of sweat. She closed the laptop and switched on the air conditioner, fanning herself with a copy of the latest edition of the Gazette. It was open on an advertisement for a new resort and the photos showed a family romping on the jumping pillow and swimming in the pool. The three children had curly blond hair.

The ache inside Alice burned. She wanted children and technically in today’s progressive society she could have a child and raise it on her own without stigma. Women did it all the time, although she had a sneaking suspicion that only a very small percentage—either straight or gay—chose to do it that way. Jess was one of those women and strident in her conviction that she was better off having a child on her own instead of involving a man, who would invariably let her down. But Alice wasn’t Jess. She wanted a partner—she wanted to be part of a team like her parents, and her twin. She’d watched Libby and Nick in action often enough to know that even with a hands-on partner and grandparents to fall back on, there were times when parenthood was a hard slog. Alice wanted more than just to endure motherhood, she wanted to enjoy it. She wanted to share the experience with someone who wanted it as much as she did.

Whether it was the virus or just the inevitable outcome of circumstance, Alice’s New Year’s defence of her single life fell away now, exposing a battered but intact belief. Yes, there were happy women actively choosing to live a single life and Alice admired their convictions. Good for them. But Alice wasn’t one of them. They weren’t her tribe and she’d erroneously hitched her wagon to their cause, thinking it would give her strength and purpose.

The problem was she hadn’t chosen to be single—that decision had been forced upon her. In her fevered state she saw two roads in front of her. The popular and oft-quoted road: ‘One day when you least expect it, Alice, you’ll meet somebody.’ But she couldn’t imagine the odds of randomly meeting The One would be in her favour in a city of four million, let alone in a town of roughly three thousand, even when she factored in the 30,000 summer swell.

The second road was the online match. Why had she been so stridently opposed to it before? She had a vague memory of lecturing some poor bloke at the RSL who’d kindly—albeit misguidedly—tried to make her feel better by telling her about his son who ‘did the on the line dating, love. Met a lovely girl.’ After all, how was using a website to find a match any different from cultures who used a matchmaker? Or family and friends? Most importantly, the website she’d chosen was backed by science!

Social science, not real science.

Alice ignored Libby’s voice in her head and re-opened the laptop. She faced the next quiz statement—I am looking for a long-term exclusive relationship.

Absolutely agree.

Then channelling the ‘fake it till you make it’ mantra, she tackled the dreaded profile.


I find adventure all around me in the big and little things. The silver flash of a dolphin, the shriek of corellas as they dart across a pink sky and the way a painting can transport me to a different place. I love living the outdoor life on the coast and when I’m not sailing or hiking, I’m enjoying novels and doing the quiz in the weekend papers. Are you up for a trivia showdown? I love robust conversations over cups of tea and debates over red wine. I can’t hold a tune but I don’t let that stop me.


Now read the original prologue that was changed in editing.

Original Prologue


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