Tales of food, sex and friendship




Posts Tagged ‘romance’

Season 4: Episode 5

October 4, 2011

Mia waved a hurried goodbye to Sam, the receptionist, as she let herself out the door of the Pilates studio. The day had been mayhem and Sam, along with everyone else, looked completely frazzled. Two of the other instructors were off with flu and Mia had helped out by staying back four hours after she was meant to finish to look after their clients. Now, more than anything, she wanted a shower, food, and then some kind of alcoholic beverage. Not necessarily in that order.

***

She heard her phone just as she was stepping out of the shower. Every time it rang Mia’s heart would jump just the tiniest little bit. But then it would be work or one of her friends and she’d feel stupid for thinking that it might be him. Still, she grabbed a towel from the rack and ran to her room to try and catch it before it rang out.

“Hello, hello,” she said breathlessly.

“Oh hi,” said the voice on the other end of the phone uncertainly. A pause. Then, “Is that Mia?”

Mia nearly dropped the phone in surprise. There was only one person she had ever met who had that accent.

John from Bangkok.

What on earth was he doing calling her?

“John. Wow.” She tried to keep the surprise out of her voice as the words tumbled out. “This is…wow…how did you get my number?”

“You gave it to me,” he said. His voice sounded hurt.

Of course she had. But he wasn’t meant to call her. Wasn’t that the point of holiday flings?

“How’s Thailand?” she asked, by way of changing the subject. She vaguely recalled he was going trekking up north or something after she had left.

“I’m not actually there anymore.” He laughed, nervously. “You know how you said to get in touch if I was ever in Melbourne…?”

Oh no, she thought. He can’t be.

“Well, here I am.” He laughed again, sounding even less sure of himself.

“I didn’t know you had plans to even come to Australia,” she said eventually.

“Well I met this girl and I can’t stop thinking about her,” he said quietly.

Now it was Mia’s turn to laugh nervously.

“I hoped that… maybe she had thought about me too?” he continued.

His voice sounded so hopeful that Mia immediately felt terrible for not having used a single neuron to give him a moment of consideration once she had left Bangkok. That is not to say that John wasn’t a charming, attractive, interesting and caring young man. He would have been a catch for any girl, but unfortunately Mia’s heart had been otherwise engaged for quite some time now.

“Ah, sure,” she said quickly, feeling even worse for lying. “Of course.”

She could almost hear the giant grin that was plastered across his face.

“Do you want to catch up for a drink tonight,” he said in his lilting tone.

Mia was too exhausted to think of an excuse so she just said yes.

***

She wandered into the bar an hour later and looked around. No sign of John. She settled at the counter and ordered herself a much needed glass of champagne, hoping that the bubbles would calm her down a bit. One drink and I’m out of here, she thought to herself, already coming up with a list of excuses for an early getaway.

She almost didn’t recognise John when he walked in the door five minutes later. In her mind, he was a slightly geeky English boy who had provided a brief holiday distraction before real life kicked in again.

Instead, the man who entered the bar was taller and broader than she recalled. He walked with an air of confidence that made people move out of his way and his ruggedly attractive features caught the attention of every female in the room.

He walked over to Mia and pulled her into a hug, kissing her gently on the cheek. He looked and smelt amazing.

Maybe a couple of drinks won’t hurt, thought Mia.

***

The next morning, Mia stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil. Last night had been fun. A lot of fun. But now she needed John to wake up and leave before her housemates found out about him. She would never have admitted it to herself, but she was worried this would trigger a chain of events that might lead a certain someone to think she had a boyfriend. Mia acknowledged it was getting less and less likely that anything was ever going to happen with that particular person, but it couldn’t hurt to dream.

She chastised herself again for suggesting that she and John come back to her place last night. Although, the other option of going back to his hostel was even less appealing. The cup of tea was her ploy to wake him up and then, feigning appointments to attend and schedules to keep, kick him out.

Before she could finish making the tea, Mia heard footsteps pad lightly into the kitchen and felt a strong pair of arms around her waist.

“Good morning,” said John, nibbling softly on her ear.

He kissed down the side of her neck and along her shoulder before gently turning her around and kissing her tenderly on the mouth. Mia relented for only a second before gently pushing him away. She felt uncomfortably vulnerable making out in the kitchen with this half-naked man. She didn’t want to have to explain to anyone the details of when and how they knew each other. With the lead up to Ana and Tom’s wedding and all the excitement that had generated, she had managed to prevent her secret holiday fling becoming common knowledge. She intended to keep it that way.

“You should probably go,” she said, pushing him away. “My housemates…”

“Hello.” Willow’s voice startled her.

John and Mia spun around. Willow stood in the doorway of the kitchen looking from Mia to the strange man who was clad in nothing but a pair of snug fitting jeans, and could get away with it. She looked utterly bemused.

“This is John,” said Mia quickly. “He was just leaving.”

Willow’s eyebrows shot up. She needed to find out more about this young man who was canoodling with Mia in the kitchen on a Sunday morning.

“I was just about to make breakfast,” she said. “Sure you can’t stay?”

“Only if it’s Ok with Mia,” he said earnestly.

Mia nodded limply.

“Great,” said Willow. “How do you feel about pancakes?”

***

“Oh. My. God,” said Willow when John left the kitchen to go and have a shower several hours later.

“I know, I know,” said Mia. “I was going to tell you about him, but I forgot…”

“How on earth did you forget?” chastised Willow. “He’s absolutely gorgeous and the nicest guy I have ever met. Not to mention,” she teased, “completely in love with you.”

“He is not.”

Willow raised an eyebrow skeptically, but left it alone. She was just glad that Mia seemed to be interested in someone. She had been a bit concerned about the looks that had transpired between Mia and Johnny at the wedding. Not that she cared if friends hooked up, but Mia and Johnny…? That was just a recipe for disaster. Still, there was something a bit fishy about this new situation…

“It’s uncanny though, how he looks,” she said, closely watching Mia’s reaction.

“Hmmm?” Mia looked up from washing the dishes. She was foolishly hoping that Willow hadn’t noticed.

“You can’t tell me you don’t see it,” said Willow.

“What do you mean?” said Mia again, feigning ignorance.

“John is practically a carbon copy of Johnny,” Willow said.

Mia wasn’t able to hide the deep shade of purple that she blushed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Season 1: Episode 9

January 25, 2011

Ana felt two arms reach around her waist, a strong body pressing up against her.

“Well, that went ok,” Tom said, holding her tentatively as he gave her a kiss on the neck. “Are we friends again?”

Ana turned away from the sink where she’d begun to wash the dishes. She looked up into Tom’s smiling face, his clear blue eyes shining down at her. He was gorgeous. He was in his usual uniform of faded denim, plain T-shirt and trainers. At 29, he could pass for a first-year university student but Ana knew better. The jeans were EVISU, the shirt Dsquared2 and the trainers were Yohji Yamamoto for Adidas. Try as he might, Tom couldn’t mask the fact that he was an architect earning a six-figure salary.

And somehow, despite its beginnings, tonight’s dinner had been unexpectedly wonderful. Willow seemed to sense the tension in the air when she arrived but, typically, pushed right through it. And her good mood had rubbed off on everyone. She’d brought home some hand-pressed olive oil from an estate in Italy that only released 200 bottles a year. Who knew where she found such things? And Mia had baked a loaf of spelt bread, which – although it broke Ana’s rule about no more than one carb per meal –  had complemented Ana’s wild mushroom and goat’s cheese pasta beautifully. Mia’s secret? A splash of maple syrup to help the yeast activate and provide a subtle sweetness throughout the loaf. As always, Johnny had come through with terrific wine.

The girls seemed to love Tom and even Johnny was smitten – particularly when Tom discovered Johnny had played guitar in one of his favourite teenage rock bands. For the rest of the night Tom couldn’t stop raving about some set Johnny had “shredded” back in the 90s. Ana was thankful for Willow and Mia’s discretion. She knew they’d been watching her and Tom most of the night – how could they have forgotten the past two weeks of her behaving ridiculously because of Marc – but they’d been nothing but supportive. She felt lucky to have them in her life and couldn’t believe how irrational she’d been with Tom earlier.

Were she and Tom friends again? “Sure,” Ana said, smiling back at him.

At her response he touched her face, slowly rubbing the back of her neck. Leaning in to kiss her, he pulled her close and enveloped her in his arms. Ana was finding it difficult to resist him – and why should she? Marc had lied to her. He’d said he couldn’t spend New Year’s with her because he had to go to a dinner party, but then he’d phoned her from the airport. He needed more time for his family, he said, and was taking his wife on a two-week holiday to the Maldives. Marc was a fantasy, but Tom – he was real.

Tom reached under Ana’s blouse, all the while kissing her lips, her ears, her neck. She leaned back slightly as he cupped her breast. He unbuttoned her shirt; she could feel him hard through his jeans. She raised one leg around his hip and the other he grabbed, lifting her on to the wooden kitchen bench top.

“Are you sure?” he said, pulling away for a moment and resting his forehead on hers, breathing heavily. “What about Willow and Mia?” She responded by undoing his jeans and slipping her hand down his boxers. “They’re heavy sleepers,” she whispered, nibbling at his ear lobe. He didn’t need any more encouragement.

***

Ana woke to the smell of coffee. She opened her eyes and looked across the bed where she saw Tom laying a tray of croissants, jam and a plunger next to her. He saw she was awake and leaned in for a kiss.

“Good morning,” he said. “Hungry?”

She couldn’t believe how different it was waking up with him. Marc was like a motionless corpse most mornings (or afternoons) when she left,  but Tom brought her breakfast in bed. Ana sighed to herself. What had she been doing ’til now? And where did he get that amazing looking jam from?

She snuck a look at Tom, who was now poring over her modest collection of books. His strong, tanned forearms – hard with muscle through years of rock climbing – were visible under his rolled-up sleeves and dark blonde hair hung across his stubbled face. Here was this good, loving man who only wanted to make her happy, and all she could do was lie to him. Ana knew Tom wanted to get serious. He’d been brought up in a traditional home where all his family members still talked to each other. Hell, his parents probably still loved each other. It was normal for him to get domestic and play house, but it wasn’t for Ana. No, what was normal for her was sneaking around with a married man and feeling bad about herself the whole time. What was normal for her was treating a great guy like rubbish because she was holding out for some arsehole who would never, ever leave his wife. She made up her mind.

“Hey,” she said softly, “about our fight last night.”

Tom sat on her side of the bed and played with her hair. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I’m sorry if I’ve been wanting to spend too much time with you. I’ll step back a bit, I promise. I just love being around you, no matter how often. Just let me know what you need.”

“No,” she said, “that’s not it.” She leaned across his lap and picked her handbag off the floor. Reaching inside she pulled out her spare set of house keys and handed them to him. “Here. Seeing you last night with the girls and Johnny… they’re the most important people in my life. I want you to feel like you’re a part of that, a part of my home. I don’t want to see less of you, I want to see you more.”

Tom looked at her, then at the keys in his hand and squeezed them tight. Ana waited for him to say something. Instead, he pulled the covers over both of them and, working up her body, he showed Ana just how grateful he was.

 

Season 1: Episode 5

December 28, 2010

 

Mia jammed the last bottle of sparkling white in the fridge and hurriedly closed the door just before her haphazard stacking came undone. She just had to remember not to open it again in a hurry. Although her salary didn’t afford ‘real’ Champagne, she had splashed out and bought several bottles of a beautiful vintage brut from Tasmania that she knew Willow liked.

It was hard to believe New Year’s Eve had arrived already. She and Willow had both decided to give the big New Year’s celebrations a miss this year. Mia had never been one to go in for a big party, preferring to stay home on her own. She’d never felt it before, but for the first time she had a pang of missing out on something. She was, once again, alone on the last night of the year.

Well, not totally alone. She had Willow. And food. So much food.

Willow was going through a pie phase, and Mia had noticed at least four different types of pie in the fridge that she had tried her best not to squash with the bottles. She had watched Willow with intrigue as she had baked these amazing creations. Not content with the standard meat or apple pies, Mia had seen Willow placing ingredients such as salmon, porcini mushrooms, goat’s cheese and passionfruit into different dishes, with toppings like polenta and sticky date crumble replacing the traditional pastry. Willow had even made Mia a special pumpkin pie, which she had assured her was (mostly) guilt-free and delicious.
“There is no better way to start the New Year than with a pie,” Willow had said when Mia questioned her on the pie frenzy. “From the outside it looks the same as all the other pies, but it’s not until you’re into the middle of it that you realise just how different it is!”

The unique philosophy of Willow. It made sense. Sort of.

***

Mia was surprised when Ana ambled into the kitchen at 4.30pm.

“You’re home already!” she exclaimed.

“Finished early,” Ana replied. She surveyed the cupboard to see what was available before she went for the fridge.

“Don’t open….!” shouted Mia, just as several bottles of sparkling came rolling out and across the tiled floor.

“We’ll just have to open one, now” Ana said, as she tried unsuccessfully to fit them all back in. She popped a bottle unceremoniously and emptied her glass before Mia had even taken a sip.

Ana was in a foul mood.  She’d just found out Marc was not going to be at the same New Year’s Eve ‘do’ she was going to. She had deliberately knocked back all other invitations under the assumption that Marc would be going to the exclusive party that one of their best clients held every year. She was positive he’d said he was going.
“My wife will come with me to the other party,” he’d said running a hand down Ana’s arm after one of their lusty afternoon lovemaking sessions, “but she always leaves early so we’ll still be able to see the New Year in together.”

She should have been turned off by him at that point, but she was smitten.

Ana had stopped on the way home to collect a gorgeous navy blue silk dress that she had bought during the week. It didn’t leave much to the imagination, clinging to every perfect curve and hanging dangerously low down her back. Marc knew her body better than anyone and Ana knew he would love the dress. Even more so crumpled on the floor – but she had planned to drive him wild before they reached that point.

So much for that plan.

Well, if he wasn’t going then she sure as hell didn’t want to go! Her forehead creased with pain as she tried to imagine what he might be doing instead.

“So, what are your plans tonight?” asked Mia, taking a sip from her glass. She could tell that Ana was in a mood.

“Big fat nothing. I’m going to be one of those losers who stays home on New Year’s.” She took another gulp of the sparkling. “You?”

Mia was a bit hurt. “Just staying in,” she said lightly. Ana wasn’t exactly the most tactful person at the best of times, but lately she had just been downright thoughtless and rude.
To her credit, Ana did look genuinely sheepish as she took another gulp of her drink.

Luckily, Willow arrived home before their silence became too awkward. “ Hello!” she sang, as she closed the front door. She waltzed into the kitchen humming a song and carrying a large bunch of red roses and a bottle of Moët.

“For you!” she said presenting them to Ana. “They were by the front door.”

Ana immediately knew whom they were from. There was no card and no delivery address, which meant that he had dropped them off himself.

It doesn’t make it OK that he’s deserting me, she thought to herself, but at least it shows he cares.

The Moët was already chilled and she wasted no time downing the rest of her glass and opening the new bottle. “Time to move onto the grown-up stuff, ladies.”

Willow caught the hurt expression on Mia’s face. “Don’t be such a snob, Ana!” Willow chided as she went to the fridge. “Yum! My favourite!” she said as she caught sight of the bottles that Mia had bought. “Thank you, Mia!”

Mia smiled tightly, hoping that Ana would get bored and go out with some other friends. She was in an aggressive mood that Mia didn’t fancy dealing with all night.

***

Willow was getting the pies out of the fridge when Ana’s phone rang. Ana looked at the screen and then quickly left the room.

When she returned ten minutes later, she looked as if she’d been crying. Her housemates were worried. Nothing ever rattled Ana.

“What’s happened?” Willow asked gently, putting a hand on her friend’s shoulder. Ana shook it off and turned to face them, her eyes fiery.

“He’s going to the fucking Maldives.”

Willow and Mia looked at each other. What was she talking about?

“He’s taking his family to the Maldives for two weeks instead of going to the party. Couldn’t even tell me to my face. What a coward.” Tears were streaming down her face again.

“Who?” asked Willow. “Tom?”

“Not Tom! Marc. It’s Marc!”

She turned and fled the room, so distraught she forgot her glass of Champagne.

“Who the hell is Marc?” asked Mia, bewildered.

Then she remembered the flowers in the hall – Ana. Thanks for this morning. M. – the late nights, having to work on Christmas Day… The penny dropped. “Oh my God. She’s having an affair with her boss!” exclaimed Mia.

Willow slowly nodded her head. “I think I need some pie.”

 

Season 1: Episode 4

December 21, 2010

Here she was again, face down in a mix of cushions and groaning in exquisite agony. He was teasing her, his face buried between her legs, licking and kissing from behind as she arched her back. Ana sighed with pleasure as he turned her over. She was addicted to this man; to his hands, his lips, to the way his thumb traced a line across her mouth as he ran his tongue over her stomach. Here he stopped, playing her again, nibbling and kissing and knowing that she was maddened with desire for him. His hand reached to the box of figs that he had given her. It was an unusual gift, but Ana could now see what he had in mind when he got them.

“Merry Christmas, Ana,” he’d said, presenting her with the gift box containing 24 plump, ripe figs, individually nestled in fine tissue paper. She’d looked at him questioningly, as he’d placed the box on the floor and gently pushed her down onto the couch.

He slowly ran one of the figs across her moist, parted lips. She tried to bite it but he moved it away too quickly. He offered it to her again, this time allowing her to suck the tip of it, the purple skin exploding and the wet, ripe fruit covering her mouth and chin.

He kissed her, the sticky seeds spilling from her mouth into his.

She groaned in his ear.

He smiled. She knew he loved seeing her like this, frenzied and on the brink of losing control in a way she never would when they were in the office. She hated him for that but, God, did she love how it made her feel.

Ana felt half-crazed as he leaned in again to kiss her. He tasted salty and sweet. Sometimes it was like this. Sometimes she felt as if she could never get enough of him, and he seemed to think so too; the two of them clawing at each other’s bodies until they would eventually lay gasping and motionless, too exhausted to say much at all.

She knew she shouldn’t be here, especially on Christmas Day. Marc was her boss and, more than that, he was married. He should have been at home with his family, opening presents or eating turkey or whatever it was that families like his did on days like this. But, instead, here they were after he’d sent her a text that morning.

The client needs an answer now. Meet me at the office.

She couldn’t help it. She was lost.

***

“Who goes to work on Christmas Day?” Willow had shouted after Ana as she rushed out the door of the house, leaving Willow up to her armpits in chicken and red wine. Ana had mumbled something about international clients and deadlines.

Before she’d even arrived at the office this was where she’d hoped they would end up. Ana had recognised the hunger in his eyes as soon as she’d walked through the door.
“Drink?” he asked after they had placated their overseas client on the phone. It was still Christmas Eve in Chicago.

In truth, Ana knew Marc didn’t need her here for work. This was something he could have done from his office at home.

“Yes,” she had said. “Yes, I think so.”

He led her into his private boardroom, where a bottle of Moët and the large box of figs were already waiting.

* * *

Ana looked at her watch and squeezed her eyes shut. “I’ve got to go!” she groaned.
Marc muttered something in reply, a muscular arm flung across her chest, his face muffled by a sofa cushion. Retrieving her clothes, Ana smoothed her blonde hair and reapplied her favourite MAC lipstick. She walked over to the sofa and gave Marc a lingering kiss on the shoulder. He didn’t stir.

***

Willow had left several messages on her phone and Ana knew she was pushing it to be home in time for Christmas dinner.

“Shit!” she exclaimed. Ana had forgotten that she had promised to make dessert for Christmas dinner with her friends. Grabbing the remnants of the box of figs she raced out of the office and hailed a taxi. She made a quick stop at a convenience store so she could pick up some mascarpone.

She was starving and snuck a fig out of the box, smiling secretly to herself as she sucked the moist fruit from its skin. She was hurriedly licking her lips as the taxi pulled up to the terrace house she owned but which they all shared. Her phone rang.

Tom.

“Hi sweetheart! Merry Christmas,” she answered, the headache that had been building in the cab suddenly intensifying. She touched her forehead.

Not a great believer in the festive season, her boyfriend Tom had been overseas for the past few weeks doing some volunteer work in Cambodia – or was it Laos?

“I know, I know, I’m sorry I missed your calls. Would you believe that I’ve been stuck at the office today?”

Cradling the phone on her shoulder, she unlocked the door to the house and stopped to breathe in the unmistakeable smells of melting butter, red wine, bay leaves and slow-cooked chicken.

“I’ve just got home so I should go and help Willow get dinner set up,” she said. “Merry Christmas, darling…can’t wait to see you, either.”

Season 1: Episode 3

December 14, 2010

The rain had already soaked her shirt before Willow had a chance to open the umbrella. It might be the start of summer, she thought, but Melbourne still knows how to keep a girl guessing. Pulling her silk scarf out of her bag she wrapped it around her neck to keep out the unseasonably chill wind and biting rain. Hoisting her string shopping bag onto her shoulder, she began the short walk to the Victoria Market as the rain began an even more violent assault on the city.

She loved the market this early in the morning. By 6am all the fresh fruit and vegetable stalls were set up and she got to have her pick of the best produce. It always surprised people when she told them that, far from being quiet and empty, the market was alive with activity at this time. They buzzed with restaurant and café owners – as well as some serious foodies like herself – who all flocked to their favourite sellers like junkies to a dealer. This morning was a little quieter than normal, though, the rain keeping all but the seriously addicted away.

“Willow! Come stai, bella?”

“Lorenzo!” she sang, clambering over a stack of lush green broccoli to hug the man in the heavy leather apron. Lorenzo beamed back at her and reached behind her ear, magically pulling a plump apricot from the side of her head. Willow threw back her head, her copper-coloured hair darkened from the rain, and laughed with delight.

“Still a bit early in the season, but I give to you and you tell me how you think about it,” he said in his thick Italian accent.

Lorenzo was Willow’s favourite stallholder. Originally from Sicily, he and his wife had the best quality produce in the whole market, their exacting standards meaning that – without fail – their fruit and vegetables always looked and tasted perfect. They also managed to get their hands on things Willow rarely saw anywhere else, like purple cauliflower, white eggplant and rare varieties of heirloom tomatoes and potatoes.

“What’s on the menu tonight?” Lorenzo asked.

“I was thinking coq au vin and buttered green beans,” Willow said, inhaling deeply from a bunch of dried bay leaves, “I’m cooking Christmas dinner for my housemates and I wanted to have a trial run tonight while they’re out.” She took a thoughtful nibble of the apricot Lorenzo had given her. “But I’m not sure about dessert. The apricots aren’t quite ready to go yet, are they?”

Lorenzo shrugged his shoulders apologetically. “For others I say apricots good, but for Willow I say wait one more week. I know she is a perfectionist.”

Willow had to laugh because she knew it was true. For all her calm and happy-go-lucky attitude, she did not compromise on food. Everyone knew that and so, it seemed, did dear Lorenzo. It didn’t matter. She could trial the apricot and brandy pie she’d planned another time. Even though Ana had offered to make dessert Willow knew she would need to have a back-up plan come Christmas Day. Ana was more likely than not to forget, then find any shop that was open on the 25th and buy whatever sweet thing they had left. Without proper planning, it wouldn’t surprise Willow if they ended up eating a frozen cheesecake for Christmas pudding.

She was really looking forward to spending Christmas Day with her friends. Even though she, Ana and Mia all lived together, lately it felt like their lives were out of sync. Ana, especially, seemed constantly preoccupied; her job at the PR firm all-consuming. Long gone were their university days when they would close up together at the bar they had worked in and sit for hours, drinking and laughing, until the sun came up and they would stagger home to bed. Johnny would be there on some of those nights, too; a perpetual barfly and onetime bass player in a bunch of Melbourne rock bands, and as handsome and shambolic back then as he was today.

Willow smiled at Lorenzo and handed over the bay leaves, some fresh Australian garlic, two handfuls of smooth green beans and a kilo of Dutch Cream potatoes for some of her famous, artery-hardening mash. As she reached for her change she spotted a photograph pinned onto the refrigerated truck parked close to the stall.

“Who’s that?” she pointed.

“Him? Oh, that’s my son, Carlo,” Lorenzo said.

Willow looked closer. The man was stunning. He smiled out from the photograph, his dark brown eyes twinkling like he’d just been told a dirty joke. He was topless and his dark walnut skin glistened with water from some far-flung place. How had she never noticed this picture before?

“He just sent me the photo, that’s him on Amalfi Coast in Italy. He a chef there,” Lorenzo said proudly.

“Oh,” Willow said, disappointed. “I wondered why I hadn’t met him!” She thought she knew all of Lorenzo’s family. His wife Lucia and daughters Carla and Allegra were always on hand to help find her the best basil or mandarins or leeks. But none of them had ever mentioned Carlo and, for some reason, she felt flustered at the new discovery.

Lorenzo had been watching her face carefully. She had blushed when she’d seen his son – the girls always did – but this Willow was special. Whenever she came to their stall Lorenzo and his family always scrambled to serve her first, her happiness and good nature infected them all.

“You know,” he said slyly, “Carlo comes to visit in a few months. I think that you should meet then. You can talk food!”

Willow’s heart skipped a beat. Why was she reacting like this? It was just a photo, for God’s sake. But there was something about his smile, his eyes…

“Ok, Lorenzo. I will.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and waved as she walked away. There was still chicken to be bought from her favourite organic butcher and maybe some hand-churned butter from that little producer down the coast. There was a Christmas feast to consider before Willow could even think about the next few months.

Season 1: Episode 1

November 30, 2010

Ana pushed at the ornate wooden door of Medina and crossed the threshold. The smells wafting from the kitchen were alive with foreign spices, triggering memories of the summer she spent travelling through Spain and Morocco too many years ago. Her eyes took a moment to become accustomed to the dim light as she peered around the unfamiliar space. Low tables were surrounded by tasteful chairs, which were almost all occupied by small groups of people talking and laughing over cocktails. It was more like someone’s living room than a bar. Intimate and inviting.

She searched the well-dressed crowd for her housemates. They’d strategically arranged to meet here – a bar where their friend Johnny was part-owner and sommelier. But it wasn’t the prospect of free drinks that had lured them. It was more that, being Johnny’s workplace, he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) be late.

Tonight, however, it was Ana who was running hours behind time.

Six months ago she’d snagged a coveted job as a consultant at one of Melbourne’s most exclusive public relations firms. She knew, when she signed on for that hefty pay cheque, that her social life would be all but obliterated. The work days were long and often ended with client functions, which meant that sometimes she barely even saw the inside of her own bedroom. Her life, essentially, had been whittled down to rapid costume changes between work-related activities.

Initially, Ana had insisted to herself that she would rigorously maintain some sort of work-life balance – time to go to the gym, have coffee with her friends, establish a healthy and loving relationship with a boyfriend – but now, when she wasn’t at work, she was making up excuses to go back just so she could spend more time with him. Marc. Her gorgeous, charismatic, sexy and – utterly, tragically – married boss.

The attraction had been mutual right from the start. On that first day, when she had walked into the office, Marc had strolled over to her desk.

“Welcome,” he’d said. And that was all it took.

Bam! It was as though someone had sucked the air right out of her body. Thank goodness he’d been on vacation during the interview process; Ana didn’t think she would have been able to string a sentence together with those cool grey-blue eyes boring into her soul. Still, they’d managed to keep their hands off each other… for about three weeks.

Ana hated the fact that their being together could potentially ruin so many other lives. But then Marc would kiss her deeply on the lips and all the doubts she had about whether they should be together evaporated. How could something that felt so unbelievably perfect be so wrong?

Tonight she would blame her lateness on their ‘management meeting’ running over schedule. In reality, Marc had started undressing her as soon as she had walked into his office three hours ago. Slowly peeling off her silk blouse, he’d handled her as if he was unwrapping some kind of exquisite chocolate – then devoured her with the urgency of someone who feared she might melt if left exposed for too long.  Somewhere in the midst of their lovemaking – on the desk, his chair and the floor – she’d somehow managed to construct a strategy for dealing with a troublesome client and explained it to him between groans of pleasure.

Yes. Multitasking was definitely one of her fortes.

***

“Ana!”

Ana looked over to a corner table and spotted her housemates, Willow and Mia, sitting with Johnny, who tapped his watch and arched an eyebrow.

“Oh, please!” Ana snorted. “Like you’ve ever been on time for anything.”

Johnny shrugged in a good-natured way. He had many exceptional qualities, did Johnny. Punctuality was not one of them.

Ana blew kisses to her housemates, not wanting to get too close in case the perfume she’d applied liberally in the cab hadn’t managed to cover Marc’s scent. “This is a great place,” she said, sitting down and taking in the surroundings.

Johnny smiled broadly and blushed a little. “Yeah? You like it?”

“Careful,” teased Willow. “You almost look like you’re proud that you’ve achieved something.”

Johnny took a sip of his beer, trying to hide the smile. That was the price you had to pay for being a handsome – in a five o’clock shadow, black denim kind of way – 36-year-old former rock god. You could never be punctual or look too interested in anything.

“I think you should be proud,” Mia said, softly. “It’s wonderful.”

They weren’t the only ones who thought so. Although it had only been open for a few weeks, it was obvious that the Melbourne hipsters had already staked claim to Medina as their favourite after-work drinks establishment. The casual restaurant/bar had received glowing reviews from all the major press, with Johnny’s carefully selected wine list being touted as “unparalleled” and “a triumph” by the city’s leading critic. His friends never knew how Johnny had developed his talent for sourcing unusual and distinctive wines. All they ever saw him drink was beer – aside from the odd glass of red. In fact, despite having known him for close to 13 years, not one of them could claim they had him figured out. But Mia, Willow, Ana and Johnny had been friends for so long that the girls accepted his enigmatic ways as normal. Johnny was Johnny.

“So, really, what is your excuse for such appalling tardiness?” Johnny said in a mock stern voice, turning to Ana.

“Work,” chorused Willow and Mia, without giving Ana an opportunity to answer.

“Management meeting,” Ana said, ducking her head to hide her slightly crimson cheeks. It was getting harder and harder to lie to them, and she didn’t need her oldest friends reading her face tonight. “What are you drinking?” she said quickly, changing the subject.

“Champagne cocktail,” Mia said, handing her glass to Ana so she could try it. Ana took a slow sip. The Champagne bubbles tap-danced across her tongue and left behind an alluring hint of lychee and mint. She inhaled and caught a whiff of elderflower right at the end. The overall effect was smooth, sweet and brilliantly summery. Just what she needed to clear her head.

“Another four of these?” she said as she stood up for the bar.

“Beer for me,” called out Johnny. “And tell Franco to bring us some food.”

***

When the food arrived, the four friends jumped on it as if they hadn’t eaten in days. First, fresh bread – still steaming from the oven – and parmesan-infused olive oil for dipping. The peppery flavour of the locally produced oil almost masked the cheese infusion, but Johnny encouraged them all to savour its taste, to roll the oil over their tongues a few seconds longer to appreciate the subtle harmony of flavours.

Next, the kitchen sent out a parade of small plates. Freshly podded broad beans dressed with slivers of prosciutto; mushrooms slow-cooked in butter, sherry vinegar and a splash of cream; Kurobuta pork meatballs with a rich tomato ragu; and grilled haloumi between slices of fresh pear, topped with a drizzle of pomegranate molasses.

Ana bit slowly into a piece of the charred, salty cheese. She loved the way it squeaked against her teeth. The tart green pear and liquid molasses was a terrific match; the sharpness cutting through the fat of the haloumi and leaving her mouth alive with flavour. She watched as the molasses moved lazily down her fork and ran down her hand. Closing her eyes, Ana used her tongue to remove the thick treacle-like substance, imagining Marc slowly licking her and bringing her to the brink of pleasure – and then over the top – again and again.

 

***

No one spoke until all the plates had been wiped clean with bread and sticky fingers.

“So,” Mia said, after a suitable pause to pay reverence to the delicious meal. “Christmas. We’re still on, right? I’ve already broken the news to my parents that I’m not coming home, so there’s no backing out now.”

Mia’s family all lived in Singapore and although she often went back for the holidays, this year she’d decided to stay in Melbourne and cover shifts at the Pilates studio where she was an instructor. Mia had come to Melbourne at 18 and had gained her permanent residency after finishing university. Her parents were upset that she hadn’t wanted to move back home. But ‘upset’ seemed to be their thing, as her biannual visits never seemed to quell their disappointment that she was unmarried (still!) and living with strangers (who were these so-called friends?) in a foreign city.

“I’m in,” said Johnny enthusiastically.  Christmas had never been a major thing for him, so he was secretly delighted to spend it with his best friends, rather than doing what he did every other Christmas day – sitting in his warehouse apartment, smoking joints and listening to vinyl.

On the flip side, Willow loved Christmas with her family. This year, however, she was exhausted and quite pleased that she could stay in Melbourne rather than make the Christmas Eve drive to her parents’ rural Victorian property where she and about 30 other relatives always descended. Willow had started a new job halfway through the year, teaching music at an elite private school in Melbourne’s inner-east, and already felt burnt out. Come the end of term, all she wanted to do was sleep for a month to catch up from the school concerts, intrusive parents and precocious high school students she had to deal with. She loved her job but sometimes she wished someone had warned her what an uphill battle trying to instil teenagers with a passion for anything other than modern music was going to be. If it hadn’t been discovered on YouTube in the last five minutes, they weren’t interested.

“Oh, I’m always in,” Ana said. Ana had a tumultuous relationship with her parents. Despite the fact that, of the three housemates, Ana’s parents were the only ones who lived in Melbourne, Willow and Mia had only met them once or twice. They were rich, snobby and had never played a huge role in Ana’s life. Ana doubted whether they would even notice if she just didn’t turn up on Christmas day. Besides, Marc had promised her a special Christmas surprise…

“Are you going to invite your mystery man to Christmas dinner so we can finally meet him?” Willow said.

“Mystery Man?” Ana said too quickly, looking startled. “I don’t have a mystery man.”

“Um, Tom? Your boyfriend? You know, amazing architect, all-round great guy? The one we are still yet to meet?!” Willow chided.

“Oh. Him.” Ana shifted nervously in her seat. “He’s going overseas. Saving a village with some cantilevered structure. Or something. He invited me to go, but…”

“Work?” Willow and Mia said together.

Ana laughed nervously. “Yeah. Work.” Not work, she thought to herself. Marc.

“I guess the only question left,” said Mia, “is: Willow, what are you going to cook?”

Along with her many other talents – singing, dancing, even knitting – Willow could cook. Boy, could she cook. She made dishes that enlivened your senses in such a way that it didn’t seem possible anything could smell, taste or feel as good. Some people had said her cooking was better than sex.

Well, almost.

“I’ve got some ideas for the main course – nothing too outrageous, but not too traditional, either,” Willow said. “We should all contribute something though. It’s Christmas, after all.”

Ana’s hand shot in the air. “Dessert!”

Mia shrugged. “Vegetables?” She knew that Willow would probably have that covered – Willow only ever envisaged meals in their entirety – but she also knew that ‘Willow vegetables’ were generally swimming in butter or cream. Or both. Aside from the occasional Champagne cocktail, Mia was generally regarded as a health nut and could mentally deal with only so many calories on any given day. Even Christmas.

“What should I bring?” Johnny asked.

“Wine!” the three women said in unison.

***

Several drinks later, the group poured themselves out of the bar. The temperature had dropped significantly and the wind lashed away at the trees.  It certainly didn’t feel as though tomorrow was going to be the first day of summer. Willow was belting out the theme song from Flashdance with great gusto even though she didn’t know the lyrics. Mia had taken her arm in an attempt to stop Willow falling over as she tipsily negotiated the cobbled laneway in her high heels.

As they passed a nondescript apartment building, Johnny stopped. “This is me.”

Willow let out a wolf-whistle and Ana made kissing noises in Johnny’s direction. Mia tried to keep the disapproving frown off her face. Johnny had spent the latter part of the evening texting someone and they all knew what that meant: booty call. The girls had given up questioning him on who his current lover was. He never gave them an answer, anyway. He gave them the finger and laughed as he pushed the glass doors open.

“See you on the 25th,” Willow called out to him. “Don’t forget to bring lots of wine!”

Johnny, his back to them, raised his fist in acknowledgement.

Linking arms with her friends, Ana smiled. “Come on, ladies. Let’s go home.”