Authors: Sara Craven
Fortunately she'd come to her senses in time, but every moment she spent in Ash's company represented real danger, and she had to be aware of that.
Her mouth twisted in a small, sad smile. 'But nothing can stop me wishing either,' she whispered, and made her way slowly back to the house.
In spite of the heat, Chellie felt cold and clammy when she reached her room. She stripped off her damp clothing and towelled herself down vigorously until her skin began to glow. She was just fastening the belt on the cream cotton robe that she'd found hanging in the closet when there was a knock on the bedroom door.
For a moment she tensed, wondering if it was Ash outside on the landing. Half-wishing for it to be so, but half-dreading it too. If she kept quiet, she thought, her visitor might deduce that she wasn't there and leave.
But there was a second, louder rap, and Rosalie's voice said, '
, I have something for you.'
Chellie found herself sighing inwardly, and trailed over to open the door. Rosalie, smiling broadly, was holding a large flat box.
'This is yours,
. Mist' Ash says you left it behind.'
Chellie frowned in bewilderment. 1 think there's some mistake…'
Rosalie shook her head, it belongs to you,
. Mist' Ash said so.' Her voice was kind but firm.
'I think,' Chellie said, with a touch of grimness, 'I'd better have a word with Mist' Ash.'
'Oh, he's not here,' Rosalie informed her cheerfully. 'He had to go out, but he'll be back for dinner.' She gave a rich chuckle. 'He wouldn't miss my stew, that one.'
She planted the box into Chellie's reluctant hands and went off, humming a tune.
Chellie put the box down on the bed as if she was expecting it to explode. Everything she owned, and a lot that she didn't, was here with her, she thought, her frown deepening. She had no other possessions, and he knew it. So what was he playing at?
Gingerly, she raised the lid and parted the folds of tissue inside, catching her breath as she saw what was lying there. She lifted out the folds of grey silky fabric and held it against her. It was a dress, its mid-calf skirt cut on the bias, its bodice straight with narrow straps, and as she turned in front of the mirror she saw the faintly iridescent material change from pewter to silver with the movement.
The subtle colour enhanced the creaminess of her skin and the darkness of her hair. It was, she thought, exactly what she'd have chosen for herself.
A tiny voice in her head whispered, Try it on. But common sense told her to put it back in its box and never look at it again. Because she knew if she tried it that it would fit, and that she would not want to take it off again. And one of her main priorities must be to sever even the most fragile contact between Ash and herself.
She sighed, and began to re-fold the dress, her hands reluctant. As she did so, she noticed a slip of paper had fallen to the floor.
She retrieved it, and read the few hand-written words. It said simply:
Chellie, this is no big deal, so please don't throw it back at me.
And under his signature was a PS.
We could always pretend it's your birthday.
Chellie sank down on the edge of the bed and read the note over and over again until the words began to blur.
Where, she wondered bitterly, had Ash acquired this effortless ability to head her off at the pass?
Refusing to wear his gift now would only make her look at best ungracious, and at worst ridiculous, making a great fuss about nothing.
Except that it wasn't nothing, she thought with sudden anguish. In fact, it mattered far too much.
It occurred to her, without self-pity, that this was probably the first present a man had ever bought for her. And that included her father, whose gifts had always come via the nanny when she was little and his secretary when she was older.
Which made this all the more special, she thought with a stifled sigh, smoothing the fabric gently. And all the more taboo.
How could a man she hardly knew get something so completely right? she asked herself with a kind of desperation. Because in so many ways Ash was still a virtual stranger to her, and she must never forget that.
She might have been reticent, but she knew nothing about his own family—if he had one—or his background, which was clearly chequered. Maybe it was best to remain in ignorance, especially if he wasn't prepared to volunteer any information.
Their lives had touched—and that was all.
So why did their brief contact with each other seem infinitely more than that?
What made her feel that length of time, in itself, meant nothing? That in some strange way her whole life had been geared to meeting Ash, and that somehow it didn't matter that their acquaintance with each other could be measured in hours rather than years?
As soon as I saw him I knew, she thought with sudden helplessness. Knew that he was the one I'd always been waiting for. But why didn't Fate warn me that there could be no happy ending? That he was heavily involved with pretty blonde Julie, who probably has no shadows in her life or bitter mistakes to put right?
Why didn't my instincts tell me that, although my life may belong to him, I never can? Because that's quite impossible, as he's made clear more than once.
He may be tempted, but he's also committed elsewhere. And he's not going to let a chance encounter spoil something good and real for him. A chance to leave the past behind him and establish himself, perhaps.
How could I have looked at him that night at Mama Rita's and not realised this? she wondered. Not seen that he was forbidden fruit? That he would always be prepared to step back out of the danger zone?
Because then, maybe, I could have saved myself a lifetime of heartache.
' "The joys of love",' she whispered sadly, wrapping her arms round her body, ' "are but a moment long".'
But if I was offered that moment, she thought with sudden fierceness, I'd take it, and to hell with the consequences. I wouldn't make waves, or demand more than he was prepared to give. And at least I'd have something—some precious memory to take into the empty future.
Apart from this beautiful dress that she could not wear but which she would keep for ever.
She put the lid gently back on the box and tore up the note into infinitesimal pieces. Then she walked out on to the balcony and sat down on one of the cushioned loungers to watch the sunset. And to think.
She stayed in her room until the last possible moment. It was strange, but the black dress she'd brought from Mama Rita's no longer seemed quite so tacky, she thought, viewing herself in the full-length mirror. On the contrary, against the faint honey tan she'd acquired it looked cool and sexy.
But would that be enough? Would
Well, she thought, straightening her shoulders. This was her chance to find out.
Ash was in the sitting room, standing by the long glazed doors leading to the verandah, staring into the darkness, drink in hand.
As Chellie came hesitantly into the room he turned to look at her, his brows lifting as he scanned the uncovered shoulders and the long, slim tanned legs revealed by the brief skirt There was a slow and tingling silence. Then he raised his glass, the blue eyes hooded, his mouth smiling faintly. He said softly, 'Not your birthday, after all. But mine, perhaps.' The words lingered tantalisingly in the air.
Chellie shrugged. 'I decided to stick to familiar territory.'
'Very brave,' he said. 'In view of the memories it must revive.'
She lifted her chin, meeting his gaze squarely. 'Oh, they weren't all bad.' She paused. 'But the dress you sent me was spectacular,' she added with assumed nonchalance. 'For someone who sails other people's boats for a living, you clearly know a lot about women's clothes.'
'There's probably a cheap crack just waiting to be made.' Ash drawled. 'But I'll pass.'
'Very wise,' she said. 'And I'm sure you'll find some other lucky lady to benefit from your good taste,'
'I bought it for you.' His mouth tightened. 'It can't have been pleasant—having to wear someone else's clothes all the time on top of everything else that's happened recently. Just for once, I wanted you to have something that was all your own.'
Pain twisted inside her. She thought,
And I want that too
Aloud, she said stiltedly, 'Well—that's—a very kind thought'
Or is it? she wondered. Could it be that he just doesn't like seeing me in his lady's clothes? That was another distinct possibility and it stung her to the core.
'And here's another thought, even kinder.' He walked to a side-table and picked up a jug. 'Let me introduce you to Planter's Punch—Cornelius-style. It's well worth trying— but strictly in moderation,' he added, pouring some of the liquid into a tumbler and adding ice, sliced lemon and a sprig of mint.
Chellie took a cautious sip, and blenched. 'Hell's bells— what's in it?'
'Apart from local rum, I haven't the vaguest idea.' Ash shrugged. 'Corney plays his cards close to his chest.'
'Corney?' She forced a smile. 'He seems far too dignified for nicknames.'
'Perhaps,' he said. 'But he forgives me a great deal.'
She took another sip, sending him a glinting look from beneath her lashes. 'I wonder what range of sins that covers?'
'Better,' he said, 'not to go there, I think. Although you'd probably be disappointed.'
She ran the tip of her tongue round her lips. 'You're saying that Cornelius has never had a serious strain placed on his loyalty? You amaze me.'
'I didn't think,' he said, 'that I was saying very much at all.'
'No,' she mused. 'You're very restrained. Or do I mean constrained? I'm not really sure.'
'Put that down,' he said, 'to the Planter's Punch. It attacks the brain cells and destroys rational thought, not to mention behaviour. Let me save you from yourself.' He took the glass from her hand and placed it on a nearby table. 'And now I think it's time we were going into dinner.'
Chellie hung back. She said in a low voice, 'Perhaps I don't want to be saved. Has that occurred to you?'
Ash paused, looking down at her, his expression wry. He said, 'A lot of things have occurred to me, and when we've eaten you and I need to have a serious talk. Now, come on, before Rosalie gets cross.'
It seemed, Chellie thought as, subdued, she followed him across the hall to a low-ceilinged dining room, its long table gleaming with silver and crystal, that she'd gambled and lost on the first throw.
But, in spite of everything, the delicious meal that followed was bound to lift her spirits to some extent. They began with a chilled avocado soup, followed by the hot and spicy fish stew, served with sweet potatoes and a green vegetable that she didn't recognise, but which, Ash told her, was called callaloo. Accompanying this was a pale, dry white wine, crisp and clear on the palate to offset the rich food. To finish, there were mango sorbets, and a wonderful creamy pudding tasting of coconut.
Ash kept the conversation general, chatting mainly about the island's history and its plans for the future, the modest expansion of tourism, making her relax and respond in spite of herself.
But then he was bound to keep off personal topics, she realised, in deference to the presence of Cornelius, who was waiting at table.
Acting as chaperon, perhaps? she thought drily. Looking out for the interests of the owner's daughter.
But when the meal was over, and coffee and brandies were served, she was surprised to hear Cornelius wishing them goodnight.
'Thanks, Corney.' Ash sent him a swift smile. 'And tell Rosalie that her fish stew still has no rivals.'
Cornelius acknowledged the compliment with a benign nod, and withdrew.
'And now,' Ash said quietly, 'we have things to discuss.' He paused, reaching into his back pocket and producing her passport, which he pushed across the candlelit table. 'I got you this.'
'Oh.' For a moment she was completely taken aback. 'Well—thank you.' She picked it up. 'Did you make a special trip to St Hilaire before dinner to collect it?'
Ash shrugged. 'It seemed to be an issue. It was time to resolve it.'
Chellie smiled extra-brightly. 'In time to prove my identity to the consul on Monday?'
'If you want to wait till then.' He was leaning back in his chair and she could not see his expression.
She said, 'I don't understand. What alternative do I have?' And felt her heart begin to thud in excitement as she wondered what he was going to say.
'If I lent you some money you could be out of here tomorrow,' he said abruptly. 'You could take a local plane to Barbados or Grenada, and branch off from there to anywhere you wanted.'
There was a silence. Her hands were trembling, and she clasped them together tightly in her lap under the shelter of the table.
'Why would I wish to do that?'
'Because, as you've said, you need to get on with your life. This could help you on your way.'
'It's good of you,' she said slowly. 'But I think you've done enough. I'm a British citizen in trouble, and the consul is obliged to help me.'
'So, what are you going to tell him?' Ash asked laconically. 'Are you going to spill the beans about Ramon and Mama Rita's?' He shook his head. 1 don't think he'll be too impressed. Whereas I already know about your various misfortunes. Think about it. Sleep on it, and I'll come back for your answer in the morning.'
'You're not staying here tonight?' The question was too quick, too urgent, and Chellie felt her face warm.
There was a brief pause, then, 'I decided against it,' he said.
'I see.' Chellie pushed back her chair and rose. 'Please don't let me detain you.'
The sitting room was lit with shaded lamps when she marched in, her head held high, and unexpectedly there was music, with a slow, sensuous, unfamiliar rhythm, playing softly from a concealed system.
'You left your brandy.' Ash had followed her.
'I probably shouldn't have any more alcohol,' she told him curtly. 'Or I might say and do something I could regret'