Island Recess, Chapter 10.
The misty sunlight cast a hazy lemon glow over the waking island. Still early morning, and the town already stirred with life as it was high noon on a market day. Standing once more outside her apartment block, Helena and her companions breathed a collective sigh of relief. Though what passed for the front lawn was peppered with debris cast aside by the storm, the building itself stood untouched. From their vantage point on the sodden grass, they could see that even Helena’s tottery tripod barbeque remained upright on the third floor balcony. The rest of the island had not fared so well. Driving back through the still-swamped streets, the trio had been dismayed to see the extent of the damage done by the storm. Although just tapped by a flick of the hurricane’s tail-end, little of the community had escaped unscathed. Screen doors, window shutters, street signs and uprooted plants were only a few of the items littered over walkways and yards. Yet spirits were high. Driving cautiously down winding side streets, threading their way around the wind-tossed debris, they were surprised at the number of individuals who turned to wave, or to smile a greeting, despite the obvious damage facing them. Surely it would be days, even weeks, before the community returned to business-as-usual. And yet despite the damages sustained by public and private property alike, there had been only minor injuries reported among the community members. It was for this reason that the locals would, at least for the time being, overlook the ruin of their property out of gratitude for their very lives. Ben had been doubly lucky. His brown eyes glistened as Helena threw her arms around his bony shoulders, and even Neil seemed to be momentarily speechless as he patted the elderly landlord on the back.
“Okay, time to get to work,” Neil said finally, and with blustery enthusiasm. From the front seat of the truck, Morris set up a pitiable howl.
“Ben, would you mind awfully if Morris sat on the balcony?”
The landlord waved away his words with a dismissive hand, and had soon ensconced the canine on a make-shift bed with an enormous and meaty soup bone at his disposal.
With Ben in the role of work crew foreman, Neil, Helena, and assorted relatives worked quickly to bag the debris, and clean up as best they could. Their feet, sloshing through the muddied pools of water were soon chilled, despite the currents of heat rising through the still-damp air. Helena shivered in her thin long-sleeved t-shirt and light windbreaker. Glancing over and observing her goose-bumped discomfort, Neil removed his own fleece jacket, and placed it about Helena’s shoulders, pulling her hands through the sleeves as if she were a small child. Zipped to her chin, the fuzzy jacket hung halfway to her knees. With a quick hug, Neil returned to manhandle a particularly overfilled bag, hoisting its weighty contents to his shoulder, and then onto the bed of his truck. Helena glanced after him longingly, her heart tight with emotion, and her mind buzzing painfully. Under the velvet cover of night she had opened her legs, and her heart, to Neil Streep and in so doing, had made herself vulnerable to the mysteries she had yet to uncover. No matter how deeply the core of her still throbbed at the memory of their coupling, the images of rolled up bills and mysterious packages changing hands crept back into her daylight consciousness. Her thoughts tumbled, torn between her desire to bask in the afterglow of last night’s encounter, and her driving compulsion to know the truth. Glancing over at the tightly muscled figure of Neil Streep, and seeing him giving so openly of his time and energy, her heart thumped painfully against her ribs. When he turned and smiled a slow, warm smile, all invasive, worrying thoughts of piracy and criminal activity were banished to a dark corner of Helena’s mind. She smiled back. The last garbage sack had been lifted or hurled onto the flatbed of the old truck and the yard, if still awash in muddy water, was at least free of garbage and debris. Neil walked slowly toward her, each footstep an embarrassing slurp, as it entered and exited the mud.
“Romantic, isn’t it,” Neil laughed, pointing ruefully to his soaking wet shoes. “In the story books, aren’t I supposed to glide noiselessly across to the heroine before I ravish her?”
“Well, you still have a chance to get the ravishing part right,” Helena grinned, tilting her head back for a kiss that missed her mouth and landed chastely on her forehead.
Later,” he whispered, drawing her to him for a moment before releasing her. He extended a hand to her, and she entwined her fingers with his, feeling the warm press of his palm against hers. Hand in hand, they made their way over the lawn to the front steps of the apartment building. Ben had long ago retired to the narrow porch, where he supervised the clean-up from a threadbare lawn chair, in the slumbering company of a drooling Morris. He now rose unsteadily to his feet, a bright smile touching his lips.
“How do I ever, ever thank you for all you’ve done,” he said in a shaky voice, his eyes wet with emotion.
“No need Ben, no need at all,” said Neil gently, clasping the landlord’s papery hand in his free one. “Friends help each other out; that’s the way it’s meant to be.”
They chatted quietly for a few minutes before Neil’s eyes assumed a worried expression. Helena gave him a sidelong glance of concern.
“Well, Ben, I guess it’s time for me to head back to the bay and check on Odyssey, see if she’s still there, even,” his words trailed off in with a humorless chuckle.
“And Helena,” he turned to her with a questioning look. “If you’d join me, I’d really appreciate the company.”
Helena’s eyes stole a glance in Ben’s direction. He was grinning, as if to himself, in a manner that suggested an affirmative response.
“Of course,” she said softly, after a split-second’s thought. “I’ll just have to gather together a few things before I go.”
Helena realized with a sudden flush that her comment implied an overnight stay and was suddenly overcome with modesty in the face of her the elderly man. She stammered out something about the distance to the boat and the possibly impassable nature of the roads before realizing that both Neil and Ben were staring at her strangely. As she padded up the linoleum-covered stairway in her socks, she heard an unaccustomed giggle from the elderly landlord. The last she heard as she jiggled the key in her lock was, “Funny chile.” She decided that they might not be talking about her after all.
With a few hastily snatched items in her trusty backpack, Helena emerged from the musty interior of the apartment block and inhaled deeply of the rain-washed air.
“Morris is going to stay here with Ben for a couple of days, just until I know the boat’s safe for a dog who’s lacking a little in the common sense department,” said Neil with a forlorn look at his canine. Morris countered with look of great pathos, thumping his stubby tail and rolling his eyes upward. Both Neil and Helena bent to stroke his massive head. Morris quickly returned his attention to gnawing the soup bone, and they slipped away quietly, whispering promises of a speedy return.
The arm Helena tucked into Neil’s felt snug and warm and she smiled up at him as he opened the door of the truck for her. She yawned as she nestled into the sun-warmed interior of the vehicle, and realized that she must look as sleep deprived as she felt. Neil reached a hand out to her and pulled her gently to him. Helena drowsily rested her ear against his shoulder, snuggling into his warmth before he patted his thigh and indicated that she rest her head on his lap. She did so with a sigh of contentment, relishing the muscular curve of his leg under its weathered denim cover. Gently stroking the line of her jaw, Neil drove in silence, negotiating the contours of the road with his free hand.
“Argh! I forgot about food,” he suddenly exclaimed, executing a sharp left turn and coming to an abrupt halt in front of the grocery store. He reached down and gently ran a finger down the slope of Helena’s breast.
“Of course, the food could always wait,” he whispered, cocking his head inquiringly, as he reached down to plant a kiss on Helena’s forehead. Helena grinned sleepily as she pushed herself up to a seated position and unfastened her seatbelt.
“Nourishment will only give us more energy for other things,” she said teasingly, returning his flirtatious gesture with an exaggerated wink.
As they entered the store, Helena felt Neil’s hand move protectively around her waist, and noted with a flicker of satisfaction that the young male clerk manning the counter was eyeing her with considerable attention. Moving through the aisles, selecting basic pantry items, and the makings of a few simple meals, Helena was aware of the young man’s continued open scrutiny. Neil was conscious of the young man’s attention as well. Grasping her more tightly about the waist, he pulled her against his body so she could feel the length of him pressed against her thigh.
“I hope I still have a bit of an edge over the teenaged competition,” he whispered into her ear as he nuzzled the side of her face.
“Ahead by mere inches, I’m afraid,” she teased back, pinching his cheek and pulling away with the cart full of groceries. The clerk looked down briefly as she walked toward him, his stringy blond dreadlocks falling forward over his peach-fuzzed cheeks. Shy, thought Helena to herself, feeling unaccustomedly full of feminine mystique.
As she unloaded the groceries onto the counter, she began to feel somewhat embarrassed by the not-so-subtle glances in her direction. Finally, the young man spoke.
“I’m sorry for staring, m’am, but would your name by any chance be Helena Travis?” Not that it’s really any of my business.” He finished off lamely.
Helena felt a jolt in her chest and was, for a moment, incapable of speech. Neil, fortunately, was not.
“Who’s asking?” he inquired gruffly.
The young clerk looked suddenly timid as he slowly slid a photo across the counter top. Leaning over for a better look, Helena gasped. The picture was a glossy head shot: a copy of her yearly school photo from Seattle. Her name had been block-printed across the white band on the bottom in a familiar square hand.
“This dude came in, like, maybe an hour ago, flashing this picture and asking if I’d seen you around. I said I wasn’t sure if I had. He told me to call him if things changed.”
Helena flipped the photo over. On the back was written the name Mike O’Reilly and a local number. The clerk was still moving his lips but his words were only a faint buzz in her ears. Neil caught her in his arms as she felt her knees turn to water and the room start to spin. She was vaguely aware of Neil’s half-carrying her out to the truck and buckling the seatbelt around her hips. Leaning her head back against the seat, she tried to slow her breathing and the painful thumping in her chest. Neil bent over her with a furrowed brow and pulled her to him.
“This is about that guy, isn’t it, Helena: the reason you left Seattle.”
She nodded a slow affirmative, her eyes cast down on her lap.
“Then let’s get out of here,” Neil said, reaching over, and gently tipping Helena’s chin so he could look her in the eyes.
“But I can’t, Neil. I still have my responsibilities at the school to take care of.” Her eyes were downcast.
“Honey, the school will need a lot of work to be safe for the kids to return and I doubt if they’ll even bother re-opening with only a week to go before summer season. It could take that long just to repair the roof. We‘ll keep checking to see if anything changes and if classes suddenly resume, then I can run you back if needed. If you want, you can even stay on the boat after school‘s out, for the summer, or as long as you like. I’ll look out for you. I won’t let him get to you, Helena.”
These last words were uttered with grim finality. Helena grasped Neil’s hand and squeezed it gratefully. They drove the remainder of the way to the bay in silence, each consumed by the weight of their own thoughts. Helena’s mind was fraught with indecision. Surely she could justify running into the somewhat mysterious Neil’s arms as a means of eluding the definitely less savory Karl. Still, she was putting all of her trust in someone who might well prove to have a less than sterling history. Helena shook her head as if to clear it of confusion, hoping for clarity and the wisdom to choose correctly. Glancing over at Neil, she saw his face clouded by worry, his eyes burdened under a furrowed brow. Like jumping in without first testing the water, she told herself, before scooting across the seat and throwing her arms around Neil’s neck.
“Whoa, trying to park,” he laughed, moving the gearshift and turning off the ignition. He returned her embrace warmly and then terminated it abruptly.
“Let’s get moving,” he muttered in a low voice. Helena grabbed her backpack from the floor, slung it to her shoulder, and quickly followed Neil out of the car and down to the water’s edge. She was surprised to see him bypass the weathered rowboat bobbing by the dock and stride toward a young man about to lower himself into an inflatable dinghy. For a moment, their heads dipped together as they conversed in low voices, and then Neil pointed in the direction of the Odyssey. Adjusting his ball cap, the young man nodded cheerfully and waved Helena forward. With a questioning look in Neil’s direction, Helena lowered herself onto the plastic deck of the small craft and seated herself on one of the pontoons. The engine roared to life and the boat leapt forward on the water, bouncing lightly on the waves as it hummed along. As Helena caught his eye, Neil inclined his head, indicating the retreating shoreline. Slightly up the road from where they had parked their car was another vehicle. Three men stood tightly clustered together beside it. One of them appeared to have a pair of binoculars trained in their direction. Neil leaned in close. “They were asking questions,” he said in a tight voice, by way of explaining their hasty departure. Helena only nodded.
The craft slowed with a whine, and the dinghy bumped gently against the hull of the Odyssey. She appeared to be intact, bobbing complacently on the foam-tipped wavelets. Her white coat shone clean in the afternoon light, and the varnished trim gleamed as glossily as ever. Neither Helena nor Neil paid much heed to the boat’s miraculous salvation, but instead, clamored aboard as quickly as they could. Neil pulled up the metal ladder and secured it, and then dropped below to start the engine.
“Where are we going?” asked Helena in a quiet voice, as it became evident Neil was preparing for departure.
“Anywhere but here,” he said simply, brushing past her and moving with quick steps toward the bow of the boat. Soon the clang of metal against metal rang out, and the tight muscles of Neil’s back strained as he began pulling up the anchor. This task accomplished, he ran lightly back along the deck and swung himself down into the cockpit. Grasping the helm, he began steering the Odyssey out of Coral Bay. Helena wasn’t certain when they switched from engine power to sail but abandoned her reverie when she heard the mainsheet snapping crisply with the wind. Leaning against the lifelines, she gazed about her with delight. The islands they passed were covered with luxuriant verdant growth, touched by narrow beaches and rocky outcroppings. As daylight began to fade, the water changed from indigo to inky black. Suffused with pinks and crimson, the sky was consumed by a brilliant sunset. Helena snuggled against Neil’s shoulder, relishing the warmth of his thigh against hers, and the sensuous shift of his hand as he manned the tiller. Just as the stars began to fill the sky with twinkling points of light, Helena discerned the vague outline of a low island rising out of the dark.
“Jost Van Dyke is the name of the island,” said Neil, gesticulating toward the outline. Helena squinted in the dim light, trying to perceive details beyond the shadowy form rising out of the waves beyond.
“It’s fairly secluded and pretty much frequented only by private yachts. There’s a notorious bar there by the name of Foxy’s that has all kinds of goings on: wild parties and the like, but mostly around New Year’s, times like that. We won’t meet anyone here but other boaters, and by nature we’re kind of a clan unto ourselves. We watch out for each other. I’m pretty sure that no one will talk to Karl without talking to us first.”
The sails were lowered and fastened and Neil again went below deck to switch off the engine. Eyes on the depth gauge, Helena marveled at his ability to navigate the increasingly shallow waves in the dark. Within minutes, they had dropped anchor in a mere ten feet of water. The Odyssey rose and fell contentedly on the waves as Helena cautiously descended the stairs, still leery of the abrupt drop from the cockpit to the main cabin. As she set foot on the gleaming teak floor below, she was surprised to see that Neil was nowhere to be seen. Then, she heard whispered a sensual promise, barely audible over the gentle wash of the waves. A chill went up the small of her back, causing her skin to prickle with stirring desire. She made her way on tiptoe to the entrance of the head, and to the v-berth beyond. The door to the sleeping quarters was half-closed, and she pushed it open with a tentative gesture. Neil lay on the tousled spread, propped up on one elbow. As Helena’s face appeared in the passageway, he reached for her with a smile.
“Come here,” he whispered, drawing her toward him as she crawled into the opening. As the curve of her ear brushed his lips, he murmured a desire both blunt and arousing, and she felt a sudden lust quicken her blood. The tiny brass lamps illuminated the darkness with a soft, almost candle-lit glow, and she reveled in the ethereal light. Softened by the warm bath of lamp-light, Neil’s face looked relaxed, and almost child-like in its innocence. Gently, Helena traced the contour of his jaw, feeling the prickle of a two day growth of stubble against her thumb. Then, she leaned over, and brushed her lips against his, savoring the salt-tang taste of his mouth. Fumbling in the confined space, he drew Helena’s t-shirt over her head and sought the clasp of her flimsy bra. Her breasts released to his touch, he drew her hard nipples into his mouth as he cupped and squeezed her compact bottom. Then, his hands were on the waist of her shorts, unfastening, and pushing aside both outer and undergarments. Naked, she straddled his hips, tilting her torso back as far as the low bulkhead would allow. Guiding his thick penis between her squatting thighs, she swallowed him, inch by inch inside the warmth of her body. She rode him wantonly, damp hair whipping his face as she bent over him to savor the wandering touch of his hands. He grasped her shoulders, reining her in against his chest, and rolled her over so that he was on top, thrusting against her with powerful strokes. Then, in a confused flurry of movement, he was holding her to him, moving out and down from the narrow berth into the main cabin with her tanned legs wrapped tightly around his waist. They bumped against the ladder to the cockpit, and Helena reached for the top rung, sliding up and off his manhood, and scrambling naked up into the warm night air. Neil grasped her about the waist as he caught up to her and smacked her bottom playfully. Taking hold of her hand, he guided her along the side of the boat to the bow, where a wide board, the bow sprit, connected to the jib sail. Placing his hands firmly on the metal guardrail at the bow of the boat, he seated himself on the sprit, straddling the wood with a leg swinging free on either side. The waves lapped a few feet below his dangling toes. Helena followed suit, using the guardrail to steady herself as she swung her body out over the bowsprit. Then, with a neatly executed move, she straddled Neil’s lap, taking the length of his cock inside her as she lowered herself completely. Her legs wrapped around his waist, Helena grasped the guardrail for support and began moving her hips against Neil, thrusting her pelvis against his. The boat rocked gently beneath them as they moved together, faster and faster under the starlit sky. Nearby lights on neighboring boats twinkled dreamily as Helena, suffused with a sudden heat, arched her back with a cry and gave a final thrust. With a guttural moan, Neil pulled her tight to him. His mouth against her ear, he murmured her name over and over as they slowly rocked together, each reluctant to sever the embrace.
Neil’s hands stroked her hair and ran lightly down the curve of her back, seeming to savor the ripples of gooseflesh his touch drew. Then, his hand was tracing her jaw, tilting her chin so that her eyes met his in the moonlight. For a moment, he didn’t speak at all, but simply gazed at her. Suddenly shy, Helena fought the urge to lower her eyes from his scrutiny. Then, he broke the silence with a sudden, awkward swallow and a few halting words.
“Helena. I think I’m falling in love with you.”
She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed that, even given the dim light, he was flushing deeply. Helena didn’t mind. Her own voice had caught in her throat, and for a moment she could give no response other than the glisten of tears in her widened eyes.
Island Recess, Chapter 11.
With a luxuriant sigh, Helena pushed herself up onto her elbow and gazed smiling at the contours of Neil’s face, the lines of which were calm in repose. With the tip of her index finger, she traced a path around his jaw, ending the journey with a gentle push at the junction of his lips. A flutter of eyelids betrayed his wakening, and his tongue reached out to the tip of her finger, sucking it gently into the warmth of his mouth. Against her thigh, she could feel the length of his member hardening in anticipation. Her heartbeat quickened as the fog of sleep lifted, and she recalled with a tremble Neil’s loving proclamation of the previous night. At the time, she had failed to return the simple declaration, a fact clouded by the sudden and passionate love-making with which he had sealed his words. As he opened his eyes this morning, Neil’s face broke into a wide grin. He pushed himself into a seated position, and pulled Helena toward him. The blue of his irises seemed to deepen as he focused on Helena’s face. Under his intense scrutiny, she felt a sudden pang in her heart. Before she could stop herself, she blurted out the words she had tried to rationalize out of her head and her heart.
“I think I’m falling in love with you, too.”
She flushed, lowering her head, suddenly unsure if his declaration had been only a passing sentiment, a moonlit impulse that had faded with daybreak. Then, she felt his fingers under her chin, gently raising her mouth to his. Her lips moved against the soft wet of his, opening under the probing of his tongue. After a moment, he pulled back, and regarded her again. His blue eyes held a twinkle as he responded to her words.
“You’re pretty cool, too.”
For a moment, Helena felt the sting of humiliated tears, which was replaced by a howl as she threw herself on a laughing Neil.
“Kidding, truce!” he shrieked, as she dug her fingers into his sides, trying to locate a ticklish spot.
“I’m too embarrassed to stop!” she shouted back, doubling her efforts as she fought against his writhing body. Suddenly, she felt her wrists in a strong grip, her body flipping over until she lay pinned beneath Neil’s muscular torso. Her legs were trapped between his thighs, his calf muscles straining against hers.
“Stop!” he said with a mock growl. “Listen up.”
Helena gave him her utmost attention as his erection nudged between her legs.
“In approximately one minute, I’m going to make love to you in a manner unknown to most women’s magazines and romance novels. But first, I have something to say. I meant what I said last night. I’ve fallen in love with you. I love you. And, if you mean what you say, well, that means more to me than anything, especially now.”
With a throaty sigh, Helena breathed the words against his ear.
“I do love you, Neil. And you know what? I do believe that the minute is just about up.”
Neil laughed gently, warmth in his eyes as he bent to Helena’s mouth. She pressed up to meet him, conscious of the hardening of her nipples against his chest. As his thighs loosened their grip on hers, she moaned, feeling the brush of his hair against her skin as he traveled south along her torso. She reached out for his hardness, feeling the skin hot and tight against her palm, as he slipped away from her. The warmth of his tongue against her sex was a probing first gentle, then greedy. Melting into his touch, Helena’s hips jutted off the bed, pushing against his mouth, willing him to continue. Tightening the grip of her thighs around his ears, Helena reached down to twine her fingers in his hair. Soon, she was awash with her climax, cries of pleasure flowing unbidden from her lips. Panting, she fell back, legs slipping from the tight embrace. She reached for him, holding his heavily veined and throbbing manhood tight in her fist. She hungered for the heat of him, spreading and filling her depths. He pushed at her teasingly, penetrating her opening with only the very tip of his member. Grabbing at his hips, she thrust her own upward, wrapping her legs around his waist and pulling the entire length of him into her. He whimpered excitedly, lowering his mouth to her shoulder as he thrust against her eagerly, meeting her escalating thrusts with an urgency of his own. As they moved together, they were vaguely of an abrupt crackling and hissing punctuating their lovemaking. They broke their momentum momentarily, ears tuned to the intruding sounds, but it was the words emerging from the static that caused them to stop completely.
“Come in, Odyssey, come in. This is the Coast Guard. Over”
Exchanging bewildered looks, Helena and Neil froze for a moment. Then, Neil separated from Helena and pulled away, stumbling through the cabin toward the marine radio.
“This is Odyssey, Over.”
Pulling last night’s t-shirt over her head, Helena followed Neil out of the stateroom, heart pounding with sudden foreboding.
“We have reports of a missing school teacher. Helena Travis. Have you seen her? Over.”
“Missing?” Helena said quizzically, tilting her head as she regarded Neil with confusion.
Then, simultaneously, they both breathed the same name:
Helena’s head shook as if in spasm.
“Are you there, Odyssey? Over.”
His next words were spoken with slow deliberation, watching Helena’s face closely as the protective untruth took shape.
“I dropped her off yesterday. The young lady said she needed a ride so I took her over to St. Thomas and left her down by the docks. She said she was catching a plane back to the mainland. Over.”
“We’ve had a report made claiming a possible kidnapping. We need all the information we can get. Please do not leave the area. Over.”
“I’ll be here. Over.”
Neil reached toward Helena and pulled her into his arms. She was trembling, the alarm of a frightened animal reflected in her eyes.
“We have to go now, Helena” he breathed against her hair. He leaned back, tilted her chin and gazed at her intently. “If the Coast Guard knows where I am, chances are Karl will soon as well.”
Together, they tidied the small cabin, securing or stowing objects that might be broken by the motion of the boat under sail. Then, they climbed into the cockpit, skin prickling with nervous energy, and fumbling in their haste. Wrapped in one of Neil’s old college sweatshirts, Helena hugged her knees to her as she watched him start the engine. Over the noisy clamor, he called back at her.
“We’ll turn off the engine when we’re farther out. I need to get a head-start on whoever’s on our tail.”
Helena watched in open admiration as Neil moved sure-footedly about the deck, adjusting lines and raising the main sail. Like a child released outdoors to play, the main sheet leapt and snapped as it came alive under the touch of the wind. It was still early morning, and the sun shone warm through a brisk breeze. As the craft cut through the azure water, it raised a foamy wake and cast a mist on Helena’s skin. While the pit of her stomach roiled with worry, she couldn’t help but be swept away by the beauty of her surroundings, and temporarily soothed by the gentle rocking of the boat as it skipped lightly through the waves. From time to time freed from navigational duties, Neil would reach toward Helena and pull her to him, caressing her damp hair as she nestled into the crook of his arm. Periodically, he leapt to his feet, checking their direction and speed with the navigational system, and making the necessary adjustments to the sails. After a while, Helena heard the motor sputter to a stop, and the rush of the wind and waves replace the mechanical drone.
“Where are we headed?” she asked at last.
“Tortola. It’s another one of the British Virgin Islands, to the east of Jost Van Dyke. It’s still a good sail from where we are now.”
“That’s okay,” Helena murmured, wanting to prolong their contact and the feeling of safety he exuded like a warm blanket. “But…” Her words trailed off into silence.
“But what then, you mean,” said Neil, catching her thoughts and carrying them along. “I suggest we lie low for a couple of days, then return to St. Thomas and give the local authorities the real story about your supposed kidnapping. It worries me that Karl, or one of his associates, has made a false report so quickly and what worries me even more is that he might get to us before the Coast Guard. Helena, how dangerous is he? Has he been more bark than bite where you’re concerned or has he ever physically hurt you?”
Helena sat up straight, a faraway look in her eyes. She seemed to be mulling over her words as she began to speak.
“Dangerous? Yes, I think he could be. On the one hand, he’s never been physically abusive toward me. I told you that he carried a gun for the last few months we were together, but I was never afraid he’d use it on me. On the other hand, he was a very sore loser about my leaving him. He said he wouldn’t let go, like he wouldn’t allow it! Both my friend Julie, and my mom have been warning me for weeks that he’s been trying to track me down. Apparently, thanks to his connections, he’s known for some time where I’ve been hiding out.”
She turned to look at Neil, the realization dawning that her choice could be putting both their lives in danger.
Neil smiled wryly. “Well, he’s persistent, I can say that.”
Helena shot him an inquisitive glance as he continued speaking.
“I didn’t want to frighten you, Helena, but I’ve been monitoring the radio channels, and there have been several requests for information about you. They aren’t coming from the Coast Guard, either. How badly do you think he wants to get you back?”
Helena sat for a moment, lost in thought, and then began speaking.
“You know, I don’t believe he is pursuing me out of love or need. He’s rich and successful, and accustomed to getting everything he wants. I think he wants me back because it was my choice to leave, and not his. If it had been his idea, I think he would have let me go without a backward glance. It’s almost like I’m an object to him: something he wanted, acquired, and doesn’t want to lose, not because I’m worth much to him, but because it’s important to him to only let go when he is good and ready.”
Her words faded away, replaced by a pensive stare as she perused the waves stretching into the distance. Neil’s next words jolted her back into the thread of conversation.
“Why, Helena? I just don’t understand. How could someone as gentle and loving as you tie yourself to someone so empty and unloving?”
When she responded, it was with slow deliberation.
“You know, I’ve spent the last six months trying to justify my actions to myself. Of course, he was different in the beginning, or at least he pretended to be. I believed him to be clever, and witty, and exciting and passionate and with that belief, I fell in love. Others saw his best side as well and our relationship had such a sure stamp of approval from everyone I knew that it was hard at first to see any different. Then, there was the lifestyle that he offered me and my friends and family as well. The things we did and the places we went to were like something out of a magazine, or a movie. Maybe it wasn’t a better life he offered, but it certainly seemed to be a Technicolor one. As ugly as it is to admit this to myself, I half wonder if I wasn’t in love with the idea of Karl, or maybe in love with what Karl had to offer. I mean, I was raised with great love, but without much money, and by a single parent who has worked her fingers to the bone every day of her life just for the bare necessities. The potential to have anything I wanted, whenever I wanted it, bought freedom from worry. I could finally help my family, treat my friends, have and to share. It was, for a time, at least, exhilarating.”
“Hard to compete with a rich man,” laughed Neil. Helena, caught up in her own emotions did not catch the bitterness in his tone, and dropped once more into quiet reflection.
For a time, they sailed on in silence, Helena quietly berating herself for all she had brought upon them, and Neil caught up in the duties of sailing, and his own private thoughts. Helena, glancing up from her reverie, caught a glimpse of a furrowed brow, and reached out to him. His eyes, meeting hers, seemed saddened. Neil extended his hand to her, cupping her chin, and gently stroking her jaw line. It was several moments before he spoke.
“You know, try as I might, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fall out of love with you, Ms. Travis.”
Why would you try? thought Helena with a twinge of alarm.
She said nothing, tucking the ambiguity of his words into the back of her mind, as she struggled to focus on the situation at hand.
They made landfall just as the sky was turning lavender with the lowering of the sun over the horizon. Dropping anchor on the outskirts of a heavily-populated marina, they stayed on deck to watch the myriad hues of the tropical sunset. With Neil’s arm slung protectively around her shoulders, Helena was physically relaxed but wary. Something had changed, she felt, something almost imperceptible, but something, all the same. They were still snuggled together when the cackling of the marine radio made itself heard again. This time, Helena did not follow Neil, but remained above deck, reading the names of the boats bobbing near theirs to distract herself from whatever was to come.
Within minutes, Neil returned, a grave look clouding his blue eyes.
“It appears Karl has been busy. The Coast Guard has been contacted again and this time by your mother, who is also apparently under the impression that you may have been kidnapped.”
For a moment, the boat, the water, and the sunset seemed to fade, wavering like a mirage as Helena’s mind spun with confusion. “Oh Neil,” she groaned, dropping her head into her hands. “What am I going to do?”
Neil’s face was grim as he weighed their options. After a few minutes, he spoke again, passing his hand tiredly over his forehead.
“First, we need to contact your mother and assure her that you’re all right. Then, Helena, I think we need to go back to St. John. It’s the only way for us to prove to the authorities that you haven’t been kidnapped. If we leave tonight, we can make it back by morning. Hopefully, Karl won’t be expecting us, and we can get some kind of protection for you before he does track us down. If we can’t, then we may have to get you back home in a hurry.”
Helena’s face was somber as she nodded in agreement. It was beginning to look as if the only way for them to evade the poisonous touch of Karl’s games was for her to return to the mainland, and put as much distance as she could between her and Neil. Helena’s breath caught in her throat as she fought back tears. She had spent the past few months trying desperately to mend a heart that seemed beyond repair. Now, she stood to lose what she thought she’d never again find.
Island Recess, Chapter 12.
With a last blaze of color, the sun dipped below the horizon, leaving the dusky blue of evening in its wake. Wrapped in an old wool blanket, Helena shivered with something more than the night’s chill as she watched Neil’s hands tirelessly work the tiller. Although he was busy navigating the darkening waters, Neil’s eyes were continually on her, a tired smile playing about his lips. Whatever had earlier seemed to alter between them, had switched with ease back to the way it had always been. The space they shared was comfortably quiet, their thoughts running parallel, each respecting the others’ need for a moment of privacy. Shifting his weight, Neil leaned forward and extended a hand to her, stroking her knee, pushing back her hair, and rubbing the tight muscles that cramped her shoulders. To Helena, it seemed impossible that they could thread their way though the dark waters with little more than a single floodlight illuminating only the water just beyond reach of the Odyssey’s prow. While she was aware of the beeping of the radar, and saw Neil consulting the satellite navigation system, she was overwhelmed by what appeared to be a blind journey through darkness and felt it a painful metaphor for their current predicament.
Briefly closing her eyes, Helena was suddenly away of a crushing fatigue. She leaned back against the seat cushion and willed the muscles in her body to relax. Neil glanced at her face, concern in his eyes.
“You must be exhausted. You should try to catch a little sleep. We’re not going to make landfall before the wee hours of the morning and we need to get to the police station as soon as the sun’s up. ”
Neil pulled a cushion against his thigh and patted it in invitation.
“Come on, rest your head here. I suppose I can get by for a little while without a co-pilot.” He grinned broadly and reached a hand out to Helena, guiding her down until she was curled up on her side, head nestled into the cushion. His fingers twined in her hair, massaging her scalp and caressing the nape of her neck until the tension in her body thawed and she was able to harness her runaway thoughts. Her consciousness already slipping, her words came out dream-like.
“I wish that P.I. had already finished his detective work. Then at least some of my mysteries would be cleared up.”
Against her head, Helena felt Neil’s body stiffen and his response seemed to be stated with undue caution.
“What detective work would you talking about, Helena?”
For a moment, Helena did not respond, her sleepy mind struggling to understand why Neil had seemed uncomfortable with her statement. Suddenly, clarity dawned. Neil suspects that he’s the one I’m investigating. Able to reassure him with at least part of the truth, Helena turned on her back and looked up at Neil, straining to make out the expression on his face through the darkness. The stars winking overhead turned his eyes to indigo. Tilting back her head, she touched his chin with a fingertip.
“I guess, with everything else going on, that I forgot to tell you. A few days ago, I hired a private investigator to find out what he could about the ‘real’ Karl. I thought that if I had some tangible proof of wrongdoing, that it would serve as insurance against his harming me, or someone I love. You see it all the time in the movies: someone has a document or set of pictures that they make copies of, and then lets the bad guy know that if anything happens, the evidence goes straight to the authorities. Kind of like blackmailing the baddies, you know? Problem is, I don’t think he’s had time to put much together and so I still don’t have any tangible proof to show the police. In other words, it’s still my word against Karl’s word, and, of course, against Karl’s money and persuasive abilities.”
Neil sighed audibly, inadvertently confirming Helena’s suspicion that he had in fact momentarily thought himself the subject of an investigation. If only he knew, she thought. Drawing her legs more tightly to her chest, Helena willed sleep to come, but dancing thoughts kept her uncomfortably alert. This feels so good, and yet it could all be just another horrible mistake.
Helena’s stomach twisted as she recalled the immediate thrill she had felt on meeting Karl. Such a contrast to what he became; or to what, in reality, he had always been. At first, he had seemed so different. As they had stood chatting, in an intimate wine bar in the midst of an after-hours work crowd, he had asked about her job and appeared instantly to be intrigued. Rather than reveling in the same tired schoolteacher clichés, or even worse, being too bored to even feign an interest in her career, he had entered into a well-informed dialogue about education that had her quickly and excitedly sharing her passion for teaching. Karl’s absorption in her life, and more particularly her career, had not waned with subsequent meetings, and when he shared with her his lifelong dream of creating a charity to fund the education of underprivileged inner-city children, Helena’s heart was completely captured. Rather than a relationship in which the balance of power was to be perpetually lopsided, what Karl had proposed to her was an equal alliance: a team that together would apply profits from his numerous business enterprises to better the lives of children whose disadvantages Helena had witnessed first hand. It had appeared that their relationship, while moving forward at a breathtaking speed, wound them more and more tightly together, and when Karl had proposed marriage, Helena had already decided he would forever be her soul-mate. When the change had begun, it was a subtle unraveling of Helena’s expectations that began an almost immediate downward spiral. To be confronted by a reality that stood in such obscene contrast to the image of a gentle philanthropist was almost more than Helena could bear. At the very moment in her life when it had seemed she had finally found her ‘happily ever after,’ everything she had known and understood about love was flipped on end and become a nightmarish journey with Helena as its hogtied traveler.
A hand gently pressed its fingertips to Helena’s forehead and she opened her eyes, momentarily alarmed. She relaxed as she looked up into Neil’s eyes. Caught in the light of a luminescent moon, they were suddenly startling in their clarity. Smiling down at her, he was silent, eyes speaking a tenderness for which words were not needed. Suddenly, Helena was struck by how peaceful she felt in Neil’s company. In contrast to Karl’s constant, almost obsessive need to share his opinions and ideas, even to the detriment of dialogue, Neil’s communication was more thoughtful. His silence itself seemed to take on a life of its own, reassuring and calming the doubts that raged through Helena’s unquiet mind. For the first time in days, it seemed, she breathed easily, almost against her will falling under the spell of Neil’s easy company.
Rising to a half-seated position, Helena looked across the dark expanse of water and was surprised to see the lights of St. John twinkling in the distance. Had her journey into the past really taken her such a distance? As they motored toward the bay, she could make out a profusion of masts jutting like sentinels from the calm waters. Slowing the engine to a mere purr, Neil maneuvered the craft toward the huddle of sailboats until he was some hundred feet away and then switched it off, climbed up out of the cockpit and moved with agility toward the prow of the boat. Within minutes, Helena heard the splash of the anchor as it broke the surface of the water, and the grinding tumble of the chain as it followed, unraveling until it hit and caught on the sandy bottom. Its journey complete for the time being, the Odyssey bobbed complacently on the gentle swell. Feet padding along the deck, Neil reappeared, ducking his head as he dropped back into the cockpit.
“Hungry? Tired? Both?” he gently inquired, head inclined as he took in Helena’s crumpled appearance and slumping postured.
“Both? Neither? I’m too hungry to be tired, and too tired to be hungry, “she smiled, “But you must be both. Let me fix us a quick snack and then we can catch a little sleep before we head into shore.”
Neil agreed, relief transparent in his eyes, and followed Helena as she climbed below and made her way to the galley. Moving quickly through the tiny cupboards, she located some tuna, a loaf of bread that had seen better days, and the tail end of a bag of potato chips. “It’s a good thing we can’t afford to be picky,” she said with a rueful glance at the heavily squashed loaf. While Neil sank back on the settee, fatigue casting grey shadows over his face, Helena assembled tuna fish sandwiches and added potato chips to each plate. Handing this to Neil, she laughed, “Hope you’re hungry enough to appreciate my ‘cooking’.”
Their last meal seemed suddenly very far off, and within minutes they had consumed the simple meal. Snuggling up next to Neil, Helena laid her head against his chest, and breathed deep of his maleness. With his arms holding her close, she listened to him breathe, and was consumed with a deep and sudden gratitude for the simplicity of the moment. For the moment, nothing seemed to matter but the kindness that Neil had shown her. After all, it was the unknown of which was she afraid, and perhaps she had no need to fear, since every moment they had spent together had shown Neil to be a good and honest man. Should she judge him by his words and actions, or by suspicions that might be entirely unfounded?
Twisting around, she tipped back her head until her cheek for a moment, rested against Neil’s. Then, she sought out the sensual curve of his mouth, taking his lower lip in her own, and sucking it gently. Despite the fatigue he had shown mere minutes ago, his response was immediate, his breath quickening as he pressed a hand to the back of her head and drew her closer. He probed her mouth with his tongue, darting it against hers, first gently, and then with greater urgency. Soft kisses turned to passionate love-bites as their hands roamed each other’s bodies. Slipping his hand under the hem of Helena’s shirt, he sought her naked breast and cupped it in his hand, caressing her nipple until it was rock hard between his probing fingertips. She whimpered, acutely aware of the growing dampness between her thighs. As if on cue, his free hand slipped between her legs, lightly stroking her clit through the fabric of her shorts. Helena reached for the zipper of his shorts, sliding her hand through the opening and past his briefs to the cock that strained to be free of confinement. Gently, teasingly, she began to pump her hand around his shaft, fingers moving so lightly they barely shifted the skin. He moaned, thrusting against her hand, and then grabbed her by the wrist and gently pushed her hand aside.
“Come to bed,” he whispered.
Helena, arose quickly, turning toward Neil as he smiled, shaking his head teasingly and pointed the way to the stateroom.
Moving toward the bedroom, Helena commenced a rapid impromptu striptease, pulling t-shirt overhead and stepping from her shorts. Remembering the sensuous feel of his hand over her cotton panties, she kept these on. Climbing up into the v-berth, she stretched out luxuriously on her belly and waited for Neil to appear. Moments later, he followed her onto the bed, a bottle of oil in one hand and a beach towel in the other.
Stretching the towel over the bed, he motioned for Helena to move on top of it, and began to caress her cotton-clad buttocks with leisurely hands. Gently parting her legs, he slid two fingers over the crotch of her panties, pausing where they were the dampest to lightly tap his fingers. Her pussy seemingly on fire, Helena bucked back against his hand, only to find that he’d withdrawn it. Moments later, his fingers were again on her panties, this time, slowly pushing them to one side as he sought out the source of her wetness. Sliding a finger through her slippery sex, he began to make lazy circles around her clit. Helena, gasping, pushed her body backward, welcoming his finger as it slid inside and continued its leisurely explorations. Withdrawing his finger with maddening slowness, Neil slipped his fingers in the waistband of Helena’s panties and began to draw them over her hips and down her legs, stopping at her ankles. His fingers were busy for a moment, and when Helena made a move to kick her panties from her, she realized he had secured her ankles, and her heart began to pound with a maddening desire. Starting at her feet, his oiled hands began a slow, sensuous massage, rubbing toes, caressing ankles and firmly stroking over the arches with a practiced thumb. His hands slid easily up to her calves, squeezing and kneading the muscles before sliding his hands just inside her thighs. Ankles captive, Helena could not open her legs to him as her body so urgently desired, and the light touch at the rear of her sex was almost more than she could bear. A ragged cry burst from her throat as she felt a stream of oil directed at the top of her buttocks began a sensuous drip over her anus, and through her slit. For the moment, no caressing hand followed the oil’s path, and Helena was ready to scream with frustration. She tried to roll over, to reach for him with her hands, but the pressure of his body had her trapped on her belly and the kicking of her feet was futile. When Neil’s fingers reappeared at her shoulders, she was gritting her teeth despite the soothing touch that kneaded her knotted muscles. He continued his agonizing massage, studiously avoiding contact with her sex as he worked his way along her arms and down her back. For nearly fifteen minutes, he rubbed deeply along her spine, around her shoulder blades, and into the small of her back. Despite her raging sexual tension, Helena felt relief flooding her body as muscular pain was miraculously eased only to be replaced by a desperately unfulfilled longing for a more intimate touch. Then, just as it seemed to be more than she could bear, Neil rolled her over onto her back and lowered his body against hers until he grazed her skin with the downy hair that tapered to a thin line from chest to belly. Moaning, she bucked against him, wrapping her arms around his back and straining to draw the tip of his shaft between her still-pinned legs. Bending to kiss and nibble at Helena’s ears and neck, Neil made his torturous way south, leaning in to capture and suck each of her erect nipples. As he moved down to hover over her sex, Neil reached back and untwisted the panties that bound Helena’s ankles. Free of restraint, Helena spread her legs wide, lifting her hips as Neil’s tongue made contact with her aching clit. With long, lavish licks, he brought her quickly to the edge of orgasm, then backed off, teasingly regarding her as he kissed around her mound and then slipped a finger easily inside her. As she squeezed tight around his thrusting finger, Neil leaned in and sucked her bud hard, drawing orgasm from her as she exploded in climax. Pulling his mouth quickly from her, Neil positioned his body over hers, replacing the probing of his finger with the long, thick slide of his erection. Leaning his torso low against hers, he ground his pelvis against her mons, pumping against the tenderness of her aroused clit with the base of his cock. With his body rocking rhythmically against hers, the response of Helena’s body was immediate, a low throbbing that vaulted quickly to a teetering on the brink. Seizing the moment, Neil began to thrust more deeply, hips locked against her to maintain maximum stimulation. With a guttural cry, Helena climaxed a second time, tightening around his thrusting penis as Neil choked out her name and sank against her, drained by his orgasm. For a few minutes, they lay together, still joined, wrapped loosely in each other’s arms. Then, with a sigh, Neil lifted himself from her, snuggled against her side, and with a rain of sleepy kisses and ‘I love you’s’, fell quickly and soundly asleep. For what seemed an eternity Helena lay still, listening to the duet of Neil’s breath and the sound of the waves, and mentally rehearsing what she would say to the police. Left with nothing but the truth, Helena hoped it would be sufficient to protect both her and her sleeping lover. Eyes closing, she turned to rest her head on Neil’s chest. His arms encircled her, protective even in his sleep. Safe for the moment, Helena surrendered herself to the luxury of being loved, and slipped into slumber.
The morning light in her eyes was a cruel assault as it crept from dull to brilliant in a matter of minutes. With a start, she pushed herself up on an elbow and surveyed her wristwatch. Eight o’clock. Bending low over Neil, she kissed him gently, first on the cheek and the lips, as she whispered gently to him to wake up. Rubbing his eyes in fatigued confusion, he quickly oriented himself, and in moments, was crawling from the bed and sorting through various wrinkled garments as he dressed. While finger-combing and tying back her tangled curls, Helena rifled through her backpack, locating and donning clean shorts and a t-shirt. Within minutes they were in the cockpit, working together to untie a small kayak that had been bungeed to Odyssey’s port-side. Lowering the kayak into the water, first Neil, and then Helena used the small ladder to drop down onto the craft’s surface. With only one paddle between them, Neil took charge of taking them into shore. Leaning back against the make-shift seat, Helena admired the deft thrust of the paddle, and Neil’s sure stroking through the choppy water. By the time they had made it in to shore, Helena’s t-shirt was spattered with salt water splashed up by the paddle, and as she rose to standing, she ruefully examined the crotch area of her shorts, with was soaked with the water that had sloshed up into the kayak. Turning, she noted that Neil’s shorts were similarly dampened.
“Hope the police won’t judge us on appearance alone,” she giggled nervously.
Hand in hand, the pair made their way slowly the short distance to the police station, fingers tightly intertwined in silent support. As they approached the building, Neil turned and looked Helena square in the face. His eyes were intense. “Just tell the truth Helena, and everything should be okay.” Helena blanched momentarily. The truth? What part of the truth?
The tiny police station seemed to be operating on island time this morning, and the officer who approached Neil and Helena with an offer to assist did so with a languidness that stood in sharp contrast to the urgency of their mission. Looking to Helena for confirmation that it was okay for him to take temporary lead, Neil quickly outlined the situation, pointing out that a falsely reported kidnapping had been the first serious indication of an obsessive ex-partner on their tail. The police officer’s eyebrows lifted slowly and he reached below the counter to consult a rustling sheaf of papers.
Looking up, he inquired in a casual voice, “Your names?”
Helena and Neil gave their names in turn, and watched with concern as the officer began to read from the paper that was hidden from their view. Looking up, he crossed his arms over his chest.
“Who is this man you say is following you?”
Tentatively, Helena spoke up.
“His name is Karl Pennington and I used to be engaged to him. We broke up after I found evidence, not only that he had been repeatedly unfaithful, but that he had been involved in various types of criminal activity. Since our break-up, he’s been doing everything in his power to try to contact me, including following me from Seattle here to the Virgin Islands.”
The police officer tilted his head and tapped his fingers slowly on the counter as he regarded Helena. When he spoke, his tone was dismissive.
“Do you have any proof of these wrongdoings? Or proof that he intends to harm you? Incriminating photos or threatening letters? He could, after all, simply be here for a holiday. Such coincidences do take place and we cannot issue warrants on the basis of a young lady’s word alone.”
Helena turned momentarily to Neil, her eyes seeking his protection while knowing that here, he could offer none. She continued, her voice gathering strength as she felt the weight of Karl’s influence burdening her with her current predicament.
“No, I don’t have proof, but you do have a false allegation of kidnapping against my friend here which was made either by Karl, or by one of his associates.” Helena’s eyes flashed. “If that’s his first act, then frankly, I’m scared to see the encore.”
With a maddeningly bland expression, the police officer gazed at Helena for a long moment. Then, he spoke.
“Miss, whatever the Coast Guard heard regarding your kidnapping has clearly been proven untrue, providing that this man in actuality is your ‘friend,’ on which point I am forced to take your word. No more reports have been issued, and so there is no more need to worry. Without any evidence that this man is stalking you, the police department cannot do anything to assist you. My advice to you is to return home to Seattle and if you are bothered there by this Karl Pennington, to take action against him at that time.”
Drawing himself to full height, Neil looked down at the officer and spoke with ill-disguised contempt. “So, Sir, there is nothing you can do to assist this young lady in protecting herself while she is a resident of this island.”
Shrugging his shoulders and casting up his hands, the police officer was suddenly curt in his response.
“Not in this case. Now, I bid both of you a good morning. Please enjoy the rest of your time here in St. John.” With these words he walked briskly back to his desk where he seated himself and began shuffling busily through the sections of a newspaper, snapping one open and disappearing behind it.
Neil’s arm tightened around Helena’s shoulders as they walked slowly from the police station. His face was grim, his mouth a tight line as he spoke.
“That was some brush-off. Do you think they really needed ‘proof’, or do you think that Karl’s pockets really run that deep?”
Helena shrugged glumly. Her face, as she turned to meet his, was pale and anxious.
“Under the circumstances, it probably is best if I do as they say, to leave the island, return home and press charges for stalking if Karl continues. If the police can’t, or aren’t willing to help us, then both our lives could be in danger. Then, there’s the problem of my job. Even if the school is closed right now, I’m still under contract. Then again, if Karl poses a danger to me, that danger could extend to you, to my neighbors and friend, and even to my students.”
Burying her face in her hands, Helena’s tears erupted anew. “Maybe I should go, but…”
“But neither of us want that, do we Helena?” Finishing her sentence for her, Neil took Helena’s face in his hands. Bending to her, he kissed her mouth gently.
“I don’t know how long I can be apart from you.” He looked at her with earnest eyes, brazenly seeking an answer for which he obviously hoped.
“Neil, I wish I could stay, but maybe I should take their advice. I know the principal would allow me to terminate my contract early if it came to a matter of safety. After all, there’s only a week left and who knows when they’ll reopen the school. Oh, I just don’t know what to do.” Her words trailed off in a fresh burst of sobs.
Neil held her close as he stroked her hair.
“Tell you what. Let’s go find a phone and call your mom to let her know you’re okay. Then, we’ll go and get some breakfast and puzzle this over. Okay?”
Through her tears, Helena attempted a brave smile. Locking her fingers within his, she took a deep breath, and repeated the affirmation. Okay.
They located a telephone without delay and Helena quickly connected with her mother. While the latter was still obviously taken aback by the false kidnapping charge, she assured Helena that she had been certain Karl was lying. Still, she was clearly grateful for the confirmation that her daughter was in safe hands. Helena breathed a sigh of relief. For a few minutes they chatted lightly about their respective news, Helena being careful to edit her blossoming relationship to a G-rating for the benefit of her rather conservative parent. Just as they were saying their good-byes, Helena was startled to hear her mother say that she had a message from ‘a Mr. Skye.’ Momentarily racking her brains, Helena recalled with a start of excitement: Skye Investigations. Repeating the number for Neil to record on a scrap of paper, Helena hung up the phone and re-dialed.
“Skye Investigations,” was the brisk male response over the crackling of a newly-restored telephone service.
“Mr. Skye?” Helena asked tentatively. “This is Helena Travis returning your call.”
The voice on the other end of the line shifted abruptly in tone. It appeared as if the receiver had been pressed close to the speaker’s mouth, and his voice was low and cautious.
“Miss, I did what you asked. A package should arrive today, to the address you gave me. But, there’s something you need to know. I had a visitor last night who wasn’t too happy about the questions I’ve been asking. He tore up my office some and roughed me up a bit. Before he left, he said that if I didn’t stop my investigation, he’s be back to stop me for good. He didn’t know I was already done and that the goods were already headed your way. Thanks to some quick improvisation on my part, he thinks my client is a lawyer I’ve never met and with whom I communicate anonymously. If he suspects you’re behind my investigation, I’m afraid your life could be in danger. Take what’s inside the envelope to the authorities and put as much distance between yourself and this man as you can. And Miss? Please don’t ever contact me again.”
There was an audible click as the speaker hung up the phone. Replacing the receiver, Helena turned to face Neil, shock turning her face pallid. “I’ve got my proof now,” she whispered.
Island Recess, Chapter 13.
The light turned to green, and Neil turned his attention once more to the road ahead. The expression in his eyes was soft, and touched with gentle affection. He continued, the almost unbearable intensity of his earlier near-confession suddenly altered to his familiar teasing levity.
“Okay, you wanted to know what you should do. I may be able to help with a plan for a fresh start, but that comes later. What we’re going to do now is this: I’m going to treat you to a night in a hideously over-priced hotel with wining and dining and love-making. In the morning, we’ll book you on an outbound flight, if that’s what you decide to do. Of course we’ll just see if you can stay away from me after tonight.” Though he was smiling as Helena pulled back to look at him, there was a wistful look in his eyes.
“I’m not even packed. All my things are at Ben’s or on the boat, but that sounds so wonderful,” Helena breathed softly.
“It’ll be okay, Helena. I can box up your clothes and send them snail-mail to your mom‘s place. You will be staying there, won’t you? I mean, you won’t go back to your own place, will you? It might not be safe for you to be alone.”
“No, I think my mom’s is a good place to be. I won’t really feel like being by myself after all this.” Helena’s hands spread wide to indicate the breadth of her distress. Neil nodded with satisfaction and slipped an arm around her hip, pulling her against his side for a quick kiss. As they drove toward Great Cruz Bay Beach, Helena leaned her head against the headrest, gazing out her side window at the dizzying movement of others’ living and loving in the mid-afternoon sun. In the bright light, even the pavement seemed bleached and sandy, an extension of the beach ribboning the expanse of ocean. The well-known five-star hotel, as they viewed it from a distance, seemed massive and bulky in contrast to the smaller buildings that seemed typical of the island. Approaching the imposing entrance and the valet-parking station they joked about having to hand over the keys to Neil’s battered truck. The immaculately groomed attendant helped Helena from the vehicle, and hopped in the driver’s seat without batting an eye, despite the fact that he typically handled only the most luxurious imports and custom jobs.
Stepping into the air-conditioned lobby, Helena felt suddenly chilled, her skin cold and clammy with the abrupt change in temperature. While Neil made discreet arrangements for their accommodation, Helena glanced idly about the lobby, marveling as she always did at the sheer number of people who seemed in the habit of surrounding themselves with luxury. She glanced ruefully at her wrinkled cotton shorts and tank top, then back at Neil, about to make a whispered comment on the contrast between their apparel and that of the other guests.
“Do you want to put your documents in the hotel safe?” he asked, interrupting her fashion commentary with a significant look. Helena rooted about in her oversize shoulder bag for the envelope and slid it across the desk to the hotel clerk. With a sudden twinge of foreboding, she found herself heartily regretting that the copies they had planned to distribute had yet to be made. Tomorrow, first thing, they would stop at the copy shop, she promised herself.
Turning her attention to Neil, she noticed with a start that he was counting off bills from a large wad and handing them to the desk clerk. There had to be four or five hundred dollars in cash passing between the offering and receiving hands. Helena shook her head, as if to silence the warning bells that tinkled in the back of her mind. Firmly, she told herself: one more night and then … She didn’t have a chance to continue her reverie, as Neil took her hand and pulled her to him, whispering a graphic invitation in her ear, and then patting her bottom in a manner that caused two passer-bys to look the pair of them up and down with a definite sneer of disapproval. Helena smiled back coolly as she returned the pat with a smack of her own that resounded like gunshot through the chilly lobby.
Their suite was located on the beachfront, with sliding doors and a wide balcony opening out onto a sweeping view of the ocean. Helena gasped as she drew apart the long, heavy curtains. The late afternoon light was softening into the pale blush that precedes the setting sun. Standing at the window, marveling at the sunlight dipping into the foamy toss of the surf, Helena felt Neil’s arms about her waist, and his mouth at the nape of her neck. His voice, breathing her name, was husky as he took her hand and spun her around to face him. Grasping both her hands in his, he gently kissed her upturned hands before leading her to an enormous bed topped by a scatter of plush pillows. Easing her onto the bed, he lowered himself gently over her, caressing her exposed skin with his mouth and hands until Helena was panting her desire against his ear. His fingers moved deftly over her, unbuttoning, unzipping, and pulling away clothing, until she lay beneath him, tanned skin tawny against the pristine white of the sheets. He paused a moment, gazing openly at her nude form, and then began a slow tracing of the contour of her hip and belly. Before his hand found its goal, Helena had sunk her fingers into the glossy strands of his hair, and pulled his mouth against hers, exploring with a wanton tongue. Then, with the grace of a dancer, she moved against him, thighs wrapping his, and rolling with him until she straddled his hips and enveloped the length of him with a fluid tilt of her hips. Moving first slowly, then with increasing urgency, she thrust against him, reveling in the naked desire in his eyes as he pulled her toward him. Neil’s arms were tight around her bottom, and hers around his neck, as he lifted her from the bed and carried her toward the doors opening onto the deck. The long, heavy curtains swayed gently with the soft breeze, and the early-evening air was warm against their damp skin as he stepped with her onto the balcony. Neil braced Helena’s back lightly against the door-frame. Hands grasping the metal frame, Helena gasped and arched her back as Neil thrust into her with long, hungry strokes. He collapsed against her with a moan, momentarily losing his grip on Helena’s bottom so that she slid slowly to standing. Skin glistening , suffused with sex-flush, he slipped his arms around her, grazing his damp lips against the side of her neck. Helena groaned, reaching up to tighten her arms around his neck, as his hands cupped and stroked her buttocks. Then, his hands were sliding over her shoulders, the jut of her breasts and the line of her waist before reaching around to grasp her about the knees. His mouth followed the path his hands had taken, then paused, lips opening, and tongue seeking until it slipped between the juncture of Helena’s thighs. Hands tight against Neil’s ears, Helena sunk into the rapturous caress of his mouth. Silhouetted against the open window, Helena’s body tilted against the door frame as she wrapped her calf around Neil’s kneeling form. With a cry, she climaxed, her body tightening, then relaxing as the spasms subsided. Neil’s arms were again around her waist as they walked slowly across the room to the bed, bumping hips as they strove to tighten their grip on one another. Helena yawned sleepily as she raised a knee to crawl onto the wide bed, assisted by a wide hand on the curve of her bottom.
Neil smiled at her, “Why don’t you have a little nap and make sure you’re rested up for later?” He winked suggestively.
Collapsing against the disarrayed bed linens, Helena stretched luxuriously and nodded. “Mmm…” she murmured as she nestled her cheek against the pillow. “Join me?”
“For a few minutes,” he replied. “Then I have a little errand to run. I won’t be long. I’ll be back to wake you up soon.”
Helena pulled the sheet up over the swell of her breasts, and smiled up at Neil as he bent over to kiss her on the forehead. He drew back the sheet and slid in alongside her, nestling against her until they lay like spoons in a drawer. As Neil stroked her hair and cradled her against him, Helena felt her eyes drift closed and was soon fast asleep.
She woke up alone. Stretching and yawning in the big, empty bed, Helena gazed about her. She soon caught sight of a slip of paper on the pillow beside her.
I’ve got the key so don’t open the door to anyone, ok? I‘ll be back within the hour. I miss you already and I haven’t even left the room yet! Back soon – Love, Neil
Helena hugged herself with pleasure. “Love” he had said. “Love!” Helena grinned to herself and hummed softly as she slipped lazily from the bed and padded leisurely toward the bathroom. The ensuite was huge and well-furbished. Casting her eye over a selection of pretty little bottles, Helena chose one, uncapped it and sniffed the fragrance. “Yum!” she exclaimed, before reaching down to the big faucets of the deep soaker tub and turning on the flow of warm water. The bathroom soon felt like a jungle with the heat from the bath water, and the fragrance of coconut and pineapple bath gel cast Helena’s mind back to the beach where she had first caught sight of Neil. To think that only a month ago, she had felt little other than contempt for the man who now had her in such a state of anticipation. As she lowered herself into the warm, scented water, Helena allowed her mind to wander freely. Resting her head against a rolled up towel, Helena idly swished about the bath water, pondering the many directions their night together could take. Perhaps Neil would return while she was still in the tub, and they could make love until the water cooled and they were wrinkled like prunes. Maybe they could stroll hand-in-hand along the beach and then, on a deserted stretch, re-enact that famous scene from the movie From Here to Eternity until sand had collected in all their most sensitive regions. Helena smiled wryly. Maybe life wasn’t exactly like the movies, but it seemed like there might still be a few good leading men left to take a casting call. Waving her toes in the direction of the hot water tap, Helena made a vain attempt to warm the cooling water. Sighing, she sat up and leaned forward, and then thought better of the gesture. Her fingertips were wrinkled enough to tell her she‘d soaked sufficiently. Rising to her feet, Helena brushed off the stray soap bubbles and squinted into the other room as she tried to catch a glimpse of the clock radio. Nearly eight! Or so it appeared, through her slightly myopic gaze and the fog in the bathroom. Toweling herself off with brisk movements, Helena realized suddenly that she was famished. Deciding that room service, her treat, would be a start to evening the score between her and Neil, Helena draped her towel on the rack and moved quickly to the bedside telephone table. Extracting the plush leather-bound room service menu from beside the phone, Helena quickly scanned the pages and began mentally composing the ingredients of a light supper. Then, she picked up the telephone, made the appropriate connection and began dictating her selection.
“Mmm, yes. Everything looks so delicious! I think we’d like to start with the pastry-wrapped brie with raspberries, then the salad of mixed greens, the chicken crepes with asparagus and mushrooms, and to finish…the white chocolate mousse with dark chocolate sauce.”
Helena smiled as she gave the dessert order, conscious of her plans for the rich, creamy mousse and its accompanying side of smooth chocolate syrup. Repeating her room number, she replaced the receiver. Half closing her eyes in rapture, Helena leaned back against the bed, ruffling the damp hair at the nape of her neck. Then, propping herself on her elbow, she checked the time on the bedside alarm. Eight-twenty. Only a matter of minutes before dessert arrives, she thought, expressing her motives in the form of a lascivious chuckle. She flopped back on the bed, stretching languidly. Her hand found the curve of her belly and stroked it absent-mindedly, her fingers taking a leisurely path downward, as she allowed herself to again wander into the world of fantasy.
“A very pretty picture.”
Helena bolted upright, hand flying to her mouth as a familiar voice came at her from across the room. Heart thudding painfully in her ears, she scarcely dared breathe his name.
“Karl.” The name was the merest whisper on her lips.
“And I must say your choice of cuisine has improved considerably. I’m afraid I can’t say the same for your choice of dinner companions, but still, it seems you learned something from our time together, after all.”
From a darkened corner of the room, a figure emerged into the light. A fine-featured, elegantly slender man inclined his head as he spoke. His ivory silk shirt tapered at the waist and tucked into slim linen trousers. Spotless, white-soled deck shoes housed tanned bare feet. A slow, ironic smile touched his thin lips, as he opened his arms as if to embrace Helena’s cowering form.
Shaking her head as if to erase the image before her, Helena suddenly froze, then grabbed for the bedclothes, pulling them toward her in a futile attempt to conceal her nakedness. Her hair, still damp from the bath, fell in curls over her eyes, momentarily masking Karl’s approach.
“I must say Helena, that I would have expected a great deal more of you than a tacky little fling with a local tradesman.”
He gave her a look of appraisal that bordered on the affectionate.
“Still,” he continued, “I shouldn’t like to hold that against you. As we are both aware, I have had my share of faults in the past and I am now quite prepared to overlook yours. You see, you may not think that I need you, but truly I do.”
The gaze that Helena maintained through her fringe of wet curls underwent a transformation from horror to distain. For the first time since Karl’s appearance, Helena spoke.
“How the hell did you get in here? Get out!’’
“Ah, but my dear Helena, we are both aware of the things that money can buy. Amazing what a hundred dollars can still buy in this day and age.” He shook his head as if in great bewilderment and chuckled ironically to himself.
“Karl, I don’t know what you want from me, but I want you to leave, and I want you to do it now. If you don’t, I’m calling the police.” Helena’s face was hard as she reached her hand toward the bedside telephone.
Karl laughed softly at her words, the merest suggestion of a mocking smile flashing over his face.
“Helena, if you were going to call the police, you would have done so by now. And honestly, the police really haven’t helped you much, have they? Besides, you aren’t a foot away from the phone, and you haven’t even screamed yet. Please, let’s be reasonable. Let’s sit down and talk. I’m ready to do that, just as long as you are ready to accompany me home at the end of the evening.”
“No.” Her words made a dull echo in her ears. Karl laughed and shook his head. Then he assumed a look of mock concern and the words he uttered were tinged with sarcasm.
“Oh dear, are you worried about your young man making an untimely appearance? Please don’t. My employees will ensure he does not make it beyond the lobby. Believe me, Helena, our little chat will take place without interruption.”
Helena sat bolt upright, her heart beating a painful tattoo. Shock registered plainly on her face and she found her tongue thick in her mouth.
“No.” The word passed her lips as a whimper, and Karl’s smile was smug.
“And I almost forgot. Whether or not your little friend makes it through the afternoon in one piece depends entirely on your actions. It’s up to you, Helena. Your choice.”
A hand brushed her shoulder, and the bed dipped under his weight as Karl seated himself beside Helena. Like an animal, she cowered back, putting distance between them.
Karl laughed as he slid back a few inches and turned to face her.
“So that’s how it’s going to be, is it? Fine, then. Cover yourself up. I don’t need any distractions at the present time.”
Helena gathered the bedspread from where it had fallen to the floor and wrapped it tightly around her, drawing the softly quilt fabric against her skin as if it could shield her from the scene unfolding around her. Like a marionette, she saw the strings being pulled, and knew she had no choice but to follow along. Numbly, she watched Karl’s mouth working, and watched her new life unraveling with no power to stop it. Neil. Neil.
Karl was leaning back on one hand, the other gesturing theatrically as he spoke. Occasionally he reached toward Helena, and then laughed as each time she pulled away.
“Helena, dear Helena, you must understand now how much I need you. Just look to what lengths I’ve gone to find you and bring you home. With all the work I’ve gone to, I’m sure you understand that you have a certain responsibility to me.”
Pulling the bedclothes more tightly around her naked shoulders, Helena attempted to draw herself up until she was sitting ramrod-straight. Her eyes were steely as spoke in measured tones. While rage coursed through her like a forest fire she had seen first-hand Karl’s violent temper and was terrified of provoking it while Neil’s very life could hang in the balance. She needed to defuse the situation, but every word she spoke would be a gamble.
“Karl, you might think you need me, but you don’t. You already have other women for sex, and with your money and charm I’m sure you can buy whatever else you require. I don’t belong in your world, and you most certainly do not belong in mine.”
Breathing rapidly, Helena watched Karl with eyes betraying her anxiety, attempting to gauge the impact of her words.
Karl’s face suffused with color and his eyes glittered sharply as he resumed speaking.
“Helena, there are many, many things you do not know or understand about the life I lead. Come now, you know what we shared. We were happy together and with a little growing up on your part, we still can be. All we have to do is forget the past and move forward with a full and adult understanding.”
Unable to reign in her emotions, Helena heard herself starting to plead.
“Please. I’m happy now. I can’t go back and even if I could, I’d be no good for you. The love I felt for you is gone.”
Karl, for a moment, looked incredulous, and then began to shake his head. He chuckled to himself as if appreciating a private joke.
“I see. I see. What you don’t see, Helena, is that this is not about love. True, I do hold a certain affection for you, but I haven’t followed you here because I’m in love with you.”
Helena’s heart was thudding painfully against her ribs. One question repeated over and over inside her skull until it pounded. Holding her hands to her head, Helena whispered one word.
“It’s business, my dear! What you are to me, Helena, in addition to being a rather pretty girl, is the perfect cover. A very naïve and quite unsophisticated schoolteacher is hardly likely to be the wife of someone who, shall we say, lives below the radar? Your child-like innocence lends to my business dealings a certain legitimacy that is something my money just cannot buy.”
The breath caught in Helena’s throat, her thoughts spinning beyond her control. A wave of nausea swept over her as she realized everything had been a lie. Everything.
A dizzying confusion swept over her, the soothing tone of Karl’s voice playing havoc with the hurt she had nursed over the past few months. She wanted to run, to hide, to disappear, but it seemed Karl would always be there, ready once more to hold her hostage.
Through the tangle of her thoughts, she was vaguely aware of hands on her bare shoulders, kneading and stroking the skin. Old hurts, rising viciously to the surface of her consciousness, were temporarily anaesthetized by the comfort of touch and the hypnotically soothing voice. Her throat was tight, tears were at her eyes, and a sob of frustration caught in her chest. She made a weak movement as if to push him from her and the bedspread slipped from her shoulders and fell to her waist. Seizing the moment, Karl leaned forward, scooping her naked body into his arms and silencing her struggling protestations with the front of his silk shirt. At that moment, there were sounds of scuffling in the corridor, and the door swung open.
Karl looked up with an alarm that quickly turned to anger.
“What the fuck?” he hissed, as into the room came two burly men, half-dragging a third between them. The first of the two men, she had already met, when he delivered Karl’s message to her in the restaurant. Helena’s gasp was involuntary and he glanced at her with a contemptuous sneer.
As their prisoner held up his head and gazed in their direction, Helena locked eyes with Neil. One side of his face was deeply bruised, and a deep gash to his cheek looked pulpy and raw. His eyes were wide and filled with hurt and confusion. Forcing herself from Karl’s grasp, Helena pulled the wrapper around her body and struggled to her feet. Karl pushed her roughly back, stabbing a finger toward her cowering form and snarling, “Don’t you fucking move.”
Advancing toward the men, Karl spoke in low, measured tones.
“You were supposed to take care of him. You are disobeying my instructions.”
Swallowing audibly, the larger of the two men spoke.
“Sorry, Mr. Pennington, but there’s something you gotta know. We were, uh, trying to keep him quiet, and when we were tying his hands we saw this.”
He grabbed Neil by the wrist, twisting his arm at a painful angle and pulling it forward for Karl’s inspection.
Karl peered, frowning, at the small tattoo inside Neil’s wrist. His brow furrowed, his look of annoyance turning to one of confusion.
“So?” he queried, feigning casualness.
“Sir, don’t you know what that means?”
Karl’s expression was self-consciously blank and he waited with obvious impatience for his employee to continue.
“This tattoo marks the employees of the Scarpelli family.”
Through swollen and bloodied lips, Neil finally spoke. His words were low and harsh.
“Spent time in New York, Karl? Heard of the Scarpelli family? Yeah? Well, I work for them and they’re no friend of yours, or the Reyes. Scarpelli Sr.’s phone number is programmed into my speed dial if you’d like to chat with him. ”
Neil’s captor loosened his grip a notch, and his partner rubbed his forehead, transparent with worry. Karl’s face blanched slightly and he nodded slowly, dawning understanding twisting his face into an ugly mask. For a few moments, he was speechless.
Helena spoke up into the silence, her own confusion masked by a false show of bravado. Karl’s obvious nervousness suddenly gave her the upper hand.
“Karl, do you really want to take on the Scarpelli family? You’re a pretty small fish without the Reyes behind you.”
Karl paused, considering. A shadow passed over his face at the mention of the Reyes family, and vanished. Then, as Karl had always done, he found and played his trump card.
“The problem, Mr. Streep, is that I have done nothing wrong. I came looking for my fiancé, found her, and am taking her home. As you could clearly see when you and my employees burst in on us, we were in the middle of a rather tender moment.”
Karl smiled back at Helena, triumph playing at the corner of his lips. He extended a hand in her direction and she rose slowly from the bed, moving forward to take her place at his side. Then, with one hand lightly raised to his shoulder, Helena made an abrupt gesture with her knee that caused Karl to gasp and crumple like a cast-off marionette.
“For God’s sake, Neil, he bought his way in here. Nothing is going on!”
Karl, half-kneeling at the floor, grasped to regain control of the situation. With a pained smile, he gasped, “Didn’t look like ‘nothing’ a minute ago, did it? She opened the door to me, you fucking half-wit!”
. Helena shook her head violently, the look of distain on her face so vehement that the question was answered without a word being spoken.
Karl licked his lips. A look of defeat crossed his face and then settled there. Suddenly, he looked much older than his thirty-six years.
Sensing the shift in power, Neil’s captors simultaneously released their grip and took a few steps back. Karl’s mouth twisted as he struggled back to a standing position. He looked from Helena to Neil and finally spoke.
“What do you want from me?”
Neil nodded, a smile playing about his lips. He cleared his throat, and his voice gathered strength.
“Well, Karl Pennington, if that’s really your name, what I want if for you to make a choice. Choice number one is you get on the next plane out of here and never contact Helena again. Choice number two is you do anything other than choice number one and I call Mr. Scarpelli and get you fitted for a pair of cement shoes.”
With these words, Karl’s employees looked to each other, nodded, and backed up out of the room.
Karl’s face was pale as Neil took a step toward him. Grabbing Karl by the collars of his ivory silk shirt, he spun him around and wrapped a muscular forearm around his throat. From where she stood, Helena could hear Karl struggle to draw a breath. Helena gasped sharply as she saw Neil remove a black object from the pocket of his windbreaker and press it forcefully to the base of Karl’s skull.
“I certainly hope you don’t need any further convincing,” he murmured in a voice heavy with threat.
Karl shook his head carefully, half-turning as Neil pocketed the object.
“Helena…” he began in a chocked voice.
“No,” said Helena simply.
“Okay, Mr. Pennington, I’m going to be the good host and escort you personally from the premises. Remember, no trouble.”
Neil gave Karl a shove toward the door. Karl hesitated for a moment, then opened the door and turned to Neil for direction.
Looking backward over his shoulder, Neil smiled at Helena. His eyes were tired but sparkling with triumph. With a tremendous sigh of relief, Helena moved away from the door and cast herself backwards on the bed. Sheer fatigue threatened to overwhelm her, but pumping adrenaline kept her eyes on the door, counting the minutes until Neil’s return. She wondered suddenly what had become of the meal she had ordered. She was in the process of phoning room service when she heard Neil softly calling her name and the door opened.
In the suddenly quiet room, they faced each other. Helena replaced the receiver quietly, as Neil locked the deadbolt behind him. A giggle broke the silence. Helena’s hand covered her mouth as she began to shake uncontrollably with suppressed tears and hysterical laughter. Rising from the bed, she walked across to Neil, and slipped her hand into his pocket. What she held was a small metal flashlight. Waving it in his face, she choked out through her tears, “I call your bluff, Mr. Streep.” He laughed as he caught her around the waist and pulled her to him, planting a lingering kiss on the top of her damp head. She lifted his fingers to his face and gingerly examined his injuries.
“It’s over now,” he whispered, wincing slightly at her touch. For Helena, who had several quite pressing questions about Neil’s connections to the notorious Scarpelli crime family, it was not yet over. Her lips parted as she prepared the first of her queries. Then, she spotted something lying near to the door. Neil’s eyes followed hers, and he chuckled wryly as he went to retrieve it.
“Sorry I took so long,” he said, pausing in his tracks to reassemble the two halves of the box before presenting it to Helena. “It took me a while to find what I was looking for, but it was getting jumped in the lobby by those two thugs that really held me up.”
He made a half bow, as the box passed into her hands. She lifted the lid and gasped as she caught sight of the heart-shaped locket and delicate gold chain within. Sighing with pleasure as his hands fastened the slender chain about her neck, she pushed her questions to the back of her mind and allowed his arms to embrace her tightly. By the time the room service waiter announced his presence with a discreet knock, they had already returned to bed.
Island Recess, Chapter 14.
The remains of their meal were mere crumbs on the gilt-edged hotel china, as they had partaken ravenously of the beautifully-presented delicacies. A trace of chocolate syrup graced Helena’s tanned shoulder, and Neil bent chivalrously over her to remove it with a brush of his lips. Helena sighed languorously, as she reached up to cup Neil’s chin in her hand and pull his face toward hers. In the soft light of the bedside lamp, her new gold pendant sparkled at her throat. Gazing into Neil’s eyes, she met his lips with a soft press of her own. His hands were at the small of her back, pulling her against him. They both started as the telephone rang shrilly.
“Leave it,” she murmured huskily. Then, as the telephone continued to ring, he reached across her to lift the receiver.
“Yes?” he inquired, a trace of abruptness audible in his voice.
His brow furrowed as he listened to the message relayed by the caller.
“I see,” he responded cautiously, raising his eyebrows to Helena.
Helena mimed a question, the expression on her face mirroring her confusion.
“I understand,” he continued, sighing and shaking his head in a manner that belied his apparent comprehension of the situation. “We’ll be down shortly.”
Replacing the receiver, Neil faced Helena, a look of consternation in his dark blue eyes. Then he laughed, a short, mirthless laugh.
“It looks like good old Karl took rather a crude parting shot. Apparently there have been so many anonymous complaints regarding the occupants of a certain,” Here he paused, and indicated the space they were occupying, “Room 894, that the management has no choice but to ask us to leave.”
“But we weren’t that loud,” erupted Helena vehemently.
Neil smiled at the seriousness of Helena’s response.
“No, not any louder than many, I’m sure,” he agreed with a smile. ”This is probably just another low-grade effort at harassment, courtesy of Karl. Still…I think we probably should leave. I’m not anxious to have a good night’s sleep interrupted by more calls from the management.”
Helena agreed with some reluctance, her gaze dragging wistfully over the plush pillows and wide bed on which they were still cuddled together. Sighing with annoyance and hurrying more out of a desire to accomplish their departure than from fear of any more retaliatory behavior on Karl’s part, they quickly dressed and prepared to leave.
“Where now?” was the question on Helena’s lips as they waited for the arrival of the sleek, glassed-in elevator.
“Well, I’m not sure that it’d be wise for us to return to your place or mine tonight. I want to be good and sure that Karl is off the island and out of our lives before we go back to ‘business as usual.’ I have a friend who’ll give us a bed for the night. We could spend the night there if that’s okay with you.”
Helena nodded her assent, and stifled a yawn with the palm of her hand.
Slipping his arm about her waist, Neil pulled Helena against him, and she responded by leaning her head against his shoulder. A question floated to the surface of her mind and stayed there, prompting her to speak, despite a nagging desire to keep things as they were.
“Neil, do you really work for the Scarpellis?”
Neil’s laughter was sudden and deep, an ironic chuckle that for a moment, swallowed his speech. Helena was startled, then relieved, as he shook his head heartily and smiled broadly in her direction.
“Helena, when I told you my tattoo was the result of a frat house prank, I meant it. One of my old college roommates was distantly related to the Scarpelli family, thought the whole mobster thing was a joke and had decided it would be cool if all of his frat brothers got the same tattoo: the Scarpelli ‘family crest.’ One night we all got really drunk and headed for the tattoo parlor. I guess everyone sobered up pretty quickly when the needle got buzzing; that is everyone but me and my frat brother. Funny, before last night, my tattoo had never gotten me anything other than some good natured ribbing.”
Neil continued to chuckle, seemingly incredulous that Helena had thought him an associate of a mobster family.
“And, Helena, as for the rest, I was just bluffing: playing for time. I never dreamed it would work, but when it did, wow, magic!”
Helena gazed up at Neil, suddenly certain that he spoke the truth.
Smiling, she acknowledged and humbly apologized for the error of her suspicions, and then sat back, lost in thought. While she felt closer to the truth than she had before, unanswered questions continued to rear. However, with Helena reluctant to sound as if she were interrogating Neil on the subject of his mysterious past, the opportunity for questioning had passed for the moment. Silently, she gazed out the passenger window, willing the uncomfortable churning of her doubts to cease until she were better equipped to handle possibly painful explanations.
It was just after midnight, and it seemed like half of St. John’s was still wide awake and on the move. Music throbbed from cars cruising near the beach, and merry-makers jostled each other as they emerged from noisy little bars and restaurants. Helena watched the motion with tired eyes. It seemed ages since they had drive this way in search of Room 894 and the promise it had held. As if reading her thoughts, Neil reached a hand out from the steering wheel and stroked her cheek.
“We’ll have other times together,” he promised her softly.
“But when?” was Helena’s unspoken response. While she had not yet booked a flight home, she felt a niggling responsibility to do so. Had they not just “gotten rid” of Karl, only to be disturbed by him a few short hours later? How much longer could she continue compromising the life Neil had chosen with the complications of her own? The time was rapidly approaching when she would have to say her good-byes. She swallowed hard as she contemplated the prospect of a future without Neil Streep.
The dismal train of her thoughts was interrupted by Neil’s announcement that they had arrived at their destination. Pulling up to a well-lit, trim little bungalow Neil hopped out of the truck and came around to Helena’s door to offer her a hand. Entwining her fingers with his, Helena kept pace with Neil as they approached the residence. Their cautious knock was answered almost immediately by a curly-haired young man in his early twenties. Tucked under his arm was a thick textbook, and a marking pen took up the only corner of his mouth that was not part of his wide smile.
“Come in, come in,” he said in a loud whisper, “After all the trouble Neil said you two have been having over the past couple of days, I was half-expecting you. We just have to be a bit quiet as my mother and little sister are already sleeping.”
Helena ducked through the narrow doorway, followed by Neil. As the young man extended a calloused palm and introduced himself as Jose, Helena had the strange feeling that she had already made his acquaintance.
“Jose is a law student at the University over on St. Thomas,” explained Neil in a hoarse whisper. “I met him when I building a gazebo in the main garden area. He works part-time in maintenance to help pay his studies and we took to talking lawyerly ethics one afternoon. We still get together when we can.”
Jose smiled. “Neil is a great friend of mine. I can’t begin to tell you how much he has helped…”
His words trailed off, as a racking cough was heard from somewhere in the interior of the small house.
“Mi madre,” he whispered, and excused himself before hurrying down a narrow corridor.
“His mother,” whispered Neil.
“I know that much Spanish, at least,” responded Helena, rolling her eyes as she gave him a gentle dig in the ribs. While they waited for Jose’s return, Helena glanced about the tiny living room. Photographs seemed to dot every surface and cover the walls. Colorful carvings and brightly woven blankets completed the décor. One of the larger photos caught her eye, and Helena bent down to examine it more closely. With a start, she realized why Jose’s appearance had struck her as being familiar. A frisson of apprehension caused her to shiver in the humid night air. Jose had been the man she had seen at the marina: the driver of the Jeep with whom Neil had exchanged a package for a wad of bills. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Neil’s eyes on her and flushed as if he could read her thoughts.
“Senor Neil!” the words were spoken with warmth and enthusiasm and boomed in the quiet little house. A tiny, elderly woman was reaching up to Neil, gnarled hands shaking as he bent to embrace her. She caught sight of Helena and smiled broadly, “Mister Neil, he is como mi son. Such a good boy.” Her dark eyes glistened as she beamed at him with obvious pride.
To her amusement, Helena could discern a faint blush coloring Neil’s skin. She nodded as Jose’s mother chattered on, her enthusiastic declarations peppered with an increasing number of Spanish words. Shaken by her recognition of Jose, she found it hard to concentrate on the chatter of the friendly woman, and felt her smiling lips go rigid with effort. Neil seemed relaxed and attentive, leaning in toward the speaker, and patting her shoulder from time to time with an affectionate gesture. Jose leaned in confidentially toward Helena and murmured in a low voice.
“My mother has very bad rheumatism and much pain. Neil has a doctor friend in the U.S. who is able to get for us a very experimental drug that makes her attacks much less severe. He does not ask of us any more than the cost for his friend of mailing these pharmaceuticals. My mother is so grateful to him for his help that she often calls him mi otro hijo – my other son.”
“It’s really not much,” Neil began, his color heightening to crimson, as the senora reached up and patted his cheek fondly.
Helena sat up with a start, her thoughts suddenly focused on Jose’s revelation. She was struggling to invent a subtle query that would throw light on the exchange she had seen at the marina. Perhaps the package exchanging hands had contained nothing more sinister than the prescription medication for an aging mother. Biting her lip in consternation, she looked up to see Jose’s dark eyes fixed on hers. Then, his words broke her chain of concentration entirely.
“You look so familiar,” he said, “And I’ve been trying and trying to place you. I’ve just realized that you are the spitting image of a girl I saw down by the marina. I was with Neil at the time, giving him a ride to thank him for arranging another refill of mi madre’s medicine. The funny thing is, that at the time, he thought he recognized you, and now I do!” His smile broadened and he looked expectantly at Helena, as if she were to share in the joke.
Helena blanched and attempted a carefree laugh. “I guess I just have one of those faces,” she said with a sickly smile. For a moment, the room fell silent, and Helena felt three sets of eyes regarding her with steadfast curiosity. For a moment, she racked her brains, and then made a desperate attempt to change the topic. Leaping to her feet, she began gesticulating toward an elaborately woven throw-rug tacked to one of the sloping plaster walls.
“What a beautiful blanket!” she exclaimed with what she hoped was sparkling enthusiasm.
As the older woman rose to point out the pattern on the heirloom, Helena felt the moment of danger pass. Relief flooded through her as she realized the innocent nature of the pair’s exchange, and the foolishness of the fears she had cultivated in her espionage mission. Feeling Neil’s arms about her waist, Helena relaxed and leaned her head back against his chest. Her eyelids felt suddenly heavy and she tried to smother a yawn. The lateness of the hour, and Helena’s obvious fatigue did not elude the little family. Within minutes, they were bustling about the small house, trying to find the most comfortable sleeping quarters for their guests. Despite Jose’s best efforts to have the couple use his own bedroom, Helena and Neil insisted on making up the tiny pull-out sofa. As the hall lights were extinguished, Helena and Neil crawled under the covers of the little bed, the springs protesting under their combined weight. Neil’s breath on her cheek was gentle as he pulled her against the curve of his body and fitted his arm over the line of her waist. Closing her eyes, she sensed the beating of his heart in the silent house, and snuggled closer to further minimize the distance between them.
“I love you,” he whispered softly. Helena heard her own I love you pass from her lips, and then she was fast asleep in Neil’s arms.
Shafts of sunlight beaming in the window awoke Helena from a deep and dream-filled sleep. She yawned and stretched, then turned to find an empty pillow beside her. Hugging the blankets to her chest, she craned her neck to see if she could catch sight of any movement in the room beside her. At that moment, Neil entered the room, a large glass of orange juice in his hand. Bending and kissing Helena on the crown of her head, he passed the glass to her. Suddenly aware of her rumbling stomach, Helena took a great gulp of the pulpy fruit juice and asked, “What time is it?”
“Nearly nine, sleepyhead!” he teased, ruffling Helena’s disarrayed curls. “Jose is already at school and his mother off to work. That leaves his little sisters,” Here he paused and pretended to be considering their whereabouts, “And they’re off playing with their friends. And that leaves us all alone!”
He pretended to lunge at Helena, grabbing lustfully at her bottom as she scooted around to the other side of the sofa bed. They grappled playfully for a moment before Helena stopped and her expression became suddenly serious.
“It’s time I checked in with everybody, Neil. I need to find out what’s happening at the school, and to let people at home know that I’m okay.”
Pinned on his back by Helena, Neil clearly would have preferred to continue their playful wrestling, but managed a gracious affirmative. While they set about tidying up evidence of their stay, it seemed that Neil took every opportunity to make affectionate contact with Helena. Standing on her tiptoes to tuck the blankets back on a high shelf, Helena felt his lips at her ear as he reached up to assist her. As she sloshed their dirty glasses in a dishpan of soapy water, Neil was there with a clean dishrag and a rain of soft kisses. Within half an hour, the little house was once again spotless. Before leaving, Helena made a quick phone call to her principal. While she missed her pupils and the routine of her classroom, Helena found herself slightly relieved to find that school most likely would not resume until after the summer. While the threat of Karl’s presence had paled somewhat, Helena was still preoccupied with unanswered questions. Sensing that Helena was lost in thought, Neil slipped his hand inside hers and drew her to him before leading her through the tiny entranceway. Closing and locking the front door behind them, they walked side by side up the modest pathway to Neil’s truck. Before climbing into the passenger seat, Helena turned and gazed back at Jose’s home. She sighed softly and Neil spoke gently to her.
“You never know. One day we might have a little picket-fenced house just like that ourselves.”
Helena bit her lip to keep from smiling too broadly as she laced her fingers with those of his free hand.
Not wishing to disturb Ben, a late sleeper, so early in the day, Helena suggested she try accessing her e-mail account at the local internet café. Trying hard not to look aghast at the hourly charge, Helena made her selection from the three available terminals and began the process of retrieving her messages. As she typed in the password to access her account, she was aware of Neil’s hand at her elbow, carefully placing a steaming cup of coffee just within her reach. Then, with a parting squeeze of her shoulder and a stern admonition not to rush herself, he had moved away, stationing himself in a cracked vinyl armchair behind a day-old newspaper. Left to examine her correspondence in privacy, Helena began the laborious task of weeding the junk mail from the genuine communications. She smiled to herself as she read the tongue-in-cheek titles of some of her co-workers’ contributions, and resolved to spend a few minutes answering these once she had sent her reassurances to her mother and best friend. Clicking quickly on the most recent message from Julie – “Where R U? I have news!”- Helena began reading. As her eyes scanned the first few sentences, she shot a quick glance in Neil’s direction. He appeared to be thoroughly engrossed in his reading. With a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Helena returned to the start of the message, and began re-reading Julie’s communication, this time with greater care.
Helena! Where are you? the message read. Your mom told me the whole story about your supposed kidnapping and your rescue by the mystery man. What happened with Karl? Is he back in Seattle? Please (!) call when you get this message and give me the update! I was so worried about you! Okay, here’s a biggie: I have news for you about Mr Neil Streep..
I showed the photo of your “Neil Streep” to Alex and he recognized him immediately. As Alex so eloquently put I, ‘Who could forget cheeks like that – and I‘m not just talking about his face.. The kicker is, that your friend’s name isn’t Neil Streep, it’s Neil Peters. Anyway, apparently he was one of the up and coming entrepreneurs in the state, maybe even the country, until he vanished from the scene a couple of years ago. After a bit of coaxing (promises of martinis, etc.) Alex managed to dig up a couple of things: an article from “Entrepreneur” and ( of all things!) a wedding announcement. With a bit of help, I scanned them into the computer. Read and form your own opinions, but remember this: People who suddenly change their names are often hiding something. PLEASE be careful, Helena. You’ve already had one lunatic in hot pursuit so don’t be getting into bed with another one (or at least, be ready to get OUT right away if needed!) I know you’ll make the right choice. Miss u…Love, Julie.
The scanned articles followed as attachments:
[Georgetown Gazette, May 2001]
Mr. And Mrs. Norman Johnson are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter, Caroline, to Neil Peters, son of Mr. And Mrs. Douglas Peters, of Portland, Oregon. Caroline Johnson, an interior designer for the firm of “Intercede,” graduated magna cum laude from California Polytechnic in 1992. Crowned Miss Mayflower in her senior year, Ms. Johnson continues her “reign” as a volunteer, modelling for many local charity fashion shows in her spare time. Neil Peters is the owner of “New England Construction Ltd.” and a graduate of the University of Washington. Since 1995, his company has grown to include 30 employees and to become one of the top twenty new businesses in the country. Taking time off from their busy schedules, Caroline and Neil will exchange vows in the company of family and friends in a candle-lit double-ring ceremony. The wedding will take place on October 20, 2002 in Hartford, Connecticut, at the Johnson family’s country estate. Following an extended honeymoon in the Grand Cayman Islands, the couple will reside in Georgetown where Neil Peters plans to establish a new branch office for “New England Construction.” Family and friends extend congratulations to the happy couple on their engagement.
[Entrepreneur, March 2001]
An economy that has been slowing since the late eighties hasn’t stood in the way of the partners of “New England Construction Ltd.” “There’s always going to be a need for well-constructed, affordable commercial and residential buildings,” says Neil Peters, who along with a building team headed by his college room-mate, Gene Scarpelli, have planned and built some of the most high profile retail space in Georgetown. Peters and Scarpelli met their freshman year in college and decided they’d follow the path set by Peters’ uncle, a builder with an eye for what he termed ‘affordable quality.’ Following graduation, the pair worked in the private sector to save money until they had the skills and finances to start their business in 1998. A few years of sweat equity later, profits for the company are expected to reach $40 million. The pair hope to expand their business throughout the state of Maine, beginning with the establishment of a new head office in Georgetown.
Scarpelli…Neil Peters! Helena massaged her temples as she leaned in to re-read the article from Entrepreneur. From the corner of her eye, she caught Neil’s movement, a subtle shift in posture followed by a smoothing and folding of the now-finished newspaper. She caught his eye and smiled somewhat tentatively as he stood and stretched, arching his back as he smothered a yawn. Her heart beat wildly against her ribs and she prayed fervently he would stay where he was for the moment. With a quick click of the mouse, she closed the window on her e-mail and exited from the program. By the time he had reached her, Helena was already standing, adopting a rueful gaze at the cold cup of coffee and studiously avoiding Neil’s eyes. Unanswered questions knocked dully inside her skull. With a sinking heart, Helena realized that the time had come for her to seek some answers. As she reached for the door to the café, she saw that Neil already had it open. Passing through, she felt his hand slip around hers and the brush of his lips as he kissed her fingers. With a heartfelt sigh, Helena tried for a moment to ignore the stirrings of passion and focus on the mystery that Neil presented. Then, as he pulled her toward him in a spontaneous and tender embrace, Helena heard her inner voice pleading softly, just one more day? Inhaling the warm, musky scent of his skin, Helena clung to Neil, and breathed her answer against his chest. One more day.
Island Recess, Chapter 15.
The waves sliding back from the shore whistled as they passed through the pebbles bordering the beach. Picking her way through the frothy water, Helena smiled slowly and raised her hand as she caught sight of Neil striding toward her, canvas beach bag in hand. The waves unfurling around her bare legs and the glare of the sun beating down on her dark curls seemed to sap the last reserves of her energy. As if examining her reflection in a mirror, she raised the tips of her fingers and brushed the dark shadows under her eyes. Slowing her steps, she was suddenly aware of her tremendous fatigue.
The previous night she had slept fitfully, constantly starting into wakefulness as she recalled the contents of Julie‘s e-mail. Neil too, had seemed to find sleep slow in coming, and had held Helena tightly, cradling her head against his chest and stroking her hair as she stirred restlessly. As the pink light of dawn filtered through the window of their tiny hotel room, Helena arrived at the only decision she felt possible. At Helena’s suggestion, Neil had dropped her off at her apartment before seven o’clock. After ensuring that her unit was not under surveillance, and leaving a note for Ben to check in on Helena, Neil had, with some reluctance, driven off to the marina with Morris to work on the Odyssey. Free to replay her theories regarding the mystery of Neil Streep/Peters, Helena had directed her physical energies in a cleaning frenzy of unprecedented speed and efficiency. Ben’s arrival provided both distraction from and assistance with her endeavors. By early afternoon, they had managed to pack her bags, dispose of unneeded articles, and render her apartment dust-free and headily redolent of bleach and pine cleanser. Stripped of familiar clutter, the apartment had seemed suddenly small and forlorn, and Helena had left the building with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. With a sudden jolt, she had realized that when next she saw Ben, it would be to say good-bye.
Now, only steps away from Neil‘s extended hand, Helena felt her firm resolve softening to jelly. Swallowing hard, she put her hand out to meet his, and stretched up on tiptoe to kiss his mouth. The brush of his lips against hers made the back of her neck tingle, and she had to remind herself of her resolve to seek the truth about her lover, no matter what the outcome. As he reached out to grasp her in his arms, Helena ducked her head from a second kiss, and put her hand out to clutch the small purse that held her newly-booked ticket home. Steadying herself. This was the only way, she rationalized, to keep from turning back, losing her resolve and being swept up in whatever double-life the most charming man she had ever met appeared to be leading. Whatever Neil hid or revealed, and whatever lies he told, Helena would not allow herself to be hurt again. She was going home. And yet, what if? The practical Helena, the one with the ticket and the firm resolve, struggled to hold her ground. A hopeful, trusting, Helena bit her lip and surrendered to her emotions. Gently caressing Helena’s down-turned face, Neil lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. In his glance, Helena saw her own confusion mirrored, and lowered her gaze. Then, as if reading her change in mood, Neil turned away, but did not let go of her hand. Instead, he spoke quietly.
“Follow me,” he said, before lapsing into silence. Without speaking, they made their way back along the beach toward a grassy bluff cresting a steep trail. At first, Helena watched their feet kicking up small clouds of sand and then noted, with a sense of detachment, the silky beach sprouting pockets of brown grass. As they started to climb the winding trail, Helena raised her head and looked around her. She frowned for a moment as she struggled to place their whereabouts, then shook her head in surprise. Glancing at Neil, she tried to read his expression, but his face was turned away and his cheek was shadowed by the fall of his unkempt hair. Within minutes, they stood at the top of the bluff, overlooking the wide blue bay. The wind had carried a dusting of sand over the sprouting grasses, pocketing the overlook with remnants of the beach below. Off to the side, in the shelter of a curving rock wall overhung by vines, a blanket was spread. Beside it, in a metal bucket beaded with condensation, a bottle was chilling on a bed of ice. Weighting down the corners of the blanket were plates and cutlery and two champagne flutes.
Helena’s pulse quickened as she recognized their picnic spot. A smile played about her lips at the memory. She was about to exclaim at the coincidence when she realized that Neil was already speaking.
“I thought I was taking a bit of a chance leaving all this unattended but after catching you here sunbathing here alone and naked, I realized that it must be one of the island’s more private places.” Still holding her hand, he pulled her closer to him, willing her to meet his gaze with the searching intensity of his bright eyes. The fine lines around his eyes deepened as he regarded her with boyish eagerness to have pleased.
“What do you think? Do you like it? You do remember, don’t you?”
Helena’s expression was dreamy as she smiled into Neil’s eyes, and then pulled gently away. She walked slowly away, toward the edge of the bluff, revelling in the warmth of the late-summer sun as it bleached out the landscape below. The wind caught the curling tendrils of hair playing about her face and tickled her bronzed cheekbones. Below her, the waters of the bay moved ceaselessly against the shore, setting the moored boats bobbing on the waves like a baby‘s bath toys. Helena hugged herself in pleasure as she scanned the scene before her, taking in the variegated blues of the water and the primary colours of the buildings in the town below. Over there was the school, and a few blocks away, her apartment. The market would be setting up tomorrow, down there by the docks. While the hurricane had caused thousands of dollars in damage, it had not altered the locations of landmarks or much changed the rhythms of local behaviour. People would continue to visit the markets and gather at the local watering holes and meet to play in the same fields as they had before. Before the hurricane, and, she admitted to herself, before Helena. Ben’s apartments might have a bit more color and style, her students a bit more curiosity about the world, and what about Neil? Helena put a sudden halt to her train of thought. What had she brought to Neil? Trouble, certainly, and confusion, definitely. Tears of frustration sparkled in her eyes as she turned to face Neil. Willing herself to act as if nothing were wrong, she extended her hand for the brimming glass of champagne. As she met Neil’s gaze, she felt her heart softening. Clinking his glass against hers, Neil proposed a toast.
“To our future.”
“Futures,” murmured Helena, her awareness of their divided fates pushing aside all thoughts of a rosy, happily-ever-after. She regretted her editorial the moment it had passed her lips. Neil, fortunately, appeared not to have heard her, and busying himself with planting kisses in the vicinity of her face and neck. Then, with a wink and a convincing promise to continue his amorous explorations, he was kneeling on the picnic cloth, busying himself with preparations for their lunch. Within minutes, foil-wrapped packages of fried chicken and biscuits and containers of coleslaw and potato salad were spread out on the plaid blanket. As they began eating, Helena was grateful for the easy light-heartedness of their conversation. The lines bracketing his mouth deepened and dimpled as he recalled their first meeting.
“You sure can misjudge people based on your first impressions. You must have thought I was some kind of…” Neil’s words advanced and receded as he munched on a chicken leg.
Watching his face animated in nostalgic recollection, Helena felt a yearning that sent a physical pain through her body. Maybe, just maybe there was an explanation for everything, and then…
Maybe she needed to listen to her heart and not her by-the-numbers mind. Or was it the other way around? Frozen in mid-sentence, Neil glanced at her, head tilted and eyes smiling. The bright light of the high afternoon sun showed the lines etched on his face and made her wonder what other stories they had to tell.
Her heart contracted as she continued to gaze at him, fork suspended half-way to her mouth. Suddenly she was swelling with need for him. Reaching out toward Neil, she pushed aside their plates of food and slid her body alongside his. Taken aback by the abruptness of her movement, Neil laughed, and then reached for her, rolling against her as he fumbled with the opening of her shorts. Within moments, they were unclothed, damp skin cooled by the whispering breeze as their legs entwined. As he thrust against her, Helena gripped him savagely, her nails raking the sweat-slick flesh of his back and buttocks. Engulfed by her desire, she urged him on, panting out her need for him. His mouth was at her neck, his breath hot and quick against her skin, as she gave a tremendous cry and bucked against him.
“I love you Helena” was his strangled cry as his eyes sought her gaze and his mouth captured hers.
Cradled in the crook of his arm, Helena lay back on the blanket and gazed up at the sky. The clouds overhead were heaped like cotton candy and shifted lazily with each breath of the warm wind. Helena sighed suddenly, breaking the companionable silence, and Neil reached down to stroke her cheek.
“Anything I can do?” he whispered gently, a teasing smile on his lips.
Helena shook her head quietly and turned her dark-fringed eyes toward his.
“I’m sorry,” she began simply, before her words were lost to the threat of tears.
“You have nothing to apologize for, Helena,” Neil began firmly before Helena interrupted him with a finger to his lips.
“I’m sorry for the way things turned out. For Karl and for my confusion and for the mixed-up, on-the-run summer this ended up to be.”
Neil was smiling and Helena crinkled her brows quizzically as he interrupted her.
“And I wouldn’t change a minute of it.”
Helena returned his smile with a teasing one of her own.
“You mean, you wouldn’t change our being kicked out of a five star hotel? Visiting the police station? Fleeing the island like criminals?”
Neil reached down and smoothed her hair back from her forehead.
“I’m telling you the truth. No matter how mixed up our time together has been, it’s been time together.”
Rising to a sitting position, Neil grasped Helena’s hands in his two and pulled her toward him. Cupping her chin in the palm of his hand, he tilted her head so it was inches from his face. His eyes seemed to darken as regarded her intently.
“I love you, Helena. I’ve loved you from the very beginning. I swear I will do anything to make whatever is causing you unhappiness go away.”
Helena blinked back tears of self-pity as she fought the temptation to cast aside all doubt and allow herself to be swept into his arms.
While she struggled with her emotions, Neill continued, “I want to be part of your life, Helena, if you’ll have me.” His words trailed off as he blushed furiously. “I’m sorry, I’m not being very direct.” He cleared his throat loudly, and caught Helena’s hand, gripping it within his. Helena felt suddenly light-headed as she realized the direction their conversation was taking. Before she could interrupt, he was kneeling before her, words tumbling out.
“Helena Travis, will you take me, Neil Streep…” The falter in his voice was all the opening she needed. Helena played the one card she still held.
Gently, she interrupted him.
“Don’t you mean Neil Peters?”
The look he shot her was full of hurt and confusion. For a moment, he was silent. Then, raising his eyes to hers, he spoke quietly.
“Neil Peters is someone I used to be. Neil Streep is the person I’ve had to become.”
Helena’s heart began to beat a little faster. Her fingers sought out a loose thread on the hem of her shorts and yanked it taut. Try as she might to dismiss his words as trite melodrama, part of her yearned to hear the explanation that would follow. She waited as he cleared his throat, and made several faltering attempts to continue. Taking her hand between his, he stroked it gently, running his thumb over her knuckles.
“Helena.” Her name on his lips was a quiet caress.
Despite her desire to cry with frustration, she was torn between curiosity and empathy toward the difficulty of the story‘s telling. Feeling a tremor shake his hands, Helena returned the pressure of his fingers with a squeeze of her own. Seeming to gather reassurance from the gesture, he spoke again.
“You might not believe me now, but I had planned to tell you everything. This afternoon was all about new beginnings. Six months ago, I thought I was starting over. I wasn’t. I was just doing the same old thing: running away. It wasn’t until I met you that I was really re-born.”
Helena could no longer fight the urge to cut in. She was growing impatient for the climax of the story, one in which a helpful English detective pointed out “whodunnit” and then tied up any loose ends so that the hero and heroine were able to engineer a happily-ever-after ending.
“Start over from what?” she asked with a boldness that belied her trepidation.
“Being Neil Peters,” he said simply. “And everything that being him meant.”
Helena sat very still, her arms wrapped tightly about her knees. Resisting the temptation to subject Neil to a rigorous court-room type examination, she forced herself to remain quiet and allow his story to unfold at its own pace.
“Once upon a time,” he began, in the incongruous manner of a child’s fairy tale, “Neil Peters had a multi-million dollar business, an ex-model for a fiancée, and the sweetest little boat: The Odyssey. The boat survived, but unfortunately, the fiancée and the business, did not.” He laughed, tell-tale bitterness lingering after the words had passed. For a moment, they sat in silence. Then, he resumed speaking.
“It all started back in college. I had this dream of building low-cost, high-quality housing for the disadvantaged. At first it was just me and my friend, Gene. Then, after a year or so, Caroline, my then-fiancée, began getting involved. We discussed the business, as we called it, endlessly: drafting floor plans over pitchers of beer at the campus pub, filling out applications for government loans, and coming up with proposal after proposal.”
He sighed sharply and cracked his knuckles, seemingly stalling for time before continuing.
“It was perfect, or seemingly so. Day after day of bringing a dream to light in the company of my best friend and Caroline was more than I could have asked for. Gene might have been a bit of a ‘diamond in the rough,” but Caroline was the gem itself: flawless and bright and hard. Funny to think how different I thought they were, and how things turned out. Gene came from a huge, wealthy family with mafia connections from which he was always trying to distance himself. Of course, he wasn’t so anxious to distance himself that he wouldn’t tattoo the Scarpelli insignia on his wrist, or for that matter, on mine, but he always claimed to want to stand on his own two feet. ’Let me figure it out for myself,’ he’d tell Scarpelli Sr. every time his father would offer his ’assistance.’ Caroline came from old money, but was happy to play on the wrong side of the tracks, as long as the cash kept flowing. ”
He smiled wryly and cast his eyes downward.
“’The wrong side of the tracks’ was me, according to her parents, for whom middle class was no class at all. Toward the end, Caroline seemed to have reverted to her parent’s way of thinking.“ Shaking his head, he glanced at Helena and put out a hand to touch her cheek.
“She was nothing like you, nothing at all. Compared to you, she is nothing.” Helena’s eyes remained downcast as she waited for him to continue his story. Again, he cleared his throat.
“Our business took off like a flash. I was eager to get to work on the prototype of our housing development, but I knew we’d have to make a name for ourselves before we’d have the luxury of doing so. Within a month of our opening, we were already developing a reputation. We put in a bid for a huge contract with the City, and won.”
His eyes took on a nostalgic gleam as his eyes focused on the horizon. Swallowing hard, he seemed to force out his words.
“How we celebrated, and then, how we worked! We were at the drawing table, twelve, fourteen hours a day for weeks and weeks on end. We tried something pretty radical in our design, straying away from the usual cement block architecture that usually winds up in administration buildings and brought in lots of wood and natural light. When we were done, our work made the local news, and even warranted a write-up in Entrepreneur. I was riding high, thinking we had it all, until I found out what I had was worse than nothing.”
“It started with Gene. Out of the blue he began spending more and more time with his father’s friends. ‘Cigar and Scotch Nights’ he called their ‘meetings.’ He started showing up late for work and telling me I worked ‘too hard.’ Maybe I did. It certainly seemed to be an opinion he shared with Caroline. She kept urging me to network, telling me to start spending time on the golf course and at the country club, rather than hunched over a drafting board.”
“The work wasn’t exactly piling in as we’d envisioned, but it was steady, with some residential and some small business projects. Unfortunately, neither Caroline nor Gene were satisfied. ‘Small minded,’ was what they called my way of thinking when I’d put what they considered too much time into some low-paying renovation.”
Neil laughed wryly. “I called it ‘a good work ethic,’ but I convinced no one but the customers and myself.”
“After a time, Caroline began complaining about our lifestyle, saying she wanted the opportunity to move in the right circles and that I was holding us back by refusing to make the ‘appropriate’ social connections. She was planning a huge wedding, over five hundred people, most of whom I’d never even met, and the bill was going to be in the hundreds of thousands. Her father was chipping in for most of the expenses, but I wasn’t sure we’d even be able to afford the honeymoon or new house she was planning for. It seemed like the more money we brought in, the more she wanted. She even hired a interior designer to help decorate our townhouse, which was ironic considering that she was trained in design herself. Worst of all, it seemed like Gene was encouraging her, constantly assuring her that if only I’d ‘play the game’ she’d be able to have everything she’d ever dreamed of. All of a sudden, it was like the two people whom I thought I knew the best, I knew not at all.”
Helena sought out, and gripped his hand in her two. He squeezed back, momentarily raising his eyes to hers and managing a tight smile.
“I thought things couldn’t get any worse, but Í found out they could. Gene had been hounding me for weeks to meet with his father about a ‘project’ he had in mind, and I’d been sidestepping in the hopes that they‘d find someone else to do their dirty work.”
Helena tensed, aware of what it was costing Neil to tell his story. She inclined his head as he continued.
“Late one night, Gene came by the townhouse. He’d obviously had a lot to drink, but was coherent enough to insist that I accompany him back to his father’s home for a ’discussion.’ I refused, pleading the late hour, but Gene would not accept ’no’ for an answer. Suddenly, his mood turned ugly. He laughed at me, saying that I was already in deeper than I knew. I asked him what he meant , and then he told me. The contract with the City had been a ‘favour’ for the Scarpelli family, a ticket to be cashed in later by certain council members mixed up in some shady business dealings of their own. And now, the time had come for us to pay for our ‘start’ in the business. We were to do some pro bono work on a sleazy slum development one of the city council members was helping to finance. The truth was, we weren’t really to do much more than put our name to the work and turn a blind eye to the substandard labour that would be brought in to do the actual building. I was stunned. I remember standing in the middle of the room not knowing what to say, while Gene laughed and joked about the situation. At that moment, Caroline came downstairs, wrapped up in my robe. She looked from one of us to the other, and before she said a word, I knew that she knew, and had known from the beginning. Smiling at Gene, she scolded him for being drunk, then turned to me and said, ‘Just do it, Sweetheart. Please. ”
“I’m ashamed to admit it, but I went ahead with their plan. I didn’t know what else to do. I thought it would be just the one time, and then we’d be free to build our reputation on our own merit. I even thought, very foolishly, that Caroline and I could move away and find somewhere new where we could start over.”
Neil paused for a moment, and Helena prompted him.
“But you couldn’t start over, could you?”
“No,” he whispered, withdrawing his hand from Helena’s and rubbing it over his face. His hands hung between his knees and Helena had to strain to hear what followed.
“They finished the project in just over a month. It made me sick knowing that unskilled, unlicensed labour was finishing something that would bear our company name. It would never have passed inspection if the Scarpelli family hadn’t called in another ‘favor.’ I thought, now that the project was done, that everything would be okay. I convinced Caroline that what we really needed was a holiday and we left shortly after for a couple of weeks in Cancun. When we got back the nightmare really began.”
In the pause that followed, Helena cast a quick glance at Neil’s face. His brow was furrowed, his mouth a tight line. She waited, her heart thumping in her chest, for him to continue. As if gathering courage to speak, he took a deep breath, and cleared his throat.
“There had been an accident at the development that had just been finished. Faulty wiring in one of the units started a fire. The first of the building’s tenants was overcome by smoke and didn’t make it out alive. Fire inspectors located the cause within a couple of days and then the questions began. They couldn’t locate the architect who had designed the building. The so-called electricians turned out not to exist. We were looking at jail time if the truth came to light, but we were lucky, I guess. Mr. Scarpelli’s pockets were deep and the truth was covered up.”
“I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn‘t close my eyes without seeing that poor man burning to death in his own apartment. I asked Caroline and Gene to meet me. I told them that I wanted to go to the police and come clean. I reminded Gene how he had sworn never to follow the same path as his old man, and all the while Caroline smiled and shook her head, telling me everything was going to be okay. Finally, I got up and walked out, to drive for hours without really knowing where I was going.”
“When I got home, Caroline was gone. A note on the table told me she was going to stay ‘with friends’ until I had ‘straightened myself out.’”
The next day, I woke up to find my leased car being towed away. The guy at the car lot apologized, and said there had been some questions about my credit. At the bank, they told me my account was in overdraft, and there was ‘nothing they could do’ about the balance. This is what the computer shows, they kept saying. When I arrived home, there was an eviction notice tacked to the front door of our townhouse. Beside it, tucked into the doorframe was Mr. Scarpelli’s business card.”
“I took a taxi to the Scarpelli residence. I was shaking, I was so angry. Mr. Scarpelli listened to my ranting for a few minutes and then held up his hand. I waited for a minute, until he was ready, and then he told me the rules of his game. I would leave the city that night, with one thousand dollars of his money in my pocket. I would not attempt to contact Gene or Caroline and I would not go to any law enforcement agency. If I followed his rules, I would be allowed to live, and no harm, monetary or physical, would come to the members of my family. Then, Mr. Scarpelli picked up a sheet of paper from his desk and began naming them all, reading off their addresses and phone numbers, and giving me a rather chilling scenario of what he personally would do to my mother and sister if I did not go along with his plan. “
Neil took a long, shuddering sigh.
“So here I am. Business empire in the hands of Scarpelli Inc., fiancée in the arms of Gene Scarpelli, Jr., but at my disposal, a boat ready to set sail and maybe even a new long-term crew member?”
His voice took an upward inflection, but his face remained sombre as he reached for Helena.
Against her ear, his heart beat a muffled tattoo. Her thoughts were churning. Disbelief had nearly vanished. She felt sick at the thought of all that had come to pass. Her doubts and mistrust seemed to mock the pain of his experience.
As if reading her mind, Neil said quietly, “I have the newspaper articles, all of them: the ones about the company, about the construction project, and especially those about the fire. I wanted to tell you everything from the very beginning but I was afraid, so afraid of the reach of the Scarpelli family. Please, believe me.”
Holding her gently about the shoulders, Neil gazed into Helena’s eyes. Faltering, she spoke,
“I do believe you now, but for the last two months I haven’t known what to believe. You seemed to live a very carefree, financially secure lifestyle, flashing wads of money and working only sporadically. So I thought you had money, I just didn’t know the source. Then, I find out you had your own business, a very profitable one.”
Helena struggled to sort out her thoughts.
“Now, you tell me you have nothing…”
Neil’s breath seemed to catch and he regarded her intently.
“I do believe your story but I’ve been uncertain for so long, so confused and so overwhelmed by everything that’s happened, not just with Karl, but with you as well. I just don’t think I can stay here any longer. I need time to breathe and time to think. I’m ready to go home.” Trembling, she put her hand in her purse and withdrew her airline ticket, placing it on the blanket between them.
All of a sudden, his words came in a rush.
“You say I have nothing now. Is that what this is all about? Money?”
Shocked by the depth of his misunderstanding, Helena could not find the words to correct him. She stared in silent shock as he continued, hurt written plainly over his features.
“Helena, I thought I had everything because I had you. If my lack of business ownership means I’m not enough for you, then I guess I really do have ‘nothing.’ I’m sorry I don’t have more to offer.”
Helena’s hand found his and touched it briefly before he pulled it gently away and rose to standing. Turning his back to her, he began hurriedly packing up the remains of their lunch and stuffing it in the oversized beach bag. Tears filled her eyes, and she shook her head as if to banish his hurt. Over pounding heart, she tried to compose her thoughts into the words that would reassure him of her love.
Her throat was dry as she whispered his name. She reached out to him, but his back was turned. He stood for a moment, shaking shoulders betraying his own grief, and then he spoke.
“Maybe it’s best if I do just leave you alone. I don’t want to interfere with your thinking time. Please let me know if you want to see me again before you go back home.”
He hoisted the bag to his shoulder, half turned, then ducked his head and strode quickly away, down the winding path and across the spill of sand until he was no more than a speck against the purpling evening sky.
Island Recess, Chapter 16.
Helena hoisted the cardboard box onto the desk and wedged a handful of felt pens into an unoccupied crevice of the container. Teaching books and lesson plans already filled the box near to overflowing and she glanced ruefully at the stacks of papers still lying on her desk. While the lessons and workbooks she had acquired would be useful in a future teaching position, the sheer volume of materials made for heavy baggage. With a sigh, she emptied the box back onto the desk, and spent the next half hour sorting papers and workbooks into a system that would be more helpful to her successor. Then she penned a “Good luck” note on a large piece of cardboard and placed it in front of the materials she was leaving behind. With a sinking heart, she gathered up her almost-empty backpack, and with one final glance behind her, walked out of the empty classroom. Scattered across the courtyard were children at play. Now that classes were officially over, the school seemed the ideal place for young people to congregate. Helena cut across the courtyard, smiling and waving at the children who interrupted their games to call out their goodbyes. Her voice catching in her throat, Helena turned as two hands touched her lightly on the arm. She smiled in recognition.
“Emily! Sarah! I’m so glad I had a chance to say one more goodbye.”
Wrapping the girls in her arms, she stood for a moment, responding to their muffled and teary farewells with soothing words of her own. She was on the verge of promising to see them again before long, when Sarah interrupted her.
“Are you going away with Mr. Streep?” she asked.
Her wide brown eyes were guileless as she tilted her head back to gaze inquisitively at the teacher. Helena forced a hearty chuckle.
“Heavens, no!” she exclaimed. “What made you think that?”
Sarah’s brow furrowed and she looked to Emily for support. Emily’s smile was radiant, as she replied for her younger sister.
“But Miz Travis,” she said, “Mr. Streep, he likes you. He sure spent lots more time at the school after you came, and he was always looking in your classroom windows to see what you were doing…”
“When he thought you weren’t looking,” Sarah finished up boldly.
Momentarily forgetting the seriousness of their farewells, the girls giggled behind their hands as they nudged each other and eyed Helena. Then Sarah leaned over and whispered something in Emily’s ear. Emily nodded. She spoke quickly, as if doing so would give her courage.
“We think that you like Mr. Streep too, Miz Travis!”
Emboldened, the girls dissolved into laughter as they again embraced Helena. Emotional farewells momentarily forgotten, they skipped away to join a game of tag. As they began to run, Helena caught the squeals of laughter, and loud kissing noises that showed the girls had not totally forgotten about her. With a particularly loud, ‘she loves her boyfriend!’ echoing in her ears, she smiled to herself and headed to the footpath path that would lead her back to her apartment.
The sequence of shops and homes that lined her path home was achingly familiar, and Helena scrutinized each in passing as if to memorize the color and detail of each. With a lump in her throat, she turned in at her own apartment complex, pausing with a smile as she remembered seeing it for the first time. It seemed years since she had struggled up to the front porch with her oversized luggage and over-dressed self. Dreamily she walked up the front walk, pushed open the screen and climbed the stairs to her apartment. Letting herself in, she stood for a moment in the doorway, glancing around her at the tidy living room. Stripped of familiar clutter, the furniture and counter space looked pristine and anonymous. Soon, another tenant would be putting up pictures, laying out ornaments, and claiming the space as their own. Helena sighed as she tugged at the oversized suitcase which stood bulging by the front door. Filled near to bursting with the designer suits and dresses of her former lifestyle, her luggage would be an unwelcome burden on the long journey ahead. Unfastening the top zipper, she glanced ruefully inside at the expensive garments she had not worn once since her arrival in the islands. Then, on a sudden impulse, she began pulling from the bag the simple cotton t-shirts, chinos, and shorts she had worn daily. These, she shoved hastily inside her backpack, leaving the neatly folded and pressed designer clothing in place. Closing and locking the door, she hoisted her pack to her shoulder and struggled with the suitcase to the door of her neighbour‘s apartment. Knocking, and hearing no response, she left a hastily penned note for the law student who lived there. Since they were about the same size, and the girl had admired Helena’s taste in clothing, Helena felt confident she’d happily accept the articles inside as a boost for her limited wardrobe.
She was turning around, when she caught sight of movement in the shadows of the corridor. Karl. The scream in her throat faded to a gasp of shock as he stepped into the light and she saw what he had become. Clothing rumpled, hair unkempt, and face drawn, he was a mere shadow of his immaculately groomed former self.
“Please,” was the single word he uttered, extending a hand as if to stay her flight. Helena paused, warily taking a few steps back, but stopping when she saw he did not intend to follow her.
“What do you want?” she managed in icy tones, mentally gauging the distance between her apartment and the flight of stairs leading to the front door and the comparative freedom of the street below.
“Helena, I’m going to lose everything. My boss, Mr. Reyes, tells me that there have been questions asked about my activities and that I have, on occasion been followed while conducting business. This, he says, is unacceptable. I have been cast out, Helena and I’m not free to return. I have nothing but what is in my bank account and the clothes on my back. I’m leaving for Europe tonight, and I was hoping you might forgive and leave with me.”
Helena shuddered, the suggestion so obscene that for a moment she could not even summon a response. When she did speak, she phrased her words so carefully that she felt as if she were reciting lines in a play.
“I know you’re leaving Karl, and what’s more, I know you aren’t coming back. The reason you’ll stay away from the United States, and from me, is this.”
Helena reached a steady hand inside her backpack and extracted the packet of photos she had paid the private investigator to gather. Pulling from the envelope the stack of eight by tens, she passed these to Karl, who stepped forward to accept them with trepidation. His hands shook with fear as he studied each image of himself with horrified eyes. Raising his head, Karl nodded slowly, defeat taking the place of the hatred she knew lay deep-rooted in his heart.
“Before you go, Karl, there’s something else I need you to know. I’ve made copies. These are yours to keep. Should you return to the United States, or show your face in any country I choose to visit, these pictures go straight to the authorities. More importantly, should anything unfortunate happen to me, my lawyers will release these photos on my behalf. You might have thought me a child when first we met, Karl, but I’ve had to grow up very quickly. And with the ‘insurance’ you thoughtfully provided a certain private investigator, I know I’ll be able to take care of myself from now on. Good-bye, Karl.”
It seemed as if Karl’s body had shrunk inside his clothes, as consumed by the collapse of his high-flying, drug-dealing, cartel-membership life, as if death itself had claimed him. Shoulders sagging, he turned, photos held loosely to his chest. His haggard face turned once more toward Helena.
“You win.” he said with a flimsy sneer. His once proud, almost military bearing was reduced to a slump; his exit was the shuffling gait of an old man.
“You bitch,” was his parting shot, and a weak one at that, as he immediately and ignominiously tripped, and had to right himself with the support of a neighbouring wall. With that ignoble gesture, he disappeared down the staircase, and with a final bang of the front door, was gone.
Heart thumping, Helena stood still for moment, suddenly and gloriously elated. From every painful twist and turn Karl had brought to her summer, she had run or she had hidden. For the first time, Helena had faced her demon alone, and had been the victor. The realization that she had finally stopped running and stood her ground, face to face, with the upper hand her only weapon, filled her with a sense of strength she had thought long eroded. Having for so long played the part of victim, she now understood that she could, and would, ask the questions she needed to ask, and that no matter what the answers, she would survive: bent maybe, but not broken.
With only a pack on her back, Helena felt liberated by more than just hands-free, minimalist luggage. Humming softly to herself, she knocked at the door to Ben’s unit. The door opened immediately, almost as if he’d been monitoring her progress down the hall through his peephole.
Ben peered out, his face already split into a wide grin. He looked her up and down and then said with an inquisitive tilt of the head,
“You on your way?”
Helena smiled and nodded, taking a step toward Ben to embrace him tightly.
For a moment, they stood together, and then Ben stepped back. While tears sparkled in the corners of his eyes, he continued to smile.
“You’ll be back,” he said decisively, nodding his head as if agreeing with his own prediction.
“I hope so,” Helena began, before her words were bitten off by Ben’s.
“Of course you will. You can’t go away and leave that Mr. Streep forever, now, can you?” Helena stood silent for a moment, reluctant to share her relationship miseries with the elderly landlord. Before she could say anything, he was waving his hand airily, and supplying her with an answer.
“Oh, you young people may take a while, going here and there and back and forth, but one day you see. You need each other, like big mother Earth and the Sky or…”
He struggled for a minute, lost in thought.
“Or like one half of the orange and the other. Old Spaniard told me that many years ago. You are to Mr. Streep like ‘otra mitad de la naranja’ – the other half of his orange. Yes, that’s it.”
Helena nodded briskly, reluctant to be reminded of Neil and the phone call she had yet to make. Seemingly forgetting his citrus metaphor, Ben allowed himself to be embraced once more, and then planted a noisy kiss on Helena’s cheek.
“Off with you now,” he said, “I’ll see you when you get back. Maybe you bring me a t-shirt from that ball team up there. The Mariners? I’d like that.”
With tears misting her eyes, Helena promised to do so.
With a last wave, she descended the stairs and stepped squinting into the summer sunshine.
She moved briskly along the crowded sidewalk, grateful for her light load. The lunchtime crowd was gathering outside the stalls and restaurants. The savoury smells of spices and frying food made her mouth water, and Helena glanced at her watch to see if she had the luxury of time before catching her ferry and her connecting flight from St. Thomas to Puerto Rico. She quickened her pace as she realized she had but fifteen minutes before the ferry departed from Cruz Bay. Rooting about in the pockets of her cargo shorts, she extracted a quarter. Seeing a payphone ahead, she stopped to dial the number Neil had given her. You can always reach me here, he had promised. She swallowed hard as the phone on the other end began to ring. After five rings, she began counting. She stopped at twenty, and then dialled again, unsure if she had dialled correctly the first time. The phone rang again; hollowly, it seemed to her, and went unanswered. Swearing under her breath, she replaced the receiver, and was surprised to feel the sting of tears in her eyes. Just forget him, she admonished herself sharply, before running ahead to the line of passengers boarding the ferry.
The ride to St. Thomas was smooth, the boat droning noisily as it cut cleanly through the white-capped waves. Locked in thought, Helena did not notice the warmth of the sun glazing the deck of the boat, or the admiring glances of the sunburned tourists seated near her. As if on automatic pilot, she disembarked from the ferry and hailed the first taxi she saw. Nodding in agreement with the outrageous fare the driver proposed, she slumped against the cracked vinyl of the backseat and turned her face to the open air of the window beside her.
The faces of the people passing blurred together as the driver wove his way through the tightly packed streets, seemingly oblivious to the angry gestures and calls of the pedestrians he narrowly missed. Against her damp skin, the wind was warm, the scent of the sea carrying over that of car exhaust and city living. Arriving at the airport, Helena fished in her pocket and handed the driver the first bill she touched. Glancing at it, he raised his eyes and rooted about half-heartedly for change, but Helena was already gone, running toward the open door, airline ticket in hand.
Glancing at her watch, she felt her stomach lurch. She had grossly miscalculated the time needed to catch her plane. By the time she reached the ticket counter, clothes damp and hair sticking to her perspiring forehead, the last call was being given for her flight. Urging her ahead to the gate, one person took her ticket, and the other pointed ahead toward the tarmac. Helena broke into a run as she saw the flight attendant gesticulating wildly toward her. Ushering her unceremoniously on board, the attendant pointed in the direction of Helena’s seat, and began a tired demonstration of the safety equipment. Removing her backpack, Helena clutched it to her chest as she struggled down the narrow aisle of the small plane. Exhaling noisily, she sunk into the assigned seat, shoved her backpack into the cubby under her feet, and snapped the seatbelt around her hips.
Seated, she glanced around her, noting the usual collection of sun-burned and weary travellers. Her eyes continued to scan. Across the aisle, the sudden appearance of a shock of sun-bleached hair made her gasp involuntarily. Helena’s heart began to pound as Ben’s words flooded unbidden into her mind. You need each other, like this big mother Earth and Sky. One half of the orange and the other. You’ll be back.
Scarcely daring to breathe, Helena reached forward and lay her hand on the shoulder of the blonde-hair‘s owner. A scornful looking twenty-something turned around and fixed Helena with a belligerent stare. “Yeah?” she said.
Helena shook her head, hands clenching around her armrests as she struggled to gain control of her heartbeat.
I wanted it to be him, she thought suddenly. Then, where is he? Tears filled her eyes and splashed unnoticed down her cheeks. Suddenly, Helena was unbuckling her seatbelt, reaching for her pack, and struggling to stand in the confined space. Ignoring the droning instructions of the flight attendant, and the abrupt bark of the steward, she began working her way down the aisle, making for the patch of sunlight still visible through the open door.
“I can’t leave just yet,” she declared loudly through her tears, elbowing her way past the outstretched arm of the steward, and running down the stairs back in the direction she’d come.
Island Recess, Chapter 17.
The cabbie stared at Helena in amazement as she burst, flushed-faced and sweaty into his line of vision.
“Didn’t I just drop you off?” he began in a querulous voice. Her recent overpayment still protruded from his shirt pocket. Guiltily, he shielded it by crossing his arms over his chest.
Ignorant of his maneuver, Helena waved a crumpled bill in her clenched hand, and panted out a new proposition.
“I’ll double your fare if you can get me to the ferry in ten.”
Confident that she had overlooked the matter of his having earlier failed to provide change, the cabbie happily obliged, flooring the gas pedal before the passenger door was fully closed.
Threading through traffic like a NASCAR contender, the old Nissan sent Helena sliding across the cracked vinyl seats. Her knuckles were white as she first silently willed him on, then snapped, in an uncharacteristically taut voice, “Can’t we go any faster?”
The driver obliged with enthusiasm, and the ancient car jumped ahead with an intestinal-sounding burst of speed. As the car slowed to navigate around a herd of slow-moving pedestrians, Helena thrust her hand in her backpack, extracted another bill and urgently tapped the driver’s shoulder.
“Here’s fine,” she said, struggling to keep the rising urgency from her voice.
“Okay, Miss,” he said, tapping the bill of his baseball cap and pocketing the money. “Looks like you’ll make the next sailing if you hurry.”
“Thank you!” she called back over her shoulder as she broke into a run, her backpack bouncing awkwardly against her shoulder.
“Wait! Please wait” she called, seeing the ticket-seller ushering the last of the passengers up the ramp to the vessel. Taking in Helena’s crumpled appearance with a sympathetic glance, the ferry-worker waved her forward. “Thank you!” she cried out, as she pounded up the gangway and swung into the nearest available seat.
The ride back to St. Cruz passed in a blur. Her heart beating a rapid tattoo in accompaniment to her fluctuating emotions, Helena fought for control. What to do next? Call Julie, certainly. She would be heading out to the airport this evening to meet Helena’s plane. And then? No strategy or game plan presented itself in glowing marquee lights. She would have to take each step as it came.
Scarcely had the gangplank been lowered, when Helena found herself again in front of the line of public telephones, dialing Julie’s number.
Without divulging the impulsive twist of events that had brought her back to St. John, Helena informed her friend that she intended to prolong her stay in the islands. To her surprise, Julie seemed entirely unruffled.
“Where‘s the fire? Stay! The islands, and other things, sound perfectly gorgeous, and now that Karl’s out of the way, you‘re finally sounding like yourself again. Stay and enjoy yourself until you have to come back,” came the reassuring voice. Then adding, almost as an afterthought, “What‘s happening with Mr. Streep-slash-Peters, by the way? Did the mystery ever get solved?” Without waiting for a response, Julie sighed heavily, and answered for her, “You sounded so in love the last time we talked, so he must be good for you. I’m sure there’s an explanation that makes sense, so if he gives you one and your heart says ’yes’ run with it.”
Helena agreed, baffled by the fact that everyone but her seemed to be acknowledging,- no, encouraging, her romantic involvement. Hanging up the phone, she began searching her backpack for available funds. Only a crumpled ten dollar bill remained. Was it enough? She looked about for a bank machine, but saw none in the immediate vicinity. Deciding on chance and impulse as a course of action, Helena flagged down a passing yellow cab. Over the booming stereo, she managed to communicate her destination. Glancing about and seeing an absence of prospective customers in the near vicinity, the driver agreed, with a great show of reluctance, to drive her as far as Coral Bay.
“No farther, and one-way only,” he asserted, as if the matter were up for argument.
Helen had already clamored into the backseat and sat, drumming her fingers against the window, as she waited for the driver to put the car in gear.
It seemed to Helena as if the afternoon had assumed a cinematic glow. The lush flowers and thick, waxen leaves of the foliage lining the roadside seemed unnaturally bright, the waves of the ocean to their right tipped with dancing points of light. Even the late afternoon air seemed to spill a heady tropical perfume. Rapturous, Helena closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.
Coral Bay was already back-lit by a rose-red sky when they pulled up to the dock. Accepting the limp bill with the air of having conveyed a great favor, the cab driver maneuvered the car swiftly back up the hill and disappeared in a squeal of tires. Helena found herself standing alone on a creaking dock, gazing at the spot where once the Odyssey had bobbed jauntily on the waves. In its place, the majestic Last Chance swayed provocatively in the light wind. Raising her hand to her cheek, Helena was surprised to find her face wet with tears. A sob caught in her throat as she sank dejectedly to the dock. The color seemed to seep from the sunset as though fading to black and white. Ignorant of a potential audience, Helena began to cry unguardedly, allowing tears of frustration to scorch her eyes and steal her breath. She responded with a cry of alarm when she felt a hand at her shoulder. Turning, she saw an elderly man in a rakishly-angled baseball cap and cut-off blue jeans regarding her with a look of concern. Suddenly, his eyes brightened with recognition.
“Hey, you’re the girl who was out here with young what’s-his-name: the one with the Odyssey. I’m afraid you’re too late, just missed him.”
Helena gave him a rueful glance. “I know,” she said in a dismal voice. She cast her eyes downward, and gazed sadly at her toes, which appeared to have become immersed in the water without her knowledge.
He glanced at her for a moment, forehead wrinkling in a fatherly manner. “No need to cry now, young lady, he’s only just over on St. Thomas. Seems the folks who were looking after Morris had to make an emergency run over there on account of a the wife needing some dental work. When they couldn’t round up your fellow in time, they took the mutt along for the ride. Your fellow’s over there now, picking up Morris. He said he was going to surprise you at the airport while he was over there.” The old man looked at Helena’s reddened face and chuckled wryly as he patted her arm. “Looks like he’s the one in for a surprise now, doesn’t it?”
Helena, not currently equipped for even gentle teasing, was on the verge of a fresh round of tears, and barely missed the old man’s offer. “Would I like to do what?” she inquired in a quavering voice.
“Would you like me to run you over there, to St. Thomas?” Scratching his nut-brown belly, the man introduced himself as “Cap’n Phil” and indicated a sleek and expensive looking powerboat. Helena nodded slowly, as the words going to surprise you at the airport belatedly permeated the fog of her distress.
Helena accepted Captain Phil’s gallant and unnecessarily hands-on assistance climbing into his jaunty speedboat. As the motor roared to life, the Captain made a motion with his hand as if to indicate a line of trajectory connecting the two islands. Then he winked at Helena, and pushed down the throttle. The boat leapt forward, driving through the waves and picking up speed as the old man maneuvered recklessly around everything standing in his way. Helena’s kidneys jarred with every skip of the boat, but it seemed Captain Phil was born to speed, and he cackled gleefully as he steered with one casual hand on the wheel, and one eye on Helena’s bare brown legs. Though she yearned to close her eyes, as if doing so would ward off a possible collision, she kept them open and fixed on the approaching shore. The lights of the city were bobbing specks on the dark water and she searched the shoreline for the Odyssey. In the fading daylight, all she could make out were a profusion of masts and bobbing hulls. As she glanced in Captain Phil’s direction, she saw him shrug and shake his head. She realized he was trying to communicate to her.
“Taking you into shore!” was all she could catch over the noise of the motor. The wind whipped her hair against her mouth, and all Helena could do was nod vigorously in response. As Captain Phil eased back on the throttle, the small craft carved a smooth arc and purred toward a tilting dock.
With the assistance of a gallantly-proffered hand, Helena stepped from the speedboat and onto the shifting planks. The waves sloshed over the docks, casting cool spray against her bare calves. For a moment she hesitated, watching the Captain cast off his line and ease the boat back into the surf. Waving furiously, and calling out her thanks, Helena turned as boat and Captain maneuvered recklessly around a slow-moving barge and vanished into the dusk. Peering through the darkness, she tried once more to locate the Odyssey, but in the dim light, could see no more than vague shapes bobbing in the water. Suddenly, it struck her that she had no plan, no cash, and that she was standing alone in the dark in an area of town that could prove dangerous to an unaccompanied female. Breaking into a slow and purposeful jog, she headed toward a brightly lit row of restaurants, outside of which clusters of prospective patrons jostled for entrance. Perhaps here, she would find someone who knew Neil’s whereabouts.
Standing on tiptoe, Helena tried to get a good look at the slow-moving throng of pedestrians clogging the cobbled walkways. Her heart sunk as her surveillance yielded no results. Sighing, she began walking, ensuring for her own safety that she remained near the most heavily-populated section of the sidewalk. Suddenly, the possibility of meeting up with Neil in such a crowded city seemed impossibly remote. Stopping for a moment, she glanced around her. Pedestrians flowed past her like spawning salmon. It seemed as if everyone, young and old, had found a suitable mate, and were clinched together in happy union, compatible as salt and pepper shakers. The lights of the nearby bars grew fuzzy and blended together as she gazed helplessly about her. Laughter floating in gusts on the wind seemed to mock her further, and frustrated tears filled her eyes. Fighting the rising lump in her throat, Helena turned once more toward the water, and the sparkling lights of the many unfamiliar boats riding the gentle night swells. Suddenly, something struck the back of her legs and she tumbled forward, falling face-down on the cobblestone walkway.
For a moment, she lay still, heart pounding, pain coursing through her joints. She raised a smarting palm to her cheek and felt the wetness she was certain indicated extensive blood loss. Then, the source of the wetness made itself known with a moist snort and sweep of a rough tongue. Pushing herself painfully to a sitting position, Helena found herself nose to nose with a familiar canine.
“Morris!” she shrieked, wrapping her arms about the delighted dog. Ignoring the pedestrians picking their way irritably around the obstruction, she sat, cradling the dog in her arms. At the sound of her name, she half-turned. “Neil!” she cried, leaping to her feet to throw her arms around Neil’s neck.
“I’ve been looking for you all day,” he murmured against her ear, before pulling back to cup her face in his hands. “Where on earth have you been?”
“Looking for you,” said Helena, with an ironic smile.
Neil shook his head in apparent confusion. “This afternoon, I left messages for you at the school and at the apartment. I said that I’d have to come over to St. Thomas to pick up Morris, but that I’d meet you at the airport. I asked you to wait for me, and then, like a fool, I was late. The ticket agent told me you’d boarded the plane, but that she’d seen you a few minutes later, running back through the airport. I’ve been looking for you ever since.”
Helena sighed deeply, as the unnecessary stress and worry of the day melted away. Nodding in agreement, she added her own piece to Neil’s explanation.
“I haven’t been by Ben’s or the school since this morning. I would never have known of your change in plans if I hadn’t gone down to Cruz Bay. ‘Capt’n Phil’ told me you were in St. Thomas but I didn’t have a clue where to start looking.” She laughed ruefully, “I was running out of plots and steam as well. It was about high time Morris knocked the sense back into me!”
Neil smiled as he kissed Helena tenderly. His look turned to one of concern as he surveyed Helena’s bruised and scraped knees and hands. Helping her to a nearby bench, he squatted before her, brushing the dirt from her scrapes and dabbing at the trickles of blood. For a few minutes, neither of them spoke.
Then, Neil looked up at Helena, reaching his free hand toward her and tilting her chin so that they were eye to eye. She started to speak, but he held a finger to her lips.
“We never had our moonlit sail. I believe that I owe you that much, at least.”
He rose to standing, extending a hand to her. As if on command, Morris stood with a disgruntled sigh and looked up at Helena. A smile playing about her lips, she rose, and twining her fingers with Neil’s, reached for Morris’ leash. In the company of her two favourite males, she walked the short distance to the dock where the Odyssey tugged at the lines, eager for freedom. Handing Morris’ lead to Neil, and gently releasing her hand from his, Helena stepped lightly onto the sailboat’s main deck. Her smile, as she turned to face him, was dazzling, and as if mesmerized he stood for a moment and simply stared. Then, he knelt, gathered the awkward bundle that was Morris into his arms, and lifted and pushed until the canine joined Helena and dropped immediately into a prone position. Neil took a few steps back, gazing from stem to stern of his boat and its occupants, as if seeing all for the first time. Both hands to his head, he pulled his fingers through his hair and then stood, arms fanned out to either side, smile so fixed on his head it looked to be permanent. Behind him, the setting sun was luminous, a brilliant orange ball slipping gently into the water, leaving in its wake a wash of purples and pinks that cast a rosy glow over the entire town. Suddenly, Neil whooped, a joyous sound that sent Morris and Helena into a chorus of happy barking and laughter. Then, he stepped back and jumped onto the Odyssey’s main deck, landing by Helena, and sweeping her into wide-open arms. Raining tender kisses on her face and neck, he moved a hand through her hair, the other holding her tightly against his body. Her mouth captive, she sank under the caress of his tongue and lips, responding to his touch with a greed that was all her own. Pulling back slightly, he planted a long kiss on her forehead, and then stepped back, eyes sparkling.
“Your captain is at your command, Miss. Where to this fine evening?”
Helena pretended to ponder the question, a pensive finger to her lip, and then nodded as if in agreement with her own decision.
“I think north, Captain. I hear St. Barth’s is quite lovely this time of year.”
“A fine choice, Miss. We shall reach our destination by nightfall tomorrow. Some music to start our journey?”
Neil executed a smart turn and ran lightly along the deck, dropping below and disappearing from view.
Helena walked slowly along the top deck, leading a drowsy Morris along the lifelines and coaxing him to follow as she stepped down into the cockpit. With a resounding thump, the canine dropped after her, and was promptly assisted by Helena into a specially designed doggie life-vest whose tether she attached to one of the cleats. Within minutes, Neil had reappeared. The sexy sway of a Latin mambo wafted onto the sultry night air, and it seemed the Odyssey danced with the beat as Neil untied the lines and motored leisurely away from the dock. As the waves washed the hull, and the sailboat began to dive playfully through the surf, Neil cut the engine and began raising the sails. As the mainsheet caught and held the wind, the Odyssey surged forward, cutting through the water with effortless grace. Neil steered, hand held so lightly on the tiller that he was doing little more than caressing the wood, as the perfectly balanced boat travelled a near-straight path through the white-capped waves. While Neil and Helena had exchanged few words, many meaningful looks had passed between them, and more than a few mutual caresses. As she watched Neil attach the autopilot to the tiller, allowing the Odyssey to steer herself, Helena knew the time for talk had come.
Helena held her breath, heart pounding as she waited for one of them to make the first move. To her surprise, it was she.
“Neil,” she began softly, “I want to apologize.” She put up her hand as he began to protest. “It wasn’t fair of me to go nosing around and making assumptions without asking you directly for answers. It would be easy for me to blame my situation with Karl for my having so little faith in you.” Neil nodded a vigorous assent, as Helena continued. “But the truth is I was the one to blame. I was, I am, in love with you, and that should have been enough.”
Neil touched a finger to her lips, as he began speaking.
“Helena, I feel I’m just as much to blame, if not more. I should have told you about my problems with the Scarpelli family, and about my current alias. With everything that was going on with Karl, I didn’t want to burden you with anything else and, selfishly, I admit, I didn’t want to scare you off. Ironically, it seems my not telling you, cost me more than coming clean right at the start.”
His eyes were sad as he stroked her cheek. “I’m so sorry, Helena. I wish I’d done things differently. I wish….”
Helena took his hand in hers as she shushed him, then spoke softly, making a simple proposition.
“Let’s try it again.”
Neil looked up, his eyes cobalt under the glow of the streetlights.
“I don’t care if you don’t have a dime. I can teach, and you can do carpentry, and between the two of us, we’ll get by just fine. I love you, Neil Peters, not a million dollar business, or a fancy home, or even a very nice boat. You’re what I want.”
Helena’s face was hot as she paused, heart pounding, waiting for his response.
After a moment, he chuckled. Helena looked up in surprise.
“All this time,” he said, “All I wanted was for someone to look through the Ivy League education, profitable business, and trappings of success and see me, not a meal ticket. When I came down here, with not much more than the shirt on my back, I thought I finally had a chance to just be me. Then, I found the woman of my dreams: you. Here you were, this amazing, loving human being who’d been through so much, and yet had so much to give. I watched you with your students, with Ben, with my friends, and with total strangers, and what I saw was this wonderful ability you have to care for others, to make them feel special, to make them feel loved. It was a dream, and I thought everything was perfect until the afternoon of our picnic, when you seemed so shocked that I had been left with nothing after my run-in with the Scarpelli‘s.”
Helena began to protest, but Neil interrupted, shaking his head and smiling.
“At first, I was very upset. It was as if I saw you as another Caroline: an opportunistic gold-digger, focussing on how little I had. I replayed our conversation over and over until I realized that maybe your intentions were different from my perceptions. I began thinking about my feelings for you, and realized that you had done nothing to warrant my sudden shift in emotions. I realized what I already knew: I loved, I mean, I love you. That’s why I asked if you would meet me one more time.”
Tears sparkled in Helena’s eyes as she hastened to reassure Neil.
“My only fear was that you would turn out to be another Karl: a manipulator with a criminal past. I never cared about your money, or lack of it.” Her words trailed off as she recalled with an almost physical shock, the mystery of the thick roll of bills she had uncovered in Neil’s medicine cabinet.
As if reading her mind, Neil began speaking.
“The funny thing, Helena, is that I do have money, and all of it gained by honest means. When we first started the business, I took some of the cash proceeds from our first few transactions and put them away in our home safe. It seemed a bit silly at the time, but a year or so later, when I was forced to leave the country on a day’s notice, it came in handy. I made one stop before leaving the mainland: at my parent’s home. I drove all night to make my delivery, and asked my father to put the money aside for safe keeping. He did better than put it aside, he invested it for me. The timing was just right, stock in tech companies was still reasonable, and a few months later, when it skyrocketed, he sold. I made a decent sum of money, Helena, not enough for a lifestyle of mansions and polo ponies, but enough for a home, for a couple of kids, and a couple of college educations, and certainly enough for an extended holiday.”
Helena looked at him in amazement. Speechless for a moment, she felt her jaw working noiselessly. Then, she spoke softly,
“Well, where would you like to go on this extended holiday?”
“You mean after St. Barth’s? Anywhere with you,” came the quick response. He paused for a moment, head tilted as he regarded Helena with smiling eyes. “We could start with Seattle. I’d like to meet your friends and your family. Then, we could go back east to see my folks.” He took a deep breath. “Maybe then, we could find somewhere suitable to formalize our relationship.” Neil paused for a minute as he took Helena’s hands gently in his.
Helena’s smile widened as she waited, holding his gaze with her brown eyes. A slumbering Morris lifted his head from her feet and he, too, seemed to freeze in anticipation.
All around them, the stars winked and shone in the velvety pitch of the late evening sky. The moon overhead was full and bright, casting a soft glow on Helena’s upturned face. Waves breaking under the hull made little more than a soft splash and she held her breath as the still of the night seemed to swallow up all sound but the beating of her heart.
Neil slipped from the bench and knelt at her feet on the floor of the cockpit. Morris grumbled as he shifted to make way for his owner, and then subsided into a snoring heap on Helena’s left shoe.
Clearing his throat, Neil raised Helena’s hands to his lips. In the bright moonlight, she saw him wink at her as he cupped her hands in his.
“Helena, I’ve loved you from the moment I caught you hiding below the window of your classroom, pretending not to notice me. I certainly lusted for you after catching you sunbathing in the nude and disturbing the peace of our nesting birds. Miss Helena Travis, I promise to love and lust after you all the days of our lives. And, if you’ll have a crusty old bachelor, I know one who’d have a feisty schoolmarm.”
“Just try to stop me,” Helena laughed, taking his face in her hands, and caressing it tenderly with her fingertips.
“There’s only one thing,” he continued, with a twinkle in his eyes, ”Perhaps under the circumstances, it would be better if the bachelor were to become a Travis, rather than a Travis becoming a Peters.”
Helena put a finger to her lips and frowned, feigning great concentration. Then, she slipped off the bench and onto Neil’s lap, wrapping her arms tightly about his neck and laying her cheek against his.
“Neil and Helena Travis,” she mused, “I certainly like the sound of that.”