“Island Recess” An Island Romance Set In The Virgin Islands, By Sonora Rayne.
Island Recess, Chapter 1.
Breathing heavily from her recent exertion, Helena stood at the top of a steep incline, one foot on the pedal of her mountain-bike, the other steadying her on the rough terrain. A few errant curls strayed from beneath her bike-helmet and fluttered across her forehead with the warm breeze. Far below, the waters of the Caribbean unfurled in smooth waves and spilled along a white stretch of sand. Shielding her eyes from the glare of the noon sun, she scanned the town-site below for a sign of the apartment she had leased for the summer. Located near the local ball field, the tiny building was sadly in need of repair. Even from this distance, the moss-covered roof looked in imminent danger of collapse. Helena smiled as she recalled her first encounter with her summer home.
Shrouded in a damp linen suit that had proven not to be wrinkle-free she had stood in the middle of the bachelor apartment and cried. This was not the seaside villa she had envisioned as she and her prospective landlord had tapped out queries and responses via e-mail. She tried in vain to recall the somewhat blurred electronic image of a pastel condominium complex posted beside the unit‘s description. Helena had book-marked the site on her computer, visiting and re-visiting the advertisement numerous times before finally leaving her e-mail address. Charming Mediterranean style sea-side villa, the claim had read. Even though it was after dark when her taxi driver took her from the landing dock at Cruz Bay through a bewildering array of twists and turns to her new home, she could see that it was a long way from an all-inclusive paradise. A sagging screen door slumped from its hinges, causing Helena to visualize a nightly invasion of rodent-sized arachnids. Helena had heard on the radio just that morning that the average parson eats five spiders in their sleep over a lifetime. She had hoped that the average inadvertent arachnid-consumption was not any higher in the Virgin Islands than in Seattle. Thick green aloe plants twined along the walkway, their branching fingers catching at her bare ankles. Dragging behind her an enormous wheeled suitcase, Helena had sworn under her breath as she attempted to negotiate the narrow concrete steps. Her elderly landlord had shuffled to greet her with surprising speed in response to her banging on the screen door. Although her first instinct had been to articulate her frustration with a salty string of expletives, one look at the encouraging smile of her e-mail correspondent and she swallowed the words with a sigh. Beneath thick prescription lenses, his eyes swam like trapped brown fish. With myopia of that extent, he likely did not even realize the dilapidated condition of the building he had inherited from an elderly aunt.
She had extended her hand and forced a smile her aching face could ill afford.
“I’m Helena Travis,” she said, “I’ve come about the apartment.”
“Ben Holmes,” he had uttered in a booming voice, extending a wrinkled hand. “Of course, of course; follow me.” Picking up one of her bags, he had gauged its weight, then dropped it and motioned to the taxi driver to assist. Slowly, he had ascended a stained set of linoleum stairs, and then paused, rooting about in his pockets for a key. When he turned to face her, he swung open the door on her new apartment. “Welcome home,” he had uttered with dramatic flair.
She had waited until she had handed Ben an envelope with the first month’s rent and heard the door creak to a close behind him. Then, she had burst into tears. Sitting on the edge of a dusty suitcase she had wept onto the sleeves of a cream linen jacket, heedless of the smears of caramel make-up and globs of mascara that now decorated the sleeves. When the last of her ragged sobs had died, she forced herself to look around. The apartment was of the “efficiency” variety, with a hot-plate and fridge and an old Murphy bed that pulled down from the wall. She had stood and walked the length of the room, fingering the bubbling paint and wincing at the bare bulb swinging from the ceiling. The dim light illuminated a depressingly weathered linoleum floor and ancient slipcovers. With a sigh, she pushed aside a set of faded print curtains, stepped out onto the balcony, and gasped. The air on her face was cool and sweet, smelling of tropical flowers and the tang of salt water. Although the lights of the town-site were few and dim, the moon cast a pearly glow on the rushing waves and sandy strip of beach. She had stood spellbound, watching the breathing of the ocean a stone’s throw from her bare feet. Smiling, she turned and saw her home with new eyes.
In the weeks that followed, Helena had devoted her spare time to making the apartment seem more like home. Borrowing a ladder and brush from the elderly landlord, she had set about painting her walls a sunny shade of yellow. In the local tourist shopping area she struggled to choose among a myriad of gorgeous batik fabrics. When she finally settled on a dazzling mix of indigo, royal and teal blue with splashes of yellow for curtains, she made sure she had enough left over to make a new slipcovers and an assortment of plump cushions for the small wicker settee. In the evenings, she pulled the settee out onto the balcony and sat with her arms wrapped about her knees, watching the wind whip the tops of the waves into foam.Leaning against her bicycle and looking down at the pastel buildings spread below, Helena smiled and shook her head as she recalled her initiation into the languid rhythms of island life. Time seemed to move more slowly here, a leisurely, gentle pace in which neighborly visiting took the place of the faceless telephone and fax communications that were so much a part of her urban Seattle life. Glancing down at her slim tanned arm, Helena noted wryly that she had once again forgotten to wear her watch. Although only a little over two months on the island, she was already learning to gauge the hour by the height of the sun and the length of the shadows. A few minutes past noon, and the sun was high overhead, cutting through the sparse clouds like a lance. Against her damp face, the air was warm and scented with the promise of summer. Stretching languidly, Helena pushed out the kick stand and left her bicycle standing by the path. She slipped her backpack to one shoulder and meandered slowly across the open clearing toward the drop-off to the beach, marveling at the vast spread of indigo ocean coming into view. In the small bay, dozens of sailboats bobbed gently with the swelling waves. Unzipping her backpack, Helena pulled out a fluffy beach towel and spread it out over the sparse grass. The small crescent beach below the steep drop-off was accessible by the main road and appeared to be nearly empty, despite its being a Sunday afternoon. Although she knew the warm sands of the popular tourist beach to be as soft as a sprinkle of talc, Helena didn’t want to risk any interruptions to her temporary solitude. The appearance of the towel was quickly followed by that of a cheap transistor radio, a thick paperback novel and an even thicker sandwich. Biting into the concoction of fried fish and ketchup, Helena drew her legs under her and sighed, knowing that she had but weeks left until she returned to her home and to all the questions she had still to answer. With great reluctance, she allowed her thoughts to drift into a still painful re-run of the reasons behind her impulsive move to St. John.
For a little over a year, Karl, her fiancé, (ex-fiancé, she reminded herself for the thousandth time) had seemed like the proverbial perfect catch. Helena grinned briefly over a mouthful of sandwich filling as she compared Karl to a bushel of slippery, pungent-smelling, decidedly dead-fish, then resumed her reverie. Everyone had commented on the suitability of the match: the much anticipated alliance of the “perfect couple” about to embark on a fairy-tale life. The compassionate school teacher, devoted to a life filled with children and learning, was to wed the charismatic millionaire, and join him in expanding the charitable portion of his business enterprises. In a year filled with what she now saw to be every imaginable cliché: weekend jaunts by private jet, elbow-rubbing with the rich and famous, and more material acquisitions than she had imagined possible, Helena had fallen under the spell of Karl’s charm and sophistication. When, on a moonlit stroll down the Champs Elysées, he had asked for her hand in marriage, her response had been a breathless affirmative. With the unanimous support of friends and family, she had begun immediate preparations for a wedding that promised to be of elaborate and epic proportions. Weeks later, she had begun to question her decision, but afraid to admit her fears to anyone but herself, had remained silent but watchful. What she had seen, and could no longer deny, was a dramatic transformation in Karl’s behavior. Her formerly attentive suitor had become distracted, forgetful, easily angered and increasingly remote.
After the umpteenth ruined dinner and sleepless night alone in the bed they now shared, Helena had removed the heavy platinum and diamond setting from her finger and dropped it with a angry clatter on the glass-topped bedside table. Wrapping an over-size silk robe about her slim figure, she had padded barefoot down the hall to his office. Lifting the corner of his leather desk blotter, she had found what she was looking for. She had seated herself in the deep swivel chair before the computer, switched on the monitor and hard-drive, and logged on to the well-known web-site. Then, consulting the scrap of paper, she used Karl’s password to access his e-mail account. Taking a deep breath, she had waited for the machine to catch up with her typing, and then studied the screen in horror. From the addresses and titles before her, she had understood instantly the source and contents of the messages. Or sources, for there were several. Until the early hours of the morning, when Karl tiptoed through the door with rumpled clothing and familiar excuses, Helena read and re-read intimate messages her fiancé had relayed to and received from women on both sides of the continent. Coupled with these adulterous communications was confirmation of her worst suspicions. Under the guise of a thinly-veiled code, were a number of messages alluding to criminal activity, of which Karl was obviously either source or coordinator. Her confrontation had been the controlled and confident response of one who knows the undeniable truth. There were few tears and fewer recriminations. Her mind was clear. Karl had responded to her accusations, first with anger, and then with wheedling apologies. Even as she strode through the door with suitcase in hand, her fiancé had reached out to her, called his despair and clutched his forehead in seemingly theatrical distress. Turning one last time, she had seen his face contort with animal fury, had heard him snarl, “You bitch!” and saw him pick up a heavy crystal vase. The door closed to the sound of glass shattering, and a piercing scream of rage.
As she rode that night by taxi to her mother’s home, she had been unable to stop shaking, terrified by what she had done, and the consequences she feared would follow. Reluctant even to leave the house, Helena had passed a week in ready tears, curled up in her childhood bed, nurtured by a confused and concerned mother. Each day she had called in sick to the school where she taught second grade, and tried to field the increasingly threatening phone calls and e-mails of an increasingly persistent, and angry Karl. Finally, she herself had turned, with the support of her best friend, Julie, to the computer, and begun searching for a home and temporary employment somewhere Karl’s threats and obsessive attentions could not reach. She had found both in the Virgin Islands. Her funds were tight, having invested the majority of her small savings in a recent business venture of Karl’s that he claimed would double her money in a matter of months. Having terminated their relationship shortly after, Helena had not had the opportunity to see if his generous claims had come to fruition. After arranging for a teacher to take over her class and selling the few items of valuable jewelry still in her possession, Helena had purchased an economy ticket to St. Thomas and arranged inexpensive accommodation on the nearby island of St. John. Her Mediterranean-type villa, she thought with a smirk. Her position at the Caribbean school was temporary, taking over for a staff member on emergency medical leave, and was due to expire at the end of June. Helena planned to stay in St. John until the end of July, and the end of her stress-leave, when her job with the Seattle school board would have to be resumed, or relinquished. Her finances were limited, and she knew she would have no choice but to return.
Gazing out at the harbor, and the boats dancing with the waves, Helena felt a tug in her throat. How could she possibly leave the friends she had made, or the children whose toothy smiles and ridiculous antics lightened her distress on even her lowest days? Thanks to the kindness of the islanders, and to her own eagerness to make connections, Helena no longer felt like an outsider. Lying back on her towel, Helena stretched and sighed. “Carpe Diem,” was her motto. “Seize the day.” “Better make hay while the sun shines,” was her mother’s. Less Latin and just as apt, she thought to herself, as she shucked off her shorts and tank top and stretched out on the towel clad only in her red string bikini. The warmth of the sun on her back was soothing and she sleepily reached around to undo the strings fastening the suit around her neck and back. If she was going to return to Seattle in another month, she would do so without tell-tale tan lines. Helena propped herself on her elbows and looked to left and right. The grassy bluff was wide and bathed in sun, but too far off the beaten path to be frequented by tourists. Far below on the beach, the oiled bodies of the few sunbathers were as tiny as dolls lain out in the sand. Finding herself completely alone, Helena wriggled out of her bikini bottoms and stretched out nude under the midday sun. Turning her head, she extended a hand toward her book, then, reconsidering, flicked the switch on the cheap radio. A reggae tune was playing and although the sound was tinny, Helena liked the beat and turned the volume up as loud as the dial would allow. The glare from the sun left points of light dancing against her eyelids. Under the soothing touch of the tropical heat, the tension in the muscles of her compact body seemed to melt away, leaving only hazy daydreams in their wake. Groggily, she wriggled her bare bottom, nestled her naked breasts into the soft terry towel and gave a tremendous groan of pleasure.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” a loud voice cut sharply into her near-dreaming state.
“Whaat?” mumbled Helena as she pulled herself to a sitting position. Rubbing her eyes in confusion, she looked up from a pair of tawny muscular thighs to an equally cut set of abdominals and a decidedly ripped-looking chest. A piercing set of blue eyes surveyed her under furrowed brows. As she noticed their owner’s gaze drop to her breasts, she suddenly remembered her nudity and scrambled to cover herself.
“Didn’t you read the sign back there?” He waved wildly off to his right, then gestured angrily as he continued.
“This is a nesting area for terns and they’re very sensitive to disturbance. You need to turn that radio off and get out of here!”
Shaking with embarrassment and raging inwardly at his rudeness, Helena reached a free hand out to the radio, switched it off and grabbed at her towel. Still seated, she couldn’t cover herself with the terry without further revealing her nudity. Attempting a semblance of dignity, she contented herself with pressing her legs together, leaning in toward her knees and covering her breasts with her arms. All the while, her intruder continued his angry diatribe.
“And don’t you know there’s no nude sunbathing on this part of the island? What the hell are you doing up here anyway? You seem to have wandered away from the tourist zone.”
The owner of the muscular legs was frowning and gesticulating down toward the beach, his shock of blond hair waving in a sudden gust of wind. Helena flushed furiously as she squeezed her upper arms around her hardening nipples and attempted to wind her legs together for further concealment.
“I didn’t see the sign and I wouldn’t be here if I had. And I’m not a tourist. I’m living here. At least, I’m living here for now. I’m living here until the end of the summer.”
There were angry tears biting at her lashes. How dare he! Helena struggled to think of something else to say that would prove her quick, sophisticated wit. Before she could sort through her racing thoughts to find the perfect rebuttal, from a perfectly shaped raspberry pout set in an impossibly tanned face he provided the final denunciation.
“Well that definitely makes you a tourist. And if you don’t have respect for the places you choose to visit, then you might as well go home to wherever it is you came from.”
With those words, he pushed his hands in his pockets, turned on his heel and began a noisy stomp down the same incline she had ridden up. Given the volume of his retreat, she could not fathom how she had not been woken by the mere sound of his approach. As she gazed in grudging admiration of his retreating physique, she could not help but notice with a stab of satisfaction, that the stranger had turned around for a last glimpse of her tanned figure. Then he rounded the bend and disappeared from view.
Island Recess, Chapter 2.
Helena gathered her heavy tangle of hair into a knot at the top of her head. Despite her best efforts, a cascade of tendrils slipped free and fell loose about her face. The back of her neck was damp with the heat and she fanned her flushed face with a sheaf of papers from her desk. In a ragged pile on the top of her workspace sat a pile of unmarked spelling tests. She picked up her red marking pen, then hesitated, rolling the marker back and forth over the scratched wooden desk top with the tip of her finger. Sighing gently, she leaned her chin on the heel of her right hand and half-closed her eyes as she allowed herself to slide into a momentary day-dream.
In the late afternoon heat, the voices of the children in the concrete play area rose and fell with the thunk of the school’s only basketball and the soft scuffle of an improvised skipping rope. A trickle of perspiration rolled between her breasts and she unfastened another button on her cotton blouse, fanning the front of the garment against her skin in an effort to cool herself. Unbidden, an image of the mysterious stranger flashed into her mind, causing her to bite her lower lip as she recalled the rear-view of his hasty retreat. Helena flushed deeply at the recollection of her clumsy attempts to conceal her nudity, and then deeper still as she thought of the undeniable thrill of being observed by the attractive stranger in such a state of vulnerability.
Re-buttoning her blouse, she chided herself for her foolish daydreaming and ruefully returned her attention to the un-graded papers. For the remainder of the school year, she had best focus her energy on dealing with the immediate future. The past two months had been a crash course in heartbreak and she was more than reluctant to experience a re-run. Still, she was flesh and blood, and what hot-blooded woman could resist a little afternoon fantasy involving a sexy stranger, a naked school teacher, and an isolated island cove? She smiled inwardly as she recalled that lingering backward look. The stranger’s obsession with the female form might be typically male, but his concern over the plight of nesting birds most definitely was not. Helena ran her tongue over her lips and leaned her head against her hand. Mentally, she replayed the scene, featuring herself wearing the bikini she had impulsively abandoned, weighing five pounds less, and making a number of snappy retorts to the intruder’s accusations.
A knock at the door brought her to her feet.
’Come in,’ she called, fingers crossed against an impromptu appearance by the school principal. Helena knew that her afternoon kite-making activity had filled the classroom with a hail of tissue paper scraps and the boisterous clamor of excited seven year old voices. She was dreading what her supervisor would say about her plan to take the children kite-flying the following week. Helena breathed a sigh of relief as two of the fourth grade girls poked their heads through the door. Standing one behind the other, their dark corn-rowed heads looked like two laughing brown-eyed Susans.
“Something to show you, Miss Travis,“ the taller girl smiled shyly, revealing a row of perfect white teeth.
“Please, girls, come on in,” smiled Helena, smoothing her wrinkled skirt and extending her hand in invitation. The girls were fairly dancing with excitement as they entered the classroom, swinging a plastic bag between their joined hands. Helena clasped her hands about her waist and smiled encouragingly. The girls both sang in the choir that was Helena’s latest responsibility and they often stayed after school to help her in the classroom.
“What’s this all about girls?”
“Well,” began one in a soft voice, “My mama say it’s gonna be your birthday soon so we made you some decorations for your room. “
The words of the two girls began to tumble together as each tried to deliver her message over the other’s.
“And we wanna put them up for you as kind of a surprise,” breathed the smaller of the two.
“We been making them for two whole days now.”
“And we ran all the way from home to get here before you went home and locked up and all.”
Helena smiled. “Well girls, that’s just about the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. I feel absolutely honored to have such a wonderful treat. And I do have some work to catch up on. So, how about if I just sit at my desk and mark these tests and then I won’t see your surprise until you’re all done?”
Helena glanced with distaste at the pile of grading and then back at the girls. Both were bobbing their beaded braids with infectious enthusiasm. Collapsing once more into the rickety wooden chair, Helena drew the sheaf of spelling tests toward her. Obligingly, she turned the chair so she was facing away from the window. Despite her fatigue and the oppressive heat of the tiny classroom, she marked each test with care, circling the parts of the words where spellers had gone wrong and writing notes of praise or encouragement to each of her students. Thoughts of her humiliating encounter dissolved as she temporarily reassumed the role of instructor. As she passed from test to test, she grinned at the excited whispering of the two girls, who had drawn a chair close to the window and were making mysterious rustling noises as they extracted something metallic-sounding from the plastic bag. In the late afternoon sunlight, something shiny already winked as it dangled from one of the hooks she had driven into the low-lying ceiling. Appreciating the childish excitement of the girls, she promised herself not to sneak a peek before they were ready. She remembered her first day at the school when she had cut out dozens of paper snowflakes and suspended them from the ceiling. The children had clapped with wonder as they entered the classroom and saw “snow’ for the first time. They had passed that first afternoon engrossed in conversation, teacher and students losing their shyness as they discovered the difference, and similarities, of their two cultures.
“Okay, now it’s ready!” shouted the girls separately, but seemingly in unison. They giggled as Helena squeezed her eyes tightly closed and allowed herself to be led toward the window. As she looked up she couldn’t help but gasp in admiration. In the slanting light, the tin ornaments shone like silver and twinkled as they spun on different lengths of thread. With carefully trimmed edges and holes punched through to catch the light, the ornaments looked like shining icicles twirling under the tropical sun.
“There’s twenty all together, Miss Travis – one for each year!”
Actually, Helena was close to a decade over twenty, but she didn’t care. She scooped a girl under each arm and hugged them tight. There were tears in her eyes that she made no effort to blink away as she thanked them.
“Emily and Sarah, you are absolute wonders! I’ll always remember this. Always. No matter where I go, I know I’ll never ever again receive such a gift.”
Remembering the camera she had tucked inside her backpack that morning, Helena asked the girls to wait so she could take a picture of their handiwork. While she was rooting about in her bag, she was startled to hear girlish shrieks, followed by wild giggling. As she straightened up, she saw Emily and Sarah both clap their hands over their mouths and drop their eyes shyly to the floor.
“What is it girls?”
Helena smiled as she approached the window, shaking her head and good-naturedly rolling her eyes at their childish antics. She followed the finger pointing toward the open courtyard and took a hasty step backwards. Flushing scarlet, Helena swallowed hard and attempted to bring the staccato beat of her heart under control. Not twenty feet away stood the stranger from the bluff. Stripped to the waist and beaded with perspiration, he had his back turned to the admiring trio. A well-stocked tool belt was slung low over his hips. As a barely stifled snort from one of the girls carried through the open window, he turned and waved. Helena ducked down behind the taller of the students and prayed he wouldn’t see her kneeling form against the glare of the louvered glass window. From where she crouched she could see a smile twitch in the corner of his mouth and spread slowly across his face, revealing brilliant white teeth. Running both hands through his thatch of blonde hair, he ambled slowly toward the open window until his muscular torso was mere inches from the top of Helena’s head. Raising her eyes guiltily she allowed her gaze to roam across the sweat-slick surface of his well-muscled stomach. A light-brown line of hair pointed down like an arrow from his belly button beyond the waistband of his snug-fitting, low-slung jeans.
“Hi Emily, Hi Sarah. What are you doing here at this late hour? Aren’t you supposed to be at home helping your mother get supper on the table?” He laughed and wagged a finger at the girls.
Sarah giggled and made a face at Emily.
“No, that’s Emily’s job. I’m supposed to be minding Cecily. But mama said we could come up to the school for an hour if we helped at the market on Saturday.”
“Well, well,” he teased, “I guess you must really love all that reading and writing if you’re spending your precious spare time at school.”
Both girls giggled. Emily rolled her eyes and pointed to the twinkling ornaments above her head.
“We were bringing these to Miss Travis. It’s her birthday in a couple more days.”
“And where is this Miss Travis of yours keeping herself?” He leaned into the window frame and cocked an eyebrow at Helena’s cowering form.
“Oh, there she is. Drop something, Miss Travis?”
“No, I…” Helena’s words were lost in a tongue-tied mumble as she rose to her feet and faced the stranger. Beneath the thin cotton of her sleeveless summer blouse, her nipples hardened unbidden at the memory of yesterday’s encounter. Smoothing her chino skirt over her hips, she couldn’t help but notice that her crawling about the floor had loosened a button from near the hem. The bottom of her skirt splayed open, revealing a generous expanse of brown leg. As she met her tormentor’s eyes, she noticed his gaze slide from her face down to her slim tanned ankles and back over the arms she had crossed tightly over her breasts. Ears burning with humiliation, she extended a shaking hand in the direction of the man’s torso, inadvertently grazing his chest as she did so. Emily and Sarah erupted in a torrent of giggles as she struggled to regain her composure and introduce herself.
“Helena Travis. I teach second grade here at the school. ”
“Mmm. Most decidedly not a tourist, then.” He smiled a broad, genuine smile and laughed, raising his hand to meet hers. “Neil. Neil Streep,” he concluded. I’m doing a little work here at the school as well.” He gestured toward a stack of two-by-fours piled neatly against the wall.
Emily and Sarah began to jostle each other impatiently as they listened to the adults. Suddenly aware of their agitation, Helena remembered the picture she had promised to take. Posing the girls in the open window, she located her camera and snapped several photos from different angles. She noted that Neil had quietly moved away and resumed his activity by the wood pile. With the pictures taken and promises to make extra copies for both girls, Sarah returned to her desk to complete her grading. The girls departed soon after with a fresh round of embraces and thank-you’s. Once more alone, Helena made a conscious effort not to glance toward the open window. Despite her best intentions, she found her thoughts a tangle of emotion and reverie and she was aware that the heat clinging to her breasts and thighs was due to more than just tropical weather. With an immense sigh of frustration, Helena felt and acknowledged the undeniable stirrings of desire. Suspended between a past she was trying to erase and the uncertainty of the future, Helena felt a familiar tremor. Her attempts to wipe Karl from her life had left her expecting to encounter betrayal around every corner. Twice-bitten, Helena felt unable to stem the tide of suspicion that any male between eighteen and sixty-five seemed of late to provoke, and Neil Streep was no exception. He was, however an undeniably sexy, albeit suspicious, male, and Helena seemed unable to banish him from her lazy afternoon thoughts.
Turning her reverie to the pragmatic, Helena pondered Neil’s claim to be working for the school. In the month she had been on staff, this was the first she had seen of him. She couldn’t fathom any legitimate reason for him to be on the property after regular school hours, but he seemed to know the girls, and their family, and they were obviously comfortable with him. That, in itself, was something. Her spirits bolstered momentarily, she relaxed enough to raise her eyes to the window. While she could see nothing, the familiar tingle between her legs told her what she was seeking. Why couldn’t it truly be a case of the birds and the bees with no questions, no calculated unkindness, and no fear of heartbreak? It would all be so easy if it were just about sex: pure, lusty, spontaneous sex with no past beyond foreplay and no future beyond climax.
The sun was beginning to sink low on the horizon, and the pink tinge in the sky spoke of the coming evening. What on earth was he doing? Her curiosity getting the better of her, Helena rose to her feet and took a few tentative steps toward the window. Peering through the glass louvers, she could see nothing but the neatly stacked pile of wood. Neil, or whoever he really was, was gone. Turning, Helena returned to her desk, bent and grabbed her bag by its top loop. Slinging the bag over her shoulder, she returned to the window, closed the louvers, and left the classroom, locking the door behind her. Her lengthy strides increasing in tempo, she strode across the empty courtyard, stopping to pick a tropical bloom that had somehow found its way through the cracked concrete. Lifting the flower to her nose, she inhaled deeply, savoring the sensuous odor. Raising her hands behind her head, she tucked the blossom into the twist of her hair, then adjusted her backpack so it sat squarely between her shoulders.
“That looks lovely on you.”
A voice from behind her caused her to start and she turned with a pounding in her chest. A few feet behind her stood Neil, one hand on a slim hip, and the other pointing at her rapidly collapsing French twist. His head was tilted to one side as he regarded her with eyes as blue as the Caribbean waters. A faded black t-shirt stretched across his wide chest. Confused, Helena brought her hand to her head, then felt and removed the lustrous blossom.
“No, no, don’t take it out. Here, let me fix it for you.”
Taking a step closer, Neil reached for her hair, felt about, and with a practiced hand, placed the flower in the dark gloss of her curls. Then he stood back and surveyed his handiwork. Frowning, he extended his hand once more and gently tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. Then he smiled.
“I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced.”
He uttered the words in a smooth baritone as he offered a calloused palm. Glancing down, Helena noticed what appeared to be a small tattoo on the inside of his wrist.
“I’m the jerk who startled you yesterday. And I would like to extend my most sincere apologies for my incredibly rude behavior. It really upsets me to see animal habitat reduced to such a small space and when I see it invaded, especially by tourists, I get kind of carried away. The notice about the nesting area is a little hard to see, and I shouldn’t have jumped on you like that.”
He blushed at the words “jumped on you,” but continued.
Flushing slightly, Helena put her hand out to meet his. His grasp was warm and firm and lingered against her palm, even as his fingers withdrew. First, he’d seen her nude, now he was shaking her hand! This definitely wasn’t the normal social order, and Helena’s thoughts tumbled busily as she attempted to regain control of the situation.
“Well, perhaps I should call you Tom,“ she said, with a pert toss of her chin, “Because you were most definitely peeping.” She met his smile with a stern and teacherly glare, which deepened into a mock-frown as he burst into laughter.
“Really!” she exclaimed, once again coming up empty on snappy retorts. Inwardly she was treading dangerous waters as she floundered between her raging desire and the certainty that she needed to start putting distance between herself and the suddenly-friendly stranger. As the interior war raged on, Neil continued talking, seemingly oblivious to Helena’s dilemma.
“You must be wondering what I’m doing up here,” he said with a tilt of his head.
Helena nodded a hesitant affirmative as she tried to look busy readjusting her pack.
“Your principal has asked me to do some work on the school. I just brought up some materials so I could make an early start tomorrow.” Neil pointed to the pile of lumber as he reached around and undid his tool belt, dropping it with a tired clank on the concrete.
“I’ve been back and forth from my truck to the courtyard a dozen times, but you didn’t look up once, so I figured you must either be angry or concentrating pretty hard.”
“I had some grading to do,” said Helena quietly, her eyes following a line of ants crossing the courtyard. Mentally, she was turning off the first of the warning bells.
Neil was employed, and by the school as well. That is, if he was telling the truth. Now, was he just being friendly to make up for their disastrous introduction, or was he actually trying to hit on her? Her glance skittered up from the ground and scanned his left hand. No ring, and no tell-tale tan line. But that didn’t mean much these days. Appearances so often were deceiving, particularly when it came to men of mystery. How many lies had Karl woven through their brief engagement? Helena sighed as she met Neil’s warm smile with a strained one of her own. Gathering the edge of her lower lip between her teeth, she bit down hard.
“Come on,” said Neil, reaching out to touch her arm lightly. “You’ve worked a long day today, and I think it’s quitting time for both of us. What do you say to a nice juicy steak and a cold beer? It’s the least I can do.”
Helena paused, her heart thumping against her ribcage as she weighed her options. Celibacy or heartache? The opening scenes of that last ruined night with Karl began to play in her mind, and she felt her eyes fill with sudden tears as the familiar wave of fear washed over her. Shaking her head slowly, Helena turned on her heel and took a step away, panic filling her so suddenly that she struggled to find the words.
“I’m sorry,” she said in the strongest voice she could muster. “But I can’t just now.” Then, just as the tears began to spill down her cheeks, she strode away quickly, toward the narrow footpath that would lead her home. Bursting through the tumbling overgrowth that covered the entrance to the path, she feigned deafness to the calls after her and picked up her pace. She was oblivious to the sting of branches dogging her heedless steps as she stumbled down the hill, moving faster and faster, too horrified by the thought of him following her to turn around, or even wipe the tears from her damp face. As the path ended and the roadway began, Helena risked pausing briefly, craning her neck to catch the tell-tale sounds of dislodged pebbles and cracking twigs. Hearing nothing but the calls of tiny birds and the rumble of nearby traffic, she pushed her sunglasses firmly against her nose, and began walking alongside the main road leading to her apartment.
Her head throbbed as her mind, unbidden, began to replay the scene that had just unfolded. It had been a mere matter of days since the last humiliation she had endured in Mr. Streep’s presence and at the moment, she felt more the fool than she had ever felt in the entirety of her dating experience. To what part of the distant galaxy had her ability to come across as calm, cool, and collected vanished? True, she harbored no romantic intentions toward the stranger from the bluff, but she had always prided herself on her quick wit and snappy repartee, and in the face of Mr. Streep she seemed doomed to play the role of blushing, tongue-tied, head-ducking teenager. To think that she had come so far to avoid one man and now, on tiny St. John, she would have to steer clear of another. She honestly did not think she could physically cope with any further humiliation without falling into the deep pit she prayed would swallow her up. Her cheeks flushed deeply as she saw herself with the eyes of an observer: the hysterical female, so distressed by the slightest male attention that all she could do was flee in terror. How very stereotypical Victorian heroine! Helena cringed, the tears pricking at her eyes, now those of anger. Mentally kicking herself, she sniffed loudly, despite herself. Looking up through swollen eyes, she stopped short before running directly into the mother of one of her students.
For a fraction of a moment, the mother scrutinized Helena’s inflamed nose, then reached a maternal hand to Helena’s arm and squeezed.
“It can’t be that bad, Miz Travis,” she said in a voice that conveyed both sympathy and the curiosity to hear what would surely be lurid, and possibly gossip-worthy details.
Horrified to find a ready audience for the source of her humiliation, Helena waved vaguely in the direction of the floral bushes crowding the sidewalk and then toward her nose, pantomiming elaborate sneezing fits while gasping out, “Allergies! Must be the change in climate!” Returning the woman’s affectionate gesture with a hand squeeze on her own, Helena bade her a good afternoon, and hurried on her way, pretending not to notice the disbelieving shake of the woman’s tightly curled head.
Rushing headlong through the crowded sidewalks that wound through the town, Helena made a beeline for the sanctuary of her Mediterranean-style apartment. As she stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street, a horn honked stridently and she looked up in alarm. Registering a waving arm in her peripheral vision, she was horrified to hear a strong male voice calling her name. Not Neil Streep, again! Had he been following her?
Without breaking pace, Helena kept her eye on the door of her apartment as she threaded her way around a passing vehicle and leapt up onto the sidewalk like the lead in a cross-country race. Pounding up the stairs, she was already removing and rummaging in her backpack for her keys. Locating these, she fumbled with the lock, then tore open the screen door, slid inside, and pressed her back to the lock. Breathing hard, she waited. Hearing a car door slam somewhere behind her, she blessed Ben for having omitted an intercom system, and then pitched herself forward, scrambling up several flights of stairs, until she was at last, home sweet home.
Island Recess, Chapter 3.
For the past week, the skies had darkened daily with sudden cloudbursts that gave way to spells of damp heat and brilliant sunshine. A native of Seattle, Helena could smell a pending rainstorm like a hound sniffing after a rabbit and her nose twitched as the clouds banks continued to build. Helena walked slowly back and forth over the small field, waving encouragement to all and dispensing gentle reminders to a few. Periodically, she was stopped to mend an injured kite with a few well-placed patches of tape. As the children ran back and forth, attempting to build speed and raise their creations aloft, Helena smiled in spite of herself. Against the June sky, the patchwork creations of cellophane and tissue were as boldly colored as bands of stained glass. While most of the kites bounced on the ground as their owners raced furiously back and forth, a few caught and held by the wind, achieved momentary lift.
As Helena paced, she tried in vain to put the events of the previous Friday out of her mind. For the past week, she had busied herself with school during the day, and with helping her elderly landlord at night. With several units now vacant, Helena had suggested that Ben allow her to assist with some minor cosmetic renovations before he again advertised them for rent. Having seen the changes Helena had made to her own apartment, Ben was easily persuaded to go along with his new tenant’s scheme. Her first order of business was a brutal assault with mops and rags and toxic-smelling cleansers. Pouring bleach into the toilets and cleaning around the ancient taps with an old toothbrush, it had been easy for Helena to banish the image of her humiliation before Neil. Once the cobwebs, dust, and grime were cleared, Helena had thrown herself into the role of interior designer. Together, she and Ben had decided on a different decorating scheme for each unit. They purchased several lengths of bold, tropical prints and Helena then set about designing and sewing curtains, table linens, and throw cushions to suit each room’s dimensions. With the assistance of Ben’s two teenaged nephews, she had painted each room a different colour, using techniques like ragging and sponging to bring texture and visual interest to the small spaces. Just yesterday, she had returned from a weekend trip to nearby St. Thomas, where, under Ben’s direction, she had purchased woven raffia mats to use as runners over the now-creamy linoleum floors.
As she watched her students frolic in the afternoon sun, heedless of their teacher and, oblivious to the trials and tribulations of adulthood, Helena couldn’t help but yearn for some simple recreation of her own. But after last Friday, the only recent candidate for her affection would hardly be beating a pathway to her door. She cringed inwardly at the spectacle she had made of herself in the school’s courtyard. For the past week, she had played and re-played the scene, wondering whether Neil had witnessed her emotional breakdown or only her girlish flight. If only she had screamed shrilly, or kicked up her heels and flapped her hands as she ran, she would have made the perfect virgin-on-the-run. She now almost wished she had turned to see the source of the honking horn. Had it been Neil, she could perhaps have summoned up a smidgeon of self-respect, drawn herself up and made some viable excuse for running away so readily from the offer of a juicy-steak-and-beer dinner. Perhaps, “I’m a teetotaler and vegetarian” would suffice as explanation for her behavior? Perhaps not.
How she had found herself back in her apartment, red-faced and mentally kicking herself, she couldn’t quite remember. What she could partially remember was the hesitant tap on her door that had come moments after her flustered arrival. On opening the door she had found her landlord, Ben, standing awkwardly before her, a bottle in one hand, and two plastic tumblers in the other. After a few searing mouthfuls, it was explained to Helena that the bottle contained a potent island liquor brewed from sugar cane. Several drinks later, Helena had hiccupped out the story of the desertion of her fiancé and was beginning to unravel in exhaustive detail, the particulars of her encounters with Neil when Ben held up his hand with a slight grimace.
“I don’t think you want to be telling me all dis information, Miz Travis,” he had slurred out. “Best you be telling one of your girlfriends about all dis.” The topic had shifted abruptly to safer ground. Shortly after, Ben had departed, taking with him an empty bottle.
Helena giggled as she recalled the next twenty-four hours during which she had made every possible attempt to avoid running into her landlord. A normally private person, Helena usually restricted her confidences to a few close girlfriends. Watching her students play together, she sighed, thinking how far away Julie, her closest friend, was. She desperately missed their emergency councils, typically conducted over steaming cappuccinos and rich desserts, and sometimes lasting until the coffee shop owner raised his eyebrows and tapped his watch to indicate closing time. If only she could talk to Julie, de-brief the last few weeks and worry out some kind of dignified solution! And now, the elderly Mr. Holmes had been privy to her most private humiliations. Had she actually told Ben about her embarrassing encounter with Neil? Of course, which was more embarrassing encounter, that involving nudity or the one marked by crying and running away? How she hoped she had not shared those details! Her concerns had been unwarranted. Ben had cornered her in the hallway the following day with a face turned suddenly innocent as an egg, and bade her follow him to his apartment. There, in a corner of the room was an expensive-looking computer and flat screen monitor, hooked up to a printer and scanner: the means by which Helena had found her present home. Mr. Holmes had gestured in the direction of the computer.
“Now you can find that girlfriend, you be needin’” he had said with a smile. “You come and knock whenever you want to use it, send an e-mail, send a fax, whatever you need.”
He had given her a paternal pat on the back, and then swiveled on his heel, ushering her out of the apartment with elaborate courtesy.
Helena checked her watch. Luckily, she had remembered to put it on that morning. Only half an hour left until the end of the school day. She could quickly finish grading yesterday’s multiplication tests, and be home by five o’clock to e-mail Julie. Glancing across the sloping field, she took a mental head-count of her students, and frowned as she realized she was missing at least half a dozen. She chided herself mentally as she strode quickly across the rough-bladed grass toward the steep footpath leading down to the dock. She must learn to focus on her responsibilities and keep her mind from wandering in foolish analyses of silly encounters. Silly encounters that mustn’t continue, she reminded herself. Blowing her whistle in short, strident bursts, she gestured to the children playing nearby to join her.
“Robert, did you see where Samuel, Jacob, and, um, Michael and the others were playing?” Helena spoke slowly in an attempt to convince the children that everything was under control and to disguise her ignorance of the whereabouts of half-a-dozen of their peers.
“They went down to the docks with that man,” spoke up one of the boys, pointing up ahead. Helena’s heart began to pound against her breast. Visions of strangers luring students to doom with sticky candy and empty promises filled her head. Helena accelerated her pace, her skirt flapping about her thighs as the students who had stayed nearby struggled to keep up. As she skidded down the sloping trail, she sighted a clutch of children gathered around a tall man with blonde hair. Nearing the group, she almost cried out in frustration. Neil, again! Fighting the urge to organize the curls erupting defiantly from her ponytail, and she slowed to a more dignified pace and approached with a frown.
“Samuel! Jacob! Michael! Alison! Eliza! Mattie!” She spoke the names like a round of gunfire. “You were asked to stay where I could see you!” Realizing that she was making herself look ridiculous, as she accented each word with a school-marmish shake of her index finger, Helena was further annoyed to see that several of the children, unaccustomed to such outbursts from their teacher, seemed to be attempting to suppress a case of the giggles. She frowned in their general direction, narrowing her eyes to convey the seriousness of the situation. It was then that she noticed Neil had turned in her direction with a smile on his face that could quite possibly been intended as apologetic.
“Miss Travis, I must take the blame for this. I asked your students to come down here and give me a hand unloading these fish. I’m terribly sorry.”
As he spoke, Helena realized with horror that her eyes had strayed from Neil’s face to his bare torso. He was wearing a short-legged blue wet-suit and had unzipped and peeled the top portion back from his shoulders. The garment hung from his waist, emphasizing the narrow line of his hips and a firmly jutting pair of buttocks.
“Um, Miss Travis?” Neil spoke questioningly, and Helena returned her gaze guiltily to Neil’s face. Her cheeks were hot and she thought she detected a knowing glint in Neil’s eyes. One of her students was tugging at her wrist.
“Look Miz Travis, look at the conchs. They’re big ones.”
Helena knelt down to the child’s level. Next to a bucket of shimmering, freshly-caught fish were several large shells. Their outer covering appeared to be thick and grey, but the inner lip, still filled with the animal, was blush-pink, ending in a surge of near-crimson at the edges.
“Once the shells are cleaned, scoured off with a wire brush and dried in the sun, they’ll look just like the ones you can buy at the tourist stalls. That’s if you were a tourist. Which you clearly are not.” Neil finished off the explanation with a broad, and Helena thought, possibly cheeky smile.
Her students had gathered around her, subdued by her stormy arrival, and were watching to see if good humor had been restored. Helena knelt and picked up the smallest of the shells, peering at the contents.
“I think that’s it’s foot, Miz Travis,” piped up the recently shamed Michael in an attempt to re-establish himself in his teacher’s good graces.
“They make good eating, Miss Travis,” said Neil, squatting back on his heels and reaching his hand out for his catch. “I was spear-fishing around the bend at the cove, but I couldn’t help but pick these up. I had a hankering for conch fritters. Too bad there’s no one to share them with. I don’t think I can eat all of ‘em myself.” He patted his obscenely flat stomach as he stood up, head ambiguously cocked.
“Why don’t you share them with Miz Travis?” Obviously on a roll, Michael spoke up earnestly, looking from one adult to the other with an excited smile. Unfortunately, the pint-sized matchmaker was thwarted by a shriek from one of the students waving from the top of the hill.
“Miz Travis,” she bellowed, “Home time!” She waved, and jumped up and down, pointing at her wrist. Helena smiled briefly in the direction of Neil’s torso.
“I guess that means it’s time to go,” she said, turning just as Neil reached out a hand.
Helena herded the children like an errant flock of geese back up the hill and toward the school. As she entered the schoolroom and watched the children scurry to gather their belongings, her thoughts drifted back to the dock. Despite her best intentions to live in monk-like seclusion, Helena was fighting the increasingly urgent demands of her libido. Hustling her students out the door and waving frantically to encourage a speedy departure, Helena returned to her desk. The math tests waited expectantly. She could almost hear guilt inducing “Grade me! Grade me!” voices emanating from the stack of papers. Executing a smart turn, she picked up her backpack in one hand and the tests in the other. Pending further appearances by the mysterious Neil and following the completion of her ventures into cyberspace, Helena promised to immerse herself in her teacherly duties.
Swinging her pack onto her shoulder, she trotted down the path to the main road. Unbidden, her thoughts returned to the afternoon’s adventure by the dock. Because it was close to supper-time, Helena’s mouth watered at the thought of the conch fritters. She had only had them once before, steaming from the pot and smothered in hot-sauce. The temptation to follow up Michael’s invitation on Neil’s behalf was highly tempting. She could imagine herself turning up at Neil’s front door, eyes baleful and stomach rumbling, saying, “But you said you couldn’t eat them all by yourself.” Helena giggled, causing a tourist to look at her with some alarm and skirt her by a wide margin as he passed. She didn’t even know where the elusive Neil lived, but the town was small, and Helena was sure that she would run into him soon. Although one portion of her conscious mind was annoyed with her continued thoughts about the builder, the other wandered dreamily into nostalgic recollections of his nude torso and speculations about the exact proportions of what lay below.
Ever yearning to be a pragmatist, Helena chalked her fantasies up to months of sexual abstinence and to sheer desperation for the physical comforts of another body. Still, she couldn’t deny the powerful attraction she had felt watching him talking to the children, listening attentively and patiently as they vied for his attention. Perhaps Neil, with his sculpted arms and taut belly, presented a recipe for getting her mind away from the imminent return to reality. Alternately scolding herself and flashing a mental green-light, Helena allowed herself to drift into a pleasant daydream. She would be wearing something irresistible and consuming a concoction sufficiently alcoholic to provide herself with an excuse for her wanton behavior. No! That wasn’t right either. Helena was too honest with herself to pretend that drunkenness rather than lust would ever be the reason she had sex with a man. It always came down to making a choice, and for Helena, that choice was always a very conscious one, even if, she had to admit, many of her choices had been poor ones. As she continued on toward her apartment, Helena carefully revised her fantasy, casting herself in the role of an aggressive, take-charge woman of the new millenium. She was about a block away from home when she developed a sudden craving for mango. Helena was carefully inserting the presence of fruit into her latest erotic fantasy when she realized that the scent of mangoes was carrying from a display at the open-air market. She slowed her steps and approached the grocer, a rotund woman in her senior years who always had a smile and a cheerful word for Helena.
“Good afternoon, Susan,” Helena said with a broad smile. “Those mangoes look absolutely delicious. Are they ripe enough to eat today?”
“Of course, of course, Helen-ah” exclaimed Susan, hoisting the largest to shoulder height for Helena’s inspection. The fruit was ripe and heavy on Helena’s palm and the rich scent lingered as she passed the mango back to Susan. Perhaps if she already possessed the fruit, her latest sexual fantasy would be that much more likely to become a reality.
“Could you give me three or four please, Susan?” The woman slowly sorted through the dozens of fruit on the counter, selecting and discarding until she had found the four plumpest mangoes and placed them in a paper bag. As she took Helena’s money and rang up the sale, she continued to chatter about the school and the children and the changing weather. Then, just as Helena was turning to head home, Susan said something that made her stop in her tracks.
“So you’ve met our Mr. Streep, I hear,” said the older woman with a smile. Her broad brown face creased as her grin widened. Beneath her close-cropped curly grey hair, her dark eyes twinkled with pleasure.
“Whaaat? Who? Mr. Streep? I…” Helena mumbled in confusion as she tried to sift through tumbling thoughts. Her face grew hot and she struggled to come up with a coherent response.
“Ah, then ‘tis true,” beamed Susan. I know by looking at you.” The older woman wagged her finger as she spoke.
At these words, Helena felt she would burst into spontaneous combustion. Actually, at that point she felt anything, even a yawning chasm opening up in the ground at her feet, would be a welcome relief from her current humiliation. What were people saying? For heaven’s sake, she was a teacher, world-wide icon of virtuous conduct. She could only imagine the story of her nude sun-bathing escapade passing from barstool to barstool over rounds of rum and draft beer.
“Oh don’t worry, Helen-ah,” laughed Susan, looking at the expression of horror spreading across Helena’s face. “I hear it from Mr. Streep. He been askin’ about the pretty new teacher, but I don’t tell him too much.” Helena practically slumped over with relief.
“I only told him that you be a single girl looking for a good time with a good-looking man,” said Susan. She burst into helpless giggles as Helena’s mouth fell open. “I’m joking, don’t worry, don’t worry.” She patted Helena’s arms as she spoke.
Struggling to regain a degree of composure, Helena couldn’t help but laugh out loud herself.
“It’s just all been so strange, Susan. He seemed to come out of nowhere, and now I see him all the time.”
“Oh, Mr. Streep, he been on the mainland. Now he back helping us. Before he was over in St. Thomas and before, oh, I don’t know where. He comes and he goes on that boat of his, stays a while and moves on. But he always be coming back to St. John.”
“But what exactly does he do, Susan? How can he afford to live here just doing odd jobs?”
“Oh, he don’t take money for the work he do here. I think he just a handy-type of man. He don’t seem to need a job. He got a nice big boat and enough money to buy the things he wants. Some say the man is downright rollin’ in money. “ Susan beamed as she relayed Neil’s dossier. Then she leaned across the counter and whispered to Helena,
“The only thing that man be needin’ is a good woman.” Susan winked broadly and turned away to help another customer, her words trailing off into soft laughter.
Bewildered by the news, Helena continued her walk home, crumpled bag slapping against her thighs. She tried to fit the puzzle pieces together, but somehow, they didn’t seem to fit. A seemingly unemployed drifter, volunteering his time for charitable acts who was rollin’ in money? What was Neil Streep anyway? A con artist? A gigolo? A drug dealer using the local school as a cover for his illegal activities? Only when she had accessed Karl’s personal e-mail, was Helena made blatantly, unavoidably, aware of the fact that her fiancé’s business dealings were at best, on the shady side. If Neil was some kind of criminal, he was definitely not the kind of distraction she needed. She would have to find out more and in the meantime, tread very cautiously where her new acquaintance was concerned.
Island Recess. Chapter 4.
The balcony on the floor above provided skimpy coverage from the sudden downpour. Helena had pulled the settee as far back as possible from the railing, and still the slanting droplets flicked at her face and body, causing her skin to rise in gooseflesh. She had intended a pleasant pre-dinner drink on the balcony and was reluctant to give up the much-anticipated treat. Far from the theatres, fine-dining, and night clubs of her recent experience, Helena was surprised what pleasure could be derived from a stiff rum and coke now much diluted by melting ice. Still, her sweatshirt was already damp and the hair around her face was unfurling in a sodden mass. Hardly a model candidate for a print-ad dedicated to the liquor she was rapidly consuming. Drink clenched in one hand, she half pushed, half dragged the settee back inside the apartment, then tilted it away to allow any errant drops of rain to run off on the linoleum. The smell of baking fish, rubbed with onion and garlic and a blend of spices, filled the room with its pungent aroma. She turned the heat off under the rice, and gave a final stir to the mango salsa she had prepared earlier. Opening the oven door, she was suddenly and poignantly reminded that once again that she was only cooking and shopping for one. The baking dish contained enough fish to feed two or three, and with the rice and salsa, the meal she had prepared could probably stretch to accommodate the appetites of a large family. Scooping the rice from the cooking pot, Helena heaped it around the fish, and crowned the dish with a heap of mango salsa. Then, grasping the steaming baking dish with a pair of pot-holders, she left the apartment and headed downstairs to her landlord’s unit. She tapped gently at the door with her foot, and waited for the slow shuffle that would herald Ben’s arrival. After a short pause, and the sound of shuffling bedroom slippers, the door swung open and Ben peered out. His eyes seemed enormous, magnified by the thick glasses, but were hardly a match for the enormous smile expanding beneath them.
“What a pleasure! Come in, come in!” he gestured, moving back to allow Helena to enter.
“I’m sorry to call unannounced,” said Helena with an apologetic smile. “I just wondered if you had eaten yet. I’ve made quite a large meal and I was hoping you could share it with me. I’d hate for it to go to waste.”
“How delightful! I’ve been at the computer here for most of the afternoon, I think. I must have lost track of time. Hadn’t thought of starting dinner yet.”
Ben bustled about the small kitchen, finding plates and cutlery and arranging them on a faded floral tablecloth. The baking dish was uncovered, allowing the savory aroma to escape. Rooting around in an old-fashioned refrigerator, Ben located two bottles of the local Caribbean beer and set one down with a clink in front of each plate. Then he shuffled back into the kitchen and sliced one of the tiny firm-skinned local limes lengthwise into quarters. Returning to the table, he inserted a slice of lime into the mouth of each bottle, before lowering himself cautiously into his chair.
“Mexican-style,” he said by way of explanation. Smiling across the table at Helena, he rubbed his hands together with dramatic relish. “Now, let us begin.” He sighed with pleasure as he picked up a fork and prepared to attack the savory dish. As the rain continued to dimple the waters of the bay beyond the patio door, Helena and Ben chatted amicably about her job at the school and about the building’s new tenants. Although both studiously skirted the topic of her social life, Helena noted that Ben was more than liberal in sharing gossip about her neighbors. With an inward cringe, she wondered if the new tenants had been treated to a similar examination of her personal life. All she needed now was to have to avoid eye contact with her neighbors while scuttling to and from her apartment. Life in Seattle had seemed so complicated. Now it seemed that despite the claims of cruise ships and purveyors of Caribbean rum, life in the Virgin Islands had its own share of complications. She signed, and Ben looked up at her with a quizzical glance. Helena shook her head and smiled. “Just thinking of home,” she said quietly.
“Well, after dinner, you use my computer. Catch up with life on the mainland. Then I will pay you back for this delicious meal.”
Helena smiled her thanks.
The scrape of forks across almost empty plates filled a momentary silence, which Ben abruptly broke.
“Maybe, you won’t be needing to go home so soon.”
“Oh, Ben, but I do. My life is in Seattle and before I can get on with it, there are people to be faced and problems to be solved.” Helena rubbed the bridge of her nose with her fingers and leaned her chin against her hand. “I just don’t know,” she concluded meaninglessly.
“Oh all that,” Ben flapped his hands as if brushing away her worries. “I’m meaning that maybe now there will be more reason for you to stay than to go.” He smiled enigmatically, his grizzled face broadening in a sea of wrinkles and ivory teeth. Helena waited, head tilted like a bird’s for the old man to continue.
“You see, I was talking last night with Susan, you know, the lady who runs the fruit stand, and she says she been talking with you and our Mr. Streep. So, I listen all day long, and talk to the man himself, and finally I hear some news you might be interested in.” Helena felt her gut do a quick flip-flop while Ben took a minute to make an elaborate show of coughing into a handkerchief that had definitely seen better days.
“Our Mr. Streep, he is almost finished his job at the school. But he is already volunteering for another one. He’s gonna be re-doing the old tile floor in the church up the road from here. You know that man, any kind of building, he can do. Did you know that back on the mainland he even have a construction company or some thing? Makin’ barrels of money getting buildings all planned up and put together.”
Ben paused for a second, gauging Helena’s reaction to the information. She tried hard to remain impassive as he continued.
“Well, Mr. Streep, he asking about you. He wanting to know what a pretty girl like you be doing all alone in a place like dis one.”
Through pounding heart and clenched teeth, Helena breathed out, “Oh Ben, what did you tell him?”
Ben smiled broadly, reaching across the table to pat Helena’s trembling arm.
“Don’t you worry that curly head of yours. All I told him was you was a pretty girl from the big city, payin’ in cash and askin’ and answerin’ no question. I did tell him that we needed a crane to get all your fancy leather bags up to your room.” He chuckled to himself, a soft gurgle against the slack skin of his protruding Adam’s apple.
“He’ll be here, oh, at least another month, or maybe even two. So maybe you can, you know, spend some time together. Maybe you be less lonely, less needin’ to spend time with old men.” Ben smiled beatifically as he concluded his monologue. Stifling the urge to throttle the absent Mr. Streep, Helena laid a trembling hand on Ben’s wrinkled one.
“Ben, you know I love spending time with you. And as for Neil, um, Mr. Streep, I think I should just, I don’t know.” she trailed off lamely.
Ben nodded understandingly. He rubbed his stomach and pushed back his chair.
“Wonderful dinner, wonderful. I must return the favor soon. You will make some lucky man a very good wife one day.” Ben winked as Helena groaned theatrically.
“And now, for a trip to cyberspace,” said Ben, shuffling slowly across the linoleum floor to the make-shift computer desk. He switched on the computer and monitor, the dial-up modem coming to life with a familiar series of clicks and bongs. Impatient to be on-line, Helena felt a momentary longing for her high-speed Internet back home, but the delay of a minute now heralded a generous connection to home and family. She seated herself beside the elderly man, trying not to betray her eagerness to have a few minutes alone with the machine. Having booted up the computer, Ben, perhaps sensing her impatience, excused himself, saying that he was going to take an early evening stroll ‘to work off the delicious meal.’ The rain had stopped during their dinner, leaving in its passage a heavy humidity which seemed to trap and absorb the late-day rays of sun in a yellow haze of light. Alone in the apartment, Helena found her mind racing. So now Mr. Streep thought she was a girl from the big city flashing cash and keeping secrets. What if he believed she was on the run from some kind of trouble? Did he think she had money? What if he saw her as some kind of wealthy damsel-in-distress and easy prey for the gigolo services of a temporarily unemployed carpenter? She flushed with shame as she considered the possibility that Neil’s intentions could be purely financial.
Helena typed in the address of her free e-mail provider, and after entering her password, was able to access her personal account. Until now, she had kept in touch with family and friends with brief letters and briefer cards. Long-distance phone calls were an expensive draw on her tiny income and rapidly depleting savings, and so were kept to an absolute minimum. It was time to instigate more lengthy correspondence. Quickly she scanned the contents of her electronic mailbox. The majority of messages were from her mother and Julie, and the more recent titles betrayed a growing concern on the part of both. “Where are you?” “Have U forgotten me?” “U never call anymore!” and “CALL WHEN U CAN!” messages all bore today’s date. Looking down the list of addresses, she groaned as she read the familiar “Karl1960@yahoo.com.” Without reading the messages from her fiancé (ex-fiancé, she reminded herself for the umpteenth time,) she clicked in the box beside each title to delete them from her inbox. Rapidly skimming the remaining titles, she grinned wryly as she noted that junk and bulk-mail were becoming as prevalent and irritating in e-mail form as the envelopes marked, “You Could Already Be A Millionaire” she regularly weeded out of her letter box at home. She read her mother’s messages first, and mentally summarized them into common themes as she progressed through the lengthy prose. Are you eating well? Are you getting lots of rest? Don’t forget the sunscreen! Scrolling up to the final message, she paused mid-sentence, leaning forward in disbelief.
“…Helena, I don’t want to alarm you, but I think you should be very careful for the next few weeks. Karl has been phoning me almost daily, pestering me for information as to your whereabouts. All I’ve told him is that you needed some time alone and slipped away for a short holiday. I keep telling him that you chose to keep your destination a secret, but I know he doesn’t believe me. Anyway, to make a long story short, he called me this evening and told me that he had discovered where you are. Apparently, he’s been calling his friends and hit upon one who works for the airline you flew from Seattle. This man was able to track your flight to St. Thomas. For now, don’t you worry. I’ll be sure to keep you informed. Just remember to check your e-mail! Or call. You know you can call me collect any time you want. I’m sure if Karl decides to go to the Virgin Islands that he won’t be able to resist telling Julie or me, and we’ll let you know as soon as we do. Love you. Oh, and Happy Almost Birthday Sweetheart! Only a few days to go! P.S. Don’t forget the sunscreen!
Helena was still shaking as she composed her response. She was careful to avoid betraying her alarm to her somewhat overly-protective mother. Instead, she talked about the weather, the upcoming Carnival celebration, and her work at the school. In closing, she inquired after the health of their mutual relatives and the progress of her mother’s latest gardening ventures. Continuing through her mail, she began reading Julie’s messages. Momentarily distracted by her friend’s humorous prose, she became lost in the latest of Julie’s romantic escapades. Common to both of their experience were men who disappeared without explanation, men who developed quasi-stalker behavior, and those with whom a second date was something to be dodged by caller-ID and voicemail. Julie had refined a somewhat alarming series of strategies for dealing with cheaters and deadbeats. Hearing second-hand tales of Julie’s exploits, Helena was always secretly relieved that she wasn’t on the receiving end of Julie’s self-styled justice. Like her mother’s, Julie’s most recent e-mail detailed Karl’s discovery and the possibility of a pending visit from her ex-fiancé. Her friend closed by inquiring about the availability of attractive men on the island and penning a brief description of a fantasy in which a mysterious Island Lothario challenged Karl to a bout of hand-to-hand combat from which the unfortunate Karl barely escaped alive. Helena grinned as she mentally composed a response. Then, she hesitated. Glancing at her watch, she noted that close to half an hour had elapsed since Ben’s departure. Before replying to Julie’s e-mail, she would do a quick search on the Internet, and then be able to share her findings with her best friend. Just like the old days, except there were no cappuccinos, no warm hugs, and no comfortable silences in which spoken words became redundant.
Locating a popular search engine, Helena typed “Neil Streep + Construction” beside the “Search” button. She hoped to locate as many references to the elusive Mr. Streep as possible. If the rumored construction company were of any size, there might even be a web-page devoted to its business. She hit “Search” and waited for the search engine to locate articles containing her chosen key words. Scrolling down through references to articles with the names “Streep” and “Neil” and the word “construction” proved to be a tedious and fruitless venture. Finding no specific references to Neil Streep’s construction business, Helena idly attempted various combinations, first typing in his name and then adding different labels in an attempt to refine her search. Unsure of Ben’s accuracy in describing Mr. Streep’s business, she tried looking under drafting, design, and architecture. Nothing. Perhaps Neil’s “construction company” was merely a rumor designed to conceal the true nature of his activities on the island. Exiting from her search, Helena typed a quick response to Julie’s e-mail.
Thanks for the mail, and the warning. Can you please call Mom and reassure her that I am in my right mind, will be fine, etc. etc.? Bless you. I promise to do better as a pen, oop, cyber pal and will phone you tomorrow. Hope the new man in your life is worthy enough to avoid the tuna-in-the-glove box fate of his predecessor. RE: your query, have met a man on whose stomach I could grate cheese. He has already seen me naked. I have not been so lucky. Will explain this tomorrow. Love you as the gossip of all time and follower of trendy people and places. Wonder if you have heard of my mystery man? His name is Neil Streep. According to the local grapevine, he owns a construction company back on the mainland. With my luck, he is most likely a drug dealer and/or robber of elderly ladies. Must know before proceed further, i.e. see him naked. Till tomorrow. Love, Helena.
Hearing the familiar shuffle of footsteps at the door, and Ben’s cheery, “Helloo?” Helena exited the program and turned off the monitor. Entering the room, he inquired with a smile, “Feelin’ better now my girl?” Despite the pursuit of one and possibly two unsavory suitors, and her return to Seattle looming large on the horizon, Helena smiled. Electronically, she had been home. Or at least her cyber-self had been in the company of friends. And curiously enough, she was feeling better.
Island Recess, Chapter 5.
Helena stood in the middle of the sidewalk, mentally tabulating the remaining balance in the “grocery” portion of her budget. Yesterday’s trip with Ben to the mega-grocery store in St. Thomas had made a serious dent in her finances for the month. Somehow, her resolve to eat oatmeal for breakfast and simple sandwiches for lunch had given way to extravagant purchases of gourmet pizza, expensive wine, and thick, glossy fashion magazines. Helena wasn’t sure exactly how the freshly-roasted coffee beans and bars of specialty chocolate had made their way into her grocery cart, but she had found herself guiltily handing over the money for her luxury items at the check-out stand. Helena sighed, as she tossed the chocolate bar wrappers from the final victim into a nearby garbage can. She was always covertly annoyed with herself for feeling guilty about food, and made a sanctimonious self-defense about the anti-oxidant properties of chocolate. Today’s different, though, she thought with a degree of sanctimony, birthday calories are negative, or at least that’s what Julie would say. Of course, Julie would call them birthday week calories, thereby justifying last night’s caloric pre-birthday food fest with the staff of her school. Helena smiled at the memory.
Readjusting her sunglasses, she looked both ways and walked swiftly across the road toward the open market, barely registering the honk of an oncoming car. While the roads were never as congested as those on St. Thomas or the mainland, Helena had found that there was a curious relationship between the local pedestrians and drivers. There seemed to be some mutual unspoken knowledge of exactly how slowly a pedestrian could amble across a busy street, and exactly how close an oncoming vehicle could come to the pedestrian before braking slightly and administering an admonishing blast from the horn. The Sunday market was in full swing, with a series of make-shift plywood strands occupying the tiny square by the waterfront. From the stalls swung the usual collection of brightly colored sarongs, scarves, and t-shirts. Vendors shouted out invitations to passers-by to examine their jewelry, wood carvings and knick-knacks. Helena noted wryly a “My Grandma went to the USVI and all she bought me was this lousy” t-shirt swinging against one stall. Having seen similar merchandise bearing the same sentiment in a variety of countries, she gave a mental kudos to what must now surely be a very wealthy entrepreneur. Heading toward the back of the market area, she shook loose the plastic shopping bag she carried with her. The fruits and vegetables were stacked in colorful disarray on the tables. Greeting the nearest merchant with a smile, she inquired after the prices of the unmarked produce. She had long since come to know the disparity between “tourist” and “local” prices, and was pleased to now be offered produce at the same rates paid by the parents of her students. Filling her bag with mangos, bananas, sweet peppers and tomatoes took only a few dollars of those she clutched in her sweaty palm. With a lighter heart, she turned and left the market, heading down toward the dockside, where she hoped to purchase an inexpensive lunch. Her bag swung in time to her light footfall, and as she turned to run across the street, her smooth progress was halted abruptly by a loud cry. “Morris!”
Helena half-turned as a bulky canine of indeterminate parentage trotted past her, dragging a length of rope from his collar. The dog seemed oblivious to the increasingly desperate cries of an approaching owner, and had jumped the curb before Helena had dropped her groceries and managed to grab the rope’s tail-end. At that moment, she heard the warning bellow of an oncoming truck, and leapt back onto the sidewalk, hauling mightily on the dog’s lead as she did so. Morris seemed unaware of the fact that his wriggling posterior had missed colliding with the truck’s bumper by mere inches. Turning his attention to Helena’s bags of now-tumbling produce, he began a frantic investigation of the contents. Helena bent to him, rubbing his tightly muscled brown body and whispering soothingly as she wound his lead more tightly around her palm.
“Morris! Thank God you’re all right!” Morris’s owner had arrived, panting with exertion. “Miss, I don’t know how to thank…” His words trailed off as he bent down and Helena simultaneously stood, striking him on the chin with the top of her head. “Oww.” he moaned, smiling in recognition as he made eye contact with Morris’s guardian angel.
“Helena!” said Neil with what was both gratitude and genuine pleasure. Flushing slightly as she recalled her e-mail message to Julie, she returned his smile.
“Oh Helena, thank you! I was in the scuba store and left Morris tied up outside. I guess I turned around for a minute too long or the knot wasn’t tight enough to hold. Anyway, when I came out he was already half-way down the block, heading toward the traffic. I can’t tell you how glad I am you were able to catch him. He’s deaf as a post and has no sense at all about cars. You saved his life, Helena. I don’t know. I just don’t know what I’d have done if anything happened…”His words trailed off, swallowed up by emotion.
By instinct, Helena reached an arm out toward him, gave him a half-hug and said soothingly, “Well, let’s be glad nothing did happen. He’s okay now, just needs a little T.L.C. after his close call.”
If Morris was at all damaged by his escapades, it was not readily apparent. He had taken hold of a large tomato and sunk his teeth into the flesh, causing a messy eruption of seeds and juice in the general vicinity of his muzzle. The remainder of the damage had struck Helena’s bare leg, and she made a surreptitious attempt to wipe the tomato’s intestines from her skin with the edge of her sandal. Neil bent to scratch his pet’s ears while stretching out a hand to corral a few truant pieces of fruit. Helena quickly stuffed these in her near-full shopping bags, petted Morris’s flanks longingly and hesitated. Morris began to pant heavily, looking eagerly from Helena to Neil and shifting impatiently as if begging for further diversion..
Rising to his feet, Neil reached out a hand and gently squeezed Helena’s shoulder.
“I’d really like to thank you properly for this, Helena. I know you’re probably busy tonight, but maybe with more notice?” Helena noted the invitation, wondered if it contained innuendo, but said nothing. Mentally, she was defining “busy.” Her plans for the afternoon involved a bath and a book. They could include a rum and Coke, if she still had ice and lime. And rum. She made a mental note to pop around to the liquor store. Neil was continuing.
“Anyway, maybe I could take you for a drink just for now, and then for something better later on. Do you have time? Just for a quickie?” His cheeks reddened almost imperceptibly as both parties registered the unfortunate double-entendre.
She took a deep breath and the decision was made. “As a matter of fact,” said Helena sagely, “I do have time. And I believe it’s my responsibility as Good Samaritan to monitor the progress of my patient.”
Morris strained at the lead as he recognized the impending forward motion. The rope tied to his collar tightened around Helena’s hand. Seeing that both her hands were occupied with groceries and Morris, Neil good-naturedly slipped the bags from her hands and left Helena walking the dog, or rather being walked by him. Gradually the trio progressed toward the waterfront, led by an eagerly plunging Morris who clearly had never learned, or else had forgotten, the business of walking politely by his owner’s side. Finding an open bar facing the beach, the trio climbed the tiled entrance steps.
“He’s had a bit of a scare; he almost got run over, and we’d really like to keep him with us,” explained Neil with a beseeching and beguiling smile to the waitress, who promptly lost her glacial demeanor and placed them on wicker chairs around the counter. Helena looked around her in delight. She had taken few opportunities since her arrival to eat and drink in the more expensive establishments, and this eatery, while informal, was bright and pretty with its island décor. Soothing pastel prints splashed across the cushions were echoed by the short-sleeved shirts of the bar staff, moving with practiced ease among the clientele. The excited patter of tourists and locals was drowned out sporadically by the whirling of the blender as it mixed brightly colored, fruity-smelling drinks. Helena looked longingly at one particular concoction, a lemony-yellow, frothy drink crowned with a fruit-laden spear and tiny umbrella. Following her gaze, Neil smiled broadly, “How about one of those?” he suggested. She nodded enthusiastically. Leaning forward across the bar, he gesticulated at the bartender and motioned for two of the cocktails.
Few words had been exchanged between the two since being seated, and yet Helena felt strangely at ease with her companion. Having passed a few pleasant minutes in inspecting his new surroundings, Morris had settled in the shade of their chairs, head supported on front paws to begin surveillance of passers-by. It seemed that either Helena or Neil were always in contact with Morris, rubbing the canine’s large head and pointy ears. At one point, both leaned in to pat him simultaneously, and nearly knocked heads again.
“I’ve already had one of those today,” moaned Neil in mock-misery, pointing to his chin. “I think I’ll just let you have the next turn at the petting zoo.” Morris emitted a low grumble of contentment as Helena’s hand met with the fur at the scruff of his neck.
“How long have you had him?” she inquired, a trace of wistfulness in her voice. Helena loved animals of all types, especially dogs, and missed her weekend runs in the park with Julie and her best friend’s flighty Golden Retriever.
“I picked up Morris, or rather he picked me up on one of the Bahamian islands. He was just skin and bones, poor thing and seemed scared of his own shadow. At first, he wouldn’t even drink water from my cup, so I had to pour is out on the pavement. He circled and circled, watching me all the time until he felt safe enough to lap at the puddle. I’d seen him before outside a bar that I used to visit, um, rather a lot. And we got to have a little ritual with the water. I think old Morris knew he had me, hook, line, and sinker, the day he decided he was ready to take a drink from my cupped hands. I asked around but it seemed he was a stray. So the night before I left the island, I had Morris come hang out with me down by the dinghy dock. I’d brought a beefy bone to help along with the convincing, but when it was time to go he just jumped in of his own accord. And that was that. I don’t know who picked whom, but it’s worked out great. We went right to Nassau after leaving the island and found a vet. I had Morris checked out completely, vaccinated, and de-wormed, and then began feeding him whatever his poor stomach could keep down. Since then, he’s filled out nicely and seems pretty happy on the whole. Only thing is, he still seems a little nervous around other men. I don’t know, maybe he’s just being a guy, preferring the company of the opposite sex.”
Neil concluded his story with a fond tug at Morris’s ear. The dog leered upward with an adoring expression, then turned his attention and tongue to a close examination of his private parts. Neil shook his head laughingly. “See? Typical male. Totally driven by sex.”
At the word “sex,” Helena started slightly. While outwardly hanging on Neil’s every word, Helena had allowed a few of her still-unoccupied brain cells to process the visual information before her. The message relayed back to her indicated that her companion was indeed a very attractive one. The faded navy t-shirt, the hem of which he appeared to be using to absorb the sweat from his palms, was an attractive foil to his sparkling blue eyes. Emerging from a pair of old, creased khaki shorts, his thighs were well-muscled, the hairs on the skin golden against his tanned skin. As he spoke, Helena observed the curve of his mouth against his teeth, and found herself longing to touch his full lower lip. A lock of sun-bleached hair flopped forward, becoming stuck to his forehead by the beads of sweat that glistened there. She found herself wanting to see him push his hair back with an impatient gesture, his broad calloused fingers sliding purposefully front-to-back. But his hands, other than the ritual wiping on his t-shirt remained relatively still, reaching only occasionally for a glass in which the ice was rapidly melting. His eyes had not appeared to have left Helena’s face since they had sat, and under what appeared to be close scrutiny, she tried to find excuses to divert his attention elsewhere. She pointed out sailboats in the harbor, a dog fruitlessly chasing minnows in the shallows, and a pair of children attempting to skip rocks into the gentle waters. For several minutes, she breathed a sigh of what felt like relief, but wasn’t, when Neil, with some encouragement on her part, excused himself to talk to the children.
Turning her attention briefly to her beverage, she relished the smooth blend of rum, fruit juices, and coconut milk. What was that spice? And who was she kidding? With a scrape on the tiled floor that aroused Morris from a brief snoring reverie, she turned her chair to watch Neil and the children. He talked with them quietly, out of earshot, and all three smiled shyly. Neil seemed to ask them a question, and the response was a vigorous nodding of two brown heads. Then, he was bending low to one side, his wrist snapping forward as the small, flat rock left his hand and skipped five times across the waves before slipping under the water. Both of the children were eager to try his technique and ran about the beach, searching for the perfect stone before dropping their shoulders and launching their missiles. The man seemed to praise their efforts and both children were beaming when he shook their hands and turned to walk back up the sloping beach. As she waited for her companion to return, she counted the skips of the children’s stones. One, two, three, four.
“Sorry for abandoning you like that, Helena, but I’m glad you encouraged me to go. I know how frustrating it can be learning to do something for the first time. Sometimes it’s good to struggle through on your own but other times you persevere a lot longer with just a bit of guidance. I can see why you like teaching: giving them wings and all. How did you get your start?”
Helena launched somewhat tiredly into the explanation she had given many times: the family members who had become teachers, her early experiences volunteering in nursery schools, tutoring peers through high school, and finally, a failed experiment working as a nanny in Spain. After a few confusing months, she had gladly returned to Seattle, and after a brief stint in a coffee shop, had enrolled at Washington State the following term. The rest had followed quickly: an honor’s degree in Education, the immediate offer of a position at a needy, low-income elementary school, and her subsequent decision to accept the offer. While she had switched positions only twice since her first job, Helena continued to seek out those in high-needs school districts, preferring the company of children dealing with multiple challenges. Neil listened attentively, nodding and inserting salient questions at appropriate intervals. Despite her reservations, Helena found herself relaxing and talking more freely. When the question she had been dreading came, she was surprised by the ease with which she was able to respond with simplicity, conveniently omitting the most painful truths.
“So Helena, savior of runaway canines and problem children, what brings you to the beautiful Virgin Islands?“ came the query, along with a noticeable forward shift in posture. Their knees were almost touching. With just a casual shift in posture, she could…
“Ah, well, let’s just say it’s been a very long time since I’d taken a holiday. I’ve always been the one with my nose stuck to the travel-agent’s window, drooling over pictures of sandy beaches and drinks with little umbrellas.” She laughed, indicating her empty glass, and smiled more broadly as Neil gestured for another round.
“Anyway, it had been an unusually cold, wet winter, even for Seattle, with lots of sleet, and snow and ice. I was desperate for some warm weather and desperate for other changes as well. My girlfriend Julie, who’s a Web addict and a teacher to boot, is always looking on the ‘Net for job postings in more exotic locales. Well, when she found this one in St. John advertised, she phoned me immediately. It turns out she couldn’t leave her current contract due to some crazy clause, so I wound up applying. I’m fortunate enough to have an aunt who knows somebody who knows somebody else, so before you could say ‘nepotism is totally wrong where others are concerned,’’ I was here!”
As Helena reached for the fresh drink, she knocked her hand unnecessarily against Neil’s, and felt the electric tingle of the contact slide down her arm. “Down girl! ”she cautioned herself inwardly.
“Anyway,” she said, drawing herself up with straight-backed posture and winding up on a more formal, teacherly note, “I’m incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity. The Virgin Islands are beautiful, and I’ve been able to swim and snorkel, and kayak and cycle all around St. John. The school is wonderful, the kids are great, and I’ve met wonderful people who’ve become good friends. I’ll be sorry to leave come August.”
She averted her eyes momentarily, fighting the rising sense of loss she always experienced when contemplating her return to the mainland and all the loose ends that awaited her.
“But, why leave?” asked Neil with a quizzical expression, “From what I hear you’re doing a fantastic job at the school. I’m sure that the school board would gladly find you another position, maybe not on St. John, but on St. Thomas or St. Croix, for sure. Good teachers are hard to find.”
“Um, it’s not just that”, said Helena, struggling to find words while sipping furiously at the remains of her second drink, “It’s just that I need to go home and sort some things out. I have some unfinished business to attend to, I guess you could say.”
“Well, I hope it’s not another man,” said Neil with a smile that managed to convey impish teasing, wistfulness, and inquiry all at once. He reached out a finger, and to Helena’s mortification wiped from her chin a trickle of beverage that had missed her mouth.
“No, not really. Sort of. But not in that way. Not in a good way.” Her words trailed off as Neil reached for her hand and covered it gently with his.
“I know, sometimes it’s hard,” he said simply.
Helena smiled her gratitude and rejected the unstated invitation to elaborate. With what she hoped was not an obvious attempt to change the subject, she asked, “Well, what about you, mender of church floors and builder of school additions?” Helena cringed as she realized he had not told her about his activities on St. John. The painful price of gossiping, she thought ruefully. For a fleeting, desperate moment, she hoped that he would not realize she had been pumping others for information. He either didn’t seem to notice, or covered it well.
“Now that is a long story, Helena Travis, and definitely requires sustenance for the telling. How would you feel about dinner? My boat’s only a short drive away and I have all the fixings for a pasta dinner. What do you say?”
He was rising as he spoke, weighting a variety of small bills with their empty glasses, gathering Morris’s lead in one hand and Helena’s groceries in the other.
Helena faltered as she weighed her options. Among her college friends, she had been the notorious butt of campus jokes for her inability to tolerate large amounts of alcohol. Two drinks was one more than her usual, and she was already on the verge of feeling giddy. While both she and Julie had made careless decisions in the past regarding men, they counted themselves lucky, and had sworn a pact never to act rashly after a few drinks. Rather than giving herself an excuse to tear off his endearingly un-ironed shorts, and unwittingly open the door to possible heartbreak. Helena decided to play it safe.
“I’d love to,” she struggled to remain composed, “But I have a few errands to take care of before I go home and then a pile of grading waiting for me there. Rain-check?” Her words hung in the air momentarily as she registered the look of disappointment on her companion’s face.
“Absolutely. What about Friday, right after school? I’ll pick you up, show you the boat, and make you dinner, or take you out. Your choice?”
His face visibly relaxed as Helena beamed broadly and reached for her groceries. Happy Birthday to me, she thought. Maybe it doesn’t have to be complicated after all.
“I’d love that. Friday it is.” On impulse, she touched his arm briefly, and then bent to kiss the top of Morris’s head. “I’ll see you both then.”
As she turned and started to walk away, she found herself struggling to suppress the urge to skip and run. On the pretence of checking both ways before crossing the street, she glanced back in Neil’s direction. He and Morris were still standing where she had left them, broad human and doggy smiles firmly in place.
Island Recess, Chapter 6.
Helena rubbed her temple with a moan as the smile on her face relaxed, and she slumped against the door frame of the tiny classroom. Unaccustomed to the two drinks consumed with Neil the night before, and a rapidly following celebratory rum and coke chaser (or was that chasers?) poured upon arrival home, Helena’s body was in revolt. Returning to her desk, Helena rifled through her drawers until she found some aspirin. Locating the noxious brew that passed for coffee in the teacher’s lounge, she filled a mug with the fluid and plenty of sugar and speedily gulped the now-lukewarm beverage. While she adored her students, her relief today when the clock struck 3:30 was palpable. Despite her attempts to treat his attentions with the feigned casualness of the type of pouting-lipped, serial dating women profiled in the popular fashion magazines, Helena found her thoughts drifting with increasing frequency in the direction of Neil Streep. Scolding herself repeatedly for what she perceived to be weakness, she recalled that the invitation for dinner had come in the context of an expression of gratitude and not of romantic interest. Still, there had been moments when their eyes or flesh made contact during which she had been certain his intentions were not strictly, well, honorable. How Victorian, she laughed to herself, to be thinking of honor and virtue in the twenty-first century. Still, hard on the heels of an ass like Karl, a little knightly chivalry would be welcome. Despite the raging inferno that her hormones were becoming, Helena was rather glad that Neil had immediately respected her desire to post-pone their date, at the same time wondering if his interests weren’t lascivious after all. On the other hand, maybe a true knight just didn’t assume that every woman was easy prey. Smiling at the mixed metaphors of knights and jungles, she found herself humming lightly as she returned to the classroom for her knapsack.
An hour later, Helena was tapping gently on the door to Ben’s apartment. Under her free arm, she carried a bag containing two generously proportioned slices of the popular local treat, bread pudding. Rather than the ill-favored dessert of her childhood, this confection was a dense, moist cake, studded with raisins and served in thick slices. Ben’s grin expanded into a maze of wrinkles as he spied Helena through the crack in the door. Throwing the door open wide, he gripped Helena’s elbow tightly, ushering her into the dimly lit apartment. In the corner, the monitor of the computer seemed to beckon her with a screen-saver of darting tropical fish.
“I’ve brought afternoon tea,” Helena teased, waggling the bag between them. Her elderly landlord smiled with pleasure.
As if reading Helena’s mind, he then suggested, “You would like to use this computer while I put on some coffee, or tea?” Peeping inside the bag that Helena had handed over, he said with finality, “With bread pudding, always strong coffee.” Then, he waved vaguely in the direction of the computer and shuffled into the galley kitchen, clutching the bag in a weathered brown hand.
Pouncing immediately on the opportunity to check her e-mail, Helena seated herself at the computer and quickly logged onto the Internet. She accessed her e-mail account with practiced ease, and began scrolling through the messages, discarding without reading, junk mail and chain letters. Reading the title, “PLEASE READ THIS” and the author, Karl, she impulsively clicked beside the delete key. Then, with a sinking feeling, she realized that her actions may have been premature. The message following Karl’s was from Julie and read, “WATCH OUT FOR PSYCHOS!” Clicking on the highlighted text, she read the following:
Hey there, Island Girl! Hope all is well and that you are managing to keep your clothes on, at least at work. After hours, what you do with your clothing or without it is your business! On a serious note, thought you should know that Karl is still asking around about you. Your mom and I are playing the cat & mouse game with: hinting you’ve left St. John and are off on a tour of the Caribbean, etc. Still, he mentioned having a friend that works for one of the major airlines who he says can check on outbound flights. The more I hear from Karl, the more convinced I am (like I needed much, ha!) that you did the right thing leaving him. Okay, re: Mystery Man. Helena, I think you need to know who this guy is before you get too involved. Guys who are all mystery usually have something to hide (girlfriends, wives, domineering mothers, etc.) I digress. Anyway, Helena, I swear, if this one turns out to be another Godfather wanna-be, you will be banned from dating forever. Your dregs will become mine! Anyway, I called my cousin Alex in New York, you know, the one who works on the staff of that big architectural magazine:- Blue Prints. He asked around and he couldn’t find anyone who knew of a Neil Streep with a design or construction firm on the East Coast. He did say he’d met a few Neil’s on a casual social basis (“A few studs” was how he put it) but no one with a surname like Streep. That’s like Meryl Streep, right? Alex said, if he could see a picture of Neil, that he would show it around and see if anyone recognized him. After all, Alex knows everybody who’s anybody in the business. Especially if they’re cute! Anyway, if he doesn’t he’ll know someone who does. Can you possibly sneak a photo? If you can, and have access to a scanner, send it on to me and I’ll see what I can do. And Helena, for God’s sake, be c-a-r-e-f-u-l.. Love, Julie. P.S. Your mother said to remind you about using sunscreen.
Helena frowned absent-mindedly as she quickly composed a response. Hearing Ben’s slow steps behind her, she exited her e-mail account and rose to take her seat beside him on the wicker settee. While she and Ben chatted lightly about the events of the day, she found it more and more difficult to focus her attention on the conversation. Several times, she found herself asking to have a question repeated, or simply starting after a brief lull in what was becoming a monologue on Ben’s part. While she knew she should be primarily concerned with the threat of Karl’s potentially dangerous behavior, Helena found her thoughts increasingly consumed by the mystery surrounding Neil. Although every iota of her logical reasoning told her that Neil’s background could be as nefarious as Karl’s, her heart was pumping out a bewildering series of rationalizations. Maybe his business was too small for common knowledge. Maybe the local gossips were wrong about his home, or his occupation. Did she even catch his last name correctly? Was there any other way to spell “Streep?”
She had a date to keep and her body wouldn’t stop reminding her. Still, even the prospect of a strings-free fling with a near-stranger had her on edge. She needed to reassure herself that he was at least, “safe,” not a liar, not a criminal, and not a distraction that would have her free-falling to complete ruin. What she needed was the truth, and her investigative work, to date, had been half-hearted and utterly lacking in sophistication. If only she had taken some steps to investigate Karl’s background before their ill-fated alliance, her life in Seattle would still be intact. If she really wanted to protect her future interests, she was going to need to hone her detective skills.
Helena slumped in her chair with an involuntary moan. Ben frowned and looked at her with consternation, shaking his head slowly.
“Girl, I don’t know what’s into you tonight, but I think you be needin’ some early to bed. And don’t you be arguing with me, young lady.”
Helena put up a weak show of protest, secretly relieved that she would be able to devote the remainder of the evening to pondering the enigma Neil Streep appeared to present, and possibly to planning her date-night ensemble. With a tight hug for Ben, she left the apartment. To his aging eyes, his young neighbor seemed to dance up the stairs, taking each step with a light jump. He passed a shaking hand across his smiling face, and quietly closed the door behind her.
Helena entered her apartment with the first warning prickles of excitement sliding up the back of her neck. The doorknob still clenched in her hand, she glanced about. Her backpack lay by the settee, a fistful of papers bursting through the opening.
“Your mission, Helena, should you choose to accept it…” ran through her mind, as she knelt down and sifted through the bag’s contents until she located her old-fashioned camera. The telephoto lens was loose in the front pocket. Dumping the papers out on the floor, Helena noted ruefully that the majority had not yet been graded. If she hurried, she would be back in time to finish up her paperwork and still catch a few hours’ sleep. With her pack now empty, she replaced the camera and lens, and then waded through the papers to the tiny closet where she kept her clothes. Quickly selecting, and then just as quickly discarding wardrobe options, Helena soon had a small pile of clothing at her feet. Near the bottom of the pile was her garment of choice, a loose-fitting pair of khaki shorts with deep, buttoned cargo pockets at each side. Stripping to her bra and panties, Helena donned the shorts and paired them with a close-fitting tank top. Searching further, she was able to add a black ball-cap to the ensemble. Surveying herself in the mirror, Helena laughed. Dressed for her covert mission, she resembled a miscast guerilla in a B-grade action movie. She tossed the hat back up onto the shelf, fluffed out her hair and tied it back in a high ponytail.
Her heart was thudding against her chest as she took up her pack, slung it over her shoulders and fastened the strap about her waist. To the camera equipment, she added a light sweater, a notebook, and a hastily constructed sandwich of left-over tuna. The notebook had been included with a fit of hysterical laughter as Helena envisioned herself furiously scratching notes on the nocturnal activities of Mr. Streep from an ill-concealed hill-top perch. First locking up her apartment, Helena glanced about the hallway furtively before proceeding to tiptoe guiltily down the back stairs and out onto the street. Helena prayed fervently that Ben did not chance to glance out his window and witness her attempt to flee the building without his notice. There would be no “early to bed” for her this evening. Already racked with guilty feelings about abandoning the visit with her landlord so prematurely, Helena craned her neck for a sign of a passing cab. Seeing none, she began walking swiftly toward the trendy retail area of town and its collection of coral-colored buildings. Then she stopped, frowning in consternation. Where exactly was she heading? She couldn’t very well duck her head in the window of the first available cab and ask to be taken to the residence of the infamous Mr. Neil Streep, could she? Helena paused momentarily, screwing up her forehead in a desperate attempt to recall the pertinent details of their conversation over drinks. Neil lived on a boat, or so he had said. A passing reference had been made to its name: something Greek, she had thought at the time. Mentally, she kicked herself for not having paid closer attention. That afternoon, it now seemed, she had been more intent on guarding against drunken revelry than on investigating the mysterious background of Friday’s dinner date. Taking a deep breath, Helena considered the possibilities for mooring. The main anchorage, Cruz Bay, was also the terminal for the inter-island ferries. Noisy and crowded, Cruz Bay would be an unlikely choice for someone claiming to be seeking peace and solitude. Not to mention the fact that the bar at which they had sat the previous night looked out onto the bay. Surely, if his boat had been moored there, Neil would have taken pains to point it out. Absent-mindedly, Helena nibbled her fingertip as she pondered. On one of her bike rides around the island, she had stopped on a hill to snap a few photographs of the island and ocean extending beyond. Sighting a number of sailboats bobbing in the white-tipped waves, she had asked a passer-by the name of the cove. What was it now? She frowned in concentration.
“Coral Bay!” Helena exclaimed in triumph, causing a matronly-looking tourist to give her a wide berth and disdainful glance as she passed. Her heart began to pound as she saw a vague plan beginning to gel into a more plausible one. Hearing, rather than seeing the approach of a cab, heralded by the stereo thudding within, Helena turned and waved it to a stop.
“Coral Bay, please,” Helena requested as she opened the rear door and slid across the cracked vinyl bench to the opposite window. Despite her casual interchange of pleasantries with the talkative cabbie, Helena’s mind was focused on the task ahead. At a time when she often felt the abstinent life of a spinster schoolmarm loomed ahead, she was surprised to find herself so consumed by investigative exploits aimed at “clearing” possible lovers of possible wrongdoings. She could only imagine what the Board of Education would think of her decidedly un-teacherly conduct. Helena barely managed to suppress a snort of laughter as she pictured the tabloid cover: “Visiting Teacher Turns Peeping Tom.”
Hearing the moment of sudden laughter, the cabbie half-turned, then shook his head and re-focused on the road. Helena’s face in the rear-view mirror was flushed scarlet as she bit her lip to contain the nervous giggles. She could only imagine the spectacle she presented to an onlooker.
The cab slowed near the top of a hill sloping down toward the sea.
“Were you going down to the dock, Miss?” He inquired politely, but with a look of wariness on his plump face.
“Um, not exactly,” replied Helena, without elaborating further. “If you could just pull over around here, that would be great.”
All she needed at this point was a talkative cab driver revealing her bizarre mission to someone acquainted with Neil. Having paid the fare, Helena stepped out onto the roadside. The sidewalk ran down one side of the slope, which gave a clear view of the bay. More than a dozen sailboats ranging from single-handed jobs to luxury yachts swayed with the movement of the sea beneath them. Before she could focus her attention on her target, she would need to determine which boat belonged to Neil. She realized with a twinge of nervousness that she would need to wait until dusk to move much closer without risking discovery. Glancing to her right, she noticed a clutch of slender trees surrounded by low, lush bushes. If she were to move in amongst the foliage, she would at least be able to make use of her telephoto lens to sort out Neil’s boat from the others. Cautiously, she moved toward the trees, feigning casualness as she slung her pack onto both shoulders and proceeded to wade into the low brush. Ouch! She had not counted on thistles. Helena glanced down ruefully at the prickles nestled in her sock, and pushed on farther. Grabbing hold of the nearest tree trunk, she pulled herself from the patch of thistles, and into a nest of wild grass. Here, at least, was a place to sit down. Glancing back at the road through the minimal cover of grass and brush, Helena realized that her hiding spot was an abysmal one. She could only imagine herself, creeping forward through the undergrowth, telephoto lens poised for action, and Neil slipping up behind her with innocence in his eyes, and a “Helena, what a nice surprise!” on his lips. She shuddered involuntarily. At least there was no law against taking photographs. And it was a rather picturesque spot, after all. If cornered, she could always feign ignorance. In fact, she thought she could feign it rather well, having not the slightest clue who Neil Streep really was!
After several uncomfortable minutes passed in removing burrs from her socks and shoes, Helena unzipped her backpack, reached in and extracted her camera. Attaching the impressively proportioned telephoto lens, she adjusted the viewfinder on the bay before her. The difficulty in determining which of the vessels belonged to Neil was the fact that each of the boats riding the gentle swells seemed to be pointing in a different direction. How would she be able to read the name scripted on the hull if the bow and not the stern was facing her? Her glance swept the bay, the late afternoon rays of the sun tilting off the lens and making the surface of the water dance in sparkling waves. One of the boats, moored slightly away from the others, caught Helena’s attention. It was small and neat, its white trimmed with wood which gleamed in the sunlight. The waves rocked it gently, making it difficult to read the calligraphy across the stern. By training her lens on the boat, and trying to ignore the sickening effects of the moving writing, Helena at last was able to read the name. Yes! It was the one. Odyssey. She had thought the name was Greek, but only because it reminded her of the mythical hero Odysseus. Then, she remembered how Neil had explained the origin of the moniker: Homer’s Odyssey. Biting her lip with excitement, Helena snapped a photo of the boat, then stood, moved a little to her right, and snapped another, and another.
The sun was sinking lower on the horizon, and the sky was becoming suffused with tinges of pink and mauve. She had seen no human movement on the Odyssey, and decided to venture from her hiding spot to find another, closer to her target. As she emerged from the prickly underbrush, she heard the rumble of an approaching vehicle, followed quickly by the appearance of an ancient Jeep rounding the corner. To Helena’s horror, the passenger seat was occupied by Neil Streep. The vehicle began to slow as it headed toward the dock area.
Turning swiftly in the direction of the treed grove, Helena put her hand to her forehead, shading her eyes and feigning great interest in the scenery beyond. Staring intently into the distance, she was certain that she was striking a ridiculous pose. The vehicle and its passengers seemed not to notice, however, and passed by with no give-away toot of the horn or friendly call. Helena exhaled deeply in relief, and then took a step back from the walkway as she continued to observe the actions of Neil and the driver. Raising her camera again to her eyes, Helena watched as Neil jumped from the vehicle and reached into his pocket. With a quick hand, he extricated a small package and handed it to the driver, who received it with a nod and a flash of white teeth. After a moment, the driver, whose features were obscured by a close-fitting black cap, then handed Neil what appeared to be folded bills held between extended fingers. The two waved briefly as the jeep made a tight right turn, and with a roar of the engine, returned back up the slope to the main road.
Behind the protruding lens, Helena’s eyes widened. She blinked several times, as if to verify what she had just witnessed. A package and what appeared to be money had changed hands. What was in the package? Helena’s mind reeled with possibilities. This certainly was an odd place to conduct legitimate business. Her skin prickled with a chill of apprehension.
The sun had dipped low against the horizon. Helena knew she was unwise to linger much longer, but against her better judgment, she was determined to have her suspicions confirmed, or erased. She watched as Neill strolled toward a small dock to which several dinghies were tied. Approaching the nearest, he deftly untied the knot securing the vessel to a plank of the dock, stepped into a wooden rowboat and dipped a pair of oars into the waves. Under Neil’s powerful strokes, the dinghy pulled away from the dock and headed in the direction of the Odyssey, leaving a v-shaped swath in its wake. Helena waited nervously, the back of her neck tingling with anticipation as Neil reached the Odyssey, tied his dinghy to the side, and clamored aboard. Within minutes, he had disappeared from view.
Lowering her head, Helena emerged onto the sidewalk, feigning absorption in the camera she clutched in her hands. She kept her steps toward the water’s edge casual but determined. If asked her purpose by a passer-by, Helena intended to indicate a photo-journalistic endeavor. Hands shaking, Helena had difficulty maintaining her grip on the camera. Reaching the wooden dock, Helena glanced casually in the direction of the Odyssey. She wished fervently for the cover of the hat she had recklessly tossed aside back at the apartment. Having seen the driver of the Jeep in a similar model, Helena supposed that these were considered fashionable island gear for the shadier element. Quivering with nervous tension, Helena lowered herself casually to the dock, dipping her tanned legs in the warm water. The Odyssey was now no more than 100 meters away. Gazing in the direction opposite to Neil’s boat, she snapped a few photos, pretending to take great care with the composition of each shot. Then, ever so slightly, she eased her lens back toward the Odyssey. What she saw, nearly made her drop the camera. Neil Streep was standing at the stern of the boat, apparently shampooing his hair with the aid of a bucket of water. He was, undeniably, stark naked, brown as a berry, and gleaming impressively in the rays of the setting sun. The camera lens whirred as Helena desperately clicked off several photos. Just as she prepared to take a final shot of his lean, tanned body, Neil Streep turned to face the camera and looked straight at Helena. Pulling her legs from the water, Helena struggled to her feet. Flushing crimson, she turned and made an awkward lunge toward the dock’s edge, missed her footing, and fell flat. Her camera landed, uninjured in the dirt beyond. Scrambling to gather the expensive equipment and replace it around her neck. Helena fumbled her retreat further. Finally, equipped with her belongings, she began a graceless lope back up toward the road. She could almost hear the phantom laughter dogging her footsteps. Reaching the main road, Helena paused momentarily to catch the breath that surged raggedly through her lungs. On a perverse impulse, she turned back for a final glimpse of the Odyssey and its occupant. In the last dying rays of sunlight, she caught the unmistakable glint of a pair of binoculars. They were trained in her direction.
Island Recess, Chapter 7.
Helena tapped her foot nervously, glancing at her watch every few minutes as if doing so would hasten the maddeningly lethargic movements of the clerk behind the counter. She had intentionally waited until the late-afternoon shift at the tiny mail-drop/computer service, knowing that the new staff member would be on. Helena most emphatically did not want one of the regulars catching wind of the bizarre fax transmission she hoped to send. While she had planned to use Ben’s scanner, Helena did not want to further jeopardize their relationship by impinging once more on the landlord’s hospitality. She also desperately wished to keep her current transaction anonymous. Processing the roll of film had been perilous enough, and had necessitated a late afternoon journey to St. Thomas where hopefully no one would recognize Helena or the subject of her photographic expose. Under cover of preparing materials for her students, Helena had then used the school copier to make a Xerox of one of the photographs she had taken of Neil Streep. First enlarging the image, she had then cropped the below-the-waist portion of the photocopy so that the final result was a head-and-shoulders shot taken full-on. She had then pasted the image to a blank sheet of paper and penned a hasty note to Julie in the space below.
Attention Julie Hamish (the note read) ~ As you requested, a sample portrait from my portfolio. Please contact me should you be interested in seeing other examples of my photography. Sincerely, Helena Travis.
When Helena finally reached the front of the line, she handed the photocopy and a scrap of paper bearing Julie’s fax number to the jaded-looking young clerk. The girl accepted the copy with a heavy sigh, and to Helena’s chagrin, turned it over to peruse the image. She gave the photo a thorough examination, sweeping the image repeatedly from top to bottom.
“Nice,” said the clerk.
“Thanks, I’m a photographer on assignment, in, um, the islands,” said Helena ludicrously, blushing darker with each word.
“Actually, I meant the guy. He’s gorgeous,” remarked the clerk, eyeing Helena with what appeared to be considerable distain. She returned her eyes to the photo.
“Oh, yes, well, professional model, you know,” faltered Helena, praying fervently that the girl would just get on with her job instead of brandishing about a photo that could well land her in a heap of trouble.
Instead, the girl persevered, forehead wrinkling as she studied the image further.
“Actually, he looks awfully familiar,” she said pensively, as she finally turned around and inserted the paper in the fax machine.
“Well, don‘t we all,” said Helena, striving by a firm tone to establish the fact that she was at least a decade older than the clerk, and as such, entitled to a little respect.
“I guess,” drawled the girl, handing Helena her change and losing interest in the transaction as she focused her sights on the attractive young man next in line.
Helena felt her face beginning to burn as she turned and left the store. The unaccustomed shenanigans had turned her stomach to water. Against her flushed face, the air was cool and damp, smelling of impending rain. The past two mornings, Helena had awakened to the sound of rain pelting against the balcony windows. Gray skies and looming thunderheads were becoming regular fixtures each morning and afternoon, and the fat droplets that pocketed the ground were falling more heavily with the passage of each day. She recalled how Neil had said he had chosen his boat moorage to provide shelter in case of hurricane. Apparently, the locals referred to the cove as a “hurricane hole.”
For seemingly the hundredth time since school had let out that afternoon, Helena checked her watch. She had been unclear as to the specifics of their dinner date until the day before yesterday when Neil had once again made a surprise appearance outside her classroom window.
“So how about six,” a disembodied voice had uttered shortly after the departure of her last student.
Helena had started, the gasp catching in her throat as she sighted the source framed by the narrow window. Neil’s face, streaked with perspiration and smudges of dirt had smiled up at her from between the slats.
“Six what?” she had countered, stalling for time.
“Six o’clock,” he had smiled back, shaking his head slightly as if in disbelief at her tactics. “For Friday. Dinner, remember? Are we still on?”
“Of course, that’d be great. Do you want to meet here, or at the bo…” Helena’s words had trailed off, as she realized with a start she wasn’t supposed to know the boat’s location.
‘ “I’ll come pick you up. Here or at your place? What’s better for you?”
Remembering her mother’s cautionary wisdom in preventing future stalking behaviors, Helena had chosen the former. Now, she had but a half an hour to return to the school, and try to bring some semblance of order to her disheveled appearance. Mounting her bicycle, she clipped her helmet over her tousled hair, pushing her curls away from her face and fastening the clip at the side of her face. She pushed off, beginning to pedal more furiously as she realized her linen shorts were already spattered with mud from the ride down. Now she would have to change her clothes as well. She prayed fervently that one of Neil Streep’s virtues was not punctuality.
By the time she arrived at the school, her sandals were also flecked with dark streaks. Dismounting from her bike, she surveyed last night’s hasty pedicure with a rueful eye. The crimson enamel was already chipping around the edges. Sighing heavily, she glanced around the courtyard. No sign yet of Mr. Streep. Unlocking the door to her classroom, she entered, hauling a heavy bike pannier behind her. Huddled behind her desk, she quickly extracted from her bag a rather crinkled black linen shift. Kneeling on the floor, she worked off her sandals, and awkwardly stripped off her t-shirt and shorts. Clad only in bra and panties, she struggled with the zipper of the short black dress. A rattle of the door knob quickly diverted her attention. Looking desperately to left and right, she decided on a straight-ahead course of action, and crawled under her desk, hauling her dress after her.
“Helloo,” came the call as the door squeaked open. Neil. She should have realized he would be early.
“Um, just give me a sec,” Helena called out, striving for a casual tone as she prayed fervently for instant beauty or a few more minutes alone.
“Okay, I’ll just be over here,” came the voice, which appeared to be traveling along the far wall of the classroom. From under the desk, Helena monitored the progress of a pair of navy blue deck shoes as they strolled past a display of student work. Now what was she to do? Giving the zipper a hard tug, Helena heard it part, and in a brief tug-of-war with the garment, somehow managed to get it over her head and fastened up the back.
“Helena, what are you doing?” declared a mystified Neil who was, as she predicted from the absence of feet anywhere within visual range, directly behind her. Backing out from under the desk, Helena grumpily muttered,
“Well, you said you were staying over there.”
“Nice to see you too, Ms. Travis,” laughed Neil, extending a hand and pulling Helena to her feet. “And you look wonderful as well.” Helena looked down at her bare, muddied feet and wrinkled dress, now covered with dust from the floor, and broke into laughter.
“I think wonderful would be a decided exaggeration,” she choked out, attempting to brush some of the dust off the black fabric. She knocked her sandals against the edge of her desk, allowing the dried mud to flake off onto the floor, and then slipped her feet into them.
“Ready?” inquired Neill, tucking Helena’s free arm into his.
“As ready as I’m going to be, I guess,” said Helena, a touch regretfully, as he walked her past the curling iron, can of hair spray, and tumble of make-up products lying untouched on her desk.
Taking a deep breath, Helena left the security of the classroom and walked with Neil into an evening that was sultry and ripe with promise. As she turned to lock up the classroom, her body brushed against his, and she willed herself to take her time. The muscles of his arm against hers felt solid and reassuring, and she nestled in more snugly, relaxing against the broad slope of his shoulder.
“By the way, I like that hat. Shows you’re up for anything,” said Neil cheekily, as Helena turned to lock up the classroom.
Eyebrows raised quizzically, she reached her hands to her head, and felt her bike helmet still in place. Helena groaned loudly and landed a playful slap on Neil’s khaki-clad posterior. Undoing her helmet with one hand she allowed it to swing freely from her fingers as they crossed the courtyard to Neil’s truck. A light patter of rain was beginning to fall, streaking the windshield with a sliding pattern of droplets. In the distance, the clouds huddled in gray clutches, darkening the horizon. As Neil started the truck, the drizzle increased steadily, obscuring the windshield between sweeps of the wiper blades. Seated beside Neil, Helena felt suddenly self-conscious. The hem of her skirt seemed to rise with her every movement, dragging up her muddied legs. While she was striving to avoid eye contact, she thought her peripheral vision detected a few covert glances on Neil’s part. Secretly, she congratulated herself on having shaved her legs beyond her calves.
“So, Helena, this is kind of weird,” said Neil abruptly, “But I have the oddest feeling I saw you a couple of nights ago.”
“Ooh,” said Helena in horror and for want of anything more profound to say. Then, just a quickly, she mustered up, “Oooh, ah, where do you think you saw me?”
“Well, that’s the weird part. I thought I saw you down by my boat. You were wearing a kind of guerilla warfare looking outfit, something black and tight and boots or something. You looked kind of sexy but you obviously didn’t see me because you didn’t wave or say ‘hello.’ Unless it wasn’t you at all. In which case, the person I saw wasn’t all that sexy. I mean, they weren’t all that sexy if they weren’t you.” He concluded his speech breathlessly and with a degree of fluster.
Helena was struggling to come up with a half-truth that would somehow divert Neil from this topic of conversation. And then, she had it. Or at least something that would suffice for the time being.
“Oh!” she exclaimed loudly, “No, that wasn’t me at all. I’ve been home safe and sound every single night. You must have seen my ‘double.’ Everyone’s been talking about how there’s this girl, who looks just like me,” Helena continued to gabble on frantically. “Anyway, I’ve been hoping to see her, because you know, we’re all supposed to have someone, somewhere who’s our double. And maybe she’s mine,” she finished up breathily. Realizing with a start that her half-truth was more ridiculous than sufficient, she fell silent and prayed the topic would miraculously change itself.
They had come to a stop-light and Neil turned to look at Helena oddly. He raised his eyebrows momentarily before giving his full attention back to the road.
“I was just so sure,” he said slowly. They were climbing a hill now, a climb that Helena knew led to a turn, and then to a downward slope toward the docks.
Suddenly seeming to dismiss the notion of having seen Helena here two nights before, Neil began pointing out the sights.
“Just over this ridge and then we’ll be almost there,” he said with a wink in Helena’s direction. “I love the view from this point. It feels like you can see practically forever. It’s always wonderful seeing my boat from a distance. It makes me feel even more excited that she’s mine.” Neil grinned, almost boyishly, Helena thought, and his tanned face crinkled up around his bright blue eyes.
Down the hill they drove, the old truck squeaking as it bounced over the uneven pavement.
“How do you manage to keep both a boat and a truck?” Helena asked impulsively, as Neil parked the vehicle just off the side of the road. “I can’t even afford a car, anymore.”
“Oh, the truck’s not mine,” he offered, swinging out of the driver’s seat and coming around to open Helena’s door. “I’m just borrowing it from a friend of mine while I’m here working.”
The rain had lifted to a slight mist. Helena could already detect the wild spring of her curls in the humidity.
“Okay, here we are. Now, I hope you don’t mind getting a little, um, wet,” uttered Neil with waning optimism as he surveyed Helena’s tailored shift dress.
“Linen doesn’t shrink in the rain, does it?” he inquired with a look of chagrin on his handsome face.
“I’m impressed with your familiarity with fabrics, and no, I don’t think it’ll shrink,” returned Helena, grinning gamely.
They walked slowly down toward the dock, the wet mist clinging moistly to their skin. When Helena felt Neil’s hand touch hers briefly, she responded to the invitation by entwining her fingers with his. Detective or not, she was still very much a woman, and the attraction between them was becoming harder to deny. Reaching the end of the dock, Neil indicated a faded blue row-boat.
“That’s the little’un,” he explained with a smile, steadying the boat as Helena awkwardly stepped down onto the tilting surface. He followed quickly, lowering himself gracefully into the wobbling vessel, and leaning back to untie its mooring. He pushed off from the dock with a well-muscled forearm, and began a smooth, rhythmic rowing. The little boat seemed to glide through the waves of the bay as he stroked toward the boat Helena already knew was the Odyssey.
“Here she is,” declared Neil with blush. It had obviously been laundry day yesterday, as the lifelines of the Odyssey were festooned with a row of flapping towels in various stages of fading.
“I guess I should have taken those down before it started raining,” he laughed, cringing slightly as if anticipating criticism.
“She’s beautiful, Neil,” Helena said simply. The grin that touched his mouth was generous, bracketing his teeth with smiling lines.
A sudden deep woof broke the momentary silence. Helena laughed.
“I guess you already have company,” she said with a joking pout.
“Just Morris. He’s still a little shy on the boat. Not quite ready to come up the stairs without a helping hand.”
With his guidance and steadying hand, Helena held onto the lifeline and managed to mount the metal ladder barefoot. Stepping down into the cockpit, she looked around with pleasure. The deck of the Odyssey was laid in planks of teak, polished smooth and gleaming under what looked to be many thick coats of varnish. Under a shady bimini of sun-bleached fabric, the deck and the cockpit seats remained dry and inviting. Helena felt Neil’s hand touch her back briefly as he invited her to have a seat, and rather than stiffening up reflexively as she had done so many times before, she allowed her body to relax. She leaned into the space below and shouted a greeting to Morris. His response was a slow string of deep barks. Excusing himself, Neil disappeared momentarily below deck, returning minutes later with a bottle of red wine and two paper cups.
“Sorry about the fine stemware,” he grimaced in mock-shame, “But glass and boats don’t mix too well. Especially not in a storm.”
The wine was smooth and rich against her tongue, and Helena relaxed against the cockpit seat, tucking a foot up under her. Seated across from her, Neil smiled with obvious pleasure as he sipped his drink. His palm was open in his lap, and Helena for the first time observed a tiny, faded tattoo at his wrist.
“Do you mind my asking what your tattoo is of?”
Neil’s smiled seemed to falter, but he extended his hand to Helena who traced the faded black ink with a light fingertip. It appeared to be the letter “S” scripted in a heavy font and enclosed in a circle.
Turning his hand over, he patted Helena’s thigh. “It’s nothing. Frat boy thing from years ago.”
Pointing across the water, he indicated the lights beginning to twinkle in the windows of the town. From this distance, St. John became a small town beauty whose age and areas of neglect were softened by the light behind her. Night was falling and a light wind scudded across the water, chasing the cloud off toward the north. Tugged by the breeze, a few strands of hair fluttered across Helena’s face. Setting his drink down on the deck, Neil reached across to tuck them behind her ear. Helena laughed, a trifle crazily, she immediately thought,.
“It seems like you’re always doing that,” she said by way of explanation.
“I like doing that,” he said with a roguish laugh, as he tucked a finger under her chin and tilted her face to his. She was on the verge of puckering her lips, when, to her surprise, he planted a chaste peck on her forehead and declared that it was time to begin cooking.
“Come on down,” he invited, taking her glass. Grasping her hand, he helped her get a start down the narrow ladder to the galley. Morris scuttled across the slowly tilting floor, pushing his big head against Helena’s free hand. She knelt down in the narrow space, rubbing his ears vigorously, before planting a kiss on his black nose. Then, she stood, balancing herself against the ladder and gazing about her. Stepping into the dimly lit galley was like entering a favorite room in an old library. Into every conceivable nook of space seemed to be built a warren of bookshelves. Helena walked through the space in wonder, touching the spines of familiar and much-loved books. Sliding a copy of Love Sonnets from the Portuguese from the shelf, she cleared away a pile of maps, and perched on a corner of the settee, flipping happily through the well-thumbed pages.
“Read something to me,” called Neil between clatters of battered aluminum pots.
“Okay,” she said, turning the pages furiously, and blushing to the very roots of her hair as she scanned the romantic titles.
“How do I love the, let me count the ways…” she began in a trembling voice.
“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach…” he continued breathily. Glancing up, Helena noted with satisfaction that Neil too was blushing.
“I just love Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry,” he said abruptly. “She was just such a, a…” He struggled to find the right words.
‘Such a great poet?” inquired Helena laughingly, smiling up at him. “Exactly. A great poet she was,” he said with a relieved grin. Glancing around her, Helena took in the neatly upholstered cozy settee, cluttered little galley kitchen and snug v-berth just visible through a half-opened door. She guessed, correctly, that the door also concealed the toilet facilities. The “head,” she had heard it called. The whole of the Odyssey would have fit neatly inside the front hall of Karl’s opulent townhouse. At this point, she was willing to give up Karl’s Seattle townhouse, Colorado condo, and Maine summer home for one uncomplicated night with a man who at least on the surface, appeared to be a gentleman. And a lover of birds and dogs. And now, apparently, poetry. The gentle rise and fall of the boat as it rocked on the small waves, made Helena feel relaxed and peaceful. A pot on the stove was beginning to simmer quietly and the delicious smells of cooking garlic and tomatoes wafted through the tiny space. As she gave up her coy pretence, and openly watched Neil preparing the simple meal, she caught a glimpse of a small, simply framed painting hanging from a nail overhead. Still a little awkward on her feet from the unaccustomed movement of the boat, she moved slowly toward the painting and leaned in to examine it more closely. The strokes of acrylic were laid thickly on the small canvas, depicting a simple domestic scene in warm autumn hues of crimson and gold. Centered in the middle of the canvas was the image of a woman in a doorway, a welcoming smile touching her lips. Around her, the rustic cabin stretched to woods on either side, fall leaves touched by a golden autumn light.
Helena gazed at the painting for a moment, and then turned to Neil with a quizzical tilt of her head.
“Did you paint this?” she inquired
“A long, long time ago,” he responded, forehead wrinkling as he gave his attention to a row of neatly bracketed spices. He was quiet for a moment, and Helena suspected that he had been embarrassed by the question.
“Who’s the girl?” she persisted, moving back to the edge of the settee and watching Neil’s face as it contorted momentarily, with what emotion, she knew not.
“Well, I can’t really say who she is. She’s not anyone real. Not anyone from my past. I guess she’s someone I once hoped might be part of my future.”
They did not speak for several minutes, the words hanging awkwardly between them. The dinner preparations seemed to have come to a temporary standstill. Neil leaned against the counter, gripping the wooden lip with white-knuckled hands. On impulse, Helena rose, and moved into place beside him, grasping hold of the sink basin to steady herself.
“Need a hand with dinner?” she queried quietly, motioning toward the stove. Neil didn’t respond immediately, but removed a hand from the counter, and placed it at the small of her back. She was aware of his broad fingers spreading over her linen-clad skin. They stood that way for a moment, side by side, locked in place by the curve of Neil’s arm. The steam from the boiling pan of water made the air seem suddenly dense. She could feel her face flushing in the heat, and damp tendrils of hair clinging to her forehead. Breathing deeply, she sensed, rather than saw, the slight incline of the blonde head beside hers as he bent toward her. He pulled her toward him, grasping her waist like a life-line and pressing his lips urgently against hers. His skin tasted of salt, and his mouth was warm and damp from the steam of the galley. Helena’s mouth opened to the gentle probing of his tongue, welcoming him as she reached up and pulled his head into hers. Her fingers twined in his hair, holding him in place as they kissed more deeply. He backed her away from the stove, bending her gently to the settee. Cradling her in his arms, he ran a hand lightly down her linen clad back, stopping to cup and squeeze her buttocks with trembling fingers. The hem of her loose shift slid easily up her bare thighs, exposing her bare skin to the humid warmth of the cozy galley. Wantonly, she wrapped a leg around Neil’s chino-clad calf, pulling his body more tightly against hers. She gasped as the movement of his fingers shifted from her dress to her bare thigh. Against her pubis, she could feel the length of his cock, long and hard and hungry. She gasped sharply as his fingers met the silken edge of her panties and pushed past.
“Damn it!” he erupted abruptly, pulling away quickly. Helena pushed herself up on her elbows, momentarily chagrined, until she noticed the pot of pasta bubbling merrily all over the stove and onto the counter. Morris chose this opportunity to take up a chorus of howls which he maintained through the fits of human laughter. Helena leaned against the settee, giggling with near hysteria as she noted the fact that her host’s chino pants were doing absolutely nothing to mask his erection. Flushing furiously, Neil turned around and shook his finger teasingly at Helena. She glanced down, taking note of her shift bunched around her hips and her undeniably damp panties. Primly, she smoothed down her skirt, giving Neil her best school-marmish look.
“I think ‘damn it’ best sums up the situation,” she said with a smile.
“Let’s eat, and then figure out what to do about dessert,” he countered with an attempt to raise an eyebrow in mock villainy.
“I can hardly wait,” shot back Helena in her best Mae West voice.
Island Recess, Chapter 8.
Helena was more than a little aware of the warmth of Neil’s thigh pressed against her own as she twirled a forkful of pasta against a spoon. She tried hard not to sneak glances at what lay in the shadow of the table overhanging Neil’s lap. Instead, she concentrated on what she usually used to sublimate her sexual desires: food! The garlicky clam sauce tasted wonderful in combination with the red wine Neil had decanted into a new pair of paper cups. Sighing comfortably, Helena scooped up a lingering pool of pasta sauce and popped it into her mouth, savoring the blend of herbs and spices. From the corner of her eye, she caught Neil’s warmly appraising glance, and returned it with a smile. Flushing like the proverbial school girl, she chastised herself with a grimace. Although the moment of reckless sexual abandonment had passed like an unfortunate hiccup, the naked longing had remained, accompanied by a strange sense of familiarity which had Helena struggling to keep her inner romantic firmly tethered to terra firma. Since she was already rocking on the waves, so to speak, Helena was finding the keeping of balance more difficult than she had imagined.
Their conversation flowed easily around islands of comfortable silence, marked only by the scraping of cutlery as their meal drew to a close. Torn between her desire to tear off Neal’s clothes and drag him to the bedroom, or ‘stateroom’ as he called it, and her continuing need to unravel the mystery he presented, Helena decided to take the platonic route. Normally somewhat reticent around unfamiliar people, Helena found herself beginning to talk of her recent past and of Karl and their broken engagement. While she felt ludicrously awkward even alluding to the topic of marriage, she soon lost her shyness. Propelled onward by Neil’s sympathetic interest, she plunged further into the tale, divulging her uncovering of Karl’s infidelities and discovery of the true nature of her fiancé’s business dealings. She hoped that Julie, had she been present, would not have been making giggling comments about “verbal diarrhea” and “too much information.” Sometimes Helena, once set in motion, had as difficult a time reining in her words as a cowboy with a bronco.
As the conversation fell into a momentary lull, Neil ventured cautiously, “What made you first suspect that Karl was involved in something illegal?”
Helena glanced at his face. The dim lights of the cabin cloaked his expression in shadows.
Swallowing deeply, Helena strove for a falsely brave tone.
Tossing the words off with an attempt to be casual, she said, “He was just so very rich, you know, and it wasn’t like his family had any money to speak of. I never really understood precisely what he did for a living. I mean, he had an office, and employees, and all the rest, but it seemed a bit vague, what they all actually did. I mean, I know it sounds horribly naïve…”
She laughed falteringly.
“But I just kind of accepted that he was involved in some kind of import/export business, which is what he called it, and closed my eyes to the things that didn’t fit. And believe me, the things that didn’t fit suddenly became everything he did: making late night ‘private’ phone calls, and spur-of-the-minute trips to God-knows-where, and bizarre, seemingly paranoid allegations of having been watched or followed wherever he, or we, went.”
Neil’s face, caught by the light, looked saddened. Helena took a deep breath and continued.
“I suppose things finally hit rock bottom when I accessed Karl’s personal e-mail account and realized I wasn’t in Kansas, so to speak, anymore.” She giggled nervously. Neil laid down his fork and moved his hand to Helena’s wrist, where he traced gentle lines over her bare skin.
“When I finally opened my eyes, I saw the things I had not seen, or had previously chosen to deny or rationalize away. A metal briefcase handcuffed to a late night visitor’s wrist, white powder grains continually appearing on our glass coffee table, and Karl’s wildly erratic moods: irritable one moment, and pumping with energy the next.”
Helena stared down at her fingers, and brought her thumb to her mouth, where she began to bite a torn edge of nail. Neil reached toward her and gently removed her thumb, taking her hand in his own, and lacing his fingers between hers. She squeezed his hand gratefully.
“I had always known he had a handgun in the house, and at his office as well, for protection he said, but when he started wearing it all the time, in a holster under his suits, it was harder for me to accept that a businessman needed that kind of protection. Then, there were the desk drawers I wasn’t to open, a safe I didn’t know the combination to, and a phone with an outside line I wasn’t to answer. The list goes on and on.”
Neil was shaking his head slowly, his mouth compressed. Helena tried to catch his eye, looked searchingly into his face, but couldn’t read the expression she found there. She sighed deeply.
“I really was a fool, wasn’t I?”
This time, his face seemed to open. He smiled gently and caressed the line of her cheek with a work-roughened finger.
“Just trusting, I think, Helena. No one can judge you for being too trusting. We all do foolish things when we think we’re in love.”
His words hung between them. The silence that descended was as gentle and easy as the warm breeze at the open door. Inwardly, Helena was hugging herself. He said the ’l’ word, she thought to herself with a sudden and irrational burst of pleasure at hearing the word uttered in a companionable and comfortable space and time.
They sat quietly for several minutes, fingers twined together. Then, Neil moved restlessly, shifting his weight. Taking his movement as a cue, Helena released his hand and stood to gather up the dirty dishes and cutlery. Before she could move away, Neil put a hand against her hip and abruptly pulled her toward him. His hand wrapped around her thigh as she stood over him, crumpled paper cups still clenched in her hand.
“Leave those for now,” he said huskily.
She could feel the warm pressure of his kiss through her linen shift, and turned her body toward the movement of his lips. His breath against her belly was hot as he kissed his way gently from her navel to the junction of her thighs. Helena gasped sharply as his mouth grazed her mound through the fabric of her dress. Then, his hands moved lower still, caught the hem of her shift and pushed it upward, bunching it against her waist with one hand. With his free hand, he stroked the fabric of her panties, feeling and admiring her shape through the silky barrier. His hand moved to her bottom, gently cupping her as his mouth approached her bare thighs. Moaning with pleasure, Helena felt her legs pulling apart as she arched her back, and reached for the support of the settee. His mouth moved smoothly around the elastic of her panties, alternately licking and kissing her damp skin. When he softly kissed her clit through the fabric, she cried out with pleasure. Then, his hand was inside her panties, pushing them down over her hips, leaving her exposed to the probing of his tongue. His fingers swept gently over the flesh of her buttocks and between her thighs, spreading her wetness over her lips, and teasing the entrance of her hole, with tiny, delicate thrusts. Then, his tongue was between her legs, licking in long, loving strokes, over and over until he worked his way to her swollen nub. Helena felt her knees begin to buckle as his tongue circled her sex, lips drawing her throbbing core into his mouth. Hands buried in the thick locks of Neil’s hair, Helena moaned as he spun her into a vortex of pleasure. Alternately lapping at and sucking on her clit, Neil slid a wet finger inside her and explored gently until he was pressing on and then firmly rubbing her g-spot. Her knees began to buckle as she felt her orgasm swiftly building. Then, with an explosive cry, Helena’s body convulsed as Neil’s arms encircled her hips, pulling him against her and drawing out her climax until she felt the orgasm had been completely drained from her body. Panting, she collapsed against him.
As Neil relaxed his hold, Helena slid down onto the settee beside him. He slid an arm around her shoulders and drew her closer to him. With his free hand, he stroked her cheek gently. Helena was at a loss for words.
“Oh my God,” she exhaled, in what sounded like a parody of the eighties’ Valley Girl. “Thank you…”
Helena found herself snuggling up against his chest, reveling in the tightening of the arm embracing her.
“No need to thank,” he responded, “The pleasure is in the giving.” He smiled down at her and kissed her softly on the top of her head.
Tilting her head, Helena sought out Neil’s mouth, and kissed him wantonly, probing his mouth with the tip of her tongue.
“I think it’s your turn, now,” she said without a trace of coquettishness. “Or perhaps both our turns?” She laughed softly, then placed a hand on Neil’s thigh, passing it over the sinewy muscles to the rigid heat of his erect penis. A small moan escaped his lips and then he said softly,
“I can’t think of anything I’d like more, but I really want this to be just for you. It’s Helena’s night, and from what you’ve told me, you deserve to be on the receiving end of something good.”
She was about to erupt with a hearty snicker, when she looked down at Neil’s face and saw that he was serious. The desire to laugh at what she had perceived to be only a corny joke was replaced with wonder. He raised her wandering hand to his lips and kissed it gallantly, the tremor of his mouth a betrayal of his need for her. Then he wrapped his arms more tightly around her and held her close against the beating of his heart.
As they half-sat, half-lay together on the settee, their conversation was quiet and slow, a gentle probing of each other’s history and dreams for the future. To her surprise, Helena found that Neil was completely unguarded about his upbringing. He spoke of an idyllic childhood on the Eastern seaboard, and his earliest memories of white-washed summer cabins, creaky rowboats, and fishing expeditions with his father.
Neil seemed to be proud of the relationship he maintained with his parents, and honored them by conveying his admiration for their accomplishments. Despite her best attempts not to do so, Helena was already warming to the idea of a mother who was a master cabinet-maker and baker of chocolate chip cookies. Prospective mother-in-law, she could imagine herself telling Julie. Helena fought to remind herself that what she had experienced was raw sex, and most likely, only a short-lived fling, but she could not help being caught up in the whirlwind fantasy. Such was the stuff of romance novels, and not of real life, she reminded herself. Certainly not the life of an almost thirty-year old school teacher. While she listened, a tiny part of Helena’s brain was in the process of composing her next e-email to Julie, seeking advice, and she had to admit, permission she was not yet fully willing to grant herself. Julie would definitely tell her to “go for it.” Unfortunately, Helena sometimes had to admit at the end of yet another doomed relationship, that Julie had a tendency to root for the wrong team.
Neil’s voice wound softly around her thoughts, capturing her in the portrait of a life that reflected her most deeply rooted and embarrassing-to-admit fantasies of wedding veils, picket-fences, two-point-something children, and matching rocking chairs on a screened in porch. Encircled by Neil’s strong arms, she found it difficult not to fantasize about developing a warm rapport with his father, who had left a successful teaching career to stay home and care for his two young sons while his wife built a fledgling business. “Already I have something in common with his father,” she thought, hugging the image to herself with pleasure. Then, with a guilty start, Helena realized that she had been listening to a story that might be more fiction than fact. Hadn’t she promised herself to take everything with the proverbial grain of salt? To find out the identity of the man behind the mask before handing over her heart on a silver platter? Had she gained any real insight into Neil himself? Was he really so different from Karl? What was that that he had just said? I used to work in the construction business…
Helena’s body was taut as she tried to focus. Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, she strove for a tone of innocence as she inquired, “So, what company is it you work for now?”
The hand massaging her shoulder stopped for an instant.
“Oh, just a small one. I‘m sure you‘ve never heard of it,” was the response.
Helena fought the urge to fidget, to betray her nervousness as she honed her investigative instincts. Remember, you have stalked this man unseen, she reminded herself. Persisting, she tried for assertiveness.
“What exactly is it that you do?”
Neil slid his hand farther down her arm and patted it somewhat impersonally. “Mmm, just construction work, grunt stuff, but that part of my life is over. This is what I do now.” He concluded enigmatically.
“You mean, seduce innocent school teachers?’ Despite the queasy twist in her stomach, the comedienne in Helena couldn’t resist the sly dig.
Neil laughed, and returned his calloused palm to her shoulder.
“Nah, I mean, what I do now is work in the islands. Doing what I can here and there. Getting enough to get by on, and moving on when I need to.”
Helena digested this information without further comment. She couldn’t very well probe Neil about the supposedly charitable nature of his work on the islands when this information had come second-hand. How on earth could he manage without a source of income? Visions of organized crime and cocaine wars took the place of the sugar plums dancing in her head.
“Helena.” The sound of her name brought her back from her musings. “What are you really doing here?”
“What do you mean?” She responded in surprise, guiltily reflecting on her motives for probing Neil’s background.
“I mean, why are you really here in the islands?” He was peering down at her inquisitively, brow furrowed and head cocked to one side. “I mean, is Karl the only thing you’re running from?”
Helena felt her stomach lurch for an instant. She was running from Karl, she knew it, and she was prepared to admit it. But what on earth was Neil running from? Groping for the right words to establish trust and perhaps a reciprocal confession, she began.
“I guess,” she stammered softly, “I’m running from a life that was beginning to frighten me. An existence that quickly began to feel uncertain and that in reality threatened to crush all the values and beliefs I thought were so solid. I realize now that if I had stayed one minute longer than I had that I might have been pulled into a life where I was compromising everything I believed to be right just for the sense of security and peace that material wealth can seem to provide.”
Helena’s words trailed off as she turned to look at Neil. The quiet rhythm of his breathing had quickened, and she caught an expression she could not decipher as he averted his gaze from hers.
“Then, I guess you’re running from the same life that I’m running from,” he said simply.
The ambiguity of his words hung in the air, and Helena felt, once again, unsettled. She was talking of lost illusions, illusions that had threatened to capsize the world as she knew it. Was he speaking of the same thing? Or something more sinister? A sudden breeze from the cockpit brought a chill to her bare limbs and she shuddered. Just like in a bad movie she thought, with an involuntary snort.
“Chilly?” he inquired solicitously at the noise, hugging her close to him, and then releasing her gently and gazing at her with gentle eyes. “I guess I should be taking you home.”
Despite her growing trepidation, Helena was loath to leave the cozy space and intimacy of Neil’s boat, and Neil, for solitary nocturnal routines at her own apartment. Feeling somewhat ashamed, she had to admit that she was even more reluctant to leave their relationship still unconsummated. Nonetheless, she was even more reluctant to linger where uninvited, and quickly gathered up her cardigan in preparation to leave. Even now, Helena was vaguely aware that her aesthetic presentation was not of the highest caliber. She attempted to smooth her wrinkled skirt over her thighs, and to bring a semblance of order to her tousled hair. Stretching and yawning surreptitiously, Helena was suddenly acutely aware of the growing pressure in her bladder. She cleared her throat.
“Before we go,” she asked tentatively, “Do you mind if I use your facilities?”
“Oh, of course,” Neil murmured apologetically, “I guess I should have shown you before.”
He waved a hand toward the head, and Helena, following his lead, stepped up to the tiny cubicle and began to push the bi-fold door closed. She stared as she realized that Neil had followed her and intersected the door’s closing with a broad hand. Peeking around the door with a chagrined expression, he stammered out awkwardly.
“Um, I kind of have to tell you about the head before you actually, you know, use it.”
Despite herself, Helena grinned at the sheepish tone in his voice.
For the next few minutes, he went about explaining the procedure for flushing the toilet, demonstrating how to open one lever and manually pump before opening another and repeating the process. With a flush, and an attempt at delicacy, he explained the necessity of limiting one’s use of toilet tissue. Fighting her urge to giggle, Helena listened with an expression of rapt attention, while taking the opportunity to subtly peruse the v-berth cabin beside the head. The covers, which were of suspect vintage, were twisted together in disorganized fellowship. Surely the dreamer in that bed had not slept an untroubled sleep. Morris certainly was undisturbed, murmuring quietly as he dozed, sprawled wantonly across the wide bed. As Neil’s tanned forearm pumped vigorously away in demonstration at the floor pump, Helena took note of the book splayed open on a pillow, and the brass light fixtures. This would make a cozy reading space. Actually, a cozy anything space, she caught herself thinking, as she admired the curve of the khaki-covered buttocks pressed against her thigh.
Demonstration concluded, Neil abandoned the head with red-faced embarrassment, and was heard clamoring up the ladder to the cockpit.
Alone once again, Helena pulled the bi-fold door shut. She glanced around her in the tiny space which was barely big enough for her to turn around. With a beating heart, she felt her investigative instinct declare itself once again. Who can resist a medicine cabinet? she rationalized, as she worked her fingers under the clasp of the rusty-edged mirrored door. The image staring back at her looked as frayed and frazzled as she felt, and she took an instant to self-consciously adjust her hair. Then, with a tiny betraying squeak, the door yielded to her touch. Inside, the cabinet held the usual collection of male accouterments: shaving cream, razors, deodorant, and what was that? Helena eased a finger under a plastic-wrapped bundle and tipped it toward her. Inside a weathered plastic bag were several large roll of bills. Scarcely daring to breathe, Helena lifted the bag from the shelf and opened it with trembling fingers. The rolls were substantial. Lifting the first three, she glanced at the denominations and gasped. Hundreds. What was going on? Surely she hadn’t met another Karl? With quaking hands, Helena wrapped the bag up as it had been, struggling to restore it to its original position in the cabinet. Then, stomach lurching, Helena went through the motions of moving the lever and pumping the toilet. Bladder still insistently full, she half-closed the door behind her and glanced around the cabin with a forlorn expression. Her ambiguous discovery seemed to mock the pleasure she had felt all evening. “Bye Morris,” she whispered to the canine, fervently praying that the canine’s owner might still prove to be as innocent of wrongdoing as Morris himself.
Clutching her sweater in one hand, Helena made her way awkwardly up the ladder to the cockpit. Neil was there to assist her with a helping hand as she emerged into the open air. A pang of regret stung her as she was hit by two simultaneous realizations. The first was that she was falling in more than just lust. The second was that falling in whatever-it-was could destroy her. Then, Neil’s arms were about her, holding her as if reluctant to ever let go. Tilting her head back, Helena felt his lips press warmly against hers. She opened her eyes as he kissed her, and saw that his were already upon hers. Under the glow of the moon-lit sky, his face seemed suddenly inscrutable.
Island Recess, Chapter 9.
The brightly colored casings of the public phones shone like wet candies under the increasing cascade of rain. As she waited for a connection to her mother’s home in Seattle, Helena cursed the slick strands of hair dripping over her forehead and into her eyes. She checked her waterproof wristwatch. For the past two weeks, the weather had been growing steadily more unstable with cloudy skies, sudden thunderstorms, and increasingly plentiful rain and wind Since the beginning of last week, both locals and tourists alike had been glued to the local radio and television stations, and last night, their worst fears were realized as an approaching tropical storm swung in the direction of the Virgin Islands. Strengthening rapidly, the storm had just this morning been upgraded to a hurricane and was predicted to make landfall by late afternoon. Barely ten in the morning, and the winds were already sending sheets of rain slapping violently against the island. Her thin wind-breaker was soaked through and Helena shivered with cold and nerves. According to the emergency broadcasts, schools and businesses were closed for the day, and Helena fervently hoped that the parents of her students were already up and fortifying their homes against the fury of the coming storm. The waters of the bay were becoming choppy, and she watched with growing alarm, the violent heaving of the ocean farther out. Sailboats usually moored on the periphery of the pier had been re-located to more protected harbors, and the unoccupied warm waters of the tiny bay seemed suddenly to be ominously vast. Even the ferry service which ran daily between St. Thomas and St. John had been suspended pending the storm’s arrival. She drummed her fingers impatiently as she listened to the telephone ringing thousands of miles away. Then, barely audible over the driving of the rain, Helena discerned the reassuring rhythms of her mother’s speech.
“Mom?” she began in a tremulous quaver, struggling to keep the rising lump in her throat from transferring to her voice. She longed to regress to her twelve year old self, to sob out her worst fears and to be lulled into the sense of security that only her mother could provide. Helena swallowed her tears bravely. Sixteen years past twelve, she reminded herself, and committed to keeping her mother from worrying more about her than she already did. Bound by her desire to reassure rather than alarm, Helena quickly outlined the weather situation, informed her of the tropical storm that had recently strengthened to hurricane force, and warned her mother that for the next few days, contact by computer and telephone might be impossible. Despite Helena’s precautions, the elder Ms. Travis was obviously distressed, and it was evident that she, too, was fighting to keep her emotions from spilling over into tears. They bade each other an emotional good-bye, and it was as Helena was about to replace the receiver that she heard the tinny echo of continued speech over the line. Quickly, she returned the receiver to her ear.
“Yes, mom, I’m still here.”
“Just one quick thing, dear. Not to alarm you, but there was a message from Karl the other day on the answering machine. He said to tell you that he’d be seeing you soon.”
Helena felt her skin prickle and tasted the cold metallic thrill of fear on her tongue. She swallowed hard.
“I wonder,” she paused, scarcely daring to voice her thoughts. “I wonder if he means he’ll be seeing me in Seattle, or he’ll be seeing me, here.”
A sudden gust of wind swept the rain into the shelter of the phone booth, driving the droplets against her skin in a furious blast. Slapped by the relentless whip of the wind and the angry surge of the waves, the tiny island paradise was quickly becoming a potential setting for a nightmarish journey into the past. As she again said her farewells, Helena struggled to soothe her mother with a falsely casual air.
Heart pounding, Helena replaced the receiver and stood for a moment, considering. Her sanctuary stood to be invaded, and she was seemingly powerless in the face of her pursuer. With nothing but an e-mail account she could no longer access, and a few scenes she alone had witnessed, she had no way of proving to anyone else the danger that Karl posed. After all, who would believe quiet, scholarly Helena Travis could have forged such an unspeakable alliance without assuming she was aware of, or even complicit in, Karl’s criminal behavior? Even if she was believed, who would keep him from her when her pitiful attempts to escape had not proved sufficient deterrent? She had traveled from urban Seattle, cross-country to a small island community where, despite the open ocean that surrounded her, she now felt hopelessly trapped. With his affable charm, obvious criminal connections, and copious financial resources, there was no one Karl could not manipulate or intimidate into doing as he pleased. Feeling suddenly faint, Helena saw her home, her job, a fledgling romance, and her friendships vanish as if they had never been, swallowed up by the vacuum of Karl’s greed. Taking a deep breath, Helena dug in her pocket for her phone card, picked up the phone, and made the call that connected her to directory assistance in Washington.
“Give me the number of any private investigator in the Seattle area, please. I don’t personally know any, so anyone will do.” said Helena, in response to the droning request for city and business name.
“There are dozens, Miss. What is the name of the business for which you require a number?”
“Just pick one, please,” Helena hissed, drumming her fingers impatiently and covering her free ear against the driving wind.
“Okay,” sighed the operator. “Here’s one: Franklin Skye, Skye Investigations. Is that what you’re looking for?”
Helena scribbled the phone number on a dampening scrap of paper, hung up and re-dialed.
Franklin Skye himself answered, leaving Helena to wonder if he was the sum total of Sky Investigations. At this point, she didn’t care, as long as he had the ability to provide her with the protection she so desperately needed. With time ticking out on more than her rapidly depleting phone card, she was forced to make her request as succinctly and expediently as humanly possible.
“I need to know everything I can about a man, a man named Karl Pennington,” she began. “And whatever you find out, I need proof: documents, pictures, numbers, names, whatever. This will be the only insurance I have, and I’m going to need it as fast as you can get it.”
“It’s gonna cost you,” Mr. Skye predictably replied.
“If it takes my last dime,” retorted Helena, already fishing about in her shoulder bag for the credit card with the lowest balance.
For the next ten minutes, Helena told Skye Investigations everything she knew about Karl. All the while she wondered what information was actually real and was simply another lie Karl had fed her under the guise of the truth. Maybe all she really knew was a name, a phone number, and an address. But to whom did they really belong? Suddenly, Helena was very grateful for Skye Investigations. No matter what happened, at least she wouldn’t be the only one who knew the truth first-hand.
Her phone call concluded, Helena held onto the receiver for a moment, as if afraid that hanging up on Mr. Skye would leave her defenseless in the face of the coming storm. Replacing it gently, she turned, pulled her jacket tightly around her and bowed her head to the wind’s assault.
Her walk back to the apartment building was an increasingly physical battle against the growing strength of the storm. Trees snapped back and forth as if on springs, their foliage ripped from branches and shredded like confetti in the churning air currents. With the stinging slap of storm-swept road debris slowing Helena’s progress, she held her hands protectively before her face, and walked at an angle to the relentless fury of the wind.
Struggling to remain upright as the wind picked up speed, it was all Helena could do to keep an eye on the path ahead and dodge the most treacherous obstacles as they flew by. Panting raggedly with the effort of her exertion, she reached the front steps of her apartment building in time to see her elderly landlord being hustled roughly into a pick-up truck so obscured by the slanting rain that identification would be impossible.
“Ben!” she called out in panic. Her voice was caught by the wind and seemed to vanish before the word was out of her throat. She broke into a run toward the truck, fighting to stay on her feet in the driving rain. As she neared the truck’s open door, first a bronzed forearm, and then a familiar shock of blonde hair appeared, and she ran into a pair of open arms.
“Helena.” She read her name on his lips as the rain slicked across his face. Then, Neil was grabbing her roughly, pushing her up and into the vehicle, and slamming the door behind her. Ben was seated next to her, staring dismally at the tumble-down apartment complex. Cautiously, Helena put an arm around his waist and then leaned her head on the older man’s shoulder. “Oh Helena,” he said with a sigh, and then lapsed into silence. He patted her arm absent-mindedly as he continued to gaze through the rain pounding the windows. The wind whipped the torrent into blinding sheets, and Helena looked about frantically for Neil. He seemed to have been swallowed up by the storm. A sudden bang jolted both her and Ben from their thoughts.
“Let them go!” she heard Neil scream, and then both front doors opened and in clamored Neil and one of Ben’s nephews. Both of them held saws, hammers, and boxes of nails. Neil turned in his seat. His face was wet and streaked with dirt, his hair plastered against his skull.
“We were trying to board up the windows,” he said by way of explanation. “But the wind’s coming too strong. We lost half our planks, and we’ll lose more than that if we don’t get out of here now.”
The truck roared to life, and Neil gunned the motor as he pulled away from the curb. Rainwater pooling on the streets seemed to swallow up their tires as they slipped and skidded on the near-empty road-way. Helena slipped her hand into Ben’s.
“Everything will be okay,” she murmured quietly to her silent companion. Shredded leaves and debris careened over the flooded roadway and whistled past their vehicle or smacked against the windshield. The volume of the storm’s cry was increasing, and Neil had to yell to be heard. “We’re almost there.”
The wipers were powerless to clear the sheeting rain from the windshield, and the winds had whipped the falling rain into an impenetrable wall. Helena would never know how he got them there. Half-dragged, half-pushed by strong arms, Helena found herself stumbling into a building. The windows of the old public school had been hastily boarded over, but the concrete block and steel-reinforcement construction looked reassuringly solid. Shuddering, Helena felt a warm arm about her shoulder, and then another about her waist. Neil’s mouth moved against her ear, murmuring reassurances as he rocked her gently against his body. Looking about her, Helena saw that Ben had joined his sister and her family, and had been locked into a group embrace. This was a time for family, she thought, and suddenly felt intensely grateful for Neil’s presence. At least she wasn’t alone. Strangely suspended from the normal passage of time, she watched the growing power of the storm through the chinks of the window. It seemed that only minutes passed, cradled in the silence of her companion’s arms, before the full fury of the storm struck the tiny island. Pulled away from the windows toward the centre of the shelter, Helena stood surrounded by the close press of friends and strangers. Across the polished cement floor, a pool of rainwater was forming, sloshing around their ankles in chilly rivulets. The wood-plank door, sparsely reinforced before their arrival, groaned under the wind’s onslaught. Helena trembled as she watched the shuddering of the fragile barricade. Then, her companion’s warmth left her side, and she watched him, dream-like, striding through the pooling rainwater, pulling the hammer from the belt at his waist. Re-aligning loose planks, he banged nails back into place, seemingly heedless of the wind spitting rainwater through the chinks in the boards. Having quelled the sickening heaving of the door, Neil knelt by the door, feeling around in the cold swill of water for materials with which to reinforce the barrier. Scooping a shattered piece of plywood from the water, he began nailing the warped fragment over the criss-crossing network of boards. Another man left the group standing stunned into immobility and sloshed across the floor to join Neil. He was followed by another. Helena started as she felt the fingers of a stranger intertwine with hers, but squeezed them gratefully as she was led up a flight of stairs to the upper-story of the school. Linked by their hands, the group huddled in silence, eyes turned fearfully toward the naked gaps in the metal-grille of the tiny air vents.
A frightening spectacle was unfolding. In the distance, small trees snapped off at the base and flew through the air like umbrellas. The tin roof of a sandwich stand began to flutter as if levitated by a magician and flew off, skipping wildly with the rest of the debris that traveled the wind-tossed road. A broken power line fluttered in the wind like a kite string and shot streams of sparks as if touched. Nearby, a transformer on a pole exploded with a deafening pop. Someone began to cry, softly, their voice soon matched by the keening of another. Helena’s eyes filled with tears, the fear of the moment matched by her dawning understanding of what might lie ahead for the island’s residents. Across the room, cradled against the shoulder of his sister, Ben’s head hung low, his thin frame wracked with quiet sobs. Feeling Neil’s absence, Helena unlocked her neighbor’s hand with a quick squeeze and crept to the stairway to watch him at work. Huddled on the landing, Helena’s eyes swept over the flooded floor, the piled-up sandbags, and the boarded up windows, and came to rest on Neil’s tired face. Sensing her gaze upon him, he looked up and his expression softened. Moments later, he was again by her side, his arms tight around her waist. Bound together, they watched, and waited.
An unearthly moan filled the skies as the wind gathered strength and struck the shelter with its full force. The voices of those within fell away until the only sound was the voice of the storm outside. As the solid roof began to breathe with each gust of wind, others around her began to pray. Just as it began to seem that the roof would fly off, the winds seemed to tire. Those in the shelter waited, holding hands and breath, until it seemed that the worst had passed. Then, one by one, people began to rise, shaking themselves and embracing their neighbors as they stood. Silently, they made their way in single file down the stairs to the main level of the building.
Across the cement floor, the wash of water increased, sweeping the rooms with a tide of oily debris. Outside the shelter, the wind’s howling was falling away to a persistent moan. Someone passed Helena a flimsy white bucket, and looking around her, she saw that several of the men had begun the arduous task of bailing water from the rapidly filling shelter. Helena joined in, scooping up pails full of water and tossing them through the now partly-opened doorway. Around the base of the walls and door, sandbags were being tightly wedged, stacked neatly together. Together, the group of some twenty-odd began to reclaim the shelter from the clutch of the storm. They worked together in unceasing rhythm, bailing and sandbagging, arms aching and limbs chilled from the wind and wet, but their spirits strong and their force united.
It was dark and still raining when someone pushed a tin cup into Helena’s hand. She sipped the grainy coffee gratefully, reveling in the sweet warmth. Glancing around her she noted with surprise that the pooling water had diminished to a mere trickle. Across the room, an elderly woman was busy sweeping the watery debris over the uneven floor, and depositing the silt in the farthest corner. The pace of their labor had slowed with their exhaustion, and now, here and there, were others who had paused in their efforts to enjoy the rest and the hot cup of coffee. Sniffing the air, Helena caught the scent of home-cooked stew. She glanced around her, the details of the room suddenly coming into focus after hours of concentrated labor. In their collective need to match the fury of the hurricane with their own defense, Helena and many others had lost track of both time and space. In a corner, on a cleared table surface, two of the women had a portable propane stove lit and were warming the contents of a battered aluminum pot. Called upstairs for a hot meal, Helena felt tears springing to her eyes. Together with the others, she found a place to sit and accepted a steaming bowl of stew. Scooping the soft vegetables and ragged bits of meat into her mouth, she could have cried out her gratitude. Breaking off bits of the crusty bun she had been handed, she sopped up the last of the stew and reluctantly rose to her feet. Spying the clock affixed to the classroom wall, she realized with a start that it was nearly midnight.
“Stay, stay,” urged a stout matron, placing a hand on Helena’s shoulder. A cotton blanket was pressed into her hands, and Helena looked about her to see others making preparations to sleep. The woman leaned toward Helena, her wrinkled face reassuringly calm.
“It’ll be all right Helena-ah,” she said with the familiar sing-song cadence of the islands. “It was not as bad as some had been thinking. Tomorrow we clean up. Tonight, well, we must get the sleep we can.”
Helena smiled gratefully. She looked about without catching sight of Neil. Swallowing her doubts, she felt a familiar tingle creep up her spine.
“Yes, soon, I will. Thank you, Mavis. Just not quite yet. First, I’ve got to find my friend.” Helena patted the woman’s arm and slipped past her, making her way quietly down the staircase. She found Neil alone, perched on a sandbag, sweat and rain-soaked hair falling into his eyes. He leaned tiredly against the wall, an untouched bowl of stew supported on his thigh by one scratched and bruised-looking hand.
“Hi,” she said softly, coming to stand in front of him. He looked up and smiled, his face creasing under its coat of sweat and grime.
“Hey you,” he reached out a hand and took hers, pulling him toward her. “I was just about to come looking for you.”
Neil made a sweeping gesture toward the piled up sandbags.
“I’m going to spend the night down here, just to keep an eye on things,” he said, darting a questioning look in Helena’s direction.
“You need to eat something before you do anything else,” she said softly, cupping the bowl in her hands and lifting it toward his mouth. Reaching for the spoon, he obligingly began to eat, relief apparent on his face as he partook of the comforting food. Helena watched until the bowl was empty, and some color had returned to his pale cheeks, before reaching for his free hand.
Rising, he set the bowl down on the damp floor, and led Helena by the hand to a higher spot on the uneven concrete. Here, the floor was relatively dry, betraying its recent soaking only by patches of darker staining. Neil released Helena’s hand for a moment, tiptoed cautiously upstairs and then returned again quickly, two gray blankets in his hand. He spread one out neatly across the damp floor, and sitting down, placed the other in his lap.
“Put your head down for a bit, Helena,” he whispered, patting the folded blanket. She did as he asked, curling up into the fetal position and snuggling her damp curls into his jeans-clad lap. Slowly his hand moved against her back, rubbing a slow pattern on her skin through her rain-soaked t-shirt.
Helena leaned against him, the chill dampness of the floor unnoticed for the moment. The voices of those upstairs were becoming muted, fading into a quiet jumble of words as the people fell into heavy, exhausted slumber. Flickering candles were extinguished one by one, points of light swallowed up by darkness. Outside, the rain continued its steady tattoo, dimpling the surface of the water pooled in the streets. Softly, Neil’s hand stroked her hair, twining its fingers in the tangled strands, and pulling them away from her damp cheeks. Helena sighed, turning her face to meet his, just as he bent to press his mouth against hers. Gently, his tongue probed her mouth. She slid over to make room for him on their make-shift bed, just as he shifted his body to lie against hers. The last light twinkled out and the room plunged into darkness. Helena felt Neil’s warm breath against her ear as he whispered to her.
“We’ll have to be quiet or we’ll wake the parents,” he teased softly.
She laughed quietly, the fear and tension of the day fading with their small shared joke. Her giggle turned to a moan of pleasure as his hand worked against the hem of her t-shirt, moving leisurely under the fabric and over the soft curves of her belly. Shifting her hips to ease his movement, she felt the warmth of his hand cup her breast through her flimsy bra. His breath against her ear quickened as he stroked her, and tightened the fit of his leg against hers. They writhed entwined, each plundering the other’s clothing as their hands sought the touch of bare flesh. Struggling to a seated position, Helena pulled her t-shirt over her head, and hastily unclipped her bra. She tossed the garments to her side and reached for the second blanket, snapping it open and draping it lightly over them.
“Just a cautionary measure, you know,” she whispered, “in case of sudden parental appearances.” Neil laughed, smothering the sound in a stagy cough.
“Now – where were we,” he murmured into her ear, his tongue beginning to trace a slow line down her neck.
“I think here…”
Her words trailed off as she placed his hand against her breast, and felt his work-worn fingertips tease her nipples into hardness. His lips quickly replaced his hands, his tongue flicking heat over her damp breasts. Against her moistened skin, the cool wafts of night air played in sensuous duet with the ministrations of her lover. Eyes open in the indigo blue of the evening sky, Helena caught the flash of Neil’s irises as he gazed openly at her. She arched her back with pleasure as he gripped her about the waist, moving up her body to caress the curve of her neck and shoulder with his mouth. Shuddering, she felt the light tough of Neil’s hand against her belly, and moaned as he struggled to release the fastening of her shorts. Impatiently, she jerked at the zipper, pulling the garment down past her hips. Then, his hand was inside her cotton panties, stroking her to a level of arousal that had her snatching greedily at the hardness straining taut against his jeans. With a sharp intake of breath, he fumbled with his fly, tearing open the buttons and shucking off his jeans in a fury of impatience. Helena pulled at his loose-fitting t-shirt, drawing it over his head and then reaching for him, relishing the smooth fit of his body as it tumbled against hers. His hand returned to her panties, pushing them aside as he explored her wetness with eager fingers. Panting, teetering crazily on the edge of her pleasure, Helena reached for the length of his cock, gripping the silky heat with trembling hands. She guided him toward her slick opening, thrusting her hips sharply upward as he slid inside. He rocked against her as she held him tight, grabbing his buttocks as he plunged into the depths of her. Covering her mouth with his, he matched the surging rhythm of his body with the darting of his tongue. Then, he pushed himself up on his knees, grasping her by the hips to hold their connection as he pulled her higher, onto his lap. Slowly, Neil continued the gyrations of his body as his fingers sought out her hard clit. Gently, he rotated his thumb over her eager nub as he continued thrusting into her. Running her hands across his tightly muscled chest, she began to stroke and pull at his nipples, and tightened the walls of her canal around his hardness, squeezing him as hard as she could. A hot wave surged suddenly through her as her body tightened and climax became inevitable. Helena bit her lip hard, stifling the scream rising up from her throat. Then his full weight was upon her, her legs wrapped tightly around his waist, pulling him into her as her body exploded with pleasure. His warmth flooded her as he groaned Helena’s name against her ear. They collapsed together, sweat-slick bodies entwined on the floor of the old school house. Lying together, still connected, each panted softly as they explored the other’s unfamiliar shape. Helena giggled as she whispered.
“I only just noticed: this certainly isn’t the most comfortable bed I’ve ever used.”
Neil murmured back, “Sorry, too busy to notice.”
His hands and mouth continued their idle exploration, raising excited goose-flesh with every light stroke, until Helena pulled away abruptly.
“What’s the matter?” whispered Neil anxiously as he reached for her.
Helena was on her hands and knees, groping about in the darkness for her discarded garments. Locating her clothing, she began the awkward dance of pulling on, zipping up, and re-fastening. Then, she leaned over and kissed Neil lightly on the forehead. Helena whispered back softly,
“Purely routine, Sweetheart. Lonely schoolmarms can’t afford idle gossip, especially not when it involves mysterious drifters.” With those words, she rose and began making her way furtively back up the stairs.
Pulling himself up on an elbow, Neil watched her go. A stray shaft of moonlight caught her as she mounted the steps, and he laughed suddenly, smothering the sound behind his hand. The smooth line of her naked back in retreat was not conducive to the demeanor of a prim schoolmarm. At the sound of his laughter, she pivoted abruptly on her heel. Her light footsteps echoed as she ran back down the stairs, and Neil ducked just in time to avoid her playful slap. Then, she snatched her balled-up t-shirt from Neil’s hand, pulled it over her head, and disappeared into the velvety night.