“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!”
The exasperated expletives emanated from the house below his restaurant. Lennon put aside his scouting mission to peer through the slats of the trellised portico where someone was very frustrated. An overly ambitious gardener had taken the pruning shears to the bougainvillea. From Lennon’s vantage point on the steep slope he could see through the criss-crossed supports of the overhang to the patio below. A pair of naked toned legs came into view. Obviously the swearer. Obviously female.
The legs disappeared into the house and then emerged again and stretched out on a chaise lounge. He heard a faint buzz, like a man’s razor. Was she shaving her legs? Maybe grooming a pet?
Lennon inched forward towards the edge of the property, telling himself he was merely acting the concerned neighbour. This wasn’t trespassing or voyeurism but simple concern. One human being to another. That’s what he told himself as he brushed off the camera lens and zoomed in to get a better look at those legs. There was a branch in the way so his view was restricted to her lower half. But what a lower half!
Thanks to the telephoto lens he could get a close-up of those spectacular legs. He started at the toes and almost laughed. They were green with bamboo stalks painted on the big toe nails. Okay. Somebody had too much time on her hands. Or a sense of whimsy.
He slowly panned upwards. Trim ankles. A slight bulge at the calf. No surprise. Anybody who lived on St. Barts ended up with defined calf muscles from all the hills.
The knees were slightly elevated and parted. The thighs strained, the muscles obviously taut. Up a bit more, edging incrementally higher and…Lennon almost swallowed his tongue. Or he would have if it weren’t already halfway out of his mouth, coated with drool. The woman on the chaise longue was masturbating. Through the lens, he could see one hand had spread the folds of her vagina. He could see they were glistening, even at this distance. Without thinking, he zoomed in and clicked, knowing the end result would be one of the most erotic pictures he’d ever seen. The stranger’s private parts were peony pink, with hints of plum. Like a flower coated with morning dew. Her other hand was moving something in and out of her vagina.
The voice sounded beyond frustrated now. Verging on furious. Lennon looked more closely and watched as a hand flung a blue, penis-shaped vibrator to the ground. It bounced. Obviously rubber. The vibrator was source of the buzzing noise! Or at least it had been before the batteries gave out.
“Of all the fucking times to run of juice,” said the husky female voice.
So much for erotic poetry. That voice, her actions. Strictly prose. Lennon froze, worried the woman–his view, his erection emphatically confirmed this was indeed a woman– would now stalk out of the portico into the house and along the way, somehow sense his presence. The owner of the voice did no such thing. She put both hands in her groin and her fingers started to move. One hand held her lips apart, the other stroked her clitoris. Through the zoom lens he watched her index finger circle around the little nub and then rubbed. He assessed her actions. Hard. Too much pressure, zeroing in and pressing the camera shutter without thinking. There’s no way she’ll come like that, not when she’s so tense. He took another shot of her hands. Of her moist folds.
Lennon hardened to molten steel, beads of sweat breaking out along his hairline. He watched as the woman stroked and strained, anxious for release. Not gonna happen, he thought. An orgasm is a gift; it has to come to you. You can’t will it or snatch it. The inappropriate homonym made him giggle. He tried to stifle the sound but apparently not quickly enough. The hand stilled. The legs erupted out of the chaise longue and the voice said, “Is anybody there? Qui est la?” the voice repeated in shaky schoolgirl French.
Lennon eased back on his haunches hiding behind a scrubby bush and froze, uncertain if he’d been detected. The legs were vertical now, turning this way and that. The owner of the legs and the voice, don’t forget that husky voice, was moving swiftly from the portico into the house. He saw a hand retrieve the vibrator and the legs disappeared. The owner of the legs and the voice and the thwarted libido had apparently been spooked enough to go inside.
Lennon breathed a sigh of relief. He hadn’t been spotted after all. He waited a few minutes to make certain, and to let his erection abate, before carefully making his way back up the hill to his restaurant. He wondered about his neighbour. Alex Whitmore. What kind of an asshole spent their time composing nasty emails and siccing the cops on him for the slightest infraction and didn’t bother to satisfy his woman? Lennon thought about those legs. Those crazy painted toenails. He would have satisfied her. No problem. He would have tossed away that damn sex toy and filled her until she couldn’t remember her own name. He would have stroked and licked and caressed those legs and done a proper follow up between her thighs. No more toys. He would have laid down the law. No more worrying about batteries. I have all the juice you’ll ever need, he would have said.
If he wasn’t taking a break, he reminded himself. If he hadn’t sworn himself to celibacy. Shit.
He was still muttering when he got to the top of the hill.
His contractor Georges was waiting. “What did you find? Is it level enough for a greenhouse or at least a garden?”
Lennon yanked his head up at the questions. Oh, yeah. That’s why he had taken his camera down the hill in the first place, to scope out the elevation as a possible location for a kitchen garden. Plant herbs. Tomatoes. Maybe even some olive trees. Lemons. Who knew what all he could grow on the steep, rocky slope. Lennon had been on a legitimate mission before being distracted by the half-nude, sexually frustrated, incredibly enticing woman next door. The garden. Talk about the garden.
“I think we can do some planting, if we tier things first and bring in decent top soil. But the greenhouse will have to go up here. We may have to reconfigure the parking lot.”
Georges must have noticed Lennon’s stunned expression because he said, “I think you got too much sun. Get inside where it’s cool. You have your mom’s colouring. You shouldn’t go out midday without a hat.”
Lennon waved his agreement and went inside the restaurant, snagging a bottle of water from the refrigerator. It was slightly cooler in the office but the air conditioner was straining to keep up. That was another upgrade to consider. For now though, all he could think about was the woman next door. Her voice. Those legs. What was between her legs. He took the bottle of water and bending over the tile floor poured the cool liquid over his head. It wasn’t just the midday sun that had him overheated.
“I told you I heard something!” Alex’s voice was thick with panic. This police officer didn’t appear to be taking her seriously.
“Oui, Mademoiselle. Je sais. I know. There is no sign of an intruder so it could have been a lizard or a goat. Nothing to worry about.”
Alex glared at the man. Despite the grey streaks in his hair, this Inspector Marcel Privé appeared entirely too young to be in charge of anything but a daycare center. It was partly his boyish face, thought Alex, partly his innate sense of goodness that seemed as much a part of him as his uniform.
He continued in a tone Alex recognized as designed to calm down overly excited dogs, children and hysterical women. “I checked with my colleagues on the police force in Toronto. They haven’t located your stalker yet but we are monitoring all the people visiting St. Barts. So far, there’s nothing suspicious. I’ll talk to my friend next door. Len will keep an eye on you.”
“Is that the name of the guy in charge at the restaurant?” Alex snorted. “I wouldn’t count on any co-operation from him. The trucks turn around in my driveway and the big construction debris bins are blocking part of the road. Don’t get me started on the noise. The crews begin just after dawn each morning, even on Sunday! I’ve complained to the workers and called the police,” she added pointedly, “but nothing’s changed. And the owner hasn’t responded. Not one word.” She was angry at the situation and at the unbidden tears. Alex hated crying because it made her appear weak.
The police inspector didn’t comment on her tears. “The construction crews are on a tight time table because they’ll knock off for part of July and all of August. Len is trying to get the renovations done by the fall. You should meet him. Talk to him face-to-face. Why not join us for Cinco de Mayo? My wife is a Latina and always puts on a big spread. You’ll get a chance to meet some locals which might help you feel more at ease.”
Before Alex had realized it, she had a checkmark on the wasteland that had been her engagement calendar and something to look forward to.
Up until now, the bright spot of her day had been sunset over Gouverneur Beach and the sight of a regular surfboarder bright and early each morning. She wasn’t sure where he came from. None of the other villas along this stretch of road appeared to be occupied and there wasn’t a single car in the beachfront parking lot that early in the day. He just emerged regularly on the beach like Poseidon, holding a surfboard instead of a trident. He had shaggy blond hair and a build that belonged in magazines; cut and strong but not in a I-spend-every-waking-moment-in-the-gym kind of way. It was more a I-like-to-use-my-body-as-God-intended kind of way. The kind of way that had sent female pulses racing since Eve. She could see every muscle in his chest and arms and stomach. He didn’t appear to have any body hair to impede the view. She could imagine him on the cover of a romance novel or starring in a very sexy movie. He moved with such athletic grace and had such a gorgeous body he inspired nightly erotic fantasies.
They ran into each other each morning as she walked down to dip her toes into the water. At that early hour it was usually just the two of them on the beach. Her in sunglasses, hat, wave riders, long, baggy, shorts, T-shirt, sneakers and sunscreen. Him in his board shorts and bare feet, apparently unconcerned about scraping his toes on the rocks or getting a burn from the glare off the water and the sand.
Most days they would exchange a nod or a smile. Some days, she would linger by the rocks in the parking lot, semi-hidden beneath the trees and watch as he paddled out on his stomach and then rode the waves to shore. As often as not, he would fall off halfway to the beach, always laughing when he surfaced, flicking sodden blond strands out of his eyes. Then he’d swim out to his board or retrieve it from the sand and try again. Alex envied his determination. The latter thought stiffened her spine for the long climb up the hill, bopping along to the tunes bleeding out of her earbuds, barely distracted by the surrounding beauty.
Most mornings she was up with the sun, the dew still on the leaves, the birds more yawning than singing. The trek down to the beach and then up the hill for a lengthy, sweaty walk had become the high point of her day. It was sad really since it meant the rest of the morning, afternoon, evening and night stretched ahead, endless and empty. She tried to fill it with errands, practicing her schoolgirl French at the shops in town. Most of the clerks and locals simply answered in English making Alex feel as though she’d failed some kind of test.
She drove around the island, inspecting the various neighbourhoods, smiling at the children in their school uniforms, inhaling the scenery. She would stop on a whim to take pictures or pick up lunch. She mentally filed away everything she saw, ate and experienced, hoping to use the memories in some future writing project.
Some days she whiled away the hours wandering through shops but rarely bought anything, unused to the idea that she now had discretionary income after years of scrimping. Louie, her agent, was always telling her to live a little, enjoy the fruits of her labour, her newfound good fortune. But years of counting every dollar ran too deep. Even grocery shopping, she would adhere to a strict budget, putting back the extra pack of Pop Tarts and foregoing a second bottle of wine.
She tried to write. The luxury of her surroundings and the hottie on the beach should have been conducive to creativity but she was fresh out of ideas. It was one thing to riff on another author’s characters. It was another thing entirely to create one’s own, to make up something from scratch. She started a dozen stories, each time hitting delete after a couple of pages. The people in her head were mere sketches, like line drawings, not fully formed or worthy of a novel or even a short story.
“Don’t sweat it,” said Louie. “This happens a lot when somebody hits it big the first time out of the gate. Why not just enjoy yourself?”
“The only way I can enjoy myself is to write. It’s relaxing and satisfying. Or at least it used to be,” she whinged.
“Do some homework. Read a bunch of books in a variety of genres, see if anything sticks.”
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll just steal somebody else’s characters again?” Alex still felt guilty that her success had been derivative. One critic had accused her of crouching on the trapezius of pygmies.
Louie scoffed at her concern. “What do they say, that there’s only seven plot lines in all of literature? Writers have been borrowing ideas since the Bible.”
After Louie’s call, Alex flicked on the Wi-Fi connection to her Kindle and spent the afternoon browsing Amazon. After three happy hours, she’d downloaded more than one hundred books. She focussed on authors who had gotten great reviews for their first books but not so much for their second novels. Her plan was to read both and to try to figure out why the sophomore efforts failed to find an audience, anxious to avoid the same pitfalls. Alex was determined not to be just a flash in the pan.
Checking her inbox she saw her mom had e-mailed again, worried Alex wouldn’t say where she was, only explaining she was on vacation. The police had been clear on that point. They warned her that hackers could access the information about her location and it was better to be safe than sorry. Her parents lived in a small town in Manitoba and were alternately proud and ashamed of her sudden literary success. They ascribed to the tall poppy syndrome. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t reach for the stars. Alex often thought instead of ‘Friendly Manitoba’ the slogan on provincial licence plates should have read ‘Why can’t you be happy with what you have?’ The philosophy had been drilled into Alex since birth. She had broken the cardinal rule by becoming successful and even worse, famous. And for a trilogy of smutty novels! She could imagine the twittering in her hometown. The snickers behind closed doors. That mousy little Alex Whitmore, her neighbours would have whispered, who would have thought she had it in her?
Her mom’s latest email included an attachment. There was a job posting about an English teaching position at the high school across the street from where she grew up. The suggestion triggered Alex’s claustrophobia. Back to her old school? She still had the imprint of locker doors on her back. The memory of being mean-girled in the vicious way of small towns was enough to give her the willies. Her mother had written that the principal thought Alex would be welcomed back with open arms by both faculty and students. Alex shuddered, remembering the older, scrawny man with the moist handshake and unfortunate habit of licking his lips constantly in class. He carried a tube of lip balm with him and would whip it out of his pocket, carefully applying a thick coating as he droned on about the importance of the War of 1812. Alex didn’t want to contemplate what his idea of welcoming her back with open arms would entail.
She simply replied to her mother that she was fine, healthy, working on another book and oh, how was her little sister? The diversionary tactic had worked without fail since Eliza’s birth. Her sister was the golden child, the one on whom all parental hopes were pinned. And those hopes had been realized, thought Alex, as she swiped nail polish remover over her big toe nail. Eliza was the good daughter, the embodiment of small town dreams. A cheerleader and a prom queen. A young bride and mother, proudly herding her three children like goslings into the Whitmore’s designated pew at Church each Sunday. Alex could imagine her sister assessing the rest of the congregation, cataloguing new clothes and regrettable hair cuts. Judging, always judging, from her undisputed perch as the big fish in a minuscule pond. A natural Queen Bee. The husband, a real Bubba, joined the local service groups, coached soccer and never, ever contradicted his wife. He was the perfect drone.
Alex painted tiger stripes on her big toe nails, mulling over the fact she hadn’t heard a peep out of Eliza since all of the publicity surrounding her novels. How was she feeling about being upstaged by her older, non-descript sister? The smart one getting all of the attention instead of the pretty one? Eliza was most likely pissed off. Probably looking for a locker to slam someone against.
Alex waved a magazine over her nails to help them dry. Great. They looked great. Or maybe she should say Grrrreat, like Tony the Tiger.
Why was she suddenly so happy? After a moment it came to her. She had an idea! A character! A plot! A small town girl who fulfills all expectations only to find herself drowning in small town life! The push and pull between home and adventure, between roots and wings. The ideas erupted in her imagination, geysering like a cascade of bubbles. She could explore the dynamics of small town living. Write about roads not taken. About opportunities missed. About the regrets of opting for the safe. About not dreaming big. She could write what she knew! Quashing the urge to yell ‘Eureka’, Alex raced to her laptop and sat down to write.
It was no good. Her earlier enthusiasm evaporated like water on a high noon sidewalk. After jotting down notes, she couldn’t concentrate. She couldn’t write, not with the sound of music blaring next door and trucks continuously turning around in her driveway. Even with her earbuds in, there were too many distractions.
Alex slapped on a pair of sandals and marched out the door, being careful to arm the alarm system as instructed. That way she wouldn’t have to check the closets and under the bed when she got back. The noise increased exponentially as she made her way up the hill. Some electronic dance music. From a distance, the building site resembled an ant colony, with workmen in various stages of undress Alex suspected violated every safety standard and labour code. She tapped the arm of the first man she saw sporting a tool belt. He didn’t even turn around, just gave her an over-the-shoulder glare. She’d interrupted him. Big fucking deal.
“Hey,” she shouted over the din. “Where’s your asshole boss?”
“Who wants to know?” came the reply. When he turned around, Alex was amazed to see it was her surfer dude. She would have recognized him immediately except his blond hair was covered by a hard hat, his muscles and sleek torso disguised by a baggy T-shirt. His biceps glistening with sweat in the mid-morning sun. Surfer dude was even more impressive up close.
His expression softened from anger to surprise. “It’s you. From the beach.”
Alex brushed sweaty bangs off her forehead. She studied his face, mesmerized. High cheekbones. Full, sinfully sensuous lips. His features reminded her of someone. An actor or member of a boy band? A face on a poster on her sister’s bedroom wall. She shook away the niggling memory. Focus, Alex. She had a problem to solve. Writing to return to. She wasn’t here to flirt, more’s the pity. Maybe she could use her tenuous connection to this member of the construction crew to get through to his boss about the noise and the traffic. “You weren’t out this morning,” she said.
“Had a bad start to the day. The greenhouse I want is on back order and they’ve changed the specs for the walk-in refrigerator. No time for fun.”
Oh no, thought Alex, with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Could he be one of the guys in charge? Surely not. He looked way too young, maybe in his early twenties. And a guy stewarding such an expensive project on such an expensive island wouldn’t have the time to surf each morning, would he? For some reason the idea that her surfer dude may be partly responsible for her inability to write made Alex extremely angry. Like he had violated an unspoken code of friendship. Taken advantage of her in some way. Disappointed her.
“You,” she waved her hand to take in the entire crew in case he was just the foreman and there was a big boss around, “need to so something about the noise. And about the trucks that keep turning around in the driveway. They almost clipped my Mini Cooper.”
“But they didn’t hit it, did they?” he asked, eyes narrowing. He had green eyes. She hadn’t gotten close enough on the beach to see the colour. They were like clouded pale emeralds and just as hard. He was still talking in a very angry voice, all pretence of civility gone. “Close only counts in horseshoes. And a construction site is noisy. Nothing I can do about that. You tell your boyfriend Alex Whitmore that he can bite my ass. If he wanted peace and quiet he should have rented some place else. And also tell him,” surfer dude went on, his voice rising, not letting her get a word in, “that he can stop calling the cops on me all the time. I know everybody on this fucking island and they aren’t going to put a farangi’s complaints over the concerns of a businessman. After all, I’m the one who’s investing big bucks and creating jobs.”
Alex stood rooted to the spot, unable to move or respond as he strode away without a backward glance. She was too shocked to correct his mistaken impression that Alex Whitmore was a man. The surfer dude was in charge!
Another euro dropped. This must be Len, the man who the policeman wanted her to meet to smooth things over. No fucking way, she thought, mentally crossing the Cinco de Mayo invite off her calendar as she stomped back down the hill to her villa, cranking up her own music to try and drown out the sounds from next door.
Okay, thought Lennon with a scowl, that went well. It hadn’t helped that he’d woken up in his camp bed sweating in his office with a bitch of a headache, topped off by the news about supply problems and the fact that Georges Jr., the key man on his construction crew, had called in sick with the flu. Said he was stuck in bed. Most likely Georges Jr. was stuck in that redhead he’d been moaning over the last few days.
Plus, Lennon admitted as he signed off on a delivery, he hadn’t been prepared for the sight of those painted toenails- tiger striped this time. The girl on the beach was his neighbour. He should have realized. The toenails confirmed it. They reminded him what he’d seen, of her pleasuring herself. They made him feel ashamed and hot at the same time. Lennon downed a bottle of water and swatted ineffectually at a couple of nails.
He had tried not to think about the woman masturbating in the villa next door, but the usual tactics hadn’t worked. Not at night, when he collapsed into the camp cot in his office. Solo. Again. Still.
Maybe he should forget his vow of celibacy and go out clubbing with Georges Jr., pick up a redhead of his own. Maybe that would replace the nightly fantasies of his neighbour tossing away the vibrator and replacing it with his hard flesh. Or hands. Or mouth. It hadn’t helped that those crazy toenails were at the end of spectacular legs and topped off by the face of the woman who watched him surf on the beach.
Lennon had fantasies about the mystery woman with her shoulder length brown curls and curves barely disguised by her baggy clothes. He wanted to see for himself what was under that coating of sunscreen and those extra large T-shirts. Show her what she was missing when she’d thought she’d been watching him unobserved from the edge of the parking lot beneath the trees. He shook his head and placed his hammer back in his tool belt. He’d been alone too long. He needed company, female company. His own choice, but still.
Maybe he’d get lucky at Marcel and Ana’s Cinco de Mayo party. If not, Bliss said she’d act as his wingman and she’d be in town in a few days. Just hold on, he thought, and tried to put his confrontation with Alex Whitmore’s girlfriend out of his mind.
“Where did you find an English Bull Terrier piñata?” asked Lennon, amused at the crowd of kids pummelling the suspended ovoid shape with sticks.
“Misha sent it.” Ana smiled at the sight of the pack of excited children taking whacks at the canine shape. Lennon thought Ana had barely changed over the years. Still slim and pretty and as comforting as a cup of chocolate.
“I haven’t talked to my honorary aunt for a while,” he said.
“Misha bought it for a party at your house but her mother got upset at the idea of somebody hitting her favourite dog with a stick.”
Lennon laughed and took a swig of beer. “Misha and her mother all but raised us after mom died. Raisa’s the toughest person I’ve ever met but she had such a soft spot for Sponge. I’m surprised she hasn’t gotten another puppy. It’s been years. Misha says they’re talking about it.”
“How’s your dad?” asked Ana.
He deflected the question with generalities. “You know him. Says he’s fine. Happy. Working but…”
“Yeah,” said Ana, “I know. He hasn’t been the same since your mom died.”
“I wish I could remember what he was like back then.” Lennon didn’t know where that admission had come from. Since he moved to St. Barts he’d been thinking a lot about his dad, wondering about the man he was and if he could possibly be wrong about him.
Ana put her arm around his waist, leaning against him fondly, remembering. “Sven was selfish and spoilt and arrogant and yet so alive. It was as if being around Sunny switched him on somehow. He’s still Sven but the bulb is a lower wattage. Doesn’t give off as much light.”
“I can’t imagine dad burning any brighter. Three Oscars. God knows how many other awards. If he was any more alive, I’d need those special glasses you use to watch the solar eclipse.”
“Yes!” Ana latched onto the idea. “The two of them together were so happy, it hurt your eyes. In the pictures I’ve seen, Bliss and Charlie are like that. The same kind of incandescent joy.”
“She’ll be here soon.”
Ana read the longing in his voice. “If you’re lonely, you only had to call. Marcel and I,” she said nodding to her husband who had abandoned the BBQ to more capable hands, “we could have had you over. We just assumed you were busy. Are you dating?”
“Nope. Taking a break from all that, though I have to say, there are some nice looking ladies here today.”
Ana smiled, her brown eyes twinkling. “I can introduce you, though I have a feeling you don’t need my help. Why not date your neighbour? It’d be convenient.”
Lennon looked puzzled. “My neighbour is a guy. Alex Whitmore.”
Marcel slid an arm around his wife’s waist and dropped a gentle kiss on her temple. After three children and years of marriage they were still tender with one another. “Is she here? I invited her.”
“You invited who?”
“Alex is a her? A she?” He was stuttering like an idiot. “Alex is a woman?”
“Your neighbour. I thought you two might negotiate a détente over a plate of paella. If anything can cement a truce it’s my wife’s cooking.”
“Brown shoulder length hair? Hazel eyes? Curves?”
“So you’ve met,” said Marcel.
Shit, thought Lennon. You know what happens when you assume something. “Sorry, Marcel. It would take even more than Ana’s cooking to mend fences. She caught me at a bad time and I was rude.”
“Then you’ll just have to make a point of apologizing the next time you see her, “ said Ana adopting a maternal get-it-done-I-won’t-accept-excuses tone of voice.
“Si la Madre,” said Lennon, nudging her, making his mother’s friend smile.
He drifted through the party saying hello to various friends. Playing with Ana and Marcel’s kids. He hadn’t been kidding. There were a number of good looking single women but despite some subtle and not-so-subtle invitations, he stayed solo. Just taking his time he told himself, but admitted, he was looking for her. For Alex. At the end of the night when he drove home to his camp bed in the office of his restaurant, Lennon wasn’t sure if he was relieved or upset that she never showed up.