“I know how you can apologize to your neighbour.”
Lennon barely glanced over at his sister, focussed on the kitchen design, wondering why the hell they had put the pot racks so far away from the cook top.
“Alex Whitmore. You owe her an apology. First, for being so rude about the noise and the truck traffic and second, for that stunt you pulled in the grocery store.”
“Wha’?” That got his attention. “How do you know what happened? Did Georges say something?”
“Why would Georges say…? Hmm, he was there to witness your temporary insanity?”
Lennon felt a bead of sweat trickle down his temple. “You don’t know. You were there. She smelt like…”
“Mom,” Bliss finished his thought while staring intently at her flustered little brother. “She smelt like mom. She has mom’s perfume, but even more important, she has the same body chemistry so she smells just like mom when she wears the same scent. Amazing coincidence when you think about it. You freaked her out.”
“I did not,” he protested and then scowled in admission. “Okay, I did. But it was so unexpected I didn’t know what to do.”
“I know what to do. Apologize and make her dinner. Honestly, she needs a food and wine mentor. She lives on horrible frozen dinners and yet when we went for lunch, she tried different things and loved it, so there’s hope.”
“What do you mean when you went for lunch?”
“I met her at the beach, we started talking and she joined me at the spa the other day because you were too busy. I really like Alex. She reminds me of Grandma.”
“Of Raisa? I don’t think so!” Lennon couldn’t imagine two people more different than his masturbating neighbour and his intimidating childhood nanny.
“Not like Baba, silly,” countered Bliss. “Like grandma Judith.”
“You’re delusional. They’re nothing alike.”
“Sure they are,” countered Bliss, taking bite out of a mango and letting the juice trickle down her chin to her baby bump. She had always been a messy eater. “They have that same ‘don’t fuck with me’ attitude. Like nothing would bother them. That they would be, I don’t know, a port in the storm. The person you call when you need help. Steady. And yet sexy.”
“Sexy? Grandma Judith?”
“You should talk to Liam. Our older brother has spent a lot of time with Judith’s family in Northern Norway. Boy, the stories about her and our granddad Alexander. Hey, how about that? Alex and Alexander. Besides, Grandma has a lover on St. Barts. Everybody knows. A retired cop called Inspector Hubert.”
Lennon shook his head, trying to assimilate all this information. His Grandmother had been a hottie and had an island lover, at her age! She was getting more than he was.
“Why do you think our neighbour is sexy?” Lennon was afraid Alex had seen him lurking and taking pictures and said something to his sister. Shame and panic intermingled in equal measure.
Instead of answering, Bliss handed him her iPad and flicked ahead. Satisfied with what she found, she handed the device over to her brother.
It displayed a digital book cover. Pink. All. Over. was the title.
“Haven’t you heard about this? Or Red. All. Over.? The last one is Happy. All. Over.”
Lennon shook his head.
Bliss let out a snort. “It’s a trilogy. She’s sold millions of copies and they’re going to be made into a movie. Hey, maybe Liam would like to star in them? He’d be perfect. The hero is this hot blond with a bad attitude who is blinded and as he recovers his sight, has a series of erotic adventures.”
“So? Charlie must be leaving you alone too much Sis.”
“Idiot. Alex wrote these. Your neighbour? She’s a pop culture phenomenon.”
“That quiet, rather unpleasant woman has written sex books?”
“Not just sex books. The biggest since The Story of O,” Bliss answered with a naughty grin.
Lennon’s mind veered back to the sight of the woman with the toenails and the vibrator. The glistening juncture of her thighs and her frustrated growl. He couldn’t for the life of him reconcile those sensual images with the determined but tough woman he’d met in the flesh. Unfortunate turn of phrase, he silently acknowledged.
“I said,” Bliss snapped her fingers in front of his face, “I’ve invited Alex to dinner at the villa tonight. You’re cooking and will be charming and convince her you’re not a nut. Okay?”
“Why should I bother?”
“Why shouldn’t you? Len, I don’t understand. You’re pleasant to everybody. Even when we got calls from telemarketers you’d hang on the phone until you got ‘Bob’ to admit he was really Dev from Bombay and start talking about curries. What is it about Alex that has you so on edge?”
Bliss didn’t wait for an answer. “I don’t care. Get over whatever it is because I like her. I’m going to be here for a few months and it’s nice to have a friend, with Charlie away and you so busy with the restaurant. I’ll get the flowers and make sure the villa is in shape. I’ll pick up something for dessert and throw together some appetizers. You’re in charge of the entrée. Pasta maybe? I want to see if you’ve lost your touch.”
“You wish! Your dough was always better for making papier-mâché projects at school than actually eating.”
“Tonight at seven,” was her placid response.
Feeling somehow outmanoeuvred, Lennon went off to shop.
Four hours later he was back at the Bali villa, favourite knife, provisions and wine in hand.
“I decided on lobster tagliatelle,” he said when Bliss opened the door breathing heavily as if she’d raced to let him in. “You’re not wearing that for dinner?”
Her pregnant body was barely covered by her filmy black negligee. It exposed a forearm’s worth of cleveage and it was cut high on the thigh displaying a satiny leg.
“Didn’t you get my text?” hissed Bliss.
“My phone’s charging in the office. What’s up?”
“A change of plans.”
Any explanations were cut short by a loud voice booming out from the direction of the master bedroom. “Bloody hell, Bliss! It’s not going to suck itself.”
The voice and the posh English accent belonged to a man. A tall, well built unmistakeably nude man who came strolling into the Great Room proceeded by an impressive erection.
All three froze for a second before Lennon said in a slightly choked voice, “Hey Charlie.”
Bliss had the good grace to blush and Charlie grabbed a pillow to try and cover his groin. He had to hold it at an awkward angle eight inches from his body so the soft furnishings only served to act as punctuation to his hard furnishings.
“Lennon,” Charlie said trying to appear nonchalant. “I came early. Thought I’d surprise your sister.”
“She’s not the only one who’s surprised,” he said, not mentioning the fact that Charlie was apparently about to come early, late and every temporal increment in between.
“I tried to warn you,” his sister interjected, trying to deflect his attention. “I’ve made arrangements for you to cook for Alex at her villa instead. Charlie and I want,” she searched for the most brother-friendly phase, “some alone time tonight. We’ll get together tomorrow night instead. Off you go,” Bliss said, shooing him out the door, “Alex is waiting.”
The door didn’t close the entire way and Lennon was too stunned to move. He heard his sister ask, “Why couldn’t you have waited in the bedroom as I asked? Whatever happened to British stoicism? A stiff upper lip?”
Out of the corner of his eye, Lennon saw Charlie grin and drop his pillow, his erection once again in full view. “It’s not my lip that stiff.”
Bliss picked up the pillow and dropped it to the floor, gingerly settling on her knees. “I will serve you your amuse bouche before I let Alex know she’s dining alone with my brother. Ten minutes should be enough.”
“Not for me,” Charlie growled. Before the couple could start their own meal, Lennon fled in panic wishing there was a way to wash his eyes out with soap.
No fucking way, thought Alex when she got Bliss’ text message. No way was she going to have dinner alone with surfer dude/rude dude/spoiled movie star offspring. She would shut the door in his face and tell him she had other plans. She didn’t but he didn’t need to know that. She would be firm but not rude. Not like him. Her resolve stiffened by a half glass of wine, she straightened her shoulders and went to answer the door. “You’ll have to tell Bliss we can do this another time,” she began determinedly but then stopped, surprised by the forlorn look in Lennon’s eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she blurted. “I thought you’d be pleased for your sister that Charlie was finally here.”
“I am.” His smile was a feeble effort. “It’s just now that he’s arrived it’s all about him. Soon it will be all about the baby. Bliss won’t have time for me.”
Alex nodded in instant understanding. “I know. When I’m with my parents it’s all about my sister and her family. You feel like an eighth wheel in my case. Third in yours. We can do dinner another time if you want?” she added, more softly and conciliatory than she’d planned. He just looked so lost she couldn’t be mad any longer.
“No,” said Lennon. “The food won’t keep, and besides, we still have to eat even if they’re…preoccupied.”
Alex had a good idea how Bliss and Charlie would be preoccupied this evening and bit back a pang of envy. “Sure,” she said brightly. “Let’s have dinner.” She almost changed her mind and slammed the door in Lennon’s face when she noticed the knife tucked in his belt and the squirming sack in the box of groceries. She was still unnerved by the encounter in the grocery store even though he now appeared more wounded than dangerous.
Lennon picked up on her anxious glance. “All chefs travel with their favourite knives. As for this,” he pulled the still moving canvas sack out of his box of provisions, “it’s dinner. Show me your kitchen.”
Alex led the way, trying not to second-guess herself. This was Bliss’ brother. The son of a famous movie actor. The brother of another movie star. The police chief had vouched for him. He wasn’t some crazed maniac. He wasn’t dangerous. Why then, she wondered, did Lennon make her feel so on edge? She stopped feeling guilty about her reaction when he eyed her up and down and said, “You’ll want to get out of those clothes.”
“What the hell?”
Lennon laughed at her indignant response. He stepped casually forward and slid one tapered finger along the vee neck of her silk wrap dress. She could feel the digit’s hot path along her shoulder blade to the tip of her cleveage but didn’t flinch, didn’t even move. She could not, however, control her racing pulse or the flush that enveloped her cheeks. She felt his green eyes on her, assessing. Did he think she would just drop her clothes here and now? Before dinner? Didn’t she even get dinner? Wrong answer. Focus Alex.
The finger moved from the bodice of dress to her chin, tipping it up so she had to stare into his face. Lennon was smiling as if he found her discomfort was amusing. “We’re going to cook and I don’t want you to get that gorgeous dress dirty.” His eyes gleamed in appreciation.
“Oh!” Alex wasn’t sure if she was disappointed she mistook his comment for a come-on. It was hard to tell when her heart was racing. “But you’re dressed up,” she said pointing to his white linen shirt and black linen pants. They skimmed the muscular contours of his body. The flesh she’d fantasized about after watching him on the beach. Wet in the surf. She could see biceps, triceps and such rippling beneath the surface of the fabric. He put his hands on her shoulders. Was he going to kiss her or maybe smell her hair again? Suddenly Alex didn’t care, just as long as Lennon brought her closer so she could revel in the heat from his body. He did neither, turning her around and giving her a gentle nudge out of the kitchen.
She stumbled and then stomped to the bedroom more angry with herself than with her guest. What was she thinking? Somebody like him interested in somebody like her? Stupid girl, she thought, carefully hanging up her pretty new dress and dragging on shorts and a T-shirt. Her hands went to her earlobes, dropping the new earrings on the dresser. Now she didn’t want him close to her. Now she wanted him gone.
Lennon wasn’t gone. He had taken over her kitchen. There was a huge pot of water boiling on the stove. An array of ingredients spread out on the counter. Flour. Lemons. A variety of peppers. Some kind of exotic salt. A pepper grinder. Bundles of fresh greens. Cream and butter and eggs. A meter of just baked baguette filled the room with a scent eons away from the room’s typical aroma of rubbery reheated pizza.
He pulled out a thin rolling pin and the knife and then went rummaging in the cupboards. A cutting board, saucepan and frying pan were effortlessly set up around the kitchen before he looked up.
“We’ll do our prep then take a break, okay?” His cool tone was in stark contrast to the heat in his eyes.
“What are we having?”
In answer, he picked up the squirming sack. Alex stuttered, “Bliss said you spent time in Asia and I’m sure to you it’s normal but I don’t want to eat snakes.”
He laughed, a wicked gleam in his eyes and held the sack over the boiling pot of water before dumping in two live lobsters, pincers protesting. “God, the look on your face!” He wiped his face with a towel. He was laughing so hard he was crying. “You’re as much fun to tease as Bliss, though she was always better at killing the damn things than me.” Seeing her blush, his tone softened. “I promise. Nothing exotic or even Asian. Strictly Italian food tonight and I don’t mean pizza,” he added with a nod at a pile of empty boxes. “I put the wine in the blast chiller. Pour us a glass and we’ll get started.”
Alex looked around the kitchen. The blast chiller? Why didn’t high-end appliances come with i.d. tags? Was a blast chiller some kind of fancy chef word for a freezer? She opened the door and peered inside. Nope, just the icemaker, frozen pizzas and her other staples. She felt strong, warm hands behind her open the frig door, reach down into a small drawer and withdraw one of three bottles of white wine dripping with chilled condensation.
“I wondered what that was,” said Alex marvelling.
“A blast chiller can cool a bottle of wine in about eight minutes. Handy, because I never remember to do it ahead of time.” She watched as his sure hands picked up his knife and he removed the foil. It didn’t look as though he ever forget anything around the kitchen.
“I have one of those rabbit wine opener thingys,” she said helpfully trying to remember where it was.
“Don’t bother,” he said removing an old scuffed Swiss army knife and calmly inserting a spiral into the cork. With a
couple of twists, the wine was open. “Glasses,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
Alex started opening cupboard doors. She usually used juice glasses but didn’t think they’d be appropriate for a proper dinner. He nudged her out of the way with a hip and pointed to a stool at the end of the island. “Sit,” he ordered, removing two long stemmed glasses hanging suspended from a rack she hadn’t noticed and poured her a healthy measure of wine. It tasted crisp on her tongue like apples and fresh mown grass. “Aren’t you having any?”
“As soon as I get these big boys out of the water and start the sauce,” he replied, rummaging again until he found a colander. “I don’t drink much. Travelled in mostly Muslim countries. Plus I spent a lot of time in tourist areas. Seeing people trip into a pool of their own vomit on a nightly basis tends to cure you of the need to over-indulge. I’m still bad with hard liquor. One shot and I’m out for the night. If I have more than two glasses of wine tonight, take away my keys.”
“It’s a good thing you live next door. You can walk home.”
Alex smiled as she sipped her wine. This was nice. Sitting in the kitchen having an actual conversation. Up until this moment, she hadn’t realized how lonely and isolated her life had become.
The wine was helping her relax and she let her sandal fall, one bare foot dangling off the bottom rung of the stool. She felt Lennon’s eyes sweep over her bare leg to her foot and he laughed. “Black and white stripes! Your toes look like a circus tent.” He reached forward tentatively with one finger and touched the hand grasping her wine glass. His hands were warm, tracing fire along the nerves of her inner wrist. “Why don’t you paint your fingernails too?”
“I’m a writer. I have to keep the nails short so I don’t have trouble typing or clicking or…” her face grew warm as she remembered his strange encounter in the grocery store and the evocative comments he’d made about her computer skills.
He understood her reticence instantly. “I’m sorry,” he said and she read honest dismay in his green eyes. “I was rude to you in the store and before that, when you came to complain about the noise. If it makes you feel any better I’ve been reamed a new one by Bliss and Marcel and his wife Ana for acting like an asshole.”
Apology accepted, Alex watched as Lennon took his knife and in the blink of the eye, cut the tail and claws off the now dead lobsters, dumping parts of the meat and the shells into a saucepan with melted butter. The honed steel was a blur as he chopped bundles of greens into tiny slivers. Herbs, Alex guessed, inhaling the evocative aromas. She jumped slightly when he smashed the flat side of the knife down on a clove of garlic and then used the blade to squish it into a mash, neatly scraping it off the cutting board and adding it to the pan. He caught her watching his every move. “I should have asked if you were allergic to anything.”
“Not that I know of, but I haven’t tried a lot of fancy food. I can’t ever remember even eating lobster before,” she admitted. “That would have been extravagant.”
“What did you eat? I know you don’t cook. Even before Bliss told me, I could tell by what you bought at the grocery store.”
“My mom’s idea of Sunday dinner was throwing a roast in a pot with an onion and cranking up the oven. I didn’t know it was okay to eat meat when it was still slightly pink until I went away to university.”
“Slightly pink? Have you ever had beef carpaccio? Beef tartare? They’re served rare.”
“Wouldn’t you get worms?” asked Alex. “My mother was always warning me not to eat anything raw, that it could give you worms.”
Lennon laughed and Alex thought he looked like a little boy, with his tousled hair and that carefree expression she’d only seen on his face when he was surfing. “I’ve never heard that. But I’ve eaten actual worms…silk worms. And a bunch of other kinds of insects; beetle bees and deep-fried crickets. They are crunchy with a kind of mocha flavour. You have to floss afterwards to get the legs and antennae out from between your teeth.”
She narrowed her eyes, trying to ascertain if he was joking.
“God’s honest truth. They eat everything in Cambodia and Vietnam and other parts of Asia. They’ve had to for centuries to avoid starving to death.”
Alex sipped her wine thoughtfully. “You seem young to have done so much travelling. Was it with your dad? Did you go along on film shoots?”
“No,” he answered abruptly, mixing flour and salt in a bowl and then pouring it onto the counter. “Come here. Your cooking lesson is about to begin.” Alex put down her glass and slid around the counter uncertain what to do. He stepped behind her and used three fingers to create a hole in the middle of the mound of flour. With one hand he cracked three eggs into the well he created. “We’re making farina di grano tenero, a soft egg pasta. It’s easy peasy.”
He stepped closer behind her and took her hands. Why were they suddenly shaking?
“Here,” he said, moving her palms to push the flour into the viscous liquid, “you work the flour into the eggs. Just keep mushing it together, a bit at a time. Not too hard,” he said, getting her to relax her hands. “Gently, as if you were stroking a kitten. You don’t want to bruise the dough. When you make pasta, always use extra fine flour.”
She followed his movements feeling his hands on hers, coaxing. His breath in her hair, the heat from his body against her back. Her body responded. Moistness between her thighs. Her nipples saluting. Slowly their entwined hands incorporated all the eggs into the flour and the dough felt solid. She had a flashback to a favourite film—Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore making a clay pot in Ghost. This type of messy intimacy reminded Alex of that movie and she shivered in anticipation.
“Now the fun part,” he said and removed his hand for a minute, reaching up to tuck the curls on the left side of her face out behind her ear. When she glanced over she could see his face. His eyes were intent and serious but kind, as if she were a child he was tutoring. Well, thought Alex, when it came to cooking, she was a child.
He took the dough and started kneading it, squashing it against the table, stretching and pulling it. She followed his movements with rapt eyes, fascinated by the sureness of his hands. “Now you try.”
Alex tried to emulate his movements but after a couple of minutes felt as if she’d walked up the Gouverneur hill. “This isn’t easy,” she said with a slight hitch in her breath.
She could feel him smile against her temple. “Nonnas, that means Italian grandmothers, have arms like weight lifters or they used to. Now, most people don’t take the time to make pasta from scratch.”
Alex looked up from her kneading. “Why didn’t you just get one of those boxes in the supermarket?”
“The object is to teach you to cook. Bliss has appointed me your mentor and I don’t want to piss her off. Big sisters have ways of making your life a living hell. Besides,” he added, his voice low and thoughtful as if making a confession, “my mom always said to cook for someone was an intimate thing, like making love. That you put your heart on a plate. She was a great cook,” he sighed. “Not as schooled as Bliss or even as well travelled as me, but her food tasted like…love.”
Alex’s hands stilled. “You miss her,” she said quietly.
“Every minute of every day.”
“I watched Ode to Joy,” Alex blurted out. “After Bliss told me who you were. I hadn’t seen Charlie’s documentary for years but then I watched it online.” She reached over with floury fingers and found his hands. They were strong and slightly calloused but the fingers were beautiful, thin and supple. How would they feel kneading flesh instead of flour? Cut it out, she told herself. “If she had been my mom, I’d miss her every minute of every day too.”
He was so still behind her that Alex could almost hear his heartbeat. She glanced to the side. Lennon’s eyelids were lowered, his dark, thick eyelashes casting shadows. Why did he get dark, thick eyelashes she wondered with sudden pique? His cheekbones were flushed with colour. He opened his eyes and caught her staring. There was an electricity-charged moment and then he squeezed her fingers and said, “Time to chill the dough,” and turned away leaving her breathless.
The pasta wrapped in plastic and deposited in the frig, he added chicken broth and a bit of the wine to the sauce and poured himself a glass, savouring a swig before cleaning the counter with quick, neat gestures.
She flicked on hidden speakers and Radio St. Barts filled the space; Eminem segued seamlessly into Edith Piaf.
Prep done, they flopped down on lounge chairs beside the pool. Lennon tried to forget she’d been sitting in the same chair where he’d spied her masturbating. Then she was a sexually frustrated stranger. Now she was an intriguing and warm woman.
“Why don’t you have a date for tonight? I never see you going out or hear you having parties,” he asked. She was staring and that made him nervous. “I wasn’t spying, I just noticed.”
“I could ask you the same thing,” Alex said calmly.
“I have a sister. I recognize diversionary techniques. You first.”
She took a sip of wine, turning the stem in her hands and stared at the sea. “I haven’t dated for a while. God, I hate the word ‘dated’. So high school. My choices haven’t been the best in the past and with all the book stuff and moving here, it’s a good time to pause and figure out what I want.”
“Have you? Figured it out yet?” Lennon grimaced. “I’m kind of in the same place. People keep trying to fix me up but I’m not interested.”
“Why would you need to be fixed up?” she blurted. “Look at you. Plus your family’s famous.”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t trust that people want to be with you for you. It was so much easier when I was overseas. When I was fifteen I joined a Missionary group and helped build houses in Africa. I couldn’t stand everybody in L.A and Oslo thinking they knew me, making assumptions about me because of that movie and because of my dad. And my brother Liam.
When I was overseas, I could get lost. Just be myself. The villagers didn’t care who I was. Who my parents were. That they were celebrities. They only knew I was the guy who helped dig the well and paint the school. In Asia, I was the guy who worked in the kitchen or the mahout; that’s somebody who trains elephants. I learnt how when I worked at this place in Thailand that had its own baby elephant. The guy showed me some tricks and I got a job at an elephant sanctuary in Ubud. That’s in Bali. It’s a great place to surf.” He took another sip of wine and then turned and stared directly at her. “I saw you watching me surfing, from beneath the trees.”
“Sorry,” she blushed. “You’re just so strong and graceful I couldn’t help myself. I’m really not some kind of creepy voyeur.”
He didn’t look away. Their eyes locked, his green eyes pinned her as his cheeks turned red. Lennon paused for a moment as if considering his next move and then just blurted out a confession. “Fuck it. I am…a voyeur. Well, I was…just one time. I didn’t mean to spy on you. I was checking the hill for a greenhouse,” he jerked his thumb in the direction of the steep slope near her portico, “and I saw you out here.” His blush grew deeper. “I should have called out but it didn’t seem like the right time,” he mumbled.
Why was Lennon so embarrassed? wondered Alex. So what if he saw me swimming or reading or doing my toenails. Then she remembered the day by the pool. The batteries in her vibrator. Hearing a noise from the hillside. She stared straight into Lennon’s embarrassed face…and began to laugh.
“Oh my God!” she sputtered, tears rolling down her face. A fresh round of exuberant laugher rolled through her and she clutched her stomach. “That’s why you made those rude comments about batteries in the grocery store and asked if I toggled or double clicked!” The comments came out in a stutter in between guffaws, her shoulders shaking as tears streamed down her face.
Lennon stared at her open mouthed. So much for Alex being uptight. This woman had a sense of humour about herself. That was rare, unheard of in Hollywood. Her laugh was infectious and he found himself joining in. Once their giggles had subsided, he confessed, “I thought you’d hate me and think I was some kind of a pervert.”
“How about me? Using sex toys by the pool?”
They grinned at one another relieved that what could have been an extremely embarrassing situation ended up shattering the typical tension between strangers.
“Seriously,” he said, flashing her a smile, “why are you using toys? You wouldn’t have any trouble attracting a lover. You’re funny and you’re gorgeous.”
Alex caught her breath. “Nobody’s ever said that before. It was always my sister. She was the pretty one. I was the smart one. Parents may not mean to lock you into certain roles but that’s what happens.”
“I know what you mean. Bliss was always the ambitious one, stubborn and smart. Everybody always said I was kind of lazy, happy-go-lucky. Friendly but…” Alex understood what he was saying. “The subtext was you wouldn’t amount to much. Funny how kids can take what’s meant as a compliment and turn it around until we take it as an insult. You seem pretty ambitious to me. Look at you, opening your own restaurant. And you’re how old?” “Twenty-three.” “Wow! That is impressive. You also seem competent at the building site and in the kitchen. Looks like you’re gonna amount to something in spite of yourself.” Lennon’s face softened. She had said precisely the right thing. “Thanks. Just…thanks. Come on. Let’s roll out the pasta. I’m starving.” They took their positions at the counter. He stood behind her, raining flour on the granite then showing her how to work the now chilled dough and flatten it into a near perfect circle. More flour and he put her hands on the end of a thin rolling pin and showed her how to flatten the circle further, its circumference widening as he turned it slightly, showing her how to get an even surface. They worked as one. His hands on hers. His breath in her hair. His voice rumbling instructions in her ear. “You’re not wearing perfume tonight,” he observed, his lips near her temple as he demonstrated how to cut the pasta into perfectly symmetrical strips. Lennon wasn’t sure if he was disappointed or relieved that she didn’t smell like his mom. She didn’t answer for a moment, just continued to cut dough in uneven strips. His hands were steady and the cuts were even, a result of years of practice. He may have felt up-ended around Alex but he’d be damned if it showed in his cooking. “I thought…I didn’t want to disturb you by wearing that scent.” “You did but you aren’t now. I was just surprised but looking back, I like that you smelt like my mom. Though you smell great all on your own. Mango something?” “Shampoo.” Her answer came out in a croak. “And there’s something vanilla. Your face cream?” “I don’t know. Are you trying to deconstruct me like a meal?” “Sorry. Bad habit.” He smiled against her hair and just for an instant gave into temptation and gave her the lightest of kisses. The sensation was so fleeting, so gentle, it was like butterfly wings. Lennon moved away, stirring the pasta into boiling salted water, showing her how a drizzle of oil would prevent the pot from boiling over. He whisked in some of the cream into the strained sauce and then held out a spoonful for her to taste, waiting, watching her face for reaction. “It’s good.” “Yeah, but not great. Not yet.” He took the lemon and showed her how to add zest and then squeezed the fruit through cheesecloth to remove the pips, finishing the sauce with a generous helping of freshly ground pepper. He stacked the plates up and down his arm, leaving Alex to follow with the wine and bread. They took their places at the patio table, watching the stars come out over Gouverneur Beach below. Alex had hoovered up half of her plate of pasta before she looked across the table and must have noticed Lennon had barely taken a bite. He was watching her eat, which made her self-conscious. “Do I have sauce drizzling down my chin?” “I like to watch people enjoy their food. It’s what cooking’s all about, once you get past the not wanting to starve bit.” “You aren’t doing your part,” she observed pointing a forkful of pasta at his plate. “Eat. Or what would a Nonna say?” “Mangia!” he replied emphatically. “Then mangia,” she said with a grin, and he did cleaning his plate. “I apologize for the lack of dessert. Bliss was supposed to do that part of the meal.” “I have banana popsicles,” Alex offered. Lennon accepted with a laugh. “Not very chic, but good. When I was growing up, we weren’t allowed any fast food. Mom wanted us to develop our palates and cooking skills.” “In exchange for teaching me about cooking and good food, I could teach you about bad food. I am the expert on every fast food known to man. Cheezos and pizza with stuffed crust. Deep fried chicken with mayo dressing. My latest discovery is deep fried bacon. Or poutine! It’s french fries with cheese and gravy. It’s practically Canada’s national dish. You should put it on your menu.” Alex must have realized what she said because she blushed and apologized. “Sorry. I shouldn’t be advising the expert on menus. I’m sure your restaurant will be a lot more classy than that.” Lennon considered her suggestion and nodded. “It’s a good idea. I can tart it up a bit but it’d be nice to include some Canadian flavour. The menu is kind of ici et là, my take on some French classics and then each night a variety of dishes from my travels.” “You won’t serve worms or snakes?” Alex asked, sucking the last bit of popsicle from the stick. “No, and I think I’ll leave crickets off the menu, for now anyway.” He had to tear his eyes away from the sight of her licking that popsicle. It reminded him of her with the vibrator and the torrid dreams they’d inspired. Feeling his blood pooling south of his belt he lurched to his feet. “I’d better go. I have an early morning.” Alex walked him to the door. Was she looking rather sorry the evening had ended so abruptly? “Thanks for the cooking lesson. I had fun, even without Bliss.” “So did I,” Lennon said holding out his hand. Hers was sticky from popsicle juice. Rather than shake his hand, she brought hers to her mouth and licked off the sugary remnants. He groaned at the sight of her fingers in her mouth, remembering her fingers other places, slick with other juices. Some temptations were too great to resist. He exhaled a sigh and pulled her to him. The air thickened as he cradled her face in his hands, tilting her eyes up as he lowered his lips. They were so soft. He brushed his mouth gently side to side on hers and her breath quickened. Her lips parted slightly and he tasted her. All thirty-five plus papillae on his tongue sung at the contact. She was as alluring as fresh honey. As spicy as kimchi. As enticing as the best bottle of Barolo. She was the best thing she’d ever tasted. He wanted to devour her, to keep tasting her mouth and then move onto her skin. The pulse point at her throat, the dip between her breasts, the sweet flesh between her thighs. Lennon wanted to do a tasting menu of her entire body, laying Alex out like a buffet. The strength of his want left him shaken. He could eat her all up but he forced himself to pull back, his hands still holding her face as he drank in the sight of her. “You taste like banana,” he whispered, one finger stroking a curl off her cheek. *** Alex held her breath, waiting for Lennon to lean in again. Needing him to kiss her again. To feel his nimble fingers on her breast, kneading her he’d kneaded the pasta dough. Slipping inside her, stroking her. Why hadn’t she worn the damn dress? The v-neck would have been an invitation unlike this damn T-shirt. Her skirt could have ridden up on her thighs ever so gently. She could have leant over, letting him see her cleveage. She needed the armour of the dress to make her feel pretty, desirable. Worthy of this Adonis with his green eyes and celebrity pedigree. Hell, she needed designer dresses and jewellery and photo-shopped skin to have a snowball’s chance. But that didn’t stop Alex from wanting him. Please hold me, she thought with bated breath. Please, Please. Please. Ride me to the shore like you rode your surfboard. The plea was unspoken and unanswered. Alex waited, quivering as Lennon turned without another word and walked to his car and drove away, leaving her breathless and bereft. Silly girl. You aren’t in his league, she thought as she closed the door and set the alarm. At least she had batteries now, she thought. Somehow the idea of self-pleasure made her more frustrated, not less. *** “What a beautiful day,” Bliss said wandering into the restaurant wearing a floaty dress and a big smile. Lennon took in her sister’s glow and scowled. “It’s pouring. I’m surprised to see you up. It’s only mid-afternoon. And why aren’t you walking funny. What happened? Did Charlie run out of steam?” “Little brother, I’m happy to report Charlie never runs out of steam. He had some work to do–emails and phone calls. I thought I’d run a few errands and check in with you. How was dinner with Alex?” “Good.” “That’s it? That’s your date post-mortem?” “It wasn’t a date. It was a cooking lesson. It went well. What else do you want to know?” Lennon crossed his arms and dared his sister to continue the interrogation. He’d woken up in sweat-tangled sheets after an incredibly erotic dream starring Alex in all her naked glory. He’d woken up hard and frustrated and he wanted to scream ‘FUCK!’ as loudly as his neighbour had when the batteries on her vibrator failed. He shouldn’t have kissed her. He knew that. But they had such a nice time talking and she was so sweet and there was that husky laugh and those legs he wanted wrapped around his hips, his waist, his ears. His blood stopped flowing to his brain and ended up pooling in his groin and as usual when he let that part of his anatomy lead, he regretted it the next morning. Usually when he let his penis dictate his actions he at least didn’t wake up with a boner, but still. Bliss was eyeing him carefully, reminding him to watch his expression. Guard his responses when she poked and prodded. “If you’re going to be like this, I’ll wander down and talk to Alex. Girls always dish post-date.” It wasn’t a…never mind.” “Not much going on here today,” his sister observed. “No hunky guys in tool belts or clatter.” “There won’t be much work between now and Labour Day. I used to admire the French for taking half the summer off, but at the moment I’m pissed. We are behind schedule and over budget.” “So what are you up to?” Bliss asked pointing to the pile of catalogues arrayed on the desk. “Trying to decide on the dishware. I need something simple and elegant but sturdy.” She peered over his shoulder at a photo he’d marked. “I like that plate. Eight inches is a good size,” then laughed as if remembering Lennon’s impromptu look at Charlie in flagrante. He caught the reference and scowled. “Stop being so smug.” “You wouldn’t be so bitchy if you were getting some of your own. Len, why aren’t you? What’s with this ‘taking a break’?” He almost didn’t answer but this was Bliss. His sister had found a way to be happy. Maybe she could help him do the same. “I just, I don’t want to be that guy.” “What guy?” “The guy who nails everyone in sight. The lounge lizard. The scum who doesn’t take people’s feelings into account.” Bliss’ eyes widened in surprise. “Len, you never were and you aren’t now. A couple of my friends would write you recommendations. Plus, you always stay friends with the woman afterwards. You couldn’t be that guy. You’re too nice.” “I’m not. I’m just like…” his voice trailed off. Bliss stared at him, turquoise eyes widening in shock. “Like dad. That’s what you were going to say. You’re just like dad. It’s that stupid book. I told you about that woman. Eden St. Clair. Dad said they had a little fling at the start of filming Paradise Lost and then he fell in love with mom and that was that.” “Have you read it?” Lennon demanded. “I didn’t bother. Dad said she was a vindictive bitch. She crashed Mom’s funeral for God’s sake.” “Well, I read the book. It’s not just about her, though he treated her like shit. She wrote about his conquests. His reputation. Apparently there were piles of pictures of him in bed with various women. And she said that he and an old friend had some kind of kinky thing going on.” Bliss broke out laughing. “You think dad is gay? Or bi? That’s crazy. If he were, he’s been hiding it pretty well for the past thirty years. And mom never guessed.” Lennon felt her hand on his, their fingers entwining as they had for decades. Two lost kids seeking solace from one another. Her voice softened. “You should talk to him. Dad asks about you all the time. Is that stupid book why you haven’t been in touch?” Lennon turned away, caught up with memories dating back a decade. Both of them had been scarred by the childhood loss of their mother. One would have figured Bliss was the worst off—losing her mother, her female role model, on the cusp of her teenaged years. But she had been gifted with her father’s temperament and his looks, with the exception of her turquoise eyes, uniquely her own and her hair, the legacy of her mother Lennon hadn’t been so lucky. His mother had been the center of his world. The warm presence that helped him grow upside down tomatoes and laughed at waffle batter incidents and struggled with him over his math homework and told him endless stories on endless walks about her travels around the world with her father. She had fed his wanderlust and his kindness. From his mother, he learnt never to leave the house without a pocket full of small bills for the needy, dog biscuits for any hungry strays and a cellphone to take pictures of instant new friends. From his mother, he’d acquired a love of languages and foreign cultures, cooking skills and a daunting discipline that kept him doing laps until he was letter perfect and then translating that into a love of the ocean and all things wet. Lennon only had to look in the mirror to see his mother’s face. It was his face or rather a masculine version of her face. The same shape, the same nose. The same lips. His eyes were clear green, minus the smoke of his mom’s. He had inherited his father’s colouring, blond hair and skin that was easy to tan instead of burn. But he knew, when he smiled, it was her smile. When he laughed, it was her laugh. At first, after her death, he’d stare at himself in the mirror, fascinated at how his reflection could trigger maternal memories But then, he’d heard his father one night talking with Misha. He hadn’t come to his soccer game, again. Misha was chastising his dad, the only person who was ever allowed to. Lennon lingered in the kitchen and eavesdropped. “You should have gone. You could have cancelled your meeting. He needs you.” “I know,” his father said, regret heavy in his voice. Lennon crouched low beneath the lip of the countertop, careful to avoid the floorboard near the dishwasher because it always squeaked. He peeked around the corner of the island. As expected, his father was running his hands thru his hair. It was long again because they were filming his tv show and for some reason his Danish rancher character was supposed to have longish hair. “Did he win?” Misha shrugged. “Yes and he got a goal but that’s not the point. You said you would go. You can’t keep disappointing him.” “I know. I know.” Misha was relentless. “You take time off to go riding with Bliss and even joined us shopping last weekend. Why won’t you make time to spend alone with Lennon? He’s still a boy. He needs his father.” “He’s not a boy. He’s fourteen.” “Even more important that you spend time together. What is the problem?” Misha wasn’t going to let it go. Lennon had the feeling the argument was long standing. “You must know. You have to see.” “What?” “He looks like…every time he smiles…God, he’s Sunny. He’s just like Sunny. And I’m fine for the longest time and it’s nice and even comforting to see her in his features and then he smiles or laughs and it’s like she’s here but she’s not and it just….” Lennon watched as Misha wrapped her small wiry body around his epically tall father, hugging him, talking softly in Russian as his father sobbed. Lennon edged back along the island, stopping at the dishwasher, considering his reflection in the stainless steel. His father couldn’t bear to look at him because he reminded him of all they’d lost. Lennon shook himself, returning to the present. Bliss was waiting for an answer. He could give her one, just not the right one. “The last time I was in L.A. there was a reporter who called and wanted to know what I was up to. You know, the family all these years later, blah, blah, blah. I think he was writing a piece about you and Charlie and found out I was home. Anyway, he started asking about my time overseas and wondering if I was as much of a hound dog as dad. Some of the stories…” Lennon’s voice trailed off, his eyes bright with shame. “Some of them may be true,” Bliss admitted slowly. “Dad was in his thirties when he met mom. He was a good-looking guy. Living in Hollywood. I’m sure he didn’t sit home alone many nights. But he changed. Mom changed him. We’ve spent more time together than the two of you. I don’t even know if he dated much before he and Misha got together. Not that I think they are anymore. I never figured that relationship out. Anyway,” she said with a shake of the head, “he’s not that guy and he hasn’t been for decades. And you,” she added with a smile, “have never been that guy. Is that why you’ve been living like a monk since you got back?” “Partly.” He didn’t explain, couldn’t really, how his time in Asia and Africa had solidified his abhorrence of casual sex. After hearing about families literally selling their daughters into slavery to stave off starvation; seeing the young women acting as rental girlfriends for tourists, feigning interest about their jobs as they inhaled dinner and counted bahts; saw the aftermath of years of neglect and abuse when he worked with missionary groups, he couldn’t ever be that reckless about sex again. And when Marjorie gave him the brush off in the Maldives, it had only cemented his determination to never be emotionally vulnerable again. Bliss squeezed his hand. “I applaud your determination and your scruples but it’s kind of silly to deny yourself some fun with a willing partner just because of what a stupid actress wrote about what happened years before you were even born. Besides, you might meet someone that will change you. Like mom and dad.” “Just because you’re in love doesn’t mean everyone else has to be.” “I honestly didn’t think I’d ever fall in love, not really. Not like them. But then Charlie came along and he just completes me, you know? Even when I want to kill him, I love him to pieces. I want that for you too.” “Not everyone gets so lucky.” “No, but complaining about not falling in love when you’re not dating is like bitching you didn’t win the lottery when you didn’t buy a ticket. Get back in the game, little brother. You have a bit of a break before construction resumes, now’s a good time. I know! We’ll have a party. Just the neighbours from Rue de la Colline and a few friends. I’ll put the word out for them to invite along any single ladies. Think of it as free advertising for the restaurant. I gotta go and make arrangements.” Bliss kissed him goodbye and fled. Lennon stared after her, deep in thought. His sister was right. He had to stop being haunted by his memories of Asia and Africa. He had to stop obsessing about that book and stories he dug up about his father’s past. Sven Larsen, Lothario Larsen, had been so callous and arrogant. Such a selfish prick. Lennon couldn’t reconcile those stories with what he remembered about his parents’ marriage. He’d been a child and probably viewed them through a prism of youthful optimism but Charlie’s documentary had confirmed his view. His parents had been in love. The real thing. What poets write about. The subject of songs. Lennon hated himself for allowing doubt to cloud his own memories. For letting the past cast a shadow over his relationship with his father. He picked up the phone and called one of the people who always made him feel better. “Misha. It’s Lennon. Long time no talk.” “Zaichata!” Lennon couldn’t help smiling. He hadn’t been called little bunny for years and it was Misha’s favourite Russian endearment. “I just wanted to touch base. How are you?” “Good. Your father’s been working hard again, so that keeps him from being underfoot and that makes me happy. Mom is fine but has started talking about going back to Russia for good. I don’t know what we’re going to do about that.” “Would you move back to Moscow?” Lennon couldn’t imagine his life without Raisa and Misha. Couldn’t imagine how his father would run his life without their overbearing interference. “It’s just a notion. Tell me about you.” Lennon filled her in on Bliss’ arrival on the island, what he knew about the pregnancy and his renovations to the villas and the restaurant. “I’d love it if you could all come to the opening.” The invitation had just slipped out but he held his breath, waiting for her answer. “Mama and I would love to be there for you and to see Bliss’ baby. As for your father…” Misha’s voice trailed off. “Yeah. I know,” said Lennon trying to moderate the disappointment in his voice. “I will start working on him now. You don’t know. He might change his mind. It’s been so long. He may be ready to go back to St. Barts.” After their goodbyes, Lennon sat deep in thought trying to imagine his father on this island, their island. How difficult it would be for him to return, all the memories it would evoke. It wasn’t going to happen. He’d have to just put the idea out of his mind. Lennon’s thoughts returned to what Bliss had said about not winning a lottery if you didn’t buy a ticket. Alex could be his ticket. He remembered the softness of her hair and lips. He hadn’t meant to kiss her, intended for the night to be strictly platonic and yet he yearned for her. He craved another taste more than he craved fresh lobster or a wedge of dark chocolate. And he’d had fun. Alex was smart and witty and had laughed off his confession about him watching her masturbating. She apparently didn’t take herself too seriously and wasn’t easily embarrassed. He realized that must be true because she’d written those steamy novels Bliss mentioned. Lennon picked up his iPad and downloaded the trilogy without a second thought.