Sven stepped out of the bright sunlight of the street into the cool gloom of the church. He automatically glanced up at the stained glass window featuring an angel with strawberry blonde curls and greenish grey eyes. He’d often thought during weekly services with his family that it was too bad the artist hadn’t seen Sunny naked. The exposed breast by the angel’s right wing was too small. The nipple was the wrong shade of rose. After two children, it had been slightly more dusky. Years later he could still remember the feel of her in his hands and the taste of her buds in his mouth. He shivered and turned at the slight sound behind him.
Reverend James Nelson nodded hello. “Pull up a pew. Judith told me you were in town. Mission accomplished? I heard you brought Alex back with you.”
“My mother is a meddlesome old…” Sven cut off the thought, aware of his surroundings.
“Yes, but what really makes you angry is that she’s almost always right. Was she this time? Have Alex and Lennon reconciled?”
Sven shook his head. “She was going to see him. I don’t know what happened. I, unlike other members of my family, didn’t want to pry.”
“And yet, here you are. Back in St. Barts after all these years. I doubt the opening of Lennon’s restaurant or even the Baptism of Bliss’ baby would have enticed you to return. You did it for your son.”
Sven scowled, angry at being caught being kind. The older man merely laughed softly, deflecting the tension. “How about you? Tough to be back?” He nodded at the stained glass window.
“Every corner of this cursed place holds memories. I’m good for a while and then something just hits me upside the head and I feel my equilibrium slipping.”
“Is it so important to keep your equilibrium up? Maybe it’s time to give in to be off-balance. To drop the front of coping you’ve put on for so many years.”
“It’s a hard habit to break.”
“Most habits are. Will we see you at Church on Sunday?”
“I don’t know. I walk in here and all I can see is our wedding and Bliss’ Baptism.”
“Interesting you didn’t say that all you could see was Sunny’s funeral. It was in L.A. but still one would think a church anywhere would bring back those memories. Maybe you’re further along than you thought.”
“I still haven’t forgiven God.”
“That’s okay,” said the cleric, ignoring his arthritic knee as he got to his feet. “He’s forgiven you.”
There he is. My love. After so much time. Just like Before. But never alone.
He’d followed him to the Church, willing himself to go inside but something stopped him. A sense that if he entered the building he would be struck by lightning. He knew he was bad. He knew about God.
He didn’t want to take any chances, not now, not when he was so close. He watched as Sven got into his car and drove away, secreted in the rose garden next to the building. Scurrying away when an older man asked if he could help. No, he thought, you can’t help. No one can help me. No one but Sven.
“Sore?” Lennon stared down at her as Alex laid her head over the side of the hot tub.
“Your sister is determined to lose all the baby weight in a month so she can star in some kind of cooking show that Charlie has sold to ITV or Sky or the BBC. Something about teaching kids. Like your mother did when you were young.”
She watched through heavy lidded eyes as Lennon tossed off his T-shirt and shorts and underwear. God, he was beautiful she thought, moving over slightly to make room for his sculpted body next to hers in the churning water.
He slid behind her then pulled her close against him so she could feel his arousal, the erection bobbing in the bubbling waters against the cleft of her buttocks. His hands rubbed her shoulders and neck, working at knots and pressure points. Between the bubbles and his hands, Alex wondered if she would ever walk upright again.
“I asked why you are so tired?”
“I told you about Bliss and the cooking show.”
“Not much in the way of explanation,” he said one hand slipping from the small of her back to her breasts, gently squeezing the heavy weight in his palm.
“What? Oh yes, Bliss. She wants to get back into shape so we put Abigail in a baby carriage and started walking. For hours,” Alex moaned thinking about the never-ending hills. It was bad enough going up but going down had been murder on her calves and thighs. “I just spent months in Manitoba. Not the slightest incline. And now, your sister is getting me ready for an expedition to Everest.” She felt the ripple of laughter against her hair and scowled.
“You don’t sound particularly sympathetic.”
“I love your legs,” Lennon answered extending one long slim finger to trace her floating limb from knee to thigh. “Anything that that keeps them toned is okay with me.”
“Did you hear me? Are you listening? Bliss is killing me. And just when I thought I was going to die two gazelles ran past…”
“We don’t have gazelles on the island.”
“That’s what Bliss and I call the natives.” Alex would have thought there was no way she could have summoned up the energy for sex but Lennon was revving her up again. As always. His hand had moved to her nipples, gently circling. His palms nonchalantly brushed the sensitive flesh. She felt herself grow wet, or she would have, if she hadn’t been in a hot tub. In a strangled voice she picked up the conversation. “They were smoking as they jogged. One was talking on his cellphone as he ran up the hill past the Carl Gustav! It must be a sixty percent incline. You need rock climbing gear and he wasn’t out of breath.” She was. Out of breath.
Feeling Lennon touch her, lick her neck, press his erection against her lower back. One hand slipped lower, between her thighs and she froze for a moment and then resolutely reached back for him, moving the hard length back and up ever so slightly. It was time to banish the last of her demons.
“Here,” she whispered. “I want you here,” she said pressing her buttocks against his penis. “Please.”
She felt Lennon freeze behind her. “I’ve never.”
“Me neither,” she said taking his hand from her breast and kissing the palm. She turned her head backward, whispering against his cheek. “I need you to be the first. I need you to help me forget.”
She knew from the sudden rigidity of his hand that he understood. She wanted him to replace the memories of the attack. To supplant that unwelcome invasion with his own welcome presence. His breath fragmented in her ear. “Are you sure?”
“Wait a minute. Don’t move.” He leapt out of the hot tub and she sat there in the churning waters for barely a minute before he was back. Lennon held her face in his hands. “Change your mind?”
Alex smiled. “Your mouth may be saying no but other parts of your anatomy are saying yes.” She reached down and grasped him. He was hard and ready but maintained a crucial distance.
“Ignore it. A cock has no conscience. Are you sure?”
“Yes. Please,” feeling anger and anxiety replaced by anticipation and lust. “I need you to claim me. To replace those horrible memories that haunt me in the night with ones of love. It has to be you, Lennon. It has to be now. You’ve helped me so much already. Do this one last thing for me?”
He kissed her gently, urgently his mouth and tongue and lips communicating his anxious desire. Then he turned her around so that they were back to front. She felt him position her limbs, opening her legs so that the jets from the hot tub were aimed at her vagina. The pulsing water matched the rhythm of her heartbeat as his hands skimmed over her. Her shoulders, her arms, the sides of her breasts, her buttocks. His mouth followed with gentle searing kisses. One hand slid between her thighs, teasing, the other caressed the cleft between her buttocks. She arched backward and she felt him probe her with one slim finger. Just the thought of those hands, those capable, enticing hands heated her blood. He slid his thumb inside slowly, pressing just past the ring of muscles. She felt herself relax and he pushed just a little deeper, igniting virgin nerve endings.
Alex felt her heart beat climb just as it had on the hills with Bliss, but this was different. The summit was nearer, the climb easier with Lennon as her partner. He parted her cheeks further, nudging her forward so that the hot tub jet was blasting against her clit. She felt his erection press against her ass and ease inside, aided by some kind of lubricant. Lennon paused after each incremental nudge, giving her body time to adjust. There was no pain, not this time. Just a strange, erotic fullness behind and the play of his fingers in the front. Alex closed her eyes to the sensations, lulled by the water, his ragged breathing, her pounding pulse. Not noticing as the nudges turned to gentle thrusts, only aware of the fullness and his fingers on her clit and his lips on her neck. And when she came, she felt the last of the nightmares melt away in the sunshine.
She felt him slide free and then Lennon was kissing her, caressing her cheeks, his own cheeks damp with salty tears. “I love you, I love you, I love you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t have protected you, that I couldn’t have spared you…” Lennon dropped his head to nestle his face in the nape of her neck just above the surface of the water.
“But you did spare me,” said Alex and his head snapped up.
“When it was happening, when all that horrible things were being done to my body, do you know what kept me sane?”
He shook his head, his green eyes sad and vulnerable.
“You did,” said Alex dropping kisses into his face and eyelids and ears. Rubbing her cheek against his forehead. “I went to my safe place. I thought about you and that kept me sane. The soccer game. The pasta lessons. That time you tried to teach me to surf. Dinner with Bliss and Charlie. Afternoons by the pool talking.” She kissed him gently on the lips. “You weren’t able to keep me safe. I don’t think anyone can realistically promise that. But you kept me sane. Under the circumstances that’s amazing. At least my shrink says so.”
The mist of sorrow slowly lifted from his eyes. “I’m your happy place?”
“Then let’s never move.”
“Maybe just out of the hot tub. I’m turning into a prune.” Climbing out, she almost knocked over a bottle by the lip.
“We needed lube. I had to improvise. Besides,” he said grinning, “it was extra virgin olive oil.”
She laughed and her heart skipped at how he could effortlessly make thing so right. Lemons into lemonade. Just like his mother.
“I thought I’d grab a moment or two before you get swamped.”
Sven surveyed the kitchen. The old stained counters and well-used appliances had been replaced with shiny new toys. A chef’s dream. Lennon had his jacket on but it was hanging open, his face suffused with joy. There wasn’t a mark or smear on his chef’s whites. Sven smiled thinking about how Bliss would have been covered with food, even though she typically would have downloaded most of the grunt work to a staff of minions.
“Just finishing up a few last minute things. Want a beer? I’m waiting until most of the food’s gone out.”
He handed his father a Stella Artois and clinked the bottle with his ever-present glass of ice water.
Sven took a swig and smiled. “The place looks great. I barely recognized it.”
“You might recognize these.” Lennon held out a plate of chocolate mounds.
“I found the recipe in mom’s journal. You came up with them together.”
“The least impressive results of our collaborations over the years,” said Sven with a smile. “She’d be so proud of you and what you’ve accomplished here.”
“I feel her presence. Kind of like she’s looking over my shoulder as I cook. I feel her here more than anywhere else, even more than at home in Norway or Los Angeles.”
“So do I,” said Sven using decades of training to keep the emotions at bay. “I brought you a present from her.”
“Another? The No Fear Buddha looks wonderful in the niche over the bar. Almost like it was meant to be there.” Alex had given him the statue, explaining it had been on loan from the family to help her during therapy.
Sven reached into the pocket of his black linen pants and brought out a ring box, flipping up the lid.
Lennon caught his breath in surprise. “Mom’s engagement ring.”
“I thought there might be someone you’d like to give it to,” watching his son’s face.
“But Bliss…she should have this.”
“Your mother bequeathed it to you. Left me a letter saying to give it to you when it was time. She knew that Bliss would have wanted a bigger, more flashy ring.” They exchanged mutual grins of acknowledgement. You could see Bliss’ ring ring from space.
Lennon turned the ring around in his fingers, letting the facets of the diamond catch fire from the industrial ceiling lights. “You don’t think it’s too soon?”
“Better too soon than too late. Don’t ever assume you have more time. She’s ready. You’re ready. Why wait?”
Lennon closed his fist over the ring and reached over to hug his father. “I’m so glad you came. I’m so glad you went to Manitoba to help her. I’m,” he faltered, “so glad you’re my father.”
“So am I,” he answered holding his son. His boy, always his little boy, close to his chest. Sunny’s ghost was here. On the island, in this kitchen. And not just watching over the cooking.
Sven turned off his phone with a smile. Liam had agreed to do Romeo and Juliet. First in Norway, then the West End and hopefully Broadway. He couldn’t wait to direct his son. Couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and lose himself in the timeless prose. But tonight wasn’t about him and his career. He set aside his career concerns when his soon-to-be son-in-law approached. “Charlie. Something on your mind?”
Sven waited. His late friend’s grandson rarely minced words. “I saw you watching Lennon and Alex dance.”
Sven raised an eyebrow in response.
Charlie wasn’t put off by the chilly reception. “I saw you. I know how you look at women. You haven’t looked at a woman like that since Sunny.” Silence. Charlie continued, “You’d give your left nut for Alex.”
Sven swirled the vodka in his glass and turned his attention back out to Anse du Gouverneur down below. The moonlight was sparkling on the water. The beach beckoned. “I would never give away my left nut, Charlie. It’s my favourite.”
“You want her,” he continued undeterred. Charlie was like Sponge with a bone when he wanted information.
Sven shrugged. “I want to cancel next month’s prostate exam. I want to stop losing my hair. I want Misha to make up her mind about returning to Russia. I want a lot of things, Charlie but longer I live the more I realize I won’t get everything I want.”
Sven read the concern on the younger man’s face. Charlie knew many of his secrets, too many. “Listen,” Sven dropped the sang-froid and spoke quietly but urgently willing his companion to listen. “You’re right. I want Alex more than I’ve wanted a woman in decades. More than I thought I’d ever want a woman again. That doesn’t matter. He matters.” Sven jerked his shoulder into the dining room where Lennon and Alex were dancing, lost in each other’s eyes. There was a sparkle on her left hand. The proposal had been made and accepted. Good. “My son needs her. That’s more important than my selfish desires. Besides, he’s better for her. He can give her everything a first great love deserves. I could only give her leftovers. Don’t worry. I’m fine. I’m actually better than fine. I’m going to walk down to the beach and dip my feet in the water. By the way, I can’t imagine a better husband for Bliss.”
Sven turned and made his way through the crowd and slipping almost unnoticed out the front door.
“What’s the matter?” Bliss sidled up to her fiancée, concerned. “Where’s dad going? Did you have a fight?”
“Just a good talk,” said Charlie pulling her into his arms for a kiss.
When they came up for air, Bliss said, “I like this engagement stuff. You didn’t say where dad went.”
“He wanted to walk down to the beach.”
“Wow! That’s a breakthrough. He and mom had some pretty intense moments on that stretch of sand. I read about a few of them in her journals. For him to voluntarily go back, well,” Bliss shook her curls in awe, “this trip must have been better for him than we hoped. I wanted to catch him. There was a guy outside who said he knew dad from years and years ago. University, I think! Can you imagine?”
Alex had joined them to overhear this last exchange, leaving Lennon to see to things in the kitchen.
Something twigged in her head. An old friend from university. Anse du Gouverneur. What was it? Something Sven had told her in Manitoba, but what? Bliss and Charlie exchanged comments about the party, wondering how soon they could skip out and head home to the baby.
Ignoring their conversation, Alex turned Bliss’ comments over in her mind thankful she never forgot a face or a comment. A friend of Sven’s from university. Here in St. Barts. Someone not on the guest list, she would have known.
A stranger from the past. A stranger. A stalker.
Oh my God, Anse du Gouverneur, where Sunny was almost killed by Sven’s old friend from university. The man who came back later to finish the job and stabbed Sven. The man who’d been, what? Shut up for life. More than twenty-five years ago. Twenty-five to life. No chance of parole for twenty-five years. The phrase from countless episodes of legal television procedurals echoed in Alex’s head.
She broke out in a sweat. It couldn’t be, could it? It was too coincidental. Too much like a story arc. But the writer in her, the woman who took inspiration from every day life, knew that reality was often stranger than fiction.
Heart pounding, she looked around and spotted Judith. Sven’s mother would know.
Judith was joking with other partygoers about how her beau wouldn’t wear his glasses. “Blind as a bat past two meters and yet, except for driving, he pretends he doesn’t need them. Male vanity. Oh Alex, have you met?” She waved off the introductions, yanking Judith’s elbow.
“That was rude. You and Lennon want to make a home here.” Judith nodded at the ring on Alex’s hand. She had heartily approved of Sven’s plan. “You have to learn to be a little nicer.”
“Not now. Tell me about the friend from university, the one who attacked Sunny and then Sven.”
“In the middle of the party? Why would you want to dredge up those old memories?” Judith’s hand crept up to her throat, the colour in her cheeks from the alcohol and excitement of the evening leaching away.
“I think he’s here. Sven’s gone to the beach for a walk and Bliss said a man came earlier, someone she didn’t recognize saying he was an old friend from university. It could be somebody else, right? Some surprise guest? I helped with the final list but a lot of the names I didn’t know.”
Judith stared off into space for a minute. “There’s no one else. Astrid couldn’t make it because Linus is in New York for work. Stellan and Ed didn’t come. I talked to them before I left Oslo. It couldn’t be Clyde,” her voice faltering on the name, “he’s locked up in France. Sunny made certain. She paid his hospital bills.”
Judith shouted, “Misha!”
The thin elfin woman slid through the crowd over to them as they waited impatiently. “Did Sven keep paying Clyde’s hospital bills in France?
If the woman was surprised at the strange question, she didn’t look it. Nothing ever seemed to surprise Misha. “Who’s Clyde?”
When Judith didn’t answer, Misha said, “There were a lot of small charitable things we cancelled after her death or rather just let them run their course. We thought it was easier than dealing with all the paperwork involved. Now will someone tell me who this Clyde person is?”
Alex raced back to Bliss, pulling her away from Charlie. “What did the man look like? Your father’s old friend? The stranger?” She wanted to shake the answer free as Judith joined them.
Bliss scrunched up her face to retrieve the memory. “Grey hair. Bristly. A long beard. Pretty scruffy. I believed the university bit because he looked like a hippy or an escapee from a commune,” Bliss added with a laugh. “He was dressed pretty casually, shorts and sandals. But he must have been a friend. He spoke Norwegian. It’s not your typical second language. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to teach Charlie. Even with his head for languages, he can’t seem to get his tongue around some of the pronunciations. Where is everyone going?”
Neither Alex nor Judith waited for Bliss to finish. Judith explained her date was the former police chief who had captured Clyde all those years ago. He wouldn’t dismiss her as crazy and besides he could access immigration records. She also waved over Inspector Privé, who must have read the alarm on Judith’s face because he dropped his drink and plate of canapés on the nearest tray.
Alex didn’t wait for official intervention. She tore off into the parking lot, keys in hand. She knew this road, this beach by heart. She knew where to find Sven.