1. Tropical escape
Lying on the beach, warmed by the tropical sun under the dappled shade of a palm tree, the grey misery of London seemed very far away. The sand was soft under her skin, the sky azure above, and a whole week of golden days and balmy nights stretched before her.
It was heartbreak that had impelled Cara to book a last minute holiday to Sri Lanka. She hadn’t even thought or cared about where she went, she just wanted to get away. At twenty-one, after Declan’s betrayal, she thought her whole life and happiness were over.
As a student she didn’t have a lot of money to spend on her trip. After turning down a few cheap Spanish resorts for fear of being surrounded by couples and too many people in general, she’d found a last minute deal to Sri Lanka at an amazing price. A cancellation holiday, the travel agent had told her. Being sold for a fraction of the price because she had to travel the very next day.
Cara took it. She had no one to leave and nothing to lose. Anymore, anyway. A week in the sun would burn away her misery and leave her reenergised and ready to face the world again.
Here, on this island paradise, she didn’t want to think about Declan. But the hurt and the betrayal haunted her. He said he had been happy for them to wait until marriage, so why had he indulged in the brassy charms of his secretary Lucinda? Cara felt so stupid, so humiliated. Declan had obviously planned for her to be the sweet and innocent little wife, while he privately enjoyed a string of mistresses.
Suddenly her thoughts were interrupted by an unwelcome shower of sand. It was flung all over her, sticking to the sun oil on her body.
Furious, she sat up and saw the culprit. A red cricket ball had landed on the beach next to her, clearly with some force given the amount of sand it had thrown up.
Just as she looked around to find out who had thrown it, a man came running towards her with a cricket bat in his hand.
"Yours, I take it?" she said, her annoyance clear in the coolness of her tone.
He scowled instead of apologising. "This is a private beach. There wasn’t supposed to be anyone else on here."
Eclipsed against the sun, Cara saw that he was tall, rugged and very bronzed. There was something familiar about him, though she was sure they’d never met.
In the distance she saw several other men, clearly in the progress of playing beach cricket. They hadn’t been there when she had arrived and settled herself at the far end of the beach.
"The hotel concierge directed me here," she told him.
"You’re staying at the Pavilion?" When she nodded he looked even more annoyed. "My apologies for disturbing your sunbathing." He sounded anything but sorry.
"It’s quite alright, I was due for a swim," she said.
His eyes flicked over her body in its bikini, far skimpier than she usually wore because it wasn’t summer holiday season in England and there hadn’t been much choice in the shops.
Cara felt herself flush and hoped her growing tan would hide it.
For a moment he lingered. She thought he was about to say something else so she waited.
But he turned abruptly and left her. His lack of farewell left her even more infuriated. What a rude man, she thought.
She waited until he had strode down the beach back to the other players before she rose to get in the water. If the ball came her way again, she would throw it into the sea and let him swim for it.
Dining alone didn’t bother Cara. She enjoyed her solitude and she had brought a tonne of study notes with her. Her last year of university was turning out to be a rigorous one and she wanted to be prepared for the final terms.
She sat by herself on the veranda, surrounded by lush tropical plants, with some books spread out on the table as she enjoyed a pre-dinner cocktail.
Once again, her peace was disturbed.
"Your boyfriend neglecting you?"
The speaker was a man with a round, friendly face. Cara recognised him as one of a group of sporty looking men who had arrived together - rather late and looking the worse for wear - for breakfast that morning. He was with a couple of them now.
She realised he was fishing to find out whether she was here with a boyfriend or not. Inventing one might be a useful safeguard against future approaches, but then she might be forced to produce one later in the week.
"I’m actually here on a study trip."
One of the others turned over one of her books, Principles of Biochemistry.
"Hardly holiday reading, is it?" he said. "All work and no play. We’re having a party tonight, why don’t you come?"
Cara tried to decline but they were all insistent, teasing her by reading out quotes from her textbooks, so eventually she laughed and agreed. One party wouldn’t hurt, and she could just drop in for a single drink and leave early. "Where is it?"
"Just here, at the hotel. In the front bar."
They were all heading into the town for dinner first and couldn’t persuade her to join them there. Finally they left, and Cara was free to go to the hotel dining room alone as planned.
Cara had gone to her room after dinner as the party apparently didn’t start until a bit later and she didn’t want to be the first one there. She changed into a white sundress and some strappy heels. Her sun-kissed skin didn’t need much make-up. The dark circles she’d had under her eyes from weeks of crying herself to sleep had also faded. She had slept much better here, away from it all and all the memories of Declan.
Her hair fell in dark, glossy waves that framed her face. Not bad for a newly-avowed nun, she thought. If only she was of a religious mind she could have gone into a convent and never had to see another man again. But she knew that wasn’t her vocation, even if she was determined to avoid the male sex for the foreseeable future.
Downstairs the party was already in full swing so she needn’t have worried about arriving early. The whole bar had been taken over and there was loud music and much merriment.
"We wondered where you’d got to." It was the round-faced young man and his friends. "Have a drink."
A glass was put into her hand and she was led through the crowd, some of whom were already dancing to the music, to where the bar opened onto another veranda where more people were milling around.
Introductions were made, and as she was chatting to Jeremy - as her new friend turned out to be called - she looked up to see a face across the crowd practically glaring at her.
It was the tall, surly man from the beach.
Despite the mutual dislike Cara felt she also noticed how good looking he was in a rugged, very masculine way. She tried to tell herself that most men look better in a clean shirt, with a good tan, but she had to admit that he looked better than most.
But he had made his rudeness clear, so she didn’t acknowledge him but turned her attentions back to Jeremy.
Yet something drew her thoughts towards the other side of the room like a magnet. She had to force herself not to look over in his direction, and to concentrate on what the people around her were saying. Perhaps it was because he reminded her of someone, and her thoughts wouldn’t rest until she had figured out who.
The merriment grew with the night and the alcohol, and someone suggested going for a midnight swim. There was huge enthusiasm for this among the young men there.
"You’ll come, won’t you?" one of them urged her.
Cara was wearing a bikini underneath her sundress, as being strapless it didn’t show under the dress. She supposed she could go for a swim, it did seem like a lovely idea.
There was a full moon shining down on the waters, it was still the start of her holiday, and the sea was warm and calm under the stars.
Cara was dimly aware that she had probably drunk more than she meant to, but right now she didn’t care. A group of them entered the water first with others following. Shallow and sandy, it was quite safe even in the dark.
There were the usual splashing games and riotous behaviour. People diving under the water and grabbing one another’s legs and pulling them under. Someone found a beach ball and attempted a game of water polo.
The ball was thrown to Cara and she reached up for it but someone else grabbed it, and she fell against a third person instead.
As she turned she was mortified. It was the man from the beach.
"Good to see you," he said. Was he being sarcastic? His tone sounded quite polite and formal.
Cara didn’t know what to say. "I wasn’t expecting it to turn into a swimming party."
In the moonlight she saw a glint in his eye. "A skinny dipping party?"
She was confused for a moment, then she realised that he could only see her shoulders. Unaware that she was wearing a strapless bikini he possibly thought she was swimming naked. She was desperately embarrassed, and hoped that the darkness hid her reaction.
"No, I’m wearing a bikini."
He raised his eyebrows, and then she was startled to feel his hands suddenly circling her waist. In the sea her skin felt hyper sensitive, and his touch was like an electric shock.
He felt up her side to where her bikini top was. "So you are."
And there she was, almost in the arms of a complete stranger who had been extremely rude to her only a few hours earlier.
She couldn’t take her eyes off him.
He was gazing right back at her. There was an intense look in his eyes that seared her.
Suddenly he leant closer to her and his lips were on hers. His mouth was hard but tender. He tasted of salt and his tongue was warm as it slid alongside hers and entwined with it.
His hands gripped her more firmly around the waist, not letting her go.
Cara’s mind was in a whirl. What was she doing? Every ounce of sense ought to have seen her push him away and flee, but her body sang with desire for him.
She noted the sculpted muscle of his neck and shoulders, the darkness of his wet hair, close cropped at the nape of his neck. He was much more of a man than any boyfriend she had dated before. He was also much older, perhaps ten years older than her, she thought.
His hand supported the small of her back as his mouth left hers and travelled across her cheek and down her neck. He was tasting her, devouring her.
Waves lifted them up and down, and Cara felt incredible physical closeness to him as they clung together. They could have been one body.
I don’t even know his name, she thought.
As if he read her mind, he broke off at one point and looked her, his eyes burning with the physical desire he felt for her.
"I’m Matt," he said.
She could hardly speak, her voice seemed like a whisper carried away by the waves.
"Cara mia." And he kissed her again.
Nothing had ever felt so right in her body and so wrong in her head.