Authors: Lynn Patrick
To the passengers and crew of the Mandalay,
Night fell quickly over the Caribbean, suddenly chasing the flaming ball of a sun below the horizon. A full moon rose to play hide-and-seek behind a bank of clouds. Only occasional silver fingers of moonlight dappled streaks of diamond dust over the eight-foot swells.
And under this fractional cloak of darkness, the water’s foam churning about its prow, the
surged ever closer to its prey.
“At least the winds favor us,” said the man at the bowsprit.
“The clouds will hide us from vigilant eyes, eh, Captain?”
After glancing at his black mate, the captain turned his piercing gaze south-southwest. He needed no compass to know in which direction their quarry lay. “We should be coming up on her soon.”
And so they did. Not more than a minute hence there issued a shout from high above on the main mast. “Captain, land ahoy! Ahead to port.”
Drawing open his telescope, the captain focused it on wavering pinpoints of light. Just then the moon slipped from behind its covering long enough for him to make out the island’s silhouetted shape—a tall, pointed sugarloaf at one end, a rounded, much lower hill at the other.
The pronouncement rang loud and clear over the ship’s wooden deck, even as the moon was again swallowed by cloud banks. An excited murmur rose among the crew.
“Shall I raise the flag now, sir?” the old sailmaker asked, a slight slur to his voice.
“Go back to your bottle, eh?” the mate told the old man.
“Reset the course to the lee of the island,” the captain ordered. “I don’t want the
to get too close lest we give our target fair warning.”
“Tomorrow,” the mate said agreeably, “will be soon enough. Moreau won’t know what hit him.”
And so it would be, exactly as he’d planned it, the captain surmised. Unless something went wrong. Narrowing his eyes, he gazed into the darkness in the general direction of Hibiscus and wondered what surprises the island might hold for him. Or, to be more specific, what surprises Jean Moreau might spring.
In response to the mate’s handling, the sails luffed as the ship tacked, and the captain automatically looked up to check the shrouds. A frown creased his brow at what he saw there. He needn’t wait for the dawn to sample the unexpected. The rum-soaked sailmaker had done his work while the others were occupied.
For there, from the
mast, flew a flag as black as her new sails. And grinning down at him, framed by crossed cutlasses, was a gleaming white skull.
“Hibiscus Island…a remote, exclusive gem of a Caribbean isle…privately leased…a tropical paradise that is yours for the basking three hundred sunny days of the year,” Caitlin O’Connor read from a rather damp travel brochure as she and Babs walked along the free-form rock path leading to the guest bungalows and the island’s Beach Bar beyond.
“Remote! Exclusive! You can say that again,” complained Babs in her soft Southern drawl. “This island’s so remote and exclusive, there’s barely anybody but us around.”
“Sea, sand, trade winds…” Caitlin used a finger to trace the lines as she read on. “Sailing, fishing, water sports. We haven’t tried fishing. Would you like to do that?”
“Fishing?” asked Babs incredulously. She shifted her huge straw bag from one dainty hand to the other so she could tie her matching picture hat more tightly to her pretty blond head. “I am not about to sit out in a hot old boat with that horrible old sun beatin’ down on me. Why, it’d just ruin my complexion! Besides, I’ve seen quite enough slimy fish while we were snorkeling, thank you. When that horrible monster jumped out from behind those rocks today, I thought I’d have a heart attack!”
“But you tried to drown me instead.”
Caitlin grinned wryly, remembering Babs’s loud underwater screech when she’d sighted the harmless, but ugly, lizard fish. Then the petite woman had literally climbed on top of her friend to get to the surface of the water.
“I’m sorry about grabbing you,” Babs said, apologizing. “I was pressed to my limits. All the seaweed and other dirty stuff floatin’ in the water had already given me the creeps.”
“So much for snorkeling,” said Caitlin, trying not to show her disappointment. If Babs didn’t want to go fishing and had already rejected going sailing, wind surfing, or hiking around the island, she didn’t know what they could find to do together in the coming weeks.
“If you want to snorkel, go ahead. Don’t let me stop you from enjoying yourself.”
“But I’d like you to have some fun too.”
“I’d consider it tremendous fun if we could just rest for the moment,” Babs said with a pitiful sigh. “These sharp rocks are hurtin’ my poor feet. And I surely can’t walk on the sand, it’s burnin’ hot.”
Caitlin had to smile. “I love the way your accent gets more pronounced the more you complain.”
“Well, you know we Southern belles are delicate.” Babs laughed good-naturedly, then parodied herself. “Honey, how ’bout stoppin’ over there in the cool ole shade?”
“Too bad your daddy’s butler isn’t here to bring us some mint juleps.”
“Forget it. Nothin’ but rum punch and piña coladas ’round here.”
Caitlin accompanied Babs to a nearby stand of palms. Once in the shade, her friend took off her wide hat and fanned herself, making the ruffles of her sheer pink cover-up flutter with the movement. Then Babs reached inside her heavy bag, removed a tube from the veritable cosmetic counter she always carried, and placed a slab of white zinc oxide on her pert nose.
“Maybe you should have been practical today and brought some sandals along with your beauty products,” Caitlin suggested.
“Honey, being practical isn’t romantic,” sniffed Babs. “And romance is what I thought we’d find here. That takes moonlight and magnolias and eligible men—something this island has in scarce supply.”
“Maybe some eligible men will come along yet. We have to be patient. After all, it is off season.”
“Well, when they do arrive, I hope I’ll be ready. If the island’s generator keeps going out, I won’t even be able to use my curling iron to do my hair!”
When Babs felt rested and they started back down the path, Caitlin once again wondered what they would do in the weeks to come. She hated to see her friend so miserable. Usually charming and bubbly, Babs could be a lot of fun.
As a matter of fact, it had been the wealthy blonde who’d convinced Caitlin to join her in doing something more exciting than signing up to work during summer school. So they had taken the summer off from their jobs as counselors for the University of North Carolina. Babs was always begging shy, practical Caitlin to do something daring to fully bring herself out. And what could be more romantic and adventurous than spending a month in the sunny, exciting Caribbean?
Unfortunately Caitlin now knew that Babs only talked a good game as far as adventure was concerned. Although she enjoyed nothing better than flirting and finding new beaus, Babs thought most physically adventurous activities far too strenuous to be fun. Rather than participate in the outdoor life and sports of Hibiscus Island, the blonde preferred to spend her days changing into the numerous outfits she’d brought along in her five suitcases, doing her hair or face…and, most importantly, waiting for the appearance of the men who would appreciate all the time and trouble she’d gone to.
“I’m going to go on in, rinse my suit out, and shower this awful sea salt off my skin and out of my hair,” said Babs when they’d reached the narrower pathway that led to their wood-and-stone bungalow. Unfastening her cover-up, she frowned speculatively at the matching ruffled pink swimsuit underneath. “I hope nothing’s ruined.”
“You look fully intact. Just be careful you don’t wash something important away,” Caitlin teased, knowing that Babs would be bathing and primping for more than an hour. “I’ll go and have a soda. I can clean up and get dressed for dinner later.”
“Don’t wait too long. Those handsome men you’ve made me hopeful about might come by tonight. You’ll need to look nice so you can practice the flirting techniques I’ve been teaching you.”
“You know, Babs…about those techniques of yours,” Caitlin began slowly, bringing up a topic she’d been waiting to discuss with her friend. “Are you sure it wouldn’t be better to find my own personal style to attract a man? I’m going to feel a little silly batting my eyelashes at a man or heaping extravagant compliments on him.”
“You haven’t tried my methods yet, have you? They work for me. Besides, you’re the one who asked me for advice.”
“I know, and I appreciate what you’re trying to do. It’s just that I think people are different in some ways. I may not be comfortable with your methods.”
“You don’t feel comfortable with
at least the ones whom you find attractive,” Babs insisted. “You need some skills to help you deal with the problem. You should at least give the eyelash battin’ a try.”
“I guess so.”
“You don’t sound very enthusiastic. Think about it, honey. For all we know, a boatload of gorgeous hunks is on its way here right now. If they arrive after dinner, what will you do?”
Caitlin stopped herself from telling Babs that she’d probably run into the brush and hide. Instead she suggested, “Well, just in case they don’t come, how about climbing the sugarloaf hill later tonight to see what moonlight does to the other side of the island?”
“Honey, I didn’t bring any mountain climbin’ shoes.” With a long, drawn-out sigh the blonde turned to go. “Besides, you know Jean Moreau warned us about going over there at night,” Babs reminded her, referring to the resort’s landlord, a wealthy Frenchman who leased the island from the St. Vincent government. “He said it’s dangerous and full of snake holes and everything. Snakes!” Babs shivered delicately as she followed the path and disappeared into their bungalow.
Walking toward the open-air bar that was cantilevered over the edge of the deep water near the island’s marina, Caitlin wondered what she could do for her friend. Despite what Babs had said about men arriving on the island, they very well might have to find another kind of diversion this evening. It was too bad that Babs seemed to find so much pleasure in the pursuit of romantic encounters with men—the romantic atmosphere of the island itself was enough to enthrall Caitlin.
Entering the Beach Bar’s circular enclosure, Caitlin made her way through the clusters of wrought-iron tables and chairs. Basil, the native islander bartender, gave her a wide grin from behind the ornately carved wooden bar.
“Shall I make you a nice rum punch, miss?”
“Oh, it’s much too early to drink. I’d like a cola, please.”
“Never too early for a long, cool drink in this heat,” Basil said while filling her request. “But cola it is.”
Taking the glass to a table near the railing, Caitlin sat down, then removed the rubber band holding her long, light brown hair away from her face. She fluffed out the damp strands with her fingers and leaned back in her chair. Gazing out at the deep azure sea, she watched two gulls wheel over waves glistening with sparkling gold lights from the late-afternoon sun. A few yards to one side of the Beach Bar’s cantilevered projection, the rocky landscape gave way to the gleaming white sands of a beach that bordered two thirds of the island. On the building’s other side a copse of coconut palms caught the afternoon’s balmy breeze with quivering fronds.
Caitlin took a deep breath, inhaling the scents of tropical flowers mixed with a salty tang. She loved the warm sands and enticing waters that were both ancient and mysterious. How could Babs not be enchanted by this whole exotic world? How could she prefer to spend her time in their bungalow fixing herself up when she could opt to see a blazing, panoramic island sunset? Caitlin decided they must be different in a basic, inner way.
They certainly were different enough on the outside. Smiling ruefully as she glanced down at her slender figure clad in a lacy cover-up and pastel blue, lace-trimmed swimsuit, Caitlin wondered if it had been a good idea to let dainty, curvaceous Babs help her select a wardrobe for their vacation. Although her friend’s choices were pretty, Caitlin feared that the ultra feminine clothing didn’t really suit a twenty-seven-year-old ex-tomboy any more than Babs’s flirting methods did.