Excerpt: Island Paradise

Island Paradise by Barbara McMahon

Book Three: Tropical Escape Series

Mary-Kate was startled awake to the sounds of snarling dogs and male voices yelling. For an instant she froze, lying perfectly still, trying to figure out what was happening, where she was. Her heart pounded, her breathing was shallow. She was afraid to move. Was there danger nearby?

The heat from the sun caressed her back; the fine white sand beneath her felt like talc as her fingers moved across it. She lifted her head slowly and surveyed the palm-fringed beach. Of course, she was sunbathing on a deserted beach on one of the small islands of Fiji. It was the men’s voices raised in anger that had disturbed the tranquil setting and woken her.

She heard a motor roar, and scrambled up, frantically reaching to refasten her bathing suit strap. She had untied the top so as to have no tan lines on her back. Her fingers fumbled in her haste, and she dropped the string. Found it again.

The skimpy hot-pink bikini was not sold in Ames, Iowa. She’d splurged on it in Suvu before she’d met the boat there. Today was only the second time she’d worn it. She was too modest to wear it as casually as the bronzed women of Fiji, but the deserted beach had seemed safe. She wanted a good tan, but was terribly self-conscious about the amount of skin the suit revealed. It would have been downright risqué in Iowa, but apparently was the norm in the south Pacific.

If her students could see her now, they’d be shocked. She grinned, remembering the feeling of recklessness that engulfed her at the store in Suvu. This was the most daring piece of clothing she’d ever purchased. She didn’t know if it was because no one knew her here, or that the warm tropical air caused everyone to be more casual. This was her summer of daring adventure and the suit fit right in.

The yelling ended, but the dogs continued to bark; the sound of the motor gradually diminished. What was going on? Mary-Kate grabbed her towel and her short cotton wrap, thrusting her feet into her sandals. The others from the boat party had been around the jut of land that cut her off from them, in the direction of the noise. She had to find out what was happening.

Running was impossible. The warm sand gave beneath her every step; the hot, humid air was like a wall she had to push through. Mary-Kate settled to a steady but quick pace, veering toward the water to walk on the firm, damp sand. It seemed to take ages to reach the point, round it and head for the other beach. She’d wanted to be alone after dealing with the recalcitrant teenagers all week. She hadn’t thought she’d gone that far.

Another engine started, then the noise began to fade and then nothing but silence and the soft lap of the ocean against the sand. Finally rounding the headland, she had a clear view of the beach. Pristine-white sand stretched out endlessly, tall palms swayed in the ocean breeze, and the blue water gently kissed the empty shore.

Mary-Kate stopped, stunned. Her eyes darted everywhere. Where were Rob, Terry, and Margie? Where was the small dinghy they’d used to come ashore? Panic gripped her. Where were they?

Her eyes turned to the bay, seeking the sleek white yacht. She could barely make out the small dinghy as it approached the larger vessel. When it nudged the ship, the people on board scampered up the side. Even as she watched with disbelieving eyes, the dinghy was raised on the side to its position. Slowly the yacht’s bow turned away from the land. The ship was leaving! Picking up speed, it headed for the open sea, its bow cutting through the blue water, its wake deep and wide.

Leaving without her!

“Rob!” she yelled, furious they’d go off and leave her behind. How could they do that? Yet she knew even as she called his name that he couldn’t hear her. The engines of the yacht were quiet, but not silent. The distance was too great.

She waved her towel, its shocking-pink color easy to see against the white sand and green foliage edging the beach. Surely they would look back? Surely they’d remember she’d accompanied them ashore? They had to come back for her.

The boat did not turn, did not slow. Gradually it grew smaller and smaller. Until it was gone over the horizon.

“Damn! And double damn!” Mary-Kate stamped her foot on the soft, hot sand and stared at the horizon with mingled anger and stunned disbelief. She’d never expected anything like this! What was she to do now?

This was to be her grand adventurous summer. She’d planned to be totally carefree and bold, returning to her normal, routine, predictable life in the autumn, with wonderful memories of tropical beaches to treasure all her life.

Except being stranded on one of those beaches had not been part of her dream.

Shaking out her towel, she folded it and looked once again to the empty bay; no help from that direction. Mary-Kate looked around, taking stock of where she was. They had approached this island from the sea. It was one of many islands scattered around the larger islands of Fiji. Some were inhabited, some not. Suddenly she hoped this was one of the inhabited ones. She considered staying on the beach in hopes they’d discover her gone and return for her. It was hot. She looked at her tote; the empty bottle of water mocked her. She hadn’t planned on being stranded. Maybe she should see if there was a road that led to a town.

She looked behind her. The ring of palms seemed unbroken, though none grew so close to its neighbor that she couldn’t easily walk between them. Would there be some tropical waterfall she could get water from? Or a road that leads to civilization. Thinking about it, she’d known they had not brought a dog to the island, so someone else was around. Maybe even lived here.

Debating what to do, she considered her options. Wait here in the hopes they realized she was not on board and returned. Or go find help.

Knowing those teenagers, they’d conveniently forgot they brought her to the island. The likelihood of them worrying about her was small. It could be dinner before anyone else onboard realized she was missing.

With a last look to the empty sea, she sighed in frustration and marched toward the palms. The sooner she got in touch with the yacht, the sooner it could return for her. She’d hike out to find what she could on this island, and hoped there was a town. If so the police there could contact the yacht.

She slung her towel over her shoulder, her only other covering the white gauzy cotton cover-up she’d bought when she’d bought the bikini. The filmy material was full and gathered; first it hid then revealed her body encased in the bright pink bikini. It did not offer much shelter from the sun.

She’d found the hard packed road only a few yards from the beach. It stretched out in both directions, ending only when making a turn in the distance. She looked right and left. To the left were tire tracks. Nothing to the right. Choice made.

Mary-Kate had been walking for almost ten minutes, questioning her decision with every step. Blotting the perspiration from her face with her towel only reminded her how hot it was away from the water. Leaving the palms behind, she came unexpectedly to fields of tall sugarcane growing on both sides of the road, giving a tunnel effect as she walked along; the tall cane shut off any breeze and funneled the heat from the sun directly on her head. The hot dirt reflected more heat and puffs of dust exploded around her ankles with every step.

Fervently hoping she was going toward some place where there were people, she trudged along. She glanced at her wrist–no watch–it was on the boat.

“Along with everything else I have,” she muttered. “I wish I had my watch. Damn, if I’m wishing, I’d really wish I was on the blasted boat and had never left!”

She was hot, sticky, tired and growing thirstier with every step. Her short brown hair felt limp and bedraggled. She knew her face was probably as red as a beet from the heat. As she walked, her anger at the Lombard’s, and Rob in particular, grew. The summer had not been the bed of roses she had expected. He and his friends had been rude, selfish, and inconsiderate. She paused, wishing she’d been a teacher of English instead of math–then she could think up dozens of adjectives to describe the obnoxious college students she’d been hired to tutor.

His parents had been no better. They were scatterbrained and impressed with their own wealth, constantly bragging about how much everything cost, and how nothing was too good for their precious son. Their idea for Mary-Kate to tutor Rob in mathematics during the cruise was a pipe dream.

Mrs. Lombard had no sense of discipline, wanting her only child to enjoy himself. The idea of a tutor had been to appease the school, to show some sort of good faith that Rob could pass the basic mathematics test required for a degree. He didn’t care to work at it, and his mother drifted through life expecting everything to work itself out without the slightest bit of effort on her part.

Mr. Lombard was constantly tied up in the small communication room, tracking his vast wealth, acquiring more, and totally unconcerned with his son, wife or guests aboard the luxury yacht.

It had seemed too good to be true when she’d answered the ad last spring–cruise the south Pacific and tutor a college student in mathematics.

Anything seeming too good to be true probably was, her friend Paula had told her. Mary-Kate wished she’d listened to her friend. But the temptation of finding something exotic after spending her entire life in Iowa was too much to resist.

As she rounded a bend, the fields opened up, and before her, on a slight rise, stood a long white house with dark green shutters flanking each window. Rambling and open, it seemed large enough to be a small hotel. Mary-Kate quickened her pace. Thank goodness. She hoped the people were home. She had to contact the yacht before it was too far away. Before it became a problem for them to return for her.

Some yards to the left of the house she saw two men working on the engine of a large truck. She hesitated, and then kept on toward the house. She wanted something to drink. Then she’d have to make arrangements to rejoin the Lombard’s and their ship. Right now a tall glass of water held the most appeal.

She still couldn’t believe those kids had left her stranded. She wondered when they would realize she was no longer on the boat. She was sure Rob wouldn’t bring the absence to his parents’ attention. Once they knew she was not on board Mrs. Lombard would assume Mary-Kate would be fine and find her own way home. Maybe Mr. Lombard would miss her, only because she was someone who hadn’t heard his stories six times over yet. But, depending on his mood, he could just write her off and continue the island tour.

The flagstone lanai was cool. The bougainvillea-covered trellis overhead broke the sun’s heat, the leaves gently waving as the soft sea breezes reached the house on the knoll. Mary-Kate rang the bell, and turned to survey the view. It was spectacular!

The house was situated so the wide blue Pacific was visible as it spread to the horizon. Green sugarcane fields to the left as far as she could see. A field of short, squat pineapple stretched out on the right. The bright purple bougainvillea framed it all like a picture postcard.

“Who the devil are you?” a voice growled behind her.

Mary-Kate turned, her eyes drawn to the expanse of tanned skin before her. The man’s shirt was open, blowing back in the breeze, exposing his muscular chest, deeply tanned. She moved her eyes up the strong column of his neck, upward to clash with steely gray eyes. Startlingly light in the darkness of his tan, his eyes glared down at her. She glanced at his sun-streaked brown hair, then back to his chest.

His stance was uncompromising, arrogant. Fists on hips, his legs spread, he reminded Mary-Kate of a modern-day buccaneer. His shoulders were broad and muscular; his legs long and planted firmly on the terrazzo floor. He’d look more at home aboard a square-rigger than in the tropical doorway.

Mary-Kate wanted to draw her fingers down the faint dusting of hair on his chest, follow the trail as it dipped lower, until it disappeared into his tight denim cutoffs, feel the warmth of his skin, the strength of his muscles.

She took a deep breath, wondering if she had a touch of sunstroke. She’d never even thought about something like that in her life; why would she wish to touch a perfect stranger? She’d surely be all right once she cooled down.

“I was stranded,” she said finally, reluctantly moving her gaze back to his face. His eyes impaled her, locked on to hers, and wouldn’t release her.

“Are you part of that group in Hanioli Bay?” His eyes flicked contemptuously down the length of her.

“I don’t know what bay you mean. We came ashore at a nice beach over there.” She waved her hand in the direction she’d come from.

“I told those kids that this is private property and to stay off. When you all came back, I threw your friends off. Where were you– hiding?”

Mary-Kate was taken aback. Her traveling companions had deserted her and this man was mad at her! “I wasn’t hiding; I was around a little headland, on a smaller beach. I wanted a quiet afternoon. I fell asleep–” Her voice trailed off. She was trying to be reasonable, but it was hard to do with the flights of fancy her mind chose to entertain.

She hadn’t known it was private property. It was like Rob Lombard to disregard the man’s warning. He had been spoiled all his life, did whatever he wished. Money could buy anything, or so he’d been led to believe. Mary-Kate wished she’d stayed in her cabin on the boat. Or even stayed with the rest of the beach party. At least she would be on the yacht now, not facing this angry man.

“You’re trespassing.”

“Well, if I could call a cab–” Mary-Kate’s voice faded as she realized she had no money. She hadn’t expected to need any for an afternoon on the beach.

“There’s no cab service on the island. Just where do you plan to go?”

He surveyed her from top to toe again, lingering in appreciation at the short hemline of her cover-up. “Aren’t you a little old for that group I chased off?”

Mary-Kate was acutely aware of how much skin showed. She resolutely stood her ground, however, refusing to give in to the desire to duck behind one of the porch chairs. He would not intimidate her.

“I’m tutoring them in math. If I could get to town, I’ll arrange to rejoin the people I’m traveling with. Somehow. There is a town here, isn’t there?”

His silver eyes studied her for several long minutes, his lips a thin, tight line. Mary-Kate resisted fidgeting beneath his gaze, now appreciating how some of her students felt when she gave them a certain look. She didn’t like it.

She tried again. “If you could just tell me how I can get to town, I won’t bother you any longer.”

“There is no town. You’re on a private island– my island. Your friends were told this morning not to trespass. Despite that they returned, and brought you with them. I find it hard to believe they’d accidentally leave you behind.” His voice was laced with sarcasm. “Maybe they wanted to ditch the tutor.”

“How am I to rejoin the boat, then?”

“Not my problem.”