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Tahitian Wedding Angela Devine
To my mother, the world’s champion baby-sitter.
ANGELA DEVINE grew up in Tasmania surrounded by forests, mountains and wild seas, so she dislikes big cities. Before taking up writing, she worked as a teacher, librarian and university lecturer. As a young mother and Ph.D. student, she read romantic fiction for fun and later decided it would be even more fun to write it. She is married with four children, loves chocolate and Twinings teas and hates ironing. Her current hobbies are gardening, bushwalking, traveling and classical music.
“I don’t intend to marry.”
“Just as well,” muttered Alain under his breath.
Suddenly, amid the laughing, milling crowd, it was as if they were alone.
“Why do you say that?” Claire challenged, hating herself for rising to the bait, but unable to resist.
“Because I can’t imagine you ever being content with one man,” was the cruel reply.
THE plane bucked friskily. Bells chimed a warning and down the long cavern of the interior the ‘fasten seatbelts’ signs lit up. With the ease of long practice Claire came out of her doze, flung back the lightweight blue blanket and sat up straight. As she cinched the seatbelt firmly round her waist, she gazed out of the window with a troubled frown. It was not the motion of the plane that worried her. Minor air turbulence was something she could deal with, but the turbulence in her feelings was another matter entirely.
Going home to Tahiti for the first time in years thrilled her to the core and she was genuinely excited at the prospect of her sister Marie Rose’s wedding. Yet she could not shake off the feeling of dread that weighed on her more heavily with each passing minute. And there could be no doubt about the cause of her uneasiness. What disturbed her was the fear that she would meet the man who had driven her away from home in the first place. The one man in the world capable of turning elegant, sophisticated Claire Beaumont to a quivering mass of jelly. A man who seemed perfectly charming on the surface, but was capable of being ruthless, forceful and terrifyingly stern. Alain Charpentier. Alain, whom she had idolised for a few brief months. Until something happened which had ruined his good opinion of her forever.
Restlessly Claire pushed up the sliding shutter which covered the window and pressed her face to the glass. Outside it was dark except for the light of a single star which winked out like the flash of a solitaire diamond. Far ahead the blackness was still impenetrable with no sign of the South Pacific Islands which were her destination. Yet Claire’s watch showed almost four-fifteen a.m. It could not be long before the Air New Zealand plane touched down in Papeete and she had to face the ordeal ahead. Her stomach churned with nerves at the thought, but she gritted her teeth, picked up her toiletries bag and made her way down the aisle to freshen up. Five minutes later she was back in her seat with her long, dark brown hair combed into a smooth bun, discreet eyeshadow accentuating her lustrous brown eyes and a touch of blusher on her high cheekbones. And, as always, her clothes were impeccable. A lightweight jade-green dress with white trim around the neckline and short sleeves, which she had bought in Marseilles the previous summer. And white basket-weave sandals and matching shoulder-bag from Florence. There were some advantages to constant international travel, thought Claire wryly, although not as many as most people thought.
‘Say, don’t I know you from somewhere, honey?’ exclaimed a startled American voice.
The woman paused in the aisle, clutching the back of a seat to steady herself as another flurry of air turbulence hit the plane.
‘You’re the spitting image of the girl reporter in that TV show Towards the Future. What’s her name now? Claire Bowman?’
Claire grinned and held out her hand.
‘Claire Beaumont,’ she agreed.
‘Oh, wow, that’s really something,’ said the woman. ‘I’ve never met anybody famous before. My name’s Sarah Howard and that’s my husband Norman. Norm, come on over here. Just wait until you hear who this is.’
Claire smiled until her cheeks ached, while Sarah and Norman questioned her excitedly about life as an international reporter. She was touched by their warmth but it was a relief when the captain announced the plane’s impending descent. As she sank back into her seat, a deep pang of longing flooded through Claire. All the fame in the world could never compensate her for the things which were still missing from her life. Love. A real home. A family.
The lights of Papeete began to show white and sulphur-yellow beneath the plane’s wing, and Claire leaned forward eagerly. It was six years since she had been home and a fever of impatience gripped her now as the plane’s engines screamed and the tarmac came hurtling towards her. There was a faint bump, then the plane taxied to a halt about fifty metres from the terminal. Stepping out on to the ramp, she took a deep breath of the warm, moist tropical air. High on the bank surrounding the airport, coconut palms waved their feathery tops and the cloying scent of frangipani drifted from unseen gardens. Ahead of her lay the terminal building, constructed in the Polynesian style with swooping gables and thatched roofs. And, somewhere inside, her sister Marie Rose should be waiting to meet her. Marie Rose, who would no doubt be bubbling with news about her forthcoming wedding and Claire’s role as bridesmaid at it. The thought of seeing her sister again filled Claire with excitement but also a faint, uneasy misgiving. She couldn’t help dreading that Marie Rose would probe into her secret reason for staying away so long.
Yet it was not Marie Rose who came forward to greet her as she emerged from Customs. It was somebody else. And, as Claire saw that lean, dark, unsmiling figure striding across the polished vinyl floor, her heart skipped a beat.
She had not seen him for six years, but every nerve in her body was clamouring recognition. He had not changed much. His frame was as lithe and muscular as ever and his face was still satanically handsome. She had always realised that he was good looking. Yet, staring at that springy, dark hair, those intense cornflower-blue eyes and that finely chiselled nose, Claire was stunned anew at the vibrant animal magnetism that Alain Charpentier exuded. In fact, if it had not been for a sardonic twist to the well shaped mouth and a stormy look in his blue eyes, he would have been downright irresistible. He wore a navy and white short-sleeved shirt that had the indefinable stamp of quality, tailored navy shorts and rope-soled espadrilles. Obviously his habit of being casually well dressed had not changed since the last time they had met. Yet there was something else that had not changed in Alain Charpentier: his hostility towards Claire.
As he came to a halt in front of her there was no hint of a smile on his lips. Nevertheless, his manners were as impeccable as ever. Placing a lei of fragrant frangipani blossoms over her head, he kissed her formally on both cheeks. Claire was shaken by that contact. Alain’s powerful fingers were gripping her shoulders and she caught the whiff of an expensive cologne as his warm cheek touched hers. An odd, fluttering sensation quivered deep inside her. Perhaps, after all this time, we can finally be friends, she thought. Yet there was nothing friendly in Alain’s manner as he released her. His eyes wandered down over her body with a brooding hostility that stung her unbearably.
‘So. After six years you finally honour us with your presence,’ he drawled insultingly.
Claire’s brown eyes blazed.
‘Did you think you could keep me out of Tahiti forever?’ she demanded. ‘I’m not a gullible nineteen-year-old any more, you know. So if you’re planning to order me out of the country again, don’t bother!’
Alain’s bottom lip curled.
‘I see,’ he said with heavy irony. ‘So I am the reason that you haven’t come home for six years, am I? I’m flattered. I didn’t know my desires meant so much to you.’
‘They don’t!’ retorted Claire in a furious whisper, conscious of the interested glances of other travellers. ‘But if I remember correctly, last time we met you told me you never wanted to see me in Tahiti again.’
‘You do remember correctly,’ agreed Alain. ‘Just as I do, Claire. Not one word or one action of yours has been forgiven or forgotten. But for the sake of Marie Rose I am prepared to be polite to you during this visit.’
Claire seethed at the antagonism in his tone, but his words were a nagging reminder of something else. Gazing impatiently round the building, she looked in vain for her sister.
‘Where is Marie Rose?’ she demanded. ‘She promised to come and meet me.’
‘Unfortunately she was not able to do it,’ replied Alain. ‘She asked me to come in her place.’
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Claire in alarm. ‘She’s not ill, is she?’
Alain dismissed that with a shrug.
‘Marie Rose? No! But for your father, it’s a different matter. His heart has been giving him trouble for the last two years, although perhaps you didn’t know or care about that.’
‘I knew,’ replied Claire shortly. ‘And I cared.’
‘But not enough to come home and visit him?’ challenged Alain.
Claire bit her lip, but remained silent. Alain’s barbed comments filled her with guilt. Knowing Alain, that was probably just what he intended. After all, he had never hidden his opinion that Claire was heartless and totally indifferent to other people’s feelings. In fact, her father’s illness troubled Claire deeply, but pride would not allow her to tell Alain the truth—that she had repeatedly tried and failed to persuade Roland Beaumont to visit a Sydney heart specialist at her expense. As for visiting her family, her conscience was quite clear on that score. Fear of meeting Alain had always kept her away from Tahiti, but she had paid several times for her parents and sister to join her in Sydney. Yet why should she have to justify herself to Alain by explaining all this?
‘Well,’ said Alain with a lift of his eyebrow, ‘there will be plenty of time to catch up on the rest of the news in my car. For now, I think we should go and collect your luggage. After that, I will take you to meet Marie Rose and your parents, just as she asked.’
Claire stared at him in perplexity.
‘But why should Marie Rose ask you to do all that?’ she demanded. ‘You hardly knew her.’
‘Six years ago, no,’ agreed Alain. ‘But a lot can happen in six years. Didn’t Marie Rose tell you that her fiancé Paul Halévy is my cousin and the manager of my new hotel on Moorea?’
Claire took a step back.
‘No, she didn’t!’ she replied in a startled voice.
Alain smiled sardonically.
‘Then, in that case, she probably did not tell you either that I am to be best man at her wedding. Am I right?’
This time Claire stared at him in horror.
‘Best man?’ she croaked. ‘That’s impossible! Ridiculous!’
‘Believe me,’ Alain assured her, ‘the thought of being constantly thrown into your company for the next week is just as unwelcome to me as it must be to you. But for the sake of Marie Rose and Paul, we must both put a good face on it. Now come and we’ll collect your luggage. You must be tired after your long trip.’
Claire’s thoughts whirled as Alain whisked her through the building. For one insane moment she was tempted to flee back to the plane she had just left, but Alain was handling her arrival as efficiently as he had once organised her departure. With the ease of a man accustomed to prompt service, he soon had her outside the airport and comfortably settled in the luxurious front seat of his gleaming Citroen car.
‘You travel light,’ he observed. ‘Only one small suitcase on wheels. As if you were always ready for a fast getaway.’
‘That’s truer than you know,’ she agreed. ‘I’ve been on the move so much in the last six years that I’ve reduced it to a fine art. I never own more than I can carry.’
‘That must be difficult,’ observed Alain.
‘Not really. It’s very simple. All you have to do is decide never to get attached to things.’
‘Or people?’ Alain challenged.
‘Or people!’ retorted Claire with a defiant toss of her head.
Settling back into her seat, she folded her arms and stared resentfully ahead of her into the darkness. He was determined to goad her, she thought fiercely, but she wasn’t going to be drawn. Alain Charpentier had made a blistering attack on her morals and her character once in her life, but she certainly wasn’t going to give him a second opportunity.
‘You’ve done very well since you left Tahiti,’ he said in milder voice. ‘You should be very proud of yourself.’
‘Thank you,’ replied Claire coolly.
‘Of course it’s not the sort of lifestyle that would suit everybody,’ continued Alain. ‘I’ve always admired your poise in front of the cameras and your ability to adapt to new countries, but I should imagine that sort of jet-setting must be very exhausting. It’s a good thing you’ve never wanted a settled home or any serious attachments, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, isn’t it?’ retorted Claire with an edge to her voice.
She stared out the window again and an ache like a physical pain filled her entire body. Her throat tightened as she remembered how often she had cried herself to sleep in her first bewildering months in Sydney. How many times had she felt a sharp, nostalgic longing for Tahiti, simply because of some trivial reminder that had sent her thoughts winging back to her home? The scent of warm croissants outside a bakery, the sight of scarlet bougainvillaea spilling over a balcony, the feathery crown of a coconut palm waving against a blue sky had all been enough to reduce her to tears. But worst of all had been the pain of missing her family. Her easygoing father Roland, with his rumbling laugh and his home handyman projects that never quite worked, her mother Eve, who sometimes surfaced from her painting long enough to cook wonderful French meals, not to mention her numerous aunts and uncles and cousins. And, of course, warm-hearted Marie Rose, whose only fault was her well-meaning desire to get Claire married off as soon as possible. How dared Alain assume that Claire’s home meant nothing to her or that she didn’t want deep attachments to anyone? Unconsciously she leaned forward urgently, as if she could make the car go faster.
‘We should be there just as the sun rises,’ she said. ‘I do hope we can reach Point Cupid before it comes up! I always used to love watching it from that bare hillside overlooking the bay.’
‘Did you?’ asked Alain. ‘Well, I’ll be glad to stop and let you see it, but I should warn you that the hillside is no longer bare. I’ve built a hotel there.’
‘You’ve what?’ cried Claire in horror. ‘Oh, how could you, Alain? How could you possibly ruin that beautiful headland by building some ghastly eyesore of a hotel there? Don’t you have any sensitivity at all?’
To her astonishment the car suddenly veered sharply off the road and came to halt. The glow from one of the sulphur-yellow street-lights filled the vehicle’s interior, turning Alain’s face to a bronze mask as he turned off the ignition. Then he seized her wrist, and glared down at her.
‘No,’ he said through his teeth. ‘I am like you in that respect, Claire. I have no sensitivity whatsoever and you would do well to remember it. And like you, I care only about one thing—the satisfaction of my own desires. All the same, I flatter myself that I do have good taste. So why don’t you wait until you’ve seen the hotel before you condemn it as being ghastly? It seems to me that you’re entirely too willing to make judgements about situations without being in full possession of the facts!’
‘Really?’ retorted Claire. ‘I always thought that was your speciality!’
‘You go too far!’ grated Alain.
His glittering blue eyes narrowed as he stared down at her and she caught her breath in a swift, convulsive gulp. The movement made her breasts strain against the low-cut neckline of her dress and she was conscious of the swift, instinctive flare of desire in Alain’s glance. Against her will Claire felt an answering surge of excitement as his eyes rose to scan her face. The silence lengthened and Claire was conscious of an unwelcome throbbing that pulsed through her entire body. Alain’s grip on her wrist seemed to scorch through her like a bracelet of fire. Then with a low, shuddering sigh he released her. Turning back to the steering-wheel, he switched on the ignition, rammed the car into gear and pulled out on to the road with a protesting squeal of rubber.
‘We’ll be at Point Cupid in another twenty minutes,’ he said with biting sarcasm. ‘So you’ll soon have the chance to see for yourself whether I’ve ruined the place or not.’
The streets of Papeete flashed past, ghostlike in the gloom. Down by the harbour, Claire caught a glimpse of the lights of moored ships and heard the distant laughter of all-night revellers on the docks, then Alain took a turning which led out towards the east of the island. Ten minutes later as the car was speeding up a winding road through lush tropical forest, a sudden burst of orange radiance filled the landscape around them.
‘Oh, do stop,’ begged Claire.
With a brooding glance at her, Alain sent the car hurtling round one final bend and brought the Citroën to a halt in a parking area overlooking the magnificent bay of Point Cupid. Scrambling eagerly out, Claire darted across to the viewing platform and stood gazing out over the ocean. As the sun rose like a blood-red orange from the sea, its rays lit up the dark blue of the outer ocean, the lacy necklace of foam that marked the hidden coral reef and the much lighter blue waters of the lagoon. Down below them a tangle of luxuriant tropical vegetation rioted exuberantly over the hillside. The flaming orange canopies of African tulip trees were noisy with the cries of mynah birds and, further down, coconut palms, hibiscus and banana trees jostled in colourful profusion. Claire gazed and gazed, avidly noting the far-off buildings of Papeete and the yachts at anchor in the harbour.
‘You haven’t told me what you think of my eyesore of a hotel yet,’ reminded a sardonic voice beside her.
‘W—what?’ stammered Claire. ‘Where is it?’
‘You’re practically on top of it,’ said Alain.
Gripping her shoulders, he turned her forty-five degrees further east and pointed downwards. Claire gasped. Tucked into the hillside, so cunningly that it was scarcely visible, was a set of buildings that looked more like a living staircase than a luxury hotel. Built in a series of tiers that followed the shape of the hillside, it was surrounded by coconut palms and banana trees that sheltered it from the wind and the gaze of curious sightseers. In addition, each unit had its own large balcony with planter boxes filled with tropical creepers. Bougainvillaeas in every imaginable shade of scarlet, orange and white cascaded over the walls and the air was heavy with the scent of tropical flowers. On the highest level of the cliff-top, the whole structure was dominated by a longhouse in the traditional Polynesian style, with the graceful swooping lines of a ship’s hull. And in the gap between the screen of trees Claire caught a glimpse of the sapphire-blue water of a large swimming-pool.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she acknowledged reluctantly.
Her admission seemed to dissolve some of the hostility between them. Alain’s face relaxed into an unexpected smile and he looked almost friendly.
‘Why don’t you come and have breakfast with me and see it properly?’ he invited.
Claire bit her lip.
‘I really want to get home and see my family,’ she protested.
‘Of course,’ he agreed. ‘But there are some wedding presents for Marie Rose that arrived through my hotel’s courier service yesterday. It’s some items of china and glassware from my great-aunt in France. She didn’t trust them to the mail and I thought you might like to take them with you for your sister.’
‘Oh,’ said Claire. ‘Well, in that case, I suppose I should stop. Besides, nobody ever gets up early in our house. They’ll probably all be snoring blissfully if I arrive now.’
‘True,’ said Alain gravely. ‘Besides, there’s another reason why you’d be wise to stop here on your way home.’
‘What’s that?’ asked Claire with a puzzled frown.
Alain took her arm and escorted her back to the car.
‘According to Marie Rose, your father has been putting in a new bathroom,’ he explained.
A horrified look spread over Claire’s face.
‘Oh, no,’ she wailed. ‘Papa’s been tinkering with the plumbing? You don’t mean—?’
‘I’m afraid so. Marie Rose says they’ve had no hot water for the past six weeks, so if you want a decent shower your best chance is at my house. I think you’ll find the facilities there are adequate.’
They were more than adequate, they were totally luxurious, Claire discovered. Alain’s new house was built at a distance from the main hotel and was set amid such a luxuriant private garden that it seemed totally secluded. White stucco walls and a hedge of red ginger plants almost concealed it from view and, as Alain drove into the double garage, Claire saw that the garden was a riot of colourful tropical plants. Yellow and pink hibiscus flowers jostled for space with cascades of orange and scarlet bougainvillaea that spilt over the enclosing walls. Like the reception building of the hotel, the house was constructed in the traditional Polynesian style with a thatched roof. Yet, as Alain unlocked the front door and led her into the entrance hall, Claire saw that the resemblance to a primitive thatched hut ended there. Once inside, they were met by the discreet hum of airconditioning and a welcome coolness descended on them. Claire gazed around her in surprise, taking in the colourful riot of Polynesian bark paintings, glossy green plants and a glimpse of a vivid, casual living-room with deep, comfortable sofas and bright wall-hangings.
‘Goodness,’ she murmured under her breath.
‘What is it?’ demanded Alain.
‘I didn’t expect your home to look so colourful and relaxed,’ admitted Claire, turning to face him.
‘Oh?’ retorted Alain. ‘Why not?’
‘It doesn’t go with your personality somehow,’ explained Claire. ‘It’s quite different from what I expected.’
‘And what did you expect?’ he prompted.
Claire wrinkled her nose.
‘Oh, white walls, lots of chrome everywhere. A kitchen that looks like a cross between a butcher’s shop and an operating theatre. Like that house you were renting a few years ago. The sort of place nobody could really relax in, not that you would worry about that. I mean, you’ve always been more into working than relaxing, haven’t you?’
‘I see,’ murmured Alain. ‘Well, how cosy. It sounds as though you regard me as some kind of clinical, unfeeling robot, whose only interest in life is making money. Am I right?’
Claire’s face flamed. She opened her mouth to protest that she hadn’t intended anything quite so rude, but saw that Alain was gazing at her with mocking blue eyes that held an unmistakable challenge. Her chin lifted defiantly.
‘Yes, I suppose I do,’ she replied.
His mouth set grimly and his gaze travelled down over her slender body.
‘Well, I won’t tell you what sort of decorating style I’d expect you to favour,’ he drawled. ‘I don’t suppose you’d have room to cart soft lighting and red satin sheets around in your little suitcase anyway.’
Claire caught her breath in a sob of rage and her eyes sparkled dangerously. Lunging forward, she tried to wrestle her bag out of his grip.
‘How dare you?’ she cried unsteadily. ‘Look, Alain, I should never have come here! It was ridiculous to think that you and I could be pleasant to each other for five minutes at a time. So, if you’ll just call me a taxi, I’ll take my unwelcome presence away.’
‘Don’t be such a melodramatic little fool!’ growled Alain. ‘You’ll go when I’m ready to take you, Claire, and not before. I promised Marie Rose that you and I would get along together until the wedding is over.’
‘Fine,’ seethed Claire, still trying to wrestle her bag from his grip. ‘I’ll see you again on the actual day of the wedding and I’ll even bare my teeth and smile at you. But in the meantime, give me my suitcase and let me go!’
‘When you’ve had a shower and breakfast and calmed down, I’ll let you go!’ thundered Alain. ‘But I won’t allow you to turn up at your home in such a state as this. Your father is a sick man and you’ll upset him!’
‘I am not in a state!’ cried Claire.
‘Yes, you are,’ contradicted Alain. ‘Your hands are shaking! Look at them.’
It was true. Claire looked down and saw that her slim, tanned fingers were gripped around the handle of the bag so tightly that they were trembling. Very slowly and deliberately, as if he were undoing a padlock, Alain prised them free. Then he patted Claire soothingly on the shoulder.
‘Now, go and have a shower,’ he advised, ‘while I order some breakfast for us. You can use the green bedroom through there. And just come back to the dining-room when you’re ready.’
Claire stared at him with blazing brown eyes.
‘I hate you,’ she breathed. ‘You’re the most overbearing, ruthless, patronising, hateful—’
‘Remember that,’ cut in Alain, ‘and the next week will pass very smoothly. I’ll see you in the dining-room in fifteen minutes, Claire.’
Left alone, Claire stalked into the bedroom, slammed the door and leaned against it, choking for breath.
‘Swine!’ she muttered. ‘Swine, swine, swine!’
But she could see quite clearly that staying in a rage would only serve to amuse Alain even further, so she knew she would have to regain control of herself. Taking a long gulp of air, she looked around her. The room was decorated in cool shades of blue and green and white and the curtains were drawn back, revealing a panoramic view of the ocean. In the far corner was a small sitting area with deep, cream leather armchairs and feathery potted palms, while nearby french doors led on to a private balcony. A queen-sized bed with a colourful floral cover dominated the centre of the room, but there were also spacious built-in wardrobes, a carved chest of drawers and a wall unit that held everything from a television set and video-recorder to a large aquarium filled with red and blue fish. Exploring further, Claire found a spacious bathroom and let out a low gasp of astonishment at its magnificence. It was faced with palest green marble and had gold fittings in the shower and bath. Yet what held her gaze longest was not the décor, but the view. Because of the house’s location high on the cliff-top, there was no problem of privacy. Consequently one wall had been lined with huge picture windows, overlooking the dazzling sapphire vista of the sea. Walking slowly towards them as if in a dream, Claire stared down at the beach of black, volcanic sand far below. Shading her eyes, she peered intently at the cluster of houses backing on to the foreshore and caught a glimpse of her parents’ modest bungalow between the coconut palms.
‘Oh, it’s so nice to be home!’ she murmured. ‘If only I didn’t have to deal with Alain, everything would be perfect.’
But she did have to deal with him. That was the whole problem. If only I hadn’t been such a fool six years ago, she thought passionately, he wouldn’t hate me like this! Still, there’s no way I can change the past, so I’ll just have to grit my teeth and get through this somehow…
Five minutes later she was rotating blissfully under the warm downpour of the shower. In spite of her tension, a ridiculous, bubbling happiness welled up inside her each time she remembered she was home. And when at last she reluctantly turned off the water, wrapped a gigantic white towel around her and padded into the bedroom, she did something entirely unexpected. Reaching down into her suitcase full of neatly folded clothes, she picked up a smart, tailored black and white dress and then hesitated. It was an outfit she had worn several times on reporting assignments and with the small pearl and gold stud earrings and the black pumps she knew it made her look cool and sophisticated and totally in control of life. Exactly the way she wanted to feel in order to deal with Alain Charpentier. Yet some strange nostalgia made her replace it in the bag and pick up something else instead. A dress she hadn’t worn for six years, but which she had never been able to throw away. A pareu, the national costume of Tahiti, in her favourite colours of scarlet and white.
Picking up the rectangular piece of cloth, Claire wound it round her body, tucking it high under her armpits, so that it concealed her breasts, but left her shoulders bare. Then, watching herself thoughtfully in the mirror, she pulled off her plastic shower cap and let her long brown hair tumble loose to her waist. A jolt of shock went through her as she saw her own reflection. The last time she had worn that dress, she had been squirming in Alain Charpentier’s grip, sobbing and pleading and babbling incoherent explanations as he ordered her to leave Tahiti. Wearing it now seemed like an act of defiance, a way of showing him that she could no longer be bullied. If he even remembered the dress, which was highly unlikely.
Alain’s sharp intake of breath as she entered the sitting-room five minutes later showed her that she was wrong on that score. His brows drew together in a scowl and she had no doubt at all that he was remembering the past just as vividly as she was. However, he made no mention of it as he rose to his feet and came towards her.
‘You look very attractive,’ he said.
‘Thank you,’ replied Claire warily.
‘Let me get you some juice,’ suggested Alain. ‘I’ve ordered breakfast from the hotel, but I don’t expect it for another five minutes or so. Now what would you like? Orange juice or a tropical medley?’
‘Tropical medley, please,’ said Claire.
His fingers brushed hers as he handed her the tall, frosted glass and she flinched. Colouring self-consciously, she took a hasty gulp of the chilled drink. It was delicious, thick with shreds of fresh pineapple and mango and full of crushed ice. Alain’s gaze did not leave hers as he set down the crystal jug on the coffeetable.
‘Well, sit down and tell me about yourself,’ he ordered abruptly. ‘How did you get into this television reporting in the first place? Was it your little brush with the film world in Tahiti that inspired you?’
Claire cast him a suspicious glance, but was not certain whether any malice lay behind his question. In any case, she decided that dignity was her best defence. Sitting back in her chair and toying with her glass, she adopted the cool, poised manner that had seen her through countless difficult interviews.
‘No, not at all,’ she replied. ‘It was pure chance really. After I left home, I went to stay with relatives in Sydney. As you probably know, my mother is originally Australian and she had always planned for me to spend a year in Australia when I finished school. Anyway my aunt managed to find me a job at a television station as a sort of Girl Friday. In the beginning I was only doing odd jobs, typing, making coffee, running messages, that sort of thing. But then I had a lucky break.’
‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘A famous French scientist from New Caledonia was visiting Sydney and we had a reporter who spoke French lined up to do a live interview with him. But as they were all coming down the stairs to the recording studio, the reporter slipped and broke his ankle. Of course, there was instant pandemonium. The poor chap was in dreadful pain and couldn’t possibly go on air, but the interview was due to start at any moment. I was the only other person around who spoke fluent French, so I offered to do it. Luckily the head of the studio was very impressed with the result.’
‘And so?’ prompted Alain.
‘And so nothing,’ she retorted with a shrug. ‘For the next few months, everything went on exactly as usual, but then one day the boss called me into his office. He said they were starting up a new programme about international scientific discoveries and they wanted a roving reporter who spoke a major language other than English. He offered me the job on a trial basis and naturally I jumped at the chance.’
‘And you enjoy it, do you?’ asked Alain, eyeing her searchingly.
‘I did at first,’ she agreed. ‘What twenty-year-old wouldn’t? Constantly jetting around the world, wearing lovely clothes, having somebody else do my hair and my make-up every day. Yes, it’s been fun! But it’s also a lot harder than it looks. Lately I’ve found the constant travel an absolute nightmare and I’m not alone in that. None of the other original team of reporters is still doing the job. The others all found it clashed too much with their family commitments and gave it up.’
‘But you didn’t have that problem?’ asked Alain with a touch of sarcasm.
‘No,’ replied Claire shortly. ‘As you say, I didn’t have that problem. All the same, I sometimes find myself at some ungodly hour of the morning waiting for a change of planes in Singapore airport and feeling dead on my feet. And I ask myself, “What on earth am I doing this for?”’
‘I know what you mean,’ agreed Alain, staring out of the window with a brooding expression. ‘I’ve almost worked myself to death trying to get these new hotels up and running, but I don’t know if there’s really any point to it. Perhaps if I had someone to share it with, I might feel differently.’
‘You’ve never thought about marrying?’ asked Claire curiously.
Alain’s mouth tightened. Setting down his glass, he strode across to the huge picture window and stared sombrely out to sea.
‘Only once,’ he replied indifferently. ‘There was only one girl who ever touched my heart. But it soon became apparent that my good opinion of her was totally unfounded. So why bother? If I were going to marry, I would want a wife whom I could trust completely. A woman who would commit herself to me, body and soul. Not an easy thing to find these days!’
‘Don’t be so cynical!’ protested Claire. ‘There are plenty of women like that!’
Alain swung round to face her, his blue eyes glittering fiercely.
‘Are there?’ he sneered.
Claire flinched at the bitterness in his tone. It was as if he felt that no woman could be trusted because a single person had once betrayed him.
‘I think you’re being absurd,’ she said with spirit. ‘You shouldn’t let one bad experience sour your entire life. Anyway, what about all the women you go around with? Don’t they mean anything to you?’
Alain’s eyes narrowed.
‘What do you know of the women I go around with?’ he demanded.
‘Only what Marie Rose tells me,’ she muttered.
‘I see,’ said Alain thoughtfully. ‘So you find my private life interesting enough to ask Marie Rose about it, do you?’
‘No!’ cried Claire. ‘I didn’t do anything of the kind, but you know what Marie Rose is like. Her biggest interest in life is other people’s relationships. If she could pair off everybody she knows and march them up the ramp to Noah’s Ark, she’d die happy! Anyway, whenever I phone home, she always tells me about everybody’s love life. Yours included.’
Alain swore under his breath.
‘If I didn’t need Marie Rose in my new hotel, I’d wring her neck for her impertinence!’ he vowed. ‘But if Marie Rose keeps you so well informed, you must realise that there have been women who were only too happy to join me for a frolic in a tropical paradise. Women who meant as much to me as I meant to them. Which was absolutely nothing! And I dare say that will be the pattern for the rest of my life.’
Claire stared at him in dismay.
‘I think that’s awful,’ she said bluntly.
‘Do you?’ retorted Alain. ‘How odd. I thought you were the expert when it came to sexual frolics without commitment.’
With an angry gasp Claire shot to her feet, knocking over her glass of juice.
‘How can you be so—?’ she began.
But at that moment the front door bell chimed musically. Alain strode off to answer it and Claire was left fuming.
‘Come in, Paulette,’ invited Alain.
A moment later the door to the sitting-room opened and an elderly Tahitian woman dressed in a scarlet pareu with a garland of acacia blossoms in her hair came in with a heavy tray in her hands. She smiled dazzlingly at Claire and wished her good morning before trudging through into the dining-room.
‘There you are, Monsieur Alain,’ she said, setting down the tray. ‘Juice, croissants, butter, jam and fresh coffee from the hotel restaurant. Is there anything else I can bring you?’
‘No, thank you, Paulette,’ replied Alain pleasantly. ‘But if you could just mop up the couch I’d be grateful. Mademoiselle Beaumont had an accident with her drink.’
‘Ooh, là!’ exclaimed the housekeeper, clicking her tongue. ‘But, of course, monsieur. I’ll just fetch a cloth from your kitchen.’
Paulette was stoutly built and Claire felt a pang of guilt as she saw the older woman waddle back and sink to her knees with the damp cloth.
‘Oh, let me,’ she begged. ‘It was my fault.’
‘But of course not, mademoiselle,’ protested Paulette in outrage. ‘This is my job. You sit down and enjoy your breakfast. Ta maa maitai. Good appetite.’
‘Mauruuru,’ replied Claire. ‘Thank you.’
The task did not take long and, in spite of the maid’s protests, Claire stood by and helped her to her feet when she finished.
‘You’re very kind, mademoiselle,’ Paulette panted. ‘Thank you very much.’
‘Aita pea pea,’ smiled Claire. ‘No problem.’
As the front door finally closed behind the older woman, Alain gave Claire a long, piercing look.
‘That was considerate of you,’ he said in a faintly puzzled tone.
Claire returned his gaze with undisguised resentment.
‘You sound as if that surprises you,’ she remarked.
‘It does,’ agreed Alain bluntly. ‘But never mind that now. Come and sit down before the coffee gets cold.’
In spite of her annoyance Claire joined him at the table and was soon enjoying an excellent breakfast. The croissants were warm and flaky and rich with butter, the raspberry jam was deliciously fruity and the hot coffee was fragrant and reviving. As they ate Alain began to talk about his new hotel on Moorea where Marie Rose would be living after the wedding and Claire found herself listening with unexpected interest.
‘It sounds heavenly,’ she admitted. ‘And, of course, we’ve heaps of cousins on Moorea, so Marie Rose certainly won’t feel lonely when she moves.’
‘You’re fortunate to have such a close family,’ remarked Alain. ‘I suppose you’ve missed them while you were away.’
‘Yes,’ replied Claire. ‘Of course, it was rather a blow when my grandfather died last year.’
Her face shadowed at the thought. A severe ear infection had made flying impossible for her at the time, so she had not even been able to attend his funeral. That was one occasion when even the risk of meeting Alain would not have kept her away from the island. As it was, she had spent the day of her grandfather’s funeral in tears, finding her exile more painful than ever.
‘I was sorry to hear about it,’ said Alain.
‘Oh, well,’ continued Claire, shaking her head. ‘He had a very happy life and lived to be eighty-one. It would be wrong to mourn him.’
‘He was French originally, wasn’t he?’ asked Alain.
‘Yes,’ replied Claire, brightening suddenly. ‘He came out to Tahiti to do his military service, fell in love with a local girl and lived happily ever after. Rather a romantic story, really. Although very common in the islands, of course.’
‘I’m not so sure about that,’ replied Alain. ‘Not every Frenchman who falls in love with a Tahitian girl manages to live happily ever after.’
Claire winced at the bitterness in his tone. Was Alain talking about himself? she wondered. But before she could say anything, he continued abruptly.
‘And your parents?’ he quizzed. ‘Do you think they’re happy?’
Claire frowned thoughtfully.
‘I think so,’ she said. ‘Although Papa does have some health problems now. But he has a new business venture going too and he seems very pleased about that. He’s taking four-wheel-drive tours to the interior of the island. I don’t know if you’ve heard about them.’
‘Yes, I have,’ said Alain. ‘Many of the guests at my hotels have been going on them. They’ve been very popular. My sister Louise went on one when she was here last year.’
There was a sudden deathly silence and Claire’s coffeespoon clattered loudly off the saucer and fell to the floor. For a moment she sat rigid, feeling as sick and shocked as if she were about to faint, then she bent down to retrieve it. But Alain was ahead of her, his fingers closing over the silverware before she could even reach it.
‘You look very pale,’ he said deliberately as they both straightened up. ‘Does the thought of my sister really upset you so much?’
Claire stared at him with a stricken expression, but his face was as cruel and pitiless as a Spanish inquisitor’s. His blue eyes seared through her like jets of flame.
‘Well?’ he taunted.
She drew in a long, agonised breath.
‘I asked you a question!’ he shouted, slamming his open hand on the table.
Claire leapt to her feet, feeling her legs shake beneath her, but she stared back at him defiantly. Then she let out her breath in a ragged gasp.
‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘It upsets me.’
Suddenly Alain too was on his feet, staring at her across the barrier of the table.
‘Oh?’ he challenged. ‘Really? It didn’t upset you six years ago though, did it?’
‘That’s not true!’ cried Claire.
She broke away, felt tears stinging her eyes and stumbled across to the window. Relentlessly Alain pursued her and his powerful hand closed on her wrist.
‘Isn’t it?’ he insisted, hauling her up against him, so that she could feel the tension in his hard, muscular body. ‘Well, if thinking about Louise upset you, it was never obvious. It didn’t stop you from going to bed with her husband, did it?’
‘Stop it!’ cried Claire wildly.
Snatching herself free from Alain’s grip, she covered her face with her hands. A violent shudder went through her. But Alain was totally merciless. Seizing her hands, he pulled them away and glared down at her. He was so close that she could feel his swift, thudding heartbeat through his thin shirt, smell the spicy odour of his cologne, see the muscle twitching in his left temple.
‘You didn’t care how much you hurt Louise, did you?’ he insisted savagely. ‘Did you? All you wanted was to have a wild roll in the hay with Marcel and to hell with the consequences!’
‘That’s not true!’ protested Claire.
‘Isn’t it?’ sneered Alain. ‘You seem to forget that I found you in bed with him in my own house, you lying little schemer!’
Claire’s face flamed.
‘I haven’t forgotten,’ she choked.
‘Neither have I!’ growled Alain. ‘Every detail of that day is burnt into my mind like acid and I wish to God it weren’t. Because then I wouldn’t have to recognise you for the heartless, destructive troublemaker that you are.’
‘You’re being totally unfair!’ cried Claire.
Alain gave a harsh laugh and thrust her aside contemptuously. Striding across the room, he came to a halt and turned on her with uncontrolled vehemence.
‘Am I?’ he demanded. ‘So you deny that I found you naked in my own bed with Marcel, do you?’
Claire let out a low groan.
‘No, I don’t!’ she cried. ‘How can I? You know perfectly well that it’s true, but you’re still being unfair, Alain! I didn’t know that Marcel was married, I swear to God I didn’t! I never even knew that Louise existed.’
‘I’m sure!’ jeered Alain disbelievingly.
‘Look,’ insisted Claire, ‘whatever you say, that’s the truth, Alain! And you couldn’t possibly feel worse about what happened than I did. But I never intended to hurt anybody. You know what Marcel was like as well as I do—handsome, glamorous and full of charm. And a film director into the bargain. And I was nineteen years old and very, very gullible. I believed him when he told me he was in love with me, I even believed him when he said he wanted to marry me. But he certainly never told me he had a wife already tucked away in Paris!’
Alain’s only response was an incredulous lift of the eyebrows. That small, contemptuous gesture goaded Claire into action. With an inarticulate cry, she flung herself at him and seized him by the arms.
‘It’s the truth!’ she cried. ‘You must believe me, Alain!’
Her impetuous rush caught him off balance and almost sent them both toppling. Instinctively he reached out to steady her and she found herself imprisoned in those hard, unyielding arms. She gave a low, distraught gasp and her body quivered under his touch. Her involuntary movement sparked an unexpected response in Alain. For a moment he stared down at her, his blue eyes glazed with anger, or possibly something else. Then, like some savage bird of prey, he suddenly swooped.
Claire uttered a startled squeak as his mouth came down on hers in the fiercest and most enthralling kiss she had ever experienced in her life. For an instant she stood rigid with shock, then molten fire seemed to flow through her veins as Alain took violent possession of her mouth. There was a strange roaring in her ears and she felt dizzy with longing as his hard, urgent fingers traced sensual patterns on her back. His ferocity woke an answering urgency in her and without any conscious intent she kissed him back with equal force. His male strength was warm and insistent against her and she was shocked to hear the soft, whimpering sounds that rose in her throat as she let herself lean wantonly against him. Time lost all meaning as they swayed in that warm, pulsing embrace. Then suddenly Alain thrust her furiously away from him.
‘You haven’t changed!’ he exclaimed bitterly. ‘You’re still throwing yourself at men without thought for the consequences, aren’t you, Claire?’
The unfairness of it took her breath away. She stood staring at him with her shoulders heaving and her mouth gaping open. Then suddenly she regained her voice.
‘You swine!’ she breathed. ‘There’s no possible way I can get along with you for the next week. No way on earth!’
AS THE gleaming Citroën turned into the road leading to Acajou Beach, Claire leaned eagerly forward to catch the first glimpse of her parents’ house. For the present even her hostility towards Alain was forgotten as she scanned the dense thickets of scarlet bougainvillaea, yellow hibiscus and flapping green banana trees that hid most of the houses from view. Then, as they neared the last few buildings near the turquoise water, she let out a low cry of delight.
Like Alain’s house, it had a hedge of red ginger plants in the front garden, but there the resemblance ended. While the Beaumonts’ home might be casual and welcoming, it was undoubtedly rather shabby. The paint was peeling, weeds grew almost as profusely as flowers around the boundary fence and there was a large rusty bath sitting like a wrecked ship on the front lawn. Claire felt herself tensing uncomfortably as Alain turned into the uneven driveway. It was bad enough that he disapproved of her so violently, without the added humiliation of having him despise her home and family. She could only hope that he would drop her off quickly and make his departure. Unfortunately Alain did nothing of the kind.
As the car came to halt, there was a sudden flurry of activity from within the house. Marie Rose, a large, buxom girl with a resonant voice, burst out of the front door, shrieking joyfully ‘They’re here! They’re here!’ She was almost tripped up by a tan-coloured mongrel of doubtful parentage that surged down the steps, yelping wildly, and hurtled towards Claire like a prize steeplechaser. There was an outburst of hugs and kisses, barks and licks.
‘Oh, Claire, it’s so good to see you!’ cried Marie Rose. ‘I’m sorry Paul couldn’t be here. There are some problems with the new hotel buildings on Moorea, but you’ll meet him tomorrow. Oh, I’ve got so much to tell you!’
From inside the house there was the sound of slamming doors and more hurrying footsteps. Then suddenly Claire found herself in the midst of a human—and animal—throng with everyone talking at once and hugging her warmly, while the dog pirouetted around like a demented ballerina. When at last she was able to draw breath, she tidied her hair with one hand and held down the lunging family pet with the other.
‘Oh, it’s so good to see you all!’ she cried. ‘You can’t imagine how I’ve missed you.’
‘We’ve missed you too,’ a little girl without any front teeth assured her earnestly. ‘But I’ve missed you the most of all, because I’ve never even met you!’
That made everybody laugh and Claire was quick to fall to her knees to give the child another hug.
‘Then you must be my cousin Nicole,’ she said. ‘And it’s very nice to meet you at last.’
‘It’s nice to meet you too,’ agreed Nicole pertly. ‘And we’re having barbecued pig for dinner because you’ve come home. A whole pig!’
‘Cooked the traditional way in a pit,’ agreed Claire’s father. ‘Just the way you always liked it best, chérie.’
His hands rested warmly on Claire’s shoulders and he smiled down at her. She felt an uncomfortable tremor of emotion pass through her as she looked up at him. For there were so many coils of silver in Roland Beaumont’s hair, so many extra wrinkles that hadn’t been there when she left home. And, although he was still as massive and powerfully built as ever, the faint bluish tinge around his lips and the slight wheeze when he breathed, alarmed her considerably.
‘Oh, Papa!’ she exclaimed with a catch in her voice. ‘How kind of you! Thank you.’
‘You will stay and help us eat it, won’t you, Alain?’ continued Roland as warmly as if Alain were a member of the family. ‘You’ll be very welcome.’
‘But Papa!’ protested Claire. ‘I just wanted a quiet family gathering.’
A sudden hush fell on the group and Claire was instantly conscious of her father’s frown and her mother’s horrified pantomime of disapproval. Realising how rude she had sounded, she stammered a reluctant apology.
‘S-sorry. I didn’t mean it quite like that. It’s just that I’m exhausted from the flight and I’m sure Alain has better things to do. Although naturally I’d be delighted if he would stay.’
She fixed her gaze steadily on Alain, willing him to decline. But his blue eyes met hers with cruel amusement and a small, taunting smile played around the corners of his mouth.
‘Well, if you’d be delighted for me to stay, Claire,’ he murmured, ‘I can hardly refuse, can I? Thank you very much for the invitation.’
As Claire’s mother ushered them all into the house, she gave her elder daughter a warning look.
‘I’ll just help Claire get settled in her room,’ she said brightly. ‘Then we’ll all come out on the patio and have a drink together.’
The moment the bedroom door had closed behind them, Eve Beaumont shook her head in dismay.
‘Whatever came over you, Claire?’ she demanded. ‘How could you make Alain feel so unwelcome? What a dreadful thing to do, especially when he’s been so good and kind to us!’
‘What do you mean, good and kind?’ muttered Claire.
Eve sighed. Watching her closely, Claire saw that her mother’s blonde hair was fading imperceptibly to silver and that there were lines of strain around her mouth.
‘Well, he and Marie Rose’s fiancé are like brothers,’ she explained. ‘And even though we haven’t seen much of Alain, he’s always been very kind when we have had dealings with him. Nothing is ever too much trouble for him. You know I don’t drive and he’s been wonderful about taking your father to the hospital for his medical check-ups. And when your Papa was too sick to take a four-wheel-drive tour into the mountains, Alain arranged for a substitute driver for two weeks and wouldn’t accept any payment for it. So I think the least you can do is be polite to him.’
Claire bit her lip guiltily. However much she might resent Alain herself, the quarrel certainly had nothing to do with the rest of her family. Setting down her bag, she gave her mother a quick, awkward hug.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said with more sincerity than she had shown earlier. ‘I didn’t mean to cause trouble and I promise I’ll be nice to Alain.’
‘That’s my girl!’ replied Eve, catching her in a warm embrace. ‘Now, come on, let’s go out and see if we can produce a decent party!’
By lunchtime everyone agreed that they were producing a very decent party. A homecoming was always a good excuse for celebrating in style and nobody in Tahiti was ever foolish enough to rush a celebration. Here in the islands nearly everybody lived in large, extended families and a daughter’s homecoming was a big occasion. Two sets of aunts and uncles, half a dozen cousins, all the neighbours on the block and ten or twelve of Claire’s old schoolfriends provided a good basis for a guest list. And, since nobody arrived empty-handed, there was plenty to eat and drink while they waited for the pig to finish cooking. By noon there was a dull roar of conversation, counterpointed by children’s laughter, the clink of ice-cubes in glasses, some lively ukelele music and the faint rustle of banana leaves in the tropical breeze. Overhead white puffs of cloud drifted lazily in a soft, blue sky and beyond the wall the lagoon glittered jade-green under the midday sun. It was impossible to go on feeling tense in such a setting.
Claire, who had been temporarily deserted by her affectionate clan, closed her eyes and let herself relax in a deck chair on the patio. It felt marvellous to enjoy the steady warmth of the sun beating down on her bare arms, the scent of flowers and salt air and the distant swish, swish of the waves lapping on the sand…until the scrape of another chair on the paving bricks intruded on her reverie. Her eyes flew open.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ she said bleakly.
Alain gave a short laugh.
‘Don’t sound so overjoyed,’ he warned. ‘I might feel tempted to stay and chat.’
This sarcasm made Claire bristle and yet she could not help noticing the smoky, rather hoarse quality of his voice. As a teenager she had found it unbearably seductive, but now it filled her with panic. In any other man she would have thought it very attractive, but not in Alain Charpentier.
‘What do you want?’ she demanded, sitting rigidly upright as she watched him move the chairs and peer underneath.
‘A pair of canvas gardening gloves,’ he replied. ‘Your father assures me that he left them somewhere over here. I need them to help lift the pig out of the pit.’
But a joint search beneath the deck chairs and around the pot plants that bordered the patio failed to locate the missing gloves.
‘Try the flowerbed near the African tulip tree,’ suggested Claire. ‘Unless Papa has changed dramatically, he’s probably left them out there when he got sick of weeding. Over there, see? Where the women are setting up the tables.’
Alain’s gaze followed her pointing finger to the spot where a group of chattering, laughing women were leisurely draping tablecloths and arranging dishes on a battered collection of garden furniture.
‘Why aren’t you helping them?’ he asked.
Claire stiffened, wondering whether he was attacking her. Then she remembered her promise to her mother. She was going to be nice to Alain Charpentier, even if it killed her.
‘I was helping,’ she protested. ‘But I dropped a glass bowl of green salad and they decided I was more trouble than I was worth.’
‘Understandable,’ said Alain tersely. ‘I’ve often thought the same thing about you myself.’
Claire ground her teeth.
‘I can’t do a thing right where you’re concerned, can I?’ she demanded. ‘You’ve simply made up your mind that I’m selfish and that’s that!’
‘If the cap fits…’ murmured Alain.
‘You’re impossible!’ snapped Claire.
As they stood staring at each other in angry confrontation, Marie Rose appeared around the corner of the house. Her gaze darted from Alain’s grimly set jaw to Claire’s flushed cheeks.
‘Whatever’s going on?’ she asked in dismay.
‘Nothing important,’ muttered Claire, tossing her head and turning pointedly away from Alain. ‘Did you want something, Marie Rose?’
‘Yes—Alain. The other men are ready to lift the pig now and they want him to come and help.’
‘I couldn’t find the gloves,’ confessed Alain.
‘No problem,’ replied Marie Rose, brandishing them triumphantly. ‘Papa had left them in the flowerbed under the tulip tree, so we’re all organised now. Don’t you want to come and watch, Claire?’
‘All right,’ agreed Claire in a subdued voice.
She was so angry with Alain that she would gladly have climbed over the boundary wall and marched off along the beach without a backward glance, but such an action was unthinkable. After all, she was the guest of honour and the raising of the pig was the highlight of traditional Tahitian barbecue. So she followed her sister across the garden with no more than a single resentful glance at Alain. And when they stood on the edge of the smoking pit she watched with interest while the huge parcel was lifted carefully out and laid on a metal tray. Once the banana leaves were unwrapped, the smell of succulent barbecued pork filled the air.
‘Try a piece, Claire,’ urged her father.
‘Mmm. Wonderful,’ she approved, licking her fingers. ‘Even better than usual. Did you put something special in the marinade?’
‘Alain did,’ replied Roland. ‘It’s his recipe, so you’ll have to ask him if you want the secret.’
Alain. Always, Alain, thought Claire, with a flash of resentment. Can’t this family do anything without him these days? But she tried not to let any sign of her annoyance show in her face as she watched Alain carving the pork. All the same, she was conscious of Marie Rose watching her with a troubled expression. Forcing herself to smile, Claire looked across at her sister.
‘It’s a wonderful party, Marie Rose,’ she said. ‘I hope you didn’t spend days and days getting it all ready.’
‘I was happy to do it,’ replied Marie Rose. ‘I only hope you’re going to enjoy your stay here.’
There was such a worried note in her voice that Claire could have kicked herself. Poor Marie Rose! How typical of her to spend days preparing a welcome home party for Claire at a time when she was so busy. And how ungrateful it would be if Claire didn’t make any effort to enjoy herself! With that thought firmly in mind, Claire took her laden plate and sat at a table under the big tulip tree. She was soon deep in sparkling conversation with two of her cousins.
The meal was excellent and reflected the rich cultural diversity of Tahiti. Apart from the traditional Polynesian spread of barbecued pork, breadfruit, steamed yams and bland, porridge-like poi, there was a tempting array of other dishes. The Chungs, who lived across the road, had brought Chinese beef in black bean sauce on a bed of rice and crisp, stir-fried vegetables. And there were yards of crusty French bread, various chicken casseroles, salads and huge platters of luscious mangoes, pineapple and bananas. Finally, as a triumphant conclusion to the meal, Eve Beaumont cooked a huge pile of pancakes, doused them in Grand Marnier liqueur and set them alight. When the blue flames had finally died down everybody crowded around to eat the crisp, hot, syrupy crêpes. After that, people lay down under the coconut palms and rested while Roland played the ukulele.
The long, lazy afternoon wore on and at sunset Claire’s cousins brought out their tall wooden drums covered in shark skin and began to beat them, softly at first and then with rising excitement. Soon everybody was dancing the tamure, shaking their hips, clapping their knees and uttering shrill cries of excitement. For the first time Claire felt her tension ebb away from her completely and she kicked off her light sandals and joined the dancers. Conscious only of the compulsive rhythm of the drums, she let herself plunge into the movements of the dance and gave it all she had. Claire had always been an excellent dancer. Slim, lithe and graceful with boundless energy, she was soon vibrating joyously over the trampled sand. One by one the other dancers came to a halt and backed away. Claire was vaguely conscious that they had drifted away, but she did not pause to wonder why. The drums were still thudding urgently and that was enough to keep her hips shimmering at the speed of light and her arms swaying gracefully, while she called the traditional cries. Only when the frenzied drumbeat stopped and she slowed to a halt, gasping and laughing, did she realise that everyone was watching her. For a moment she stood still in confusion, then suddenly her cousin Pierre clapped his hands together sharply. A thunder of applause followed and her friends and neighbours gathered around, patting her on the back and admiring her skill.
‘You should stay and join our dancing troupe for the Bastille Day celebrations,’ said one of her friends. ‘We’d probably win the Heiva I Tahiti competition if we had you in our group.’
There were cries of agreement and other voices took up the plea. Then Alain Charpentier’s voice sounded chill and clear through the warm hubbub of their admiration.
‘Bastille Day is not until the fourteenth of July,’ he pointed out. ‘That’s well over a month away. Claire will have to go home to Australia and her job long before that.’
Claire’s head jerked up and she stared at him. He was standing under a coconut palm with his back to the blazing sunset, so she could not see his features clearly. But the red gleam of the dying sun outlined his taut, muscular body and revealed the tension in his stance. His arms were folded and his chin had an arrogant, challenging tilt to it. An obscure pain stabbed through her at his words. Not only because of the antagonism they revealed, but because of their substance. Alain was right. She would have to be back in Australia long before Bastille Day. Although it would never seem like home to her.
‘Well, we’ll have to see, won’t we?’ she said sweetly, resenting Alain’s obvious desire to be rid of her. ‘Perhaps I could get longer holiday leave from the TV station. Or perhaps I’ll decide to move back to Tahiti permanently. Who knows?’
She saw Alain’s fingers tighten convulsively on his folded arms at that, but he said nothing. And shortly afterwards the party broke up. An hour or so was spent tidying up and chatting to her parents, then the moment Claire had been dreading finally arrived. The moment when she found herself alone with Marie Rose.
Her sister was nothing if not direct. Kicking the door of their shared bedroom shut, Marie Rose flung herself down on one of the beds and fixed Claire with a piercing gaze.
‘Have you and Alain quarrelled already?’ she demanded.
Claire gave a weary sigh, sat down on the other bed and began to undress.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake!’ she protested. ‘I was flying all night, Marie Rose, first from Australia to New Zealand and then to Tahiti. And I’ve just enjoyed an eight-hour party. I’m tired!’
She flung her clothes down in a heap, pulled on a nightdress and huddled into bed.
‘Not too tired to answer me,’ insisted Marie Rose, sitting on Claire’s bed and snatching the covers with a deft swoop. ‘Come on, big sister. Just answer a few painless questions and I promise you can have your sheets back.’
‘Beast!’ cried Claire, snatching wildly.
There was a sharp, ripping sound and they stared at each other in dismay, like two naughty children.
‘Now look what you’ve made me do!’ said Claire crossly.
Marie Rose gave a sudden, explosive giggle. Claire glared at her for a moment, then her gravity dissolved. The two of them lay hooting helplessly with laughter as if they were ten years old again. Then Claire hauled herself up against her pillows, arranged the mangled sheets around her and stared at her sister. Perhaps it was better to get the ordeal over with.
‘All right, what do you want to know?’ she demanded warily.
Marie Rose’s dancing brown eyes sobered suddenly.
‘Have you and Alain quarrelled?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ said Claire curtly.
‘But why?’ persisted Marie Rose.
‘Because he hates me!’ flared Claire. ‘And he makes no secret of the fact.’
‘That’s not true,’ replied Marie Rose. ‘I’m sure it’s not! I would never have asked him to meet you at the airport if I’d thought that.’
Claire huddled her legs into a mound and clasped her arms defensively around her knees.
‘Why did you ask him anyway?’ she demanded. ‘That was one of the nastiest shocks I’ve had for a long time, being met by him.’
Marie Rose climbed to her feet and paced across the room with a guilty expression.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I know you took a dislike to him years ago before you left for Australia, but I’ve never understood why. After all, you used to worship the ground he walked on.’
‘More fool me,’ exclaimed Claire tartly.
Marie Rose sighed.
‘But what went wrong between you?’ she demanded. ‘What did he do to offend you?’
Claire’s eyes took on a haunted look.
‘That’s my business and I’m not prepared to discuss it.’
‘Well, there you are!’ exclaimed Marie Rose. ‘I knew you’d probably refuse to come to the wedding if you knew he was the best man. And I couldn’t bear to get married without you, so I didn’t tell you before you left Sydney. Anyway, I hoped that if I sent Alain to meet you somehow you’d smooth things over between you.’
Claire snorted derisively.
‘Some chance!’ she exclaimed. ‘Especially when he loathes the sight of me.’
Marie Rose sank down on her own bed and stared at Claire in dismay.
‘You keep saying that,’ she protested. ‘But I’m sure it’s not true. Whenever Alain comes over here, he always asks if there’s any news of you and his eyes take on a kind of brooding look. I’ve always suspected that he was secretly in love with you.’
‘In love with me?’ echoed Claire. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘It’s not ridiculous!’ insisted Marie Rose. ‘Don’t you remember six years ago when he first came to Tahiti and Papa had that restaurant down on the beach below Point Cupid? Alain used to come in every day for lunch. I’m sure it’s because you were working as a waitress there.’
‘More likely because he enjoyed Papa’s cooking,’ said Claire sceptically.
‘I don’t think it was only that,’ objected Marie Rose. ‘His face used to light up whenever he saw you.’
Claire’s eyes took on a faraway look as she thought of those long-ago days at her father’s short-lived restaurant. Yes, Alain had come in nearly every day for lunch. But had his face really lit up when he saw her or was that just more of Marie Rose’s imaginative fervour at work? Struggle as she might, Claire found herself unable to remember anything clearly except for the embarassing schoolgirl crush that she had had on Alain. Every time she had gone near him, she had blushed with embarrassment. Yet Alain had certainly not seemed to return her interest. In fact, he had always struck her as rather stern and disapproving of the girlish giggles that sometimes issued from the kitchen. It was true that his brooding blue eyes had sometimes seemed to follow her around the dining area, but only until his meal arrived. And his rare and unexpectedly charming smiles had always been accompanied by some quite trivial remark about the food. Anyway, if he had loved her, wouldn’t he have listened to her version of what had happened with Marcel?
Her thoughts went back to the smooth-talking, handsome Frenchman who had lured her into his embraces six years earlier. Where Alain had seemed like an unattainable dream, Marcel had been all too ready to share Claire’s company. It had begun innocently enough with a chance meeting on Marcel’s yacht in the harbour, progressed through picnics and visits to discos and culminated in that appalling scene in Alain’s house, which she could not remember without a shudder. At the time it had all seemed perfectly harmless. Marcel had announced that his brother-in-law had gone to Paris for two weeks and asked Marcel to look after his house. What could be more natural than for him to invite Claire to lunch? She had gone quite trustingly, never guessing that she would be plied with far more wine than she was used to drinking. Never guessing either that Marcel’s brother-in-law would return home early and discover them together. It had been the final irony to learn that Alain was Marcel’s brother-in-law. And that he was not, as Claire had supposed, Marcel’s sister’s husband, but his wife’s brother. She winced at the memory.
‘Are you all right?’ asked Marie Rose. ‘You look pale.’
‘It’s nothing,’ replied Claire in a strained voice. ‘I was just thinking that you’re wrong about Alain. He doesn’t even like me. We had a quarrel years ago and he’s never forgiven me.’
‘A quarrel?’ prompted Marie Rose. ‘When? What about?’
Claire bit her lip. For a moment she was tempted to blurt out the whole truth to her sister. She knew Marie Rose would not blame her for what had happened, but Claire had never found it easy to confide her deepest feelings to anyone. And she had a strong suspicion that she would simply break down and howl if she talked about it. Anyway, it was a long time ago and best forgotten.
‘Nothing important,’ she lied. ‘It was just before I left for Aunt Susan’s. That’s what made me bring the trip forward a month, actually.’
‘Was it about another man?’ demanded Marie Rose shrewdly.
‘Sort of,’ she admitted.
Marie Rose smiled triumphantly.
‘Then Alain was probably jealous!’ she exclaimed.
‘Jealous?’ snorted Claire.
‘Yes. You shouldn’t be fooled by that cool exterior, you know. Alain’s a lot like you really, Claire. He bottles things up and smoulders over them and, when he finally does explode, watch out! I’ve worked for him and I should know. Most of the time he’s completely charming and very considerate, but there’s no denying he’s got a hell of a temper. All the same, he’s incredibly sexy, isn’t he? If I were you, I’d really make a play for him.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ protested Claire. ‘He doesn’t even like me.’
‘Then why did he take you to his place instead of bringing you straight home this morning?’ asked Marie Rose.
‘To pick up your china that Aunt Someone or Other had sent you from France,’ replied Claire irritably. ‘Didn’t he give it to you?’
‘Yes, he did. But that was just an excuse, any fool could see it. He took you there because he wanted to talk to you. Obviously.’
‘Oh. Obviously,’ agreed Claire with heavy sarcasm. ‘Or quarrel with me, as the case may be. After all, he could hardly shout at me in the airport, could he? Or kiss me,’ she added unwisely.
Marie Rose’s eyes widened.
‘Wow!’ she said, leaning forward with the sort of absorbed expression she usually reserved for her favourite soap operas. ‘He must really have it bad, Claire! What happened then? Did he tell you he loved you or anything?’
‘Oh, stop it!’ cried Claire impatiently. ‘He wasn’t kissing me as if he loved me, Marie Rose, but as if he hated me. Almost as if he were doing it against his will.’
Marie Rose lay back on her bed, hugging her pillow, and sighed ecstatically.
‘I think that’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard of,’ she murmured. ‘I’ll bet it was earth-shaking when he kissed you, wasn’t it?’
‘Oh, do shut up and go to sleep!’ begged Claire, instantly regretting her impulsive admission.
‘All right,’ yawned Marie Rose, dropping the subject with surprising readiness. ‘Listen, one more thing. Are you really thinking of chucking in your TV job and staying in Tahiti or did you only say that to annoy Alain?’
‘I don’t know,’ replied Claire wearily. ‘I’m tempted, Rosie. I didn’t realise just how homesick I was until now. But I couldn’t stay here if I felt Alain was going to keep up this feud with me. Now go to sleep, will you?’
Marie Rose smirked.
‘All right. On one condition.’
‘What’s that?’ asked Claire.
‘That you come across to Moorea with me tomorrow. I’ve promised to take Paul’s parents over and show them the hotel, but I’m really dreading it. His father’s nice enough, but his mother seems to think they’re doing me a tremendous honour by allowing me to marry into the family. And they’ve got this dreadful woman staying with them who’ll be coming to the wedding. Nadine Hugo. I’ll need a bit of moral support to cope with her, I can tell you.’
Claire grinned as she turned out the light.
‘OK,’ she agreed. ‘What are bridesmaids for, after all? I’ll entertain the ogress for you.’
In spite of Marie Rose’s dire warnings, Claire was in high spirits as she prepared breakfast the following morning. She couldn’t wait to visit the island of Moorea again and surely the mysterious Nadine couldn’t be as bad as all that? Well, at least Marie Rose hadn’t asked her to entertain Alain Charpentier for the day! That would really be stretching loyalty too far. Humming, she popped a plate of croissants into the microwave oven and waited for the timer to ring. As she did so, she heard her father’s heavy footsteps behind her.
‘Hello, chérie,’ he rumbled cheerfully, kissing her cheek. ‘Any plans for today?’
‘Yes. Marie Rose and I are going to Moorea so that I can meet Paul and see where she’s going to live after the wedding.’
‘Good idea,’ said Roland, sinking into a chair. ‘I’ll give you both a ride to the ferry. I have to pick up a party of tourists from a hotel near the wharf at nine o’clock anyway.’
‘Nine o’clock?’ teased Claire. ‘Whatever’s come over you, Papa? I’ve never known you get out of bed before midday before!’
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