Souvenirs (Chapter 3)
By David, United KingdomEditor's Note: Chapter 2 of this romantic novel appeared in last month's issue of Sweet Designs Magazine. The story continues next month.
Paul's comment drew laughter and agreement from the other men. "That guy who rented us the boat," Andy smiled, "he told us about the fish. He didn't say anything about mermaids!"
"Yeah, these three will do, I reckon. Wrap 'em up and we'll take them home now!"
"Wrap 'em up? I think they look a lot better unwrapped!"
Lily glared, resentful. The banter was such a male thing, the exultation of hunters after a successful chase. And what a haul: three young off-duty nurses, taken by surprise, each wearing little more than a layer of sun lotion and a flustered expression, their clothes out of reach. Each girl was sitting with her knees drawn up in front of her, arms round her legs. It was meant to look casual, but it was really a futile attempt to conceal their figures.
"Well, these mermaids have got the right idea, keeping cool," Paul said. "It's too damn hot in all these clothes. "As he spoke, he unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. The other men followed suit. Stripped to the waist, they looked even bigger and more formidable. None of them were fat, but they were all carrying a little extra weight; the washboard stomachs of their youth overlaid with a layer of flesh that testified to success and good living. To Lily, it looked somehow obscenely, annoyingly sensuous, and it symbolised the men's confidence - confidence that was based, with good reason, on the thick muscle of arms, necks and shoulders that was now unconcernedly displayed. These men were all too obviously tough - as Kevin Smith and his gang could ruefully testify.
Claire gave a little cry of shock. For a startling moment, Lily thought her friend had been bound at the ankles, but it was only the sleeve of Paul's shirt, carelessly thrown. The blonde girl pushed it away with her foot, but other shirts were tossed on to the heap of girls' clothing, the unchallenged banners of a conquering army.
"That's better." Steve stretched luxuriantly, the muscles of his arms and chest flexing. "Work's all very well, but you got to unwind, remember what life's about."
"Too right." Paul nodded. "And we're in no hurry to get home, right?"
"Speak for yourself," Nick grinned. "Andy and me have got families waiting for us!"
"Take the train, then," Steve retorted. "Rachel, how's this for an idea? Plenty of room for you and your friends in the boat. We soak up the sun here for a while, then you show us around this coast of yours. Later, we come back here. Those two old farts -" he pointed at Nick and Andy - "can make themselves scarce, and the six of us have a champagne supper right here on the beach."
"Sounds like a plan," Gunner smiled. Like so many truly hard men, he spoke quietly. What infuriated Lily was that he somehow made her feel - it was a strange word in the circumstances - safe. But she was a good judge of character, and she knew all too well that he was a man who could act instantly and unpredictably.
"So what do you say?" Steve asked Rachel again. Lily thought she had never seen a man so obviously desire a woman. But she was aware of Gunner's gaze burning her own body ...
Rachel smiled disarmingly, again displaying the engagement ring on her finger. "I think my fiancé might have something to say about it."
"And my boyfriend too," Claire added. "Sorry, guys, we're spoken for."
Steve snorted derisively and squatted down on his haunches in front of Rachel. "Spoken for? That bit of metal on your finger means nothing! Engagements can be broken off like that!" The click of his fingers sounded loud in the hot still air of the beach. His words were impassioned, almost indignant. "This fiancé of yours, whoever he is, you're not his property. You should come and go as you please. He's got nothing to say about it!"
Lily found herself, ironically, agreeing with Steve as far as Peter was concerned. The surgeon was a possessive jerk. And maybe the strength of Rachel's response came from her own hidden doubts about the relationship. "You've never met my fiancé. I happen to be very happy with him. Three guys turn up in a boat and you think we're going to leave everything and everyone and go off with you? That only happens in films. I'm sorry if you're divorced, like your friend said, but it's not our problem."
"Heyyy," Paul protested, "give the big fella a break. You three are meant to be nurses. To care about people. What you just said didn't sound very sympathetic."
The words made Lily's resentment at this whole situation boil over. "That's what this is all about, isn't it? You think because of the job we do, we're going to be interested in you and your failed marriages and your damned business! You think we're going to fall into your arms! You don't know anything about us. And that's how it's going to stay, because we're leaving. Now. You want this beach, you have it to yourself. You need all this space for your egos!"
She stood up. "I'll get our clothes," she said to her friends.
All the men, even Steve, were looking at her now. Her underwear left every curve and hollow of her body revealed, but Lily walked with as much purpose and dignity as if she wore flowing robes that reached the ground. Andy and Nick were standing between her and the girls' belongings. She walked forward, looking them straight in the face, staring them out. Both of them were several inches taller than Lily, and at least forty pounds heavier, but they stepped aside, as the Red Sea was said to have parted for Rachel's ancestors.
But then Gunner too had moved, to stand squarely in Lily's path. He did not move out of her way; he stood and waited for her. And Lily walked towards him, her heart pounding, aware that something utterly momentous and decisive must happen now.