Another short story from the archives. This one is romance, though the ending is more HFN than HEA.
Paradise. That’s what the brochures had all said – the small island off the coast of Thailand was a couples’ paradise. The perfect place to rekindle the spark of romance in any relationship. Honeymooners still overwhelmed with the first flush of passion wandered hand in hand along the bright white beaches, eyes fixed on each other so that they hardly saw anything of the amazing landscape. Established couples came for an escape from everyday life. In the tranquil beauty of the tropical island, they had time and space to fall in love all over again.
It ought to have been idyllic.
To Hilary Maitland it felt like hell.
She should never have let Peter talk her into it. Of course it would have been complicated and expensive to pull out at the last minute but it would have been better than being stuck in a romantic one-bedroomed cabin with a man who made her skin crawl.
It wasn’t just that she’d seen him kissing another woman. It was the way he had dismissed the episode so casually. As if kisses meant nothing to him. Perhaps they never had. It had clearly never meant anything when he’d kissed Hilary. Not what she had taken it to mean, in any case.
But he had smiled at her in just that way she’d never been able to resist and told her not to be such a prude. He’d paid for the holiday, after all, and he wasn’t planning on going to the couples’ paradise alone.
When Hilary suggested he might prefer to take someone else, he’d looked genuinely confused for an instant. Then he laughed and shook his head. Apparently she – Hilary didn’t know her name and she wasn’t completely convinced that Peter did either – was just a random snog and certainly not worthy of a two-week luxury holiday on a tropical island.
It’ll be fun, he promised her. Sun, sea, sand… sex, he added with a leer and a wink.
Hilary allowed herself a small smile of triumph at that. Three days in and Peter was growing increasingly frustrated at her lack of availability. Thanks to some judicious planning with her pill, her period had started on the same day they had arrived. She took care to go to bed early every evening, wearing her least attractive pyjamas and a blindfold over her eyes. Before Peter woke in the mornings, she was out of the cabin for an early morning jog along the beach.
That was her favourite time of the day. Hardly anyone else was around and the air was slightly cooler. It really was a beautiful place. Hilary liked to run round to the next cove, where there were no cabins, just acres of palm trees and clear sand, each morning left in different swirling patterns by the tides. There was space here to think. She could clear her mind in the bright, empty air of the shore.
If only this weren’t a couples’ resort, she was sure Peter would have liked nothing better than to find someone else to hook up with for a holiday romance, and Hilary certainly wouldn’t have cramped his style. But everyone here was already spoken for. It wasn’t that she felt obliged to keep him company, exactly. It was just that everything was set up for people in pairs.
On the first day, Hilary had gone to one of the restaurants for lunch and asked for a table for one. The waiter had given her a strange look, then made a huge fuss about removing half the cutlery and rearranging her seat. Then, of course, everything on the menu was romantically designed for two people sharing, so Hilary ended up with twice as much food as she needed. And although she had her book with her, she couldn’t help but be conscious of all the tables-for-two staring at her in pitying curiosity. When Peter stormed into the restaurant looking for her, she didn’t have the energy to insist he sat somewhere else, though she did get up and leave while he was still painstakingly picking meat out of the claws of a lobster.
Today she was going on the cruise around the bay. There were spectacular coral reefs to be seen and she didn’t much fancy diving. The boat had a glass bottom and special viewing panels, so that the passengers could see through into the sparkling clear waters. The boy had assumed she wanted two places and Hilary hadn’t bothered to correct him. If Peter wanted to come, she wouldn’t stop him.
Hilary wandered back up the beach towards her favourite breakfast stop, catching her breath and carefully avoiding looking at the cabin she shared with Peter. She ordered her customary fruit juice and waffles and settled down to enjoy watching the waves gently rolling in across the sand.
A loud cry from a nearby cabin made her look up in surprise. Something was polluting the perfection of paradise. A few seconds later a loud crash was followed by more shouts and screeches, and then an ominous silence.
Hilary watched in detached amusement. She was rather glad that her row with Peter hadn’t happened quite so publicly as this. Though neither of them were given to throwing each other’s things out of the window or slamming doors in any case.
The man was left out on the verandah, wearing only a pair of low-slung shorts and some flipflops. He made no effort to pick up the rest of the things his partner had thrown out of the window. He simply pulled his sunglasses down over his eyes and strolled across to the café where Hilary was eating her breakfast.
Late twenties, she guessed. The kind of body that didn’t come from manual labour, but from hours spent in a gym. Hair that looked like it had gone a shade or two lighter in the sun. A wide mouth that, even after a row with his girlfriend, was curled up into something of a smile.
‘Mind if I join you?’
Hilary blushed and hoped he hadn’t noticed her watching him.
‘Sorry for disturbing your breakfast.’
She gave a pointed look at the other empty tables surrounding them. He followed her gaze for a moment, then laughed.
‘No, I meant that.’ He jerked a thumb back in the direction of his cabin. ‘Trouble in paradise.’
‘Oh. Don’t worry about it.’
‘Did you have a quarrel too?’ he asked conversationally.
He gestured around. ‘You’re on your own. In couples’ paradise.’
Hilary rolled her eyes.
‘As bad as that? Oh, dear.’
‘I’d rather not discuss it.’
‘Of course not. Sorry.’ He ordered his breakfast and they settled into a companionable silence.
Twenty minutes later, Hilary was just deciding that she would have to go back to the cabin to change and get ready for the cruise. She stood up and smiled politely at her table companion. ‘Well, have a good day.’
Peter had emerged onto their verandah. Hilary watched for a moment, hoping he might leave before he saw her.
‘Things must be pretty bad between the two of you if you don’t even want to go and say hello.’
She sighed. ‘Yes, things are pretty bad.’
‘Do you still love him?’
Hilary shook her head. ‘No, of course not.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Of course.’
‘Sorry. But no, I don’t love him now. I never did.’
‘You know, any moment now, my ex-girlfriend is going to come out onto our verandah and start doing her yoga exercises.’
‘She’s nineteen, blonde and pretty. And she likes to wear tiny little shorts and a bra top. She’s very flexible indeed.’
Hilary shrugged. She was precisely none of those things. He didn’t need to make it any clearer that he wasn’t interested in her.
‘You think your man there might be interested in that kind of view?’
She took a deep breath. ‘Would you, by any chance, be interested in taking a cruise around the bay today? There are some amazing coral reefs. I’ve booked two places.’
He pushed his glasses up, so Hilary could see the smile lurking in his blue eyes. ‘I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.’
She put out her hand. ‘Hilary Maitland. Pleased to meet you.’
He took her hand and shook it. ‘Brian Packer.’
Suddenly this couples’ paradise wasn’t looking so bad. There was more than one way of two and two making four, after all.