Sophie and Liam dropped their wet snorkels on the verandah, brushed the sand off their feet and went inside their cabin for a quick shower and change.
“That was absolutely amazing!” Sophie tossed her beach bag on the bed.
“Did you see those clown fish hiding amongst the anemones? Just like ‘Finding Nemo.’”
“Are you kidding? The water was so clear I could see every scale and frond!”
They grinned at each other still unable to believe they were actually staying on an island straight out of a travel brochure. Crystalline blue water, white sand, rainforest growing all around them. Coconuts dropping on the ground.
“This is going to be a brilliant holiday Liam!”
Ten fabulous days in a tropical island beach resort. The kind built of carved wood, palm thatched rooves and lazy ceiling fans. Then two whole weeks aboard a live-in yacht, touring the islands, climbing volcanoes, more snorkelling over pristine reefs.
Almost a whole month in the Maluku islands, Indonesia, more widely known as the fabled Spice Islands, the ones Christopher Columbus had been searching for when he found the Americas. Home of nutmeg and cloves. Plantations of coffee and cinnamon trees.
The yacht tour they had booked would include an excursion to visit some of the plantations, to see where the spices grew and sample them straight from the tree as well as in their processed forms. As a chef in training, Liam was looking forward to this, eager to taste if they were different from the spices he could buy at home.
“You hop in the shower, I’m just going over to Reception to book a spot on that diving tour tomorrow. Sure you don’t want to come?”
Sophie shook her head. “No, I’ll stick to snorkelling, thank you. I’ll be fine, you go ahead.”
Liam walked along the sandy path, following the trail through coconut palms to Reception. The walls were non existent, the desk shaded by the roof and open to the breezes, cane armchairs dotted around encouraged guests to sit and relax over the morning paper or afternoon drink. A bar opposite served coffee all day and drinks after midday.
A man Liam hadn’t seen before, looked up from behind the reception desk and smiled at him.
“Can I help you?” Unlike the Indonesian who was usually on duty, this man was English, with dark blond hair, bleached by the sun. His white short sleeved shirt revealed tanned arms and a silver dolphin hung on a chain around his neck.
He smiled at Liam. “Hullo, I’m Tim Morrison, the manager. What can I do for you?”
His voice reminded Liam of Colin Firth, the English actor. Classy.
Suddenly Liam wished he had taken time to shower first. Self consciously, he ran his hand over his wet hair, “Um, I’m interested in the diving tour. Tomorrow.”
‘Right. Which one? Morning or afternoon? I take the afternoon one myself,” he added, his grey eyes smiling.
Was Morrison hitting on him?
Of course not, he dismissed the thought hastily, he was just being a friendly host.
“Ah. The afternoon one, please.”
Morrison tapped into the laptop, “No problem. Name?”
“You can tell?” Liam laughed. Maybe the cartoon kangaroo on his tee-shirt had been a bit of a giveaway.
Tim Morrison’s grey eyes held his as he leant forward confidingly. “I’ve been here a couple of years now. I’m pretty good with accents.”
“My turn to guess. You’re from the UK?”
“Scotland, aye,” his voice suddenly took on a lilt. “Originally. Then England.”
“A long way from home.”
“ Yeah, second son. My brother Gordon was always going to be the next laird of the castle so I decided I’d seek my fortune elsewhere. I’ve been here for a couple of years now.”
“You lived in a castle? You’re kidding right?” Liam was wide-eyed, imagining towers and turrets, set up high on a bleak mountain, or maybe at the edge of a loch.
“I wish!” Tim laughed, “Just a manner of speaking.” His mind flashed back for an instant to the family he had left behind. Gordon had always been the favourite as well as the eldest. There had never been any question that he would take over the small pub when his father retired, despite the fact that Tim had been the one to complete the hotel management course with top grades.
He pressed ‘enter.’ “There, all done. You’re booked in for tomorrow.”
His warm smile changed into polite welcome as someone came up behind Liam.
“There you are,” said Sophie cheerfully and slung an arm over his shoulders. “I thought you’d been kidnapped or something. Ready for a drink yet?”
A shuttered expression came over Tim’s face. “I’ll see you tomorrow then,” he said coolly.
“Damn!” thought Liam. Maybe the other man had been flirting with him after all. He turned away to follow Sophie, not at all certain how he felt about that.
Tim looked after him, condemnation in his eyes. He was almost positive Liam was gay. What on earth was he doing with a girlfriend? Was she his beard or was he fooling both of them, faking a relationship? Fuck! Until that moment he had really fancied him.
Two weeks earlier
“What do you mean, you can’t go?” Liam stared at Ben in shock, his blue eyes wide with disbelief. Unconsciously his hand went up to push a lock of light brown hair back from his forehead. Ben was joking, right? “We’ve been planning this for months.”
But Ben wasn’t smiling. He stood there, slightly taller than Liam’s five seven, still wearing his office shirt and trousers, short black hair neatly combed, and looked apologetic, his lips turning down at the corners. “I’m sorry, babe.”
He reached out a placating hand but Liam jerked away.
Ben frowned. “I did warn you when the Abbott deal was being negotiated I might not be able to get away. Mitch called a meeting this morning. The contract has been signed and he wants everyone on this fulltime for the next two months. There’ll be lots of overtime too, I expect.” He sounded almost eager.
“But we’ve been planning this since Christmas,” Liam protested, a cold chill growing around his heart. “I’ve been looking forward to it. We both have.” Hadn’t they?
He and Ben had been dating for the last few months, sleeping together on weekends and occasionally skirting around the possibility of moving in. Things had been a bit quiet between them lately, what with Ben’s work during the day and his own job as assistant chef in the evenings. In fact his desire to spend more time with Ben had been an added incentive for him to take the plunge and pursue his dream as a pastry chef. And he had been lucky enough to get a new, daytime, job starting at a patisserie in a month, after their holiday.
The holiday which was supposed to put the romance back into their relationship.
He could still see the picture in his mind’s eye, two lovers on the beach, oblivious to the sea lapping gently around them as they kissed ...
It was supposed to be their romantic getaway, an adventure of a lifetime. He had secretly hoped, if everything went well, it might pave the way for him to move in with Ben when they returned.
Liam was fighting back tears but Ben didn’t even sound particularly disappointed.
“I know babe but it’s just not possible right now. Maybe in a couple of months we can look at it again.” Sweetly reasonable.
“But I want to go now!” Liam bit back the words, aware of how childish they sounded. Instead, he reminded him, “It’s all booked.” Fighting a rearguard action.
“I know we’ll probably lose our deposit, but my overtime will cover it.” Ben’s chocolate brown eyes studied his lover warily before he ventured a small smile, “Good thing we haven’t paid for the tickets yet, huh?”
Liam made an effort not to glance across to the printer, the printer which held the two e-tickets he had finalised so excitedly only a few minutes, a lifetime, earlier.
Suddenly he felt a wave of anger sweeping in to replace the shock. He was grieving over shattered dreams. Ben was worried about the fucking money for god’s sake! Maybe they just weren’t on the same wavelength after all.
“Don’t worry about it,” Liam said stormily. “I’m sure I can find somebody else to take with me!”
“Don’t look at me,” his cousin John shook his head. “I’ve got about $10 to my name at the moment. There’s no way I could take that amount of time off work. Ask Sophie, she’s got time before her course starts.”
Liam thought for a moment. He and Sophie got on well. The accommodation was twin share. Why not?
“Great idea! Just come and have a look Soph, you’ll love it,” he wheedled.
His other housemate raised a dubious eyebrow. “I’m not really into diving Liam. I only had one lesson and, to be honest, it freaked me out!” She shuddered.
“It’s not a diving cruise,” he explained hopefully. “Just swimming and snorkelling if you want to. Anyone can learn to snorkel, but I booked what is called a ‘cultural cruise’ not a specialist diving one. Here let me read it out to you.
‘The cultural cruise brings you a varied program of island hopping with visits to traditional villages and houses, different cultures, enjoy local art works, beautiful sceneries, impressive flora and fauna, indigenous dances and rites. These day excursions will be alternated by some swimming and snorkeling. Diving is sometimes possible, sometimes not.’
See? You don’t have to do any diving at all if you don’t want to.”
“Hmm,” said Sophie, peering over his shoulder at the idyllic pictures of white sand, blue water and green rainforest. It did look rather wonderful. Cute brown children smiled into the camera.
“Apart from everything else, what I’m really looking forward to, is the volcano. We get to climb to the top of an active volcano,” he added persuasively. “Not an extinct one like the one at Mt Gambier with the lakes in it.”
“Mmm,” said Sophie again, hiking wasn’t her favourite activity, but maybe for a real live volcano she could make an exception.
Liam played his trump card.
“Just think of all the hot guys you’ll meet. As far as I know there’s only one other woman going, with her husband, and there are sixteen places on the boat,” he teased. “All that fit tanned skin, wet board shorts ...”
He sighed and rolled his eyes lasciviously. She laughed and punched his arm. “But I’ll be travelling with you, how will they know I’m available?”
Liam smirked, “I’m sure you’ll find a way.”
“What do you mean, you’re going with Sophie? She’s a girl!” demanded Ben, suspiciously.
Liam couldn’t help it. He dropped his jaw and widened his eyes in a parody of surprise.
“No! Is she?”
Ben wasn’t smiling.
“We’ll only be travelling together not sleeping together!” Liam hastened to add, then gave a short laugh. “Actually, we will be sleeping together, just not having sex. And anyway, it’s twin share, not a double,” he added quickly as Ben glared at him.
“I still think you should cancel the whole thing. We can go together in a couple of months, or maybe three.”
“Or maybe four or five or six!” continued Liam rather rudely. “I’ve already explained, I can’t change the tickets even if I wanted to. Besides I really want to go. Sophie and I will have a great time, we’ll look out for each other.”
He looked down for a moment, trying to find the right words to express his recent qualms. “Perhaps it’ll give us some time to think about our relationship, decide if we’re really suited.” He was seeking reassurance, wanting a passionate declaration from Ben that of course they were suited.
Instead, Ben stared at him in angry disbelief. “You’re saying you want to break up with me? Over a stupid holiday?” He realised he’d made a mistake as soon as the words left his mouth but it was too late to take them back. Liam looked at him sadly.
“See that’s exactly what I’m saying. I don’t think we want the same things. To you it’s a stupid holiday, to me it’s a wonderful adventure. A chance to spend time together.”
“You’re not being reasonable. I can’t give up my job on a whim just to please you! Can I?” he demanded.
“No of course not,” Liam agreed quietly. He had obviously made a major mistake, thinking that the holiday meant the same thing to Ben as it did to him.
“I guess this is it then. I’ll see you when I get back.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Ben threw over his shoulder as he stormed off.