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Between-two-fires-CoverChapter 1

Bridget felt a rush of excitement as she watched him emerge through the arrivals lounge at the Elysian Island airport. He hadn’t changed much – the same athletic build and rugged look. And those chiseled features – a strong jaw and firm forehead, a well-defined nose and bright, compelling eyes. God, he looked so sexy. She felt aroused, just by staring at him. His shoulder-length dreadlocks were jet-black and neat and he had a thin pencil-line beard and moustache.

She couldn’t believe Rudy still had such a powerful effect on her. They hadn’t been together for almost a year. The only thing about him that seemed different was his complexion. His fair skin had darkened slightly and now he looked almost ebony. Bridget resisted the urge to rush forward and embrace him, although it was a struggle. She could just imagine the shocked stares it would have garnered from the two customs officers hovering near the door, not to mention the three couples near her who were tossing their luggage into waiting SUVs. They had left the arrivals lounge ahead of Rudy, although their flight – a private jet – had arrived twenty minutes after Rudy’s, a twin-engine Cessna. Unlike them, Rudy would have been held back at the arrivals desk for questioning and a baggage check, not least because of his dreadlocks. This was, after all, Elysian Island, the Caribbean island retreat which had become synonymous with the rarefied world of luxury; a place that counted among its residents billionaire investors, Hollywood celebrities and even members of some of the European royal families.

The three couples, all Americans, lived on Elysian Island and they were filthy rich, although looking at them no one would think so. The men wore worn-out jeans, T-shirts and sneakers and the women sported simple blouses and skirts, and worn-in walking shoes. They were Bridget’s buddies and close friends of her husband, Lord Edward Henry Tennyson, 3rd Baron Alden of Castle Hill in Devonshire. Before driving off, they hugged and kissed her warmly.

Rudy stood waiting. On the ground next to him was a duffle-leather travel bag and a gym bag was slung over his shoulder. He looked so vulnerable standing there gazing all around him with curiosity, Bridget felt touched. On several occasions she’d seen similar expressions on visitors’ faces as they set foot for the first time on the world’s most famous paradise isle. She always got the impression that it was the airport’s simplicity that surprised them. It had a two-storied, wooden aviation terminal with a central control tower and a one-lighted runway with no navigational aids. It was one of the few surviving examples of airport construction dating back to the early days of air passenger travel, and regarded by most people on the island as a cherished historical monument.

“Good day, Mr. Phillips, how are you?” said Bridget with feigned formality and a devilish glint in her eyes.

“Thrilled as ever to see you and I dare to presume that you are likewise,” Rudy replied, smiling. He gazed at Bridget like a smitten teenager. She could tell he was yearning to hold her.

“Come, let’s go,” she said quickly and headed for the car park with Rudy in tow. “How was your flight?” she said, opening the boot of a steel-grey Hyundai SUV. “I know the weather in the U.K. has been awful.”

“It was no better in Barbados. Fortunately my stopover was brief. It looks like the rain is heading this way,” he said, pointing to an accumulation of dark clouds in the east.

“Did you encounter any issues with the immigration folks over here?”

“Nah! Actually those guys are cool, a bit overly-intrusive with their questions but very friendly. I had no problems.”

“You mean not even males are immune to your good looks?”

“I guess you could say I’m an equal opportunity charmer.”

They laughed.

“All the same, you looked quite lost back there,” said Bridget.

“Actually, I was musing over how relaxed everything seems here, considering that this is Elysian Island and we’re still living in a post 9-11 era. It just feels strange, after coming though all the hassles at Gatwick and Barbados.”

Bridget smiled. “I know what you mean, but don’t be fooled. The security here is top notch. No one gets through who isn’t supposed to.”

“I heard about the three paparazzi who got kicked out a few months ago, so yeah, I could believe that. But hey!” patting himself on the back. “One more addition to my resumé. I made it through the Elysian Island airport!”

Bridget eased into the driver’s seat and waited for Rudy to join her. He sat down and shutting the door, he leaned forward and tried to kiss her.

“Please don’t,” she said firmly.

“Why, is anything wrong?”

“I’ve got a bone to pick with you. Until then, just relax and be a good boy.”

Rudy gazed around him, frowning. “Is it just me or do you feel a sudden blast of bone-chilling air in here?”

“Very funny,” Bridget retorted. She wasn’t amused. Turning on the ignition, she drove out of the airport unto a two-lane road that was fairly straight. Rudy felt peeved. He was puzzled by the sudden shift in Bridget’s mood. Her mobile phone rang inside her handbag tucked between the seats. She took a small clip-on headset from atop the dashboard and attached it to her right ear. “Would you mind passing me my phone, please?” she said, sounding impersonal. Rudy took the phone out of the bag and handed it to her. She launched into a spirited conversation in fluent Spanish.

Rudy gazed out the window at the immaculate white-sand beach sheltered by palm trees and lush greenery. The sea looked calm and inviting, even in the faded light of a clouded sun. The beauty of the landscape fell flat on him, especially with Bridget chatting away unintelligibly beside him, seemingly unaware of his existence.

Nevertheless, he still felt grateful to be sitting beside her. From the moment he saw her at the airport, he’d felt that powerful energy match between them, just like he’d felt when they first got to know each other. Back then, it had felt like a reunion, almost as if they’d known each other from the beginning of time. She was still as beautiful as ever; well-built with pale, supple skin, shoulder-length, dark, full-bodied hair, an oval patrician face with bewitching eyes, sumptuous lips perfectly shaped, and a cute chin. She wore a sand-colored Kurti and boot-cut trousers. She had a mystical, Moroccan look. However, beneath her charm Rudy sensed a steeliness which he hadn’t perceived until now, and it surprised him. He was sure it wasn’t his imagination or his ego reacting.

He could understand Bridget’s delicate position; she had to watch her butt because of her husband. At sixty-seven, Lord Edward Henry Tennyson was one of the most influential men on Elysian Island and a man well known for his eccentricities and unpredictability. Elysian Island had once been his private domain. The three square-mile Caribbean island comprising nineteen hundred acres and nestled a mile off the north-western coast of Saint Lucia, within its territorial waters, had been drawing seafarers to it like a magnet since the 19th Century. Its Edenic beauty was the main source of attraction, particularly the lush, low-lying valleys and thickly-wooded hills, the surrounding warm turquoise waters, and its golden-sand beaches, coral reefs and coves perfect for snorkeling and scuba diving.

Edward Tennyson had purchased Elysian in the early sixties from the British colonial government administering Saint Lucia at the time. It had cost him a mere fifty thousand pounds. A proud Etonian and an alumnus of Oxford and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he‘d previously served with the Irish Guards during World War II. After the war he travelled extensively throughout India, North and East Africa and the West Indies.

Following the death of his father, Lord George Frederick Tennyson in 1959, Edward inherited the peerage title and the family’s extensive landholdings and dairy business. After hanging around dutifully for a few months to try his hand at running the family business, he decided that the tedious mundanity of secular life was not for him. He’d grown accustomed to a privileged and carefree life of luxury, and all the years he’d spent traipsing around the world had given him an adventuresome spirit and a desire for new and exotic experiences. When he discovered that Elysian Island had been put up for sale, he saw it as a unique opportunity to satisfy his noble craving for adventure and promptly acquired it.  He then formed a private company and named it the Elysian Island Company. His aim was to develop the island while preserving its pristine beauty and ecology.

Thereafter, Edward managed to seduce some of his blueblood friends and relatives into purchasing residential lots, including a few members of the European nobility and the British Royal Family. He then commenced building the requisite infrastructure, including an airport, roads, a harbor with safe anchorage, a small desalination plant for the collection and filtration of seawater and rainwater cisterns. Telecommunications and power facilities also had to be installed. He succeeded in wooing dozens of locals from the mainland by promising them steady work at a time when the islands in the region were going through tough economic times.

He then proceeded to build an elegant home with stately pillars and a grand verandah on a hill overlooking Albion Bay, a picturesque bay on the island’s leeward coast. He was the first to set roots down on his dream island. Several others followed suit and they too built chic multimillion-dollar mansions in and around Albion Bay and other parts of the island. Several of the homes were later rented out as holiday villas, fully staffed.

Edward also built a fifteen-room guest house along the coast at Albion Bay. He eventually abandoned England and settled down proudly in the land he had built with his own hands. Thenceforth, he proceeded to live the opulent life of a gilded royal.

Increasingly, new and wealthier clientele were drawn to Elysian Island’s pristine beauty and the carefree lifestyle of lavish beach picnics, sunbathing and blissful idleness, not to mention its more salacious attractions – skinny-dipping, moonlight picnics with skimpily-clad male dancers, nonstop parties under the stars and late-night revelries; all done with His Lordship’s blessing. As word of the new Utopia spread, the international press got wind of all the shenanigans taking place on the island. The British tabloids had a field day with it.

The natives, meanwhile, had established a village about half a mile north of Albion Bay close to the sea, with Edward’s help. They called it Anse Soleil. The majority of them spoke mainly French Créole, a legacy of Saint Lucia’s colonization by France in the 17th and 18th centuries before it was eventually and decisively captured by the British. By then, the French language and culture had been too deeply embedded in their psyche to be uprooted.

Ultimately, Edward sank so much of his own money into developing the island, by 1979, before he could complete all the infrastructural work, he run into financial problems and came close to depleting the Tennyson family fortune. He was forced to sell the guesthouse and a controlling interest in the Elysian Island Company to one of the homeowners, a wealthy American oil magnate, who then turned over the management of the company to his business partner and fellow American, Bill Thompson to further develop the island.

From then on, Edward’s influence over Elysian Island waned. Most of the residents still continued to look up to him as a sort of patriarchal, Christopher Columbus-type symbol and he was generally held in high esteem, despite his reputation as an eccentric and a man with delusions of grandeur.

Rudy was familiar with all of this, including rumors about Edward Tennyson’s flaky character. This was why he was willing to cut Bridget some slack and play along if she chose to be cautious.

Bridget took a right turn and continued past the airport towards Albion Bay. Her call had finally ended. Glancing at Rudy, she saw the frown on his face. “Please bear with me, I’ve got to make one more call. It’s urgent. Do you mind?” she said.

Rudy shrugged, still feeling peeved.  He resumed gazing sullenly out the window. His mind flashed back to the time he and Bridget first met and began having an affair. It was March, 2014 and he’d been working as a stringer for the Daily Express newspaper in London’s East End, and moonlighting as an entertainment correspondent on the side. Bridget had reluctantly accompanied her husband to London to attend a theatrical production at the Royal Albert Hall put on by some distant relative of his.

An editor of one of the tabloids with whom Rudy had had a good working relationship, found out about the visit and he immediately contacted Rudy to ask him to try and get an exclusive interview with Lord Tennyson. The pay was good, the best Rudy had ever been offered. The editor knew he had familial ties to Elysian Island. He was raised by his aunt who had been one of Edwards’s maids. She quit after a few years and returned to live on the mainland to take care of Rudy after his mother (a single mom) died giving birth to him. She migrated to England with him when he was nine and spent the rest of her life there until she died of cancer, three years ago.

Edward declined Rudy’s request for an interview but surprised him by inviting him to dinner after learning about his roots. Rudy eagerly accepted his invitation. Ironically, the old boy had taken a liking to him and even said he was welcome to visit Elysian Island anytime, adding that he’d be happy to have him as a guest. He insisted that Rudy drop the formality and call him Edward, which Rudy gladly did.

Edward and Bridget had been scheduled to spend four days in England. The day prior to their departure, Edward introduced Rudy to his wife while dining at the Café Royal in Central London where they had been staying. Rudy was taken aback by Bridget’s beauty and youthfulness. She was clearly much younger than her husband who looked well on the way to being a septuagenarian, at the very least.

The next day Rudy received a call from Bridget at his office. She invited him to her room at the hotel and it was only then he learned that Edward had already departed for the Caribbean. According to Bridget, he left in a huff because she informed him at the last minute that she’d had to schedule an urgent business appointment in London, and urged him to go on without her. She promised him she would be home in a few days. Instead, she and Rudy spent the next two weeks together and got caught up in a dizzying whirlwind romance. It was as if they were on honeymoon.

Unlike Edward who hadn’t a clue what was going on, those closest to Rudy in Stockwell Park Estate in Brixton where he lived, cottoned on to his escapade with Bridget. None of them was impressed, particularly his former live-in girlfriend, Amy with whom he still had an on-again-off-again relationship. She was British-born of Jamaican parentage. Like most of Rudy’s other female friends, she constantly complained about his ‘weakness for white women’ and accused him of selling out his race. Some of them charged that his shabin (light-skinned) complexion was overrated and he took it too seriously. Rudy always rejected their assertions and reminded them of Bob Marley’s Caucasian roots, stressing that he’d had no hang-ups about it; he took pleasure in rubbing it in. A couple of his chums said he was ‘disrespecting Rastafari,’ although they knew that his dreadlocks were more a fashion statement, albeit he sympathized with some of the Rastafarian philosophy.

He found their criticisms quite irritating. He resented anyone trying to foist their issues on him or attempting to limit him because of the color of his skin. Of the fifteen women he’d dated in the latter half of his thirty-four years, ten of them had been white. In Bridget’s case, he stood firm and braved the fusillade of racially charged barbs and the denunciations of his ‘adulterous’ liaison, especially from Amy, and continued dating Bridget. Amy was mortified. Their unwillingness to make a clean break made it awkward for both of them. Rudy felt like he was betraying her and it bothered him. But he couldn’t help it. Bridget was irresistible. Since getting to know her, he hadn’t been able to get her out of his system. No other chick had ever touched him so profoundly, or caused him such emotional turmoil.

They’d become so hopelessly smitten with each other they never really got around to talking at length about Bridget’s background. All Rudy knew about her was that she once lived and worked as a stockbroker in California before hooking up with Edward and moving to the Caribbean. She’d mentioned that she still dabbled in stock trading without elaborating. It wasn’t that she was trying to be cagey, they were just eager to squeeze as much as they could out of the few days they had left together.

On their last day together, when Bridget realized that their tryst was coming to an end, she became very somber and despondent. Whatever was going on in her life, Rudy got the feeling that she felt trapped, although Bridget never said so outright, even when he pressed her. He sensed this from her exceedingly passionate response to his every touch when they’d made love. She’d clung to him as if she wanted to suck the life force out of him and consume him. It was as if she was afraid to let go.

He’d also sensed that same quiet desperation in the heartfelt way she thanked him for bringing some measure of happiness into her life, albeit temporarily.  She was like a prisoner in solitary confinement who’d been let out so she could feel the sun on her face again, and breathe fresh air into her lungs, only to be whisked back into her cell.

She’d insisted that they keep in touch via emails and Skype, and over the phone and Rudy readily agreed. A couple of times when he pressed her, she did concede that there was tension in her marriage and she and Edward had had a strained relationship, but she refused to elaborate. Bridget then began pressing him to accept Edward’s earlier invitation and come spend some time on Elysian Island. She even dangled before him the prospect of landing a cushy job at one of the three luxury hotels on the island, arguing that it would be more worth his while rather than struggling to survive as a journalist and remaining in the rut in which he had found himself – basically throwing back at him what he himself had confessed to her. Rudy had been struck by the matter-of-fact way she put it. To him it merely underscored her desperation and the length to which she was prepared to go in grappling with her demons.

For months he resisted out of pride, and because he’d felt piqued by the way Bridget had denigrated his profession. Besides, who in his right mind would venture to go live in a lion’s den with the aim of stealing its mate? Bridget then came up with another brainwave. Why not take up Edward’s offer and use it as an opportunity to do an in-depth travel piece on the island? That way he could kill two birds with one stone and no one would be the wiser. As she pointed out, the British press would be falling over themselves to get their hands on the story. She was right, of course.

Rudy took the bait. Bracing himself, he telephoned Edward and put the proposal to him. To his surprise, Edward said it was a ‘capital idea’ and readily agreed but suggested that they discuss it further. They did and eventually came to an understanding whereby Rudy would obtain two months of unpaid leave from his employer and spend that time vacationing on Elysian Island. He’d be welcome to stay at Edward’s home and all his living expenses would be taken care of.

Rudy could hardly believe his luck, knowing that living on Elysian Island was way above his means. Edward also said he wished to explore other possible topics of interest related to the island’s unique history. That got Rudy excited. He even took the opportunity to disclose his budding desire to research his family’s ancestry, including that of his deceased aunt who used to work for Edward. Edward was all for it.

A few weeks later, and nearly a year after he and Bridget became lovers, Rudy found himself on Elysian Island, sitting next to the wife of the man who had invited him over; the woman who had had him on an emotional roller coaster, thinking constantly about her and longing to be with her, so much he’d paid Amy even less attention, and when he did, he spoke to her distractedly.

“Where has your mind gone?”

Rudy started at the sound of Bridget’s voice. To his surprise, they had turned off the main road unto a hilly, tree-lined driveway. Glancing at his watch, he saw it was already quarter past twelve. “Sorry, I drifted off. I couldn’t help it. At the moment, it seems the only way I can get your attention is in my imagination,” he replied.

“Come off it,” said Bridget, laughing. “Pretty soon you’ll have my full and undivided attention.” Glancing across at Rudy, she added. “I mean it.”

“I can’t wait,” he replied. The sound of Bridget’s laugh buoyed him up.

The SUV crested the hill and Bridget drove past a pair of white brick pillars with a wrought-iron sign at the top that said ‘Blossom House.’ She drove on into a parking lot with two Kawasaki Mule golf carts and a gray BMW i3. Next to the parking lot was a secluded courtyard with a private communal front garden laid to lawn and graced with Poinsettia Blossoms and lush-green shrub borders and a comfy-looking sitting area.

“We’re home,” said Bridget. They got out of the vehicle. Rudy was struck by the imposing structure confronting him. Clearly designed in the Neoclassical Greco-Roman Revivalist style, the two-storied mansion boasted an elegant high-pitched roof supported by stately pillars coupled with deeply recessed verandas, multi-paned double-hung windows and a columned entrance portico. The property offered a breathtaking view of Albion Bay dotted with palatial homes, their roofs jutting out of sheaths of greenery. Nestled along the coast was a marina, three hotels and a few beachside bars. The breeze wafting up from the sea enveloped the ridge with an airy freshness.

Bridget stared searchingly at Rudy. She could tell he was impressed and that pleased her. “A penny for your thoughts.”

“Woe unto the poor bloke who aspires to winning your affection. This is going to be a hard act to follow,” he replied grinning and staring at the house.

“You’re not getting cold feet, are you, Mr. Phillips?”

“Nah, not as long as you’re around to give me courage.”

“Talking about courage, that’s exactly what you’ll need when I‘m through with you,” said Bridget with steel in her eyes.

Rudy frowned. “Now what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just remember that you’ve got some explaining to do but we’ll get to that when you’re done with Edward,” Bridget replied, glaring darkly at Rudy.

A man came out onto the entrance portico. “Hi Vernon,” Bridget called out to him. “Good morning,” he replied, waving at her. He was brawny with a sculpted face and quite dark.  Bridget turned to Rudy who was heading towards the trunk of the vehicle. “Don’t worry about your luggage,” she said. “Vernon will take care of it. Just come on in.” She began climbing the steps. Rudy followed her.

Bridget introduced Rudy to the man on the portico. “This is Vernon Allain. He is Edward’s personal assistant.” The two men smiled and greeted each other. “Vernon will show you in. I will join you shortly. I’ve got to make a few calls,” said Bridget and she went indoors ahead of them.

“Shall we go in?” said Vernon. “Edward is expecting you.” His voice was slightly husky and self-assured.

“After you,” Rudy replied and followed him into the house.

 

 

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