Baiting the Boss

By: Coleen Kwan

She hesitated before hooking her hand into his arm. They walked just a few meters before she began slapping her legs frantically.

“Mosquitoes,” she explained, still beating at herself. “Worst time of the day for them, and the beasts always make straight for me.”

Must be that sweet scent of hers and all that smooth, creamy skin. The thought popped into Jack’s head before he knew it. She did smell rather nice, like gardenia, and her arm pressing against his was soft and silky, but now wasn’t the time to be reminded of her feminine charms. Frowning, he tugged her along. “Didn’t you bring any insect repellent?”

“Yes, but it’s in my suitcase.” She sighed. “I guess I’m a city girl through and through. I prefer my wildlife adventures strictly in documentaries.”

Tupua’s bungalow came into sight, and Jack saw his friend sitting on the outside deck playing with his two children. As they approached, Jack called out, and Tupua levered himself to his feet.

“Oh my,” Grace murmured beside him.

That was the usual reaction from people when they first saw Tupua. The islander was a few inches shorter than Jack but about twice as wide, with a chest like a barrel and legs like iron pistons. His nose had once been broken, which only added to his fierce Polynesian warrior appearance, but Jack had never seen him lose his temper.

He clasped hands with Tupua before introducing him to Grace.

“Welcome to Filemu Island,” Tupua said to Grace in his gentle, mellifluous voice. “Please, come inside and meet my wife.”

They entered the bungalow and greeted Mary, his wife, who flashed her usual shy smile before ushering Grace to the spare room reserved for the occasional visitor. Tupua offered Jack a beer, and they sat outside on the deck while the toddlers tumbled over them and the last rays of the sun streaked the clouds with crimson. In a couple of brief sentences, Jack filled in Tupua on Grace’s arrival. His friend absorbed the news without comment. Probably he’d already heard everything several times over. There were few secrets in a small place like Filemu, and those secrets had to be well guarded. Plus Sefina, who’d taken Grace’s suitcase, was Tupua’s younger sister.

The women returned, Grace now wearing beige cargo pants and a long-sleeved cotton shirt, and they ate dinner out on the deck—freshly caught emperor fish, rice, beans, and coconut pudding with fruit.

“How long are you staying?” Tupua asked Grace as he offered her a platter of sliced mango.

“Well…” Grace darted a look at Jack.

“She’ll be returning with Wally tomorrow morning,” Jack said firmly.

“Will I?” A faint, stubborn line appeared between her steady brown eyes.

He nodded. “The weather will be kinder tomorrow. You’ll have a much smoother ride.”

“I don’t think I—”

At that moment the youngest child spilled his drink and started to cry. Mary gathered him up and carried him inside, the older sibling trailing after them. In the sudden quiet, Tupua speared a piece of mango and said, “You’re welcome to stay with us for a while, Grace.”

Jack shot his friend a hard stare. What was he up to? “That’s kind of you,” he replied, “but Grace is needed back in Sydney, aren’t you?” He swiveled back to Grace.

She contemplated him, her expression pensive, as she scooped up the last of her coconut pudding. “I suppose so.”

He wasn’t being very nice to her, but the sooner she left, the better. Not just because he didn’t want to be reminded of his grandfather, but also because he wasn’t prepared for the effect Grace had on him. Once, he’d only considered her an employee, a quiet, unpretentious sort-of friend he could enjoy laksa with, but three years on, he was noticing a whole lot of other things about her, things that invaded his senses—like her soft skin, shiny hair, dimpled smile. Things that made his chest tighten.

He wanted her gone. Then he’d be able to breathe easy again. He turned to Tupua and resolutely changed the subject, and Grace fell silent.

Soon after the meal had finished, he rose to leave, and wasn’t surprised when Grace followed him down from the deck. He lifted his hand, stalling her just as she was about to launch into speech.

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