An island honeymoon for one…becomes a racy fling for two!
My friends and I have a ‘pleasure pact’ – live more fully and indulge in a red-hot fling. Newly single and up to the challenge, I’m more than ready for some no-strings thrills in tropical Fiji – and gorgeous paddleboarding instructor Ryan Dempsey is the perfect man to share them with. But our electrifying chemistry soon becomes a more passionate connection…can I convince Ryan to risk our affair for something deeper?
THERE’S A MEDICAL term for sudden, uncontrolled, simultaneous laughter and crying. But Friday night cocktails with besties is no time for sobbing over the life-changing decision I made a month ago.
I grab the jug of margarita and top up the three glasses on the table. Seeking a numbness from the doubts making my eyes burn and my voice squeaky, I raise my refilled glass, encouraging my friends Brooke and Neve to follow suit in the perfect distraction technique.
‘To being single,’ I say, trying not to think about the traditional wedding toasts that should have happened this weekend if I hadn’t pulled the plug on my own nuptials.
‘Yes, to sad singletons everywhere,’ says Neve, quoting one of her favourite rom-com movies and taking a hefty swallow of the delicious drink. I too take a gulp that steals my breath, the burn of tequila drowning the rush of shame I feel about being single again by an act of deliberate self-sabotage.
‘At least we’re not desperate singletons,’ adds Brooke, glancing around the bar and catching numerous eyes, male and female. She would protest that it’s the fame thing, the unwanted lot of an international model and renowned London socialite, but in reality the gorgeous Lady Brooke Madden oozes that X-factor, drawing people in like kittens to catnip.
Neve groans, adjusting her new, trendy glasses, which are askew. ‘Speak for yourself. I’m desperately desperate. It’s all right for you.’ She ruffles Brooke’s blonde waif hairstyle affectionately. ‘You’re never short of offers.’
‘Offers of sex have nothing to do with relationships.’ Brooke bats away our friend’s hand and lays a smooch on her cheek to soften the sting, leaving behind a perfect, blood-red lipstick kiss. ‘I have at least four dick pics in my DMs. Besides, most of my offers want to shag a model so they can Tweet about it or steal my underwear and sell it on the dark web.’
Serious accountant Neve’s eyes round before she collapses into a fit of margarita-induced giggles, which rapidly infect Brooke and me.
‘And,’ I say to Neve, ‘you’d have your own share of dick pics if you stopped mooning over Oliver for five minutes.’ I wince when my brain registers the words uttered.
‘Argh! What am I doing?’ I prop my elbows on the sticky table top, grainy with salt, and bury my hot face in my hands. ‘I’m the last person who should give relationship advice. I throw away perfectly good fiancés like confetti.’
The familiar swirl of guilt grips my insides, churning up the margarita. I peer at my friends, seeking reassurance in their concerned expressions that I haven’t made the biggest mistake of my life by cancelling my wedding at the eleventh hour.
‘If it was perfectly good, you’d be shagging him in the honeymoon suite right about now, and Neve and I would be making one-night-stand mistakes with two of the dishiest ushers,’ says Brooke, making an obscene hand gesture that under normal circumstances would make me laugh, but today I’m immune, panic rising up to choke me.
I groan, wishing for the numbing effect of the cocktails, which still have a lot of work to do. ‘All those years spent in a relationship I threw away because it “just didn’t feel right”.’
I close my eyes.
Slam them open again.
I can’t bear to see the hurt on Greg’s face, which is etched on my mind, or my parents’ disappointment as they handed me the list of deposits they lost to the caterers, the florist, the venue… I breathe through the pinch under my ribs, thinking of the pain and expense avoided if I’d been brave enough to break off my engagement sooner.
‘It was more than not feeling right. Don’t forget Greg was pretty lukewarm about getting married in the first place,’ says Neve. ‘You thought he’d only asked you because you’d been together so long and you were engaged for three years.’
‘And you’d postponed the wedding twice,’ adds Brooke. ‘Yes, doctors are busy people, but it was starting to look like neither of you wanted to go through with it.’
I nod, ashamed it took me so long to wake up to my mediocre relationship, cruising along for at least the last two years with Greg.
‘Look,’ says Neve, ‘there’s nothing worse than feeling you’re more committed to a relationship than your man. We want them crazy for us, desperate to put a ring on it…not lukewarm.’
Longing for my sister, Bryony, engulfs me, as it does every time I compare my life with what hers might have been without her health limitations. Despite her being five years younger, I could always rely on her advice, wise beyond her years, and her fearless thirst for adventure. If she’d had the chance, she’d have squeezed life dry, not settled for such self-restraint.
My friends’ arms encircle me, tugging me into a comforting embrace I’ve enjoyed since the three of us became friends at university, but I feel like a fraud. My situation self-inflicted.
I stick a grin on my face. ‘Right, come on, you two—you’re supposed to be distracting me, not indulging me to wallow.’
Neve and Brooke sit up straight wearing matching innocent expressions.
‘So, the big question—’ I focus on the future ‘—do I go to Fiji anyway…alone?’ Part of me thinks going on my honeymoon alone is insane, the act of a woman desperate to prove she made the right decision, which I did. The right decision in the long run, even though it went against my deeply ingrained need to please. But I’m a capable professional. Independent. I don’t need a man to visit a place on my wish list. And Fiji was my dream, not Greg’s—in fact he’d argued we didn’t really need a honeymoon given the hassle of taking annual leave from work at the same time.
‘Go,’ says Brooke. ‘I’d offer to tag along, but I’m working in Italy that week,’ she adds, refilling our glasses for the umpteenth time. The tequila begins to work its magic. I might soon struggle to remember if I even asked my friends’ advice, let alone recall their sage wisdom.
I shrug, picking at a hangnail on my thumb. ‘It would mean I could pay Greg back his share given we didn’t have holiday cancellation insurance.’
‘I can’t come either,’ says Neve, ‘but Brooke’s right. Go—it’s your dream holiday. You deserve a break after the past few months.’ She offers a sympathetic smile, referring to the patient I lost on my watch—every anaesthetist’s worst nightmare. And the devastating incident had somehow acted as a catalyst for re-evaluating my life, awoken all my latent feelings over my sister’s death three years ago, the outcome the realisation I was going through the motions with my fiancé.
I pull the sleeves of my sweater down over my frigid hands. There’s something equally brave and terrifying about the idea of going to Fiji alone.
Neve sees the turn of my thoughts, probably in the queasy expression on my face, and says, ‘They’ve offered you a refund if you teach the staff first aid. Think of it as work if you need convincing. Recharge your batteries in paradise and come home ready for a fresh start.’
My nod feels wooden, as if my head is a bowling ball. What does a fresh start look like? Just because I ended it, doesn’t mean I won’t see my fiancé at the hospital, likely every day… But one less debt equals one less shard of guilt slicing through me.
‘Yeah, you haven’t had a holiday for two years,’ chips in Brooke, pushing hair back from my face in a gesture too tender for my bruised psyche.
‘I’ve had exams…my promotion,’ I say, defensive. ‘You know my job requires unpredictably long hours…’ I deflate with a sigh, because my friends are right. I have zero work-life balance. All I’ve known in recent years is work and study and compromise, the toll itself a kind of tribute to Bryony, who was the very reason I’d wanted to study medicine in the first place. But in the process, I neglected the one area of my life that suddenly seems so important. My relationship.
Neve nods. ‘It’s okay to have some you time, to plot a new direction.’ Her sharp sympathetic stare slices into me. She’s referring to how I haven’t quite been the same since losing Mr Burgess, the professional turmoil unleashing a personal course correction with Greg as the first casualty. Not that he’d put up a huge fight, leaving me to wonder just how long our marriage would have lasted before one of us was brave enough to call it quits.
‘Perhaps you’re right.’ As I speak the words, allow a chink to pierce my failsafe façade, seeds of possibility sprout for the first time in months…perhaps even years.
I’ve been surviving, not living—no way at all to honour my sister, who had so much passion for a life that was taken too soon.
‘Of course we’re right.’ Brooke high-fives Neve as if together they’re quoting the wisdom of the ancients. ‘And while you’re in paradise, it wouldn’t hurt you to live a little, if you know what I mean?’ Brooke says, waggling her eyebrows suggestively, correcting our veer into serious territory. ‘There are plenty of benefits to a beach holiday.’
‘Live a little?’ I roll my eyes at her as she preens like a diva at her wonderful idea. ‘You knit for pleasure and haven’t dated in six months. Do any of us know how to let our hair down?’ If I’m going down, I’m taking these two along.
Neve is the first to snigger at the severity of my tone. We crack up in unison as only the merrily inebriated can. Because all of our love lives are unmitigated disasters.
‘We’re all as bad as each other, aren’t we?’ Neve picks at the remnants of salt on the rim of her glass, sucking it from the pad of her thumb. ‘I think my vagina has healed over.’
Brooke snorts, her grimace telling us she’s sucked margarita into her nose. ‘What about your extensive toy collection—they’ll keep you patent until you abandon Oliver and give some other guy a chance.’
Neve’s cheeks flame as she elbows Brooke and glances at the nearby patrons to see who might have overheard. ‘I told you about those in confidence, Big Mouth.’
Brooke slings her arm around Neve’s shoulders and smacks a kiss on her forehead. ‘What we all need, is a pact.’
‘We’re not twelve,’ I say, rolling my eyes. Most hare-brained ideas come from Brooke, who looks ice-cool and classy but has a dark and devious mind.
‘No, but this is the first time we’ve all been single together. You met Greg at uni. Your first boyfriend. The only guy you’ve ever slept with,’ says Brooke, one index finger levelled on me with accusation, as if never playing the field, never having a one-night regret or a string of dating disasters is some sort of crime against womanhood.
‘What kind of pact?’ Neve chews her lip, the accountant in her no doubt as reluctant as the anaesthetist in me to enter into any agreement with our stunning, extroverted friend.
‘Nothing kinky.’ Brooke laughs. ‘More of a pleasure pact, a seize-the-moment kind of thing.’ She rests her elbows on the table, her wince indicating she’s encountered the stickiness coating the veneer. ‘Grace goes to Fiji and, who knows, perhaps embarks on a passionate holiday fling that helps her to realise there are millions of penises in the world.’
‘Hey, I know that—I’m a doctor, I’ve seen hundreds of penises.’ My voice rises with indignation at the very moment the conversations around us lull. Several heads turn in our direction and we erupt into hysterical laughter.
When we sober Neve casts me a pointed look. ‘Brooke does have a point, sweetie. Even I’ve experienced more than one penis.’ She drops her voice on the last word as if she’s speaking within earshot of a convention of tax lawyers.
I bristle, chugging a mouthful of margarita. ‘Have you both forgotten I’ll be going to a honeymoon destination, not a singles’ resort? My chances of penis are non-existent.’ But now I’ve given myself permission to embrace the idea of some me time in Fiji, a weight slides from my shoulders like the swish of gossamer.
‘There’s bound to be at least one cute waiter or hunky diving instructor. Improvise,’ says Brooke.
I exhale the anticipatory flutters in my chest and point an accusatory finger Neve’s way. ‘I’ll scope out available penis in Fiji if you finally confess your feelings to Oliver.’ Sober I might have said the same thing—Neve has loved Oliver, her best friend outside of Brooke and me, since uni—I simply might have said it with a little more tact and sympathy.
‘I’m sure he’s fully aware of her feelings,’ says Brooke. ‘Why else would he demand she be at his beck and call?’ Brooke eyes our rather shy friend with compassion and a small smile. ‘But Grace is right. Perhaps it is time to tell him…’
‘Oh, please, not this again,’ says Neve, flashing her rarely seen irritation.
‘So where is he taking you this time?’ I ask.
‘To his cousin’s wedding… In the Maldives,’ answers Brooke before Neve can open her mouth, which is pinched with defensiveness.
‘Hey,’ says Neve, her neck flushed. ‘Just because he needs a plus one doesn’t mean anything. And without meeting you two for cocktails and occasionally accompanying Olly somewhere I’d have zero social life. Have you met my work colleagues…? Forensic accounting is hardly conducive to after-work drinks or letting your hair down.’
Brooke grins. ‘Well, if you’re not going to confess your lust to Oliver, I’m signing you up to my dating app so you can choose from your own collection of dick pics.’
The horror on Neve’s face causes another fit of raucous laughter. Then she lifts her chin, as if accepting the challenge. ‘And what about you?’ She narrows her eyes at Brooke over the rim of her glass.
‘Oh, no.’ Brooke shakes her head, the signature pixie cut she hates but everyone else adores ruffling. ‘This pact was my idea.’
‘Yes, it was.’ I level a no-nonsense finger at Brooke. ‘But you just said you’re off to Italy soon… I’m not the only one ripe for a holiday fling.’
Neve offers an exaggerated nod of solidarity. ‘Yes—a perfect opportunity to get back in the saddle.’
Brooke lifts her chin, offering us her aristocratic profile. ‘That’s different. I’ll be working.’
‘So? Will you be taking that delicious bodyguard of yours?’ I ask, my lips twitching now the tables have turned on Brooke.
Neve flicks me a knowing look. ‘Yes, what’s his name…? Nate? Rick?’
‘Do you mean Nick?’ says Brooke in a bored tone. But she can’t hide the blush in her cheeks or the way her eyes light up at the mention of the big brooding bodyguard’s name.
Neve and I nod. We’ve met the silent, intimidating Nick. We’ve seen the way Brooke looks at him when she thinks no one is looking.
‘Anyway, he’s not a bodyguard, he’s a fixer stroke driver stroke personal protection expert—’
‘Stroke astounding piece of man meat packing a trouser leg full of knitting antidote.’ Neve guffaws behind her hand, the quiet, serious accountant well and truly shelved for the night.
Brooke pokes out her tongue. ‘I like knitting—it’s mindful. Relaxing. I can take it when I travel. And for your information, Nick is the soul of professional detachment. I’m lucky to get a hello out of him.’
‘Well, take your pick,’ I say, refusing to go down alone, while a warm glow of excitement builds in my belly—I’m going to do this. Go on my holiday and embrace fun and possibility and a fresh start. Make Bryony and my friends proud. ‘It’s one of the dick-pic losers or an Italian fling with Nick.’
Brooke sighs an exaggerated huff, flashing her million-dollar pout. ‘Fine. So it’s on. A holiday fling apiece so we can avoid Neve’s sad singletons’ club.’
Neve shrugs and I avoid comment with a swallow of my drink.
‘Okay,’ says Brooke, finding her stride. ‘So, to the terms of this pact.’ She holds up one finger. ‘Pictorial evidence of the holiday hook-up is required as proof, even if you have to take it while he’s asleep or in the shower.’ She adds a second finger. ‘And the next cocktail night will be a full debriefing session so come expecting to share all the juicy details.’
‘Cheers to that.’ Neve drains the dregs from the jug of margarita, sloshing them unevenly into the three glasses.
We raise a toast, clinking our drinks together. ‘To our pleasure pact,’ purrs Brooke in her best Lady Madden voice.
Giggling and more drinking ensue.