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17

THERE WERE SO MANY ways in which Preston Fareweather found Beryl Leominster beautiful. Her body was beautiful, hard and trim and as bronzed as an award statuette, with only the faintest little scars here and there to record a lifetime of nips and tucks. Her face was beautiful, if a little blank, but framed by cascades of honey blond hair, penned in a snood at night so it wouldn't "get in the way," as she'd explain. Which was another thing that was beautiful about her her thoughtfulness. She was eager and knowledgeable in bed, without being too greedy. She was probably within seven or eight years of her declared age, twenty-nine. She was happily spending an ex-husband's money, which wasn't beautiful in itself but created the potential for Preston eventually to wreak some indirect revenge, which was certainly beautiful. But the most beautiful thing about Beryl, in Preston's eyes, was that today was Friday, and tomorrow morning Beryl would go away.

The system was, most vacationers reached the resort on Saturday afternoon, coming down from mainland North America on charter flights. Some were singles; some were couples; some were families. Among the singles, the pairing off was usually accomplished by some time Sunday and frequently involved fraternization between guests and staff, an activity on which management neither beamed nor frowned. Just as often, however, guests would find each other perfectly acceptable. And the most acceptable often was the long-term guest like Preston, who could, in his phrase, "show the ropes" to the lovely newcomer.

Over the following week, the newly minted couples would explore the wonders of the island and of one another, and then, on Saturday morning, the vacationers would leave again, so that the staff had the few midday hours to prepare the rooms for the next week's arrivals. Friday night, therefore, was the moment of truth among many of the pairs at the resort. Was this good-bye? "Would phone numbers and e-mail addresses be exchanged? Would lies be told?

Not by Preston Fareweather. He lived for Friday evening and the truths he would tell the current stand-in for the despicable ex-wives. This week it was the lovely Beryl.

"I've had the most wonderful time, Pres," she murmured in his ear, on her bed on that final Friday, after an evening spent mostly with white wine on the veranda outside her room, contemplating a wonderful moon, barely one-quarter full but gleaming as white as a mime's smile for all that.

"I know you have, my darling," Preston murmured back, left arm curled around her, one eye on the bedside clock. Physically he was spent, but mentally he still had a few moves to make. "And I know," he murmured, "you haven't minded my little japeries."

"Of course not," she murmured, snuggling her button nose in close to the artery so strongly beating in his throat.

"The snake in your underwear drawer."

The chuckle against his throat was lifelike but not entirely realistic. "That was a bit of a surprise," she murmured. "I don't know where you even found a snake on this island."

"It wasn't easy, but it was worth it," he murmured. "Then there was the glass of icewater I 'accidentally' spilled on you sunbathing."

"You are a scamp," she murmured, good humor and forgiveness purring in her voice.

"But you didn't mind, did you?"

"Not really," she murmured. "Not when it's you."

"Not even when I removed your bathing suit top in the swimming pool?"

She reared up a bit, to give him a serious but accepting look. "That was going a bit far," she said. "Especially when you carried it all the way here and wouldn't bring it back. If I hadn't been able to borrow that towel, I don't know what I would have done."

"I hope you thanked the person who loaned you the towel."

"Of course I did." Then Beryl gave him a keen look and said, "The woman who loaned me the towel, Pres. I certainly wouldn't borrow a towel from a man."

Innocent, he said, "But why not?"

"Not when I'm with you."

"But you weren't with me. I was here, with your bathing suit top."

"You know what I mean."

"I'm not sure I do."

"Oh, for heaven's sake, Preston," she said, forgetting their private little nickname in her agitation. Sitting up completely, topless again, she said, "We've been together all week, you know we have. You've absolutely monopolized me."

"Monopolized?"

"You know what I mean. Ever since your friend Alan introduced us last Saturday, I've felt there was something I felt there could be something I just sensed a kind of special Oh, you know what I mean!"

He stretched lazily on his side of the bed, an overweight but extremely comfortable cat. "You mean we had good fun for a week," he suggested. "Fuck and frolic, a little time out from the cares of everyday life."

She stared at him." What did you say?"

"Frolic," he said, and beamed at her, the cat with the canary feather in the corner of his mouth.

"Well, frolic," she said, distracted, but her agenda would not let her dwell on a passing bewilderment. "That has been wonderful, Pres, of course it has. This last week"

"Yes, I know," he murmured.

She lay down beside him again. "This last week has been so much more than I could have hoped"

"Yes, it has."

That his responses were just a little off forced a certain jump-start quality to her own presentation. "Yes," she echoed, then got back to her script: "You'll be staying here another week, won't you?"

"Another week, mm, yes," he murmured, thinking already of what tomorrow might bring.

"How long have you been here, Pres?"

"Oh, when we're in paradise," he murmured, "we never count the days. Forever, I believe." Because he could never tell any of them that he'd been here so far nearly three years, with no end in sight. That might make them a little skittish.

"I've been so sad," she murmured, "at the prospect of our parting tomorrow, I asked at the office if they could squeeze me in for just one more week. Would you like that, if I could stay?"

"Oh, absolutely not," he murmured. "You can't put yourself in a financial fix just for little me."

That response was so off-kilter it got her up to a seated position again. "Financial fix?" She stared at him, not quite sure how she was supposed to handle this one. If he'd agreed to her staying on, he knew, she herself would have mentioned her financial woes and suggested he might help ease her burden in the days ahead, since he so much wanted her companionship, but once he'd mentioned her money troubles himself as a reason for her not to stay, what was she to do?

"We don't care about finances, Pres," she finally decided on. "We care about one another."

"Oh, darling, Beryl," he told her, "by last Monday morning at the latest you were e-mailing friends to find out everything you could about my finances."

"How can you say such a thing?"

"Because you bimbos always do. But you don't"

"Bimbos?"

"But you don't realize," he went inexorably on, while discreetly moving his arms to protect his privates, just in case she turned out to be one of the physical ones, "that of course I'm doing the same thing. I know exactly how much you're into Mr. Marcus Leominster for, darling Beryl, and I know you don't otherwise have a single asset worth mentioning, other than your singular ass, of course, and I know that one week here husband-hunting is already a strain on"

''Husband-hunting!"

"I'm afraid, Beryl," he said, chortling by now, "I've wasted an entire week of your dwindling finances, your dwindling time, and if I may say so, your dwindling looks."

"How can you How can you"

"Beryl," he said, smiling at her face, which now looked like a wax museum piece in the middle of a major fire, "why on earth would you put up with a fat boor like me except that you wanted to get into my pants? For my wallet, of course."

"You son"

The phone rang. Beryl stared at it, as Preston rose for the last time from her bed and said, "Timing is everything."

"Timing?" The phone rang again, but now Beryl was staring at Preston. "You know who that is? On the telephone?"

"Of course," Preston said, reaching for his flame red bathing trunks. "It's Alan Pinkleton. He's calling to ask me to play Scrabble."

"Scrabble!"

"Tell him, would you," Preston said, as he moved toward the door, "I'm on my way?"

The phone continued to ring, fading with distance, as he strolled along the bougainvillea-scented wandering concrete path among the bungalows. Pathway lighting was dim and discreet; the air was soft and warm, the night a joy. The fading sound of the telephone made him think for some reason of the song "I Love a Parade," so that's what he whistled as he strolled back to his own little bungalow, where Alan had long since hung up the unanswered phone and where the Scrabble set was already laid out on the table on the veranda.

He was in such a good frame of mind, Preston was, that he didn't even object when Alan, who wasn't supposed to win, won handily.


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