‘It’s a good book,’ I joke. Not that it isn’t, but no self-respecting traveller can admit to such an obvious choice. ‘The Great Gatsby, actually.’ I don’t elaborate and tell him that my reading matter is completely dictated by the small stack of books someone left behind in my shack. Much better that he thinks me educated enough to carry F. Scott Fitzgerald around the world in my backpack.
I roll my eyes and laugh. ‘Busted.’
‘You could have lied and I’d have believed you.’
‘I find that lies encumber me.’
He stares at me, as well he might. I sound as if The Great Gatsby has gone straight to my head.
‘I’m Oscar,’ he says, stretching his hand out formally across the space between our tables. ‘And my plan for the day is to spend it with you.’
‘You look like a starfish.’
Oscar prods me idly with the oar of the kayak, and I let him spin me slowly on my back with my eyes half closed against the glare of the sunlight. Brilliant blue above me and below me, bath-water warm over my blissed-out skin when he ladles seawater over my belly with the paddle of the oar.
‘I feel like a starfish.’
True to his word, Oscar has spent his day with me. I wouldn’t usually warm to someone who sounded so horribly self-assured, but something in me is determined to do the opposite of what I’d normally do. He’s been in Thailand for a couple of months longer than I have, choosing to stay on in Koh Lipe for a while after his travelling companions returned home to the UK. It explains his native tan, at least.
‘Have you ever eaten one? They sell them on sticks like lollipops on Walking Street.’
I open my eyes, appalled, and find him laughing.
He’s lounging in the boat, his chin resting on his forearm as he looks over the side at me, his fingertips trailing in the sea. I flick a little seawater at him, speckling a shimmer of droplets over the bridge of his straight nose. I’ll admit it. He’s bloody good-looking in a classic, chip-off-the-old-Greek-god kind of way. He has the confident aura of wealth about him, louche and debonair. I know, I know. Who uses words like that any more? Me, apparently, after a day spent drinking local beer and reading The Great Gatsby in a hammock. There’s something about living in a different place that allows you to be whoever you want to be.
‘Can I take you to dinner tonight?’
I lay my head back in the water and close my eyes again, floating. ‘As long as it isn’t starfish.’
‘I think I can promise that much.’
I roll on to my front and swim the few strokes to the kayak, curling my wet fingertips over the edge. His face is inches from mine.
‘Let’s not make each other promises,’ I say.
He gives me the same perplexed stare he did when we met at the beach cafe this morning, then leans in and brushes his warm, sea-salt lips over mine. ‘I like you, Starfish. You’re interesting.’
Oscar Ogilvy-Black. It’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? I don’t think he and I would have crossed each other’s paths in the normal course of things back in London, but here in Thailand the dating rulebook has been ripped up. He tells me he’s a banker but not a wanker, and I confide my hope of gaining my first foothold in the world of magazine journalism one day soon. I have to admit that I judged him when we first met. But underneath the undeniable poshness, he’s funny and self-deprecating, and when he looks at me there’s a kindness in his eyes that warms me.
‘You’re not going to be one of those awful gossip column queens, are you?’
I gasp, mock offended, and then sigh, a little giddy because his fingers lace with mine as we walk along the cool sand after dinner. ‘Do I look like I care about worst- and best-dressed celebs?’
He takes in my denim cut-offs and black vest, then the lemon toggles of my bikini top visible around my neck.
‘Umm … maybe not,’ he laughs.
‘Cheeky, you’re hardly suited and booted.’ I raise an eyebrow as he looks comedically down at his ripped shorts and flip-flops.
Laughing, we reach my shack, and I kick my shoes off on the deck. ‘Beer?’
He nods, leaving his shoes outside beside mine before he flops down on my huge beanbag, his hands folded behind his head.
‘Make yourself at home,’ I say, and I drop beside him with the cold beers.
‘Are you sure about that?’ he asks, rolling on to his side, propped on one elbow to look at me.
‘Why? What would you do if you were at home?’
He reaches down and drags his T-shirt over his head, leaving him in just his shorts. The moonlight shades his skin coconut-shell brown. ‘I’d get more comfortable.’
I pause for a beat, considering just laughing at him – I mean, what a line – but then I follow suit and pull my vest off. Why not? Oscar is everything that my life is not: light-hearted; uncomplicated.
He holds out his arm for me to settle in beside him, and when I do his body is warm and vital. I am as free as one of the small, blush-pink birds that wheel through the sky above my shack at dawn.
Through the window I can see the black spindle outlines of the long-tail boats anchored just off the shore in readiness for the morning, and the pitch-dark sky overhead studded with a myriad of diamond stars.
‘I can’t remember the last time I felt this peaceful.’
Oscar takes a long drink then puts his beer bottle down on the floor before he replies.
‘I think I might be insulted. I was hoping you were outrageously turned on.’
I laugh softly into his chest and prop myself up to look at him. ‘I think I could be.’
One arm still bent behind his head, he slides his free hand round the back of my neck and tugs slowly on the string ties of my bikini top. It falls when he lets go, and he doesn’t take his eyes from mine as he reaches lower between my shoulder blades to finish the job.
‘Now I’m outrageously turned on,’ he says, tracing one fingertip from the dip between my collarbones to the button on my shorts. He swallows hard as he looks at my bared breasts. A breeze catches the wind chime hanging from the corner of my shack, a soft glitter of bells as he shifts slightly, pressing me back into the beanbag as he draws my nipple inside the heat of his mouth. Jesus. Aching, spiralling lust unfurls octopus-like inside my body, its tentacles licking fast along my limbs, heavy in my abdomen, fast in my chest as I push my hands into the thickness of his hair and hold him to me. I never thought I could feel like this for someone other than Jack, but something about being here with Oscar has freed me.
He reaches for the button of my shorts, lifting his head to look at me before he goes any further. I’m relieved he’s that kind of man; even though his breathing is shallow and his eyes are begging me not to stop him, I know that he would, and that’s enough.
‘Do you have a condom?’ I whisper as I stroke his hair, praying he says yes.
He moves over me, his chest on mine, and his kiss is so unhurried and exquisite that I wrap my arms round his shoulders and hold him to me.
‘I think so,’ he breathes, then laughs shakily. ‘I just hope it’s in date.’ He reaches into his back pocket, kissing me some more. Laying his wallet on the floor beside the beanbag, he flicks it open and pulls out a silver foil packet, checking it before he presses it into my palm for safekeeping.
He sits up, and this time he doesn’t pause over the business of unbuttoning my shorts. His fingers are sure and steady, working them down my hips until I have only my small, yellow bikini bottoms left.
He spreads my thighs and kneels between them, then splays my arms wide and pins me lightly in place. ‘Do you know what you are?’
I stare up at him, unsure what he’s going to say.
‘A fucking sexy starfish.’
I close my eyes and laugh, and then I gasp, because he’s lowered his face between my legs and I can feel the heat of his mouth moving over the silky material of my bikini.
There isn’t one atom of me that wants him to stop as he discards what’s left of his clothes. For a second we hold a silent conversation with just our eyes. I tell him that I know he’s running away from the responsibility and stress of the city life awaiting him back in London, and he tells me he can paper over the cracks in my heart and make me better again. We make each other promises even though we pledged that we wouldn’t, and then he settles over me and I forget about everything but now.