turned at his confident tone. ‘Why?’
‘Didn’t you hear all the planning going on around you? There’s going to be a huge party to celebrate. There’ll be two or three villages involved by the time all the friends and relatives get the news.’
‘I can’t go to something like that,’ Sarah protested. ‘It’s their celebration.’
‘They’re doing it to honour you,’ Ben said. His dark eyes caught and held Sarah’s. ‘You saved the life of a child, Sarah. They’re doing this to thank you.’
‘They’ve already killed a pig,’ Tori put in. She shuddered. ‘I saw them choosing the fattest one they could find and then leading it away.’
‘They’ll roast the pig,’ Ben said. ‘But most of the food will be cooked in a traditional underground oven. A lovo. It’s an experience not everyone gets.’
‘I’ll come and collect you at seven o’clock.’ Ben was still holding Sarah’s gaze.
‘You’re coming, too?’ Suddenly, the invitation was much less daunting.
‘Of course.’ Ben’s smile looked almost smug. ‘I’ve been delegated to accompany you so, please, don’t embarrass me by refusing to come.’
Tori aimed a gentle kick at Sarah’s ankle. ‘Sharks,’ she murmured.
Ben looked nonplussed. ‘You don’t have to worry about sharks,’ he said. ‘There’ll be a lot of boats going over.’ His grin was disarming. ‘We don’t expect you to swim.’
‘Am I invited?’ Tori asked.
‘Of course.’ But Ben was still watching Sarah. ‘It won’t be much of a party without a guest of honour, though. How ’bout it, Sarah?’
‘Were you serious? About me wearing the grass skirt?’
‘It’s up to you. You’re an honorary member of that village for the rest of your life and they’ll be dressed up. They’d be very proud if you did wear it.’
Ben’s gaze suggested he would be proud as well and Sarah found herself nodding.
‘OK, then. We’ll see you at seven o’clock.’
* * *
‘You’re not really going to wear it, are you?’ Tori eyed the wrap-around skirt dubiously. ‘It’s awfully see-through when you move.’
‘I’ll wear something underneath.’ The deep sleep Sarah had had for several hours that afternoon had revived her completely. Now showered, with her hair washed and gleaming softly as she brushed it dry in the sun, she was ready for the new experience that the evening promised to offer. Not only ready, she was going to embrace it completely. ‘I’ll wear it over that red skirt I’ve got.’
The mid-calf-length, soft muslin skirt was perfect. Cut in flared panels, it fitted closely around Sarah’s hips and widened to drape in folds that did nothing to interfere with the fall of the dried grass of the island skirt she fastened on top. The flash of colour that showed when she moved was pleasing and Sarah chose a simple white halter-neck top to go with it.
‘Sandals?’ Tori was fishing around in the bottom of their wardrobe. ‘Do you want the dressy ones or your flipflops?’
‘I’m going barefoot,’ Sarah told her.
‘Cool. I will, too, then. Just as well we painted our toenails.’
Sarah pushed a headband into place to hold her hair back from her face. Then she tucked a large crimson flower to one side. The left side. She hung one of the many garlands she had been given that morning around her neck.
‘You look like you were born here,’ Tori exclaimed in delight. ‘Especially with your hair loose like that. You should wear it down more often—it’s gorgeous!’
‘It’s much easier to handle if it’s tied up. I couldn’t wear it loose at work.’
‘You don’t spend your whole life at work, you know.’
‘I know. It just feels like it sometimes.’ Sarah grinned as she did a twirl in front of the mirror. Her naturally olive skin had darkened to a rich brown with only a couple of days of the Fijian sun, and amazingly she did look almost like a child of the islands. ‘This doesn’t feel like me at all. It’s dressing up. Part of the fantasy. And I intend to enjoy every minute of it.’
* * *
She had no choice but to enjoy herself. The look on Ben’s face when he arrived to collect them made any effort to look as though she belonged more than worthwhile. He might be a practised flirt and utterly insincere but the admiration was still something that could be appreciated as part of this whole experience. Sarah was made to feel totally desirable with that one glance and it went to her head like a glass of champagne.
The cheer that went up from the islanders waiting in the fleet of small boats added more bubbles to this new effervescent sensation, and when they were gliding over early sunset-gilded waters towards the neighbouring island and a song broke out and spread between the boats, Sarah closed her eyes and sighed from the sheer pleasure of it all.
Just to have been an observer would have made it a magic night, but Sarah was at the centre of it all. She was carried into the village and given a place of honour on a flower-strewn mat where little Milika and her mother were waiting to sit beside her. Plied with the most delicious food, from spit-roasted pork, steamed fish and vegetables from the underground oven to fruit that needed no tampering with to provide the sweetest dessert, Sarah was entertained with song, dance and even fire-walking as villagers competed to put on the best show. Bowl after bowl of kava came her way and Sarah sipped at each one, hoping that they weren’t alcoholic enough to cause regret in the morning.
The party showed no signs of letting up, even well after Milika had fallen asleep in Sarah’s lap and been carried away to her own bed. It was Sarah’s turn to dance then, and there were any number of willing young men and women ready to teach her and Tori the movements. If Sarah felt a bit wobbly on her feet to start with, thanks to all the kava, the positive side was a lack of any inhibition. She could turn and stamp and sway her hips with the best of them, her arms tracing graceful arcs in the flickering firelight, her skirt and her curtain of shining dark hair swirling ever more joyously to the insistent beat of the drums.
It was at the height of the revelry when Sarah twirled a little too fast, or too many times in succession, lost her balance and then stumbled. Fortunately, she had been on the edge of the large group of people and a hibiscus bush screened her fall so it went unnoticed.
Almost unnoticed. The hands that reached to help her to her feet were Ben’s, and when Sarah found herself pulled into his arms as she tried to regain her balance, she didn’t protest. It was part of the fantasy of the night. Here she was, giddy from all the attention and the kava and the joy of the celebration—in the arms of admittedly the most gorgeous man she had ever met. And nobody could see them thanks to the screen of foliage, so it didn’t matter that Sarah leaned into those arms just a little closer and raised her face to catch Ben’s gaze.
But it wasn’t his eyes that caught her attention first. It was his lips. Serious-looking, unsmiling lips.
Soft, inviting lips.
Was she willing them to come closer...to seek out her own? If so, it was working a treat and it was also so much part of the fantasy that Sarah didn’t bother even questioning it. She closed her eyes and waited for their touch. Knowing that this would be the most exciting kiss she had ever received.
She wasn’t disappointed. The caress was as soft as a butterfly’s kiss to start with but the shock wave reverberated through every cell of her body. The shock was enough to make her gasp softly, parting her lips to do so, and because there was no air between her lips and Ben’s, it was an invitation to explore further. An invitation that Ben didn’t hesitate to accept.
She would never know how long that kiss lasted. Time ceased to exist. Nothing existed but the taste of Ben’s mouth, the pressure of his lips and the exquisite slide of his tongue sending spirals