Chapter 1: Contact
It was another Saturday night party at Hildy's parents' beach house. The large deck stretched out over the cliffs; waves churned a hundred feet below. The evening chill coming off the Atlantic reminded Clay it was late August. Soon he'd be back at college. The idea didn't bother him. In fact, he was anxious to return. Life had become boring on the island that summer. Maybe he was simply bored with his friends, or bored with Gwen. She was rattling on, planning their next weekend.
While searching for a distraction less obvious than the luminous screen of his phone, he let the thump of the music drown out her words. Then he got what he'd wished for. In an instant the world around him altered, and Clay was pulled far away from Gwen and Hildy and everything else in his life. The overpowering attraction was a girl he hadn't seen for more than two years. Her name was Stella Marchand and she looked different. The rosy light from the lanterns strung above cast a soft glow on her skin. Gorgeous, Clay said to himself.
He'd known her back in high school on the mainland. Once she let him get a look at her, he'd discovered she was surprisingly pretty – perfect skin, full sexy lips, stunningly bright blue-green eyes… And he wasn't the only one. All the guys at St. Andrews considered her a hottie. But she was weird.
His senior year she was the only new student, the single transfer accepted. St. Andrews was a very old prep school supported by an exclusive circle of prominent families. Each class was small in number but large in potential power and influence. Out of fifty-one kids entering their final year before heading off to prestigious colleges and universities, Stella was the lone unknown; neither friend nor foe to anyone. On top of that, she covered herself from head to foot in dark colors and let her auburn hair hang in her face. "Pathetic goth," Gwen had ticked the moment Stella tried to slip, silently as possible, into their first period 'Civics and Ethical Traditions' course.
Gwen was standing in front of him right now. "Clay, are you listening?" She tossed her head, a clear sign she was annoyed.
"Yeah. I heard you," Clay answered, still looking beyond, unable to tear his eyes from Stella. The way she held herself had changed. She was taller than he recalled. Her long, flame-red hair flowed loose in the sea breeze. Instead of a black shroud she had on a light, silk dress, cut close to her lithe figure. Clay visually traced her contours from her slim hips and skinny waist to her perfect breasts. She arched her back as she leaned against the railing on the opposite end of the deck. Three guys were buzzing around her. Two of them he knew well – Seth and Dmitri – fellow classmates from St. Andrews. The third was one of those dark, sophisticated types he often found intimidating when he was in the city.
"Yes or no?" Gwen's brows furled in a frown.
"What?" Clay didn't care if Gwen got mad. Something was going on with Stella. The guy he didn't know hooked his arm around her shoulders and seemed to be pressuring her to move on. Were they about to leave? He couldn't miss this chance to talk to her. He at least wanted a better look.
"Do you want to see Freddie and Viv's new place on the Bay next weekend?" Gwen stamped her strappy sandal. "What are you staring at?" She turned abruptly and her scowl fell into an open-mouthed expression of bewilderment. "Oh my god. Is that…?"
"Stella Marchand. I'm going to say hi." Clay brushed Gwen aside.
Gwen grabbed his cuff. "Are you blowing me off? To go flirt with that freak nobody over there?"
"Are you telling me I can't say hello? Calm down."
"Why talk to her? She's no friend of ours. Who invited her anyway? No one's seen her for forever."
Clay didn't want Gwen to make a scene. That wouldn't look cool. And he didn't like being cruel. Gwen was in love with him. He'd known it for years. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I didn't mean to be a jerk. She was, you know, a mystery in high school. I'm just curious. I want to find out what she's been up to."
"Dying her hair a new shade obviously. What color was it before? Maroon or something?"
"Uh, Gwen, I think you were blond back then and now your hair's brown so…"
Gwen's narrowing stare silenced him. "So go sniff at the slut with the rest of the dogs. I'm going to see what Hildy is doing." She stomped towards the glass doors that led inside.
Clay's focus returned to Stella. She extracted herself from the strange man's grasp and sent him away – to acquire drinks, he assumed. He was relieved she wasn't leaving. Maybe she wasn't that into her date. Crossing the deck floor quickly he nearly crashed into his friend Tushar, who was walking as briskly as he could while holding two mojitos.
"You have to do me a favor." Clay beamed his 'buddy' smile at Tushar.
"Don't ask me for one of these," Tushar started, "because I'm on a mission…"
"I don't need one, I need both. It's really, really important." Tushar's chin dropped as Clay took the glasses. "I owe you, okay. Big time," he said before he moved on. Couples and groups intermittently obstructed his view and forced him to moderate his pace. Then the crowd dispersed. Stella's aquamarine eyes flashed in his direction. The rosy lanterns dimmed, then flared. Clay was thrown off balance, like he was suddenly on ship in a rough sea; but he caught himself, and managed not to spill the cocktails.
He summoned his cool, counting in his head all the girls at the party he knew he could have, should he want them. It wasn't crazy to think Stella might want him too. Whenever their eyes met during the hours they spent in French Literature – a tiny course with only six students – sparks had flown. If their stares locked for more than a few seconds the classroom lights would flicker wildly, just like the lanterns now. Madame Garnier, the French teacher, would murmur, "Mon dieu…"
Stella was a different person in French class. Everywhere else she seemed barely capable of speech – she never started any conversations and rarely responded to questions with more than a weird-sounding monosyllable. In French Lit she participated enthusiastically. French was her native language and listening to her speak it turned him on, intensely, even if he was hungover from one of Hildy's 'adventures'.
Madame Garnier was turned on too, according to rumor. The two chatted in French regularly at the beginning and the end of the period. Stella even stopped in to say "Allô" frequently throughout the school day. Madame Garnier appeared to be the one person she was interested in. Gwen and her lieutenants spread the word they were having an affair. The story must have reached the administration because Madame Garnier was gone after winter break.
"Hi. I thought you might like a drink." Clay parted Seth and Dmitri and offered Stella a mojito.
She took it. "How did you know I was thirsty?" Her English had changed as well. Her lightly accented speech sounded confident, alluring.
"I read your mind." Clay ignored his old school chums' angry glances and smiled while he clinked her glass.
"Nice to see you, Clay," she said. The bulb in the lantern over their heads burned hotter.
"Great seeing you too." After a beat, he nodded at Seth and Dmitri. "Hey."
"So what's the name of that club again, in Bushwick?" Dmitri asked her, while attempting, not so subtly, to edge out Clay.
"It's not in Bushwick. It's in Industry City." Stella sampled her cocktail and winked at Clay. "It's called Mephisto." Was she hinting she needed an escape?
"You guys will have to excuse us," Clay cut in. He reached for her hand. "Stella and I have something we need to discuss."
Her fingers gripped his. Clay had never felt such a charge just from touching somebody. Pulses raced up his arm and then spread to the rest of his body. Together they drifted across the deck to the area Clay and Gwen had occupied before.
"Thanks for the rescue," she said.
Even though they had moved far from the lanterns, her eyes still shone bright. Must be the light from the full moon, thought Clay.
"Now, if I can just lose my cousin."
"The guy you're with?" he asked. He's just her cousin.
"I didn't want to bring him. But he showed up two weeks ago and he won't leave. So I had no choice." Tiny blue-green flames blazed in her irises.
"You have a place on the island?" He was feeling mesmerized. Do I sound like a dumb-ass?
"The Castle. You probably know it. I'm having it fixed up."
"I didn't know your family owned that." Everyone on Loreley Island was familiar with 'the Castle'. The nineteenth century manor's central feature – a medieval keep imported from Europe – towered over the surrounding properties. "I'd love to check it out sometime." Clay waited for her to reply. But she said nothing. She shifted her focus to the heaving waves in the distance and sipped her drink. He worried the remark had come off like a lurid proposition. "Why haven't I seen you here before?" he asked, trying to reclaim her attention.
"I spend most of my time in the city." She turned back and faced him again. "I'm just here for August to oversee the renovations." Her lip-gloss shimmered. "Hildy told me he was having this party. So here I am."
Hearing her mention Hildy prickled the skin on the back of his neck. "How come you've stayed in touch with Hildy and not me?" He struggled to maintain his casual tone. Hildy was his best friend, but also his greatest competition.
"We met up in January, at this club, Mephisto. We've run into each other there a few times."
Hildy had been uncharacteristically stand-offish with the girls all summer – to Gwen and her female friends' acute consternation. Was Stella the reason? "Hildy should have told me he ran into you. I'm in the city. Most of the time."
Stella's sight left him, drawn again to the pounding surf below. "It's beautiful out there tonight."
"Want to go down to the beach?" He finished off his mojito. "I know the way."
Her eyes sparked. "Okay," she answered.
He guided her through a nondescript door into a storage room. A surplus refrigerator and freezer hummed against the wall and unused deck furniture was piled on rafters overhead. She followed him to the door on the other side, which opened to a steep exterior stairwell that led to a sheltered strip of sand and surf. It wasn't hard to see where they were going; the moon seemed to have grown larger and for the first time that summer Clay appreciated how dazzling the stars were.
"I'm going in!" Stella raced down the steps ahead of him.
He dashed after her. She's crazy, he thought. Was she really going to jump into the ferocious ocean at night? Maybe he'd better stop her. "Wait!"
At the base of the stairs there was a small changing hut attached to a wooden platform with several Adirondack chairs. Stella's dress hung on the back of one of them. Clay looked out at the sea just in time. Illuminated by the moonlight and flecks of phosphorous, Stella dove into the surf.
He rushed to remove his clothes while telling the part of his brain that warned him against really stupid actions to shut up. He resented the buttons on his shirt for costing him precious seconds. In the meantime, Stella rose and cut through surging waves, rapidly moving further and further from the shore.
He didn't take a moment to consider the wave sequence; he leapt like he was blind. The water smacked him in the face and rushed over him, shooting up his nostrils and filling his lungs. He surfaced after the crest dissipated, coughing violently, his tongue curling from the salty taste. He hadn't washed out in years. He was an excellent swimmer, having spent every summer of his life on the island's beaches and sailing along its coastline. He'd even been on the swim team at St. Andrews.
As he regained his orientation, his resolve reemerged. Stella was out there and nothing was going to prevent him from joining her. Thoughts of contact with her naked body in a liquid atmosphere powered his strokes. He lifted his head after he passed the second sandbar and searched. Soon he saw her, bobbing in the mounting swell.
The current swept them together. They wrapped legs and arms as a massive wave crashed on top of them. In seconds their heads popped up.
"Are you all right?" she asked. The brilliance in her eyes was piercing.
"Yeah," he answered breathlessly. "I'm… I'm fine."
A roiling peak buoyed their conjoined forms, pushing them upwards. Clay felt vibrations all over. A whirring sound in his ears expanded into choral cascades. He didn't know how it happened but he was kissing her and he couldn't stop.
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