I was overwhelmed by the amount of support you gave me when I announced that Montlake was dropping the series. In truth, I don’t have much to give back except cracking horrible jokes and wrapping that book for you.
So, as a thank you note before the six-months wait (and six months spent in the writer cave hating myself), here’s chapter one of Crystal Whisperer, edited.
1. Local is Lekker
I’ll tell you what, if this was one of my romance books, I’d probably throw my tablet through the window and ask for a refund.
The plot goes like this: Island Chaptal is a beautiful computer engineer living in New York, and she’s been waiting all her life for Mr. Right, saving herself for his expert touch—that’s twenty-five years, six months, and twenty-eight days of saving, for anyone who cares. One night, she comes home to find a dangerous and sexy professional killer searching her apartment: A mysterious man with a dark past, known by the codename “March.” Also, he does the dishes and he knows how to change a vacuum cleaner bag, because it turns out he’s a bit of a neat freak.
I won’t go into all the details, but tons of exciting adventures ensue. Island learns her mom was in fact a spy and her biological father a supervillain; March takes her on a chase for a long-stolen diamond; she falls in love with him in Paris; he dumps her in Tokyo, comes back a reformed man a few months later and they make up. But danger always lurks, and they embark on another perilous investigation where they have to fight off killer platypuses and a shadowy CIA agent who seduces Island (love triangles always sell).
And, of course, in the end, March takes her to his tiny cubicle house facing the Atlantic Ocean in Cape Saint Francis—he’s actually OCD and South African—where he makes passionate love to her until dawn.
Because his condoms were expired, so they have to wait until the following morning for him to go buy some in town. And once there, they pass a surf shop and he says “We have great weather today. Would you like me to teach you surfing after lunch?” Of course, she doesn’t want to sound desperate, so instead of saying “I’m a twenty-five-year-old virgin. Surf is not what’s missing in my life right now,” she says, “Sure. Cool.”
Like I said, I’d slam that book with a one-star rating and return it!
Except Jeff Bezos won’t let you return your own life. So here I was, stuck at third base, body still tingling from head to toe at the memory of a delicious, torturous night spent curled against the silkiest chest hair in the universe. He had been tender and thorough in his exploration of unmentionable places, which were now desperate to receive the coup de grâce. And—forgive me, Raptor Jesus—I had touched Area 51! Through his boxer briefs, and not for long though, because there’s only so much clumsy teasing a man can take when he’s been single for four years. Still, how incredibly torrid and forbidden is that?
“Island. Island. Focus! Watch your feet or you’ll—”
Slip and fall from the board again.
March caught me at the same time that I hit the water with a splash. I blinked the salt away from my eyes, took a big gulp of air, and looked up at him. Water dripped from his short chestnut hair, and I could read an equal measure of concern and amusement in my favorite dark-blue eyes. His lips curved, allowing a rare grin to light up the rest of his face.
I loved that. March was nothing but control and order, polished exterior and goddamn wrinkle-free shirts, but I was in fact drawn by his asperities. By the faint crow’s feet betraying that he had recently turned thirty-three, the two dimples creasing a square jaw, or even the slightest bump on his aquiline nose. I had never really noticed before, but the shimmering droplets running down his face outlined it. I gathered said nose must have been broken at some point over the course of his career. I guess you don’t spend fifteen years killing people without earning more than a few scrapes of your own.
After several seconds of studying the aforementioned bump, I realized I was secured in a rather awkward position. My legs still rested on the surfboard, while in the water, his arms held the rest of me firmly against his chest. I gripped his hands, shaking off a delicious flashback of those same knuckles grazing my stomach a few hours prior.
“I’m good. I think we hit a particularly vicious roll!” I said with a brave laugh.
I didn’t miss the beat of silence as March took in our surroundings: The quiet, sapphire-blue sea, the five-inch “rolls” lapping at his waist, and the long stretch of sand and rocks a few yards away from us, beyond which I could make out his little brick house standing on a patch of grass. On the shore, a couple of otters lay sprawled, warming their asses under the afternoon sun and observing my surfing efforts with absolute disdain.
“Yes. The sea is… rough today,” March conceded.
I freed myself from his embrace to readjust the black rash guard and bikini bottom I had bought in Saint Francis Bay in the morning. “But we’ve made some good progress. I’m really starting to feel that my body is centered on the board like you said.”
“Absolutely. Your balance is remarkable, biscuit.”
Modern feminism would have dictated that I took offense at this abject bout of patronizing flattery, and the underlying assumption that I would never accomplish much on a surfboard. But, well, he had combed back damp locks from my forehead as he said so, and I found it difficult to resist him when he called me “biscuit.” I just grinned stupidly and nodded.
He jerked his head in the direction of the cubicle house. “How about we take a break from surfing?”
I willed my gaze away from the only real-life six-pack I had ever seen up close, and the tempting line of wet chestnut hair trailing all the way down to the waistband of his swimming shorts. “That could be nice.”
Back in New York, I shared a little apartment with Joy, my best friend since she had rescued me from a locked bathroom stall in college. As neither of us really cared about housekeeping, I had seen my fair share of underwear forgotten on the bathroom floor, or hair in the tub. Yet it had never struck me how intimate it was to share a house with someone, until now.
I was standing in March’s narrow bathroom, leaning on the sink and closer to the mirror, in order to check my gap-tooth for any trace of lunch’s spinach. Even now, I still couldn’t quite shake that odd sense of intrusion, because the steam from our respective showers still clung to the air, along with it the citrus notes of his shower gel. The damp towel I had dried my auburn bob with was his, as were the toothbrush or the old-fashioned safety razor and shaving brush hanging from a chromed stand. I poked the soap resting in his shaving bowl gingerly. I had never seen one of those; not even my dad used that. I rinsed the foam from my finger, suddenly feeling a little guilty at the sight of the tell-tale fingerprint on the once smooth surface.
Once I had changed into one of my favorite hoodies and a pair of yoga pants, I grabbed the towel again and carefully dabbed at the droplets running down the walls of the shower stall. March hadn’t asked, but I had caught him do that the night before, and I was pretty sure it’d upset him if I left drops—and therefore potentially lime—in his bathroom.
I spun around at the sound of his voice. He stood in the doorway, now fully clothed too, in in usual “uniform”: a pair of dark jeans and a perfectly pressed white shirt—I had discovered he ordered those from a London tailor boasting to possess some sort of super-advanced “crease-free technology.” Scanning him all the way down, I couldn’t stop the quirk of my lips when I noted the way he had rolled his sleeves in flat, even folds, and put on a pair of hotel slippers, grandpa-style. Bristol Paris: a little souvenir from our adventures, I suspected.
I folded the towel and hung it back on its chrome rack with great care. “It’s nothing. I thought… you know… that you might prefer it this way.”
“You didn’t have to,” he said, a hint of embarrassment in his voice. Then his gaze left the dry shower walls to focus on me instead. With a devilish glint. “Lovely tail, by the way.”
I didn’t blush; I held my head up high. I regarded that gray raccoon hoodie and the furry tail dangling from its back as one of the most essential pieces of my garde-robe, but not everyone understood its deeper significance, or the proper etiquette to follow when dealing with high fashion. “Don’t pull the tail.”
March raised his palms in a pacifying gesture. “I would never.”
He didn’t. Well, not until we were back in his living room and my guard was down. As I went to check a mysterious white box sitting on his kitchenette’s stone countertop, a sharp tug stopped me. I whirled around to face him.
“We need trust and respect in this relationship,” I muttered, readjusting my tail.
“We do,” March agreed. “Why don’t you check your surprise while I make us some tea?”
My attention shifted back to what looked in fact like a cake box. “You have a surprise for me?”
He nodded while filling a kettle. It was all I needed to get my greedy hands on that tempting box. I made quick work of the flashy green plastic ribbon and pristine cardboard. Swirls of cream appeared. And chocolate. Things were looking up. Further examination of the cake made me hesitate, though.
I frowned at the mixture of milk chocolate chips and unidentified transparent green shards scattered all over the fluffy cream. “Is that… some sort of, um, crushed glass and chocolate topping?”
March set two cups on the table, into which he poured a fragrant and carmine-colored tea. His nostrils flared in mild outrage. “It’s Peppermint Crisp! It’s a Peppermint Crisp tart.”
Oh. I had almost forgotten about those. A very popular South African delicacy made of layers of caramel-flavored whipped cream mixed with crushed industrial mint chocolate, on top of Tennis coconut biscuits. I remembered having tasted it once, at the age of fifteen, back when my mom and I had been staying in Pretoria. I think it speaks of her parenting skills that, although she had been there to steal a two-billion-dollar diamond—the aptly named “Ghost” Cullinan—she took the time to try her hands at a local recipe for me. The result had been disastrous, nothing like the perfectly round and masterfully decorated pastry March had bought. Yet, the memory of my mother standing in the ruins of our kitchen and splattering cream all over a pile of crushed biscuits was a sweet one.
I watched March as he cut two equal slices and placed them on our respective plates with near-reverence. At the time, sitting on a bar stool and tasting my mother’s Peppermint Crisp Smudge, I had no idea that he was out there, somewhere, and that I would meet him for the first time a few months later. No idea that my mom would be shot at the wheel of her car in Tokyo, and that March would be the one to save my life…
The first bite was sweet, minty, and a little too rich. March was looking at me expectantly, no doubt waiting for a compliment. I thought of Proust ranting about his madeleine. I had none of the guy’s talent—or single-mindedness, for that matter—and I didn’t know how to tell March how I felt. How to tell him that it wasn’t that the Peppermint Crisp tart tasted bad or anything, but there was an ache in my chest, and I was filled by too many memories, too many emotions I wasn’t sure I could name.
I looked down at the creamy mess in my plate and dropped my spoon. Before I knew it, my feet had carried me around the table and into March’s arms. “I want a hug,” I whispered.
I did feel him startle, but he welcomed me, and I wrapped myself around my man like an octopus. Those were the times I was glad that he had a foot on me and my five feet three inches: There’s no solace like that which comes from being tucked under someone else’s chin and held tight.
The slow glide of his hand in my hair almost made me purr. “What’s wrong, biscuit? Peppermint Crisp is excellent for you.” I squeezed him harder as he went on, his voice a little uncertain. “It’s the eighth South African food group, according to the Department of Health. Should represent five percent of your daily caloric intake.”
“You’re lying,” I mumbled.
“No, I’m not. Nestlé lobbied hard for that. The police never found the Health Deputy Minister’s body.”
I pulled away to look up at him. “Are you serious?”
“Absolutely. Peppermint Crisp is a very serious business, here.”
Catching the look of scandal on my face, he shrugged. “I had nothing to do with it. Now finish your five percent.”
I complied with a chuckle, and he did the same, before he rinsed our plates and spoons twice, placed them in the dishwasher, and wiped the sink clean afterwards.
One he was done, he combed back a curl that would never stay in place behind my ear, no matter how many times he fixed it—I think that one is in fact haunted. “You know,” he began. “When something troubles you, you can tell me.” He paused, his gaze settling on a fascination point somewhere near my shoulder. “I won’t always know what to say, but—”
“Being here makes me think of my mother. Not in a bad way, but in a way that puts everything in perspective, like it was all a puzzle from the start, and we’re pieces, and no matter how long we waited on the table, we would have ended in the puzzle anyway; we just didn’t know it.”
I took a breath and soldiered on before he could interrupt. “Also I suck at surfing, and I’m thinking about how intimate it is to be in your place, and maybe that’s why you’re postponing… what it is that you’re postponing. Because maybe it’s awkward for you too, or maybe you think I don’t want to anymore, and, um, I sent the wrong signals—”
His arms encircled me, and my rant was silenced by the brush of his lips against my neck. “What am I postponing, biscuit?”
What, indeed? I struggled to collect my thoughts, and gave up with a gasp when the light kisses raining on my throat turned to a gentle sucking. A single nip caused my knees to wobble, and after a few seconds I realized he was playing with my tail. I felt his voice more than I heard it, a hoarse vibration against my skin. “So, tell me, what is it… that I’m postponing?”
I gripped his shirt while he soothed the area he had just bit with slow, deliberate licks. “I don’t know… I… ”
His hands found their way under my hoodie, grazing my waist. “You seem distracted.”
I was. Mostly because the trail of goosebumps his fingertips left in their wake felt like fireworks. Yet, as much I wanted to, I couldn’t find it in me to say something daring like “I want you” or “Please rip my petals!”—I really liked that scene in Sold To The Barbarian Alien. So I did the only thing that made sense: I rose on tiptoe to reach March’s lips, and started fumbling with his belt. I feared he’d try to stop me, to “slow things down,” like he had the previous night. He gave no sign that he minded, though, and established ownership of my lower lip while I struggled past the steel buckle and approximately a hundred of those pesky jeans buttons.
When my fingers met hot skin and soft hair on his stomach, felt the muscles twitch under my touch, I thought of those romance books about starchy men getting unstarched and unleashing their irresistible passion on the heroine until she lay limp on the sheets like an overcooked chard. So be it. I was ready for March to turn me into a sizzling casserole. Plus, Peppermint Crisp was the perfect topping for this particular recipe: Who wouldn’t want a man who tasted of mint and chocolate?
I did register the faint buzz in his pocket, but I knew that trick already, and wouldn’t let a phone call stand in the way of my first time. I unzipped my hoodie, barely allowing our lips to part. “Don’t take it.” I sighed. “Turn the damn phone off.”
By then, March’s starch had started to seriously peel off: To my amazement, he took out his phone and shut it down, at the same time that he guided me toward his bedroom. I performed a mental fist pump.
Until my own phone started to ring.
If think this requires a pause for a public service announcement: Silence your phone when you plan on getting your chard on all night long. Also, choose your ringtone better than I did. I don’t think I’ll ever forget March’s face. The way he was blinking down at me, his shirt half-unbuttoned and pants open to reveal visibly strained boxer briefs. And there I stood, in my bra, with my phone blaring the Minions’ Copacabana cover from somewhere in the bedroom—Yes, the one where they sing “bella banana” instead. My life is a tragedy.
He cleared his throat. “Would you like to take it?”
As I said this, March glanced down at his watch. There too, a single buzz announced a new message. Harassment tactic, uh? I could think of only one person would know I was here with March, and might need to reach him badly enough to try my phone.
“Phyllis?” I ventured.
I liked March’s PA, I really did. But at the moment… I wished for her to find raisins instead of chocolate chips in her cookies. Every day. For the rest of her life.
March confirmed my suspicions with a nod, and the black chronograph’s glass went dark, turning into a small LCD screen—I needed to find out where he had bought that toy. I didn’t get a good look at the words flashing on the screen, but he apparently did. With an expression of utter apology, March moved away from me to open his laptop, which sat on a small desk near his bed.
I watched him connect to a news website and open the live streaming. We both stood still, tight-lipped, as the anchors started reporting breaking news of what they called “the worst terrorist attack targeting the U.S. since 9/11”: the mid-flight bombing of a jumbo jet over the Atlantic, which had killed all 613 passengers and crew.
If that background video of people breaking into tears in front of the cameras hadn’t ruined the mood already, seeing the face of my biological father appear on the screen did.