Hundreds of tiny fish nibbled my feet. Soft strokes, baby touches. The last time I’d felt anything as pleasurable was with a guy on the London Eye one night. We’d been alone in a pod. And it wasn’t my toes he was interested in.
I snapped several shots of the tank with my camera. Aquamarine water, backlit, with the fish massed blackly against it. Yeah, a good picture. Not in my brief—way too touristy—but maybe I could still do something with it.
In a corner of the patio ceiling, a toy-like portable fan whirred uselessly against the oppressive humidity. Sighing, I rolled my head on my neck. Mio Dio, was I tense. I’d dashed into the Bliss Warung because I needed a break. The place suited my needs perfectly: a quirky walk-in treatment centre and curio shop in one, where you could get a foot massage or exfoliation by live fish at a reasonable rate.
The cool water of the footbath did a nice job of soothing my soul after several hours in the city. Sure, Denpasar was in Bali, the world’s most beautiful island, but it was chaotic, and about as far from the idea of a tropical paradise as you could get. Trust Stack to send me here. They’re always seeking something edgy. Like I do.
As I lowered the camera, I caught sight of my reflection in the water. Waves of thick, red hair cascading down my shoulders. Rope, the man in Reykjavik had called it. And then he’d begged me to tie him up with it. My eyes, which were like pools you could drown in—or so Fernando had claimed, in Barcelona. Or was his name Luis? I laughed.
“Share the joke?” someone said near me in a mellow voice.
I’d been so busy with my own thoughts, I hadn’t noticed the bench on the other side of the footbath fill up. I looked into a tanned face. Nice hard jaw, feathery stubble. My age, maybe a bit younger. Unkempt white-blonde hair. A small shell on a leather thong around his neck. Oh-oh. New Age alert. So not my type.
I wanted to say: The joke is, mio amico, all men are the same. “Ticklish.” I shrugged, glancing down at the fish.
He shifted, and out of the corner of my eye I observed an imposing thigh muscle tensing against the fabric of his sand-coloured cotton pants. So, he was built under there. His fish scattered and regrouped. Well-shaped feet, I noted. Perhaps I could think about them while we sixty-nined each other?
I gazed up at him and smiled. His eyes were an azure colour not unlike the water our feet were in, and equally sparkling with a certain something. He regarded me with a thoughtful expression, a slight frown creasing the part of his forehead above his nose.
Here it comes. ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere? Disneyland?’ People often tell me I’m princess material when we first meet. Little do they realise I’m more like Prince Charming without the charm. I extended my feet, splashing slightly, enjoying the moment. A few drops of water darkened his trousers. Then I sat back, resting my weight on my palms, and stuck my chest out. For a split second, his gaze roamed over my T-shirt. In answer, I looked at his crotch.
Okay, the T-shirt thing. It started in high school. I had this favourite old T that said, I want you to know someone cares. Not me, but someone. My mother gave it to me. I loved it. So did the boys. It became my trademark thing. I had some variations printed. And guess what? The meaner the shirt, the more attention it got. When I went to parties, I wore Sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come. Stuff like that. But I came all the time…
“Is that a Nikon?”
“Nice. I’m Caleb.”
“Ana,” I said, extending a hand. He shook it. His palm was warm and dry in a strong, square grip, his handshake firm and sincere. I liked him, despite the fact he was Mr Earth Hour.
“You’re a photographer?”
“Mmm-hmm. National Geographic,” I lied. It’s a thing with me. I make stuff up when I’m bored. Which is quite a lot of the time. I lifted the camera and took a pic of him, too quick for him to smile. I knew instinctively I’d caught something essential about him. “Got you.” He frowned again. It made him seem perturbed, studious and sweet in a nerdy kind of way. But in his photograph, which I flicked to, he radiated innocence, all pure of heart. “Wow, Mr Photogenic.”
“And is that an Italian accent?”
“It is.” I raised an eyebrow. “They say once you’ve slept with an Italian woman, you’re never the same again.” I spoke from experience; I had dated Stella Di Ser Piero in Venice and Florence last spring and all through the summer. Our romance only cooled with the weather, when we went on tour with her brother’s exhibition—and then Paris happened. A cocktail waitress named Lola, to be exact, at the famous Moulin Rouge. I know, it’s so sexist: French girls in costumes. A weakness of mine.
Caleb levelled a look at me, giving nothing away.
“Sorry, I can’t help it, I’m Neapolitan. Naples is an ‘in your face’ part of the country.”
“They gave the world pizza and ice cream. Can’t be all bad.”
“I thought I’d say the Italian-woman-in-bed thing before you came up with it. I’ve heard it so often.” Then again, maybe hippies didn’t speak that way. “You from Australia?” I added, when he said nothing.
He shook his head, watching me. It was impossible to read his expression. “Cape Town. They say once you’ve bedded a South African, you never want to have sex again.”