Author Rochelle Allison takes us back to one of the most romantic places in the world, her hometown of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, with another novel in her Tanlines series, and I have the whole first chapter for you from this slow-burning, island romance. This is Skye and Xavier’s love story.
• Auntie Nadia’s coconut tarts
• late night thunderstorms
• mango season
“Hi, welcome to the Frangipani!”
Considering my geriatric computer, the rivulets of sweat running down my back, and a headache the size of Puerto Rico, I think I’m doing a decent job of sounding enthused.
But the bottle blonde across the counter just stares at me, her puffy lips reminding me of an allergic reaction. Not sure what the point was—she needs more than fillers and Botox if she wants to improve a face that dour. “I have a reservation under the name Branson.”
“Wonderful. I’ll pull that right up.” I nudge the desktop as quickly as I can toward reservations. “And…I have you right here. Branson, seaside villa for two.” She hums and I give her another smile. “If I can just have the credit card that was used to make the reservation, we’ll be all set.”
Grimacing, she rummages through her beige saddle bag before giving up and dumping the contents all over the counter. Minutes tick by. The Gypsy Kings CD Mom put on earlier skips quietly. I keep telling her it’s time to update to a streaming service for the hotel’s overhead speakers, but she can be a Luddite at times.
As if she hears my thoughts, my mother slips out of the office and joins me. “Everything all right?”
“Absolutely.” I nod, gesturing at the mess.
“Ms. Branson—” “Mrs.” The blonde smacks an Amex Black card down between us before sweeping everything else back into her bag.
“It’s been a while, Mrs. Branson,” Mom interjects warmly. “I’m so glad you could join us again.”
The woman allows a small smile, inclining her head. “It has been ages, hasn’t it?”
Softly clearing my throat, I return the credit card. “Thank you, Mrs. Branson. Everything is all set.”
Mom slides a pair of room keys across the counter. The rooms in the main building were upgraded to keycards years ago, but our seaside villas still use keys, the vintage kind with kitschy, yellow plastic tags bearing the Frangipani’s logo. That could probably be updated, too, but I’m attached to the bubbly, 80s font and white outline of a frangipani flower. “You’re in Villa #3, as always,” she says. “And as requested, there’s fresh, local fruit in your room. It will be replenished every morning.”
“Thank you, Hazel.” Mrs. Branson turns, gliding across the lobby like a shark as one of our bellhops follows along with a pair of suitcases. I side-eye my mother’s serene smile. She doesn’t age, not even with the silver glinting in her dark hair. “You really know that woman, Mommy?”
Nodding, she smooths her fingers over my own curls. “Annette Branson’s been coming to the Frangipani for years. She’s a character, eh?”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I mutter, shaking my head. “Is her husband checking in, or…?”
She shakes her head. “He died years ago.”
“Oh.” Suddenly Mrs. Branson’s coldness looks a lot more like sadness. I run my fingertips over the hotel phone’s dial pad, feeling a little guilty for my mean thoughts.
“Everyone has a story,” Mom continues, as if she knows what I’m thinking. “We never know what people are carrying, eh?”
I sigh inwardly because yeah, that’s my mother. Hazel Arroyo gets along with everybody, no matter how ornery they are, and she expects those of us who work at the Frangipani to do the same. Our stellar customer service is the main reason this hotel has the great ratings it does—even on Yelp, where people love to bitch and moan.
Unlike my mother, however, this quality does not come easily to me. I can’t count how many times I’ve wanted to go off on someone for being rude or looking at me sideways. It’s one of the many reasons I meditate. For real.
“I’ve been on the phone all morning with the towel company,” she says, inclining her head toward the back office. It’s around the corner from our front desk, the door tucked beyond a row of potted Areca palms. “They said it was their error, so they’re overnight mailing the towels.”
“Thank God for small favors,” I say, relieved. These towels—monogrammed and meant for a wedding party who’ll be here within days—have been a source of angst for weeks, now. You’d think I’d be used to this. Our hotel hosts several weddings a year, and June is, to no one’s surprise, our craziest month.
“You and your sister should have enough time to unpack them and roll them up with that special ribbon before the guests arrive,” muses Mom, tapping her finger on the counter. She’s gazing out toward the ocean, her eyes glazed over as if she’s lost in thought. That happens a lot these days.
But she always gets shit done. This place is everything to her, and she gives it her all. She’s always on, all the time, even when her private life is on fire. She did it when she beat cancer while I was in middle school, and she did it again last year.
When my father died from it.
* * *
Staring at myself in the office’s bathroom mirror, I make a mental note to get my eyebrows done. My sister, Alani, tells me all the time to just do them myself, but I’m too lazy. I’d rather pay someone else. Get a manicure while I’m at it—I haven’t done either in a while. I used to take better care of myself, but these days my mental load just feels heavier. I pop a Tylenol, washing it down with a gulp of water. My eyes wander past the reflection of my face and up to a tiny crack in the mirror that’s been there as long as I can recall. Love or hate this place, it’s my life.
Alani and I grew up at the Frangipani, a beachside hotel my mother inherited from her parents. As kids we ran up and down the shore, swimming, collecting shells and sea-glass, scrambling up coconut trees faster than any of the boys hanging around. We picked flowers for the tables and sneaked soda from the bar, and when it got too hot, we hung out in the air-conditioned office, reading while our parents worked. (I love thrillers, but Alani’s always been partial to manga.) They put us to work as soon as we were old enough, training us how to take calls and make reservations, how to file paperwork and clean up the office.
It was our whole world. We got to stay in the seaside villas for our birthdays, throwing extravagant slumber parties that grew increasingly naughtier the older we got. By the time we were teenagers, our friends spent most of their weekends at the Frangipani’s beach, making it easy for us to join them when we were off the clock.
We probably took it all for granted, but looking back, it was a golden time.
My closest friends are mostly all gone now, off to college in the States. I was one of them for a magical minute, spending one all-too-brief semester at the University of California at Santa Cruz, my dream school. I worked my ass off to get in, to secure scholarships, grants and loans, and the sacrifices paid off.
And then, a couple weeks before winter break, Mom called to tell me Pops was sick. Really sick. He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and didn’t have much time left. The news was as sudden as it was devastating. I came home to help take care of my father, to help around the house and the hotel, and then I stayed after he died, because where else could I go? Mom and Alani needed me here; the Frangipani needed me. And anyway, Pops loved this place even more than Mom did. His creative fingerprints are everywhere, from the garden near the pool to the paintings chosen for the lobby. I feel him here every day, so as much as I miss UCSC, I can’t see myself returning anytime soon. I can’t be the carefree coed I was because that girl is gone.
This is another reason I meditate: to process all the things I’ve lost. Sometimes, the grief comes like the gradual, gentle push of the tide. It comes on slowly, fills my heart until it throbs, and recedes. But other times, it’s like the waves out at sea, rough and churning and pulling me under.
I lose my breath, spinning and spinning, unable to find my footing.