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The Butterfly Farm
By Diane Noble
Random HouseDiane Noble
All right reserved.
At 11:38 a.m. on day three of the spring-break adventure cruise, Carly Lowe was ready to make her escape. She tramped down the gangway, a crowd of passengers growing around her like a giant ameba and adding to her annoyance. The rattletrap ship was too small, the stuffy lectures too boring, the same old group she hung with at Shepparton College, too predictable. Why should she spend another day with any of them, especially today, lurching along by aerial tram through a drizzling, bug-infested rain forest?
Drifting toward the back of the group, she turned her thoughts to Julian Mendez. The fiery-eyed Latino had asked her to meet him just before noon in front of Club Bolero. It was a date she intended to keep.
He was totally sweet...and hot. Capital H hot. And he played guitar. She'd heard him play onboard and loved the sound. Following Ricki Ross, the ship's naturalist, the group trailed into the deserted main street of Parisima. Harriet MacIver walked beside Carly, but the older woman was paying no attention to her. She had whipped out her notepad and was writing down some bit of scientific trivia imparted by the man to her left, Dr. Jean Baptiste, the onboard guest lecturer on the scientific wonders of the human body. Bo-ring.
Ricki Ross walked backward, holding high an unfurled umbrella as she shouted last-minuteinstructions about splitting into two groups-- one led by her ecologist husband, Gregory; the other by Ricki herself. The umbrella thing was weird because it wasn't as if they were surrounded by hordes of other tourists. Parisima was practically deserted. For several minutes Carly pretended to hang on Ricki's every word, but as the group rounded a corner, she ducked behind a potted palm. She waited, peering through the fronds, as the last of the passengers straggled along. If Harriet or any of the others noticed she wasn't with them, they would assume she was with the other group.
Carly had not invited her roommate, though now she was having a few guilt twinges. Zoe had glanced up when Carly left the room, but only to shoot her a sad look. Not many people liked Zoe. Truth be told, Carly didn't either. Not much. But Zoe was on Carly's list of things to work on in her new be-kinder-to-others self-improvement campaign. Her classmate wasn't part of the "in" crowd, and Carly felt sorry for her. Part of her crusade on this cruise was to help the poor waiflike creature dress better and improve her image so she might gain acceptance from their peers. Carly didn't even grimace when they were assigned to the same stateroom on the ship, but she was dismayed when Zoe rebuffed her every effort to help her improve her looks and interact with Carly's friends. She'd also been surprised to find something comforting in Zoe's solid, studious, no-nonsense ways. Here they were on the sun-kissed eastern coast of Costa Rica--well, sun-kissed might be a stretch; more like insect-infested swampland with lonesome gray beaches, straggly coconut palms, and air so heavy it dripped--and Zoe was holed up in their stateroom with her nose in a chemistry textbook. Too bad. This would have been a great opportunity to impart a few wise tips about social graces to her roomie. Not that Carly didn't appreciate Zoe's hard work and the sobering realities that went with good grades. But work was work and play was, well, essential to one's well-being. Most of Carly's friends saw her as a funloving airhead who knew more about Kate Spade than Albert Einstein. It was true that she loved a good time, but she also got a kick out of things that fed her intellect and soul. She just didn't advertise it.
She watched the last knot of passengers disappear around another corner, their voices fading until only silence remained. The Sun Spirit brochure said that this village was known for its Latin music and native art, but from what Carly had seen so far, Parisima was more sleepy than artsy. Now that the tour groups were gone, she realized how empty the town was. Maybe she should have done the buddy-system thing after all and insisted that Zoe come with her. She pushed aside her creeped-out thoughts. After all, she was here for simple pleasures--a cold lemonade in an outdoor cafe, a tour of Julian's village, a bit of dancing at Club Bolero while he played his guitar. Her only concern was getting back to the Sun Spirit in time to meet Harriet for dinner.
Leaving her hiding place and stepping out into the sunlight, Carly glanced up and down the cobbled street. It was flanked on both sides by sun-bleached, pastel-colored buildings. She wondered where the photographer had found the beautiful spots featured in the Sun Spirit brochure. From what she could see, Parisima was a ghost town. She half-expected to see tumbleweeds blowing through the streets. She almost sighed with relief when she caught the faint strums of an acoustic guitar drifting on the heavy air. She squinted toward the sound, barely making out the hand-painted name on the building's facade: CLUB BOLERO.
Squaring her shoulders, she strode down the street toward the club, halted in front of it, and swallowed a laugh. The so-called club was little more than a faded, crumbling storefront. Maybe she had misunderstood Julian. He had said there was no better place for dancing and meeting people than the Bolero. She suddenly pitied the town if this was all they had to look forward to on Saturday nights.
Then she grinned, thinking of what Harriet would say: "Honey, some folks, desperate to find happiness, try to find happiness in the most desperate places. The harder they look, the more desperate the places. And all along, happiness is in the simplest place of all--right smack in the middle of their hearts."
That was Harriet, her philosophy in a clamshell. A wave of affection for the older woman washed over her. And she wondered at the chill that overtook her as she gazed at this desperate place. She thought about turning around and heading back to the ship, but the call to adventure was too strong.
On the outside patio a few plastic tables and chairs had been placed near a faded terra-cotta fountain. Dried palm fronds covered the ramada, providing shade over the patio. The sound of trickling water joined with the strums of guitar music, and the balmy wind tickled the dried tips of the fronds. A cockroach the size of Carly's fist crawled up one of the supporting poles. She shivered.
Julian sat to the right of the fountain, chair tipped against a stucco wall, his hat pulled low. As Carly took a seat, he lifted his guitar in a friendly salute, then once more let his fingertips dance across the strings.
Jazz. A smooth, liquid jazz with a Latin beat. The village no longer seemed so empty or scary. Julian didn't take his eyes off her as he sang, and she lost herself in his music. And when he began "Besame mucho" she leaned forward, elbows on the table, and shot him a flirty smile.
She wasn't surprised when, after a few more songs, he put aside his instrument, sauntered over, pulled out a chair without asking and sat across from her. He wore khaki pants with a brilliant white shirt, tucked in, sleeves rolled up, unbuttoned enough to see the tan of his chest. When he smiled, his teeth matched the white of the shirt. He looked even more delicious than he had onboard the Sun Spirit.
"You thought I wouldn't?"
"I have watched you on the Spirit. You are smart and cautious, not one to take chances. I thought you might have second thoughts about meeting a stranger." His tone was teasing.
"Are you a stranger?" She matched her tone with his.
"I worried that you might think so." He reached for her hand, turned it over, and gently stroked her palm. She pulled it away, but not before a 5.3 tremor shivered up her spine. "Now that we are no longer strangers, I have questions for you."
"And they would be...?"
"How do you like this place, my little village? How is it you prefer an educational adventure cruise to a party ship? How is it you prefer meeting me to soaring by aerial tram through the rain-forest canopy? How is it you travel on a ship about to 'go under,' so they say?"
Carly countered, "And how is it you work on such a ship instead of on a five-star, two-thousand passenger party ship where the tips would be two hundred times what you get now?"
"Your spirit matches your flame-colored hair."
"And you speak beautiful English, but in cliches."
He threw back his head and laughed. "You very adeptly sidestepped my questions. Most American students travel only as far as Mexico to party. What makes you different?"
"I'm not most students."
His gaze traveled down her frame. "So I have noticed."
"To return to your first question, your village certainly doesn't match the pictures in the brochure. As for your second, I'm on this cruise because my mother gave it to me as an early graduation gift--plus I need the credits to graduate. She thought the whole package would be more suitable than partying."
He leaned closer. "And what about you? Do you think it is more suitable?"
"A ship with so few passengers is a bit limiting, but not unpleasant."
"You do not mind one lone guitar player instead of clubs that rock all night?"
"I'm not that kind of girl."
"You are intelligent, then? A serious student?"
"I like to think so, but why should you care?"
He threw his head back again and laughed. The sound of his laughter was almost as beautiful as his singing. "I treasure women with brains."
Carly's cheeks warmed, and she let her gaze drift away from him, enjoying the moment. She felt him watching her and turned. There was a new look in his eyes, perhaps admiration for something more than her figure. "When are you due to board the Sun Spirit ?"
"The same as you. This evening." A mosquito landed on her arm, and she brushed it away. Another took its place.
"Ah, what you say is true...to a point, and I will explain later. But this also means you can stay to see me perform tonight at the Bolero--at least for a little while. But we cannot have you waiting around here. I think you might enjoy a personal tour of Parisima, yes? What you see here in town is nothing. It is out there where the magic begins. Beyond Parisima." His gesture took in the outskirts of the village, the ocean to the east, the rain forest to the west, the banana plantations to the north. "You can trust me.
What I tell you is true." His teeth flashed in the sunlight.
Julian seemed to sense her indecision. He removed his hat, raked his fingers through his hair, and leaned forward intently, his eyes never leaving hers. "We can stop by the ship if you would like. Captain Richter will vouch for me--even though he is no longer my boss." His smile was wide and confident.
"Don't you sail with us tonight?"
"That is what I need to explain. I am sorry to report that my contract ended with last night's performance. Does this mean you will miss me?"
Carly didn't answer. It bothered her that he no longer worked on the Sun Spirit. She felt as if she was stepping close to the edge of something dangerous, unable to help herself, yet unable to move away. It was the same feeling she once had when standing too close to an overlook at the Grand Canyon. It had made her toes ache.
"I will be at the Bolero every night for the next six weeks. And as for the five-star super ship you so glowingly described? That is the reason I ended my contract with the Sun Spirit. I will be performing onboard the Empress Catalonia."
"A step up. Congratulations."
"You do not sound sincere."
The boldness of his gaze was beginning to bother her. And the way it darted now and then to the dusty cobbled road, as if he was looking for someone.
"I would like to return to the ship before our tour, if you don't mind."
"Of course I do not mind. The captain knows me well--"
"No, no. It's not that at all. It's just that I was supposed to meet someone later tonight."
Julian's eyebrow shot up. "Someone I know?"
"No, just a friend. But I want to let her know I may be late."
"Of course. We'll head to the ship first." He rose, bowed slightly, and took her hand as she stood. "I will tell you about our beautiful country and my little village as we walk." His obsidian eyes glinted as he adjusted his hat brim. He tucked her hand in the crook of his arm as they walked toward the edge of the village.
"I will start with butterflies, something Costa Rica is known for. They are so abundant we claim ten percent of the world's species. One of our butterflies--the blue morpho--has a wingspan the size of a saucer." He laughed. "A very large saucer--nine inches to be exact. And it is a vivid, electric blue. The bright color serves as a warning for predators to stay away. Is it not a shame that beauty cannot always do that in nature? So many innocent creatures would be spared." He smiled, but he obviously didn't expect an answer.
They stepped around a wooden cart filled with overripe bananas. Flies buzzed around the fruit, and a sickening scent hung heavy in the air. An old man sat nearby in the shade of a dried-palm shelter. He held out his hand, palm up. "Por favor, senorita, quiere comprar de fruta?"
Carly dug into her pocket for a coin. She placed it in the man's hand but waved away the fruit. Almost before she had finished, Julian cupped his hand beneath her elbow and guided her to a path flanked by tall, leafy plants. "And did you know the blue morpho is poisonous?"
"No," she said. "I've never heard of such a thing."
"It is true. Though intended for predators, its venom is so strong it can kill a human being." She shivered visibly and he laughed. "You do not need to worry. These rare and beautiful butterflies do not sting. You will die only if you eat one." He laughed again.
"Their feeding habits are especially interesting. They suck in the juices of everything from the bodily fluids of dead animals to fermenting fruit."
He stopped walking and looked down at her. "Strangely, it is when they become inebriated and wobble in flight that they are most easily caught." He paused again, his dark eyes fixed on hers.
Excerpted from The Butterfly Farm by Diane Noble Excerpted by permission.
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