He was sitting across the aisle on the plane from Christchurch when Clara first set eyes on him. She was struck by his shining silver hair and serious expression. She tried to catch his attention, to say hello as one does to a fellow traveller, but he seemed lost in thought.

'Down the centre of the table, laid with palm fronds'

'Down the centre of the table, laid with palm fronds'

On several occasions during the flight to Rarotonga, she noticed him in her peripheral vision, glancing at her.

When she finally caught his eye as they boarded the shuttle from the airport to the resort, he looked away.

That evening, wearing a yellow and red hibiscus flowered frock with a cream scarf tied loosely around her neck and hanging over one shoulder, Clara found herself seated next to him at the restaurant table where staff quietly seated guests they knew were travelling alone.

Down the centre of the table, laid with palm fronds, a row of candles in hollowed-out pineapples gave a glow that highlighted the silver in his hair yet softened the prominent forehead and strong chin. He had soft, amber eyes, similar to her own.

Conversation was awkward at first, but after three wines, they decided to guess what the other did for a living. Clara told him he had a face like a funeral director. He shook with laughter and introduced himself as Laurence Thorndike, a vicar.

"I'm taking a Cook Islands holiday on doctor's advice. Been feeling a bit run down lately. And you are," he continued, leaning into her, "if I read you right, the editor of a women's magazine?"

Clara blushed. She didn't care if he said this to every woman, he'd said it to her. She was beginning to feel unusually confident. It wasn't just the wine.

"I'm a stressed-out website designer," she said, running a hand through her flowing brown locks. She flushed. He seemed really nice. Older than her, but young in his ways. "I had to come on holiday by myself," she continued, after some hesitation. "My husband decided he couldn't face the long flight and airport queues with his back problem."

Laurence looked at her, one eyebrow slightly raised.

*

After dinner, they shook hands and said goodnight. As the other guests wandered off to a fire-walking ceremony on the beach, and the pool beside the restaurant became deserted, Clara strolled back to her room and slipped into her one-piece bathing suit.

With a shiraz in one hand, and pressing a towel wrapped around her upper body with the other, she eased herself down the steps, singing quietly. With a quick intake of breath she stopped, shocked to make out a man in the pool, resting one arm along the edge in the shadow of a palm tree.

"It's me, Laurence," he called out. "Don't be shy. There's plenty of room."

Clara hesitated for several seconds, then stepped into the water, and immersed herself fully before removing her towel, soaking wet, and placing it on the edge of the pool.

Laurence smiled and his amber eyes seemed to glow with unusual intensity as he moved towards her with hardly a ripple.

"I hoped we'd meet up again." He clinked his glass against hers. "I enjoyed chatting with you at dinner."

"That's nice," Clara said. She turned aside, and leaned her head back until her long hair dipped in the water. Gazing at the night sky, she breathed in the fragrances of a balmy tropical evening.

"It's magic, isn't it," said Laurence, sipping his wine, turning to her with a smile.

"Yes, enchanting," sighed Clara. "Oh, would you look at that moon!"

"There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Laurence quoted, almost to himself, lowering his face as if deep in thought.

Clara raised the glass to her lips. A galaxy of insects whirled around each lantern hung from the trees.

Approaching voices and laughter were heard from the sandy track leading up from the beach. Clara grabbed her towel and, draping it around herself, left the pool.

*

The early morning sun was pouring through the bamboo blinds into Clara's room. The air was already stifling and muggy, sweet with the scent of frangipani. She took off her sweat-drenched nightie and stood before the mirror, naked, frowning at her reflection.

Clara was the first guest to appear for a buffet breakfast when the restaurant opened at seven o'clock. Filling a plate with island fruits and homemade yoghurt, she'd no sooner sat down than a blonde-haired, older woman wearing red lipstick burst through the strips of bamboo hanging in the doorway.

"Another day in paradise," she called out to Clara, striding to the buffet in a pair of straw sandals with cowrie shells along the straps.

"The name's Penny." The woman shook Clara's hand, holding out a bowl of bananas and blueberries as she sat beside her. "Powerful antioxidants, these, but we don't really need them here, do we? The stress has already washed away. I wonder where they got blueberries from? Probably Auckland." She chortled. "Oh, by the way, I saw you last night with Laurence Thorndike."

"Do you know him?" Clara put down her spoon.

"Only by reputation. He's got a healing ministry." Penny licked yoghurt off her fingers. "He married my cousin Cherie and then they moved up North. Poor Cherie! She died about a year ago. I've only met Laurence once, at their wedding, but of course he only had eyes for Cherie then. I doubt if he'd remember me."

"Speaking of eyes," Clara said, hesitantly. "I didn't like the way Laurence was looking at me in the pool."

"Really?"

"I felt very uncomfortable," said Clara, screwing up her face.

"Just between you and me. . ." Penny lowered her voice and looked towards the door. "Laurence had a child to some young woman just before he started training for the ministry. He only saw the baby once before it was adopted out, and was mesmerised by its distinctive birthmark. Since then, so I've heard, whenever he sees a female about the age his daughter would be, he's had this sort of compulsion to look at her neck and shoulder areas. It's probably quite innocent. Sad, really. He was only twenty when she was born. It's like he's always hoping to find her!"

"Why doesn't he just apply to see her under the Adoption Act?"

"Can't. With him about to enter the ministry, it was all hushed up... mother boarded out of town to have the baby... usual sort of thing…then went back to England where she came from. And the father wasn't named on the birth certificate."

"Ah, I see!"

"And, would you believe it, my cousin Cherie, the woman he married, had a birthmark, too, just above her pubic area. It had really eroded her confidence, made her shy off men because she thought they'd reject her when they saw it. Laurence was the first man she let into her life. When Cherie eventually showed it to him, he held his hand over it, said a prayer and within a week it had vanished! That's what lead him eventually into a healing ministry."

"Amazing!" Clara exclaimed.

"Isn't it! Now, his daughter's birthmark, according to what Laurence told Cherie, was a really distinctive one. I guess he'd want to heal that, too, if he ever finds his daughter."

Penny stopped to dab at a drop of orange juice on her blouse with a handkerchief. She glanced up at Clara's expression and said, "Don't worry. It'll come out in the wash!"

"Tell me about Laurence's daughter's birthmark," Clara urged. "I've got a friend with a really unusual one and it's affected her badly, in a number of ways."

Penny looked at her curiously. "From what Laurence told Cherie, it went from her neck to her breast in the shape of a question mark."

Clara's hand suddenly tightened on a slice of mango she was about to pop into her mouth and shot the slippery fruit across the table onto the floor.

"Are you alright? asked Penny.

Clara stared at her. "I'm starting to lose my vision," she stammered. "It's the onset of a migraine. Sorry, I have to go lie down."

"You do look pale, dear." Penny squeezed her hand.

Clara stumbled to the door, giving a little yelp when she nearly bumped into Laurence.

"I'm worried about that woman," said Penny to Laurence, as he entered the dining room and looked back at the doorway. "She may need some of your famed pastoral care." Penny held out her hand. "The name's Penny. I'm your late wife's cousin. We met at your wedding."

*

After ransacking the mini-bar in her room, Clara devoured every cake of chocolate in her flight bag, two muesli bars, a Moro bar, and a packet of Macaroons. She stayed in her room for the rest of the day and all that night. She did not appear in the restaurant for breakfast.

*

The next afternoon there was a knock on her door.

"It's okay," Laurence said quietly, keeping the door open with one elbow. "I'm wearing my vicar's hat today. I just thought I'd call around to see if you're okay. Penny said you had a bad migraine and I wondered if I could help."

Clara opened the door reluctantly and motioned towards a chair. "I'd make you a coffee, but I've run out."

"How are you feeling?" Laurence asked.

"I've been better."

"Anything I can help you with?"

Clara didn't reply.

"I'll come to the point." Laurence leant forward on the chair, hands clasped between his knees. "Penny, who happens to be my late wife's cousin, said you looked upset when she confided in you about my adopted-out daughter and her birthmark."

"Yes," said Clara in a small voice. "Penny told me you were looking for a woman with a birthmark shaped like a question mark." She stopped talking and glanced up at him. "Like mine."

A puzzled expression crept across Laurence's brow and then cleared. "I'm terribly sorry. Penny's got that dreadfully wrong. My daughter's birthmark was like an exclamation mark."

"So you're not my father, after all," said Clara, after a long silence.

Laurence shook his head slowly and tucked his bottom lip over his top one. "And, sadly, you're not my daughter."

"Seems like it," said Clara, blinking.

"It's turned out to be neither of us, then," Laurence said with a grin, "Never mind. I've been searching the world for a daughter, and it looks like I've found a friend."

Clara reached out to touch his hand.

"How about a walk along the beach?" he asked.

***