Love on the Rocks by former management professional Ismita Tandon Dhankher is "a romantic thriller that tests the bonds of love and marriage against a backdrop of suspense, intrigue and psychological undercurrents".
A young newly-wed woman, Sancha, excitedly sets sail with her merchant navy officer husband for the first time. What she doesn't know is that a month before her arrival, the chief cook was found dead in the meat locker and although his death was ruled an accident, circumstances lead the inquisitive Sancha to uncover a murder plot. Worse, the evidence seems to implicate her secretive husband and as if things don't seem complicated enough, the first engineer on board, her husband's best friend, is attracted to her.
We bring you an excerpt:
Back in my cabin, I wondered if deceit was the only universal truth. My husband had driven that home by his actions and the handful of acquaintances I had on board were no saints. I thought that funny, sailors and saints? Never! They were a different breed of men from the ones you encountered in your normal course of life. A breed that was large-hearted in many respects, eccentric but also flawed.
It was eight in the evening; Aaron's watch for the day was over and he would be down any time. I picked up the folder so I could return it to its rightful place before he caught me snooping among his things again. It was then that Rose came back into my life from the oblivion I had sent her to.
The black-and-white photograph that slipped out of the folder and fell on the carpet was of a beautiful woman. Her fair skin stood out against the black backdrop, giving her a haunting quality. Coming face to face with the other woman so suddenly was a shock, but nothing could've prepared me for the sight of the dark-skinned boy in her arms. He was about six or seven years old and had little resemblance to his mother, but there was no mistaking who his father was. Further proof lay scribbled on the back of the picture.
Rose and Ryan, it read, obviously derived from combining Rose and Aaron.
I could have fought with the presence of Rose in my life but the existence of the child tilted the scales in her favour. I didn't know why he had abandoned Rose and married me, but I was not surprised that Aaron hounded her with his calls. I felt cheated of the happiness that I had imagined we would share in the years to come, children and a home, and our love for each other that would grow into something mature with time. How dare he drag me into his mess? Who did he think he was to play with my emotions? Did he think I was such a fool that I would never learn about his other life? I thought of exposing him for what he was, a man with no sense of morality, a wolf in sheep's clothing, but despite his betrayal, a part of me still wanted him to love me.
'Sancha,' Aaron's voice shattered the silence in the room. 'What's with you? Why can't you just let things be?'
'Why didn't you, Aaron? Why marry me if you had Rose in your life?'
'Rose is my past.'
'What about your bastard?' I showed him the picture I'd found.
'He's not a bastard!' Aaron exploded. There was so much anger on his face that I took a step back, fearing he might hit me again.
'Sancha, I would have told you everything when I was ready. But, no, you had to snoop among my things, dig through my files and fling wild accusations at me.'
'I know about the money, Aaron,' I said in a quiet voice.
'What do you mean, Sancha?'
'The stolen money, Aaron.'
I crossed the seating area, went to Aaron's desk and kicked the old CPU twice. The bolts were already loose and the back cover fell away, revealing a circuit of grey wires and bundles of green dollar notes.
'How did you know?' Aaron asked in resignation.
'Quite by chance, actually. Fate seems to be dumping all its treasures at my feet lately,' I replied. 'While vacuuming,' I added when he looked at me quizzically.
The reason that the US officials had not found the money was that an officer sailing with his wife is to a certain degree subjected to little or no suspicion. A man is considered to safeguard his family above all things and Aaron had taken full advantage of that sentiment.
'Why didn't you say anything earlier?'
'Because I wouldn't admit even to myself that I had married a thief. Now I just want to go home, away from you and your lies.'
'I didn't do it. Someone else stole the money and hid it in here.'
'If you didn't do it, then you have nothing to worry about. Just come clean, Raghav will know what to do.'
'You are so naïve, Sancha. No one will believe me, not even your new boyfriend, Raghav. And why would they when my own wife doesn't?'
'Raghav is the investigating officer. I'm sure he'll help us.'
'You stupid woman! You think Raghav is here for the love of justice? That he'll stick his neck out for someone who claims to have stumbled upon the loot in his own cabin? I don't think so.'
'So I should probably just look the other way and let you take the money home.'
'Is that what you think about me? And how do you think I am planning on taking the money off the ship without anyone noticing?'
'Just like you took advantage of my presence to hide the money in our cabin. No one will suspect the doting husband of stashing the money in his wife's suitcase.'
'Sancha, you have serious trust issues. You see a picture of a woman and child and you accuse me of infidelity. You find money in the cabin and I become a thief. What's next? Accusing me of murder? How am I supposed to confide in you when you obviously have such a low opinion of me?'
'Aaron, you forgot to mention the little spanking you gave me.' If I had kicked Aaron in the groin he would have been better off.
'You won't ever let me forget that, will you?'
'Skip the routine, Aaron. I want to know what you are going to do with the stolen money.'
'It's not exactly a neat retirement package, is it?' Aaron said, taking refuge in sarcasm.
'For all I know, Aaron, you could be a compulsive thief just as you are a darn good liar.'
'Twenty thousand dollars is peanuts! I can make that kind of money in one contract. Why would I risk my life, my career, for that? Can't you see I am being framed?'
'Who's framing you, Aaron? Harsh, Patel, or maybe Popeye?'
'I think it's Popeye.'
'Brilliant! This just gets better and better. The captain steals the money, "peanuts", from his own safe and hides it next door, in his C/O's cabin. Somehow, I don't think that make a very plausible story. You need to come up with something better than that.'
'Damn it! I need you to trust me, Sancha.'
'Well, I can't, not after I have seen your "happy family".' I threw the incriminating photo at his face.
'You mean if I tell you the truth about my relationship with Rose, you will become the loving, trusting wife as before?'
'I don't know if our love can stand such a trial, Aaron.'
'Well, your love doesn't inspire much confidence in me either, so I pass.'
'Just send me home, Aaron,' I said, my heart aching from his barbed words.
'I will, in due course. For now we'll do things my way.'
Not a word to Raghav or Harsh about the money.'
'You'll be sorry, trust me.'
'Don't you dare threaten me, Aaron! I swear you'll be spending the rest of your life in prison, counting your days, sorry that you ever met me.'
'Maybe I already am.'
'Get out, Aaron!' Even as I shouted, the PA system came to life and the captain's voice floated into the room.
'Engine cadet Kirk Alex please report to the bridge immediately.' Popeye repeated the announcement. There were sounds of hurried footsteps in the corridor and the phone in our room began to ring.
'Shit! I wasted so much time.' Aaron was cursing under his breath as he spoke into the receiver. 'No sign of him yet?'
I didn't know what was happening but whatever it was, it was grave enough to make Aaron sweat. Even my accusations had not had this effect on him. He picked up his walkie-talkie and asked me to lock the door after he left.
'What's going on?'
'Sit tight, Sancha, I don't want you wandering around. We'll talk when I come back.'
'What has happened, Aaron?'
'Baldy is missing.'
'Missing? How can you go missing on a ship?' Confusion made me forget our earlier conversation and I looked at him helplessly.
'We'll find him. Just stay in the cabin, Sancha. For once, listen to me.' He banged his fist against the door and left.
Baldy was missing. There was limited space on the ship; where could he go? I shivered, thinking of him lying somewhere like Gary, cold and dead. I tried to chase that thought away but it kept creeping back, more forcefully each time. Ten minutes later came the cry that confirmed my worst fears.
'Man overboard! Man overboard!'
Excerpted from Love on the Rocks (Rs 150) by Ismita Tandon Dhankher, with the permission of publishers Penguin Books India.