Having decided to live after all, JJ and her suitcase stood crammed in the back corner of the elegant gilt elevator. Neil Diamond musak crooned from hidden speakers and the thing moved as slowly as if it was in holiday mode too. Try as she might to click her heels together and be anywhere else, JJ was forced to feign invisibility as cruise ship conversation twittered jubilantly about her.
Subjects ranged from the famous cranberry and flaxseed smoothie made on the Rio Deck that did great things for one’s ‘morning constitution’, to the hotly contested couples bridge tournament. And—no, please god, let the rumour not be true—early afternoon Tantric yoga with extra (hands on) help for anyone with arthritis.
Doing her all to keep that image out of her head, JJ hummed Sweet Caroline and tried to recall the pictures of the ship that had made Erica—and her—so determined it was the perfect getaway from-it-all. The fourteen sprawling decks, three lustrous pools, a gorgeous cinema, an elegant casino, quaint island stopovers, and four bars had seemed promising.
Four gorgeous, deluxe, well-stocked bars. Her hopes – dashed hopes– for some twenty-seven-year-old-worthy fun having gone up in flames, she still had sun and rum up her sleeves and figured they’d have to make up the shortfall.
When her deck—the Maldives Deck no less—lit up, JJ excuse-me’d her way to the front without making eye contact with her clearly curious passengers. They too had noticed that she was less than half their average age. Yippee. And—hearing likely not what it once was—their intrigued voices spilled out into the hall even as the lift doors closed.
JJ took her first breath in minutes that didn’t boast the sweet scent of talc, and checked the Post-It note stuck to her passport (Erica’s version of an itinerary) to find her room number was 11-121. How many rooms were on this ship? How many blissfully married couples inhabiting them, discussing intestinally beneficial smoothies while gazing longingly at one another?
The sooner she found any of those bars the better.
But first she needed to find her room.
Eeny meeny miny . . . right.
Cold fingers curled around the handle of her small suitcase JJ began the interminable walk down the hall.
Couple after couple sauntered happily by. Holding hands. Making one another laugh. Staring at her open-mouthed. Murmuring about ‘work done’ versus ‘good bone structure’.
Collecting stares and whispers like normal holidaymakers collect postcards, JJ felt like a sideshow attraction. Stuff the bars. If she ever found her room she was staying put.
Picking up the pace, the tips of her heels catching on the acid-red carpet, when she reached the end of the hall, her nerves were twanging hard enough she could hear them. But all she found was a door marked ‘Staff Only’, more elevators, and around the corner . . . another hall that led off into infinitum.
She shut her eyes and leaned against the cool of the wall, and muttered, “Who does a girl have to screw around here to find her damn room?”
Shadows poured over the JJ’s closed eyelids.
“Need something?” a voice rumbled.
JJ pried her eyes open to find herself looking at . . . Well. To call him a man felt like an understatement. The guy had to be part mountain. Taller than her by half – or so he looked – and twice her width, he was all brown skin and brawn, with thick dark hair, and a square jaw shadowed with the kind of stubble that she’d have bet even the most exacting shave couldn’t keep at bay for long.
Needless to say she felt anything but ambivalent.
In fact, the insouciant kid who’d leapt into freezing waterholes blinked her way back into the light. For not only was he a sight to behold, the guy had also been born the same century as she.
A small, clear voice in the back of her hear insisted that fun be moved right back to the top of the to-do list.
“Everything okay?” said he, shifting closer. Close enough she could count his lashes – a million at least. Caught his scent – clean, drinkable. Saw the crease at the corner of his mouth twitch as if he knew exactly what was going on his in her head and he was about to smile.
JJ blinked. Slowly. Then, not knowing where to look, looked down. Which was when she noticed the purple polo and beige cargo shorts.
Mountain Man was not a passenger—he was staff. Meaning no chance of fun there after all. It was all JJ could do not to sob.
“Sure,” she said. “Of course. I’m fine.”
No! Everything was not okay.
But JJ had moved out of home at sixteen, been married and divorced by eighteen, then had moved from her tiny town to the big smoke and forged a life for herself from nothing. And she’d done it all on her own. Asking for help was not her forte.
“Kane Phillips,” said he, his voice so deep it rumbled through her. He heaved a pile of crisp white towels from one beefy arm to the other so that he could hold out a hand and fill every last fraction of space between them that he hadn’t already. “Fitness Director.”
“Juliana Jones. JJ,” she said, shaking his hand to find it warm, dry. The scrape of calluses against her palm left a delicious tingle in its wake. It was all she could do not to wipe her palm down her side in order to make it go away.
“First-timer?” asked he of the two-word-sentences, his deep voice creating ripples in the air.
“Is it that obvious?”
His gaze flicked down to her feet and all the way back up so fast she’d either imagined it or the guy had wicked cataloguing skills.
“Glaringly,” he said with a hint of a smile that included a flash of white teeth that made her belly twitch and her breath hitch. Then he added, “Dancer?” Seemed he’d cut all the way back to one-word sentences. As if he needed to say anything at all. The man could just stand there and most women would smile and nod.
JJ wasn’t most women. She shook her head.
Her skills were many and varied, helped along by the million temp jobs she’d mastered in her life, but dancing wasn’t one of them. Maybe a notch above asking for help and navel gazing. Then again . . . maybe not.
A girl of no singular talent, the Dainty Hill sixth grade teacher had called JJ in front of her entire class of eight kids. After which she’d beamed at JJ’s future ex-husband, who was already a math whiz the entire town had known would take the world by storm. No wonder JJ had decided then and there that was the boy she was going to marry.
“Two left feet,” she said, shortening her cadence to match his, as this fast turned out to be one of the more peculiar conversations of recent times. And that included having to recently tell her boss that do you want me to call someone to fix the photocopier was not a euphemism for please fondle my backside. “You?”
He glanced the miles down to his own enormous feet and said, “This run? Quoits. Physio Bocce.” When his eyes lifted back to hers – cool, level, fringed in curling dark lashes that were, quite simply, unsporting in their gorgeousness – he crossed his arms, apparently settling in. “Not a dancer. The new nurse? You’ll be popular.”
Heaven forbid. JJ opened her mouth to ask why. Then it hit her. “Little blue pills?”
Mountain Man’s mouth kicked up at one corner to reveal a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t dimple, as if life wasn’t unfair enough. “Sea-sickness jabs.”
Oops. “Right. Of course.”
“So not a dancer. Not a nurse. Bar staff?”
And then JJ realized why the exchange felt peculiar; not because the man’s cool eyes held hers in a way that was a nudge left of friendly but because they’d been having two separate conversations. He thought she was staff. Made sense; considering the idea that she might be a passenger was just plain dumb.
“I’m here for the sun. And the rum. And—“
Fun. Come on, say it. The voice was back. There’s a little spark here, you know it. Even if it’s one-sided that’s better than a kick in the shin! Look the beautiful man right in the eye and say you are looking for some fun.
“And that’s it.”
Coward, the voice castigated.
She told the voice to rack off. Because something about the beautiful man made her feel prickly. Edgy. Like she was a little outside her own body. His bigness? His directness? The fact that all on his lonesome he’d made her tummy flip in a way that even those few blissful moments of burgeoning hope earlier hadn’t quite been able to. Despite the fact he liked to keep his sentences short, there was nothing remotely simple about him.
“You’re a guest?” Dark eyebrows slid up his tanned forehead. And his focus didn’t budge, even as a pair of grey-haired, identical twins in body-hugging, retina-burning, neck-to-knee, fluorescent-pink swimsuits shuffled down the hall.
“I am that,” she said, holding out her arms: what you see is what you get.
Taking her invitation and running with it, this time he took his time raking his steady gaze over her Rolling Stones tour t-shirt, her skinny black jeans, and her boots which were tipping in and out at the ankles as the spark hit sky-scraping levels.
When his gaze lifted back to the iconic red lips emblazed across her chest, they stayed a beat. He scratched at his chest, pulling purple cotton across mounds of muscle that had JJ swallowing . . . hard.
“Your husband near about?” he asked, rocking back on his heels.
She knew it wasn’t a line. The furrow between his brows made that clear. And yet the voice in her head was desperately trying to get her attention. “I’m here on my own.”
The furrow disappeared as one eyebrow lifted. Then the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t dimple winked into view and stayed as he laughed, a deep rumbling glory of a sound. “This is a Second Honeymoon cruise. Couples only. Forty years married and beyond.”
She knew it. She’d known something anyway. But having it stated like that, no holds barred, whatever hope she might have had that maybe she’d simply been on the wrong deck vanished faster than chocolate in Erica’s fridge.
“When you get back on dry land, Ms. Jones, I suggest you have a word with your travel agent.”
A veritable speech, she thought, crossing her arms as if she needed to hold herself together. “I can assure you, there’ll be more than one.”
The laughter remained at bay, but the remnant smile remained. Heated. Focused.
Then Kane Phillips, Fitness Director, lifted a big hand and reached towards her.
Her next breath caught in her throat and blood flooded her cheeks. She nearly went cross-eyed as his big-knuckled fingers disappeared from view and delved into her hair. The tug at her scalp made itself felt elsewhere. Then south of elsewhere.
When his long brown fingers reappeared they held a thin, curling, green streamer. On autopilot, she held out a hand and he dropped the paper spiral into her palm.
“Poppers,” he rumbled. “We’ll be cleaning ’em up for days.”
Because he was staff, she reminded herself, and therefore not about to dive headlong into a red-hot fun-fest with a passenger looking to keep busy so that she didn’t accidentally find herself with nothing to do but think. Probably even if she said pretty please.
JJ wondered if her internal plea had manifested itself in an outward one, as when his eyes shifted back to hers they held on. Long enough she felt his gruff energy loop around her like the paper curled round her little finger. And she found herself caught; deer, headlight, whatnot.
Then the frown was back and his gaze glanced away, down to a big battered diving watch circling his thick wrist.
With a last glance, a last nearly smile, he shook his head. “Stay out of trouble, Ms Jones.”
Then he heaved the beach towels from one big arm to the other, and, whistling, his set off down the hall, eating up the mile with his long strides, leaving her alone with still no clue as to where she was going to sleep that night but the utter certainty she’d be doing so alone.
End of Excerpt