Chapter 1 - 2
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Our (Very Own) Solo Lady Romance Novel

Cruise to Seduction
By Alys Bohn and Lea Lane

Chapter One: To Be or Not 2B ... Chapter Two: Ms. Emeralds ...

Chapter One: To Be or Not 2B

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR; you might get it. The old folk saying had never rung truer, thought Alexandra, as she made her way up the aisle. She had always wanted to know what it felt like to fly first class, and now it was happening with a bang. Trouble was, she'd have given a lot to slink invisibly back to coach with a whimper. Every well-turned out passenger must be eyeing her splattered coat, rumpled big shirt, lopsided ponytail clump, glasses sliding down smudged nose and total lack of makeup. 
"Is this the noon plane to Miami," she had asked at the entrance. "If it isn't--the ship could sail without me, and I might lose my job.... And if it is, do I have time to clean up? I'm a mess."
     The attendant didn't contradict her. The young woman was indeed a mess, and a compulsive chatterer as well. "You have been upgraded to the only seat on the plane--a no-show in first class," she pronounced firmly. "The door is closing, so please take your seat in 2A. We can't leave the gate till you're in it."
     Alex quickly arrived at row 2, tossed her shoulder bag across to the indicated window seat, struggled out of her coat and opened the overhead bin. A large designer shopping bag promptly tumbled out, showering the head of the man on the aisle. 
     "I'm sorry," she gasped, hurriedly extracting some slinky wisps clinging to his gray, clearly-cashmere sweatshirt.       
     "Unbelievable," he exclaimed, emerging from behind his New York Times and rising, tall, lean and carefully avoiding the clumsy new arrival.
      "Oh, you're hurt," exclaimed Alex, horrified. She reached up to a red bump emerging on his forehead under a shock of thick, sand-colored hair, then discovered it was a cluster of sequins loosened from an orange scarf.
     "Not yet," he snapped. "But stop while you're ahead--don't do anything more." 
     "That's unfair," she retorted angrily. "It's not my stuff..."
     At this point the shopping bag's irate owner appeared, muttering about clumsy newcomers. She glared at Alex, who, stooping to pick up packages, found herself eye to eye with her seatmate, bent on the same task. His eyes--dark as bitter chocolate and expressionless as steel, registered something--surprise, perhaps--for the micro-second when brown met blue, then flicked back into neutral. She lowered hers just as fast and scooped up some wispy wish-list lingerie for its scowling owner. 
     "You expect me to use these now you've wiped the floor with them?" the woman asked Alex. She then switched seamlessly to "oo, 'ow kind," as Mr. 2B resurfaced with the last of the transparent silks. Blandly, he handed them over, stowed Alex's offending carry-on overhead, and stepped back as she smothered a hoot of laughter at the comedy just played out and slid into 2A. He resumed his work without even the brief nod she'd have expected from a fellow sardine back in coach.
     She shrugged. If she needed a good, distracting conversation, fate had assigned her the wrong seatmate. Choosing orange juice from a tray offered as the plane lumbered over to the takeoff queue, she tipped back the glass and her seat as well. Champagne had converted the o.j. into a Mimosa, she found. But for the start of her first-ever business-travel assignment, it was perfect.
     Only yesterday, Alex mused, she was just a fledgling reporter in the crowded editorial pool at Successful Restaurateur Management magazine. With a spotty resume and a year short of her state college diploma, just landing the job was a miracle. And this week here was another. "Meet this week's deadlines before leaving," the big boss told her, "and you'll spend the next week covering restaurants on a new cruise liner at sea."
     "I almost blew it today, though," she realized; "if it hadn't been for the no-show whose seat I'm sitting in, and for Jane's packing that big wheeled suitcase with what feels like rocks, I'd probably be reading the help-wanted ads on Monday morning. The close call felt like a warning, though: shape up from now on.
      "Please bring your seat to a takeoff position." An attendant's carefully-polite order interrupted her musings. Alex flushed. She was the only passenger who had tilted back before the plane was airborne. The seat snapped up easily, but the footrest didn't. And as she probed for its metal bar at her feet, her glasses tumbled to the floor and out of sight.
      "Allow me," said 2B frostily. "First flight, is it?" He leaned across her to flick the switch and fold back the footrest in a single swoop.
      "Thank you," gushed the attendant, gliding away with their empty glasses.
      "It is not," said Alex, furious. "But--my glasses just fell under your feet. I'm not normally this clumsy, but this morning has been a challenge from the start and...."
      "Apparently," he interrupted dryly. "But before we explore the floor again, let's wait until the seatbelt sign is off." His fastidious glance moved upward, dismissively past her earthy curves and briefly on to her startlingly blue eyes.


THIS WAS A STRANGE YOUNG WOMAN , he told himself, one of the few he had encountered who seemed to ignore how she looked. True, he had noted possibilities under the thick wool, smudges and awkward conversation. But he didn't admire extra pounds--even when some, admittedly, were in the best possible places. No, she wasn't his usual high-achiever, model-slim type--at all. Anyway, with the work he faced before and after they landed, he was in no mood to investigate. With a stiff upper lip expression that needed no words, he returned to his reading. She could talk; he hoped she could also shut up.
     The plane cleared for takeoff, gained speed and quickly achieved liftoff. As it leveled off, 2B bent to probe for Alex's glasses, silently placed them on the wide armrest between their seats, then retrieved a pencil-slim laptop from his briefcase.
      "Thanks--again," began Alex. But he was already deep into cyberspace.
     She leaned back, now able to see and savor the soft cream and taupe surroundings of the first-class cabin. Still too distracted by her cliffhanger departure even to read, she covertly studied her seat-mate. Like the famous World War II codebreaking project her history teacher father had loved to describe, he really ought to be named Enigma. His expression was deadpan at best--when not disapproving or disgusted. He could be helpful, but a self-serving agenda--like speeding their takeoff--came first. 
     When the attendant held out a hot, rolled washcloth with a pair of tongs, Alex scrubbed her sooty face and sticky hands. Beyond the plane's wing, silvery clouds of ice caught the fire of the sun. Snatches of sea rippled blue-gray below, then vanished as they climbed and leveled off.
     Brunch appeared, course by course. While her handsome seat companion sipped coffee and mineral water and worked at his laptop, she dug in. A linen cloth, heavy cutlery, and mini-jars of jam topped her tray table. The cabin crew paraded by with trays filled with juice and cereal while taking orders for omelets or huevos rancheros.
     Baskets of breads came with endless refills of coffee and drinks. So this was first class--at least on a flight destined for South .
     She wished her medical student sister could share the feast. When Alex had been given her new assignment she had promptly telephoned Jane at the micro-sized apartment the two shared. 
     "Jane? It's unbelievable," Alex had gasped. "My editor and her child are down with a bug, and she can't go on the cruise she's assigned to, so they're sending me. But I've had this job for only six months.... Can I do it?" 
     "Stop putting yourself down, Alex. You're smart and a total workaholic. We all know you've got what it takes. And a cruise is pure bliss--at least, mine with Tom was. But remember, you're six years younger than I am. Still, you'll need clothes--definitely not the stuff you've had since freshman year. In fact, I can join you for an hour's shopping before my next class." 
      "I've no time to pack, much less shop. There's too much work--plus I'm broke. Could you be a love and throw in any old junk for me?" Would her fashion-conscious sister even touch her stuff, she wondered. 
     I'd better get busy then," Jane had answered. "Don't worry, just have a fabulous trip." 
     Now, sipping coffee, Alex heard a cellphones-ok announcement. She had never called anyone from a plane, but today...and she'd talk low. 
     "Jane? Good, you're back. No, everything went wrong this morning, but now I'm on another plane. It was touch and go...." 
     As she described her morning, something like a growl momentarily distracted her. Glancing toward its source, Alex saw her seatmate 2B looking up from his laptop with near-murder in his smokey-brown eyes. 
     "Well, excuse me," she muttered under her breath. "If you don't want to be distracted, put on earphones." 
     Slightly surprised at herself, she turned her back pointedly and resumed the conversation--a shade louder. "Hello--no, everything's great. And you were an angel to pack for me--how could you find so much? Oh no, not your clothes! But you know I'm two sizes bigger--what am I going to look like? I'm hanging up. You too. No, believe me, this is business travel, not a vacation." 


2B HAD LEANED BACK AT LAST. With his eyes closed in repose, he looked almost nice--in fact, dishy--and closer to 30 than 40. Even slightly vulnerable. But his scowl remained. It was probably permanent. But he could be merely grumpy; his wife or girlfriend was probably the no-show, and Alex was sitting here instead. 
     Now, though, she needed to reach the aisle. But just as she lifted one black-clad leg to step over his raised leg rest, the plane lurched in an air pocket. Trying to avoid landing on his laptop, she fell awkwardly into his lap instead. He opened resentful eyes and stared straight into hers. 
     "Excuse me again," she stammered, struggling to rise against the plane's motion. "It's just that we've hit some turbulence, and...." For a moment it seemed he held her there, like some exterrestrial object. Far worse, her accidental perch was stirring a long ignored and hated memory. She panicked, traveling back--and back, to another time and place. Frozen, she couldn't move. But now the plane steadied, and so did he. 
     "Enough. Don't explain anything." His words were low, but the tone of his voice was like the steel of his eyes. And it broke her paralysis as he determinedly pushed her up and away. 
     Safe in the lavatory, she leaned against the door. She was feeling more turbulence than any high-altitude air pocket could produce. With hair now pulled back in a tight twist and stripped down to her plain black jeans and wool turtleneck, she saw in the mirror a normal young working woman in off hours, surrounded by unaccustomed touches of first-class flying--pristine cleanliness, bottles of aftershave, a rose in a bud vase. But she was remembering, as she sometimes did, a 15-year-old girl whose suddenly traitorous best friend had invited her for a sleep-over. 
     "Don't go there," she told herself sternly. But she was there. Her friend had tricked her into a double date as cover for making out with her new boyfriend. They had bribed his older brother to drive. But when he moved to Alex's side of the front seat.... 
     "Is anyone in there?" She fast-forwarded to the Miami-bound plane, where someone was impatiently jiggling the door latch. "Just a minute," said Alex, hastily throwing more cold water on her face. Not that it helped much. And her seat companion probably thought she had landed on him on purpose. Still, she was sure she wasn't the only woman to recognize a cashmere-clad sensuality under his aloof surface. How could she sit next to all
that masculine assurance and barely-veiled hostility again? 
     Walking back, neater and subdued, she noticed an empty seat on the other side of the aisle and quietly claimed it. Its occupant, who could have parachuted out for all she cared, proved to be an off-duty flight attendant now sitting with the crew. As soon as landed, Mr. 2B, who had surely welcomed her absence, vanished into the terminal. 


SHE SPOTTED HIM AGAIN as she waited on the bus bound for the Port of Miami . He was shaking hands with a well-dressed man whose silvery hair matched a an opulent Mercedes at the curb. Characteristically, 2B was giving the luggage-loading driver a hard time. At least, whatever his business was and wherever he was going to conduct it, their paths wouldn't be crossing again. Just a few miles away her ship was waiting.


Chapter Two: Ms. Emeralds

BEYOND MIAMI"S DOWNTOWN SKYSCRAPERS , the sight of the port was one Alex knew she'd never forget. Like strange giants from a distant planet seen across a broad approach, a fleet of dazzling white ships rose into a cloudless Florida sky.
     "Which one is ours?" surrounding passengers asked as the bus turned off the access road toward the boarding terminals. It stopped at an innocuous building.
     "All I can see is the tip of some smokestacks and a big white circle with glass bands," said a tall teen.
     "That's the observation lounge and disco at the top of the ship," someone else replied. "At least 10 decks are hidden behind this boarding terminal. Just wait."
     Pulsing with excitement, Alex joined a line winding through boarding procedures, up escalators and on to a gangplank so sheltered she still could see few signs of a ship. She gasped when she glimpsed it briefly at last. It looked as long as several football fields and gleamed boldly white with hundreds of windows and rows of silver deck rails.
     She stepped from the wide gangplank into a stunning six-story atrium, where a golden stone goddess played in a pretty fountain. Three glass-walled elevators packed with people whizzed up and down the area's impressive height.
     "Do all cruise passengers get personal escorts?" she asked a deferential steward who appeared, announcing he would escort her to her cabin. 
     "Everyone on this cruise line does. If you prefer to walk rather than take the elevator, by the way, your cabin is one flight up." 
     She did, and trailed him through clusters of arriving fellow-passengers. Traversing one long, carpeted corridor and ascending to another, he showed her how to insert the silvery key-card, turn the knob when the light flashed green and enter cabin 444. 
     Blond wood closets lined its small entrance, while beyond a pastel-covered bed a glass coffee table held a basket of fruit. A vanity-desk was topped by a TV and huge mirror. But what captured and held her eyes wasn't the cabin at all but the sea and surrounding port glimpsed through a real window. What a bonus, she realized, that they had expected her editor. She had read about cabins in Jane's cruise brochures, and was sure that a trade magazine's lowliest reporter would have rated an inside one. 
     Alone, she glanced in the wide mirror. The reflection was straggly, the face so pale that only the tortoise-colored frames of her glasses stood out. This is ridiculous, she thought. I look like a total zero. 



A SHAMPOO AND SHOWER in the pristine white bathroom worked wonders. Her hair was shiny again, and fragrance lingered from the tiny bottles on the countertop. Now, longing to explore the ship, she peered into her carry-on and its contents--mainly a laptop, the office's old recorder, and cosmetics. Clothes? She'd have to wait till the main luggage was delivered--unless.... There at the bottom, she discovered a small bundle that unrolled into a black bikini, cropped T-top and shorts, plus red flip-flops. This was her sister's version, apparently, of emergency clothes in case of lost luggage. She might as well get used to Jane's things now as later--and to their showing off cleavage and navels as if they were arms and knees. 
     A note in her cabin from the ship's hotel manager invited her to a briefing and tour after they sailed from Key West, tomorrow's port of call. Till then, she was on her own. 
     In the corridor by the elevator bank, passengers were waiting to be whisked to the upper deck cafe for lunch. Five flights up, buffet stations presented tantalizing arrays at a pasta counter, carving board, dessert stand and salad bar where she filled an iced plate. A waiter insisted on carrying her tray to her table. "Servers wear plastic gloves, surfaces are spotless," she told her recorder. "Service is way above buffet counters on land, where we tote our own trays and have to dump the empties." 
     She chose a round white table out on deck, near a pool flanked by twin Jacuzzis and graceful columns. The long deck beyond held another pool, several bars and a bandstand. Afterwards she walked to its end, where a giant fitness center was attracting impressed onlookers. Small fleets of treadmills and cycles faced a window wall that would soon face a boundless horizon. Behind them, bench presses, stair-climbers and cross trainers were waiting. 
     But now wasn't the time to try any of them. "Fifteen minutes to lifeboat drill," the ship's loudspeakers boomed. "Proceed to your cabins, collect the life jacket stored there and assemble at your muster stations as directed on the back of your door." 
     Alex found her luggage safely arrived, and pulled out the dresses to prevent further wrinkles. Now the "proceed to your muster stations" announcement sounded in earnest. Late again, she grabbed a bulky orange vest from its high shelf and set out for the lifeboat "muster stations." 
     Hurtling up several flights of stairs, she reached a landing where the crowd surged. In the crush, a sixth sense alerted her--to what? How could she tell, when the vest she was struggling to put on was now stuck over her head like an orange glob. Locked in Halloween darkness within it, she collided with a hard body--tall and substantial. Was it its size that jolted her every sense? Or a faint, undefined scent of herbs--or was it citrus? Or an unaccustomed tingling of her nerve endings? 
     All too soon, she understood what--or rather, who--was beyond the orange darkness. "Here, allow me," said the one voice in Florida that she knew: Mr.2B! 
     A screech of velcro parted the canvas halves that--to her chagrin--worked as a jacket, not the imagined pullover in which she'd trapped herself. As if led by fate with a warped sense of humor, she emerged face to face with her in-flight seatmate. 
     She had pegged him as a business traveler, with first class attitudes and expense account. Yet here he was--on not just any cruise but her cruise, and dressed in a plain black polo shirt. It was useless to say a word--not over the insistent voice of the announcer followed by the long and short hoots of the ship's alarm. Anyway, what would either of them have said? 
     One of her hands was clutching her glasses, the other gave a useless swipe at the tower of tangles that had recently been hair. Worst of all, she couldn't get the two vest halves to meet, and it felt like miles of space between Jane's T-top and shorts. Two large firm hands were searing her bare waist as if with a branding iron--one that produced heat in places far deeper than hands could ever reach. Never had she reacted with quite this sensitivity to someone's touch. 
     2B, luckily, appeared totally disinterested as he loosened some straps and pushed the velcro halves together. But he was strangely awkward as he tied the loose ends around her waist. 
     Wishing herself miles away, Alex stole a glance at his face. Fortunately, it was blank. Even his eyes showed no expression. Obviously, he considered her beneath his notice. 
     "Thank you," she said above the surrounding din. She couldn't resist muttering under her breath what she remembered from a favorite Casablanca line: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world..." as she replaced her glasses and headed for the muster station. He stared after her with a strange expression. And though she might have imagined that he finished the line with a barely-there "She has to walk into mine," a faint echo of something very much like that followed her as she vanished around the corner. 
     At the meeting point for her group of cabins, Alex perched on a bar stool under a stylistic jazz era mural. "In the extremely unlikely event of a real emergency at sea," explained the ship's loudspeaker. "You should wear warm clothing, leave all gear in your cabins and assemble quickly. If you cannot get to your cabin, extra jackets are available." 
     Passengers were solemn when they were led out on deck and lined up under rows of lifeboats. The crew inspected the operation and described the state-of-the-art, night-and-day survival equipment. "We have nearly 4,000 lifeboat seats for 2,000 passengers and 800 crew," they told the orange-vested audience. "We passed our Coast Guard inspection with a record rating." Every passenger on board hoped this ship was too well-equipped, engineered and guarded to be "Titanic: the Sequel." 



BY 8 THAT EVENING , Alex had unpacked and pressed the worst wrinkles from Jane's dresses. The daily bulletin found on her desk described the dress code for that night as "casual." Whatever that meant. From a trio of simple, predictably too short, slip dresses in primary colors (for which fashion-buff Jane had added matching nail polish), she chose the yellow, added strappy sandals and the trendy micro-glasses her parents had given her (along with a check for contacts that she repeatedly postponed) for Christmas. And since "real work" didn't officially start until tomorrow, Alex let her curls cascade from a silver claw-clip. 
     She joined a cluster of hungry passengers waiting to enter the MidLantic Restaurant's lower level. She certainly didn't fancy a highly-visible descent of the great curved staircase that swept between the dual stories. The dramatic room was--like the ship itself--a masterpiece of design. London tradition teamed tastefully with New York sophistication under a glistening chandelier. The MaÅ’tre d' stood by a table greeting the illustrious-looking arrivals personally, while his helpers scurried around guiding the more ordinary and confused passengers to their tables. 
     Though the restaurant seated more than 1,000 at a time, Alex discovered that each area was highly individual. Under the stairs, for example, the ambience was intimate. The area alongside the two-story window walls reflected the dramatically foaming sea spray beneath. How the tables were assigned, she didn't know or care. 
     Finally, she found her upper-story table--perched over the heart of the glittering lower room. Edging the polished wood and brass balcony rail, it hovered above the captain's and other V.I.P. tables on the level below. 
     "Welcome," chirped a birdÄlike woman, who was already seated at the round table for six and eating a golden roll. "I'm Sue, and this is my sister Nell." 
     "Hello, I'm Alex," she said, smiling and taking a seat. The sisters certainly didn't look alike: Sue was one of the thinnest people she had ever seen, with short gray hair cut like a small helmet, while Nell was much heavier, with reddish hair circling a friendly, florid face. 
     "Is this your first cruise?" Alex asked the icebreaker question politely, while settling in her seat and accepting the starched white napkin the waiter unfolded for her. 
     "Oh my no, it's our 19th," bragged Nell. "We just love it, and now that we're retired from teaching..." She broke off as a pleasant couple, holding hands as they approached, joined them. "We're Phyllis and Mike," the woman explained happily. "May we join the group?" 
     Short introductions followed--names, home towns, the standard small talk when strangers gather for a new semester or, apparently, the first night on a cruise. Mike and Phyllis looked like the honeymooners it turned out they were. Both were 40, maybe, down-to-earth Midwesterners with shiny brown hair and wide smiles. The last table occupant arrived in a rush. Stanley, a young but solemn accountant, was dressed in white, with pale features and a stocky build. He was definitely the quietest of the six. 
     The dining room filled quickly. Their waiter and busboy, with their distant homelands proclaimed on silver badges, smiled broadly as they discussed the five-course menu. Alex felt comfortable with her tablemates, and especially liked listening to Mike and Phyllis banter. "Did you check out your interactive TV?" she asked them. "It's great," said Phyllis. "We ordered shore excursions on it--what are you doing?" 
     "Let's see--the 'Conch Train' in Key West tomorrow, 'Intro to Snorkeling' in Cozumel Monday, and 'Mayans of the Yucatan: Ruins and Beaches' on the Mexican mainland," answered Alex. "Then my budget started to protest. For the Cayman Islands, I'll just walk around. And the cruise line's Private Island the last day is free."

     "We're going on the same trips in Key West and the Yucatan," said Phyllis. "We can all go together." 
     "Right," agreed Mike. "And who else?" 
     "But you're on your honeymoon," protested Alex. "It's supposed to be for two, not three or six." 
     "Oh, we'll save time for two too," he countered. "How about it--Sue, Stan?" 
     "I'm on for the Mayans," put in Stanley. 
     "We're off on our own," chorused Sue and Nell in tandem. 
     A good "someday" relationship, mused Alex, would include what Mike's and Phyllis' seemed to--mutual interests and humor and, of course, love. When she fantasized about the future, it was as much about laughing and trading ideas with someone as about making love--though there she was on much shakier ground. 
     "Look," exclaimed Nell, pointing to a great Roman shade descending over the lofty window wall overlooking the ship's wake. The captain's table sat so close to the window that its occupants seemed to float on the frothy, spotlit sea. And diners on the balcony, in turn, could peer almost straight down onto the table. 
     Their waiter explained that the captain was, by tradition, on the bridge the first night out of port. But another uniformed officer in "casual night" khaki was host to a chosen few. Phyllis, closest to the rail, gave a running commentary. 
     "That officer is the handsomest--no, maybe not. The man two seats away from him has my vote--you can tell he's got class. I think he's with his wife. See, that tarty blonde. Another nice guy, trapped by a pretty face. 
     "She's my age or more--but trying to look yours, Alex. And she's wearing almost nothing at all--a pale camisole and silicone, if you ask me. Which you didn't." 
     "What's he wearing?" asked Mike, with the dry humor Alex was growing fonder of by the minute. 
     "He?" snorted Phyllis. "Who cares? You do? Not. Oh well, a black turtleneck--looks like cashmere, from here." 



ALEX LEANED OVER PHYLLIS. She simply couldn't resist. Yes, there was the Mr. Enigma, her boat drill rescuer--if you could call it that. From his wardrobe, his name might easily be Mr. Cashmere. And who was he? Surely the captain chose only V.I.P. table guests. 
     She knew he worked hard, spending most of a Saturday flight reading thick reports and writing on his laptop. From his manners, she assumed he was well brought up--or had read the right how-to books. From the way he spoke--to the extent that he did--he was well educated. And it was obvious that he was as used to flying first class as she wasn't. 
     "He and the officer are talking eyeball to eyeball," said Phyllis from her front row view. "The blonde is joining in--leaning in, actually--to show off her cleavage better. Somehow, I don't think they're married." 
     But they could be, thought Alex, even though they hadn't flown down together. And joining her would definitely be a reason to take a cruise. "She's really beautiful--in a way," she remarked to no one in particular. 
     "Yeah, but she's trying just a little too hard to stay in the conversation," said Phyllis. "When she laughs, she throws her head back a bit too far, and coming forward, she touches that hunk's arm and laughs again." 
     Hurriedly, Alex switched her attention to the waiter now asking them to choose one of the salad dressings in silver pitchers. Straight vinegar would match her strange reaction to the scene below. She hadn't had any thoughts, of course, of seeing her disapproving seatmate again. And a good thing she hadn't, because he certainly had a designer-clad armful of slim sophistication to occupy him for the full voyage. 
     Well, she had no complaints. Here she was--in perfect surroundings to develop the articles her restaurant-owner and -manager readers would devour. If she stayed in this job she could work up to the level of rating cruises and upgrades on her own. 
     The wine steward appeared, napkin over his arm and wine society chain around his neck. "This is the ship's own brand of champagne," he said. "It is our gift for the honeymooners." 
     "Why, thank you," said Mike. "And please bring six glasses. We want to share with everyone." 
     As they toasted the newlyweds, the waiter brought their piping hot entrees--grilled seafood for Alex, the curry for Nell, and steak for the others--on heated plates. The busboy hovered, offering freshly-ground pepper and then special sauces. 
     Remembering Jane's already-stretched clothes, Alex passed up lemon tartes, chocolate cake and mango ice cream from the bounteous dessert tray. The diners--including the lissome blonde and her partner at the captain's table--were filtering out on their way to the evening's "Welcome Aboard" show in the main theater. 
     "You're coming to the show, aren't you?" Phyllis asked the group. "I'll pass," said Alex, coasting along on last night's four hours of sleep. 
     "At least have a drink or coffee first," coaxed Phyllis. "There's some music in the Celebrants Lounge that may give you a second wind." 
     The new acquaintances walked from the restaurant's upper level along a luxuriously-inlaid passageway. Passing several lounges they found the large, traditional-style Celebrants that Phyllis had spotted. All of them liked its orchestra, now playing for dancers on a marquetry floor and listeners on back-to-back tapestry banquettes circling small brass-rimmed tables. 
     Alex sat on a banquette across from Phyllis and Mike, with Stanley next to her. The sisters went off to the deck, as Sue had been craving a cigarette all though dinner. 
     "So is this what you expected so far?" asked Stanley rather awkwardly, as if this setting demanded more than his usual ration of small talk. 
     "Well I really didn't know what to expect. I've never cruised before. So far the sea has been calm, the surroundings are great, the food is wonderful and I like the people. Not too bad!" 
     "Care to dance?" he asked nervously. "I would," said Alex, surprising even herself by her immediate answer. They got up and moved to an edge of the floor. 
     But as Stanley held her, Alex realized she had made a mistake. For right in front of them was the couple from the captain's table, she with her emerald-studded hand wrapped tenaciously around his neck, swaying rhythmically against him to the music. 



ON CLOSER INSPECTION Alex could see that although she was indeed beautiful, it was a beauty hard won. Her hair was the celebrity color of the month and worn too long for the double-edged, flint-and-molasses aura she exuded. Her skin was flawless: if there had ever been imperfections, there were none now. It was enhanced by perfect makeup, with eyeshadow and liner smudged not too much, and certainly not too little. 
     Her jewelry matched her style--large emerald earrings, bracelet and ring. Her camisole fit perfectly, as did the dark green silk skirt. Five-inch, $800 heels had her relying on her partner for support. This was a lady dressed for the kill, and she looked as if she had bagged her prey. 
     In comparison, Alex's high-necked (though very low-backed) dress felt like plain vanilla. And Stanley was a sweet dancer, who did a rigid box step as if he were still in dancing class. He held her at a respectful, firstÄnight distance, which she appreciated. But they must look a bit like the parents of some of the amorous couples around them. And the jazzy music was making her move strangely in long lurching sways, until she realized it wasn't the music. It was the ship. 
     "We're probably hitting a patch of rough Gulf Stream water," said Stanley, noting her discomfort. "But don't worry. The ship has stabilizers that will steady her." 
     "Then why are we bouncing around like this?" she asked. Then without further warning, the bounce became a swerve, and she found herself lurching directly between a cashmere turtleneck on a broad, disconcertingly firm chest on the left and the seemingly-endless decolletage of his partner on the right. 
     "Oh, no," Alex stammered. "I mean, sorry. It's the choppy sea." Both men moved quickly to steady her. The woman in emeralds was not pleased. 
     "Really," she complained loudly, "We'll have to find a lounge that's a little more exclusive." 
     Her partner turned to Alex, but she had quickly left the dance floor. Stanley signaled the waiter for their coffees or drinks, and the jostled couple soon took the banquette behind them. They were now back to back, with Ms. Emerald's four-letter complaints filling the air. Then she switched abruptly to a honeyed voice and excused herself to repair her makeup. 
     Sue and Nell returned, and the other five were eager to catch the welcome-on-board show. "Sure you won't come?" asked Stanley. "No. I mean yes," said Alex. "Our Key West Conch Train tour leaves at eight--much too soon. Oh yes, the drinks are my treat, after Phyllis' and Mike's champagne." 
     "Thanks, Alex," said Mike. "We'll see you on the pier." He linked arms with Phyllis, and they glided away in the wake of Sue and Nell, steadied by Stanley. 
     "Back to your old tricks, I see." The unmistakable cashmere accent of 2B startled her from the adjoining back-to-back banquette." Swiveling sideward, she saw that the frown lines were back. 
     "By the way," continued the low, resonant voice practically in her ear, "The Conch Trains in Key West leave every half hour. You could have as much beauty sleep as you like." 
     Alex, who was assessing the bill, jumped. His face, leading with a classically chiseled nose atop well-shaped and strangely unsettling lips, regarded her almost eyeball-to-eyeball over the back of the seat divider. 
     "You're almost in my lap," she snapped without thinking. 
     "One could imagine worse fates," the handsome face's owner murmured, deadpan. "And anyway, tit for tat." 
     Her blush, as she remembered her "emergency landing" on the plane, made him laugh. And what a difference that made, she mused, noting an almost-boyish lift of his taciturn mouth. 
     "Stop distracting me," she snapped. "Just let your true, impatient nature take over while I figure out the tip on $37.25." "$7.50 close enough," he said at once. When she reacted skeptically to his split-second response, 2B looked back with a gleam in his eye. "If you don't believe me, check out 20 percent with this," he said, passing over an impressive BlackBerry displaying its calculator. "You may need one of these yourself if you're going to stand drinks for five friends for seven days." 
     "Two are honeymooners who shared their champagne, thank you," she shot back, glaring. And 20 percent? What had happened to 15? Oh, well... "But speaking of honeymoons," she said, "here comes your good natured girlfriend--or maybe wife?" 
     In the loud silence that followed, Ms. Emeralds was striding across the lounge toward them like a Valkyrie. Alex hurriedly added $8 to the tab, signed it, shoved back the BlackBerry and slid out of her booth. 
     "Who's the clumsy little thing with glasses?" were the final words that Emeralds spoke, as Alex descended the stairs. If there was an answer, she didn't hear it.




Continued ...Chapters 3 and 4

Solo Traveler: Tales and Tips for Great Trips, 1st Edition (Special-Interest Titles)



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