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Our Solo Lady Romance Novel

Cruise to Seduction
By Alys Bohn and Lea Lane

Chapter Seventeen: New York Aftermath...Chapter Eighteen: Never Say Never

"Fine, Jean-Claude, 7:30 at the box office," said Alex, sticking out her healthy pink tongue at the accusing computer screen and papers still stacked half-way to eye level on her desk. "Sorry, earlier's impossible. I'm stuck at the office--and tomorrow will be a killer."
With many men, the words "so I won't be inviting you up afterwards" would have hung in the silence that followed. But not with Jean-Claude. He had proved a good friend and invaluable mentor in the bumpy years since they had met, holding her hand but--by mutual agreement-nothing more. And she had been good for him, helping him through an unbelievably diverse maze of affairs. It had even included a second marriage so brief and bad it had been annulled.
"OK," said the reassuring accent cackling though the limp cell connection. "Have plenty of coffee; we'll find some supper afterwards."
"I'm doing Starbucks," she wound up. "Till tonight, then."
Flipping off the cell, she switched her office phone to voice mail. Tough years of night classes plus her demanding day job had at last produced a new degree and even bits of free time. Work still came first. However, an experimental dating scene, recent promotion and promising job possibilities gave her lots to celebrate.
And that was newest of all. She could still tighten up by going back to that endless flight from Miami. She had been too numb to even notice the contrast between the plane's cramped back row and the first-class upgrade she had flown down on. Was that only a week before? It felt at least half a lifetime. How young she had been, and how vulnerable. If it hadn't been for Jane and Tom, plus support from friends and job waiting at flight's end, she'd never have survived-not the next day, not the months that followed. And she would certainly never have been inspired to use empty nights to earn a new degree.
Long, healing, money-saving walks between office and classes and her walk-up apartment had given her a far firmer body. Lasik surgery-a gift from Jane and Tom at an eye clinic he recommended-- freed her from wearing glasses. And she gradually accumulated some nice things to hang in her closet-starting with a share of the generous check the cruise line had sent for Jane's infamously ruined black dress.
At the beginning, her days were filled with work and her nights with what friends and family all called denial. When away from home or office, she simply didn't speak. And she certainly didn't utter a name that could--- to this day--disturb her dreams, creating waves of longing, anger and abandonment, blocking sleep for hours on end. But why look back--ever? And yet, trapped in a nightmare or waking at dawn or glimpsing a tall, lean silhouette in a crowd, she did....
The source of her misery had added even more to it. If she was never reminded of him again, might she not feel better in another decade or so. She'd be his age by then, but that wasn't so old. However, It was not to be. His assault had begun with a phone call the night after she had returned home.
"Alexandra? I couldn't call you yesterday I was asleep over the Atlantic to London, and all hell was, still is, breaking loose. This time difference is maddening. How are..."
Her click should have silenced him, but didn't. Neither did the bang with which she ended the second call a couple of minutes later. She couldn't speak when it rang again. But she'd have to
"Talk to me, dammit," he began abruptly. "What's happening? I'll fix whatever it is."
Her voice was a cross between a whisper and a croak. "Stop lying, Jake. Only you can't stop. You had me believing you. You had me falling in.... Caren told me all about it. All of it. All the time, your apartments were connected. Little things like turning her on with tales of your adventures. Jake the womanizer. Not to mention the minor details of being engaged, of her being pregnant. Of course I didn't wouldn't believe her. Everything we shared said no. With any normal man, she'd have been lying. But then I saw you leave." Click.
She was so drained she felt faint. But when the ring came again, she was suddenly furious. The nerve of the man began to restore her.
"All right," she began. "The famous three questions. Were you with her on the ship? Are you with her now? And is she pregnant?"
There was a seemingly endless silence, but she waited it out. Finally she heard a hoarse "Just let me tell you about it in person...."
At the next call, she ignored the receiver and croaked only into the mouthpiece. "I know you were only pretending to care about me. But please honor even the pretense. I can't... handle it. You two really deserve each other. Don't call me again."
She must have sounded convincing, croak and all. Or maybe Caren had joined him by the phone. There they were, laughing about poor lovelorn Alex. She didn't really care. When he called sporadically after that, she merely clicked goodbye. With Jane's agreement she changed their number, got caller ID and asked for call screening at her office.
Valentine's Day came and went. Alex ventured out with Jane and Tom, who had set their wedding date for June. They dined convivially in a small new restaurant. A messenger, looking as if he had waited for hours, met Jane and Alex when they arrived home. Alex flat out refused to sign for the flowers he delivered--pale orchids that reminded her of others after that wild day at Cancun. She still couldn't let herself cry. But she couldn't speak either.
"If you talk to him again, " Jane told her later as they fell into bed. "It might help you clear the air-or at least get closure. And what are you going to do about this? It fell out as I was putting the flowers in water."
The tiny blue box was tied in white satin ribbon. The exquisite gold earrings inside, each with a tiny recessed diamond, were stylistically heart shaped. But it was her heart, not her ears that they pierced.
"They're lovely," gasped Jane. "Perfect. Someone with taste like that at least read the card."
"His girlfriend, or wife, or his secretary picked them," choked Alex, She let the card in its tiny envelope fall to the floor as if it would burn her fingers. "Here. You have them. Serves him right. Only never let me see them again."

"You'll have to--I'll wear them as 'something borrowed' at my wedding," said Jane, hugging her sister close and stoking her straggling curls. "One day, you may reclaim the loan."
"Never." Alex pulled the comfortless comforter over her head. She had hoped she might someday begin, however faintly, to heal. Now she felt she never would.

Her St. Patrick's Day birthday came the day before the start of her new college studies. She had a lively lunch with co-workers after the famous Fifth Avenue parade, opened some modest gifts of note paper, crafted earrings and hair clips, and even accepted an invitation to a party that night.
When she arrived home, she collapsed into her bed which Jane had nicely turned down with a mint on the pillow. "Ouch," she yelped, as a rough strapping tape edge bit into her back. Jane had also stacked packages on top of the comforter. Sweeping them onto the floor, she was soon and gratefully asleep.
In the morning, though, her bare feet brushed cardboard as she stepped on the cotton rug. Picking up the express packages, she decided to open them at the family only celebration the two planned for that evening. They cooked, hoping that Tom would come. When he couldn't, they savored their favorite chicken recipe and ate some of the cake their mother had sent, along with a "must be spent on clothes" check. Their brothers had teamed up to send a good digital camera.
"And here's mine," said Jane, handing over a stunning bikini, beautifully wrapped along with a pareu style coverup.
Alex hugged Jane. "Now I'll have something to lend you," she said.
Nicely distracted, Alex opened the fourth package, then stopped as abruptly as if it contained a time bomb. Two, really one in each of the two boxes that spilled out of the express container.
"Open them," commanded Jane, fascinated.
Spellbound, like Pandora with her fateful box, Alex did.
The first, small and slim, was fastened with a famous "C" seal. From it, the world's most beautiful watch stared back at her, a symphony of gold and glass encircling its small, clear face. It was sheer perfection, matching her taste as if it had her name on its back.
It didn't. Instead, in script so small she could barely read it, were the words, "Our Time"
Like a robot, she pulled the silver foil wrap from the unmarked second box. There, in a supple red leather case sat a silver cell phone, so small it could fit in a pocket. It had no card, nor needed one.
Alex simply stared. Jane picked up the phone, as tenderly as if it were a baby.
"You'd better use this, Alex," she pronounced. "Sure he should have told you they were sleeping together, but you'll have to admit you guessed and went out with him anyway. And if they're married, wouldn't it have been in the paper or something? In taste, anyway, this is a man in a million."
"With a million, you mean. "
"What are you going to do?"
As answer, Alex found a plastic bag, stuffed the watch and its wrappings inside and set it by the front door."

"You're never going to throw it in the trash!"
"Of course not. I'll take it back at lunch hour tomorrow."
The famed Fifth Avenue store was slightly intimidating. Alex had never been there before, nor was likely to be again.
"I need to return this watch."
The assistant couldn't have been more polite. "Certainly. May I see it?"
Carefully leaving the lowly supermarket plastic inside her bag, Alex extracted the watch and its tangled wrappings.
"Unfortunately, it has engraving on the back," she said.
"That's not an impossible problem, but in that case we need to look up the transaction."
"And I'll need a receipt for the return."
"Were you the purchaser? We can only credit him. Or," he added hastily, "her."
"Yes. I mean, no. And I don't know the account number."
A supervisor materialized beside the clerk and began her own questions. Alex wondered if they thought she had stolen the watch and was trying to pocket a refund. Still, both had flawless manners, carefully averting their eyes from her inexpensive Swatch.
In the end, she had to give Jake's name, whereupon their computer confirmed him as the Chicago buyer.
"You can substitute something else," said the supervisor. "We'll be happy to show you some alternatives."
"I want a return, not an exchange, and a receipt saying you credited-Mr. Endicott," choked Alex. It was the first time she had spoken his name since that day in another world on the private island.
She had to hail a taxi back to her office to make a 2:30 meeting. Once inside, she leaned back and closed her eyes. It was a lucky thing that birthdays came only once a year. By the next one, she vowed, she would--somehow--have managed to forget him.
She was right, and wrong. She didn't hear from Jake again. But Alex herself, even immersed in her killer work, workout and study routine, didn't feel better when she thought of him. The best she could manage was thinking of him less often.
On the job, her work attracted favorable notice from her editor and publisher. She could have quit her job and applied for university loans for full-time study. But she enjoyed the double load too much. There was no time or energy left for thinking....
Egged on by Jane and almost everyone who knew her, she began to squeeze some weekend time for socializing. Concerts and crowded bars were good; hikes and winter skating in Central Park even better, but one-on-one dates could be depressing. Whose kisses could come even close to his? Whose fully-clad body could arouse her merely on sight? And when she willed herself to venture beyond, whose touch, whose hands fusing her to his lean, hard length, could melt her deepest core to molten magic?
After a couple of would-be romances fizzled on takeoff, she was firm about only dating men who had good minds. Her friendships began to range further and deeper, like her conversation, moving her into wider circles than before. Certainly she was far better informed on current affairs the dependable kind. Their bodies they could keep, thank you.
Time passed. One day the next winter her engineer brother suddenly arrived for a conference in the city. With hotels overbooked that week, he stayed on their sofa bed. "You're looking good, but somehow terrible too," he told her as they walked home in a freezing rain from a neighborhood restaurant. "Don't tell me you're still pining over that married playboy. If you're nursing a broken heart, at least do it over someone new."
She had never told him the full Jake story-not even when the family had gathered for Jane's wonderful summer wedding. But suddenly she let it all flow, and it felt great. He hugged her comfortingly there at the apartment building entrance, keeping his arm about her shoulders as they lowered their umbrellas and ducked into the dimly lit hall. The superintendent was changing a light bulb when they arrived at their floor.

"About time you have real boyfriend," he said approvingly as he saw them both going inside.
"I'll disillusion him tomorrow," said Alex, smiling wryly.
The humorous brotherly advice made sense, thought Alex. It had been more than a year, the flowers had stopped, Jake no longer called--though there were times when she picked up the phone to find a silent line and occasionally wondered. Meanwhile, during what free time she had, she was Pal Alex--confidante, friendly fun but no games. She warmed to men who sensed a wound deep within and refrained from probing.
On Jean Claude's trips to New York, he took her to concerts, cafes and dinner with a capital D in the kitchens of some of the world's best restaurants.
"And think about consulting on lower fat eating for my future TV project, Alex," he said. "You should be most photogenic, and the degree you are earning will look impressive in the credits. Remember, TV cameras add 10 pounds, so you will have to lose them."
Alex had trouble recognizing the strange sensation she felt--a hint of happiness. Maybe, better late than never, she was growing up at last. "I'll start some research now," she assured him. "And as I said a--long time ago--if it's hard work you want, I'm your man."
One night she and Jean-Claude were checking out a tiny new underground restaurant. He was starting a new relationship--too soon, as usual, after flunking his last--and they were well into a second bottle of wine.
"You can't be in love with her yet," said Alex. "Is she, with you?"
"You know, Alex, it is time to say it. If you were French, you would always have known. Love is the best-although bien sur the most elusive. But sex without the great love is, as you say, not to be sneezed at. And there is a time for everything under the sun."
"Are you saying-it's time for me to...?"
"I do not say, I ask. You may still love-I will even say his name--Jake. But he did marry Caren, even if, one hears, not happily ever after. He said "I do" with her, not you. You are busy, Alex, and doing well, making the best of it all. And you will love again, some day. But meanwhile, do you want to be-not too long from now-a 30-year-old virgin?"
Alex stared down at her half-eaten seafood, then at last at her uncharacteristically blunt friend.
"That's food for thought-I guess it's time someone said it. Probably it should have been me. Anyway, the wine's gone, and so's the evening."
During spare moments the next week, she pondered. Nice guys weren't for her, she lamented. With all the good ones in the world, she had had the misfortune to fall for a lying, cheating Don Juan--who it turned out was even then "taken."
More to the point, that was the week she had seen his name in a gossipy business travel column on best meetings hotels. "A golden beach," gushed the writer, "and posh enough to be picked for honeymoons such as.... There, on the list were the names "Jake Endicott/Caren van Danvers."
Alex took her first sick days after that-one to cry, the second to ponder. Maybe Jean-Claude had a point. Mr. Never Quite Right might be all she should hope for. After all, 30 was still young--no longer the Big 3-0 of generations past. But it now hung on her horizon, along with louder ticking of that famous bio clock. And millions of people around the world lived without romantic love. Especially in fast-paced New York, she would simply be one of the crowd.
On the third sick day, she let Jane take her out for RT, the retail therapy to equip her for new-what? Not love. Probably not even romance-not after starting with peerless. But excitement? Maybe. Exploration? At least that.
Soon after the department store doors opened they were on the escalator, headed past the designer floor en route up to more affordable territory. "Wait," said Jane, "I need lingerie-my even two-year-old stuff is looking grannyish, and probably beginning to bore Tom."
"So he's ignoring you-all those so empty nights," teased Alex.
"Well, I wouldn't say that, exactly. "But it could happen.... Everyone says."
"Wait 50 years, then maybe you'll get a couple of hours off."
"Ooo, look at these thongs and bikinis," breathed Jane, passing a counter and picking up a silken handful of multi-colored froth. Oh, and they're on sale-buy five, get one free. I'm going for it. And-maybe you should, too. Just to feel them-under your work clothes and weekend jeans at first. After a while, see what happens."
Would something ever reach that deep, barely remembered core? There was no going back; was there a future, as everyone told her? A phrase came from nowhere at all: make it or fake it. As her fingers brushed the tiny scraps of lace and satin, she began to count. One, two, three...


Another winter was ending. This time, Alex felt that spring would come, even if not to stay. With Jean-Claude--still her favorite not-quite-date--in town again, she had actually left work early. Playing with makeup for the big charity concert they were attending, she allowed the face in her mirror an invisible nod of approval.

Hadn't she come through four whole years with flying colors? And more would follow. She would work and vacation, save and spend, and enjoy friends, family and fun -- like tonight. She had, if not everything, at least enough. Some day, there would be one thing more. She would forget.A few months after the infamous cruise, Sandra Pitt, the cruise exexutive's wife. had been in New York and invited her to lunch. They had enjoyed each other before, and did so now. They covered a dozen subjects as Sandra savored her specialty salad and Alex nibbled at hers.

Over coffee, Sandra finally said it. "Alex, you're a beautiful woman. But somehow you look different underneath. You're slimmer, but maybe too thin. You probably aren't sleeping enough. And you don't look happy. Jake was down in Miami last weekend. He looks still worse--and he can't disguise it with makeup, like you can. I don't know what the two of you are doing."

"There isn't any two of us--and apparently never was. There are two of them, and Caren VD would make anybody with a brain miserable. With me, it was an illusion, with him a lie. And if you don't mind Sandra, I can't -- I still don't want to talk about it."

After that, the two women met from time to time--most recently in Miami where Alex had been sent on one of her increasing business travel assignments. But apart from brief mentions of the Endicott marriage and divorce, they had successfully avoided "it." "Maybe later," Alex always said.

Now, she mused, it was later. Her shopping trip with Jane last year had marked a sort of turning point. Although she had still pulled on her usual work clothes over cotton bikinis each day, she knew there were lacy nothings in her drawer. Eyes wide open, she gradually signed up for volunteer work, switched to a new gym, joined friends at weekend mingling places, even surfed websites without plunging into the waves. More fruitfully, she gave an OK to her brother-in-law for blind dates with his colleagues.

At last, over a good cabernet with a blond dermatologist named Brad, something stirred under the silk thong she wore for their fourth dinner-and movie. Instead of sending him home as usual, she invited him up for coffee. Coffee and.... It had to be someone, didn't it? It was about time. Brad was nice, smart, attractive. Besides, even the youngest doctors must know where a woman's best places are. And for a first--the first--time, it was good, she figured--at least better than most of her friends had described. Jane had indicated otherwise, but Jane typically saw the whole world in a rosy glow.

Her new lover stayed all night, seemed still nice in the morning, returned for more--lots more--whenever time allowed. They went out, they stayed in. Never mind that, once upon a time, she remembered feeling more turned on by mere kisses, even with most of her clothes on. She remembered wrong, probably. Maybe sex was better--for her, though not for everyone--in anticipation. Anyway, having a boyfriend was new and cool. She liked him, enjoyed his friends. Couldn't love grow gently she figured, not thunder in like surf pounding toward shore, then crashing on hidden rocks?

But then--he invited her to join his family, not just for dinner but for a vacation at the lake. Meet the parents! The next step, en route to what? Moving in together? Choosing the ring, the dress, the...? Stop. Mild panic. Something was missing and she forced herself to realize what it was: the magic. When she saw him across a room, when he trailed a finger across her upturned wrist--well, if he had, when they danced, it just wasn't there. He would find it with someone, she promised him as they parted. Neither of them was miserable; perhaps they'd even be future friends.

On her own again and surprisingly comfortable about it, Alex readied for the big evening with Jean-Claude. He was actually coming to pick her up, with a car downstairs. What to wear to this black-tie an event had been a problem. Jane had, of course, offered to go shopping. But Alex, with large student loans to pay and a tight credit card limit, again borrowed the timeless blue dress from the long-ago cruise. Recalling that evening on the dance floor with Jake didn't hurt a bit anymore, she proclaimed as she extracted the dress from the cleaner's plastic bag. And though its deep V-neck still showed a lot of cleavage, she now carried it off with confidence rather than doubt.

Surveying the curls whimsically escaping her upswept hair and the gold eardrops above the very bare neckline and shoulders, even Jean-Claude was impressed. Their box seats commanded a magnificent view of the house with its audience in full evening regalia. As they scrutinized--some with binoculars--their fellow guests, Alex felt uncomfortably on view. When the parade of renowned performers began, though, she was lost in the ethereal sounds.
Just one intermission was scheduled--a long one with a party in a private room for patrons and some press. "I'll join you there soon," she told Jean-Claude as she headed for the ladies' room. "Please go ahead. I need a breather. And the line will be huge."

It was. And since she stopped en route when a friend spotted her, she found herself near the end of it. Emerging at last, she leaned against a wall and closed her eyes. With Jean-Claude catching up with colleagues and much of the audience getting refreshments or standing outside smoking, the solo break was a relief. Idly, she wondered if sleep standing up was possible.
Quickly, she jerked open her eyes. She knew she was overtired, but was she now having hallucinations? Of a figure, complete with face, looking at her from across the room with such intensity that she quickly shut her eyes again.

When she opened them, the illusion across the room was gone. Instead, it had materialized mere feet away. If she moved, even slightly, it would vanish into the phantom world from which it came. So, with the wall for support, she stood her ground, waiting for familiar reality to return.

Yet, never losing eye-contact for a micro-second, the illusion drew closer until, mere inches away, it took form. Solid arms reached out; firm, warm hands grasped her cool bare arms. A hoarse, barely-audible voice spoke her name wonderingly, almost reverently. Now it began murmuring impossible, undecipherable things into the sensitive lobe of her ear.
What could one say to so bold, so solid, so achingly desirable an illusion? She said it. Nothing.

Hadn't she faced the last years with grit and determination? She had drowned, and fought back up to the surface, alive and well. Why now this further test? It was simply too much. Tears she had thought way over and done with began to build in her expressive blue eyes. She had never had his love; she no longer even wanted it. Nonetheless, the loss of what had never been hers returned to her.

No one had understood--indeed, she had let no one close enough. But somehow she felt that this phantom did understand, as it guided her into a corner of the large foyer, inviting her tears to form and fall freely. She quietly sobbed onto an immaculate black dinner jacket that shielded her from any passers-by who happened to look their way.

Then, as her sobs abated into sniffles, a small miracle happened. A forgotten but familiar white handkerchief appeared and the illusion's voice assumed substance with a single command. "Blow."

She let go of the dinner jacket long enough to automatically obey the order, then looked curiously up to the exact level she had forgotten but her tilted chin remembered. There stood not a mirage but a man.
"Alexandra, we've been so bloody stupid. Both of us. Come, let's get your coat. We're going to make it up--all of it."
"No, Jake, it's too late. You were living with Caren all that time. Traveling, laughing, sleeping with her. Then you married her. I can never...."
"Ssh. I've been here--in New York--before, but totally misunderstood what's been going on. I ruined something wonderful, did a horrible thing to you, damn-near wrecked my life and couldn't come to you until I turned back into a decent man. Then I called Jane--on that old cellphone. Come on, we'll get out of here and talk about everything. Go and splash some water on your face--but forget the makeup. I'll have it off again in three minutes flat."
"It's not that easy. I'm happy, more or less. And besides," she added, suddenly recalling where she was and why, "I'm here with a date."
"I don't care if you're here with Prince William. You're leaving with me."

"I'm not Will," spoke up Jean-Claude, materializing at her elbow. "But I don't come on to innocent girls at night and run off with a hateful woman the next morning. Why would Alex want to go anywhere with someone--especially Jake Endicott--who apparently derives pleasure from giving pain?"
"Now wait just a minute, Jean-Claude," rejoined Jake, in a voice she had never heard.
"Carry on gentlemen--which I hope you'll remember you are," interrupted Alex. "I'm going to wash my face. You can talk about me behind my back all you like."

The house lights were flickering when she returned, clear-eyed and with makeup, to the now quietly-talking pair. She rested her hand lightly on Jean-Claude's arm.
"Jean-Claude, will you be OK with the others in the box if I go off and exorcise this ghost? Or, not--because Jake can wait. Right, Jake?"
Jake nodded reluctantly. "I can wait through the next act--just," he muttered. "Whatever it takes."
"Alex, remember there's a supper party afterwards. I'll be fine. Just make it clear to him he doesn't deserve you. I'll call you in the morning."
Thrusting her coat check at Jake, he set off at a jog through the closing doors. An usher with flashlight stood by.
"He's dead right, of course," said Jake, though a touch of his familiar confidence was beginning to return, contradicting his words.
Standing in the now-deserted foyer, she regarded Jake in puzzled silence. He was more muscled, slimmer, harder. He didn't look more fit, though, but rather as if he had been working--maybe living--too hard. And was that sunlight on the disturbingly-familiar sandy hair, or were there strands of gray?
"I don't deserve you--and never will," he said flatly. "Nonetheless, we're out of here"

Outside in the almost-spring night, the great arts complex behind them was brilliantly lit. They strode quickly through its plaza and across the street, where his arm went up to hail a taxi. Suddenly, the arm changed direction. A stray carriage, one of New York's horse-drawn fleet that transported captivated tourists into an earlier era, was scurrying back empty to its base. "Central Park," he told the driver.

He lifted her up the step and wrapped the two blankets around them both. "You're featherweight light and you look--beautiful but different. God, what I've done to you," he groaned. The long, challenging recovery from her early pain had dulled all feeling for the man she had fallen for--too fast and too hard. She had suffered for it, worked for it, was sure of it. Who, then, was the man at her side?

Her hard-won survival skills had increased her confidence more than she had guessed. The girl who had fallen in love with him would have contradicted his contrition with a "no." The cosmopolitan young woman accepted it with a "yes."
"You were a rat--unreliable, uncaring, two-timing, and--it was hell," she agreed.
"Yes," he said simply. "I did it all. And for me it's still hell, and will be till you let me make it up to you."
This was Jake Endicott? She opened her mouth in half doubt, half amazement. For him, though, it was a clear invitation. The suddenness of his kiss astonished both of them. And though she had thought she remembered the touch of his lips, the strength of his hands and the taste of his tongue tip, she was wrong.
"I've forgotten a few things," she murmured when they surfaced. "Try that again, please."
"You've turned into a witch. I want every detail of how that happened. But first...."
When finally Alex pulled away from his arms, moving to the other side of the carriage, their accounts came out--his of frustration and even tragedy, hers of betrayal and a sort of victory. As they talked, the clip clop of the horse's hooves in the chilly spring night seemed to roar in her ears.

"She went into your suite that evening as soon as I'd left," began Alex, "after telling me how the two of you always laughed together, back in your connecting apartments, about your 'extra-curricular treats.' She said you were returning home together in the morning. Like a lovesick idiot, I still didn't believe her. But then I saw--half the ship saw--her the next morning, wrapped around you and the two of you climbing into the helicopter. I had discovered I loved you, Jake. And it looks like I--still have some getting over it to do. But--anyway, it's your turn now. Why are you even here?"

"Why? I've been going mad for months ... centuries--trying to see you, talk to you. When I flew out on that chopper, Caren begged a ride. She told me her ex-husband--the best of her exes--was in the hospital dying. He was--I phoned his doctor before agreeing--though if I had known then about the Baked Alaska event or the extent of the poison she'd been feeding you, there's no way I'd have agreed. They had lived in the apartment next to mine, and she had moved back after her next marriage collapsed."
Now there was silence, the awkward kind.
"And?" prompted Alex.
"This is hard, " he said. "I've worked at it--let's see if I can say it. She was still there, and yes, sometimes we had...had sex. But --no matter what she probably said--not after I was on the island with you. I hadn't told her that you and I had been together as much as we had, but she's pretty smart and had probably figured it out. She was like a drug--a bad one. But it was over. Then, when I called to tell you how I felt, and you wouldn't take my calls, I thought it couldn't get any worse.
"But it did. The day I found out you had returned the birthday watch. And still worse, later, the night I came to see you and saw you going into your apartment with your arm around a good looking guy and his around you. When I came back in the morning to, I guess, talk you out of it, he had obviously spent the night."
"That was one of my brothers."

"So Jane told me--recently. But you looked so happy, it broke me up. When I went home and thought about it for a while, though, I vowed I'd change your mind, if not then, someday. I knew by then I loved you. Deeply. Only that's when Caren told me she was pregnant--with my child."
"Pregnant! You loved me? So you slept with her, married her! Oh, Jake."
"God, I was a fool--worse. I was...wasn't literally sleeping with her. But she had had a key made. "And--a couple of times--I was asleep, and there she was in bed with me. Or I'd come home drunk. It wasn't my brain that did the thinking. Nor was I thinking straight after I saw you in New York. By then she had DNA evidence: the baby was mine."
"Sandra didn't--no one mentioned a baby."
"Typical Caren. It was really late for the abortion she threatened, you were taken for the moment, and I let myself be dragged to Las Vegas for the world's worst wedding. On the "idyllic" honeymoon I tortured myself thinking about you, fell apart and lost the business some big accounts--and she hooked up with the next fool."
"And then?" Alex couldn't breathe in the silence that followed.
"I was pretty wiped out, lost a ton of money, but she kept her claws in me even while jetting off to him--back and forth. Finally, just two months before her due date (no, we hadn't been near each other) she pulled off the padding she'd been wearing in Chicago, jeered she'd terminated the baby boy weeks earlier, and abruptly left.
"You're kidding! It sounds like a soap opera. Poor you." Alex found herself really meaning those words.
"It felt like a nighrmare, Friends helped me find a therapist, get a divorce, build up the business again. Eventually, nightmare over. And now...."
"Wait. Let's go back--to that part about you loved me."
"I think I have ever since--maybe since that crazy lifeboat drill when we couldn't get your jacket on over your gorgeous body."
She glared at him, and he laughed--unsteadily, as if he hadn't had much recent practice. "Actually, there's a lot less of you now, darling. I'm going to enjoy putting it back--right here where it belongs."

"No way," she protested, even as his warm, probing hands stole under her coat. "Being slimmer is just one of the good things that's come out of this miserable--stop it! We're still in a carriage in Central Park. Anyway, how did you know where I was tonight?"
"Jane and I had talked--three or four times. I had programmed that cell phone with a special number to me, wherever I was. It couldn't be re-programmed, so eventually she hit it."
He chuckled ruefully. "It had to be you, so I answered, 'Alexandra, darling.'

"And your sister said, "'No,' it's 'Jane darling.' And gave me a piece--more like a lethal chunk--of her mind. But after we talked, we talked again. Later, she even helped with advice--plus depressing news about how well you were doing without me during my worst-of-times. When I eventually recovered and called about coming to New York, she decided you were enough "over" me to see me again, and told me about tonight. Even what you'd be wearing..."
Held tightly in his arms, Alex was very quiet. Not just because she wanted to stay where she was--for hours, days, how long she didn't know. It was because she had to ask the next question.
"And Caren?
"I regret I've heard she's doing fine. Our divorce was uncontested, she's linked up with someone so rich--and so out of it--that he believes her lies. Rumor is they're in Brazil and he'll be arrested for tax fraud if he comes back. I never want to say her name again. My apartment is up for sale and I'm living in a hotel suite. Pending further developments."
Unusually subdued, Alex reached up to trace the new lines that had formed between his sandy eyebrows and at the corners of his mouth, as if to erase them with a touch.
"Caren twisted everything. She said you strayed in the daytime with a succession of 'little girls like me,' she said, and came back to her to laugh about us--at night. Doesn't that sound credible?"
He gripped her shoulders to the point of pain. "Credible! Even when I woke up in the hammock that afternoon on the island and you were down at the beach, I knew we could have something special. And there in the water, I wanted you so much I'd have had you there on the spot. If I'd only said it all--done it all--right then.
"So now, we'll turn around this carriage. And soon, Alexandra, you're coming with me wherever in the world I go. No exceptions--and we start tonight."

Tonight, at least, that sounded OK to Alex. But as the horse trotted toward her apartment and his kisses turned from playful to fierce, he suddenly stopped and lit the face of his watch. "We need a taxi," he told the driver, then turned back to her. "#*x+{%! We have just hours--then I'm off to talks in London. We'll put us on hold--but only for days. Then never again."

But it could be on and off like this for years, she mused as the taxi speeded them through lightly trafficked streets to her apartment. Or, she reminded herself, couldn't it be over in a flash for no apparent reason whatever? With Jake Endicott, leaving and loving were two halves of a whole. Could she settle for that?
Should she even ask him up, for whatever "just hours" might be? There was no answer to that, however, because there was really no question. Under her sheltering coat, by the time they pulled up at her door the blue dress was beyond repair. Under it, she burned with hot response.

At the top of the stairs, Alex found herself handing Jake her key as if in a time-warp back to their beginnings. In the second it took to latch the door behind them, coat, dress, tuxedo jacket, tie and shirt were a heap on the floor. A micro-second later, her breasts spilled out of the lacy bra as he found the clasp
Was that her own moan when she thought he had stopped? But it was only to loosen his belt and then move down her back, pulling her against his muscled, chest and hardness below. "Where's the bed," he gritted, shedding his remaining clothes and lifting her into his arms. The city dimly lit the living room, but the small bedroom beyond lay in darkness.
"We need a light," said Jake, bumping into the double bed and lowering her onto it. "I want to see you."

Alex wasn't sure. Even as she reached for the switch he was disposing of her sheer tights and bikini with a deft stroke, then his own charcoal boxer-briefs. She had had clothes off before, of course. But that had seemed almost surgical compared with this sense of total exposure under the bedroom light and throbbing vulnerability under his bedroom eyes.
She felt each centimeter of her body come alive in response to his roaming gaze and still more to the things he began to do next. She had been proud of forgetting the feather touch of his fingers and firm pressure of his hands, the pinpricks of that faintly-stubbled chin, the chest sloping down to a trim waistline and the hint of coarse curls that began below that. But it seemed her body hadn't forgotten. Her generous mouth opened to his assertive tongue and her breasts tightened, eager to surrender to whatever he chose to do with them.
More than that, his maleness was now revealed--awesome, classic as a Greek statue but definitely not immobile like marble. Her body reached out in sensuous response. An unknown core deep inside her being was quivering--melting, in fact, and fast. To end this agony of arousal, a single second's delay would be too long.
."Please, Jake," she heard herself gasping. "I want you, now."
"Soon .. " he whispered in her ear, sending unlikely sensations down and down. But it wasn't soon--at all. First, his well-recalled mouth had to taste her own, slowly freeing each lip not only of any remaining lipstick but also of the memory of anyone else's kiss. It then moved within her mouth, to leave each corner and crevice throbbing with pleasure, and her tongue thrusting boldly against his for more. Descending then with a groan, he savored each breast as if there had never been another. She tried to reach down to him but he stopped her. "Not this time," he murmured.

As his mouth found and claimed their targets, his hands simultaneously wandered down to the deep core so recently hidden by creamy satin but now bare to his probing eyes and experienced touch. He seemed heartless, paying no heed to her increasingly feverish pleas. "Now" and "yes" meant nothing to him. But finally his breathing was changing, his subtlety turned to strength and his mood became wilder--like the hot man she remembered. Expertly they learned their lessons--quickly, slowly, and then still more quickly until she knew she could endure no more. And at last he had found what was his and he took it. She heard a scream as her core exploded soon followed unbelievably by another throughout her entire being as he returned--again and then again, deeper and still deeper, to fuse at last, together.
Then, oblivion.

"Alexandra, I'm leaving." The voice she heard was familiar, but the body that heard it was not. Her skin felt as if a loofah had scrubbed it; her face was warm as if kissed by the sun. And in no-longer secret places, every aware inch tingled with satisfaction. She stretched like a cat after a very good nap.
"Oh, God," groaned Jake, you're totally beautiful like that--and I have to go."
Like what? She looked down, then pulled up the sheet. She felt too content, to move fast. The mouth that bent down to kiss her goodbye was meltingly gentle.
"And if I send you flowers again?" he said softly.
"I'll love them."
"And the watch?"
"I've got two already," she said primly, pointing to her newest Swatch on the nightstand. Anyway, it was that tiny alarm clock I really liked."
He groaned. "What? You gave that away, too? I can't bear to leave, but these London talks involve millions. and not mine to ignore. And thousands of jobs are on the line
"But wait," he interrupted himself. "I'll simply get you a ticket for tomorrow...."
"You're forgetting my job--it means a lot to me. Plus I need to eat--and you didn't even feed me."
"I will, though. Oh, I will," he said, reaching for his coat. "We've so much to talk about. But for now, just promise me one thing--no more dates."
"I can't and won't promise that, Jake. Not if you mean fun evenings out."
"I mean fun evenings in, and you know it. The car's here, though--I'll call. Go back to sleep."

Lifting her chin with a single finger and bestowing a featherweight kiss, he was out the door.

Her brain churning and her body in some kind of altered state, Alex did not go back to sleep or even try. She showered long and hard, then chose a vivid new top and tight pants to divert attention from her betraying--she was sure--face and emotions. Backed by coffee, willpower and two solid hours of work before co-workers arrived, she managed to push last night onto the back burner. Jean-Claude called from an airport; he, too, had to leave town. And that sneaky busybody Jane? Wait till she saw her sister!

Tomorrow the whole department would face semi-annual evaluations, but by 5 sharp Alex was out the door anyway. She wanted to go home and think, but think what? That she now knew she was still in love with Jake? That he must have landed but hadn't called? That she never had been able to predict his calls, or anything else. That she couldn't imagine what their explosive reunion meant--or even, she surprised herself by thinking, what she wanted it to mean?
Didn't she want "happily ever after" if it existed? And almost from day one, she mused, Jake had been The One. But look where it had got her. Misery, she said aloud. Yes, but then much more, she admitted: growing up at last, making new friends, finishing a degree, walking off (well, yes, and crying off) 20 pounds, holding down a job she liked. Hmmm. Two conclusions: She loved a man with a lot of baggage, and--more important this minute--she needed to sleep. Switching her phone to voice mail, she did.

Seven a.m. felt a bit like the wake up call long ago on the cruise ship. Alex's trusty alarm was ringing concurrently with the doorbell. Imagining curious Jane but smoothing her X-lg t-shirt just in case, she opened the door. Behind a large clear wrap of gorgeous hot pink roses, the delivery man held a bag from a well-known cafe. As he left her with it she could smell the coffee from one carton and three still-warm croissants from the other.

Jake was still Jake, she mused as she settled down at work an hour later. He had left a characteristically brief but faultless message, promised breakfast in person--some day--and left a toll-free number for her to call. But this was evaluation day, and whether confident, nervous or just plain afraid, no one in the office could concentrate on much else.

Alex knew she had been doing a good job but also that expenses were up, ad sales down and readers demanding. So she entered the editor's office ready with a small portfolio and a list of reasons why she rated a raise. But she wasn't ready for the top boss, Ms. Big, to be there as well--or for what they said.

The meeting proved drastic and exhilarating; maybe telling someone would make it real. "They're offering me a spot called editor-at-large," she phoned Jane. "It means more money--not lots but some. And--it sounds like a dream job--it would mean at least 50% travel, probably more, anywhere in the world, everywhere travelers go and eat. 'Much less private life; that's one reason we picked you," the editor admitted. "You're pretty free, aren't you?'"
"Well what did you say? " Jane asked. "You've been hiding from me. Are you still 'pretty free' or what?"
Or what, indeed.
The day stretched long, and hard. Thank goodness there was an unexpected deadline, and no one was asking colleagues about evaluations. The others must have sensitive issues, too. By 9 that evening when Alex arrived home, Chinese take-out in tote, it was 2 am in London. That was too late to call Jake. Plus what would she say?

It was "hello" when the phone rang barely 10 minutes later. But the dilemma escalated beyond belief. "Alexandra," came his voice. "This is torture. I want you this minute. Please, come this weekend. And stay."
"Jake, it's the middle of your night. I want you too, I can hardly wait--but have to. My bosses offered me a big promotion--with a lot of travel--and expect an answer. It's a great chance--only just after--we met again, it's so hard...."
"No, darling, it's easy. We're completely right for each other. You can just quit. And write freelance, whatever you want. We've waited forever. Your ticket for Friday night is waiting, and we'll make plans on Saturday."
"I'll come," said Alex abruptly, remembering his wonderful face--and hands. "Seeing you so soon again, if only for Saturday night, sounds too good to turn down," said Alex. "Let's make the plans for some real weekends--if you really want to try having a traveling girlfriend."
She could hear a loud silence in her ear. "Girlfriend," he said in an uncharacteristically puzzled voice. "I think we're on different pages. Yes I said plans--but for a wedding."
"Wedding?" she asked. "Whose?"
"I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool."
"That's from the movie Rebecca," she whispered. "You don't mean us."
"I do," he answered. "And those are the words I want us saying as soon as we round up a couple of relatives and a minister. So kiss the job goodbye and me hello Saturday morning."
"I'll--I'll see you then," croaked Alex, shutting down the phone and beginning to pace the floor. A wonderful promotion and a marriage proposal--of sorts--both within hours. It was just too much. Better finish the sweet and sour chicken, now cold, and call it a day.

When she boarded the plane at JFK the next night, things were no clearer. An ideal job was not to be refused, and neither--at least as she'd once dreamed--was Jake. Of course he had been renowned for a roving eye. And didn't half of all marriages fail? She wanted to marry someone, and have children, eventually. But they'd spent all of five days, four evenings and half of one night together--ever. In contrast, a good, self-fulfilling career often lasted a lifetime.

"Can I take your coat and bring you a drink?" Why did it feel familiar when the cheerful flight attendant interrupted her churning thoughts. "After takeoff we'll start our meal service; here's the menu and the wine list to study."
Jake had booked her in the posh business cabin called Upper Class, so Alex asked for champagne and puzzled over the interactive TV instructions while she sipped it. "I recommend their Bordeaux with dinner," the Englishman across the wide aisle leaned over to say. "I had it on the way to New York, and it's one of the airline's best."

As with the flight attendant and in fact the whole flight, something was familiar about him too. True, his dark hair and blue eyes were more like her own than like that other face, and he was more a friendly terrier than that growling bear. But his sweatshirt with the airline's logo was gray, his finger wore no ring and his taste in wine proved as good as his light conversation. It gave her pause. Would she opt for the exciting new job with a future of travel and, it seemed, traveling dates? Or follow her heart instead of her head, risking everything for a dream that might not prove true?

As she fell asleep over the custom-selected movie, Alex decided: She would know at the airport where, as they flew through the night it was already dawn. Jake would be in her life, that was for sure. But this time it would be on both their terms. She had realized, finally, that she had lots of choices, and no need "not quite yet" to commit. This time, he very well could be the one waiting to find out.




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



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