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Our Own Romance Novel
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Our Solo Lady Romance Novel
Cruise to Seduction
By Alys Bohn and Lea Lane
Chapter Thirteen :
Sports at Sea...Chapter Fourteen :
Tender is the Day
Sleep had come late, grudgingly and, once gone, not to return. At last she rolled out of bed and opened the curtains to the Caribbean sun. But the sunny tropical skies had turned to gray, the clear view to a cloud of drizzle, and the blue-green sea to frosted gunmetal. It was almost reassuring to find the weather matching her mood.
Yesterday she had also awakened after an evening without him. But he had filled the day before that. He had behaved exasperatingly and outrageously, but was also in turn funny, intelligent, reliable, romantic--and much too memorable. And though that evening he had spurned her for Caren, she hadn't known then what she knew now with chilling finality. The two had been traveling together, not all day but certainly all night--from the start.Â So was she going to stand there thinking about it all day? What, actually, could 2,000 passengers do when decks were closed and any port a good swim away? If a four-letter J-word was depressing her, a three-letter g-word might take her mind off him. The ship boasted 10,000 square feet of spa and gym, well-sheltered from anything the weather might offer. In three minutes flat, clad in grey sweats and hair tamed into a single braid, she was out the door.
The scene was dramatic. The gym's 180-degree floor-to-ceiling window wall faced a sullen sea topped by angry whitecaps. At this hour, the huge room was nearly empty. She had her choice of everything--stairclimbers, treadmills, the works.Â
An hour later, nicely tired but feeling distinctly better, she surveyed the gym again. It was still half empty--but, she mused, now half full. She could choose either approach, and not just for looking at rooms.
Breakfast in the grand MidLantic Restaurant seemed right this morning. Showered, changed into black jeans topped by a red camp shirt and carrying the ship's news bulletin to read along with breakfast, she found the handsome room full of people with similar ideas for spending a day at sea. Jean-Claude, sitting with the supply officer she remembered, called to her to join them.
White-tablecloth breakfasts had their advantages, she reflected, as nicely-cut grapefruit in a footed silver dish was succeeded by Eggs Benedict. Cheerful waiters bearing platters of croissants and muffins were followed by assistants with butter and jam. "If you think this is elegant, be sure to come to the white-glove afternoon tea this afternoon," Jean-Claude told them. "The service is formal and some passengers dress up as if they were on a classic transatlantic crossing."
Reminding Alex to meet for their pre-dinner interview in theÂ Madeira Lounge at 7, he left with the officer, When she left a bit later, she spotted Phyllis and told her about the tea.
"I'll check with Mike and then call you," said Phyllis. "He's getting his camera."
Alex's cabin was like New York's Grand Central Station at rush hour. The stewardess was just finishing cleaning, a housekeeper outside the door was checking the linen cart, several notes, bulletins and a box were waiting on her vanity-desk, and her message button was flashing.
"You have many phone calls, Miss Alex," the stewardess added as a parting shot, in case she needed reminding.
The incoming "mail" was today's on-board activities flyer, and a brochure about the cruise line's private island where they would spend tomorrow. It just couldn't rain then, could it? A note reminded her to return the library books she hadn't had time to read. Another, written on heavy ivory paper and enclosed in a big square envelope, was her official invitation to be the captain's guest at dinner tonight.
As she sat down to retrieve her messages, the phone rang. Phyllis was fast. "Hello," she said, warmly. But in the nano-second's pause that followed, she knew the caller was not Phyllis.
"Alexandra,?" he said, sounding slightly impatient. "I've been calling you. Where have you been?"
Where had she been? She knew where he'd been--not last night but before that, and tomorrow, and maybe unhappily (she hoped) ever-after. It would serve him right to be Caren's spouse number-five.
Her upbeat calm evaporated in a nano-second. She must have been in denial, but not any more.
"Where have I been?" she said sweetly. "I've been with your emerald-encrusted girlfriend you came on this cruise with, that's where. She told me all about you two."
"What the ---- are you...," he began, but she cut him off without a qualm.
"Get lost, you... Bluebeard. You're toast," she muttered, slamming the receiver ferociously. Maybe he'd lose the hearing in one of those perfectly-shaped ears. She didn't think he'd call back. But as an extra precaution, in case he did, she calmly took the receiver off the hook.
Stunned at the exchange, and totally unnerved by the sound of his voice, she stared at the phone. In a minute a recordingÂ would come on with a "puleez replace your receiver" message. She'd better work in the ship's library. Quickly she changed to her black bikini, pulled clothes over it, grabbed her bag, notes and the unread books. She was out the door, replacing the phone just as the first "puleez" began.
An hour later, ensconced in a brass-studded leather chair in the club-like library, she paused. She couldn't recommend her recent experiences as spurs to concentration. Already she was too restless to sit still any longer. Why not wander up to the spa?
"I'd like to look around and use the spa pool," she told the pink-uniformed woman at the front desk. "I understand there's a charge?"
"It's nominal," said the receptionist, entering Alex in the computer and handing her a robe, locker key and towel. "And feel free to look around first."
The spa's designer had apparently visited the subcontinent of India, and had certainly indulged rich fantasies of its sensuous side. Looking from the reception area through a window-wall, Alex could see a world of warm earth-tone colors and plainly-pampering surroundings. Once inside, bold statues and colorful wall art depicted stylistic Indian dancers with their wonderfully-coordinated arm positions and eye movements.
In the central courtyard, a row of passengers in robes waited for scheduled massages and other treatments. Sunlight filtered down from an arching ceiling over the lounge area, which in turn overlooked the bubbling spa pool centerpiece.
The nearby treatment area was secluded, with the soft background sounds of the beguiling Indian sitar. Most of the small rooms were in use, but Alex caught a glimpse of an inner sanctum lined in tiny tiles in surrealistic beach colors.
"That's what we call "Kashmiri Immersion," a passing attendant told her. "During a treatment, you apply special muds and sands to your skin, then rinse them away. Actually, it's a treatment for either one or two people, and most of our customers prefer two."
Alex colored faintly at the image of sharing that invitingly pampering procedure with anyone--no one in particular, of course. Soon, leaving her outer clothes in the locker room, she headed for the frothy pool. It was like, and yet not like, traditional whirlpools. Strategically-placed jets emerged from the sides at different levels corresponding to shoulders, feet and other parts of the body. An entire row of jets was aimed at necks. Stress vanished in the warm, moving mineral water.
"Cool," thought Alex, feeling like a teenager again as she emerged. "I'm ready for anything."
Back in her cabin, Alex changed swimsuits--easily the most useful item she had brought. Some day, she'd take a vacation and pack only three or four of them plus coverups. Nothing else. Well, add toothbrush, sunscreen and snorkeling gear. Even maybe, if she was ever interested in a man again, the Pill and those vital packets.
Once her brain had recovered from that detour, time passed quickly. And she worked with her laptop just as quickly. As a precaution, she called the main reception area.
"Absolutely no calls, please, unless we hit an iceberg."
The receptionist laughed. "You've had quite a few calls while you've been out, Ms. Ransome. But no messages."
"If anyone calls from shore, just tell him I fell overboard."
Something like three hours later, her week of research and writing had turned into the report her department required from each trip. Even better, only the interview with Jean-Claude would be needed now to complete the article for the restaurant magazine.
Yes, the evening stretched ahead. In fact, life stretched ahead. But though the right someone to share it with wasÂ missing, and she now had a pretty good idea what he might have been like--she would manage. After all, she had a job to go back to, a family to love--and an elegant tea party to sample
With a white jacket, her new print sundress would pass. Its raspberry ribbon belt doubled as a band for her straw hat, while pale tights teamed with heels made for a bizarre Alex in Wonderland.
A string quartet was playing classic show tunes as she entered the large Intermezzo Lounge. It looked positively wholesome in daylight and was slowly filling with curious passengers. About a third of them had good naturedly pulled together a "tea" outfit.
Not spotting Phyllis, she found a seat beside Sue in pinstriped pants and vest and Nell in an amazing muumuu imprinted with turquoise swans. Mike and Phyllis, wearing nothing special, soon joined them.
Waiters in full evening uniforms and white gloves were passing around silver trays laden with tea sandwiches--thin, crustless and cut into narrow rectangles. Having skipped lunch, Alex chose one of cucumbers and another of smoked salmon. Individual pots of tea would have been perfect. But a waiter did bring a large, velvet-lined chest filled with a gourmet brand of multiple-choice tea bags.
"Stop," cried Sue to another waiter, about to pour hot water into her empty cup. "Wait till we've put our tea bags in, then pour the water over them, not vice versa.
â€œThey don't know how to make it," she confided loudly to Alex as the waiter stood waiting, valiantly expressionless. "The water's not even boiling, so it won't brew properly anyhow."
"Oh, stop complaining," chided Nell. "Ever since we toured England and you found out how to make tea, you've been saying that to all the waiters."
Theirs was now pouring hot water over their Earl Grey bags, while his colleague produced a huge pastry cart that gave them more decisions to make. But now everyone in the room turned toward the door. Flanked by two attractive new men--one distinguished, the other collegiate--was Caren van Danvers. She seemed to have a wand that made handsome escorts materialize on demand. But all eyes were on the woman herself, arriving well into the tea hour. Her purpose in coming was obviously not the event--apparently it never was with her--but the grand entrance.
Her dress reached the low calf which, Sue whispered, used to be called tea-length. Throughout its clouds of black chiffon,Â hundreds or maybe thousands of tiny pearls traced a lacy pattern. Its modestly long, flowing sleeves fought a war with a bare-almost-all neckline, and lost. Sheer white streamers trailed from a stunning black hat. The height of the heels on her pumps explained the need for two escorts rather than the usual one. And Alex had to give the woman points for having white gloves to complete the perfect tea look.
It soon became apparent that one of the escorts was also a photographer, who began snapping avidly. "I want plenty of shots," she was telling him loudly as they drew even with Alex's group. "My boyfriend phoned and said to be sure to get every angle."
"See," said Phyllis triumphantly to Mike. "And you thought maybe Jake wasn't so attached to her. You heard that. When he's too far from the real thing, he's ordering photographs."
Alex, using their waiter as her role model, held her face supremely expressionless.
The room was beginning to clear, as passengers finished their last pastries and the string quartet played another rendition of "Tea for Two." Caren and her party were settling in at a free table, while the headwaiter beckoned for fresh sandwiches and waiters hovered around to serve. They'd be working well beyond the allotted hour, perhaps missing a chance for a break before dinner. But what would the likes of Caren van Danvers know about that?
Out in the foyer, Alex reminded her tablemates she'd be dining at the captain's table this evening.
"If I don't see you tonight, I will on the island tomorrow," she told them.
"Anyway, we'll see you--from the balcony," said Phyllis. "Who will they sit you next to, I wonder? It certainly can't be Jake. And give us a preview. What are you going to wear?"
"I honestly don't know yet," said Alex a bit ruefully. "It has to be black or blue."
She considered the subject as the time drew nearer, but her upcoming interview with Jean-Claude was 100 times more important. She needed some really good quotes for the magazine. And beyond that, she hoped to satisfy some of her private curiosity. With so many people cutting down on calories and fat, his cuisine seemingly had not. Why? Her own training and interests had given her some ideas. Should she mention them?
Immersed in such thoughts, she postponed the dress decision until she was actually in the shower. It came by default. It was the second formal night, and Jane had included two really formal dresses. She had worn the flaring blue on a happier evening--to the Pitts' cocktail party and for the slow-dancing with Jake that she longed to forget. So the backless black it would have to be.
Actually, with its high mandarin collar, it was flawless for viewing from any angle, including birds-eye balcony perches--if she wore a jacket the entire time. With upswept hair secured with black-and-crystal claw clips, more makeup than usual and some crystal drop earrings, the effect pleased even her.
Uncharacteristically, she brought a large spiral-bound notebook instead of her electronic one when she met Jean-Claude in a corner of the Wodehouse Club. It was an experiment that would let her take off her glasses while they sat talking. She looked at Jean-Claude as he ordered his preferred Moet et Chandon champagne.
His aquiline jaw line looked as if he had spoken several decades of expressive French, as indeed he had. His mouth looked--well, reasonable, not simultaneously autocratic and sexy. His eyes held no dangerous glint. His frame was slightly padded, not disgustingly lean and muscled, as if he could...
His slightly-puzzled smile brought her back from her unplanned detour. Maybe he, too, was assessing her. But on her part, she feared it would be a long, long time before she could forget another smile, another pair of arms.
Even if she did, what about the sympathetic chef's ex-wife and reputed penchant for lissome models? At least he didn't fancy reptiles in human form....
Snapping out of such distracting thoughts, she began asking Jean-Claude about his early restaurant work in his native Spain and chosen France. Just hearing about those hot kitchens made her jacket distractingly heavy. She felt better after taking it off, noting the admiring look the gesture evoked, and put her glasses back on. This was, the gesture emphasized, an interview.
It proceeded briefly through his Michelin-starred Los Angeles triumph and on to his work with the cruise line.
"People on holiday--especially on a cruise--want the elegance of many courses and plenty of delicious, beautifully-presented food," he said. "Our food is one of the things people praise most when they fill in their end-of-cruise comment cards. And as you saw on our kitchen tour, serving 2000 people with everything hot and fresh and on-time is a small miracle."
As they headed down to the Restaurant, she thanked him prettily for the interview and detoured to leave her notes in her cabin. They would be a centerpiece of her article--maybe her best one yet.
In her cabin, the stewardess was turning down the bed in her nightly ritual--placing a chocolate mint on the pillow, closing the drapes, emptying wastebaskets, refilling the silvery ice bucket, carrying away used towels.
"You have more messages, Miss Alex," she said. "And the box that came this morning was hidden under the papers on the vanity-desk."
"Oh, I didn't even notice--I guess it's my prints from the ship's photo op shop," she said. "Thanks, but I must run. I can't be late now."
The captain, at his genial best on this glamorous formal night, had invited a selection of frequent or distinguished passengers, cruise line executives and officers and a few guests--like her--who fit no apparent category. The table was set especially elegantly, with four glasses and a battalion of cutlery at each place and gorgeous floral centerpieces every few feet. He presided at its center, looking down length of the restaurant toward the flowing staircase.
Alex found her place card, written in gold calligraphy, next to the engineer she had danced with on the memorable disco evening. Could that have been only two nights ago? It seemed like two years.
From across the table at the captain's right, Sandra Pitt sent her a friendly smile. Smart and sympathetic, she was someone Alex would also have enjoyed sitting next to. But formal etiquette had a strict code for seating. If there hadn't been enough men to alternate with the women, they'd have pulled in a dolphin and put him in a tux.
Only two people were--to no one's surprise--late. They proved to be Caren van Danvers and her more distinguished-looking escort of this afternoon. Phyllis would know who he was, thought Alex. Unfortunately, his place was next to her as well as to Caren, swathed in her usual feast of emeralds and famine of bodice. She looked less than pleased to see Alex in this elegant company, and positively glared when Sandra Pitt and Alex chose to head off together to powder noses between courses.
Tomorrow was the last full day of the cruise. With bags to be packed and placed outside cabins on the last night, the formal grand finale banquet was tonight. Its highlight was the parade of 150 waiters, carrying 150 sparkler-lit Baked Alaskas down the darkened restaurant's staircase to the triumphal march from Aida. Passengers clapped to its stirring beat, and applauded wildly as it ended and the staff began to serve the dramatic dessert.
No one quite saw how it happened. After the fact, Emeralds explained she had had too much of the freely-flowing wine and champagne and was heading unsteadily to the ladies' room. "It was a joke," she wailed. "I was only helping the waiters serve the dessert." Sure.
One minute Alex was deep in conversation with the engineer. The next she was buried in triple-layered Baked Alaska. Cake and ice cream covered the front of her halter-style dress from lap to high collar. Meringue spread through her upswept hair and down her face while--worse--some of the flaming brandy brushed her bare back.
Caren instantly began a loud litany "I don't know what happened. I'm so clumsy. Look, some spilled on my skirt, and it's a special hand-woven silk from Thailand..."
It took a few seconds for everyone--including Alex herself--to react to the scene. Speechless, she felt every eye in the room zooming in on her. In the buzz of activity that followed, the waiter hovered, the maitre d' materialized instantly and Sandra jumped up and began brushing the meringue out of her eyes. Fortunately, the burn on her back from the brandy was minor, but the ship's nurse came from another table and phoned for some ointment to be brought to Alex's room.
"Now she's done it," said Sandra so only Alex could hear. "Well, Alex," added Jean-Claude, quickly arriving to help, "you are my most distinguished Baked Alaska yet."
Alex didn't know whether she felt more like crying--or giggling. "I'm fine," she announced to the table at large--her assaulter excepted. "I guess I'll go and change out of dessert."
She smiled goodnight, though a bit shakily. As they walked out, the nurse and Jean-Claude on either side buffered some of the sympathetic or amused looks of diners who had seen the incident. Glancing up toward the balcony, Alex saw Mike leaning across Phyllis to give a V-sign.
When they reached her cabin, Jean-Claude returned to the restaurant. The nurse noted that the burn was faint, advised a cool shower, volunteered to return afterward to apply the ointment, and departed too. Alex, viewing the meringue still standing in peaks, her hair in spikes and melting ice cream in the bathroom mirror, had to smile. But it wasn't quite a laugh.
A resounding knock at the door proved to be Phyllis. "We saw everything from the balcony," she began immediately. "She was planning it for a long time, and nearly managed it when they served the red wine--but the waiters were too fast. Well, now she's done it, and the whole ship hates her."
"Except--anyone who isn't on board," said Alex, softly.
"Oh," Phyllis snorted."She must have more to be jealous of Jake than even I guessed. What haven't you told me?"
"Nothing, nonsense," protested Alex. "She must simply be as stupid as she is mean. She wasn't even on shore when we were...snorkeling together. Though maybe he mentioned it. After all, she and Jake have been--together from the start."
"How do you know?"
"She told me."
Phyllis looked at her. "Well, there you are."
"Where am I?"
"Well, how about...with one sick, jealous you-know-what for a filthy, mean enemy, and no Jake on board to straighten it out--if he could. There, with friends like me, as they say, who needs enemies?"
It was a question neither of them could answer.
"Now, give me your dress to give to the steward for cleaning, then up to the disco," ordered Phyllis.
"Yuck! Bed's what I want."
"Actually, I don't blame you. Change it to 'take two aspirin and call me in the morning,'" answered Phyllis.
Alex shampooed her hair three times, washed what seemed like the entire 49th state from her body and a champagne lace thong, phoned for a cup of herb tea, let Phyllis apply the burn ointment and a bandage over it and said goodnight. Donning her laundered big t-shirt, she climbed into bed. Was she strong enough to listen to the half dozen messages her voice mail said she had? Definitely not.
The doorbell heralded not only the stewardess with the tea but the ship's florist with a mass of flowers. "From the captain," said Alex. "How thoughtful!"
Impressed, the stewardess brought over from the desk the messages and package she had been pointing out for a day.
"You must open this, at least, Miss Alex," she said. "It has been here since yesterday. Please, enjoy your tea."
Left in peace, Alex decided she might as well look at the ship photos she had taken.
But there were no snapshots inside. A small blue box within bore the name of the Cayman branch of a world-renowned Fifth Avenue shop. Alex held her breath. What on earth was going on?
She untied the white ribbon and peered inside. Resting on a white satin base sat the tiniest, prettiest gold travel alarm clock she had ever imagined.
"Forgive me for last night in the theater," said the note in a decisive handwriting she recognized. "Here's to perfect timing in the future." The unreadable signature needed no reading.
"Some nerve, she thought, indignantly. "Bet he spotted the clock while he was buying another emerald bracelet," she muttered to nobody in particular.
Certainly a man's sending a second woman a gift when he was traveling with a first was tasteless. And why had he bothered; the situation was perfectly clear. But the clock was so beautiful she longed to keep it. Maybe she just would. Some day, perhaps, it would no longer remind her of hours it was better to forget. Or of her horrid encounters with that shrew of his by-then wife. Some day, it might be merely a clock. Strange--it was already set for a 9 a.m. wake-up call.
Chapter Fourteen: TENDER IS THE DAY
The phone was ringing off the hook. Everyone in the restaurant last night wanted to check in with her this morning.
"So, did you take the aspirin," asked Phyllis. "Do you want me to apply more ointment?" Alex thanked her profusely for her T.L.C., declined her offer and said she'd see her on the private island when they docked later.
"This is the first officer calling on behalf of the captain, Ms. Ransome," said the next caller. "He hopes you got his flowers and the regrets of the cruise line. The--er--waiter should have--umm--been more careful. And we certainly want to replace your dress." Surveying the substantial bouquet now sitting resplendently where--what seemed like about a year ago--the orchids had sprawled sensuously, Alex thanked him in what she hoped was a normal voice.
"Alex, ici Jean-Claude. I hope you can forget the Baked Alaska and enjoy the private island today. In New York we will have another dessert."
"Alexandra, Sandra Pitt here. Do come and have coffee in my suite before you go ashore."
Coffee. Now that, she could use. Lots of it.
The problem was, she mused as she packed her gear for the day, she had never met anyone like the infuriating Jake Endicott. Getting even faintly involved with someone who was involved with someone else had been insanity, of course. It hadn't been merely a breathtaking, pulse-pounding chemistry, which--until such a short time ago--she had feared she was immune to. He also had a dazzling, wide-ranging mind that stimulated her own. In fact, his mind, like his body, had left her yearning for more. He was at home with excitement and even danger; yet he seemed to share her need to balance concentrated activity with doing nothing much at all. She liked--shared, even--his need for plenty of space and time on his own for his heavy-duty schedule. How on earth did he reconcile all that with a relationship with his hyper-viper girlfriend?
And though he made her furious, she had never been bored by being with him for hours on end. Had thoughts of longer, lingering times together flickered through her mind? She denied it. But, face it, she had let down her practiced, protective guard, and was feeling the results. How long, she wondered, did it take to get over a 4-day romance that had left her with Baked Alaska in her hair, a clock to wake up to in the morning and a new passion for--snorkeling?
The CFO's suite resembled Jake's, except that it had only one bedroom plus an added dining room with a polished mahogany table. It was on the L-shaped balcony, though, that continental breakfast was set for two.
"You look fresh and ready for anything," said Sandra, smiling at Alex's short, crisp beach coverup, lightly made-up face and coolly swept-back hair.
"It seems I'd better be," chuckled Alex wryly.
After asking to check her faint burn to see if it was truly all right, Sandra spoke more bluntly. "You know, Alexandra, I see more than perhaps you think. I was sitting on Caren van Danvers other side in the Cayman submarine. I'd need shorter, blunter words than I normally use if I described what she was telling you. She is insanely jealous. Off the record, if I were in charge, she wouldn't cruise with us again."
"Please don't worry, Sandra. I'm fine, really. It's good it wasn't this steaming hot coffee down my back, though. She has no reason to be jealous of a couple of Jeep trips. But she and Jake are traveling together, are together. Maybe she sort of--goes crazy missing him."
Alex's voice sounded slightly odd, even to herself. Sandra just looked at her strangely. Was it a bit pityingly? She started to reply, but instead, ended up changing the subject.
Having lost her appetite even for coffee, Alex reported she was taking the tender in a few minutes.
"Early mornings are best, before the sun's too strong," she said. "And thank you--for coffee and caring."
"We'll be in touch," said her hostess. "You'll love our private island."
Yes, Alex told herself. I just will.
Most major cruise lines, it seemed, have a Caribbean island where their passengers enjoy a day-long party with plenty of R and R. This one was a tiny speck in warm, southern Bahamian waters, yet only an evening and overnight sail from Miami where the cruise would end early tomorrow.
She climbed down into the tender, after cramming her bag with sunscreen, the inevitable extra t-shirt and swimsuit, and long, sarong-like wrap. The snorkeling equipment was emphatically not hers, but she brought it anyway; she'd leave it at the concierge desk when she returned. Let their staff send it back to its owner.
A friendly crowd made room for her on the bench seats they had occupied. Stanley, doing a quite acceptable dress down Friday, surprised her by being included. The red haired officer she had danced with, clearly reveling in a hard-earned morning off-duty, strummed an imaginary guitar and sang audaciously, "gonna wash that meringue right outta my hair" to the old "South Pacific" melody.
She laughed with everybody else. The ice--if there had been any--was broken. The sociable ride helped diffuse last evening's incident, and other memories as well. The group was splitting up for different activities, but some planned to meet for lunch.
As they approached the shore, Alex could see an enticingly long curve of sandy beach and a profusion of tropical foliage. The island must have been a Robinson Crusoe paradise. But, though converting it to entertain nearly 2,000 passengers for a day at a time, the cruise line seemed to have saved its essential beauty.
The tender landed near a reception pavilion, where an attractive map and agreeable cruise staff dispensed all the information passengers could want. Eco-Desk personnel told them what they might see on well-marked nature trails throughout the island, and gave out small sacks to loop onto belts, reminding them not to litter the landscape. At the end of the island, the map showed even a small landing strip and parasailing launch pad.
The planners had thought of everything, and most activities were included free with the cruise. Passengers could charge those that weren't--like lessons, drinks and watersports rentals--with their combination ID-key cards. Possible pursuits ranged from beach volleyball to crafts shopping to windsurfing lessons.
Alex was the only one of her shipboard friends who had signed up for "Snorkeling Immersion-Level 2." With two hours of instruction and guidance, it was, for her budget, expensive. But she felt she had graduated from awkward beginners' sessions with large, unwieldy groups. Expeditions with Jake had spoiled her for snorkeling in crowds. If only that were all he had spoiled her for!
"Just follow the trail marked "Reef Club," the employee at the desk told her. "There's a place at the snorkeling hut to leave your things while you're in the water and then pick up towels when you need to dry off."
She enjoyed the shady route to the hut, where a small group was beginning to gather. She joined them in surrendering her coverup and other gear in exchange for a yellow, "intermediate" disk to clip to her swimsuit straps. After slathering on a final layer of sunscreen, she picked up her cheerful pink snorkeling things and set off for the shore.
At the water's edge with the instructor beginning his briefing to the class of just 19, she became doubtful. With its high neck and swimmer's back styling, the one-piece suit had, in the Cayman Islands shop where she found it, seemed modest as well as affordable. Now she wondered how its inexpensive nylon would hold up when wet. Besides, someone was passing out not the familiar, all-encompassing buoyancy vests but the simple flotation belts water skiers used. They'd certainly be easier to maneuver in than the vests. But they covered none of the suit.
"Next, does everyone have a snorkeling buddy?" asked the instructor. Everyone raised hands except Alex. It was definitely a Noah's Ark group. The friendlier half of the duo volunteered to become trios, though, and the instructor offered a helping hand as well.
"When I'm not surface diving, we can be buddies, er--Alex, isn't it," he said. "Just stay close and..." He broke off, looking beyond her with a puzzled expression.
"She's with me," said a voice she recognized instantly, well before even the first syllable was finished. "Sorry I'm a bit late, Alexandra."
The instructor shrugged, quickly verified the new arrival's "paid" pass and returned to the job of checking his charges' equipmentÂ and getting them into the water. Alex stared at Jake, who stared steadily back. For a micro-second, her face lightened as a dull, oppressive weight seemed to lift off.
Did she imagine that he noticed the fleeting change and a relieved glint flashed in his eyes. Did an impression of strain vanished in him also? Ridiculous. But he did, she noted warily, look younger and more mischievous by the second.
She snapped to her senses and glared at him. "Where did you come from, you two-headed snake?" she hissed, simultaneously struggling into her snorkeling gear to keep pace with the class. "What makes you think you can see-saw between me in the water and your attack-cat girlfriend on land--and never a word to me about your traveling together?
"I was your dumb day date and she your night mate. It's gross. Just when I thought I might be.... I mean, well, forget it. Go back to her. You truly, madly, deeply deserve each other."
"Alexandra," he said unevenly, gently tilting her chin so that she couldn't look away. "None of it's true. Not a word--well, at least, not more than two or three words. Sandra talked to me. You wouldn't take my calls or messages. Please listen..."
"Are you folks coming or staying?" called the instructor, standing with the fascinated group now staring back at them from waist-deep water. "Because we're going."
"Staying," said Jake.
"Coming," said Alex, twisting out of his reach and breaking the tranquil ocean surface at a run. She pulled on her fins with surprising ease and headed out to sea in the wake of the splashing class.
Of course, he caught up with her almost at once. He swam like some kind of Olympic finalist, and--unfortunately--she thought he looked like one, too. But she knew he still spelled solid gold trouble. And there was no way to shake him--not with a spellbound audience in what was rapidly becoming 30 feet of water. Anyway, no one--man or rat, was going to distract her from the sea life that began appearing below them.
They had reached the main coral reef a hundred yards or so offshore. To enlarge its range for shiploads of passengers, the cruise line had imported and sunk a sailing ship and a small cigarette boat captured--it was rumored--from drug runners. New rocks and sea plants, also imported, merged nicely with the existing coral reef. Multicolored fish were already performing their underwater dance for the rapt audience hovering above.
The instructor dived beneath to point out a spotted eel slithering along the ocean floor. Alex squinted in a futile attempt to see the well-camouflaged creature, then gave up and swam farther along.
"Pop up a second," sounded Jake's voice just above her submerged ear. "Your mask needs fixing so you can see the eel,"
Though she ignored him, he persisted. The man demanded nonstop attention--and usually got it.
"Why didn't you stay ashore?" she said crossly, popping her head up. "In case you hadn't noticed--which I'm sure you did--I wear glasses, so the eel's a blur. The mask's fine--and you're going to get it back today."
"Trade it for this one, anyhow," he said, producing another she hadn't noticed, looped at his belt. "It will do while we get the first one fixed."
"My mask--actually yours, I mean--doesn't need fixing. Now if you don't mind, I paid a lot for this snorkeling immersion and want to get on with it."
"And you shall, as soon as we change masks," he said, locking her long legs with his longer ones. She could neither swim away nor--for very different reasons--breathe.
She pulled off the mask, rolling her eyes in resignation. The sooner he was satisfied, the sooner she could distance herself from his disconcerting clasp. She was keenly aware of each close-up contour of his chiseled nose and determined jaw line, of each droplet of sea on the lightly-tanned face barely a hair's breadth from her paler one, of the concentration with which he adjusted the buckles and straps, of everything about him.
At last, with the mask swap completed and her own attached to his belt, she broke off her almost-hypnotized staring and rejoined the group. All were peering down to the sea floor at which the leader was pointing. A leggy, rose-beige squid was maneuvering in and out of a rocky crevice. The discovery yielded minutes of pure, timeless magic.
And more was to come. The next part of their lesson was learning to see the tiny creature closer still. One by one the instructor taught them to manage the air in their snorkels and achieve a modest surface dive. When Alex triumphantly returned from her "exam," Jake was grinning at her from a few feet away, every laugh line around his expressive brown eyes glistening under the late morning sunlight.
Something inside her melted. She didn't try to name what she felt for this puzzling blend of exasperating, pulse-raising man and endearing little boy. But it felt wonderful right now. Whatever was there, she'd take it one step at a time just for today.
Returning his scrutiny, she took off her mask to shake out the droplets of water it had collected. But--why was his face not quite as clear?
"What on earth...?" Slowly, comprehension kicked in. "You found a special mask--for me? How on earth?
"It's not fully custom-made--just an all-purpose lens for nearsighted snorkelers. "When we get your prescription in your own mask, it will be perfect."
"But yesterday you were--doing your crisis management thing...."
"If I hadn't been--night and day--I'd never have lost the time on board and gone back to the mainland," he said. "But I do have secretaries, and there's Fed-Ex to and from everywhere."
Was it the days with her or nights with Caren he regretted losing? She was afraid she knew the answer. But here she was, perversely signing on, it seemed, for another day. Tomorrow, the cruise would be over in any case.
"But it was so--I mean, a gift of sight is more precious than--emeralds." How did that slip out! She couldn't help laughing, and neither could he.
"I don't understand you at all, Jake," she said, confronting him head-on.
"You don't have to, Alexandra. I don't, myself, at this very, very important time. I'm trying, though. And that's about as close to contrite as I've ever come. Just ask anyone who knows me," he continued, lightening up in a rakish turnabout. "Now, if you like, let's get on with your class."
A good chunk of the two-hour "Immersion" remained, and they used it well. Teaching the group how to avoid even the merest touch that would damage the fragile coral heads, the instructor guided them through the fantasy forest to the sites of the sunken plane and boat. Intriguing sea plants and rainbow-dappled fish had taken up residence in and around them. With her new ability to dive seven or eight feet, and the new mask that brought what she saw into focus, Alex would gladly have stayed all day.
And Jake, matching and even surpassing her spirit of sheer joy, was at his uncomplicated best. If only they could live in the water rather than on land...
Inadvertently gasping at the twist her thoughts had taken, she swallowed some water and surfaced, sputtering and coughing. She shivered slightly, as well.
"You're cold," he said, touching her cool, bare back with considerable effect. "TheÂ waters here are colder than they were in Mexico. Next, you'll need a wetsuit. Let's measure you."
As he moved in she slithered away, laughing. "You're off the wall--not strange for a diver," she said. "But I am cold."
"I'll tell the instructor we're leaving," he decreed. "We'll swim fast."
Most of the class had reached the same conclusion, and soon everyone was ashore, drying off with the ship's cocoa-colored towels and receiving ribbon-tied certificates as "Snorkeling Immersion-Level 2" graduates.
"Now," said Jake, shouldering her gear bag with his own and guiding her gently off the main path. "I awakened our very sleepy pilot much too early this morning to fly me here to spend the day with you. How about it, Alexandra?"
"You're asking instead of telling?" she gently chided, smiling. "That's pretty rad for you, Jake."
He chuckled. "It's only because I'm hoping for a 'yes.' An hour ago, I'd have bet on 'no.' Then you'd have heard me telling."
Probably, somewhere, there was someone who could resist Jake Endicott at this moment. Whatever her name was, it wasn't Alex.
"Well, you know what they say," she said lightly, calling herself five kinds of fool as she looked up at him. "One day at a time." She was well aware whom he had in mind for the night.
His brown eyes had been deep, shaded wells. Now they gleamed in a patch of dappled sunlight along the vine-covered path. She almost saw a veil of tension lift off--a release of some suppressed energy, perhaps. A few days ago, he'd have translated it into a heavy-duty lunge for her. Now, he simply took her hand with his free one, brushed it with the barest touch of his lips, and held it as they veered into a narrower track.
"Good. That's settled, then. And I haven't forgotten what you were imagining when I first arrived--back on the beach. Please ask me all the questions you want, though I may not be able to answer some. First, though will you answer one for me?
Her wide blue eyes looked wonderingly up, forming their own counter-question. "Just one? What could it possibly be?"
The kiss began gently. The salt of the tropical sea was on his lips as they bent to hers, which parted in trusting response as if they had been waiting. A near-grunt of satisfaction escaped him. Then his tantalizing tongue moved in, lightly exploring each sensitive micro-dot it could reach, probing spaces, tasting surfaces, then retreating to allow his lips to recapture hers. And again returning, retreating, returning.
How could she help responding to each questing move with an answer all her own? How could what he was doing to her mouth be so lightly caressing, yet spreading, as it indeed was, to her very core--and then, unmistakably, to his?
Their bodies were lightly linked, not locked. But they were in perfect communication, nonetheless. She felt, rather than heard, a groan not of passion but of--almost a deeper kind of satisfaction. Or was it resolution? He was almost imperceptibly withdrawing. She couldn't bear it. But she would. Strangely, the kiss ended almost as tenderly as it had begun.
Unwilling to break the connection as yet, she rested her head on his t-shirted shoulder, drawing strength from his sensitive restraint. At last she pulled away, firmly picked up her own gear from the path, and followed it until he caught up. He pulled her close within the muscled curve of his free arm, as they continued the branching path to the island's farthest shore. After passing a gate where Jake punched in an access combination, they went single file on a final stretch that ended at a tiny, sea grape tree-shaded curve of beach.
On a far point of the inlet, Alex could see the tip of the landing strip where the plane that brought him must have come down. On the beach itself sat a half gazebo, half house with shaded decks, a screened veranda and an enclosed room or two. Trust J.K. Endicott to locate the ultimate private space on an already-private island.
Still, she couldn't help but giggle. "So this is the seduction scene setting, after all?" she asked brazenly.
A look flitted across his face that was almost chilling. But as his eyes met hers, it was gone instantly. Or maybe she had imagined it.
"No, Alexandra, there is no seduction scene today. Or any day. With us, whatever is to happen will be very, very mutual."
His fingers brushed her cheek, resting on her chin. "Here's my promise. Today is a truce. I want your trust. I came, quite deliberately ready for--nothing."
She gasped, almost in awe. She had been flip, even cynical, though understandably so. He had been honest, as well as considerate. Today, he was saying, she would not be asked for sexual surrender. But she had resolved to keep it light anyway. She had to remember that with most men--and most especially this man--it was all a game, like a tennis match.
"Advantage, Endicott," she rallied. "Point taken. And--well, thanks, Jake."
She didn't imagine the appreciative glint in his eyes, or the slight irony in the gesture with which he waived her up onto the deck and into the building's interior.
Its decor was what magazines described as minimalist. A main room was large enough for a small party--cruise line corporate entertaining, she guessed. It held a couple of simple yellow and white sofas that she suspected opened up into beds, some lamps, a white straw rug and little else. A screen half hid a mini-kitchen adjoining the large veranda. Two chairs were pulled up to a nicely-set table, while a pair of double hammocks jiggled almost imperceptibly in the faint breeze.
The bathroom behind the kitchen wall showed the most imagination. Its sheltered alcoves allowed the same privacy for unisex use that Jake's shipboard suite had--or had not. And its attractive private deck was walled off from the thickly-encircling foliage but open to the sunlight flickering in through a screened roof. Showerheads and sprays emerged from two walls at three or four levels. They could rinse all traces of Caribbean salt from anyone. Or, she imagined, any two.
Someone had readied and sent ahead one of the picnics that Jake seemed to command--this time a simple one with cold chicken and shrimp, salad and a basket of pita bread. When she saw he had set it out on the veranda table, she realized she was ravenous.
"All I had coffee for breakfast," she explained as she dug enthusiastically in. "And I--er--skipped dessert last night."
Not a flick of an expression changed on his face. He had said he had talked with Sandra, but she guessed not about Baked Alaska. Just as well. Maybe he wasn't as deeply committed to Caren as she had thought. On the other hand, his statement this morning that only "two or three words" of what she had accused him of were true brought limited comfort. How she'd love to ask.
"We've a full hamper and sparkling cider and water in the fridge, with half a day ahead of us," he commented, smiling at her enthusiastic attack on their lunch. "And by the way, you answered my question very well, but you haven't asked me any of yours."
She almost jumped. Was the man a mind reader?
"Umm. I think I'd need more than sparkling cider to ask the first one, so I'll try the second. What exactly do you do?"
To her astonishment, he didn't even try to wriggle out. He told her of his work at two major companies--modestly forbearing to mention that he headed the smaller one. And moved along by her soft, intelligent reactions and questions, he told her of his current, nearly nonstop crisis, not yet under final control.
He came on the cruise for a couple of days, it seemed. The reason was to investigate whether the multi-national parent company he was getting increasingly involved with or the smaller business he owned outright should acquire or team up with the cruise line. Then, already immersed in negotiations, offers and counteroffers, they had discovered a rival moving in with a takeover threat out of the blue.
The situation was probably resolved now, but not certainly. Everything wouldn't be finalized until Monday morning back in Chicago. Or maybe elsewhere. And even on a weekend, in the corporate global jungle a lot could happen.
"I keep up with the news, but you're describing another world," Alex marveled. "And look at you, here, watching fish, so to speak."
"Ah, but I'm not here to watch fish or even--at the moment--catch them. Believe me, Alexandra Ransome, you're no fish."
"You're ridiculous," she laughed, reminding herself to keep it light. They lived in different dimensions, where things he said meant one thing--not much, probably--to him and quite another to her.
"Anyway, I think I'll keep my snorkel on till Monday morning," she announced. "That way, I can't talk. So if anything happens in your arrangements, you won't imagine I went out and said anything."
"Don't ever think it," he said, harshly. "I trust you, Alexandra. You're clear as--a mountain spring."
"Let's drink to your project, then," she said, raising her glass of spring water. She knew he was right in trusting her. Was she also right not to trust him?
be continued ....