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Our (Very Own) Solo Lady Romance Novel

Cruise to Seduction

By Alys Bohn and Lea Lane

 

Chapter Three: Key West to Kitchen ... Chapter Four: Color Me Blue ...

Chapter Three: Key West to Kitchen

LAST NIGHT Alex had punched 0715 into the phone system. 
     "Good morning," intoned the wake-up recording. "It's seven-fifteen, the temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the sea is calm. Have a wonderful morning in Key West." 
     
Rested and packed for the shore excursion, she was ready for the breakfast buffet in the indoor/outdoor cafe. Recorder in hand, she circled the gleaming glass and steel serving stations, speaking notes. "Bacon, underdone. Eggs, overdone. Croissants-perfect. Pretty pottery--blue and white, napkins..." 
     A waiter materialized from nowhere to carry the custom-made omelet Alex had chosen to a table jutting over the sea 10 decks below. And this was work? 
  
   Soon, though, she itched to be on shore. En route to the lower deck exit, she stopped in her cabin, tamed her ponytail with the Yankees cap Jane had packed and switched to her sister's generous Christmas gift--designer sunglasses.  
     Phyllis and Mike descended the gangplank soon after Alex did. Their touring vehicle for Key West was waiting in the loading area.  
      "Look, it's all aboard the train," she said, admiring the procession of colorful open cars topped by striped awnings on the locally-famous Conch Train.
     "Welcome to the U.S. mainland's southernmost city," said the driver-guide as they headed down the cement jetty that led to the shore. "Be sure to keep your arms and legs inside the ropes, although we've lost only a few tourists. The train is named for the famous Conch Republic..."
      His cheerful patter over a loudspeaker continued as they rolled along leafy side streets lined with pastel wood houses trimmed in gingerbread cutouts. White picket fences bracketed many of the tiny lawns. If anything had been damaged by previous seasons' hurricanes, Key West seemed in perfect shape now.  
     "I'll tell you more about the neighborhood later," the driver promised. "The residents complain that our loudspeaker disturbs them." 
     When they turned into the low-rise downtown area he made good on his promise. "If you'd like to settle down in one of our nice houses, be sure you have a million or so. Now we're coming into Ernest Hemingway's old territory. I'll show you which bars he frequented, and even the cats--there's one right now… some of them have six toes…descended from his own.  Are we sure? Of course." 
     "Look," said Phyllis as they passed the leading downtown hotel. "There's that good looking man who was at the captain's table last night. Nell found out his name--it's Endicott. He started his own business, makes real money and pals with the cruise line's chairman. Maybe that's the chairman now."  
     "So?" teased Mike, raising an eyebrow. "Are you planning on getting off this train to find out, or are you willing to stick with me?"  
     Glancing up against her will, Alex wasn't surprised to see Mr. 2B—apparently his first or last name was Endicott--as well-turned out as ever. The points of a white linen handkerchief peeked from one pocket of his cool summer suit. A powerhouse with casually-open collar, he was stepping into yesterday's chauffeured Mercedes with his distinctive colleague, gray at the temples and superbly tailored to match. 
     They were soon left behind as the train continued through the town farther out on the key--actually one of a series of islets connected to mainland Florida by a spectacular causeway-bridge. There was the Little White House where President Harry Truman had vacationed in the mid-20th century. Farther along, sunbathers spread out along a sandy Atlantic beach. Back in town, an assortment of jugglers, caricature sketchers, trinket peddlers, tourists and locals milled about on Mallory Pier. 
     "Many of those folks wait there for hours each afternoon for the highlight of their day," reported the guide. "That's the minute when the sun sets, all red and purple and dipping into the Gulf of Mexico right over there. And it's a show you don't forget, folks. Where else does everyone applaud a sunset?"  
     When the train stopped for a five-minute break, Alex and Phyllis crossed the street to window shop. A cluster of macho slackers whistled loudly. 
     "Hey cutie, you off the ship?" "Yo, babe, I could use summa that." "Come see the town with me." 
     "Ignore them--it never pays to look," said Phyllis. 
      Nonetheless, Alex buttoned a button higher, despite the heat. "Why is it always some loser looking at me," she lamented. 
      "Just stand up tall, turn up that nice nose and toss your head back," advised Phyllis. "Being gorgeous may have its downside, but the rest of us envy you." 
      "Me--gorgeous! You should see gorgeous. Look--there it goes," said Alex, pointing suddenly to the hotel entrance they had passed earlier. The designer-clad blonde from the captain's table and last night's dance floor was disappearing purposefully through its doors--probably to a rendezvous with her gray-suited boyfriend. 
      "She acts it, you are it," said Phyllis, breaking into Alex's thoughts. "You'll learn--and I hope it's soon. By the way, I found out her name--but not much more; it's Caren van Danvers." 
      Not Endicott, noted Alex, unable to account for a certain satisfaction--though lots of married couples did use different names. More important, it was now time for the Conch Train's final loop around town. 
      "Remember, tickets to the Aquarium and Sunken Treasure Museum come with this tour," the driver reminded them later, as they pulled into the Front Street terminal. "And when you're ready to shuttle back to the ship, the bus leaves from that curb over there." 
      "It's only 11 and we don't sail till one," said Phyllis. "We have time to do a museum and still be back for lunch."  
      "Thanks anyway, but I need to get ready for my 2 o'clock meeting, said Alex. "See you at dinner."  
      "Anyone who worries about your generation should meet you," Mike told Alex as she climbed onto the shuttle."You're deep in vacationland, and you still think of work first." 
      "Yes, but if I do my job well, there may be more assignments like this one." 
      "Yeah," agreed Phyllis, "You're right to give it your best shot. But just the same, I'm going to help you look around for a boyfriend. You haven't said 'boo' to anyone but Mike and Stanley. And I don't think either of them is quite right for you." Phyllis laughed, hugging Mike. 
     Some day, that's for me, too, thought Alex, watching the couple stroll away arm in arm. But, not right now.   

***     

BY TWO THAT AFTERNOON, Key West was behind them as the ship headed for Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. Alex had traded her jeans for a dark green suit from her office wardrobe. A hint of pale green showed at its collar and cuffs. Unfortunately, besides sandals and sneakers, Jane had packed only pumps with stratospheric heels. To look more businesslike, Alex tamed her hair into a severe French twist, and applied makeup so carefully it looked like none at all.   
     A group of eight or nine joined her in a corner of the ship's library-style Wodehouse Club lounge. It was one of the smoking retreats on board, with expensive cigars displayed in a mahogany-framed showcase. The air conditioning was so good that her highly sensitive nose couldn't detect a whiff of anything. And as the meeting progressed, she was impressed with her colleagues: Even in this bastion of fine tobacco, only one man was smoking. 
     The ship's Norwegian supply officer aimed some VIP welcome remarks at a well-known food-and-wine-writer duo, then began a briefing. "We'll answer any questions, have a drink and then tour the galleys," he said. "And we'll be here to answer more questions throughout the voyage. If you wonder how many gallons of ice cream we serve each week or almost anything that isn't top secret, just ask."   
     But Jean-Claude Gonzalez was the focus of attention--a dramatic, dark-eyed chef who had worked his way up from unknown French and Spanish kitchens to Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and—recently--his own in Los Angeles.  
     His marriage and same-year divorce from a well-known supermodel had gained him a certain name-recognition among celebrity followers. But his work, which included TV presentations and designing the cruise line's new cuisine, continued--solid and substantial.  
     "Why did you take on a big assignment with the cruise line when you just opened your own restaurant?" Alex asked him, impressed with his gutsiness but not sure of his motives.                
     "Simple, I guess. I love a challenge. I need to push as far and as fast as my talent will take me or I'm not satisfied. Maybe you know the feeling." 
     "Not yet," she mused. "It's still step by step, figuring out where I need to go. And I'll go there--as I bet you did--by hard work." 
     The charismatic chef nodded approvingly. As he answered their questions, a steward arrived to take orders for drinks. 
     "Cappuccino, please," said Alex. 
     "And for me...," began the supply officer. Then he suddenly broke off, and stood up. So did Jean-Claude, though less abruptly. 
     "Ah, good afternoon, my friends," said a silvery voice behind Alex. "May we join you?"  
     There was no doubt whatever that they could. All the men rose as the silver-templed man Alex had glimpsed in Key West was introduced. He was the cruise line's chief financial officer, James Pitt. And he wasn't alone.   
     "This is my colleague, Jake Endicott," he said, identifying his companion as heading an expanding company that Alex had heard of. 
     Jake. Not the name she expected. She would have guessed--that is, if she had cared to bother--a name something like Winston or Trevor or even Maximilian. Jacob was such a thoughtful name--and Jake a nickname of someone more down-to-earth than the arrogant newcomer to the room. 
     She knew that his company had appeared on the corporate scene in the last decade, and that it had recently been linked with a multinational corporation whose name was a household word. She silently bade goodbye to the names she had carried in her head: "2B" and "Mr. Cashmere." His name was Jake.
     "How do you do Mr. Endicott," she said blandly. But "Mr. Enigma," she figured, was a name she might just keep. After all, it would still be Mr. E. in either case. 
     "And how do you do, Miss Ransome." Perhaps only she could detect the emphasis on the "you."   
     Everyone shifted on the butter-soft leather chairs and sofas to make room for the handsome newcomers. Alex slid over to accommodate the supply officer, whereupon Jake Endicott occupied the vacant spot instead. Though her suit was perfectly businesslike when she stood or sat behind a desk, she now realized that the skirt was top-of-thigh-high when displayed on a low sofa. Oh well. 

***
                    
               

FROM THEIR FIRST ENCOUNTER, Endicott had vowed he'd avoid a second one. Despite her nice legs on display, Alexandra Ransome was clumsy, a compulsive talker, superficial, sloppy and--especially--intruding into the quiet flight he had anticipated when 2A failed to show in the seat next to him. And now on the ship, this very young woman had developed an exasperating habit of showing up everywhere. Maybe she intrigued him physically--OK, not maybe--but that was no big deal. Women were his after-hours specialty--some observers had rumored addiction. But now he was on board to make a momentous business decision, and so had let James involve him with this obscure press group. 
     Caren, who had followed him on this cruise to pursue her own agenda--undoubtedly including him, he thought wryly--should be enough after-hours distraction. So why was he thinking twice about this Alexandra--an awkward ingenue one minute, and sexy as hell without even--he was pretty sure--being aware of it? What self-destructive urge had made him deliberately sit half an inch from the firm round thigh revealed by that bargain-rack suit that covered everything else. He could much too easily imagine her in something much better, subtly fitted to that well-concealed body.... 
     Don't go there, he ordered his thoughts. She's not a candidate for--anything. Modest but somehow simultaneously a tease, naive, so out of it that she wears glasses instead of contacts  and isn't even on a normal starvation diet. Definitely not his style, his class, his world. End of story. Still today, to please James, he'd play nice.... 
                       

***          

AS THEY SIPPED THEIR DRINKS , James Pitt inquired of no one in particular, "What's your favorite place on the ship, so far?" 
     The writing duo chose the dramatic MidLantic restaurant with its balcony and ocean backdrop.  
     "The galley," said Jean-Claude, straight-faced. "What else do I get a chance to see?".                
     "It's too soon to tell," answered Alex when her turn came. "But it could be this Wodehouse Club."  
     "Let me show off the art collection before you go on your galley tour," the CFO. suggested, leading the group to a series of prints that lined the walls. "We commissioned a young artist to do these sketches of Jeeves, Bertie Wooster and scenes from P.G. Wodehouse's early 20th-century novels. He has really captured the writer's off-the-wall humor. Our chairman of the board is such a Wodehouse buff he threatened to name the ship Empress of Blandings." 
     "I'll be the one to ask," said Jean-Claude. "Who is this Empress?"  
     "That's what Wodehouse named a prize-winning pig," Alex couldn't resist answering. "But of course if the ship were named that, its whistles would have to blow "oink oink.'" 
     Jake Endicott's laugh was appreciative and mellow -- actually, contagious. James Pitt chuckled too. 
     "Quite impressive," said the CFO. "Most people don't read Wodehouse anymore." 
     "And you've one-upped me, Alexandra," said Jake, sounding surprised. "What else is on your reading list, I wonder." 
     Alexandra. Only her teachers had called her that, to emphasize a classroom setting. But somehow, it seemed natural when he said it. 
     Alex had assumed that Jean-Claude would send a deputy to conduct the three writers on the galley tour. But he chose to preside instead. The supply officer also joined them, and--more surprisingly--Jake Endicott fell in step beside her on the descent to the Restaurant Deck.

***

 

Escalators sped heavily-laden waiters up to the restaurant's second level. "Food has to be served really hot," explained Jean-Claude. "Trays are heavy, so we have training sessions on the escalators, and most waiters work out in the crew's gym."  
     No wonder they have such great biceps, thought Alex, suppressing a smile.   
     The galley seemed big as a stainless steel football field, scrubbed and shining, with touches of color from the food and huge copper bowls. In the refrigerated area, gloved assistants were preparing tonight's appetizers and salads. Pictures posted above their heads showed what each finished product would look like. 
     "You'll have to try this one; it almost matches your suit, Alex," said Jean-Claude. "Green asparagus, pale salad leaves, and the strip of pimento could be a mouth, no?"   
     A mega-sized mixer was mashing potatoes that would team with the rack of lamb that, in an old English mode, would be garnished with green mint they spotted on a maple chopping block.  
     "Our cruise line serves only mashed potatoes from scratch" said Jean-Claude. "Even tonight's ice cream is churned from fresh peaches."      
     "As, perhaps, we might enjoy in a certain Rodeo Drive restaurant?" suggested Jake.  
     "Yes, perhaps," agreed the chef-restaurateur. "I seem to remember your enjoying our sorbets, monsieur." 
     So Jake was one of those bi-coastal business travelers she had read about, thought Alex. And he seemed to relate to men as well as to women. Some women, she corrected herself.   
     As they proceeded into the soup preparation area, steam was rising from cauldrons reminiscent of a medieval castle's kitchen, or maybe its torture chamber. Everyone except Alex took off their jackets in a hurry.  
     "Each caldron is at a different stage," Jean-Claude was explaining. "Here, the stock for a fish chowder is near completion." She could smell wave upon wave of garlic and onions.  
     Jean-Claude continued. "And this beef broth, made from fresh bones, has simmered for hours and will be ready for the early-dinner sitting," pointing to another steaming vat. 
     Alex grew hotter as the commentary progressed. She had had it with soup--and with standing in Jane's four-inch heels. "Enough already," she thought, willing herself to stay attentive in the oppressive heat.  
     Then, as they turned a corner, she slipped on a patch trailed by damp stainless steel. But instead of feeling a hard wet floor, she fell into arms--so silently that the group, disappearing around the corner, didn't notice. For a second or two she stayed right where she was, dizzy with heat but strangely secure.  
     Recovering, she straightened and turned, expecting the usual Endicott put-down. None came. 
     "Thank you, Mr. Endicott," she said, surprised. "We've got to stop meeting...like this." 
     "Hmm," he said, arching an eyebrow. "Anyway, please call me Jake. I've already called you Alexandra." 
     "Everyone calls me Alex."   
     "I am not everyone." 
     She laughed. "That, I've noticed," she said, still shaky.   
     Ahead, Jean-Claude's charming accent could be heard in the baking area.   
     "Our Swiss pastry chef and his assistants create our baked goods. Souffles and ice creams have their own department, while additional staff prepare the midnight buffets." 
     As two under-chefs began a complicated demonstration of frosted petits-fours, the heat of the nearby ovens now got to Alex in earnest. Her note-taking stopped. She didn't care if she never saw another kitchen. She had never fainted, but there was always a first time.  
     Jake was watching her, frowning. "Please continue, Jean-Claude," he announced. "Alexandra and I have to leave for a meeting with Mr. Pitt." 
     "Adios, then," said Jean-Claude. "Now as you see, the assistant cuts the slightly cooled cakes into blocks, then...." His voice receded as they walked away, but other things seemed to be fading too.                            
     "Where's your cabin?" Jake inquired, keeping an eye on Alex's unnaturally pale face, and a hand at her elbow as they left the galley. "Down one deck," she gasped. "444. Who said 'If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen?" 
     "Harry Truman, whose house you probably saw this morning...but never mind that. Why didn't you have the bloody sense to take this hot jacket off?" Jake demanded, ushering her into a descending elevator and out, reaching to undo a couple of buttons as they walked. She jerked back, but the sudden movement made her light headed. 
     "Now your key." Concentrating her attention on breathing, she pointed to her bag.  
     "So," he said, pulling out the card and shoving it in the slot. "Answer me. You know nylon doesn't breathe. Would you rather have a heat stroke?" he asked, pulling a cold can from the minibar as soon as they entered, and holding it to her forehead. 
     As he tore off the last two buttons, the offending jacket fell to the carpet. But Alex could only slide out of her shoes and lean against the door, recovering. The suit was her own, found on a final sale rack at a discount outlet. No one else had wanted its poly fabric and attached row of ruffled nylon. The blouse didn't even exist; underneath, she was wearing only Jane's too-small ivory bra. 
     And now her breasts under the gossamer lace reacted sharply and unmistakably to Jake's masculine presence. She could feel them firming way beyond comfort--not a little but a lot. Despite the whisper-thin fabric, she might as well be topless. Though she didn't dare look at him, every pore was aware he was not even pretending to turn away.   
     And as he stared, her sensations became worse. There seemed nothing she could do--strange reactions were spreading as if in slow motion. It was too embarrassing. Did she hear a low groan? It seemed forever before she managed to turn her back. 
     After a minute, hands on her shoulders edged her into the small cabin's only chair. After a silent minute that seemed an hour, he moved to the door. 
     "Alexandra," he said in a strange, almost strangled voice as he left, "we really do have a meeting with James and Sandra Pitt. 7:30. Black tie. The Wodehouse Club--again."

 

 

Chapter Four: Color Me Blue

FOR LONG MINUTES she sat, totally confused. She was hot. She was cold. Did he attract her? She didn't even like him -- or he, her. Boys -- and then men -- had shown interest in her, on and off for years. It wasn't always true that they "never make passes at girls who wear glasses." But Alex had stayed cool and--sympathizing too much, perhaps, with the problems and complications of so many of her friends and classmates -- was waiting...still.
     Yes, there were men who had wanted her. Five minutes earlier, any of them would have been strongly aroused and tried much more than a discreet kiss. Would she have gone farther with Jake Endicott if he had asked? No, of course not. What if her body had said yes? What if it still did? Merely recalling her transparent state of undress and her unexpected reaction to his lean, solicitous presence, she blushed again. There was something special about this overbearing, arrogant and undeniably attractive male of the species.
     Firmly, she reminded herself he was already with someone. In fact, he was very likely rushing back this minute to that luscious blonde he'd been all over, yesterday evening. Probably last night too. She wasn't sure of much at this point but, after the meeting with the Pitts tonight, she'd bet that "Mr. Cashmere" and "Ms. Emeralds" would be re-glued. 
     With that thought, she fairly threw off her clothes. It was barely six. Hurriedly, she drew out a terry top, sweatband, and shorts. With the dress code tonight designated "formal," the gym should be empty.
     It was. Almost. Picking one of the treadmills standing like sentinels above the darkening sea, she ran for half an hour, then made the rounds of the other equipment. Briefly, she glimpsed a tall figure peddling furiously -- virtually up Mt. Whitney -- at the end of the row of interactive cycles. What was it with her tonight? Did every tall, fit man have to look like Jacob Endicott?
     With a cheerful attendant to pick up after her, Alex's cabin was spotless, and beginning to feel like home. It wasn't much smaller and was certainly more luxurious than the tiny one-bedroom apartment she shared with Jane. Emerging from the pristine white shower, she dried her dripping curls with the wall-hung hair dryer, then secured them with silver claw clips. From the hidden wall safe she pulled out her family's birthday gift, Tiffany silver earrings.
     Next, surveying Jane's dresses, she saw for the Nth time that no one could fault her sister's taste. But there were serious flaws in her sense. A silky, marine blue evening gown was cut on the bias to cling to the hips and then flare extravagantly to the floor. Its simple elegance forbade adding jewelry apart from her earrings--even if she had any. But its deep V-neck spelled heavy-duty trouble. 
     The "little black dress" looked more conservative, at first glance. Tiny jet-black buttons climbed from its low waist to high mandarin collar, and the slit in its ankle-length skirt looked, well, possible. Just one problem: its halter style gave it no back whatever. Clearly, this was no dress for cocktails with a CFO. and his wife -- unless she could stand with her back to a wall.
     One glance ruled out a pretty red cotton with spaghetti straps and white tropical flowers. It could wait for casual night. The short dresses matching last night's could stretch to "informal" but not more, so the blue won by default. Its shimmery sweep felt wonderful. And though no bra would fit into its deep neckline, it was expertly lined. And she'd remember to stand very straight all evening.
     The first formal evening of each cruise, said the ship's bulletin, included the "Captain's Welcome Aboard" cocktail parties, one for each 1,000-person dinner sitting, early and late. The cruise line's president and captain would address them, it said. James Pitt and his wife apparently offered a chosen few a quieter place to meet after the official speeches.    
     But this was no meeting, Alex quickly saw. It was a small cocktail party, with guests drifting in from the larger event. She knew no one and had no idea why she was included in the gathering. At least there was no Jake Endicott to face. Yet, anyway.
     Actually, she was glad to see James Pitt again. He greeted her warmly.
     "Here's the young woman who knows all about P.G. Wodehouse," he told the black-clad woman beside him. "Alex, this is my wife, Sandra."
     The petite salt-and-pepper-haired woman put out her hand.
     "I'm Alexandra too," she said. "But Sandra was my nickname when I was a teen, and it stuck."
     Alex much preferred her own nickname, but was attracted to the older woman. "I guess we cover both ends between us, Sandra."
     "That's a wonderful dress, Alex," Sandra said pointedly. "And you're tall enough to carry it off."
     "I agree," said James Pitt. "Blue is almost our cruise line's official color. Now tell me, what path led you into working for the restaurant industry press?" 
     "Well, my field is nutrition and I love writing," ventured Alex. Plus," she proceeded more confidently, "my mother is a caterer, and I -- the family, I mean -- had to run the business while she -- was ill for three years."  
     "Well done," said the CFO. "We'll need you tomorrow at the officer's cocktail party. "That's a must."  
     "Thank you," smiled Alex, puzzled but pleased. Was she really invited? 
     "Good, you'll meet some other young people," said his wife, being charming with an ease that came from decades of practice. "And what will you do on your shore trip in Cozumel tomorrow?"
     "I'm going to try snorkeling. I've been dying to learn."
     "You snorkel, and dive, too, don't you, Jake?" Sandra asked of the vacant space at Alex's right shoulder. "Have you any advice for a beginner?"
     Alex turned her head. The space was no longer vacant. How long had Jake Endicott been standing there? He was really too much -- and way too elegant in flawlessly cut black tie regalia.

***

IT WAS HARD TO FACE HIM so soon after her mortifying afternoon. But as their hosts wound up their chit-chat and moved on to other guests, she knew she had to pull herself together.
     "Thanks for your help in the kitchen, Jake," she said, sweeping the far-worse cabin scene under the proverbial rug. "I really...um...appreciated it." 
     That was shorthand, of course, for "I hated it." And his "Think nothing of it" had to be one of the most useless suggestions of the new millennium. Though tingling with embarrassment, from her upswept curls to her stubbornly-visible cleavage, she pushed on determinedly to higher ground. "Are you … she began, then stopped. He had uttered an identical "Are you..." at the same time. They looked at each other and burst out laughing. And whatever it was she felt as their eyes met -- his warm and crinkling at the corners, hers clear and blue behind her lenses -- she wished she could store, in vitro. 

***

HOW LONG would they have stood there? She'd never know. A lady with a voice of brittle glass shattered the spell. 
     "Oh, there you are, Jake. We said we'd meet hours ago." The clinging vine -- no, Venus flytrap -- had entwined him again. 
     Jake blinked. Alex blinked. Abruptly, she pivoted, her skirt following in a swirl of deep-water blue. As she moved away, she heard the woman sidling up to him.
     "There's the little girl in glasses, darling. Does she follow you around?"
 

 

     DINNER IN THE MAIN RESTAURANT would have been a grand occasion even if the cuisine had not had the multi-star stamp of a Jean-Claude Gonzalez. The results were especially dazzling at the Captain's Welcome Aboard dinner.
     Quite a few diners had shifted tables since last night, as personalities clashed, or someone had left in search of wittier companions or to try out the gourmet surcharge restaurant. Now some tables were chock-full, like Alex's. Others sat half empty. 
     Stanley's bow tie was askew, but his smile was sweet as he pulled out Alex's chair.
     "Have a nice time in Key West?" he asked.
     "Yes, good - -if short. I can't believe this is supposed to be work."   
     "And how was your meeting and the fancy cocktail party after?" chimed in Phyllis, tanned from her day and gossipy as ever.
     "Nice -- the nibbles were great. Reporting on food and drink has a downside, though, I'm finding out. Too much of anything isn't good in the long run."
     "But I'll take it for the short run," said Mike.
     "I'll drink to that," said Nell. And the tablemates clinked their glasses in good cheer.   
     The meal unfolded. "Lobster bisque perfect -- we saw it made," wrote Alex in the tiny notebook hidden on her lap. "Caesar salad studded with anchovies, classic -- except I hate anchovies." 
     "Do you really like that duck?" asked Stanley, finishing the last bite of steak.
     "Yes, and I'm going to try the spa menu tomorrow, for sure," said Alex. "I can see how my editor gained 30 pounds in 10 years at her job."
     "Well, there's 'Murder by Chocolate' on the dessert list," said Sue. "So let's all just relax and die happy."
     Their table was one of the last to empty. So they skipped coffee and headed straight for the main theater. Its designer had checked out Broadway, London's West End and some of the world's fine opera houses. Not a pillar marred the unbroken line of sight from viewer to stage. And the control room, providing rarified sound effects, lasers, lighting and stage elevations, looked hi-tech enough to orchestrate a manned landing on Mars.
     They entered on the balcony level, where carpeted ramps sloped down to spiral stairs at either side. Rows of padded banquettes faced the stage, with small tables appearing like glass mushrooms every few feet. 
     Everyone on board seemed to have come to "Beguiling Broadway," and the six new friends split up to find seats. 
     "Let's meet in last night's lounge afterward," Phyllis called out as they separated.
     "I see two seats," said Stanley in a hoarse whisper. Seizing Alex' hand purposefully, as if it might break, he led her down the ramp. Alex didn't pull away, although she was surprised at his assertiveness. They half fell into a banquette as the orchestra struck up "Lullaby of Broadway" and a shower of lasers lit up the Manhattan backdrop. Recordings of the original cast's chorus sounded out as tonight's dancers started a frenzied staccato of tapping.
     The audience clapped wildly. Soon those voices and dancing feet were transporting them along 42nd Street and from there on a bittersweet tour of then-to-now musicals. At the end, some members of the departing audience were dancing in place. Stanley and Alex were at a standstill when Alex heard a familiar voice. 
     "I'd love to come, dear, but anything before noon is just too early. I'll probably stay in the suite. Remember, I'm an unreformed night owl." The throaty variation of a whine floated back from the crush ahead of them. "Besides, there'll be other opportunities. I'd rather take the submarine when we get to the Caymans. You wouldn't want me to get my hair wet anyway. You know how it gets." Her companion's more modulated reply was inaudible. "And," the voice continued, "won't you be diving? With all your scuba experience, why would you bother snorkeling?" 
     It had to be Ms. Emeralds, with Jake Endicott in tow, thought Alex. She hoped they had targeted a different lounge from the one that Phyllis had specified. But when they gathered there as planned, she spotted them in a nearby corner with the Pitts and some ranking officers.  
     Phyllis glanced in their direction and whispered in Alex' ear, "Know who that is? The woman who was in the theater line ahead of you, Caren van Danvers? The ex-wife of the chairman of Centurion Films--and of I don't know who else yet. Now she's an item with Jake Endicott -- rumored to be targeted as number four."
     "So, who cares?" put in Mike.  
     "So, maybe Alex should. They're not married yet. Jake is a tycoon and a hunk, if I ever saw one. He dresses like a star, and seems like a nice guy too. The real-life man who has everything."
     "Maybe, but with that witch he has too much."
     So Emeralds was the likely Mrs. Endicott-to-be -- maybe even on this cruise, Alex reflected with a strange sense of letdown. The fleeting spark of bonding she had felt had been pure self-deception. 

 

***

    

"OUR DRINKS have arrived," said Stanley, reassuringly dull. The server set out Mike's brimming lager, Sue's coke and four cups of steaming coffees dusted with spices or foam. Who needed life at the top, thought Alex. She'd take the nice guys in the middle any time.
     Mike asked a delighted Sue, in lime green from hair clips to flats, to dance to the lively combo.  
     "Are you sure you won't go with us on the tour and picnic tomorrow, Alex?" asked Phyllis. "It'll be a fun day." 
     "No, I'm determined to learn to snorkel. In fact, since the class starts so early tomorrow, I'm heading down to the cabin after I finish this coffee." 
     As if Alex's comment had stung him, Stanley immediately put his hand out to Phyllis and led her to the dance floor. Nell excused herself and ducked thankfully out for another cigarette. Alex welcomed the moment alone. 
     But it was a micro-moment. As if by classic Star Trek transporter, Jake Endicott was there looking down at her, enigmatically as ever.
  "This dance is ours," said Jake, smiling.   
     "My learn-to-snorkel tour starts as soon as we dock," Alex protested. "I'm heading for bed in a minute."
     Ignoring this, Jake took her slender hand in his firm one. He led her, not onto the floor where she saw Ms. Emeralds dancing with James Pitt, but seamlessly out into the walkway beyond. 

***

THEY STOPPED, surprisingly in accord, before several of the late-20th-century paintings and photos lining the walls along the broad corridor leading from lounge to lounge. Like all the art on board, they were carefully-chosen or specially-commissioned originals. Strolling along was almost like touring a small museum. Alex had done that before, but never in sync with a man whose reactions so stimulated her own. Or whose brown eyes crinkled so attractively at the corners when he smiled, which he was doing right now. They moved to a smaller, quieter lounge he chose, he claimed a corner table near a dance floor not much bigger than -- the image appeared out of nowhere -- a round king-sized bed. A trio was playing timeless Cole Porter as couples barely moved their feet under the dim lighting. 
     "Is champagne OK?" Jake asked, holding her chair. "It's my favorite," she said, wishing she liked something slightly more exotic.
     The waiter opened a bottle of Dom Perignon lifted from a silver ice bucket, and filled two frosty flutes.
     "Do you know where the name comes from?" he asked.
     "Of course," she said smugly.
     "Well?"
     "OK, professor. Once upon a time in France's Champagne region, the monk, Brother -- or Dom --Perignon, discovered the blend of ingredients to give the local white wine its sparkle," she said, happy that she had studied the promotional brochures around her office. "Do I pass, or must I stay after class?"
     "Stay, definitely." They drank, eyes meeting, without toasting. 
     There was barely space to dance on the circle of polished pear wood. But Jake's steps were sure, and he guided her easily. The fine wool of his tux caressed the large expanse of skin her dress revealed. His subtle scent of aftershave and scrubbed skin bemused her senses.
     Though the music was old --no hip-hop here --the players were young, giving romantic, Berlin-to-Beatles favorites a jazzy new twist. His age, Alex had discovered, was not a generation or even quite a decade ahead of hers. But he, too, knew the songs she had learned to dance to when she had helped cater Big Band buffs' and Baby Boomers' parties.
     Some had heartbreaking World War II lyrics, like "I'll be seeing you, in all the old familiar places." How many pilots had listened to it before missions from which they would never return? "Moon River" recalled an incandescent, now-vanished Audrey Hepburn, strumming her "Breakfast at Tiffany's" guitar on a soundstage fire escape.  
     She thought of asking, "What about your...?" But was Emeralds really his...-and his what? She had more rumors than eyewitness evidence to go on when it came to Jake's relationships or anything else about him. She did know that when he took even a mini-break like this one from Ms. Emeralds tonight, he left her with plenty of friends to entertain her. 
     One of the passengers now approached the bandstand and gestured toward the mike. The leader hesitated. Then he shrugged "why not," and helped her step up. With the woman's substantial bulk swathed in clouds of gold chiffon and her wavy gray hair, no one expected the throaty, sensuous voice of a pro. It stopped lifted glasses in mid-air and dancers in their tracks.
     "Oh, how the ghost of you clings. These foolish things remind me of you," she sang. Jake removed Alex' glasses and drew her close. "I'm in the mood for love" brought them closer still.
     Even in sandals -- high, though not the designer heels his girlfriend favored -- Alex reached barely to Jake's tawny eyebrow. The baby-fine stubble on his clean-shaven chin subtly tickled her cheek, while her back registered indelibly the touch of each finger through the bra-less dress. She had always loved to dance, but this was more like making love upright. Their bodies seemed fused.
     "All of me, why not take all of me," the chanteuse sang. "Can't you see, I'm no good without you?" It was true, at that moment in time, for Alex, and she thought, beyond reasonable doubt, it was true for Jake.
 

***

THE SINGER WAS MURMURING into the mike, "That's it, folks. Thanks for having me." But someone called out, "Play 'As Time Goes By.' And half the room added, "Play it, Sam."
     The singer began the familiar refrain, "You must remember this..." But Alex learned under the barely-there lights, that a kiss was not just a kiss. She lifted her face, willingly. His lips brushed hers like a whisper that slowly rose to a roar. He parted them, or had she done so herself? His sensuous tongue, finding its way by instinct as old as man and woman, homed in on every centimeter of her newly-sensitive lips until they could handle no more. By that time, though, it had begun to probe deeper within--astonishingly, effectively, yet gently, as if he somehow acknowledged the limitations of time and place. And conscious of his reassuring restraint, she welcomed each advance with escalating response. If this was a kiss, whatever had she had before?

     If the music hadn't stopped, they might never have done so either. How could they? Why should they? With his arm holding her close, he led her out and down the forward stairs.   
     The cooler air cleared Alex's head. A little. It reminded her of what she suddenly knew she had to do. When they reached Deck 4, she turned, reached for her glasses in his pocket where she had felt him stow them, and whispered, "Don't come with me."   
     "Alexandra," he murmured, drawing her into the protected corridor and then into his arms again. She paused there, right where she wanted to be, to stay. Then she stepped back. 
     He spoke a single word. "Why?"
     "Because you're.... Because I...." She couldn't continue. He lifted her chin and searched her face. She blushed intensely, but looked steadily back. "I've never wanted anybody to come in so much, so very much, before," she stammered. "But... I can't say it because--I don't know!" Then, beyond speech, she whirled, picked up the sweep of blue skirt, and simply ran away.
     At the end of her flight down the now-deserted corridor, something moved her to look back, as if she were Lot's wife in the Bible or Natasha in War and Peace. Doing so had helped neither the ill-fated Israeli nor the star-crossed Russian. But now she understood their compelling curiosity.

 

Continued ....Chapter 5


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

 

 




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