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Our (Very Own) Solo Lady Romance Novel

Cruise to Seduction
By Alys Bohn and Lea Lane


Chapter Seven: Turnaround Time... Chapter Eight : Dance Into Danger...

Chapter Seven: Turnaround Time

BACK IN CABIN 444, Alex's mood hit a strange low. Or not so strange. One J.K. Endicott had gone over and out. She had forgotten she was a mere blip on his schedule. Dancing, one hour. OK, one unforgettable hour. Snorkeling--well, a morning like no other. Lunch half dressed. 30 minutes. Out the door. Two minutes.
       But. They lived half a continent apart, and a vast chasm separated the worlds in which they worked, played, traveled and certainly spent money. Yes, he was amazing--when not being obnoxious. They had talked, perhaps even thought, in astonishing accord. He made her melt on the dance floor, and kissed with mega effect. He was a catch and -- with his arrogant manner, keen intelligence and macro-sized ego -- knew it. Flight attendants and room service staffers told him, his multiple-married girlfriend told him. The world told him. Alex would have to be sure she didn't.
         Sure, the evening, the morning, the whole Jake experience, had been unforgettable. But for whom? She remembered each minute, almost. But she'd bet he had forgotten the minute he walked into his suite and saw -- whoever was there.
        Then there was that "only the first time" remark when she put on her snorkeling gear. "Is it always this much trouble?" she had asked. In the charged atmosphere between them they both knew what his response meant. Just who did he think he was?
        Or, she paused with a flash of insight, who did she think she was? Out of nowhere, it seemed, came the words, "Face it, Alex, you're no longer the frightened student, hiding behind big glasses and big shirts from big boys you can't handle. You're in the city now, where the only men who will treat you like brothers are your brothers. You want to pull it together -- looks, intelligence, friends, everything you need to have a life, right? So grow up."
       Alex sometimes talked to herself when the world was closing in. Inspiration could come in a small cabin on a superworldly cruise ship as well as in church or under a starry sky. This was a moment, and a day, she'd not forget. And the day wasn't even over.
       Right now, there was work. She needed to review all the places to eat on board. And she had sent a "yes" RSVP to tonight's invitation. Cocktail parties weren't her favorite scene. But with the younger officers as hosts, she determined to like this one.
        After her moment of insight, she looked at Jane's clothes with new eyes. For the restaurants and maybe the fitness center (if she was serious about getting it all together) afterwards, she chose trim workout gear and sunglasses.
      The ship's crack designer team had gone all out in the main restaurant. Its teak and chrome-railed staircase at one end balanced the triple-story windows above the glowing ship's wake at the other. The informal restaurant where she had breakfasted was another winner, with outdoor/indoor sections and dazzling views dropping down to the sea. Several bars, a pizzeria, gourmet bistro, cafe and ice cream parlor filled out the roster.
      She considered walking the wide teak promenade deck, but headed as planned for the wraparound gym. Choosing a treadmill, she found the agreeable guest-chef next to her, running up a storm.
        "Hello, Jean-Claude, You're a runner?
        "Bon jour, Alex. Is that so surprising?"
        "I don't know, you stand up at work so much. I guess I thought you'd swim--or spin."
        "Since I'm tasting all my delicious creations--and my rivals' too, I have to do all of the above."
       "Maybe I could help," she said daringly. "I studied nutrition and ran my mother's catering business while she was ill. So if you want to add low-fat or low-calorie creations, maybe I'm your gal."
       "That could be interesting. At least we could talk about it.I could call you when I'm in New York -- and of course, we'll be meeting on board meanwhile? You mentioned wanting an interview...."
How different Jake and Jean-Claude were. It made perfect career sense for her to see the high-profile Franco-Spanish chef, and he seemed to agree. He was charming, had risen high in his profession and there was no intrusive chemistry to confuse things between them.
       Not like Jake -- almost manically rude and polite, egotistical and generous, dependably unpredictable, shacking up with a blonde, tempting a brunette -- and nukeing her peace of mind. I'd better ask for guidance more often, she thought.
        By 7, she had worked on her notes and was peering into her closet. Tonight she'd be which version of her sister Jane? The trouble was, her sister's entire cruise wardrobe had been chosen to entice the man she loved.
        And it had. Alex liked Tom, he almost seemed to deserve Jane. Jake, on the other hand probably deserved Ms. Emeralds. What right did he have to comment on her sexual experience -- and worse, imply she lacked it -- with that "first time" remark? In fact, what right had he to assume it? She had said nothing. Or had she?
       Almost viciously she opened the case of makeup and started applying eye liner, mascara and a tawny glow to her still pale face. If any more razor-sharp barbs were to be exchanged, she was going to be on the giving, not the taking end.
       Tonight's dress code was neither "formal" nor "casual" but "informal." A gray sheath looked fine. And when she pulled back her hair and put on her glasses, she looked fine, too if she were her mother. Peeling it off, she turned to Jane's red and white print. Its built-in bra revealed much more of her than it had of Jane, but there was a matching jacket. However, inexplicably furious, she wound up carrying it, wearing her highest heels and letting her hair swing free.
          Alex showed her invitation to the young crewman at the "reserved for staff only" barrier, then entered the officers' own tastefully simple living room. The hosts in their whiter-than-white uniforms dazzled the eye. They had invited a flock of bright-looking younger passengers, and though these young men and, she hoped, the women might have captain's bars in a few years, their mission for tonight was fun.

***

ACCEPTING A GLASS of champagne, Alex joined a clutch of chattering contemporaries. She spotted some familiar faces, but no Jean-Claude, Jake, or Caren van Danvers. This must be a 20-something party -- nicely reassuring. And the ship's office did hold every passenger's passport. Disarmed by the hosts, the guests and perhaps the champagne, she slid her glasses into her jacket pocket. Why worry about who's who or where?
          No one, in fact, seemed worried about anything--what, after all, was the point of cruising--and the time went much too fast. As it drew to a close, word circulated that the party would continue at the disco later.
         "No dinner unless you promise to come," one of the lieutenants chided her. "Be there by 11--most of us have early morning or even midnight duty."
        At dinner, Phyllis again had the best view of the captain's table from their balcony perch. "Guess what?" she asked, a preface that always heralded some special gossip.
       "What," chorused the tablemates, ready for the latest.
        "She isn't wearing anything at all. Just emeralds." They all knew who "she" was.
        "Show me," Mike whooped.
         Phyllis glared at him in mock disgust.
         With her cream-colored mesh top and carefully-crafted face, Caren van Danvers would have been flagrantly out of place at the officers' party just ended.
         "She spent the day having a hair extension, too, but I don't think her face can handle it," added Nell, peering over Phyllis' shoulder. She normally didn't gossip but was warming up under her new friend's influence.
          "Maybe she got desperate when she spotted her boyfriend coming back with Alex," said Phyllis, with a sideways look. "He's doing big deals, I hear. Or maybe Caren and Jake had a falling out. So, tell us Alex, what's he like?"
          "Attractive, for starters," answered Alex, admitting the obvious. "And he can be very nice. When he chooses."
           "Did he choose"?
           "Some of the time."
          "When, exactly?" pressed Phyllis.
          "When he wasn't acting like a big deal."
         "What does he do?" asked Nell, leaning intently toward Alex to hear it all.
         "I don't really know. He slithers out of telling much."
         Tonight was Asian night, and she ordered a sweet and sour appetizer, then chicken with lemongrass. For dessert they were all going to share the wedding cake the cruise line had given the honeymooning couple, and green-tea ice cream.
           "Back to Caren van," continued Phyllis, who seemed fixated on the dramatic blonde. "I found out today at the beauty salon that she's known Jake for a long time, before she married that producer who put her in some of his movies."
          Everyone nodded, but finally admitted they had never seen Caren before.
          "Probably she had bit parts," said Phyllis. "Anyway, he was her second or third husband, and after him she married van Danvers -- in pharmaceuticals, I think. And now they're divorced after only six months, and she's richer than ever."
         "Maybe she was having an affair all along with her friend Endicott," suggested Nell. The words reverberated through Alex. They were very probably true.
         "So she has enough money to live alone, or marry who she likes," said Sue, now caught up in the story.
          "And she sure seems to like that good-looking Jake," Nell wound up.
         "What about him?" asked Mike, deadpan. "Doesn't he have anything to say about it?"
        "Not much, they say," answered his wife. "She likes younger men -- and once she gets them into her satin sheets, they're done for."
         "You really could write movie scripts, hon," he observed.                "Look, he isn't even at the captain's table tonight."
         "You wait. He'll be around later and later still."
         Alex had had enough. She really enjoyed Phyllis, but tonight the vacuous chatter though probably true, disturbed her. She turned to Stanley.
          "There's a cool crowd heading for the disco later. Are you interested?"
         "Er, well, why yes," he stammered, hardly believing what he had heard. A smile turned up the corners of his mouth and remained throughout the meal.
          After dinner, the others headed directly for the show lounge, with Sue and Nell beaming at the "young folks." Poor Stanley. She hoped he knew this wasn't a date. She had enough problems already. Still, he was sweet, predictable and unexciting. If she had an ounce of sense, she'd be looking for someone exactly like that.
         "It's 10:30," she said. "And the disco doesn't open till 11."
         "I have an idea," said Stanley. "Let's stop at the casino." Alex balked. Raised in a modest house by a careful family, she thought of casinos in terms of smoke-filled rooms and gamblers losing their savings. On the other hand, visiting one would be a new experience. And she couldn't lose anything if she didn't bet!
          "I'm surprised," she said, looking around when they entered the vast contemporary room. "I've only seen movie casinos, those elegant European ones in James Bond reruns, or the shoot 'em up kind in old Westerns."
          Stanley asked the cashier for a mountain-high stack of old $1 coins. The face of the women's vote crusader, Susan B. Anthony, looked reprovingly up from each of them.
         "We don't have time to really do the roulette and baccarat," he told Alex. "We'd better stick to the slots. What do you play?"
          "Nothing. I mean, I never have."
          "Here's a start," he said, handing her a slice of his stack.
           "l'll try a couple, to see what it feels like. But they're still yours," she said. He paid no attention, intent on finding the right slot machine.
         "Here," he pronounced. "Get started, Alex, we don't have long." She watched, fascinated, as he began sliding in dollars, accompanied by a sort of low chant. "C'mon, apple, gimme two, just one more...." Had she called him predictable? Or was this just an ordinary man's wild side, accountant or not?
          Looking at the other gamblers around them, she saw the same intense involvement as in her normally staid tablemate. Their faces remained impassive as the rhythm continued: insert, pull, wait; insert, pull, wait.
          As if plunging into cold water, Alex put a dollar into the slot and pulled the handle. A star, a sun and a planet lined up in three windows before her. Another dollar brought forth two stars and a planet. Stanley, feeding his adjoining machine faster and faster, urged her to put in three or four coins at a time.
          "One's hard enough," she exclaimed. At the next pull, a few winnings spilled out halfheartedly into the waiting holder metal, so that other players could be inspired by the jingling sound.
In the next row a woman erupted in a loud whoop as bells and whistled jangled. She had won a small jackpot and would buy drinks for everyone at the bar. Already tired of the scene, Alex turned to Stanley.
         "Look, Stan, here are the coins that are left. I'm fine at the disco if you'd rather stay and party here for a while." He looked bewildered. A well-lit casino party or a darkened disco were heady choices.
           "Well, if you're sure, I'll be up later."
          "Don't lose too much, then," she said, feeling motherly. "You could spend enough in here to pay for another cruise."
          "No, I've set my limit," he said. Then, with the first touch of humor she had seen, added, "Besides, now the drinks at the bar are free."

***

MIDNIGHT. Jake Endicott closed his laptop, caught up with loose ends on three continents at last. He never took precious daytime hours from work to entertain any woman, unless he was in hot pursuit. And, after that ridiculous parting from Alex last night, he had drunk too much when he returned to the lounge, and behaved very foolishly after escorting Caren to her suite. Of course they'd been careful. But pursuit was the last thing he needed today, or for that matter at any time with an inexperienced girl-next-door.
           And, after diving the world's best reefs, from celebrated to secret, this morning's sea life had scored dead zero. Yes, there had been other sightings. But why did I enjoy this excursion more than most in recent memory, he asked himself. Not because of the fish, or the break from work.
          It's not her conversation, he assured himself. That's unremarkable, although often surprising. So, in fact is she. Mature in a way, but exuding that childlike enthusiasm that he found himself catching. Though smart, maybe even intellectual, she's flexible -- and not bored or overstressed, like any normal person. With her, something very new happens, he suddenly saw. I relax. And I won't mind seeing the snapshots of her that Todd took from beneath.
           As a rising entrepreneur, man of the world and known escort of the anything-but-wholesome Caren, he rarely pondered his beliefs. But he definitely believed in trying new things. And as a shipboard encounter, probably never to be continued on land, he might as well pursue this one. But Alex Ransome's defenses were strong, and he'd better tread carefully. Who needed trouble in the pursuit of pleasure?

Chapter Eight : Dance Into Danger

Outside the casino door, Alex drew a relieved breath. The smoke, flashing lights and noise from the pull of slot handles and plink of metal on metal had stressed her out.
The winner's shrieks had attracted a crowd in the lobby. One of the cocktail party hosts, his full uniform banished in favor of polo shirt and khakis, regarded the milling crowd.
"Hi, Alex," he said as he spotted her. "They sent me down to see what all the hype was about."
"You were probably hearing my eardrums shattering," she said. "Someone won a jackpot and is buying everyone drinks at the bar. What about you?
"No way. It's disco time."
"Let's go for the stairs, then."
Four decks up they traversed the dual-pool deck, silent and all but deserted. Alex, heels and all, set a strong, purposeful pace. The velvety tropical air and dark, star-dusted sky were dangerously romantic, and young officers at sea were, she guessed, vulnerable.
Amorous encounters had never been her friends. Give her simple friendships that lasted--when she could find them.
Across the deck and two more flights up, the daytime observation lounge had become a pulsating club with at least three kinds of music. Wraparound windows that overlooked the shimmering sea by day morphed into mirror-black walls by night.
The beat had just begun and was swiftly building. "Well all right, perfect timing," said her companion, leading her down a low ramp to the oval dance floor. En route, she found a corner chair and, slipping her glasses into Jane's tiny bag, left them with her jacket on top.
The designer of the on-board lighting was rumored to be the best in his field. His interplay of laser-controlled shapes and intensities with vivid iridescent colors was dazzling.
As a child when her brothers were teens, Alex had begged them to teach her dance. And even though she secretly thought the soft jazz at the parties she later catered was more romantic than their rock, she was a natural at almost anything set to music.
Falling immediately under the spell of the setting and all-encompassing sound, she shed her cares as easily as she had her jacket. Her natural grace, lending a special style to her cascade of dark curls and curvy body in Jane's vivid, bare-shouldered dress, attracted partner after partner.
Pleading thirst, she prevailed upon Jean-Claude to stop for a break when he asked for a dance. They couldn't reach the chair where her glasses lay, so he led her to the bar with a steadying hand on her elbow.

"Champagne," he told the bartender. "French, of course. Though actually," he continued, turning to Alex, "Anything not from the province of Champagne must be called sparkling wine. But who knows this anymore? Not even the bartenders." 

"They may know, but don't want the customers to feel ignorant," she suggested. "I just learned it since starting this job. And you must admit, Jean-Claude, there are some very good not-champagnes."
Their splits of Moet et Chandon arrived, and Alex drank more thirstily than usual. "I need some water, too," she confided.
"With Champagne! Sacrilege. Maybe two sips I'll allow you before I claim my dance. And speaking of claiming, I hear we are both to be at the captain's table on Thursday night. Let us do your interview over a drink just before that."
"Agreed, gladly," she said, smiling. He was so competent, so--civilized. She was sorry that, as they were dancing, one of the officers cut in.
"Where have you been, Alex?" he asked in mock despair. "Don't disappear again. Some of us have to go on duty soon. We're going to play Auld Lang Syne, as if it were New Year's. And I want it to be my dance then."
"I don't know if I'll last that long," she said.
But when a drunken passenger all but pushed him aside and moved in, she did know. She was done, now. Her feet were complaining. The pulsating lights and music were pounding her brain, and she had chug-a-lugged the whole split rather than make it last an hour or so as she usually did.
The music slowed--in preparation, she feared, for Auld Lang Syne and the kisses that went with it. Her obnoxious partner pulled her unpleasantly close, smelling of stale cigarettes and alcohol.
"Get lost," he said to an approaching officer, then moved his hands boldly over Alex. She tried to pull away, sorry she was wearing only strappy sandals instead of good kicking boots.
"Some of our officers have to go back on duty," said a voice at the mike. "So they've requested that familiar farewell song, and y'all know what to do when you hear it. But the rest of you, stay. You're on vacation, and we hope you'll dance till dawn."
"You get lost," Alex told the human octopus as firmly as she could while pinned to him. "I'm leaving."
"Not me, you're not. No one leaves me," grunted her partner. "An' you, bud," he said to someone behind her, "Out. She's my date."
"Not in a million years," said a low voice at her back. It seemed to be coming through tightly clenched teeth. Its owner pried the lowlife loose so fast she never knew how. Suddenly she was free. As two stalwart crew members appeared and bundled him off, she turned into Jake's arms, all thoughts of forgetting him banished. All she wanted was to fuse with the soft cotton shirt on this hard body with its crunchy triangle of tawny hair curling between the open top buttons.
"I'd have called you, but I've been on the phone," he told her, holding her close. "Thank God I took a break. When I think of that animal all over you.."

She heard no complaints about her tears of relief on his no-doubt custom-made shirt. He merely pulled out a silky j.k.e.  handkerchief and told her firmly, "blow." She did, then looked up. As she did, she realized that Auld Lang Syne was in full form. And he was going to kiss her.
It was a gentle kiss rather than hard, but packed a punch that defied analysis or even any thought of it. Down-soft flicks of his tongue circled her lips--the pretty, glossy upper and almost too-full, sensuous lower--stripping them bare as if he were stripping--her body. She must be crazy, not only letting him kiss her like this, but kissing him back. And then, when each velvety outer lip had totally dissolved in pleasure, he moved his full attention inside, healing her dance floor experience as if with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She was drowning in sultry depths. And never wanted to surface.
But, too soon, the world outside was moving in and on, even as they stood locked within a time warp. "Alexandra," he whispered, drawing slowly away but still holding her as if in a magnetic field. She looked up in wonder, still unaccustomed to hearing her full name. Nobody said it the way he did, caressing each part of it with low, masculine resonance.
She almost gasped when he moved back, breaking the spell their contact had created. Something felt wrong, without his touch. But he was only moving behind her to place his warm, decisive hands on her cool bare upper arms. Silently he threaded them through the dance floor where the evening was getting its second wind. They crossed the darkened cocktail area and, descending the circular stairs of the tower-lounge, emerged into the fresh tropical air of the pool deck.
Stopping by a deeply-shadowed strip of the rail, he turned and drew her in, body-to-body, with a single motion.
"Did you think that was all, Alexandra?" he whispered in her ear, probing its most sensitive places with his tongue at the same time.
She opened her mouth to say "no." Or "yes." How did you answer that one? But what he was soon doing inside her mouth stopped her from saying, or thinking, anything at all. At first his tongue was again feather-light, leisurely retracing his earlier forays with reassuring sequels. Then the tension mounted as his mouth probed wider and deeper, more firmly, more demanding, sending shock waves deep inside her to places she had only heard and read were there. She not only felt possessed. She wanted to be. And to possess. Lips for lips, tongue for tongue, she was responding, giving, and loving it.
Her hands, on his shoulders at first, were now feeling the warm skin of his neck inside his open collar and the spring of the crunchy, tapering hair again. Her fingers, all ten of them, wanted to touch him like this for an eternity. He smelled faintly of--what? A woodland, perhaps a citrus grove, of something indefinable and surely essential.
But as their kiss escalated with one hand holding her close, what was the other doing? Freewheeling, it was caressing her breasts--first one, then the other. And the thin, slightly coarse cotton of her dress with its tiny straps and built-in bra heightened the devastatingly arousing results.


It was like a stolen, early-spring swim in a cold lake back home--and yet not that at all.  Where she had been soft she knew she was hard. And breasts that had been normal, she could feel expanding to huge. There was no way his hands weren't feeling her reaction unmistakably. Just as she, their bodies so close there was no discernable space between his and hers, was learning with growing wonder what his also-unmistakable reaction was all about.   
Surprising herself to the core, she knew she wanted more, not less, of everything he was doing. And of undreamed of things he was not yet doing. And why not? There were a dozen reasons, she knew. But with her mind in free float she couldn't think of even one of them.
Then it came. The voice inside was a whisper, so soft she didn't hear it--at first. If his hands had not begun to move purposefully down her back, she might never have heard. But as they did, the whisper rose precipitately. With a nearly-superhuman effort and a last delicious taste of his lips on hers, she lowered her hands from his magnificent shoulders and inserted them into the non-existent space between their waists. And pushed.  
She had to admit, the man had class. He knew "no," even when unsaid. Pushing him away had contradicted everything she was feeling. Wanting. Needing. Being pushed might have done the same to him. She heard a low groan that was anything but happy. But, taking his time, he moved slowly back, as she did, breaking the magnetic field between their bodies but holding it between their eyes.
For a minute, or was it a light year, they stared at each other. There was nothing to say. She turned. He followed. He led back to the door to the foyer, and opened it. She went through.
Turning again, she realized the bank of elevators across the foyer was a blur. "Jake," she gasped.
He looked down at her, a question in his eyes.
"My glasses," she said.
The questioning gleam died. "Where are they?" he asked through expressionless lips.
"In my bag, with a jacket by the dance floor ramp."
"Wait here." 
"See what happens when you take your glasses off," she told herself sternly as she waited. Then she smiled ruefully at the tired old message.
"Yes," said a new voice. "And see how well you handled the situation, accepting your feelings but putting on the brakes anyway. And liking yourself better."
She had to laugh wryly at that point. She liked herself much, much worse. Half of her--OK, all of her except for a stubborn sliver of caution and the thought of his clear involvement elsewhere--wanted only to be back in Jake's arms.
"What's the joke?" he asked, reappearing with bag and jacket. "I could use one, right now."
"Me."
"Believe me, Alexandra Ransome. You are no joke. Not even close."


Then, apparently trusting himself to touch her in the brightly-lit foyer, he took her hand and led her to the elevators.
Nor did he let go until they reached her cabin and she needed to extract her keycard. He slid it into the slot, then took back her hand, turned it palm up and kissed its most sensitive spot.
Not daring even to breathe, she was through the door and had shut it before she changed her mind.

Continued ....


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

 

 




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