Authors: Beth Ciotta
M USED TO MAKING A
spectacle of myself. Believe you me, I have a colorful history. Like the time I showed up in a stretch limo as Officer Buzzby the Safety Bee at a government function on the Boardwalk. I raised eyebrows and doubts about my sanity when I emerged from the limo in a furry bumblebee fat suit complete with bopping head antennae and state trooper sunglasses. The casino I worked for at the time donated the limo and my services. The character and costume were mine. The absurdity of it all lasted an hour tops.
Sugar's latest antic promised to haunt me for life.
I'm guessing about three hundred passengers plus assorted crew witnessed me plowing into Tex Alohaâhim landing face-first on deck, me landing face-first on Tex. No doubt the shocked onlookers got a peek at my lace panties. Could have been worse, I told myself. I could've been wearing a thong. Tex suffered the greatest injury, a nasty gash on his forehead. Since he cushioned my fall, all I really suffered was embarrassment. Okay, huge embarrassment.
I couldn't close my mouth. Locked wide open, I couldn't even voice a proper apology. Thinking I'd hurt myself in the fall, a crewman escorted both Tex and me to the ship's medical center. The nurse ushered us in and we sat on opposing beds. After I scribbled TMJ on a notepad, the doctor advised the nurse and turned his attention to Tex.
All I needed was anti-inflammatory medication and an ice-pack. Oh, and to relax.
Tex needed stitches. The handkerchief he'd pressed to his forehead was soaked red. Blood streamed down his face, dripping on his tropical shirt.
“Hell's Bells. It's a friggin' scratch, Doc.” He glanced at me then the nurse. “Pardon my French.”
The doctor shook his head. “That cut is more than a quarter inch deep. If you want it to heal properlyâ”
“Then get on with it, goddammit. There's a pitcher of beer waitin' with my name on it.”
He didn't sound angry, just loud and abrasive. Definitely Texan. His gaze fastened on my breastsâtypical manâbefore settling on my face. My cheeks flooded with heat.
Yes, I know,
I mentally screamed, I look like a wide-mouth bass! Did he have to deepen my mortification by staring? For the umpteenth time I tried to close my mouth. The inability to do so flooded me with irrational panic. What if my jaw stuck open like this forever?
Annoyance flashed in Tex's ochre-brown eyes. He hadn't blasted me yet for knocking him over and busting up his head and cigar. I sort of wished he'd let it out and get it over with.
He swiped off his Stetson and clamped his teeth around the shredded stogie. His salt-and-pepper hair and the crinkles framing his eyes hinted he was closing in on fifty. His facial features were too angular for my taste. His hair was cropped close, military style. The muscles in his arms and legs well-defined. I glanced down at his combat boots. My imagination zoomed. Had I injured a vet? A soldier on leave?
Specialty performer attacks war hero! News at eleven.
Doctor Drake rolled over a tray of shiny instruments. He stood between us, so it's not like I could really see him going to work on Tex's gash, but still. Feeling woozy, I turned my face away, focused on the door. I pressed the ice pack against my jaw, thumbed my ring.
“Don't worry, Twinkie. Head wounds bleed like a mother. Ain't nothin' but a scratch.”
I assume he was talking to me, not Doctor Drake. The pastry reference irritated me, but I guess Sugar did look like a cream puff. Instinct told me this guy was a womanizer. Sure, Arch probably was, too, but at least Arch was charming. Tex was obnoxious.
A heartbeat later, the charming womanizer limped in Ã la Charles, looking sick with worry. In character even in crisis. Impressive.
“Sugar, love, they told meâ¦” He glanced at Tex. “Bloody hell.”
Wasn't that the truth.
“She's fine,” the nurse assured him. “Her TMJ flared up, causing her jaw to lock. As you know, these episodes are often brought on by extreme stress. I understand that she was upset when she fell into the muster station. Perhaps you can help to calm her, Mr. Dupont.”
To his credit, he didn't betray, in words or expression, that he was in fact unaware that I had TMJ. I wondered if he even knew what TMJ was. He thanked the nurse and gestured to a partition. “I say, would you mind pulling that drape?”
She complied, and thankfully, mercifully, now there was no chance whatsoever that I'd see the doctor stitching up Tex. My shoulders sagged with relief. I blushed head to toe when Arch smoothed back my hair and studied my face. Jaw locked, mouth wide open, I had to look as stupid as I felt.
He took the ice pack from my hand, set it on the bed. Then he pressed his fingertips to each side of my jaw and gently massaged. “I say, I've been racking my brain, love, and for the life of me can't recall Joe and Jerry's feminine names.”
It took me a second to realize that he was talking about Curtis and Lemmon in
Some Like It Hot
. I couldn't
their drag names, so I wrote them. Josephine and Daphne. Jeesh. How could he forget? And why was that important now?
He glanced at the notepad. “Ah, yes.” He smiled and continued to massage my jaw. His touch was gentle and warm, just like his gaze. He glanced down at my stilettos. “I was thinking about the part in the movie where Joe and Jerry are hurrying toward the train in drag.”
Wigs, tight skirts, nylons and high heels. I smiled, nodded. It was one of several hilarious scenes.
Quoting from the movie, he affected Daphne's high-pitched, feminine voice, “How
they walk in these things, huh? How do they keep their balance?” Then in Josephine's voice, “It must be the way the weight is distributed.”
I laughed. I couldn't help it. Sure, the lines were funny, but it was Arch's expression and his girlie delivery that tickled my funny bone and unlocked my jaw. My palms flew to my cheeks
style. “Oh, my, God. Thank you!” I threw my arms around his neck and hugged tight. He'd distracted me completely, putting me at ease by talking about something I lovedâmovies. “You're a genius.”
I heard a grunt from the other side of the curtain. I imagined the doctor puncturing Tex's skin with a needle and grimaced. “That poor man.”
“He'll live.” Arch maneuvered me off the bed and out of the medical station. “Let's get you back to the cabin and into flat shoes, yeah?”
“Wait, I needâ¦I want to sayâ¦” I thought about the blood, the stitches. “Would you go back, tell him I'm sorry? Please?”
Arch pushed his Panama hat to the back of his head, dragged a hand over his silver whiskers. “Right then. Stay here.”
He was back a minute later, ushering me toward an elevator.
“Is he angry?” I asked.
“Is he suing?” Sweat beaded on my forehead thinking about all the people who sued casinos because of one or another mishap. Considering my pathetic bank account, if he sued, I was sunk.
Don't think the word
You can't sink. You missed the drill
“He's not suing.”
A relief, but I'd still apologize later in person. “Did you get his name?”
for the rest of the day. Nor did I reconnect with Jayne or my mom. My cell phone was useless out at sea and a call from our cabin's phone would cost a small fortune. I did manage to steal away to the Internet Lounge to zip off a couple of e-mails.
Sorry for the scare. I'm on board. All's well. Re: Britney. Figures. Re: The singing telegram. I'd rather flip burgers.
Will e-mail again tomorrow. Kiss Nic for me. Miss you much!
Then I typed a quick note to my brother.
Mom called. Said Daddy split. Should I be worried? Best to Sandy and the kids.
Even though Christopher and I weren't close, surely he wouldn't leave me hangingâunlike Mom. Until then, I chose not to think about the possibility that my parents had separated.
There were a lot of things that I chose not to think about just now. The last thing I needed or wanted was another lockjaw episode. I can only liken the feeling to being trapped in a coffin. The frustration. The panic. The fear of never unlocking the hinges.
If I hadn't been distracted by Tex's bloody injury, I probably would've hyperventilated. It's happened before. Tonight, no matter what, I'd wear that blasted splint.
I kept waiting for Arch to grill me about TMJ. He had to wonder what set it off and if it would happen again. It had to bug him. It didn't fit Sugar's profile. But he didn't bring it up. Instead, he lavished attention on me, treating me to a spa visit. A full-body massage by a highly skilled masseuse. Yeah, boy, talk about relaxed.
I returned to our cabin to find Big Red waiting for me. Hallelujah,
was going right with this day. After a quick shower, I changed into bright red capris, a red-and-white-flowered halter top and white tennis shoes. Sugar accessories included huge silver hoop earrings, Cajun Crimson lipstick and two perky ponytails. When I came out of the bathroom, Arch was hanging up the phone. “Dinner reservations,” he explained.
Not that I'd asked. I was too busy staring. He'd stripped off his jacket, his oxford shirt and that fake padded belly. The man was naked from the waist up. I devoured his buff torso and that Celtic armband tattoo in a ravenous starefest. The hair and face belonged to Charles, but the body was all Arch.
Then he said, “Sexy,” and I realized the staring was mutual.
My cheeks heated. “Even with the sneakers?”
“Especially with the sneakers.”
He strapped on the gut, pulled on a clean undershirt and slipped back into his oxford. “Are you up for a stroll? Fresh air might help, yeah?”
If we didn't leave this cabin, I'd faint from a toxic dose of raw lust. Sure, he had a great body, but it was his thoughtfulness that seduced me. The memory burned bright of how he'd eased my misery in the medical station, how he'd gifted me with an expensive massage. “Sure.”
The moment we exited the cabin we were
The world is our stage and all that. Again, I was impressed with his acting skills, and hoped the feeling was mutual. We strolled Deck Ten arm in arm. I encountered a few curious glances, but I was pretty sure that was because of tackling Tex, not snuggling with my older husband.
On a whim, I swung around, wrapped my arms around his neck and pressed a lingering kiss to his mouth. His thumbs brushed beneath my breasts. Now
was a new twist. I shivered with orgasmic delight, easing back before I got carried away.
He studied me through his sepia-tinted, Truman Capote glasses. “What was that for?”
“For being you.”
“I know enough.” Well, not really. But I knew he was innately kind, and for now, that was enough. Energized, I bounded out of his arms and looked out over the railing. Fort Lauderdale was a shrinking spec on the horizon. The farther we drifted from land, away from my unstable life, the lighter my heart felt. I gazed up at the cloudless sky and thanked my lucky stars for this opportunity and for the fact that I wasn't seasick.
I'd heard that, because of a cruise ship's immense size, one barely senses any movement except in extreme rough seas. The water glittered before me like a vast, magical pond. No waves. No rocking. Things were looking up.
I breathed in the salt air, and with it, the scent of Old Spice. I knew it came from Arch, but it made me think of my dad. Distraction was vital. “I need a drink.”
“I know just the place.”
on Deck Nine, the poolside bar. This time instead of calypso, a sequined duo cranked out seventies hits. The keyboard player belted “Staying Alive” in his falsetto. The female singer harmonized along with recorded vocal tracks. If I closed my eyes, I'd think I was listening to the Bee Gees. They were that good, and the audience visibly enjoyed their efforts.
Although it was a party atmosphere, many passengers reclined in lounge chairs, sipping beverages and chatting with loved ones or friends. A few brave souls had joined a dance instructor to learn the line dance from
Saturday Night Fever
. I knew that dance. I wondered if I should jump inâat least I was wearing comfortable shoesâbut Arch ushered me onto a stool at the bar.
I felt as if I'd been given a reprieve from being the life of the party. Did he worry he'd worked me too hard this morning? Did he think I was stressed out because of the job, hence my bout with TMJ? Well, darn. That was my fault. I'd planted the seed in his head with my big mouth.
Michael doesn't think I'm up for this.