Authors: Beth Ciotta
Who needed Calgon when they had the Caribbean? Turquoise waters, sunshine, sunscreen. Arch in a bathing suit. Arch in a bathing suit rubbing sunscreen on my bare back.
My rash ebbed as my imagination soared.
“Here we are,” Ramon announced, cutting my fantasy short. “Port Everglades.”
The cab rolled to a stop at a security checkpoint and Arch handed the guards the requisite passports and travel documents through the window. Pleasantries were exchanged and, when they handed back the passports, I nipped them out of Arch's hands for a look-see. Mostly I was interested in mine.
Amazing how official it looked. It boasted Sugar's name and my professional head shot. I remembered then that Michael had e-mailed a JPEG, but how had Arch transferred it onto a government document?
I quirked a suspicious brow and handed the falsified booklet back to my not-entirely-truthful husband. I resisted the urge to punch him in the arm for lying to me. Socking my cane-wielding, AARP-card-carrying husband might not look so good to Ramon, shattering the illusion of newly wedded bliss. Not that I should give a flying fig about Arch's illusion. The deception might not be illegal, but that passport was. If I landed in a foreign prison because of him, I'dâ¦I'dâ¦well, at the very least, he'd never work with this actress again.
Either he was a mind reader or he could hear me grinding my teeth. He derailed my runaway thoughts by pressing his mouth to mine. His tongue teased open my mouth and a fierce hunger caused me to feast. The ache in my jaw instantly eased. Kissingâthe new treatment for TMJ. I melted in his arms, my senses fully and wonderfully compromised. For a few blissful seconds I was sweet sixteen and making out in the backseat with the high school hunk. My insides bubbled with girlie excitement.
Don't giggle, Parish
When he eased away and lowered my sunglasses, it took me a minute to focus on his intent gaze. The man had kissed me blind.
He smiled. “No worries, love.”
I would have believed him if he told me the sky was green. I contemplated his top-notch bullshitting skills as I fought to recapture my breath and he angled away to look out the side window.
“Third-busiest cruise port in the world,” Ramon said while maneuvering heavy traffic. “
ships set sail on Sunday. Between all of the cruise lines, day like today, you're looking at 35,000 embarking passengers.”
Arch mumbled something like, “35,000 marks.” Or maybe it was
Mumbling plus accent equals Greek to me. Plus my heart still thudded in my ears, an aftereffect of that supernova kiss. He'd messed with my hearing as well as my vision and if that wasn't bad enough, I felt as if I was hurtling through space. Had I really thought Arch merely potent? Try lethal.
I surveyed our surroundings seeking to ground myself. No businesses or shops, just massive lots of land teeming with trailer containers, like the ones on the back of a semitruck.
Then the ships came into view! About a dozen of them, docked side by side. A fleet of floating hotels and entertainment resorts. I flashed back to my favourite episodes of
The Love Boat
. As a teen, I'd loved that sitcom. Although deep down I'd always believed I would become a professional performer, I sometimes toyed with the idea of pursuing a career as “cruise director.” Maybe I should have taken those interests more seriously. I'm beginning to think the concept of destiny is a load of hooey.
A fervent believer in mystical hooey, Jayne would argue differently. According to Nicole, yesterday our friend had visited her psychic. Madame Helene had seen a tragic event in Jayne's future. A loved one will suffer.
My gaze zeroed in on the lifeboats. Scenes from
which I saw, like, ten times, assaulted my brain accompanied by Celine Dion's “My Heart Will Go On.”
Great. Better to focus on
The Love Boat
and its schmaltzy theme.
Ramon delivered us to the appropriate gate. A porter carted off our luggage and placed it into a large square cage along with a lot of other luggage. Arch tipped the men, bade them farewell.
“I hope they don't deliver Big Red to the wrong cabin. My feet are killing me.” Sugar could look sexy in sneakers, couldn't she?
“Who's Big Red?” Arch asked softly as we hobbled toward the glass doors of the terminal.
“My suitcase.” I didn't have a cane to lean on, so I leaned into Arch. Besides,
limp was fake.
“You name your suitcases?”
“People name their cars, don't they?”
“Some people.” He lowered his voice even more. “You
talk to Big Red, do you?”
“Of course not.”
“Typically, people who name their cars talk to them, yeah?
Come on, baby. Turn over,
” he lulled in a husky voice. “
Purr for me, and I'll fill you up with the good stuff
It's impossible to squeeze your thighs together while walking at a brisk clip, so I had to endure the erotic tingle. Heavenly hell. “I don't talk to Big Red.”
He grinned, and the tingling intensified.
He'd probably charmed his way through life, wielding his sexual charisma like a suggestive spell. Harry the Hypnotist had nothing on Arch. During the aftershock of one of his kisses, if he directed me to squawk like a chicken, I'd probably flap my arms for good measure. Part of me reveled in the magic. Part of me felt manipulated. Mostly I felt challenged. I knew that in order to hold my own with this Bad Boy, I needed to connect with my inner Bad Girl. The same girl who'd flashed the execs. This was war.
As soon as we breezed through the doors, I threw my arms around his neck. “Oh, Charlie, baby, I'm so excited!” Yeah, boy,
was the truth. “My first cruise!” I kissed him. Openmouthed with lots of tongue. No mercy. I slid my hands to his spectacular butt. I wiggled against JTânot easy given that strap-on bellyâandâ¦
Someone cleared their throat. Couldn't have been Arch. We had a tonsil-teasing kiss going on.
He pushed me to arm's length and the throat-clearer came to light. A uniformed greeter. A round-eyed young chick with a Crest Whitestrips smile. Her freckled cheeks burned bright.
“Newlyweds,” Arch and I said in our pseudo accents, our smiles nearly as broad and fake as hers.
“I, um, I was just noticingâ” she glanced toward Arch's cane and ended up staring at his crotch “âyour limp.”
IâSugar, ratherâlaughed. “I beg to differ, honey.”
Arch, rather, Charles, coughed.
The girl blushed brighter and focused on something in the distance. “If we can ease your discomfort, I mean, assist, I meanâ¦would you like a wheelchair, sir?”
“Gee, we've never done it in a wheelchair, Charlie.” I winked at the poor girl. She looked as though she wanted to be anywhere but here. Arch, the one I meant to ruffle, looked amused.
“I say, dear girl, that's most kind of you. Sprained ankle,” he said. “Dreadful pain.”
“I'll summon a wheelchair, sir.” She couldn't get to the phone fast enough.
Arch smiled at meâslow, evil.
Then I got it.
Ramon had warned it could take as long as two hours to check in. Arch would be in a wheelchair.
I'd be on my feet.
Oh, yeah. This was war.
IN WAS HECTIC
and tedious. Don't get me wrong. The cruise ship representatives were helpful and friendly, but, given the mob of embarking passengers, the process took forever.
My feet and good humor took a serious hit.
Just after crossing over the gangway, Arch and I encountered the ship's photographer and two young women dressed in fun, flirty sailor suits. I know fellow entertainers when I see them. The hairpieces, theatrical makeup and outgoing personalities were dead giveaways. They engaged us in a classic meet and greet and invited us to join them for a souvenir photo. Part of their job was to distract boarding customers from yet another line forming in the ship's atrium. Even though they made me smile, I endured a stab of envy as they worked their magic.
used to make people happy.
I'm not a competitive person, but my adrenaline spiked. I could still make people happy. To prove it, I ratcheted up the schmaltzâSugar, full blast. I used ditzy banter to amuse the security guards who inspected our Fiesta Cardsâa plastic card thingy that worked as a boarding pass, room key and on-board charge card. I cracked up the assistant cruise director, Gavin King, by nabbing a hairbrush out of my purse to demonstrate my microphone technique when he mentioned a karaoke night. “Although I don't know that it would be fair of me to participate,” I said in my cutesy voice. “I'm a lounge singer, you know.”
“Retired lounge singer.” Arch grasped my left hand, thumbed my fake wedding band. He smiled up at me all lovey-dovey, and I froze, my next line forgotten! “We recently married,” he continued. “I fear life on my remote estate can be quite boring. I trust my wife will be well entertained upon this cruise.”
“Absolutely.” Gavin enthusiastically listed several other activities. A consummate people person, this man was responsible, along with his boss, for coordinating passenger activities and creating excitement and fun.
I could create excitement and fun.
Again, it occurred to me that maybe I'd missed the boatâno pun intended. Maybe I should've pursued my fleeting childhood dream to fill Julie McCoy's canvas shoes. Was there an age limit on newbies in the cruise director field? Except experience had taught me that you don't pull special events out of your butt. A lot of preplanning and day-of details go into coordinating one measly function. I prefer performing to paperwork. Rehearsals over red tape.
My mom's voice barked in my ears.
When are you going to grow up? You're over forty now, you know.
Yeah, I know.
Rebelling, I regressed another few years, singing “Conga” and weaving Arch's wheelchair on a serpentine route through the Atriumâa spacious public area that resembled the lobby of a high-class hotel. Stepping onto a Fiesta cruise ship was like stepping into Oz. An overwhelming glitz factor and multitudes of happy, peppy characters. Umm, staff. One would think that, since I work in casinos, I'd be used to glitz and pep. Except I work in Atlantic City, not Vegas. With the exception of one or two of the East Coast resorts, there's not a lot of emphasis on glitz. And though most casinos preach customer service to their employees, consistent downsizing made hotel and gaming staff cranky rather than peppy. Costumed performers used to spread cheer, but the strolling entertainment programs in A.C. were obsolete.
I buried the sobering thought. I was Sugar, not me.
“Come on shake your body, baby, do the conga!”
Hubby craned around, peered up at me through his tinted lenses. “Nice voice.”
I'm not sure if it was the compliment or the sexy tilt of his mouth, but my insides went all gooey. Again. I reflected on his atomic kisses. Again. I wanted to ask if he was as hot for me as I was for him or just a total horndog who could get it up for any womanâbut I didn't. It had to be the latter. Men like Arch Reece, enigmatic, dark and dangerous charmers, didn't chase women like me. Sexpots like Sugar, maybe. But not Ivory-soap Evie.
My jaw throbbed and again I cursed the fact that I'd fallen asleep without my splint. Sugar didn't have TMJ. Sugar wasn't stressed. Then Cher materialized in my mind as she'd appeared in
and slapped me twice.
Snap out of it!
You are Sugar.
I rounded the wheelchair and, hands on Arch's thigh, bent over to give him a prime view of my pumped-up cleavage. “Ah, Charlie, you were a sucker for my voice from the start.” Mimicking Peggy Lee's sultry voice, I crooned a line of “Fever.” Then I leaned in closer, winked. “Or was it that split-up-to-there red dress?”
He stroked his silver whiskers, started to say something, but was distracted.
I glanced in the direction he was looking. Speaking of red dressesâ¦A dark-haired woman wearing a chiffon halter dress glided toward the elevators. The hem kissed the back of her superlong legs midthigh. Since we couldn't see her face or breasts, I took it Arch was a leg man.
I pressed my mouth close to his ear. “Hey, you're a newlywed, remember? You shouldn't be checking out other women.” I eased back, forced a smile and twirled my ring. “Not that I care.”
He studied me, grinned. “You care.”
Of all theâ¦
“I only have eyes for you, Sugar.” He hauled me onto his lap and sealed that vow with a kiss. The crowd noise faded and the schmaltzy
The Love Boat
theme blared in my head. “Set a course for adventure, your mind on a new romance.” Arch's tongue danced circles around mine and lulled me into a stupor.
Holy guacamole, this man could kiss.
Just as it was getting good, meaning the tingling between my thighs had intensified to a moan-inducing ache, he broke contact. The schmaltzy crooner in my head choked. No, wait. That was a cough. And it wasn't the crooner in my head, but another happy, peppy crew member at our side.
Arch, or rather, Charles, winked up at the kid. “Newlyweds.”
“Congratulations!” he chirped, then manned the wheelchair. “Might I be of service?”
“Good of you to offer, son. I'm looking for the shore excursion director.”
I scrambled to my feet, scrambled for a thought that didn't involve getting naked with Arch. I teetered alongside as the crewman steered the wheelchair across the Atrium. Sporting a dazzling white grin, he rattled off vital information. Most notably: the mandatory lifeboat drill. Yeah, boy,
worked like a cold shower. Aware that this cruise would be attended by a good thousand or more, I massaged my jaw while trying not to obsess on the lifeboat-to-passenger ratio.
The crewman circumvented the crush of passengers and ushered us to a vacant section of the front desk. Arch thanked him, abandoned the wheelchair and introduced himself to the shore excursion director.
“Welcome aboard, Mr. and Mrs. Dupont. My name is Lucas.” If he was shocked by our age difference, he didn't show it. All of the crew members thus far had seemed unfazed. Like me, they'd probably seen it all. “Our official Shore Excursion Talk takes place in the Fiesta Theater tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. At that time I'll provide you with an extensive overview of visits to San Juan, St. Thomas, La Romana and Nassau. You can book your excursions directly after. However, if you'd like to preview a brochureâ¦”
I drifted as he launched into a sales pitch, noting that most of the other guests were seniors. I felt oddly at home. Although the Atlantic City casinos were currently angling to hook the younger generation, the meat of their revenue, minus high rollers, came from the over-sixty crowd. The blue hairs that bus in and drop their disposable income into the slots and buffet food into their purses. I've been entertaining and mingling with seniors for years. Maybe this Sugar gig wouldn't be so hard after all. At least the demographics were familiar.
The bad-guy element, now that was another matter.
While Arch discussed ports of call with Lucas, I surreptitiously scanned the bustling area, looking for whomever it was we were supposed to deceive.
Smoke and mirrors.
All I saw were pleasant, smiling faces. Couples on vacation. Harmless, not dangerous. Certainly no one who looked suspicious.
On the other hand, there were a scattered few who looked plain silly. Like the cat-eye-spectacled grandma who walked away from the balloon artist wearing a latex palm tree on her head. On second thought, the fact that she was brave enough to wear the sculptured balloon hat was kind of cute. I couldn't say the same for the fashion disaster, sitting in a club chair, chomping on an unlit cigar while reading the newspaper. Seriously, what kind of man combines a Texan Stetson, Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts and combat boots, thinking he looks good?
Then again, I was wearing a skintight flowery sundress and carrying an
I Love Lucy
travel tote. Nothing criminal about quirky taste. Okay, Tex Aloha. Whatever rings your bell.
My mind zipped back to the element of risk. I twisted my ring, wishing I knew specifics.
For the greater good,
I told myself.
Arch wrapped a strong arm around me as if sensing my unease, all the while chatting amiably with Lucas. He really was a top-notch actor. Quietly friendly to the crew members and overtly adoring of meâuh, Sugar.
“Feel free to contact me if I can be of further assistance,” Lucas said. He then gestured toward the bustling area decorated with an abundance of plants and festive balloon sculptures. Whatever they were paying that balloon artist, he was worth every penny. “The Atrium bar is to our left. Danny, our most popular pianist, is performing there now. He knows at least four bars of any song ever written. There's also a Welcome Aboard party in progress, poolside, Deck Nine. Live music. Dancing. Drink of the day, Fiesta Fandango.” He nodded toward a bank of elevators. “A cabin steward will direct you to the party or to the proper deck for your cabin, should you choose. You have plenty of time to explore the ship before the lifeboat drill.”
Again with the lifeboat drill. Dread shivered down my body, zapping life into my numb toes. I imagined Arch and I dangling from the stern, Ã la Jack and Rose, as the ship nosedived to the bottom of the deep blue sea. “At least they don't have icebergs in the Caribbean,” I mumbled as we hobbled away from the desk.
“No,” Arch said with a smile in his voice. “Just hurricanes.”
I wrapped an arm around his augmented waist and leaned into him to ease the weight off of my cramped feet. Since I was pressed against him anyway, I took advantage and playfully nipped his earlobe. “You're looking a little tuckered, baby. Whaddaya say we hit the cabin?”
Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink.
Not that I really wanted to fool around. Okay. That's a lie. But not this minute. I
wanted to get off of my flippin' feet.
He smiled down at me and my heart thumped. “Sweet of you to be concerned, love, but I wouldn't dream of cheating you of a moment's adventure.” He eyed the bar. “Let's have a drink, shall we? Test Danny's repertoire?”
So in other words it wasn't time to break. “Sure.”
I sucked it up because I'm a trooper, and because Sugar wouldn't turn down a drink. Why did I have this sinking feeling the fun-loving newlywed was going to be the death of me?
Don't think the words sink, sinking or sunk while on a ship, Parish.
And don't forget about the mandatory lifeboat drill.
Dangerous men? Sinking ships? A drink suddenly sounded like a very good idea.