How dare he judge her? She considered saying something about assumptions but had enough sense to bite back the comment. Samuel wasn’t known for his gentle demeanor, which meant it was in her best interest to maintain some semblance of diplomacy. So instead she asked, “Why did Fate pick me for this?”
The question had lingered in her mind since receiving news of the assignment. Why her? Why now? Why did it have to be on the flipping
In the grand scheme of things, reapers worked for Death, and Death fell under the direct authority of Fate. Ruby knew of no one who had ever met Fate. She was an elusive figure, and if a reaper popped up on her radar it usually wasn’t good.
Samuel rose from the chair in one fluid movement. “Fate has her reasons. It’s unwise to question her judgment.” His focus tracked across the room before shifting back to Ruby. A sense of foreboding emanated from him, a silent warning that spoke far more than words. “You’re about to be tested, my dear. Being on board is the least of your concerns.”
Now that didn’t sound good. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. “Tested how?”
Samuel gave her a dispassionate shake of the head. “That is something I am not at liberty to disclose. All I can say is the boundaries of your comfort zone are about to be broken. Prepare yourself.”
Prepare for what? What boundaries? Why the cryptic messages instead of a straight answer?
Someone knocked on the door before Ruby had the chance to press Samuel for more information. She crossed the tiny room in three long strides, checking the peephole before opening the door.
“Welcome aboard,” said a young Hispanic man in ship’s uniform. With his wide eyes and cherubic face, he reminded her of a little kid playing dress up. He held out a plate covered by a shiny silver dome. “Complimentary fruit plate,” he said as he removed the cover, revealing a small platter of apples, oranges, and grapes.
“Well, bless your heart.” Ruby smiled as she accepted the plate. She had no idea what she was going to do with so much fruit, but she still appreciated the gesture. “Isn’t that sweet of him?” she asked as she turned back toward Samuel.
The room was empty.
Two hours later, Jack found himself searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
“Good evening, sir.”
“Evening.” Jack smiled at the short, stocky man standing behind the reservation desk for the ship’s main dining room. He appeared to be in his early fifties, and his name tag read Oscar. “I have a reservation at six-thirty under the name Deverell.”
Oscar keyed Jack’s last name into the computer, pulling up his information. “Ah yes, I have you right here. Party of one?” He gave Jack the look of pity typically reserved for those poor schmucks with no dinner date.
“Yes, that’s me. But I wanted to make a change to my reservation.” He leaned closer and discretely slipped Oscar a twenty. “I was hoping you could help me find a woman I met on deck this afternoon. Tall redhead, very beautiful, goes by the name Ruby.”
“And her last name?” Oscar asked, his doubtful expression indicating he’d received this type of request more than once before.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t catch her last name.” Their encounter had left him so blindsided he’d completely forgotten to ask. “But you’ll remember her if you’ve seen her.” God knows he couldn’t get her out of his head, no matter how hard he tried. And while the curse wasn’t picky, Jack preferred women he found attractive.
“Sir, the ship is booked to capacity. Without a last name it would be nearly impossible to locate her reservation. Besides, there’s the possibility she may be dining at one of the ship’s other restaurants.”
True, but he’d already tried five of the other restaurants without success, so his options were dwindling. For all he knew, she’d stayed in her cabin and ordered room service.
Jack sighed as he dug another twenty from his wallet. At this rate, he’d be out of cash by night’s end. “Perhaps you could find it in your heart to run a search for her name? There can’t be that many women named Ruby on board.”
Oscar pocketed the money and gave Jack a discreet nod. “If you could wait just a few moments while I get the people behind you seated, I will see what I can do.”
Jack stepped aside and waited for Oscar to attend to the growing line of diners. In the meantime his eyes scanned the area, searching for familiarity but finding none.
“Ah, yes,” Oscar said about ten minutes later. He gave Jack a triumphant smile. “I believe I’ve located your mysterious Ruby.”
“Great!” His pulse quickened, spurred by the thrill of the hunt. “When’s her reservation?”
“Right now.” Oscar pointed to his left, just above Jack’s shoulder. His smile widened, obviously finding more humor in the situation than Jack thought appropriate. “I believe she’s standing right behind you.”
“Looking for me?” Her voice carried a distinct note of humor.
Jack cursed under his breath before slowly turning his head in Ruby’s direction. The casual shorts and T-shirt from earlier were gone, replaced by a pale floral sundress and a matching pair of strappy sandals that showed off brightly painted pink toenails. The choker around her neck was white, a delicate macramé pattern that blended with her ivory skin. The sight left him speechless, while his thoughts strayed into dangerous territory.
“Why, yes,” Jack said when his tongue finally got with the program. “I wanted to see if you’d join me for dinner. That is, if you don’t already have a date.”
Her eyes moved over him, slow and deliberate, and he could have sworn he felt heat from her gaze. The curse noticed it too, flaring from its dormant state, focusing on Ruby with unsettling intensity.
“I’d be delighted.” An easy smile curved those luscious lips. Her attention shifted to Oscar. “Darling, would you be so kind as to seat us together?” she asked, her Southern accent laced with a brash sensuality that brought a blush to Oscar’s dark skin.
“Not a problem, ma’am.” Oscar made a display of keying a series of commands into the computer. He signaled one of the servers in charge of seating and handed the young man a small slip of paper. “If you would please follow Enrique, he’ll take you to your table.”
At least a hundred tables filled an area the size of two ballrooms, most large enough to seat a minimum of ten. Ornate crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, giving the room a classic ambience from a bygone era. Waiters and waitresses worked the room with a finesse that came only with constant repetition, making small talk, filling glasses, balancing trays stacked high with plates while dodging oblivious patrons.
“I’m impressed,” Jack said as they wove a path across the room. “They snapped to attention for you, while I had to bribe the host just to find out when you were eating.”
She slanted a glance in his direction. “It’s part of my charm,” she drawled, a self-satisfied grin lighting her features.
“It would have been a lot easier to find you if I’d known your last name.”
“I’m sure it would have been.”
He waited a few beats for her to cough up a last name. When she didn’t, he asked, “Well?”
Ruby arched a brow, and the grin broadened to a smile. “Well what?”
He held out his hand. “Hello. My name is Jack Deverell. And you are?”
She took his hand, giving it a quick shake before letting go. “Ruby. Nice to meet you, Jack.”
“You don’t have a last name, Ruby?”
“Nope. Just Ruby,” she said, clearly enjoying herself. “Like Be-yoncé. Or Madonna.”
Great. He was fixated on a woman with delusions of grandeur. She smiled at him again, full of warmth and sensuality and something else he still couldn’t quite put his finger on, and he decided it was worth dealing with the delusions. At least for a little while, until he either unraveled the mystery or she drove him nuts.
Together, they followed Enrique to a table near the center of the room. The table was almost full, the other seats occupied by an elderly couple, a younger couple so into each other they barely acknowledged anyone else’s presence, and a trio of college-aged women.
Enrique pulled out a chair for Ruby. Once she was seated, he unfurled a white linen napkin and draped it across her lap.
“Why, thank you, Enrique,” she said, all smiles and Southern charm. “Aren’t you just the sweetest thing?”
“I think he does that for everybody,” Jack told her after Enrique left to seat the next group.
“I know that.” She picked up her menu and cracked it open. “But it never hurts to be cordial.”
To prove her point, she set her sights on the older couple sitting to her right. “Hello there,” she said. “Nice to meet you. My name’s Ruby.”
“I’m Louis.” The guy looked older than Methuselah, his skin more wrinkled than a raisin and twice as dark. His head was mostly bald, with errant wisps of fine white hairs sticking up on top like a baby duck. His eyes never left Ruby as he gestured to the elderly woman sitting to his right. “And this is my wife, Adele.”
Adele looked even older than Louis. Her bleached blonde hair was teased to within an inch of its life, and her skin had the consistency of tanned leather. “Nice to meet you,” she said, her voice sounding more truck driver than little old lady. She smiled, flashing a set of teeth too large for her head and too straight to be real. “Is this your first cruise?”
“Does it show?” Ruby laughed, her fingers toying with the choker around her neck. It probably sounded genuine to everyone else at the table, but Jack knew her just long enough to notice the discomfort behind the laughter. “I bet the two of you have been on tons of these things.”
“Honey, you have no idea. We took our first cruise eighteen years ago—”
“Nineteen,” Louis corrected, right before he shoveled a forkful of salad into his mouth.
“Nineteen years ago,” Adele continued without missing a beat. She reached across the table to pluck a sourdough roll from the basket. “Just a little three-day trip to Acapulco. Louis wanted to see the Incan—”
“Mayan,” Louis corrected again, his mouth full and a hint of irritation creeping into his voice.
“Mayan ruins.” Adele paused long enough to thank the waiter for refilling her wine glass. “I didn’t feel like trekking through the jungle to see a bunch of old rocks, so I stayed at the beach to work on my tan.”
From the looks of her, she’d been working on her tan ever since.
While Adele continued to catalog her adventures in cruising, Jack took the opportunity to study Ruby.
She looked younger than he’d originally thought—early twenties, if he had to hazard a guess. No lines, no creases, not a single mark from age. But something in her eyes had him second-guessing his estimation. Mixed with the vibrant green, he recognized the weariness of an old soul, a hint of darkness contradicting her carefree demeanor.
“So are you going on any excursions when we reach the Bahamas?” Ruby asked Adele, her elbows on the table and her chin propped on the heel of her hand.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Adele replied, darting a glance in her husband’s direction. “Louis wants to go snorkeling, but I don’t think the water’s going to be warm enough. I think I might just stay on board and get a massage.”
Ruby’s features shifted, her face losing all trace of expression. Then she reached across the table and patted the old woman’s hand. “Go snorkeling, Adele. You never know when you’ll have the chance to do it again.”
ver the course of dinner Ruby plowed through a chef salad, two glasses of wine, and a main course of salmon and rice pilaf, and was currently polishing off the last few bites of her strawberry cheesecake. And Jack knew as much about her now as he did before the evening began.
Without a doubt, the woman knew a thing or two about the fine art of conversation. She doled out compliments and kept her dinner companions talking by asking questions concerning their interests, their jobs, and their families. But at the same time she never divulged any personal information of her own. Questions were answered with another question, or deflected with a combination of misdirection and charm. Was it intentional? He’d bet his bottom dollar on it.
He met her gaze across the table and felt the heady punch of physical attraction. Ignoring the curse, he focused on the sensation, sultry and exotic, unique but not quite human. In all his years, he’d never encountered anything quite like it.
What are you, Ruby? And what are you hiding?
“So Ruby, have you made any plans for Nassau?” he asked after swallowing his last mouthful of key lime pie.
Ruby shrugged, taking a moment to dab the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “I hadn’t really thought much about it.” She shifted her attention to Chloe, Monica, and Jessica—the sorority sisters seated to Jack’s left. “Any suggestions, ladies?”
“A friend of ours told us about this place by the pier that’s supposed to have the best body shots on the island,” Monica said, her blue eyes a little cloudy after three glasses of merlot. She drained her glass and asked the waiter for another refill. “I can’t remember the name, but it has something to do with pirates.”
“Blackbeard’s Hideaway,” Chloe chimed in. Jack pegged her as the responsible member of the group, which meant she’d probably be the one holding Monica and Jessica’s hair back at the end of the evening when they prayed to the porcelain god. “Nick told me it’s at the end of the pier right next to a jewelry store. But I don’t think they call them body shots. They had a different name, something tied to the whole pirate theme.” Her face scrunched up, as if trying to remember but unable to come up with a name.
“Booty Shots!” Jessica exclaimed, so loud the people at the surrounding tables turned to see what the ruckus was all about. Ignoring their stares, she high-fived Monica and Chloe and then downed the rest of her strawberry margarita in one long chug. She set the glass on the table while her free hand settled on Jack’s leg. “You’re more than welcome to come along if you want,” she told Jack, a wicked grin on her face as her hand began creeping up his thigh. “First shot of tequila’s on me.”
Her blatant attempt at seduction ignited the curse. It voiced its enthusiasm by sending warm ripples of desire through Jack’s body and making his dick harder than concrete. The curse didn’t give two shits about how it got fed, held no concern for Jack’s own wants or needs, so long as it received a steady diet of sexual energy.
“Oh, that sounds like a lot of fun.” Adele waggled her eyebrows at her husband, who was too busy shoveling down raspberry torte to notice. “Louis, maybe we should go. I’ve never tried body shots before.”
The mental image of Adele on the body shot table flooded Jack’s mind, overriding the curse’s best efforts and tossing a bucket of cold water over his libido.
“Sounds wonderful.” Ruby’s voice sounded light, but the tick of her jaw muscles told a different story. “I’m sure the girls will show you a fun time.”
Jack pried Jessica’s fingers off his thigh. “I appreciate the offer, but I think I’ll pass.” He placed her hand on top of her own leg, ignoring her pouting expression. “That’s not quite what I’m looking for.” His eyes locked with Ruby’s, and he felt another flare of attraction.
Ruby arched a brow. “Oh, really?”
She grinned when Jack nodded, her eyes gleaming with unspoken satisfaction. “Well, then, now that our plates are clean, how about we find some other way to entertain ourselves?”
His mind filled with suggestions, most revolving around the general theme of getting her naked, sweaty, and horizontal. But, since his mother had taught him better, he asked, “What did you have in mind?”
Ruby pushed back her chair and rose in one elegant motion. “How about we check out the Welcome Aboard party on the pool deck and go from there?”
After a quick round of good-byes, they left the restaurant arm in arm. Jack couldn’t help but notice the attention Ruby garnered as they exited the room, the subtle glances and outright stares from staff and diners alike. She was a striking woman, confident by nature, and that nature commanded attention. His pride swelled, spurred by the knowledge that she’d picked him, was attracted to him. Wanted him.
Still, unanswered questions crowded his thoughts, compelling him to push for answers. “With all the conversation flying around the table tonight, I never did catch your last name,” he said, hoping for a nibble on the line he’d cast.
She replied without so much as a second’s hesitation. “That’s probably because I never threw it.”
Frustration seeped into his voice for the first time that evening. “You know, you haven’t given me a straight answer all night,” he said as they entered the main lobby. When they reached the elevator banks, he jabbed the up button a little harder than necessary.
If she noticed his irritation, she didn’t let it show. “A girl’s got to keep some secrets, you know.”
“So I’ve heard.” The elevator doors opened, and they stepped inside. Jack pressed the button for deck nine, and the doors closed with a quiet whoosh. “But you make a habit of keeping all of them. I don’t know anything about you—where you live, what you do. Christ, I don’t even know your last name.”
It wasn’t like he minded a little mystery. Hell, he had enough secrets of his own. But conversation was a two-way street, and he’d grown tired of being the only one contributing anything substantial to the dialogue.
Ruby’s smile faded on the heels of a tired sigh. “Oh, Jack. You’re completely missing the point of this cruise.”
“Close, but you’re not seeing the big picture.” She took a step closer, her movements as graceful as a leopard stalking prey. The smell of her perfume filled his senses, as lush and exotic as the woman wearing it. “Why do people go on vacation?”
“To rest and relax.”
Ruby shook her head. “No, that’s incidental. People go on vacation to escape.”
He shot her a puzzled look. “Escape what?”
“Everything.” She said it like the answer was obvious. “They want to forget about the boss who’s making them crazy, or the mortgage they’re working two jobs to pay, or any number of other things that are driving them to an early grave.” She lifted her hand, ran a finger down the center of his chest. “For seven days and eight nights, these folks are going to pretend that the real world doesn’t exist. They can be anyone or anything their little hearts desire.”
The elevator dinged a few seconds before the doors opened, and all conversation stopped while they stepped into the lobby. A young couple walked past, so wrapped up in each other they almost collided with a group of older women.
“And what are you escaping, Ruby?”
She lifted a shoulder as she flashed a sly smile. “Who says I’m escaping anything? I’m not the one who booked this cruise.”
“Yes, I remember. Your boss booked it for you. Why?”
“How should I know?” A trace of defensiveness crept into her voice. “He didn’t say, and I didn’t ask. In my line of work, it’s usually better that way.”
And once again, she’d answered his question without giving a single shred of personal information. “And what line of work is that?” he asked, his patience wearing thin.
Anger sparked in her eyes. “What’s the point, Jack? Why do you even care?” Her accent grew thicker as her temper flared. “We’ll never see each other again once the ship docks back in Port Canaveral, so why is it so important for you to know all of my personal business?”
“Obviously, I’m attracted to you.” Jack moved deep within her personal space, so close he could see the pulse beating at the base of her throat. He wanted to touch her but resisted the temptation, jamming his hands into his pockets instead. “I happen to enjoy your company. I’d like to spend more time with you, but all of this cloak-and-dagger bullshit is beginning to wear on my nerves.”
She regarded him for a long moment, as if mentally debating what to tell him. Finally, she tipped up her chin and said, “What do you want to know?”
“Let’s start with a last name.”
She shook her head. “Sorry. Not going there. Ask me something else.”
“Fine. How about where you’re from?”
Ruby pursed her lips together, letting out a huff of annoyance as she braced a hand against her hip. “This is the great mystery that’s been gnawing at you all evening?”
“One of many.” He pinned her with a level glare. “Answer the question.”
“If you must know,” she said, the words coming out in an exaggerated drawl, “I was born in a single-wide about twenty miles north of Brunswick, Georgia. My daddy kept a moonshine still in the shed and two hound dogs chained up in the front yard.” Her posture went rigid, her chin jutting forward. “Congratulations, you just spent the evening with backwoods trailer trash. Happy?”
Jack smiled in spite of himself. It was a token victory, this trivial slice of information. But it was a start, an intriguing corner piece of a complicated puzzle he had every intention of solving.
“Ecstatic.” He reached out, taking her hand before she had the chance to pull away. “I wouldn’t want to share dinner with anyone else on board.”
He brushed his lips across the backs of her knuckles, and a fresh wave of desire heated his blood. Her skin was soft and tasted sweet, and he couldn’t help but wonder if the rest of her tasted as good.
All in good time.
“Why?” Her brows knitted in obvious confusion.
“Why not?” His lips glided over the back of her hand, then up to her wrist. Nothing from tonight’s dinner compared to the rich decadence of her skin. His gaze drifted up, locking with hers. For the first time that evening, he saw beyond the carefully constructed façade and caught a glimpse of the real Ruby. Passionate and intelligent, with a trace of vulnerability that took him by surprise. “I enjoy your company.”
Her pulse quickened beneath his fingers. A light blush darkened her cheeks, a subtle hint of color that betrayed her true emotions. Already, he could sense her arousal, warm and alluring, an open invitation ripe for the taking.
“Bet you say that to all the girls.” Her voice turned low, husky.
“Just the ones I find appealing.” He took a deep breath, and her soft, feminine scent invaded his senses. The need to take her flashed through his veins, hot and insistent. “Ones I want to get to know better.”
And just like that, her features hardened. She jerked her hand away, all sense of desire evaporating in a cloud of indignation. “So that’s what this is all about? Satisfying your curiosity?”
“Whoa, wait a minute. That’s not what I meant.”
“I beg to differ. You’ve been hammering away with the questions all night. I don’t know what your problem is, but I came here for a good time, not an interrogation.” The look she gave him would have turned lesser men to stone. “I’m not looking for a soul mate, and I don’t feel inclined to bare the dirty details of my life to some . . .” Her lips pressed into a thin line. “Stranger.”
She turned on her heel and stomped to the stairwell, leaving Jack to wonder what the hell had just happened.
The ship docked at Nassau a little after eight the next morning. Ruby was among the first group of passengers to disembark, eager to escape the ship’s confines for a few hours before setting sail for the Dominican Republic.
She also wanted to put a little space between herself and Jack. She was still mad at him for grilling her the night before. Even madder because he’d managed to wheedle information out of her. As much as she disliked thinking about her past, she hated discussing it with someone she’d just met.
Actually, she hated discussing her past with anyone. She wasn’t exactly proud of her heritage, of the things she’d done while she drew mortal breath, or the sequence of events that resulted in the damnation of her soul. She saw no point in crying over spilled milk, and she’d rather not dwell on things she lacked the ability to change.
By the time she made her way to the center of downtown Nassau, the Straw Market was already packed. It was little more than a gigantic tent, sectioned off into three long aisles jammed with tourists. Vendors sold straw hats and mats, the usual assortment of touristy T-shirts and trinkets, and the very latest in bootleg merchandise.
Ruby stepped inside, immediately swamped by the heat of so many bodies crammed into such a concentrated area. The pulse of mortal vitality flowed all around her, some weak, some strong, each throwing off a distinct vibe yet blending together to form an incoherent white noise. If she concentrated, she could pick out the individual notes from the symphony, but since she was off the clock she saw no purpose in the exercise.
She scanned each table as she made her way down the aisle, ignoring the calls from at least a half dozen vendors vying for her attention. Veering to the right, she approached a table piled high with bootleg designer handbags and sunglasses. She spotted a cute little Gucci knockoff, a pale blue hobo bag with brown leather trim. Only the trim wasn’t made of real leather, and the Gucci charm curled a little around the edges, but otherwise it looked like the real deal.
It didn’t take long for the vendor to notice her interest. “You like the purse, pretty lady?” the young man asked, his Bahamian accent smoother than butter. He flashed her a toothy smile. “For you, I give a special price.”
She glanced down at the bag. No price tag. Figures. “How special?”