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Alexandra's dream swayed gently at her moorings in the harbor at Monte Carlo. Nearly encircling the cruise ship, the lights of the harbor and, higher yet, those of the city, sparkled against the dark mass of hills that guarded the famed principality of Monaco.
"It really is like a fairy-tale world, isn't it? I'm glad our ship is too big to dock on the quay. The view from here is breathtaking, don't you think?"
"Gorgeous," Lola agreed with her sister, Bonnie.
"And this ship's not half bad, either. We owe Marilyn a really special thank-you gift for booking us on her."
Myra Sandler sniffed. "Marilyn would never book us on a ship that was merely "not half bad." Marilyn was Bonnie and Lola's mother's best friend, a travel agent in Sarasota, Florida, where the two women made their homes. "This ship is magnificent."
"I stand corrected," Lola apologized with a smile. Of course her mother was right. Alexandra's Dream had only recently been refurbished by its new owner, the Greek shipping magnate, Elias Stamos, who had purchased the American Liberty Line and its three cruise ships. Like her sister ships, Alexandra's Dream had long sleek lines and a graceful clipper bow, spoiled only by the somewhat boxy look of her squared-off stern, the result of an increased number of cabins with balconieson one of which Lola, her mother and sisters were sitting comfortably, if a little snugly, at this very moment.
Bonnie took a sip of club soda from her wineglass as she continued to scan the vista before them. The night was warm and quiet, the sky above the dark hills filled with a multitude of stars that were echoed in thesilver and gold of the Liberty Line logo on the smokestack high overhead. "Is that building with the two big towers the casino?" Bonnie pointed toward the shore. "Or is it the cathedral? Or the royal palace? I'm confused."
"That's the casino," Lola explained. "The palace is over there across the harbor. And we can't see the cathedral from this angle."
"Which you would have known if you'd taken the city tour with us this afternoon. The casino was designed by the same architect who built the Paris Opera House." Lola's oldest sister, Frances, looked over the top of her half-glasses at Bonnie, her guide book open on the table before her. Even on vacation Fran tended to lapse into her middle-school-principal mode if she got half a chance.
"It was too hot and I was too jet-lagged," Bonnie defended herself. She set the wineglass on the small table. Unconsciously, she rested her hands on her stomach a moment, then abruptly folded them together on the tabletop. "You know how wiped out I get when I'm knocked up," she said in an unusually sharp voice.
Bonnie was expecting her fifth child at the end of February, a little less than seven months away. The announcement of her sister's pregnancy during a phone conversation a few weeks earlier had surprised Lola. She thought Bonnie and her husband, Tad, had called a halt after the birth of their fourth child, and only son, Alex, six years earlier.
"Besides," Bonnie added, "I wanted to see the oceanographic museum. I was the biggest Jacques Cousteau fan when I was a kid."
Lola didn't remember anything about her sisters' childhoods because they had both been in high school by the time she had any clear memories of them at all. Bonnie was ten years older than she was and Frances, who had just passed her fortieth birthday, was a year and a half older than Bonnie.
"Before my time."
Bonnie wrinkled her nose at Lola's teasing. "He was the director of the institute for years and years. I couldn't pass up a chance to see the place. And it was worth it. Didn't you think so, Mom?"
"It was interesting," Myra agreed, taking a sip of her wine. "Lots and lots of fish. Your father would have wanted to try to catch them, God rest his soul." Myra was short and small-boned, her figure softly rounded, her salt-and-pepper hair cut close to her head in a sophisticated bob.
Bonnie and Fran both took after their mother in size and coloring, although, neither was as plump as Myra and their dark hair held no hint of gray. Lola, on the other hand, was tall and slender with curly shoulderlength blond hair and green eyes. She would have sometimes wondered if she wasn't the cuckoo in the nest if she hadn't resembled her father in temperament as well as looks. Walter Sandler had been gone almost four years now but she still missed him very much.
"Thank goodness Bonnie couldn't buy fish for souvenirs," Fran broke in. "She's got half a suitcase full of soap from Marseilles, already." The ten-day Western Mediterranean cruise they'd given their mother for a sixty-fifth birthday present had originated in the French port city the day before, and they'd been able to take a whirlwind shopping and sightseeing tour before embarking.
"Three euros for a kilo bar," Bonnie informed her older sister. "French-milled. Scented with real Provence lavender. I could have bought out the store. And where else am I going to find such lovely, inexpensive presents for Tad's mother and sisters?"
"The soap does smell lovely, dear," Myra said, patting Bonnie's hand. "And it was interesting to watch it being made right there in front of us. I'm sure Tad's mother and sisters will be thrilled with your choice. It would have been interesting to visit the casino, too, but it was simply too hot to bother with dressing appropriately to go inside," she concluded, segueing back to the original subject with her final words.
"We were dressed appropriately for sightseeing," Bonnie chuckled. "Just not for rubbing shoulders with the upper crust in Monte Carlo."
"That's what I said." Myra rolled her eyes at her middle daughter and took another sip of wine. "What a beautiful evening. What a beautiful view." She sighed contentedly. "I could stay here all night."
Lola and her sisters exchanged satisfied glances.
The three of them had pooled their yearly dividend from their father's successful accounting firm, now run by their cousin, to pay for the trip. But it had been Marilyn who had gotten Myra's cabin upgraded to the premier stateroom on the Poseidon deck. Lola, Fran and Bonnie were sharing a much smaller cabin three decks below and much farther aft than Myra's spacious room with its seashell-pink and mother-of-pearl color scheme, twin beds, tiled bath and comfortable seating area.
"Are you sure one of you girls doesn't want to move in here with me?" Myra asked for at least the tenth time.
"No, Mom," Bonnie said hastily.
"We're all settled in downstairs," Lola said, swallowing a giggle with a sip of wine. "Or belowdecks or however you say it."
Their cabin, while not as spacious as Myra's, was big enough that they didn't have to do a Three Stooges routine to get showered and dressed. It, too, had twin beds, with a third berth above one of the beds that folded away into the wall during the day. The cabin was decorated in a kind of French country style, Lola supposed you would call it. Yellow walls, white coverlets on the beds, blue-and-yellow-patterned draperies framing the picture window, which, unfortunately, opened onto a view of one of the lifeboats and not a heavenly balcony like the one where they were sitting.
"You don't all have to trip over each other turning down my offer. I know you don't want to sleep with me because I snore."
"No, Mom, it's not that at all," Bonnie, middle child, and always the peacemaker, assured Myra. "We want this to be just for you." She waved her hand at the suite beyond the sliding-glass door.
Across the table Lola avoided her oldest sister's eyes. Fran took a quick sip of wine and Myra snorted, waving one tanned, beringed hand in their general direction. "Oh, stop your silliness. I know perfectly well it's the snoring. You three couldn't pull the wool over my eyes when you were girls and you still can't. And just remember, I wouldn't snore if Frances hadn't hit me in the face with that softball and broken my nose all those years ago." She touched her finger to the tip of her nose, which was only the tiniest bit crooked.
"I was only eleven. And I want it on the record for the fiftieth time that you were the one who showed me how to put more 'English' on the ball," Fran protested.
"Well, it worked, didn't it," Myra said smugly. "You got a softball scholarship to Ohio State, didn't you?"
"Yes, mother. I will never forget. That's where I met Gary." Gary McKlimon was Fran's ex, the father of her twin teenage sons. They were long divorced but had remained friends. Lola wished she could say the same for herself and her ex-husband. She hadn't spoken to Jack Carson in the eight months since their divorce had become final, although they still lived in the same town. Frances upended her wineglass. "Is there any more of that lovely chardonnay left?"
"No, I'm afraid it's all gone, but wasn't it thoughtful of Marilyn to have arranged for it to be here when we came on board? She's such a good friend." Myra gave a little sniff and touched the corner of her eye as though to wipe away a tear. Not because she was upset about the snoringit was a running joke between them and their father, also, before his death. Nor was she overwhelmed by her friend's gesture. It was just that Myra tended to get very sentimental when she was tipsy, and it didn't take much more than a glass of wine or two to make it happen. "I swear, this is the best birthday present I've ever recieved. Thank you, sweeties, thank you very much."
"You're welcome, Momma."
"Happy birthday, Mom, and many more," all three of them chorused, raising their glasses in a toast. Bonnie blew her mother a kiss. They weren't a touchy-feely kind of family, which, at the moment, was a good thing, because there wasn't much room to maneuver on the narrow balcony, anyway.
"I could stay out here forever," Myra said with another little sniff of happy tears. "Really, I could."
Frances had gone back to perusing her guidebook since no more wine was forthcoming.
"What's on the itinerary for tomorrow?" Bonnie asked, standing to rest her hands on the gleaming white railing and look out along the sides of the ship.
Laughter and soft conversations floated to them from the verandas above and below, although, the ones on either side appeared deserted at the moment. Their occupants must have opted for the early seating for dinner, Lola surmised.
Fran closed her guidebook and took up the printed sheet of paper that had been slipped under their cabin door earlier that morning. "Day at sea," she read, perusing the single-spaced sheet. "Lots to do. All the usual. Low-impact aerobics at 8:00 a.m."
"Scratch that," Lola interrupted without apology. "I'll still be sleeping, or having coffee on the Lido deck or whatever they call it on this ship. I refuse to exercise that early in the morning."
Fran ignored her complaint and kept reading. "Breakfast is served in the Empire Room and the Garden Terrace and Buffet beginning at seven. For early risers coffee and Continental breakfast is available at the pool deck bar from six until nine."
"Thanks. That sounds like just the ticket."
"What else is going on in the morning?" Myra asked curiously.
"Ballroom dancing with SeÃ±or Antonio Mendoza. That's at ten in La Belle Epoque. That's the nightclub, I believe."
"It's on the deck above our stateroom," Lola supplied. She'd checked it out the night before after her sisters had gone to bed. The ornately decorated room with its gold-and-black pillars, teak champagne bar and lit dance floor had been crowded even though a lot of the American passengers on the cruise must have been as jet-lagged as she was.
"Bacchus deck," Frances supplied, then kept on reading. "In the afternoon there's skeet shooting off the aft deck. Golf lessons with the ship's pro, Andrew Lashman. Ever heard of him, Lola?"
Lola was the sports editor for a medium-sized newspaper in a medium-sized Ohio city. Or she had been until her ex-husband, a college women's basketball coach, had gotten caught up in a steroid-abuse scandal. Now she edited the "Women's Page," as it was still called. Food articles, religion, entertainment and human-interest stories landed on her deskeverything, it seemed, but sports. The move was temporary, her boss had assured her. Until it all shook out with Jack.
The paper didn't want any conflict of interest, and neither did he. But that was three months ago, and the investigation was still dragging on and she was still exiled among the recipes, housecleaning hints and makeup tips.
"I'm sorry. What did you say his name was again?" she asked Frances. Golf wasn't a sport she was particularly well versed in, but the name Lashman rang a faint bell in her memory.
"Andrew Lashman. He's South African according to his bio. Do you remember him from the orientation lecture yesterday?"
"I didn't go to orientation. I wasn't about to sit in a dark auditorium for two hours when the sun was so glorious out on deck."
"I was e-mailing the kids," Bonnie said, still with her back to them.
Fran made a tsking sound with her tongue. "It's always a good idea to attend the orientation lecture on a cruise, you should know that."
"That's what Marilyn says, too," Myra seconded.
"Since this is my first cruise," Bonnie retorted, "I suppose I can be excused for not knowing that."
"I'll have it tattooed on the back of my eyelids so I don't forget in the future," Lola promised.
Fran gave her a frown that struck fear into a thirteenyear-old's heart but no longer held such power over Lola at least, not most of the time. She cleared her throat and sat up a little straighter in her chair. "Andrew Lashman, you said?"
"Cape Town, South Africa."
"Tall, dark blond hair, kind of weathered-looking.
Midthirties, I'd say. Handsome in a kind of rough-hewn way. Great accent." Myra stood and started gathering up the wineglasses and the empty bottle. "I signed up for a lesson tomorrow. As a matter of fact, I signed Lola up, too."
"Mom," Lola protested. "I hate golf. You know I can't hit a straight ball to save my life."
"You could if you'd get serious about it. You're an excellent athlete and always have been. Besides, I don't want to go alone."
"What do you need lessons for? You've got a twelve handicap." Myra had been her senior league champ two years running.
"It's free and he's cute," Myra said.
All three of her daughters blinked in surprise. Lola felt her mouth fall open and shut it quickly. She shot Fran a questioning look. Her older sister shrugged. Their father had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a massive stroke four years earlier. One minute he had been there, serious, work-driven but always their rock, and the next he was gone. Myra had taken his death very hard and mourned him sincerely. And until this very moment she had never mentioned so much as a passing interest in any other man, old or young.