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THE ONLY REASON Becky Montgomery had agreed to this Caribbean Christmas cruise aboard Alexandra's Dream, with her late husband's family was because of Laura, her fifteen-year-old niece. The girl knew her way around Becky like no one else, especially when it came to dealing with Becky's mother-in-law, Estelle, the matriarch of the family.
"You don't even have to see her," Laura had said with that assuring voice of hers. "You know how much she hates the sun. She'll probably stay in her cabin all day sleeping, or annoying the staff telling them how to run things. Besides, I need you and the kids to keep me sane. Between my mom nagging me all day and Grandma reciting the proper rules of etiquette over and over again I might end up hurling myself overboard. You wouldn't want that on your conscience, would you?"
"If I go, I may have to hurl myself with you," Becky had told her. There was no doubt in her mind that she would be going on any cruise with Estelle Montgomery. The mere thought of being trapped on a ship with the woman had given her instant heartburn.
"Then we can save each other once we hit the water. Please, Aunt Becky. You have to come. I'm your favorite niece and I'm begging you."
"You're my only niece."
"That may all end soon if you don't come on this cruise."
"Are you threatening me?"
"You're fifteen. All fifteen-year-olds are desperate."
"Yes, but I've got Estelle and Kim for my role models. My desperation is on another level."
That was the precise moment when Becky's resistance had tumbled and she had agreed. She always was a sucker for an underdog and she really felt for Laura.
However, now that the departure date had actually arrived, Becky was having second thoughts. The suitcases were packed, the shore excursions were purchased, and Becky had secured a neighbor to come in and water the plants, feed Brad and Angelina, Sarah's lovebirds, play with Lance Armstrong, Connor's tabby cat, and walk John Wayne, the family bulldog. Now Becky wasn't so sure this whole thing was such a smart idea. She was so nervous about the adventure that the Mickey Mouse pancakes she'd made for her kids for breakfast had given her the dry heaves, and the headache she'd been trying to ignore since waking was now about to blow her eyes out of their sockets.
Still, the fact remained, she had made an agreement with Laura and it was too late to back out or was it?
Wouldn't a simple phone call to Estelle solve all her problems? She could merely say she was really sorry, but she and the kids couldn't make it this year or next year, or ever.
Becky sat down at the table with her favorite mug filled to the brim with hot tea and a bowl of dry Cocoa Puffs cereal, her favorite breakfast treat, and seriously pondered the idea as she watched her seven-year-old daughter Sarah gently eat around Mickey's ears. She liked to save them for last.
"I think this whole thing is dumb," Becky's ten-year-old son, Connor, announced. He hadn't touched his food.
"You think everything is dumb," Sarah countered.
"Yeah, including you," he shot back.
"Please, kids. Let's try to be nice to each other while Mickey's at the table." Becky liked to discipline with whatever aid she had at hand. Usually she used the various pets as negotiating tools, but for some reason they weren't in the room. "Mom," Connor reasoned, rolling his eyes. "These are pancakes."
"It doesn't matter. They represent Mickey, and while he's a guest at our table, there's no arguing."
"Whatever," Connor said, stabbing the pancake with his fork.
Becky stared at her young son. Laura had convinced her to agree to the cruise, but there was another reason that it might not be a good idea in the end: Connor. She hoped the trip would bring him out of his shell. Ever since his dad had died almost two years ago, Connor had slipped further and further into his own world, and now he hardly spoke or ate. And when he did converse, he was usually sarcastic or contrary. She'd tried everything she could think of to get him to come around, but nothing seemed to work for long. He seemed more distant with each passing day.
Becky watched as Connor made little circles with his fork in the syrup, not really eating, his mind obviously somewhere other than the present.
"Connor, two more bites, and finish your milk, then you can leave the table," Becky said, knowing he just wanted to get back to his room.
Without saying a word, he did as he was told, then picked up his dish, placed it in the sink and left the room.
"Don't worry, Mom." Sarah patted Becky on the back.
"Mickey understands why Connor's so sad and he's not mad at him for not liking the pancakes."
Becky's eyes watered as she hugged her sweet little girl.
"THE PURPOSE OF A CRUISE is to relax, especially a Caribbean cruise," Lacey Garnett told Becky. "Take in the sights. Float on a breeze. Enjoy yourself."
"Easy for you to say. You don't have a mother-in-law like Estelle Montgomery," Becky snapped.
The two women were standing in front of their shop, Frock U, a trendy boutique in Hillcrest, the uptown district of San Diego. Lacey turned the lock in the door and they stepped inside.
"She's technically not your mother-in-law anymore. She's simply your kids' grandmother."
"I know, you're right, and I do want to keep that relationship strong."
"Good. Then sit back and enjoy the perks."
Becky flipped on the lights and the little shop came to life with color and bling. The women knew all about fashion trends and were constantly on the lookout for the next big craze.
"But I've hardly spoken to Estelle in two years, other than those phone calls every other week so my kids can keep in touch with their grandmother," Becky said, putting her purse down behind the counter. She started to fold some T-shirts.
"It's just that she's so controlling. Last week I received a detailed outline on the appropriate attire for each formal dinner and event on the ship. Not for my kids, but for me!"
"She's just being helpful."
Becky stopped folding and glued her fist to her hip. "No, she's not. Helpful is what baggers do at grocery stores. Helpful is when you open a map in the middle of New York City and someone steps up to point out the way. Telling me what to wear on a cruise ship suggests that I don't have a clue even though she knows I co-own a fashion boutique!" Becky's arms were flailing now.
"I think you're reading too much into this. Maybe she's changed, but because you never really talk to her, you can't see it. I still think she was simply trying to be helpful." Lacey joined in the folding.
"Impossible. Her spots go all the way down to the bone." Lacey walked closer to Becky. "Hey, shouldn't you be home right now, packing all those outfits for all those dinners and events or something? Doesn't your plane leave in, like, three hours?"
"I'm not going." Becky walked over and picked up the retro rotary phone behind the desk and started dialing.
Lacey stopped her mid-dial. "You need this vacation. Your kids need this vacation."
"I know what I'm doing. I'll take the kids to Disneyland for a long weekend. I don't need a family cruise. We don't need a family cruise." Becky put the phone down, grabbed her purse and pulled out her cell phone. Lacey snatched it from her hand. Becky was getting really angry now.
"You can't meet a guy in Disneyland," Lacey said.
Becky stopped struggling. "What?"
"A guy. A man. Someone with a penis who's available. Guys at Disneyland are most likely going to be there with their families or girlfriends."
"I don't need to meet a man, Lacey, I'm perfectly happy with my life the way it is." Becky stared at her best friend and business partner incredulously. She couldn't possibly be serious. Could she?
"No, you're not perfectly happy. I can tell. You need a guy. If only for a couple of nights. Just some meaningless sex under the stars to relieve some of that tension." Lacey took a couple steps back, giving them both some breathing room. Becky did the same.
"I am not tense!" Becky snapped. "All right, maybe I'm a little tense, but meaningless sex certainly won't fix it. Besides, I'm a mother. I have responsibilities. I'm fine."
"I know you when you're fine, remember? We've been friends since we could walk, and you are far from fine. I love you to death but you're an overworked, single psycho-mom who can't even take the morning off on the day she's supposed to be flying to Florida. You're wound up so tight, if someone gives you a nudge you'll spin for the rest of time."
Becky's eyes watered. There was truth in Lacey's words, but she didn't want to admit it, and she definitely didn't want to think about "sex under the stars," even thoughif she was being absolutely honestshe did long to be held again in a man's arms, and kissed and
Lacey walked forward and hugged her tight. "It's okay, honey. I know you're hurting, and you don't want to see Estelle, and you miss Ryder. But Becky, he would want you to move on. It's been almost two years since he passed away. You know he would want you to be happy."
Becky pulled away. She couldn't even think about having a relationship with a man not yet. It was too soon, wasn't it? "I can't. It's not time yet."
"Okay. I understand. I do. But at least get on that plane and go on the cruise. Relax a little. Hey, maybe you can find some new merchandise for our shop while you're on Saint Thomas Island, some exotic dresses and jewelry. I hear it's a fab place to shop. Go discover some struggling designer and bring his or her designs to the States. Look at this as a working vacation. Would that make you feel better about it?"
Becky thought about it for a moment, and the idea actually sounded good. "You know, we could use a little more color in this place to go with all our plans for next year." A smile spread across her face.
Lacey grabbed Becky's purse, slipped her cell phone back inside and handed it to her. "You better get going if you want to make that plane. That designer is out there on some island waiting for you to discover him if you know what I mean."
Becky smiled and took her purse. "I get it, but I'm really not ready for romance. Honest. Besides, I'll have my kids with me."
"They can't be with you every minute."
Becky gave her a look. "I'm a dedicated mom."
Lacey walked her to the front door, turned and hugged Becky. "And I'm a dedicated friend. Remember, sex doesn't equal romance. You can keep your heart perfectly safe and still relieve some of that tension all bottled up inside. Having sex is healthy."
They separated. "Okay. I'll consider the sex, but only on one condition."
"Can I have the meaningless but healthy sex in a cabin? I'm not one for public displays."
"Honey, you can have sex in a vault for all I care, just make sure you don't come home without it."
"I'll do my best," Becky said, going along with the idea to placate Lacey. Secretly she had no intention of having sex with anyone.
"You're lying. I can tell when you're lying, but it doesn't matter because I've thrown the idea out into the universe, and once it's out there, only the moon, sun and stars know what will really happen. It's out of your control."
Becky never believed her somewhat mystical friend, but this time a slight shiver washed over her as she walked out of the store. For some reason she felt as though Lacey's wish had truly been ordered and she couldn't help wondering if the universe was listening.
ALL THE NUDGING in the world couldn't keep Connor from being anxious for most of the flight from San Diego to Miami Beach, Florida where they would board Alexandra's Dream for their cruise. While Sarah, the girly-girl who already knew how to work Becky's new digital camera better than Becky did, had busied herself on the flight with the continuing adventures of Ken and Barbie on holidayher dolls and outfits had been carefully packed in her backpack. Connor had sat with his nose in a Lemony Snicket novel, speaking to no one.
Sarah was such a clever and easy child that sometimes Becky would forget that she was only seven years old. Nothing seemed to faze her, and her laugh was infectious. She had an imagination that knew no bounds, and a curiosity that kept Becky busy trying to figure out answers. She could read by the time she was four, and wrote her first story when she was barely six. Her teachers couldn't keep up with her, and most of her classes were at advanced levels.
Connor, however, had changed dramatically since his father's death two years ago. Gone was that happy, carefree little boy who loved to swim and play baseball and ride his bike for countless hours. Connor's approach to life was more somber, but then, so was Becky's.
"The ship is going to sink just like the Titanic and we're all going to freeze to death in the water." Connor looked up from his book as the plane made its final descent. "I think we should turn right around and go back home."
Sarah rolled her eyes. "There aren't any icebergs in the Caribbean, silly. They would melt. And I looked up Alexandra's Dream on the Webwe each get our own lifeboat."
Connor shook his head and made a face. "Yeah, well, maybe we'll get locked in the bottom of the ship and won't be able to get out to find a lifeboat, and we'll all drown."
"Then I'll get an ax and break the lock," Sarah declared while making hand gestures as if she were breaking the lock at that very moment. Sarah liked to give a demonstration for clarity whenever possible. "Then you and Mom can take my hand and I'll lead you to the lifeboats."
"Like you would know where to go."
"Of course I would. I'm Wonder Girl and I can do anything!"
"Oh, yeah." Connor turned in his middle seat to face her. Sarah sat next to the window, while Becky was on the aisle. Connor had insisted on the arrangement because he didn't want to see what was going on either down below or on the plane.
"If you're Wonder Girl then why didn't you fly here on your own?"
Without missing a beat Sarah said, "I thought about it, but it would mess up my hair." She primped her naturally curly blond hair. Usually it fell into her eyes, but today she had worn a lavender-and-pink sparkly barrette that matched her outfit to hold it in place. She also wore lavender sandals, and Becky had polished her nails a bright pink to match her backpack. Sarah was a fashion diva.
Connor burst out laughing, and Becky was finally able to relax a little. It had been a long flight, but the journey was just beginning. If this little incident was any indication of things to come, she was hoping that Sarah would continue to use her magic on Connor to get him to lighten up. Of course, the way Becky was feeling, she could use a sprinkling of Sarah's magic herself. Her stomach was still in a knot and her nerves were wound tight. She had wanted to buy a drink during the flight, but she just couldn't justify it with her kids sitting next to her, so instead she tried to simply ignore her own apprehensions not the best solution.
The plane landed and Becky escorted her children to baggage claim, then they caught a cab to the cruise ship without crisis. Connor, although somewhat distracted, was at least cooperative, while Sarah skipped her way through the entire journey.
It would be the first time Becky and her kids had ever been on a ship. They'd seen them before, docked in San Diego, but knowing they were going to be living on one for a week was exciting. They stood in line on Pier Five at the Port of Miami, filling out forms, then gave their luggage to a stevedore and handed an agent their passports to check. Connor kept lagging behind, studying the exterior of the ship, while Sarah bounced around in happy anticipation. The heads of Ken and Barbie popped out of her backpack, as if they were doing their own happy dance.