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By Lori Sjoberg
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Lori Sjoberg
All rights reserved.
Jack Deverell leaned against the starboard rail, watching the ship's slow departure from Port Canaveral. He felt a faint shudder as the boat picked up speed, cruising between two tiny tugboats on its way out to sea. On the top deck, the pulsing beat of samba music blared from the speakers as passengers celebrated the beginning of a seven-day Caribbean adventure. A few minutes later the deep bellow of the ship's horn cut through the air, eliciting a chorus of raucous cheers from the crowd.
He could have booked a flight to his destination, could have been there and back in the time it would take the ship to reach the tiny island of St. Angelique. But part of him was in no hurry, preferring to extend the trip and delay his inevitable disappointment.
He hoped this time would prove different from all the others, he really did. But continual failure made it difficult to fight his growing cynicism. For years he'd traveled the globe, consulting with every mystic, psychic, seer, and shaman he could locate. All promised. None delivered. With that kind of batting record, it was getting harder to remain optimistic.
So, no, he was in no hurry to hammer another nail in the coffin of his hopes and dreams.
He pulled his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans, thumbing through the billfold until he found the small scrap of paper, the crease folded and unfolded so many times it had almost worn a hole. In spite of his doubts, he prayed Madam Cassandra was right about the abilities of Jolie Duquette. He'd give Ms. Duquette damn near anything to break the curse that had plagued him for more years than he cared to count.
For better or for worse, he'd have his answer in three days' time.
In the meantime, he had nothing to do but relax and enjoy the scenery. With more than four thousand passengers and crew on board, the Sunshine of the Caribbean was a floating city devoted to the fine art of decadence. Alcohol flowed like water, while inhibitions were nonexistent, a Sodom and Gomorrah of the high seas.
A stunning young blonde in a pair of short shorts and a purple bikini top sauntered past, a drink in one hand and a cell phone pressed against her ear. She was pretty, in a drunken party girl kind of way, young and brazen with an air of self-assurance that couldn't be faked. She eyed Jack with open interest as she sipped her mai tai, giving him an inviting smile as she headed toward the shallow end of the pool.
He sensed her attraction, could feel the warm blast of sensuality from twenty feet away, curling around him like a lover's embrace.
His darker nature noticed it too. Jack felt it stir inside, urging him to take advantage of the situation, to seize the opportunity and feed its insatiable hunger for raw, unbridled lust.
"No," he murmured through clenched teeth, pushing back against the powerful rush of desire pulsing through his body. Gripping the rail, he closed his eyes and took deep breaths until the craving cooled from a boil to a simmer, under control but still lurking beneath the surface.
A little over a week had passed since he'd last given in to the curse. He needed to feed it soon or risk losing control. Again. That simply wasn't an option. The last time it happened he'd gone on an all-night bender, slaking his lust like a junkie on a binge. He'd been powerless to stop it, watching himself behave like an animal but unable to curb his own actions. In the end he'd felt cheap, and dirty, and somewhere lower than human.
Over the years, he'd gotten much better at controlling the cravings. It was a difficult juggling act, maintaining the proper balance to keep the beast at bay. Too little and it became ravenous and unpredictable. Too much and it grew stronger than he could handle. It was a fine line to tread, a narrowly defined path offering little margin for error.
On deck, the music changed to a bass-heavy techno beat. The blonde gave him one final lingering look before turning her attention to a tall, lanky guy dressed in neon orange board shorts and a tank top with "Official Bikini Inspector" scrawled across the chest.
Easy come, easy go.
"She was too young for you anyway."
Jack's gaze cut to the right, to the gorgeous redhead standing a few feet away. Slender yet curvy, she was leaning against the rail with her back to the ocean, holding one of those frozen girly drinks with a chunk of pineapple jammed against the rim. Her face held an expression of amusement, about what, he didn't know.
"You heard me," she said, a sly smile curving lush crimson lips. There was a distinct Southern drawl to her voice, a sultry purr that fired his imagination. "I'd be surprised if that girl's old enough to drive. You should be ashamed of yourself, robbing the cradle like that."
"I didn't—" Jack paused to give the redhead a long appraising look. She was tall for a woman, loose-limbed and long-legged with the kind of soft, feminine features that made a man want to settle in for a good, long while. Her pale skin led him to believe that red was indeed her natural hair color. Throw in the high cheekbones and vibrant green eyes, and she made one hell of a package.
"Settle down, I was only kidding." The redhead chuckled, a rich throaty sound that warmed his blood and stirred the curse. She held her hand out to him. "The name's Ruby. Pleasure to make your acquaintance."
Her skin felt warm and soft, her grip firm and confident.
"Pleasure's all mine. I'm Jack." He held her hand a little longer than necessary and sensed an undeniable flare of attraction on Ruby's behalf. Attraction, and something else he couldn't quite identify.
"Is this your first cruise?" she asked, her fingers absently toying with the delicate pink choker fastened around her neck.
"No, but it's been a while. You?"
"First time for me." And she didn't look exactly thrilled about it, which might explain why her back faced the water. She sipped her drink, her lipstick leaving a dark red ring around the straw. "I'm not real big on boats."
Definitely not the response he expected. Curious, he asked, "Then why did you go on a cruise?"
"Boss booked it for me," she said by way of explanation, her Southern accent laced with irritation. She took a long pull from her drink, leaving the glass close to empty. Then the smile returned, brilliant and with a dash of sensuality he damn near felt in his gut. "You know how it is. It's not wise to say no to the boss."
"Understandable." He paused while a trio of older women walked by, huddled close and giggling like teenagers. "So what kind of work do you do?"
"Oh, this and that," she said with a casual wave of her hand. The ocean breeze kicked up, wreaking havoc on her long, red hair. She reached up, tucking the loose strands behind her ears. "Mainly, I'm a collector."
"Collector of what?"
Ruby chuckled again, another one of those rich, throaty laughs that made his imagination run wild and had the curse chomping at the bit. It was both fascinating and disturbing, how easily she managed to shake his equilibrium. He inhaled deeply, forcing his darker half to play nice.
"Let's save that subject for another day." Finished with her drink, she set the empty glass on a nearby table. Then her eyes locked with his, bright with the kind of mischief that got a man into serious trouble. "A girl's got to keep some secrets, doesn't she?" She pushed away from the rail. "I'll let you go back to checking out all the pretty girls. See you around, Jack."
He watched while she took a leisurely stroll across the deck, appreciating the rear view almost as much as he'd enjoyed the front. Hips swinging, she drew the attention of every red-blooded heterosexual man she passed, a fact that left him unexpectedly annoyed. She stopped at the poolside bar for another drink, then glanced over her shoulder and gave him a smile and a finger wave before disappearing through the sliding glass doors leading to the lower decks.
It took him a few minutes to get his brain back in proper working order, to calm his baser urges so he could function like a civilized human being. Only then did he realize something strange and unsettling.
Ruby wasn't human.
God, how she hated boats.
Granted, the fishing trawlers she'd grown up around were nothing compared to this behemoth, but it still sparked unpleasant memories from years long past. The ones she preferred to keep buried deep for the sake of all parties involved.
Too impatient to wait for the next available elevator, Ruby took the stairs down to deck three. Most of the passengers were still partying it up on the top decks, giving the lower levels the abandoned feel of that hotel in The Shining. As she walked down the long corridor, she kept track of the room numbers, counting down until she reached 318. She slid the key card into the slot, waiting for the little green light to blink before trying the door.
"Son of a bitch," she muttered as she entered the cabin and flicked on the light.
Leave it to Samuel to book her a cabin the size of her walk-in closet back home. Two narrow beds flanked opposite sides of the room, with a miniature vanity wedged in between. The bathroom was located near the door, complete with a shower stall so small there was barely enough room to turn around without getting up close and personal with the shower curtain. On the bright side, interior cabins lacked a view of the ocean.
Thank goodness for small favors.
The porters had already delivered her suitcases, so she took the time to unpack her belongings, hanging everything that would fit in the narrow closet by the bathroom. The rest she jammed in the top two drawers of the vanity. She arranged her toiletry items along the bathroom countertop and lined up her extra pairs of shoes by the side of the bed.
Restless and annoyed, Ruby plopped down on one of the beds, the springs squeaking lightly under her weight. She was on board to complete one solitary assignment, one that wouldn't come to pass for another fifty-three hours. One unfortunate soul, scheduled to break from its mortality at approximately nine forty-eight Tuesday evening.
As a reaper, it was her responsibility to harvest the soul and guide it to its final destination. Until then she was free to pass the time as she pleased, a concept she was no longer accustomed to. Normally, her days revolved around her scheduled assignments: where to go, how to get there, and how to collect the souls without mortal detection or intervention.
How to cope with the constant exposure to death. Bar none, that was the most difficult aspect of the job, the one she still struggled with after nearly half a century.
Odd, in all the time she'd served as a reaper, she'd never gotten a job outside her jurisdiction. Deaths in exotic locations were typically considered plum assignments. And since she'd never played enough politics to land one, she had no idea why she'd drawn the lucky straw this time.
Maybe her former boss had pulled a few strings as some sort of farewell present. He'd transferred to Miami just a few months before, so it certainly wasn't beyond the realm of possibility. But if that were the case, why this job? He knew how Ruby felt about boats. Next time they spoke, she'd have to ask.
She smiled when her thoughts strayed to Jack. He was probably still on the top deck, enjoying the party as it kicked into high gear across international waters. She'd been drawn to him the moment she spotted him standing by the rail. Without a doubt, he provided a testament to the wonders of masculinity—broad shoulders and toned muscles coupled with short dark hair, a square jaw, and the most striking brown eyes she'd ever seen. His vitality ran amazingly strong—a deep, steady rumble like a Harley on the highway. But there was something else about him, an intangible allure that drew her to him like metal to a magnet.
Maybe it was because he'd looked so serious, as if the weight of the world rested on those big, strong shoulders. She'd always been a sucker for the type, drawn to the challenge of loosening the tightly bound, just to see what could happen when they finally lost control and threw caution to the wind.
No matter the reason, she'd make a point of seeking him out later. He intrigued and attracted, a combination that piqued her interest and had her determined to sample the benefits he had to offer.
After all, she owed it to herself. A couple months had passed since she'd ended things with Adam. She hadn't taken another lover in that time, and the stretch of celibacy was starting to make her twitchy.
"All settled in, I see."
Ruby froze, her heart in her throat. She hadn't heard his voice in over twenty years, the distinguished British accent that bordered on the edge of snooty. Samuel rarely mingled with the little people, preferring to delegate through an impenetrable layer of middle management.
She turned her head toward the sound of his voice and found Samuel perched on the chair beside the vanity. He looked just as prim and proper as the last time she'd seen him, a refined English gentleman with an edge sharper than steel. No one knew how long he'd lorded over Death, and no one dared to ask. He ruled with an iron fist and absolute power, executing Fate's directives with ruthless efficiency.
Still, she didn't take kindly to folks popping into her room uninvited. What if she hadn't been decent? "You got it, boss man. Thanks so much for the luxurious accommodations." She made no effort to mask her sarcasm.
If Samuel noticed, he didn't let it show. Instead he smiled, and the sharp, angular lines of his face reminded her of a crocodile. "My pleasure." He crossed one leg over the other, his posture so rigid he barely made any creases in his finely tailored suit. "You should be pleased. Fate personally chose you for this assignment. It's a rare honor."
Honor? Was he kidding? "Do you have any idea how much I hate boats?"
"Of course I do. But this is more than just a boat, Ms. Dawson. This is a city at sea, a shrine to hedonism." He met her gaze, his dark eyes devoid of emotion. "I assumed you'd feel right at home."
Bastard. 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 Titanic?
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.
Excerpted from Grave Destinations by Lori Sjoberg. Copyright © 2014 Lori Sjoberg. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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