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Darcy Lewis straightened his cream linen jacket. The cruise ship's crowded ballroom was decked out in a Brazilian Fiesta theme and the live band's spicy Latin beat had him tapping his foot. Hot women in sexy dresses clustered around the room, sipping cocktails and eyeing up the men, including him.
How long had it been since he'd done something new and exciting? Way too long. His mates in Summerside were right. Twelve months of celibacy was too damn long for any red-blooded man with fully functioning hormones. They'd known what he needed even if he hadn't.
"Have a fling," Riley Henning had said as he and John ForsterDarcy's old surfing buddies and now both police officerspresented him with a ticket for a weekend singles cruise. The three of them had gathered one night after hours in Darcy's pub for a few drinks in honor of his fortieth birthday. "No strings attached. No emotional commitment. Definitely no moping. Just hot sex and fun."
Darcy cleared his throat, a little choked up at the generosity of his good mates. The past two years had been hard, really hard. "Thanks, guys."
John clapped Darcy on the shoulder. "Riley's right, sex and fun. When was the last time you had either?"
"Been a while." First Holly's death, then the divorce His cocooned existence had involved eating, sleeping and workingnot necessarily in that order. It was time he made an effort to get into the dating scene. And this cruise was just the ticket, so to speak.
He dragged his thoughts to the ballroom and the nearest womana brunette wearing a red dress sipping from a drink with an umbrella. "Would you like to dance?"
"Thanks, but I've got a partner for this one. He'll be back any second. My friend would like to." She pushed forward the petite woman wearing a blue dress standing behind her.
"Tracey, I can find my own Oh." Emma's blue-green eyes widened. A smattering of freckles stood out against a peaches-and-cream complexion framed by flaming red hair. "Hey, Darcy."
Darcy swore silently. What were the odds? What were the frickin' odds? Of all the ballrooms on all the singles cruises in the world He pasted on a smile. "Hey, Em. What are you doing here?"
"On a cruise. Same as you." She glanced around desperately, as if hoping someone would rescue her. Or a fire would break out, or the ship would hit an iceberg. Anything to put an end to this awkward moment.
Was she looking for a good time, too? A roll in the sack? Well, why shouldn't she? She was absolutely free to sleep with whomever she wanted. It did not make him jealous. Or hurt. Much.
He started to ease away. "Sorry to bother you."
The brunette grabbed him by the arm. "Where are you going? Do you two know each other?" She turned to Emma and whispered, "Come on, Emhe's hot. This makes the third man you've passed on."
"This is Darcy," Emma hissed. "My ex-husband."
"Oh!" The woman dropped his arm as if it were infected.
Nice. What exactly had Emma said about him?
"Wonderful running into you." He gave them double thumbs-up as he moved away. "It's a big ship. I'm sure it won't happen again. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to see a man about a dog."
"Huh?" Tracey's nose wrinkled. "What dog?"
"Forget it." Emma waved a hand. "Let him go."
He felt Emma's glare burning a hole in the back of his jacket all the way to the bar. What was she saying about him to Tracey? Was she warning her? "He likes to party but if you 're looking for happily ever after, forget it."
Darcy slid onto a stool, automatically taking note of the efficient, uncluttered layout of the bar. It was set up mainly for cocktails with features he would never use. But those sliding doors on the fridges would be great instead of the swinging ones he had.
Seeing Emma unexpectedly was almost as disconcerting as sitting on this side of the bar. He had an urge to hop the divider and start polishing glasses. He caught the bartender's eye. "Coke with plenty of ice."
"Everything okay, mate?" The bartender, a man about his own age with receding blond hair, tipped a scoop of ice into a glass and squirted in the soft drink.
"Just ran into my ex-wife." He lifted the glass and took a big swig. Whiskey would have been more welcome right now.
"Still got a thing for her, do you?"
Bartenders had an instinct for people and their troubles. He knew he did but he didn't care to be on this side of the conversation. "It's complicated."
He wanted to hate Emmabut couldn't. He wished he could love her the way she wanted to be lovedcouldn't manage to do that, either. Would have liked to stay friendsthat was too painful after what they'd had together. He wished he could ignore herone look and every other woman in the ballroom faded into insignificance.
So where did that leave him? In limbo, that's whereunable to forget her, unable to move on. This cruise was supposed to be his first step toward a new life.
Instead he was torturing himself by watching her on the dance floor. Even though their last six months together had been the worst of his life, even though they were divorced now, the thought of her on the prowl for another guy twisted his insides into knots. Through the bobbing heads he glimpsed her doing the mambo with some bozo with two left feet. The guy's hands were all over her. Darcy didn't know which was worse, the liberties the guy was taking or that a terrific dancer like Emma was wasted on him.
Darcy turned around, unable to watch. He hadn't seen her in nearly six months, not since the house had sold for a song. Both of them wanted rid of the memories and had been unwilling to wait for a decent offer. She'd moved to Mornington, to a rental unit. He'd moved into the apartment above the pub once the previous tenant's lease was up.
The first night of this cruise and already her presence had ruined the whole experience for him. How was he going to chat up other women with her on board? Sure he was divorced, but it would still feel like cheating on his wife. He would be constantly looking over his shoulder. Even now he imagined he could smell her perfume
Hell. She slid onto the next stool.
Blue-green eyes fringed with dark auburn lashes flashed at him. "I can't believe you're here, too."
"I'm fine. Thanks for asking." He gulped his soda, wishing it was Scotch more than ever. They'd both resorted to animosity to cover a whole host of more difficult emotions. It worked but it was draining. "You?"
"Pretty crap, actually, now that I've run into you." She signaled to the bartender. "Can I have a mojito, please? Only instead of rum I'd like vodka, and instead of lime, I want pineapple juice. Oh, and no mint leaves, thanks. Lots of ice. And just a dash of pomegranate."
Fixing his gaze on the row of liquor bottles lined up in front of the mirror, Darcy gave an irritated chuckle. "Now I remember why I divorced you. Only those cute freckles and that pert nose allow you to get away with orders like that."
"My freckles suck. And not every bartender is a purist like you." She dipped fingers with short blunt nails into a bowl of peanuts. "Just for the record, I divorced you. But never mind that, we need to talk."
It had better not be about Holly, or their relationship or his many faults.
"Don't eat those." He shoved the bowl down the black marble bar. "You don't know whose hands have been there before you. You ought to know about germs."
She wrinkled her nose. "I'm on holiday. Don't mention nursing or hospitals or sick people or bedpans"
"Okay, okay, I get the idea."
Instead of getting down to what she wanted to talk about, she said, "How's the pub? Business good?"
"Fine. The same." He didn't know why she asked.
She'd always resented the time he spent there. In her opinion he should have been home with her and Holly more. But the sixty-year-old country-style pub he'd bought from his father when he retired was not only his heritage, it was his livelihood. The fact that he enjoyed the atmosphere and considered his local customers part of his extended network of friends was a bonus.
"How's the hospital?" he said, playing along. "Are you still in post-op?"
"No, I'm in geriatrics now. I work with Tracey. She's my friend in the red dress. Oh, and I've applied to do a master's degree in nursing. If I get in, classes start next semester."
"That's great. You always wanted to finish that."
She looked him over. "You've lost weight. Are you cooking for yourself or relying on takeaway?"
He'd lost a few pounds after he'd stopped drinking, but that was none of her business. "I'm living on peacock's tongues and caviar. You said you wanted to talk?"
She reached for the tall drink in front of her. "Why are you here?"
"Why does anyone go on a singles cruise? To meet people. And in this case, for the dancing."
"Well, I won't get in your way if you stay out of mine. That's what I came over here to say. After this one drink together we should act like we don't even know each other."
He cast her a sidelong glance. "We wish, eh?"
She played with her straw. "Are you seeing anyone? I haven't noticed you on the internet dating sites."
"I prefer to meet people face-to-face. You should be careful, hooking up with men online. There are a lot of creeps out there, married men just looking for a fling." What she did was none of his business but she'd started it by asking if he was seeing anyone. And damn it, he might not be married to her anymore but he still didn't want to see her hurt.
"I sort those out pretty quickly."
He bet she did. Emma was nobody's fool. She would tell them what she thought of their illicit activities before they could say, my wife doesn't understand me. He swirled his drink of melting ice and watery cola. "Quite the coincidence, us coming on the same cruise."
"Not really. There aren't many singles cruises sailing out of Melbourne. Even fewer cruises that feature Latin dancing, something we're both passionate about. We've been divorced for a year, the usual milestone for separated couples to take a significant step into dating. If you add up all those things, it was almost inevitable we would find ourselves on this ship together."
Great. Even single, his life had become predictable. An uneasy thought struck. "Did you hope I'd be here?"
"No, are you crazy? If I'd known you'd be on board, I wouldn't have bought a ticket. Who needs the reminder of" She quickly glanced away.
Bloody hell. Darcy reached out, his hand hovering over her shoulder. Don't touch her. It'll make seeing her even harder than it already is. His fingers curled into his palm as he withdrew his hand.
Emma lifted her head, unaware of his near caress, and shook off her distress. "I told myself I wasn't going to think about her this weekend. Or talk about her."
He grunted, not trusting his voice. Grief was like that. It came out of nowhere, struck like a ninja when you least expected it. He missed Holly, too, and wished he and Emma could have found comfort by talking about her with each other. But the grief was still too raw, and there was too much blame on both sides. Their daughter was one topic that was strictly off-limits.
Emma looked him in the eye, waited a beat then said, "I'm here to meet someone. I want to get married again. I want another baby."
Darcy's sympathy hardened instantly into a simmering resentment. In the months following Holly's death Emma had pressured him to try for another child right away. She'd pushed and pushed him to get her pregnant on the grounds it would bring them closer. Nope. Eventually she'd pushed so hard he'd gone right out the door.
"You can't replace her."
"I know that." She blinked and touched her eyes with a cocktail napkin. "I'm thirty-five. The clock is ticking. This time around I want to fall in love with a man who wants the same things I do. A home and family."
When they'd married he'd wanted those things, too. He'd loved Emma passionately and thought he couldn't be happier. Then Holly came along with her red-gold curls and sparkling eyes like her mother's. He'd adored her with an inexpressible joy. And then then Suddenly she was gone, his little girl run over in the driveway by a drunk friend leaving their party.
He couldn't understand Emma wanting another child so soon. How could she just forget Holly? Where did she find the courage to risk that kind of anguish again? He'd tried to tell her it wasn't like getting a new puppy when the old dog died, although any dog lover knew that wasn't easy, either. She hadn't listened. She wanted everything to be perfect and she went to great lengths to achieve that. She didn't understand that life wasn't perfect. People weren't perfect. God knows he wasn't.
Having another child to make up for the loss of her first one wasn't fair on her next baby. And what about the guy, rushed into marriage to satisfy Emma's longing for a family? It was a recipe for disaster for everyone concerned.
"I think you're making a mistake" He held up his hands at her glare. He would have to be a masochist to have this discussion again. "But what do I know? Just don't settle for the first man who is willing to give you a baby. Don't sell yourself short."
"Of course I won't." She paused. "What about you? I would have thought the ladies would be lining up once you were free. I thought you'd have a girlfriend by now."
"I'm not looking for a relationship."
"In other words, you're here for sex."
"Don't make it sound so crass." The opening bars of a salsa had Darcy swiveling to face the dance floor. "Women go on singles cruises looking for a fling, too."
"Some are looking for a fling. Some are looking for the white picket fence." Emma turned around and crossed her legs, the side slit in her dress revealing smooth bare thigh. She nodded discreetly at a woman wearing a modest dress, a frozen smile and a red hibiscus tucked behind one ear. "She's searching for Mr. Right."
"How can you tell?" Darcy was truly curious.
"She's trying to look 'fun' and not pulling it off. She's probably a librarian from the suburbs who never gets asked out. She came on the cruise hoping to meet a dentist or an accountant, someone respectable but not too challenging."