Read an Excerpt
“Hmm?” Skye Denison Boyd mumbled, then turned on her side and drifted back to sleep as she murmured, “Just a couple more minutes.”
“Miss, are you okay?” A melodic voice with an island lilt intruded on Skye’s nap again. “You were shoutin’ and thrashin’ around something fierce.”
“I was?” Skye slowly raised her head from the lounge chair and squinted. The bright sunshine was blinding, making it impossible to see the person speaking to her.
Skye and her brand-new husband, Wally Boyd, had been among the first to arrive that afternoon on Countess Cays, the private Bahamian resort owned by Countess Cruise Lines. Wally had gone in search of drinks, leaving Skye to work on her tan. She must have dozed off and been having a nightmare. Considering that this was the second day of her honeymoon, what in the world could she have been dreaming about that would make her scream?
Before Skye could contemplate this perplexing issue further, the person standing over her moved closer, blocking out the sun and allowing Skye finally to observe her would-be rescuer. The short, plump young woman was one of the local workers who had greeted the Diamond Countess passengers as they had disembarked. She was carrying an enormous basket of used towels, which she rested against an ample hip while swaying rhythmically to the music coming from a nearby steel band.
Skye swept a few strands of hair out of her eyes and said, “I’m fine. It must have been a bad dream. I got married on Saturday and I haven’t gotten much sleep the past couple of nights because . . .” She heard herself babbling and trailed off. Really? Had she been just about to share her sex life with a stranger? She needed to get a grip. “Anyway, thanks for your concern.”
The woman’s ebony cheeks creased into a smile, and she said, “No need to be explaining, miss.” She jerked her head toward a spot a few feet behind Skye. “If that’s your man heading this way, I wouldn’t be wasting my time in bed snoozing either.” The woman grinned and strolled away.
Skye twisted her head and examined Wally as he walked toward her holding a bottle of beer in one hand and a frozen margarita in the other. Her pulse fluttered. He really was incredibly handsome. Well-fitting navy swim trunks rested low on his hips, showing off washboard abs, a sculpted chest, and muscular legs. His olive complexion was already beginning to turn a glowing bronze, and even from this distance, Skye could see the warmth in his chocolate brown eyes as he saw her watching him.
She waved, and he increased his pace. It was hard to believe that Wally was actually her husband. She’d been in love with him since the first time she saw him. He’d moved to her hometown to work as a rookie cop in the Scumble River Police Department when she was a teenager, but the difference in their ages had kept them apart. Then for nearly a decade and a half various life circumstances had intervened. Finally, a few years ago, the planets had lined up and they’d begun dating. At the time, Skye hadn’t allowed herself to hope that she’d ever be his wife. But now, at long last, they were married.
She sighed in contentment, then tensed as she remembered her nightmare. It had featured her mother, May. Not that Skye didn’t love her mom, she did, but when she and Wally had first boarded the Diamond Countess, she had thought she’d caught a glimpse of May on the stairway.
Wally hadn’t noticed the woman, and he’d assured Skye that the person she’d spotted had probably only looked like her mother. No doubt, he’d explained, the excitement of their marriage and the stress of the murder investigation they’d wrapped up only minutes before leaving on their honeymoon had sent Skye’s imagination into overdrive.
In all likelihood, Wally was right. But during her bachelorette party, Skye had overheard her mother saying she and Skye’s dad were going on a cruise. May’s knitting group was joining knitters from all over for a trip led by a famous knitting guru. That alone made Skye wary.
Still, what were the odds it was this particular cruise? Hundreds of cruise ships plied the oceans, and Skye had no idea when her parents were going. She’d been too busy with her rehearsal dinner and the wedding the next day to question her mother about her folks’ vacation plans. Then there was the fact that May’s first grandchild was due any day. Surely, she wouldn’t dare miss the blessed event. She’d been obsessing about having grandbabies since her own children hit puberty.
But the most compelling reason for thinking that Skye’s imagination was running wild was that there hadn’t been any sign of May on Sunday during the lifeboat drill or at the sail-away party as the ship had glided out of Fort Lauderdale or at dinner later that evening. Or anywhere else that night or today.
Of course, this morning Wally and Skye hadn’t left their suite until they’d boarded the tender to the island, and the previous evening they hadn’t stayed very long in the dining room since a rowdy bunch seated at several tables in the rear of the restaurant had been noisily celebrating New Year’s Eve a few hours early.
Instead of the long romantic meal Skye and Wally had envisioned, they’d eaten the appetizer and main course quickly, then taken the dessert back to their cabin to enjoy in solitude. Which had turned out for the best, since they’d found an even tastier way to consume the whipped cream and chocolate sauce than on the profiteroles for which the toppings were intended.
Their waiter had said the boisterous crowd was part of a special interest group that would be attending programs, going on excursions, and taking part in private mixers and parties. The participants looked like they were having a blast, and Skye was happy for them, but she was also thankful that the ship had what they called a “your choice” dining plan instead of reserved seating, so she and Wally could select from different restaurants and times to eat and avoid the exuberant bunch.
When Skye heard a burst of raucous laughter, she glanced behind her, thinking it might be that group, and was relieved to see that the braying laugh had come from a guy who had stopped Wally. From the man’s gestures, he seemed to be asking for directions.
The resort was located on a long, narrow peninsula that offered cruise passengers a half mile of white-sand beach where they could relax or indulge in water sports. Along with the unspoiled shoreline, there was also an observation tower, an outdoor bar and restaurant, and a native craft market for the ship’s guests to enjoy. The entire complex was connected by planked walkways, and at the crossings, arrows on wooden posts pointed to the various attractions. Still, Skye could see how easy it would be to get lost. Especially if the poor guy talking to Wally had as bad a sense of direction as she did.
Relaxing back against her chaise, Skye scanned the people who had spread out towels near the water. She told herself that she wasn’t looking for her mother because Wally must be right; she hadn’t seen her mom aboard the Diamond Countess. Then again, since embarking, Skye and Wally hadn’t spent much time outside their suite, and with over three thousand passengers aboard, the chance of seeing any one particular person was slight. May could still be on their ship.
Before Skye could work herself into a state of panic, Wally strolled up, deposited their drinks on the small table next to her, and dropped to his knees beside her chair.
He nuzzled her neck, and said, “I like your hair up like this.”
“You just like the fact that it didn’t take me an hour to get ready,” Skye teased. She’d twisted her mass of chestnut curls into a knot on top of her head, figuring there was no use wasting time with a flat iron when she was spending the afternoon in the heat and humidity.
“True,” Wally admitted, trailing kisses down her cleavage while he caressed her leg. “You’re beautiful without all the extra fuss.”
Distracted by the sensation of his fingers stroking the inside of her thigh, Skye made a noncommittal noise. Wally had won her heart years ago, but their wedding vows had unlocked her soul. She’d thought the physical attraction between them couldn’t get any hotter, but the freedom to enjoy each other without the lingering guilt—or need to go to confession—had ratcheted the whole experience up to an entirely new level.
Wally joined Skye on the double lounge chair and they were indulging in some serious lip lock when she heard a sniggering voice yell, “Get a room!”
Color flooding her cheeks, Skye jerked away from Wally and saw a crowd of kids staring at them. She deliberately turned her head away from the group, pretending indifference to their presence, and discreetly checked to make sure that her bathing suit still covered every body part it was intended to conceal. Wally opened his mouth to say something, but Skye squeezed his hand and gave a tiny headshake. She’d been a school psychologist for enough years to know better than to engage a pack of adolescents on the prowl.
Ignoring the teens, Skye said in a conversational tone, “Let’s take our drinks and walk over to the observation tower. I want to get some panoramic shots with my new camera. The island information flyer in the Diamond Dialogue said the view is breathtaking.”
“Fine,” Wally grumbled, then stood and gave Skye a hand to assist her to her feet. “But I told you we should have rented a bungalow.”
“Two hundred dollars for a hut the size of a walk-in closet?” Growing up as part of a farming family, Skye had learned not to blow extra cash on foolishness. And as an employee of the public school system, she earned an income that barely allowed her to make ends meet. Frugality was now second nature to her. “And we’d only use the bungalow for three or four hours. I don’t think so.”
“We can afford to indulge ourselves on our honeymoon,” Wally insisted. “And it would have been worth it to have some privacy.”
“We already have a suite on the ship,” Skye protested. “Which I love.” She still wasn’t used to Wally’s attitude about money. He was by no means a spendthrift, living off his salary as the Scumble River police chief, but since he’d grown up the son of a Texas oil millionaire, his idea of what was extravagant and Skye’s idea tended to be wildly divergent. “But we really could have been just as comfortable in a nice cabin with a balcony, instead of a suite.”
“Maybe.” Wally helped Skye on with her cover-up, handed her the margarita he’d put on the table, and picked up his beer. “But I wanted the best for you.” He smiled down at her. “Besides, I told you I got a really good deal from the travel agent in town.”
“Why was that?” Skye matched her steps to Wally’s long strides as they headed toward the observation tower. “I would have thought a New Year’s cruise would have been especially popular.”
“Sure.” Wally took a swig of his Kalik. “But the travel agent said that because she had a big group going, we could get a special rate.”
“I think I remember Owen saying he got a good price for the cruise he and Trixie are taking for the same reason.” Skye felt a flicker of unease run up her spine. Trixie Frayne was her best friend, and she loved the pixyish school librarian like a sister, but she wanted to be alone with her new husband, not part of a foursome.
“And you don’t remember the name of the ship Trixie and Owen are on this week?” A crease furrowed Wally’s forehead. “Surely if it was the Diamond Countess that would ring a bell, right?”
“I don’t think she ever told me the name.” Skye’s expression was shamefaced. “And like I said when you asked before, I was too involved in wedding plans to notice. Not a very good friend, I know.”
“I’m sure Trixie understood that you were preoccupied.” Wally put an arm around her, then joked, “As bridezillas go, you seemed pretty mild.”
“Thanks a lot, mister.” Skye swatted his shoulder with her free hand. “Considering that we had to solve a murder the week of our wedding, I think I was darn near serene and deserve a trophy.”
“I’ve got a trophy for you.” Wally leered at her playfully. “But you’ll have to wait until we get back to our wastefully extravagant suite to get it.”
They continued to banter until they reached a walkway sign that read the CROW’S NEST. As they got closer, Skye saw that the noisy bunch that had been in the dining room the previous night was monopolizing the observation tower. Three or four at a time were taking turns posing on the wooden steps while another person took their photos.
As Wally and Skye waited for the people to get out of the way, Skye gazed at a woman in her late fifties wearing a cowgirl hat that appeared to be made out of neon pink yarn.
The cowgirl was speaking to her companion, who had on a similar hat in lime green. “Why is Guinevere always late? Someone should say something to her about it.”
“I don’t know.” The friend rocked back and forth on her heels. “But Guinevere is a tough cookie. I’d be a little scared to cross her.”
“Ah.” Ms. Pink Hat shook her head. “She ain’t all that tough. My grandma was tough. She buried four husbands.” The woman paused, then added, “And three were only napping.”
After a polite laugh, Ms. Lime Hat said, “I have no idea why Guinevere is always late, but it’s freaking annoying.”
“It is a bit irritating.” Another woman, this one in her early forties and wearing a crisp khaki shorts outfit, dark glasses, and white gloves, joined the conversation.
Skye blinked at the latter. No one had told her that this was a formal beach party. She grinned at the notion of fancy hats and tea cakes in the sand, then returned her attention to the scene in front of her.
The woman adjusted her sunglasses, and said in a soft Southern drawl, “This is our fourth activity, and the fact that the leader hasn’t arrived on time for any of them is a little inconsiderate.”
“Inconsiderate? Hell, Ella Ann, you’re way too nice.” Ms. Pink Hat snorted. “Where I come from it’s a hangin’ offense.”
The other two women laughed their agreement and Ms. Lime Hat said, “Some people just need to be taught a lesson in the worst way.”
The mob continued to block Skye and Wally’s egress to the platform above, and finally Wally cleared his throat. Several seconds went by, and when no one offered to make room for them to pass, he said, “Excuse us. Could you move over? We’d like to get by.”
There was no response. It was almost as if Skye and Wally were invisible.
Wally’s mouth tightened and he leaned toward Skye and whispered, “I sure hope this crowd isn’t going to be a problem during the whole cruise.”
“Maybe they won’t be too bad,” Skye murmured, watching as a beautiful woman in her early forties arrived. She had a camera around her neck, but it didn’t obscure the view of the décolletage revealed by her low-cut tank top.
The new arrival ignored the angry mutterings about her tardiness, murmuring, “Birdbrains of a feather sure flock together.” She curled her lips in disgust and began assembling everyone on the steps. When she was satisfied with the arrangement, she handed the large poster she’d been carrying to a woman in front. While the group leader lined up her shot, Skye read the sign. Printed in a nautical blue was the phrase WELCOME U-KNITTED NATIONS. Centered underneath were the words DIAMOND COUNTESS 2007.
Another flash of apprehension trickled down Skye’s vertebrae. This was a knitting group, hence the knitted cowboy hats. Her mom and dad were taking a cruise with May’s knitting group. She had seen her mother yesterday. Oh. My. God. Her parents were on her honeymoon!
“I’m telling you, my mother and father are definitely aboard the Diamond Countess,” Skye insisted for the fiftieth time, as she kept her eyes peeled for a glimpse of them.
She’d been repeating this same sentence to Wally every few minutes for the past three hours while they ate a light lunch at the outdoor café and relaxed on their double chaise, enjoying the warm sunshine. The only time she’d stopped was when they were snorkeling off the island’s white-sand beach, and she had started up again as soon as her head was above water.
Wally, on the other hand, had been maintaining that there must be more than one knitting cruise that her folks could have taken. But now, as he and Skye stepped onto the tender that would take them back to the cruise liner, he finally admitted, “Even if they are here, it’s a big ship.” When the boat suddenly rocked from side to side and Skye nearly fell, he helped her take a seat and added, “There’s a good chance we’ll never run into them.”
“Seriously?” Skye looked at her new husband and wondered how he could be so clueless. “You’ve worked with my mom for how many years? Ten? Twelve? But you still don’t really know her, do you?” May was employed as a dispatcher on the police force Wally commanded. “If my mother’s on board, and I’m pretty darn sure she is, she planned this whole so-called coincidence, and she has every intention of ‘running into us’ as often as possible. For all we know, she and Dad are in a cabin on our deck—or even next door to us.”
“But why?” Wally slid an arm around Skye’s shoulders, pulling her against him as the tender shot away from the dock. “May would have to be aware that her showing up on your honeymoon would tick you off.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Skye felt her stomach do a loop-the-loop and wondered if it was motion sickness. The Sea-Bands she wore around her wrist, which utilized acupressure to control symptoms of nausea, and the Dramamine, a good old-fashioned drug, had kept her feeling fine, but suddenly she thought she might vomit. “Too bad my mother views the world through the distorted Saran Wrap vision of her own reality. Her version of what’s real and everyone-else-on-the-planet’s version aren’t the same.”
“Well . . .” Wally tugged at the neck of his T-shirt as the truth started to sink in.
“Mom changes the facts to suit herself.” Skye blew out an exasperated breath of air. “In her mind, we’ll be thrilled she surprised us, happy to see her and Dad, and excited to have them join us at dinner and on shore excursions. I wouldn’t be at all shocked to find her in our suite when we get back.”
“May wouldn’t really do that.” When the tender struck a wave and Skye slid a few inches away from him, Wally tightened his grip and drew her back to his side. “Jed wouldn’t let her.” Wally’s protests were getting feebler, and he implored his new wife, “Would she?”
“Yep.” Skye smiled grimly. “You, my darling, are getting your first taste of Mom the Master Manipulator.” Skye patted his knee. “From the moment she spotted those cruise brochures on your desk, you were her target. When you took the bait and went to the travel agent that she recommended, she had you hooked. Then it was just a matter of allowing you enough line. By telling you how much you could save with the group rate and how much I’d love staying in a suite, she reeled you in like a true pro angler.”
Skye watched the emotions play across Wally’s handsome face as he gave in and accepted that what she had been telling him was true. She opened her mouth, but snapped it shut, deciding he needed time to process the implications of their situation.
Wally remained silent as the tender pulled alongside the ship. Climbing the metal gangway to the deck entrance, he started to say something but stopped. As he put their beach bag on the conveyor belt to be X-rayed, he tried again but couldn’t seem to get the words past his lips, and instead walked mutely through the security gate.
Once he and Skye were in the elevator, Wally finally managed to form the question he’d been fighting to avoid. “Do you think Trixie and Owen are here, too?”
“Oh, yeah.” Skye pinched the bridge of her nose as they exited onto the Dolphin Deck and headed down the long corridor to their aft suite. “Didn’t you realize that when the travel agent said she had a large group going, it meant we might be traveling with half the inhabitants of Scumble River?”
“Son of a buck!” Wally smacked the metal wall next to the suite’s entrance and several sheets of paper fell from the diamond-shaped holder affixed there.
Skye picked up the pages, then used her key card to open the door.
“How in blue blazes could I have been so incredibly stupid?” Wally berated himself as he followed her into their cabin, threw the beach bag he’d been carrying on the floor, and flopped onto the sofa clutching his head. “Why didn’t I realize what I was getting us into?”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Skye placed flyers advertising the art auction, gift shop specials, and spa treatments on the wet bar near a tray of miniature booze bottles, then joined him on the couch. “Even though you’ve lived in town for over twenty years, you didn’t grow up in Scumble River and you don’t have family in the area, so you forget that everyone is either related to everyone else or at least knows someone whose cousin married that person’s sister’s uncle’s daughter.”
“That’s no excuse.” Wally leaned back and closed his eyes as Skye rubbed his temples. “The woman at the agency said she had a large group.” He groaned and Skye kept up her massage. “Where did I think the people in the large group were coming from? The moon?”
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and most of the others will be from the neighboring communities,” Skye comforted him. “After all, there aren’t any other travel agencies in a forty-mile radius. I think the one in Laurel is the next closest, so the Scumble River agency probably pulls from at least half a dozen or so of the towns around us.”
“True.” Wally brightened, then slumped. “But the real problem is your parents and the Fraynes. Most people will just say hi if they see us, but your folks will want to spend time with us.”
“Now you understand the difficulty.” Skye pulled him off the sofa, through the bedroom, and into the enormous marble bathroom. “Trixie and Owen will understand if we tell them we want to be alone, and it might actually be fun to hang out with them once in a while.”
“Yeah.” Wally tugged off his T-shirt. “There are a few excursions that looked good but would be more fun with another couple.”
“Unfortunately, Mom won’t be so considerate. She’ll want to move in here with us. Or at least spend all her waking hours with me. The terms Helicopter Parent and Velcro Mom were coined just for her.” Skye pressed herself against Wally’s chest and ran her fingers through the crisp black hair at his temples. She loved the trace of gray feathered above his ears. “Which means we have to outsmart her.”
“How?” Wally swept Skye’s cover-up over her head and threw it behind them, then unhooked the top of her swimsuit.
“Good question.” Skye turned on the water in the huge walk-in shower, then untied the drawstring on his trunks and yanked them down. “But let’s think of that after we get rid of the sand. I think I might have brought back half the shore with me. And while I enjoyed the beach, I’m not nearly as thrilled about it in its present location.” She shimmied out of her swimsuit bottoms.
“Sounds like a plan to me.” Wally grinned and followed her into the stall. “I bet we’ll come up with a great way to avoid your mother once we relieve some tension.” He poured a dollop of body wash into his palm. “You know, take the edge off a little bit.”
“I’m sure we will,” Skye cooed as he ran his soapy hands over her back, then commented with a wicked smile, “It’s getting a little steamy in here. We should have turned on the exhaust fan.”
“We don’t really need to see anything.” Wally’s fingers continued their journey south. “We can just feel our way to paradise.”
• • •
“It’s a good thing we made dinner reservations for seven thirty. If we’d decided on six thirty, we’d never make it,” Skye commented as she stepped into her black lace dress. “I can’t believe how fast the time went after we got back from the island. And I still haven’t gotten us completely unpacked. Maybe yesterday I should have accepted the butler’s offer to do it for us.”
“I told you to take advantage of all the amenities.” Wally zipped her up. “But I’ll never forget the look on that poor guy’s face when you said you didn’t want anyone but me handling your underwear.”
Skye giggled. “That popped out before I could stop it.”
“We could always order room service.” Wally stood in front of the closet and frowned into the full-length mirror on the back of the door. “One of the perks of a suite is being able to order from any dining room menu and have the food served on our balcony.”
“I definitely want to do that sometime. It might be fun to try when we sail away from a port or maybe when we’re at sea and all the stars are out.” Skye slid on high-heeled silver sandals. “But this is formal night and I can’t wait to see everyone dressed up.”
“Oh, yeah,” Wally muttered as he struggled with his bowtie. “We wouldn’t want to miss that. I’m sure it’s quite a show.”
“Besides, eating this late, we’re safe from my mother.” Skye fastened the necklace that Wally had given her as a wedding present and adjusted the two swirling platinum ribbons—one lined with shimmering baguette diamonds, and the other with glittering round diamonds forming an X—to lie at the base of her throat. “No way on Earth will she be able to get Dad to wait past five for his supper.”
“Good point,” Wally conceded. “That’s probably why they weren’t in the dining room with the knitting group last night.” He put on his jacket. “But if they’re a part of that crowd, and you’ve convinced me that they are, where were they this afternoon on the island? They weren’t posing for that picture on the observation tower steps.”
“I’ve been wondering that myself.” Skye inserted the necklace’s matching earrings and screwed on the backs. It made her a little nervous to wear such valuable jewelry, but Wally had assured her that the pieces were heavily insured. “Do you think Mom and Dad might have missed the ship? They aren’t exactly experienced travelers.”
“I suppose it could have happened, if they didn’t make their original flight from Midway.” Wally’s tone was doubtful. “But your folks are early for everything so I suspect they were at the airport hours before their scheduled departure time.”
“Maybe Loretta went into labor before they left town and they decided to stay home. Wouldn’t that be the coolest payback ever? Mom hoisted by her own petard.”
“Son’s first baby versus daughter’s honeymoon.” Wally handed Skye her black silk evening clutch. “That would be a hard choice for May.”
“And I wouldn’t be at all sad if the new little heir to the Denison throne won the coin toss.” Skye made sure she had her cruise pass, which acted as key, identification, and charge card. “But I’m not getting my hopes up because I’m pretty darn sure I saw Mom on Sunday.”
For their New Year’s Day dinner, Skye and Wally had selected the Coronet Brasserie. It was one of two specialty restaurants on board the Diamond Countess. For a slight additional fee, specialty restaurants offered luxury experiences with upgraded service and cuisine. Wally had assured Skye that the premium aged beef and fresh seafood were supposed to be excellent, and he had waved away her protest about paying extra.
Before stepping inside the restaurant, Wally and Skye used the hand sanitizer dispenser at the entrance. It took a bit away from the glamour of cruising, but norovirus outbreaks were always a threat on a ship this size and the resulting gastroenteritis would be a lot worse than the antiseptic odor of the gel.
Wally told the maître d’ his name, and as they were shown to their table, Skye admired the dining room’s rich wood and luxurious fabrics, as well as the beautiful dresses on the other women diners. Only a quarter of the men wore tuxedos, but even those who had opted for dark suits looked nice, all spiffed up in their best bib and tucker.
Once Skye and Wally were settled in their banquette-style booth, and had made the difficult choice of flat or sparkling water, Skye gestured in front of them. “Look, we can see into the kitchen. Isn’t that the coolest thing?”
“Hmm,” Wally mumbled around a bite of the warm bread he’d just popped into his mouth. Swallowing, he joked, “Are you getting any cooking pointers?”
“In your dreams,” Skye teased, then bounced in her seat, excited at the new experience. “I’ve never been in a place where you could watch the chefs prepare the food.”
The sommelier appeared as if by magic next to Wally’s elbow. “Would you like to order a bottle of wine? We have a Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino 2005 that would go well if you’re having steak or a Placido Pinot Grigio 2006 if you’re thinking of seafood.”
“I’m getting the New York strip. What do you want, sugar?” Wally asked Skye.
“Rack of lamb.”
“Then we’ll take the Brunello,” Wally informed the wine steward.
After the sommelier left, Skye resumed her study of the menu. It was hard to choose. For her first course, should she order the tiger prawns with the papaya or the scallops with foie gras? She was debating the shrimp bisque versus the blue cheese onion soup when raised voices coming from the front of the restaurant drew her attention.
Scooting forward, she peered around the booth’s high side. Standing at the podium, arguing with the maître d’, was the woman who’d been late to take the knitting group’s photo at the observation tower. What had they called her? Oh, yes. Guinevere. And from her attitude and words, she obviously believed that she was King Arthur’s queen.
“I don’t need a reservation,” Guinevere thundered. “My arrangement with the cruise line is that when I lead a tour group, I eat at this restaurant every night.” She drew herself up and thrust out her considerable chest. “Don’t you know who I am?”
“I am Guinevere Stallings, the foremost knitting authority in the world, a best-selling author, and an award-winning designer.”
A handsome man dressed in an exquisite Ralph Lauren tuxedo had entered the restaurant while Guinevere was ranting. He waited until she took a breath, then drawled, “Darling, don’t forget your most outstanding accomplishment—being the biggest bitch alive.”
She whirled around and snarled, “I wasn’t born a bitch, Sebastian. Men like you made me this way.” When he only chuckled, she demanded, “And what are you doing here?”
“Working.” The man smiled serenely. “The same as you, my little buttercup.”
“My contract expressly forbids that we be assigned to the same ship.”
“Ah, but then you weren’t originally scheduled to lead this group, were you?” Sebastian shrugged an elegant shoulder. “I guess no one thought to see if one of your many enemies was on board when they asked you to fill in for Pearl after her extremely mysterious but convenient accident. I’m surprised you didn’t check.”
“I like taking risks,” Guinevere retorted. “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.”
“Or is it that you really wanted this assignment for some particular reason?” Sebastian asked.
“What do you mean by that?” Guinevere snapped. “I hope you aren’t insinuating—”
“After our last court battle, would I be stupid enough to slander you?” Sebastian narrowed his navy blue eyes. “Or is it libel? I can never remember.”
“Someone’s going to be sorry for this mix-up,” Guinevere vowed, her beautiful face an unattractive brick red. “Heads will roll.”
“No doubt.” Sebastian raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps even yours.”
Two hours later, as Skye and Wally left the restaurant, Skye said, “That knitting woman sure seemed upset about the reservation mix-up.”
“So you mentioned.” Wally put his hand on Skye’s waist and guided her toward the exit. “Several times.”
“Sorry.” Skye’s expression was sheepish. “There’s just something about her that’s irritating.”
“I understand.” Wally’s tone was indulgent. “It’s the sense of entitlement she exudes.”
“Look, she’s still fuming,” Skye whispered, flicking a brief glance at Guinevere as they passed her table. “I wouldn’t want to have been her server tonight.”
“Or any other night,” Wally muttered. “When you were in the restroom, she reamed the poor guy out about the size of her steak.”
“It was too small?” Skye’s voice rose to an incredulous pitch. She was so stuffed, she was half convinced Wally might have to roll her out of the dining room.
“Nah.” He snickered. “Ms. High-and-Mighty was unhappy because it was too big.” Wally took Skye’s hand. “She accused the waiter of trying to make her fat.”
“Right,” Skye scoffed. “I’m sure in the small amount of time the crew has off, they scheme to sabotage the passengers’ diets.”
“Of course they do, sugar,” Wally agreed, playing along with the joke as he and Skye wandered through the portrait gallery.
Here, the ship’s photographers posted the pictures they’d taken of the passengers both on board and in port. In an attempt to spur impulse purchases, the gallery was strategically placed between the dining rooms and the entertainment venues. Panels and panels of plastic holders lined the walkway, and it often took folks several sweeps to locate their own photos.
“The bartenders plot how to get their customers to overindulge and become drunken fools, too,” Wally added as an apparently inebriated couple did a conga down the gallery.
Skye chuckled, then pointed. “There we are when we embarked.” She and Wally were posed in front of a background of painted palms with a huge banner reading BON VOYAGE DIAMOND COUNTESS strung between the trees.
“Do you want to buy it?” Wally asked, reaching for the print.
“Maybe.” Skye peered more closely at the photo, then shook her head. “My eyes are half closed.”
They strolled on to the next set of pictures, stopping next to one of Skye and Wally on the beach. They’d been lying side by side on the sand when the photographer had taken the shot.
“How about this one?” Wally tapped the plastic shield. “Since you have your sunglasses on, you can’t tell if your eyes are open or shut.”
Skye was okay with being quite a bit curvier than present fashion dictated, but a swimsuit revealed everything. And because she’d acquiesced to Wally’s pleading, she was wearing a two-piece suit. It was by no means a bikini, having a high-waisted bottom and a full-coverage bandeau top, but still . . .
“I’m not thrilled with pictures of me dressed that way,” she said. “Or I should say undressed that way.”
“I am.” Wally put his arm around her and hugged her to his side.
“I’m sure there’ll be plenty of other snapshots of us we can buy.”
“You look terrific,” Wally insisted. “I want this picture for my desk so when it’s below zero and the mayor is driving me crazy, it’ll remind me of cuddling with you on a tropical beach.”
“Well, since you put it that way . . .” How could she be self-conscious about her body when her new husband obviously loved her the way she was? “Go ahead.”
While Wally stood in line to make his purchase, Skye listened to the disembodied voice on the PA system urging passengers to attend the various activities taking place throughout the ship. She was so glad that the incessant loudspeaker announcements were not audible in their cabin. If they wanted to hear the broadcasts, they could tune one of the three televisions in their suite to the ship’s channel, but they weren’t continually bombarded by the annoying messages.
When Wally returned holding a cardboard folder with the intricate Diamond Countess logo emblazed in gold across a background of aquamarine waves, he asked, “Do you want to see one of the shows tonight? According to the Diamond Dialogue there’s a ventriloquist in the Pioneer Lounge, a country-and-western party on deck, and a Broadway production in the theater.”
“The singers and dancers might be fun,” Skye decided. “We get enough country music in Scumble River, and ventriloquists creep me out.” She made a face. “Vince had this scary dummy that he used to torment me with when we were little.”
“Some of your stories about your brother make me glad I was an only child.” Wally put his palm on the small of her back and steered her toward the stern. “At least by the time Quentin came to live with us, the only thing I had to worry about was him stealing my girlfriends.”
“I can’t imagine any female preferring your cousin to you.” Skye glanced at the store window displays as they made their way through the galleria. She could feel the vibration through the floor as the ship picked up speed heading toward its next destination.
“Thank you, darlin’.” Wally leaned down and gave her a swift kiss. “You’re sweeter than honey to say that, but of course you’re also prejudiced.”
“Just stating the facts,” Skye assured him absentmindedly. The numerous shops along the promenade sold everything from high-end cosmetics and designer purses to fabulous jewelry. She would have to stay out of this section of the ship or she might be tempted to do some serious damage to her credit card. And her Visa had taken enough abuse, what with Christmas gifts, wedding expenses, and honeymoon clothes shopping. “Tell the truth. Did any of your high school sweethearts ever dump you for your cousin, or was it always the other way around, and you poached his girls?”
“I plead the Fifth.” Wally drew Skye to his side as an older woman on a motorized scooter nearly ran her over. “Is that the kind of perfume you like?” He pointed to a display of heart-shaped bottles topped with tiny golden crowns studded with purple crystals.