Read an Excerpt
"Call me the moment that pendant is found, capisce?"
Tracy Irvine's grip tightened around the receiver. She could tell her ex-husband was losing patience with her. This was her last chance and she needed to deliver or else.
Previously she'd screwed up badly and she might not have another chance to redeem herself. Her child's well-being was at stake here, so she needed to play Sal's sick game. It was the only way to get Franco back. He was her son, their son, and her reason for living.
"I will, Sal, I promise," she said, striving to sound confident. "I won't disappoint you this time."
"You better not, bella, especially if you know what's good for you. This is your last chance. There will be hell to pay if you don't deliver this time around." Sal's raucous laughter resounded in her ear.
"When will I get to see Franco?" Tracy asked, trying to hold back the tears that were welling. If Sal knew she was close to breaking, he would get uglier. He had a sadistic streak to him.
"In good time, as soon as that pendant is mine."
"I'll get it for you. I swear I will."
"Do that, bella, and soon."
The receiver clunked down, the dial tone reverberating in her ear.
Tracy allowed herself a good cry, then taking a deep breath pulled herself together. In ten minutes she was on duty, greeting passengers as they boarded Alexandra's Dream. She'd been hired as a dancer on the cruise ship, but in her off time she performed other duties. Today she was assigned to welcome passengers boarding at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.
No matter how distraught she felt, she had no choice but to look perky.
In the embarkation area, VIP passengers were being escorted on board. Serenad'Andrea, accompanied by her best friend, Pia Fischer, stepped off the ramp and onto the cruise ship Alexandra's Dream. Although Serena was no stranger to the good life, she gaped at the opulent lobby with its elaborate chandeliers and winding staircases leading to an upper deck.
She certainly hadn't been expecting the interior of the luxury vessel to look like a five-star hotel. Her friend Pia seemed equally awed. She used the pamphlet handed to her by the embarkation staff to fan her face.
"Oh, my," Pia gushed, speaking in English instead of their native Spanish. "Oh, my."
"Awesome, as the Americans would say."
Pia nodded her blonde head. "To die for, awesome."
An attractive, brunette crewmember, outfitted in a navy blazer and white slacks, scrutinized their boarding passes before handing them back.
"Welcome aboard, Dr. Fischer and Ms. d'Andrea," the woman said, her dazzling smile washing over them. "You are in one of our penthouse suites. Let me introduce you to your attendant, who will escort you to Zeus Deck."
"My pleasure, ladies." A woman dressed in a black taffeta dress and frilly white apron, stepped forward.
"Gracias," Serena answered, catching herself and quickly switching to English. She was no longer in Argentina and should stick to the language most commonly spoken.
Pia seemed to be making the transition to English much more easily. "I am so looking forward to these next fourteen days," she said. "I plan on catching up on my reading and relaxing every chance I get."
"What about dancing?" Serena reminded her.
"Isn't that why we signed up for this charter? We came aboard to perfect our rhythm steps and take instructions from professional dancers."
Pia flung an arm around Serena's shoulders.
"Of course we'll dance every chance we get. I'm just glad to be away from patients and their issues. After a while you get burned out."
Serena nodded her understanding. She knew exactly what Pia meant. Emotionally she was exhausted and had been for the last six months.
The two were as opposite as two people could be. Pia, a well respected psychiatrist, was petite and blonde with a chic pixie haircut and a vivacious personality that inspired instant trust. She and Serena, the more reserved of the two, had been best friends since nursery school. Serena was tall, with thick, dark wavy hair and wide violet eyes.
The doors of an elevator opened and the maid waved them in. The glass elevator whizzed them up several floors before stopping on ten.
"Zeus Deck," the attendant announced, pointing to a discreet gilt plaque on the wall when they got off. After a short walk down a plush carpeted hallway, the maid used a card key to open double doors leading into spacious living accommodations.
As they entered, Serena noted the walls of the suite were painted olive, contrasting nicely with the honey-colored furniture. A chocolate leather love seat and matching chair made for comfortable seating. Outside on a wooden deck were teak lounge chairs and a hot tub that might easily seat eight. A small garden with convincing fake flowers had a fountain guarded by a statue of Aphrodite.
The maid pointed to an area they hadn't entered yet.
"Your bedroom, ladies."
The room held twin beds and a gigantic console with a television, VCR and DVD player. A huge picture window let in sunlight and glimpses of blue water, as well as the mansions on the Fort Lauderdale waterfront.
Pia, as enthusiastic as ever, kicked off her high heels and plopped onto one of the beds.
"I might just get used to this," she enthused. "I can't wait to get out of this clothing. When will our luggage arrive?"
"Your bags are already here, madam."
The attendant threw open the double doors of the closet to show them where their luggage was stashed. "I can get the butler to help you unpack," she offered.
Both women exchanged looks. No butler, at least not right now. There were just some things a woman preferred to do on her own.
"We'll take care of our own unpacking but we'd like help with ironing our dresses later," Serena said, speaking for both of them.
"As you wish. If you do not need anything else, I will leave you ladies to relax."
Bowing, the attendant backed out of the room.
When she was gone, Serena poured two glasses of champagne from the bottle chilling in the ice bucket. Next to it was a large gift basket. She handed Pia her wine.
"To a much needed vacation," she said, clinking her glass against her friend's.
Pia waved the embarkation brochure at Serena. "I'll drink to that. Let's hope there are some classy men aboard that we'll enjoy dancing with. Have you looked at the workshop and competitive dancing schedules? They're inserted in the brochure."
"Yes, just briefly. I can't believe we found this themed dance cruise. I've had this fantasy since I was a little girl about being a professional ballroom dancer. I love my publishing career, but the stress of deadlines is wearing me down."
Kicking off her shoes, Serena joined Pia on the bed.
"Being a psychiatrist is no picnic either, querida," her friend confided. "There are times I just have to bite my tongue. I'm paid to listen and not to judge."
"You're a wonderful doctor, Pia, and an incredible friend. We'll use these next two weeks to recharge our batteries."
"I'll definitely drink to that."
Serena poured more champagne. For the next half hour, the friends perused the workshop schedule, circling the names of dance instructors they wanted to take lessons from. Although Serena didn't think she was good enough to enter the competitive dancing heats, she was willing to give it a try.
The alcohol went down easily, making her relax. She'd been edgy and jet lagged from the long plane trip from Buenos Aires. "Did you see there's a treasure hunt as part of the cruise?" Pia asked, flipping over the brochure. "It's based on a legend about the moon goddess and her lover. Whoever finds the hidden pendant is supposed to be lucky in love. Now that's something we could both use."
Serena set down her glass. Love was something she was unwilling to engage in anymore.
"I was thinking that the story of the moon goddess and this lowly shepherd might make a good young adult's book," she mused. "Maybe I should write it myself instead of assigning it."
"Why don't you? You've got fourteen days to do whatever you want, querida."
Selena, Serena's twin, had been a hopeless romantic and would have jumped all over the idea. Maybe Serena would dedicate the book to her twin sister's memory.
Still toying with that thought, she opened the brochure, found the insert, and quickly reread the legend. It was a charming story and had lots of possibilities. Serena headed up the young adult division of her parents' publishing house, so it would be easy to get a book published.
"I wouldn't mind the perks that come with finding the pendant," Serena said dreamily. "Massages, beauty treatments, invitations to the ship's bridge. It all sounds wonderful to me."
"Don't forget the romance bit," Pia reminded her.
"We could both use a good man in our lives."
Carlos had been Pia's great love. They'd dated for several years, and were engaged. Then with no explanation he had changed his mind and called things off. Later Pia had found out he'd taken up with a young woman almost half his age, and had no problem marrying her.
Serena thought about her own romantic woes. Six months ago she'd had a two week fling, but nothing had come of that either. He'd chosen the coward's way out, disappearing without so much as an explanation. As a result she was starting to develop serious trust issues with men.
Pia clapped her hands.
"Bastante! I'm starving. There must be something to eat in that gift basket?"
The huge basket wrapped in cellophane and topped with a jaunty yellow bow sat on the coffee table. Serena poked a hole in the wrapping with a manicured nail. She removed oranges, a pineapple, and mangos and laid them on the dresser along with peanuts, wedges of cheese and crackers. At the very bottom of the basket she spotted a velvet pouch.
"What's this?" she said, swishing her wavy black hair off her face and balancing the pouch in the palm of one hand.
"Open it," Pia urged.
Alexandra's Dream listed slightly as Serena removed a silver teardrop pendant from the pouch and tossed it to Pia, who deftly caught it with one hand.
"Caramba! I think this is the treasure," Pia cried.
Simultaneously a male voice boomed over the intercom.
"Our mandatory lifeboat drill will commence in exactly ten minutes. All passengers are requested to make their way to their assigned muster stations."
Both women quickly found their life jackets and headed out.
"Take the pendant with you," Pia urged, giving Serena a little nudge and folding it into her hand.
"We'll stop at the Guest Relations Desk after the drill and tell them the treasure has been found."
On the way downstairs, the women put on their life jackets and were directed to their muster stations. Forty five minutes later, after each passenger had been accounted for, and several tedious announcements made, the boat drill ended.
Braving a good-sized crowd on the stairwell, they made their way to the Guest Relations Desk and stood in line awaiting their turn. Finally, an attractive Indonesian purser with a name badge that read Kali looked up from her computer monitor.
"Can I help you?"
"You have a winner," Serena said, handing the velvet pouch to the woman.
"May I have your name and cabin number please?"
"Serena d'Andrea. I'm in a penthouse on Zeus." She patiently waited for further instructions.
Kali dangled the tear-shaped pendant from her index finger and called to some unseen person in a back room. "The treasure's been found." She handed Serena back the piece. "You're a winner, all right, but I don't think finding love on board will be a problem for you. There are quite a few hotties that are part of our Rhythm Dancers theme cruise."
"I guess we'll find that out at the Bon Voyage party," Pia interjected, "It should be starting any minute. Can you confirm where it is?"
A piece of paper that looked like a newspaper was slid across the counter at them. It listed all of the onboard events. "Do you have the time now to be interviewed?" Kali asked. "I can get a photographer and video crew here if you do."
Serena shook her head and glanced at the clock on the back wall. "No way."
"Okay. We'll find you at the party. Whatever works best for you."
Back in the penthouse, after a quick shower, Serena slipped into a turquoise halter dress and began trying on different pieces of jewelry.
"What do you think of this necklace?" she asked Pia, holding up a string of irregularly shaped beads.
"I think you should wear the pendant," Pia urged.
"Let's see if it lives up to its name." She handed Serena a polishing cloth. "Give it a good rub and it should brighten up."
Serena took the cloth from her and made a wry face. "Okay. It's bound to encourage conversation at least."
After polishing the piece, Serena removed the chain and threaded a satin ribbon through the loop and tied it around her neck. The silver pendant contrasted nicely with her tanned skin.
"Perfect," Pia announced. "You look like a moon goddess yourself."
"You're good for my ego. What would I ever do without you?"
"Live a full, happy life. Making people feel good about themselves is what I do for a living. If I can do it for patients, I most certainly can do it for my best friend."
Pia wiggled into a form-fitting sleeveless dress that only someone who weighed one hundred and eight pounds would dare to wear.
"How do I look?" she asked, placing one hand on her hip and posing.
"Stunning, you always do."
"Thank you. Now let's go to the party and see if we can find ourselves dance partners."
Linking arms, the two women headed out.