Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.65(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The Romanza, Rome, Italy
Mona Rossi stood on the top deck and gazed at Civitavecchia Harbor glistening in the sunset. The water was calm, but her nerves were churning up a storm. "Chill out. Fausto's safe and so are you," Mona repeated, trying to keep the quiver out of her voice. "So I look like a nut talking to myself. But it helps. The homicidal stalkers didn't make it on board and we're gonna have a blast." The possibility of a shipboard murder aside, the cruise ship Romanza was a palace of luxury and pampering: gourmet meals, massages, body wraps, partying under the stars...
But activities like that weren't announced in the daily Cruise News. She'd have to find one. Or plan one.
When not indulging in any of those decadent delights, chatting about purple prose with the other pink ink authors, sashaying around the ballroom as Cleopatra, or autographing her novels, she'd be jotting notes for new ideas. By the looks of her last royalty checks, her readers were jumping ship. Her romantic suspense series was losing its zing, especially after the hero went monogo and married the heroine. A dwindling bank account was the push she needed to start a hot trend.
She went to the opposite railing, overlooking the deck below. A four-piece band was playing the Italian classic "Love Me the Way I Love You." The singer was no Clay Aiken, but he sure was setting the mood. As she watched couples dancing, in tight embraces and lip-locks, she couldn't help swaying to the romantic melody. As Mona debated whether to go down to the pool bar and order her first Strega of the voyagewith her "welcome aboard" coupon, a dark-haired pixie bopped up the stairway and looked around.
"Tess! Over here!" she called to her book publisher and best friend.
"Mona, all your hard work and planning paid off!" She bounded over, arms wide, and gave Mona a bear hug in a cloud of Make it a Stiff One hair gel. "The ship's crawling with authors, cover hunks, and The Cutting Edge reporters. They're doing a segment on us every night for a week!"
"Oh yeah, they'll be crawling all over us for interviews. And some of the authors' mothers and aunts showed up. You sure you didn't mention orgies in the ad?"
"Not in the ad, but I might've spread a small rumor. Speaking of hunks, my Moonmist authors are throwing a blowout for the cover models tonight. The Cutting Edge is going to cover it," Tessie gushed, her breaths coming out in spurts of steam. "And guess who I got to make an appearance at the last minute? Furio!"
Mona hoped he would appear at the last minute. "How, in a chariot drawn by matched giraffes?"
"Okay, so he's a little overbearing." The wind blew her hair into her eyes, and she pushed it away. "He likes to hog the spotlight. I'm sure he won't bring his life-sized book covers."
"Better yet, ask him to send his hair, pecs, and cleft chin aboard. He can stay on land."
"I'll get him to serenade you," Tessie kidded. "He can't carry a tune, but I betcha he'll be carrying somebody out of there tonight."
Mona closed her eyes, and Fausto's image smashed Furio to pieces. "I'm waiting for my own gorgeous hunk. I haven't seen him in three months, and my butterflies have butterflies." She glanced at her watch. "He said he'd be here when the ship pulls out."
"So, you're all dolled up for him, not the television cameras." She rubbed Mona's faux ermine sleeve and gave the toe of her left Gianmarco Lorenzi boot a nudge. "Speaking of hunks. Hubba hubba. What you got under there? A Victoria's Secret spank-me number?"
"Almost." Mona untied the scarf and opened the coat to show Tessie her goodies: a low-cut lacy cami that showed enough cleavage to get him begging for more and a short skirt. Wraparound. But she buttoned up when goose bumps started popping up.
"That'll speed up his launch mechanism." Tessie nodded with approval. "But ditch the religious medal. Nothing spoils a guy's view of perfect pushup boobs like Mother Mary watching him."
"But it's Saint Paul, patron saint of authors. I wear it all the time. I sometimes forget it's on." She wound her scarf around her neck. "I just hope Fausto's aboard and hasn't extended his leave." Fausto Silvius, her on-again-off-again main squeeze, was the reason she'd wheedled with Apollo Cruise Lines for a New Year's romance writers' cruise. He was one of Apollo's shipboard doctors, but hadn't worked in six months because of a personal tragedy. As one of a despised and outcast minority, he'd been forced to lay low for a while. And Mona, born with the worry gene that ran in big Italian families, was scared to death for him. Her pep talk monologue of a few minutes ago didn't make her all that smug about her own safety either.
"He's due aboard to report for duty." Tessie raised her stenciled-penciled brows. "Why would he jump ship?" The whipping wind off the Tyrrhenian Sea didn't budge a strand of her foil-streaked Stiff One hair.
Mona pulled up her faux chinchilla hat over her ears. Damn, it was nippy out here. Why couldn't she have arranged to meet Fausto in one of the thirteen bars? Or her stateroom with the extra-eight-hundred-dollar window? Her big idea, a rendezvous under the rising moon surrounded by twinkling lights, didn't include blue lips, a red nose, and stiff nipples.
"This is his first assignment since his family was murdered. So he might not feel he's ready yet." Mona dug out her Cherries in the Snow lipstick from her pocket and ran it over her lips, using the case as a mirror. She checked out the rest of her face, one inch at a time. Mascara unsmeared, brows still in place, and her nose wasn't running. She had to admit she felt like a schoolgirl waiting for her date to show up. Well, it was a date.
Tessie glanced at a few passengers braving the chill to wave arrividerci to some poor souls left behind on the pier. "Don't worry, with you on the ship, he'll be on it. Trust me. He wouldn't pass up a wild ride with you on this floating passion pit."
"Let's hope so." She felt that familiar tingle of excitement as she imagined strolling the promenade deck with him in the wee hours. Or clinging to each other in ecstasy as the ship rocked and rolled...
But if things ended where she hoped it wouldn't, she'd have problems.
"Check out Pops over there." Tessie tilted her head in the direction of a well-built elderly gent in black tie and tails, shiny Oxfords clicking across the deck. "Now, why isn't he flashing a piece of blonde arm candy?"
"He's probably one of the dancers. They pay older gents to glide across the ballroom floors with single female passengers. I've talked with a few of these John O'Hurley clones, and the ones who get lucky brag about their conquests. To me, they're one rung down from overaged boy toys."
"Hmm, I wouldn't mind hanging on his rung." Tessie gave the signor a little wave, and he strolled over to them.
"Beautiful night, no?" He spread his arms, as if embracing the air, and took in a deep breath.
Mona noticed an Eastern European accent. "Gorgeous. Are you a dancer?"
"Yes, ma'am." He clicked his heels. "But I know none of your vild modern steps. My specialty is valtzes."
"Maybe I can talk you into dancing a tarantella if we run into each other," Mona goaded.
He clutched at his chest. "Be still my heart!" His smile reached his eyes.
Pulling his lapels to his throat, he said, "Brrr, this makes my blood run cold. I bid you ladies adieu for now." He gave a bow, turned on a shiny heel, and pranced down the stairs.
"Not old enough for him, are we?" Tessie snorted.
"No, just not desperate enough. He was kinda cute, though, in a macabre kind of way."
Tessie shivered, hugging her arms to herself. "He almost made my blood curdle! He sounded like Dracula. Romantic, but a little creepy."
Mona nodded. "Looked like him, too. But let's not let our imaginations run away with us. You don't want an eight-second one-night stand with an AARP veteran anyway." Mona gave Tessie a nudge. "You'll finally get to spend some one-on-one time with Quintus. That is, if we don't get too bogged down in massages, costume balls, and hunk bashes." Tessie finally hooked up with Quintus, another shipboard doctor, after some detours kept them apart: work, travel, divorces...
Mona knew Quintus was planning on popping the question to Tessie on this cruise. She was thrilled for her friend, but felt a twinge of envy. She could be entering eternal bliss with Fausto if she wasn't so skittish about ... certain things.
Tessie had her cigarillo case half fished out of her purse, but a blast of wind changed her mind. "We're very lucky, Mona. Eligible bachelors aren't easy to come by in our age group. I mean, I never dreamed I'd get to snag a gorgeous Italian wine connoisseur who models mens' undies on the side. Both of them are real renaissance men."
"Oh yeah, you can call them that, all right." What Mona needed to divulge to her friend in the next few hours, especially before the question pop, was that Fausto and Quintus weren't human. And neither were any of their gorgeous Italian wine connoisseur pals. They all shared a common gene.
Fausto, her longtime friend, fan, and almost-but-not-quite romantic interest was a Renaissance man. Literally. He was four-hundred-plus years old.
Therefore, hence, and ergo--a vampire.
Fausto entered the doctors' office and looked around, breathing in the familiar aromas of disinfectant, soap, and the faint trace of medicine. A long-lost emotion rushed back--the feeling of being needed. But knowing his family was gone and he was all alone made it a bittersweet moment.
He sat at his desk and studied the inventory list. Someone approached, throwing a shadow over his paperwork.
"Dr. Silvius!" The staff captain, Paolo Brunetti, stood there, arms spread wide. Fausto went around the desk and gave his colleague an Italian bear hug, with the customary two-cheek kiss. "I can't tell you how sorry I am for your loss."
"Thank you," Fausto said. "I needed to get back to work. There's nowhere else I'd rather be right now." Not wanting to dwell on the condolences, he got straight to business. "As soon as Dr. Lombard gets here, we'll hold the drug count, and while you're verifying that, I can go over the hospital budget."
"Oh, before I forget." Brunetti opened one of the file cabinets along the wall. "This was left outside the door."
He placed a small cardboard box on the desk. Fausto's name was typed on a mailing label. Thinking it was medicine or supplies, he pulled it open, but what he saw inside brought back all the rage of the last six months--and a new stab of fear.
Mona glanced at her watch again. Five minutes to five. She was tempted to spill all to Tessie, but they'd be pulling out at five, and Fausto should be here any minute. No doubt he'd be in one of his tacky disguises. He knew he'd have enemies aboard, and to throw them off the scent, he'd plod around like a typical American tourist on his first cruise, schlocky enough to blend right in, the exact opposite of what his nemeses expected. So she kept her eyes peeled for a gaudy Hawaiian print shirt, a droopy straw hat, leopard-rimmed Ray Bans, baggy Bermuda shorts, and Kmart flip-flops.
That would be the real test for Tessie--could she consider marriage with a vampire without freaking? Her finding out would pack a double whammy--her best-selling authors wrote vampire romances, and they were on this cruise, giving workshops on the sexy, mysterious, sexy, transient, sexy, lascivious creatures. Mona smiled, her toes curling in anticipation of Fausto's lingual kisses, his licks, his caresses--and the ship-rocking orgasms they shared.
Just as Mona's juices started to simmer, Tessie's eyes darted over to the side. "Don't look now, but if this guy tries to pick either of us up, we'll say we're together. And if he doesn't believe that, we'll start smooching."
Oh no, Mona thought. Not even here two hours and some loser is trying to...
Clunky footsteps approached, a large familiar hand touched her shoulder, and she spun around to face a Mets-baseball-capped, blue-Ray-Banned, Yogi Berra-jerseyed, scruffy-bearded sanitation worker whose idea of a luxury cruise was the Sunset Special on the Circle Line.
"Yo, sista." He lowered the shades and peeked at her with his midnight-blue-sky-with-twinkling-stars eyes.
"Fausto! Bello mio!" She slid her arms around his waist, and they fell into an old-fashioned Italian rocking hug, nearly knocking each other over. "You made it! It's so good to see you!" She held him at arm's length and zipped her eyes up and down. "You look so--" She gestured with her hands. "--so Flatbush! Nobody would ever guess you're the lifesaving hunk they'll all flock to when Mussolini's Revenge breaks out."
"Yoo gotta prob'm wit' dat?" His Brooklynese was flawless, too, but why not? He'd lived there for eighty-six years. But he only used the lingo when joking around or when some Joizey bum cut him off in traffic. He stroked the stubbly whiskers and rammed his other hand into his tatty jeans pocket, but it emerged from a hole. "This is the first time I skipped a shave since I was ten. I've used three fewer blades so far." He now spoke in his regular voice, plain, unaccented American. "I thought of skipping the deodorant, but didn't want anybody to think I'm French. And it's too cold for the touristy garb. I thought I'd go low-end Gotham instead."
"You're low end, all right. Make it more real. Cut into the line at the Chocoholics Buffet, and flip everybody the boid." She noticed Tessie staring bug-eyed, not knowing what to make of this dude looking like he'd just shoved his way off the D train from Flushing Avenue after blowing his paycheck on scratch tickets. "Teresa Lionetti, you know Fausto Silvius. Fausto, of course you remember Teresa."
Before the third syllable was out of her mouth, Tessie broke in, "Please! Call me Tessie. Teresa sounds too much like a saint or a mother, neither of which I am--or may ever be."
He pulled off a ratty racing glove and they shook hands.
"Nice to see you again, Tessie. That's the name of my favorite aunt. Zia Tessie makes the best pasta sauce south of Milano and said she'll take the recipe to the grave with her--but she didn't say whose. She'll never take it to hers, we know that."
Mona added sotto voce, "He's, uh--incognito for now, and I'll tell you why later." She'd explain the whole story, but only after a few Chiantis, with Fausto offstage. First Mona had to tell her that Fausto and Quintus were related and shared a rare ancient Roman gene. Contrary to best-selling lore, true vampirism was genetic. So she'd get bad news: Fausto and Quintus are vampires. And good news: they're not fanged, cape-swirling ghouls.
Fausto gave Mona a wink. "You've got some audience on board, ladies. Every man's floating fantasy. That Toi Brennan from The Cutting Edge is even hotter in person." He glanced over the rail to the deck below and the crowded dancers, now wiggling to "Mambo Italiano." "Did every romance writer in the business sign up?"
"Registration is hopping!" Tessie jumped from one Salvatore Ferragmo over-the-knee boot to the other, flicking her scarf around her neck. "This was such a good idea of Mona's! We're gonna party like it's nineteen ninety-nine. Again. Schmaltz it up for the television cameras. And maybe even talk about the writing business." She rubbed her palms together. "So, Mona tells me you're a budding medical thriller writer."
He gave his ever-modest one-shoulder shrug. "I wrote two partials when I was on leave the last few months." He didn't elaborate, but Tessie nodded her understanding. "They're on CDs back home." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the ocean. "If you can take a peek at them and tell me if I shouldn't quit my night job, you've got two more coasters."
"Oh, I'm sure they're real heart-stoppers. Doctors write some of the best fiction." She pulled out her cig case once again and snapped it open. "Must be their ability to play God that gives them great imaginations." She fished in her bag for a lighter. In a flash, he whipped one out of his pocket and lit up for her.
"Grazie." Tessie took a long drag, and the wind whipped away the smoke when she blew it out. "Now I'm outta here, you two, so you can catch up. I need to help work registration anyway. Later, Mona." She turned to him. "Fausto, it was fun seeing you--whoever you're supposed to be." She flitted away before Mona could protest she wasn't intruding on anything.
But she was happy to be alone with Fausto for this short time before he had to report for duty. She gave him another impromptu hug, and they held each other, swaying gently, for the duration of "On An Evening In Roma." The wind died down, and she felt content in his arms once again, knowing this moment wouldn't last long. When the song ended, she felt a jolt. The metallic scrape of the hull and three loud blasts followed. The ship was pulling out. As the lights along the pier slid away, he checked his watch, a cheap Timex to match the getup, of course. "My shift starts at six, but let's meet, say around midnight, in the doctors' private lounge, the Salute. It's on the Monte Carlo Deck below us, starboard and forward, past the fitness center. Knock and, when someone opens the peephole, say 'parlo pianissimo.' That's the code word for this cruise."
They sure were paranoid. "Like a speakeasy. Should I bring my own bathtub gin?"
"No, but homemade wine would help," he said. "I packed in a hurry and didn't bring any."
"How 'bout a can of Bud and a Krazy Straw to go with your outfit?"
"I won't be wearing the outfit. I might not be wearing much at all. The lounge is very casual. You'll see just how casual it is when you get there." He gave her a smile that melted her toenail polish.
The jet lag was catching up with her, but all the excitement made her feel wired. She clasped her hands around his and blessed her good fortune. She was on her first Apollo cruise, this rotten year was about to end, and she was with fellow authors, hungry reporters, and one of her favorite people in the world.
What could go wrong?
Mona forced a dose of cheer through her jangly nerves. Vampire hunters wouldn't have the balls to attack Fausto and his friends on this ship. Security was tight. "Well, you're here, so does that mean you've been going out and aren't confined to your house anymore?"
Fausto shrugged. "Almost. I couldn't wallow in self-pity forever. And I knew seeing you would make it worthwhile."
She smiled and gave him a genuine Italian cheek pinch. "I'll cheer you up, faccia bella. You can count on that. You must feel safe." She gestured at the tacky duds. "I mean, relatively speaking."
"Don't let this scare you." He glanced around over the rims of his shades. Uh-oh. Whenever he said, "Don't let this scare you," it scared her. "I got an ominous message at the doctors' office earlier."
"What--" She swallowed a lump. "What kind of ominous message?"
He shook his head. "Nothing to get alarmed about. The hunters just want me to know they're here. After the initial jolt wore off, I said, 'Okay, I'm being stalked again.' But I'm used to it. It doesn't make me constantly look over my shoulder like in the old days. My family's murder gave me a reality check. If they want me, they'll get me. I can't let it interfere with my work or what little leisure time I have here. And you shouldn't either." He gazed at her adoringly and cupped her cheek. His hand was surprisingly warm. "But you're still scared. All the blood's drained out of your face, and not in a good way."
He always knew how to read her.
"I'm that pale?"
"A few days on Rhodes with a bottle of Tan Fastic SPF zero will take care of that."
He was right, but she glanced around. Again. They were completely alone. Below, the band was packing up, and the dance floor was emptying. The hum of the ship's engine and vibrating floor were the only sounds.
"Then I'll go about my business like everything's cool and we'll have the time of our lives." She said it, but didn't believe it. Yet.
"Oh, I can help you do that, all right." He winked and gave her his familiar half-smile that etched a crescent line beside his mouth. "How about talking to your psychic friend? She might put your mind at ease. Is she on board?"
"No, June's not here, but Kyla is. She's a Druid and does Tarot readings. Would you like a session with her?"
He swept off the shades, which told her he couldn't be all that worried. Illuminated only by the spotlights on the deck rail, pinpoints of light shone in his midnight blue eyes like the stars that glittered over them. "And tell her everything?"
"No, you don't have to tell her anything about your--about you. Chances are, she'll know anyway, but won't judge you on it. She's a very good Tarot reader. Just take her reading at face value."
"Meeting a psychic isn't the best way for me to keep a low profile."
She wished he didn't feel that way and hoped to change his mind someday, but not right now. One of her New Year's resolutions was to stop trying to make things happen before their time. Who was little Mona Rossi from the dot on the globe called TriBeCa to buck the universe? "Fausto, do you think the hunters following you are the same ones who--uh--" Her hands fluttered, and she hoped they could do the talking for her.
As usual, he knew what she was trying to say. "Killed my family?" He nodded, a sigh his only outward sign of emotion. "Oh, it's them, all right. The infamous Fellowship of the Faithful formed just days after my sixty-seventh great-grandfather let it slip that he enjoyed feeding from his wife, and they're so widespread now, there's more of them than there are of us. But they have a lunatic extremist branch. We call them The Vampire Ball Busters. Wherever I go, somebody from that crew isn't far behind me."
"How do they know you're a vampire? You've always been so discreet about it."
"They've followed my family through sixty-seven generations, keeping tabs on our birth records, our movements around the globe. They've been backed by the Catholic Church since the fourth century, so they have plenty of financial support. The mainstream hunters of the Fellowship, and by mainstream I mean as opposed to the Ball Busters, have regular meetings and conventions, and when they do corner one of us, the worst they do is give us a finger-shakin' scolding about being hell-bound if we don't repent, give up this sinful lifestyle, and join a local parish. What they don't realize is that most of us are already God-fearing Christians, and our 'lifestyle'"--he made quotation marks with his fingers--"is the way we're born. But if we were the spawn of Satan, why wouldn't we go to hell to be with our creator?" He gave an ironic laugh and shook his head. "Pazzo."
"So what makes the fringe lunatics--the Ball Busters--want to kill vampires instead of just converting them?" She pulled her hat around her ears and moved closer, feeling a tingle as her arm touched his.
"The extremists have personal vendettas. Usually one of their loved ones was killed by a vampire--not one of us, of course, but vamps who've truly turned sour and bleed humans to death for the fun of it. So they think we're all out to suck the human race dry, but that shows how ignorant they are. The Ball Busters who murdered my family wanted revenge because a sadistic vampire cult killed a hunter's daughter last year. The Ball Busters hunted some of the cult members down and slaughtered them. But that's not enough for them. For vengeance they go after all vampires."
"But why did they kill your family if someone else killed their daughter?"
"They go after whoever they can get. Their mission is to rid the world of vampires, so why not members of the ancient Silvius family? There's enough of us around; some of my relatives are easy targets. They're not careful, like I am." He slid the shades back on.
"Do you know what these Ball Busters look like? The ones after you now?"
Another blast of wind blew his hair into his eyes, and she brushed it back as he drew her against the length of his body. She tingled and instantly felt safer. And warmer. Then hotter.
"I don't know specifically who they'll be this time. That's why I always have to keep an eye out."
"My God, what a way to live." She shuddered under her layers of cashmere and faux fur.
"It becomes part of your day-to-day reality. Not unlike what every citizen has to get used to these days. Be vigilant. If you see something suspicious, report it. Ordinary citizens have to keep an eye out. I have to keep both eyes out." But his eyes were fixed on hers. She grasped his hand, brought it to her lips, and kissed it. He warmed her all the way through.
"Enough about me," he said. "What's going on with you? Have the police recovered any of those things your husband absconded with?"
"Ex-husband, as of two weeks ago. The divorce was final the day he went to jail."
"Congratulations. You're well rid of him. I still don't know why you didn't press charges. He's a criminal, plain and simple."
"He has enough problems being a gambler. After I got over the rage of coming home and finding the house almost gutted, and recovered from the shock of seeing the big gaping space where my piano had been, instinct told me what happened. Sure, he's a bastard for doing that to me, lying about going to work when he was going to the racetrack, taking off without a word instead of talking it out, asking me for help. But when he got arrested for embezzling from his company, and confessed to selling my things, I felt sorry for the both of us. Like we're both a couple of losers and it's no wonder we hooked up."
"No reason to feel sorry for yourself, cara. You'll get through this. You're stronger than you think. And you're no loser."
"But it couldn't have happened at a worse time. I married a gambler and a thief. My book sales are off. And I'm going broke, Fausto. My finances are sinking faster than the Titanic--oops, bad analogy. I'm hanging on to my self-esteem by a thread. The thread almost snapped the other day when the credit card company called me and said I was over my limit. I said, 'I know, but I'm worth it.' And I went out and had my hair foiled for the second time this month."
"Don't blame yourself because Ted is a gambler or that your sales are off. The reading public is very fickle. Find another genre, and go with it."
"That's what I'm here for." She perked up. "The next big trend."
"Isn't it better to write about what you know--and love?"
"Sure, but market savvy never hurts. That's one reason I organized this writers' cruise. To get ideas about what's out there." She flexed her fingers. "Right now all that's out there is cold. We'd better go inside. It's getting too nippy up here." She got out her card key. "My cabin's on the Paris Deck."
They walked down the metal steps to the pool deck. The band was gone, the dance floor and bar empty. The pool and hot tub were still covered. They were the only ones on this deck--she hoped. "If you're not going to let hunters ruin this cruise, then I'll try not to. But you've had more practice than me."
"Don't get me wrong, I do fear them," he said. "But I can't live my life hiding from them or running from them. If they get close enough to confront me--or us, if we're together--I can protect us." He patted the slight bulge under his jersey. "But I don't go out of my way to taunt them." They entered the corridor, and the glassed-in elevators faced them. "Like here, for instance. I always take the stairs." He lowered his voice. "I don't want to get stuck in an elevator with some of them. They travel in packs."
So they took the stairs down to the Paris Deck. "You doctors might be allowed firearms aboard, but how can a regular passenger smuggle any weapons on?"
"They manage," he said. "Remember, they have a powerful entity with big bucks behind them."
"Oh yeah. How can I forget? The Church collects a fortune just with the money Italians pin to statues."
As they walked down the corridor, a mid-baby-boomer couple squeezed by. All narrow cruise ship corridors forced a step aside and a cheery "Howya doin'!" especially at the beginning, when excitement ran high. She guessed they were bored empty nesters. He probably rented a trophy girlfriend, and she hid a bouquet of vibrators in her Just My Size bra drawer. But that was Mona, typical writer, conjuring up character sketches of everybody, and no part of New York City crawled with more characters than TriBeCa, where she people-peeped from her loft's fire escape.
She also noticed one more detail. They both wore big silver crucifixes.
She grasped Fausto's arm and gestured wildly as the couple passed. Her heart beat faster.
"They've got--" she whispered as she thumped her chest.
"What? Breast implants?"
"No! Silver crucifixes!" The couple was out of earshot, but Mona still trembled.
"So? A lot of people wear those. This is an Italian cruise line, remember?"
"I'm keeping an eye out for those two," she declared. For all she knew, the squeaky clean suburbanites were the zealots trained to kill now and ask questions in the next life.
She shuddered as the couple continued down the hall and out to the elevators.
"Calm down," he soothed. "A few days into the pampering of shipboard life'll mellow you."
"I hope so." She sighed, forcing it out of her mind. For the first time since daylight, her breath didn't come out as steam. Still, she was jittery, and knew she'd be fighting jitters this entire trip. But Fausto looked calmer than she'd ever seen him. She knew the disguise helped, but he never let his guard down completely. He'd once told her, "One of nature's imbalances is there are too many nuts and not enough nuthouses."
At her cabin door, he bent down and gently kissed her. She hadn't expected it, but let the kiss linger and followed his lead. Liquid warmth spread over her. She had to end this before she collapsed. It would be so easy to fall into his arms and let a rapturous romance sweep her away if she didn't mind altering her destiny. But she wasn't ready to even think about that. So she pulled away gently as her lips burned for more. "Fausto, I'm here to comfort you, to cheer you up. Not to complicate things. We've been over this before."
"Who said anything about complicating things?" He didn't realize it wasn't her Lorenzi's stiletto heels making her knees wobbly. It was the affection and desire burning in his eyes. "What's a little kiss?"
"There was nothing little about it."
"We're on a luxury liner about to sail off into the moonlit Mediterranean, we've missed each other, and we're sharing grief and pain and trying to heal each other's raw emotions. I wasn't reading any more into it than that. But it looks like you were, romance author." He tilted her chin up and teasingly touched her lips with his, brushing her earlobe with his fingertips. She tingled at the intimate gesture.
She didn't want this moment to end. Trusting herself not to give in to him completely and become a vampiress by evening's end, she asked, "How much time have you got?"
"If fifty-five minutes is enough for you, it's enough for me." They embraced and he pressed his body against hers. Her desire grew more sensitive to the feel of his growing hardness. "It would be a quickie, but I'll make it up to you later."
"So you're asking for an invite in?" Her breath came in short gasps as his tongue flicked over her earlobes. How could she refuse a guy who considered fifty-five minutes a quickie?
"I was hoping it would be your idea." His mouth descended upon hers, his hands winding through her hair, his tongue probing. A low growl escaped his throat.
On wobbly knees, she forced herself to end the kiss. "This'll be way better inside." She turned and stabbed the slot with her card key, pulled it out and shoved the door open.
The cabin was bathed in pale moonlight and shadows. They unzipped, unbuttoned, and unsnapped, throwing coats, hats, sweaters aside. In their underwear, they waltzed over to her bed, and her heartbeat quickened as she tossed aside the life jacket from this afternoon's drill.
He lowered her to the bed and unhooked her bra. She let a smile play over her face, glad she'd worn the bra that opened in front. Had Jezz, her nickname for her sex-starved alter ego, been telling her something when she got dressed?
He grasped her hands in his, bringing them up over her head. Her thighs parted and he straddled her. His lips blazed a fiery trail down her neck, between her breasts. Then he flicked his tongue over the sensitive buds until she shuddered with a wild wave of desire. Her thighs closed around him, and they moved together in exquisite agony.
They were just about to move to the next step when a loud, insistent beeping shattered the moment. "Damn!" He groaned in frustration as he rolled off her. She instantly felt cold.
"What is it?"
"My pager." He groped around on the floor and held the pager to the clock's glow on the table. "The doctors' office, an emergency."
"And this isn't?" Months of pent-up desire were draining through her. She felt like she'd been doused with a bucket of ice.
"I'm sorry, honey, it's one of the drawbacks of being a doctor."
"Another doctor can't cover for you?"
"An emergency's an emergency," he replied patiently and began piling his clothes back on. "It must be serious to need two of us."
"Yeah, I know," she muttered, but remembered how grateful she was to the doctor who took her in when she broke her ankle and crawled there in agony.
Back in disguise, he bent over and gave her a light, teasing kiss. "See you in the lounge at midnight. And maybe we can pick up this quickie where we left off." He gave her fingers a lingering grasp. "Your eyes are like limpid poils, doll." He let himself out and made sure the door was locked.
She lay on the bed for a long time. Did she want to pick up where they'd left off? It took a tremendous amount of willpower to make love with Fausto without letting him feed from her. One of these nights it would happen. She sensed it. And there'd be no turning back.
After thinking about it over and over, still unable to make that life-altering decision, she put it out of her mind for now, ready for some pampering. She unzipped her evening gowns from her garment bag, unpacked her moisturizer, neck firmer, toner, and cosmetics, and lined them up on the vanity. She set her Bumble and bumble hair products on the edge of the tub. A makeover always took her mind off whatever was eating at her.
She flipped on her vanity light and spotted a gold Godiva box and a champagne bottle in the ice bucket. Someone wishing her bon voyage? Who could it be? She ran down her list of pals' names as she fumbled to open the envelope. But inside was far from a bon voyage wish.
A folded note fell out, and when she opened it, her heart lurched. It was a fax.
Mona, I tried your cell, but you're out of range. I want you to have a blast, but I had a vivid premonition last night and must warn you. Two shadowy figures are trailing you and Fausto. So watch your back. I'll let you know if I see any more details. Aside from that, enjoy the champagne and truffles, and bon voyage. Love, June
All her fears and jitters rushed back full force. What a way to start a cruise. With New York's most famous, respected psychic telling her she and Fausto were targets for a couple of nuts. She sank into the chair, re-reading the warning. Should we get off right now? Too late, we're already moving! What was the next port? Naples. A big enough city to disappear in.
There was a lot to be afraid of these days. But she wasn't going to flee her beloved New York and live the rest of her days hiding in the North Dakota woods from psychos or whatever the terrorist de jour was these days. Besides, out there, she'd have Bigfoot to worry about.
"I. Am. Not. Running. Away!" She crumpled June's fax and chucked it into the wastebasket. No wacko was going to chase them around. She'd keep her eyes open and watch her back, just like June said.
She couldn't barge into the doctors' office and tell Fausto about this now. So she wrote him a note to deliver on the way down.
She continued as if everything was wicked cool: laid out her black Vera Wang strapless with the slit up the side and buffed her fuchsia Christian Louboutin low heels, but decided on her "chick lit" Choos, the four-inch-heel "boudoir slides" as plugged on Ebay, where she bid and won them for $259.99, half the retail price. She laughed as she buffed the Swarovski crystals on the buckles. Why didn't they call a spade a spade? If they'd listed them as fuck-me shoes, they probably would've got the $520. She showered, shampooed, blow-dried, root-lifted, curled her long auburn hair into cascading ringlets and inserted her aqua contact lenses. She brushed her brows down with Vaseline and hairspray on a Q-tip. After applying her foundation, blush, and trademark Cherries in the Snow lipstick, she gave herself a full-length view in the mirror. Good. The bikini waxing was holding up.
She flipped through her underwear drawer, tossing aside thongs, more sensible briefs, bras--but it wasn't here. Her strapless pushup. She remembered packing it. Or did she?
"Oh no." She couldn't wear the Wang without the strapless pushup. "Damn! I knew I'd forget something! But why that?" She racked her brain for a solution. Finally, she got out her nail scissors and started snipping away at the straps on one of her regular bras. It looked natural enough under the Wang, but for good measure she taped the edges down with Band-Aids.
Acting out her favorite proverb about life being short, she knocked the neck off the champagne bottle and devoured all but two truffles. The champagne was Mumm's, her--hic!--favorite. Nice of June to remember that.
She sucked in her stomach and tucked in her buns, remembering Lana Turner's classic trick of walking like a quarter was between her buttocks. Especially since she'd read that high heels made a woman's ass stick out twenty-five percent more.
Before leaving, she took one more swig of champagne and sang the Carnival Cruise song from that hokey commercial, "If they could"--hic!--"see me now, I'm havin' such a ball, la-da-da-da-da-"--hic!--"-da..."
Now if she just could keep Fausto--and herself--alive.