Three best friends are on a Caribbean cruise for their latest vacation together. But the trip could be their last—unless they sort out which of the passengers is Mr. Right and which is the hit man hired by one of their ex-husbands . . .
Feisty, fast-talking PR executive Elaine Zimmerman needs some persuading by her pals Jackie and Pat to climb aboard the luxury liner—and once she does, her luggage is misplaced and she’s forced to resort to the ship boutique’s tacky version of cruisewear. But Elaine cheers up once she finds herself seated next to Sam Peck. This couldn’t be love at first sight (because she doesn’t believe in love at first sight), or even lust at first sight (because she’s the least lusty person on the planet), but whatever it is, she can’t resist it. She’s on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, and it wouldn’t kill her to fall in love . . . or would it?
A glimmer of doubt becomes full-fledged suspicion when Elaine inadvertently learns that somebody’s ex-wife has been marked for murder—and the hired hit man is already on board. Now the ladies have to figure out whose ex is out to deep-six whom . . .
From the author of Three Blonde Mice, Princess Charming is a fun-filled mystery and a buoyant tale of friendship and true love—even if the glass slipper is several sizes too small and the prince arrives about ten years late.
“Sure to be a big hit with her faithful following.” —Kirkus Reviews
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"How are you today, Mrs. Zimmerman?" asked the ticket agent for Sea Swan Cruises as he examined the small packet containing my tickets, passport, and Customs forms. He couldn't have been more than twenty; he looked callow, unripe.
"I'm fine, thank you," I said, mildly irritated that he had referred to me as Mrs. Zimmerman. There was nothing in my documents indicating that I was married, nor was I wearing a wedding band, and yet —
Well, he wasn't the first one to make the mistake. If you're a woman of a certain age, it probably hasn't escaped you that men — particularly but not exclusively young men — automatically call you "Mrs.," whether you're married or not. It comes with the territory, like receding gums.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, Mrs. Zimmerman," he said as he continued to inspect my papers.
"Take your time. I'm not in any big hurry." I sighed, wondering what on earth I was doing in the Sea Swan Cruises terminal in the first place.
Actually, I knew full well what I was doing there. I was embarking on a seven-day cruise to the Caribbean aboard the Princess Charming, the crown jewel in Sea Swan's line of 75,000-ton "megaships," because my best friends, Jackie Gault and Pat Kovecky, had talked me into it. The three of us had taken a week's vacation together every year since we were all divorced. We'd gotten herbally wrapped at Canyon Ranch and gone white-water rafting on the Colorado River and run with wolves at some New Age place in the Catskills whose name I've completely blocked out. We'd been skiing in Telluride, sunning in Anguilla, shopping in Santa Fe, you name it. The expression "Been there, done that" just about summed it up — except for a cruise. We'd never done that. Until Jackie suggested it back in October, while the three of us were discussing our vacation options.
"Well, why not?" she said when I didn't look especially enthusiastic. "Cruises are supposed to be incredibly relaxing."
"Not if you get seasick," I said.
"You won't get seasick, Elaine," Jackie said. "The ships come with stabilizers now. And even if you did get seasick, they'd give you a pill or something. They do everything for you on cruises. You don't have to lift a finger."
In her professional life, Jackie lifted more than her fingers; she lifted pots of geraniums and bags of fertilizer and saplings of various species. She was partners with her ex-husband, Peter, in "J&P Nursery," a landscaping and garden center in Bedford, New York, a tony Manhattan suburb that was all the rage with upwardly mobile corporate executives, Martha Stewart acolytes, and deer. Jackie spent her days knee deep in dirt — pardon me, soil — planting flowers and shrubs for newly minted thirtysomethings who had houses the size of Versailles and didn't know a Venus flytrap from a pussy willow. As a result of the hard, physically punishing work she did, she always lobbied for the sort of vacation that involved no labor whatsoever — an environment where she would be ministered to.
I turned to Pat. "What do you think? Are you in favor of spending a week on a boat with the Great Unwashed?"
She considered the question. For what seemed like an eternity. Far be it from Pat to act impulsively. She weighed every decision as if it were momentous, irrevocable, her last, which could be painfully frustrating if all you wanted to do was pick a movie or settle on a restaurant.
"Jackie's right," she said finally, nodding her head for emphasis. "Cruises offer their passengers complete spoilage."
Pat was the queen of malapropisms as well as the slowest decision maker on record. In this case, what she'd meant, of course, was that cruises spoiled you. Pampered you.
"They look after your every need," she said. "Diana and her husband take cruises and seem to enjoy themselves very much."
Diana was Pat's younger sister. Her much more socially active younger sister. When they were babies, their parents had labeled Diana "the outgoing one" and Pat "the shy one," and the labels proved self-fulfilling and next to impossible to shed. But Pat's shyness was deceptive; she didn't say much, but she was unwavering in her decisions, once she made them. For example, it had taken her ex-husband, Bill Kovecky, their entire four years of college to convince her to marry him. Yet once she'd agreed, she was his forever. Through his stint in medical school, his internship, his residency. Through the births of their five children. Through his metamorphosis into Dr. William Kovecky, the God of Gastroenterology. Through his speaking engagements and television appearances and trips to exotic foreign countries to deliver speeches on ileitis. Through his self- absorption and withdrawal from his family. Even through the divorce. Pat remained loyal to Bill through it all, was still deeply in love with him. She may have been "the shy one," but she had a steely determination, and one of the things she was determined about was winning Bill back. Jackie and I shrugged whenever the subject came up. We weren't exactly experts on winning back ex-husbands, since neither of us wanted ours back. Besides, Bill hadn't married anybody else in six years, so maybe Pat wasn't in total denial. "Yes," she said again. "I think a cruise is a fine idea. Just what the doctor ordered." Since Bill was a doctor, she liked dragging the word "doctor" into as many conversations as possible.
"A cruise?" I groaned. "I really don't think I'm the type, you two." I had nothing against being pampered or spoiled or ministered to. I just didn't want the ministering to take place on an oceanic vessel from which I couldn't escape, should I not be enjoying myself.
"Not the type? What type?" Jackie protested. "From what I've read, there really is no stereotype when it comes to the passengers. Cruises attract a broad cross-section of people."
"'Broad' is the operative word," I said. "You take a cruise and you're stuck on a floating cafeteria for seven days. The food they throw away could feed a small country."
"All right, let me put it another way," said Jackie, in her husky, ex- smoker's voice. "I haven't gotten laid since George Bush was President. I would like to end the drought before one of George Bush's sons is President. Now, I happen to know that single men take cruises. I would, therefore, like to take a cruise. Am I making myself clear?"
"Crystal," I said. Jackie was so earthy. "But you're forgetting something. The single men who take cruises wear jewelry."
"There you go again with your stereotyping," she said.
"And black socks with brown sandals," I said.
"Elaine," she sighed, rolling her eyes.
"And they look like Rodney Dangerfield," I added for good measure.
"Perfect. I could use a good laugh when I'm having sex for the first time in years. I've probably forgotten how to do it," said Jackie. "Look, I think we'd have a great time if we took a cruise, I really do."
"According to Diana, there's a lot to do on a ship," Pat stated, then launched into a laundry list of the activities they offered on cruises. "You wouldn't be bored, Elaine. I'm quite sure of it."
The debate had lumbered on for another hour or so. Jackie and Pat insisted we'd have the time of our lives and I anticipated everything that could go wrong the minute we left dry land. I was a creative, imaginative thinker, which came in handy in my career as a public relations executive but wreaked havoc with my emotional life. You see, my creative, imaginative thinking all too often took the form of what my ex-husband, Eric, used to call my "bogeyman obsession" — incessant forebodings of disaster. What Eric didn't realize was that I was right to be obsessed by the bogeyman because he turned out to be one. But more on that later.
In the end, I'd been outnumbered. I'd come to the conclusion that the only way to shut my dear friends up about taking a cruise — they were dangerously close to sounding like a Kathie Lee Gifford commercial — was to say I'd take one.
"It'll be a kick, lying around the pool, not a care in the world, having handsome young studs fetch us piña coladas," Jackie said.
"I suppose I could catch up on my reading," I said, caving in. "And I could jog around the ship's Promenade Deck every morning — unless, of course, the guard rails aren't high or sturdy enough and I fall overboard."
"Oh, Elaine. Get real," she said. "Nothing's going to happen to you on the cruise. It'll be fun. Something different for us."
"Yes, something different," Pat agreed.
How different, they had no idea.
So there I was in Miami that Sunday afternoon in February, standing at the ticket counter inside the Sea Swan Cruises terminal. The Princess Charming wasn't shoving off until five o'clock, but our nonstop Delta flight from LaGuardia and shuttle bus ride from Miami International Airport had deposited us at the Sea Swan terminal at twelve-thirty.
"My God. Would you look at that," I'd said when we stepped out of the van and caught our first glimpse of the ship. The brochure had said she was fourteen stories high and nearly three football fields long, but nothing had prepared me for the sight of her as she rose out of the water like a Ritz Carlton with an outboard. The thing was spectacular looking, its white facade and Windexed portholes glistening in the afternoon sun.
"It's majestic," Pat whispered, gazing up at the ship with genuine awe. "And so state of the artist."
After spending a few more minutes gawking at the Princess Charming, we'd gone inside the terminal, walked through the same kind of security x-ray machine they have at airports, taken our place on line, and waited. And waited. Ordinarily, I like arriving early for things. When you arrive early, there's no chance of missing the boat, so to speak. But now that I had finally advanced from the line to the ticket counter and was still waiting while the agent examined every comma on my Customs form, I was growing restless, grouchy, grim. There was nothing to do but stare at the 2,500 people with whom I would be trapped for a week, searching their faces as they stood in line, wondering which of them — if any — I would befriend over the course of the trip. They came in all shapes and sizes, colors and creeds, ages and affects, the only common denominator being that the vast majority of them were wearing polyester warm-up suits. I wondered what they were warming up for, and then I remembered the ship's fabled midnight buffets and guessed they were warming up for those.
I checked my watch as the ticket agent continued to pore over my documents. I was itching to ship out, get under way, get the whole business over with. Truthfully, I was already thinking ahead to the vacation we would take the following year, the destination I would suggest. A theater trip to London, perhaps. Or a week in Key West. Or maybe a trek through Costa Rica. Yes, that was it. Costa Rica. Everyone was going there now. It was a country that was said to be so ... so ... real.
I closed my eyes and pictured myself on the patio of some rustic yet terribly posh Costa Rican inn, mingling with sophisticated foreigners, trading smart little anecdotes, exploring —
"Next!" the ticket agent called out, bringing my reverie to an abrupt end. He handed me back my papers and motioned for Jackie, who was next in line, to approach the counter.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Gault," he greeted her after glancing at her passport.
"The name's Jackie," she said. I couldn't tell by her tone if she was scolding him for the "Mrs." bit or trying to pick him up.
After what seemed like a lifetime, she, too, was checked in and then Pat took her turn. And while things were at yet another standstill, I stood still and observed my friends, shaking my head at the illogicalness of our friendship, at what an unlikely threesome we made.
We had met on the day of our respective divorces, a rainy morning in March of '91 in a sterile Manhattan courthouse. I don't remember who made the first move, but I do remember that Pat was sobbing, that at some point both Jackie and I were consoling her, and that once we determined that we had each come to court to Dump the Husband, we bonded instantly. We sat through all three hearings together, offered each other words of encouragement, and completely ignored our attorneys, who were getting their $250 an hour for showing up at the courthouse so what did they care? By the time the three divorces were final, we had shared intimate details of our marriages, wept, hugged, and vowed to be friends forever.
"The Three Blonde Mice," I had dubbed us that day, and the nickname had stuck.
We three did, indeed, have blond hair — mine, shoulder-length, blow-dried, and streaked; Jackie's very short and utilitarian and strawberry; Pat's wild and frizzy and wheat-colored. And we were about the same age — a year or two on either side of forty-five.
But there were more differences between us than there were similarities, starting with our sizes. I was extremely tall and thin, Pat was squat and chunky, and Jackie was somewhere in between. Consequently, we could never walk in lockstep and were always bumping into each other and mumbling "Sorry." Then, there were the differences in our attitudes toward men. Jackie was always lusting after them, Pat was always comparing them to her God-almighty ex-husband, and I was always wondering how I'd been deluded enough to marry one at all. And then, there were the differences in our personalities and life experiences.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Princess Charming"
Copyright © 1997 Jane Heller.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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