“Flynn, touch me.”
“I already told you I can’t do that, darling.”
“Yes, you can.” Natasha placed Flynn’s hand firmly between her legs. “See, I’m so ready for you, baby.”
Flynn wasn’t surprised to find the evidence of Natasha’s need pulsing against her fingertips. There’d been a time when she wouldn’t have been able to refuse such a blatant advance. This wasn’t it. “That’s a tempting offer. But my answer is still no.”
Natasha pulled away, her expression incredulous. “You’re serious?”
“As a heart attack.”
“But…I don’t understand.”
Flynn gazed out over the horizon, taking in its majestic beauty. The journeys that had once fulfilled her had finally left her at a crossroads. The next step was uncertain, but she was convinced that treading old ground wouldn’t help her find her way.
“I know you don’t. But then again, neither do I.”
“That makes two of us,” Jaime Rivers said, with a final tap on the keyboard. Angry that her train of thought had come to an abrupt halt—again—she shoved her chair away from the desk. The problem was always the same. A few sentences, then nothing. “Shit, Flynn. What path? Choose already so I can get this damn manuscript written!”
The blinking cursor taunted her. It beckoned to her, saying, “Finish your thought, finish your thought.” What a concept that would be after months of struggling. But hey, she’d finally managed a few lines. Now the question was, were they worth keeping or should she highlight the entire scene and hit Delete?
Battling with Flynn’s character had tested Jaime’s mental strength. The direction of this final chapter in her popular romantic series would mark the end of Flynn Russell’s adventures. It would be hard to imagine a day without thinking up a new exploit for Flynn. Flynn’s character had brought her comfort and strength during many lonely hours, but the time had come for Flynn to choose a path in life. Apparently, she wasn’t the only one.
Flynn was exciting to write about because she was everything Jaime wasn’t. Flynn hungered for adventure. She could operate anything from an airplane to a submarine and had the ability to attract women with a glance. Flynn was untouchable, unflappable. She could get out of any situation, but she couldn’t settle down with one woman. That fact alone had kept The Quest series from ending, and five years later, Jaime had already published three books in the series. Her Web site received thousands of e-mails from fans thirsting for more. But the last year proved uneventful and still the words wouldn’t come.
A writer without words was like breathing in a vacuum. She was suffocating, drowning in her own desolation. When the words vanished, they’d taken Jaime’s passion with them. Writing wasn’t fun anymore. Sentences no longer flowed from her like they used to, freely and easily.
Back then a few pain meds were a prerequisite to writing. They dulled the pain long enough to fuel her creative juices, kept word after word flowing like molten lava through her veins. The drugs masked the pain long enough to increase her productivity, giving her the ability to be whoever she wanted to be. And so, through her stories, she chose to be Flynn Russell, lesbian lothario and lead character in her award-winning lesbian adventure series. Surprisingly, while her body was numb, everything else became clearer. The Quest series was born in a wash of chemicals.
Giving up the pain meds had killed her creativity, left her with nothing to alleviate the pain and nothing to keep the words flowing. Only when she could block everything out did she feel the most inspired, the most alive.
It had taken time to recuperate from her near-death experience, but dreaming up Flynn’s character made her feel whole again. She loved thinking about Flynn and her many exploits. Women always wanted to warm Flynn’s bed, but when they awoke the next morning that bed was empty and Flynn was gone, off on her next adventure. As time progressed, though, Jaime began to sense a change in her character. Maybe it was time for the series to end. Maybe Flynn was ready to settle down. But with who?
“Hell. If I knew that maybe I could get my editor off my back and write the last book,” she muttered.
It would be so easy to go back to the way things used to be. One pill could ease all her suffering. But that would make her a failure, and she’d learned the hard way from her mistakes and vowed never to visit that dark place again. Usually she could count on over-the-counter medications to help, at least until a muscle spasm hit—a jarring reminder that acetaminophen would never be strong enough.
The coffee pot’s buzzer signaled her morning pick-me-up was ready. Caffeine was her only indulgence lately, which unfortunately did nothing to distract her from thinking about the pain or help spur her imagination.
As she reached for the coffee carafe, she pitched forward and hissed in pain. Bracing herself on the breakfast counter, she tried to breathe through the cramps that spread like hot needles through her abdomen. Aftershocks sent wave after wave of rippling spasms through her ribcage, finally bringing her to her knees. The phone rang and she glared at it.
Who the hell would be calling her at this hour? It couldn’t be her dad, who was God knows where since his status in the military meant that most of the time his whereabouts were secret. That left her editor or her pesky best friend. She’d already had a lengthy conversation with her editor at five in the morning about the lack of a new manuscript. That left one alternative.
“What!” She held the phone in a death grip, still trying to catch her breath.
“’Bout damn time. What the hell took you so long?” Darlene asked.
“Sorry.” She grimaced as the spasms tapered off. “You interrupted my all-night sex romp.”
“Oh, you’re hilarious. I know that’s not it, because if you had anyone over they wouldn’t be there after sunrise. Seriously, though. You okay?”
Darlene had her pegged. Sex was fine and very one-sided. No sleepovers. No exceptions. “Stop being a worrywart. I’m fine.”
Darlene was not only her best friend but the only person who truly knew of her daily struggle. Darlene had found her in a pool of her own vomit the night she overdosed on pain meds, and since then Jaime had to constantly reassure her. Darlene had coaxed her into rehab and was the one person in her life she could trust not to betray her confidences.
“I can hear the pain in your voice. You had a spasm, didn’t you?”
“Okay, fine. I had a spasm but it stopped. By the way, do you know what time it is?”
“Yep, sure do—got a watch, thanks. I called to see if you have plans today.”
“Nope, and I’d like to keep it that way.” She wasn’t in the mood for company, as usual. Darlene had been on her for weeks to get out of the house yet still she refused.
“Humph, just what I thought. Sorry, pal. You’re going to have to rearrange your busy schedule. I’ll be by in ten minutes. You’ve been dodging me long enough about this reunion cruise.”
Damn. She shouldn’t have answered the phone. How many times did she have to tell Darlene that no way in hell was she getting on that oversized tugboat? When the brochures had arrived in the mail, she hadn’t had to read past the raised gold letters proclaiming “reunion” and “cruise” to know she wasn’t going to participate. High school wasn’t worth reliving, and she couldn’t imagine spending an hour with her graduating class, let alone an entire week trapped with them on a boat. She’d been treated like an outcast the entire four years and really only had one person back then she could call a friend. High school was ancient history and would stay where it belonged, in the past.
“Hello? Jaime? You still there?”
“Yeah, yeah, unfortunately. You know, today’s not a good day. Maybe we can get together sometime next week.”
“Nice try. You’re going to look at this stuff and we’re going to register today. My hubby doesn’t want to go so we can be roomies for the week.”
She looked out her kitchen window and sighed. Why couldn’t Darlene understand that she didn’t want to relive the supposed “glory days”? She couldn’t find anything glorious about those memories, which in some ways were more painful than the injuries she’d sustained during her accident. “Please. Don’t push me on this. I’ve already told you. I don’t want to go.”
“Yes, I know what you said but I know what you need. You can’t keep hiding from everyone. Part of your recovery is to be able to adjust to the real world. My job as your friend is to help you achieve that goal whether you like it or not.”
“But what if I’m not ready to meet the world?”
“No worries. That’s why you have me. I’ll introduce you. Now, do you need anything before I get there?”
“No, but thanks.” She gingerly rubbed her side. “I promise. I’m good.”
“Okay, pal. See you in a few.”
Dropping the cordless phone onto the couch, she spent the next few minutes removing the newspapers and empty coffee cups that cluttered her living room. True, Darlene was her best friend, but sometimes she acted more like her mother than her friend. She loved Darlene and would do anything for her, but Darlene should understand better than anyone why she didn’t want to take a trip down memory lane.
The scent of freshly brewed coffee followed her as she trudged down the hallway to answer the door, feeling like an inmate taking her last walk down death row.
“Hey,” she said as Darlene pulled her into a hug.
“Hey, yourself. Feeling better?” Darlene asked.
“I told you I was fine.”
“I’d believe it if you didn’t look like someone shot your dog.”
“That’s impossible. I don’t have a dog.”
“Smart-ass,” Darlene said, giving her a quick peck on the cheek. “So much for me trying to be nice.”
“Nice…you? Let me guess. Body snatchers?”
“You’re such the comic today. Besides, that’s so fifties. I was thinking more Aliens.”
“Whatever! You wish you had Sigourney Weaver’s height, short stuff.”
“Just because you’re an Amazon doesn’t mean us regular-sized people should take shit from you. Now stop changing the subject. What gives?”
“I’m fine. Scout’s honor,” she said, holding up two fingers. “I guess the phone call with my editor this morning put me in a sour mood.”
“Oh.” Darlene winced, all teasing gone. “You got a call instead of an e-mail? This must be serious. Still no book, huh?”
“Nope. And I don’t know what to do about it.” She sat at the kitchen table and rested her head in her hands. The days of little sleep and lack of writing progress were finally catching up with her.
“Well, I do.” Darlene removed her coat and some paperwork from her coat pocket and waved them in front of Jaime’s face. “We both need a vacation, and look. Cruise information right here in my hot little hands. What do you think about a balcony?”
“I think I need coffee. Want some?”
“You’re doing that avoidance thing again.”
“No worries. And I’d love a cup.” Jaime handed her a cup, refilling her own mug before sitting at the breakfast counter. “So, what do you think?”
“I think you’re being a pain in the ass about this trip!”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“Darlene, I…can’t.” She didn’t have the strength to fight her pain, her best friend, and the memories that surfaced every time high school came up. Overwhelmed, she felt her defenses crumble.
“Oh, honey, you can,” Darlene said, kneeling in front of her. “Come on. This will be fun. Maybe you’ll even rekindle some old friendships.”
“You know better than anyone else I wasn’t social in school. Hell, we didn’t even become friends until after we graduated and took that stupid history course together in college. Who am I going to chat up old times with if there aren’t old times to chat about?”
“Think about it this way. It’s a much-needed vacation with the added benefit of maybe making some new friends. Now check out these rooms. Aren’t they beautiful?”
Beautiful. A word Jaime hadn’t used in a long time. She even refused to use it when she wrote. How could she, when it could only be applied to the one thing in her life that had ever meant anything to her?
Until she destroyed it.
“Oh, sorry. I did it again, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, but I know this is hard for you. Come on, it’ll be a blast. Besides, I know there’s someone you’re looking forward to seeing.”
Oh, there was, a woman she’d never forget. How could she forget the way Sierra Connor used to look? Long auburn hair, deep-blue eyes, and lips the color of tree-ripened cherries. The way Sierra laughed and, damn, the way Sierra used to look at her. One glance and she’d melted like butter on a hot stove. She’d forget how to breathe before she’d forget about Sierra. But she wouldn’t be caught dead on a boat. “Nope. No one.”
“Bullshit! After everything you told me about Sierra Connor, you’re going to sit here with that dreamy look on your face and tell me you weren’t thinking about her?”
“That was the plan, yeah.” She couldn’t put herself through this again. The flashbacks were exactly what she was trying to avoid. She jumped to her feet, needing a way to work off some of her frustration. Pacing wasn’t helping. She didn’t want to talk about Sierra. Not now, not ever. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I hope you realize you suck at evasion. And what would be so wrong if you ran into her? Maybe you could talk things out.”
Yeah, right. And say what? Sorry I kissed you. Sorry I lusted after you for four years and didn’t say anything. Sorry I ruined our friendship by only thinking about my own feelings? “No.”
“Oh, please. That was ten years ago. I’m sure she’s forgiven you by now. She’s probably forgotten all about it.”
Jaime shut her eyes. She didn’t deserve forgiveness, but the thought of Sierra forgetting her altogether made her stomach churn. She should have told Sierra how she felt, explained that she was a lesbian and she was falling for her, hard. But no. She made Sierra think their relationship was based solely on friendship. And at first, it was. “She’ll never forgive me. Not that I blame her. Besides, I heard she’s married and living in another state.”
“That excuse is so lame. Straight women can have gay friends.”
“That’s not the issue. Jesus! Take a good look at my life. Even if we could be friends again, do you really think she’d want anything to do with me now? I’m an addict. I have scars that would make most people cringe. I can’t even write a fucking sentence anymore. I have nothing to offer her or anyone. I’m surprised you’re still my friend.”
“Is drama part of being a great writer? Because you can be so theatrical sometimes.” Darlene placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her from pacing. “Honey, listen to me. You’re recovering from being addicted to pain medication, which by the way happens accidentally to millions of people every year. And that scar on your body doesn’t put you in the Elephant Man category by any means. You’re an incredible writer and unbelievably handsome. And if Sierra Connor or anyone else doesn’t want to be your friend for whatever reason, then that’s their loss.”
“You sound like my grandmother.” She swiped at a tear that rolled down her cheek.
“There’s a scary thought. But if you want me to start sounding like her, I can shake my finger at you and order you to go.”
She desperately wanted to believe the good things Darlene said about her and what she was capable of. Reminiscing about Sierra only made her think she had disappointed enough people in her life. Alienating the only friend she had left by not going on something like a simple cruise was ridiculous. Sierra wouldn’t be there anyway—she couldn’t swim well and disliked the water. What the hell. One week wouldn’t kill her. “So, what were you saying about a balcony?”
“Woo-hoo!” Darlene said, jumping up and down. “You’ll go?”
“Yes. Make the damn call before I change my mind.”
Sierra Connor settled into the standard eight-by-ten cubicle, kicking back in her ergonomic chair to enjoy her morning Starbucks double-shot espresso. Booting up her computer, she winced when her headset hooked her gold hoop earring, nearly ripping it from her ear. After adjusting the earpiece into a less sadistic position, she picked up her iPad, intent on catching up on the morning news. Work officially started in ten minutes. Plenty of time to gear up for whatever the day had in store.
Although she wasn’t a morning person, she’d never complain about working the early shift. The silence made it possible to think—to work into a steady routine. Routine was her life. Without it, she’d have too much time to dwell on things she couldn’t change.
Change. Another concept she was familiar with. So much had happened in the last few years to make her re-evaluate her life. She’d spent too much time thinking about what could have been, and if she could bottle and sell that wasted time, she’d be a millionaire ten times over.
Questioning every detail made her a great travel agent. It’s what her boss paid her for. To create the perfect trip so that someone would enjoy every moment of their vacation and escape their hectic lives without complications. Sierra was the best at making that happen. Too bad she couldn’t apply those skills to the rest of her life.
The phone almost never rang before ten. Anyone who did call early usually kept to the basic last-minute questions regarding trips that had already been booked. She glanced at the piles of travel brochures in front of her, not looking forward to the rest of the day. Fridays were always the busiest day of the week, and now that June had officially arrived, people were scrambling to book last-minute vacation destinations.
“Yeah, Boss?” She turned to find Doug peeking around the corner of his office.
“You have someone on line one wanting to book your reunion cruise.”
“This early?” Her reunion cruise? Yeah, right. Like this trip was her idea. She wanted nothing to do with high school or the memories associated with it. Besides, she hated boats. Anyone who had watched Titanic knew they were just floating disasters waiting to happen. “Okay, thanks,” she said, cursing softly under her breath. She hated for something to interrupt her morning flow.
Normally she loved her job. The last three years as a top-producing agent had been rewarding and offered the financial stability she hadn’t had before her divorce. Unfortunately, she’d started regretting her job choice the day Doug put her in charge of the reunion account. Evidently, Warren Littleton, their former high-school class president, had found out through Facebook that she worked for the popular travel agency. He would only work with their agency if she had been put in charge of the large account. He probably thought he was doing something nice for an ex-classmate. She refused, of course. But Doug ordered her to take the account and go on the trip whether she liked it or not. He wanted her on the cruise to ensure that the finer details were taken care of, since some of the reunion guests could become clients of the travel agency. Grumbling didn’t get her anywhere. Whatever. At least she was getting a free vacation out of the deal.
“Hello, Bay Area Vacations,” she said as cordially as possible. “Of course. Please hold on a moment while I access the files. Thank you.”
She double-clicked the ship icon on her desktop, opening the reunion file. Taking a deep breath, she tried to relax as her anxiety began to mount.
Ever since being assigned the reunion account, she had been haunted by her past. True, high school hadn’t been necessarily terrible, and in actuality those few special memories were currently keeping her up most nights—all of them containing one special person.
Damn. She’d managed to put this chapter of her life behind her years ago. Until a few weeks ago, she hadn’t thought about Jaime Rivers at all, mainly for her own sanity. Oh, well. No use worrying about that now. What was that famous cliché? Water under the bridge. Besides, she no longer blamed Jaime, only herself. “Thank you for holding. I understand you’re looking to book Templeton High School’s ten-year-anniversary cruise on board the Sun Princess leaving the first weekend in July, correct?”
“Yes,” the woman answered. “I was hoping a balcony room would still be available?”
I bet you do. Figures. There was always one vacationer who wanted the best of everything and waited until the last minute to book their reservations. Anyone who knew anything about cruising would already know that the balcony rooms were the first to go on these popular excursions. Even she’d had to settle for a room with only a window, since all the balconies had been taken over two months ago. Her professional persona in place, she went through the motions anyway.
“Let me check that for you. May I get your name?”
Whitman? The name didn’t ring any bells. Whoever she was, this late in the game she’d be lucky to get a room at all. Not knowing the caller’s name wasn’t surprising. Most of the women in her class would be married by now and carry their husband’s last names.
After scanning the ship’s records for rooms, she was surprised to find a room with a balcony had just become available due to a last-minute cancelation. Her finger idled above the keyboard as she contemplated whether to give it to this Darlene person or swap it for her room. Who would know? Damn it. Being honest sucked sometimes.
“A balcony? Sure, we have one available. Will you be traveling with anyone?”
“Perfect and yes. Another classmate.”
This prompted Sierra to open up another window for the second application. “Wonderful. I’ll need to get both of your names, starting with yours.” She was typing in all the pertinent information when her fingers suddenly stumbled across the keyboard. “I’m sorry. Can you give me the second traveler’s name one more time?”
“Sure. Jaime Rivers.”
Sierra gasped. “Excuse me. Could I put you on hold again for a moment? I have another call.”
She jumped out of her chair and paced the tight space. All those years and not a word from Jaime, and now she was going to be stuck on a boat with her for seven days after everything Jaime had put her through?
Jaime loved the water, but a cruise, really? Cruising was a social way of traveling. Jaime had never been a social person and had tried to avoid crowds at all costs. Had she changed that much over the years or was it one more thing that Sierra didn’t know about her after four solid years of friendship?
Inhaling deeply, she turned her attention back to the blinking red light. No more reminiscing. The past had to remain in the past and it was time to get back to business. “I apologize for the wait. Where were we?”
Ten minutes later, she thanked the caller and said her good-byes, ignoring how sultry and genuinely nice the woman sounded. The moment the intrusive caller disconnected, she allowed the anger to surface.
Closing her eyes, she tried to swallow the burning lump in her throat. Her chest constricted. She was seconds from losing it. Who was this mystery woman making Jaime’s reservations? A friend? A lover? Jaime’s solitary nature made her wonder if this woman was the reason Jaime decided to go on the cruise in the first place. She knew Jaime wouldn’t be caught dead on that boat unless she was being coaxed into it. Suddenly, the pain erupted into hot, flowing tears.
Jaime had spent time doing two things in high school. She liked to surf and she hung out with Sierra. She couldn’t forget the countless times she’d tagged along with Jaime as she made frequent trips to a popular West-Coast beach. Visions of Jaime in her board shorts and bikini top, riding the famous Pacifica waves half an hour from San Mateo, still made her shiver. She’d stifled many screams when Jaime maneuvered too close to the rocks or when another more inexperienced surfer had cut her off and knocked her from her board. Jaime had never been a vocal person. In fact, shy and reclusive were better adjectives. But the surfing world was Jaime’s universe and she’d been the Supreme Being. She’d ruled those waves and had no problem voicing her opinion regarding another surfer’s stupidity.
Jaime had been a natural on her board—her toned athletic body controlling her motions as if she were part of the sea. A good four inches taller than Sierra’s five foot six, Jaime seemed to stand before her now, the water dripping down her tanned body, those intense emerald-green eyes focused on her every move. Sierra never questioned why she always wanted to be with Jaime. Spending time with her was as natural as breathing. They’d been inseparable for four years and all that didn’t change until the day of their graduation.
“Ten years, Jaime. Why now?” she murmured.
“You say something?” her boss asked, stopping in front of her cubicle. His look of concern meant that she’d been caught wallowing. “What’s wrong?”
“Sierra, I hate to state the obvious but you’re crying.”
“I’m fine, Boss.”
Doug glared at Sierra’s phone as though that would help. “Did the person on the phone upset you?”
“No, no,” she said quickly, drying the tears with her shirtsleeve. “Just some old memories. I need a sec to pull myself together.” Damn it. This was exactly what she was trying to avoid. All those years she’d blocked out her past, and it just took a ten-minute phone call to bring it all crashing back.
“Are you sure?”
“Okay. How about a refill then?” He pointed to her empty mug. “My wife says caffeine is a cure-all.”
“I knew I loved Catherine for a reason.” She handed him her mug and offered a reassuring smile. “Coffee would be wonderful. Thank you.”
As soon as the front door closed behind him, she allowed the tears to surface again. At one time in her life all she’d known was Jaime. She’d trusted her and always felt safe when Jaime was close.
And then Jaime kissed her.
Talk about shock. A kiss had been the last thing she expected. But suddenly everything became clear. All the parties they’d skipped. All the dances they hadn’t attended because Jaime would rather be alone with her and do something as simple as watch a movie. All those years of sleeping over at each other’s houses and Jaime not once feeling comfortable changing in front of her. She even remembered making a joke about it. It explained why, right before prom, Jaime turned pale in the dressing room while Sierra was trying on dresses. Jaime had excused herself, saying she wasn’t feeling well.
The day Jaime kissed her, Sierra had panicked. She accused Jaime of all kinds of things, unfair accusations she regretted later, all of which came from nothing more than teenage confusion. When the shock had worn off a week later, she went to Jaime’s house to talk. But it was too late. A neighbor finally told her that Jaime had gone on an extended vacation with her father—a vacation Sierra knew Jaime hadn’t planned to take in the first place. How could Jaime not tell her she was gay? Was their entire friendship based on a lie, and how many women had she been with?
Ruling the waves wasn’t Jaime’s only talent. She’d also been the master of avoidance. If it wasn’t for Sierra cajoling her into spilling what was on her mind most of the time, she wouldn’t have known anything about her. Weeks later, when Sierra needed to leave to attend Wisconsin State, she had never felt so alone, so lost, as she did without her best friend there to see her off. Sure, she might have hurt her by some of the things she’d said, but at least she had the guts to come back and face her.
Why hadn’t she seen the signs? Jaime never wanted to socialize or hang out with other people. She didn’t get along with any of Sierra’s other friends. Then there were the innocent touches, a soft brush of hands or an occasional hug that sometimes left her breathless. She didn’t understand what was happening at the time, but years later when she’d finally come to terms with her own sexuality, she’d realized why her body responded to Jaime the way it did. Why it was still responding to the distant memories that roared back with the simple memory of that one touch.