Chapter One

Cruise Day One: Departing for Vacation

 

“I sincerely doubt that overly enthusiastic sign,” Charlotte Southwick muttered as she stepped toward the obnoxiously large, brightly colored banner that read Paradise Awaits, Ladies. Charlotte wasn’t sure paradise was even a thing, let alone a thing that awaited her once she passed under this insultingly cheerful welcome archway made of balloons and the promise of endless possibilities.

A Barbie lookalike with a broad smile nodded at her and held up a bottle of what looked like hand sanitizer. “Welcome aboard, Mrs.”—she leaned forward, straining to read the tag on the lanyard around Charlotte’s neck—“Mrs. Vallencourt.”

“Southwick.” Charlotte tried not to growl her reply. “It’s Southwick, and not Mrs. anything, contrary to what the fancy laminated pass says since my ex-fiancée is a lying cheater who only thinks of herself. Can I get this changed? Or better yet, just pitch it into the ocean with the rest of my hopes and dreams.”

The smile dimmed on the woman’s face. “Um, sure?”

“Great.” Charlotte yanked the lanyard off her neck and shoved it into her purse with every intention to bury it at sea like the diamond in Titanic as soon as they were far enough from shore for it to feel remotely cathartic. She nodded toward the bottle of gel the woman held in the air. “I interrupted you—that looks important. You were saying?”

The woman blinked. “Uh, right. Yes.” She shook her head and her plastic grin returned. “Welcome aboard, Miss Southwick. We’re glad to have you with us. Please allow me the opportunity to acquaint you with our sanitizing routine in order to help keep everyone on board healthy and safe.”

Charlotte extended her hand toward the woman, mirroring her posture, with the intention of retreating to her room as quickly as possible. It was then that she noticed the name tag resting on her unrealistically perky chest. Angela. She looked like an Angela, Charlotte thought.

Angela squeezed a generous dollop of the clear gel onto her palm and continued her spiel while Charlotte rubbed it in. “We’re here to make sure your every desire is met and fulfilled. We can do that best with clean hands and cheerful smiles. We are at your service, every step of the way.”

She paused long enough for Charlotte to interject again. “Great. That’s all very clinical and sanitary.” And a little creepy, she thought. “But I get it, thanks.”

Unfazed, Angela continued. “Right. Well, I can see here that you are a VIP guest, so you’ll be following Enrique over to your stateroom. He’ll make sure you have everything you need.”

“Fantastic.” Charlotte was glad to leave the perky plastic woman behind and see what awaited her in this stateroom.

“Right this way, ma’am.” Enrique gave her a nod and reached to take her carry-on bags.

Charlotte is fine, thank you.” She handed him her belongings but pulled her laptop bag closer to her body. She had no intention of letting this out of her sight—she had to finish the Davenport Hospital project before they got to Aruba if she had any intention of enjoying her vacation.

“As you wish.” He gave her a genial smile and raised his arm to gesture toward the back of the monstrous cruise ship. Charlotte didn’t miss the way his shirt strained in an apparent attempt to contain his rippling muscles. Enrique, like Angela, was perfectly fit. Like, perfect. She was feeling a little insecure all of a sudden.

He led her along the lower deck by the dockside toward the back of the boat. Charlotte tried not to stare at the many lesbian couples looking happy and holding hands, waiting for their turns to board the ship. She was grateful when he took her toward a set of double doors that led into the center of the ship and away from the crowds of people eager to start vacation.

“Have you cruised with us before?” he asked.

“No. I’ve never cruised anywhere, actually.” Charlotte tried to contain the bitterness in her voice. It had been Veronica’s idea to book this cruise. She’d raved about these types of cruises throughout their courtship, and she’d been eager to get Charlotte into the cruise ship lifestyle. Charlotte had only agreed under the condition that they did something she’d like as well: nothing. She wanted nothing more than to spend two uninterrupted weeks at a fancy resort on a beach, someplace warm. The compromise was fifty-fifty—Charlotte would get her island time, but they would cruise to that destination. And then really spend their honeymoon soaking up each other’s company. But Veronica liked to cruise…and that included into other people’s beds, it seemed. So here she was, on their honeymoon, alone and unmarried. During Lesbian Week. Because, of course.

“Wait.” Enrique stopped short and she almost walked into his overly muscular back.

Charlotte looked around to see if there was something she’d missed to cause him to freeze on the spot. Just a few dozen more lovey-dovey couples. Nothing to see here.

“You’ve never cruised before?” He looked surprised.

“Nope. I’m a cruise virgin.” Charlotte shrugged.

“Well, that changes things.” Enrique puffed out his chest and gave her a sly smile. “Your room won’t be ready for another hour or so. Let’s drop off this bag and I’ll give you the secret behind-the-scenes tour.”

Charlotte hesitated. She’d told herself she could stomach boarding alone if she could hide in her room and wallow in self-pity for a day or two or six until the ship reached Aruba, at which point she would disembark and start the part of the vacation she was most looking forward to and skip the last few days of cruise life, since that was Veronica’s preference, not hers. And since that was what she’d talked herself into agreeing to, Enrique’s proposal seemed like a daunting social experiment she wasn’t sure she had the energy for.

When she didn’t reply, his expression softened and he leaned in a little closer. “Look, I overheard what you said to Angela back there at the ramp. And I can tell from your baggage tags and the paperwork you handed her that you’re VIP and staying in the presidential honeymoon suite, alone. On your first cruise.”

“You don’t miss a thing, do you?” Charlotte asked, unsure of whether she should be annoyed or ashamed that he’d so easily pegged her.

“It’s my job to pick up on little details. Well, that, and to deliver cocktails on the main deck to the lounge chairs, in addition to dancing my booty off at the onsite night club six nights a week as a go-go dancer.” He shimmied in front of her and she had to laugh. “Let me ease you into this week, okay? I promise there will be only as much talking as you can handle. I swear.”

Charlotte laughed and touched his forearm affectionately. “I heard you say drinks in there somewhere. I assume there can be drinks on this secret tour?”

“Duh. That’s the first stop.” He extended his elbow toward her. “Let’s go cause some mischief.”

She slid her arm into his and let the last bit of apprehension leave her body. “I’m all yours.”

 

v

 

Lexi Bronson tapped her fingers on the bar as she reviewed the checklist before her. The list seemed endless, and she had about ninety things to get done before the ship left the port, but none of that mattered because this was her favorite week of the cruise season. Truthfully, it was her favorite week of the year.

“I know that smile.” Her roommate and closest friend Zara Thompson tossed a lime at her, the decorative beads at the ends of her long braids dancing and singing with the movement.

She caught it easily and gave her a sly grin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Oh yes, you do.” Zara pointed the knife in her hand at Lexi briefly before resuming her lime prep duties, her golden bronze skin looking healthy and flawless as always. With those braids and that small gold ring in her left nostril, she looked every bit the part of a Caribbean queen. Zara often joked about her Caribbean-by-way-of-Connecticut heritage. She looked like a local while on this cruise route, because even though her entire immediate family resided in New England, her grandparents were islanders. That was one of the reasons she’d taken this gig, to reconnect with her roots. “That’s your lady-killer smile. That’s the smile of a woman who is going to flirt her single-and-ready-to-mingle ass off while she shakes all the drinks for all the beautiful gay ladies all week long. That’s a predatory smile. You’re a predator.”

Lexi feigned offense. “You wound me.”

Zara raised the knife again and made a playful stabbing motion at her “Ha. Not yet. But I think about it every time I trip over your dirty laundry in our tiny, minuscule little bunk. All these years and you still don’t know how to use a hamper.” She shook her head and reached for a new handful of limes.

Lexi laughed. Zara was totally right—she wasn’t the cleanest roommate. Or even the most organized, but she was the most fun. And the easiest to get along with. Lexi didn’t like drama and Zara didn’t cause any. And for the past five years, they had been a match made in tight-quarters cruise-ship bunking heaven. “You’d be lost without me.”

Zara rolled her eyes. “I’d have significantly more floor space without you or your soiled laundry. But, yeah, I suppose you’re right.”

Lexi gave her a gentle punch to the arm and dodged the lime wedge Zara rocketed toward her head. “Hey. Don’t forget I’m the boss around here.”

“Too bad I work in the spa and the fitness area and not the bar, but who’s counting?” Zara gave her a head nod and a curtsy. “How could I forget, your Royal Intoxicologist? Where are my manners?”

“That’s right, and don’t you forget it.” Lexi picked up the errant lime and tossed it into the sink. She’d been promoted to head bartender on the main deck two seasons ago but had recently also been given the role of VIP liaison on her time away from the bars. This was a big deal for her. In the near decade she’d been with the Majestic Princess cruise company, she’d made huge leaps in responsibility and pay grade, but this opened up new possibilities for her. And new cruise routes. And the option of corporate advancement, not that she had any interest in that, but still. Lexi oversaw a whole fleet of people now, and that wasn’t something she took lightly.

“All right, that’s all I have time for today, Boss Lady.” Zara dumped the prepared fruit into the containers that lined the bar and rinsed off her hands. “I’m due downstairs for the Safety Protocol presentation and rah-rah dance routine until I can go hide in the spa and play Candy Crush.”

“Have fun.” Lexi gave her a high five and wished her luck, grateful that her roomie had agreed to spend the last of her free time before departure helping out at the bar. “See you later, around dinnertime? The usual spot, with the boys?”

She was referring to the far back corner of the El Capitan, the only Mexican restaurant on the ship. Crew weren’t allowed to eat or socialize in the guest areas, but she and Zara had started this tradition, one that was secret save for their friend Manuel in the kitchen, about four years ago when a nasty stomach bug had infiltrated the guest area and left most of the restaurants empty. Lexi made sure to keep Manuel and the servers of El Capitan well liquored at the crew bar, on her dime, to ensure they got their secret little back table, out of sight of the guests.

“It wouldn’t be the start of lesbian-cruise-week-palooza without our traditional pescatarian enchiladas and tequila, now would it?” Zara gave her a toothy grin.

“That’s my girl.”

“Oh, before I forget”—Zara reached into her back pocket—“Ahmed pulled some more real estate listings for you. A couple of different choices on this cruise route this time. I’d be happy to pop off the ship with you and check them out if you want.”

“Thanks.” Lexi accepted the paper and made a mental note to look at it later. She’d been casually looking at restaurant and bar properties for sale on this cruise route for the last six months. She didn’t have any immediate plans, but she liked to watch the market and see what was out there. Owning a beachfront bar was a pipe dream for her, but it had nagged her more than usual lately. Maybe someday.

“See ya, Lex,” Zara called out as she slipped under the bar top and headed toward the main deck.

Lexi waved good-bye to her friend and hummed as she went down the rest of the prep list. She was so grateful to have Zara’s friendship. Everything felt more manageable with her there. But more than that, Zara had long become family. And since Lexi had no bio family, it made Zara that much more important to her. She was glad to have Zara by her side, always. She’d do anything for her, and she knew the same was true for Zara.

She looked out at the ocean; the skies were clear blue, and the water looked calm. She took in a deep breath, smelling the salt in the air. The excitement of the week was palpable even while the ship was docked. She hummed the tune her father used to sing her to sleep with, a ritual she did at the start of every new cruise week. The tradition had originated after her father’s death nearly a decade ago, when she’d joined the cruise life. She’d joined to run away from her past and fulfill a dream he’d had his whole life: to live by the sea, free to undertake any adventure. And oh, how she’d done that ten times over by now. She looked up at the sky once more before she returned to her bar prep duties and found the biggest, fluffiest cloud. That was her dad’s cloud, she just knew it. “It’s gonna be a good week, Dad. I can feel it.”

 

Chapter Two

Charlotte marveled at the beauty of the ship. Enrique made good on his promise, and she got the tour with a cocktail in hand, but it was mostly neglected since she was completely blown away by the architecture and detail of the ship. She was sure half the tour she had her mouth open, gaping in an unattractive manner. But she couldn’t help it—this was unlike anything she had ever seen. The ship was like a city on the water, with multiple levels and layers, something for everyone. And she meant everyone. If you couldn’t find something to do on this ship, that was on you. Because they seemed to have covered every base.

Enrique took her through the main atrium, the center of which was open, and you could see nine stories up. The space was flanked with three sets of glass elevators on each end, so you could people watch the whole center of the ship as you went floor to floor. There was a glass dome at the top of this massive space that provided a protected view of the weather, while offering natural lighting to complement the ambient glow of chandeliers and recessed lights on every floor. On the floor they were on, Charlotte noticed a Starbucks positioned across from a small dance floor, where jazz musicians played soft welcoming music for the vacationers. The ten or so small, intimate tables were filled with eager tourists reviewing the cruise packets handed out by the cheerful excursions coordinator they passed, as Enrique pointed out the duty-free shop and internet café located on the same floor.

They walked up the grand Titanic-esque staircase to the next level, and he took her through the art gallery located at midship before he showed her the lounge, equipped with two dueling pianos and a fancy martini bar with bartenders dressed in formal white dress shirts to match the area’s aesthetic.

“On this floor, at the forward of the ship—that means the front,” he said, “there is a salon, a spa and fitness area, a library, and a few sports bars.” He pointed to one of the dozens of maps located by each corridor and elevator. “The majority of the guest rooms are here and here”—he showed her on the map—“and the crew and staff are down here.”

“Underwater?” she asked.

“Some, but not all. Officers are above water, as well as higher-level staff positions like entertainers or musicians. Crew are at water level or just below, but that’s mostly the kitchen and cleaning staff, maintenance, et cetera.” He shrugged. “We are so infrequently in our rooms, rooming on a low deck doesn’t really bother most people since there is a view just about everywhere you go.”

“Are there a lot of staff and crew?” she asked as they moved to the next section of the ship.

“Oh, for sure,” he replied. “It’s a two-to-one ratio of Majestic Princess employees to cruisers. We have our own cafeteria and bars, gym, and social spaces down there—we’re like a hidden underwater city in the city.”

“That’s wild.” Charlotte couldn’t even fathom the enormity of responsibility managing all of those moving pieces, and people.

“It’s cruise ship living. You get used to it.” He showed her the humidor and cigar bar located next to the rear entrance of the casino and highlighted the restaurants located on each floor, a total of twenty in all, each with a different theme or dining style. Some were plated, some were buffet, a delightful variety to accommodate whatever mood you were in: sushi, Mexican, Thai, Brazilian, French. You named it, they had it.

As they headed toward the rear of the ship, or the aft as he called it, he showed her the reservation desk where she could secure dinner reservations at the most popular places.

“You can do it that way if you want to look at each menu,” he said, “or you can have your VIP attendant do the footwork for you. That’s their job, too.”

“VIP attendant?” Charlotte asked as she poked her head into the main showroom, an amphitheater where Enrique said they had nightly performances and shows, like comedians and magicians. It was cute in there, intimate but with plenty of stadium seating so everyone had an unobstructed view.

“Oh yeah. You’re fancy, girl,” he teased as he walked her toward the next entertainment area. “This is the on-ship nightclub that I mentioned before. There’s a nice lounge area in there, too. And multiple bar stations to make it easy to get a cocktail without waiting too long. There will be a few events in there during the week that will be posted on the digital screens around the ship and on your daily itinerary. The biggest draw is usually the White Party toward the end of the cruise. The dance floor is big enough that you have room to get your groove on, but there are plenty of casual seating spaces so you can people watch, if that’s more your speed.”

As they meandered back through the ship, Enrique took her to her floor.

“Okay, this is where I leave you.” Enrique gave her a bright smile and carried her suitcases from the doorway of her suite into the room, depositing them by the desk.

“Well, damn.” Charlotte looked around the room for the first time and pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming; the room was magnificent. The king-sized bed to her left looked plush and welcoming, but the real showstopper was just beyond the bed, where the floor-to-ceiling double glass sliding doors opened out to a private balcony. Sheer white curtains framed the view of the water and billowed gently in the breeze as the ship slowly pulled away from the shore.

“Yeah.” Enrique’s voice sounded far away as she walked closer to the balcony. “Most people have that reaction.”

Charlotte nodded, her reply stuck in her throat when she noticed the double set of everything laid out on the chaise at the end of the bed: two robes, two champagne flutes in front of a bottle on ice, two boxes of gourmet chocolates delicately arranged on a plate within a heart made of fresh strawberry slices…the perfect gift for honeymooners in love. There were even delicately monogramed hers & hers napkins under each glass. No expense had been spared. And why should it? This vacation had cost her a fortune. These details were a blatant reminder of that. That and the fact that she was here alone.

“I can have those removed.” Enrique surprised her, his voice close to her shoulder.

She shook her head, willing the tears to stay at bay. She looked out at the balcony to quiet the storm of emotions brewing inside her. After a moment, she faked a smile and looked back at him. “It’s fine. Really.”

His deep brown eyes flashed the pity she was so desperate to avoid, and her face must have shown that because he stepped back and coughed. “Well, uh-oh.” He reached over to the desk and picked up the folder, changing the subject. “You’re in good hands this week. It says your VIP attendant for the week is Lexi. She’s great. And she’s the best bartender on the ship as well, so she’ll make sure you’re good to go.”

“Lexi?” Charlotte thought she’d misheard him. That was a name she hadn’t heard in a very long time. And yet, even after all that time, just hearing the name did something to her. “I knew a Lexi once. A lifetime ago.” It had been another life entirely.

“Oh yeah? That’s cool. Well, this Lexi’s a character. She’s been on this ship forever. She’ll be able to tell you all the quiet hideaways on board to get away from the other cruisers if you get overwhelmed,” he said, a seemingly subtle nod toward the last topic she’d rather not revisit. “Anyway, she’ll be here shortly and explain to you all the stuff in this folder and fill you in on all the ship’s happenings. I’m due up top for a salsa class in a bit—feel free to stop by and say hi. I’ll be here all week if you need anything.”

“Thanks.” She meant that. She was glad to have run into him.

“Oh, before I forget”—he slipped the messenger bag she had relinquished to him during the tour off his shoulder and handed it to her—“you said this was important. I kept it safe.”

“You did.” She took it from him and held it to her chest. “Thanks again.”

“Anytime.” He gave her a small wave. “I’ll see you on the top deck. Don’t be a stranger.”

“I won’t be.” She watched him leave the suite and she sat on the chaise with a heavy sigh. Alone at last. In so many more ways than one.

She put aside her messenger bag and reached for the envelope resting against the ice bucket between the offending doubled glassware. She ran her fingers along the raised gold font on the front before she pulled out the card that waited inside. Thank you for choosing the Majestic Princess as your first stop on making your forever memories with your special someone. You are someone special to us and we are happy to serve you. Cheers.

“Cheers indeed.” She hated the bitterness in her voice. Deciding not to dwell on anything for too long, since she felt so fragile already, she plucked the bottle out of the icy water and examined it. It was a smooth brut, not one of the obnoxious, overpriced versions Veronica preferred, but not an inexpensive one either. Since Veronica had been a big champagne drinker, Charlotte had grown quite knowledgeable about the bubbly in the years they’d been together. Years. All those wasted years. The thought morphed her sadness into something darker, something angrier. “This was a bad idea.”

She submerged the bottle with probably more force than was necessary and stood. She momentarily considered unpacking the suitcase into the drawers next to the desk but decided against it when she noticed that the curtains nearby had picked up their movement. She’d rather lose herself in the view from the private deck than face what awaited her in that luggage.

A look out at the water told her the ship was well on its way to the adventure that awaited. She let that sink in a bit. As hard as it was to imagine in this moment, this was an adventure and she ought to remember that. Her grandfather had been the one who had encouraged her to take this trip, even as her world fell apart around her. He’d been adamant about it, and who was she to argue with his ninety-one years of life experience? She thought back to their conversation as she settled into the lounge chair on her veranda.

“Lottie,” he’d said, a nickname he’d used for her since she was very little and one that was exclusively his, “every moment in life you are given the chance to make a decision and take a chance. This is one of those moments. You can’t get your money back anyway, so go. Have fun. Hit the reset button and come back to your Paw Paw with stories of tropical islands and beautiful women.”

Her mother Cookie, on the other hand, had been less supportive. As per her usual. “Charlotte, don’t you think it’d be better to forget the trip and try to work things out with Veronica?”

She’d bristled at that comment. “Work things out? Mom, she was cheating on me. For months. Maybe more than that. There’s nothing to work out.”

Cookie had shrugged and examined her manicure in that infuriating way she did when she was being dismissive of Charlotte’s feelings. Which was basically always. “That sounds like you’re giving up. I didn’t raise a quitter.”

Charlotte had bit back the part where she was going to mention that her mother hadn’t raised her really at all, the nannies and her grandparents did. But that didn’t seem like it was going to get her anywhere, so instead she challenged back, “You didn’t raise a doormat, either. So, no thanks. Veronica can live happily ever after with whatever woman she can con into thinking she’s capable of being monogamous. Because I’m not that woman.”

Her mother’s look of disapproval at her directness fell short of its likely intended effect due in large part to the fact that her grandfather was giving her the thumbs-up behind her mother’s perfectly coifed blond head. She’d always preferred her grandfather to, well, anyone in her family, but especially her mother.

The sound of laughter from a nearby deck brought her back to the moment. Her eyes settled on the crashing waves cast off by the boat’s motion. The angry whitecaps blurred into one another with each successive deep blue swell, and Charlotte felt like the sea was mirroring her emotions in that moment. She thought of her failed relationship with Veronica, and her hurt morphed back to anger again. And that anger brought her back to her continued failed relationship with her mother—a crack in their family that seemed to deepen with time, not lessen.

She stood from the chair, feeling restless. She began to unpack her clothes as she mentally unpacked her relationship with her mother. It hadn’t always been that way. They’d been close until halfway through high school—well, as close as you could get to someone like her mother. But that all changed the summer of her junior year. Everything changed that summer. That was the summer of Lexi.

Enrique’s comment had stirred something in her, the memory of a ghost from her past that Charlotte had long since tried to bury. Whatever had become of Lexi? She’d done everything she could to forget about her first love. She’d tried without success to fill the void in her heart that never seemed to heal after Lexi was gone. Charlotte had chalked that up to first-love scars and expected it to stay that way forever. She supposed it still would.

Lexi had been paired with her to help with some math tutoring for her SATs, but their relationship quickly morphed into something more, and Charlotte spent the end of high school sneaking away to find alone time with Lexi. It was the first time she gave her heart to someone else. And she found herself falling head over heels for the girl whose life and family couldn’t be more different from her own. But when Charlotte went off to college, she made a decision that changed things forever. She chose the path she’d planned since she was a little girl, the path mapped out for her by her mother long before Lexi was in the picture. Because suddenly it was time to grow up, but she’d grown around someone else, and that wasn’t in the plans. Charlotte had had to choose, and a part of her always felt like she’d chosen wrong. A big part of her. But that was in the past and there was no going back.

“Okay.” She closed the last drawer and looked at herself in the mirror. Her reflection looked tired. That just wouldn’t do. “You can do this, Charlotte. You can start over and find the part of you that you lost over the last few years. You can do this. You have to.” She nodded to herself and forced a smile. Now her reflection looked tired and pained.

She shook her head and closed her eyes. “Warm sand, hot sun, cool breezes, blue skies, clear ocean water, bottomless frozen cocktails…No worries, no one to report to, nothing stopping you from having the vacation of your life, alone.” She opened her eyes and widened her stance, putting her hands on her hips and assuming the Superhero Pose. “You can vacation alone. You are cruising to paradise on a luxury ship with hundreds of queer women in a safe space, then spending a week in the nicest, most posh resort Aruba can offer. It’s going to be fucking fantastic, and you’re going to love every minute of it.”

Charlotte swore she saw the light come back into her reflection’s eyes. This was happening. She was doing this. “I’m gonna make this vacation my bitch.”

 

Chapter Three

Lexi checked and double-checked her uniform. Since she was playing double duty as bartender extraordinaire and VIP attendant, she had to make sure the often sticky and dirty parts of the bar life didn’t spill onto her VIP life. Literally.

Satisfied that she looked presentable, she jogged down I-95, the main corridor the crew used, toward the package room, but that was no small task. The I-95 was jammed with luggage still being sorted for the guest rooms, and there were dozens of crew members darting back and forth to and from the small stairways that led to the main floors. It was strict cruise ship policy that the crew goings-on were out of the public eye and behind closed, often hidden, doors.

“Slow down, Bronson,” Captain Lynn Correia called out as Lexi had to leap to the left to avoid a falling suitcase.

“Captain, my Captain.” Lexi gave her a broad smile. “What’s good?”

Captain Correia gave her a look. “Not you if you end up in the infirmary with a broken ankle.”

Lexi halted her progress to shimmy side to side before diving into a full-blown moonwalk. “I’ve got moves for days, Captain. Don’t worry about my skills—they’re impressive.”

“If you say so,” Correia replied. Correia was one of only a handful of female captains in the luxury cruise ship business. She’d been a decorated sailor in a past life and maintained the order and routine of her military career in the way she ran the cruise ship. But she had a pretty decent sense of humor and self-deprecation if you got to know her. She’d been Lexi’s captain for going on five years now, and Lexi had been spending more and more time with her and the other officers now that she was working the VIP angle. Lexi had grown to consider the captain a friend and she knew the feeling was mutual.

Correia adjusted the cap on her long, perfectly braided silver-blond mane, of which, not a hair was out of place. Her uniform was blindingly white, and somehow all her medallions managed to glisten under the gross I-95 lighting. They really needed to spruce up the crew quarters—it was like a dungeon down here.

“Did you hear me, Bronson?”

“What?” Nope, she definitely did not. “No, I was just thinking that we could use some better lighting in here. Either that or your uniform shirt is looking a little dull.”

Correia’s eyes widened and she looked down. Lexi tried to hold back her laugh but failed, miserably.

“Bronson.” Correia’s mouth held the hint of a smile when she made eye contact with Lexi again.

“You mustn’t take anything I say too seriously, Cap.” Lexi gave her an exaggerated eye roll. “It’s the first day of a new cruise and the last week of work before my vacation in Key West. I’m positively buzzing with excitement.”

Correia laughed and shook her head. “How could I forget? It’s your favorite cruise week.”

Lexi looked left and right before adding quietly, “Yours, too, if I recall.” Correia had been the driving force behind hosting a queer women’s cruise week, something that had previously been balked at by the corporate offices. It was one of the reasons Lexi felt she and Correia got along so well. They shared a common interest. “Plan on meeting the lady of your dreams this week, Captain?”

Correia’s eyes narrowed but her expression remained playful. “You know the rules, Bronson. No fraternizing with the guests. That’s grounds for an immediate dismissal.”

Though they were only joking, Lexi knew that rule was a non-negotiable one. Cruise ship employment contracts were for six months at a time, and aside from the basic safety and no-fighting rules, the cardinal rule here was not to get tangled in the sheets with a guest. Ever. Or else you’d find yourself at the next port with all your bags and walking papers in hand. The corporate suits didn’t mess around about that. They wouldn’t even fly your sorry ass home. They’d just drop you off. Lexi had seen many a colleague fall victim to lust. It wasn’t worth it, not ever.

Correia stepped closer as the commotion around them grew, the hustle and bustle of moving luggage to guest rooms and crew members running to assignments in full swing. She lowered her voice and said, “I want you to think about our discussion last week. Let’s make plans to chat before we get back to the mainland.”

Ah, the talk again. Okay. Lexi knew this was the time to be serious. “Yes, Captain. Will do.”

As if on cue, Correia’s right-hand woman, Staff Captain Sally Dashel, appeared at the Captain’s shoulder with a tablet and a no-nonsense disposition. She was a serious woman who always seemed to have a worried, pinched expression—that wasn’t new, but the blinking red text Lexi could see on the tablet was. “Captain, you’re needed on the top deck.”

Correia regarded her with a small smile. Nothing ever seemed to faze Correia. “Thank you, Sally.” She looked back up at Lexi and gave her a wave. “See you ’round, Bronson.”

“Bye, Cap.” Lexi watched Correia stride down the causeway with that relaxed confidence she exuded so well. Sally took two steps for each of the towering ship captain’s and looked like an eager Chihuahua at her heel.

“She’s got it bad for Cap, huh?” her friend Ahmed Rahim said as he leaned out the doorway of the administrative and package office to her right.

Lexi nodded. It was a common assumption amongst her closest friends that Sally was in love with the captain. But as far as she knew, it was only gossip. Juicy as it was. “Seems that way. I feel bad for her.”

“Why? Because Correia won’t act on it? Or because you think she’s out of her league?” Ahmed stepped back into the office and sat behind his tiny desk as she followed him into the quieter space.

“Both. More that I think it’s likely unrequited. I mean, they’ve been working together for years. Every time the assignment roster rolls through, they’re on it. You’d think something would have happened by now.” Lexi slid the pocket door almost all the way closed to block out some of the crew noise. “Crew dating other crew, even officers, isn’t unusual. It happens all the time. This is a hard lifestyle in which to maintain a relationship unless you’re both on the same ship. You know?”

“Maybe they are having a relationship, though, and we just have no idea. Now that would be something.” Ahmed’s hazel eyes shone with mischief. “Can you imagine if they had some secret, naughty sexual dalliance behind closed doors? Sally might oversee the ship’s staff and be a rule-following disciplinarian, but I could see her easily relinquishing that role for Correia. Tightly wound Sally bottoming for easy, breezy Correia feels like it fits. I bet that Correia is a demanding top.”

Lexi scrunched her nose at his statement. “Correia’s beautiful. And dashing. And incredibly smart and shrewd, but I’d rather not think about her sexual proclivities.”

“Buzzkill.” Ahmed huffed, seemingly annoyed at the nonstarter of a gossip session. He pushed his stylish black-rimmed glasses up higher on his nose. “I assume you’re here about your new VIP assignments for the week.”

“You know me so well.” Lexi plopped into the chair facing his desk. Don Julio, his little drinking bird toy thing, was slowly sipping away on his desk. It was mesmerizing.

“I know you’re about to go on vacation and there’s a ship full of beautiful ladies up there that you’d like to get back to.” Ahmed clucked. “It’s not like you’re here to visit with your good friend Ahmed, who’s locked below the ship like a caged animal in this tiny office, managing schedules and boring administrative tasks, all hours of the day—”

Lexi held up her hand. “Point taken. I will visit you more this week—I promise.”

“You say that now.” Ahmed’s tone was light as he continued to tease her.

Lexi stood and saluted him. “I solemnly swear to visit you in the bowels of the boat—”

“And bring me juicy gossip from topside,” he interjected.

“And bring you juicy gossip from the part of the ship that sees the sun.” Lexi crossed her heart.

“Fine.” Ahmed unfolded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “I accept your terms.”

“Phew.” Lexi dropped back into the chair before glancing at her watch. “I gotta fly, guy. How about those assignments?”

“And just like that, we’re back to the bitch work.” Ahmed shook his head and laughed. He reached to his right and pulled out a file folder. “Hmm, this is unusual.”

“What’s that?” Lexi leaned forward and poked Don Julio’s bobbing head to make it drink the water on the desk faster.

“Stop that.” Ahmed swatted her hand away. “You’re going to spill the water.”

“Am not.” Lexi poked Don Julio again, this time with more force. The beak bobbed into the water with more gusto.

“Alexandria,” Ahmed warned.

“Ahmed Mohammed Ayaan Rahim,” she replied.

He chuckled. “One time, you get ahold of my pay stub one time.”

“I’m a sucker for details, what can I say.” Lexi knew Ahmed appreciated that she’d taken the time to learn about him. Although he’d been working for the cruise company for a couple of years now, this was their first shared contract. They’d become fast friends in the past six months, and he’d blended easily with her, Zara, and their friend Enrique. They were inseparable in their off time. And she felt like she’d known him forever. They’d spent many nights talking about his very strict, religious Muslim family, and how he had ended up on a cruise ship. His story wasn’t that different from everyone else’s: they all were searching for something. Most people joined the cruise life in hopes of seeing the world and experiencing different cultures that their previous life wouldn’t have afforded them the chance to experience. But they were all a little lost, too. The cruise ship lifers, anyway. Though, Ahmed didn’t strike her as a lifer. He was different, special. All that aside, she also knew that this job was very important to him. He took pride in it. Even though it was isolating in a way. She knew that all too well.

“Have you decided about recontracting after this?” She made a mental note to see him more this week, unsure of whether he would be assigned to her ship again. She knew they would remain friends, even after their assignments together, but still, she wasn’t in any rush to lose him.

Ahmed let out a sigh. “I reapplied. I’d like to stay, but…”

Lexi nodded in understanding. Ahmed had a serious crush on Enrique. But he’d never had a boyfriend before, and he was afraid to act on those feelings—for a multitude of reasons, he’d assured her, but she knew one of them was along the lines of something he’d said about Sally earlier. Ahmed thought Enrique was out of his league. Lexi wasn’t so sure.

“You know, if you just ask him for a drink, you’d know where things stand between you two.” Lexi gave him an encouraging nod. “I know a really kick-ass lady bartender who makes a mean mojito. Which I have on good authority is our Latin hunk’s favorite cocktail.”

Ahmed frowned and sank deeper into his seat. “He’s too muscly and handsome to be interested in a bookworm like me. There’s a reason he’s up there looking all tanned and gorgeous serving drinks and dancing in those teeny tiny spandex booty shorts at the club, and I’m down here hidden in paperwork and shift assignments.” Ahmed waved his arms around, pointing at the very neat and organized—but immense—stacks of paper around him. “I’m cruise ship basement office material, and he’s Mr. Congeniality with perfect abs and—”

“Crap.” Lexi had started to zone out and gave Don Julio a too hard nudge, and the little cup of water under his beak spilled onto the desk.

“Lexi,” Ahmed whined and grabbed a handful of tissues to minimize the damage.

“My bad.” Lexi winced and leaned back. “All I’m saying is tell him you’re into him. Before it’s too late and we’re all off the ship.”

“We’ll see.” Ahmed’s frown looked permanent and Lexi’s heart hurt for him. “Well, like I was saying before you violated my bird and made a damn mess,” he scolded, “your assignment this week is unusual.”

“Unusual how?”

He handed her the folder she’d long forgotten about. “You only have one VIP room for the week. Not sure how that happened, but that’s what it says here.”

“Huh. Weird.” Lexi took the folder and thumbed through its contents. Her heart sank. “Newlyweds. Lady newlyweds at that.” She looked up and saw that Ahmed was regarding her curiously. “What?”

“I dunno. You sound kinda sad about that.” He shrugged. “Who doesn’t like newlyweds?”

“I’m not. It’s not. I…it’s fine.” The truth was that Lexi hated newlyweds. Like, a lot. She hated how lovey-dovey they were with each other, and she especially hated working as their VIP liaison because she never knew when she could safely stop by their rooms without walking into some crazy sexcapades. Because all newlyweds seemed to be sex crazed, which she understood since they were usually starting their honeymoon and all, but she’d had more than her fair share of threesome inquiries to be wary. And lesbian week was one of the busiest for those types of offers. “It’s fine.”

“You said that already.” Ahmed stood and walked to the front of his desk, shooing her away as he lifted Don Julio and wiped beneath it. “I just think maybe you shouldn’t be giving romantic advice when you’ve never been in a long-term relationship and you hate monogamous people.”

“Rude.” She scoffed. “I have been in a long-term relationship.”

He waved the wet tissue at her, dripping water everywhere. “That was in high school.”

She dodged the droplets and shrugged. “Still counts. And I don’t hate monogamous people.”

“Just people in love.” Ahmed raised an eyebrow at her, and she felt judged. Like, really judged. Which was doubly rude.

“I don’t hate people in love.” Lexi’s high-pitched reply was convincing no one, least of all herself.

“Right.” Ahmed patted her on the shoulder. She didn’t miss the wet handprint that accompanied it.

“I’m sure”—she stood and made her way to the door, pausing to glance at the names of the guests—“the Vallencourts are lovely people and they won’t ask me to join them in a threesome or be a royal pain in my ass the whole week. There. I said it. I put that positive thought out into the atmosphere and if it crashes and burns, it’s not my fault.”

Ahmed’s mouth was agape. “Who said anything about a threesome?”

“Never mind.” Lexi threw up her hands. “Dinner at the usual spot?”

“With Zara—”

“And Enrique,” she added.

He sighed and nodded. “I wouldn’t miss it. Oh, did Zara give you that real estate hit list?”

“She did,” Lexi replied. “You know I have a Realtor I work with.”

“Yeah, yeah. Omario, I know. I’ve been blind CC’d on all the emails between you two.” Ahmed waved her off. “But he only focuses on Aruba and Curaçao, and he’s busy. I’ve got eyes all over the islands here. It gives me something to do when I’m bored. I get to dream big for you, with the clear understanding that I will always drink for free at whatever location and bar you open up. Right?”

“Right.” Lexi didn’t mind agreeing to that. He would have drunk for free anyway, in her fictional future bar and restaurant, regardless of whether he helped her or not. But it was nice to have someone in her corner cheering her on. It was fun to dream with someone.

“Okay, I’m out.” She turned to go but halted when he called to her.

“Don’t forget to pick up the two dozen long-stem red roses before you get to the room. They were specially requested by one of the Mrs. Vallencourts.”

“Of course, they were.” She rolled her eyes and opened the pocket door to his office the rest of the way. She was immediately greeted with a buzz of excitement and noise from the corridor. “I’ll get those right away, don’t worry.”

“Be nice,” Ahmed called from the door as she speed-walked down the hall.

“I will,” she called back. And she would. Because she had to. It was her job to make sure that every cruise guest was happy and well attended to. This was a vacation for them after all, and they were headed to paradise. She only had one set of VIPs to worry about, and by this time next week she’d be on vacation herself, not responsible for making or keeping anyone else but herself happy. Which was something she was very much looking forward to.