Right, left, up, swing left leg around, climb, fall backward, pause. The steps for my doubles routine went through my head on repeat while I stood in line at security, waiting to go through the inspection point and board the Oceanic Aphrodite. For the first time, I’d be dancing the Talent Show finale at the end of the cruise, which needed to go flawlessly. My future depended on this event, so I practiced every possible second.
My toes tapped in time with my thoughts, probably making me look quite odd. Fortunately, I’d been sailing this cruise for months as part of the onboard entertainment. The officers working the line knew me, and they were used to watching me dance in line. Once I made it to the metal detectors, it should be smooth sailing. Pun intended.
Normally, staff boarded the ship the night before or early in the morning before any guests arrived. My cabin mate Penny and I had gotten special permission to spend the night off-ship, a privilege that likely wouldn’t be repeated now that her guy problems made us two hours late. At least they’d agreed to let us on right after the VIPs so we could beat most of the regular passengers.
Beside me, Penny tapped away on her phone, her long dark hair forming a curtain over the device. “Why hasn’t Robbie texted me back?”
“I’m sure you’ll hear from him soon.” I struggled to keep from revealing my true feelings on the subject. “Especially since he’ll be on the ship. It’s not like he can avoid you forever.”
Her head shot up, brown eyes flashing. “You think he’s avoiding me?”
In truth, yes, I did. But if I hadn’t been distracted thinking about our upcoming performance, I would have found a nicer way to say so. Well, probably. I’d been trying to politely tell her what a creep Robbie was for weeks, and she hadn’t listened. Maybe it was time to be more direct. “I think he enjoys the rich passengers who might further his career once he graduates. Rob’s pretty clear on his priorities, and you’re not one of them.”
“Ouch.” Her face twisted into a grimace. A pang hit me. “I hope you’re wrong.”
“So do I, Pen. So do I.” Not knowing what else to say, I changed the subject. “I’m excited that Max is letting us do the finale this week.”
“Oh, I know! It’s going to be amazing! The guests won’t know what hit ‘em. Especially the stuffy old farts who think pole dancing is only for strippers.”
Despite myself, I blanched.
A look of horror crossed her face. “Oh, no. I’m sorry, Janey.”
She hadn’t meant to insult me, but I’d learned pole while working strip clubs. The patrons loved blue-eyed blondes, so owners always wanted someone with my look.
“It’s fine,” I said, breaking the awkward silence.
If things went well this week, the two of us would be cemented as dancing partners for the next year of cruises or more. Each additional performance meant cash in our pockets. I could ignore one measly comment in the interests of continuing to pay for my dad’s assisted living every month. Dad had nowhere else to go, especially since his disability left him unable to care for himself.
Needing to look at anything else, I turned to face the metal detectors separating us from the ship’s boarding area. The line of people might as well be a wall. I shifted from one six-inch heel to the other, wondering what this week’s hold-up was. Last week, a bride didn’t understand why her father couldn’t bring his actual guns to her “shotgun” wedding. The week before, a groom tried to bring a case of whiskey, which is against ship policy. Maybe we had a celebrity up ahead. They always slowed down security. Rumor had it that a famous baseball player was getting married on the ship this week. I didn’t follow sports, though, so unless he wore his uniform, I’d never know.
Craning my neck to see the inevitable shenanigans at the front of the line, I almost didn’t hear the commotion behind me. A woman gasped, then a child cried out. I turned to see what was happening, a fraction of a second too late.
A man’s voice yelled, “Look out!”
Seconds later, something shoved me from behind, hard. Stumbling, I wheeled my arms for balance. The heel cracked off my shoe. I tumbled to the ground, landing hard on my hip. Ouch. As a dancer, I’m no stranger to injuries, but that was going to leave a bruise. It stung, almost as much as the realization that I was going to have to replace my two hundred dollar Pleasers–and with no time to go shopping before we set sail, I’d have to do it at one of the ship’s boutiques. Entertainment staff got a discount, but not nearly enough. Silently, I kissed this week’s earnings good-bye. At least I didn’t have to pay for my room, utilities, or food.
“Are you okay?” The same voice asked.
Blinking several times to clear the pain clouding my vision, I looked up to see such a delicious-looking man bending over me, I wondered if I imagined him. Curly brown hair falling across his forehead, eyes so brown they looked almost black, high cheekbones, a strong nose, and perfect lips. This face belonged in a museum.
“Gorgeous,” I said without thinking. Then I flushed. “I mean, yes. I’m okay. What happened?”
His lips twitched at my slip of the tongue. “Runaway baggage cart. You were nearly murdered by a wedding dress. What an unfortunate end for such a talented fidgeter.”
“You saw me dancing?”
“I may have noticed you before the cart rolled away.”
The admission made me smile. “Well, thanks. If you hadn’t been here, I might have been flattened.”
“Glad I could help.” He held out a hand to pull me to my feet. Our eyes locked, and suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. “I’m Frank.”
“Janey. Nice to meet you.” As perfected over the years, I kept my face and tone pleasant but not overly friendly. As hot as this guy was, passengers were strictly forbidden. I didn’t want to spend the entire cruise wishing he wasn’t. Dropping his hand, I moved away from him, back toward the line.
A wince of pain sent me looking for the nearest chair. The fall must’ve twisted my ankle, and I’d been too distracted by this man to notice. Frank had shifted away, following my lead, but now he returned to my side. “Are you okay?”
“It’s nothing. I’ll walk it off.”
“Let me see.”
“It’s no big deal,” I insisted. “I’m a dancer. Happens far more often than it should.”
“That’s unfortunate, but please let me see it. It’s my fault you’re hurt, and I’m a doctor.”
“Don’t worry about me. Penny, are you okay?”
My friend stood nearby, her face unreadable. “It missed me by a mile. But I’m a little dizzy. I’ve got to go. I’ll see you onboard.”
Before I could tell her not to go call deadbeat Robbie again, she vanished in the direction of the women’s restroom, one hand resting on her stomach. Poor thing. My friend needed me, and I wanted to go with her, but my throbbing ankle stopped me. I didn’t want to spent more time falling under Dr. Frank’s spell, but the line to get onto the ship–and to the infirmary–hadn’t budged. Better to sit and let him check me out than stand in pain, balancing on a broken shoe.
Together, we hobbled to a bench near the entrance to the security line. It wasn’t nearly as far away as it should have been after twenty minutes of waiting. I collapsed with a sigh. Then my eyes landed on something and I groaned. “Oh, no.”
“What’s wrong?” Frank asked.
“My carry-on is still in the line. I need to grab it before someone reports it to security as an unattended bag.”
“Is it that green one?” He pointed at my battered duffel, now sitting a bit outside the line, probably pushed by an overeager passenger. “That’s all you need for a week?”
The bag only contained a few things I’d taken to spend the night at my sister’s apartment, playing dress-up with my five-year-old niece. Easily the best thing about having a home port in Miami. Everything else remained in my cabin from week to week. This passenger didn’t need to know that.
“Don’t move.” He touched my shoulder as he walked away, sending an unexpected jolt of desire through me. Oh, no. The last thing I needed was to get involved with a passenger, and this one could be trouble.
As my savior walked away, I marveled at his straight back, the way he held his head erect. The man moved with confidence, but also an innate grace, like a cat. Or a dancer. He didn’t walk, he glided across the floor. I also took in the lines of his windbreaker, the creases of his pants, the leather of the shoes molding to his feet perfectly. Dr. Frank was off-limits for more reasons than one. Rich men only ever wanted one thing from girls like me, and I wasn’t in a position to give it.
A moment later, he returned, my bag slung over his shoulder. I thanked him, then lifted my injured leg to rest on top once he set it in front of me. The pain subsided, so I scooted down to rest my head on top of the bench. Perfect. Except for being late to work and the throbbing ankle.
“I’m going to check you out now, okay?”
It was on the tip of my tongue to mention that I’d been checking him out for the last five minutes, but flirting with passengers needed to remain subtler, more innocent. I nodded. His touch was firm, yet soft. He poked and prodded for a moment while I did my best not to wince.
Finally, he said, “It’s not broken.”
Relief washed over me. If I broke my ankle, I’d be out of a job. While I loved my sister and niece, I didn’t want to have to move in with them after becoming unemployed and homeless. “Thank goodness.”
“Wrap it up for a couple of days, try to stay off it, and you should be fine. The infirmary will have bandages.”
“I’ve got one in my bag, actually,” I said, opening a zipper on the side. “Part of the job.”
“Excellent! Please, allow me.”
I should say no, do it myself. After all, I’d wrapped various body parts a thousand times. But the smallest innocent touch couldn’t hurt anything. His firm hands warmed my ankle, making it feel better already. Once we got on the ship, I’d never see him again. “Thanks.”
He took the bandage and expertly wrapped my ankle in a matter of seconds. His hand lingered, just enough for me to notice. This magnetic pull between us wasn’t one-sided. “There you go.”
When he stood up, our eyes met again. A shiver went down my spine. For the first time, I noticed how close he stood. The heat of his breath washed over my cheek. My skin burned where he’d examined my ankle. I refused to let myself wonder what these fingers would feel like moving over the rest of my body. He licked his lips, and my eyes darted involuntarily to follow the movement. I became helpless to look away.
It had been a long time since I’d been with anyone. Too long. I made a mental note to find a suitable hookup at the first port. Suitable meaning not a passenger, and not while on the ship. Not if I wanted to keep my job, which I very much enjoyed.
“Are you part of the Sassy Singles?” I asked, naming a group that booked multiple activities for passengers looking to meet someone.
“Me? No, I’m not looking to meet anyone.” My heart sank, and he continued. “But it cracks me up that they’d put a singles cruise on a ship called the Aphrodite.”
“Well, legend has it that people fall in love on this ship. One day, and you’ll meet your mate. Or so they say.”
“Huh. Good thing I believe in science over myth then.”
“Yeah,” I said, shaking off an inexplicable twinge of disappointment. The legend was a marketing ploy; all the staff knew it. After all, we’d been sailing around for months without falling in love. But it sold tickets for the singles cruises.
“Francis!” A high-pitched voice broke the spell between us.
Over the doctor’s shoulder I spotted a stunningly gorgeous woman in flawless, heavy makeup; chestnut hair with the top half twisted elegantly into a sleek chignon; and a swingy white sundress with big pink flowers plastered all over it.
“Over here,” he called to the woman.
“It’s a family name.”
“I’m sure it is.” The longer we talked, the more dangerously close I came to crossing a line, but I couldn’t resist one more comment before reining it in. “After the first woman in the cabinet?”
He grinned. “How’d you guess?”
The question was a joke, so his response startled me. I blinked a couple of times to cover my surprise before responding. “My mother was a big Dirty Dancing fan. I’ve got that and Lethal Weapon memorized.”
What I didn’t mention was that those were the only two videos we’d owned. After Mom walked out on me and my sister, those movies were my only way of feeling connected to her. I wore out the DVDs, watching them over and over.
“A woman of refined tastes.”
Before I could respond, the woman arrived at Frank’s side, placing a perfectly manicured hand on his shoulder. She said nothing, her expression stormy, eyes hidden behind sunglasses the size of Disney World.
“Hey, Lisa,” he said. “Is it time?”
“‘Is it time?’” she mimicked, her face twisting into a grimace. “Duh! We’re going to be late! Get your ass in line.”
Girlfriend? Wife? No. No rings on either of them. My heart sank. Of course a man like Frank would have a girlfriend. Charming, sexy, rich, a doctor who moved with the grace of a dancer? The fact that I’d spent even half a second thinking he might be available made me flush with embarrassment.
On the other hand, this was a singles cruise, so maybe there was hope. The two of them had similar coloring, the same nose. As I took in the shapes of their faces, I’d bet my favorite Pleasers that she was related to Frank.
With a sigh, I glanced at my feet. Second favorite pair, anyway.
“We can’t be late. The ship isn’t going to disembark with VIP passengers waiting to go through the security line,” he said, but he stood to follow her.
Of course he was a VIP. The sunglasses pushed casually on top of his head cost more than half my Pleasers collection. The shoes I needed for work and had been accumulating slowly over the past ten years, most of them from eBay. We didn’t move in the same circles. I couldn’t even afford to window shop in his world.
“What if it does, though? Won’t you feel terrible?” She spoke slowly, as if addressing an unintelligent child. She must be an older sister; younger siblings never got away with talking like that. I had to believe Frank wouldn’t date someone who treated him like something stuck to the bottom of her shoe. “I can’t believe this. I should be sipping champagne right now.”
I craned my neck up to meet her eyes from my seated position. “The VIP passengers are the first to board. You’ll have over an hour to relax and explore the ship while the non-VIPs are going through security downstairs. Unless you turn around and leave the port area, you’ll be fine.”
“Thanks,” the woman said icily. She gave me a practiced once over before turning back to Frank. “Who is this and why are you talking to her instead of going through security?”
“I’m Janey. I work–”
She put her hand out in the ‘stop’ sign. “That’s nice. We have to go.”
“So, uh, that’s my sister,” Frank said as Lisa stalked away.
“Being late stresses her out. She’s usually not so bad. Anyway, looks like we made it to the front of the line.” A couple watched us from the space directly in front of the metal detectors as Lisa walked through. Frank gestured at them. “Those are my friends, Jake and Margie. Do you want to join us so you don’t have to wait?”
From the other side of security, Lisa turned, hands on hips. “Francis Hanson, now!”
If the rest of his party was anything like her, the last thing I wanted was to hang out with them. “Thanks, but I’ll wait for Penny. I don’t want to get on your sister’s bad side.”
“You’re right about that.” He laughed. “I’ve got to go. Sorry.”
“It’s cool. Thanks again for saving me.” Before I finished my sentence, he’d jogged off to meet his party.
Watching him go, I sighed. Well, it was a nice moment, before Lisa showed up. Probably for the best, given our circumstances.
I pulled myself
upright, testing my sore ankle. Not terrible, not great. I was supposed to dance in this evening’s welcome show, though, and that might not be possible.
Digging around in my bag, I finally found a pair of flip flops in the bottom. Switching shoes helped. Then I went to find Penny. She hadn’t gone far, standing outside the bathroom near the row of pay phones. In all my months working for the cruise line, this was the first time I’d seen anyone looking like they might use one.
I didn’t ask if she’d managed to get through to Robbie, because part of me didn’t want to know. The rest of me was afraid she us
ed a pay phone to try to trick him into answering her call, which made me sad. Penny deserved so much better. At least she returned to the line with me.
By the time we arrived, the rest of the VIPs had finished going through security and waited for the gangway to open. Through the crowd, I spotted the captain’s hat bobbing toward the giant glass doors. A glance at the clock on the wall told me he would be boarding soon, and this area would clear out quickly.
Scooping up my bag, I went through the line in record time. The throbbing in my ankle had dulled to an ache, and I thought about finding Dr. Frank to thank him again. Probably a bad idea, given the chemistry between us, but also the polite thing to do.
Then I spotted him, through the glass separating the waiting area from the docks. He walked about five steps behind the Captain. Beside him strode Lisa, the couple from the security line, and two people I recognized with a start. Only very special guests got priority boarding, which reinforced that this guy was way out of my league. But what sealed our lack of fate was the person who walked beside Frank’s friend: my boss, Max Wiseman.
Consorting with the passengers was strictly prohibited. If I did anything beyond extremely innocent flirtation with Frank, and Max found out about it, I would get fired and left at the nearest port.
Ahead of Max walked the ship owners’ very beautiful, very single daughter, Nellie. In response to something Frank said, she threw her head back, letting out a laugh I knew from experience was throaty, very sexy. Where Nellie went, heads turned. I couldn’t begin to compete with her, even if doing so wouldn’t cost me my job. As I watched, she reached out and touched Frank on the shoulder. He slung one arm around her casually in an intimate gesture. My heart sank.
Time for this particular fantasy to sail off into the horizon.