START AN ADVENTURE. READY, SET, GO!
THE FLORES SEA IN THE INDONESIAN ARCHIPELAGO
LEON LOWERED THE BINOCULARS FROM HIS EYES and blinked. The ship was the right target. Soon its valuable treasure would be his. He turned to face his anxious men. Yes, he had learned well from Opel, his mentor. He could see the men’s fear of him; they were tense and riveted to his every move.
He also had learned from that Jesuit, but not to be one of “God’s Marines.” A small smile played across his handsome face, his red eyes shining bright. He was God now, and he was free of all that religious bunk. No, it was now “Leon’s Marines.”
The idle military sea craft rolled with the swells, and the breeze ruffled his black hair.
He said only one word.
I WILL NEVER FORGET the night I was actually introduced to Jane. Diners turned to stare when Jane and Remy walked into the dining room. They both looked incredible. I was at a table with some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen and, of course, with that ass, Nick.
As I watched the women at my table nearly knocking themselves out to get Nick’s attention, I was wondering why in the world I had even considered a cruise. I could have rented a boat to get material for my article. My folks had enough money. Not nearly what this Nick had, but I wasn’t a pauper. They would have given me the money to rent a private schooner with a full crew. What was I thinking? I just was not that social and the purpose of a cruise like this was to meet people.
I was sitting at the table feeling like the biggest wallflower in the world when Mr. Charisma asked her to dance. Why didn’t I ask her? I know why. She would have turned me down. No, she wouldn’t have. She way too nice. But she wouldn’t have wanted to dance with me. I’m not bad looking, but I have the personality of an old gym sock.
Well, maybe not that bad, but I wouldn’t have known what to talk about and it was just easier to sit at the table and take in her beauty. And daydream about a woman like that, because that’s all it would be for me. Like all the rest of my other daydreams – a wanna-be novelist and hoping to sell stuff to National Geographic.
JANE NODDED AND ROSE FROM HER SEAT as if she were in a trance. Nick looked wonderful in his expensive tuxedo. When they reached the dance floor, he took her in his arms, his hand firmly low on her waist with his fingers on the hollow of her spine, sending waves of sensation through her body. His other hand was warm and felt delightful in hers. She could smell his sweet breath. His expensive cologne smelled like fresh-cut wood, pine needles, and spice.
She didn’t even think to resist as he gazed into her eyes. She just gave herself to those dark pools with long, dark lashes and hooded eyelids. Then she realized things seemed kind of fuzzy and she wasn’t breathing.
Breathe girl, breathe.
She became aware that she had a sort of shocked look on her face and grasped that she was making a fool out of herself, just like the other girls. She put on a small smile and looked away, trying to break the spell.
They swirled around the dance floor as if they were floating on air.
She looked up again and smiled at him. They were saying nothing, but she realized that it was a comfortable silence. He smiled back. His eyes were smoldering. They were just feeling each other, the soaring music, and the pulsing lights. In a world of their own. He pulled her closer, and his lips brushed her cheek. That sent another explosion into her head and spread like a firestorm through her. He held her tighter. She could feel his lean, hard body so close to hers as they swung to the rhythm around the dance floor. She could feel the silky material of his jacket with her hand, and the hard muscles of his back. They swirled effortlessly. He did make her feel like a dancing queen. His queen. She suddenly realized that she had never wanted any man as she wanted him at this moment. She had never felt like this, and she wanted it to go on forever. She hoped the song would never end.
But it did end. He gently steered her back to the table. The next song started, and the beat vibrated the room. The spot pulsed where his hand lay on her waist. He pulled out her chair, and she sat, avoiding the jealous eyes.
She took a sip of her wine and realized that she had had enough. She put it down and looked over the table. Peter was looking at her with an odd look on his face. The floor still vibrated and thrummed with the beat, and the lights on the ceiling swirled, along with her head. She needed to get out of there. She was afraid to look at Nick.
The lovely singers crooned.
My, my. At Waterloo Napoleon did surrender. Oh yeah. And I have met my destiny in a similar way. The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself. Waterloo. I was defeated. You won the war.
She felt swept up with the song, dimly aware that Carol, the teen, was speaking in her fast, hyper clip. She tried to focus.
“… Nineteen pirate attacks in these waters in just this year. They hide ships, take the stuff, and hold the crew for ransom. But my parents said the pirates take mostly tankers, you know, like cargo ships? Mostly? I mean, oh, my gawd!” she screamed. “Nineteen pirate attacks just this last year. I mean it was all, you know, oh my gawd. I was like so terrified. I didn’t want to come on this cruise, but it was all like, you know, my parents said – she lowered her voice. ‘No, dear. They don’t attack cruise ships.'”
Jane finally looked over at Nick. He was paying attention to Carol’s dialogue as if she was the only person in the room. Confusion started to seep into her mind, like a slow-moving fog. Clear and bright one moment, and then being slowly consumed by a haze to hide the thought that the feelings between the two of them on the dance floor had all been an illusion. She peeked behind her mental curtain and immediately closed it. Alarming thoughts were trying to surface, but being swallowed up and drawn out of sight. She wouldn’t pay attention to those thoughts. She felt too good.
So her attention wandered away from the banter around the table about pirates. The swinging sound from the stage had her foot tapping. And her mind was in bed with Nick, the two of them in a hot world, rolling under the sheets. She could feel his lips pressing and his hands creating heat and fantastic sensations, her body exploding with desire. She was giving herself up to him completely and letting his skilled lovemaking take her away to a place she had always wanted to go.
She watched the singers as the song “Waterloo” vibrated through her body. She watched their long legs –purple, hot pink, and gold – Madera’s long, straight, white-blonde hair swinging to and fro with the music, and she realized that she would end up in bed with him, if he asked. And from his response to her on the dance floor, their shared exciting few moments, she knew he would. He made her feel like the center of the universe.
Then she dreamily looked over at him. His chair was empty.
She looked around. He was now dancing with gorgeous Sonja. Sonja, the Viking sex siren! He was dancing with her, and she looked so attractive … and mesmerized. Had she looked like that? He was gazing into her eyes. Just as he did with her. He had made her feel so special, but there he was, doing the same thing with her.
Her heart fell through the floor. She reached for her wine and knocked it over. It spilled across the table, seeping into the white tablecloth, and spread around the crystal centerpiece that held an arrangement of exotic flowers.
She tried to regain her composure, but her stomach was aching. No, it was her heart. I never learn. They’re never what they seem. Her head was buzzing. She was dimly aware of pretty Molly talking to Peter. But Peter was stealing glances at her.
The music ended and Nick led Sonja back to the table.
Jane stood. “Well, glad to meet you all. It was fun.”
“You’re leaving?” Linda asked. Almost too hopeful.
Remy rose with her. She knew her friend had not missed one thing about the scene. Not one.
“Yeah, thought I would take a walk on deck before turning in.”
They walked out of the dining room, which was on D deck, and stood at the rail amidships looking down on the black water.
“Jane, he’s not worthy of you. You are so much better than he is. Sure, he’s good looking. He has the face, the body, the charm. That watch must have cost $30,000.”
“Remy, how would you know stuff like that?”
“Internet junky. Learn all sorts of interesting things. Just Googled expensive watches for men. It’s a Patek Philippe. I wanted a watch for Jack and got caught up in the expensive ones, just for the heck of it. Can’t afford them. Anyway, Jack was a Jerk. With a capital J. I mean I knew he was, but he was fun. Sexy and fun. But I couldn’t keep ignoring he was so … Oh, well. Life happens. Move on. No problemo.”
Jane didn’t say anything.
“Look Jane, you’re not looking for just a good time, a movie, dinner and a roll in the hay. You’re looking for Mr. Right, someone to spend the rest of your life with, someone not just in love with your backside or your breasts. You have a brilliant mind. Your Mr. Right will appreciate that. Believe me, I know Mr. Wrongs. I know jerks, and Nick is a J E R K. All he’s looking for is a lay and another notch on his bed post. He may look good on the outside but inside he’s rotten. Trust me. I can tell. And he’s waaay too full of himself. Forget it.”
“I know. You’re right. I feel so stupid. I was falling for the act. God!” She pounded her fist on the railing.
They stood in silence and gazed at the tropical night. The moon was full and shimmered on the water. Stars were out in a riot of light as the ship slid smoothly through the dark Flores Sea. They chatted for about fifteen minutes about the next port of call – Maumere Bay. It was supposed to be very beautiful, surrounded by volcanoes and mountains on Flores Island. This reminded her of an article she’d seen. She told Remy that scientists had found skeletons on Flores Island of a hobbit-like people who grew no larger than a three-year-old – a new species of human – tiny people who had skulls the size of grapefruits and lived with pygmy elephants and Komodo dragons eighteen thousand years ago.
Remy yawned and looked at her watch. “Oh my god, it’s 11:30 already. I have a personal training session in the morning, 9:00 sharp. I’m going back to our room for a few Zs. You coming?”
“No, not sleepy yet. Be there in a while.”
“See you later.” Remy gave her a quick hug and left.
THE BOAT WAS GIVEN A LITTLE LONGER LEASH and rushed forward toward its victim. The prey, unaware of the danger, continued lazily forward as though going for a leisurely walk in the park.
Leon was in tune with the boat. His excitement grew and a bit of spittle clung to the corner of his red lips. He licked it back and ordered his men to make a final check of their equipment.
All were tensed like the steel jaws of a game trap, ready to snap and snare the unsuspecting quarry ahead.
Leon looked at his watch.
SHE LOOKED DOWN at the wake caused by the ship and listened to the sound of the water coursing softly against the hull.
The Jakarta was described as “an intimate luxury cruise ship catering to young adults and forty-somethings still young at heart.” With only ninety passengers, she was intimate. Jane looked up at the three upper decks. The top deck, deck A, had the swimming pool, the tanning and lounging area, and a bar. The next deck down, B deck, had luxury staterooms, a massage salon, a mini-gym, and the Bridge control room. Her stateroom was on the third deck down on C deck, along with a expensive gift and clothing store and another bar. The main deck, D deck where she was standing, had the dining room, a game room, a hair salon, offices for the crew, and the four lifeboats. She remembered that tomorrow they were scheduled to do lifeboat drills.
The lowest deck, E deck, held the engine room, crew lounge and berthing, and storage. Below her, the heart of the ship, the engines, beat a steady rhythm.
Jane played the evening over in her mind, trying to wrap her wits around what had happened to her on that dance floor. Truth was, she was still trying to recover. Her poor body was still buzzing, hormones having a samba/mambo dance in reaction to him. They seemed to have really connected while they danced. It was if they had known each other forever. She had never felt like that with a man. It was magic for the length of one song. And then the magic ended. Poof! I turned into a pumpkin, and I lost the glass slipper. Was it just me? Am I so needy I had to contrive something when there was nothing?
She laughed at the silly image and looked out over the ocean.
So immense. So much space …
“Beautiful.” She turned to the voice. Nick was at her side.
“Well, what a surprise,” she said.
“You seemed to be having a good time in there. I mean with the regular harem of women surrounding you as if you were a rock star. Are you a rock star?”
“No, not a rock star.”
“Humm. Well, all you rock stars out there, eat your hearts out. Nick’s got it happening.”
“Thank you. That’s flattering. But to answer your first question, why am I here instead of in there? Well, I was drawn here.”
“Oh. Spare me!”
He put his hand on her cheek. Her heart thumped, sending sparks to her brain. Heat spread through her body like a tidal rush as he gazed into her eyes. She pushed his hand away and backed away.
“Do you believe in instant attraction?” he asked.
“Well, I …”
“I want to kiss you.”
WITH AN EAGER BURST OF SPEED, the military craft matched the pace of the cruise liner. Hands were about to grasp the victim in a death grip from which there was no escape. No amount of thrashing or evasive maneuvers would break its hold and the death spiral was about to begin.
SHE MOVED AWAY FROM THE RAIL and walked to the door. Nick followed her and put his hand on the door, barring her way. They stood in shadows, away from the light of the moon, but she could see his eyes. Trying to gain some semblance of thinking to counter the hormones, she quipped, “Humm. Do all Greek gods say things like … I want to kiss you?” she smirked. “Nick, we just met.”
“I know, but you smell good. You and the moonlight have me intoxicated. I’m not responsible for my actions.” He smiled a crooked smile.
“Whew! That’s quite a line.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. But I’m a bit overwhelmed.” He stood closer. “And I still want to kiss you.”
Jane tried to stop the play he obviously had in mind. “Nick, you have the eyes of every woman on this ship. How do you handle that?”
“I don’t pay much attention to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice. But I’m afraid I’m just awfully selective. I can tell you’re judging me, but don’t. All the charm with the ladies is just an act I put on. I can’t help it. I was raised that way. But really, I would rather just be myself. I’m just a nice guy who can’t find a nice girl because they all want me for my money … instead of just me.”
“So I should be terribly flattered? Besides, what makes you think I’m not a dumb redhead? We just met. And you don’t know anything about me.”
“A forensic scientist? Yeah, right. I’ll bet you also love music, art, and literature.”
“Well, I do love opera and jazz. But I’m afraid I just read cheesy thrillers, now that I’m out of college and not forced to read Faulkner or Dostoevsky.” She laughed.
Yes, she said to herself. I see. I can see, and I love gazing into his wonderful dark eyes. And I’m dying to kiss those lips. And run my hands through those black curls that frame his perfect face.
He suddenly took her by the waist and pulled her to him. He gently laid his fingers along her cheek and, with his thumb, raised her face to his. He softly pressed his lips to hers and opened her lips with his tongue. His kiss caused electric sparks throughout her body, warming places that hadn’t been warm in a long time. His hand moved down her neck, caressing the soft skin below her ear and then traveled to her shoulder and then her side. It was obvious to her where this “hand voyage” was headed.
The letters J E R K popped into her head. A word for stupid me, she thought as she suddenly pushed him away. “Look, you’re going just a little too fast. No, way too fast. You’re coming on like Attila the Hun. Maybe Attila would have more chance of conquest in Scandinavia. This isn’t my style. And it’s midnight. I need to go to sleep.” Besides, you’re not making a fool of me twice in one night.
She walked away toward the stern of the ship to use the stairs up to C deck and her cabin.
Suddenly she stopped. She could see a man dressed in black coming over the stern rail.
She backed into the shadows and watched for a moment. The man did something to the front of his vest, shrugged out of it, and crouched behind a large white locker near the back rail. She removed her shoes, turned and silently ran back, grabbed Nick by the arm, and ducked into the shadows.
“What? Changed your mind?”
Her voice was low and hoarse from terror. Her wide eyes looked into his, pleading with fear.
“Nick! … Pirates!”
IT WAS 11:30. I paced the main deck – D deck – watching my shoes as they just kept moving, one in front of the other without any volition of my own – slowly shuffling along the wide-open part of the stern – the fantail area. I walked to the back rail and watched the wake, not really noticing it or the full moon. Or a ship quietly approaching the stern.
She’s special, beautiful, and smart … and real. Sincere. She seems really kind, too, I thought. The kind of girl I always wanted to meet. She’s not like Jessica.
Thinking about Jessica plunged me into deeper depression. We had had a frenzied affair when I was in college, and I had spent a lot of money on her, thinking she was the girl for me. She had accepted all the presents, the dinner cruises on the Charles River, a winter trip to Fort Lauderdale, and the diamond solitaire. But when my parents cut off my spending, she forgot who I was. My parents were well off and doted on me, but were not super rich. They let me know that they were worried about my obsession and spending on this girl. Later, I had to admit they were right to worry. She wouldn’t return my calls, dropped the key to my apartment in the mail slot, and finally changed her phone number.
Now, looking at our affair without my blinders on, I can see she was as phony as cubic zirconia. Damn, what a fool. I’ll bet Miss Nordic at dinner is the same type. But Jane’s different.
I walked over to the rail on the side of the ship and looked toward the bow.
There they were, standing amidships.
I stepped back into the shadows and watched Nick’s aggressive play for Jane. How could she be enamored with such a guy? Silly question, I know why. He’s handsome, charming, and rich. And who am I? Just a wannabe journalist with dreams of working for National Geographic and silly dreams of traveling the world. Being an author?
I hadn’t had much luck with women and, in fact, had been a bit afraid of them because of two failed romances – one in high school where I had been jilted by Tanya who fell in love with a six-foot-four jock on the football team and then Jessica. I just couldn’t relate to women anymore. I didn’t even relate to groups all that well. I was into solitary things like writing, photography, rowing, rock climbing, and cross-country motorcycle riding. Reading. Writing novels.
No, everything I like, I do alone – a loner. I can’t compete with guys like Nick. Or in social situations like this cruise. Why did I come? Stupid. Why suffer like this? I should just go home, but …
I turned to in the direction of the sound. A grapple hook fell to the deck.
In just a few seconds, I knew what it was.
A man in black was boarding off the stern rail.
With my heart racing, I immediately ran to the door, wrenched it open, and stepped inside. I saw a utility closet. I ran to it, went in, and left the door cracked so I had a view of the corridor and the stairwell. I was panting loudly with fear. I tried to slow my breathing.
JANE AND NICK WERE STANDING in the shadows. Nick pulled away from her and started for the door to go inside.
“No, Nick. We can’t go to our cabins,” she hissed. “They’ll find us.”
“We can hide in a lifeboat. Run!”