I was on the boat before I really thought about why I was doing it. My secretary talked me into it. She went on a cruise with her family and gushed about it for weeks afterward, and then started hounding me to do it. Taking a break sounded pretty good-I'd been putting in a lot of hours since the divorce. So when Brianna, that's my secretary, brought in the brochures and broke it down to baby steps for me I never really had to say "yes." I picked Western Caribbean over Eastern. Six days over five days. Grand Cayman over Ochos Rios.
A lot of things in life, large and small, work out that way. Even really big decisions that change your life. I couldn't remember making a conscious decision to get married. I remember deciding to ask Julie out the first time, but after that things just sort of blurred. Living together made sense because we were spending all of our time together anyway, with double expenses. Getting engaged seemed unavoidable because that's what people expected and after I agreed to go into the first jewelry store to "see what they've got in a nice solitaire setting" the rest just happened.
My marriage was an expensive lesson, but I applied what I learned to my job with impressive results. I was part owner of a venture capital firm that specialized in turnarounds of failing companies. That meant I earned my living by getting people to do things they probably shouldn't do on a regular basis. I firmly believe that you could convince a normal, rational person to jump off the John Hancock Building as long as you broke the decision down into small enough steps and made each one sound logical.
I boarded the boat in Miami, feeling like I was being processed at Ellis Island. For a fairly expensive vacation, cruises seemed to attract an unimpressive crowd. You'd think they backed the damned thing up to a Wal-Mart and started loading people on at random.
My cabin was nice, though calling it a "suite" was a stretch. One decent sized room with sleeping and sitting areas, a small walk-in closet, and full bath, but it had its own balcony and a big window. After I peeked into a few of the regular cabins from the hallway I started to appreciate my own-they looked like sleeper compartments on a train. The service was great, though. You couldn't walk three feet without tripping over a crewmember wanting to help you, usually with something to eat or drink.
The first couple of days I slept a lot, ate a lot, and caught up on my reading. I skipped the shore excursions in Grand Cayman because I'd been there recently and the effort required to sign up for a jeep tour or snorkeling trip didn't seem worth it.
By the third night I was getting restless, so after dinner I wandered up to the casino. It looked like casinos everywhere and it was packed. That felt good because of the familiarity and the artificial camaraderie so I stayed. I ended up at a $25 blackjack table and after four hours I had a very pleasant beer-induced buzz and was maybe a couple of hundred dollars ahead. The other six spots at the table churned, with someone new joining every half-hour or so-a stream of faces studying cards, laughing, and drinking. Only a few registered with me, one in particular.
About ten o'clock a woman took the seat two to my left. She seemed out of place, particularly given the table stakes. Long, dark brown hair, late twenties, wearing a "Maryland is for Crabs" sweatshirt and a nice pair of jeans. Even with no makeup her eyes were striking-they were an odd shade of blue-gray with long lashes. Despite the bulky sweatshirt you could tell she had an impressive rack.
She was wearing a wedding band and matching engagement ring with a tiny diamond but wasn't with a guy as far as I could tell. She seemed distracted, glancing around the casino, and it showed in her play. She lost steadily for nearly two hours before she finally pushed away from the table. She left the casino with another woman, and they made for an odd couple. The best-looking woman I'd seen on the boat, slim and leggy, paired with a short, fat, waddling, frizzy-haired gnome of a female.
I quit gambling about the same time and went up to the Lido deck for the midnight buffet. I concentrated mainly on the enticing array of desserts and tried to keep it light. Sleeping on a rocking boat with a full stomach worried me. I wandered toward the back of the dining area looking for a table and on the way passed my beautiful former blackjack companion and her fat friend. The gnome had two plates piled with enough quesadillas and tacos to feed at least three normal people. The cute one seemed to agree with me-she was eating a small portion of bread pudding. She looked sad.
The next day I got up around nine and went to the health club. It was great not having to rush through my workout. I spent a good two hours in an impressive gym that looked out over the bow of the boat and the rolling chop of the western Caribbean sea, then another hour in the steam room and Jacuzzi. They had a full service health spa too, and I thought about a massage but decided to pass.
I showered, changed, and went to the Internet café to check my messages. Across from the café was a row of large picture windows, each with a padded viewing bench built in. In one of them I spotted the "Maryland is for Crabs" woman from the night before. She was sitting with her back to the wall, feet up, staring out the window. She looked even unhappier now.
I rushed through my messages and logged off, then walked over.
"Can I help?" I asked. She glanced up.
"No, I don't need anythi..." she stopped, apparently expecting a crewmember. She looked at me, confused and wary.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to startle you," I said. "You looked troubled. I was wondering if there was something I could do to help."
She opened her mouth a little but didn't say anything, looking even more confused and thrown off balance by my offer. Her eyes were gorgeous, especially in the sunlight. She had great cheekbones, a nice nose-narrow and delicate-and a long, slender neck. Her clothes clashed with her physical perfection-a striped sweater and slacks that looked like they'd been tailored for someone else. The sweater was too big at the shoulders and waist, but in between it confirmed my theory about the woman's tits. They were bodacious, straining the fabric of the sweater, and from the way they rode on her chest they looked natural. I smiled at her.
"You sat at my blackjack table for two hours last night. That creates an unbreakable bond-I'm obligated to look after you for the rest of our natural lives."
She squinted at me, then smiled. "Oh, right. You're the guy who was winning." Then she laughed-a beautiful, clear musical laugh that suited her.
"That's pretty funny. Thanks, I needed a laugh. But it's nothing, really."
I gave her a skeptical frown. "I bet it would feel good to talk about it and I'm a great listener. Why don't we go have lunch? I'll buy."
I nodded toward the dining area, where the free buffet was underway.
She laughed again, but looked unsure. I reached out my hand.
She took it. Her hand felt terrific, warm and soft with long, slender fingers.
"I'm Beth." She bit her lower lip, still deciding. I made it easier for her-I kept my grip on Beth's hand and gently pulled her to her feet.
"Come on, Beth. What's the worst that could happen?"
She smiled and nodded. Like I said, the first decision is the hardest.
We got lunch, both taking soup and the Creole chicken and shrimp with rice. After we sat down I kept the conversation on small talk for a while-unthreatening and light, mainly about the cruise. Beth was a little shy, unsure of herself socially, which seemed strange for someone so striking.
"So, what had you so troubled earlier?" I finally asked. "Is it the money you lost last night?"
She blushed. "That's part of it. I shouldn't have been gambling so much. But I was kind of depressed anyway and I thought that might help. It didn't."
"So why is that so bad?"
"Ronnie-he's my husband-is going to be mad when I get home. I put it on our credit card and I lost almost five hundred dollars." Saying the amount out loud seemed to upset her. She looked like she might cry.
I reached over and took her hand.
"Hey, it's okay. Your husband isn't on the boat?"
She shook her head. "That's part of why I was depressed." She paused, taking a deep breath to stay in control. Her hand was shaking.
"Tell me about it, Beth."
"Well, we were going to come together. It was kind of a big deal, at least for me. A chance for us to spend time together, you know, and be close again. But a couple of weeks ago these buddies of his asked him to go ice fishing up in Canada and he said he would. He said it would be more fun than some dumb cruise."
Now Beth was crying, quiet tears rolling down her cheeks, shoulders shaking. I was dumbstruck. This loser would rather sleep in a freezing cabin or tent with some beer-soaked, unshaven buddies than be here banging the daylights out of a babe like Beth. There was no accounting for taste.
"So you decided to come with your twin, huh?" I asked, keeping a straight face.
"What?" she asked, wiping her cheek with her other hand. She was making no effort to reclaim the hand I was holding. Then she made a little snorting noise and started to laugh.
"You're horrible. That's my friend Emma. She's nice!" Beth said, smiling through her tears.
.... There is more of this story ...