First Chapter of FULL STEAM AHEAD

A green-eyed boy with a far too sexy smile.
A lonely girl who has had the worst six months of her life.
Seven steamy days aboard a luxury cruise liner.
Let the sparks fly ...

Chapter 1
Georgia

I can’t believe how much I’m dreading this trip.

All semester I was looking forward to this cruise, a whole week to soak up the Caribbean sun and make out with Hunter on a soft sandy beach. For seven days and six nights, I would run away from the nightmare that has consumed my life for the last six months. Away from the threats, the emails demanding money.

But right now, I wish more than anything that I had stayed home in New Orleans and canceled this trip completely. Instead I’m here, extricating myself and my luggage from a Miami taxicab, about to board a bright blue behemoth of a boat called The Radiant Star.

“Thank God, the ship’s still here!” my friend Yasmin says while she throws a couple bills at the cab driver who brought us from the airport. Despite her hundred-pound frame, she yanks her giant roller bag out of the trunk and sprints toward the boarding dock, waving her Crossfit-muscled arm and crying out to the crew, “Don’t leave without us!”

I jerk my carry-on beach bag over my tired shoulder, grab my own suitcase, and follow more slowly. Thanks to our flight delay in New Orleans, we’ll be one of the last people to board the ship, but we’re not in any danger of missing the boat.

Unfortunately.

Maybe Hunter decided not to come, I think. The thought of running into him on this cruise—repeatedly—makes me cringe. We’ve barely spoken in the weeks since he dumped me. We coexist at Greek events on campus, but other than that …

“Come on, slow poke!” Yasmin calls, and I urge my legs to walk faster.

My flip-flops slap against the faded wood of the dock, and I squint against the December sun that blazes bright, if not overly hot. My sunglasses are somewhere at the bottom of my carry-on, but Yasmin is calling my name again, so I ignore the pain in my eyes until we’re safely on the boarding ramp.

“I can’t believe we made it,” Yasmin says happily as she pulls her thick black hair into a ponytail. While I root for my sunglasses, she starts debating whether our inaugural drink aboard should be a margarita or a mai tai, and I shrug absently as we inch forward. Finally finding my sunglasses, I shove them on in relief. I have a bona fide headache now, but I paste a cheery smile on my mouth. With my eyes hidden, Yasmin will never know that it’s not real.

“I vote margarita,” I say, even though I’d rather take a glass of water, an Advil, and a ticket back to Louisiana.

“I bet everyone else is on board already. They’re probably drinking by the pool, don’t you think?” Yasmin goes on. A few months ago our sorority organized this “Fun in the Sun Cruise” for winter break, and about twenty of our sisters signed up for it. Hunter and a dozen of his frat brothers signed up too, which is the only way I’d been able to even think about going. With the mess I’m in, I’d never afford this trip on my own, but Hunter happily booked us the most spacious stateroom on the ship. That was back in October. It feels like a decade has passed since then.

Yasmin waves the brochure in my face. “Earth to Georgia. Hello?”

“Sorry, what did you say?”

“Let’s go to the pool after we drop off our stuff. Sound good?”

“Sounds great.” My voice is faint. I silently vow to do a better job of psyching myself up for a week of pretending that I’m okay. None of my sorority sisters, not even Yasmin, know how bad things have gotten. How badly I’ve screwed things up. Every time I think about it, a yawning blackness wells up and I feel myself sinking. I shake my head, trying to clear it.

Bad idea—I stagger to the side.

“You all right?” Yasmin steadies me, a frown marring her pretty features.

“Yeah, just lightheaded from the plane.”

She gives me a sympathetic look and hands me a little package of cookies that the airline gave us. My stomach turns and I tell her I’m not hungry, but she nags me into eating them.

“Feel better?” she asks when I’m done.

I don’t, but I nod. Force myself to smile.

“I’m fine,” I say. Those two words fall off my tongue easily, like a comforting blanket. I say them all the time now, and most people believe me. But Yasmin gives me her Future Psychologist look—she’s a psych major and has already gotten into grad school—and I have to reassure her. “Really, Yas. I’m fine.”

She purses her lips, but thankfully lets it go. As a middle-aged couple checks in ahead of us, she pulls out the brochure the cruise line mailed to us weeks ago. In true Yasmin fashion, she has stuffed the glossy pages full with color-coded sticky notes.

“I can’t wait for the Black Tie Gala tomorrow night,” she says. “This New Year’s Eve is going to be fantastic. We just have to find guys to kiss at midnight!”

“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s sort of too soon, you know?” `

“Too soon to wipe away all thoughts of your ex while you're in the arms of another guy? Please. I know it was all mutual, but if Hunter wasn’t smart enough to hold onto you, then he’s a jerk, and you don’t owe him anything.” She reaches for my hand, and gives it a squeeze.

I squeeze back, but guilt swims at the bottom of my stomach. I want to explain that Hunter isn’t a jerk, that I’m the one who ruined everything; but I say nothing. Ever since I finally told Hunter the truth about me, about what I did two years ago and how it’s catching up to me now, he can barely look at me. I can’t risk losing Yasmin too.

The couple in front of us grabs their bags and rolls onto the ship, and Yasmin and I step up to the podium.

“Names?” a tanned twenty-something guy asks us.

“Yasmin Alejo and Georgia Cantwell,” says Yasmin, her gaze flicking over his sculpted arms.

He glances at the Greek symbols on her shirt, and grins. “You ladies in a sorority?”

“Kappa Beta Kappa,” Yasmin confirms with a smile. I can tell she thinks this guy is cute by the way she twists her hair between her fingers.

“What school do you go to?”

“Baxter University,” Yasmin replies. She and the tanned guy, who introduces himself as Austin, chat for a few minutes before he tells us about the mandatory ship safety meeting in half an hour. Just before he motions to the next set of passengers, he mentions to us that he bartends at the piano bar most nights.

“We’re definitely going to that piano bar later,” Yasmin whispers once we leave the check-in podium.

“Guess I’ll be playing wing-woman then?” I whisper back. I’d rather curl up in my stateroom with the zombie ebook I downloaded before the trip, but if Yas wants me to hang out at the bar with her instead, I’m there. After her sister died last summer, she’s barely had time to recover, thanks to her heavy load of courses and extracurriculars this semester. Most of the time she seems okay, but at least once a week this semester I caught her crying in the sorority house’s living room after she thought everyone else was asleep. I’d bring her tissues, and hug her until she calmed. She deserves some relaxation and fun, and if Austin is what she wants, I’ll do my best to help her.

We don’t enter the ship on the top deck, like I’d assumed, but halfway down. It’s like walking into a big cave. The air of the hallway is colder than I’d thought it would be, and dark, after the warm sunlight outside. It tries to swallow me up, but I keep my lips arranged in a happy shape. Yasmin bounces ahead of us as if she had a double espresso on the flight instead of herbal tea.

At the elevator, Yasmin announces that our staterooms are on Riviera Deck 8. She studies the ship’s map in her brochure, punches the up button, then pauses. “Wait, never mind,” she mutters, and punches the down button. “Sorry, this map is confusing.”

“No worries,” I say. Hunter’s fancy stateroom is higher up, I remember, but I’m obviously not staying there anymore. I asked around among our group and begged whoever had the cheapest cabin to switch spots with me. Not that I had to beg hard, since my replacement got a free upgrade.

Catching my reflection in the shiny elevator door, I cringe a little. My long chestnut hair has ballooned in the humidity, while dark bags shadow my blue eyes thanks to our early morning flight. I glance over my wrinkled clothes, a simple white tank and gray yoga pants, and notice how they sag off of my thinning frame. For most of my life I looked like my mother, with the “Cantwell curves” as she calls them, but I’ve barely been able to keep down Skittles over the last few months, let alone actual meals. Whenever I think about the mess I’ve gotten myself into, my stomach shoves my food right back up. Gross, I know. Lately I feel like a husk of who I used to be.

“You brought my Christmas present with you, right?” Yasmin chatters, referring to the red bikini that she bought for me from the Victoria’s Secret website. I’m so glad I didn’t open the gift in front of my mom; she probably would’ve called it a ‘stripper outfit.’ “It’s all part of my revenge plan. Once He-who-must-not-be-named sees you in it, he’s going to feel so bad about breaking your heart and—“

The elevator door slides open with a ping, and my heart freezes at what I see inside. Hunter Fairbanks himself. My boyfriend of eighteen months. Now very ex.

And he’s not alone.

Hunter has his arm around Kelsey Reilly, the president of Kappa Beta Kappa. It’s more a friendly touch than anything, a casual flirtation, but when he sees me he withdraws his arm.

Kelsey steps towards us. “Hi, girls, you made it!” she chirps.

The elevator tries to close and Hunter, ever the southern gentleman, holds the door open for us. “Going up?” he says, running a hand through the sandy brown hair that curls at the nape of his neck. He gives me a blank sort of smile, the kind you’d give a stranger, and his eyes don’t meet mine.

This is what we’ve become. This is what I’ve done to us. We used to spend hours together everyday, studying and watching movies and grabbing late-night burgers from the drive-thru, but now we can’t even look one another in the eye. Only a couple months ago, Hunter had poked me slyly in the ribs after he made our cruise reservation, whispering that he might have something to ask me on New Year’s Eve. When I told my mom what he had said, she walked straight to her jewelry box and gave me a string of pearls—she said they were the same pearls she wore when she got engaged to my dad.

I left those pearls stuffed in a drawer at home.

I swallow a big gulp of air. I can get through this week, I tell myself. I will get through this week.

“We’re going down,” Yasmin says coolly to Hunter. “We’ll catch the next one.”

“Sure, no problem,” Kelsey says. She flashes us the bright white smile that won her Miss Teen Alabama. “Everyone’s meeting at the Sunshine pool up on the Lido deck after the safety session. See you there!”

The elevator door closes, and I can only blink at the spot where Hunter was standing only a second ago.

Yasmin studies me. “I don’t know how you do it.”

“Do what?” The elevator opens again, and we drag our suitcases inside.

“Be so polite to him. I mean, after a year and a half of dating, everyone thought you were going to get engaged, not break up.”

Tell me about it. I chase away the tears invading my eyes and utter the line that Hunter and I agreed on. “We decided that we’re better off as friends. We’re both totally fine with it.”

For a moment, I wish Yasmin would call me on my utter bullshit. See through my lies. But that would spell disaster—no one can know the real reason Hunter broke up with me. He may have left me when I needed him the most, but at least he had the grace not to tell anyone what I’ve been hiding.

“Well, I’m really glad that you decided to come on the trip. It’s so brave of you,” Yasmin says. “And we’re going to show Douche Bag Fairbanks that you’re better off without him.”

She’s wrong, but I smile a little anyway. Yas is a better friend than I deserve.

Our elevator spits us out onto another dim hallway, and we traipse across royal blue carpet that must have been installed in the early nineties. Dozens of doors flank us on both sides, and I hope mine isn’t too far. I want to close the curtains and sleep until tomorrow. Maybe my roommate has headed up to the Lido Deck already and I can skip the safety session altogether.

“Looks like this one is mine,” Yasmin says, stopping outside of room 8041. “You want to come in for a minute and say hi to Parker?”

“I should probably unpack. I’ll see you later, okay?” After Yasmin disappears into her cabin, I head down the hallway. I wish we could’ve roomed together, but she promised Parker Holloway that they’d book a balcony cabin months ago. I can’t complain. They’ve been best friends since elementary school, and I’ve only known Yasmin since I transferred to Baxter a year and a half ago. Besides, I never could’ve paid for a room with a balcony.

My head pounds, and I wish yet again that I had stayed at home. Yasmin might have called me ‘brave’ for coming on this trip, but the truth is that I’m not brave at all. The only reason I didn’t cancel is because I haven’t told my parents yet that Hunter and I broke up. I’m a coward, I know. I tried to tell them right after Christmas, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, not after hearing my mom gush again about how Hunter is the best thing to happen to our family in years, and how I’d better be sure not to lose him. So I charged my fare on my credit card and vowed to find a way to pay it later, though I’m scraping by to make ends meet as it is. And even that isn’t enough anymore. Not with the latest email …

That familiar nauseous feeling climbs up my throat, and I break into a jog, dragging my suitcase frantically until I find my room. Swiping the key card, I thrust open the door; a punch of chilly air greets me as I step inside. I shove my bags into a corner and sink onto the edge of the bed, drawing in deep breaths to try and settle my stomach. I tell myself I’ll be fine, but grab the trashcan just in case. There’s a roar in my head, a million poundings like water onto pavement, telling me I shouldn’t have eaten those cookies.

The shower in the bathroom shuts off, and I look up, startled. Crap. I’d been so busy trying not to puke that I hadn’t realized the shower was running. The bathroom door opens, and a cloud of steam escapes into the bedroom before my roommate steps out.

Avert your eyes, I tell myself, but all thoughts of politeness float away as my gaze gets stuck to the expanse of bare skin of the tall form in front of me. A white towel has been wound around his lean torso, and his fingers even now are tucking in the edge.

Droplets fall from dark brown hair, water trickling everywhere. Across the bridge of his slightly crooked nose. Down suntanned shoulders and below his flat stomach. Down, down…my mouth is dry, and I tear my gaze away from the line of towel slung low—too low—on his narrow hips.

Jace McLaren raises a dark brow at me.

“Hey there, roomie,” he says.

And that’s when I throw up.
_________________________________

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3 comments:

  1. YES I WANT TO READ MORE!

    That was an excellent start and I can't wait to read more.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh my goodness, Cora, thank you SO MUCH for your lovely comment! It has simply made my day, and I hope you'll enjoy the rest of FSA once it's out! :)

    ReplyDelete