WITH EVERY BREATH Chapter 1


Yasmin

As the rain outside the hotel lobby pours down in heavy sheets, I can’t help but think of Sofia. She freaking loved a good thunderstorm, and would curl up by the picture windows in our living room for hours, watching the leaves and grass getting drenched outside. Even a drizzle would bring a smile to her face.

Now that my sister’s gone, I sort of hate the rain.

Thank God I’ve got cute shoes on, at least. Practical, bulky rain boots? Forget it. My toes will get soaked, but my striped aqua wedges are cork and washable fabric, so they won’t get ruined. And they cheer me up, so they’re worth it. Smiling down at my shoes, I open my shoddy ten-dollar umbrella. I can’t hide from the storm any longer. My deadline to board the cruise liner Radiant Star is in twenty minutes, and the weather app on my phone claims there won’t be a break in the rain for at least an hour.

Before I brave the storm, I reach for my DSLR camera—a battered Nikon D3 that I inherited from Sofia—and take a few macro shots of the raindrops collecting on the lobby door. Using my thumb, I scroll through the images, then wince. Sofia’s photos were all works of art, while mine are so comparatively amateurish that I might as well not take them at all. It seems laughable that I am about to become a photographer on a cruise ship.

But that's what I need right now—something totally different, so I can clear my head and figure out where I'm going, since my former path feels so wrong. I shove the camera in the waterproof compartment of my suitcase and make sure my lenses are snugly packed before I zip up my red Star Heart Cruises company windbreaker. Pushing open the lobby door, I rush into the downpour.

Almost immediately, the wind whips my umbrella out of my hand. I could chase it, but it’s already broken, bent inside out. I glance behind me at the hotel’s gift shop, where more are for sale …

Screw it. I race for the ship. The rain pelts my legs, left bare by my khaki shorts. It’s Miami in July, and I hadn’t figured on needing clothes for a freaking hurricane. I can picture Sofia rolling her eyes at that.

Quit exaggerating, Yasmin, she’d say. A little water never hurt anyone. Once, a few years ago, she woke me up at two in the morning to sneak outside during a hot Louisiana storm, the type that rolls in during the humid summer months. Our mom would have been furious, because with Sofia’s weak immune system a mild cold could easily blow up into a hospital visit, but once Sofia had her heart set on something, none of us could deny her, least of all me. So we’d danced like maniacal, giggling sprites in the backyard as the lightning and thunder split the sky. I can still remember her with her face turned up to the rain, a blissful smile on her lips. I wish I had a picture of that moment.

The memory skewers me with a familiar pain, but I can’t deal with it now, so I push it away. When I reach the top of the gangway, soaking from my dark hair to my aqua wedges, I duck under the overhang and am confronted with a pair of Indian men who look at me with tired expectation.

“Yasmin Alejo, reporting for duty,” I say, trying for a jaunty smile. I need to practice smiling even when I don’t feel like it, because like the rest of the ship’s photographers I’ll be working on commission.

One of the men takes my bags to scan them while the other checks my paperwork.

“It’s raining cats and dogs, right?” I wave at the rain beyond us. “Big cats and dogs. Like, tigers and wolves.” The security officer checking my paperwork flicks a glance at me and grunts, ignoring my attempt at a joke. I give up, falling silent, and soon they stuff a folder in my hands and motion for me to head inside. I guess that’s the extent of my registration.

Peeking into the folder, I find a card telling me my cabin is 0013. I ask the security guard where that is, but his speech is quick and strongly accented, and I don’t understand him. Before I can ask him to repeat whatever he said, he’s busied with two more crew members embarking.

I shrug and make my way down the hallway. I’ll figure it out. Three weeks ago, I finally got my psych degree, and even made the Dean’s List. If I can handle 18-credit-hour semesters, I can find my way around an oversized boat. Although I never had to take a test on orienteering for my psychology classes …

I reach a bigger hallway, one that runs parallel to the length of the ship. It’s nothing like the carpeted, decorated, softly lit passenger corridors I remember from when I took a New Year’s Eve cruise last winter on this very ship. This passageway is … well, let’s call it aesthetically challenged. Industrial metal floors, stark white paint. It’s wide, and busy with crew rushing this way and that. There’s a buzz of different languages; my week-long training course taught me that most of the crew on board aren’t American. At first that was intimidating since I only have a couple stamps in my passport, but now I’m looking forward to it. I never studied abroad in college because I didn’t want to be far from Sofia, just in case.

Now that doesn’t matter. I swallow the sharp burst of pain at the thought, resolutely ignoring it the way I’ve done every day of the eleven months since my sister’s death. I tuck the folder under my arm so I have a hand free to shove my dripping wet hair back from my face, and step forward into the big crew hallway.

Then I stop, staring around like a tourist. College degree or no, I have not a single freaking idea where to go from here. The fact that this mirrors my life right now is not lost on me. Only a few months ago, I was confident and collected and cool-headed. I had it all together … at least on the outside. But inside I was broken, and finally I couldn’t hide from it anymore. Now, I feel completely unmoored. Adrift. Quite literally lost.

Worry starts to clutch at my throat. Swallowing hard, I tell myself to pull it together, and gamely rifle through my folder of documents for a map of some sort.

“Coming through!” I hear in accented English, and look up to see a pair of women hauling bins of folded towels.

I leap backward out of their way. I think I’ve dodged a bullet until I hear a masculine yell at close range, and I look over my shoulder just in time to see a cart piled high with boxes collide with my suitcase. Crash! My suitcase is wrenched from my grip as the cart goes sideways. I scramble out of the way, narrowly escaping getting crushed under the boxes falling to the ground, but then my wedges start to slide on the metal floor. I flail, grabbing for the first thing I find to keep me upright … which turns out to be the guy pushing the cart.

Gravity takes over, and we tumble to the ground. Cart Guy takes the brunt of the fall, landing on his back, while I tumble on top of him, my cheek smashed against his stomach. It’s like falling on solid concrete, cushioned only by the fabric of his shirt. At any other time I’d appreciate abs that toned, but right now I can only groan.

The guy moves, sitting up, which slides my head into his lap. Now I’m sprawled on the floor with my face almost planted in a stranger’s crotch. Quickly, I scramble to my feet.

“I’m so sorry!” I say, and offer my hand to help Cart Guy up. “Are you okay?”

Clear blue eyes glare up at me from a face that makes me pause. Damn, Cart Guy is hot. He has short dark hair, a square jaw, and shoulders that fill out his red Star Heart Cruises company polo in a way that makes me salivate despite my embarrassment. I find myself smiling like an idiot, and hoping my face isn’t red.

Cart Guy ignores my open hand and gets to his feet on his own. His gaze drags over me, a scowl overtaking his sexy mouth.

“What the hell is your problem?” he snaps.

“My problem?” My smile fades. “You ran into me, rememb—”

“Look at this mess,” he cuts me off, surveying the fallen boxes with dismay. He stoops down to retrieve one. The mess is at least half my fault, so I reach for one too. Unfortunately, the box is heavier than I’d anticipated, and the cardboard handle rips in my hands. Glossy paper spills across the floor in a big white wave. Crap.

“What are you doing?” the guy says, glaring at me. He snatches the remainder of the box and starts scooping up paper, stacking boxes back on his cart. I almost snap back at him, but I’m not in the mood for a fight. I’m lost and wet and just want to find my cabin.

“Um, I’m trying to help,” I say instead. My first day on the job isn’t going exactly as I had planned, and I wonder if I’m an idiot for deferring grad school for this.

He pauses and rakes a glance over me again. I know what he’s seeing: bedraggled black hair, drenched windbreaker, and a pair of squeaking wedges on my feet. Not my most shining moment. Water drips down my forehead, and I swipe at my face. I probably look like a drowned rat. Meanwhile, Cart Guy’s uniform of polo shirt and navy shorts is crisply pressed, his strong jaw is clean-shaven, and his distracting physique is tensed in irritation.

“If you want to help, try getting off the paper,” he says.

For a second, I can only blink at him. Then I realize I’m dripping muddy water on a small pile of glossy white paper. I quickly step to the side and reach for the fallen sheets, but he’s one step ahead of me and shrugs me off with a muttered curse. I frown. It’s paper, for crying out loud. He’s acting like I ran over his puppy or something.

“Sorry,” I say. “It was pouring outside, I’m completely lost—“

“Look, I gotta go,” the guy says. “Some of us have work we’re now late for.” He piles the last of the paper on his cart. He’s starting to piss me off, but I hold on to my temper and try to play nice. I’m not going to let this asshole ruin my first hour on board.

“I’m new, okay? I was just trying to find my cabin,” I say.

“Cabin numbers start at the front of the ship,” he says shortly.

I purse my lips and glance around. I’ve been on board less than five minutes, but without windows to orient myself, I’m already turned around. I really don’t want to ask him for directions, but everyone else seems too busy to stop.

“Which way is the front?” I ask.

Cart Guy shakes his head and mutters something under his breath.

I put my hands on my hips. “What did you call me?”

He wheels the cart past me, shooting a glance at my soaked wedge heels.

“I said ship life is going to eat you alive.” He turns to head down the hallway.

“Not if I steer clear of assholes like you,” I say, the retort automatic. I’m used to fending off rude comments; it’s a skill I learned in elementary school, because kids can be cruel to those not like them. Sofia wasn’t like anyone, and her condition made her an easy target. Even though she was a year older than me, I got used to defending her when she didn’t have the strength for it herself. Now it’s habit.

Cart Guy jerks a glance over his shoulder. “Excuse me?”

I meet his gaze squarely. I might be lost, wet, and alone, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to let him intimidate me. Then I hear a shout from behind me.

“You’re in the way again,” Cart Guy says unnecessarily. I scramble to the side of the hallway next to my luggage just in time to avoid getting run over by a herd of men and women. When they pass and I look up again, Cart Guy is gone.

Good. Hopefully, on such a large ship, I won’t have to see him again.

I fumble through my folder, searching in vain for a map. A few people glance my way, but no one lingers for me to ask directions. Everyone is bustling to get somewhere. I keep my eyes peeled for Elise’s blonde ponytail—she’s the one who hooked me up with this job—but she’d warned me she might not be able to meet me when I came on board.

There’s no map in my registration folder, so finally I’m forced to flag down a middle-aged woman who is, thank the ever-loving Lord, friendly. She gives me directions, and I set off. Every time I round a corner, I scan the path ahead of me for Cart Guy, but fortunately he’s nowhere to be seen. What was his deal, anyway?

After a few false turns, I finally reach my cabin. Pushing open the door of room 0013, I haul my luggage into the tight space. Inside, the room is cramped but clean. Bunk beds hug the left side, with a small desk on the right wall. On top of the desk is a TV—the screen blares some sort of sporting match—and to my immediate left a door opens into a minuscule bathroom. No windows. The whole place is tiny. There’s barely enough space for me to lie down on the floor, and I’m only five-foot-two.

A girl with light brown hair unfolds herself from the bottom bunk and mutes the television. She’s pretty, with curves to die for and freckles sprinkled across her cheeks.

“I’m Camelia,” she says. “You are the new photographer? I am one too, and it will be nice to have another girl on the team.” Her accent is slight, vowels lilting in a songlike manner.

“Yasmin.” We shake hands, and Camelia gives me a broad smile.

“If you steal any of my chocolate,” she says, “I will kill you.”

My grin falters. “Um, okay.” Is she serious?

“Do you snore?”

“Not that I’m aware of.” I pause. “Do you?”

“Never.” Her gaze slides across my tote bag, which bears the Greek letters of my sorority. She cocks her head. “What does that mean? Those symbols?”

“Kappa Alpha Kappa. It was my sorority in college.”

“Ah, sorority.” She grins. “That means you drink?”

“Sure.”

“A lot?”

Her line of questioning is a bit strange, but I go with it. “Sometimes. After finals, especially.”

“Then we shall be great friends.” Camelia checks her watch and mutters something in another language, then says, “We should go. West will be angry if we are late for the meeting. You can unpack later.”

“West?”

“The photography department manager, our boss. Do you have your name tag and staff card?”

“I think so.” I put my folder on the desk, and Camelia helps me find what I need. The name tag must be worn at all times when in passenger areas, she tells me, while my staff card will act as both a room key and debit card for the crew bar. Once I locate both, she leads me out of the cabin. I’m still dripping water and wish I’d thought to towel off my hair, but I shove it out of my face and focus on following my roommate through the twisty halls.

“So what’s our boss like?” I ask.

“Fine, if we meet our sales marks. If not … He fired Danny, the guy you are replacing, because he broke one of West’s macro lenses. I was sad, because Danny was great fun to drink with.” Camelia shoots me a grin. “Luckily West is hot enough that I don’t hold it against him.”

I blink. Do she and our boss have something going on? Before I can ask, Camelia says, “Where are you from, Yasmin?”

“Louisiana.” After a moment, I add uncertainly, “Do you know where that is?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” Camelia tosses her straight hair, and I feel like an idiot.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“Romania.” She slides me a sly smile. “Do you know where that is?”

“Somewhere in Europe?” I offer. Camelia laughs.

“Typical American.”

I feel like even more of an idiot now, but Camelia seems to take everything in stride. I follow her up a spiral staircase, down a short hallway, up another staircase. I have no idea where we are, and if she abandoned me I’d never find my way back to the room, which would suck because I left all of my dry clothes on my bunk. Camelia told me to leave my windbreaker, but I’m still wearing my wet shirt and shorts. I rub my cold arms as I jog to keep up with her. 

She pauses at a door.

“Here is an entrance to the Promenade, where all the shops are. Past this door you must have your name tag on, and be polite to passengers no matter what stupid things they say.” She walks quickly down the staff hallway, and I hurry to follow. She stops abruptly, checks her watch again, and winces. “We are late, so be quiet when we join the meeting.”

She opens a door marked Photo Department, and we slip into a storage room stocked with paper, DVDs, backdrops with folding frames, and other photography paraphernalia like tripods and a box of orphaned lens caps. A group of people has gathered in the room beyond, and we join them as unobtrusively as possible.

“Where’s our new hire?” a masculine voice is saying. That must be West, our boss. His voice rings with authority and annoyance. “If we have to spend another cruise down a photographer, I swear I’m going to—”

“I’m here,” I say, realizing he’s talking about me. Pushing my wet hair out of my face, I squeeze past a couple of men wearing polo shirts like mine. When I’ve stepped in front of them, I put on my best employee smile and look up … right into the eyes of Cart Guy.

Make that Boss Cart Guy.

~   ~   ~ 

Find out what happens with Yasmin and West!
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