The Love Boat
Summary: Love, exciting and new. Come Aboard. We're expecting you. Love, life's sweetest reward. Let it flow, it floats back to you. Best friends, a childhood crush, a free cruise, and a ship full of swingers.
Chapter 1 Plans
The trill of my phone startled me from the kindred spirits and bosom friends of Prince Edward Island.
"We're here!" Alice's voice sing-songed.
I smiled at Alice's excitement as I slipped a bookmark between the well-worn pages of my book. "Do you have your luggage yet? The GPS said it would take nine minutes to get to the airport."
"GPS? Not even you need GPS to get here from the Cell Lot. Where are you?" Alice interrupted.
I stood up from the bench and headed for the large SUV parked near the curb. "I'm at a park. It's a beautiful day; I couldn't resist."
"So you just went to some park near an airport in a strange city by yourself? Is that even safe?"
"Just a sec," I told her so I could juggle everything in my hands and climb into the driver's seat. "A, I am an adult, I can watch out for myself. And B, I'm already safely locked in the car, so apparently, it is." Alice huffed with annoyance. "My mom and Phil insisted I take their Suburban, so don't be looking for my car. It's silver."
"What? A silver Suburban? Every third car here is an SUV and half of them are silver; that shouldn't be too hard to find!" she shot back sarcastically.
Alice was very detail oriented and over-plans things to a fault. It makes her an excellent administrative assistant but a horrible travel partner. Any deviation from her itinerary could throw her into a spiral panic, so I reassured her. "Then I guess I'll just have to find you. You're at Terminal B, right?"
"Well, yes, but…"
"I'll be there in nine minutes."
I heard Alice take a deep, cleansing breath before she relented. "Fine. I'm wearing bright blue slacks; you really can't miss me. Oh, and all our luggage is hot pink. And Jasper is dressed as a clown."
"A clown? Like a clown, clown?" I chuckled as I started the car.
"He might as well be."
"Okay, Alice, I'll be there soon. I'm going to hang up now so I can drive." I pressed end, pulled out of the parking space, and let Phil's GPS guide me to the Orlando International Airport.
As soon as I crept into the loading zone, I saw Alice standing at the curb in front of an open spot. Her dark sleeveless top seemed to tone down her bright blue pants, which were indeed un-missable. And she looked absolutely perfect, without a rumple or wrinkle in sight, despite the almost six hour red-eye from Seattle.
I hopped out of the driver's seat to meet her and had barely stepped onto the sidewalk before Alice threw her arms around my neck. "Bella, I missed you so much!"
I returned her hug, laughing. "It's been less than two weeks." I then moved to greet Jasper with a hug as well. Pulling out of the hug, I tried to take in his attire on the sly. He was definitely dressed for a vacation in a white camp shirt and dark Bermuda shorts with white bands circling his thighs, and even his white straw fedora didn't exactly scream 'clown.' I looked back at Alice, wondering why she was so upset by his attire. She knew exactly what I was trying to figure out, because she lowered her dark sunglasses and pointed to his feet with her eyes.
I had to bite my lip to keep myself from laughing when I saw Jasper was wearing boat shoes with dark blue mid-calf dress socks. Jasper caught on to our silent conversation, emphatically stating, "These match my shorts. And my shoes." He started to turn away, but pointed at me and added, "And I don't want to hear anything from you about my pasty legs. You're as white as me, and you've been in Florida for two weeks!"
"I've only been here for a week, it took me five days to get here," I lowly grumbled as I marched to the back of the Suburban and lifted the hatch for Jasper. That was when I noticed their luggage cart. There was your typical three piece set, all in hot pink, just like Alice said, but there was an extra one of the largest size.
Japer began to load the suitcases into the back of the truck, and I smugly tilted my head toward Alice. "I think this is why my mom insisted I take the Suburban. She was having flashbacks to the year we came out for Spring Break. The cruise is only seven days. How much did you pack?"
"Well, one of those is just full of other bags!"
"What?" I looked at her like she was crazy.
Alice put her hand on her hip and tilted her head. "I read online there was duty free shopping on the islands, and they suggested you bring empty bags so you can tote your stuff home. Which reminds me…can you bring one set of luggage back home with you? Paying fifty dollars a bag to fly it home will really cut into my bargains."
I looked at her in astonishment. "You brought an extra set of luggage to support your shopping?"
She looked at me like I'd asked the most ridiculous thing ever and chose to ignore my question. "Plus there's shopping on the ship. So, can you, please?"
"Yeah, I think it'll fit. I can put it in the back seat if I have to," I told her. "But you remember I'm going back to Jacksonville for a while before I head home, right?"
Alice's smile assured me she had it all planned out. "Yep, that's fine. I'm going to give you the bags with the old stuff so I can take all my new goodies home with me."
Jasper popped his head around to the side of the truck. "Um, Bella, I'm not sure you're one to talk," he said, making Alice walk around to the back.
As soon as Alice saw my huge rolling trunk, I knew I couldn't give her any more crap about her bags.
Jasper reached up to close the hatch, and we piled back into the truck. As I pulled out of the loading zone, I asked, "Are you guys hungry? Should we eat before we hit the road?"
"Um, I heard of this great place in Port Canaveral. Can we eat there? It's only like forty-five minutes away," Alice asked while looking out the window.
"Alice…" Jasper admonished from the back seat, causing her to turn and shoot him a sharp look.
Something was definitely going on with the two of them. I shook my head, asking suspiciously, "Why do I have the feeling you already Googled the directions?"
Alice reached into her giant purse and pulled out a folded sheet of paper, opened it and started, "Head east on Airport Boulevard." Then she looked up and around. "Which way is east?"
Alice was so "Alice" it made me laugh. "Why don't I follow the GPS until we get on the highway, then you can program in the restaurant's address?"
"Oh, good plan," she agreed as she settled deeper into her seat.
A little while later, Alice picked up my abandoned book from the center console. "I can't believe you're reading this again," she said, flipping through the pages. "Aren't you a little old for this?"
I grabbed the book from her hand like I needed to protect it from her disparaging words. "No, Anne of Green Gables is a classic. I read it every summer."
Alice shrugged, "Yeah, but I bet this is the same exact book, isn't it. How old is this thing?"
"Yes, it is the same book. And you be nice to her; she's been my bosom friend since the summer before high school. Summer wouldn't be summer without a little mental escape to Prince Edward Island."
Jasper snickered in the back seat, prompting another glare from Alice. My suspicion of Alice's nervousness and the secret looks between them grew. "What's going on between you two?"
Alice withdrew into her seat. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Um, I'm talking about the looks you keep shooting Jasper."
Alice ignored my question and continued, "Couldn't you at least download it on your Kindle? You read them all every year, right? I'll bet you even…oh my god; the other fourteen books are in that trunk, aren't they? Is that thing filled with books?"
"No!" I defended. "There are only seven. And I like the paper books. They remind me of every summer since high school." And then I mumbled, "I need a trunk that size for my bedding. And my fan."
Alice's jaw dropped. "Bella, you didn't."
I just nodded. The car fell into a somewhat awkward silence before Jasper finally asked, "What'd she do?"
Alice turned to Jasper. "Bella saw a news report once that said a mattress doubles in weight in ten years from dead skin and dust mites." She tilted her head toward me and rolled her eyes. "And now she's creeped out by sleeping on hotel, and now apparently, cruise ship beds."
I sort of felt ashamed for caving in on my irrational fear, but not enough to sleep on a hundred pounds of other people's skin and dust mite poop. And that's not even considering bed bugs. Just thinking about it made me itch.
Alice noticed my squirming and instantly knew that I was thinking about dead skin flakes and bugs and thankfully diverted the conversation. "I guess it could be worse. At least your dirty little secret is packed away. It's not like everyone on the ship is going to see you walking around in dark blue dress socks and boat shoes."
All three of us burst out laughing, even Jasper who quipped back that he would have taken them off over Salt Lake City if it weren't so much fun to see Alice get so worked up about them. The atmosphere in the car became much more relaxed as we continued to speed down the flat, straight Beachline Expressway.
As we approached the toll booth, Jasper reached around Alice's seat and tapped her shoulder, then nodded his head in my direction. Alice tried to discreetly shake her head 'no,' but it did not go unnoticed. "Alice," Jasper prodded.
She returned his tone and name. He finally gave up on his nudging and warned, "Alice, we only have about fifteen miles until you're busted anyway. You might as well fess up before we get there and everything blows up in your face."
I glanced back at Jasper, half expecting he was pulling my leg, but there wasn't a trace of levity on his face. "What's going on?"
Alice took a deep breath and said, "Fine, so I might have something I need to tell you about the cruise."
I had no idea what to expect. I think I may have been holding my breath, with a million scenarios running though my head. All of them bad. Some of them very bad.
She continued, "Um, so you know how we got this cruise for free from my boss when her husband's project ran way over, and that meant they couldn't go? And that there were two cabins because their friends were going too, but they didn't want to go without them?"
"So she gave me the cruise for free because it was past the deadline for refunds, right?"
I nodded in understanding, and then it occurred to me. "Oh god, do we have to pretend to be your boss? There's no way we're going to get away with that! I mean I had to get a passport! I'm not risking going to jail for some free cruise."
Jasper's laugh snapped me out of my rambling.
"So anyway, even though it was too late to get a refund, I was still able to change the cabins into our names. When I called to have our names put on the passenger manifest, they told me it was a couples only cruise, and no singles would be permitted to board the ship." Alice bit her lip and waited for my response.
I didn't know what to think. Alice was my best friend, we had been best friends since kindergarten, and I knew she wouldn't bring me down here to leave me on the dock while she and Jasper sailed off into the Caribbean. But I also knew I was not a couple.
"But I had already convinced you to come, and I wanted you to come, to have this amazing cruise with me because you're my best friend and I love you. You're like a sister to me. Better than a sister!"
The rock in the pit of my stomach grew with my suspicion. "Alice," I started to warn before she interrupted me, talking so fast, I could barely discern her words.
"So I needed someone to be your husband or boyfriend so you could come too, and I panicked. It was the last day to make changes to the cabin assignments, so I told her the first name that came to mind, and now they think you're married to my cousin."
Alice had lots of cousins. They spanned the range from maybe fifteen years older than us to still in high school and had a whole spectrum of creepiness. "Which cousin?"
I tried think back to all I had met so that I could put a name with a face, but I couldn't remember an Edward, and then it came to me. "Eddie? You told them I was married to Eddie?"
Alice bit her lip and nodded.
Shaking my head in surprise, I asked, "Eddie who drove us to school our freshman year?"
Jasper was snickering in the back seat while Alice sat there nodding like a damn bobble head.
"Eddie, who used to drop us off four blocks from the school so no one would see two 'froshes' getting out of his car? Are you freaking kidding me?"
She shook her head and opened her mouth to respond but I cut her off, "Eddie, who made us ride around with boxes over our heads?"
She gasped slightly and lifted her finger to argue. "That was one time. And he didn't have room, he need those boxes to pack his things for college."
"Boxes. Over our heads," I shrieked, tapping my temple for dramatic effect.
"I remember… You know what else I remember?" Alice teased. "I remember someone had a crush on him."
I sputtered, trying to think of a comeback. It was true; I did have a crush on Eddie when I was a kid. He was four years older than we were, and we always wanted to hang out with him and the older kids. He was so sweet and totally cute. He had this smile that lit up his entire face and made his beautiful green eyes sparkle. He was always helping Alice's dad move heavy stuff or fix things. I would always make up reasons to be in the same vicinity just so I could watch. But he knew he was cute too, and if he doubted it, he had a table full of the prettiest, most popular girls in school sitting with him at lunch drooling over his every move to prove it.
I used to daydream that he would see through their vapid, plastic ploys and recognize he was in love with me. That he'd scoop me up and carry me out of the school like I was Debra Winger in my own personal, real life Officer and a Gentleman scene.
Alice smirked and raised her eyebrows at Jasper. "Look at that hun; she does remember!"
Jasper folded his arms over his chest and leaned back against the seat. "Don't drag me into this Mary Alice. I told you to tell her a long time ago."
Alice's jaw dropped, and her head snapped back to Jasper's on hearing him use her full name.
Even I was a little surprised he was so admonishing, but then I realized what he said. I glanced quickly at Alice's defensive body language before retuning my focus to the road. "How long have you known?"
Alice lowered her head. "Since the day I called in to have the cabins changed into our names on the passenger manifest," she quietly admitted.
"Are you serious? That was more than six weeks ago!"
"I know; I just panicked. I was put on the spot; I was trying to get it done before the deadline and Edward was the only person I could think who wasn't already married or a total letch. I could have said my cousin James you know. He just got divorced again, and he's always had a big smile for you."
I thought about her cousin James and shivered; he was about ten years older than us and had a constant succession of wives. He thought his stringy ponytail could make up for the hair he was missing from the top of his balding head. I shuddered again as I remembered how he always leered at me at Brandon family gatherings.
"Or I could have gone with Lauren. She's just dying tell you all about how you've been culturally bullied into believing you only like boys."
Lauren called herself a pansexual. She'd believed that any sexual orientation label was a sociocultural construct that was against our nature and that you should be gender blind when seeking an emotional connection and sexual gratification. She had a lot of passion around trying to get people to see her viewpoint, but I struggled with the term pansexual. I remembered from an anthropology survey course that "Pan" was the genus for chimpanzees, so to me it always sounded like she was talking sex with monkeys. Plus, I liked the sociocultural construct that told me I like boys.
"Or I could have…"
"ALICE!" I shouted to get her attention. She was about as smooth at trying to change the subject as my kindergarteners. "I get it. Fine, Eddie was better than some of the other choices, but you could have just invited Jake."
"Edward. He hasn't gone by Eddie since high school. He hates being called Eddie now. And I was not going to invite Jake on this trip. He strung you along for like three years before he finally came out of the closet…"
"Alice," I warned, not wanting to have this conversation again. "You really couldn't find the time to tell me this in the last six weeks?"
"Well, I thought about it, a lot actually. But it was so hard to convince you to come. And I didn't want you to back out. You always work so hard! You didn't even take a break between school and teaching, and I just thought you really needed a nice, relaxing, free, vacation."
Alice was right. I probably would have backed out. And I did need this vacation. When I graduated from grad school, I spent the six months between the end of my program and the beginning of the school year working for the Head Start program, and I worked there until my first official contract day with the school district. Even though I loved my new school, and the kids were amazing, I was still a little worn out. And not only was this vacation free, courtesy of Alice's boss, it was all inclusive, which was perfect since there was no way I could afford to pay for a seven night Caribbean cruise while I was still paying off my student loans.
I let out a large breath of air. I could tell by the way Alice was trying to hide her smile behind biting her lip, she knew I was going to let her off the hook. "Fine. It's a vacation, it's free, were already here, I can roll with it."
Alice actually jumped in her seat and clapped her hands; Jasper just shook his head at me. He knew how hard it was to stay mad at Alice.
"So is there anything else I should know about?"
Alice empathically shook her head. "No, nothing else, except I might have forged your name on the Conduct Contract."
"I don't know, it was some silly paper we all had to sign saying we'd behave while we're on board and in port," Alice said, waving her hand dismissively. "I forged Edward's name too."
"How rough of a cruise is this that we have to sign a contract to behave?"
"I don't know, but it was all really basic stuff. Like 'no' means 'no.' No nudity in the dining rooms. No sex in public spaces. Yadda, yadda, yadda."
My jaw dropped. I was really starting to wonder about this cruise.
"It's all standard, I'm sure. It's just a liability thing," Alice nervously added.
I still wasn't so sure, but there was no point in arguing. "Then I guess it's good you forged my name," I added sarcastically.
The car fell into a slightly awkward silence then, which gave me time to think. Or more accurately, time to flip out and panic. All kinds of scenarios ran through my head. Edward must be single; Alice said he was the only single guy she knew. I wondered if he was still as big a player as he was in high school. I hadn't seen him since he came to our high school graduation. Why wasn't he at her wedding? Maybe he was, and I just didn't notice. I wondered what he looked like now and if he'd even recognize me. Would I recognize him? Maybe he was bald. Would we have to pretend to be a couple the entire cruise? Although, I guess if everyone was already coupled up there wouldn't really be any potential dates anyway. And then suddenly, the sleeping arrangements occurred to me.
"So, we're sleeping boys and girls, right?"
"Bella," Alice whined. "You can't really think I'm going to spend eight days and seven nights on a romantic Caribbean cruise in a room across the hall from my husband."
"But I should have 'to spend eight days and seven nights on a romantic Caribbean cruise' in a room with your cousin?" I asked shrilly.
A huge smile crossed Alice's face as she brought her finger to her chin. "Hmm, hadn't thought of that. But, yes," she simpered.
"Oh my God. You totally set this up!"
"I did not! But after it happened, I did appreciate how perfect you are for each other. It's kismet."
"Kismet! It's not kismet, it's you living out your matchmaking fantasy. You are always trying to set me up with someone. I should have known."
Jasper laughed from the back seat. "Told you." He smirked at Alice.
Alice huffed. "I did not do this on purpose; it was the only way I could get you on that damn boat. And it is perfect. And the trip is going to be perfect." She almost glared at me when she reiterated, "Perfect."
I was just about to open my mouth to say something back when she added, "And you're sharing a room with Edward. Period. I'm not spending the most romantic trip of my life sleeping with you."
All three of us giggled at the double entendre. But I still was concerned about the sleeping arrangements.
"So you expect me just to hop into bed with your cousin?"
"Don't be silly. I know you're not that kind of girl."
I was conflicted between being relieved that my reputation with Alice was intact and offended that she was calling me a frigid prude.
"The bed in your room can pull apart into two singles," Alice added.
I was relieved. I guess I could manage to sleep in the same room with him. It would be like summer camp. Like the real summer camp, where everyone stayed in their own beds; not those cheesy summer camp movies where the boys are canoeing across the lake at midnight into the open arms and legs of the girls' camp next door.
"Are you sure?"
"Yep, and you can even push them back together if you decide to hop into bed with my hot cousin whom you've had a crush on since you were eleven years old."
Jasper burst into laughter before he settled down and started humming a familiar tune I couldn't quite place.
We followed the GPS's directions to Rusty's Seafood Bar and Grill, which is where Alice had prearranged to meet up with Edward, who had driven to Port Canaveral from Miami where he had been visiting his grandmother. I pulled into the parking lot just as Jasper started singing the words to the song he had been humming.
"Love, exciting and new...Come Aboard. We're expecting you…"
"Jasper!" Alice and I both admonished.
I completely stopped in my tracks, and turned to see Jasper, still heading for the door of the restaurant. "That's it, that's why you giggled," I said, narrowing my eyes and pointing at Jasper. "That's why you giggled when I said I like to spend time on Prince Edward Island!
"You're just as bad as her," I said, pointing at Alice.
Jasper laughed boisterously and reached to take Alice's hand, twirling her like they were on a dance floor. "I know, ain't it grand?"
Alice giggled as the pair walked past me and into the restaurant. I just stood in the parking lot with my mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. The two of them were going to be unbearable.
I caught up with them just inside the entryway where Alice was already in Eddie's arms.
He closed his arms around her and swung her side to side a bit. "Ali," he mimicked. "I see you're not really very excited to see me," he said sarcastically. She slapped his shoulder as he put her feet back to the floor.
And there he was, his auburn hair as full and messy as ever. As cute as he was as an eighteen-year-old boy, he was stunning as a fully grown man. He was tall and broad and still flashed his amazing smile as he greeted Jasper with a handshake and a one armed man-hug.
"Edward, it's nice to see you again, man," Jasper said before back-handedly complimenting, "Nice shirt," referring to Edward's shiny, bright blue, black, and gold silk shirt complete with leopard print.
My heart fell. Any hopes of finally getting my Debra Winger moment were dashed. It was like Jake all over again.
Without missing a beat, Edward said, "Thanks man, nice socks."
Alice jumped in with her cousin, telling Jasper, "See? I told you." She looped her hand though Edward's arm. "And this shirt is gorgeous; it's vintage Versace, right?"
Edward shrugged his shoulder like he didn't know. "Um, I'm not sure. It was my granddad's; my grandma insisted it was the only thing suitable for boarding a cruise." He laughed.
"Well, it's beautiful," Alice insisted. "Isn't it Bella?"
"Yes, it's pretty," I absently agreed, still lamenting the loss of what I never had.
Edward took a single step, gently resting one hand on my forearm and brushed my shoulder as he slid the other down my bare upper arm and leaned down to kiss my cheek, whispering a greeting.
When he touched me, the world disappeared and time stopped. I had no idea what he said as he kissed my cheek, but I know it was sexy as hell. I felt the same connection and longing as I did in my teenage crush, but with so much more intensity. I wanted to kick myself. Why did I always seem to fall for gay guys?
Alice's sharp, "Bella!" snapped me out of my haze, and I followed her and the server to our table by the window.
Edward pulled out the chair closest to the window and motioned for me take the seat. The view immediately caught my attention; across the channel, three massive cruise ships were lined up along the perimeter of the cruise port. The broad white sides, bright yellow lifeboats and splashes of red and blue sparkled in the mid-day sun. I stared at them, mesmerized, until the waitress drew my attention away asking for my drink order. I quickly glanced at the menu so I would be prepared when our server came back, before turning back to the window.
Edward nudged my hand to get my attention, and I asked for a bowl of clam chowder without turning away from the window. His deep, throaty chuckle surprised me, and I turned to see him smiling at me. "The server isn't back yet. I was just trying to get your attention."
I gave him an apologetic smile, and his own smile broadened even more. He leaned over the table a bit and pointed to the largest of the three ships. "That's our cruise ship, the Pearl of the Caribbean."
I turned back to the window. "The bartender was telling me until a couple of years ago, she was the largest cruise ship in the world," Edward added.
"They make them bigger than that?"
"Uh-huh, a lot bigger. The largest cruise ship in service is five times the size of the Titanic. The Pearl of the Caribbean is only three times the size of her."
"Only three times?" I repeated, turning to find him still leaning over the table, surprisingly close.
He nodded and then I asked, "Do you think it's wise to bring up the Titanic hours before we set sail? Shouldn't you be knocking on wood or something?"
I heard another deep chuckle. "I'm absolutely positive there are no icebergs in the Caribbean," he assured me.
I scoffed at him. "The Costa Concordia didn't need an iceberg."
His eyes twinkled as he shot back, "Yeah, but I didn't bring that one up, you did. Maybe you should be the one to knock that wood?" And he actually winked at me.
I've never really been one to tempt fate, so I quickly rapped on the table, but not before Jasper had a chance to say, "That's what she said."
Alice groaned and slapped his shoulder. "Don't even get her started," she warned Edward, and then turned to me, narrowing her eyes. "The ship is not going to sink. You are getting your ass on that boat." She pointed at the window. "And you're going to have fun. Fun, damn it. Do you understand?"
I exaggerated my gulp and mock saluted her. She really did have a point. I tended to over think pretty much everything, and if I let myself start to think about the Titanic and the Costa Concordia, I'd never make it on that boat. I promised myself, and Alice, that I would try and be more open to new experiences and less hampered by the irrational thoughts that occasionally popped into my head.
I'm not sure Edward realized Alice was addressing a real issue, because he leaned back over me and said, "That ship is perfectly safe, but if it does go down, you better scoot your ass over on the headboard, because I'm not trusting you to hold on to me."
Thank you so much my Super Betamax maxandmo and to obsmama, carenl, Mtneer05, mommy2kh for pre-reading. Every one of them have their mark on this story and has saved you from reading some atrocity. And mostly for putting up with me.
Thank YOU for checking out my new story.