Nicole Morella rested a hand on the doorway as the floor shifted beneath her feet. It had been eight hours since they set sail from Naples in southern Italy, and she hadn’t found her sea legs yet. Was it called setting sail on a modern-day, engine-powered boat? Nicole steadied herself as she took in the lounge before her. Couples and groups lingered over drinks at the various tables and sofas filling the room. Laughter and conversation drifted on the air, undercut by gentle strains of jazz music.
Her gaze wandered to the bar, which was just as crowded. A man sat alone at the near end, watching her as he sipped from his drink. She looked away, determined not to lose her nerve and retreat to her cabin on her first night at sea. This trip was her post-divorce gift to herself, and she was going to make the most of it. Tonight, she was going to enjoy a drink at the bar—alone—and she was going to have fun doing it.
About halfway down the bar, a blonde in a red dress sat talking to the man beside her. The seat to her right was empty, and Nicole decided to take it. She crossed the room and slid onto the empty stool, setting her black clutch on the polished wood in front of her. Keeping her back angled slightly toward the man on her other side, who had already begun to eye her with curiosity, she held the bartender’s gaze as he sidled over. “Do you have a house red?”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s a cabernet blend from Veneto. Very smooth. Would you like to try it?”
“If you like red, you should try the Petit Verdot,” a husky British voice said. “It’s from Bordeaux, very full-bodied, with just a hint of berries.”
Nicole turned to find the woman to her left watching her out of sky-blue eyes as she swirled the contents of her wineglass. “The Petit Verdot?”
“It’s excellent.” The blonde swiveled to face her, tucking an unruly strand of thick, wavy hair away from her face. She looked to be about Nicole’s age—mid-thirties. Light freckles spattered her forehead and chest that, combined with her wild hair and direct stare, lent her a sort of unconventional beauty that Nicole found it difficult to look away from.
“I’ll, um, I’ll try a glass of that,” Nicole told the bartender.
He nodded, moving down the bar to pour her drink.
“American, hm?” the blonde said, still watching her.
Nicole nodded, inexplicably flushed and tongue-twisted when she herself hadn’t had even a sip of alcohol yet tonight. She’d booked herself a private Mediterranean cruise to find her footing after the divorce, and she had every intention of doing it alone. Yet, here she was, heart racing for a total stranger. It had been a long time since she’d felt this kind of attraction and even longer since she’d felt it for a woman. “I’m from New York. And you?”
The blonde swirled her wineglass again before taking a sip. “I live just outside Nice, along the southern coast of France.”
“Oh, I thought you were…” Nicole fumbled, grateful as the bartender interrupted to hand her a glass of wine identical to the one the woman beside her held.
“I’m an expat,” the blonde said, tossing an amused glance over her shoulder at Nicole. “Born and raised in London.”
“Right.” Nicole lifted the glass and took a sip. The wine was rich, spicy but fruity. It tasted expensive. And exotic. A lot like the woman next to her. “It’s good.”
“Glad you think so,” she said.
Nicole couldn’t figure why the blonde was still talking to her, why she’d basically turned her back to her date when Nicole sat down. But then again, maybe he wasn’t her date at all, because he was sitting there now, looking annoyed but also interested, his gaze flicking between the blonde and Nicole. Maybe he was just a random guy hitting on a single woman in a bar, and that woman was now giving him the cold shoulder.
Nicole found her spirits buoyed at the good fortune to have sat next to another single woman…for casual conversation purposes, anyway, not because she was ridiculously attracted to her. “I’m Nicole,” she said.
“Fiona,” the blonde replied. “Are you here alone, Nicole?”
She nodded. “You?”
“Unfortunately, yes.” Fiona dropped her gaze to her wineglass, and Nicole couldn’t help admiring the swell of her breasts beneath the formfitting bodice of her dress. Every inch of her was foreign and beautiful, dangerous for a woman committed to a week of solo soul-searching. “I was supposed to meet someone on the boat…a man.”
“Oh.” Nicole went for casual and hoped she succeeded. It was a good thing Fiona was straight. It meant Nicole could sit and chat with her harmlessly. Safe.
“He stood me up,” Fiona continued, a sharp bite to her tone. “The bastard.”
“Aren’t they all?” Nicole mumbled, reaching for her wine.
“Indeed,” Fiona agreed. “I thought this one was an exception, at least good for a week of sex on the high seas.”
The man on the other side of her choked on his drink, and Fiona cast a disapproving glance in his direction at his blatant eavesdropping. Nicole swallowed her laugh with another sip of the luxuriously rich wine Fiona had recommended. So much better than the house red she would have gotten otherwise.
“It’s why I generally prefer women to men,” Fiona said, a bit louder, and her would-be paramour’s cheeks darkened before he turned away.
It was Nicole’s turn to choke on her drink. She coughed and spluttered as wine burned its way down her esophagus while Fiona gave her a knowing look that said she’d read her interest and—God, was it possible she returned the feeling?
“So that’s my sad story,” Fiona said, still holding Nicole in her intense stare. “Why are you all alone on this lovely, romantic boat?”
“It’s my post-divorce splurge for myself,” Nicole said, clearing her throat and wishing she had a cup of water to cool the burning sensation from inhaling her wine. “I came here to rediscover my sense of adventure or find myself…something like that.”
Fiona’s eyes crinkled in a warm smile. “I must say I prefer your story to mine. Not the divorce, but making your own adventure. I like that.”
“Thanks.” Her cheeks were burning. They were probably as red as Fiona’s dress. She really needed to get a grip. Her fingers tightened around the stem of her wineglass. “I’d always wanted to visit the Mediterranean—my family’s from Italy originally—and I’d always wanted to take a cruise. So, here I am.”
“Ballsy of you,” Fiona said, her gaze sliding to the simple gray knit dress that Nicole wore.
She crossed her legs involuntarily. “Do you know this area pretty well, then?”
“I do. It’s lovely,” Fiona said, tossing her hair over her shoulder as she returned her attention to the wineglass in front of her, leaving Nicole feeling somewhat bereft after the intensity and heat of her gaze. “Although I prefer the French Riviera to Italy or Greece.”
“Is that why you moved there?”
“Mm. My favorite place in the world.”
“I was in Paris once, for business,” Nicole said, remembering that she’d been somewhat lonely and off-balance on that trip too. That was two years ago, when she’d first begun to realize how unhappy she’d become in her marriage. If only she’d known then just how much worse things would get.
“Paris is charming, but if you really want to get the flavor of France, you’ve got to visit the countryside,” Fiona said, swirling her wine.
“I’ll have to visit sometime.” Nicole felt a tingle in the pit of her stomach, as if she’d somehow accepted an invitation to visit her, when in reality, Fiona was just making idle conversation. Likely, the attraction was entirely one-sided. After all, it had been an eternity since Nicole had flirted with anyone, gone on a date, done anything but steel herself for another battle of the wills with Brandon. She wasn’t sure she even remembered how to flirt at this point…
“And what is it that you do for work?” Fiona asked.
“I’m the senior marketing manager for an investment firm in Manhattan.”
“It is.” Nicole released a sigh that seemed to reach all the way to her soul. “I’ve been so caught up in work, I’m embarrassed to tell you how long it’s been since I took a vacation.”
“I’d say you needed this one, then,” Fiona said.
“I did. I really did.”
The man on the other side of Fiona was watching them again. She gave him an irritated look before her gaze darted back to Nicole. “Care to go for a walk?”
“I could use some air.” Fiona stood, reaching for her wineglass and a small white purse that she slung over her shoulder.
Nicole followed, bringing her own wine and her black clutch. Alcohol hadn’t improved her seaworthiness, though, and she stumbled as they reached the doorway.
“Careful,” Fiona murmured, the “r” lost to the cadence of her accent as her free hand grasped Nicole’s elbow. Her fingers were warm, her grip surprisingly strong, and Nicole was almost positive that Fiona lingered several moments longer than was strictly necessary.
Fiona Boone led the way onto the deck, dotted here and there with couples in search of fresh air and darkness to cover their actions. She’d thought this cruise was going to be dreadfully dull after Dimitris stood her up. That was before she met Nicole.
She led Nicole toward the rear of the boat to a quiet spot she’d discovered earlier. The curve of the deck hid them from view, but the protruding hulk of one of the lifeboats kept it from being a popular spot…unless one was looking for a place to hide from prying eyes, and right now, that was exactly what Fiona was going for. She leaned her elbows on the railing, taking in the glittering lights of the Italian coastline in the distance. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Nicole’s voice was softer now, as if hushed by the night.
The ship’s engine hummed beneath them, accentuated by the splash of water against the hull. Rhythmic and soothing. Fiona had always loved the sea, although she preferred to enjoy it with her feet on dry land. She dangled the wineglass in her left hand, watching the play of white against black as water sprayed out of the darkness below. “I like places like this…out of the way, private. I’m not much for crowds.”
“You seem like you could handle just about anything.” Amusement laced Nicole’s tone.
“I didn’t say I couldn’t handle them. I just prefer solitude, that’s all.”
“And here I had you pegged as a social butterfly.”
Fiona turned her head, meeting Nicole’s gaze in the near darkness. “Is that how you had me pegged?”
“Among other things.” Nicole licked her lips, and they glistened in the moonlight, driving Fiona to distraction.
“Good, because I’m many things.”
“Tell me a few of them. What do you do for work?”
“I’m an artist.” Fiona watched the lights bobbing on the horizon, twinkling like fallen stars.
“Oh, really? What kind of art? Do you paint?”
“Digital mostly, but yes, I do paint.” She slid her gaze to Nicole, who was watching her intently. They stood close enough that Fiona could inch her elbow to the right and bump Nicole’s. Could have, but she didn’t. Not yet, anyway. “Graphic design pays the bills. I paint mostly for myself, although I sell some locally.”
“Landscapes or people?”
“Both.” She let her gaze drop from Nicole’s face to her body, endless curves highlighted by her formfitting dress. Brown hair, hazel eyes, olive-tinted skin. Earth tones. She’d look so much more vibrant in a mossy-green dress than this gray one. “I could paint you, but I’d use brighter colors.”
“Like Jack draws Rose in Titanic?” Nicole’s voice had dropped an octave or two, into the timbre of Fiona’s lusty daydreams.
She scoffed. “Hardly. That’s a rubbish movie. The ship sinks, and they all die, even poor Jack because Rose’s too selfish to share her bit of wood with him.”
“Why, Fiona, are you a romantic at heart?” Nicole asked, shifting subtly closer.
“I can be romantic.” She lifted her right hand from the railing and brushed it against the curve of Nicole’s waist, lingering for a moment there. An innocent enough gesture if Nicole didn’t want this to happen, but Fiona had pretty good radar about these things, and she was confident she hadn’t read her wrong. Nicole wanted her as badly as she wanted Nicole.
She sucked in a breath at the contact, her eyes finding Fiona’s in the dark. Fiona was fairly sure Nicole’s interest had more to do with avoiding memories of her ex-husband than Fiona herself, but she didn’t mind. She was only looking for a distraction, someone to pass a lonely night or two with here on the ship. It had been months since she’d had sex, too many months, and she was ridiculously horny, an itch she’d been counting on Dimitris to scratch. But now, she found herself even more excited by the prospect of it being Nicole.
In the distance, another boat motored in their direction, engine rumbling in the night. Fiona reached out, sweeping the dark curtain of Nicole’s hair over her shoulder. Her fingers brushed Nicole’s neck, and she felt goose bumps rise beneath her touch. Fiona leaned in, her pulse going haywire the closer her lips got to Nicole’s. They met in a rush of hot breath, noses bumping as their lips pressed together. Nicole let out a hum of pleasure, her eyes sliding shut as Fiona pressed a light kiss against her cheek before bringing their mouths back into alignment.
This time, Nicole opened to her, and Fiona slipped her tongue into her mouth, tasting the same wine she herself had been drinking. Somehow, it tasted sweeter in the hidden pleasure of Nicole’s kiss, heady and lush as the Italian countryside they’d left behind that morning. Fiona slid her free hand to the hollow of Nicole’s back, pressing her closer, kissing her deeper, drinking her in, suddenly certain this kiss was a hundred times better than anything she would have shared with Dimitris this week.
“Whoa,” Nicole whispered as she lifted her head.
“Is that a good thing?” she asked, feathering a hand through Nicole’s hair.
She nodded, her face bobbing in Fiona’s vision as a shy smile played around her lips. “Better than good.”
“I thought so too.” Fiona brushed her fingers over the soft fabric of Nicole’s dress, smoothing it over the dip of her waist. “In fact, I’m very glad to have been stood up.”
“Is he your boyfriend?” There was something hesitant in Nicole’s voice now.
Fiona was a lot of things, but she wasn’t a cheat, and she wouldn’t have Nicole feeling any guilt over Dimitris. “No. He’s my… Even lover is too familiar a term. He’s a businessman who travels almost exclusively. Occasionally, maybe once or twice a year, if he’s in town and we’re both currently unattached, we’ll get together for a few nights. It’s just sex, and in this case, he was called away on business last minute, so I wound up all alone on this lovely boat.”
“That’s…” Nicole’s brow furrowed. “I was married for so long, I don’t have any experience with an arrangement like that.”
“It’s the only kind of relationship I have experience with,” Fiona said, a warning in case Nicole wasn’t interested in a night of casual sex.
“Oh,” she said quietly.
“Your divorce is recent?” Fiona asked.
“Three months. I’m supposed to be using this trip to figure things out by myself.”
Fiona sipped her wine, feeling slightly desperate at the thought of having to let her go. She so rarely experienced such an instant connection with someone, let alone this kind of sizzling chemistry. “Would you like me to leave you to it, then?”
“No,” Nicole answered quickly, stepping closer.
Fiona met her gaze. “Good.”
The other boat had drawn closer, its engine obnoxiously loud. It seemed like their boat, the Cyprus Star, had picked up speed, perhaps trying to put more space between itself and its new neighbor. Fiona wished for a table so she could set down her wine. Nicole was stuck carrying wine in one hand and her clutch in the other, no free hands for touching, and maybe Fiona hadn’t planned this little rendezvous as well as she’d thought.
“Do they seem too close to you?” Nicole asked, turning her attention to the approaching boat. It seemed to be heading straight for them.
“Mm,” Fiona agreed, annoyed at the interruption.
“Maybe it’s the Coast Guard?”
“Could be.” But the other boat had drawn close enough now that its outline was visible in the night, and it didn’t look like an official vessel. There were no identifying marks she could see, no maritime flag or police lights. Instinctively, she stepped into the shadows, drawing Nicole with her.
The approaching boat drew alongside the Cyprus Star, and with a horrible screech, their hulls bumped and rubbed, sending a shudder through the deck beneath her feet.
“Oh my God,” Nicole whispered.
Almost immediately, men dressed in black tossed ropes to secure their vessel to the Cyprus Star. The engine roared belowdecks, an apparent attempt by the captain to shake free, but it was too late. The marauders threw a ladder that hooked onto the Cyprus Star’s railing and began scaling it one after another.
“Fuck,” Fiona mumbled. She tossed her wineglass into the seething depths of the Mediterranean, then grabbed Nicole’s and sent it after hers. She crouched, drawing Nicole down with her, and they pressed themselves into a darkened recess in the side of the ship.
“What’s going on?” Nicole whispered. Her hand, still clutched in Fiona’s, shook.
“Shh. I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s anything good.”
Men’s voices shouted in Greek, too jumbled for Fiona to pick out more than the fact that they’d just been boarded by some kind of maritime pirates, and fuck, this was bad. She wrapped her arms around Nicole, who promptly buried her face against Fiona’s chest, something she would have appreciated a lot more five minutes ago. Now, her heart was about to burst out of her chest, and she wasn’t the least bit aroused.
“Everyone listen to me!” a man shouted, followed by the pop pop pop of gunfire, and Fiona recoiled. A shaft of moonlight passed overhead, illuminating her red dress like a beacon in the night. BUY IT NOW: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Google Play