“Suga? Is that you?”
I swung around to see Goldie, dressed in his Sandra Dee outfit and wig, coming down the hallway. Looked lovely and perky all at once. Now I remembered that I’d come here to see my friends. If I ran into any more bronze gods like Hunter and Rico, I might not be able to do either of my jobs.
“Oh, hey, Gold.”
He grabbed me and swung me around. “Don’t you just look precious in that outfit, Suga!”
I laughed. “Thanks. How are you guys doing?”
“Come inside. We are doing fab. Miles is down at the gym doing his Miles thing. I’ve been out looking at the scenery and planning our trip. This ship has a great cruise director…”
I know Goldie was still talking, but my mind flashed back to the elevator-and Hunter Knight. “White knight in shining armor” came to mind, or maybe, since it was a swinging singles cruise, white knight out of his shining armor.
I felt a tug on my arm.
“You all right?”
“I…met him. The cruise director.”
Goldie whistled. “Ah. Now I see why the trance. Good. Keeps your mind off that dangerous yet infectious Jagger. You know he’s not good for you-”
I didn’t want to hear Goldie’s usual “Jagger is like a drug” routine. He’ll hook you and then hurt you. “He’s not good for anyone. I know. Yes, I met Hunter Knight. As a matter of fact, I’m meeting him tonight-”
“Yippee!” Goldie shouted.
A young couple walking down the hallway hand in hand turned and smiled.
“You go, girl,” Goldie added, a bit more controlled. “I have a very good feeling about this cruise, Suga. Just what the doctor ordered.”
“I thought you were worried we’d get sucked into the Bermuda Triangle.” I chuckled.
Goldie waved a hand. His nails matched the pink in his shirt perfectly. “Sometimes we have to take our chances in life. It’s time for you, Suga. Time.”
Time? Hopefully it wasn’t my time for…you know. “Hey, Gold. Listen to this.” I told him about Betty and Jackie being at odds, not wanting to tell me something, and then dropping the bomb about the missing nurse.
Goldie shrieked, oh-so-very-Goldie-like. “Suga, you have to find out more. A missing nurse? It sounds as if there is more deception going on around here than just your fraud case!”
“That much I already knew. Actually, there has to be much more going on around here. Neither women seemed…scared. They were more evasive, as if hiding something.”
Goldie hugged me. “You be careful-and wear your pink necklace.”
I laughed. “I thought you and Miles were here to protect me, but I guess you’re too busy having fun.”
He looked at me a second. A tiny painful look filled his eyes.
I slapped his arm. “I’m kidding. I know you guys would jump overboard to save me.” I forced a laugh and Goldie smiled.
“We sure would-”
“As long as you were wearing every life jacket that was onboard.” We both laughed this time.
With that, Goldie kissed my cheek, and confident that my friends were having a good cruise already (and deserved it), I headed back to my quarters.
I’d have to get to know Jackie better. She was, after all, my new roomie, and I’d be working with her very soon. Whatever had gone on with her and Betty, I had no idea, but I’d look into it, along with the overcharges-and the missing Remy Girard.
I eased the door to my cabin open very slowly so as not to wake Jackie. When I peeked inside, I saw her sitting on a chair, feet up on my bed, and painting her nails. Between each toe was a wad of cotton. Her hair was pulled up on her head and some orange cream covered her face.
Damn it all, but she still looked good.
“Oh, hi,” I said coming in. She didn’t move from my bed.
“Finding your way around?”
I nodded and watched while she painted the middle nail a deep bronze color. Goldie would love it. Jackie really didn’t look at me as she spoke-more over my head-and I noticed she didn’t address me by name. Guess she forgot it.
“Why, yes. I had a nice tour of the medical facility by Betty-”
Hmm. Very interesting. “I saw on the schedule that I’ll be working with you on Monday.”
She nodded. “That’s fine. Read the manual so you know what the hell to do.”
For a few seconds I stood there speechless. Jackie was an odd duck even if a pretty one. Her dark brown eyes and matching hair, even shoved up in a mess, emphasized her European features. If she were male, I’d call her swarthy, but since she wasn’t, I had to go with exotic.
“Oh, yeah. I’ll be sure to read the manual by then.” I sat on her bed and shoved off my shoes. “There is one thing that will be very different for me, I’m sure.”
“Well, I’m not used to dealing with the patients-”
“Passengers,” she corrected without so much as a glance. Her right foot was up on my bed now, and she was gingerly painting the little toe with more care than she had acknowledged toward our conversation.
“Oh, yeah.” I laughed. “I can’t get used to calling them passengers. Anyway, I’m not used to charging them or having anything to do with that end of the care either. Billing is not my thing.”
Her hand stopped. The nail-polish brush slipped. A bronze streak marked her upper foot. Suddenly I felt as if we’d docked in Paris. Jackie went on and on in French. The only words I understood were diabolique and enfer-both of which I guessed had something to do with hell. Either way, Jackie did not seem like a happy camper.
She had to be my ticket to solving this case and finding out who was taking all the money from overcharging passengers for medical care. Well, at least she could be a start. How convenient that she was rooming with me and-gulp-how scary.
Jackie swabbed off the nail polish from her skin. For a second, I thought I should just leave her alone. But then again, where better to start my questioning?
“So,” I said, “We really don’t need to deal with who gets charged how much?”
She seemed to have calmed herself as she pitched the bronze-covered swab into the trash. “Oui.”
We what? I waited until it dawned on me that Jackie had slipped back into French. Hmm. Seems as if when she became upset, she would speak in her mother tongue. Speaking of mothers, I wish I had mine’s ability to get the truth out of someone with just a look. “That’s good. I’m not good with numbers.” I laughed. So her story wasn’t really any different from Betty’s.
“Did I tell you that my family is on this cruise too?” I hoped that didn’t sound as out of place and stupid as I felt saying it. I’d only had a minute amount of conversation with Jackie earlier, but there was a method to my madness.
“Yep. Parents and one uncle. Two friends too. Great friends. They’re my roommates back home in Connecticut.”
She didn’t even look up.
“Whereabouts are you from, Jackie?”
She finished her toes, leaned back in the chair and let her feet stay on my bed until, I was guessing, her nails dried. “Paree.”
Made me crave a croissant dripping in real butter and a black coffee-even though I’d prefer tea or decaf loaded with half and half. “Paris.”
“I was born in New York City but raised in Paris since a baby.”
So Jackie really was an American citizen. Actually she had dual citizenship. How cool. “Raised in Paris. Wow. Very glamorous.”
“Do not let the world fool you.” She gently took the cotton out from between her toes and then got up. When she stopped at the bathroom door and turned, she said, “Do not let anyone fool you. It could cost you.”
My mouth dropped down to my knees, the usual sign that something had shocked the dickens out of me. Jagger very often was the cause, but Jackie’s words added a bit more emotion, a new sensation stronger than anything Jagger had ever caused: fear.
The exotic woman with bronze toenails knew something.
That was all I could think about as I changed into a pair of silky black slacks and a silver-and-black sparkly sleeveless top and brushed my hair until it shone. Thank goodness Goldie had forced me to go shopping in the short time I’d had between receiving my assignment and sailing. There was no better personal shopper than my Gold. Even Miles would acknowledge that.
I took out my Estee Lauder perfume and sprayed my neck and wrists.
Jackie indeed was a piece of work to study, but right now I had to get ready for my “date” with Hunter. Date? Maybe I was being presumptuous. He probably didn’t mean for it to be a date. Maybe he was just trying to welcome a new crewmember onboard.
When the knock sounded on my room’s door, I stuck my feet into my black spike heels and gave myself one last look in the mirror before shoving the sink back up against the wall.
Hmm. Not bad.
Jackie had left sometime before supper, after telling me where and when to go eat with the crew. I had a nice turkey meal (not buffet) in the crewmembers’ dining hall on deck two with Betty and the crew’s purser, Claude Bernard, who now dated Jackie. Hmm. He told me that he handled all the crew paperwork and assisted in all crew matters. I already knew all that but didn’t interrupt. I wondered how much he knew about me. I was anxious to meet the main medical receptionist, but never did, since I had to get back to my room to change.
“Oops. Coming in a second!” One last look in the mirror, and then I hurried and opened the door.
Hunter Knight gave new meaning to the term “white knight in shining armor.” He looked delicious. For a second I felt as if I’d traveled back in time to the Love Boat and he was the guest star of the show.
“Hey. Was I supposed to wear my uniform?”
He chuckled. “You look wonderful. When it is your time off, Pauline, you can wear whatever you like…or not.”
The twinkle in his eye would be classified as X-rated.
And the thoughts on my mind would be too.
Hey, a girl needed a reprieve from fear/fraud/ and friends every once in a while.
Since it was my time off and Hunter’s job involved planning fun for the passengers, we were allowed in the Bottlenose Lounge tonight. The chairs, a deep aquamarine, were shaped like half barrels with nautical designs of anchors on them.
On the walls were a series of golden dolphins that appeared to be swimming and jumping through waves. In the center of the place was a gigantic column-shaped tank of water-with three live dolphins swimming in it! At least they looked real. Less than four feet long, they must have been some kind of miniature, but it was really neat.
The column had to run two floors up, to the top deck, where they could go for air.
A band was set up on the stage, which was a few feet above the wooden dance floor. Tables of passengers filled the room and amid the chatter, the music played softly.
Hunter took my elbow and eased me toward the front of the room, where a bar, its glass top filled with colorful tiny fish, wrapped around the stage. He pointed to a stool shaped like a dolphin at the end. On the bar was a little gold “reserved” sign.
“Just for you, Pauline. Tonight is the welcome dance.” He leaned near and whispered, “Welcome.”
My toes curled in my pointy pumps.
The bartender came over. She nodded at Hunter and smiled at me. Hunter introduced her as Edie Edwards. She reminded me of Adele Girard, Fabio’s receptionist and another of my friends, although dressed in her nice white crew’s uniform, I was guessing that Edie wasn’t an ex-con. Adele, however, was. “Nice to meet you,” I said.
“Likewise, honey.” Edie had a Southern accent similar to Goldie’s. I wondered if she was from Louisiana too. Hunter excused himself to go talk to some passengers while Edie offered to get me a drink on Hunter’s tab.
“Beer. Any kind,” I said, liking her already. It was nice to see a woman as the bartender. She probably was better at listening and being sympathetic than any guy could be. Well, except maybe a gay one.
Edie laughed and poured me a mug from the tap. “So, you’re the new nurse.”
It wasn’t a question, and I didn’t remember Hunter mentioning it in our introduction. I had the feeling there was a tight-knit community of crewmembers onboard this ship. I only hoped that I could infiltrate it.
I took a sip of the ice-cold beer and smiled at Edie. She started to wipe the glass top of the bar with a white linen towel. “How long have you been working on this ship, Edie?”
She paused. “Too damn long.” She chuckled.
I thought of Adele again. Edie could come across as motherly just as Adele had. I laughed along with her. “Well, I’m sorry the nurse that I replaced became…ill, but I’m glad to be here.”
Edie’s hand froze. “Yeah. Glad you are too.”
That was the only insincere thing I’d heard her say yet.
“I hope it was nothing contagious.” I watched her eyes and tried to remember if pupils constricted or dilated when someone was lying.
In the dim light I really couldn’t tell, and besides, the light would affect her pupils. That much I knew from nursing head-injury patients.
She looked across the room, then started to wipe again. “No. I don’t think Remy, that was his name…is his name…Ha. I’m getting so tired tonight,” she mumbled.
It wasn’t even ten. If anyone should be dozing on her dolphin stool, it should have been me. In her profession, Edie had to be used to late nights. “I hope you’re not getting whatever Remy had.”
Her eyes widened. I could hear her gulp.
Suddenly I felt sorry for Edie, so I decided to change the subject. No sense in getting her angry with me. Besides, I already knew the truth about Remy. I might need Edie somewhere along the line. I looked out over the crowd.
Mostly twentysomethings dressed in sexy, short, tight outfits. More blondes than brunettes, and a few redheads, but all had long hair. The style, I guessed. The guys all looked delicious, but they were definitely outnumbered.
On the far wall sat a table of what looked like eligible bachelors. They were decked out in the same white tuxedos and varied in age. I guessed they must have been the male “hosts” Hunter had told me about. As I started to turn, I caught a glimpse of one with a bald head and started to smile. Until he turned around.
Yikes! “Excuse me,” I murmured and headed over to his table.
“Hey, Pauline. I’d love to dance with you, but I’m on duty,” he said, smiling. “I got this gig at the last minute and they’re going to rebate my fare. Seems the last old geezer croaked, and they hadn’t had time to replace him. There are some women my age aboard, you know. They need attention that only I can give them.”
I could only smile. There was no way I was going to scream, “What the hell are you doing at your age?” I couldn’t. Not with the look of pride on his face. “You always luck out, don’t you?”
My uncle nodded. “Your folks are already in bed, Pauline. Damn shame.”
I grinned, then as I started to make more conversation, I heard a female voice behind me.
“I want him!”
“Abigail, you always get first pick. I want him. He’s adorable in white.”
Uncle Walt was now a lovely shade of crimson, smiling straight ahead. I turned to see two “mature” women arguing until one grabbed Uncle Walt’s arm and said, “It’s past your bedtime, Abigail. Don’t wait up!”
With that, she and Uncle Walt were on the dance floor. And I laughed all the way back to my dolphin stool. Edie was now finishing someone’s fancy drink.
“Seems the guys are outnumbered on this ship.” I chuckled.
“What’s new?” She looked up. “That’s why Hunter hires those men. Escort the single women to dinner. Dance with them. You know. No sex though. All on the up and up, to give the women a good cruise to remember so they’ll come back. We’re always top-heavy with women on our cruises.”
“Interesting job.” I took another sip of beer and shifted on my dolphin. The back fin was the hard-surfaced lower back of the stool and it wasn’t exactly a Lazy Boy.
She leaned forward. “I’ll say, and on each cruise Hunter seems to come up with some doozies. If I were a few years younger! There’s a few on this trip that I’d snag for myself.”
We both laughed, and I was glad I’d gotten off the Remy interrogation-for now. I liked Edie.
A hand touched my shoulder. I swung around. “Oh, hi.”
Hunter stood there, and I thought, Hmm, I wouldn’t mind snagging him.
“Edie giving you the scoop on the ship?”
I nodded. “She’s sweet.”
“How about once around the dance floor?”
Thank goodness Miles and Goldie had given me some “speed dancing” lessons before embarking on this ship. It’d been some time since I’d danced in public, and yes, I’d worried that I’d make a fool of myself. I kept picturing Elaine from Seinfeld. “Sure.”
Hunter took my hand and led me to the crowded floor. I realized it didn’t matter if I had two left feet, since every passenger on this cruise seemed to be on the dance floor right now except my sleeping folks.
We eased into the middle of the crowd, where Hunter took me into his arms. Oh, my. Good thing it was so packed there, or my Jell-O legs might have me collapsing against his chest. Hmm. Looked like a pretty good cushion to break a fall.
The band played some kind of ballad. I looked around to see Goldie and Miles coming in the door and managed a weak wave since I didn’t want to let go of Hunter’s shoulders. He maneuvered me around the floor like an expert. “I’m guessing you’ve done this before,” I said softly.
He chuckled against my cheek. “I could buy this ship if I had a nickel for every number I’ve danced to.”
My lips curled. I really didn’t want to think of him dancing with someone else.
He looked down at me. “It’s part of my job, Pauline.”
“Like the male hosts?” I tried to laugh, but it wouldn’t come out.
“Not this time.”
If I fell overboard right then, at least my body would keep warm from the delicious feeling floating throughout me.
We danced for several numbers, until I realized my feet hurt. Damn heels. But when I looked at how sexy all the other women looked in their shoes, I thought it was all worth the pain. However, I’d bet my next paycheck that none of the men even noticed one shoe.
A buzzing tickled my side.
Hunter looked down. “Seems I’m being paged.” He looked at the number. “The captain. Could take a while.”
“No problem. Duty calls.” Great. Now I could sit.
“Let me get you a partner to finish the dance with.” Before I could protest, Hunter waved to someone.
“It’s really not necessary. I’ll head back to my cabin-”
“Not alone. One of the crew will escort you. I have a new male host who isn’t that busy yet.”
“That’s really not-”
“A gentleman does not leave his date stranded.”
Not wanting to insult Hunter’s chivalry, I smiled. “Thanks.”
“Ah, here is the gentleman to fill in for me. Pauline. This is one of the newly hired escorts, Jay Smith.”
Hunter’s beeper sounded again. With a quick smile and peck on my cheek, he turned to leave.
“Nice to meet you, Pauline.”
I swung around at the voice. “You? You? You!” I shut my eyes for a second. “An iceberg would be a welcome sight.”