Nathan checked his watch as he pushed through the door to the ship’s fitness room. Only day three of this cruise and he was already playing hooky from one of his mother’s family events, a group swim this time. He’d agreed to come on this family vacation even though he suspected the anniversary trip was Mom’s thinly veiled attempt at infusing the Christmas spirit into what she termed his love-hardened heart. When she hadn’t been corralling him into family activities, she’d tried introducing him to every available woman on board above the age of consent. While he appreciated her sentiment, somewhat, he hadn’t needed anyone planning his day since grade school, and he hadn’t needed anyone getting him a date since…ever. He just hadn’t been interested in a while. And after two solid days of family time, watching his brother and his wife and their kids, not to mention his parents, he needed a break from group happiness.
Maybe even more, they needed a break from him, especially today, Christmas Eve. He’d be lousy company today, two years to the day that Shelby had sent her father shame-walking up the aisle to deliver a message — “She’s so sorry, but she doesn’t want to marry you..ever” — then skulk off into the evening, leaving him standing there, surrounded by gaping guests and a frowning officiant.
He snorted and tried to shake the memory free, disgusted with himself at how much the humiliating episode still hurt. Or maybe it had morphed into anger. Whatever it was, he was damn tired of carrying the emotional weight.
His mother was right about one thing — there was no shortage of beautiful women on this cruise. Like that gorgeous redhead with the mountain of luggage from the first day. He hadn’t seen her since, not that he’d been looking.
Forcing the thought of women from his mind, he moved toward the weight benches, scanning for an empty one, and saw her—Suitcase Woman—several stations down, lying on the bench and fighting to push some serious weight overhead. Her arms trembled, her face was scrunched in concentration, and sweat dripped down the sides of her face onto the towel under her head.
In two steps he was her side and was about to relieve her of the weight when she shoved the bar the last few inches up, gasped, “Done,” and dropped the bar into the cradle.
“Impressive. What is that, a hundred pounds?”
She sat up, her eyes widening like the first time when she saw him, and grabbed her towel to mop her face and neck.
“A hundred twenty.” She straightened her spine and gave a self-satisfied smile. ”My personal best.”
“You weren’t kidding when you told me you were strong.”
“It’s my job.” She gestured to her bright blue T-shirt which had STUDIO H blazoned across the front in a flowery pink font. “I own a fitness studio.”
“I’m doubly impressed.” He thrust his hand forward. “I’m Nathan, fellow passenger slash luggage wrangler. Great to meet you.”
Her complexion, already flushed, reddened more. “Chelsea. Good to meet you, too. I, uh, apologize for the tip thing. I didn’t mean to offend.”
She looked away. “I’m just used to doing things on my own.”
“I can relate. It was just no big deal.”
Nodding, she eyed his chest. “You lift?”
“It’s a job requirement, to stay in shape. I like lifting.”
She didn’t ask what the job was but simply gave him a quick closed-lip smile and angled her head toward the door. “Um…I’m heading out, but thanks for the almost-assist this time. I appreciate it. Really.”
When she stood, her roomy top shimmied down hips that were lean but curvy, and the fabric draped in ways that hinted at more curves underneath. Perspiration gleamed on her forehead, cheeks and across her chest. Visions of soapy showers for two filled his head, and suddenly letting her leave seemed like a bad idea.
“How about coffee later? Or if you’re one of those healthy food types, I’m sure there’s a juice bar or something on board.” He wouldn’t drink the swill but would enjoy watching her face. No one would ever have to wring her thoughts from her. Right now she was considering his invitation, lips pursed and eyes narrowed as if she were scanning the contents of her refrigerator for dinner ingredients.
“Coffee is the one of the essentials of life,” she finally said, “and I appreciate the offer, but I have plans.” She hefted her gym bag, pasted another close-mouthed smile on her face and headed for the door without a backward glance.
He had a great BS-meter, and if he had to judge, he’d say her explanation was about twenty-five percent truth, the rest bald-faced lie. Apparently his skill with women had hit an all-time low. He dropped his towel on the bench she had vacated, added weights to the bars, and settled back to work up his own sweat. Alone.
Later, Chelsea took a final look in the mirror, refastened a hair clip to keep her updo up, then grabbed her evening bag and wrap. She’d dawdled getting ready and still had 10 minutes before meeting Liz by the elevators. Funny how much less time it took to get ready, even for a formal event, when you didn’t have kids to worry about. And that was even after a prolonged and heated video discussion with her ex earlier over plans for the evening.
It was Christmas Eve, and Adam had promised he’d make sure the girls had time to Skype before going to bed so they could read the Christmas story together, like they always did. Instead he’d arranged for them to attend a special dinner with Santa and his elves. Even he had to acknowledge they’d be too tired and hyped up afterward for a story via video call with their mother. As usual, his plans took priority, and as usual he had little regret that he’d ruined hers.
“Ali and Maddie are four and six years old, Chelsea,” he’d said, scowling into the phone’s camera. “Dinner with Santa and his elves on Christmas Eve is every kid’s dream. Don’t be selfish just because your little routine has to be delayed this one year.”
“My little routine is a tradition in my family, and it is in ours, too. It’s what Christmas is about—Mary and Joseph in the stable, angels, and shepherds in the field under the star. The birth of baby Jesus.”
Adam rolled his eyes and made a rude noise. “Then isn’t Christmas Day better anyway? We’ll call you after opening my gifts for them. They’ll be done with all the excitement by then.”
“Gee, thanks,” she’d mocked but had to clear her expression because he’d turned over the phone to the girls so they could tell her how excited they were to see Santa in person on Christmas Eve. Maddie, older by two years and the caretaker of the two, had seemed to want to hang on, and by the time they disconnected, Chelsea was fighting tears.
After the call, a tidal wave of depression built in her chest—not just from missing her girls, but from sheer loneliness. Back home she never felt alone. Too busy keeping up with the kids’ schedules. Too busy building a business and caring for her customers. Too busy worrying about everyone but herself. But here, on board this giant ship, surrounded by couples laughing, couples eating, couples necking in dark corners, it was all too clear she had no one.
As for her plans to unwind, all it had taken was three days of reading, relaxing and sunning to go crazy. Who knew down time could be so…boring?
It was Liz who convinced her to end her self-imposed aloneness and join them for the Christmas Eve party.
“Wear the red dress I made you pack,” Liz had said with a gleam in her eyes. “One look at you in that dress, and you’ll have half the men on board wanting some attention.”
Chelsea had agreed, although it was only one man’s attention she wanted—Suitcase Man who, it turned out, looked even yummier in a T-shirt and hacked-off sweats than he did in khakis and a blazer. He’d come to her rescue in the gym earlier—even though she didn’t need it—and she’d liked the way his eyes had flared in admiration when she’d completed her lifts without that rescue. So different from Adam’s condescending poo-pooing of her little project, as he called her business. She’d been tempted, so tempted, to join Suitcase Man for coffee, but the niggling hurt from the divorce played a constant you weren’t good enough in the back of her mind.
Well, that was about to change. Suitcase Man had made it more than clear he was interested. And so was she. At least for tonight.
She shut her cabin door behind her, headed toward the elevator, and her cell phone clanged. It was Adam’s emergency ring.
Her heart squeezing painfully, she snatched the phone and thumbed ANSWER.
Adam’s face filled the screen. He looked like he did when he had the flu. Flushed. Sweating. Breathing rapidly.
“What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
“No.” He looked away and down, smiling sadly. “It’s okay, sweetheart. I’m calling Mommy now. You can talk to her in a second.”
“What is it, Adam? You’re scaring me.”
He turned his attention back to the camera. “It’s Maddie. She’s missing.”
Please come back tomorrow for the conclusion of SECOND CHANCE CHRISTMAS.
Leah St. James