"Oh my God, they've lost my luggage."
Kara, wide eyed with worry, turned to look at her best friend Viv. The luggage carousel had stopped moving and the other passengers from their flight were long gone. "What am I going to do? I can't go on a seven day Caribbean cruise with only this."
She lifted her carry on, which contained a swimsuit, a pair of shorts and a tee shirt to change into once she reached Florida, and the winter coat she'd stuffed inside that she wouldn't need until she returned to Ohio.
The only other people in the room were passengers from another flight who'd gathered around a different luggage carousel to wait for their bags.
Kara's phone rang.
"I thought you were going to call me when you landed."
"I'm kind of busy right now, Daryl. Gotta go. My luggage is missing."
"Bye, Daryl. I can't talk now." Kara hung up. The phone rang again. She glanced at it and turned it off. He never seemed to take the hint when she said she was busy. It was just easier to turn the phone off.
"Girl, you need a break from your boss. Doesn't that man understand you're on vacation?"
"He just wanted to know I got here okay. Viv, what am I going to do? I can't sail without my luggage."
"Hang on." Viv approached the opening where the luggage emerged and leaned across the stopped conveyer belt to shout into the dark hole. "Hey, anyone back there?"
Kara's mouth dropped open.
My God, I can't believe she's doing that.
A man shouted back, "What do you think you're doing? You can't come back here."
Oh my God. They'll arrest her. They'll think she's a terrorist.
"I'm not trying to come back there. But my friend's luggage hasn't come out yet," Viv yelled back. "And I wondered if you'd all gone home."
The man laughed. "What's the flight number?"
Vivian glanced over at the monitor that showed the flight arrival from Columbus, Ohio. "Five seventy one."
"We've sent everything out from that flight."
"This is unbelievable," Kara said. "What am I going to do?"
"They'll find it. You need to go report it so we can get going."
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
Kara turned and looked up into deep brown eyes that smiled down on her with concern. She caught her breath. He was at least six-foot to her five-foot-seven and had broad shoulders and a deep tan.
"My friend's luggage is missing and we're leaving on a cruise within hours. That's why she's upset. But thank you for offering. Viviane Tate." Viv stuck out her hand and Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome shook it.
"Nate Cooper." He turned to Kara and held out his hand.
"Kara Worth." She put her hand in his and felt the warm strength of his fingers enclose it, making her skin tingle.
"That's a beautiful name, Kara." He smiled, which warmed her to her toes.
"Pleased to meet you both." His smile lit up the room and the rumble of his voice took her breath away. It was the kind of voice she could have closed her eyes and listened to all day.
"Likewise," Viv said. "Where are you headed?"
He let go of Kara's hand to turn to Viv again, and Kara felt the loss of its warmth.
"I'm sailing on The Wishing Star."
"So are we!" Viv moved closer to him. "Are you traveling alone?"
"With my cousin."
"Kara hasn't had a vacation in years. She's a widow." Viv shook her head. "Terrible thing. He was shot at a gas station right in front of her."
Great. Does she have to bring that up to everyone we meet?
Nate glanced at Kara concern in his eyes. "You're much too young to be a widow. That must have been hard."
"Yes, can you imagine?" Viv grasped his arm and led him away, lowering her voice.
Kara's jaw dropped. I cannot believe this. What is she doing? She has a boyfriend.
"I'm going over to report my luggage missing," she called over to Viv.
Viv nodded at her and kept talking to Nate.
Kara found the counter where she had to fill out a form and the attendant assured her they'd find her bags and send them on.
"You can't send them to me. I'll be out in the middle of the ocean. I'm going on a cruise. This is a nightmare."
"Calm down, Kara," Viv said from behind Kara as she approached.
"That's easy for you to say. Your luggage hasn't gone missing." She glanced behind Viv and saw Nate heading out the revolving door. She wondered what Viv had said to him.
"You can borrow a few of my things. Don't let this ruin your trip."
"I'm sorry about your luggage, miss," the attendant said. "If we don't find it before you sail, we will send it to your first port of call."
"But we won't be in port until Tuesday," Kara said.
"We'll do the best we can."
Viv placed her hand on Kara's arm. "There's nothing more you can do. Come on. Maybe the bags will be on the ship waiting for you."
"I hope so."
They boarded the bus, which would take them to the pier, and Viv chattered about nightclubs and bars on the ship while Kara tried to keep her mind on the conversation and not on her missing luggage or whether she'd see Nate again. After all it had been a year since she'd seen Viv. She was looking forward to their time together. Viv was her oldest and dearest friend, and they'd be celebrating New Years together this year on a cruise ship.
Port Canaveral was full of ships, and as their bus drew nearer, Kara and Viv watched through the window looking for their ship. Their ship was the tallest of them all and even larger than Kara had imagined.
"Wow. It has to be at least two hundred feet tall," Kara said. Two large red and black smoke stacks stood atop the white ship, which had The Wishing Star painted on the side.
"Wow is right. See. You won't even know you're on the ocean. We'll be so busy you won't have time to be scared."
"The website photos didn't do it justice." Kara had haunted the Internet in the days leading up to the trip. "No wonder Daryl said they're like a floating city." She turned to look at Viv. "I won't be scared. I took that beginner's swim class, remember?"
"Oh yeah. That's right. Have you made your wish yet?"
"No," Kara said.
"Promise you'll make one before we set sail."
"All right, I'll think of something."
But I don't know what to wish for. And wishes don't always come true.
Wishes didn't bring Neil back. Kara knew nothing could. Not even prayer.
Sometimes the things you want most you can't have.
It was better not to want anything so much. It had been so long since she'd wished for anything. She stared out the window at the towering ship as they drew closer. Wishes are for little girls who still believe in fairy tales and Santa Clause. Not for grown women who know how life really is.
"Are you thinking of your wish?" Viv nudged her elbow. "What is it?"
"I'm not going to think of one with you elbowing me."
Viv isn't going to let this go.
I better come up with one. I have to wish for something because I promised. But it needs to be something small. Something that won't hurt or disappoint when it doesn't come true.
They got off the bus, collected their carry-ons, and entered the cruise terminal with their tickets out, ready to board.
Kara turned her phone back on while they waited in line to get their photos taken for the room key/I.D. card they'd use to board. She'd intended to call Daryl back until she saw she had six calls from him. On the last call he'd left a message.
"Damn it, Kara, turn on your phone and call me back."
Frowning, she deleted it. He could wait. It was their turn for photos.
"Smile Kara," Viv said. "Girl, if anyone needs a vacation it's you."
Kara forced a smile she didn't quite feel with her mind still on Daryl.
"This is going to be awesome," Viv said, her movements getting even bouncier as they boarded the ship.
Kara's smile returned for real this time.
The ship's interior welcomed them with a refined grace and overflowing elegance. Kara breathed in the scent of lemon polish and fresh flowers. Brass surfaces gleamed and bright murals colored the walls. The elevator made no sound other than a soft female voice saying, "doors opening now" or "doors closing now." Kara tried to allow the gracefulness of the ship to seep over her to forget she was on the ocean and had a fear of deep water. If she hadn't won this vacation for two, she'd never have paid to go on a cruise. But Viv was excited enough for both of them and her enthusiasm was always contagious. It had been a long time since she and Viv did anything fun together.
What could be better than a trip with her best friend?
"I'm ready to be pampered," she said to let Viv know she was trying.
On the door to their cabin a label with gold letters read Mrs. Kara Worth and Ms. Vivian Tate. The small room designed in peach tones comforted like an elegant cave. On the desk a card of heavy white stock announced the cabin steward's name and extension. Fresh fruit and bottled water stood beside it.
A knock sounded on the door and Vivian opened it.
"Good evening. I am Bertrand, your cabin steward. If there is anything you need ...?"
"Nothing at the moment," Viv said.
"Your life jackets are in the closet, and your muster station, where you'll go for the life boat drill, is on the Promenade deck. When the bell rings for the lifeboat drill the crew will direct you."
"Righto. We'll be ready."
He moved on to the next cabin and knocked at the door.
Inside the cabin, Viv opened the wall safe and put her wallet and jewelry inside. "I'm putting my watch in here," she said removing it. "We don't have to be anywhere on time this week, except dinner."
"Good idea." Kara took off her watch and handed it over along with her wallet and jewelry, setting them inside as well.
Her phone went off again and her face fell when she saw it was Daryl.
Viv grabbed it out of her hand. "If you don't tell that son of a bitch to stop calling you, I will."
"I can't tell my boss that."
Viv turned the phone off and locked it in the safe. "Well, you're not at work now. You're officially on vacation. Soon to be at sea, where cell phone reception is sometimes spotty.
"Whatever he wants, it can wait."
"Viv, I really should see what he wants. I can't keep avoiding him. What if it's something important?"
A bell sounded three short rings. "This is the captain. All passengers and crew report to their muster stations."
"I don't have time to call him back now," Kara said, as she looked in one side of the closet. "Where are the life jackets?"
Viv found the jackets in the other closet and handed one to Kara. "Atta girl. Plenty of time to deal with your boss later. Like when this cruise is over. Come on, let's go."
The crew directed them to their muster stations.
Kara stood in the evening sun eyeing the lifeboats. "They're such small boats for such a big ocean. I hope we never have to step into one because the ship is sinking,"
Oh God. What will I do if the ship starts to sink?
"Kara there will never be another Titanic. Ships today don't sink," Viv said.
"That's not true. Don't you remember that Italian cruise ship that struck a reef in the Mediterranean and all those people had to jump into the water?" Kara shivered.
"Stop it, Kara. This ship is not going to sink."
Kara bit her lip.
The officer in charge of their station paced with a clipboard, waiting for the last of the passengers. He tapped it with his pen, which for some reason made her more nervous.
Why didn't the passengers hurry? Hadn't they heard the captain? The ship couldn't sail until the crew accounted for all the passengers. An emergency would be just like this. They wouldn't lower the boats until everyone was here and counted. Passengers should take this more seriously.
The close crowd and the perfume of the woman beside her were overpowering as the evening sun beat down. Kara closed her eyes, hoping she wouldn't end up with a headache.
Viv had turned to the redheaded woman beside her to chat about Italian men, especially the officers onboard.
"I just love Italian men. And you say all the officers on this ship are Italian?" Viv's eyes lit up. "Isn't that unusual on an American ship?"
"This isn't the military, dearie. The crew is multi-national." The redhead laughed.
"Hey, Viv," Kara said.
But Viv either hadn't heard her or was ignoring her.
Kara fumbled with the orange life jacket. Her hands shook.
What if this was a real emergency?
She'd only just learned to swim two years ago in the timid non-swimmers class at the gym. Six months before Neil was killed, and she hadn't swum since.
No, don't think about the ship going down. Don't think about trying to swim in the ocean with a defective life jacket.
But the thoughts came anyway.
"Stupid life jacket," she muttered under her breath as she struggled with it.
More passengers crowding into their area made everyone shift sideways.
A voice behind her said, "Here sweetheart, let me help."
Oh, that voice.
The back of her neck tingled.
Embarrassment flooded over her, making it harder to fasten the jacket.
Nate stepped in front of her, deep brown eyes looking down at her as he smiled and reached both arms around behind her back. "Hello again," he said and smiled deeper, his eyes gazing into hers. "We have to stop meeting like this." Then he winked.
His face was bronzed by wind and sun, and he projected a magnetic self-confidence along with a generous smile.
"Hello," she murmured, blushing as his scent, spicy and male, and his nearness made her senses spin. She felt dizzy. Between the heat of his body and the heat of the sun she grew warmer and more flushed.
"Your straps are twisted."
She watched his lips as he spoke and her pulse raced.
"Let me to fix them for you."
He towered over her. She had to look up to look into his eyes. Brown eyes that sparkled as he untwisted the straps.
She nodded. The blush spread across her face.
His hand brushed the small of her back as he untwisted the straps, sending a tingle up her spine. He was so close, yet the bulky lifejacket held her head up and covered her chest.
Yet it wasn't only the man's sexiness and the sudden attraction that nearly did her in but the tender way he administered to her. The way she felt cared for. Something she hadn't felt for a long time.
Her body came alive as if one touch had turned on the floodlights. And the part deep within her that wanted to be cared for and loved made her ache with need.
Pulling the straps together in front, he snapped the vest tight. "There, that's better."
She didn't look up into his eyes. Instead her eyes traced the stubble on his chin.
Who would have thought a man's stubbly chin could be so sexy?
She wanted to reach up and touch it.
Knowing she should thank him, instead she stood, frozen, bared to her soul. If she said one word she feared all the pent up loneliness inside her would come pouring out.
Now all the passengers were accounted for, and the captain's voice came over the loudspeaker, interrupting what either of them might have said.
Nate stood for one more brief moment looking down into her eyes, his teeth white against his tan, his intent brown eyes upon hers, before he winked again and stepped back behind her.
Kara was intensely aware of his presence though she tried to ignore it, to focus on the captain's instructions. It was important to pay attention. This information could save her life if the ship started to sink.
She glanced down at the small whistle and plastic light hanging from her vest like children's toys.
The light would act as a beacon. But how could anyone see that tiny thing in the vast ocean?
Don't think about the ship going down like the Titanic. Don't.
The evening sun beat down, and she longed to retreat to their cool cabin. Viv moved over next to her. "When the drill is over let's put on our swimsuits and try out the hot tub."
"That and a frosty pina colada sounds good."
Kara wondered if Nate had overheard and if he'd look for her later. She wasn't going to say anything to Viv after the way Viv flirted with him in the airport, but secretly Kara made one small wish. Viv had been after her to make one and they were, after all, sailing on the Wishing Star.