Lethal Voyage

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Lethal Voyage — Chapter 1
Lethal Voyage — Chapter 2
Lethal Voyage — Chapter 3

Radio Interview re: Lethal Voyage — 11.23.20 on The Todd Ortloff Show

Kevin’s Interview with Todd Ortloff – 11.23.20 — KONP Radio

Chapter 1 – Hell Hath No Fury

July 16, 2018

Carrboro, North Carolina

 A DROP OF BLOOD clung to the tip of the knife. A nasty red stain was forming on the white carpet of Madeline Hawthorne’s bedroom. The woman gripping the knife breathed in staccato gasps. The muscles in her right arm twitched from exertion.

     Madeline lay on her stomach on the king-sized bed, bathed in moonlight. Blood welled up from the two thin gashes in the back of her silver nightgown and ran down onto the 2,000-thread-count sheet. Madeline groaned and moved her left arm.

     “I said die, Bitch!”

     The knife plunged into Madeline’s back five more times in quick succession. Crimson spatter covered the attacker’s face, arms, and blouse. The woman holding the knife was petite, with well-defined muscles in her arms and shoulders, honed by hours in the dance studio. Her lithe calves were visible below a black leather skirt. She tensed for another lunge, but there was no need.

     She stood over Madeline’s corpse, knife hanging at her side, and breathed deeply. A dark pool spread out on the mattress and ran in two rivulets off the edge. When her pulse steadied, she calmly laid the knife on a clean space near the foot of the bed. She removed her shoes, then tiptoed to the bathroom. Selecting a robin’s-egg-blue hand towel from a neat pile on a white wicker credenza, she wiped her hands and face.

     She then walked barefoot around the bed, avoiding the patches of blood, until she reached a closet. Inside, she stretched up to a high shelf over a row of dark men’s business suits and removed an ornately carved maple box.

     John had shown her the box once, when Madeline went away for the weekend. He was unnaturally proud of his Colt Python .357 Magnum with the 4-inch barrel. He had bragged about spending $4,000 on it at a gun show in Charlotte. He once told her he could blow the head off any intruder. He always kept it fully loaded with six bullets. She returned to the bathroom, sat on the edge of the marble bathtub, and waited.

     She and John had made love in that spacious tub and on the wide shelf running around its length. She remembered the smooth, cold feeling of the chrome soap dish against the arch of her foot when she had braced herself against it. She could smell the cinnamon candles she lit before their bath. John was more than twenty years her elder, but he kept up fairly well. He enjoyed her flexibility and the taut smoothness of her muscles. He told her what a shrew Madeline was, and said he was going to divorce her as soon as their youngest son graduated from Chapel Hill.

     In John, she had a patron and a lover. He wanted her to be a star someday. He had written to a major talent agent he knew in New York, at the William Morris Agency. John had praised her voice and dancing, her beauty, and her poise. The agent had written back, expressing great interest and asking when she could come to New York for an interview. She smiled at the memory, but then her brows furrowed. John had lied to her.

     Ten minutes later, she heard the front door open, then close quietly. She faintly heard four beeps as John disabled the burglar alarm. She had done the same when she arrived, then re-set it before she came upstairs. She had watched John do it when he brought her home. It was a simple four-digit code, and the numbers were his birthday. It was after midnight and she knew John would be creeping upstairs soon, hoping not to wake his wife. He told her many times how he had perfected the routine. He would go to the bathroom to change into his pajamas, which he kept on a shelf there. Then, he would slip into bed without turning on a light or making a sound.

     She waited patiently, the cool wooden butt of the pistol in her hand. With a soft whirr, the air conditioning kicked to life, fluttering the end of a toilet paper roll. She detected a slight creak from a nearby floorboard. The bathroom door crept inward, blocking her view of the threshold. When the door swung shut, she could dimly make out John’s silhouette against the soft green glow of his electric razor, charging next to the sink.

     “Were you fucking Cheryl tonight?”

     Although she whispered, John jumped, then spun around, squinting into the darkness.

     His voice came out in a hissing whisper. “Holy shit! Is that you? What the fuck are you doing here? How did – you have to leave. What if Maddy wakes up?” She could hear the panic in his voice and see his head turning quickly from her direction to the bathroom door, listening for movement from the bed. She wasn’t worried about Madeline waking up, but she was happy to keep up the charade.

     She stood up slowly, keeping perfectly balanced on her bare feet. “Don’t worry, I had to be with you, John. I love you. How could you cheat on me?”

     “What?” John’s eyes were adjusting to the darkness, but he couldn’t see any details, except for the reflection of the green charger light off her eyes. “Jesus! No. I told you I needed to work out the details with Maddy. I’m working on it.”

     “I know you were with Cheryl. I saw you at the motel.”

     “What?” John tried to control his voice, but failed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

     She took two steps forward, until she was inches from John. She smelled his cologne – the one he always put on after having sex with her so his wife wouldn’t smell her on his body. She looked up into his shadowy face, the .357 Magnum dangling next to her right thigh. She slid her left arm around his neck, drawing him toward her. Some of Madeline’s spattered blood transferred from her blouse to John’s white dress shirt.

     “Oh, John. I’ll go soon. I just had to see you.” She pulled against his neck and felt him lean in toward her. As he whispered something she didn’t listen to, she brought the gun up until the muzzle touched his chin. At the same instant, she stepped back a half-step and squeezed the trigger.

     The explosion was louder than she expected, and the kickback from the discharge jerked the gun out of her hand. John’s body slumped forward as she stepped sideways, allowing him to fall with a moist thwack. Dark lines quickly formed in the indentations surrounding the 12-inch square ceramic tiles next to what was left of John’s head. Bits of bone, blood, and brain matter speckled her face and hair, but the bulk of the tissue covered the far wall and mirror.

     She looked down at the gory scene and sighed. It was sad, really. John could have made her so happy, and she would have made him such a good wife. She shook her head and picked up a light blue washcloth, then carefully wiped her hands. She cleaned the butt and the trigger of the gun, removing the spattered blood as well as her fingerprints. She used the cloth to hold the gun and pushed it into John’s dead hand, pressing his fingers into the wood and chrome and placing his index finger on the trigger. Lifting the gun and his hand until his arm was fully extended, she pressed his finger into the trigger and squeezed. The bullet burrowed into the ceiling as John’s arm dropped back to the floor. The gun skittered across the tiles, settling beneath the waving toilet paper.

     She walked carefully back into the bedroom. There, she retrieved the knife and carried it to the bathroom, where she wiped some of the blood from the blade onto John’s pants. Then, she repeated the process of wiping away her fingerprints, placing the knife in John’s hand, and squeezing his prints onto the hilt. She used the blue cloth to pick up the knife by its blade and tossed it back onto the bed. She retrieved her shoes and tucked the blood-smeared towel and washcloth into the waistband of her skirt.

     As she carefully walked toward the door, she passed Madeline’s dressing table. She plucked a tissue from its box and used it to remove the top of a small heart-shaped porcelain container. Inside, she saw the glint of a gemstone in the moonlight filtering in through the window. She replaced the lid and picked up the jewelry box, shaking it softly to hear the tinkling sound coming from inside. Then she left the room, leaving no footprints.

SSS

     As gruesome as the crime scene was, it didn’t really present much of a mystery from a police perspective. The official report said the wife was stabbed multiple times, and the husband’s prints were on the knife. There was no sign of forced entry. The alarm was engaged. After he killed his wife, the husband retrieved a gun registered to him from a storage box in his closet and went to the bathroom. He fired the gun once into the ceiling, probably trying to work up his courage, then blew his own brains out. He had the appropriate powder residue on his hand and clothes.

     Neighbors and friends confirmed that the marriage had been on the rocks. A review of the husband’s credit card spending had quickly led them to a mid-level motel on the edge of Durham. There, the night clerk and some low-quality surveillance cameras identified John Hawthorne exiting room 108 an hour before the likely time of death, with a young blonde woman. His Amazon account included sexy lingerie recently shipped to Cheryl Winters, a graduate student at UNC, where Hawthorne was the director of the musical theater program. Ms. Winters was devastated to learn of the man’s death and quickly admitted that she had been having an affair with him for the past few weeks. She was not much of a suspect; she had no motive, and her doorbell cam showed her coming home twenty minutes after she left the motel and not leaving again that night.

     The forensics unit called in from Durham thought the angle of the gunshot was unusual for one that was self-inflicted. But it was difficult to be sure, since the .357 had blown so much of his head off. They also thought the orientation of the prints on the knife handle was unusual. But the prints were definitely his.

     The crime scene was a mess. After a neighbor called in a report of possible gunshots, the officers who responded had not followed precise forensic protocols. The rookie who went into the bedroom first had barfed on the carpet upon viewing the bloody mess. His partner had rushed in to check whether the woman was dead, smearing the blood and leaving his footprints all over the rug. There were no other suspects. There was no robbery. It was obviously a murder/suicide.

     John Hawthorne’s family had swooped in and tried to convince the insurance adjuster that it could have been a double murder, but the insurance company didn’t buy it. Nobody could say for sure if anything was missing, and since the alarm was still engaged when the responding officers arrived, the police dismissed the idea that a burglar was responsible for both deaths. The wife’s daughter got paid off on her policy, then accused the husband’s son of stealing some of Madeline Hawthorn’s jewelry.

     Cheryl Winters told the investigating officers she did not believe John Hawthorne would kill himself. She wanted them to investigate a prior mistress, whom Cheryl claimed was “batshit crazy.” She had allegedly threatened to kill Cheryl when she found out that John had moved on. The local police tried to find the other woman, but she had left town and nobody knew where she was. Her apartment had been cleaned out. They put out a note to the state police to be on the lookout for the woman, with information about the car registered to her, but they weren’t really concerned. The guy had killed himself. It was his gun. Nobody else had a motive. It was not worth any more resources. They could safely close the case. Nothing to see here. If the other woman ever came back to town, they would question her. If they remembered.

Chapter 2 – The Lullaby of Broadway

Eight months later – March 16, 2019

New York, NY

MAXIMILLIAN HORACIO BLOOM lounged on the king-sized bed, his head nestled in the plush feather pillows. The late afternoon sun peeked through the thin lace curtains of the Milford Plaza Hotel. Turning his head toward the sunbeam, he could barely make out the dark streak of the Hudson River in the distance, between two buildings. The cold March wind whipped the flag atop an office tower across Eighth Avenue. He yawned and stretched his thick arms over his head, as the sound of the shower suddenly stopped. Max smiled and rolled ponderously onto his side so he would have a better view.

     A few seconds later, he was rewarded when a woman emerged from the bathroom, dabbing at her wet hair. Even in such a mundane act, she looked graceful. She had a white towel wrapped around her slender torso, suspended above her half-exposed breasts. Her fingernails, painted bright red, contrasted against her pale skin. She was not tall, but her long, lithe legs gave the illusion of height. The fresh scent of lavender soap reached Max’s nostrils.

     “You are amazing,” he said softly, admiring her glistening skin and wondering if he could manage another erection so soon. In his younger days, he could always get it up on command, but his younger days were behind him.

     The woman lifted her foot onto the corner of the bed and leaned into a deep hamstring stretch. “Did you tell that director friend of yours how amazing I am?” Her fingers reached out beyond her toes and softly stroked the hair on Max’s leg, sending a tingle up into his groin. The reaction was immediate, but only momentary.

     “Oh, you can be sure I’ve been singing your praises, Sweetheart. I’m working on several wonderful opportunities for you.” Max’s baritone was as smooth as a 21-year-old single malt. “I know you’re impatient, my dear, but you’ve been in town barely half a year. These things take time.”

     The woman pressed her mouth into an exaggerated pout as she switched legs, allowing her towel to fall to the floor. She stretched the other leg, then stood up, ignoring the fallen towel. “Do I really have to go on that stupid boat?”

     “It’s a ship, my dear, a cruise ship, and a very large one. If you call it a boat, people will think you’re a first-timer.”

     She found her black panties on the nightstand. “It is my first time. Are you sure it’s really a credit that Broadway producers will care about?”

     “Absolutely!” Max swung his legs over the edge of the bed and scanned the floor for his trousers. “This is a Broadway-quality show.”

     “I’d rather have actual Broadway. I want to stay here – with you. Call them and tell them I got a part here and I can’t go.”

     “Sweetheart, you signed the contract. It’s too late to change your mind. Your reputation would be sullied if you didn’t fulfill your contractual obligations. You said you performed it in college, right?”

     “Sure I did – I played the lead. Well, one of the leads. I love the show; it lets me sing and dance.” She balanced on her left foot while slowly raising her right leg until it was parallel with the floor. She then reached out to thread the panties over her foot, before returning the leg to the floor in a smooth motion.

     “I think I’d be better off staying here with you and auditioning instead.” She fastened her black bra and stood with her arms akimbo, staring at Max. “I’m beginning to think that you don’t love me as much as you say you do. It’s like you’re trying to get rid of me for six months by sending me away.”

     “Nonsense,” Max replied quickly. “I love ya, Baby. This gig will be great for your career. The director on board, Brandon Marshall, is a good friend of mine. I’ve told him you’re a tremendous talent. He’ll take good care of you.”

     “Do you promise?”

     “Of course. I’m not trying to get rid of you. I’m trying to advance your career. While you’re gone, I’ll be working on my divorce. With any luck, when you get back, I’ll be free of that shrew I’m married to and you’ll be able to come to my apartment.”

     She smiled sweetly, slipping into her heels. “I’d like that.” She floated across the floor to where Max was standing and slithered her arms around his neck. With her lips inches from his, she whispered, “When we’re married, I’ll do things that will make all your producer friends envy you.” She pressed her palms against his chest and traced tiny circles in his graying hairs. “I don’t see why we have to wait. You can just divorce her now.”

     Max took a step backwards and gazed out the window. A pigeon perched on the ledge, staring back at him. “I’ve told you, my pre-nup will make my life very difficult if I leave without her agreement. Her family had money, not that I married her for it. I was successful enough on my own, but I’m stretched thin now and I need her to part amicably. It may take some time, but it will happen, I promise you.”

     She dropped her chin for a moment, then looked up. “Maybe you can come visit me on the cruise ship. I bet that would be fun, huh?”

     Max chuckled nervously. “Well, I’m not sure that would work for me, but I’ll see what I can arrange. You do your best and listen to Brandon. He knows what he’s doing. I’ll make sure that, when you get back, there will be doors open for you here. That’s what I do – I open doors.”

     “I have an idea. Why don’t we go shopping for an engagement ring? That way I can show the guys on that . . . ship . . . that I’m off limits. You don’t want me to find somebody I like better than you while I’m away, do you, Maxie?”

     “My dear, I don’t want to undermine my position in the divorce negotiations.” He scanned the floor, looking for his socks. “Having another woman going around telling people I’ve already promised to marry her would not look good. But don’t you worry. When you get back, we’ll have plenty of time for shopping in the Diamond District.”

     “You wouldn’t lie to me, would you, Maxie?” She looked at him with piercing eyes. “I would be very unhappy if I thought you were deceiving me.”

     Max wiped a bead of sweat from next to his ear. “Absolutely not. You can trust me, Honey. I’m going to make you a star.”

     She sauntered gracefully to the dresser, retrieved her purse, and headed for the door. “I’ll hold you to that, Maxie.” She blew a kiss in his direction, then turned and walked out of the room, leaving Max holding his pants.

     He sat back down on the bed, considering whether he might have any messages important enough to rush back to the office. He reached for his phone on the nightstand. The timer function was displayed on the screen, counting down to the alarm he had set for himself in case he fell asleep after their love-making. He almost regretted that it was time to take a break from her, but it was definitely time. She was resilient and would get over it. They always did.

     The good news was that she had talent, so maybe he actually could place her in a show when she got back from her cruise gig. He could use some successful clients.

     Max lazily glanced through his unread emails until one caught his eye. It was from Brandon Marshall. The message was cryptic, which was typical for Brandon. “In port with cell service until 5:00. Call me.” He put the phone on speaker so he could finish dressing while he talked.

     Brandon launched into Max without any pleasantries. “Max. I got your message. What the fuck do you mean you already promised her the gig? You can’t just dump all your cast-off women on me! I’ve got a show to produce and I need talent, not trollops!”

     “Easy, Brandon. Don’t worry, this one has talent. I’m vouching for her.”

     “You’d vouch for a porn star if she fucked you good enough.”

     “Now, now, don’t be such a drama queen. You’re going to have to trust me on this one. She’s good, and she needs some time away from New York.”

     “I’m about at the end of my rope, Max. I know I owe you, but you’re taking advantage of the situation.”

     “Careful, Brandon. I’m on a speakerphone, and while I doubt there’s anyone listening, you wouldn’t want to say anything incriminating.”

     “Fuck you, Max. How long are you going to hold that shit over my head? I think my account is settled by now.”

     “You’re about right on that, my friend. Do me this one and I think we’ll be square.”

     “I’m not your friend.”

     “Oh, sure you are. And when the time comes that you’re back on top, I’m sure you’ll give me the inside track on some good gigs. We’ve been a good team. I wouldn’t want anything to jeopardize your future credits.”

     “This one is the last one, Max. I mean it.”

     “Fine. Just take good care of her. She might have a future.”

     “All your girls might have a future in your bed. I’m not so sure about a future on a stage.”

     “Thanks, Brandon. I’d say I owe you one, but we both know it’s the other way around.”

     “Like I said before, fuck you. Send her details over to Christine at the booking office. We’re back next week and I’ll have a few slots to fill. Good-bye.”

     Max sat, staring at the now-silent phone. He sighed and resolved to get back to the office and make some calls before the day was over.

Chapter 3 – Bon Voyage

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

MIKE STONEMAN STARED IN FRUSTRATION at the suitcase on his bed. The flexible sides of the lightweight American Tourister were bulging, but there was still a pile of clothes on his rumpled sheets waiting to be packed. Glancing in the mirror, he sucked in his gut, then held up his swimming suit. He was only ten or fifteen pounds overweight, but most of it accumulated around his waist. Still, it was better than it had been a year earlier. He ran a hand through his brown hair, frowning at the flecks of gray.

     His tenth-floor window was open, allowing the warm May air to stream in. Two dogs barked at each other in the plaza across the street. After a winter that seemed to never end, Manhattan was starting to feel like summer. Mike had not realized how much he missed humidity.

     He rubbed his chin and pondered whether to unpack everything and re-evaluate what he absolutely had to have for a six-night cruise. The other option was to buy a second suitcase and admit defeat. He had assured Michelle that, as a man, he only needed one suitcase. He was supposed to be meeting her at Pier 88 in two hours. He sighed and wondered how long it would take him to run out and buy a bigger bag.

     Before he could make a decision about a run to the luggage store, his cell phone rang. After glancing at the caller ID reading “Jason Dickson,” Mike grunted a greeting at his partner. “Hey.”

     “How many suits do you think I need to bring along on this thing?” Jason had an uncharacteristic hint of frustration in his voice. He was usually calm and collected, famous for his deep baritone, his perfect diction, and his immaculate wardrobe. A blemish on one of his silk paisley ties or a crease on a shirt collar caused him great embarrassment. Mike, on the other hand, was known for frumpy sports jackets and well-worn slacks. At Mike’s age and experience level, he could get away with it. Jason was still dressing to impress around the precinct. Given his six-foot-three frame, athletic build, and chiseled good looks, Jason could pull it off. Mike, on the other hand, would look foolish if he tried.

     Mike glanced at his pile of unpacked clothes. “I’m bringing two pairs of slacks and one jacket that goes with both. I figure I can wear each dress shirt twice with a different tie, so three shirts should take care of all our evenings. The rest is casual stuff. It’s a cruise, not a wedding.”

     A siren in the distance began its slow build toward screaming. “If you don’t bring a tux for the formal night, then neither will I. It will help with the packing.”

     “Tux?” Mike shot back incredulously. “Why would you even think about bringing a tux?”

     “Rachel says there’s a formal night, so she’s packing an evening gown and expects us to pose for photos. You know how she loves pictures. Have you never been on a cruise?”

     “No. Never. I have no idea what to expect. I’m certainly not packing a tux. I can barely stuff what I have in my suitcase.”

     “Oh, I forgot to mention, Rachel says to pack a carry-on bag with a change of clothes and a swimsuit for the first day because we might not get our big suitcases delivered to our rooms until after dinner.”

     Mike scowled, but then realized that this would actually help him find room for all his clothes. “Thanks, I’ll make sure to have plenty for later today that aren’t packed away. What time are you planning to get there?”

     “Departure is at four o’clock, but I don’t want to cut it too close, so Rachel is meeting me here at noon and we’ll go right over. She says that she wants to have as much time by the pool as possible before we sail.”

     “That actually sounds pretty good. I’ll see if Michelle wants to move up our arrival time. Either way, keep your cell with you. I’ll call you once we’re on board and we’ll figure out somewhere to meet up before dinner. We’ll have cell service as long as we’re still inside the harbor.”

     “Roger that. Once we’re out to sea, the phones go into the drawer and we can relax.”

     Mike smiled at the thought. “Yeah, relaxing sounds like a wonderful idea. I’ll be happy not to see Dexter Peacock’s name pop up on my phone for a week.” Dexter Peacock, City reporter for The New York Times, had published a story the prior Sunday that was the impetus for Mike and Jason taking this rather rushed vacation. The front-page article revealed some of the details about a shootout in a Brooklyn hotel in which two cops were killed. The entire affair was a scandal for the NYPD. The fact that Mike and Jason were there without authorization, running an undercover operation that not even their captain knew about, was fuel for the media conflagration. The commissioner had suggested they become unavailable for comment for a while.

     “I’ll see you on board. And, hey, Jason, how many suitcases are you packing?”

     “One. You’re not thinking about having more than one, are you, Mike?”

     “No. Of course not. I’ll see you there.”

     Mike dug into the bottom of his closet, looking for the small wheeled suitcase that he used for overnight trips. He dragged the little case out with his left hand, then winced as a sharp pain momentarily jabbed at his shoulder. He had technically finished physical therapy a week ago, after having shoulder surgery the prior October. Terry, his therapist, told him he needed to keep up the strengthening exercises. He also told Mike that there would still be pain in the area of the surgery, from time to time. While he was in pretty good shape after spending most of the past several months in the gym and the rehab room, he wasn’t getting any younger.

     It dawned on him that his 50th birthday would occur during the cruise. He was happy that this would prevent anyone from making a big fuss over it. He wondered whether Michelle would remember the date and embarrass him on the ship. Of course she would remember. She always remembered everything. It was in her nature. Plus, she wrote everything down in her calendar, so it was only a matter of what she would have planned.

     He sighed again, and resolved to pretend to be both surprised and happy when it happened. Why spoil Michelle’s good time because he didn’t want to admit to himself that he was turning fifty? Who knows, maybe he could even enjoy the occasion if it was just him, Michelle, Jason, and Rachel. There would be nobody else on the ship he cared about.

SSS

     At the same time, in her apartment at Twenty-Third Street and Second Avenue, Michelle McNeill was humming to herself as she carefully folded a black-and-silver cocktail dress. She slipped it into the pocket of a plastic organizer, perched on the smooth surface of her crisply made bed. She stared into her closet, considering what jewelry and shoes would go best with that dress. Normally, she would choose the three-inch heels, which gave her petite frame a little extra height. But she was worried about walking in heels aboard a ship at sea.

     Her wireless personal assistant system pinged. The tinny female voice said, “Incoming text message from Rachel Robinson.”

     “Read message,” Michelle answered, without missing a pleat. Michelle thought about how nice it would be to have Rachel’s statuesque body and never have to worry about wearing heels.

     The mechanical voice said, “What color are you wearing for formal night?”

     Michelle instructed her Alexa system to respond, while she packed her cosmetics. A few moments later, she heard another ping and listened to another text.

     “How do you think Jason is going to handle this?”

     This time, Michelle told Alexa to dial Rachel. When Rachel picked up, Michelle spoke in the direction of the room’s microphone while she counted out twelve Q-tips and zipped them into a plastic bag. “Sweetie, Jason’s a great guy, and he agreed to come along. Don’t worry about him. He’ll be fine.”

     Rachel Robinson’s typical fast chatter came through the speaker. “I know, he’s great, and I’m really into him, as if you couldn’t tell already. It’s just – you know – this is such a couples thing and we’ve only been dating a few months, so I’m worried that he’s going to get all freaked out. I want to get closer with him, to find out what he really wants. But I’m worried that I’ll push him too much. You know what I mean?”

     Michelle sighed. Rachel was twenty years younger, and occasionally she felt like her mother as much as her friend. Imparting wisdom about relationships was not something Michelle felt comfortable doing, given her own tortured history. But Rachel clearly needed a calming influence. “Rachel, this cruise was a sudden thing. It has been pushed on Jason and Mike. And they’re both terrible at relaxing. It’s great that your aunt was able to get us this deal on the last-minute booking. Now, you and I need to help our men take their minds off the last month. Jason’s been through a lot. Give him space and be supportive. Try to relax and take everything slowly.”

     “Yes. You’re right. I know,” Rachel said, still speaking twice as fast as Michelle. “I just really, really hope that this can develop into something. He’s so great, you know? And we’re going to be sharing a cabin for a week, so things can get pretty cramped. What if we have a fight? You may have to swap roommates with me.”

     “That’s not happening, Girl,” Michelle said with a light chuckle. “Just stay calm and bring sexy clothes.” They both laughed and spent the next ten minutes chatting while Michelle finished packing. Neither of them had been on a cruise ship, but Rachel had spent hours online researching the floorplan and features of the Colossus of the Ocean. She knew every bar, pool, club, and restaurant, and she was anxious to share all her knowledge with Michelle, who listened patiently, although not really absorbing the information.

     Michelle zipped her suitcase. “OK, Sweetie. I need to finish packing. I’ll see you on the ship.”

     “OK. We’ll meet at the Clipper Bar – that’s on Deck 6 – toward the back of the ship – that’s called ‘aft’ – at six-fifteen. We have a main dining room reservation at seven o’clock, which will give us time to get a drink before dinner and hang out a little bit. I’m packing a cute red halter top and matching skirt that I can slip on over my swimsuit so I don’t need to worry about my luggage until after dinner so you may want to avoid red tonight—”

     “Don’t worry,” Michelle interrupted. “Take a deep breath, try to slow everything down, and have a good time. You and Jason are going over to the pier together, right?”

     “Yes,” Rachel replied, holding herself back from launching into another monologue.

     “Great! I’ll see you later.” Michelle told Alexa to hang up and resumed humming to herself. She liked Rachel, and she liked Jason. She hoped that they were as right for each other as she thought they were. She was feeling happy herself for the first time in weeks, and was looking forward to a relaxing and much-deserved vacation.

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