Closing the Loop
A week on a tropical gay cruise is just what Lee needs after a bad breakup and a Canadian winter. It’s a shame his ex is on board, but Lee is sharing a cabin with Cole, a hot lawyer who—as luck would have it—is actually from Lee’s city. So when Cole unexpectedly awakens Lee’s kinky side, Lee begins to dream that they can actually take their shipboard romance home with them.
But Cole is keeping secrets involving a troubled young man on board the ship. And Lee, after his recent brush with betrayal, finds it difficult to trust Cole when he says Justin isn’t a rival.
Then he learns the truth and is also drawn into the tragic story. His dream vacation is in danger of turning dark, but he’s determined to navigate Cole and himself to a safe harbor before their blisteringly hot romance is lost at sea.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: angst, commitment, depression, family, financial gap / class disparity, holiday, illness / injury, interracial/multicultural, marriage, mental illness, self-discovery / self-reflection, vacation romance
Lee adjusted his tray of paperclips. It made a change from staring at the door of the travel agency and willing someone to walk in. A change, not an improvement. Even in late January, Fridays were usually busy, but a winter storm had covered Southern Ontario with eight inches of wet snow that lay heavy as fruitcake. The center of Mississauga was never empty of people, but everyone walking by had their heads down against the snow-laden wind, oblivious to the lit window of Globe Travel. Lee’s coworker Katy had called in sick and the manager was at a conference, leaving him bored and lonely.
Come in, he urged the passersby silently. Book a vacation. Get away from this endless fucking winter.
He was doing that soon. The thought cheered him. Two weeks and he’d be flying to Fort Lauderdale and getting onto a cruise ship for a week of partying with Ryan at his side. Or on top of him. Or under him. Any position but overboard.
Gay cruises. Whoever invented them deserved a rainbow-shaped medal.
This would be his first, though he’d sent hundreds of people away on them in his five years at the agency. They weren’t cheap, though, and it’d taken a windfall in the shape of a scratch card win of ten thousand dollars to make it possible. He’d treated himself to the card on an impulse while paying for gas in the fall and walked around in a rosy glow for days afterward.
Found money should be enjoyed, and the Valentine cruise on the Amarillo was the perfect destination for those thousands of dollars. The ship would set sail from Florida and out to a sun-bathed Caribbean, stopping at islands with white sand beaches and vibrant towns, surging through turquoise waters with majestic ease.
The ship was huge, a floating luxury hotel with gorgeous, scantily clad men in abundance if the website was to be trusted. Lee was cynical enough to assume most of the passengers would be like him: average looking, in need of toning up after the excesses of the festive season, and if they were fellow Canucks, sunlight-deprived. He didn’t care. Ryan was the only man he’d be staring at. Ryan, who’d been too broke to contribute to the suite Lee had booked, but who’d promised to save in the six months before they sailed.
“I don’t want to sponge off you,” he’d said, dark-blue eyes sincere. “I’ll pay for the extras. They mount up. Bar bills, wi-fi, meals ashore. They’re on me, all of them.”
“Not all of them,” Lee had protested, “but, yeah, it’d be great if you could chip in a bit. God, should we be doing this? We could put it toward a down payment on a house.”
“It’s nowhere near enough, and you said it yourself: it’s free money. A gift from the gods. Don’t waste it on bills and boring crap. Live a little.” Ryan had pointed at Lee’s laptop. “Look at that room. Private balcony! Don’t tell me you don’t want to bend me over the rail and fuck me while we watch the sun go down. Or me go down if you like that idea better.”
Ryan always topped and claimed blowjobs made him nauseous—giving, not getting—but Lee had grinned and gone along with the fantasy. After trading increasingly impossible scenarios, they’d gotten so into it that Lee ended up with his knees rubbed red courtesy of the rug in front of the couch. Rug burns faded. His ass had taken a full three days to recover. Ryan had been in too much of a hurry to find the lube, and if the condom had protected his cock from chafing, it hadn’t helped Lee’s asshole much.
Lost as he was in hazy fantasies, the jingle of the bell over the door startled him. With his cock at half-mast in keeping with the nautical flavor of his daydreams, he stayed seated instead of rising to greet the customer. He compensated by making his welcoming smile as warm as possible.
It wasn’t difficult. The guy was hot. Older than he was by a few years and—judging by the tailored suit under a cashmere overcoat—with more in his piggy bank than air. But a cat could look at a king.
Lee looked his fill. Tall. Wide shoulders and a trim frame, long legs and hands in—oh God, black leather gloves. Total kink of his. Skin over skin and touching his skin . . . Bareheaded and hair cut so close to the skull that, at first glance, Lee had taken him to be bald. Dark skin, smooth over sharp cheekbones, good-looking enough that the tiny mole at the end of his left eyebrow came as a relief from perfection.
He could look, but staring was rude. And verged on disloyal to Ryan.
The man dropped his gaze to the nameplate on Lee’s desk, kept shiny by Lee because he got a kick out of seeing it gleam. “Mr. Jones. Good morning. I’d like to book a cruise through your company.”
Huh. English, not Canadian. Lee had roomed with a Brit at college and gotten used to Simon’s accent. He’d called it cute once, and Simon had snickered.
“Mate, I’m from Dudley. People twenty miles down the road can’t understand a word I say, my accent’s that thick. Don’t tell me: all us Brits sound the same? Take it from me, for a place you could lose in Southern Ontario, we’ve got more accents than Tim Hortons has donuts. And mine isn’t one of the cute ones.”
He’d sounded proud of that.
“A cruise?” Lee caught himself before he added On a ship? and lost all semblance of credibility as a travel agent. “Great idea. Anywhere but here, eh? Take a seat and we’ll start the process.” Mindful of the whirling snow outside and the melting flakes on the man’s head and shoulders, he asked, “Can I get you a coffee?”
“Thanks, but I’m at my limit for the day.” A smile broke up the severity of the man’s features, warming his brown eyes. “Over three cups and I twitch.”
Lee’s capacity to drink coffee was limited by how fast he could swallow, but he smiled back. “That’s my reaction if they take the coffee away. Can I get your name?”
“Cole. Joseph Cole.”
Lee nodded, filing it away. “Did you have a specific cruise or destination in mind, Mr. Cole?”
“Yes, I do. The ship’s the Amarillo and she sails from Florida on—”
“February the tenth.” God, what were the odds? He tried to fit Mr. Cole into one of the online photos of the cruise ship and flinched. No one wore anything but Speedos and a smile in those, and this man seemed born to wear a bespoke suit and nothing else. Stripping him down, even mentally, seemed disrespectful.
That got him raised eyebrows and a tilt of the head in acknowledgment. “Impressive memory for details you have there. You must deal with dozens of cruises.”
Honesty compelled him to confess. “Not really. Well, I guess I do—hundreds, in fact—but I’m sailing on that ship too.” He cleared his throat, heat burning his cheeks. Better get it out there just in case. “It’s a gay cruise. Not only for men, but . . .”
“I’m aware.” Cole raised an eyebrow. “Do I need to pass a test to prove I qualify?”
Lee choked over nothing more than spit swallowed wrong and his active imagination. He pictured Cole gravely completing a questionnaire about his favorite position and views on flavored condoms or heated lube and willed his blush to subside. “Not at all. No. But that cruise is fully booked. Has been for a few weeks now. I can get you on the next one, or suggest alternatives sailing on those dates.”
“It has to be that ship and those dates, I’m afraid.” Cole tapped long fingers against his thigh. “I assume there’s a possibility someone will cancel?”
“Sure, and I can get you on a wait-list, but don’t —”
“Don’t get my hopes up?” Cole shrugged. “I promise I won’t hold you to blame if it sails without me.”
“Yeah, well.” Lee shuffled papers on his desk with no idea of what he was doing, mixing in flyers for Muskoka cottages with memos about new guidelines for airport security. “I’ll see if I can pull some strings.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
The sincerity wrapped around the words stayed with him while he dealt with the details of the provisional booking, and made his efforts to push Cole higher up the list worth the effort. But later, having done what he could, he did his best to forget the man. It didn’t seem right to go home to Ryan with even a residual yearning for someone else. Not that Ryan would notice or care if he did. Lee had tried making him jealous at a Halloween party in the hope of rekindling some of the spark they used to have and had gotten nowhere. Probably because Ryan, dressed as a Roman centurion, had been flirting with a pirate, and didn’t notice the zombie offering to eat more than Lee’s brains. It was good Ryan wasn’t possessive, but Lee would’ve liked it if that sprang from trust not indifference.
In some ways, he hoped Cole didn’t make the passenger list. Seeing him on board would be awkward. Of course, the ship was huge. They could go the whole voyage and not cross paths. And what difference did it make? They’d smile and nod, exchange a few words about small worlds, and walk on. He would be with Ryan, and Cole—well, Cole would be with someone. Self-contained and serious on land didn’t mean a thing on board. A few cocktails in him, surrounded by thousands of men focused on having a good time, and Cole would loosen up. A smiling Cole, relaxed, at ease, would have zero difficulty in finding someone to share his bed.
Lee got home early. Ryan was there, being currently between jobs. He’d tidied and done the laundry, two actions rare enough to leave Lee suspicious rather than grateful. He made all the right noises, though, and settled down to eat. Ryan dished out the defrosted and reheated leftovers of a curry Lee had made the week earlier. It’d been a good curry, spicy without too much heat, and Lee didn’t mind eating it again, even if the rice was soggy.
“I’ve been thinking about the cruise,” Ryan said around a mouthful of naan bread.
“Yeah? Not long now. Funny thing happened at work. This guy came in—”
“We need some ground rules.”
The interruption annoyed Lee, but he hid it with a grin. “No alcohol until the sun’s over the yardarm? A daily limit on buying tacky souvenirs?”
“No.” Ryan studied his plate. “It’ll be wall-to-wall temptation. You know it and I know it. So let’s go in agreeing if we want to have sex with someone, we do it. No deceit, everything above board, and no questions asked.”
Lee froze. The rice he’d swallowed seemed stuck in his throat. “Excuse me?”
“Picture it.” Ryan met his eyes now, excitement sharpening his features. “Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hot guys and a safe space add up to fantasy time. We can go for that threesome we always wanted to try.”
“You wanted.” Breathing had become an effort. In. Out. His lungs knew what to do, but his brain had shut down. “I never did.”
Ryan wasn’t listening. He never did when someone disagreed with him.
“Safe. Totally safe. We use condoms for everything, including BJs. Don’t let me forget to pack a few boxes because they’ll cost a fortune on board.” Ryan stood, stretching his arms above his head. His T-shirt rode up, exposing a flat, muscular stomach. He was in great shape. Lee had approved of the regular trips to the gym without realizing Ryan’s motives. Couldn’t hook the hotties if you were flabby. “See how I’m being responsible and saving money? Aren’t you proud of me?”
Lee found his voice. “Ryan, I’m not okay with this. You’ve been my boyfriend for nearly three years. We live together, for God’s sake.”
Ryan dropped to his knees by Lee’s chair, the movement smooth, graceful. “And that’s why we can do this without worrying. We’re solid. We can take a time-out and when we get off the boat, ship, whatever, it’ll be like it was before, except we’ll have some happy memories.” He flashed Lee a sparkling smile, freshly whitened teeth on display. “If I didn’t trust you, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting this, believe me, babe.”
“If you didn’t trust me?” Lee shoved his chair back and stood, leaving Ryan on his knees looking ridiculous. “You twisted piece of shit, how dare you make this into a fucking compliment?”
The argument that followed left Lee shaken. Ryan thwarted was vicious, using everything he knew of Lee as a weapon to get his own way. When he failed, he played his trump card.
“Then I guess this is it. It’s over. I’ll pack my things and move out.”
That was Lee’s cue to protest or at least ask where Ryan could go with no money to speak of and no car. He shrugged instead. “Fine by me. Leave your key behind when you do. And your ticket for the cruise. I’ll be able to get a refund.”
“Oh no.” Spite edged every word. “You put it in my name, remember? And the plane ticket. I’m still going. Still sharing that suite with you. And still fucking every ass that comes up to my standards. Don’t bother begging to get in line. I might let you watch, though. You can wipe my dick dry if you ask nicely.”
Lee lunged at him, but Ryan sidestepped, chuckling in a way that made visions of pushing him overboard shine brightly. Windmilling arms, a fading scream, a giant splash, and then maybe some circling sharks to complete the picture. Except Lee didn’t want the poor beasts to get indigestion.
He settled for dumping everything Ryan owned out of the door and watching him scramble to shove it into bin bags and two suitcases. There wasn’t much. Laptop, clothes, and a toothbrush. Ryan traveled light, borrowed heavy.
Ryan kept up a steady stream of curses until their next-door neighbor Sophie came out of her apartment to scold him. Mother of two, she’d never liked Ryan. He’d laughed at her cat, an overweight bruiser she adored beyond reason. Fluffy was jet-black, growled deep in his vast belly as an alternative to purring, and tolerated no one’s touch but Sophie’s. He appeared at the door, eyeing Ryan with studied malevolence. Sophie swung him up into her arms, murmuring endearments, nuzzling into his neck. Anyone else who did that would’ve lost an eye.
“He’s leaving,” Lee said. “Now.”
Sophie drew her hand down Fluffy’s back, the diamanté design on her purple nails twinkling in the hallway light. “Good riddance.”
The slam of her door was emphatic, and Ryan sighed, looking, for a moment, lost and vulnerable. Lee ground his teeth. He wouldn’t repent his decision. Or tell Ryan it was a mistake. He would throw the man he loved into the snow with nowhere to go and no money to speak of.
Oh God, could he do that?
Ryan made it easy. “So you know, it would’ve worked out. I mean, I slept with Callum at Christmas and you can’t say it made a difference. You didn’t even notice.”
“Wait, what? Callum?” Lee gaped at him. “When I had flu and you stayed with him because you didn’t want to catch it? Then? When I was coughing my guts out and felt like death?”
“It was Christmas.” Ryan shrugged. “I was horny. He was there. It meant nothing. God, why do you get so hung up on things that just don’t matter?” With a reproving, disappointed stare, he turned to leave.
Lee knew they had an unseen audience, TVs muted in every apartment while people tried to get an earful of the scandal, but he was past caring. “Is that where you’re running to? Callum’s? Going to fall on his mercy and ask him to fall on your dick again?”
“Now you’re embarrassing yourself.” Ryan adjusted his grip on his suitcase. “See you at the airport, I guess.”
Two steps, three, around the corner, and out of sight. Lee stared after him, bewildered, a vast confusion filling him. He’d split up with Ryan. Treacherous, cheating Ryan. Their relationship over and done with. He wasn’t Ryan’s boyfriend, dating one of the hottest guys in their circle of friends. He was single again, unwanted, lonely.
And his vacation was ruined.
Changing his plane seat to avoid Ryan had been easy. He knew people in every terminal of Lester B. Pearson Airport. People who, when they heard what’d happened, pulled strings like vengeful spiders and got him upgraded. Dealing with the shared suite on board the Amarillo was more of a challenge. It was the day before sailing that he finally got a call from Mariana, who ran the booking office of the cruise line.
“Good news and bad.” She had a high-pitched voice, nasal, breathy, but if the good news was a Ryan-free cabin, he could listen to her all day. “There’s an opening and I can move you out of your suite, but it’s a major upgrade and I can’t swallow the cost. Some of it, sure, but not all of it. And you’d be sharing.”
That wasn’t news. “How much are we talking?”
“We’re talking the Presidential Suite, babe. Supposed to be newlyweds, but the idiot who booked it forgot to ask his honey how he felt about cruises. Turns out the guy gets seasick stepping over puddles. So it’s up for grabs. Taxes, overheads, all that shit, will add about twelve hundred to your bill.”
“Crap.” He thought fast. Ryan’s onboard spending would’ve mounted up to a small fortune, since there’d never been much hope of him coming through on his promise to contribute. Overall, even with this extra expense, he’d probably come out on top now he was only paying for himself. He’d also taken the precaution of changing his credit card numbers. Ryan knew them all.
“Ticktock,” Mariana said. “I’ve got other people who want it.”
“I’ll take it.” He couldn’t wait to go online and scope out his new cabin. “Who am I sharing with?” He caught his lip between his teeth. Joseph Cole maybe? Could it be that smooth a transition from nightmare to fantasy?
“Confidentiality. Can’t tell you. What’s the big deal? You’ll find out soon enough.”
True, but if he knew he was rooming with someone like Cole, he’d pack accordingly. “But you can tell me if it’s a Mr. Cole? I mean, if it isn’t, say ‘no,’ and if it is, I already know the guy, so no harm, no foul.”
“Cole? No, that’s not the name on the invoice.”
“Oh.” Disappointment flattened his voice for a moment, but not his spirits. “So who does Ryan get? Someone who snores? Body odor, stinky feet?”
“How the hell should I know? I’ll have your new berth assignment waiting for you when you get on board. Want me to bill it to the credit card on record?”
“Yeah, why not. And thank you. You have no idea how much I appreciate this.”
She croaked a laugh. “Didn’t think I’d get two suckers willing to pay through the nose for a bunk in the Prez at this late stage. Appreciate you right back.”
The reminder of the increased cost dulled the gloss but not by much. He hung up and leaned back on his bed, heedless of the folded clothes he was crumpling. Bad start to the vacation and the year, but he’d turned it around.
“Ocean wave, here I come.”
* * *
The Amarillo floated on dark-blue water, elegant, huge, and gleaming, owning the harbor. How did they get it so clean? Every surface was pristine. Lee pictured hundreds of young men with buckets, backsides twitching from side to side while they scrubbed the decks on their hands and knees. It was arousing in a twisted way, and he didn’t allow himself a second of guilt. The cruise literature spoke about quiet moments with a book staring out at the sizzle of a setting sun, but with that nod to alternate possibilities out of the way, it was clear the purpose was for everyone to have the time of their lives. Passengers’ clothes and inhibitions shed, the Amarillo was in full-on party mode before she’d left Fort Lauderdale.
No sign of Ryan since a brief encounter at the airport the day before. Not that he’d been looking. A small crowd of friends had waved Ryan off, all of them ignoring Lee as if he were the guilty party. With Ryan spinning the story, he probably was. He didn’t know them well, so their disdain shouldn’t have stung as much as it did. They’d fall away when Ryan’s bad habits got too much for them. He’d seen it happen too often to doubt that.
He’d gotten a ride to the airport with Sophie, who’d dropped him off outside the terminal doors and driven off before anyone could tell her she’d parked illegally. Lee had packed only a single carry-on—he’d done his research, and a full wardrobe was redundant—and he’d hopped out of her car without wasting time. An uneventful flight to Florida, a short night’s sleep in a cheap motel, and he’d boarded the ship at noon.
Now all he had to do was find his cabin.
It was on deck eleven, right at the top of the ship. He took the stairs, needing to stretch his legs and orientate himself. He knew from experience how quickly things would fall into place, but for now he allowed himself to be buffeted around, feeling overdressed in his turquoise shorts and white T-shirt. Men. Lots and lots of men. Women here and there, but mostly guys and nearly all showing skin. How had everyone else found their cabins and stripped to swimwear so fast?
The atmosphere on board was exhilarating. Lee breathed it in, getting misty at the sight of an elderly couple shuffling along holding hands, then sucking in an appreciative breath when he eyeballed a torrid three-way kiss between men who clearly knew each other and seemed about to prove that as soon as they got behind a door.
Public sex was a total no-no on board. He was in favor of that. He wasn’t a prude, but there was a time and a place. Even if every guest had been down with it, the staff might not be, and it was plain bad manners to fuck in front of people unable to walk away.
Lots of stairs. Phrases from the brochure swam through his head, boggling stats about decks the length of airport runways. His hand luggage doubled in weight, dragging at his shoulder, and sweat ran down his back. In February, the humidity was bearable, and an ocean breeze helped, but he grew dizzy.
A redheaded man passed him, a tall drink in hand, crowded with ice and the same color as Lee’s shorts. It looked delicious and he wanted it—or one like it—more than he had words to say.
The man grinned, following his gaze. “You’re staring at my drink, not me. Hope that means you’re dehydrated, or my ego’s never gonna recover.”
Lee grinned back, jolted out of his dreamlike state by the opening gambit of a flirtation. He hadn’t flirted for a while, but the rules hadn’t changed. Not since caveman days, in fact.
“Sorry, are you a mirage? You’re too good-looking to be real.”
“Hold the ambulance. Ego showing signs of life again.” He stuck out a hand for Lee to shake. “Name’s Den. First cruise?”
“Lee. Yeah. I’m heading for my cabin to unpack.”
“Shouldn’t take long if you’re like most of us and threw in half a dozen Speedos and a few costumes for the dances.”
“That’s not far off,” Lee admitted. “I could use a drink, though. Point me at where you got yours?”
“Back that way, but it’s packed. If you’re thirsty, there’re free water bottles on every deck. Guess they don’t want people overdoing it. Go inside that door there and turn left. You’ll see them.”
“You’re a lifesaver.” Lee hesitated. Den was cute, but he didn’t want to hook up with someone this early. Doing so would have made him feel like . . . well, like Ryan.
Den seemed to read his mind. “Got a date with a lounge chair. Enjoy yourself, buddy. And remember, sleep’s for when you’re on dry land again.”
The bottled waters stood in a silver bucket of ice with a sign telling people to help themselves. Lee took one, cracking the cap and swallowing half the contents in a few gulps. Heaven. Refreshed, he completed the upward journey, concentrating on his objective and closing off the sights around him.
Except for the man dressed as a duck. He drew attention. Mostly because when it came to feathers he was shortchanged. A neon-yellow downy tuft attached to his ass and another covering his junk—barely—completed the costume.
The cabin opened with a key card like any hotel room. The card came with a lanyard to make it easy to carry, but Lee bet dozens of them would be handed in each day, lost or left forgotten by the pool. Mindful of the need for caution even in this relaxed atmosphere, he scanned the room before stepping inside. Empty. No, wait. Someone was in the bathroom. He heard the muted rush of a toilet, followed by the trickle of water from a tap.
Leaving the door open, he took in the cabin, allowing himself an impressed whistle since there was no one watching him. Palatial. Light colors everywhere, and curved floor-to-ceiling windows let the strong sunlight pour in. There was a sitting area, furnished with a long couch and two armchairs upholstered in pale green, and behind it a dining table and chairs, the polished wood a rich cherry, anchoring the room. The bedroom led off the dining area, the king-size bed as vast and smooth as the ocean, the linens crisp and white as sea foam.
And he’d be sharing that bed with a stranger, unless the stranger was shy and made use of the couch. It converted into a bed, but it was big enough to sleep on as it was. He didn’t mind sharing. Hell, given the size of the bed, they could sleep as chastely as if they were alone, no body parts touching.
The bathroom door opened, and he cleared his throat, then called out a tentative greeting.
Joseph Cole stepped toward him, wearing nothing but damp skin and black board shorts that hit him midthigh. A frown creased his forehead. “Yes?”
“I’m—” The words stuck in his throat. It shouldn’t be Cole. In his dreams, yes, but he’d abandoned those and now he was floundering, adjusting his expectations on the fly. Why was it Cole? How was it— Never mind. It was and that was all there was to it. He could see it as a message from the gods of shipboard romance and make a play for Cole or give the man space and look for a substitute.
Anything but spend the week alone and celibate, bumping into Ryan every hour on the hour.
“You’re the man from the travel agency.” Cole snapped his fingers. “Lee Jones, that’s it. Why are you in my cabin? Is there a problem with my ticket?”
“My cabin,” Lee corrected him. A problem? Jesus, the agency prided itself on its customer care, but not to the extent of flying someone down to Florida to take care of an issue. “Or at least, we’re sharing it. I told you I was on this cruise, remember? Glad to see you got aboard.”
And if that didn’t subtly remind Cole that Lee had booked first, he would make it even clearer. He wasn’t some weird stalker. This was a coincidence and not much of one, though he still didn’t understand why Mariana had misled him. Cole needed a cabin and was high on the wait list; he’d needed a change, and a double room had opened up at the last minute. It made sense.
Suspicion sharpened Cole’s voice. “I was told the occupants dropped out altogether. Why are you here and not in your original cabin?”
“I needed a change of cabin for personal reasons, and this one was free. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll unpack and get out of your hair.”
Oops. Bad choice of words. His gaze went to Cole’s head, shaved smooth now, and a bubble of laughter swelled his chest, more hysteria than amusement. It’d been a stressful few weeks. Part of him was still back in snowy Mississauga, not here in the tropical warmth of a Florida February. Distanced, out of sync, he needed alcohol to numb the jagged edges of the unhappy memories careening around his brain.
Alcohol and sex. Simple requirements given his location.
Cole ran his hand over his head, smiling wryly. “That won’t be difficult.”
And there it was again, that flash of warmth drawing him back in when he’d abandoned Cole as a chilly lost cause.
He closed the gap between them, his hand outstretched. “Sorry if I came across as snappy. Look, I know a stranger for a roomie isn’t ideal, but given the size of this place, it won’t be a problem. We can toss for the bed or share it, and if either of us needs privacy for the obvious reasons, we can work it out. We’re both here to have a good time, right?”
Cole shook his hand. “I—”
“Indeed you are.”
Lee turned toward the source of the voice—a man in the doorway dressed with unusual formality compared to most of the people on board. He was in his forties with neat gray hair and wore lightweight black trousers, a short-sleeved white shirt, and a green waistcoat.
“Good day, gentlemen, and welcome aboard the Amarillo. My name is Duke, and I’m your butler. Would you care for a drink before I unpack? Complimentary bar in the corner there, and if you want something fancy, I can have it here in a jiffy.”
“A fellow Brit,” Cole murmured. “London?”
“Born and bred,” Duke said. “And you’re from Portsmouth, if I’m not mistaken. Can’t miss that Pompey accent.”
Feeling left out, Lee volunteered, “I’m Canadian,” and got a mildly pitying glance from both men.
“Charming country.” Duke closed the door and took charge of the situation. Before Lee could protest, Duke whisked his luggage away and ushered him out onto the balcony with Cole. Since a tall vodka with fresh lime juice and tonic water accompanied him, he didn’t mind too much.
“He’s a force of nature.”
Cole nodded, taking a sip of his soft drink. “Easier to let him do his thing. And much more useful to have him helpful than hostile.”
Useful, not pleasant? It seemed an odd way to put it, but Lee had suffered more than one meal with waitstaff bearing a grudge because Ryan had been rude, so he didn’t argue. God, why had he put up with Ryan being an asshole for so long? Because he was good-looking didn’t seem reason enough. Maybe it was because Ryan had wanted him in those early days, chased him down, in fact. Lee had responded to that flattering urgency and missed the gradual fade to being part of the furniture as far as Ryan was concerned.
He had to snap out of his passivity at some point, but it was easier to drift than paddle against the current.
His drink was cold enough to numb his tongue and strong enough to loosen it. “Want to do the whole-life-in-six-words-or-less thing or stay a hot, mysterious stranger?”
“Hot?” Cole raised his eyebrows. “Thank you. I think. And I suppose some sharing is in order. You know my name and where I’m from originally. I prefer ‘Cole’ to ‘Joseph’ and if you call me ‘Joe,’ I’ll refuse to answer. I’m single and not interested in changing that. If you plan to have sex in the bed, I’ll sleep on the couch.”
Lee reminded himself firmly he had nothing to be ashamed of. “I’m planning on having sex a lot. Bad breakup. The day we met, as it happens. Jerk of an ex insisted on using his ticket—a ticket I paid for—and that’s why the cabin change.”
Cole didn’t shift his chair away, but his distaste for the conversation was evident in his pinched lips and quickly averted gaze.
Lee sighed. “Sorry. I’m bitter and venting. Which is boring for you and not good for me. I’m here to enjoy myself and get over Ryan—I mean, he who shall be nameless and never mentioned again.”
“He’s regretting his loss, I’m sure.”
Lee snorted, unable to picture a pining Ryan. “By now, he’s on fuck number two and eyeing up his third target.”
Cole studied his watch. “If he’s that hair-trigger, you’re better off without him.”
Lee laughed, his mood lightening. Ryan had a tendency to climax early. And once he had, he lost interest. Lee had gotten used to finishing himself off while Ryan showered. Looking back at his time with Ryan, the positives of the relationship became lost in an ocean of negatives. The veneer of charm that first caught his attention had worn away little by little. Ryan had been clever, his demands small, until the norm had become Lee doing everything for Ryan, his own needs and wishes secondary.
With a few weeks’ distance, he saw it clearly and hated himself for being such a spineless sucker. No more. He deserved better.
“So you know I’m a travel agent; what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a civil rights lawyer. I moved to Canada about six years ago, and I work out of Toronto.”
“It can be, but like any job, there are long stretches when it’s anything but.” Cole eyed him. “From your obvious relief when I walked into your place, you know all about that.”
“Slowest day ever.” Lee gestured at the cloudless sky and the view of the dock. “So let’s forget about work and soak in the view before we set sail.”
Cole drained his drink and set his glass on the small table. “Don’t let me stop you, but I have some emails to send.”
“Work?” Baffled, Lee stared at him. “I thought maybe we could hang out. I won’t shadow you, don’t worry, but until we find our feet. You’ve paid thousands of dollars to get away from files and deadlines and emails.”
“That’s true, but I won’t be able to relax until I’ve cleared this matter so it’s best I take care of it.” He stood and rested his hand on Lee’s shoulder for a moment. “Why don’t you explore? Get a feel for a good place to eat tonight, and we can share a table unless you get a better offer. In which case, go for it. I understand where your priorities lie.”
Stung, Lee asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re unhappy and you want to change that. This seems like the perfect opportunity to draw a line under your past without committing yourself to a future.” Cole shrugged. “I’m a decade past playing the field, but I’m not dead. At your age, I’d be drooling over the eye candy. Anyone would.”
Compared to Cole’s effortless elegance even in shorts, most men on board wouldn’t measure up. Lee missed the suits and the leather gloves—especially the gloves—but he appreciated the current view.
“I’ll shower and get changed into as little as I can get away with legally first.” He tilted his head, aiming for charming, not tacky. “Help me with my sunscreen? I can do everything but my back.”
Was that a spark of desire in Cole’s eyes or a reflection? “You’re very direct. Or am I reading too much into that request?”
No more drifting. And Cole wasn’t Den or any of the other countless twinks he’d passed on deck. It wouldn’t be settling to stick with Cole, but winning the jackpot. “You can get War and Peace out of it if you like. I’m interested in you. Was from the moment I saw you back home, even with Ryan in the picture. And it’d solve the problem of getting the sheets messy. Won’t matter if it’s us making the mess.”
“Ah.” Cole stared out across the water. “Direct and a fast mover. But your plans and mine differ. I didn’t come on this trip to hook up with anyone.”
Disappointment made him blunt. “Then what the fuck are you doing here?”
Cole smiled, cool and remote as a star. “Well, that’s my business wouldn’t you say? Take your sunscreen down to the pool, and I’m sure you’ll find someone willing to apply it wherever you’d like.” He added, “The offer to share a table is still open.”
“I’d get indigestion,” Lee snapped and pushed past Cole, headed for the bathroom. The efficient Duke had already tidied it and replaced the damp towels Cole had used with dry ones, fluffed and folded. The faint smell of Cole’s shower gel still lingered though, conjuring up an image of Cole showering that Lee found difficult to ignore.
The ship set sail on time, leaving the harbor with the ponderous speed of a charging rhino, deceptively slow at first but impossible to halt. Lee, on his third drink, found a good vantage point at the stern and watched the land fall away. It would be hours before it was out of sight altogether, he guessed, but there was something satisfying about escaping its grip. Soon enough, nothing but salt water and an empty sky would surround him.
Music pounded out a beat, calling to him—cheesy fun songs guaranteed to get people up and dancing, drinks in hand, while the staff broke what little ice remained. Games by the pool, games in the pool, raised voices, sunlight sparkling on the waves lapping far below, and everywhere luxury and comfort. It was a noisy, frenetic party, and he was invited.
Part of Lee knew all he had to do was follow the insistent thud of the music, paste on a smile, and join in to be welcome. He was in his late twenties, reasonably good-looking, and wearing a skimpy pair of shorts with a smiley face on his butt. In a crowd with an average age close to forty, he was in demand. He’d turned down three invitations to dance—or do more—on the way to the railing. But none of his options appealed, with the sore spot that was Ryan and the more recent yet oddly deeper hurt of Cole’s rejection.
He didn’t get it. Sure, under normal circumstances suggesting sex as an activity between virtual strangers was stunningly inappropriate, but this was a party boat headed for tropical islands, a floating Vegas where anything went and nothing counted.
Cole had made a point of sharing his single status, and Lee had done the same. They’d share a bed later. What was wrong with him that he wasn’t enough for two different men? Except he wasn’t counting Ryan. Or thinking about him. Except he was.
“And you shouldn’t be,” he said aloud, disgusted by his inability to let go. So he’d wasted a few years on the guy. It happened. The vodka provided an insight of sorts. He was less missing Ryan than what Ryan represented. Validation of his ability to attract a man. And how fucking shallow was he to need that?
He tossed the dregs of his drink overboard, the clear liquid lost in the purling spray, and went in search of food to soak up the alcohol. The ship had numerous restaurants beyond the free buffet, ranging in size and price. There was an inverse ratio deal going on so the smaller the room, the larger the bill. He wasn’t in the mood for fancy so he headed for the crowded buffet, figuring he might strike up a conversation in the line for a table. As luck would have it, he ended up sandwiched between two groups with no interest in adding to their number. Asking for a table for one seemed like an admission of defeat, and he slipped away, heading back to the cabin. Ordering room service was no victory either, but at least his humiliation would come without an audience.
Except Cole was still there, texting away, wearing a blindingly white golf shirt and looking annoyingly pulled together. He glanced up, nodded, and gave his phone a few more finger taps before putting it down.
“So what’s it like out there?”
“Why don’t you find out for yourself?” He didn’t say it in a hostile way. Face-to-face with Cole again, his irritation melted as fast as ice in a drink. “Or do you plan to spend the whole voyage in here?”
“Now we’re underway, there’s no reason for me to stay indoors.”
“Huh? Why couldn’t you mix and mingle when we were docked?”
Ignoring the question, Cole replied with one of his own. “Did you eat?”
“No.” With a sigh, he threw himself down into the chair by Cole, wincing when the leather back struck heated skin. “Ow. I missed a spot.” He twisted around, giving Cole a view of his shoulders. “Am I red?”
“A little pink here and there. Put some aloe gel on and you’ll be fine.”
“If I couldn’t get to those bits with the sunscreen, what makes you think I can reach with the aloe?”
Cole sighed, a tinge of amusement showing. “Get it, then.”
After handing the gel to Cole, he sat backward on the chair, presenting his skin for attention. The silence in the cabin magnified the effect of every rustle and creak when he settled into position. He held his breath, waiting for that first shock of coolness, but when the gel touched him, it was warm. Warm from Cole’s hands. The consideration shown made him close his eyes, a sudden wetness stinging them like chlorine in a pool.
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Word Count: 39,800
Page Count: 153
Cover By: L.C. Chase
Release Date: 05/23/2015