Louise seeks love on board a romantic singles’ cruise – and it seems her prayers are answered when she meets brawny construction worker Toby at a speed dating event. But when Lou discovers the dating service uses unethical business practices, she’s determined to reveal them, and the resulting publicity hurts Toby’s friends and family.
Can Toby convince Lou that true love exists beyond numbers?
Can Toby convince Lou that true love exists beyond numbers?
Savvy Tip of the Day:
Go someplace you've never been before. A new shop, a new street, even a new gas station. Better yet, book yourself a vacation and get away from it all. Even a day or two can give you fresh perspective...
Louise Jamison stood on the Aloha Deck as the Spirit of the Sea left the Tampa shoreline. She silently repeated the words from her favorite advice blog and hoped that this cruise would, indeed, give her perspective. Even better would be a Someone Special, or even a Someone for Right Now, since she'd been single for far too long. She loved reading the Savvy Sex Goddess’s Guide to Life, Love, and Getting What You Want, but sometimes the columns only made her painfully aware that she hadn't had sex or love or even a second date in almost eight months.
As the shoreline grew smaller, celebration confetti stuck to the deck, the chairs, and her pale, freckled arms and legs. A salsa band played beneath the banner that promised the Cocktail Cruise Line was the place Where strangers become friends and friends become something more…
Lou looked around and prayed that was true.
Cassidy Arnez, Lou's best friend since sixth grade, poked her in the ribs. “Stop thinking about your ex.”
“I’m not thinking about him.” Move forward after a breakup, the Savvy Sex Goddess had mentioned more than once. Focus on the future. She’d done her best, but their tiny hometown of Hope's Landing in central Florida wasn't exactly the place to meet single men. So Lou had been saving up for this late-January cruise since last fall. She tugged her shirt down. Eight months of mint chocolate chip ice cream and red wine (not together of course, but in generous helpings at different points during the nights) had added a few pounds since her breakup with Terrell. Or maybe more than a few. She tried not to care. She wasn't made to be a size four, no matter how much her ex had tried to convince her.
Cass leaned both arms on the railing. “So what do you think? See any potential?”
“I'm not sure yet.” This deck, and the one above them, was filled with people their age, mostly in their twenties and early thirties. Waitresses wound their way through the crowd, young blondes and brunettes with pink and blue and purple streaks in their hair. A couple of them had nose rings, and a few had tattoos crossing their shoulder blades or wrapped around their ankles. They all wore floral green bikini tops and matching miniskirts and gold name tags pinned to their chests.
Cass flagged down one of them. “We’ll take two of whatever your special is.”
“Spirit of the Sea Tequila Sunrise?” the girl asked in a sing-song voice. She had six silver hoops in each ear.
Lou nodded, encouraged that her favorite drink was also the special on this cruise. That had to be a good sign.
“I do see some hotties.” Cass spun in a dramatic circle, taking in the other guests, as her long dark curls bounced against her tanned bare back. “You won’t have any problem getting laid.”
Lou shook her head. “I don’t know if getting laid is my primary goal. Meeting someone worth a second or third date would be nice.”
Cass leaned against the railing and let her head drop back, eyes closed against the late afternoon sun. “You’re crazy. It’s only a four-day cruise. You’re not going to fall in love. Just find someone who’ll give you a few outstanding orgasms, and you can go back to Hope’s Landing a new woman. You don’t even need to know his last name.”
Lou smiled, though it didn't reach inside, deep in her core where she'd been waiting and wishing for long, lonely months for someone to sweep her off her feet. A new woman. That would be nice. Living in an apartment around the block from her parents and working temp jobs while she looked for full-time accounting work definitely wasn't the most proactive way to meet someone. She could count the single men in Hope's Landing on both hands. If she wasn’t in debt from four years of college, she’d leave her hometown, but her landlord was also the retired elementary school principal, and he was cutting her a deal. Otherwise she’d probably be living with her parents.
She squeezed her eyes shut and made a quick, fervent wish that these next few days on the Spirit of the Sea would introduce her to a stranger who turned into a friend who turned into something more, the way Cocktail Cruise Line promised.
After all, Valentine's Day was right around the corner.
A tall blonde in a tight black skirt and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows approached them. A nametag on her chest read Andrea, CCL Marketing. “Hello! Welcome aboard.” She shook Lou's hand. “Are you having a good time?”
Lou nodded as she tucked her dark brown hair behind her ears. As usual, it had frizzed in the humid Florida air. “The ship's beautiful.”
Andrea glanced around the expansive deck. Behind them, a few guys were already lounging in the shallow end of an oblong pool, drinks in hand. An outdoor bar at the other end of the deck was packed. “The Spirit of the Sea was renovated last fall. Almost everything is brand new. We’re really excited to have Charming Hearts on board with us. I hope you’re doing the speed dating tonight.” She reached over and shook Cass's hand this time. “Have a wonderful time!” She glided away and approached a group of women clad in string bikinis and teeny tiny shorts.
The waitress returned with their drinks, and Lou clinked her glass to Cass’s. “Here's to meeting someone.”
Cass grinned. “Now that's the Louise I like to see. Where's she been hiding all these months?”
Lou sipped her drink, admiring its pretty pinks and oranges along with the familiar tang of tequila. “I think she was wallowing in self-pity for a while. Massive breakups tend to do that.”
“You're much better off. Terrell was a control freak. A total ass.”
“But an awfully good-looking ass,” Lou said. Her mouth turned down. And really good in bed, though she didn’t have much to compare him to. She didn’t miss him. No way. But she did miss the idea of him, of having a partner, someone to love and kiss and hold her.
Cass reached over and put one finger under Lou's chin. “Hey. Remember why we're here.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a wrinkled sheet of paper. “I grabbed this on the way in. It’s a list of what’s going on tonight. Check out the Mango Lounge.”
Lou scanned the paper: salsa classes, poker, a couple of live bands, juggling lessons. At the very bottom, from seven to nine in the Mango Lounge, she read Charming Hearts Speed Dating. “Speed dating? No. No way.”
“I thought maybe I could meet someone the old-fashioned way. Like, you know, by talking to him?”
Cass folded her arms. “How many people have you talked to since we boarded? There are guys everywhere...” She gestured at the pool, the bar, and the upper deck lined with men. “You haven't said a word to any of them.”
“It's only been two hours.”
Cass looped an arm around Lou's shoulders. “Honey, your strong suit is not chatting up strangers. We both know that. The speed dating will be easy, no pressure. It’s like five minutes talking to one guy, and then if you don't like him, boom! You're done and on to the next.”
Lou already felt rather done. Having her boyfriend of three years announce two days before their college graduation that he was spending the summer in Europe to think things through seemed pretty final. Finding out he was doing it with the dark-eyed, dark-haired assistant professor from his French seminar made her feel even more foolish. Cast-off. Done.
“...and Charming Hearts has really good success rates,” Cass was rattling on. “Haven't you seen their ads?”
With effort, Lou banished thoughts of Terrell. Of course she had. No one who owned a television could miss them. Nine matches out of ten are perfect tens! trilled one couple after another. We screen your dates so you don't have to! promised the owner of Charming Hearts, a cheery fifty-something year old woman who'd started the business and become a millionaire in less than five years.
Cass smoothed the wrinkles from the cruise schedule, folded it in half, and tucked it into Lou’s bag. “I already signed you up.”
“Then you better be coming with me.”
“This cruise is about finding you a match. I don’t need help picking up guys.”
Unfortunately for Lou, that was true. Ever since high school, all Cass needed to do was wiggle her ass and wink, and she had guys following her like a damn Pied Piper. Maybe she should've opened Charming Hearts, or something like it. She sure had the secret to making men fall. She was the last person who needed the promises of the Cocktail Cruise Line or its dating service.
“Give it an hour. If it’s horrible, I’ll meet you at eight and we’ll take salsa lessons instead.” Cass glanced at the stage by the pool. A tall guy with long black hair and an incredible body had joined the band and was dancing in rhythm to the music. Lou could just make out a name tag on his chest. His feet moved in a blur, and perspiration shined on arms sinewy with muscle. “If he's teaching, I'm taking lessons morning, noon, and night,” Cass added.
As they watched, he pulled Andrea the marketing rep out of the crowd. For a few minutes, they danced close together, his hands moving her body in time with his. Despite the heels she stumbled in once or twice, and the embarrassed smile on her face, they looked good together. Onlookers whistled and applauded in appreciation.
Lou shook her head as the music waned. “Okay. I'll do the speed dating. But if it doesn't work out, and I end up looking like a total idiot, could we just drink ourselves into oblivion?”
“You know I don’t need a second invitation for that.” Cass laughed.
Lou shaded her eyes and scanned the crowd. They didn't know anyone here, so if she made a fool of herself, at least the evidence would stay off the coast of Florida. God, she hoped they didn't know anyone here. Leave it to her to run into someone from college or Hope's Landing who'd also decided to make the fifty-mile trip to Tampa to take advantage of Charming Hearts' amazing track record. Oh please no. Please, please, please no.
“I bet there’ll be twice as many guys there as women,” Cass added. “You’ll have your pick.”
Lou did see more than a few decent-looking guys who probably hit the gym on a regular basis and looked around her age. Crew cuts and dimples and cleft chins. Bare, muscular chests and arms. All right, maybe there was possibility here. She leaned against the railing. Another Tequila Sunrise or two before seven, and she might be able to handle the spectacle of circling a room and hoping there wasn’t a hidden camera or microphone anywhere to record how insane she was going to look. She wished for the umpteenth time for Cass's confidence, for her casual, blasé attitude when it came to men. Take them or leave them, enjoy them and move on, that was Cass's motto.
Not Lou. She was so bad at meeting random people, so awkward when it came to talking about sports or the weather. Forget taking the initiative in the bedroom, or having a one-night stand for the sake of pleasure or adventure. She'd started reading the Savvy Sex Goddess for advice, but reading and doing were two very different things. Just making the reservation for this singles' cruise had taken all her courage and then some.
Nine matches out of ten are perfect tens...
Lou hoped she didn't end up being the tenth.
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