“Mama, you’ll never believe what’s happened.” Suzanna Shay cried as she burst through the front door.
“For heaven’s sake, Suzanna, what are you shouting about?” Augusta Shay replied.
Suzanna, following her mother’s voice, found her in the family room, her feet up, a rerun of I Love Lucy on the television. “Mama, I won. I’m going on a cruise.”
“A cruise. What cruise?” Her mother asked.
“The contest Preston Books had for their employees.” Suzanna twirled and danced across the room. “I’m going to Costa Maya.”
Augusta muted the television. “When is this cruise, and how long will you be gone?”
Suzanna didn’t miss the sharp edge in her mother’s voice. “It’s a five-day cruise in September sponsored by H&H Publishing and the I Love A Mystery Association.”
Her mother’s mouth formed a thin line. “Are you going with other people?”
Here it comes, Suzanna thought, trying to hold onto her excitement. “Not anyone I know. There will be others who have signed up for the mystery part of the cruise.”
“A single girl alone on a cruise ship. Suzanna, that doesn’t sound safe to me. There are men who will take advantage of a situation like that.”
“Mama, I’m twenty-four years old. I’ll be perfectly fine.”
“Isn’t September hurricane season?”
“I suppose, but that doesn’t mean there will be one.”
“And what am I to do while you’re gone?”
Suzanna prayed for patience. “Why don’t you go to the ranch and visit with Gramma and Gramps.”
Augusta snorted. “They’re off again going who knows where in that RV of theirs. Honestly, at their age, galivanting all over the country.”
“I’ll only be gone for a few days. Perhaps you can get together with the book club ladies. Or get your hair done. You always enjoy hearing all the gossip at the salon.”
“None of that makes up for me being alone. You know how lonely I’ve been since your father died. First you go off to college, then your sister takes off to that school in Savannah.”
Suzanna counted to ten before replying. “Mama, Dad has been gone for seven years. We’ve had this conversation many times. Savannah and I have our own lives. You need to get out more. Volunteer somewhere, or get a part time job.”
Augusta’s eyes narrowed. “Suzanna, I’m fifty years old. No one is going to hire me.”
Not if you don’t try. Suzanna rose. “I don’t know what to say, but I’m going on this cruise.” And I might not come back, she thought as she left the room.
Suzanna’s cell rang, and she smiled when her friend Amy’s name showed on the display. “Hey, Amy. Did you get my voice mail?”
“I did,” Amy replied. “I can’t believe you won the trip. I’m so envious. We’ll have to go shopping for cruise clothes.”
“Exactly my thoughts.”
“How did your mother take the news?”
“How do you think? September can’t get here fast enough.”
“Who knows. You might meet the man of your dreams, and he’ll whisk you away.”
Suzanna laughed. “Yeah, right. The only way I’ll get out of Charlotte is on my own.”
Amy sighed. “Tell me about it. We both need a fresh start. Sorry, I have to run. Violet’s hungry. Let’s plan on going shopping this weekend.”
“Sounds good.” Suzanna disconnected as her mother called, “Suzanna, have you started dinner?”
Visions of turquoise water filled Suzanna’s mind as she opened the refrigerator.
Suzanna paused at the entrance to the Neptune Room. Oh my. She smiled in pure delight at the panoramic view of the Gulf of Mexico through the wall of glass. As she made her way to the registration table, she took in the room’s underwater motif of colorful tropical fish, deep blue cloth-draped tables, and blue and white-striped chairs.
“Hello, I’m Suzanna Shay,” she said to the friendly-looking woman checking people in.
“Hi, welcome aboard. I’m Maggie O’Toole. Here’s your I Love a Mystery participant information bag. It includes your name tag and the number of the person you’ll be paired with. Also, there’s a program booklet, swag provided by H&H Publishing, and a notebook to write down clues.”
Suzanna took the offered bag. “I’m paired with someone?”
“There are forty participants, and the Mystery organizers thought it would be easier, and more fun, to pair up the singles. If you find you’d rather try and solve the mystery on your own, that’s fine.”
“Okay, thanks.” Suzanna stepped to the side and glanced at her name tag before attaching it to the top of her peach and white sundress. Her number was twelve, and she was paired with thirty-two. Male or female?, she thought as she scanned the crowded room. No matter. I hope my partner is as excited about solving the mystery as I am.
As she approached the oval bar, a man turned, and their eyes met. Wow. Can I be lucky enough to have Mr. Mega Hunk as my partner? He stood around six-foot with thick light-brown hair and smoky gray eyes. His nose was thin and straight above a sensuous mouth set beneath a thick mustache. Oh, my, he’s good looking enough to be on the cover of a romance novel. She managed to tear her gaze from his and focus on his name tag -- Austen Kincaid -- and he was number thirty-two.
Suzanna hesitated. Come on, take a deep breath, and repeat your mantra. I’m on my own, I can do as I please, and I have no one to answer to, she murmured. She wiped her damp palms on her dress and casually headed toward him.
“Hi, it seems you’re to be my partner,” she said holding out her hand. “I’m Suzanna Shay.”
He took her hand. “Austen Kincaid.” His smile showed even white teeth, and he spoke with a slight southern drawl. He indicated the bar. “I just ordered a drink. Would you like something?”
“Yes, cabernet, please.”
Austen placed her order, and when he gave his cabin number to pay for her wine, Suzanna protested.
“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”
He handed her the wine glass. “My pleasure. Now, let’s find somewhere to sit. I see a couple of seats over by the windows.”
“Oh, how pretty,” Suzanna said, indicating the shell and coral centerpiece. She gestured at the gently rolling waves beyond the window. “It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” Not waiting for a response, she continued. “This is my first cruise, and I keep telling myself I’m actually on my way to Costa Maya. Have you been on other cruises?”
“This is my second. I went to the Bahamas researching a book.”
Suzanna’s brows rose. “You’re an author?”
Austen nodded. “Well, kind of. I have a couple of finished manuscripts.”
“Good for you. What do you write?”
“Thrillers.” He hesitated. “In fact, I’m waiting to hear back from H&H on a manuscript I submitted.”
“Is that why you’re on the cruise?”
“No, my friend purchased the ticket, but he had a family emergency and asked me if I’d like to go instead. He told me it was a mystery cruise. I had no idea H&H was a sponsor until I got on board. As it happens, the editor I sent my manuscript to is also here.”
“Who is that?”
“I’ll bet you’re dying to ask her about your book.”
“I sure am, but I’m afraid that might turn her against me.”
“I’ve always wanted to write,” Suzanna said. “But I don’t have the talent. So, I just work among books.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m the manager for Preston Books in their Charlotte store. I won this cruise in a contest the company held.”
“That’s terrific. I’ve never won anything.”
“Up until now, neither had I.”
“Are you a mystery lover?” Austen asked.
“Mystery and romance are my favorites. How about you?”
“Mystery and suspense. I enjoy David Baldacci, Harlan Coben, and Lee Child.
“Good choices. I love the classics: Christie, Sayers, and Ngaio Marsh.”
“Considering our taste in authors, we should solve this mystery without any problem.”
Suzanna raised her glass. “Here’s to my Miss Marple and your Jack Reacher. May they both bring us luck.”
Austen tapped his glass with hers. “Absolutely.”
As their eyes met and held, Suzanna’s thoughts fled from books and solving mysteries to a vision of his sensuously sculpted lips kissing her. Good grief, what was she thinking? Horrified he might have read her mind, she stared out the window, willing away the blush that stained her cheeks.
Austen cleared his throat. “I believe they’re about to begin tonight’s program.”
Thankful for the distraction, Suzanna adjusted her chair for a better view.
“Please may I have everyone’s attention?” Maggie O’Toole asked through a microphone from a raised platform at the far end of the room. “I know we’re all anxious to begin tonight’s program. In your booklet, we’ve provided you with a list of the characters in our mystery and information on what you’ll need to solve the murder. Tonight, we’ll present the opening two acts. Tomorrow, the murder will occur.”
In unison, the crowd made an “ooh” sound.
“I’ll also go over the rules with you. Then while we’re cruising to Costa Maya, you’ll have time to put your little gray cells to work. After tomorrow, in designated shops onboard, you can pick up clue cards with more information on the suspects. On our last night, we’ll present the conclusion and see if we have an ace detective on board. Our winner will get a gift certificate for one hundred dollars at Preston books. If we have more than one winner, each will receive a fifty-dollar certificate. We have our sponsor, H&H Publishing, to thank for the appetizers on the far table. Please help yourselves. After tonight’s presentation, we’ll have supper in the Mermaid dining room. In your packet, there’s a card listing your table seating. So, if you’ll get your notebooks out, in a few minutes we’ll get started.”
Austen got to his feet. “I’d like another drink. How about you?”
Suzanna nodded and rose. “This one is on me.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m kind of hungry. Would you mind getting us some appetizers while I go to the bar.”
“Sure, but the next round is my treat.”
While he waited in line, Austen marveled at his luck. He’d hesitated about coming on the cruise but thanked the stars, or whatever, for bringing him here. Suzanna Shay was sexy as hell with long dark red hair, big blue eyes, and a very shapely body. The mystery part of the cruise might be entertaining but spending time with Suzanna may prove more pleasurable. And if he read her correctly, the feeling was mutual. He hadn’t dated since his last girlfriend got tired of the hours he dedicated to his writing and broke off their relationship.
If H&H offered him a contract for Upheaval, the first in his series, his lifetime dream would finally come true. Not to mention getting his father off his ass. He loved the horses and enjoyed watching them win races, but if he had his way, the Kincaid horse farm would not be part of his future. In the meantime, here he was on a Caribbean cruise with an attractive woman.
“What can I get you?” The bartender, whose name tag read Steve, asked.
“A cabernet and a Guinness,” Austen replied.
“Add a martini as well, please.”
A woman with strawberry blond hair wearing a tight dress stood next to him giving him a pleasant view of her impressive cleavage.
“Hello,” she said with a smile. “I need a drink before I go on. I’m Haley Henderson and,” she glanced at his name tag, “you’re Austen.”
Surprised, Austen cleared his throat. Haley, married to Brad Henderson, the owner of H&H Publishing, was one of the New York Times list’s top mystery writers. “It’s nice to meet you. I enjoy your books.”
“Thanks.” She sipped her martini and studied him with her big green eyes. “So, you’re a mystery fan. I hope you enjoy our little skit.”
“Are you part of the production?”
“Star performer, and I have to confess I also wrote it.”
“Then I’m sure it will be great.”
She cocked her head, and a slow smile spread across her face. “Are you here alone?”
Austen hesitated. If he wasn’t mistaken, the woman was flirting with him. Great, just what he needed. Her husband’s publishing house might hold his future in their hands. “I’m here with a friend.”
“A female friend?”
Austen tamped down his annoyance. He didn’t want to insult her, but what business was it of hers? He gave her what he hoped was a friendly smile. “I need to take my seat. I’ll let you finish your drink, and good luck with the skit.”
“Thanks,” Suzanna said as he handed her the wine.
“You’re not going to believe who I ran into at the bar. Haley Henderson.” He nodded at Suzanna’s wide-eyed reaction. “I didn’t recognize her at first. She said she wrote the mystery skit and is starring in it.”
“No kidding,” Suzanna replied. “When her new releases come into the bookstore, they fly off the shelves. She did a book signing for us once. I have to admit she wasn’t the friendliest author we’d had.”
“She stays at the top of the Times best seller list. Fame can inflate people’s ego to the point of being obnoxious. If I make it big, I hope I never get that way.” He glanced at the plate piled with food in the middle of their table. “Looks good.”
“I wasn’t sure what to get, so I got a little of everything. Is it okay if we share?”
“Sure.” He popped a crab puff into his mouth. “Yum.”
“They’re about to begin, and we haven’t gone over our introduction sheet explaining who all the characters are,” Suzanna said.
Austen draped his arm along the back of Suzanna’s chair. “We’ll figure it out as it goes along.”