CHAPTER ONE: ON DECK FOR LOVE
When the knock sounded, Meg Summers glanced from her laptop screen to her watch. Was it time already? "Why did I let her talk me into this?" she muttered under her breath as she trudged to the front door of her sparsely decorated condo.
Shayla, her best friend since high school, stood there with a much too big smile and wide, excited eyes. "Do you have all your stuff?"
Shayla stepped inside, then brushed her naturally red curly hair off her shoulders. "It is one hot, humid day. Even for Houston." She fanned herself with her hand. "This is going to be the best vacation of all vacations. Ever."
While shaking her head, Meg shut the front door. Shayla had always been the perky, upbeat part of their duo. Sometimes it was more annoying than others. "If you say so."
Shayla pointed at Meg. With a serious expression she said, "You may not be Debbie Downer about this. I forbid it. We are going to have a blast."
"Because going on a singles cruise screams blast." Meg couldn’t think of a worse way to spend the next week. All she could envision was a bunch of loser guys trying to hit on her. Not what I want or need right now.
"This is going to be super fun!" Shayla’s green eyes danced.
Meg walked into the small kitchen and Shayla followed closely behind her. "I should've said no when you first brought up this crazy idea," Meg said, reaching for a glass. She filled it with some ice.
"It isn't crazy!” Shayla perched her hands on her hips. “People meet their significant others on cruises all the time."
"They do?" Meg gave her too-enthusiastic BFF a look of disbelief.
"Eighty-two percent of all those who go on singles cruises leave with the beginning of a relationship." Shayla said it with such conviction, Meg almost believed her. Almost.
"You just pulled that stat out of your—"
"I did not. It's totally true. And even if it isn't, why not take a chance?" Shayla grabbed the glass from Meg and added some water to it.
"For one, I have a ton of work to do if I want to launch my online business in less than three weeks."
There was still so much to do before her website would be ready. Then there was all the social media marketing to schedule. And editing all the videos. She’d invested too much money to not meet her deadline.
Shayla waved her hand. "You can leave that for a week."
"Uh, uh. I'm taking my laptop with me and working. I need to upload my meal plans and exercise videos to my website, integrate the software so customers can sign up for my weight training program, and I have to test it to make sure there aren’t any bugs." Shayla didn’t understand all the work it entailed to get this business going. Sure, she was supportive, and had even encouraged Meg to pursue it last year when it was only a kernel of an idea, but there was a long list of tasks that had to be completed if Meg wanted this to be successful.
Shayla drew in a deep breath. "Meg!"
"You promised you'd go on the cruise with a good attitude." Shayla wagged her finger at Meg.
Meg leaned back against the counter and crossed her arms in front of her chest. "No, no. I said I'd come because you said it was all you wanted for your birthday—your birthday wish—last month. I never agreed to have a good attitude about a bunch of weirdos who have no concept of a real relationship." A vision of some old, bald guy with a hairy back and leering eyes popped into her head and she shuddered.
"Okay. Then for my next birthday wish,” Shayla raised her eyebrows, “I want you to be open to meeting someone."
"Uhh, that's blackmail." Meg wasn’t about to be manipulated.
"Come on.” Shayla gave a dramatic sigh. “You never know what might happen."
Meg stepped past Shayla and flopped on the couch. "Based alone on my last four first dates, I'm pretty sure I have an idea. Dating and relationships are totally overrated.”
Shayla sat next to Meg. "Well, maybe your soul mate will be on this cruise."
Meg started laughing. "Actually, you're right."
"I am?" Shayla blinked.
Meg picked up her romance novel from the table and said, "Yep, here he is. I'll bring him with me. His name is Rolf."
Shayla threw her hands in the air. “I don’t know what to do with you.”
“Let me work while we’re on the cruise. You go meet people and I work. Win-win.” Seemed to make perfect sense to Meg.
“No way. You are going to be social. And you’re going to like it.” Shayla stood, then walked over to her bag and pulled something out. “And to make that happen, I bought you this.”
“Bought me what?” Meg was afraid to ask.
Shayla held a blue dress in her hands. “Isn’t it adorable? And you will be stunning. It’ll totally bring out the blue in your eyes. And you can wear your hair up in a twist.”
“Uhh, I’m not sure. It seems a little too much for me.” Meg eyed it. “Make that a little too little for me.” The dress would show way more of Meg than she wanted.
“You’ve worked so hard and for so long for your rockin’ hot body, and you need to show it off.”
It was true that Meg had transformed her body. Once she was a chubby kid with lots of extra padding and rolls. Now she had well-defined, lean muscles, and less than 18% body fat. Still, it was hard to ignore the nickname that still rang in her ears. Megaton, Megaton, Megaton. It had been coined by AJ, a rude, obnoxious boy she knew in middle school. It was hard to forget about all the body shaming she endured through the years for being overweight. “I don’t know.”
“My third birthday wish is that you wear this dress on the cruise and you like it. You’ll look amazing. I promise.” Shayla held the dress out to Meg.
Meg snatched it. Maybe Shayla was right. “Fine. But only because you’re my bestie.”
“Admit it. You think the dress is cute.”
Meg held up the dress. “In an over-the-top kind of way, sure.”
“You need to loosen up and have some fun.” Shayla did some dance moves to an imaginary song.
Meg couldn’t help but smile at Shayla’s excitement. Maybe this cruise wouldn’t be as bad as she thought. Maybe.
“You’re all packed, right? Where are your bags?” Shayla glanced around the room.
“I’ll get them.”
“Well, get to it.” Shayla tapped her wrist. “Time is wasting. And we need to be there early to board the ship.”
“Galveston is a little over an hour from here. We have plenty of time.” Meg grabbed her laptop so she could log out and shut it down.
“Nope. We want to be there so we can find the hottest men first.”
Meg let out a long breath. They had plenty of time, but she knew Shayla would continue to badger her, so she gave in and went back to her bedroom to get her suitcases. “I think we’re leaving way too early. We can’t even get on the boat until after two o’clock,” she said while she rolled her suitcase into the living room.
“Better early than late.” Shayla clapped her hands. “This is going to be so awesome.”
Meg hefted her suitcase and a couple smaller bags into the back of Shayla’s silver Toyota, then took her seat in the front.
Shayla blasted some music and they joined in the chorus of Katy Perry’s “Firework” while they mounted the 45 Freeway headed south to Galveston. Over the music Shayla shouted, “Within a few hours, we might meet our Mr. Rights.”
Meg was certain that if she met anyone, it’d be Mr. Wrong, but she didn’t want to keep raining on Shayla’s parade by saying it out loud. Humoring her BFF was a better choice. Besides, going on a singles cruise wouldn’t kill her. She’d have plenty to eat, lots of sunshine, and if she was lucky, Shayla would meet someone and leave Meg alone to focus on her business.
“I think the shuttle will meet us over here,” Shayla said, pointing to an area next to the parking lot.
Meg rolled her suitcase behind her. Perspiration formed around her hairline and at the back of her neck, making her wish she’d put her hair in a ponytail instead of leaving it down. Mid-July in southern Texas was typically hot and humid—emphasis on humid. She tried to fan herself with her hand once they reached the shuttle stop, but it didn’t matter. “I’m planning to jump in the pool before we even get to our room.”
“In your clothes?” Shayla said, crinkling her nose.
“Would it matter?” Meg pulled at her damp shirt and looked forward to some air conditioning on the shuttle bus.
They boarded the bus and headed down the street. As they neared the pristine white, several-story ship, Meg was struck by how immense it was. “Wow, that is one big boat.”
“Isn’t it awesome? There’s like eleven decks or something. And a couple of pools, a waterslide, a casino, restaurants, dance clubs. This is going to be the best ever.” Shayla nodded and her hoop earrings swayed.
Despite her vow to not enjoy this cruise, Meg’s excitement coursed through her. Maybe it would actually be fun to go on a cruise.
“Oh, did I tell you I saw Kirsten Shupe?” Shayla said as they walked into the check-in area.
Meg pulled her wallet out of her purse and fished her driver’s license out of it. “Where did you see her?”
“I was coming out of Jimmy Choo at The Galleria.”
“You and your shoe obsession.”
“A girl can never have too many shoes.” Shayla waved her hand. “Anyway, I almost walked right into Kirsten. I haven’t seen her since high school.”
Meg handed her ID to the Hispanic woman at the counter who looked it over, then tapped some keys on her computer.
“That’s good, I guess.” Kirsten Shupe was not someone Meg ever wanted to see again.
Shayla arched an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you still hate her.”
Meg blew out a breath. The agony of being in class with Kirsten was still seared into her memory.
“She was totally rude to me in our yearbook class.”
The woman at the counter handed Meg back her ID. “Here is your cruise card. It will allow you to board the ship at the ports. Please hang onto it. You can now walk over there.” The woman pointed to her left.
“Thank you,” Meg said and collected her card. She started walking toward a long hallway tugging her suitcase behind her.
“I can’t remember what Kirsten even did,” Shayla said as she came up behind Meg.
“Oh, I remember it vividly.” The memories heated Meg’s cheeks. “It started when she read my copy for the theater department out loud and made fun of it. She told me I should never write anything, even a grocery list. Everyone thought she was so hilarious. Then she made snide remarks to me for the rest of the year.”
“But that was a long time ago.” Shayla shrugged. “I’m sure we’ve all changed since then.”
“Some people never change. And Kirsten Shupe is one of them.” Meg had plenty of proof to back up her claim.
“Are you going to carry your grudge against her forever?”
The way Shayla said it, it sounded foolish to still hang onto the memories, but Meg remembered how
Kirsten made her feel. Why should she forget that? “Maybe.”