Part 1 by Terry Spear
Her brow wrinkled in annoyance. Why had she agreed to help Armand sell his creation and join him on this free excursion? Because, as usual, she needed the extra cash to pay the bills, and she’d wanted her girlfriends to know she could take a cruise trip just like them!
When lovers celebrated the coming of the New Year, what was she doing? Attempting to sell a piece of high-priced jewelry. And tomorrow? She was stuck sunbathing on the British Virgin Isles, wearing a pearl and shell necklace, earrings and bracelets to sell to the other passengers.
Tricia straightened her already stiff back, knowing that many of the attendees at the masquerade party had tons of ready cash. Any one of them surely would be interested in buying the diamond necklace she now wore for his ladylove. At least that’s what Armand told her. So where was he tonight of all nights? He was never late
Perusing the crowded room where women flaunted floor-length gowns of taffeta, brocades and velvet, she noticed a few fastened their attention on the necklace. Good. Maybe a buyer would approach soon. Still, Armand was supposed to introduce her to the men who’d be willing to purchase such an item. No way was she going to waltz across the floor and hawk his wares without an introduction.
Then from across the room, she noticed a man watching her, dressed in a tux, one of society’s big players, wealthy, sure of himself, with old money and a totally hot bod. His intense stare dropped lower. Was he interested in the necklace? Or just the dip in her bodice?
The man’s dark eyes rose to meet her gaze, then his lips lifted in a slow, lazy smile. Her face heated with embarrassment.
Where in the world was Armand?
Part 2 by Mary Margret Daughtridge
Tricia jumped. “I was right here.” She took a step back to put some distance between herself and Armand’s ninety-proof breath. “Where were you?”
“Beside the aft elevators, Tricia.”
Maybe he had been waiting at a different entrance. There were three. One at each end of the long room, which were accessed by elevators, and one at the head of an elegant staircase that ascended from the deck below.
Maybe she’d misunderstood his directions. That happened sometimes… well, a lot. She wasn’t a ditzy blonde—she had the Phi Beta Kappa key to prove it—but she was blonde, and she had absolutely no sense of direction. If she had turned the wrong way when she left her cabin on a deck far, far below, she could have taken the wrong elevator.
On the other hand, judging by the smell of alcohol, Armand had been waiting, if he’d waited at all, at the bar. His black eyes were glassy and beads of sweat dotted the swarthy skin his upper lip. He’d stressed over and over how important this cruise was and how excited he was that she would help him. Tricia would have thought a sophisticated professional model would be a better choice, but he had said her look was exactly right to attract the clientele he needed. She was surprised he would compromise his dream by getting smashed.
His eyes flicked over the crowd with what she would have sworn was fear.
He was nervous. Her own anxiety disappeared as it usually did when she had someone to look after. He'd been drinking to calm himself down. Now that she understood, she looped her arm through his and gave a squeeze. “Don’t worry,” she said encouragingly, “everything will be all right. Do you see any of the men you were hoping to meet here?”
She searched the room with him trying to guess which ones might be buyers. Her eyes encountered those of the man who had smiled at her just before Armand appeared. The lazy, self-confident smile was gone. Now his intent stare reminded her of a wolf who has spotted prey.
Armand felt her stiffen and followed her gaze. “Merde,” he muttered under his breath. With his handkerchief he dabbed at the sweat on his upper lip, while he turned the two of them in the other direction. “Do not speak to him. Whatever you do, don’t let that man get you alone—not even for a second.”
“Pretty blonde girls, young and fresh-looking like you, fetch a high price in some circles.” Seeing her puzzled look he explained further. “He sells them. He’s in the sex trade.”
Part 3 by Mary Margret Daughtridge
“Sex trade? You mean he sells them into prostitution?”
“Or to...private collectors.”
Trish shuddered. “That shows how deceptive looks can be." She fought the urge to turn around for another look at the man. "He doesn’t look evil.” While some of the guests at the ship’s masquerade ball wore masks, he did not. Trish had guessed he disdained pretense, confident that he had no need of disguise. If she could be that wrong, it proved how out of place she was amongst this moneyed crowd. All the discomfort with the glittering scene and the stiff brocade of the reproduction eighteenth century ball gown she’d felt a few minutes ago returned, doubled.
“Smile,” Armand hissed. He wiped his palm surreptitiously on his tuxedo pants, then with a very good imitation of welcome extended it to the man moving toward them through the crowd. “Pieter, Pieter! How good to see you. Trish allow me to introduce to you Pieter Van der Sloop.”
“So, Armand, you are here with your merchandise, yes?” Pieter’s words were only lightly accented. His light eyes drifted over Trish. “Beautiful. You’ve done well, Armand. How much?”
“Please, do not say ‘merchandize,’" Armand chided. "This is a rare and perfect work of art, and you know it.”
“Of course." Pierter inclined his head in apology. He chuckled at the same time, rendering the gesture less than sincere. "I stand corrected. I repeat, how much?”
Armand told him and Pieter nodded. “A good price.” His eyes swept over Trish again and lingered on her chest. She forced herself to stand still and even raised her chin to give him a better look at the necklace, despite cheeks that felt on fire.
Armand straightened his cuffs in a show of nonchalance. “You are interested?”
“For myself?” Pieter’s lips curled slightly. “No. I do not buy.” He turned his gaze to Armand. “I broker occasionally. Would you like for me to bring you interested parties?”
“And let you have a cut?” Armand dropped all pretense of urbanity. Trish had the oddest feeling that he was glad he hadn’t made the sale, glad he could dismiss Pieter. “Forget it.”
Pieter shrugged philosophically—a gesture American men couldn’t approximate without looking gay. On him the movement said, “I have a great body and I know how to use it.”
Trish had never met a man so sure of himself sexually…well, except for the other man, although, technically she hadn’t met him…and wouldn’t if she could help it… still, something about both men, one so dark, one so fair made her compare them.
Part 4 by Loucinda McGary
Armand hauled Tricia out onto the dance floor and away from the smoldering gaze of the dark man, but she could still feel his eyes following her. Pieter glided past, a short woman in a feathered mask with garishly tinted red hair in his arms.
“Damn!” Armand whispered hoarsely near Tricia’s ear. “That’s Anita Fitzhugh. I’ve been trying to get close to her all evening.”
The dark man momentarily forgotten, Tricia craned her neck to get another look at one of the grand dames of Broadway.
“She’d be a perfect customer,” Armand continued. The music stopped and Anita moved away from Pieter toward the exit. “She’s going to the powder room. Follow her!”
Tricia blinked at him. “Me?”
“Well I can’t very well go into the ladies’ room,” Armand replied, and gave her a not too gentle shove. “Go on! Don’t lose her.”
Tricia stumbled for the door, the strap of her sandal coming loose as she moved, but she had no time to stop and fix it. She hurried into the hallway but Anita Fitzhugh was nowhere to be seen. Scooting along so that her shoe didn’t come completely off, she rounded the corner toward the bank of elevators, but the woman wasn’t there either.
Armand was going to be furious! Where was that dratted bathroom? Tricia rounded another corner and literally ran into the dark man, her nose bumping abruptly against the lapel of his tux. She jerked backward, swaying, and he steadied her with a hand on her bare arm.
“I’m so sorry!” she blurted, and yanked self-consciously at her bodice to make sure nothing had fallen out.
“No need to apologize.” His gaze dropped to her cleavage and she couldn’t stop herself from giving her gown one more tug. “That’s quite a lovely necklace.”
His dark eyes moved slowly from her breasts up to her face, while Armand’s warning echoed inside her head… ‘Whatever you do, don’t let that man get you alone, even for a second…’
“Th-thank you.” Tricia glanced frantically around the dimly lit corridor, panic clawing up her spine. Then her gaze snagged on a door built right into the dark paneling.
The bathroom at last!
“Excuse me, please, but I have to go in here.”
Wrenching her arm from his grasp, she darted through the door, pressing the lock in as it closed behind her. Panting, she turned around and leaned back to rest against the solid panel, her shoulders slumping with relief.
“Pardon, madame,” said a soft masculine voice. “Are you lost?”
Tricia gasped and looked toward the sound. To her dismay, she saw she was not in the ladies room at all, but an area behind the ballroom stage. The speaker was a young man in a white jacket, holding a trumpet.
“Have you lost your way?” he asked again, white teeth gleaming in his olive-skinned face. "Or are you hiding from an over-eager dance partner?”
“Oh, no!” Tricia quickly denied. She stared at the oval name-tag on his jacket which said ‘Mustafa’ and below that ‘Turkey.’ “I… I just needed someplace to fix my shoe.”
“Maybe I can help you.” He set his trumpet on a storage box and motioned for her to come closer.
Intrigued in spite of herself, Tricia obeyed. She lifted her foot and rested it on top of the crate opposite the shiny instrument.
“I’m Tricia,” she said. “Tricia Ivy, and I’ve never met a trumpet playing Turk before.”
Part 5 by Cheryl Brooks
His smile broadened as he knelt down and captured her foot in his warm hands. “I'm Mustafa, and I've never met such a beautiful blonde American before.”
“First time for everything, I suppose,” Tricia said, glancing nervously over her shoulder. At least that horrid man hadn't followed her. Had he known it wasn't the ladies' room? Would he be waiting outside when she left? Tremors shook her entire body as she realized she'd never been more terrified in her life.
Mustafa drew her attention back to her sandal with a deft tug on the strap. “It simply became unfastened,” he said. “There is no damage done.”
“Th-thank you,” Tricia stammered. “I would have felt really stupid limping through that crowd of elegant people with a broken shoe.
“What?” she said distractedly. “Oh, you mean the necklace.”
“No, I did not.” Mustafa's hands had never left her ankle, and they now slid up her bare calf, sending messages that Tricia would have understood even if his English hadn't been quite so fluent. “Sparkling jewels mean nothing to a man in search of other treasures.”
She was gaping at him in disbelief when she heard a subtle click behind her, and then his voice saying, “There's just no safe place for a lovely woman anymore, is there?”
Whipping around so quickly that she accidentally kicked Mustafa in the chest, Tricia took in his slow smile and steady gaze as he folded his arms and leaned back against the closed door. He dispatched the young Turk with a quick nod of dismissal, and Mustafa scrambled to his feet, muttering apologies before snatching up his trumpet and fleeing through stage door.
“You don't trust me, do you?” he said.
“Is there any reason I should?”
“Is there any reason you shouldn't?”
“I, uh, don't know—” How on earth could you look a man in the eye and tell him you know he is in the business of selling young women into sexual slavery—and still keep a straight face? “Armand,” she said, grasping at straws. “Armand warns me not to—”
“Let strange men corner you for fear they might be jewel thieves?” His soft chuckle was disarmingly sincere. “You know, it's really not that much of a calling these days. Most people wear fakes and keep the real stuff in a vault—which is a pity for the ladies who have to wear cubic zirconia when they have the money to pay for diamonds, but a real boon for the insurance companies.”
Tricia could find no words to reply to that, and simply stared at him. He looked like the kind of man who would grace the cover of GQ, and yet he was the worst kind of devil she could imagine. She pitied the women who had fallen into his clutches, and shuddered as she realized she was about to become one of them.
Noting her tremor, his eyes sharpened, but his voice remained pleasant. “I have to wonder what a girl like you is doing with a snake like Armand.”
Her eyes widened. “You know Armand?”
“Let's say I know of him,” the man replied. “We're old adversaries.”
“Adversaries? How could someone like you—”
“I'm curious,” he said, continuing as though she hadn't spoken. “Just exactly what did Armand tell you about me?”
Tricia swallowed hard, deciding that the truth was easier than making up a lie, and besides, he had her cornered anyway. In one last act of defiance, she lifted her chin and shot him a look filled with disdain. “That you were a predator who sells women as sex slaves.”
His smile never wavered; only the flick of an eyebrow registered the fact that he had heard her at all. “Well, now,” he began. “That's very interesting. I've been accused of many things, but never that. I have to give Armand credit for originality.”
Part 6 by Kendra Leigh Castle
Tricia tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear, feeling her curiosity beginning to overtake her fear. She glanced around quickly, and decided that she was safe enough from being either ravished or dragged off somewhere for the time being. There were bound to be other band members wandering through. Still, for the moment, they were alone.
“So you’re telling me Armand is lying?” she asked, arching a skeptical brow at him. “I mean, the sex slave dealer was a new one on me, but still. I know Armand. I don’t know you.”
Not, Tricia silently amended, that I wouldn’t like to fix that problem. The dark, handsome stranger was even more compelling close-up, his fair skin a striking contrast to close-cropped ebony hair and eyes such a dark blue they were almost black. His mouth, a hard yet somehow sensuous line, curved slightly upward.
“That, I'm happy to fix.” He put his hand out, and Tricia let her small hand be enveloped in his large one. His skin was surprisingly cool to the touch, but that didn’t stop her mind from wandering immediately to inappropriate, and far warmer, places.
“Marcus Black,” he said, giving her hand one firm shake before pulling his own away with a long stroke that felt like a caress. “And you?”
“Tricia. Um, Tricia Ivy,” she said, her entire arm tingling. The longer Marcus Black looked at her, the odder she felt. He seemed to be looking not just at her, but into her. Not that the feeling made any sense. She probably should have skipped the bolstering shot of tequila on her way out of her stateroom. It helped with the uncomfortable dress, but in dealing with a disconcertingly gorgeous man who seemed determined to be in her company, not so much.
“Tricia,” Marcus repeated, his voice like warm honey. She wondered where he was from—there was a faint lilt in his voice that was almost certainly British, but some of his words carried a hint of somewhere even more exotic.
“Tell me, how do you know Armand? You don’t seem the type to get tangled up with his kind.”
Tricia smirked. “You don’t really know me well enough to judge, do you? But yeah,” she admitted ruefully, “this cruise hasn’t exactly been a picnic so far. I apparently didn’t know him as well as I thought.” At the questioning tilt of Marcus’s head, she continued, “He’s my hairdresser. When he asked me to help out with his jewelry business on this trip, it seemed like a complete no-brainer to say yes. I mean, how much safer does it get?”
To her surprise, Marcus drew her even closer…and, Tricia realized, she’d been close to plastered up against him as it was. There was just something so magnetic about him, it had seemed natural not to step away. Now, when Marcus pulled her to his chest and pressed his lips against her ear, she wondered whether that had been a wise decision. Then again, she thought as delicious shivers coursed through her at the velvety rumble of his voice, it might have been the best decision she’d made since coming along on this stupid cruise.
“I’m afraid there’s nothing safe about this cruise for you, Tricia,” he purred, and Tricia melted against him even though his words had fear blooming anew in her chest. “I will never understand why that piece of shit Armand is allowed access to our world, except that he knows very well how to choose his wares…and how to showcase them.” She felt his cool fingers trail along the edge of her necklace, and without thinking tilted her head to the side to allow him better access.
“Your neck is as lovely as the rest of you, I’ll give him that. I might almost consider paying for you myself…but then, Armand knows better. The only kind of payment he’ll ever get from me wouldn’t be at all to his liking.”
Tricia’s eyes slipped shut as Marcus’s arms slid around her, steel bands trapping her neatly. What was he talking about? Danger? Her neck? Wanting an intense make-out session right here behind the stage?
No, wait…that last one might have been wishful thinking.
She felt his smile against her ear, followed by a quick nip that had her legs threatening to go to Jello.
“Not here. But later, absolutely,” he said. It took a moment for his words to register, but once they did, Tricia’s eyes flew open and her blood ran cold. Had he heard her thoughts? Before she could ask, however, Marcus tensed. His next words came in a rapid whisper.
“Be careful. Don’t go anywhere alone. And for God’s sake, don’t trust anything Armand says. Nothing on this ship is as it seems. But I’ll get you out of here before long.”
In the blink of an eye, Tricia was alone, her arms clasped loosely around…air. And a very familiar, increasingly unwelcome voice sounded behind her.
“Didn’t I tell you to follow Anita? What are you doing, slow dancing by yourself?”
Part 7 by Sharon Lathan
Tricia's heart thudded painfully. Armand's voice, usually pleasant and musical, sounded harsh and grating as it penetrated the hypnotic haze that enveloped her. The dizzy bubble disintegrated; the suddenness of reality even more surreal than the strange encounter with Marcus Black.
Or had that merely been a dream? It did seem unreal. If not for the trail of fire still burning her skin wherever he had touched her, a faint tingling around her ear, and the lingering aroma of his spicy cologne she may have believed it a hallucination.
"That's what happens when you abstain from sex for six months - or has it been eight? - and then surround yourself with a ship-load of stunning rich men while the accessible one you came with would rather shag one of them too!"
"Tricia? Are you ill? You are flushed and shivering! If you vomit just make sure you keep it off the dress. It wasn't cheap."
His eyes narrowed, plump lips pursing. "What are you doing in here anyway? Did Anita come in here? Did you talk to her? Did she see the necklace?" His eyes brightened momentarily, greed infusing his voice. But just as quickly he shook his head, frowning in disappointment. "No, that couldn’t be the case. You were only gone five minutes and are alone."
Tricia jerked, his words restoring full clarity. "What are you talking about? Five minutes? And didn't you see...? I mean, you had to have seen him when you walked in!" She indicated the only other door - the stage entrance recently used by Mustafa - a good thirty feet across the room and in plain view.
She barely noted his shocked gasp since her gaze was implausibly riveted to the door she was leaning against: a door as solid, closed, and locked as it had been when she escaped through it a good twenty minutes ago. She did, however, feel Armand's painful grasp on her arms as he spun her about.
"Hey!" She yelped.
"Him who?" Armand growled. He grabbed her chin, turning her head back and forth as his frightened eyes scanned her neck.
"What the hell?" She shouted, really angry now. "Let go!" She twisted her body away, but he held on with an iron grip.
"Was it Black?" His voice was a whisper, fear evident in the question that was not really a question. “Did he touch you? Did he," gulp, voice falling even lower, "kiss you?"
"That is none of your business!" She pulled away, seriously indignant, but he was no longer holding her. His eyes were wide in terror, staring at her earlobe and apparently seeing something she couldn't.
"This is bad. This is really, really bad." He shuddered, running a trembling hand over his face, and beginning to pace in short, jerky steps. "Why didn't Alistair warn me? Olav here is trouble enough, but Black? And now he has branded her. Sweet Spirit of Travelers, what am I to do?"
He halted, pivoting back toward her. Gone was the slightly loopy, cavalier hairdresser who so brilliantly styled her blonde locks with a skill that was almost magical. In his place was a high-strung madman with fear etched in his eyes.
"Listen to me Tricia. From here on out you have to stay glued to my side. I'll move you into my stateroom and you must stay away from Marcus Black!"
"No, you listen to me Armand,” she flared. “All the intrigue and lies are getting on my nerves! I know you are paying for this excursion, and after only one day I have surely earned my fare. Those ruby earrings and that sapphire ensemble sold yesterday were enough. I am doing my required part and it does not include harassment like this. I'll be damned if I let you tell me who I can and cannot be with!"
Then, typically, it went to pieces when for the second time that night she rounded a corner and barreled smack into a hard male body.
Part 8 by Linda Wisdom
“Well, well, well, what have we here?” Cool hands smooth as glass encircled her upper arms.
While Tricia was happy for the help to keep her upright. The last thing she wanted to do was fall at anyone’s feet; she quickly realized the idea of this man’s hands on her wasn’t welcome.
“I apologize,” she murmured, pasting a smile on her lips as she lifted her head to gaze at her combination victim and savior from an embarrassing fall. “I should have watched where I was going.”
“It’s rare for such a lovely morsel to literally fall into my arms,” he said. “Who are you and please tell me you are available.” His dark eyes lingered on the diamond necklace before sweeping his gaze across her chest. She felt an impulse to return to her stateroom and change into a turtleneck sweater. Too bad she hadn’t brought one on the cruise.
“Actually I’m meeting someone.” She was positive this lie wouldn’t mess with her karma. Not when she wanted to be away from this man as in NOW.
“A pity.” He trailed his finger across the curve of her cheek. “I am Jean Pierre and I know I have all you would require. Perhaps you would share some champagne with me.”
All she’d require? The last thing she wanted to do was even look at a bottle of champagne with him much less drink any. Right now, she only wanted to be gone, but he was blocking the hallway in such a way she couldn’t move past him without touching him and that was the last thing she wanted to do.
“That’s very kind, but as I said I’m meeting someone and I don’t want to be late.” She froze as his fingered lingered over her throat.
“Lies are unbecoming to one so lovely,” he murmured, stepping even closer.
Okay, that did it! Tricia was past being polite. If need be she’d be pushing this guy back on his ass, because no one treated her like merchandise!
“There you are, love. I was looking for you.”
Tricia exhaled a sigh of relief and turned around to face her rescuer. Right about now, she wouldn’t have cared if he was the devil himself. Of course, with all the insanity going on this night, he very well could be.
Part 9 by Terry Spear
His gaze shifted to her, uhm, necklace, probably figuring it looked like a good piece to rip off if he was in the market for plundering. Or maybe his gaze shifted a bit lower. She fought jerking up the bodice of the gown, in front of him, but if she ever found that darned restroom…
“Armand told me to check on you.” The Viking cast a deadly glare at Jean Pierre, effectively telling him to cast off or he’d make mincemeat of him, probably with his bare hands.
Jean Pierre gave Tricia a little bow with his head. “Later, my dear.” His eyes sparkled with devilment as he looked back at the Viking, not intimidated, too much. Then he moved away.
“And you are?”
Her mouth gaped a little.
“For the masquerade. We aren’t really supposed to give our true identities, are we? Not until after the new year has begun.” He offered his arm to her. “Care to dance?”
Pearl white teeth gleamed in the chandelier light. “I have been here long enough to observe a few dances to know how it is done.
Okay, she couldn’t resist. Her favorite romance heroes were roguish Vikings. Why not? With a roomful of dancers, she couldn’t go wrong.
She reached out her hand, but Romeo, uhm, Eric Leif, rather, pulled her into his hard embrace. She should have objected, she should have pulled away—after all, she didn’t even know him—but nah, he felt good, warm and the right kind of hard, and smelled like the fresh sea. She took a deep breath and relaxed in his arms and was swept away across the floor with visions of passions unleashed, until…
Part 10 by Mary Margret Daughtridge
The sound, followed by a long screeching, scraping scream of metal, punched at her eardrums and shuddered through the dance floor beneath her feet. Eric widened his stance with the seaman’s instinct to keep them balanced on the rocking deck, while his arms tightened around her. On all sides, dancers were knocked off their feet.
As people reacted according to their temperament a babble of moans, curses, and sobs replaced the lilt of the orchestra
“We’ve hit an iceberg!” a woman’s voice carried above the confusion of sound.
Iceberg! The word traveled through the room, unstoppable as a bad smell. Repeated in different accents, it escalated into panicky screams.
As if by magic the hormone induced fog—a symptom of testosterone intoxication as well she knew—vanished from Trish’s brain, and she thunked back to reality. She was on a cruise ship for Pete’s sake, and the woman’s question was the most normal thing that had happened this evening.
Forget having hair and teeth, male passengers who walked without a cane were a rarity aboard a cruise ship. Why hadn't she seen the stud muffins before tonight? They should have stuck out, as she did, no matter how large the crowd. The average passenger was over seventy-five, anyone under forty stood out like a spot light was trained on them.
Where was her intelligence? She had been reacting instead of choosing goals for herself. Had she accomplished nothing in her six months of celibacy? Without questioning who they were or why they were suddenly there, or even what she wanted, she'd flitted from one to the other like a drunken homing pigeon.
“Did she say iceberg?” the old lady prompted, poking Trish lightly with her wand.
Trish rubbed the tingly spot where the wand had touched. Her mind was clearing rapidly. She could almost feel her IQ rising. “There is no iceberg!" she asserted.
"Pretty sure. We’re in the Gulf of Aden," she explained. "The water temperature here is seventy-three degrees!”
The grey head bobbed in amazement. “Imagine that. But I'm certain we hit something. What do you think we should do?” the woman asked with another kindly smile, just as if she thought Trish knew.
“I think the crew will tell us…” Trish’s voice died away as she looked around the ornate ballroom. Gone were the ubiquitous red-coated stewards. Ubiquitous, not because there were so many of them, but because they worked incredible eighteen-hour days, performing two, three, and four jobs, giving the impression that they were everywhere.
Gone too were the far less-visibly-hard-working officers in their spiffy white uniforms.
Present were the hotties. Every single one. Marcus, Pieter, Mustafa. Even the Malfoy-clone whose dark aura had chilled her. And Eric. Oh, and Armand. He wasn’t her type but he had a hot reputation, and he’d gotten it somewhere.
She hoped in the buff assortment there was at least one man she could trust. The Cinderella Godmother was right. The passengers of this boat needed a plan and needed it now.
Because the popping sound she’d been hearing intermittently—she suddenly realized was gunfire.
Part 11 by Loucinda McGary
The loudspeaker crackled and a strained voice spoke, "Attention all passengers and crewmembers, this is the first officer speaking. We have been boarded by pirates. They have..."
Screams, shouts, and general noise reverberated behind him and across the room as he choked, then continued hoarsely, "They have incapacitated the captain and at least 4 other officers. Please remain calm--"
Total and complete pandemonium erupted. Tricia stumbled and fell to her knees as people ran screaming in all directions. Covering her ears, she crawled toward the nearest wall.
"This way deary!" She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and saw the kindly face of the woman dressed as her Fairy Godmother. Tricia shook her head in confusion while the woman gave her a few soothing pats. "It's me, Merry Joyful Britewell, and we'll get out of here, don't you worry."
Tricia was still debating whether to ask, "How?" Or "What the heck kind of name is Merry Joyful?" when Mustafa rushed over to them.
"Aunty Merry, Miss Ivy! Follow me!"
Before Tricia could ask if they should trust the trumpet playing Turk, Merry Joyful pulled her to her feet and said, "Don't worry, deary. Mustafa is my second husband's grand nephew, and he's actually part of the ship's security team."
Oh well, that explained... SOMETHING anyway!
Tricia stumbled after Mustafa and Merry Joyful as more shots sounded in the corridor.
"Down here!" Mustafa ordered, pointing to the orchestra pit.
The stairs were steep, so Tricia pulled off her strappy sandals and hiked up her skirt. At the bottom, Mustafa opened a trap door in the corner and pointed to a ladder.
Then he gave her a scowl and said, "Get rid of your dress and shoes."
"Excuse me?" Tricia cried indignantly, as the young Turk handed her his white jacket.
"You can wear my pantaloons," said Merry Joyful from somewhere behind her.
A pair of pink ruffled bloomers suddenly appeared in her line of vision.
"Hurry up before anyone sees us!" Mustafa hissed as he helped Merry Joyful onto the ladder.
She struggled into the bloomers and jacket while simultaneously shimmy-ing out of the antique gown. The little old lady crawled down the ladder with surprising speed, while the ballroom above them went deathly quiet. Heart in her throat, Tricia leapt onto the ladder and started down the metal rungs, Mustafa right after her.
When he pulled the trap door closed, the ladder plunged into darkness so that Tricia had to feel for the next rung, and the next. Much to her relief, when she neared the bottom, dim emergency lights cast a faint illumination along the hallway. Mustafa continued to lead them around several twists and turns and down one short flight of stairs.
And at the bottom of the stairs stood a tall, dark-haired figure...
None other than Marcus Black! Tricia couldn't stiffle her gasp of surprise. Of course, that made him turn and look right at her, his blue eyes moving up and down her ridiculous outfit.
"You're almost to the rendezvous point, Your Highness," said Mustafa with a curt bow of his head. "Can you take the ladies? I'll rejoin you as soon as I am able."
Tricia could feel her mouth hanging open and her eyes were undoubtedly bugged out too.
"You didn't think this was a real pirate attack, did you deary?" whispered Merry Joyful. "Not with Jean Pierre, the Prince of Dagmorvania and his cousin Marcus, third in line for the throne both on board the ship. This is an attempted coup."
Part 12 by Cheryl Brooks
Tricia looked at Merry Joyful in frank disbelief. “A coup? Pirates?” she echoed. “From where? I've never heard of Dagmorvania. Must be pretty tiny—you know, like Monaco?”
Merry Joyful's burst of laughter was spontaneous and musical, but Marcus's expression was merely amused. “I know this must seem strange, but believe me, it will seem even more strange before we're through.”
Tricia didn't see how that was possible. “I'm already suspecting that you're all vampires or something. You all seem very. . . odd.”
“Well, some of us may seem like vampires,” Marcus admitted, “but trust me, it's more complicated than that.”
Tricia gave him another moment or two to elucidate, and then glared at him. “Is that all you're going to tell me?”
He glanced at Merry Joyful who shrugged and said, “You might as well tell her.”
“Perhaps once we're aboard the ship,” he said. “It might be more believable then.”
“Ship?” Tricia echoed. “In case you haven't noticed, we are aboard a ship.”
Marcus smiled sardonically and he cast a disdainful glance at their surroundings. “If you call this. . . thing. . . a ship, then perhaps you aren't ready to hear the rest.”
“Try me,” said Tricia.
Just then, Mustafa returned with Jean Pierre. “The enemy has taken control of the ship,” Mustafa reported. “We must depart. Your safety is far more important than signing any treaty.”
“It was the best way, Your Majesty,” Mustafa replied. “But we must depart before the ship goes down.”
“It's going down?” Tricia echoed. “Then by all means, let's get going!”
Jean Pierre turned toward her, and Tricia felt her body stiffen. Where Marcus made her want to melt, this man chilled her to the bone.
“Ah, so the lovely lady is coming with us?” Jean Pierre drawled. “How nice.”
“We couldn't very well leave her here, Jean Pierre,” Marcus protested. “Armand had her up for sale to those—” He broke off there as though unable to think of anything bad enough to call them.
“Never mind,” Jean Pierre said with a dismissive wave of his handkerchief. “Summon the ship and we'll be on our way.”
Mustafa smacked his name pin and muttered something into it that Tricia didn't catch.
“How are you doing that?” she asked as she heard an audible, though unintelligible reply. “Is it a walkie talkie or something?”
“Oh, my dear,” Jean Pierre chuckled. “How quaint!”
“I believe some explaining is in order,” said Marcus. “Don't you agree?”
Jean Pierre's lips curled into a devilish grin. “Do you know, I do believe I'll enjoy this,” he murmured.
As Tricia watched in speechless horror, all three of the men began unbuckling their belts.
Backing away, she stuttered, “I—uh, d—don't think I need that kind of explanation.”
“Oh, but I believe you do,” said Marcus. “After all, actions speak louder than words.” With a wide grin, he unzipped his fly and pulled his out his shirttail.
“No, really,” Tricia said, doing her best to remain calm. “You can just tell me.”
Marcus shook his head slowly and unbuttoned his shirt, starting at the top and slowly working down to the last button. The other men followed his lead.
Tricia's mouth went dry. They were going to ravish her! All three of them! “Are you ready?” Marcus drawled.
“I believe she is,” said Jean Pierre.
In perfect unison, the three men pulled back their clothing to reveal perfectly sculpted torsos with six-pack abs and three navels—each.
“You're aliens!” she gasped.
Part 13 by Kendra Leigh Castle
Jean Pierre wrinkled his nose. “Do you know, I really detest that word. We’re Dagmorvanian royalty. Leave it at that, please.”
“Sure, no problem. I mean, sorry.”
“All right, boys, that’s quite enough,” she said, wagging a finger at the grinning trio.
“Boys?” asked Tricia, eyebrows raised. Whatever else she might have called them, she doubted that was a word she would have picked.
“Merry was our governess for many years,” Marcus said, turning Tricia’s attention with his deep, honeyed voice. There was humor in his deep blue eyes when her gaze met his.
“Indeed. And she’s never stopped trying to make us behave,” Jean Pierre added with a smirk at Merry. “Lost cause, really, but she gets points for effort.”
Merry sighed, stomping one foot impatiently, and Tricia was immediately put in mind of a frustrated faerie. All the woman was missing was a sparkly pair of wings and a wand. Well, and one pair of frilly pink bloomers, Tricia thought, casting another glance down at her ensemble, which now consisted of the aforementioned bloomers (drooping dangerously around her hips), her strapless push-up bra, and Mustafa’s white jacket.
“This really will be a lost cause if we don’t get moving. Now come along, all of you. The portal should be activated by now, but we’ll have to find it, and we don’t have much time. Lord Tybalt’s men will be securing the rest of this ship as we speak, and I won’t see any of you run through with that damned taurini rapier of his. It’s spilled enough blood.”
Then, as Tricia watched wide-eyed, two glittering wings sprouted from Merry’s back, and she swooped away ahead of them down the corridor.
“Wow. Well, that figures,” she murmured, unable to miss it when the woman pulled a long slender stick from a hidden pocket in her gown and began prodding things along the way with its lit tip. She felt a strong arm slide around her waist, and allowed herself to be pulled against Marcus’s cool strength with something like relief. She still wasn’t sure whether this whole adventure was the result of an actual alien invasion or just hallucinogenic tequila, but it was wearing her out.
“I did warn you that nothing on this ship was what it seemed,” he murmured, breath caressing the ear he’d nipped earlier. Tricia turned her head, unintentionally bumping noses with Marcus. And suddenly, she cared much more about a certain promise he’d made her earlier. His sudden grin, utterly wicked, took her breath away.
“I haven’t forgotten. And I believe you’ll find my quarters on the royal vessel much more to your liking than this ridiculous tin can. I didn’t give my mark lightly, Tricia. You’re coming with me.”
“You’ve marked her? Honestly, cousin,” Jean Pierre’s tone was a bit like that of a petulant child. “The first worthwhile human we run across, and you insist upon keeping her all to yourself. If I were in your position and not first in line to be king, I would have killed you ages ago. You’re no fun at all.”
“And you never shared well either,” Marcus replied, turning his head to fix Jean Pierre with a pointed stare. “Nearly bit off my finger over a toy hovercraft, if I remember correctly. I still have the scar.”
The memory seemed to cheer Jean Pierre considerably, and Tricia shook her head. She didn’t know Jean Pierre very well, but the thought of him as a monarch was more than a little scary. She leaned into Marcus as they turned and made their way towards Merry, who was poking intently at a wheeled cleaning cart that had been left in the corridor. As Tricia watched, the little woman waved her wand in triumph, and the cart began to glow with a strange light.
“Ah-HA! I’ve found it! Now come along, all of you! It’s time to go!”
Part 14 by Sharon Lathan
“We have a few minutes to spare, Aunt Merry,” Mustafa said, halting their slow steps down the apparently never-ending corridor. “Go on and set the path while we wait for Olav.”
Merry Joyful nodded. She floridly waved her wand at the glowing object that was no longer a cleaning cart. Her wings fluttered and body jauntily bobbed as she urged the sparkling green and orange – carriage? pinnace? – along what was clearly a corridor too wide for the lower levels of an ocean vessel. And, Tricia suddenly realized with a jolt, devoid of doorways or the cheap carpet covering the…..glass? What the heck….?
“So, um, images huh? Is that why the Lucius Malfoy thing?” She jerked her head toward Jean Pierre, who was leaning languidly against the wall and actually studying his fingernails, if you can believe that!
Marcus chuckled yet again – “Damn, I wish he would stop doing that!” she thought as her knees turned to mush and heat coiled in her belly – speaking in an amused tone, “You noticed. He will be pleased. He works hard on the affectation, you see. Joanne was smitten from the start. Suppose that was why she had to write him into the story. Quite smug about it, Jean Pierre is.”
“Jo-Joanne? As in JK Rowling?”
He grinned, melting her further, “Indeed. They have been friends for years. Quite the storyteller, my cousin. More than a few of his tales of home made their way into the books. No Voldemort though,” he added, noting the alarm in her eyes with mirth. “Lord Tybalt is a nasty fellow, but not that bad. The information that the Aldontal brothers sailed the same ship as the arranged Perudinian ‘treaty’ was never taken as a coincidence. We have the upper hand, have no fear of that.”
And oddly, she felt no fear. She felt many other things, vague curiosity and raging lust among them, but no fear. As truly bizarre as it all was it seemed….right. She shook her head, trying to clear it of residual drink-induced haze or hormonal stupor, only to recognize that she had never in her life felt more complete and rational. She had no idea what was going on or where they were going, but it no longer mattered.
“Jean Pierre said you marked me. What did he mean?”
The expression crossing his face was a stunning mixture of wanton passion and fathomless love, his blue eyes electric as they bore into hers. “Ah! You see, where I come from we know our life-mate upon first sight. Admittedly I initially noticed the necklace.” His fingertips traced the string of diamonds, touching and burning skin more than gems, “These are part of the royal House of Black jewels that Armand stole, after all. But as soon as I looked into your eyes, I knew. You are mine and I am yours, even if you do not yet know it for certain. I marked you so none on this ship of devils could harm you.”
Whoa! Too much information! Brain overload! “So,” she stammered, “you are taking me with you to your planet? Beaming me up and all that?” Her attempt to laugh was a bit wobbly; I mean it isn’t every day a girl meets her true love, three navels and all, and gets swept into an interplanetary coup with Vikings and pirates!
Marcus laughed. “Not quite. It is more of an inter-dimensional world. We exist on another plane, outside of your time, beyond the boundaries of the sea; take your pick from whichever sci-fi/fantasy novel you wish.” He shrugged. “Any will explain it well enough. We occasionally visit your world, interfering as little as possible, but the theft of the Dagmorvanian jewels could not be ignored. Tracking Armand and Alistair Aldontal, reclaiming the lost property they sold, has been a lengthy undertaking, leading to this vessel for the final recovery. Finding you was a bonus and has made it worth my while.”
He leaned for a kiss, Tricia feeling faint merely at the idea, only to have the spell harshly broken…
“Just a few minutes more,” Mustafa pleaded from his vigil several yards away. “You know how determined Olav has been to permanently end Armand and Alistair trafficking in stolen women. He abhors how it sullies our world and has never been content to merely retrieve the jewels.”
Jean Pierre yawned hugely, the wave of his hand leaving no doubt as to his disinterest in that problem.
Marcus did not seem to be overly concerned either, as he had instantly turned his lips from their intended target – her mouth – to her neck. The havoc he was wrecking made it extremely difficult to for her to remain upright or to pay attention to what was going on around her. Thoughts of lavish staterooms with enormous satin sheeted four-poster beds aboard magical ships sailing through time warps wrapped around her mind. So pellucid was the vision, prompting her to wonder if he was implanting thoughts as easily as he apparently read them, that she almost missed the increasing racket echoing from the dark corridor they had recently escaped down.
Marcus heard it though, tearing his lips away – double damn! – and pivoting with her tightly clutched in his embrace. Even Jean Pierre had reacted, the lazy indifference gone, as they collectively stared at the man running toward them.
“Olav! Finally!” Mustafa exclaimed.
Identity confirmed, Tricia thought. But it had not really been necessary as the man was nearly a clone of the trumpet-playing-Turk-turned-alien-ship-security-officer. Yet, that registered barely as the real surprise was the group of men running a dozen yards behind Olav, led by an angry, sword wielding Eric Leif, the Red.
Part 15 by Linda Wisdom
“Run!” Marcus took off at warp speed.
“Yikes!” Tricia yelped as he grabbed her hand and dragged her down the hallway. Realizing running in spike heels wasn’t working, she kicked them off and snatch up the hem of her gown as she scrambled to keep up with Marcus’s longer strides. “Shorter person here.”
“Kill them all!” Eric Leif, the Red, bellowed, as he raced after them with a heavy duty, and extremely sharp, sword in his hand and a wave of followers on his heels.
“Sometimes we don’t get what we want.” Marcus flashed her one of those bone-melting grins. “And sometimes we do.”
“Hurry!” Merry called out from ahead of them, her gown billowing around her with brilliant sparkles and her wand dancing in the air.
“What are –?” Tricia’s question faltered as the four of them seemed to swim through an invisible wall of Jell-O. She looked behind her to see Eric literally bounce off the Jell-O wall. She pulled free of Marcus’s grip and did a quick victory dance.
“We’re not safe yet.” Marcus reclaimed her hand and turned her to face him. “How brave are you, my love?”
She gulped. “Brave as in not screaming when I see a mouse or brave as in not going all hysterical because my life has been in danger and I could have been sold as a sex slave?”
He smiled. “Brave as in leaving this world for another. Leaving all you know behind.” Her eyes widened with the implication of his words.
“It’s time to go,” Jean Pierre reminded him.
“Quickly!” Mustafa seconded his words.
“Marcus.” Merry put in her own two cents. She smiled reassuringly at Tricia. “It’s beautiful in our world.”
Tricia was at a loss for words. “You’ll be there? You won’t just take me there and suddenly take off for another alternate world or come back here?”
He brushed the back of his fingers across her cheek. “Why would I when you would share my life and my world?”
“I’m not an impulsive person,” she admitted, feeling an odd rumble under her feet.
Merry waved her wand and the end of the hallway seemed to expand. At the end of the hallway was a roiling swirl of color.
“Uh.” Tricia’s stomach suddenly took a nosedive.
Marcus lifted her hand to his lips.
“You are my soul mate, Tricia. I promise you will never regret your decision. I will love and cherish you for all of my life.”
What could she do? No man had ever made her feel the way Marcus did. Plus, what man tells her they’re soul mates?
“We must hurry,” Merry urged them. “The Gate cannot stay open much longer.”
Tricia took a deep breath and laced her fingers through Marcus’s. “I’m going to need a wardrobe.”
He grinned. “Not for awhile.” His low growl brought a blush to her cheeks. He wasted no time leading her toward the Gate that hummed away.
Tricia felt an odd sensation as they stepped into the Gate.
“You do have Nordies and Sephora on your world, don’t you?” she asked, as the Gate started to close after Mustafa who entered last.
“What is Nordies and Sephora?”