BRADEN STARED at the monstrosity that was to be his home for the next four weeks. He shifted his weight from foot to foot as he tried to remind himself this was a good idea. He was helping a charity he felt strongly about. He really did need a vacation.
He kept telling himself that as he moved forward with the rest of the passengers along the ramp to the gangway. He’d heeded his cruise-veteran mother’s advice and arrived after two so he could go straight to his room. She’d mentioned if he went earlier, he could eat while on the ship, but Braden was delaying boarding as long as possible. Since they were set to depart at four and it appeared most of the passengers had already boarded, Braden had gone from curb to gangway in what he felt was much too little time.
He didn’t know if he was ready to step on that ship.
Braden shook his head at himself, went through the open doorway, smiled at the uniformed lady on the other side, and nodded at something she said. He had no idea what it was, possibly directions to somewhere. He was a bit too overwhelmed at the moment to worry about it. He figured there’d be maps. He could handle that.
He didn’t know if he could handle being trapped in a ship, even one as huge as this one. In the middle of the ocean. For four weeks.
He was committed now. Braden blinked when he was offered what looked like a glass of champagne. Deciding alcohol could only help, he took the offered drink. He half expected to hand over his card—his mother told him they sometimes charged for drinks—but the lady simply smiled. He managed to say “thank you” and moved farther down the hallway, hoisting his backpack, the only carry-on he’d bothered with, a little higher on his shoulder.
But before he got too far, he stopped dead again. He knew he probably looked a bit like a fish, his mouth gaping, but he couldn’t help it. He looked up, then up, and farther up still as he took in the huge atrium.
Plants, marble, wood, glass, and gold seemed to be everywhere. Glass-backed elevators rose to his right, with a white grand piano nestled between them. Groupings of chairs set around glass tables created cozy chatting areas, scattered around the space. Across from him, he could just see the front of a shop, and off to the other side, what looked to be a florist. A three-story fountain poured along still more marble off to his left. And a pair of glass-and-gold curved staircases led to the second and third floors.
Someone bumped into Braden and he shook his head again, cheeks reddening. “Sorry,” he mumbled, moving out of the way. He remembered the glass in his hand and downed the fizzy drink in one long gulp.
He needed to get out of public spaces for a few moments and collect himself. He was being ridiculous and he knew it. With another head shake, he looked down at the paper he’d been handed when he checked in and saw a map—or more like a series of maps of each of the decks. In the upper right, he found the ship name and a list of abbreviations below it that made no sense to him. He ignored those and looked at the tiny maps. A big red arrow pointed to the center of the rightmost map. Braden guessed that was this atrium.
He scowled at his boarding pass, then at the map, and squinted at the ridiculously tiny numbers. He had good eyesight but could barely make them out. Where the hell was he supposed to go?
He went back to his boarding pass and found his room listing. Emerald Deck, stateroom E519. Well, he could find the deck, then worry about his room. According to the map, he had three flights up to go, so he headed for the curved stairs in the middle of the room. He paused long enough to leave the glass on a table, then started up the closest set of steps.
It didn’t take him long to find the right deck. They were, at least, clearly marked by big brass plaques between the elevators on each floor. So, a moment later, he was walking along the hallway toward midship on the correct deck and was counting down numbers. He breathed a sigh of relief when he finally stood in front of the correct door.
Braden’s first impression was that his parents had spent an absurd amount of money for him to live in a closet for a month. It seemed impossibly small, despite the queen-size bed—or perhaps because of it. Braden didn’t know, but there was barely enough space to move around the bed. The tiny desk didn’t look deep enough to hold his laptop, and the LCD television mounted to the wall was even smaller than the pictures made it look.
His luggage wasn’t there yet, but he’d been expecting that. His mother had told him it wouldn’t show up until a few hours, at least, after he got there. He set his backpack on his bed and slipped around it to peer out the window.
He’d agonized over that decision for what felt like forever. He had no wish to look at the vast deep waters, but he wasn’t much fonder of being closed in. Then he’d discovered the obstructed-view rooms and was relieved to find he could have light without having to look at the water.
When he pulled the curtain aside, he was happy to see lots of blue sky… and a huge red lifeboat. If he stood on tiptoes, he could just glimpse the water, but that was fine with him.
Braden let the curtain go, and turned back to his room, dropping onto the side of the bed. He rested his face in his hands and forced himself to breathe deeply. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. He hated big bodies of water. Well, hated seemed… mild. He was, in a word, terrified.
But he’d agreed to go. He’d accepted the ticket his parents wanted to buy him, especially when they’d explained it was to benefit the house he’d been helping raise money for, to provide shelter for homeless LGBT youth. He’d seriously considered buying the ticket himself and just not going on the cruise, but his mother convinced him he was letting fear rule him and the vacation was more than needed.
She was right about that. Braden had spent more of the last nine months quite literally at his office than in his apartment. As the lead developer on a new game his company was finalizing, he’d put in upward of eighteen hours almost every day. Once the game went live and their first update completed and released, he had no more excuses. He’d earned plenty of money, which he hadn’t spent while practically living at work. His boss had pretty much ordered him to take a month off. When the cruise came up, he knew there was no reasonable reason for him to not accept.
Braden didn’t like the idea of letting his fears rule him. His terror of deep waters had bothered him for years, but he’d managed to avoid the ocean for the most part, despite living in Los Angeles. He’d once had help with that, but that help was gone and it was up to him to face his fear, now, alone.
His mother had pointed out that he didn’t need to spend a lot of time at the railings. He could stay in the lounges, read his Kindle at the pool—which didn’t scare him—or in any of a dozen inside places, work out in the gym, or watch shows in the inside theater. He didn’t need to expose himself unnecessarily.
What he hadn’t told his mother was there was another reason he didn’t necessarily want to go. Exactly the same one, he was sure, she had for pushing him so hard to go on this cruise in the first place. The charity group functions on the ship focused on gathering LGBT singles. And while Braden knew there were more than a few lesbians on the ship, the coordinator had told him the larger portion of their group of more than three hundred was made up of gay or bisexual men. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce his mother wanted him to find someone.
Braden loved his mother and would do almost anything for her, but he had no interest in that whatsoever. He’d avoided relationships for the last five years and had no intention of breaking that record. When he’d walked out of the last one, he promised himself he wouldn’t make the same mistakes again. He refused to admit his insistence on not dating had as much to do with the fact that he still loved the man.
He rubbed his face hard and took a deep breath, then sat up. For good or ill, he was on the ship and staying. He’d be damned if he let his fears dictate his actions—whether that was his fear of the ocean or of getting hurt, it didn’t matter. They would not rule him, either of them.
He stood up and snatched up his bag, opened it, and pulled out the information sheet from the group coordinator. He found the location for the group welcome reception and consulted the map. Then he stuffed the sheet of paper in his pocket before going over to the safe. After stowing his wallet and money, he snatched up the card that served as identification, payment, and key while on board and headed out.
With any luck there’d be an open bar. The champagne in the atrium hadn’t been nearly enough.
RAFE JESSEN stepped quickly into an alcove and waited for the man to pass. He hoped he wouldn’t be seen or at least recognized. After all, the man had no idea he was even on the ship and thus wouldn’t be expecting to see him. Which was exactly what Rafe wanted. For now, anyway.
When he was sure it was clear, he stepped out and walked along the same hallway. A couple flights of stairs and a few turns later, he found a quiet corner of the Explorer’s Lounge where they were holding the welcome reception. He held a slightly weaker rum and Coke than he usually liked—but didn’t much mind, since it was free—and settled in to watch the man he’d been waiting to see again for what felt like forever.
He didn’t look happy. That was the first thing Rafe noticed. The brown hair was a bit longer than he remembered and currently disheveled, as if he’d run his fingers through it a lot. Rafe smiled. Braden had been guilty of doing that quite a bit when something didn’t work in the game he was developing.
The blue eyes looked a bit sadder. Well, maybe not than the last time Rafe saw them. The last time he’d seen them, they’d been spitting the blue fire of Braden’s rage. Now, they were sad. But Rafe remembered when those eyes crinkled at the corners with humor. He remembered heat and want. He remembered love. All for him.
Rafe hated that he was the one to put that sadness there. And as it had for five long years, that knowledge still pierced him. He finished the rum and Coke and waved at the bartender for another, never taking eyes off the man he’d never stopped loving. Braden stood barely thirty feet away and didn’t know he was there. Rafe’s heart thudded, his throat closed, and he reminded himself to breathe. Take air in. Let it go.
As he started in on his second rum and Coke, he drank in the lean frame he knew hid muscles and strength—both mental and physical. He ate up the quick smile Braden flashed at their charity coordinator, Janie, who’d made a joke. And he reminded himself he was on that ship for a reason, and with any luck, the plan he had would work.
It had to. He’d been without Braden for far too long.
Five years. Five years that felt like an eternity.
“YOUR ATTENTION please!” Janie tried to call over the noise.
Braden thought it was a hopeless attempt. With a big buffet dinner under their belts and a solid two hours of alcohol, getting the group to quiet seemed almost impossible.
A ship employee offered her a microphone, and she smiled gratefully as she took it, then turned back to the crowd. This time, her “Attention, please!” brought silence to the room. “First, I want to thank everyone for joining us. The sales from the cruise tickets alone are going to go a long way toward our goals. Jacob’s Place is well on its way to being built, and all because of you.” She paused as everyone applauded, Braden included, then held up a hand. “Thank you. But we still have a long way to go. To that end, we have a lot of activities planned for the cruise to continue to raise money for the home. We have art that has been donated by Rich Paulson.” She waved a hand at the painting sitting on an easel to her right. “Several more are available besides this one, on display in the Piazza. We also have a number of other prizes up for raffle, including handcrafted jewelry, other works of art, books written by LGBT authors, and much more than I can list here. The full list is in the booklet. These will be awarded the last night of the cruise. You can buy tickets anytime from me, my wife, Meg, or our daughter, Jenna. We do have a few raffle prizes to award tonight, though, since we wanted to give you a chance to use them. We’ve sold an amazing amount of tickets, and I’d like to thank the bachelors and bachelorettes who volunteered to be raffled off.”
A number of people laughed and applauded, and Braden frowned, looking down at the booklet Janie had handed him when he walked in. He didn’t realize there’d been a raffle already. If he’d known, he’d have bought a few tickets, if for no other reason than to help support the home.
“Our first prize is… my daughter, Jenna.”
Braden looked up as a wispy-thin woman who could have been anywhere from twenty-five to forty, as far as Braden could tell, stepped up to her mother. She had long brown hair tucked behind her ear and a wide smile, both of which matched Janie’s, though Janie had silver running through her brown. Jenna was pretty enough, he guessed, though he, of course, wouldn’t have bought a ticket for a woman.
“The winner will get a date of their choice with Jenna. Princess Cruises has generously donated dinner for two at any of the specialty restaurants to go with the date.” She took a small canvas bag from another lady Braden assumed was her wife and opened it up. She pulled a ticket out and read the name to herself in a mumble before looking up. “And I have…. Angel? Angela! Angela Simmons.”
Braden couldn’t help but smile when someone who was obviously Angela Simmons started shouting and jumping up and down. She hurried to the front, then stopped dead in front of Jenna, teetering on her toes for a few seconds and blushing furiously. “Uh, hi.”
Jenna laughed. “Hi. Nice to meet you, Angela. So… how about a date?” She held out a hand.
Angela actually giggled as she nodded, then took the offered hand, and they moved off to talk.
Janie grinned after them, then obviously remembered herself and turned back to the group. “Right. Our first bachelor. Let’s see….” She looked down at the list. “Marcus Jameson?”
A tall, lean man with black hair that hung to his shoulders and a smile that warmed what would otherwise be a severe face stepped forward.
Braden looked up at him and couldn’t decide whether to be intimidated or attracted. He decided attracted went better with vacation and again frowned at the thought that he most definitely would have wanted to buy a ticket for this guy. He might not have been interested in dating long-term, but he wouldn’t turn down a chance at a hookup, especially since he’d been celibate since the big game-release push started. As long as “hookup” was all it was.
Meg handed Janie another bag, apparently with the next group of tickets. Marcus stood next to them, hands clasped in front of him, looking around the room. Braden suspected he was evaluating the people who might have bought tickets.
“Ah, here we go!” Janie turned the ticket around and read it. “Uh…. Harry? Yes! Harry.”
“It’s not that hard to read,” Meg chided her.
“Ha. You read them, then.” She handed it to Meg, who scowled at the small card and handed it back. Janie smirked. “See? Anyway. Harry Zimmer?”
Braden didn’t pay attention to who claimed the prize. He glanced around, trying to decide if it would be rude to slip back to the bar for another drink. Without having purchased tickets, he wasn’t very interested in the events. As such, it wasn’t until the noise in the room grew that he realized something had happened. He turned back to the front to see Janie looking at him expectantly.
“Braden!” Janie called, waving her hand at him.
Braden blinked at her, raising his eyebrows. “Me?”
“But… I didn’t volunteer.” Braden scowled.
Janie grinned. “We were assured you’d be willing to help out.”
Braden’s scowl deepened. He didn’t have to guess who volunteered him. He’d have some serious words with his mother when they made port in Hawai’i. He considered it a moment, but figured going on a date for charity wouldn’t be too bad. Dinner, maybe some loud music where they wouldn’t have to talk, and possibly ending the night with that hookup he’d thought about earlier. He decided that would be okay, so he stepped forward, forced the scowl off his face, and tried for a smile.
“Good!” Janie’s grin widened, so he must have managed the smile. She turned to Meg, who handed her another canvas bag. Braden blinked at it. The thing was huge. “Let’s see who gets a date with you.” She pulled a card out, then turned to the group. “Once again, the winner will also get dinner for two in a specialty restaurant.” She looked down at the card.
But Braden didn’t need to hear the name. Because at that moment, the last person he ever wanted to see again stepped forward through the crowd.
A man he’d loved for years. The one he’d desperately tried to forget for the last five, but couldn’t.
The one he’d love for the rest of his life.