Couples glide around the ballroom, and I do not feel sad. I refuse to. The ballroom is ornate, royal blue and gold fixtures glistening in the light of the grand chandelier. I sit in a velvet club chair at the side of the dance floor. I haven’t touched my champagne yet. I shouldn’t have bothered with such a fancy dress just to sit and watch.
The ship gives a gentle lurch. The captain warned that there would be rough seas tonight, though this ocean liner is stable, and the slight movement doesn’t interrupt the Viennese Waltz. I take a sip of my champagne and remind myself that I am living my dream come true.
And I am. I’ve dreamt of sailing across the Atlantic since I was a little girl, and it’s everything I hoped for. I’ve spent days just sitting on the deck watching endless ocean drift by. Yesterday morning, I carried a second cup of tea outdoors after breakfast and was greeted by a humpback whale breaching just metres from the ship. I stood there for several moments, too stunned and thrilled to speak, unable to believe that this incredible thing had happened while I was just standing there, holding a cup of tea.
I don’t know why the sight of couples dancing — it’s a Foxtrot now — is making me melancholy. I’m being ridiculous. It’s not as though Ben would have waltzed with me, anyway. Or come on the voyage at all. I thought for years he hated water, then he went on a booze cruise on the ferry to France with some mates and admitted he thought the ships I dreamt of sounded wanky.
I didn’t book one the minute he left me. I should have. I thought about it one night when my sheets were soaked with tears, my eyes gritty, and my head pounding from hours of crying. A sliver of dawn shone through my blinds, and the notion popped into my head that nothing was stopping me from booking every dream trip he thought was a pretentious waste of time. But then I remembered again how he would never grin sleepily and murmured I was a bit of alright as he fell asleep, and a fresh round of tears swept over me like a tidal wave.
Six months later, I was just starting to feel almost normal again when I found out she was pregnant. Yes, I discovered this via stalking her Instagram. I’m not proud, but we’ve all been there. It’s not as though I desperately wanted kids. I’ve always been ambivalent, vaguely hoping my biological clock would make the decision for me one way or another. If I’m honest, my first thought was better them than me, which probably clears that up.
It was the commitment. For six years, he hummed and hawed about making Christmas plans because who knows what will be going on then? I’d spend weeks lovingly plotting a trip through Tuscany with the perfect blend of vinery tours and pool days. He’d dither for so long that everything would get booked up, and we’d be stuck in a last-minute b&b with no air conditioning. And there he was, committing eighteen-plus years to the girl he swore blind wasn’t a patch on me, but it was cute, and I was jealous.
I shut down Instagram that day and instantly plonked my life savings on the first available Transatlantic cruise, and here I am. I'm sipping champagne as a band plays in the middle of the Atlantic, and I can’t quite believe it’s all real. I take a happy breath as the band launches into a more upbeat number, and frantic jitterbugging doesn’t have quite the same effect on my apparently romantic heart. Phew.
‘May I have this dance?’
‘Oh — I—‘ I jump, nearly sloshing my champagne over the slinky emerald ball gown I bought in a moment of madness. It’s quite simple, a loose-fitting bodice and a flowing skirt, but the way the silk cascades around my ankles makes me feel like I’m floating. I right the glass just in time, glance up, and my breath catches in my throat.
I’ve never seen a man quite so beautiful in real life. Swarthy springs to mind, a word I’ve never had cause to even think. Thick, jet-black hair with just a hint of distinguished grey at the temples curls around a chiselled jaw, broad shoulders are only just contained by his immaculate tuxedo, a mischievous glint in his dark eyes that is mesmerising.
‘I can’t — I don’t know how to —‘
‘I can lead you.’
He holds out a hand, and somehow I take it and allow myself to be led onto the floor. This is going to be a disaster. Forget two left feet, I’m certain I’ve got five and a secret tail. But there is no saying no to this man.
The band plays a classic waltz, and the dance floor is crowded. My heart races, but I’m unsure whether it’s from nerves at his nearness or the fact that I’m about to relieve several people of their toes. He places a warm hand on my lower back, his arm a taut frame inexorably guiding me. I’m floating in his arms, my feet magically obedient as heat pools in me and I concentrate very hard on the tip of his right ear.
It’s just that it’s sexy being so masterfully led, I tell myself. A man with rhythm, with the effortless ability to control his body and yours, is — distracting. Goosebumps dance lightly over me as he meets my eyes, and sparkles dance down my spine. I’m just praying that my nipples aren’t quite slicing through the delicate silk of my dress.
He turns me, and I take the opportunity to glance down to check. Which is a pointless waste of time because what exactly am I going to do about it if they are? From the briefest glimpse, I see that they are mostly hidden in the folds of the bodice which is a —
I don’t even know what happens. The momentary lapse in concentration undoes me, and suddenly I’m plummeting to the floor in a haze of green silk. My foot in my gold strappy heels goes over, and a white-hot bolt shoots through me. He reaches for me, deftly catches me before I actually face-plant. He holds me against rock-hard abs which would be wonderful were I not busy trying not to cry and/or faint as agony throbs and black spots dance at the edge of my vision.
What did I say about five left feet?
He sweeps me into his arms and carries me to the edge of the dance floor. I might feel a plonker if I could think of literally anything else but the pain. I’m vaguely aware that other people have gathered and are murmuring in concerned voices. ‘I’m fine,’ I mutter. ‘Just need to sit a moment.’
Someone unfastens my shoe, and someone else gently feels my swollen foot. Sure enough, the worst of the pain recedes in a few moments, and there’s a small cheer when I prove that I can wriggle my toes. ‘It’s a sprain.’ An elderly man kneels by my feet. I recognise him from dinner a few nights ago. He’s a retired doctor. ‘Doesn’t look too bad, though I’m sure you’re feeling it at the moment.’ He smiles kindly. ‘Have you got any painkillers?’
‘Yes I’m sure I do in my room.’ I wiggle my toes again, partly to prove to myself that I can. ‘I’ll be fine. It’s feeling better already.’
It’s not until the doctor takes his wife’s hand and rejoins the dance floor that I realise my dance partner has disappeared. Oh. Disappointment trickles through me like treacle. Which is daft, of course. He asked me to dance, and I’m no longer dancing. It was much more practical to leave me to the attentions of an actual doctor. Did I expect he would just sit here like a lemon and keep me company?
Exhaustion washes over me, and suddenly I want nothing more than to collapse in my room. I gingerly get to my feet and find that I can put weight on my injured foot as long as I’m careful. The walk to the lifts seems to take forever and the dull throb makes me feel queasy. Finally, I hobble into a lift, and impulsively press seven for the outdoor deck. A spot of fresh air before collapsing will clear my head.
There is something extraordinary about the deck at night. The moon is bright, casting a silvery trail on the inky black ocean. White foam dotted here and there catches its light, creating a glittery effect. You can’t escape the majesty of nature out here in the middle of the Atlantic. It makes me feel very small and pleasantly insignificant.
I limp to the back of the ship where the deck is wide and open, and hop onto one of the vast wooden chests that contain cushions for the deck chairs. The ship’s engines are silent, so all I can hear is the soft swishing of the waves. I close my eyes and let calm wash over me. My ankle has softened to a dull ache.
I hardly expected a stranger to care that I was injured, for goodness sake. I had a partner for six years who would likely have wandered off and let the doctor deal with me. That mad feeling that burst to life when our eyes met, was —
It was half a glass of champagne. That’s what it was.
And it was longing.
I want adventure in my life. I want travel and new experiences. But I do want to share them. I won’t settle for another Ben, but I’m comfortable knowing there is a hole in my life waiting to be filled by a best friend and soulmate who wants what I do. I want to feel important to somebody. To be the centre of his world as he is mine. I smile into the darkness. Just because he wasn’t some random dancer-guy doesn’t mean —
‘There you are!’
And there he is. His bow tie is loosened, and the wind whips his hair. My heart flips, and something zings deep inside me.
He’s holding something I can’t quite make out in the dark. He steps closer, and I see that it is an ice pack. Happiness floods through me, and I beam, which is absurd. We’ve barely exchanged two words.
‘You disappeared.’ He’s well spoken, with a soft accent I can’t quite discern.
‘You disappeared,’ I smile.
‘I went to get this.’ He holds up the ice pack, then places it gently on my ankle. His fingers lightly brush my skin and I shiver. He glances up, and as his eyes meet mine that same flash of understanding crackles between us. ‘I told you I would be back.’
He did? It’s all a bit of a blur, those few moments when he carried me to the edge of the floor and a crowd gathered. I vaguely recall voices, but I was mostly focused on not fainting or puking. ‘I didn’t hear.’
‘You thought I just ran away and left you?’ His accent is from Central or South America, I think, with a touch of posh that makes me think he went to a British boarding school . Heat and spice dance in his voice as a sweet ache builds in me. He perches on the side of the chest facing me, his hand firmly holding the ice pack to my ankle. Only the tip of his index finger brushes the soft skin behind my heel, but suddenly, it is as though every atom of my existence narrows to his touch.
‘It feels much better now,’ I blurt. ‘It’s hardly swollen at all.’
‘Ahh?’ he murmurs. He moves the ice pack aside and lightly strokes my ankle, running his fingers over my skin with an excruciating softness. ‘Oh yes, this feels very good.’
My breath catches as his fingers trail a tiny bit higher, and he looks up, a question in his eyes. I nod and he makes a soft hmm noise under his breath. He strokes my foot and toes, then lets his fingers run over my calf and down again. The soft silk of my gown falls away as he continues to explore, lightly tracing freckles and the scar from when I fell off my bike when I was twelve.
My skin tingles, an insistent pulse demanding more. I want to reach for him, but I’m frozen, mesmerised by his touch. He reaches over to stroke the other foot, aching pressure building as he lets his fingers creep beneath my skirt to the soft, sensitive skin of my thigh.
I move my leg closest to him, letting it dangle over the side of the chest. He is between my legs now, my every cell fizzing with anticipation. He holds my uninjured foot firmly as he bends down and places a soft kiss on my calf. Then another, a little higher.
I can barely breathe. My body aches, lust coursing through me as he gently kisses his way over my knee. He reaches over to kiss the other one, then alternates, my skirt gathering around my waist as he moves higher and higher.
We’re practically in public. Someone could wander out for an evening stroll at any minute, but I could not care less. The entire band and dancers could be standing by shouting encouragement and I’d just give them a merry wave.
He plants a single kiss over the damp lace of my underwear, and I gasp. I’ve always enjoyed sex, though ever since James told me I could be noisy have felt a bit self-conscious, unable to completely let go. But I’ve never felt anything like this all-consuming need.
I’m leaning back, propped on my elbows. He shimmies up, and brushes my dress and bra straps over my shoulders with surprising roughness. I’m sort of trapped, my arms pinned to my side with my own bra straps, the cool breeze dancing over my flaming skin.
He leans close and blows gently over my breasts, and it is all I can do not to scream when he finally rewards me with a lick. He kisses and licks and nibbles his way from one to the other, his hip pressed maddeningly against the slick, insistent centre of me. I squirm impatiently against him, burning for more as he teases each nipple.
Finally, he reaches up and kisses me. I shimmy my arms free of my bra, and reach for him, devouring his hot lips and tongue. With an insistence that surprises me, I shift to flip him over so that I am straddling him, my gown bunched around my waist. I yank his shirt from his trousers, desperate to feel his skin as he grips my arse hard, drawing me against his hardness and — oh, god, I’m going to come already. I writhe urgently against him, biting back screams as waves thunder higher and higher but refuse to break. I need more — I need him inside me.
Fumbling at his belt, I tear open his trousers and grip his rock-hard cock, loving his guttural grunt as I free him. I squeeze and rub, nearly incoherent with impatience as he grabs a condom from his pocket and rolls it on. My underwear is flimsy, easily pushed aside, and finally — oh, god, yes. I’m so wet and ready that he glides easily in one go, filling me to the hilt. I moan as I start to ride him, grinding until finally the explosion comes and I’m seeing stars.
My orgasm ricochets, threatening to shatter me, wave after wave of bliss coursing like whitewater. He joins me moments later, his urgent buck nearly sending me over the edge again. I collapse on his shoulder and he wraps his arms around my waist, pulling me close into a hug as our bodies judder and melt.
‘I have been watching you for days,’ he murmurs into my hair.
‘You have?’ I’m certain I’d never laid eyes on him before he asked me to dance.
He chuckles, a low rumble that vibrates against my neck. ‘I knew you hadn’t seen me. I was waiting for my chance. I haven’t been following you,’ he amends hastily and I giggle. ‘It’s just that every time I look up, the most beautiful woman in the world is there.’
I’m not sure what to say. There’s a mad lump in my throat and this feels like a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. ‘Well, you’ve met me now.’
He cradles my face in both hands and kisses me deeply. ‘I want to meet you for a very long time, but we must be careful.’
‘It is forbidden for staff to consort with guests.’
‘You work on the ship?’
‘I am the captain.’