A Bloody Good Cruise
Are We Being Watched?
The Romanza Sun Deck, Rome, Italy
Mona Rossi gazed at Civitavecchia Harbor glistening in the sunset. The calm water did nothing to soothe her jittery nerves.
“Chill out. Fausto’s safe, and so are you,” Mona repeated, trying to steady her voice. “So I look like a nut talking to myself. But it helps. The homicidal stalkers didn’t make it on board, and we’re gonna have a blast.” The possibility of a shipboard murder aside, the cruise ship Romanza was a palace of pampering: gourmet meals, massages, partying under the stars …
… Roman orgies …
But nothing that wicked ever made the daily Cruise News. She’d have to find one. Or plan one.
When not indulging in any of those decadent delights, chatting with the other pink ink authors, sashaying around the ballroom as Cleopatra, or autographing her novels, she’d be jotting notes for new ideas. By the looks of her last royalty checks, her readers were jumping ship. Her romantic suspense series lost its zing, especially after the hero went monogo and married the heroine. Her dwindling bank account nudged her to start a hot trend.
She went to the opposite railing, overlooking the deck below. The band played the Italian classic Love Me The Way I Love You. As she watched swaying couples in tight embraces, she longed to be on that dance floor clinging to a lover. As Mona debated whether to go down to the pool bar and order her first strega of the voyage with her “welcome aboard” coupon, a dark-haired pixie bopped up the stairway and glanced around.
“Tess! Over here!”Mona called to her book publisher and best friend.
“Mona, all your hard work and planning paid off!” She bounded over, arms wide, and gave Mona a bear hug in a cloud of Make it a Stiff One hair gel. “The ship’s crawling with authors, cover hunks, and The Cutting Edge reporters. They’re doing a segment on us every night for a week!”
“Oh, yeah.” Mona rolled her eyes. “They’ll be crawling all over us for interviews. And some of the authors’ moms and aunties showed up. You sure you didn’t mention orgies in the ad?”
“Not in the ad, but I might’ve spread a small rumor. Speaking of hunks, my Moonmist authors are throwing a blowout for the cover models tonight. The Cutting Edge is going to cover it,” Tessie gushed, her breaths coming out in spurts of steam. “And guess who I got to make an appearance at the last minute? Furio!”
Mona hoped the romance industry’s most famous cover model would appear at the last minute. “How, in a chariot drawn by matched giraffes?”
“Okay, so he’s a little overbearing.” The wind blew her hair into her eyes, and she pushed it away. “He likes to hog the spotlight. I’m sure he won’t bring his life-sized book covers.”
“Better yet, just ask him to send his hair, pecs, and cleft chin aboard,” Mona remarked. “He can stay on land.”
“I’ll get him to serenade you,” Tessie kidded. “He can’t carry a tune, but I betcha he’ll be carrying somebody out of there tonight.”
Mona closed her eyes, and Fausto’s image smashed Furio to pieces. “I’m waiting for my own gorgeous hunk. I haven’t seen him in three months, and my butterflies have butterflies.” She glanced at her watch. “He said he’d be here when the ship pulls out.”
“So, you’re all dolled up for him, not the television cameras.” Tessie rubbed Mona’s faux ermine sleeve and gave the toe of her left snakeskin boot a nudge. “Speaking of hunks. Hubba hubba. What you got under there? A spank-me number?”
“Almost.” Mona untied the scarf and opened the coat to show Tessie her goodies: a low-cut lacy cami that showed enough cleavage to get Fausto begging for more, and a short skirt. Wraparound. But she buttoned up when goosebumps started popping up.
“That’ll speed up his launch mechanism.” Tessie nodded with approval. “But ditch the religious medal. Nothing spoils a guy’s view of perfect pushup boobs like Mother Mary watching him.”
“It’s Saint Paul, patron saint of authors. I wear it all the time. I sometimes forget it’s on.” She wound her scarf around her neck. “I just hope Fausto’s aboard and hasn’t extended his leave.” Fausto Silvius, her on-again-off-again main squeeze, was the reason she’d wheedled with Apollo Cruise Lines for this romance writer’s cruise. One of Apollo’s shipboard doctors, he hadn’t worked in six months because of a personal tragedy. A member of a despised minority, he’d been forced to lay low for a while. And Mona, born with the worry gene that ran in big Italian families, was scared to death for him. Her pep talk monologue of a few minutes ago didn’t make her all that smug about her own safety either.
“He’s due aboard to report for duty.” Tessie raised her stenciled-penciled brows. “Why would he jump ship?” The whipping wind off the Tyrrhenian Sea didn’t budge a strand of her foil-streaked hair.
Mona pulled up her faux chinchilla hat over her ears. “Damn, it’s nippy out here.” Why couldn’t she have arranged to meet Fausto in one of the thirteen bars? Or her stateroom with the thousand-dollar balcony? Her big idea, a rendezvous under the rising moon surrounded by twinkling lights, didn’t include blue lips, a red nose, and stiff nipples.
“This is his first assignment since his family was murdered. So he might not feel he’s ready yet.” Mona dug out her Cherries and Cream lipstick from her pocket and ran it over her lips, using the case as a mirror. She checked out her face, one inch at a time. Mascara unsmeared, brows still in place, and her nose wasn’t running. She had to admit she felt like a schoolgirl waiting for her date to show up. Well, it was a date.
Tessie glanced at a few passengers braving the chill to wave arrividerci to some poor souls left behind on the pier. “Don’t worry, with you on the ship, he’ll be on it. Trust me. He wouldn’t pass up a wild ride with you on this floating passion pit.”
“Let’s hope so.” She shivered with that familiar tingle of excitement, fantasizing about strolling the promenade deck with him in the wee hours. Or clinging to each other in ecstasy as the ship rocked and rolled …
But if things ended where she hoped it wouldn’t, she’d have problems.
“Check out Pops over there.” Tessie tilted her head in the direction of a well-built elderly gent in black tie and tails, shiny Oxfords clicking across the deck. “Now, why isn’t he flashing a piece of blonde arm candy?”
“He’s probably one of the dancers. They pay older gents to glide across the ballroom floors with single female passengers. I’ve talked with a few of these John O’Hurley clones, and the ones who get lucky brag about their conquests. To me, they’re one rung down from overaged boy toys.”
“Hmm, I wouldn’t mind hanging on his rung.” Tessie gave the signor a little wave, and he strolled over to them.
“Beautiful night, no?” He spread his arms, as if embracing the air, and took in a deep breath.
Mona noticed an Eastern European accent. “Gorgeous. Are you a dancer?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He clicked his heels. “But I know none of your vild modern steps. My specialty is valtzes.”
“Maybe I can talk you into a tarantella if we run into each other,” Mona goaded.
He clutched at his chest. “Be still my heart!” His smile reached his eyes.
Pulling his lapels to his throat, he said, “Brrr, this makes my blood run cold. I bid you ladies adieu for now.” He gave a bow, turned on a shiny heel, and pranced down the stairs.
“Not old enough for him, are we?” Tessie snorted.
“No, just not desperate enough. He was kinda cute, though, in a macabre kind of way.”
Tessie shivered, hugging her arms to herself. “He almost made my blood curdle! He sounded like Dracula. Romantic, but a little creepy.”
Mona nodded. “Looked like him, too. But let’s not let our imaginations run away with us. You don’t want an eight-second stand with an AARP veteran anyway.” Mona gave Tessie a nudge. “You’ll finally get to spend some one-on-one time with Quintus. That is, if we don’t get too bogged down in massages, costume balls, and hunk bashes.” Tessie finally hooked up with Fausto’s cousin Quintus, another shipboard doctor, after some detours kept them apart: work, travel, divorces …
Mona knew Quintus was planning on popping the question to Tessie on this cruise. Thrilled for her friend, she still fought a twinge of envy. She could be entering eternal bliss with Fausto if she weren’t so skittish about…certain things.
Tessie fished her cigarillo case out of her purse, but a stinging blast of wind changed her mind. “We’re very lucky, Mona. Eligible bachelors aren’t easy to come by in our age group. I never dreamed I’d snag an Italian wine connoisseur who models men’s undies on the side. Fausto and Quintus are real renaissance men.”
“Oh, yeah, you can call them that, all right.” What Mona needed to divulge to her friend in the next few hours, especially before the question pop, was that Fausto and Quintus weren’t human. And neither were any of their gorgeous Italian wine connoisseur/model pals. They all shared a common gene.
Fausto, her longtime friend, fan, and almost-but-not-quite romantic interest was a Renaissance man. Literally. He was four-hundred-plus years old.
Therefore, hence, and ergo—a vampire.
* * * *
Fausto entered the doctor’s office and looked around, breathing in the familiar aromas of disinfectant, soap, and the faint trace of medicine. A long-lost emotion rushed back—the feeling of being needed. But knowing his family was gone made it a bittersweet moment.
He sat at his desk and studied the inventory list. Someone approached, throwing a shadow over his paperwork.
“Dr. Silvius!” The staff Captain, Paolo Brunetti, stood there, arms spread wide. Fausto went around the desk and gave his colleague an Italian bear hug, with the customary two-cheek kiss. “I can’t tell you how sorry I am for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Fausto said. “I needed to get back to work. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now.” Not wanting to dwell on the condolences, he got straight to business. “As soon as Dr. Lombard gets here, we’ll hold the drug count, and while you’re verifying that, I can go over the hospital budget.”
“Oh, before I forget.” Brunetti opened one of the file cabinets along the wall. “This was left outside the door.”
He took out a small cardboard box, Fausto’s name typed on a mailing label. Thinking it was medicine or supplies, he pulled it open, but what he saw inside brought back all the rage of the last six months—and a new stab of fear.
* * * *
Zanna Jones and her husband, Royal, sat at the bar after the art auction ended and the happy high bidders filed out. A woman who’d won a Peter Max for $2500 sauntered over on turquoise-and-lapis-studded heels and ordered a Long Island Iced Tea.
“Nice painting you got,” Zanna commented, piercing the olive in her martini glass with the plastic sword.
“Thank you.” A diamond bauble glittered on her right hand. “I’m doing a segment on art auctions on my show.”
“Your show?” Zanna saw this woman ditch her gown at the hunk bash and shimmy around like a whirling dervish. So she had her figured for a romance author.
“Yes, I’m Toi Brennan, co-anchor for The Cutting Edge, the newsmagazine show.” She extended her manicured hand and gave Zanna’s a quick, firm shake. “We’re covering the writers’ cruise for the week.”
“Ms. Brennan, I’ve seen you.” Royal leaned across Zanna and stuck out his hand to clasp the woman’s. “My wife doesn’t have time for television. She reads instead and likes certain outdoor sports.”
“Me too!” Toi brushed a curtain of blue-black layered hair off her shoulder. “When I read, it’s romances. That’s why I’m here. I convinced my producers our readers would enjoy seeing a show about the conference, and it’s an excuse to go on a cruise.” She gave a semi-amused laugh that probably took years to perfect. “Are you authors, too?”
“Not on your life.” Zanna tilted her head and gave it slow shake. “We’re here for another reason. We’re members of The Fellowship of the Faithful. Ever hear of us?” Zanna needed to do some recruiting, and who better to go for than a professional gossip hound? This would make an even tastier treat for the sleazy tabloid show!
“No,” Toi replied. “Is it a religious group?”
“It’s more than that,” Zanna began reeling her subject in. “We hunt vampires.”
Toi’s eyes lit up, and she leaned forward, nearly spilling her drink down her silk blouse. “You do? For sport, or is there a bounty on their heads?”
Zanna never blabbed too much too soon. But The Fellowship needed all the members it could get. If Toi Brennan proved worthy of joining them, that would come later. Yet she knew just how to spoon feed. “We devote our time to preaching the word against vampire clans, and if we come across a vampire, we try to save them.”
Toi nodded, and Zanna could practically hear wheels spinning. “Why hunt vampires and not rapists or terrorists?” Now she sounded like she was in interviewer’s mode, so Zanna got her guard up, with balled fists on hips and a ramrod-straight gaze.
“I’ll tell you why. I became a hunter because when I was sixteen, a clan of vampires captured me, held me captive for days and assaulted me, but I managed to escape.” She conveniently omitted B for now B that she’d stabbed the life out of one of them before she jumped out a window nearly to her own death. “And vampires murdered Royal’s daughter in New Orleans last year. If you didn’t hear about it and report it on your show, maybe you should have.” Her voice took on a biting, chiding tone.
Toi put down her drink, more interested in Zanna’s story than her blend of seven boozes. She leaned forward. “Can we talk more about this?”
“Sure. We’ll run into each other again, be sure of that. Come on, Roy.”
Zanna exited the bar, brandishing a smug grin, her husband at her heels. She might have a valuable recruit eating out of her palm before this cruise was over.
* * * *
Mona glanced at her watch again. Five minutes to five. She itched to spill all to Tessie, but they’d be pulling out at five, and Fausto should be here any minute. No doubt he’d be in one of his tacky disguises. He knew he’d have enemies aboard, and to throw them off the scent, he’d plod around like a typical American tourist on his first cruise, schlocky enough to blend right in, the exact opposite of what his nemeses expected. So she kept her eyes peeled for a gaudy Hawaiian print shirt, a droopy straw hat, baggy Bermuda shorts, and flip flops.
That would be the real test for Tessie—could she consider marriage with a vampire without freaking? Her finding out would pack a double whammy—her best-selling authors wrote vampire romances, and they were on this cruise, giving workshops on the sexy, mysterious, sexy, transient, sexy lascivious creatures. Mona smiled, her toes curling in anticipation of Fausto’s kisses, his licks, his caresses—and the ship-rocking orgasms they shared.
Just as Mona’s juices started to simmer, Tessie’s eyes darted over to the side. “Don’t look now, but if this guy tries to pick either of us up, we’ll say we’re together. And if he doesn’t believe that, we’ll start smooching.”
Oh, no, Mona thought. Not even here two hours, and some loser is trying to…
Clunky footsteps approached, a large familiar hand touched her shoulder, and she spun around to face a Mets baseball-capped, blue Ray Banned, scruffy-bearded sanitation worker.
“Yo, sista.” He lowered the shades and peeked at her with his midnight blue eyes.
“Fausto! Bello mio!” She slid her arms around his waist, and they fell into an old- fashioned Italian rocking hug, nearly knocking each other over. “You made it! It’s so good to see you!” She held him at arm’s length and zipped her eyes up and down. “You look so—” She gestured with her hands. “—so Flatbush! Nobody would ever guess you’re the lifesaving hunk they’ll all flock to when Mussolini’s Revenge breaks out.”
“Yoo gotta prob’m wit’ dat?” His Brooklynese was flawless, too, but why not? He’d lived there for eighty-six years. But he only used the lingo when joking around or when some Joizey bum cut him off in traffic. He stroked the stubbly whiskers and rammed his other hand into his tatty jeans pocket, but it emerged from a hole. “This is the first time I skipped a shave since I was ten.” He now spoke in his regular voice, the plain unaccented American of TV reporters. “I thought of skipping the deodorant but didn’t want anybody to think I’m French. And it’s too cold for the touristy garb. I thought I’d go low-end Gotham instead.”
“You’re low end, all right. Make it more real. Cut into the line at the Chocoholics Buffet, and flip everybody the boid.” She saw Tessie staring bug-eyed, not knowing what to make of this dude looking like he’d just shoved his way off the D train from Flushing Avenue. “Teresa Lionetti, you know Fausto Silvius. Fausto, of course you remember Teresa.” Before the third syllable was out of her mouth, Tessie broke in, “Please! Call me Tessie. Teresa sounds too much like a saint or a mother, neither of which I am or may never be.”
He pulled off a ratty racing glove, and they shook hands.
“Nice to see you again, Tessie. That’s the name of my favorite aunt. Zia Tessie makes the best pasta sauce south of Milano and said she’ll take the recipe to the grave with her, but she didn’t say whose. She’ll never take it to hers, we know that.”
Mona added sotto voce, “He’s, uh B incognito for now, and I’ll tell you why later.” She’d explain the whole story, but only after a few Chiantis, with Fausto offstage. First Mona had to tell her that Fausto and Quintus were related and shared a rare gene of Ancient Rome. Contrary to best-selling lore, true vampirism was genetic. So she’d get bad news: Fausto and Quintus are vampires. And good news: they’re not fanged, cape-swirling ghouls.
Fausto gave Mona a wink. “You’ve got some audience on board, ladies. Every man’s floating fantasy. Toi Brennan from The Cutting Edge is even hotter in person.” He glanced over the rail to the deck below and the crowded dancers, now wiggling to Mambo Italiano. “Did every romance writer in the business sign up?”
“Registration is hopping!” Tessie jumped from one over-the-knee boot to the other, flicking her scarf around her neck. “This was such a good idea of Mona’s! We’re gonna party like it’s nineteen-ninety-nine. Again. Schmaltz it up for the television cameras. And maybe even talk about the writing business.” She rubbed her palms together. “So, Mona tells me you’re a budding medical thriller writer.”
He gave his ever-modest one-shoulder shrug. “I wrote two partials when I was on leave.” He didn’t elaborate, but Tessie nodded her understanding. “They’re on a thumb drive back home.” He jerked his thumb in the direction of the ocean. “If you can take a peek at them, I’d be most obligato.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’re real heart-stoppers. Doctors write some of the best fiction.” She pulled out her cig case once again and snapped it open. “Must be their ability to play God that gives them great imaginations.” She fished in her bag for a lighter. In a flash, he whipped one out of his pocket and lit up for her.
“Grazie.” Tessie took a long drag, and the wind whipped away the smoke when she blew it out. “Now I’m outta here, you two, so you can catch up. I need to help work registration anyway. Later, Mona.” She turned to him. “Fausto, it was fun seeing youBwhoever you’re supposed to be.” She flitted away before Mona could protest she wasn’t intruding on anything.
* * * *
Zanna Jones crept out from under the midship Paris Deck stairs. “That’s her,” she whispered to her husband Royal on her cell phone. “Tess Lionetti, the vampire peddler. Look at those boots on her. She must be easy, like the sluts in those trashy novels she publishes.”
“Get her cabin number.” Royal’s voice broke up, but she figured out his crackling words.
Zanna disconnected and followed Ms. Lionetti a safe distance away, tiptoeing on bare feet down the carpeted hallway. Zanna hurried up to the cabin door. 5328. Good. Now she knew where the smut hustler was hiding. But not for long. When the ship docked in Naples tomorrow, they’d collar her before she had a chance to pig out on pasta e fagioli.
Zanna wanted to pursue the porn merchant ever since vampire “romance” movies based on novels got so popular. She did some digging and found out Ms. Lionetti was the CEO of Moonmist Press, the publisher of dozens of those trashy vampire novels. No doubt they’d make more movies out of them! But she didn’t yet know if Lionetti was one of those cursed vampires. If not, she was a worthy catch, but Zanna’s real target was Fausto Silvius, her ultimate challenge.
Time was running short for him.
* * * *
Mona was thrilled to be alone with Fausto for this short time before he had to report for duty. They held each other, swaying gently, for the duration of On An Evening In Roma. The wind died down, and content in his arms, she knew this moment wouldn’t last long. When the song ended, a jolt shocked her. The metallic scrape of the hull and three loud blasts followed. The ship was pulling out. As the lights along the pier slid away, he checked his watch, a cheap Timex to match the getup, of course. “My shift starts at six, but let’s meet, say around midnight, in the doctors’ private lounge, the Salute. It’s on the Monte Carlo Deck below us, starboard and forward, past the fitness center. Knock and when someone opens the peephole, say ‘parlo pianissimo.’ That’s the code word for this cruise.”
They sure were paranoid. “Like a speakeasy. Should I bring my own bathtub gin?”
“No, but homemade wine would help,” he said. “I packed in a hurry and didn’t bring any.”
“How ‘bout a can of Bud and a Krazy straw to go with your outfit?”
“I won’t be wearing the outfit. I might not be wearing much at all. The lounge is very casual. You’ll see just how casual it is when you get there.” He gave her a smile that melted her toenail polish.
Jetlag dragged her down but all the excitement wired her up. She clasped her hands around his and blessed her good fortune. She was on her first Apollo cruise, this rotten year was about to end, she was with fellow authors, hungry reporters, and one of her favorite people in the world.
What could go wrong?