About two o’clock that afternoon, Melissa realized someone was following her.
She noticed the man shortly after coming on board the Circe, both in the rush of passengers going up the gangplank and again at breakfast the next morning.
He’d been very visible at the mixer later that afternoon; when they started playing those silly games to help everyone get acquainted, he disappeared. Later on, as she was in the gift shop buying a souvenir for Peg, she saw him standing outside. When she exited the shop, he was gone.
At dinner, he was sitting at a table near hers and twice when she glanced his way, he looked away quickly. He’d been watching her, she was certain of it.
In spite of this, she wasn’t worried. After all, she was on an ocean liner and bound to see the same people quite regularly for the next three weeks. No need to get upset because she had seen one person three times in the space of a few hours—but when she stepped onto the sundeck, she saw him again, only a few feet away.
He leaned against the railing, his back to the ocean and looked straight at her.
No doubt about it this time.
For an instant, it was a confrontation. He didn’t look away and neither did she. Almost as if he were daring her to speak to him.
She felt slightly irritated at his boldness and also a little embarrassed at the way he stared at the skimpy bathing suit Peggy insisted she buy. It left little to the imagination and though Melissa would be the first to admit she looked damned good for a woman her age, at this moment, she thought perhaps she should have gotten something designed a little more for the mature figure.
Forcing herself to look away from the stranger’s steady gaze, she removed her wrap a little self-consciously, trying to act as if she didn’t care that he watched her. Like it happened all the time. Total strangers staring at her as if she were a chocolate bonbon and they’d just been put on a permanent no-candy diet.
After all, that’s what this particular garment is supposed to do, isn’t it? Make men stare?
Okay, I admit it! She did feel a slight flutter of excitement knowing that she could interest a total stranger so. Still—
Make up your mind, Melissa. Are you insulted or flattered?
Settling into the lounger, she leaned back and put on her sunglasses. Behind the dark shelter of the lenses, she studied him just as intently as he was watching her.
She liked what she saw, too.
He was tall but not a giant. Well, she certainly liked that. She’d had enough neck aches from dating basketball players when she was younger. Dark, longish hair, a trifle windblown. Just a sprinkling of pepper-and-salt at the temples. The suggestion of a five o’clock shadow on cheeks and chin. About her age, maybe a little older. Too far away for her to see the color of his eyes.
She turned her attention to his clothes.
He wore a light-knit, blue pullover, expensive-looking in its casualness, just right for a cool ocean breeze but not too warm for tropical sunshine. In the vee of the neck, she saw the open collar of a pale blue shirt. Dark slacks— What’s this? With flared legs? Her gaze traveled to his feet and she allowed herself a slight smile.
He was wearing cowboy boots!
Well, well—here I am, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and I’m being stalked by a cowboy. Howdy, podnuh!
Maybe he wasn’t really there. Perhaps he was merely a figment of her suppressed libido or something. That’s a tantalizing thought! Or a really weird side effect of sea-sickness! Although she wasn’t feeling the least bit queasy or dizzy or however you were supposed to feel with mal-de-mer.
There was only one way to find out.
“Excuse me.” She leaned over and touched the arm of the sun-suited grandmother sitting in the deck chair next to hers.
The woman turned her attention from tying the ribbons of the huge straw hat she was wearing and looked at Melissa inquiringly.
“Do you see that man over there, the one wearing the blue sweater?” She nodded in his direction.
The woman looked toward the railing, picked up the eyeglasses hanging from a golden chain against her ample bosom. Setting them on her nose, she peered directly at the man.
Under her scrutiny, he turned away, becoming very interested in looking across the water.
“Why, yes, yes, I do.” She waited for Melissa to say something more.
“Good!” Melissa smiled and pulled a bottle of lotion from her carry-call. At least she wasn’t imagining him.
Giving her a puzzled, suspicious stare, as if wondering if a joke was being played on her, the woman shook her head and picked up the book lying in her lap.
Melissa spread the lotion down one slim arm.
Let him stare. She wasn’t going to let it spoil her vacation. If he got too bothersome, she’d just call a steward or the captain or someone and have him tossed into the brig, or wherever it was they confined pests on board ship.
Having decided this, she closed her eyes and leaned back, feeling the sun upon her face and mentally reminding herself not to stay on deck too long. Being blonde and very fair, she was well aware of the dangers of too much sunshine and didn’t intend to ruin her vacation before it started by getting a sunburn.
Ten minutes on a side, and I’ll be well-done.
When she opened her eyes again, the man was gone.
Got tired of waiting, hmm? Shrugging, she gathered her things and went inside.
It was nearly seven o’clock by the time she showered and changed into another of her new outfits. Peg had helped pick out this one also, a pink dinner dress with a pencil skirt, bustier top, and a short-sleeved, double-breasted jacket.
Twisting the long blonde hair into a roll, she pinned it high on the back of her head, then stared at her reflection and wondered aloud, “Supposed Mr. Mysterious will like it?”
She didn’t doubt he’d be somewhere nearby.
As she looked up from the menu, she saw him sitting four tables away near the little landing leading to the entrance.
He caught her glance and raised his wine glass and, on a sudden impulse, Melissa picked up her own. What harm can it do? Now that we’ve admitted we’re aware of each other? She nodded slightly, acknowledging his gesture.
Abruptly, she wondered if it had been a mistake, for now he was gesturing to a steward, saying something that sent the man hurrying toward her table.
Melissa focused on the menu, becoming very interested in the soups du jour. Let’s see—cream of roasted garlic…sundried tomato minestrone....
The waiter arrived at her table.
Melissa continued to read the menu, progressing to the entrees.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
“Yes?” She looked up as if unaware until that moment that he was standing there.
“The gentleman at table number six asks if he might buy you a cocktail.”
She looked past him to number six. He was smiling as if secretly amused.
Now, she understood. The raised wineglass was a question and by lifting her own, she’d replied.
Oh, darn! I’m just not up on all this modern flirtation business! Now, he’d probably expect her to tell the waiter to ask him to come to her table.
“Would you tell the gentleman, Mr.—uh—”
“Brandt,” the steward supplied.
“—Brandt, that I’m not much of a drinker and I’ve already had one cocktail more than my limit, which is also one.” Why am I going into so much detail? A simple “No” would do.
The steward bowed and turned away.
He stopped and looked back.
“Thank him for me, please.”
She saw him repeat the message to Mr. Brandt. There was a slight shrug of the broad shoulders, the look he turned toward her suggesting he’d expected just that answer.
So much for that. He’ll probably start following someone else now. She felt a surprising twinge of regret. It had been a little flattering. You can’t have it both ways, Melissa. Either you want to be followed or you don’t. God, when did you get so wishy-washy?
Sometimes she wished she could be a little more outgoing. Peg always told her she was too shy, should be more modern in her approach to men:
“After all, Mel, this is the Century of Equal Rights, Women’s Lib, the Patch—”
“—herpes, AIDs,” Melissa finished for her. “No, thanks!”
The waiter distracted her from this mental rehash by appearing with her order, a fantastic concoction of chicken roasted with wine-basted truffles, totally delicious and terminally calorie-laden.
I don’t care, she thought rebelliously, picking up her fork. This is my vacation and I’m going to eat whatever I want.
She didn’t have to worry. Melissa was one of the lucky few who burned calories as fast as she consumed them, unlike poor Peg who was more than a little on the plump side and only had to look at food to gain weight.
She savored e