Can a person turn their life around in eight days and seven nights?
When young, single JJ accidentally books a trip on a cruise for senior lovebirds, she finds welcome companionship in the cruise’s fitness director, former star athlete Kane Phillips!
But JJ’s used to running from her feelings, which is much harder when she’s trapped at sea with the object of her affection…
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You know that trick in movies where the camera spins, the background a hazy blur as the hero realises they’ve made a huge mistake?
Imagine the deck of resplendent cruise ship the Royal Pacific; sunlight glinting off of her bright white hull as she prepares to depart Sydney Harbour.
Add Juliana Jones; a lone figure in head-to-toe black amongst a dazzling sea of tropical prints.
And know - JJ has not a single clue that mere moments from now the myriad mistakes that have brought her to this crucial juncture in her life are about to reach critical mass.
. . .
A cool change took the edge off the sultry summer heat; the accompanying breeze spinning and bumping against the mass of red and silver decorations dangling from the low ceiling of the Zanzibar Deck of the Royal Pacific cruise ship.
The same breeze forced JJ to battle against her hair as long brunette strands got caught in her teeth, in the hinges of her oversized sunglasses, even in her eyebrows. This while also tugging her mini black roller-suitcase behind her, the humble wheels bumping over wooden grooves as she ducked and swerved through the tight crowd to find a spot at the railing.
Once ensconced, she tucked her suitcase safe and tight between her high black boots, and breathed out; her whole body decompressing as, as of right now, there was nothing more to be done. Nowhere else she had to be. In her life that was a rare sensation indeed.
Sliding her big black sunglasses on top of her head, JJ’s eyes narrowed against the sharp, early morning sunshine struggling to streak through breaks between the clouds. Forearms resting on the cool metal barrier, she titled her face to the sky nonetheless and breathed deep, telling herself that she could almost catch the scent of open water beyond the whiff of the Sydney wharfs below.
Eight days, she thought. Eight voluptuous days and seven sultry nights navigating the warm waters of the South Pacific. (She felt decidedly epicurean.) No more boss chasing her around the office, thus forcing her to leave yet another job. (Damn him.) In fact, no next-in-a-long-line-of-temp-jobs to navigate at all. (For the interim, at least.) No trains rumbling past her temporary bedroom window. No Friday phone call home telling her mum that No she didn’t have a boyfriend, no she didn’t have a career, no she didn’t have a fixed address, and no she didn’t mind at all.
All that time, stretching before her, hours upon hours filled with such... She was on the verge of quoting the brochures and saying “promise”. But, frankly, having such a wide gaping hole of time and nothing concrete to fill it felt like a steep ask. Like there might come a time when there’d be nothing left to do but ruminate.
JJ would rather take the basket weaving class. Twice.
She pulled her sunglasses back in place, stood taller and vowed to make good use of her time on board. The website had listed so many activities she’d never find time to do them all. Yep, she’d busy the heck out of this cruise, take advantage of all it had to offer, and sleep like the dead. No dreams. No worries.
Speaking of someone who never worried, JJ pulled the envelope her friend - and interim flat mate and all round crazy gem of a woman whose new job as a travel agent had afforded JJ the super quick and much-appreciated getaway - Erica had given her that morning from the back pocket of her jeans. She opened it up to find a card.
Happy Holidays! it read, over a picture of an extremely buff gentleman man wearing nothing but sunscreen, a very small towel and a smile. Inside the card Erica’s small print offered up helpful (increasingly immoral) hints on just how JJ might keep herself busy over the next few days.
And not one of them was on the website.
With one last glance at the front of the card, JJ tucked it back into her pocket. And felt her shoulders relax.
In amongst hula classes, running club, the games room, eating, lei-making lessons, and all the shows on offer, maybe she could find time for a holiday fling. Like sorbet to help cleanse her memory of her nimble-fingered ex-boss.
If she closed her eyes she could almost picture him (the fling, not the boss) - a nice guy, cute, funny, easy going. Simple. Uncomplicated. No promises. No tomorrows. Surely the boat would be full of them.
And yet, try as she might, she felt ambivalent. As if flirting – like finding the right job, an apartment of her own, trying keeping her head above water – had become too much work.
She opened her eyes, blinked against the light and promised not to rule it out. That would be too depressing.
So there it was. Eight days and seven nights of sun, rum, and fun. And absolutely no ruminating. As plans went, that was one she was pretty sure she could stick to. Otherwise she’d have dusted off her bikinis, borrowed Erica’s flirtiest boots, and waxed unmentionable places for nothing.
As the deck filled, and the white noise of her chattering fellow passengers rose into a deafening buzz, and the hum of the engine thrummed deliciously through the floorboards. It soon felt like her belly had filled with bees. And hope. Yeah, that was that strange sensation curdling in her belly – hope that this trip would be as remedying as Erica’s card had detailed.
JJ pressed her sunglasses higher on her nose before surreptitiously glancing along the railing to scope out her fellow passengers, wondering who among them might also have sun, rum and fun on their to do list. But the view was obscured by a sudden mass of multi-coloured streamers twirling out into the sky before dropping in great looping curls down the side of the ship as passengers twirled them towards their families waving goodbye below.
She could forgive Erica for being at work rather than on the dock as a target for JJ to hurl a streamer toward. It was due to her newfangled travel agent job that she’d been able to hook JJ up with a great deal so last minute in the first place.
As for JJ’s family . . . actually leaving their small coastal town and coming to Sydney to visit was apparently above and beyond, much less seeing her off on a trip. So Friday phone calls - when she knew her father was at golf - it was.
The breeze picked up. JJ twirled her hair over one shoulder before it went all medusa on her. Then, smiling at the crowd below, she claimed them all as her own.
She could afford to be so magnanimous, as for the next eight days and seven nights she was leaving everything—the strangers like so many others flitting in and out of her life, the big bustling city that hadn’t turned out to be quite the saviour she’d hoped it would be, and her entire hot mess of a life—behind.
A great clanking groan rent the air and JJ tipped a little further over the railing to watch as the last of the huge chains bridging the ocean liner to land were unhooked and she felt as if huge invisible weights were lifting off her shoulders right along with them.
Hope clutched hard in her belly now; bright, sharp, palpable. As if only now that there was definitely no turning back, now that nothing could take it away from her, could she really believe something this amazing was actually going to go her way.
It was only when her gaze landed on the clutch of crew far below unhooking a huge banner spanning the main gangplank that JJ felt the first flutters of impending panic.
She blinked. Stared harder. But the banner was folded now and being carried by the crew into the belly of the ship so she couldn’t be sure.
Had it really read, “Welcome Second Honeymooners! Star-crossed Lovebirds for a Lifetime!”?
Well that was nice. For someone. And yet . . . she couldn't deny the frisson of disquiet that it sent wriggling down her spine.
Curling her hands around the warming metal railing JJ glanced back over her shoulder at the fall of silver and red hanging from the ceiling of the deck. Or more specifically silver stars and red love hearts. And the bees in her belly felt like they were trying to escape through her skin.
She whipped her sunglasses from her nose. Her view no longer hampered by festive streamers, her gaze no longer subtle, she looked from passenger to passenger, her frantic gaze swerving from one face to the next face until she was sure that what she thought she was seeing was real.
Her fellow passengers. All couples. Everywhere she looked.
Apart from the occasional staffer in a purple polo shirt and beige cargo shorts every other person on deck was half of a pair. Couples holding hands, couples laughing, couples leaning into one another all romantic and lovey dovey.
And—because fate could be a real kicker that way—it appeared as if not a single other guest was a day under sixty-five.
For a second JJ floated the thought that she might be dreaming. Seriously. There was a possibility that she was actually in a crème-de-menthe-induced coma.
The night Erica had booked her on the cruise had gone down mere hours after JJ had quit her latest temp job. (Her boss’s charm having teetered over the edge of awkward flirtation to a touchy, feely, unjustifiable proposition by the copy machine). The liquid solace had been plentiful.
Maybe she was still lying on the lambskin rug on the floor of Erica’s lounge room, imagining getting away from it all. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think she’d also imagine the weird and wonderful ways Erica - god love her - would screw it up . . .
And yet it was so unlikely.
Then again, the alternative was that she was a twenty-seven-year-old divorcée with a string of dismal temp jobs behind her, bunking on her friend’s futon, and a less than enchanting string of bad first dates trailing behind her like a piece of toilet paper stuck on her shoe.
And that she was wide awake.
Cue panic, blurred vision, as JJ found herself whipped into the hurricane of a sickly, cinematic, swirling camera sensation. In order to pull herself back, she gripped the railing hard enough to bend the metal with her bare hands.
Cheers pelted up and down the deck, snapping JJ from her trance as poppers popped and twirling rainbows of tiny streamers rained down around her.
Blinking away a long strand of curling pink paper caught in her eyelashes, JJ watched in mute freak-out as the grey Sydney dock - and any chance of getting off the boat - slowly but surely moved out of reach.
Despite the morning-white sunlight shimmering over the dark ripples in the water below it looked cold. Though, as an amusement-starved small-town kid, she’d leapt blindly into enough icy waterholes to understand the adrenalin rush made the slim chance of bodily damage worth it. But unlike leaping from a tire swing, a jump off the side of a 70,000-ton ship would definitely be her last.
The crowd surged, the couple next to her bumping her elbow. JJ twisted, her ankle turning in her borrowed boots with their ridiculously thin heel.
Sucking in a sharp breath she glanced up to find a silver-haired pair in matching white slacks and Hawaiian shirts smiling into one another’s eyes before they moved in for a long, wet, noisy kiss.
Eight long days, she thought, squeezing her eyes shut tight. Seven interminable nights. Something like...two-hundred odd hours stuck on a floating, retirement love nest.
The cold dark water didn’t seem like such a bad option after all.