Day One, At Sea
THE WARM Florida sunshine bathed Josh Gilbert, and he turned his face into it as he walked up the cruise ship gangway, rolling luggage in tow. His weather app said the temps back home in Indiana would reach a balmy fifteen degrees.
Josh still couldn’t believe Mom and Dad had surprised their family—and Josh’s best friend—with a Caribbean cruise for Christmas.
Falling in line behind his older brother, Luke, and his wife, Ramona, the Gilbert clan hauled suitcases and bags of holiday presents onto their new home for the week—the Pride of the Caribbean.
Dwarfed somewhat by the giant cruise liners docked beside them in the Port of Miami, the elegantly appointed Pride made a grand first impression when they entered the lobby behind a slew of other passengers.
“Check out this place,” Luke said, craning his neck, eyes wide.
In awe, they all took in the plush red carpets, crystal chandeliers, and the sleek gold-and-glass banister of the impressive grand staircase. A colossal Christmas tree sat proudly on the first landing, a set of stairs branching to either side and draped in glittering garlands. The tree glistened with white twinkling lights, bows, seashells, and large glass ornaments that, when they caught the light just right, seemed to flicker and dance.
How much did Dad shell out for this trip? Josh wondered.
“Dang, this ship is da bomb,” Aaron muttered in Josh’s ear.
Pleasantly stunned, Josh glanced up at his tall BFF. “No doubt,” he agreed, and then he flinched at something unexpected.
In front of him, two men held hands, chatting with excitement about the cruise.
Though it made Josh happy to see—and more than a tad jealous—openly gay couples in public still surprised him.
If only Josh could ever have something like that in his life.
“Have you figured it out, Josh?” Mom asked, gesturing toward a different couple boarding the ship—two women holding hands.
Puzzle pieces began to fit together, creating a picture Josh wasn’t sure he liked. He narrowed his eyes at his mother. “What’s going on?”
Mom twirled a brown curl around one finger, grinning. Curvy and short—he’d inherited that from her along with the brown hair and eyes—she looked ready to burst.
But Josh’s sister-in-law exploded first.
“It’s a gay cruise!” Ramona cried.
Josh shook his head. “What?”
“We’re gonna find you a boyfriend for Christmas!” Clare announced.
Josh whirled on his sister. “What did you say, Clare?”
She clutched her hands to her ample chest, her curvy figure promising the same weight struggle Mom and Josh suffered. “That we’re gonna find you a boyfriend for Christmas,” his little sister repeated. “This cruise line is gay-friendly, which means there should be plenty of guys for you to have a shipboard romance. Isn’t that great?”
Dad and Luke squirmed, as if caught in the women’s schemes too, or perhaps they feared Josh’s response. Dad was an aged version of his eldest son, as tall and lean as the rest of the family was short and round.
“It’ll be fun, Josh,” Luke assured him, shifting from foot to foot. “No pressure.”
“Yes, pressure,” Ramona insisted, slapping her husband on the arm, her white teeth as dazzling against her brown skin as her white sundress. “He’s getting on board single, but he’s not leaving that way.”
Aaron laughed, and Josh glared at him.
“And I have just the trick,” Mom said, rummaging in her giant purse.
Unable to believe his ears, Josh frowned at Dad. “Were you in on this?”
Before Dad could answer, a stranger stepped in front of Josh. Middle-aged and overly tanned, he wore a lecherous grin.
“What’s this?” the stranger asked. “Mistletoe?”
Then shocking Josh into a stupor, the man kissed him right on the lips.
“What the—” Josh recoiled.
“Name’s Brian,” the guy said, still grinning. “Find me later for a dance.”
Then he slipped into the crowd of passengers.
“What the heck?” Josh spun to face Mom.
Grinning like a fiend, she had a children’s fishing rod in her hand, and rather than a worm dangling from the hook, she’d hung a clump of mistletoe.
“What are you doing?” he cried, too stunned to be as angry as he should’ve been.
“Getting you a man,” Mom said, her face serious now.
Josh set his rolling suitcase on all four wheels and then crossed his arms to glare at her. “You are certifiable, you know that?”
“Certifiably the best matchmaker you know,” she quipped. “Ask Clare and Luke how good I am.”
Luke threw an arm around his pretty wife, and they shared a loving kiss. “Luckiest man in the whole world that Mom introduced me to her tennis coach.” After six years of marriage—sans kids, though not for lack of trying—Luke and Ramona were living the high-end life with their goldendoodle, Fred.
Patting Josh on the shoulder, Clare sighed. “Seriously, dude, you should let Mom pick a guy for you. She has the gift.” Clare’s husband, William, was the son of a lady in Mom’s bunco group. They were married last Valentine’s Day.
“No,” Josh declared, waving his hand in a sweeping gesture of finality. He couldn’t argue against Mom’s success thus far, but Mom would not be how he found his first real boyfriend.
“You can find me a boyfriend, Mrs. G.” Aaron took the fishing rod from her and waggled it over his own head. “Mistletoe, boys!”
Sure enough, Josh’s attractive friend soon had a line of four guys waiting to kiss him. Josh’s face flamed with embarrassment when the third guy added some tongue action and a grope on the ass, which Aaron didn’t seem to find offensive at all.
Josh would die a million deaths if some guy kissed him like that in public—especially in front of his family.
Mom laughed and took back her fishing pole. “You don’t need any help,” she told Aaron, who was still whispering something in bachelor number three’s ear.
Josh pointed at his mother. “Keep that thing away from me.”
“You’re such a party pooper,” she scolded.
“That’s enough,” Dad decided. “Let’s find our rooms.”
As the Gilbert clan moved forward, much to Josh’s further horror, Ramona announced, “Single hot gay guy coming through!”
“Ramona,” Josh hissed, face on fire.
“It’s my job to take pictures of all the single hot guys on this cruise ship,” a sultry voice said from off to the left.
Josh jumped and turned, shocked by the camera pointed at him.
The lens lowered, and the hottest man Josh had ever laid eyes on was grinning at him.
Tanned, blond, and straight off a Ralph Lauren yacht, the man wore white pants, a navy jacket, and a red ascot. He was tall, lean, and broad in the shoulders, with green eyes a man could get lost in and a face like Adonis himself!
“Nathan Bradshaw, shipboard photographer,” the man introduced himself, his blond hair glistening in the sparkling lights of the chandelier.
Or maybe Josh just imagined it glistened. The guy was startling to look at.
Nathan extended a well-manicured hand. “Welcome aboard the Pride.”
“This is Josh,” Ramona piped up, bodily pushing him closer to the handsome stranger.
A warm hand, soft but firm, took hold of Josh’s.
“He’s single,” Clare said.
“Is that so?” Nathan drawled, shaking Josh’s hand and not letting go. “Well, so am I, Josh. It’s very nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, um… you too, Nathan.” That’s when clarity came to Josh’s stunned brain. He scowled at his meddling family. “You guys, just stop,” he hissed, dropping the man’s hand like a house afire.
Clare’s big brown eyes widened innocently. “What?”
Nathan chuckled, and Josh’s face heated further—if such a thing were possible.
“Everybody needs a cheering section,” Nathan said. Then he gestured to the whole Gilbert clan. “Everybody, get closer. Let’s immortalize the moment you began the best vacation of your life.”
Josh squished between Clare and Ramona, while Dad, Aaron, and Luke took the back and Mom the far left. Josh somehow managed to say “cheese” along with everyone else while Nathan snapped a few pics.
Nathan looked at his display. “Perfect. Now, let’s get one of each couple.”
“We’re a couple.” Ramona pointed at Luke, then Mom and Dad. “And so are they. Those three are all flying solo.”
“So you said.” Nathan eyed Josh with a sideways grin that could almost be described as predatory.
Josh’s cheeks warmed, and he couldn’t smile. I must be losing my mind. This is all some sort of twisted dream. Please wake up. Wake up!
But nothing happened, except Aaron and Clare posing on either side of him and Nathan raising the camera again.
“C’mon, smile for the camera,” Nathan prompted, and somehow Josh managed to suck in his gut and smile.
Looking only at Josh, Nathan stepped toward them. “The pictures will be displayed on the viewing screens near the purser’s desk at 7:00 p.m. tonight. They’re available for purchase anytime during the cruise.” He leaned in close and whispered, “But just a tip, they go on sale the last day, so keep track of the numbers for the ones you want.” Not leaning out of Josh’s personal space, Nathan winked at him. “Just don’t tell anybody or it might get me fired.”
Josh swallowed, nervous all of a sudden with how close Nathan had gotten and how delicious his cologne smelled. Like honey or something else equally warm and inviting. Josh couldn’t quite place it, but he liked it. Before he could get another chance to identify the alluring fragrance, the gorgeous photographer had slipped back into the crowd, smiling and flirting with the next group of passengers.
For a hot second, Josh had imagined Nathan was actually flirting with him, but he quickly pushed such thoughts away.
It’s his job to flirt. Get over yourself!
“He was handsome,” Mom said.
He flinched at her hovering behind him, and then he frowned at her. “So is Brad Pitt. Doesn’t mean he wants me.”
She scoffed. “Oh, if Brad Pitt ever saw this face, he’d switch teams, for sure.”
And then, to Josh’s horror, she pinched both of his cheeks.
Hating it when she did that, but grateful she didn’t add her usual “just look at these chipmunk cheeks,” Josh wriggled out of her grasp. “Don’t pull on my skin. You’ll give me wrinkles.”
She scoffed again. “You’re only twenty-seven. What do you know about wrinkles?”
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Aaron chimed.
Yeah, it was bad enough that at twenty-seven Josh had never had a real boyfriend. The last thing he needed was premature wrinkling. His family was already going to make him prematurely gray.
“C’mon,” Dad said. “I’m tired after all the driving. Let’s get to our rooms and get settled. I think there’s a manhattan somewhere on this ship with my name on it.”
Several crewmembers with tablets mingled in the crowd, giving directions to staterooms. Dad made a beeline toward a man in a Santa hat, holding a tablet, who stood beside a distinguished-looking fellow in a captain’s uniform.
“Welcome aboard,” the man with the tablet said. Though he looked almost Mom and Dad’s age, his tanned skin was flawless and his hair a rich brown. “I’m Raoul, your purser, and this is Captain Leonides.”
“Welcome aboard,” the captain said, with a tip of his hat. He was quite handsome, in an exotic Mediterranean sort of way, with the faintest hint of gray at his temples. Definitely looked competent to captain their ship, a man born to be at sea.
I might die of embarrassment, but at least not from shipwreck.
“Thank you,” Dad said, and everyone else repeated similar greetings. “We’re the Gilbert family. I believe we have four rooms booked.”
Raoul swiped a few times and tapped on his tablet. “Yes, the Gilberts. You are in cabins F1, 2, 3, and 4, on the Fiesta deck. Very nice accommodations you’ve chosen. Some of our finest suites, each with ocean views and balconies.”
“Balconies?” Luke cried, sliding down his shades, his brown eyes wide. “How much money did you spend on this, Dad?”
Dad raised a hand. “You know it’s rude to ask that. This is your Christmas present, and I want us all to have a great time. I even got us the unlimited drink package.”
“Woo-hoo, margaritas, here I come,” Aaron declared, raising his hand for a high five from Clare, which she returned after a slight frown.
“You guys better have a great time,” Mom said. “Because none of you are getting birthday gifts from us this year.”
Josh laughed. Dad had an overly generous spirit, but Mom kept a tight rein on the family purse strings. She might have married a renowned heart surgeon, but she never forgot the trailer she was born and raised in. She passed along the value of money to all of her children—well, maybe not to Clare. As the youngest and the only girl, Clare was more than spoiled. Dad had bailed her out of credit card debt twice that Josh knew of.
“No birthday present for me? Mrs. G, that’s just cruel,” Aaron cried.
She patted his cheek rather than pinching it, Josh noted. “Oh, well, maybe for you.”
“That’s fair,” Clare muttered to Josh, and he wisely said nothing.
Clare might be spoiled and bad with money, but Josh adored her. And since her husband was currently in Afghanistan fighting for their freedoms and she would be spending her first Christmas as a married woman without him, he kept the comment to himself that she shouldn’t worry. Daddy’s girl always got a present.
A large, stoic bellman loaded their suitcases, gift bags, and wrapped presents onto a trolley, grunting a “No” when Dad tried to help. Raoul gave him instructions to deliver their things to the suites, and the man lumbered toward an elevator.
Raoul snapped his fingers, and as if out of nowhere, a very petite woman with a bright smile and a pink streak in her hair appeared.
Aaron jumped back and put his hands to his chest. “You just came out of nowhere, didn’t you?”
“I’m little,” she quipped.
“Penelope dear, please show the Gilbert family to their suites,” Raoul told her.
She grinned impishly. “Right this way, family,” she said in a cheery voice. All but floating up the grand staircase with her hands at the small of her back, Penelope led them to their rooms.
“Have you sailed with us before?” Penelope asked Dad, gazing up at him with big doe eyes she batted coquettishly.
“No, first time.” Dad smiled down at her, seeming smitten with how cute and tiny she was.
“Isn’t she adorable?” Mom whispered to Josh.
“Yeah, sure, I guess,” he said. For a flash, Josh thought Penelope frowned at him, but the change in her face happened so quick he probably imagined it.
Penelope was very pretty, but her long eyelashes were as fake as the pink streak in her blonde hair. The glitter across her brow and eyelids might’ve been unprofessional, but this was a gay-friendly cruise. He wondered if she was on the rainbow, but couldn’t be sure with the way she giggled so flirtatiously with Dad.
“Here is the first suite,” Penelope announced, pausing outside F1. She studied Josh and Aaron. “I pick this one for you two.”
“Um, okay,” Josh said, figuring it was her attempt at being cute and the rooms were assigned.
The act worked on Dad and Luke, if the way they tilted their heads and smiled at her were any indicator—as if they couldn’t decide if she was real or not. Regardless, Luke had better stop staring or his feisty wife would smack him one.
But when Penelope opened the first room, all their eyes went straight to the spacious suite and dazzling view.
“Holy ocean view, Batman,” Aaron exclaimed.
The room was gorgeous, not cramped like the cruise he went on for spring break in college. They each had a double bed, and there was a sitting area with a couch, a door that probably led to the bathroom, and sliding doors that opened to a balcony, which currently faced the Port of Miami. Towels folded into wreaths with soaps for ornaments and big red bows lay on each bed. A pretty Christmas tree with blown-glass ornaments that seemed to glisten and dance in the light was perched on the table between the beds. Mirrored closet doors visually doubled the space, and much to Josh’s surprise, their luggage had already arrived.
“Wow” was all Josh could say.
Dad and Mom grinned, and rubbernecking behind them, his siblings had eyes as wide as their mouths.
“Have fun, boys,” Penelope sang.
Josh pulled out his wallet to tip Penelope, but Dad raised a hand. “No, no, save your money for souvenirs.”
Aaron went up and hugged first Mom, then Dad. “Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. G. Can you adopt me?”
Mom laughed. “I think we did that a long time ago.”
“Moving this way, family,” Penelope announced. “Let’s see which of you get the next room.” Then she flitted away, the rest of the Gilberts following and her voice fading like tinkling sleigh bells as their suite door shut.
Once alone, Josh and Aaron exchanged looks.
“This is going to be the best vacation ever,” Aaron declared.
Josh put his hands on his hips. “Fess up. Did you know Mom and Dad booked a gay-friendly cruise to find me a boyfriend?”
Aaron waved him off. “Why are you looking a gift horse in the mouth?” He was tall, fit, and had the prettiest dark curls and blue eyes—which was why he never had a problem scoring a date.
“You are.” He made a beeline to the balcony door and slid it open, filling the suite with warm, salty air. “And yes, I knew it was gay-friendly, and the girls have this notion that you’ll have a shipboard romance and fall in love. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. All I know is that you’re the luckiest SOB on earth to have a family who would pick a gay cruise line just for you. And your mom even booked us all mani-pedis this afternoon. Your dad and Luke are getting massages. Bet they’re hoping that little pink pixie, Penelope, is the massage therapist.” He snorted at his own joke, obviously noting the same thing Josh did about the way Dad and Luke had been enraptured with the woman.
Chagrined by Aaron’s speech, Josh shuffled his feet, studying his sandals. He knew he was lucky. Aaron’s family would never go on a ship like this. Especially his father. The man could barely look at Aaron sometimes. His mom and brother were never cruel, but Josh always sensed they weren’t sure how to take the flamboyant Aaron. Sometimes, if Aaron had too much to drink, he’d cry or bitch about them, saying he felt more love from Josh’s family than his own.
Evidenced by the coin Dad put out for this trip, the Gilberts viewed Aaron as family too.
“Yeah, I know I sound ungrateful—”
“But I hope they don’t run around the ship looking for a man for me. That will be so humiliating. And that mistletoe fishing pole? What the heck?”
“That mistletoe got me a hot date for the Christmas costume party tonight. And your family means well,” Aaron said, leaning on the railing and tipping his face up to the sun.
Not a fan of heights, Josh popped his head out onto the balcony. “Nice view. I won’t be sitting out here.”
“Haven’t you heard about all the people who fall off cruise ships?”
Aaron scoffed. “Only jealous husbands push their wives overboard. That would never happen on a gay ship.”
Josh chuckled but wisely stepped inside. “Promise me you won’t go on the balcony after we’ve been drinking, ’kay?”
“Okay, worrywart, as long as you promise to let loose. Have fun.” Aaron gave Josh a shimmy. “This is a cruise custom designed for us!”
“Okay, I promise to have fun.”
“Ground rules.” Aaron sprawled out on the bed closest to the balcony, lacing his fingers behind his head. “If the Do Not Disturb is on the door, we won’t interrupt any hookups. Any overnighters, we have to okay with the other, that way one of us can sleep in Clare’s room.”
“Okay.” Josh laughed, doubting very much he’d have an overnight guest.
“And no fucking in each other’s bed,” Aaron added. “I love you, but even I have standards.”
“I’m fine with whatever,” Josh said. “We both know you’re the only one who’s going to be hooking up in this room. I should probably just move my stuff into Clare’s room right now.”
“You don’t know that. You could meet the man of your dreams.”
Josh scoffed, his mind revisiting a pair of green eyes and golden hair sparkling in the sunlight…. Nope, never gonna happen. “Yeah, like I’m gonna meet the man of my dreams.”
“You never know what could happen.”
“I’m too fat.”
“No, you’re not. I know how hard you’ve been trying to lose weight. You look amazing.”
“I could stand to lose another twenty pounds.”
“Don’t,” Aaron scolded. “I hate it when you get down on yourself.”
“It’s just the truth.”
“Says you. Just try and chill out for once. Don’t worry about your waistline or whatever rules you’ve made up in your head. Just go out there and have fun. Who knows? Maybe something magical will happen.”
As he unpacked, listening to Aaron list all the activities and excursions the ship offered, Josh knew he could be a stick in the mud. Well, in comparison to Aaron, anyway. But he’d been looking forward to a relaxing vacation with no computers, deadlines, or spreadsheets, and no worries. He didn’t even have to worry about any homophobes on this trip.
His thoughts alighted again on the cute photographer, Nathan.
Maybe this boyfriend cruise might not be so bad.
His family loved him enough to pick this ship, and honestly, until this moment, a shipboard romance hadn’t been an option. He hadn’t been on board half an hour and he’d already been kissed once—even if he wasn’t pleased with Mom about it.
This ship was full of potential for a guy like Josh.
Aaron was right. Josh needed to let loose this week. He’d waited his entire life to find romance, so if a chance presented itself, he should not squander the opportunity.
Even if that meant his family embarrassing him all over the Caribbean.