There was no horizon in the middle of the ocean at night, only endless black sea and sky. The boat’s wake left a faint trace of foam, and here and there a white crest appeared. After days spent in Sint Maarten and Antigua, they’d left land behind and would be at sea all day and night tomorrow before reaching the British Virgin Islands. How long would it take anyone to realize she was gone if she fell – or was pushed – into that infinite darkness?
Panic rose up in her throat and her heart thundered in her ears. Rhonda gripped the deck railing and stifled a cry. She was foolish, stepping out on deck alone at night, and tempting fate this way.
She caught hold of herself, inhaled the cool sea air and slowly let it out, and chided herself for being so silly. Nothing bad was going to happen to her. She was Rhonda Wellington Lloyd, and she was wearing her favorite little black cocktail dress, which she’d designed herself as part of her own clothing collection, and her black Caprini Flamenco ankle strap heels. This was hardly her first cruise, and it had only just started. Being at sea had never unsettled her and she wouldn’t let it now. This excursion had everything she loved. With less than one hundred people on board, including the crew, and only one dining venue, the Intrepid Spirit offered a more intimate setting that she had always enjoyed on a cruise, where it was easier to meet and get to know interesting new people. There was an exclusiveness to the clientele on a smaller yacht that she preferred, too, and a boat like this could reach hidden, off-the-beaten-path ports and harbors that were inaccessible to the larger ships.
Unfortunately, she was traveling with her husband. Thinking about him made the back of her head and neck throb with tension. How on earth had either of them thought that taking this vacation together would be a good idea? Even a one- or two-week cruise would’ve been a strain. This was a fifty-seven-day loop around the Caribbean.
There had only been two ports of call so far, and they’d spent both of them apart. Earlier that day, Robert did the Open Course Canopy Challenge, an excursion that featured ziplines and walks over suspension bridges, and he’d been perturbed that she didn’t go with him. Rhonda had feigned a migraine and spent the day on the beach. That unshakeable, absurd feeling that something bad would happen to her if she went with him had taken hold of her.
Or maybe it wasn’t foolish. Maybe she just had good instincts and ought to trust them. Robert’s behavior had always been peculiar and a little bit unpredictable, but it had been growing worse over the last few months, reaching a fever pitch after they’d boarded. Small things set him off and he’d been snapping at her more than usual when they were alone. In public, he was saccharine sweet and he always found ways to subtly belittle her in front of the people they socialized with.
After dinner, he’d left her alone at the table with barely a word and gone off to the lounge on the Lido deck with Annalena and Karin, the two young women from Sweden. She’d been busy talking to the woman seated beside her and she merely gave him a casual wave without looking at him when he rose to leave. She could tell he’d been annoyed that she managed to brush him off so easily, but he should’ve known better. She was Rhonda Wellington Lloyd and she wouldn’t allow him or anyone else to make her feel small.
Footsteps on the deck behind her made her jump.
Helga came up beside her and Rhonda’s pounding heart began to slow.
“Hi.” She took a deep breath. “Helga.”
Her childhood acquaintance hadn’t changed that much. Childhood friend, she conceded. They’d never been best friends, and there had been petty rivalries at times, but they’d had their moments of comradery, too. Helga was still tall and athletic, and she still favored the color pink, though she’d adopted a more grown-up and elegant twist to the color with tonight’s outfit, a sleek sleeveless champagne-colored satin sheath dress and matching shoes. Rhonda had to admit she looked good. The denim jacket she’d brought out with her to stay warm was incongruent; a fashion error she would never make, but Helga had never bothered to keep up appearances for anyone.
Helga’s steady gaze on her bloodless knuckles made Rhonda realize she still had a death grip on the railing. She let go and shifted to casually lean sideways against it, facing her.
“In the lounge. Not much nightlife on a small cruise.”
“No. The itinerary is what it’s all about. And the watersports platform. You’re both on holiday?”
She nodded. “You?”
“Robert had some time off, and business contacts in some of the ports we’re stopping at, so we decided this would be a lovely time for a nice long Caribbean cruise.”
Rhonda kept her voice bright, but she wasn’t in the mood to talk, especially about her husband. It was too much of a struggle to pretend everything was all right. Keeping her problems private in such a confined setting and with Robert being so obvious was difficult enough, harder with people around who already knew her. She was both grateful and resentful that Helga Pataki and Phoebe Heyerdahl were here, and she couldn’t help but wonder how either of them could afford a trip like this.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine,” she answered, too quickly.
She’d been feeling somewhat queasy ever since that piña colada Robert had mixed for her in their cabin before dinner, and it probably showed in her face. The drink had tasted fine, but she’d only drunk half of it. She’d never tended toward paranoia, but this cruise had changed everything. Rhonda fought the urge to blurt out that she thought her husband might be trying to harm her. She knew she’d sound insane.
“I’m heading back in,” Helga said suddenly. “It’s kind of cool out here.”
It was cool. Rhonda hadn’t had the foresight to wear something warmer; she wore only a short-sleeve lace overlay top with her sleeveless dress. Elegant, and also designed by her, but impractical for standing out on the deck at night, even in a warmer climate.
“Do you want to come in and join me and Pheebs in the lounge? They kept the bar open late tonight.”
Rhonda hesitated. Everyone had seen her husband leave the dining room with the two other women and they were probably all still in the lounge. She didn’t want to run into them and she didn’t like the idea of anyone, especially Helga and Phoebe, feeling sorry for her.
“Caio makes a delicious mojito,” she added. Her smile was friendly, encouraging.
Rhonda’s fear and loneliness had receded somewhat with Helga’s presence, but the earlier fleeting thought that her husband had put something in her piña colada returned. And that made up her mind. Even if Helga and Phoebe weren’t good friends, they knew her and she knew them, from a long time ago. They were safe and she would be safe with them.
“I think I will join you. I don’t know if I’ll drink, but I’ll stay and chat. It’ll be nice to catch up.”
Maybe, if there was a moment that felt right, she would find a way to let them know that she was afraid. Then, at least, there would be someone to notice if anything happened.