Jade stepped onto the deck and hugged the ship’s walls as she made her way to Sheldon’s rendezvous point. Today marked the fourth day of her Alaskan cruise. She should be used to the wide-open seas by now. Fear played havoc on her emotions as the clouds hung on the horizon like a lion waiting to spring on its prey. Get over it, Jade. Biting her lip, she inched her way to the corner. Voices stopped her in her tracks.
“I can’t fool her for much longer. Why can’t I come clean?” Aiden’s hushed but urgent tone prickled the hairs at the back of Jade’s neck.
She gasped, clamping her hand over her mouth. Was he speaking of her? She clung closer to the wall, trying to camouflage herself. Perhaps Sheldon was right about the handsome antiquity dealer. No! He couldn’t be the Cruise Caper. She refused to believe those kind eyes took advantage of innocent women and doing who-knows-what to them.
There had to be an explanation.
She stepped backward to retreat, but failed to hear the ship’s door open and bumped into Sheldon.
He grabbed her by the waist to prevent them from toppling over. “Love, I always knew you’d fall into my arms.” His voice boomed.
Aiden stepped around the corner. Their eyes locked.
He tilted his head.
Jade cringed. He knows I heard and there’s no way he missed that comment.
“Gotta go,” Aiden said into his cell before stuffing it into his pocket. “Jade, can I talk to you?”
Sheldon interlinked his arm in hers. “Can’t you see she’s busy, Mitchell?”
Aiden’s eyes narrowed. “She can speak for herself.”
Jade pulled away from Sheldon. Right now she didn’t want to be around either of them. “I have a prior commitment.”
Aiden’s shoulders slumped. “Fine. Perhaps tonight at the masquerade party?”
Sheldon slid a paper out of his folder and handed it to her, fingers lingering on hers. “I was just going to tell you about it. I thought you could accompany me.”
A shiver ran up her spine, creeping into every inch of her body. He thinks because she asked him one favor, she owed him? She clenched her jaw. No, she’d never surrender to any man again.
However, right now she needed answers. She swallowed her disdain and smiled. “We’ll see.”
Aiden sighed. “Catch you later.” He stepped through the doors without glancing her way.
He hates me now. His earlier conversation resurfaced. Doesn’t matter anyway. She turned to the purser. “Did you find out what I asked?”
He flipped open his folder. “There was a Barber added to the manifest at the last minute, but it doesn’t list a first name.” He scratched his head. “Odd.”
A wind whipped around the deck, tossing her long curls and turning her fear to ice cold trepidation. It couldn’t be him. Could it?
~ ~ ~
A live band played softly from the corner of the dining room while couples glided across the dance floor, everyone disguised in their masquerade attire. Dressed in an ankle-length navy gown accented with beading at the empire waist and shoulders, Jade adjusted her mask and tiara before joining the bustling party. She wouldn’t play the victim any longer and hide in her stateroom. If he had boarded the ship, she needed to know.
The Duncans waved to her from a nearby table. Thank heavens. She rushed over before either Sheldon or Aiden could claim her as a date. She wouldn’t be a pawn tonight.
Mrs. Duncan hugged her. “Evening, Jade.”
“You look lovely, dear.” Mr. Duncan bowed and kissed her hand.
Jade smiled. “Thank you.”
“Where’s the handsome, Mr. Mitchell?” Mrs. Duncan sipped her tea.
Jade played with her elbow-length black gloves. “Don’t know. Don’t care.”
“Pfft. You can’t fool me. Even behind that mask.”
“He has secrets and I don’t have time for games.” Jade glanced around the room. Two masked men nearby dressed in black tuxes stood neck and neck. Their flailing arms indicated they were in the midst of a heated discussion. Odd.
“And you don’t?”
Jade whipped her gaze back to the older woman. Did she know?
Mrs. Duncan fingered her diamond pendant. “Come on sweetie. These old eyes can tell when someone’s hiding from something.”
Jade looked down. “I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Then how about you pray about it.”
She met her gaze. Not you too. “That’s what Aiden said.”
Mrs. Duncan patted Jade’s hand. “He’s a good one. Listen to him.”
“Do you think he’s the Cruise Caper?”
“What?” The Duncans said simultaneously.
“That’s what Sheldon thinks.”
“He’s an idiot.” Mr. Duncan buttered his roll.
Jade grabbed the salad bowl and filled her plate as someone tapped her shoulder.
A man dressed as Zorro bowed and extended his hand, pointing to the dance floor without speaking.
The music stilled. Zorro wanted to waltz.
Mrs. Duncan laughed. “Dance with him, Jade. Be adventurous.”
“Why not?” She stood, catching her breath as uncertainty enveloped her and took his hand.
He led her onto the dance floor and into his embrace, guiding her through the steps.
She leaned in. “I’m impressed. You know what you’re doing.”
“Come on. Talk to me. Aiden?”
A hand grabbed her from behind, twirling her. Another Zorro.
Her mouth fell open. “Was there a sale on Zorro costumes?”
Zorro number one took her other arm, yanking her from the second.
Jade winced. “You’re hurting me.”
The other masked man tore her away from the first—again.
Am I a yoyo? She planted her feet firmly, hands raised. “Stop. Both of you.”
The first Zorro grabbed her by the waist and pulled her in, planting a crude kiss on her lips. “You’re mine.” His gruff voice whispered.
She drew back and slapped him.
The second Zorro punched him, sending him flying across the floor. He careened into other dancers.
The music stopped.
A woman screamed.
Zorro number two grabbed Jade’s hand and hauled her through the maze of onlookers, rushing her out of the zoom.
Her heart pounded, hijacking her breath and voice. She whacked his arm to get his attention.
He slowed as they approached the door leading to the deck, turned, and whipped his mask off. “Jade, it’s me.”
She found her breath and doubled over, gasping.
He rubbed her back. “Inhale and exhale slowly.”
She obeyed. Her pulse slowed. “Who was that other Zorro?”
“I don’t know.” He pulled something out of his pocket. “Listen, I know you heard my conversation earlier. I need to explain.”
Jade held her hands up. “You don’t.”
“Sheldon has been telling you lies about me. I’m not the Cruise Caper.” He opened a small leather folder. “I’m investigating him.”
She peered closer.
Constable Aiden Mitchell, Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
. . . to be continued
Click here to go to Part 7 – Unmasked.
This first appeared in Christian Life in London.