Inspired by Paperback Romance
Carolyn Vincense, Romance novelist
Alison McNamara, Carolyn’s agent
Nicola “Nick” Frost, symphony conductor
Hot spots of Europe and Sacramento, California
The Third is for Turning On
From “Key of Sea”
(9 years after the end of Paperback Romance)
THE UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY of a swimsuit, sun block and a beach towel almost kept Nicola Frost in her cabin. The undulation of the cruise ship wasn’t unpleasant, and was not the reason for the fluttering in her stomach.
Nerves, she thought. I don’t have nerves.
She glared at herself in the mirror, trying to find the steely calm that braved audiences and critics, cowed violinists and stopped venom-spewing sopranos in mid-syllable.
It was hard to do in a swimsuit.
“Take a vacation, you’ll feel like a million quid,” she muttered. Patricia, her ex and still a close friend, had thought an all-lesbian cruise would do her good. Even now, Nick could not believe she had agreed.
A Caribbean cruise was just the sort of thing that Carolyn would have done. Nick watched her mouth soften as she thought of Carolyn. It always did, always would. The one who got away, bella Carolyn.
Carolyn would not recognize her in a swimsuit. The only clothes Nick had worn when she’d known Carolyn had been men’s. It had been nearly a decade since the charade as “Nick” had ended, but she still preferred more masculine attire. It had authority, for one thing. Of course she hid behind it—shut up, Patricia, thank you, I know that—and probably always would. It had been the clothes and the privilege that came with being perceived male that had given her the confidence to take up the baton. Tall, slender, ascetic “Nick” had provided too-tall, too-humorless, gawky Nicola an entrance into what was still an almost exclusively male club.
For years, long past habit and probably need, she worked tirelessly to always be thought of as Maestro Frost, a conductor, musician and arranger. Woman, lesbian, just plain Nick… they were down the list, near English, Scorpio and allergic to bee stings.
A swimsuit. God, a swimsuit. At least it was a utilitarian Speedo one-piece. She was pale and drawn, having spent the last four years indoors. Patricia was right about one thing, sun would do her good. She angrily slung the towel around her neck, picked up her swim bag with book and suntan lotion and went out on deck.
She settled into a deck chair and hurriedly put on dark glasses. She did not want to overhear any barely whispered conversations that began, “Hey, isn’t that Nicola Frost…you know, the conductor who pretended she was a man to get a job…” She really only wanted to be left alone.
For the next hour the only person who spoke to her was the deck waiter. Upon seeing her cabin key, he danced attendance on her to an extent that was annoying. Drenched with perspiration and dizzy from the pina colada, she gave up the sun for the day and gathered her things.
When she reached the cool hatchway, she glanced back at the deck she was leaving. There were a few women in brilliantly hued caftans, but the majority had skin on display: thongs, Band-Aid-sized bikini tops or no tops at all. Now that’s what I call a landscape, she thought. Hot flamenco tapped in her ears and wild Bartok skirled in her nerves.
“Relax, have some fun,” Patricia had told her. Right. How did a mostly celibate, often disagreeable and thoroughly self-absorbed symphony conductor have fun?
She was not even granted the anonymity of a table for eight where she could introduce herself as just “Nick” and hope she wasn’t recognized. Instead, her first dinner was the Captain’s Table and formal dress. The formal attire didn’t bother her—she’d tied her own cravat enough times. She did miss Oscar, though, whose scathing wit had buoyed her through many ponderous occasions. There had been no warning sign of the stroke that had taken him from her. One moment her lifelong mentor had been deriding a critic and the next he had been gone. His memorial service, attended by hundreds, had been her first taste of life without his sheltering arm.
Life had not gotten any easier.
Since Oscar’s death four years ago she’d avoided the public occasions he would have insisted on. It had been four years of life indoors and in bad humor for the most part. Patricia had thrown in the towel on their relationship a year ago. She was a well-known novelist in her own right and had no need to put up with Nick’s moods just for a little companionship.
She cinched her cummerbund and took heart from the fact that she would not be the only woman in a tuxedo this evening. Sure enough, tuxedos outnumbered dresses by at least three to one. There were women everywhere in purple, silver and black tuxedos, most in couples. Rainbow ties and cummerbunds abounded and the line for formal photographs was lengthy. She overheard one happy but tearful woman tell the ship’s photographer that they couldn’t risk a professional picture together taken at home. Carolyn would love this, Nick thought. That’s who should be on this trip, Carolyn and Alison, not me.
She was deliberately late to the cocktail party. Between the captain’s English and her Italian they conversed enough for him to assure her of his pleasure in her music. She scolded herself for being stuck up and made an effort to participate in the conversation with the senior crew instead of quenching their enthusiasm with a chilly “How interesting” from behind her maestro’s mask.
It occurred to her that she hadn’t liked herself very much for a while. Was it any wonder Patricia had decided she’d rather be alone than put up with emotional silence? What was Patricia doing right now?
She turned her mind from that line of thought, having already accepted that she should not have let Patricia go so easily. “I feel as if I’m just a handy escort,” Patricia had said the night she moved out. “I like going out with you, Nick. It’s never dull. Call whenever you want me. I just don’t need to pretend it’s more than that anymore.”
Dinner was sumptuous and the table service impeccable. It had been a long time since she’d cared about what she ate. From bad moods and artistic fever that left her exhausted, she’d descended into a general depression after Patricia left. Not even word of an American Grammy award for Variations on an Adagio: A Tribute to Samuel Barber had cheered her much. She’d loved doing the recording. The vocal arrangements of the well-known adagio had been some of her finest work. Oscar would have loved it. Patricia had called to congratulate her on the award, but there had been nothing else, certainly not the Champagne and sex they’d shared to commemorate each other’s successes in the past.
She abruptly realized she was listening to the Barber adagio now, very faint in the background of the chatter-filled dining room. It was indeed her recording, and she thanked the captain for the compliment. She listened to it for the rest of the meal, the pleasure of her work loosening her tongue as she found she had a little small talk in her after all.
The next morning she elected to stay aboard ship instead of hauling about in hot caravans to look at the sights of Nassau. She had no desire to see marching flamingos. On her way down from the sundeck she purchased some postal cards in the gift shop and picked up some lunch at the ever-present buffet. Her stateroom was comfortable and cool, with a small veranda.
She had to stop there, not wanting to write “wish you were here.” It sounded so insincere, and the ironic part was that she meant it. She became so irritated with herself that she set the card aside and started a new one.
You and Alison would love an all-lesbian cruise. Women everywhere, lots of them celebrating anniversaries with all the romantic trappings that you so adore. I am enjoying myself, except for the sunburn. Picture me in a swimsuit. Now stop laughing. Love to both of you.
She stared at the card for Patricia. This cruise had been Patricia’s idea. How could Patricia, for even a moment, have thought Nick would fit in? Being single was handicap enough, but being a celebrity made it impossible to buddy around with strangers.
A demon of ill humor wrote the rest of Patricia’s card.
You were right, darling! Just what the doctor ordered. I haven’t slept a wink but can attest that the beds in several of the cabins are quite comfortable. Wish you were here?
It was what Oscar would have described as a singular lapse in judgment to carry the two cards directly to the purser’s desk to be mailed while they were in port. She waited a moment for the assistant to be free, then handed the cards over.
“We’ll charge the airmail stamps to your cabin, Ms. Frost,” the woman said. She had a charming voice, edged with a Nordic lilt—Swedish, perhaps. Certainly the short, nearly white hair indicated Scandinavian roots of some kind. She efficiently dabbed two postal stamps on a damp sponge and applied them so as not to cover Nick’s bold, block lettering.
The words seemed to leap off the cards and Nick flushed, wondering if the woman had read the message to Patricia. She was suddenly aware of her swimsuit-clad body and then abruptly even more aware of the other woman’s white uniform that molded a body far more statuesque than Nick’s own. Having completed her task, the woman straightened up for the first time, and Nick realized they were eye-to-eye. She did not often meet women her own height. When she did, they were usually not in attractive uniforms while she stood awkwardly in nothing but a swimsuit.
Thoroughly flustered, Nick sought out the woman’s nametag—not an assistant, but the Purser herself, Ilea Hamm.
“Was there anything else you required, Maestro?” Ilea Hamm’s eyes were focused somewhere lower than Nick’s face for a moment, then she glanced up to capture Nick in a clear, blue gaze.
“No, thank you,” Nick stuttered and she escaped to her stateroom. Romance writer Carolyn would be having hysterics at Nick playing the part of the stammering ingenue. Nick didn’t find it at all amusing.
* * *
Conversation stopped when she took her seat at her assigned dinner table that evening. Everyone seemed tongue-tied. There was a moment when Nick could have subsided into the humorless, monosyllabic auteur, but instead she made an effort. “I’m sorry I missed meeting everyone last night. I’m Nick.”
There was another awkward silence, then Nick held out her hand to the woman next to her, who said her name was Tammy, shook hands, and around the table they went.
Yet another silence followed. Bloody hell, Nick thought. Do I have to do all the work? “How did everyone spend their day?”
Thankfully, the American tendency to chatter won out, and she was relieved of having to push the conversation along. Still, the others would just start to get excited about something and then curtail their enthusiasm with a glance at Nick, as if they were afraid she would judge them for liking snorkeling or sunbathing. Contrary to popular belief, she did not live in an ivory tower, breathing only the rarified air of the great masters. At least not all the time.
“I’ve never tried snorkeling,” she volunteered. “Is it fun?”
Apparently, it was. Just like that she agreed to go on a snorkeling expedition when they reached their next port the following day. All the equipment was provided and two of the women at the table, Joan and Paula, worked for the lesbian travel agent who had arranged the cruise. They were sure they could find Nick a spot, even at the last minute.
She had skipped the entertainment the previous night, but Joan and Paula’s enthusiasm was infectious. She’d never had much time for light entertainment. Even films were a rarity. So she’d never heard of the lesbian comic, but it was apparent almost everyone else, particularly the Americans, had. Nick surprised herself by laughing more than she had in the last decade, then she stayed for the karaoke show that followed. Off-key singing usually made her feel as if she were chewing foil, but the Brandy Alexander recommended by Paula helped her send Maestro Frost to bed while Nick stayed to enjoy herself.
She was surprised to spot Purser Hamm watching the show on the other side of the room, alongside several other female crewmembers. Paula noticed that she kept looking over at them and answered Nick’s unasked question. “The lesbians on the crew are always thrilled when we take over the ship—they get hit on all the time. This is the one week where they enjoy it.”
So the purser was a lesbian. How…interesting. Properly attired in slacks and a silk shirt, Nick allowed that she might be willing to make Ilea Hamm’s acquaintance again.