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Ashore (Cruising Book 2) by L.A. Witt (1)

Chapter 1

Andrew

 

Oh God.

We’re… we’re really doing this, aren’t we?

I gulped, glancing at Eric across the cab’s backseat as our driver wove through the sparse traffic. The cruise ship had disappeared behind us. My parents and their airport shuttle were long gone. We’d left Civitavecchia—the city where the ship had docked—and were now on a two-lane highway heading toward Rome. For the next couple of weeks, it was just Eric and me, on our own in Italy.

With the adrenaline wearing off from my last-second decision to join him, I gnawed the inside of my cheek and replayed everything that had happened in the past half hour or so. In the moment, it had seemed like something right out of a movie. Eric had been getting into a taxi, my parents and I had been on our way to the airport shuttle, and at the last second, I’d sprinted back to him and asked if the offer was still open. If he still wanted me to join him in Rome. It had been reckless and exhilarating and probably the wildest thing I’d ever done. I wasn’t a risk taker, but I’d done it, and it had felt amazing.

And now, with the window rapidly closing for me to change my mind and book it to the airport, I was having second thoughts. A lot of them.

What the hell did I just do?

I was supposed to be going home to Iowa and finding a damn job, for God’s sake. Taking my parents up on the offer of the trip to Europe in the first place had been pushing it. Lingering over here for another two weeks so I could spend more time with the man I’d just met? The man who was on the rebound and on what was supposed to be his honeymoon?

Oh God. Yeah. I was being an idiot.

Except, I reminded myself for the millionth time, it was only two weeks. Fourteen days, give or take a few hours. In the long run, really not a big deal where my job hunt was concerned, but a big deal when it came to Eric and me. If we had any shot at making this thing between us work, the next two weeks would have a huge impact one way or the other. It was enough time for us to either get sick of each other and let things fizzle out, or to figure out we had some potential. With the job market being what it was, finding another job could take months anyway, so what was another two weeks?

An entire paycheck, that’s what.

I closed my eyes and pushed out a breath. I refused to regret getting in the cab with Eric. Maybe it was stupid and reckless, but I was here, my parents had probably already canceled my ticket with the airline, and damn it, I was going to enjoy the next couple of weeks without feeling guilty about it. Without feeling too guilty about it.

About an hour and a half after we’d gotten into the cab, we were in Rome. The city was an odd mix of every big city I’d ever been to and no place I’d ever been at all. There were the usual sleek glass buildings—some with logos I recognized, some not—and things like gas stations, restaurants, apartments, and parks. Graffiti covered most ground-level walls and even some windows, and there were familiar movie posters with the titles in Italian. Scooters and motorcycles buzzed in and out of traffic, and the lines on the road seemed to be more suggestion than anything.

As our driver took us deeper into the city, there was suddenly less graffiti and less glass. Buildings looked older. Like, a lot older. At one point, we were coming up on what I thought was a fenced-in park, but on second glance, it was dominated by huge reddish stone ruins.

“Any idea what that is?” I asked.

Eric studied it and shook his head. “I’m not sure. It doesn’t look familiar.”

“Terme di Caracalla,” our driver said gruffly. “Baths. From ancient times.”

“Oh,” we both said.

“Is it open to the public?” Eric asked.

“Si.” The driver nodded. “Eight euro. Is just ruins, though.” He shrugged. “Kind of boring.”

Eric and I exchanged looks. Just ruins? Boring? Okay, dude. Still, we thanked him for the information, and he continued through town. I saw a sign for the Colosseum and got my hopes up for a moment that we might get to see it, but the driver went the opposite direction and wound through some narrow streets between apartment buildings.

After some more twists and turns, he pulled into a big roundabout with a fountain at the center and slowed as he neared one of the exits, earning him a couple of honks and shouts from passing cars. Then he turned, drove a short ways, and stopped on the curb, prompting more honking and shouting.

Eric looked outside, then back at me, his eyes wide. “So I’m thinking we’ll skip renting a car.”

I laughed, nodding. “Yeah. Good plan. Why don’t we both get out on my side so you don’t get run over?”

“Uh. Yeah. I’m not getting out into… that.” He gestured out the window just as two cabs whizzed by, one trying like hell to cut the other off.

Eric settled up with the driver, who directed us up the street to our hotel, and after we’d collected our suitcases, we started down the sidewalk.

“Our hotel is right up there.” Eric pointed at an intersection less than half a block away. I could see why the driver hadn’t taken us all the way to it; the hotel seriously lacked a load-unload zone out front.

I glanced over my shoulder at the roundabout. “Looks like we’re pretty close to some museums. And an old church.”

“Yep. Plus a shitload of restaurants.” He gestured over his shoulder. “And the train station is right over there, so if we want to take a day trip somewhere, we’re set.”

“Nice.”

We continued down the sidewalk. The street was jammed with cars and lined with vendors hawking cheap souvenirs. There were some newsstands in between and someone selling fresh fruit and vegetables.

A bored-looking guy stood in the middle of the sidewalk, offering pamphlets for one of those hop-on, hop-off tour buses.

To my surprise, Eric took one of the pamphlets, though he didn’t stop walking even after the guy tried to sell him tickets.

He must’ve seen the question in my eyes because he said, “I was thinking we could take one of those tours tomorrow.”

“Yeah?” We’d talked on the cruise about doing one of these bus rides, but for whatever reason, I was surprised he was serious. Seemed a bit too touristy for Eric. “So they’re really worthwhile?”

“Definitely. They’re a really good way to get the lay of the land.” He folded the pamphlet in half and tucked it into his back pocket. “And they’re kind of handy for getting around, especially if we want to go from the Colosseum to… whatever else we want to see.”

“Oh. Never thought of that. I kind of thought these would be too touristy for your tastes.”

He laughed. “Oh, I turned my nose up at them for a long time because they did seem kind of touristy, but someone recommended I give it a try. Now I love them.”

Well, it was a good thing he’d already looked into everything. I supposed I would’ve done the same if this trip hadn’t literally been a last-second decision. No wonder everything was so overwhelming and I had no idea where to start.

At the hotel, we hauled our suitcases up a couple of flights of stairs and found an elevator that would take us the rest of the way to registration. It was cramped, reminding me of a phone booth, but somehow we squeezed ourselves and our luggage inside, and after some clattering and clanking, it deposited us on the third floor.

Eric took care of checking us in, and we continued down a short hallway to our room. The room was probably small by American standards. In fact, I was pretty sure I’d stayed in cheap motels with larger rooms. After the cramped cabins on the ship, though, this place seemed huge. So big it was almost intimidating. We could park our larger suitcases by the table under the mirror and still have space—tons of space—to walk between them and the foot of the bed.

Like the room, the bed was probably small too, but again it seemed huge compared to what we’d been sleeping in on the boat. I wondered how long the ship’s tight confines would affect my perception of everything else. And anyway, neither of us was a particularly big guy, so we’d have plenty of room to sleep and fuck.

At the little table along one side of the room, I opened my laptop case. “You mind if I take care of booking my plane ticket while I’m thinking about it?”

“Not at all. It’ll just get more expensive if you wait.” He sat on the edge of the bed and unfolded the pamphlet he’d picked up on the sidewalk. “While you do that, I’ll see where we pick up our bus tomorrow.”

“Perfect.” I logged onto the hotel’s Wi-Fi, and from there, it only took about fifteen minutes of perusing travel sites to find a reasonably cheap way home. A series of one-way tickets to Lisbon, Boston, Chicago, and Des Moines, and I had my trip home secured. It would be a long ride, and it was tempting to nix that hop to Des Moines and just get a rental car, but I’d be so tired and jetlagged by then that driving was probably a bad idea. At least I’d managed to score cheap upgrades to economy plus for the longer flights; I could handle being folded into cattle class for an hour or two, but any longer than that and I wouldn’t be able to walk.

After I’d finished booking everything, I closed my laptop. Eric looked up from the pamphlet he’d unfolded and spread across his lap. “All set?”

“Yep. Get anywhere with planning our tour?”

He nodded. “Turns out it picks up over by that big roundabout. So we don’t even have too far to walk.”

“Perfect.”

He put the map aside and started to unpack his suitcase. While he did that, I went to the window to check out our view. A pair of heavy shutters coated in thick gray paint covered the window, so I undid the latch and pushed them open, and we both flinched like vampires as the Italian sun poured in.

Our room overlooked the busy street we’d walked down earlier. Little had changed aside from the angle of my view. From here, I could see the souvenirs strewn across the vendors’ tables, and I could see from the roundabout where the cabbie had dropped us off clear down to what looked like some kind of monument. It was a huge white building with lots of stairs and some statues and pillars on top. I had no idea what it was called or what it was for, but I could look it up later.

There were restaurants everywhere, tiny tables clustered just outside the flow of foot traffic on the sidewalks. Even from here, I could smell everything from baking bread to something garlicky, all mingling with car exhaust and a few things I wasn’t sure I wanted to identify. It wasn’t overpowering; just the smell of a city coming on stronger than usual after I’d been on a ship for the last week and a half.

Eric appeared beside me, and he rested his hand on the small of my back. “Hey.”

I glanced at him. “Hey.”

His thumb drew little arcs across my spine. “You all right?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“You’ve been kind of quiet since we got in the cab.”

“Oh. Yeah, I…” I swallowed. “I’m…”

For the first time, I saw my own uneasiness in his eyes. He held my gaze but then looked out at the street below us, chewing his lip as his forehead creased.

Oh crap. Was he having second thoughts too?

“Are we crazy?” I blurted out. “For doing this?”

I didn’t realize just how much I’d been hoping for him to shake his head and insist we weren’t until… he didn’t.

Shoulders heavy, he sighed and kept his gaze fixed on something outside. “I don’t know. Maybe?”

I swallowed again. Silence hung between us, the air suddenly more awkward than it had been since we’d met. Since that fateful moment when I’d come around a corner without paying attention and crashed headlong into the most gorgeous man I’d ever seen. We’d fumbled through apologies then, and that had been the end of it, but we weren’t strangers now. And there was no dusting ourselves off and hurrying away before embarrassment set in. We were here. We were in the same room. I didn’t even have my own cabin this time, so if things got weird, they were staying that way.

Beside me, Eric exhaled. Then, rolling his shoulders, he turned to me, and some of his usual confidence had returned to his expression. “I don’t know if this is crazy or not. I really don’t.” He lowered his gaze, and we both watched his hand slide over the top of mine on the windowsill. “I’m not backing out, though.”

I pressed my lips together, biting back a comment about how I couldn’t back out. There was no way I could afford a room on my own, and I sure as shit couldn’t get another plane ticket on a moment’s notice. The one I’d booked for two weeks from now had pretty much tapped me out. I couldn’t afford to stay in Rome on my own, and I couldn’t afford to leave sooner than I already was.

But I didn’t want Eric to think I was staying with him because there was no turning back now. I wanted to be with him. I really did. It was just the realization that I couldn’t back out that had me balking now.

“You’re not backing out,” I said, “but do you want to do this? Or—”

“Of course I do.” His face lit up in that smile that had driven me wild all along, and he touched my cheek. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like I was sticking this out or obligated. I want you here with me, and I know we’re going to have an amazing time. I’m…” The smile faltered a little, and he swallowed. “I guess I’m just a little nervous. That’s all.”

Nodding, I whispered, “Me too. It was such a heat of the moment thing, and now that we’re here…”

He cocked his head. “Do you regret it?”

“No,” I said before I could think twice. And then I did think twice, and… no, I didn’t regret it. As worried as I was that this was a mistake, I still believed a bigger mistake would’ve been getting on that plane. One way or the other, I was going to be kicking myself. It was just a question of doing it here in a hotel with Eric or on a plane with my parents. Given the choice… “No, I don’t regret it. I’m just nervous too.” I put a tentative hand on his side. “I don’t want to screw this up.”

“Neither do I.” He stepped closer, wrapping his arms around me, and kissed me softly. “Listen, we’re both on the same page, and I think we’re going to be fine. What we’re doing, it’s a big step and yeah, it’s kind of risky.” The smile came back to life, sending a tingle through me. “But it feels like a risk that’s worth taking, you know?”

I smiled too despite my deep-seated fear of risk-taking, and I slid my hands up his back. “Yeah, it does.”

“Then let’s just enjoy ourselves. Let’s settle in, go find some amazing Italian food to gorge ourselves on, and have the time of our lives.” The smile turned to a grin that was so deliciously Eric. “And have tons of awesome sex in between.”

I shivered, pressing my fingers into his back and pulling him closer to me. “You really know how to sell a guy on a trip, don’t you?”

He laughed, then kissed me again, and in his arms, I relaxed. A little, anyway. What he’d said made sense, and I fully believed we were going to have a great time. I was glad he was still onboard. I was too.

But deep down, I couldn’t shake the fear we were making a huge mistake.