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Castaways by Claire Thompson (1)

Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

Sam Jamison stared out at the water, mesmerized by the gradation of color, from aquamarine to azure to the deeper royal blues farther out near the horizon. He thought about heading down to his cabin to retrieve his portable easel, but doubted the people around him on the elegant cruise ship would appreciate it.

Instead, he pulled out his phone and took several pictures, so different from the pictures he’d taken that morning of the same water at dawn, when it had been layered in gray, foamy green, pink and liquid gold.

Tucking his phone back in his shorts pocket, he leaned over the railing, still floored by Tim Fletcher’s generosity. The gallery owner had not only agreed to give Sam a show in his prestigious Chelsea art gallery, but he’d insisted Sam use his cruise package when he’d had an unavoidable conflict at the last minute.

“Listen, Sam. Just take it,” Tim had said. “I can’t use it. My sister’s in the business and she got it for me for ten cents on the dollar. Take the week off. You deserve it. We’ve already sold half your canvases, and we’ll probably sell out the show before you get back. No more living on ramen noodles and store brand soda, buddy. Your shoestring days are over.”

Life was good.

Sam was finally making enough money from his art to rent space for his own proper studio. He’d found the perfect location in a warehouse district in Brooklyn. The neighborhood hadn’t yet been discovered, reclaimed and renovated totally out of the average person’s price range. He’d signed a six-month lease for the loft of a four-story building, and he couldn’t wait to get to work on it. It was all windows and light—he could paint any time of the day with natural light coming in from somewhere.

In fact, he’d almost turned down this chance at a free cruise, so eager was he to get his studio set up. But Tim was right—he’d been working so hard for so long to get enough pieces for the show that he had been teetering on the edge of burnout. Hopefully, this cruise would provide just the rest and relaxation he needed to refuel.

Someone brushed past Sam, lightly bumping his shoulder as he passed. “Oh, sorry about that,” a deep masculine voice said. “I was so busy staring at the ocean I didn’t see you there.”

Sam turned to see a tall man in a white T-shirt and black swimming trunks, a towel over his shoulder. He was muscular more in the way of a swimmer than a body builder, with broad shoulders that tapered to a narrow waist. “No problem,” Sam said with a smile.

No problem at all. You are fucking gorgeous.

The man smiled back, revealing square white teeth in his lightly tanned face. His eyes were a vivid blue, clear as the ocean on a calm day. He gave a brief nod and continued on, walking toward the pool farther down along the deck. As he moved, Sam admired his shapely ass and long, muscular legs. Sam’s cock stiffened in his shorts, and he turned back toward the water to hide his erection. He didn’t get a gay vibe from the man, but a guy can always dream…

~*~

Donovan McNair awoke with a shock, his heart pounding. What the hell was that damn noise? A loud clanging filled the room and he could hear it echoing all over the ship. Then a voice came over the loudspeakers.

“This is not a drill. Everyone, please go to your assigned secure area immediately. Put on your lifejackets and get out of your rooms quickly. This is not a drill. Repeat—this is not a drill.”

Donovan staggered to his feet in the tiny cabin, still not thinking clearly. He almost lost his balance as the floor of the cabin suddenly tilted violently beneath his feet. “Fuck,” he breathed, grabbing his underwear and pulling it on. As the sirens blared, he pulled on the jeans, shirt and sandals he’d dropped in a heap near the bed. He scrambled for the life jacket tucked in the bottom drawer of the bureau, pulling it on as he lurched toward the door.

The first day on board, the passengers had all been required to attend a lengthy safety drill. They were lectured about procedures in the event of an emergency, and given a demonstration on how to use their life jackets, how to release the lifeboats and how to lower and use the ladders to get into them.

Donovan had been only marginally more concerned regarding the demonstrations than he might be over the flight attendant on an airplane discussing the use of his seat as a floatation device. Statistically, it was far more likely that he would be in a car accident than that anything would happen on this huge ship.

Now, as he hurried along with other frightened, sleep-tousled passengers toward his assigned security area, Donovan wished he had paid closer attention. A crush of people sweeping past him sent him sprawling into a large fat woman, who was knocked over by his impact. Apologizing, he tried to help her up, but she shook him off, shouting in a panicked voice, “Get away from me! Get out of my way!”

The loudspeaker clicked on again, a voice announcing everyone should get out of the lower decks and move to the top deck, as the fire in the engine room was out of control.

Fire!

A deafening explosion rocked the ship, hurtling people willy-nilly. The ship was listing heavily now. A woman and small child fell to the ground. Pushing through the throng, Donovan tried to get to them. He shouted but his voice was lost over the cacophony of screaming people and ship alarm bells.

Finally, he managed to reach the pair. The kid was screaming, the mother sobbing. He got them to their feet and shoved through the crowd to make way for them. They were pushed forward and folded into the throng. As he tried to follow, a large man thudded past him, hitting him hard in the shoulder and making him lose his balance.

When he finally made it to the top deck, crewmembers were helping sobbing and hysterical passengers secure their life jackets and climb down into the waiting lifeboats. As Donovan watched, the world seemed to slow down. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears. The roar of his own blood blocked out much of the screaming and crying of those around him. He watched in an almost detached fashion as huge lifeboat after lifeboat was released into the water, and huddled groups of terrified passengers were herded onto them, fifty to a boat.

The ship shifted suddenly, causing Donovan to lose his footing. People were falling and sliding all around him. Desperately, he grabbed at the railing as a huge wave slapped up onto the deck. The water smashed into him like a solid brick wall, shocking and completely disorienting him.

The rail was wrenched from his hands as the wave engulfed him, dragging him overboard as it crashed back down, smacking him hard into the chilly water.

He was submerged for a moment before his lifejacket buoyed him above the churning waters. Struggling to catch his breath, he shook his hair from his eyes and stared up at the sinking ship. It was listing badly, nearly upended, half of it already beneath the roiling waves. There were dozens of lifeboats, all filled with passengers. Crew members on smaller rafts were floating nearby.

The tug of the ocean’s currents pulled Donovan away from the melee, even as he yelled at the top of his lungs and tried frantically to swim toward one of the many lifeboats.

“Ah, Jesus,” he whispered. “What a way to die.”

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