It’s an offer she can’t refuse…and can’t escape.
True: Charlotte has an unsavory past. She married the wrong man, got caught up in his con artist games, took what wasn’t hers. She got out, though: divorced Sam, started fresh.
False: She left him before things went too far. Nothing bad happened.
True: Sam is missing, and before he disappeared, he left cryptic messages about someone threatening him—someone who has been threatening Charlotte, too.
True: She’s on the straight and narrow, has accepted a job as a personal assistant for an engagement party on board a private luxury cruise ship, the Cleobella.
False: No one on board knows about her past, and she’s far away from anyone who means her harm.
As the Cleobella sails through its glittering destinations—the Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago—increasingly sinister events haunt the guests, and the turquoise waves and sun-drenched beaches give way to something darker. Someone knows what Charlotte did. Is it the blushing bride? The seemingly placid mother-in-law? Or the mysterious heiress?
Someone knows, and someone wants revenge—before the ship reaches its final port.
Eighteen Months Ago
A TIP-OFF. THAT COULD BE THE ONLY EXPLANATION.
Dreaded realization filtered through the rows of passengers and crew in the cruise terminal via mutters about delays intermingled with curiosity and general resignation at the inevitable holdup. Sickening dread roiled deep in my gut. Surreptitiously, I glanced back at the queue snaking behind me. Still no sign of Sam. Where was he?
The person in front of me took a step forward, pushing his backpack with a foot. Reluctantly, I followed.
Sam had only darted back to the ship to pick up his watch, carelessly left beside the basin in his cabin. It should have taken him fifteen minutes—twenty max. He had insisted that I save our place in the line to save time. Our flight to freedom was less than four hours away.
I messaged him.
Where the hell are you? Hurry up! I am nearly at the front of the line.
Well, not quite, but it was true enough.
Indecision kept me rooted to the spot. Sam would be annoyed if I lost our place. It would break one of our rules about blending in. Then again, neither of us was thinking straight. Our nerves were frayed. We were both tense after a wakeful night dissecting what had gone wrong, each of us blaming the other. But he left me with no choice. We always disembarked together. We had each other’s backs. Rule number one.
I tried to calm my fears. The upheaval wasn’t necessarily anything to do with us. I was too quick to jump to worst-case scenarios, usually after my conscience had given me a good poke. Sam and I excelled at slipping beneath the radar, despite his popularity.
In the corner of the vast, high-ceilinged building, portable air-conditioning units blasted out woefully inadequate cool air. My heart pounded so hard it almost hurt. Sweat slid down my spine. I stepped out of line and walked back in the direction of the ship. James, head of the ship’s security team, was standing by the exit. Relief. He would know where Sam was.
Strangely, James didn’t acknowledge or return my greeting. His manner was uncharacteristically off. No, he said. I couldn’t go back on board.
“But Sam should have been back by now,” I said. “He only went for something he’d forgotten.”
“Just wait for him in line. He’ll show up. There’s nowhere else for him to go. This is the only exit.”
“What’s going on?” I said, trying to cajole James into thawing his attitude.
I opted for a friendly, neutral tone. And why not? We were colleagues, after all. Friends, companions. Equals, really.
“There are searches, from time to time.”
“Not that I’ve ever seen,” I said. “I hope it doesn’t hold us up. What is it? Drugs? Weapons?”
I smiled, safe in the knowledge that I was carrying neither.
“Get back in the line,” said James. “Wait for Sam there.”
I had no choice. As I turned, I saw Sam up ahead. He must have joined a different line. His bag was already being searched. How the hell had we missed each other? Why hadn’t he called me? Why did he go through without me?
There was nothing I could do but rejoin the queue and watch. I couldn’t read the expression of the person searching his bag, but the body language appeared at ease. Jolly, even. Everything felt off, badly wrong. Fragments of our heated conversation last night started piecing together. Just wait until I get hold of Sam, I thought. I would kill him for breaking our rules and putting me through all this extra stress.
I watched as Sam exited into the outside world. I could imagine the sun brushing his face as he inhaled the warmth of the Caribbean air. I distracted myself by dissecting the type of people they were pulling over. Lone travelers. Fresh, bubbling red rage at Sam rose. I called him. Straight to voice mail.
I was now among the stragglers, recognizing some of the faces. God, this was torture. I fought the urge to push to the front, explain about Sam and ask to be whisked through so that I could catch up with him, find out what the hell he was playing at. Breathe, breathe, breathe, I repeated over and over in my mind. I can do this. It’s all about playing the game.
A calmness descended over me as I was beckoned forward. One step after another, a neutral expression on my face. I could see the sun through the glass doors. No sign of Sam in the crowds beyond. I focused on the large brandy or whiskey I was going to order on the flight. I thought about the type of movie I would watch, a comedy or something light and easy to absorb. Or maybe I wouldn’t bother with any distractions at all. I could use the time to think.
Half a yard, then another. The man in front was pulled over to my right, with a brusque wave. A harmless-looking elderly couple was also summoned. Not me. Not yet. I was so nearly there. Please, God. I know I’ve made mistakes. I know I’ve made bad choices, but just let me keep walking and I will make amends.
“Can you come over this way, please, and place your bags on the table?”
I smiled. “Yes, of course.”
Everything turned numb, as though this was happening to someone else. Invincibility was Sam’s superpower, not mine.
Victimless. That is what Sam and I had always said about the people we befriended. Relax, I told myself. They won’t find anything. I’d triple-checked, hadn’t I?
My bag felt unusually heavy as I lifted it up. It was still covered in hotel, airline and cruise stickers. Funny, the inconsequential things I focused on. Sam often told me to scrape them off. “Bland and anonymous is always best. The smallest of details can offer up rich clues to the wrong people.” He would know.
“Open your bags, please.”
My mouth was dry. I rotated the combination on my lock: one, eight, eight, my birth date and month, a small act of rebellion when it came to Sam’s insistence never to do the obvious. It clicked open. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to lift the lid, to display my personal belongings ready for public inspection. It was humiliating.
The officer lost patience and did it for me. Time slowed as he unzipped the bag. Nestling on top of my favorite red blouse was something that, although familiar, didn’t belong to me.
“That’s not mine.” I reached to grab it, to remove the emerald necklace from its nest among my possessions. Someone had put it there.
“Stand back, please.”
I felt the fresh horror rise inside me as two other customs officers walked over and peered at the necklace.
“I said it’s not mine. Someone has been in my bag.”
Stony faces, bland expressions, dismissive words.
I tried again.
“You need to go through the CCTV, check who entered our cabin. Someone planted this.”
I looked from face to face.
I should’ve kept quiet. They’d already decided that I was guilty. A thief. Someone without rights.
Anger replaced fear as my privacy was violated. My swimwear, toiletries, underwear, shoes, travel guides, my Spanish-language course books, my costume jewelry, my every-bloody-thing was removed and examined by careless rubber-gloved hands.
A glimmer of hope ignited when their search concluded. All they had found was something that was such an obvious plant. The necklace rested on the side of the counter, taunting me. Not for the first time either. Magpie-like, the moment I had first spotted the emerald-and-diamond choker with a teardrop pendant, I longed to own it. Green was most definitely the color of envy.
“Come with us, please.”
I was shown to an interview room. I could hear a baby crying outside. Alone, without my belongings, I had time to piece things together. Grim reality, like a blast of icy water. I had been sacrificed, thrown under the bus. Sam knew. He’d been tipped off. Instead of saving the two of us, he’d chosen to save himself. “For better, for worse” clearly no longer applied. It was a final act of cruelty. A brutal end, regardless of how rocky our marriage had been. All that mattered was himself.
Time spooled and distorted. I sat, trying to appear nonchalant, yet as outraged as an innocent could be, robbed of her freedom. I felt watched. The heat stifled me. I wanted to plunge into a cold pool, swim below the surface, somehow wash away the dirty feelings that threatened to swallow me whole.
Anger took over as I sat there. I wasn’t taking the rap—no way. As two police officers walked into the room, I was prepared to embrace my inner canary. Whatever it took. But it became clear I wouldn’t need to sing that day.
I was free to go. It had all been a terrible mistake. Huge apologies. Strange, but true. My belongings—even the necklace—were returned.
Outside, despite the heat of the midday sun, I wanted to run. I had got away with it. I was free. Except… I wasn’t.
I didn’t like the person I had become—hadn’t for a long time. Something needed to change. Sam’s customary reassurances that “all would be well” had been my elixir. It smoothed away fears and doubts, the ones my conscience tried in vain to shove to the forefront of my mind during the darkest hours. The sudden and horrible unraveling of our gilded situation was the result of arrogance. His and mine.
But for now, I had to put myself first. I walked toward the shade and sat on a bench beneath a palm tree. I had less than two hours to catch my flight, but I could still make it. I sent Sam a message.
Call me. ASAP.
I hailed a cab to take me from the cruise terminal to the airport, deciding to make one detour to a friend’s house en route. I wanted to hide my pot of gold somewhere safe.
As we drew into the airport, fear took hold again. What if I was making a mistake? In a daze, I checked in. The airline staff wouldn’t tell me if Sam had checked in too. I called him again even though I knew, deep down, that there wouldn’t be an answer. As I placed my bag down to go through the X-ray machine, I heard my phone beep. I had to wait more painful minutes while my bag passed through the checks before I could snatch up my phone and read it. Sam!
What the hell was he doing?
Sam’s empty plane seat taunted me all the way to London as I planned the things I was going to say and do when I next saw him. Because I would see him again. He wasn’t the only piece of unfinished business, because there was someone else I needed to track down too. The real owner of the necklace and the catalyst behind our downfall and the death of our marriage.
Excerpted from The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton, Copyright © 2022 by Karen Hamilton. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.