Port of Miami
The elevator was hot and humid despite the air conditioning, filled with four other students, their luggage, and the unmistakable taste of excitement and salt water.
With a ding, the doors opened on the tenth floor, and the bellboy got off with my luggage. Wait. Were they called bellboys on cruise ships? Cabin stewards? I should have probably known that, seeing as this ship was my home for the next nine months.
“Wait,” I said, following him. “This isn’t my floor.”
“No mistake,” he promised, tossing a cute grin over his white-uniformed shoulder. “Your room is right this way, Miss Baxter.”
I flipped through my file folder while trying not to trip over my feet or the other students crowding the narrow hall during move-in day. “See?” I asked, waving the paper from my “room and board” section. “I’m supposed to be on the fourth floor.”
In steerage. I laughed to myself, dodging a sweaty guy with frat letters on his sleeveless tee as he manhandled a suitcase into a room on my right.
“I have you on this deck,” he answered, correcting my terminology. “Do you know if your roommate is here yet?”
“She came down with mono three days ago.” And I already missed my best friend. Guilt sank my heart. Was her mom taking care of her? Was she getting enough rest? She’d taken such good care of me when I needed her the last two years, and I’d just left her. She told you to.
Considering I hadn’t left the house without Rachel pushing me in the last two years—hell, at first getting out of bed had been nearly impossible—I could barely believe that I’d actually come without her.
But she’d been right—living my life didn’t mean I loved him less, it just meant I loved myself, too.
“Oh, no. Did she get a refund?” he asked, waiting for another group to cross in front of us into their room.
“No, she’ll be here at the start of next term.” Thank God the Study at Sea program worked on the trimester system, otherwise Rachel would have had to wait until January to come. Instead, she could join us in Abu Dhabi in November.
Abu Dhabi. Being accepted to this program—a full academic year studying on a worldwide cruise—had been surreal. But now I was actually living it. I was really in Miami, saying good-bye to the U.S. for nine entire months. I just never imagined—or wanted—to do it on my own.
But that was why I’d agreed to this program, right? It was time to step out of the comfort zone I’d walled myself into the last two years, and it would look killer when I applied to graduate programs for International Relations.
Besides, Rachel couldn’t hold my hand for the rest of my life.
“Here we are,” the cabin steward said, fumbling with the card key as we reached the back—aft, I corrected myself—corner of the ship.
Two girls in short dresses bumped into me, apologizing as they passed. They giggled with a lightness I slightly envied and entered the room on the opposite corner from mine.
“Sorry,” the cabin steward apologized. “It’s only my second day on the ship, and I don’t have the hang of these locks yet.” He sighed in relief when the door clicked open.
“It’s okay,” I said as he held the door for me. “Thank you, Hugo,” I added after reading the green tag on his shirt.
“No problem,” he said as I passed him, walking into the entry hall of the suite.
“Yeah, that was my reaction, too,” he said with a soft chuckle.
“Oh, I said that out loud?” I asked, more distracted by the marble floors and the sheer size of the suite.
His brown eyes danced with laughter. “It’s your room. Feel free to swear as much as you want. Hall closet is here.” He pointed to a door on the right.
Hall closet? My entire room should have fit in there.
I tuned him out and simply walked. There were two bedrooms off to the right, connected by a large bathroom with double sinks, a shower, and a jetted tub. Seriously?
I picked my jaw up off the floor as I made my way farther into the suite. There was a dining area set up with a table to seat six and a living room with supple, buttery leather couches and a big-screen TV. But it wasn’t the space that had me speechless—it was the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the exquisite suite. What would it be like to wake up every day here for the next nine months? To walk through those huge doors to the balcony and bask in the sunlight?
To be the kind of person who could even think about affording this?
It was perfect, but it wasn’t mine.
If this place was on my bill for even one week, I could kiss every dollar of my savings good-bye.
“Hugo, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m in the work-study program. I’m supposed to be on deck four.”
He stopped inspecting how my mini-fridge was stocked and looked up at me. “Right. I know.” He shook his head. “I mean that I know you’re in the program. I am, too. But you’re supposed to be here, I promise. You’re a tutor, right?”
I nodded. That had been the offer that had woken me up, brought me back to life this year: if I tutored one student on the Athena, not only would my tuition, field-studies, and room and board be paid, but the program would do the same for Rachel. As soon as I’d made sure that it wasn’t some cruel joke, I’d pinched myself and signed the papers. With my parents under a Hollywood-Hills-house amount of medical bills, and Rachel’s uber-uptight parents declaring that she couldn’t go if I didn’t…well, everything had fallen into place perfectly.