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A Cruise With Romance

Chapter 1

Come to the town where soul mates find each other.

The pop-up ad in bold, blue letters against a sandy beach background filled her laptop’s screen while Cara McGill was reading a travel blog, looking for a possible destination for her grand escape.

After another show in another unfamiliar city, she hadn’t stopped thinking about what it would be like to disappear for a while, to just be Cara, just a normal Irish girl, instead of Carrie Starr, the rising Irish pop-folk musician who’d been climbing the US charts with her first album. Her popularity had been skyrocketing in all of New England, after she took up the pub scene with her traditional yet modern Irish music, and had slowly been spreading throughout the States—especially after she’d recently gotten engaged to Lennon Getz, one of America’s most desired rock stars.

Her mother was in the adjoining hotel room with her manager, no doubt working on some new publicity stunt that would put her in the spotlight—like the fake engagement had been—and Cara had taken advantage of being alone to browse the Internet undisturbed and find a way to get away from it all, if only for a few days.

She closed the banner and went on reading the blog post about the cutest and most authentic small-town escapes in America where one could live a stress-free life. From quaint mountain villages to western cowboy towns, the offer was broad—and way too tempting. She didn’t really have a preference, as long as it was far enough to give her a few days before they found her. Just enough time to get a taste of life without worrying about reporters, fans, or demanding managers.

The biggest treasure is hidden inside the heart.

Another ad popped up on the screen, this time with a treasure chest overflowing with gold and jewels on a white sand beach. She tried to close it, but she must have clicked on it instead, because a new website replaced the travel blog. “Welcome to Destiny’s Cove, the town where soul mates find each other” took up half of the home page, while images of pirate ships, blue skies, and crystal-clear waters played in a slideshow below the title.

“Maybe my soul mate is waiting for me in this town,” she said, chuckling at the silly thought. Nevertheless, she decided to take a look, and the more images she saw, the stronger her resolution became. She’d barely had the time to read that Destiny’s Cove was a small coastal town in the southwest of Florida founded by pirates, that it counted all of 1,250 residents, and it included five small islands off the coast, before the sound of heels clicking on the wooden floor of the adjoining room alerted her to her mother’s imminent arrival.

Cara closed the page and deleted her browsing history, just as a knock came at the door. Mind made up—who would consider looking for her in such a small town?—she put her obedient daughter mask back in place, all while planning how to sneak away.

Two shows and seven days later, she watched the taillights of the bus disappear into the dark, taking a bit of her confidence with them, as she stood on a sidewalk in Destiny’s Cove.

Her mother had surely noticed her absence by now, and Cara hoped she’d found the note she’d left, together with the engagement ring, on the bed in her hotel room in Orlando, just before she’d picked up her backpack and fiddle case and run. Hurting her mother was the last thing she wanted, and she’d tried to explain in a few lines how heavy the burden she’d been carrying for seven years had become.

Maureen McGill had given up on her dream because of Cara. Living that dream for her mother was the least she could do, to show her gratitude and appreciation for what she’d done for Cara over twenty-four years.

She glanced at her surroundings. The town was quiet and only a handful of people lingered on the street in front of what looked like a pub. Her stomach growled. In her haste to leave, she’d withdrawn just enough cash not to raise suspicion, and most of it had gone into the bus ticket. Without the credit card she’d had to leave behind in order not to be traced, she’d have to make do until she found a job.

Fear slithered down her back, and she hugged the fiddle case to her chest, seeking comfort in her old, loyal friend. It was the only thing from her life as Carrie Starr she’d taken with her and couldn’t leave behind. She’d never parted with it ever since Santa, a.k.a. her grandfather, had given it to her when she was six. After saying goodbye to her friends in Ireland and being transplanted to America at fourteen, she’d never managed to get close enough to anyone again, too focused on her career to have time to make friends. Her fiddle was the only friend she could count on.

A group of four men exited the pub then, and a whiff of fries and grilled meat wafted out. Her stomach growled again, angrier this time. Yes, she’d have to be careful what she spent her money on, but she couldn’t die of starvation. A sandwich wouldn’t leave her broke, after all.

As she approached the building, she smiled at the wooden sign hanging next to the door. It bore a skull wearing an Irish flag bandanna and an eyepatch with a shamrock, and the words “Wilde Pirate, Irish Pub” were in bright green Celtic font. It was a funny coincidence that the first place she’d been drawn to was an Irish pub.

She’d expected to walk into a musty old place that smelled of beer and fries. Instead, the inside of the pub was clean and well lit, and though it had pirate and sea references here and there, it exuded a true Irish vibe, just like the pubs she’d visited when she’d gone to see her grandparents in Ireland a few months before. Though they didn’t approve of her career choice—or actually, of the career her mother had chosen for her—they were happy when she spared a few days in her busy life to spend a little time with them. Ever since she’d left County Kildare and moved to Boston to pursue her mother’s dream on her behalf, she hadn’t seen much of them, apart from the occasional video chats.

Just another thing this glossy life had taken away from her.

At that very moment, she was struck by the realization that, as much as she loved her mother, Cara was done living her life for her. She didn’t want to be part of that world anymore, and once she had a clearer idea of her future, she would go back and tell Maureen she no longer wanted to be a musician. She had no idea what would happen then, if they’d go back to Ireland or stay in America, but she was sure they’d be able to come up with a plan that would work out for both of them. Her mother would understand, she was sure.

Feeling lighter after the unexpected epiphany, she approached the counter, appreciating the little details that made it look like a real Irish pub. Either the owner was Irish or he’d done a lot of research on the subject.

“Ahoy, Miss.” The handsome black-haired, blue-eyed bartender welcomed her with a smile. For a moment, she thought he’d recognized her, that maybe hiding her strawberry-blond hair underneath a colorful headscarf pinup-style and wearing her oversized red-rimmed glasses she could never wear outside of her house or her hotel room hadn’t been good enough camouflage. In her haste to run away before someone spotted her—or before she changed her mind—she hadn’t thought about cutting her hair or wearing a wig. She could only hope that, since this town was so small, her growing fame hadn’t reached it yet.

“Miss, are you okay?” He stared at her with a worried frown.

“Yeah, sorry. I…uh…had a long day and I haven’t eaten since this morning.”

“Then we must remedy that, before you pass out on my floor. Here, take a menu and tell me what you’d like.” His accent had an Irish inflection, though it was clear to her he’d grown up in America. In a way, it made her feel less homesick. She’d never really adjusted to living in America, maybe because she grew up in a small town in the Irish countryside, and American cities felt too big to her. She missed knowing everyone, meeting friendly faces on familiar streets, feeling like part of a community. The only friendly faces she’d been around since moving to Boston nearly ten years before were those of the people who worked with or for her—and they got paid to be friendly and endure her mother’s requests. Cara had never acted like a star, even after her popularity had escalated—she just went with whatever her mother chose for her, knowing putting up a fight would be useless. It was actually her mother who acted like a diva. Maureen McGill had been living vicariously through her daughter, since she’d had to give up her own rising career when she got pregnant with Cara at twenty-one and her boyfriend had refused to let responsibility for a child get in the way of his becoming a famous guitarist.

Cara had done everything her mother told her, but enough was enough. She wanted to be free to live her life, to make her own decisions, and to keep a low profile away from the media.

Her stomach rumbled, reminding her she’d better place her order if she didn’t want to crumple to the floor.

“I’ll have a Wicked Leprechaun Burger with fries and a Coke, please,” she said, smiling at the funny names on the menu.

“Great choice,” he said, punching in her order on a touch-screen cash register, then he nodded toward her black case sitting on the floor. “Is that a violin you have there?”

“It’s an Irish fiddle.”

“Hey, that’s cool. Would you like to go on stage and play a couple of songs? Patrons enjoy live music, especially the impromptu performances by tourists passing through town.”

She smiled and shook her head. She wasn’t sure playing in a crowded pub would be a good idea. If people recorded her performance with their phones and posted the videos online, they would blow her cover. She had to keep a low profile and blend in while she decided what she was going to do.

“Well, if you change your mind, the stage is all yours,” he said, before he disappeared behind a set of swinging doors, re-emerging ten minutes later with her plate.

“Are you Irish?” she asked, as she reached for a steak fry. His face cracked into a smile.

“I was born in Cork but we moved here when I was three. Hard to lose the accent completely when you live in an Irish household.” He cocked his head to the side and stared at her. “You have an accent too. Are you a tourist, or a transplant like me?”

She bit the fry absentmindedly, as she thought of a reply that wouldn’t give her away. “A bit of both. I’ve been living in Minnesota for ten years but got sick of the cold, so I decided to move south.”

Though she was a lousy liar, she couldn’t help making up a story. She couldn’t risk him putting two and two together and realizing who she was.

“What made you pick Destiny’s Cove? Do you have a job here already?”

She shook her head. “It was a bit of a spur-of-the-moment decision, to be honest. I saw an ad and liked the idea of living in a beach town.”

“Well, if you’re interested, I could use an extra waitress, since my current one is getting married in a few days and going to Australia for three weeks on her honeymoon. My sister said she’d help, but I don’t want to risk her soaking patrons when she delivers their orders.” He chuckled, then nodded toward a guy who’d flagged him down at the other end of the counter. “Think about it while you enjoy your burger.”

Once she was alone, she took a big bite of her double-bacon burger with chili sauce, and closed her eyes in pure delight as her taste buds had a celebration inside her mouth. She was happy this pub was the first business she’d come across—not only did they serve the most delicious food she’d ever tasted, but she’d also received a job offer less than an hour after being in town. Maybe there was a reason the town was named Destiny’s Cove; maybe she’d felt an almost physical pull toward this town because this place was in her destiny.

She wolfed down the rest of her dinner in record time, feeling slightly more relaxed as she looked around, trying to picture herself weaving among tables, laughing at some joke from one of the regulars, recommending the daily special, delivering drinks with a genuine smile on her face—just like the waitress was doing. It would be nice to be someone else for a while, or actually to be herself. If nobody found out who she really was, she could work there, if only for the time the regular waitress was on her honeymoon. At least it would provide the cash she needed to avoid having to go back until she decided what to do next. At some point she’d have to get in touch with her mother and tell her where she was, share her plans with her, and hope she’d accept her decision. For now, she was going to take it one day at a time and see if she was capable of living her own life without an entourage telling her what to do. It was quite possible she’d end up getting desperate and run back to Mammy, accepting defeat. She wouldn’t go down without trying, though. Her pride wouldn’t let her.

When the bartender returned, she built up her courage and told him she was up for the job, though she admitted to not having any experience.

“I’m pretty desperate at the moment, and I bet anyone would do better than my sister.” He offered his hand, and she let out the breath she’d been holding. “By the way, I’m Conor Callaghan. And you can start tomorrow, if you want.”

“Cara McGill.” She shook his hand, smiling as confidence and hope filled her chest. For the first time in months, maybe even years, she felt truly excited and couldn’t wait to get started.

Once they’d set up a time for her to show up in the morning, she paid for her food and drink, then picked up her backpack and her leather fiddle case, and walked out. The air was warm for a late May night and smelled of sea and salt, with a faint tinge of fish. She filled her lungs with it and closed her eyes, imagining a quiet life in this small town—strolling on the beach at sunrise before heading to work, greeting people on the streets, then taking part in jam sessions at the pub with other musicians, for once feeling part of a group instead of a celebrity everyone expected the best from. She’d always loved music, way before she became a star, and she’d never stop playing her beloved fiddle, even if it was just for her own personal pleasure, just as a way to unwind. But the never-ending rat race, always striving to give her best performance yet so as not to disappoint anyone had somehow taken the fun out of it. She felt like she was falling out of love with music, and she hated that.

She wandered around the quiet streets, not sure where to spend the night. After she’d paid for her dinner and checked the stash of bills left in her purse, she’d realized getting a room in a hotel, or even at the cheap B&B Conor had suggested before she’d walked out of the pub, wasn’t in the cards. If she didn’t want to end up begging for food, she had to save her stash, at least until she received her first paycheck. Before she realized where she was going, she found herself at the docks, standing in front of a double-decked yacht.

Destiny’s Ark Boat Tours” was written on the side of the white hull. She doubted they offered night tours, so if she crashed on the deck for a few hours nobody would be any the wiser. Tomorrow, she’d think of an alternative. She’d take it one day at a time, until she knew for sure what she was going to do next.

She looked left and right, checking she was alone, then hurried to the boat and hoisted herself up and onto the deck, lying down on one of the benches that ran along the side.

If anyone found her there, she could end up in jail. Her mother would never forgive her if she spoiled the good-girl image she’d worked so hard to build. Yet, she’d never felt more excited. As a rush of adrenaline ran through her, she closed her eyes and let out a contented sigh. Her new life would rise with the sun in the morning, and she couldn’t wait to live it.

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