Beach Book of the Week
Reviewed by Cynthia Sanz
They met in divorce court, where they were dumping their respective husbands. Now the best of friends, Elaine Zimmerman, Jackie Gault and Pat Kovecky call themselves the Three Blond Mice and take yearly vacations together. On this year’s itinerary: a weeklong cruise aboard the Princess Charming, where they hope to enjoy rest, relaxation and-who knows? — perhaps a little romance.
Their second night at sea, Zimmerman, a plucky but slightly paranoid PR executive, overhears snatches of a ship-to-shore call between an onboard hit man and someone who has hired the killer to murder his former wife. Is one of the Mice the intended victim? Is the hit man one of the trio’s new male admirers, each of whom seems to have something to hide? Heller, herself a former PR exec, has created a seamless read that blends romance, mystery and wit.
Though light on suspense — a veteran romance reader will have little doubt how the drama will be resolved — this Princess is a shipload of fun.
March 1, 1997
Reviewed by Melanie Duncan
When Elaine, Jackie, and Pat plan their yearly getaway, they are unprepared for life on the luxury liner Princess Charming. Elaine agonizes over how her travel agent lied to her: the quality of the single men on the ship is debatable, and she can’t see out the porthole in her minuscule cabin because a lifeboat hangs there! When Elaine overhears a plot to murder a divorced woman onboard the ship, she suspects every man she meets of being the hit man. When Jackie becomes ill, or is poisoned, and Pat falls down the stairs, or is pushed, Elaine finds a threatening note and must race against time to find the man who has orders to kill before the cruise returns to Miami. Heller uses stereotypical passengers and situations to highlight the humor of Elaine’s plight. She is surrounded by amorous octogenarians, feuding newlyweds, and polyester heaven, and her reactions to the cruise make for an unforgettable read. Heller keeps getting better! A must purchase for all collections.
Copyright ©1997, American Library Association. All rights reserved
February 1, 1997
Heller strikes again with this razzle-dazzle cruise ship murder mystery, sure to be a big hit with her faithful following. The Princess Charming is the crown jewel of the Sea Swan line. Middle-aged cliches Elaine Zimmerman (world-weary, hardened divorcee), Pat Kovecky (mom with a heart of gold abandoned by husband in mid-life crisis), and Jackie Gault (hot-to-trot suddenly single fortysomething) have done Canyon Ranch, hit Telluride, been to Anguilla–why not a Caribbean cruise? At least that’s what Pat and Jackie tell a reluctant Elaine, who, of course, loses her luggage as soon as she steps on board and is forced to buy sequined gowns from the on-ship boutique to wear day and night, for everything from day trips to shipboard strolling. But that’s the least of Elaine’s problems. The first day out she overhears an ominous phone call and learns that someone on board is trying to murder one of her friends. Meanwhile, after years of dating Mr. Wrong and all his brothers in Manhattan, she’s finally met a man she likes, at her assigned dinner table no less–Sam Peck is wealthy, handsome, successful, and suave. All of the tablemates, however, become suspects in Elaine’s quest to save her friend (she’s still not sure which of the two is in trouble). The oversexed elderly couple and the rich Greenwich stockbroker and his shopaholic wife could be less harmless than they first appear–and even Sam himself could be a heartless killer. The popular travel magazine, Away From It All, comes into play, with a surprise ending that hinges on a secret identity, but rest assured that they all- -including the endearing worrywart Elaine–get what they truly deserve. As easy and mindless as seven days at sea on a deluxe cruise- -slick, sassy, and expertly executed.
Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
My fourth novel, Princess Charming, is dedicated to bestselling historical novelist John Jakes. A truly nice man, as well as a talented writer, John was finishing up the final volume in his “Kent Family Chronicles” when we met in the late’70s (I was a book publicist then). We were reunited a few years ago when he and his wife Rachel spent a winter in Florida. Over dinner one night, I mentioned to John that I was about to start a new book. He said with great enthusiasm, “Set it on a Caribbean cruise.” I said, “But I’ve never taken a Caribbean cruise.” He said, “Then make a reservation. Cruises are terrific material.”
The more I thought about the idea of a cruise ship as a backdrop for a comic mystery-romance, the better I liked it. So my husband and I booked a seven-day Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Sovereign of the Seas, and off we went – in the middle of hurricane season!
We survived the trip, obviously (researching Caribbean cruises is a tough job but somebody’s got to do it!), and I did get terrific material. But while the novel’s title does refer to the name of the ship in the story, it’s also meant to be a “spin” on the Cinderella myth. Instead of the man coming to the rescue of the poor, miserable woman, Princess Charming is about a woman coming to the rescue of a poor, miserable man. It’s about three women, all best friends, all divorced, who take a cruise, utterly unaware that one of their ex-husbands has hired a hit man to kill one of them on the ship.
A selection of the Literary Guild and Doubleday Book Club, Princess Charming was published in hardcover by Kensington in 1997 and in paperback in ’98. A People magazine “Beach Book of the Week,” it was optioned by Disney’s Buena Vista division for a feature film.
Here’s a shot of me during the research trip for Princess Charming. Royal Caribbean’s megaship, the Sovereign of the Seas, is in the background. A “stilt man,” as they’re called in the Caribbean, is looming behind me. Our original itinerary had us stopping in St. Thomas, among other islands, but due to an active hurricane season, we were diverted to St. Croix, where this photo was taken.
Read the First Chapter
“How are you today, Mrs. Zimmerman?” asked the ticket agent for Sea Swan Cruises as he examined the small packet containing my tickets, passport, and Customs forms. He couldn’t have been more than twenty; he looked callow, unripe.
‘I’m fine, thank you,” I said, mildly irritated that he had referred to me as Mrs. Zimmerman. There was nothing in my documents indicating that I was married, nor was I wearing a wedding band, and yet–
Well, he wasn’t the first one to make the mistake. If you’re a woman of a certain age, it probably hasn’t escaped you that men — particularly but not exclusively young men — automatically call you “Mrs.,” whether you’re married or not. It comes with the territory, like receding gums.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Mrs. Zimmerman,” he said as he continued to inspect my papers.
“Take your time. I’m not in any big hurry.” I sighed, wondering what on earth I was doing in the Sea Swan Cruises terminal in the first place.
Actually, I knew full well what I was doing there. I was embarking on a seven-day cruise to the Caribbean aboard the Princess Charming, the crown jewel in Sea Swan’s line of 75,000-ton “megaships,” because my best friends, Jackie Gault and Pat Kovecky, had talked me into it. The three of us had taken a week’s vacation together every year since we were all divorced. We’d gotten herbally wrapped at Canyon Ranch and gone white-water rafting on the Colorado River and run with wolves at some New Age place in the Catskills whose name I’ve completely blocked out. We’d been skiing in Telluride, sunning in Anguilla, shopping in Santa Fe, you name it. The expression “Been there, done that” just about summed it up — except for a cruise. We’d never done that. Until Jackie suggested it back in October, while the three of us were discussing our vacation options.
“Well, why not?” she said when I didn’t look especially enthusiastic. “Cruises are supposed to be incredibly relaxing.”
“Not if you get seasick,” I said.
“You won’t get seasick, Elaine,”Jackie said. “The ships come with stabilizers now. And even if you did get seasick, they’d give you a pill or something. They do everything for you on cruises. You don’t have to lift a finger.”
In her professional life, Jackie lifted more than her fingers; she lifted pots of geraniums and bags of fertilizer and saplings of various species. She was partners with her ex-husband, Peter, in “J&P Nursery,” a landscaping and garden center in Bedford, New York, a tony Manhattan suburb that was all the rage with upwardly mobile corporate executives, Martha Stewart acolytes, and deer. Jackie spent her days knee deep in dirt — pardon me, soil — planting flowers and shrubs for newly minted thirtysomethings who had houses the size of Versailles and didn’t know a Venus’ flytrap from a pussy willow. As a result of the hard, physically punishing work she did, she always lobbied for the sort of vacation that involved no labor whatsoever — an environment where she would be ministered to.
I turned to Pat. “What do you think? Are you in favor of spending a week on a boat with the Great Unwashed?”
She considered the question. For what seemed like an eternity. Far be it from Pat to act impulsively. She weighed every decision as if it were momentous, irrevocable, her last, which could be painfully frustrating if all you wanted to do was pick a movie or settle on a restaurant.
“Jackie’s right” she said finally, nodding her head for emphasis. “Cruises offer their passengers complete spoilage.”
Pat was the queen of malapropisms as well as the slowest decision maker on record. In this case, what she’d meant, of course, was that cruises spoiled you. Pampered you.
“They look after your every need,” she said. “Diana and her husband take cruises and seem to enjoy themselves very much.”
Diana was Pat’s younger sister. Her much more socially active younger sister. When they were babies, their parents had labeled Diana “the outgoing one” and Pat “the shy one,” and the labels proved self-fulfilling and next to impossible to shed. But Pat’s shyness was deceptive; she didn’t say much, but she was unwavering in her decisions, once she made them. For example, it had taken her ex-husband, Bill Kovecky, their entire four years of college to convince her to marry him. Yet once she’d agreed, she was his forever. Through his stint in medical school, his internship, his residency. Through the births of their five children. Through his metamorphosis into Dr. William Kovecky, the God of Gastroenterology. Through his speaking engagements and television appearances and trips to exotic foreign countries to deliver speeches on ileitis. Through his self-absorption and withdrawal from his family. Even through the divorce. Pat remained loyal to Bill through it all, was still deeply in love with him. She may have been “the shy one,” but she had a steely determination, and one of the things she was determined about was winning Bill back. Jackie and I shrugged whenever the subject came up. We weren’t exactly experts on winning back ex-husbands, since neither of us wanted ours back. Besides, Bill hadn’t married anybody else in six years, so maybe Pat wasn’t in total denial. “Yes,” she said again. “I think a cruise is a fine idea. Just what the doctor ordered.” Since Bill was a doctor, she liked dragging the word “doctor” into as many conversations as possible.
“A cruise?” I groaned. “I really don’t think I’m the type, you two.” I had nothing against being pampered or spoiled or ministered to. I just didn’t want the ministering to take place on an oceanic vessel from which I couldn’t escape, should I not be enjoying myself.
“Not the type? What type?” Jackie protested. “From what I’ve read, there really is no stereotype when it comes to the passengers. Cruises attract a broad cross-section of people.”
“‘Broad’ is the operative word,” I said. “You take a cruise and you’re stuck on a floating cafeteria for seven days. The food they throw away could feed a small country.”
“All right, let me put it another way,” said Jackie, in her husky, ex-smoker’s voice. “I haven’t gotten laid since George Bush was President. I would like to end the drought before one of George Bush’s sons is President. Now, I happen to know that single men take cruises. I would, therefore, like to take a cruise. Am I making myself clear?”
“Crystal,” I said. Jackie was so earthy. “But you’re forgetting something. The single men who take cruises wear jewelry.”
“There you go again with your stereotyping,” she said.
“And black socks with brown sandals,” I said.
‘Elaine,” she sighed, rolling her eyes.
“And they look like Rodney Dangerfield,” I added for good measure.
“Perfect. I could use a good laugh when I’m having sex for the first time in years. I’ve probably forgotten how to do it,” said Jackie. “Look, I think we’d have a great time if we took a cruise, I really do.”
“According to Diana, there’s a lot to do on a ship,” Pat stated, then launched into a laundry list of the activities they offered on cruises. ‘You wouldn’t be bored, Elaine. I’m quite sure of it.”
The debate had lumbered on for another hour or so. Jackie and Pat insisted we’d have the time of our lives and I anticipated everything that could go wrong the minute we left dry land. I was a creative, imaginative thinker, which came in handy in my career as a public relations executive but wreaked havoc with my emotional life. You see, my creative, imaginative thinking all too often took the form of what my ex-husband, Eric, used to call my “bogeyman obsession” — incessant forebodings of disaster. What Eric didn’t realize was that I was right to be obsessed by the bogeyman because he turned out to be one. But more on that later.
In the end, I’d been outnumbered. I’d come to the conclusion that the only way to shut my dear friends up about taking a cruise — they were dangerously close to sounding like a Kathie Lee Gifford commercial — was to say I’d take one.
“It’ll be a kick, lying around the pool, not a care in the world, having handsome young studs fetch us pina coladas,”Jackie said.
“I suppose I could catch up on my reading,” I said, caving in. “And I could jog around the ship’s Promenade Deck every morning — unless, of course, the guard rails aren’t high or sturdy enough and I fall overboard.”
“Oh, Elaine. Get real,” she said. “Nothing’s going to happen to you on the cruise. It’ll be fun. Something different for us.”
“Yes, something different,” Pat agreed.
How different, they had no idea.
So there I was in Miami that Sunday afternoon in February, standing at the ticket counter inside the Sea Swan Cruises terminal. The Princess Charming wasn’t shoving off until five o’clock, but our non-stop Delta flight from LaGuardia and shuttle bus ride from Miami International Airport had deposited us at the Sea Swan terminal at twelve-thirty.
“My God. Would you look at that,” I’d said when we stepped out of the van and caught our first glimpse of the ship. The brochure had said she was fourteen stories high and nearly three football fields long, but nothing had prepared me for the sight of her as she rose out of the water like a Ritz Carlton with an outboard. The thing was spectacular looking, its white facade and Windexed portholes glistening in the afternoon sun.
“It’s majestic,” Pat whispered, gazing up at the ship with genuine awe. “And so state of the artist.”
After spending a few more minutes gawking at the Princess Charming, we’d gone inside the terminal, walked through the same kind of security x-ray machine they have at airports, taken our place on line, and waited. And waited. Ordinarily, I like arriving early for things. When you arrive early, there’s no chance of missing the boat, so to speak. But now that I had finally advanced from the line to the ticket counter and was still waiting while the agent examined every comma on my Customs form, I was growing restless, grouchy, grim. There was nothing to do but stare at the 2,500 people with whom I would be trapped for a week, searching their faces as they stood in line, wondering which of them — if any — I would befriend over the course of the trip. They came in all shapes and sizes, colors and creeds, ages and affects, the only common denominator being that the vast majority of them were wearing polyester warm-up suits. I wondered what they were warming up for, and then I remembered the ship’s fabled midnight buffets and guessed they were warming up for those.
I checked my watch as the ticket agent continued to pore over my documents. I was itching to ship out, get under way, get the whole business over with. Truthfully, I was already thinking ahead to the vacation we would take the following year, the destination I would suggest. A theater trip to London, perhaps. Or a week in Key West. Or maybe a trek through Costa Rica. Yes, that was it. Costa Rica. Everyone was going there now. It was a country that was said to be so. .. so … real.
I closed my eyes and pictured myself on the patio of some rustic yet terribly posh Costa Rican inn, mingling with sophisticated foreigners, trading smart little anecdotes, exploring–
“Next!” the ticket agent called out, bringing my reverie to an abrupt end. He handed me back my papers and motioned for Jackie, who was next in line, to approach the counter.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Gault,” he greeted her after glancing at her passport.
“The name’s Jackie,” she said. I couldn’t tell by her tone if she was scolding him for the “Mrs.” bit or trying to pick him up.
After what seemed like a lifetime, she, too, was checked in and then Pat took her turn. And while things were at yet another stand-still, I stood still and observed my friends, shaking my head at the illogicalness of our friendship, at what an unlikely threesome we made.
We had met on the day of our respective divorces, a rainy morning in March of ’91 in a sterile Manhattan courthouse. I don’t remember who made the first move, but I do remember that Pat was sobbing, that at some point both Jackie and I were consoling her, and that once we determined that we had each come to court to Dump the Husband, we bonded instantly. We sat through all three hearings together, offered each other words of encouragement, and completely ignored our attorneys, who were getting their $250 an hour for showing up at the courthouse so what did they care? By the time the three divorces were final, we had shared intimate details of our marriages, wept, hugged, vowed to be friends forever.
“The Three Blond Mice,” I had dubbed us that day, and the nickname had stuck.
We three did, indeed, have blond hair — mine, shoulder-length, blow-dried, and streaked; Jackie’s very short and utilitarian and strawberry; Pat’s wild and frizzy and wheat-colored. And we were about the same age-a year or two on either side of forty-five.
But there were more differences between us than there were similarities, starting with our sizes. I was extremely tall and thin, Pat was squat and chunky, and Jackie was somewhere in between. Consequently, we could never walk in lockstep and were always bumping into each other and mumbling “Sorry.” Then, there were the differences in our attitudes toward men. Jackie was always lusting after them, Pat was always comparing them to her God-almighty ex-husband, and I was always wondering how I’d been deluded enough to marry one at all. And then, there were the differences in our personalities and life experiences.
I, for example, was the quintessential neurotic New York City career woman. More specifically, I was an account executive at Pearson & Strulley, the international public relations firm, and except for my annual vacations with Jackie and Pat and my regular visits to New Rochelle to see my mother, my job was my life. I was deeply devoted to burnishing the images of my clients, which included a chain of cappuccino bars, a manufacturer of novelty sunglasses, and an over-the-hill movie actress with an unfortunate habit of breaking the law. I lived in an antiseptically clean, one-bedroom Upper East Side apartment that was guarded by three Medeco locks, two dead bolts, and a lobby filled with a battalion of doormen. I ran four miles a day, rarely allowed high-cholesterol foods to pass my lips, never ventured out in the sun without at least a No. 15 screen, and fearing I might sprout a dowager’s hump in my advancing years, had recently tripled my calcium intake. I was a careful, watchful person — a control freak, my ex-husband used to call me — and the aspect of life about which I was most careful was romance. I shunned it the same way I shunned mayonnaise. In other words, if I wasn’t working late at the office, I was home alone at night, picking at a Healthy Choice entree and then watching one of those interchangeable magazine shows like “Dateline.” Dateline. Who wanted a date? Not me, no sir. Not after the two most important men in my life had proven to be lying, cheating sons of bitches. I was twelve when I found out about the little popsy my father, Fred Zimmerman, was putting away. Fred had a lot of little popsies, it turned out, and one of them, a redhead with large eyes and large breasts, was so diverting that he left my mother and me for her. Needless to say, I haven’t seen his traitorous ass since. My mother got on with her life, marrying Mr. Schecter, our next-door neighbor, a scant seven months after Fred’s defection. I, however, was left not only with a desperate fear of abandonment but with a very sizable chip on my shoulder when it came to men. I vowed that I would never be suckered in by a man, never buy into the whole love-and-romance bullshit, never even read mushy novels or sing along with overwrought ballads. When I was thirty-six, I broke two of those pledges. In a moment of abject weakness, I not only went out and bought a Michael Bolton tape; I decided to marry Eric Zucker, who was thirty-eight and, like me, had never taken the plunge. I wasn’t in love with Eric, but he seemed like a reasonable antidote to my loneliness and a fairly decent catch, all things considered. His family owned several funeral homes in the Tri-State Area, which meant that he was in a business that would never become obsolete and would relieve me of the unpleasantness of ever having to go funeral home shopping, when the need arose. Eric was nice looking in a brown sort of way-brown hair, brown eyes, brown suits-and he was even more compulsively organized than I was. He actually alphabetized the prescription drugs in his medicine cabinet! What’s more, he had the same initials as I did — E.Z. — so there was no need to invest in a new set of monogrammed anything. Best of all, Eric was as uninterested in mawkish emotions and overheated sex as I was — or so I thought. Six months into the marriage, he had an affair with the improbably named Lola, the makeup artist who applied lipstick, eye shadow, and blusher to the embalmed corpses at the family’s funeral parlors. I wanted to kill Eric, but I was not a violent person. My lawyer wanted me to take Eric to the cleaners, but I was not a greedy person. My mother wanted me to sully Eric’s reputation in the press, but I was not a stupid person. “You’re in public relations,” she said. ‘You know how to plant stories about people. Don’t take him to the cleaners; just air his dirty laundry in all the gossip columns.” I explained to my mother that since Eric was not a celebrity of even minor consequence, the gossip columns would not be receptive to an item about him or Lola. No, I decided to pay Eric Zucker back my way. His company’s most feared competitor was another chain in the area called Copley’s Funeral Homes. So I went after Copley’s business with a vengeance, and after two months of groveling, I convinced them to let Pearson & Strulley handle their PR account. I got such positive media coverage for Copley’s Funeral Homes that Zucker Funeral Homes lost visibility and customers. A lot of customers. They lost so many customers that poor Lola had to be downsized. “You ruined me and my family, you bitch!” Eric shouted at me during his most recent, verbally abusive phone call. “That’s what you get for exchanging bodily fluids with Lola,” I said sweetly, hoping Eric would feel at least some remorse for what he had done to me.
While I was positively undone by Eric’s betrayal when I first found out about it, Jackie acted remarkably nonchalant when she learned that Peter wanted out of their marriage. After their divorce, it was strictly business as usual between them; she never missed a day at the nursery, went right on working side by side with Peter as if nothing had happened, didn’t even flinch when his new wife, Trish, who taught first grade at the elementary school around the corner, stopped in to pick up precious little flowering plants for her centerpieces. But Jackie was one tough cookie. She and Peter had started the business right after they were married, and she wasn’t about to bow out or buy him out, just because he had suddenly decided he was more attracted to a woman who had polish on her fingernails than dirt underneath them. Peter had liked the tomboy in Jackie once, the short, pixie haircut, the athletic body, the salty language, the hoarse, whiskey voice. But as the years went by, his taste changed, and one day he announced that she just didn’t “do it for him, sexually.” Personally, I thought Peter’s rejection of her as a woman was the reason behind her constant chatter about sex — the reason she flirted and undulated and talked about wanting to get laid. It was all talk, as she, herself, admitted, but it was her way of showing the world she was sexy, no matter what Peter thought. We all have our shtiks, so who was I to judge? She came on to men to ease her hurt; I avoided men to ease mine. Jackie was Jackie, and I’d never met a woman like her. She could shoot pool, throw back shots of tequila like one of the boys, and of course, transform people’s backyards into pieces of paradise. Ironically, the latest wedge between her and Peter was the very thing that had once bonded them: the nursery. Peter had recently revealed that he wanted to expand the business and sell not only trees and shrubs and landscaping services but vegetables and produce and dairy items. “So you want to turn J&P’s into A&P’s, is that it?” Jackie had said sarcastically. She was an expert in rhododendron, not goat cheese. There were plenty of places where the yuppies of Bedford could purchase their baby eggplant. What’s more, J&P’s was doing fine as a nursery. Why tamper with success? Nevertheless, Peter kept telling Jackie that she was holding him back professionally by not going along with his plans. He begged her to let him buy her out of the business, and she told him to go fuck himself. Currently, they were not speaking, except when it was absolutely necessary.
Rounding out our little trio was Pat, the roundest of the three of us. A full-time and very devoted mother, she and her five children and their aging cocker spaniel lived in a rambling white colonial in Weston, Connecticut — a homey, cheerful place where I spent occasional weekends in the summer. I would go to visit Pat, of course, and to get away from the fetidness of the city in August, but a major attraction of the Kovecky household was Lucy, the youngest of Pat’s brood and the only girl. She was a nine-year-old with Pat’s chubbiness and quiet demeanor, and I, who was not the least bit sticky or sentimental where children were concerned, was mad about her, doted on her, felt a powerful kinship with her. After all, I understood what it was like to have your daddy leave you. Oh, the other kids were nice, too. For males. It was a revelation to me how, in this age of children murdering their parents or, at the very least, toting guns to school, the Kovecky children managed to be good kids who were not nerds. Especially since they were products of divorce. Perhaps it was because Pat never uttered an unkind word about their father, never poisoned them against Bill. And it wasn’t as if the children were left destitute. Bill may have turned into a big-shot gastroenterologist who spent more time palpating strangers’ abdomens than he did helping Pat with the dishes, but he wasn’t one of those deadbeat dads. No way. He made Pat a very generous divorce settlement and grumble though he did to anyone who would listen, he never missed a payment, even though it meant scaling back his own lifestyle. The reason he and Pat didn’t work out was that somewhere between his first appearance on ‘Good Morning, America” and the birth of his third child, he decided he wasn’t a mere doctor but a healer, a scientist, a saver of the world’s collective digestive system. The other problem was that Pat was too shy, too constrained, too afraid of offending him to tell him he was being an asshole. Even her clothes were intended not to offend or call attention to themselves. She wore lacy, frilly dresses that made her look like an English milkmaid in one of those Merchant Ivory movies. She was so shy and self-effacing that her idea of a four-letter word was “oops.” She had no self-confidence — at least, until recently. As part of her campaign to win Bill back, she had started seeing a therapist and was adding words such as “empowerment,” “needs,” and “me” to her vocabulary. She could be a little sanctimonious at times, and I often gave myself a laugh by picturing her locked in a room with Howard Stem, but I adored her. Everyone did. Except Bill, I guess. Although, according to Pat, he had telephoned her just the week before, saying he wanted to see her when she got back from the cruise. Jackie and I prayed it was because he had come to his senses and realized what a decent, loving person she was, not that he wanted to tell her he was cutting back her alimony and child support.
So there the three of us were, bosom buddies in spite of our differences. Three-women friendships can be tough to sustain, given that two are bound to talk behind the third’s back and the third inevitably feels left out. But Jackie, Pat, and I were a team, a triumvirate, the Three Blond Mice. Nothing could come between us.
Of course, we’d never been cooped up on a boat together for seven days.
“All set?” I asked when the Sea Swan ticket agent had returned Pat’s documents to her.
“All set,” she nodded.
“Then it’s show time,” Jackie declared.
“We’re sure we want to do this?” I asked, still feeling curmudgeonly about the cruise. I really would have preferred that Costa Rican inn.
“We’re sure,” said Jackie, taking me by the shoulders and literally pointing me in the direction of the sign at the other end of the terminal that read TO THE SHIP.
We were walking toward the sign when I suddenly decided to call my answering machine one last time. Yes, it was a Sunday, but public relations disasters could and did happen on Sundays. There was always the chance that one of my clients needed me, that Pearson & Strulley needed me, and that I would be duty bound to heed the call.
We stopped at a bank of phone booths. I called my answering machine. There were no messages, but I tried not to take it personally.
As I emerged from the phone booth to join my friends, the man who’d been using the phone next to mine finished his call and spoke to us.
“Hey! Are you ladies sailing on the Princess Charming today?” he said in a loud voice, made even louder by the echo-chamber-like acoustics in the terminal.
“Yeah, how about you?” asked Jackie.
“Sure am,” he said, then introduced himself as Henry Prichard of Altoona, Pennsylvania. He was in his late thirties or early forties, I guessed, but once men hit middle age these days, there’s no way to tell how old they really are. So many of them are having cosmetic work done now-face lifts, collagen injections, chemical peels, you name it. For another thing, they don’t permit themselves to look bald anymore, what with plugs and weaves and baseball caps that cover a multitude of sins. This man wore a Pittsburgh Pirates cap, along with tan shorts, a denim work shirt and penny loafers. He had a hefty, beefy build and ruddy, chipmunk cheeks. I deduced, from the baseball cap, plus the golf bag and the diving equipment, that he was the athletic type. Jackie liked athletic types. “I won the cruise in the company contest. Best numbers in my district,” he added, clearly proud of his achievement.
“You’re a salesmen?”Jackie asked, as she ran her eyes over him, no doubt assessing his potential in the sex object department. God, this is going to be a long cruise, I thought, worried that Jackie might actually sleep with a man on this trip and that, once her notorious dry spell was over, she’d have nothing else to live for.
“Yup. I’m with Peterson Chevrolet,” said Henry.
“Was your prize a trip for two?”Jackie asked, cutting right to the chase.
“Oh, sure. They would’ve let me take my wife. If I had a wife.” Henry scoffed at the very notion. “But what kind of woman would put up with a jock? A die-hard Pirates fan like me, huh?”
I looked at Jackie, expecting her to raise her hand, as she was quite a Pirates fan herself, having been born in Pittsburgh. She loved sports, especially baseball, and knew things like batting averages and on-base percentages and which players chewed tobacco and which went for the sunflower seeds. But she restrained herself and said instead, “You must have been in mourning when the Pirates traded Bonds and Bonilla. I know I was.”
Henry Prichard’s eyes widened and he gazed at Jackie with an almost shimmering respect.
“I was in mourning,” he said. ‘But I’m looking ahead to this season. We’ve got a lot of young kids coming up from the minors, and I’m pretty optimistic about the future.”
“Me too,” said Jackie, and I could tell she wasn’t just talking about the fate of the Pirates. “By the way, I’m Jackie Gault,” she said and shook hands with him. Then, almost as an afterthought, she told him Pat’s name and mine and explained that we were taking our first cruise.
“Same here,” he said. “Which floor are you ladies on? I mean, which deck?”
“Deck 8,” Jackie blurted out before I could stop her. Henry Prichard seemed harmless, but you never could tell with people, especially men, many of whom seemed harmless until they landed on the “Six O’clock News,” in handcuffs.
“Aw, that’s a darn shame,” he said. “I’m on Deck 7”
“Well, maybe we’ll run into each other at dinner,” Jackie said hopefully. “Which seating did you get?”
Henry checked his ticket, then said, “The one that starts at six-thirty. How about you?”
“We got the six-thirty too,” I sighed. I’d been crushed when the tickets had arrived in the mail and I saw that we’d been assigned the unspeakable Early Bird Special instead of the more civilized eight-thirty seating our travel agent had assured us she’d arrange. Now we were certain to be stuck at a table with either octagenarians or howling children.
We chatted with Henry for a few more minutes — I had to admit, he was an affable fellow and I could easily see why he had sold the most Chevrolets in his district — but at some point he cut the conversation short.
“Gosh, I sure can get to talking once I start, but I really do need to make another phone call,” he said with a touching, gosh-shucks-heck provincialism about him that people from Manhattan simply don’t have. “Why don’t you all go on ahead and I’ll catch up to you later?”
“Great,” said Jackie. “We’ll look for you on board.”
“Oh, I’ll find you,” he smiled. “Don’t you worry.”
While Henry and Jackie gave each other a final and rather provocative once-over, I stole a glance at Pat, who was staring primly at her shoes.
Henry went back to the phone booth, while the three of us turned in the opposite direction.
“He doesn’t look a thing like Rodney Dangerfield,”Jackie said, elbowing me in the ribs.
“Congratulations,” I said. “I hope you two will be very happy together.”
“Actually, he looks very much like a cousin of Bill’s,” said Pat with complete seriousness.
“The hell with Bill,”Jackie announced. “The hell with all our exes. Once we’re on that ship, they can’t touch us.”
She cast one more glance back at Henry, who was deep in conversation with the person on the other end of the phone. Then she linked her arms through Pat’s and mine.
“Let’s cruise,” she said, and together we headed for the gangway.
What do you get when you put three divorced women and one desperate hit man on a ship bound for the aquamarine waters of the Caribbean? You get Jane Heller’s sparkling novel of love, sex and murder. Feisty, fast-talking P.R. executive Elaine Zimmerman and her best friends Jackie Gault and Pat Kovecky have taken their annual vacations together ever since they first met in the courthouse getting their respective divorces. They’ve been everywhere and done it all, from herbal wrapping to white-water rafting to running with the wolves at some New Age place in the Catskills.
This year, Jackie and Pat have talked the land-locked Elaine into a seven-day cruise aboard the spectacular megaship, the Princess Charming. It isn’t her idea of a good time — especially when her luggage is mislaid and she’s forced to resort to the ship boutique’s tacky version of cruisewear. As for meeting Mr. Right on board, Elaine stopped believing in happily-ever-after when her undertaker husband cheated on her with the woman who performed last-rite makeovers on the corpses.
It’s a chip on her shoulder Elaine’s proud of, until it’s knocked off by a surge of romantic electricity the first night at sea when she’s seated next to Sam Peck. This couldn’t be love at first sight (because she doesn’t believe in love at first sight), or even lust at first sight (because she’s the least lusty person on the planet), but whatever it is she can’t resist it. She’s on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday, and it wouldn’t kill her to fall in love.
…Or would it?
A glimmer of doubt becomes full-fledged suspicion when Elaine inadvertently learns that somebody’s ex-wife has been marked for murder — and the hired hit man is already on board. But who’s going to believe a world-wary New York career woman with a touch of paranoia? More to the point, whose ex is out to deep-six whom… and who’s going to do it?
With her merciless eye for detail and wicked wit honed to knife-edge perfection, Jane Heller has crafted a novel that combines satire and suspense, mystery and romance while also managing to skewer the social pretensions of the upwardly grasping. Princess Charming is a sexy, funny, buoyant celebration of friendship, life, lust and, of course, true love. Even if the glass slipper is several sizes too small and the prince arrives about ten years too late.