Thank goodness the flight was over. Etta let out the breath she’d held for the last several hours. Too much turbulence.
The orchestra director, Mr. Vatchev, a wiry man with toothpick arms, had recruited several Belton University orchestra students to load the last of the suitcases onto the rental bus. He motioned to the rest of them. “Pile in.”
With an extra shove, Etta pushed her enormous tuba case into the overhead compartment and scooted next to Brooke, who held an oboe case in her lap. Woodwind players had it so easy compared to the brass.
Etta glanced out the window at the palm trees. What a contrast to the Midwest. She still couldn’t believe the Belton University Orchestra had been invited to Guadeloupe to perform for their Maritime Composers Festival.
“I can’t wait to hit the beach.” Brooke tossed her wavy brunette hair. “I need to buy a new swimsuit while we’re here. The one I have is so last season.”
“How about a bikini?” One of the French horn students, Terrence, laughed from the seat behind.
“Where’s your Speedo?” Brooke pursed her lips.
Terrence grunted. “Good point.”
Etta’s shoulders drooped. No one ever asked to see a tuba player in a bikini. Just skinny woodwind players. Not that she’d be caught dead in one, anyway. But she’d like guys to notice her.
She stole a glance at Terrence, who’d leaned back in his seat and was fiddling with his phone. He never looked her way when Brooke was around.
Half an hour later, they pulled up to a swanky seaside resort. Etta gasped. Compared to the cheap motels where she’d spent family vacations, this building resembled a palace. Palm trees danced in the breeze, while huge columns stood sentinel nearby. The smell of citrus fruits wafted through the air. She breathed deeply to take it all in. How different from the tree-less plains back home.
“Très belle.” Brooke smiled. “So luxurious.”
The silky way Brooke spoke French sounded exotic. Etta would love her friend’s talent with foreign languages. Face it. She was lucky to have passed freshman English.
A bellman in a crisp navy suit with gold trim helped Mr. Vatchev load the suitcases and instruments onto carts. Wow, his dark skin and ebony eyes made her suck in a breath. As one of the few black students in the orchestra, it was nice to see someone else who shared her race.
“Bienvenue à Guadeloupe.”
Etta glanced at Brooke for a translation.
“Welcome to Guadeloupe,” Brooke said.
The man’s face lit up. “Mademoiselle parle français? You speak French?”
“Oui, bien sûr. Yes, of course.” Brooke batted her long eyelashes.
Oh no. He’d fall for Brooke for sure. This could take a while. Might as well head inside to the lobby.
A giant waterfall cascaded over rocks into a small basin in the center of the room. Plush couches beckoned. When Etta sat down, she gazed at the elegant chandelier suspended from the ceiling.
Moments later, footsteps pounded the marble floors.
“We’re checked in.” Mr. Vatchev started to pass out key cards. “Everyone’s on the seventh floor.” His brows furrowed. “No crazy shenanigans tonight. Our concert’s only days away, and we need to rehearse.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Brooke grabbed her key and turned to Etta. “Let’s go, roomie.”
The next morning, Terrence pulled a new island shirt over his head, careful not to knock his glasses askew. He was practically blind without them. What a rough night. He’d spent half an hour cleaning up after his dumb roommate puked all over the bathroom floor. Why were his fellow brass buddies such idiots? Didn’t they know when to turn down another beer? But no, leave it to him—the responsible, scrawny, nerdy one of the group—to babysit them. He groaned as he hoisted up his French horn case, clicked open the door, and headed down the hall to the elevators.
“Good morning, Terrence. Going down?” Brooke waved from inside the cramped elevator space.
“Morning, ladies.” He managed a weak smile as he squeezed between the girls. How could Brooke be so chipper this morning? And still look good? She’d drunk as many beers as his roommate last night.
“Whoa, what just hit me?” He rubbed the side of his head.
Etta moaned. “Sorry. This tuba takes up half the elevator.”
“That’s why you should play French horn.” He held up his instrument, which bumped Brooke’s oboe case.
“Watch it.” Brooke clutched the instrument to her chest. “I just bought this a couple of months ago.”
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
Brooke’s free hand flew to her hip. “You should be. It wasn’t cheap.”
“I meant sorry you bought the wrong instrument. French horns take the cake.”
Brooke rolled her eyes. “Not a chance.”
The orchestra members filed into the banquet hall and took their seats in a semi-circle surrounding Mr. Vatchev. Etta plopped herself into her usual place at the rear, where no one in the audience would ever see her. Even the other brass players seldom took notice.
When Mr. Vatchev rapped on the podium, silence rippled over the sea of musicians. “Glad you all managed to make it this morning.” He glared at the brass section where one of the trombonists sat with a pail next to him.
“Not sure why we had to be here so early,” a trumpeter muttered.
Etta agreed, still battling fatigue from trailing Brooke around the night before. Exhausting.
Mr. Vatchev frowned. “Time to rehearse. We shall run through one of my favorite turn-of-the-twentieth-century works, Debussy’s La Mer.
“What does that mean?” a flutist asked.
Brooke raised her chin. “It means the sea in French.”
Mr. Vatchev nodded his head in assent. “Yes. Which is where we’ll visit after this rehearsal.”
The muscles in Etta’s stomach clenched. She’d never been to the ocean before. So deep and vast. And on top of that, she’d never learned to swim. How would she handle la mer?
Gray clouds hung heavy in the air, and a light mist shrouded the resort, as Terrence joined the procession of Belton students on the winding cobblestone path en route to the resort’s visitor center. The effects of the coffee he’d grabbed from the hotel café after rehearsal were kicking in. He needed the extra burst of energy on this dreary day.
Mr. Vatchev folded his arms. “I’d hoped for better weather for our excursion.”
“Would they cancel?” Terrence squinted at the sky.
The orchestra director shook his head. “No, only if there’s lightning.”
Brooke stepped up next to them, wrapping her coverup around her. That thin piece of material didn’t cover much. Terrence blinked his eyes to avoid ogling.
“We have to swim in this weather? But it’s cold.” Her bottom lip protruded.
“It’s not that cold.” Etta traced her hand along a leafy shrub. “Nothing compared to Midwestern winters.”
“Good point,” Brooke said. “I’ll take this over snow any day.”
Terrence’s insides tightened. “I hope the storm isn’t too strong while we’re out there.”
At the visitor center, Mr. Vatchev presented several tickets to the clerk. She smiled and ushered them into an adjacent room where pictures of aquatic life hung on every wall. Stingrays, turtles, dolphins, whales, and fish peered at him from their frames.
The guide, a young guy maybe in his twenties, grabbed a microphone and rattled off something in French.
This’d be a dull tour if Terrence couldn’t understand anything. He turned to Brooke for a translation, but at that moment the guide switched to English.
“Hello, ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a thick French accent. “My name is Matthieu, and I’ll be your guide. Today, we’ll take you on a boat ride to visit the city of stingrays, where you’ll have the chance to swim with these exotic sea creatures.”
“Ooooh, sounds fun.” Brooke stood on tiptoe and peered at Matthieu. “And he’s so cute.” She giggled. “I love the French accent.”
Terrence grimaced. Of course she did. Exotic, Francophile Brooke would never take notice of a colorless, geeky guy like him.
Matthieu ushered everyone outside. Terrence breathed in the scent of the ocean. A long, bright-colored tourist vessel floated in the dock in front of them.
“As you see, our boat is quite the beauty.” The guide extended his hand to help the girls board. Brooke accepted it with a smile, then leapt to the deck. Etta, on the other hand, clutched the guide’s hand as if her life depended on it. Her face drained of color as she stumbled onto the boat.
Terrence climbed on board, then sidled up next to her. “Etta, are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” She blinked several times. “Trying to keep my contacts from popping out. The spray of saltwater stings my eyes. And I’m not used to the ocean.”
Those deep brown eyes. And her bright yellow dress suited her dark complexion. Why hadn’t he noticed before? Heat rose to his cheeks. Probably just the sun.
Brooke frowned at her friend. “Since when don’t you like water? I thought you loved our lake excursions.”
“That’s different. The ocean is unpredictable.” Etta wrung her hands in front of her. “I don’t want to think of what lurks in there. Besides, I’ve never been a good swimmer.”
“Sounds like you’ve watched Jaws one too many times.” Terrence clapped her on the back. “You’ll be fine. Don’t worry.”
After all the passengers had boarded, the guide closed the entrance gate. They pulled out of the dock with such a lurch that Etta grabbed Terrence’s arm for support. Poor girl was scared to death. The light pressure of her fingers sent an unexpected tingle up his arm.
As the vessel left the harbor and sailed into the open sea, Brooke leaned against the railing, a vision in her navy suit with the wind whipping her hair behind her like a sail.
“Get away from the side of the boat, Brooke.” Fear laced Etta’s voice. “It’s not safe to stand that near the edge.”
“I’m fine. That’s why there’s a railing.” Brooke ran her hand along the metal bars.
“It’s not very high.” Etta said, tight-lipped. “You’ll topple over.”
“Loosen up, Etta.” Brooke said.
The wind’s intensity increased as they traveled farther and farther out to sea. Like the symphony they’d played that morning, the boat rose and fell in rhythm with the waves. As they sat on deck, a queasy knot formed in the pit of Terrence’s stomach. He shivered. Did they expect anyone to swim in this?
Several minutes later, Matthieu resumed his position at the front of the deck while the boat slowed to a stop. “We’ve reached our destination,” he announced. “The captain instructed me to warn you that the waves are stronger than usual today, so use caution as you descend the ladder to visit the stingrays. Please grab your lifejackets and snorkel gear. I’ll go first so I can assist you.”
Brooke hurried after him, lifejacket fastened tight, and several other students followed suit. As Terrence made his way to the ladder, he turned toward Etta, who shook her head. “I’m not going.”
Terrence hesitated. “You sure?”
Etta’s hand flew to her mouth with a jerk. “Positive.”
“Do you want me to stay with you? I shouldn’t leave you here alone if you’re seasick.”
“No, I’m fine. Go enjoy the stingrays.” She turned away.
He paused, then climbed down the ladder and lowered himself into the water.
A shudder passed through his body as the cold water prickled his skin.
“Terrence, look at this.” Brooke bobbed along several feet away next to Matthieu, who held a large triangular creature on the flat portion of his palms. “It tickles.” She giggled as she stroked the stingray.
Terrence extended a finger and petted its smooth, velvety skin.
Brook laughed again. “It’s sucking on my hand.”
Terrence pulled his arm away with a jerk. “Where’s its mouth?”
“On the underside.” Matthieu lifted a portion of the sea creature to reveal its white belly and tiny mouth.
Terrence traced his finger along the underside. “Does it hurt when it sucks on you?”
“No. It’s like a little vacuum.” Matthieu pointed at the long tail. “What you need to avoid is its stinger.”
Terrence swam back a couple of paces. He’d steer clear of that weapon.
Matthieu chuckled. “Don’t worry. These stingrays are used to people.”
At that moment, an enormous wave caught them, and Matthieu lost hold of the creature.
“Wow, that was a big one.” Brooke clutched onto Matthieu for support. “I—”
An ear-piercing cry echoed above the waves. A flash of yellow tumbled over the side of the boat.
Terrence gasped. Etta.
The wave crashed over Etta with such violence she could barely keep her head above water, even with the life jacket. She tried to scream, but nothing escaped her lips. Instead, her mouth and eyes burned with salty ocean water. As the waves swirled around her, she clutched her floatation device with a vicelike grip. Would it keep her afloat? Her legs kicked harder than ever before. Her eyes blurred to the point she could barely make out the slim figure who power-crawled toward her.
“Grab this!” the person shouted and flung an extra life jacket her way. She embraced the orange flotation device to steady herself. Moments later, she was gliding through the water toward the boat. When she looked up, Terrence tugged on one of the straps to pull her through the water. His bare back and shoulders told her he’d tossed his own jacket. She gripped it tighter.
When they reached the ladder, Brooke was already clambering on deck. She extended her hand. “Hoist her up here.”
Terrence wrapped his arm around Etta’s waist. He breathed hard with the extra effort to boost her up. Her own breath caught in her throat. She’d never been this close to him before.
“What happened?” Brooke choked as she pulled Etta on board. “Are you okay?”
Etta nodded, her body still shaking. “I am now. I wasn’t earlier.” She lowered her voice. “To be honest, I felt seasick, so I, uh, hung my head over the side of the boat, just as a huge wave hit. Knocked me overboard. I think I lost my contacts in the water. Good thing I brought a few extra pairs. I was struggling to stay afloat when Terrence tossed me his lifejacket and tugged me to the ladder.”
“I’m glad he found you,” Brooke gasped.
Terrence hoisted himself up the ladder. “Me, too.” He grabbed his towel from the bench and wrapped it around Etta. “My next priority is to teach this girl how to swim.”
Etta jolted back. “What?”
He peeled off his goggles and repositioned his glasses. “I’ve done it a hundred times. Worked at the lake for the past several summers. You’ll be fine. I’m sure you already have good breath control from puffing on that tuba.” He grinned.
The next day, after another early morning rehearsal, Terrence and the others followed Matthieu to the wildlife center. The scent of sea creatures mingled with the fragrance of the tropical flora that lined the path. First, they visited the outdoor sea turtle habitat. Pools of various sizes, each filled with several turtles, surrounded the students,.
“These ocean creatures can live over a hundred years.” Matthieu pointed to a gargantuan reptile in the pool to his right. “Like this one. He’s the oldest at the resort.”
“Ooohhh, look at these baby ones.” Brooke squealed as she stood by a small pool a few feet away. “They’re so cute.”
Matthieu walked next to her and scooped one up in his hands. “They were born four days ago. Do you want to hold him?”
“Of course.” Brooke held out her hands for the little turtle.
“Me too.” Etta squeezed next to them. “They’re so tiny compared to Grandpa over there.” She cocked her head toward the other pool.
“Yes, they continue to grow for many years.” Matthieu rubbed his finger along another baby turtle’s shell, then handed it to Etta.
“How adorable.” She giggled as she held the baby up to her face.
Terrence couldn’t peel his eyes from her. Her face brightened with the tiny creature in hand. A part of him had actually enjoyed his chance to play the hero yesterday, to feel the warmth of Etta’s body as she’d clung to him at the ladder… Whoa, time for a swim. I need to cool off.
An hour later, Etta laughed as Brooke sprinted to the enormous pool in front of them.
“We get to swim with dolphins!” Brooke exclaimed.
Etta shuddered as she eyed the aquatic pool. Did the others expect her to swim with a dolphin? Terrence had insisted she learn. But she needed time to think—to clear her head. She glanced at him, but he was deep in conversation with Mr. Vatchev. Had he even thought about her since yesterday? Would he say anything? Maybe he hadn’t felt the same spark she’d experienced.
“Etta, did you hear Matthieu?” Brooke’s voice cut in.
“What?” Etta snapped back to attention.
“You’re up next to swim with the dolphin.” Brooke gave her a light shove toward the pool.
Etta’s legs trembled as she climbed in next to Matthieu. The cool water sent goosebumps up her arms. The dolphin, Capi, swam several feet away.
“When he comes up to you, grab his flippers to ride on his belly.” Matthieu said in his thick French accent. He held out his hands to demonstrate the movement.
“You’re kidding.” She jerked backward.
No time to think. A second later, Capi splashed next to them. His smooth body and majestic tail made him an impressive sight. Etta grasped the flippers and climbed onto the sleek white skin. With a flash, he took off, swimming on his back with Etta perched on top. How exhilarating! She’d never experienced anything like it. Water droplets wet her face as Capi raced around the pool.
When they returned, Etta slid off into the water.
“Très bien.” Matthieu patted Capi on the nose. “Now for the bisous.”
She frowned. “The what?”
“The bisous. The kisses.” Matthieu puckered his lips.
“What?” Terrence bulldozed forward, arms folded.
Matthieu slid his hand over Capi’s back. “After the swim, Capi always gives his rider a kiss.”
The creases in Terrence’s face relaxed. “Oh, I see.”
Brooke nudged him in the ribs. “You jealous?”
Terrence and Etta locked eyes for a moment. “Maybe,” he said.
She hadn’t imagined it.Something had happened between them yesterday. Her heart pounded faster. When she turned around, she found herself face-to-face with the dolphin. Capi nudged his wet nose against her lips, then flopped back to the water.
“How was it?” Terrence asked.
Etta wiped her lips. “Best kiss I’ve ever had.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Really?”
She held his gaze. What was going on?