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Santa Cruise
Author: Fern Michaels


Chapter One


Ridgewood, New Jersey



The big banner read WELCOME RIDGEWOOD HIGH CLASSMATES! For some, it was a frightening experience. For others, it was an opportunity to show off how far they had come in the fifteen years since leaving high school.

Francesca (Frankie) Cappella was on the fence. She had built an excellent reputation in the publishing industry, marketing books for authors and publishers, but her love of music and the desire to perform had never left her. After graduating from a top music school, she had spent six years in New York City, auditioning for every part for which she thought she was suited. She had a “big voice” with a lot of nuance, but the producers were looking for a big nasal voice, something that made her cringe. Sure, she could sing that way if she had to, but she hated it. Why would she want to do something she hates? It took all the pleasure out of singing for her. Eventually, every singer sounded the same. She had spent too many years working on her own sound. Taking matters into her own hands, she found a producer and cut a few tracks. She got some radio airplay, but without the backing of a big record company, she could only go so far. During the years she had spent following her dream, to pay the rent she had worked as a temp for a number of large corporations, eventually taking a full-time job with a publisher of comic books. Her parents knew that working in corporate America wasn’t in her heart, but it was a living, and living in New York was challenging enough.

She eventually worked her way up to the top at a major publishing house, but she never felt as if she was a success, especially after the incident at the last reunion, when Drew Aikens said something right to her face. “Gee, Frankie, you were such a good singer. Too bad you never made it.” Those crushing words almost kept her from coming to this reunion, which included several classes besides hers. Still feeling the sting of those hurtful words, she thought to herself, Maybe that creep won’t show up.

Frankie knew that some would be envious of her position as a vice president of a successful publisher. Her life was interesting and filled with a lot of professional events, but she still felt that a piece was missing. A lover, a partner, a friend. Sure, she could have three different men, but what she really wanted was a man who was all three. Yeah. Good luck with that.

She took one more glance at her reflection in the glass of the hotel artwork. Hair? Jet black, slicked, and pulled into a long ponytail. Dress? Figure-flattering little black dress that showed off her well-toned calves. Lipstick? Bright. She then had the horrifying thought she might have lipstick on her teeth. Next came the angst of her eyeliner running. But before she had the chance to pull out a small mirror, the squeals of Nina Hunter were heard across the lobby.

“Frankie! Oh baby.” Nina Hunter pushed through the crowd and gave her friend a huge, crushing hug.

Nina was five feet eight inches tall, towering over Frankie’s five-foot-four-inch frame. In high school, Nina had been in every school play, community-theater production, and summer-camp program. That’s where she and Frankie had bonded. Frankie was the singer; Nina was the actress. Nina’s love was acting, and she was particularly good at it, so much so that she had landed a part on a television sitcom after attending the University of Southern California. She wasn’t the star of the show but had enough screen time to make her a fan favorite. Her long brown curly hair, big brown eyes, and long legs were hard to miss.

“Nee-Na,” Frankie howled back, making sure her makeup didn’t smudge on Nina’s silk dress. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here!” Frankie was surprised but also tickled pink.

“I have an audition in the city in a few days, so I thought I’d return to our old haunts.”

“You mean Shut Up and Eat?” Frankie joked, referring to the local diner where they would hang out after football games or other school events. Only the coolest kids would go there.

“Is it still there?” Nina asked.

“It is. Butch Anderson organizes breakfasts there several times a year,” Frankie replied. “I’ve been to a few; but to be honest, I don’t feel I have anything in common with them anymore.”

“I think I know what you mean.” Nina put her arm around her friend. “It’s married couples talking about either their latest renovation or bragging about their kids.” Nina made a snoring sound, causing Frankie to burst out laughing.

“Oh my goodness. You are so right.” Frankie nodded in agreement. “I feel like the only thing I talk about is work or some function I’ve attended. They look at me as if I’m some kind of snob. Or weirdo.”

“I totally get it. If I’m not surrounded by Mr. and Mrs. Whoever, it’s someone in the biz blowing smoke about their latest script, treatment, and who might be reading it next. I mean, it is Hollywood, but it can be so superficial.”

“I can only imagine,” Frankie said. “I had a small taste of it when I was trying out for musicals. Funny thing, though, publishing isn’t all that different. It’s a sliver of show business. Besides, most of the publishing companies are owned by big conglomerates. But enough of that. Tell me about you. Besides your acting success, what else keeps you out of trouble?” Frankie chuckled.

“My dog.” Nina smiled. “He’s a big Bernese mountain dog named Winston. We go for hikes in the hills. He makes me feel safe on the trails even though he’s really a mush.”

“I assume you live in a house?” Frankie asked.

“Oh yeah. I cannot imagine Winston in an apartment. It would be like a bull in a china shop!” Nina chuckled. “I rent a small house in Topanga Canyon. It’s just far enough from the hustle that I can drain my brain after long days of shooting.”

Glancing at the posters covered in student photos, Frankie said, “You’re probably the most successful graduate.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. Yes, I am incredibly lucky to have landed this part, and I mean incredibly lucky. It’s really about being in the right place at the right time.”

“Speaking of being in the right place, I think I may need to go to the bar and get a little something to soothe my nerves.” Frankie linked her arm through Nina’s.

“Nervous? You?” Nina was surprised. “You were the ringleader, party thrower, class president, lead singer in a band, and captain of the gymnastics team.”

“That was before I knew anything about life.” Frankie laughed. “Back then, I thought if you went for something and gave it your all, you’d be rewarded. And if you tried really hard but made a mistake, all would be forgiven, and you would get another chance. Nope. You make one mistake, and it goes into your permanent record.” Frankie used air quotes for “permanent record.” “This grown-up stuff isn’t easy.”

Nina burst out laughing. “Kinda like you make one creepy low-budget film to try to get exposure, and you’re pegged as ‘Oh yeah, that Nina Hunter. Didn’t she play a disembodied creature in that hack movie?’ ”

The women howled and continued making their way toward the bar. As they waited in line to be served, Frankie whispered to Nina, “Who are these people?”

Nina let out a guffaw, then whispered in return, “I think we went to high school with most of them.” She ordered a gin and tonic for herself. “Frankie? What are you having?”

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