The telephone call came at noon. By midnight Drew Pennington-Smith was on a business class flight to New Zealand wondering what he had let himself in for.
He jabbed the recline button on his seat and stretched out his long legs as it slid backwards. He would try to sleep while he had the chance because he knew from past experience that once he joined the cruise ship Osprey he’d be lucky to grab five hours a night.
After an hour of tossing and turning he gave up, switched on the reading light and hauled his briefcase out from beneath his seat. It was full of files. He sighed as he pulled out the first one. By the time the plane touched down for refueling in Bangkok he had read everything in it. He now had a working knowledge of the crew, the mix of passengers, the entertainment program and the cruise itinerary, plus the exact layout and dimensions of the ship that was to be his home for the next few weeks.
He stood up, rubbing eyes that were gritty from lack of sleep. Maybe if he had a shower in the Club Lounge he would manage to relax on the second leg of the journey. That way he might have half a chance of pulling this off, although after six years of being deskbound he wasn’t taking bets.
As joint owner of the rapidly expanding Oceanus Cruise Line, he was always prepared to consider anything that might add to its success. The impulse that had made him agree to stand in as replacement Cruise Director on the Line’s newest ship was total madness however. Especially when, given a little more time, the agency would have found someone up-to-date and reliable.
Still brooding, he left the aircraft with only a flicker of a smile at the flight attendant who had looked after him throughout the flight. She watched him go with a sigh. Why was it that the good-looking ones were always preoccupied?
* * * * *
Ellie Masters, trying to remember the details of the in-flight cabin announcement made by the captain prior to touch down, had much the same thought as he brushed past her without so much as a glance. If he had looked even a little bit more approachable she might have asked him if he knew which Gate they had to go to for re-boarding.
Drew had, in fact, noticed her. It was difficult not to. Tall and slim, she had honey-blonde hair coiled loosely at her neck, smooth tan skin, and wide amber eyes. At any other time he would have smiled, even struck up a conversation, but today he had other things on his mind. As far as he was concerned she could have been stark naked and his stride wouldn’t have faltered.
Two hours later things were very different. Freshly showered and shaved, and with orange juice and two cups of strong coffee inside him, he approached the Boarding Gate feeling decidedly more cheerful. He had managed to make the phone calls necessary to put his social life on hold for the next few weeks, as well as to send a list of instructions to his assistant, so for the next few hours he was going to relax and try to sleep.
Ellie, following behind, noticed his fresh shirt and damp hair and, guessing he had showered in one of the Club lounges, resented it. She knew she was being unreasonable but she was tired and sticky despite her best attempts to freshen up in the public washroom. Nor had the dry muffin and cup of indifferent coffee she’d bought in a crowded café improved her temper.
With a long-suffering sigh she stalked past him and settled herself into a seat near the Gate’s entrance. Closing her eyes she waited for the boarding announcement.
Drew took the seat opposite and pulled a cruise brochure out of his briefcase, determined to do his last piece of homework. He had seen it a thousand times before but now he read it as if he were a prospective passenger, one of the people he would be looking after for the next few weeks.
When a further delay was announced Ellie opened her eyes and gazed around in despair at her fellow passengers. Everyone looked as tired and fed up as she felt, except for the man opposite. He was so intent on whatever it was he was reading that he didn’t even appear to notice there was a problem. She stared at him, knowing she had only taken against him because he looked so full of health and energy whereas she was tired and cranky. He was good looking that was for sure, with long legs, square shoulders, and the dark hair and eyes of a romantic hero. His face wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of the romantic novels she loved to read when she had the time.
Closing the brochure he glanced up and their eyes met. For a long moment they stared at one another, suddenly oblivious to the bustle and noise all around them as hidden primeval instincts began to fight their way to the surface. A rosy blush washed over Ellie’s face. When Drew’s gaze dropped to her mouth, a pulse began to beat a fast tattoo at her throat. Unconsciously she licked her lips.
Angry with herself for being so obvious she dragged her eyes away. Not fast enough to rebuff him though.
“It could be worse,” he said, and the dark velvet tones of his voice sent an unexpected shiver of desire down her spine.
“I’m not sure how,” her reply was cool to the point of unfriendliness. She wasn’t in the mood for a mild flirtation however attractive she found him. Besides, his smile had already told her he was far too full of himself.
“The delay could have occurred after we boarded, in which case we would now be sitting it out on the tarmac getting hot and tetchy instead of enjoying the comfort of the airport’s air conditioning.”
Ellie, who had experienced just such a scenario on more occasions than she liked to remember, gave a reluctant nod.
“I guess so.”
“Is this your first trip to New Zealand?”
“Yes,” she had to give him full marks for trying but she wasn’t about to make it easy for him. His interest was no more than the usual male appreciation, something she was used to dealing with on a daily basis, for Ellie knew she was attractive. Knew it and dismissed it as an irrelevance in a way that only the truly stunning can. She ignored the blatant admiration in his eyes as she waited for the next inevitable question.
“Are you on holiday or is this a working trip?”
She gave an inward sigh. He was so predictable, but as he obviously wasn’t going to give up she might as well meet him half way. At least it would pass the time.
“A working trip. I’m joining a cruise ship in Auckland and travelling back to Sydney.”
To her surprise he sat forward in his chair, his eyes suddenly sharp with interest. “The Osprey?”
She nodded. “I work for the Oceanus Cruise Line and The Osprey’s lead dancer has been…”
“…airlifted off the ship with appendicitis, so you are flying out to replace her,” he finished Ellie’s sentence for her. Then he held out his hand.
“There’s been a problem with the Cruise Director too. I’m his replacement… Andrew Smith … Andy.”
“Ellie Masters,” something best ignored stirred in the pit of her stomach as Ellie placed her hand in his. He couldn’t be. Cruise Directors didn’t look like this. Not in her experience anyway. Unaccountably flustered, she said the first thing that came into her head.
“How come you got all the travel perks?”
He laughed. “Lucky dip, I guess. The tickets were waiting for me at the airport.”
“Mine too,” she gave him the glimmer of a smile. It highlighted the dimples at the corner of her mouth and softened the expression in her wide tawny eyes.
He stared at her and what had been a casual handshake morphed into something far more intense as his fingers tightened on hers.
Ellie’s heart sank as she saw the appraisal in his eyes. Not now when she felt and looked her worst, and when her new job was going to take up so much of her time that she wouldn’t have the spare energy required to keep unwelcome advances at bay. Not that they would be completely unwelcome she conceded as she remembered how she had felt just a few moments earlier. As far as she was concerned, however, a shipboard romance was out, particularly with someone like Andy Smith who was obviously used to women falling into a swoon at his drop-dead gorgeous feet. She’d been there and done that in the past, and she wasn’t about to make the same mistake again.
His phone rang and broke the spell. As he answered it the Oceanus brochure slipped from his lap. Ellie leaned forward and picked it up.
By the time he concluded his call they were boarding. He switched off his phone, gathered up his luggage and gave her a murmured farewell and an apologetic shrug as he made his way to the desk where he was fast tracked through to Business Class. Lovely as Ellie Masters was, his phone call had given him too much to think about to waste time fantasizing about her. Now that his brother Mark had managed to get to the bottom of the whole sorry story it appeared that the Cruise Director he was replacing had been drunk on duty so he was going to have to undo some serious damage, which meant he had to come up with a watertight plan by the time the plane reached Auckland.
* * * * *
A resigned Ellie watched his swiftly retreating back from halfway down the shuffling queue waiting for the economy seats. With a rueful smile she reflected that while the earth might have moved for her it was quite clear he hadn’t experienced even the smallest tremor. His appraisal, the interest she had seen in his eyes, were no more than the reflex actions of someone who could no more help flirting than breathing. Far better to concentrate on her plans for the future than waste time on someone like Andy Smith.
As the queue edged towards the flight desk she pondered her options. She would be 29 in a few months time, which meant she didn’t have many dancing years left because there were a lot of ambitious girls who were a decade younger waiting in the wings. She re-visited the argument she had been having with herself for some weeks now. Should she give up cruising and open a dance academy, or should she just concentrate on her singing? On the other hand, maybe the time had come for her to give up on the whole idea of performance and fall back on the other skill she had, which was to design and make theatrical costumes.
So intent was she on her thoughts that it wasn’t until she reached the flight desk that she realized she was still holding the cruise brochure. With a sigh of irritation she thrust it into her bag and forgot about it until hours later when boredom, coupled with an inability to stay asleep in a semi-upright position for more than ten minutes at a time, made her reach into her bag. Searching for the novel she had bought at the airport, her fingers brushed against the forgotten brochure.
She pulled it out and opened it. There it was. The Osprey. She studied the glossy picture of the huge white liner, latest star of the Oceanus Cruise Line. According to the blurb it offered the ultimate in luxury and entertainment. Not that the person at Head Office had sounded impressed when he telephoned her and offered her an unheard of bonus if she would put her holiday plans on hold and help out. He had been very disparaging about it. Apparently The Osprey was falling far short of its reputation.
Ellie hadn’t admitted to him that cancelling her Christmas visit to her family was no big deal. Instead she’d said she would ring back once she’d checked her arrangements. In actual fact she’d welcomed the excuse not to have to play happy families with her parents and her sister while they pretended to understand the life she had chosen for herself. They would have a much nicer time without her.
She looked at the picture of The Osprey again. She had never regretted her decision to give up dancing in the West End six years earlier and take up cruising, but maybe it was now time to stop. She couldn’t keep running away from responsibility forever, and after six years of travelling she had been everywhere and done it all.
* * * * *
When the plane finally touched down in Auckland it was raining. So much for a sunny Christmas Ellie thought as she collected her belongings. Not that she had any intention of looking at Auckland today. That could wait until the return trip. All she wanted to do was sleep. She hoped the hotel was reasonable. At least her employers owed her that after almost twenty-four hours of sitting upright.
Waiting for her baggage she caught sight of Andy Smith as he picked up the first suitcase to arrive on the carousel and set off towards the exit. He had obviously forgotten all about her. Anticipating that her own luggage would take considerably longer to materialize, she shrugged and resumed waiting. With his expensive luggage and well cut clothes he appeared to have everything going for him. He even looked as if he’d had some sleep.
Drew scanned the throng of people gathered in the Arrivals Hall as he searched for the driver who should be waiting for him. It didn’t take him long to locate the placard with Oceanus printed on it, or to make his way through the crowd towards the gray-haired man who was holding it. Two short sentences later he was back at the exit barrier waiting for Ellie.
When she came out onto the concourse with two heavy bags swinging from her shoulders and trailing a red suitcase behind her, his stomach did the same peculiar flip flop thing it had done when she first looked at him. It got worse when she saw him standing behind the barrier and opened her eyes wide in an unspoken question. With a sharp intake of breath he smiled at her as he stepped forward to take her suitcase.
“I didn’t think you’d forgive me if I abandoned you at the airport, not after sleeping all the way from our stopover in Bangkok!”
“Please tell me you didn’t do that,” she said as she allowed him to relieve her of one of the bags hanging from her shoulder.
“Well maybe not all the way,” he conceded with a grin. “I did take some time out to eat and drink.”
“I don’t want to hear about it, not after the journey I’ve had. I’m sure that even your food was better than mine.”
Noting the smudges of tiredness beneath her eyes, he gave her shoulder what was meant to be a sympathetic squeeze but which turned into a much lengthier affair as the crowd pushed them closer together. He didn’t look at her as he steered her towards the waiting driver, so he didn’t know what sort of effect it was having on her. Nor did he want to know because it was as much as he could do to deal with his own reaction. Touching her, even through the thick folds of her jacket, was like being prodded with a red-hot wire.
He snatched his arm away as soon as they were clear of the people milling around the doorway and walked slightly ahead of her as they followed the driver through the airport to where he had parked his car. He was irritated that he was behaving like some sort of lovesick schoolboy. She might have the face and the body of an angel, and he might find her more attractive than he had any woman in a very long time, but he still had a job to do: a job which was going to require negotiation, tact and diplomacy, not an overdose of testosterone, so he had better take himself in hand before it was too late.
“Thank you. I wasn’t looking forward to the hotel shuttle bus,” Ellie told him as she climbed into the car. Then she turned and gave him that smile again, the one that hit him in the pit of the stomach and put all his defensive strategies on high alert.
He nodded, piled her bags onto the seat beside her and then, very deliberately, sat next to the driver. Best to distance himself now by having a mundane conversation about the weather, anything to distract him from those eyes, that hair, and that perfect skin; skin that was ivory dusted with gold, skin whose only blemish was one beauty spot at the corner of her mouth in a place that was just asking to be kissed.
Pulling himself together he concentrated on what the driver was saying. The man obviously fancied himself as a travel guide and by the time they left the airport he had not only assured them that their hotel was directly opposite to where The Osprey would dock the following morning, but he was already giving them the low down on what to do and see in Auckland.
After several minutes Drew found his attention wandering back to Ellie. She was very quiet. Had she fallen asleep in the back of the car? He risked a swift glance and saw that she had. Her face was pressed against the backrest of her seat, her mouth was slightly open and her long lashes curled against her cheeks. He gazed at her for a moment longer than necessary and then twisted back to face front again. The driver was still talking. Fortunately he didn’t need any answers – just an audience – so Drew gave something that could have been a grunt of appreciation, or even a question, and then zoned out again as he faced up to his other problem: his name.
If there was one thing he didn’t want to do, it was to let Ellie Masters or any other crew member know who he really was. His father had started the Oceanus Cruise Line many years before, so the name Pennington-Smith was a familiar one on board ship. It had been a big problem in the early days of Drew’s career until, desperate to be accepted for himself and not as the owner’s son, he had sought anonymity by shortening his name to Andy Smith. It had worked, and those years at sea, as he learned the business from the bottom up, had been the happiest of his life. Given the choice he would still be there now but his father’s sudden death had put paid to that, forcing him to take up the responsibilities he’d resisted for so long.
Thankful that plain Andrew Smith was still the name on his passport because he had never gotten around to changing it, he had already decided he wasn’t going to share his real identity with anyone other than the captain. He knew he was making an arbitrary decision, one that he should have discussed with his brother, but he didn’t care. Drew Pennington-Smith would cease to exist while he was on board The Osprey. That way the crew wouldn’t think he was checking up on them and he would be able to enjoy the sort of freedom he hadn’t experienced in a long time. Not that he intended to entirely relinquish the power he held, however. He gave a grim smile as he remembered the phone message he’d left at the Oceanus’ Headquarters. He hoped it would have someone smarting when they picked it up because, as far as he was concerned, there was no reason in the world why Ellie Masters should have travelled tourist class while he slept comfortably at the front of the plane.
He was still thinking about his dilemma when the car pulled up in front of the hotel. Hearing Ellie stir in the back he turned around and looked at her.
She rubbed her eyes as she smiled at him. The short sleep in the car had done much to restore her humor, as had the fact that Andy Smith had waited for her at the airport and then kept his arm around her shoulders for longer than was absolutely necessary.
Looking into his bitter chocolate eyes she decided she’d been a bit hasty when she told herself that a shipboard romance was a bad idea. Maybe a Christmas at sea with Andy Smith was just what she needed.
An hour later Drew had shaved and showered again, unpacked his overnight bag and plugged his laptop into the computer terminal in his room. He paused in the act of logging on and looked longingly at the mini bar. No! He needed to adjust his body clock as soon as possible and he could only do that if he stuck to local time. He glanced at his watch. Eleven o’clock in the morning was not the time for a whisky. Coffee would have to do. He contemplated the kettle and the sachets of freeze dried coffee for the briefest moment before shrugging on his jacket and picking up his room key. He would go and find a proper cup of coffee and some sandwiches because he needed to fuel his body sufficiently to stay awake for as long as possible.
He paused as he reached the door and then, without giving himself time to think it through, backtracked across the room, picked up the phone, and called Ellie’s room. It rang several times before she answered it. When she did she sounded slightly disoriented.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.” Drew silently berated himself for thinking too much about his own needs and how he needed to get Ellie out of his system, and not enough about her, and how she must be feeling after a long flight with very little sleep.
“You didn’t, not really. I was just letting my body unwind.” He knew she was smiling although her voice still sounded sleepy.
“Well in that case, if you think you can stay awake long enough, how about letting me buy you breakfast to make up for the fact that I hogged the best seat all the way to Auckland.
She started to refuse, hesitated, and then she changed her mind. He told himself it was because she was an experienced enough traveler to know she had to adjust to local time as fast as possible. He also told himself that she knew she would have to work closely with him once they were on board The Osprey, so her decision to join him was probably based on pragmatism rather than a wish to spend time in his company. Then he told himself that, whatever her reasons, it would give him the opportunity to desensitize himself to those lambent amber eyes before The Osprey set sail. At no time did he admit that his pulse rate increased by several notches when she clinched the date.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll meet you downstairs in twenty minutes, after I’ve had a shower and changed out of these clothes.”
* * * * *
When he saw Ellie walking across the restaurant to join him Drew reflected ruefully that perhaps he should have had that whisky after all, for she had transformed herself. Fresh makeup disguised her weariness, and her hair, still damp from the shower, glinted gold in the watery sunshine that was filtering through the window in a brief respite from the rain. She had substituted the skinny jeans and boots she had travelled in with a pair of cargo pants and flat pumps while the pink of a wraparound cardigan distracted from the shadows beneath her eyes.
She subsided into a chair and gulped gratefully at the glass of orange juice he had already ordered for her. He pushed the menu across the table and chuckled when she chose an all-day breakfast and coffee.
“I’d forgotten what huge appetites you dancers have,” he said. “I’ve never met one yet who couldn’t match me mouthful for mouthful.”
Ellie gave him a curious look. “You make it sound as if you haven’t worked the ships for a while.”
Silently cursing his mistake, Drew made his explanation as honest and plausible as he could. “I’ve been working at Oceanus Head Office for a while, learning the other side of cruising.”
“I guess that explains the travel perks and why you were available at such short notice. I couldn’t see how the company was going to find a Cruise Director at Christmas. Well not a good one, anyway. All of them are booked up months ahead.”
“Ouch! Don’t pull your punches will you,” Drew shook his head in mock displeasure. “I might be a bit out of date but I was one of the best in my time.”
Ellie screwed up her face in concentration. “Andrew Smith, Andy. Nope. It doesn’t ring any bells and I’ve been with the company for six years.”
“Different cruises, that’s all,” said Drew, determined to get his assistant to email a résumé of Ellie’s career across to him as soon as possible. He couldn’t afford to make another mistake so the sooner he knew everything there was to know about Ellie Masters, the better. In the meantime he would turn the tables on her.
“Does that go for dancers too?” he asked with a straight face. “You know, only the rubbish ones available at Christmas!”
She laughed then. “Touché, but no. I was free because I’d opted for some leave before I joined my new ship.”
“What was your last one?” he asked, and by the time their food arrived they were deep in discussion about Oceanus and the merits of its various ships. As Drew had worked on every liner that Ellie mentioned he was able to sound sufficiently knowledgeable to deflect suspicion, despite having been out of the loop for so long.
“It seems as if we’ve spent years just missing one another,” she said as she spread conserve onto the last piece of toast. “When did you say you were on The Pelican?”
“I can’t remember exactly,” Drew admitted truthfully. “Too many ships in too many ports I guess.”
The waiter arriving with the bill saved him from further explanation. Asking him to charge it to his room, Drew pushed back his chair and stood up. He had work to do and, more importantly, he had to concoct a believable story about his time away from cruising or this beautiful, bright, professional woman would see right through him.
“I need to make some calls,” he said.
She stood up too, and for the first time he realized that her long dancer’s legs meant she was only a couple of inches shorter than him.
“Won’t that make you unpopular?” she asked. “Isn’t there a thirteen hour time difference or something?”
“I guess emails will have to do then,” he said, trying to forget the fact that he had twenty-four hour telephone access to his brother Mark, as well as to his own personal assistant. Then, before common sense could kick in, he found himself suggesting they meet up again later to look at Auckland.
“If we don’t keep busy we’ll just fall asleep,” he said.
The dimples he had noticed at the corner of her mouth the first time she laughed showed themselves again. “Not the best offer I’ve ever had but it does have its merits,” she conceded. “How about an hour? I should manage to stay awake until then!”
They parted when the lift came to a halt on the fifth floor and made their way to their respective rooms. Drew approached his with a frown and within minutes was firing off a series of emails, most of which related to Ellie Masters.
Ellie, on the other hand, ignored the mess of clothes she had strewn over the floor in her hurry to finish showering, and sat at the window, her head propped on her hand, and tried to persuade herself that her original decision not to get involved with Andy Smith was the best one, because falling for someone she worked with was bound to be a bad idea.
An hour later Drew and Ellie met up in the hotel lobby. They were both zipped into the same sort of snug weatherproof jacket that years of cruising had made an essential part of their wardrobe. They eyed one another ruefully.
“This is not really what I had in mind,” admitted Drew as they watched the rain stream down the windows.
“Too late now,” Ellie forced herself to ignore the treacherous flip her heart had given when she first saw him. He even looked good zipped into his shapeless rain gear and that really wasn’t fair. “Let’s look at the tourist rack. There must be something local to the hotel that we can do.”
Five minutes later they were dodging puddles and other pedestrians as they made their way to the nearest bus stop. Ellie, who had produced an umbrella from her bag, slanted a look of disgust at Drew as he attempted to keep them both dry in the wind that was gusting along the street.