Observation Lounge, The Silver Princess
Saturday, December 31, 1999
Some things were almost as good as sex.
Tess O'Mara took a deep breath. Excitement bubbled through her as she looked around the quiet room, thinking about the night to come. Chandeliers cast a soft glow over the elegant two-tiered observation lounge. Waterford crystal gleamed on white damask tablecloths. A dozen chocolate dessert courses waited to be whisked out at the first stroke of midnight, accompanied by champagne from five different vineyards.
Best of all, three more reporters had already called, pleading for exclusive interviews.
Yes, success felt incredibly good.
She checked her watch. In two hours the orchestra would tune up, ready to usher in the new millennium with a shipboard party for two thousand people. Tess had arranged every detail, right down to the 360-degree fireworks that would be set off at the stroke of midnight. Two years of planning.
Two years of dreaming.
The champagne would be vintage and the flowers would be rare Indonesian orchids of her own selection. She prayed that the evening would be a wild success.
Outside the ship's wraparound windows, snowflakes drifted down over the harbor. Tess danced from foot to foot, her pulse racing.
"Get a grip," she muttered to herself. "Remember your training. You've got a degree in marketing and eight years of experience, and that makes you a consummate professional."
She glanced at her reflection in the window and grinned. Good hair, but nothing fancy. Face too pale, mouth too wide. It was a face that radiated energy, but would never be called beautiful. Long ago Tess had stopped seeing that as a limitation. She knew how to make people laugh, how to make them listen, and how to put them at ease.
And right now, professional or not, she was riding a wave of pure, heart-slamming adrenaline.
A phone rang outside in the staff area, and the double doors swung open in a rush. A woman with sleek red hair and a chic black pantsuit breezed into view. "Hold on to your seat. That was the Golden Wind Cruise lines."
"The people who hung up on us twice last year?"
Tess's assistant smiled smugly. "That's right, only now they're seriously groveling. They want to talk to you first thing Monday morning about planning a charity event for them next year. Red carpet all the way."
Tess felt her grin growing wider. Even the competition was calling. She let out a jerky breath. "Tell them I'll get back to them, Annie."
"Will do." Her assistant chuckled. "By the way, a reporter has phoned five times, pleading for tickets to the party tonight. I told him the cruise had been sold out for months, and he offered me four figures if I'd slip him a ticket anyway."
"Four figures?" Tess braced one hand on the wall.
"That's what he said." Annie named a preeminent daily paper sold across the nation. "I still turned him down."
Tess felt her chest squeeze. She looked down and saw that her hands were shaking. Calm, she told herself. Professional. "Did you tell him that only those signed on for the whole six-month cruise are eligible to attend tonight?"
"Oh, he knew. He just didn't like it. After he finally finished fuming, he said to congratulate you on an inspired marketing campaign. He wants to interview you next week, then maybe fly you down to Ft. Lauderdale and take some shots aboard the ship. He was considering an ongoing story, with installments at every port of call. Especially the Hemingway night in Key West."
"I'll have to call him back."
"Good idea. Make him suffer." Annie's eyes narrowed. "Are you all right, Tess? You look shaky."
Tess was shaky, but she was also walking on air. News coverage of the cruise was snowballing, just the way she'd hoped it would. "Shock, that's all."
"Get used to it. Something tells me this is just the beginning," Annie called as she retreated to a corner to answer her cell phone.
Tess stood absolutely still, watching twilight fall over the churning waves in the harbor. She heard Annie laugh in the corner, her voice slipping low in an intimate conversation on her cell phone.
Her boyfriend, no doubt.
Tess thought about her own nonexistent love life. Maybe she would meet someone special tonight. Her boss, Richard Mainwaring, the mercurial guru of Boston public relations, had hinted he had a friend he wanted her to meet. If Tess hadn't had a thousand other details on her mind, she might have been more intrigued at the thought.
But how could she think about anything but work? For months, her whole focus had been her carefully planned millennium cruise, docking in a dozen ports between Boston and Bora-Bora. In every port, festivities were tied in with local charities.
Tess's favorite was the Hemingway look-alike party in Key West, complete with two actors in a rhinoceros costume, ready to be felled by would-be Papas. Proceeds would go to a wildlife preserve in Kenya. For those of a literary bent, there would be shipboard writing classes and a series of lectures on Hemingway's novels, led by a Harvard professor who had known the great man personally.
To Tess, this was the real theme of the millennium: celebrating life by staying young at heart and young of mind in an age of unpredictable change.
And tonight Tess was going to celebrate, too. She told herself she was entitled to some fun after the two-year war she had waged on this campaign.
Annie waved to Tess. "The chef needs to know when you want him to take the cake out of the refrigerator."
As Tess dug through a pile of silk roses to get to her meticulously prepared timeline of the evening's events, she couldn't help but visualize the magnificent millennium cake. Baked in the shape of an oversize silver ice bucket, its frosting rose in streamers of red and silver, forming a giant champagne bottle complete with cascading waves of confetti.
It had taken the decorator two weeks to complete and had cost a fortune, but the finished effect was worth it.
"Let's see," Tess said, flipping a page of her schedule, "the cake exits the refrigerator at 11:34 PM and enters the observation lounge at 12:01 AM."
"Great! I'll go tell the chef. Oh! The champagne's just arrived," her assistant called as she headed for the kitchen. "Thank heavens, nothing looks broken."
Tess muttered a few choice words, brushing her hair from her face. "At the price we paid, those bottles should come packed in platinum." She pulled a master list from her briefcase and started checking the cases of champagne against the list, to see if anything was missing. Just as she was finishing her inventory her assistant returned. Tess let her shoulders sag dramatically. "I still wish you were coming tonight, Annie, even though the cruise staff has been wonderful."
"It was a hard choice." Her assistant smiled slowly. "I finally had to draw the line between business and pleasure. After all, the millennium will only come once in my lifetime." She pressed her hand to her heart in a solemn gesture. "And if Stan asks me tonight, the answer is yes."
Tess straightened a row of foil-covered chocolate boxes on the table. "If he asks you what?"
"Anything." Annie grinned. "Whenever and wherever. With or without props, I'm his."
Tess felt a pang of envy for the long kisses and husky breathing, the feverish looks and searching fingers. How long since she'd felt that swift, hot descent into sensual oblivion?
She swallowed hard, unable to remember.
From the Paperback edition.