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Finn planned to have nothing to do with Rachel Cotton, but the elderly passengers on the Kimberley Temptress disagreed. They'd been giving him advice since Darwin.
'You ought to make a play for her. Make an impression. What's a cruise without a bit of shipboard romance?'
So, like it or not, he made an impression.
He knocked her grandmother overboard.
It wasn't exactly planned. The ship's tour guides, Esme and Jason, were assisting passengers to step down the short landing ramp to the rocky beach. Esme's job was to hold each passenger until Jason had them safely at the other end.
She didn't hold Dame Maud long enough, and Maud wobbled.
Finn stepped onto the ramp fast, but not fast enough. Maud swayed and lurched—and hit Finn, who was trying to manoeuvre past Esme.
He couldn't grab her in time.
She was in her eighties. The water was deep, she was heading for the bottom and, from the rocks, Rachel Cotton screamed in terror, launching herself back across the ramp to dive in.
Finn was the owner of the entire Temptress cruise line, but he was here now as a passenger, undercover, to observe the crew. Rescuing passengers was not his call. Neither was stopping more passengers throwing themselves overboard. Nevertheless, he didn't have a choice.
He grabbed Rachel, sweeping her up into his arms.
'Put me down. Let me go!'
She was cute and small and blonde—and loud and lethal. She twisted and kicked right where a guy didn't need to be kicked.
He swung around and shoved her into Jason's arms.
'Don't let her go,' he commanded, and dived overboard even as he said it.
Held by Jason, who was almost as strong as Finn, Rachel could only watch as her beloved Maud slid under the boat and out of sight.
'Maud!' She could make Jason drop her—martial arts training told her how—but sense was beginning to kick in.
'He'll get her,' Jason said.
He must. She had no choice but to depend on Finn Kinnard.
She'd met Finn the day the Temptress left Darwin.
'This is Finn Kinnard,' the purser had told her, determinedly making the ship's forty passengers mingle. 'Finn's a boat-builder from the US. Finn, this is Rachel Cotton, and she's a geologist. You two are the only young singles on board. Have fun.' She'd flashed a suggestive smile, her implication obvious.
'What sort of boats do you build?' Rachel had asked, intrigued despite the implication.
He obviously wasn't intrigued in return. 'Small wooden boats,' he'd said curtly, and then, grudgingly. 'What sort of geology?'
'Big rock geology,' she'd retorted, even more curtly, and he'd smiled. But he'd moved on fast.
She got it. He was expecting her to launch herself at him. As if.
She was vaguely miffed, but not much. There was too much to do and see to be offended—but she couldn't help but stay aware of him. The man was tanned, tall and seriously ripped. He also exuded an air of confidence and authority which didn't quite fit with a lone traveller staying in the standard accommodation section of the boat.
'He's gorgeous,' Maud decreed the moment she'd set eyes on him. 'And a boat-builder Ooh, I love a man who can handle a hammer. Rachel, love, if you weren't in mourning, I'd say go for it.'
Rachel had been forced to smile. Others skated round Rachel's grief, but Maud was upfront.
'A shipboard fling could do you good,' she'd decreed.
Rachel wasn't the least interested in any sort of 'fling', but she conceded Finn Kinnard was definitely gorgeous. And also nice. He was solitary but not aloof, making light-hearted banter with the older passengers on the ship, offering help when needed.
She needed his help. Right now he was heading under the ship.
Where Maud was.
This was the tip of Northern Australia. This place was crawling with crocs.
She couldn't see. She couldn't see. Jason was holding her and wouldn't let go.
'He has her,' Jason said, but he didn't sound sure. 'I think Yes!'
For suddenly they could see. Finn had her under her arms, hauling her out from under the hull, and up.
Maud broke the surface before him. She choked and coughed, then looked wildly round for her rescuer, who'd surfaced behind her.
And, typically Maud, she took a deep and dignified breath and made an extraordinary recovery.
'Thank you, young man,' she managed, with only one or two coughs in between. 'Oh, dear, I believe I've lost my hat. No, don't even think of diving for it. I believe my travel insurance will pay.'
There was a burst of relieved laughter. The Captain himself was reaching down, lifting her high as Finn propelled her up from below.
The deckhands were reaching for Finn. Laughter aside, the threat of crocodiles was real.
Even on deck, Maud held on to her dignity. She stood in her soaked skirt, her button-up blouse and her sensible walking shoes, and she patted her silvery bun to make sure all was present and correct.
And Rachel? Jason couldn't hold her. She was back over the ramp, reaching to hug this woman who'd become such a friend.
'Don't hug me, girl,' Maud retorted. 'You'll make yourself wet.'
As if that mattered. Rachel hugged her anyway.
'Dame Maud, I'm so sorry,' the Captain was saying. 'It should never have happened. The crew should have systems in place.'
'Don't you dare think about disciplining the crew.' Maud said. 'I should have been more careful but, even so, I haven't had so much excitement for years. Being saved by a young man like Mr Kinnard Ooh, it's enough to make an old lady's heart flutter.' She cast Finn a smile that was pure mischief and then she smiled at Rachel in a way that had Rachel thinking Uh oh. Light-hearted banter about matchmaking was maybe about to get serious.
'Now, if you give me a moment to put a dry skirt on, let's get on shore and go find these paintings. I haven't come all this way for nothing.'
'You'll want a few moments to recover,' Rachel said and, amazingly. Maud's eyes twinkled.
'Do you need to recover, young man?' she demanded of Finn.
'Um no,' Finn said, sounding disconcerted.
'I may not look quite as good as you, dripping wet.' Maud decreed, eyeing his shorts and clinging T-shirt—and the body beneath—with blatant approval. 'But I'm a fast dresser. A dry skirt and blouse and I'm done. Stop fussing, Rachel, love, and let's get on with our adventure.'
Maud had decreed she wasn't shaken, yet it was Rachel who was shaking. Because of Rachel, Finn decreed that Rachel was right, they did need a few minutes' time out. He'd changed his mind, he said. He did want to change his clothes and it took ages to button his shirt. Fifteen minutes, in fact. Maud looked pointedly at his very unbuttony T-shirt but she smiled and acquiesced, and Rachel threw him a look of gratitude as she ushered Maud below.
I want to be like Maud when I'm her age. Finn thought, as he waited for them back on the deck. Indomitable. Taking whatever life threw at you and finding humour everywhere.
He knew a lot about Dame Maud Thurston. She was the matriarch of Thurston Holdings, and Thurstons was one of the biggest mining companies in Australia. Her biography was in every Australian Who's Who, so finding out about her had been easy.
Not so her travelling companion.
Until two days before sailing, Rachel's berth had been booked by Maud's grandson, Hugo Thurston. Then there'd been a swap, which didn't fit with Finn's plans.
Finn had researched the passenger list with care before he'd started on this venture. He'd wanted no one here who'd recognise him.
Finn's ships took small groups of passengers to some of the most remote places in the world. The Kimberley Temptress should be one of his most successful, travelling from Darwin to Broome while it gave its passengers a guided tour of the magnificent Northern Australian coastline. It wasn't. There'd been complaints—nothing disastrous, but in an industry that depended on word of mouth to advertise, bookings were falling off.
Finn had always kept a low profile. He'd travelled this route when he'd first taken over the line, but that was years before. None of the crew knew him in person. Fineas J Sunderson had thus become Finn Kinnard, undercover boss. He was here as a passenger, to watch and to listen.
Not to watch the passengers.
But he hadn't been able to stop noticing Rachel, and the underwater drama had only intensified his noticing. Her terror had been palpable, her affection for the old lady obvious to all.
Her attitude had her as Dame Maud's granddaughter, and that was how Maud treated her, yet Who's Who said Maud only had the one grandchild—a grandson—and they looked nothing alike. Maud was a big-boned, booming matriarch, whereas Rachel was blonde and tiny. Maud's clothes were plain but quality, yet Rachel dressed in shorts and faded shirts, and she tied her wayward curls back with a simple ribbon.
Little, attractive and unsophisticated. A passenger.
Steer clear, he told himself. Leave the lady alone. Even if she didn't resemble every woman his father had ever messed with, any hint of a romantic connection would interfere with his job. Even if he wanted a romantic connection.
Which he didn't.
Finally they reappeared. Maud seemed as indomitable as ever, but Rachel was white-faced and shadowed.
Shadowed seemed the only way to describe her. Even haunted.
'Hey.' he said, smiling at them both. 'That was fast.'
'Not as fast as you, Mr Kinnard.' Maud said approvingly. She grinned as she surveyed yet another T-shirt. 'Well done on the buttoning. But we have extra problems. You don't have to worry about lipstick.'
'You're right,' he said, grinning. 'For this cruise only, I've given lipstick a miss.'
Maud chuckled but Rachel barely managed a smile. She'd been badly frightened, he thought, and then, with a moment's acuity, he thought, this was a woman who'd seen bad things happen. This was a woman who knew life could change in an instant, from wonderful to tragedy.
'I'm sorry I kicked you,' she managed. 'I was terrified.'
'Maybe I deserved the kicking,' he told her. 'I didn't grab fast enough. But we didn't come close to disaster. There were many people able to rescue Maud. I was simply the nearest. And crocodiles tend to assess their prey before attacking. If you use the same fishing spot on a riverbank three nights in a row you may well get snatched, or if you stay in the water for a while. But for anything disastrous to happen to your grandmother, she'd have been very, very unlucky.'
'I know,' Rachel said, but she still sounded subdued.
'And Rachel's not my granddaughter,' Maud told him, casting a sharp glance at Rachel. 'She's my friend, and she's a bit fragile. She lost her baby a year ago, and this cruise is part of her recovery.'
Rachel's eyes widened with shock. She turned to Maud, her face even whiter than before, and opened her mouth to protest, but Maud shushed her.
'Mr Kinnard was heroic in rescuing me,' Maud said, quiet but firm. 'I don't want him thinking we haven't accepted his reassurance. He deserves to know why you look terrified.'
'I'm ' Rachel shook her head, as if trying to haul herself out of the nightmare she was so obviously in. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to look '
'If you lost your baby, you can look any way you need to look,' Finn told her. 'It's me who's sorry, for your loss, and for the shock you had just now. But if you feel you can still go onshore ' He motioned to Jason, who was standing by the gangplank, six feet two of gangly youth, looking decidedly anxious. 'Esme and one of the deckhands have taken the main group on up the cliff. Jason's been left behind to see if we can catch them up.'
'There are paintings closer to the ship than the ones the group's heading for.' Rachel said, surprisingly. 'It's a bit of a climb, but I know Maud's fit enough to cope.'
'Your hip,' Maud said.
'My hip's fine,' Rachel said, more definite now. She cast a cautious look at Finn. 'I had an accident a long time ago,' she confessed. 'I'm moving on. The paintings sound great. If we can persuade Jason to let us go.'
'The crew's here for the passengers' pleasure,' Finn said. 'I don't see why not. Let's go ask him.'
Jason did know the art Rachel was referring to. The main group of passengers was heading to a large, easily accessible cluster, but this smaller section was closer, a little less accessible but seemingly no less spectacular.
Finn was still wondering how Rachel knew about them.
'I guess we could go there,' Jason said dubiously, and he radioed Esme to get the all-clear. He then proceeded to enjoy himself, giving his little group a great guided tour and helping Maud as they made their way onshore.
Jason was a good guide, Finn thought. The crew members on his ships were handpicked for knowledge and people skills. Jason spoke of the ancient peoples of this land with enthusiasm, and Finn thought this enthusiasm was what the cruise needed.
It had it. Why wasn't it working?
Why had Esme been distracted this morning? She'd been working by rote, not noticing Maud was unsteady when she'd let her go.
And why had they needed to land on rocks? The plan was to land the passengers on the soft sandy beach, which was much safer.
They'd had to change their plans because they'd missed the tide. Engine trouble. Again.
Delays were an increasing part of this tour's problem. There'd been too many instances of delays, where passengers couldn't walk on promised reefs because the ship missed the tide; where beaches became inaccessible.
He'd had the ship checked over and over, but the ongoing problems were all small and niggling. A fuel blockage. An electronic malfunction that needed checking in case it signalled something more serious. Little things that he couldn't put his finger on that, combined, were messing with passenger enjoyment and thus his profit.
That was why he was here. It was what he should be thinking about this morning—but instead he was walking beside a gorgeous young woman in one of the most beautiful places on the earth and he thought he'd worry about business this afternoon.
Rachel was walking with a slight limp, but she wouldn't let him help her. 'It's time I started standing on my own two feet.' she retorted, but she'd smiled as he'd offered to help and her smile was lovely.
'I can't believe I'm finally seeing this.' she breathed as they reached the far side of the beach and started the slow climb up the cliff face. Maud was unashamedly holding Jason's hand, chattering happily as they clambered, and Finn and Rachel were left to themselves.
I wouldn't mind if Rachel did need help, Finn thought. Holding this woman's hand would be no hardship.
Why was he so attracted?
Posted February 7, 2013
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