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Helena Stamos waited in a long security line to board the cruise ship Alexandra's Dream. She gripped her oversize leather portfolio in one hand, her purse in the other. She'd truly intended to leave the portfolio behind on this vacation, but at the last moment she'd snatched it up before running out the door to her taxi.
Naples was hot, dry and sunny—a marked contrast to the damp London weather she'd left behind instead of her paintings and sketches. She'd accepted a new contract to design costumes for next fall's production of Tosca, and ideas were coming to her with too much force to ignore. She'd have to get them down on paper, even if it meant turning her brief vacation into a working one.
Though she'd finally slept the night before, she was exhausted from the weeks leading up to the dress rehearsal for her last play. Her only brief respite had been two weeks ago, when she'd joined this same ship for a few days to meet her half-brother, Theo, for the first time. Although she had known about Theo's existence for a while, she was still trying to get used to the fact that she had an older brother, one who looked disconcertingly like her father, Elias. "Ms. Stamos!" exclaimed Gideon Dayan, who oversaw security for the ship. "You don't need to wait in line. I'll send your things through right away."
Several passengers turned to look at her, trying to figure out why she was special, and Helena smiled at them politely. "That's all right, Gideon, really. I'm just another passenger. It will only take a few minutes."
"Suit yourself." He nodded to her. "Welcome aboard. It's good to see you again—I'd stay to chat but I need to get a report to Captain Pappas."
Helena tightened her grip slightly on both handbag and portfolio at the mention of Nikolas Pappas's name. "We'll catch up later, then."
Dayan bypassed the line and vanished into the massive, dark-blue belly of the ship.
"Are you famous?" A little redheaded girl standing in front of Helena looked up at her through inquisitive hazel eyes. "Is that why the man said you don't have to wait in line?"
Helena laughed as the girl's parents turned around, obviously a little embarrassed. "No, sweetheart, I'm not famous. I've just done some work on board the ship, so the staff knows who I am. And that's why I can get on in the middle of a cruise like this." The other passengers were simply reboarding from a shore excursion and had been sailing with Alexandra's Dream for a few days already.
She didn't feel the need to announce to everyone that her father owned not only the ship but also the cruise line.
"Oh. Well, even if you're not famous, I like your bracelets." The little girl pointed at them. "They make music."
Helena threw the strap of her purse over her shoulder and extended her left arm to let the girl examine the wide stack of hammered-gold bangles. "Thank you. They were a gift from my mother."
"Pretty. What did you do on the boat?"
"Angela, it's rude to ask personal questions," said her mother in an American Southern accent. "You don't even know this lady's name."
"My name is Helena, Angela, and it's quite all right." The parents introduced themselves as Connie and George Tripp, from Arkansas. This was the family's first cruise.
"We're pleased to make your acquaintance," said the little girl, as if she were reciting the words from an etiquette book. She dimpled, responding to Helena's warm smile.
"It's very nice to meet you, too. And to answer your question, I worked on the interior design, which means that I helped choose furniture and fabrics and paint and lights—that kind of thing."
"Wow. Did you go to school for that?"
"No, I studied art in school, sweetheart. But it helps." Angela's face lit up. "That's my favorite!"
"Is it?" Helena asked as they moved forward in line.
"What do you like to do, draw or paint or make things out of clay?"
"Paint. And I like papier-mâché, even though it feels so goopy and slimy and cold when you put your hands in it."
"Yes, it does," said Helena, chuckling. "So what did you make with papier-mâché?"
"A big mask of a alien!" "An alien," corrected Angela's mother.
"Wow! That sounds exciting," Helena said. "I make masks sometimes, too, for plays and operas and movies."
"Movies?" Clearly, the little girl was awed. Helena nodded, but she really didn't want to talk about herself or her work. She was more interested in Angela. "So what color was your mask?"
"Purple. And green. With silver thingies—"
Their conversation was cut off when it came time for the family to place their belongings on the conveyor belt to be screened. Angela had to put her 101 Dalmatians knapsack down and watch it go through.
Helena didn't mention the fact that she thought the costume designer for Glenn Close's Cruella De Vil was brilliant. The little girl might think she approved of people wearing puppy fur, which certainly wasn't the case.
"Bye, Miss Helena!" Angela called as she and her parents got the green light to board. "So can we be friends on the boat?"
"We certainly can. I'll probably see you in the children's center, where my niece works. How's that?"
"Okay! Bye!" And Angela disappeared with her parents into the crowded corridor.
So adorable. Helena put her purse and portfolio on the conveyor belt and tried not to think about the baby she'd lost. Had it been a little girl? And could it possibly have been as long as a year and a half ago that she'd been pregnant?
She fingered her bracelets, turning them on her wrists in a nervous habit she'd been trying to break for years. Then she put the thought out of her mind, slipped the bracelets off and dropped them into a plastic bowl. She walked through the metal detector.
"Welcome to Alexandra's Dream, Ms. Stamos," said a female security clerk in a blue uniform as she handed back the jewelry. "Your luggage has been delivered to your suite."
"Thank you." Helena took her passport back, along with the plastic ship card that served as her ID and credit on board. She slid the stack of bracelets back onto her wrists, dividing them this time so that six adorned the left and six the right.
The bracelets jangled like her nerves as she tucked her hair behind her ears. She picked up her things, took a deep breath and moved toward the stairs, bracing herself once again to see Captain Nikolas Pappas—the man who'd broken her heart fifteen years ago.
The excited buzz of the other passengers filled her ears, but her mind traveled hundreds of miles and tiptoed through time zones that no longer existed.
Instead of the plush, carpeted floor beneath her flat ballet slippers, she imagined the steel floor of a Greek freighter, studded with bolts and stamped with an ugly pattern. The still Mediterranean air was replaced by a crisp, bracing wind that whipped her long, dark hair around her face.
Instead of the excited conversations all around her, she heard the rough groaning of a massive industrial engine propelling the vessel into the harbor at Newport, Rhode Island, where the ship was making a delivery stop. Huge crates full of Italian antiques were unloaded with the aid of forklifts, chains and big, strapping Greek men.
Fifteen years ago Helena had joined the freighter in New York, deciding to try a sail across the Atlantic to Spain instead of the confinement of another boring flight. Her father owned the freighter, so even though she was an art student short of cash at the time, she could travel free.
She'd looked like an art student, too—in ragged, paint-stained jeans and a faded black tank top, her fingernails bitten and blackened by the charcoal and oil crayons of her advanced life-drawing class. She'd been bare of any jewelry except a pair of silver earrings shaped like dolphins. One simply didn't wear "bling" to art school. It was far more chic to be desperately poor, spout existential philosophy and say the F-word a lot.
So, even though Helena couldn't bring herself to sprinkle her speech with obscenities, she kept her 18-karat gold bangles in the pocket of a ratty ski parka and her hefty diamond studs in a plastic pill box under a cotton ball and some aspirin.
Still caught up in the past, she heard the clatter of giant chain links as the ship's anchor dropped at Newport. Sailing had always been one of her deep loves—she felt an affinity for the water that she couldn't explain. Her mother, Alexandra, had teased Helena that she was a reincarnated naiad, one of the nymphs in mythology who gave life to rivers, streams and lakes.
It was cold on the freighter deck, and goose bumps erupted over her skin as she watched several burly guys grapple with the large metal containers and swing them off the freighter via chains and a massive hook on a crane.
One of the men in particular caught her eye. Deeply tanned, broad-shouldered and tall, he seemed to work harder than all the rest. When he finally paused on top of one of the containers to take a breather, bending over and leaning his hands on his knees, he turned his dark head and looked right at her. Then he winked and she experienced an odd sense of recognition even though she'd never set eyes on him before.
It was an exciting but unsettling feeling, and she smiled back at him as she shivered.
He stood immediately and untied the army-green jacket around his waist. Before she could register what he was doing, he tossed it to her—and she put out a hand instinctively to catch it.
Under his unwavering gaze, she slipped her arms into it and waved her thanks. He nodded, grinned and gave her a jaunty, two-fingered salute before turning back to work.
That was Helena's first glimpse of Nick Pappas, and as she stood there swimming in the folds of his big jacket, she couldn't help taking another. Perspiration glistened along his bronzed neck and shoulders, highlighting the bunched muscles and catching the sun. He was truly breathtaking. She stayed there, mesmerized, as she watched him work. She pulled his jacket more tightly around her, hugging it. And when she was sure he wasn't looking, she buried her nose in the rough cotton lapel and inhaled his scent, which was pleasantly musky and held a hint of Seville oranges from an aftershave.
She stood there for a long time, the sketchbook under her arm ignored, pretending to be fascinated by the play of the dark waves, the salt spray and the golden light reflected off the water. But out of the corner of her eye, she watched him. He was a natural leader, getting everyone to work together for maximum efficiency. His deep, hearty laugh rang out when other workers cursed instead. And when he gulped water from a two-liter bottle, she wondered if he kissed—or made love—so thirstily.
Why didn't they bring him into her art classes? Instead, she had to make contour drawings of bony old men and fleshy, overblown female models who didn't look their best under the harsh fluorescent lights.
Helena wanted to know his name, but it looked as though she'd have to wait until he came to reclaim his jacket….
THE FRONT EDGE of a walker jabbed her in the calf, bringing her back to the present and Alexandra's Dream.
"Oh, I beg your pardon, madam!" said an elderly man. "It's a little crowded—I didn't mean to do that."
"No worries," Helena said with a smile. "I was daydreaming, so I may have stepped back."
She needed to stop thinking about Nikolas Pappas, anyway. Why couldn't she forget the past? Probably because she had unwelcome suspicions about why Nick had left her so suddenly, without a word…and why, despite a scandal on his former ship, her father had put him in charge of this one.
They weren't suspicions she wanted to entertain, and whatever the circumstances of their parting, he had always struck her as a man of integrity. She'd once have staked her life on it. But now that he'd risen so high in Elias's employ, she couldn't help but wonder. Had Nick been paid off to leave his employer's daughter alone?
Helena tried once again to push the ugly thought away. She didn't want to have such doubts about Nick or her father. Pappas was clearly very good at his job, and Elias hired the best.
She was finally able to squeeze into an elevator among the throng of passengers, and she tried to push all thoughts of Nick out of her mind. There was no reason to obsess over the past, and if he had indeed taken some kind of deal from her father, then he wasn't worth the time of day.
They each had very separate lives now, despite their occasional limited encounters on board Alexandra's Dream. And they were complete opposites.
Nick was a man in a white uniform; she was a woman in a low-cut scarlet dress. He was formal and she was passionate. He operated with all the discipline of a navy man; she flew by the seat of her creative pants.
A flash of recognition, a polite greeting, a brief smile for the past follies of youth—that was all that would pass between them; nothing more. So why did her palms sweat and her stomach turn over each time she boarded Alexandra's Dream?