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"Ow!" Jenna Baker hopped on her right foot and clutched at the bruised toes on her left one. Shooting a furious glare at the bolted-down table in her so-tinythat-claustrophobics-would-die cabin, she called down silent curses on the head of the man who was the reason for this cruise from hell.
His image rose up in her mind, and just for a second Jenna enjoyed the nearly instant wash of heat that whipped through her. But the heat was gone a moment later, to be replaced by a cold fury.
Better all around if she concentrated on that particular emotion. After all, unlike every other passenger aboard Falcon's Pride, she hadn't come aboard the floating orgy to party. She was here for a reason. A damn good one.
While her aching toes throbbed in concert with her heartbeat, Jenna cautiously stood on both feet and took the step and a half that brought her to a minuscule closet. She'd already hung up her clothes, and the few outfits she'd brought with her looked crowded in the narrow wardrobe. Snatching a pale yellow blouse off the attached-to-the-rod hanger, she carried it to the bathroom, just another step away.
It was the size of an airplane bathroom, only it also contained a shower stall designed to fit pygmies. In fact, the opening of the sliding door was so slender, Jenna had slapped one arm across her breasts when leaving the shower, half-afraid she'd scrape her nipples off.
"Really nice, Nick," she muttered, "when you upgraded this old boat and turned it into your flagship, you might have put a little extra thought into those people who aren't living in the owner's penthouse on the top deck."
But she told herself that was typical enough. She'd known what Nick was like even before she'd met him on that sultry summer night more than a year ago. He was a man devoted to seeing his cruise line become the premier one in the world. He did what he had to do when he had to do it. And he didn't make apologies for it.
She'd been working for him when she met him. An assistant cruise director on one of the other cruise ships in the Falcon line. She'd loved the job, loved the idea of travel and stupidly, had fallen in love with the boss. All because of a romantic moonlight encounter and Nick's undeniable charm.
Jenna had known darn well that the boss would never get involved with an employee. So when the sexy, gorgeous Nick Falco had stumbled across her on the Pavilion Deck and assumed she was a guest, she hadn't corrected him. She should have and she knew it, but what woman wouldn't have been swept away by a chiseled jaw, ice-blue eyes and thick black hair that just tempted a woman to tangle her fingers in it?
She sighed a little, set her hands on the sides of the soapdish-size sink and remembered how it had been from the first moment he'd touched her. Magic. Pure and simple. Her skin had sizzled, her blood had sung and her heart had beaten so frantically, it had been hard to breathe. He'd swept her into a dance, there in the starlight, with the Hawaiian breeze caressing them and the music from the deck below floating on the air like a sigh.
One dance became two, and the feel of his arms around her had seduced Jenna into a lie that had come back to haunt her not a week later. She fell into an affair. A blistering, over-the-top sexual affair that had rocked her soul even as it battered her heart.
And when, one week into that affair, Nick had discovered from someone else that she actually worked for him, he'd broken it off, refused to hear her out, and once they were back in port, he'd fired her.
The sting of that dismissal felt as fresh as the day it had happened.
"Oh, God. What am I doing here?" She blew out a breath as her stomach began to twist and ripple with the nerves that had been shivering through her for months. If there were any other way to do this, she would have. After all, it wasn't as if she were looking forward to seeing Nick again.
Gritting her teeth, she lifted her chin, turned sharply and cracked her elbow into the doorjamb. Wincing, she stared into her reflection in the slim rectangular mirror and said, "You're here because it's the right thing. The only thing. Besides, it's not like he left you any choice."
She had to talk to the man and it wasn't exactly easy to get access to him. Since he lived aboard the flagship of his cruise line, she couldn't confront him on dry land. And the few times he was in port in San Pedro, California, he locked himself up in a penthouse apartment with tighter security than the White House. When she couldn't talk to him in person, she'd tried phone calls. And when they failed, she'd taken to e-mailing him. At least twice a week for the last six months, she'd sent him e-mails that he apparently deleted without opening. The man was being so impossible, Jenna'd finally been forced to make a reservation on Falcon's Pride and take a cruise she didn't want and couldn't afford.
She hadn't been on board a ship in more than a year and so even the slight rolling sensation of the big cruise liner made her knees a little rubbery. There was a time when she'd loved being on ship. When she'd enjoyed the adventure of a job that was never the same two days in a row. When she'd awakened every morning to a new view out her porthole.
"Of course," she admitted wryly, "that was when I had a porthole." Now she was so far belowdecks, in the cheapest cabin she'd been able to find, she had no window at all and it felt as though she'd been sealed up in the bowels of the ship. She was forced to keep a light on at all times, because otherwise, the dark was so complete, it was like being inside a vacuum. No sensory input at all.
Weird and strangely unsettling.
Maybe if she'd been able to get some sleep, she'd feel different. But she'd been jolted out of bed late the night before by the horrific clank and groan of the anchor chain being lifted. It had sounded as if the ship itself was being torn apart by giant hands, and once that image had planted itself in her brain, she hadn't been able to sleep again.
"All because of Nick," she told the woman in the glass and was gratified to see her nod in agreement. "Mr. Gazillionaire, too busy, too important to answer his e-mail." Did he even remember her? Did he look at her name on the e-mail address and wonder who the heck she was? She frowned into the mirror, then shook her head. "No. He didn't forget. He knows who I am. He's not reading the e-mails on purpose, just to make me crazy. He couldn't have forgotten that week."
Despite the way it had ended, that one week with Nick Falco had turned Jenna's life around and upside down. It was simply impossible that she was the only one affected that strongly.
"So instead, he's being Mr. Smooth and Charming," she said. "Probably romancing some other silly woman, who, like me, won't notice until it's too late that he's nobody's fantasy."
That was a lie.
The truth was, she thought with an inner groan, he actually was any woman's fantasy. Tall, gorgeous, with thick, black hair, pale blue eyes and a smile that was both charming and wicked, Nick Falco was enough to make a woman's toes curl even before she knew what kind of lover he was.
Jenna let her forehead thunk against the mirror. "Maybe this wasn't such a great idea," she whispered as her insides fisted and other parts of her heated up just on the strength of memories alone.
She closed her eyes as vivid mental images churned through her mindnights with Nick, dancing on the Pavilion Deck beneath an awning of stars. A late-night picnic, alone on the bow of the ship, with the night crowded close. Dining on his balcony, sipping champagne, spilling a few drops and Nick licking them from the valley between her breasts. Lying in his bed, wrapped in his arms, his whispers promising tantalizing delights.
What did it say about her that simply the memories of that man could still elicit a shiver of want in her, more than a year later? Jenna didn't think she really wanted an answer to that question. She hadn't boarded this ship for the sake of lust or for what had once been. Sex wasn't part of the equation this time and she was just going to have to find a way to deal with her past while fighting for her future. So, deliberately, she dismissed the tantalizing images from her mind in favor of her reality. Opening her eyes, she stared into the mirror and steeled herself for what was to come.
The past had brought her here, but she had no intention of stirring up old passions.
Her life was different now. She wasn't at loose ends, looking for adventure. She was a woman with a purpose, and Nick was going to listen to her whether he wanted to or not.
"Too busy to answer his e-mail, is he?" she muttered. "Thinks if he ignores me long enough I'll simply disappear? Well, then, he's got quite the surprise coming, doesn't he?"
She brushed her teeth, slapped some makeup on and ran a brush through her long, straight, light brown hair before braiding it into a single thick rope that lay against her back. Inching sideways out the bathroom door, she carefully made her way to the built-in dresser underneath a television bolted high on the wall. She grabbed a pair of white shorts, tugged them on and then tucked the ends of her yellow shirt into the waistband. She stepped into a pair of sandals, grabbed her purse and checked to make sure the sealed, small blue envelope was still inside. Then she took the two steps to her cabin door.
She opened her door, stepped into the stingy hallway and bumped into a room service waiter. "Sorry, sorry!"
"My fault," he insisted, hoisting the tray he carried high enough that Jenna could duck under it and slip past him. "These older hallways just weren't made for a lot of foot traffic." He glanced up and down the short hall, then back to Jenna. "Even with the ship's refit, there are sections that" He stopped, as if remembering he was an employee of the Falcon Line and really shouldn't be dissing the ship.
"Guess not." Jenna smiled back at the guy. He looked about twenty and had the shine of excitement in his eyes. She was willing to bet this was his first cruise. "So, do you like working for Falcon Cruises?"
He lowered the tray to chest level, shrugged and said, "It's my first day, but so far, yeah. I really do. But " He stopped, turned a look over his shoulder at the dimly lit hall as if making sure no one could overhear him.
Jenna could have reassured him. There were only five cabins down here in the belly of the ship and only hers and the one across the hall from her were occupied. "But?" she prompted.
"It's a little creepy down here, don't you think? I mean, you can hear the water battering against the hull and it's so dark."
She'd been thinking the same thing only moments before and still she said, "Well, it's got to be better than crew quarters, right? I mean, I used to work on ships and we were always on the lowest deck."
"Not us," he said, "crew quarters are one deck up from here."
"Fabulous," Jenna muttered, thinking that even the people who worked for Nick Falco were getting more sleep on this cruise than she was.
The door opened and a fortyish woman in a robe poked her head out and smiled. "Oh, thank God," the older blonde said. "I heard voices out here and I was half-afraid the ship was haunted."
"No, ma'am." The waiter stiffened to attention as if just remembering what he'd come below for. He shot Jenna a hopeful look, clearly asking that she not rat him out for standing around having a conversation. "I've got breakfast for two here, as you requested."
"Great," the blonde said, opening the door wider. "Just " She stopped. "I have no idea where you can put it. Find a place, okay?"
While the waiter disappeared into the cabin, the blonde stuck out one hand to Jenna. "Hi, I'm Mary Curran. My husband, Joe, and I are on vacation."
"Jenna Baker," she said, shaking the other woman's hand. "Maybe I'll see you abovedecks?"
"Won't see much of me down here, I can tell you," Mary admitted with a shudder as she tightened the sash on her blue terry-cloth robe. "Way too creepy, but" she shrugged "the important thing is, we're on a cruise. We only have to sleep here, after all, and I intend to get our money's worth out of this trip."
"Funny," Jenna said with a smile. "I was just telling myself the same thing."