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Often one finds one's destiny just where one hides to avoid it.
Sleep. To Mei Lin Wang, the word was paradise, a prize more valued than the tiny staff cabin on Alexandra's Dream that she'd had nearly to herself since the cruise ship's other massage therapist had fallen ill and returned home.
Sleep. She would never have enough of it. Someday when silver ran thick through her hair and she was free to do as she wished, she would nap in the sun, laze in the shade and rest while the moonlight washed over her.
Not this late September morning, though. "Hush, my little warrior," she murmured in her native tongue to her son, Wei, who fussed in the reed basket that served as both his crib and a secretive means of transport about the ship. Though he was nearly five months old and healthy, Wei remained small. Lin knew from poring over articles on the computer in the ship's Internet café that since he was breast-fed, she shouldn't be concerned, but she was a mother, and worry was as common in her life as sleep was rare.
Before lifting Wei from his basket, Lin glanced at her bedside clock, though she needn't have. Wei was his late father's son, down to his determined approach to the day. It was, as she knew it would be, 5:00 a.m., and her child demanded feeding.
This was her favorite time of the morning, when the ship's corridors were relatively quiet, and the press of the day hadn't begun to consume her. Wei snuggled at her breast, his small hand settled against her as he nursed. Five perfect little fingers on one supremely perfect hand All would be well as he grew; she would have it no other way.
As her child greedily fed, Lin permitted herself to truly relax. Her eyes slipped closed, and she sighed as she considered just how far she'd traveled. Small wonder she was weary. Five years ago, she had been in the chill of her home city of Harbin, yearning to test her English teaching skills in Beijing. Five hundred days ago, she'd been in that capital city, a secret wife to baby Wei's father. Five months ago, she'd been large and ungainly with child, fighting to hold on to her job as a massage therapist at a posh Hong Kong hotel.
And now, though Alexandra's Dream was not her final stopping point, it sheltered her well. She had money of her own, certainly not enough to be considered wealthy, but nearly enough to fund the start of a new life with compatriots in Paris. It had been a gamble, sneaking Wei aboard. But for her longtime Beijing friend, Zhang, who was in charge of the ship's laundry, she would not have risked it. Even now, over three months later, she knew the danger of being discovered grew daily.
But as the secret wifethen widowof Wei Chan, a human rights activist as revered by some as he'd been reviled by others, she was no stranger to risk and danger. They had been her constant companions these past three years. If she were to evade the Chinese authorities whispered to be seeking her, and seize her destiny as she intended, those same companions would be with her until she reached the end of her life.
"Grow strong," she whispered to her son as she switched him from one breast to the other. They would have to be strong to face what was to come .
Once Wei was fed, rediapered and dressed for the day, Lin hurriedly swigged from a bottle of water, as nursing always left her thirsty, then turned her attention to her own simple preparations: a quick shower, dressing in her plain spa uniform of white polo top and slim-fitting white pants. Wei, with his beloved pacifier in his mouth, contentedly watched from his basket. Finally, Lin knotted her hair into a thick twist at the back of her head.
She shook her head at her reflection in the small mirror over her sink. A sleek bob would be simpler to handle, more modern, too, but her hair was her sole vanity. Wei Chan had once said that if he were to die, he'd wish to drown in her hair. She'd chided him for the dark thought, then made love to him until they'd both been breathless and felt indisputably alive. Sometimes she woke at night and still reached for him, but he was gonehad been for the past yearlost to her forever. And though her heart still ached, each day she grew a little stronger, just as she'd instructed baby Wei to do. Each day she learned to live for her son and her future.
A soft knock sounded at the doorone rap, silence, then two more rapsher code with Zhang. Lin admitted her friend.
"You eat first this morning. You look as though you need it more than I," Zhang said.
Lin smiled at the comment, for petite Zhang reminded her of a dark, exotic hummingbird, always flitting about and always in need of food. Lin thought herself of sturdier stock, arms and hands strong from her work, and feet solid on the ground from hours spent standing. If she were a bird, she'd be more like a pelican, storing her strength for the future.
"I'll go first only because it will save me the time I could spend arguing with you," Lin replied.
Zhang gave a brisk nod of her head, then settled on the bed next to Wei's basket. "Our little warrior looks content today."
"As he should be," Lin said. "With his every need tended to."
"And now you must tend to yours," Zhang directed. True to her word, Lin made her way to the crew dining room, where, as on every other morning, breakfast was served. But unlike other mornings, a cluster of people stood waiting for seats in the room. She looked about impatiently. One empty chair wasn't so much to ask, was it?
Apparently so. Her stomach rumbled, and her mouth felt as dry and parched as an old woman's.
"We all had the same idea an early start," said Dima Ivanov, a staff member in the ship's fitness center, who waited in line before her.
She had danced a few times with Dima during her one venture to a nightclub in Corsica several weeks ago. Since then, he always seemed to be wherever she was. She knew that this was not simply because his place of work was adjacent to hers. Though on one level she was flattered by his attention, she was not attracted to him. And even if she were, she could hardly afford to bring someone into her life. Too many knew about her child as it was.
"It does seem we're all on the same schedule," she replied, her voice ringing oddly in her ears.
She closed her eyes, exhaled, and fought to bring herself back into the moment. The room seemed to grow smaller. Languages swirled around her: Greek, Swedish, English
"Are you feeling all right?" Dima asked.
"I'm not sure. Just tired, I think."
"Let me find you a seat," he offered.
Lin shook her head. "Not just now."
She had to get out before the room swallowed her whole. She slipped into the hallway and dragged in a deep breath. Fireworks danced in front of her eyes glittering silver-gold chrysanthemums. Quite beautiful, she was sure. Except that she also felt cold and ill and thirsty enough that she leaned back against the wall and slid slowly to the floor. She brought one shaking hand to her forehead, which was unnaturally cool and dappled with perspiration.
Had she the strength, she would have smiled at the irony of her situation. Her early-morning wish was being visited upon her. She'd craved sleep, and now, when the day's duties awaited her, she was to receive that or something darker. Unbidden and now unwanted, but indisputably hers
Comfort. rest. night. A warm yet slightly rough hand
settled against the side of her face, and a set of fingertips rested at her throat. The clean, honest scent of soap and perhaps a whisper of sandalwood wafted over her. Another dream, it had to be. Lin embraced it.
Wei, my love.
The hand that had been at her face settled more firmly against her upper arm, its grip authoritative, yet not unpleasant.
She frowned, for the speaker used English, and his accent was distinctly un-Chinese. The hand shook her arm insistently, forcing her to rouse the rest of the way to consciousness.
She opened her eyes and focused on the man's face so close to hers. It was rugged, with a bold nose broken at least once in its owner's life.
"You fainted," he said.
Lin managed a nod.
He held a glass to her lips. "Drink."
A command, but this came as no surprise since Gideon Dayan was doing the speaking. The ship's chief security officer was a man of few words, and all of them firm.
Because she disliked showing weakness to any man, especially one so certain of his own strength, Lin sat more firmly upright and took the water from him. She swallowed it quickly and felt her world begin to right itself. She realized then that a small crowd had gathered behind Officer Dayan.
Following her line of vision, he looked over his shoulder. "That will be all," he said to the group.
They dispersedeven devoted Dimasending a few "glad you're okays" and "feel betters" Lin's way. For her part, she would have preferred that Dima or virtually anyone else among the spectators had stayed, and Gideon Dayan had been on his way. He was the last soul on this ship she needed noticing her. Beyond that, he made her uncomfortable on some other level she'd much rather not consider, so she avoided him whenever possible. He had come to her for her services as a massage therapist, and on each of those occasions she'd been too aware of him too uncomfortable, as she was now.
"I've paged for medical assistance," he said.
To wait for the doctor to confirm that she'd merely fainted, when Zhang waited for her with Wei?
Impossible. Any delay in their morning ritual would mean that Zhang would miss her opportunity to eat. "That won't be necessary," she replied. "I'm much better now." She thrust the glass back at him, then worked her way to her feet.
She wondered if she looked as much like an awkwardly scrabbling crab as she felt. And then she wondered why she cared whether she showed any grace in front of this man. No matter. The time had come to flee.
His broad hand closed over her arm once again. What had been pleasant in her half-aware state was now startling. His touch made her think of just how long it had been since someone other than herself had initiated the touching. It also made her feel too open, when she'd grown to like her closed-off life.
Lin glanced up at his face, some six inches above her own. She fancied she saw a glimmer of the same sort of unwilling awareness in his gray eyes. But, no. As soon as the thought came to her, his face was as impassive as it always seemed. She subtly drew her arm away and made a step to skirt around him.
"Thank you for your help, but"
He blocked her way. "The call to the doctor remains outstanding and will continue that way unless you let me see you to the medical centre."
"I have no time. I'm due in the spa in minutes." Alarm had crept into her voice. Again, she mentally chided herself for showing weakness. Lin drew in a breath and calmed. "As you can see, I am well."
His gaze traveled down the length of her body. "I can see that you're fit, but I have no way of knowing that you are well," he replied, his voice level and measured. "And I have also been told by Dima Ivanov that you have yet to eat."
"Perhaps I ate before I saw Dima."
"And perhaps not. I'll cancel the medical page if you come with me into the officers' dining room, where I can personally be sure that you have breakfast."
"I am not a child, needing watching."
"I'm aware of that, Miss Wang," he said. Once more that glint of somethinghumor, maybedanced in his eyes just briefly enough that Lin doubted she'd seen it at all.
"I'll take an orange or an apple," she said.
"Whatever can be found that I can eat on my way to my duties."
"Your devotion to your job is admirable, but you'll do neither yourself nor the passengers any good if you work when you're ill."
"I am not ill!" How she wished that she could blurt the truththat she'd been careless and had not drunk enough fluids to nurse Wei without becoming faint.
"I I forgot to eat dinner last night and I'm overhungry." It was a lie, since she'd eaten the chef's pasta with Greek olives and artichoke hearts like a piglet, but it wasn't a lie that this man could catch her in.
"If you insist," he said, then drew her into the crew's dining room, where two of the waitresses nearly raced to see who could reach him first.