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Tory Fournier unzipped her suitcase and flipped it open. Inside nestled a host of flimsy dresses, swimsuits, flip-flops and sun hats. She frowned at the bright colors and lightweight cottons. Why had she gone crazy and bought hot-pink and aqua? She only ever wore black, beige or white. Suddenly everything in her case looked garish and cheap and even vaguely slutty.
Pushing a hand through her straight blond hair, Tory started to unpack. She didn't really hate her new tropical wardrobe. Deep inside she knew that. But she was feeling frustrated and oddly depressed. As she hung her sundresses in the closet in the stateroom she'd been assigned, she forced herself to remember that she was on a luxurious cruise ship, about to sail into the Caribbean for ten sun-filled days. There were about a million worse places to be, and not many better.
Back in New York, for example, it was snowing. People were wearing gloves, scarves and hats and tucking their faces into their turned-up collars as they trudged to work. They could see their breath in the air, for Pete's sake.
And she was about to explore sunny, exotic St. Bart's and Grenada and the Bahamas. What was wrong with her?
She didn't have to go far to unearth the source of her downer: her father. At twenty-nine, she should have been used to his unenthusiastic reactions to her good news. It was his way, that was all.
He rarely lavished praise on anything or anyone, and his only daughter was no exception. All her life he'd greeted her successes with a nod of acknowledgment and little more. When she'd been accepted into the prestigious Cuisine Institute of America to do her chef's training, she'd expected champagne corks and back pats from him. She'd been following in his footsteps, after all. But he'd simply reviewed her course selection and told her to avoid working under Monsieur St Pierre. When she'd scored a publishing contract for her collection of Caribbean-inspired recipes, he'd just looked confused and asked why she was dabbling when she should be pursuing her first Michelin star ranking in a prestige restaurant.
And when she'd told him her publicist had organized for her to come on board Alexandra's Dream as a guest lecturer to work in conjunction with a local celebrity chef for a special Caribbean-cuisine-themed cruise, he'd shaken his head in disbelief.
"What about this Caribbean-themed restaurant you want to start up?" he'd asked. "That's just going to go on hold, is it? You know I'm not sold on the idea anyway, but you need to show some commitment, Victoria."
He'd slipped into his chef-de-cuisine tone, the one he used to employ when he was castigating a lowly member of his kitchen staff. Perhaps because he was retired now, he used it on her more and more often these days.
"It's ten days, Andre," she'd said. She'd gotten into the habit of calling her father by his name over the long summers she'd helped out in his former restaurant, the critically acclaimed Le Plat.
"My real-estate agent is finalizing a list of properties for me, my backers are in place. This isn't going to interfere with my plans."
Her father had just thrown his hands in the air in perfect imitation of her Gallic grandfather.
"No one will ever take you seriously if you flit about like this," he'd said.
Just remembering the conversation made Tory mad all over again. She wasn't flitting. She had a well-thought-out business plan to have her own restaurant fitted out and up and running within the next three months. She'd scouted sites, finalized a menu. She'd even tapped some past colleagues on the shoulder to warn them she would be head-hunting them soon. Ten days in the Caribbean was not going to derail any of that.
She knew that part of her father's attitude could be laid at the door of his retirement. He hated being a man of leisure. Practically his entire adult life had been spent in the stress and drama of a commercial kitchen; playing a round of golf in the morning and flicking through industry magazines for the afternoon just did not do it for him. But apart from being patient, there was precious little Tory could do about that. He'd chosen to hang up his aprongoing out on a high, he'd called itso he was going to have to come to terms with this new stage in his life. Unfortunately, it had been two years now and he was still showing no signs of accepting that his career was over.
Of course, she could have told her father her other reasons for wanting to go to the Caribbean, but he wouldn't have understood those, either, just as he didn't understand her passion for island food.
Her fingers brushed against something cool and metallic in her suitcase as she reached in for another stack of clothes, and she pulled a small photo frame from where she'd stowed it safely between two tank tops. Her brother Michael's bright blue eyes smiled out at her, his handsome face tanned and his curly blond hair bleached white from long days in the sun. He looked so happy, so open. The old emptiness echoed inside her as she looked into his beloved face. It had been eight years, but she still missed him every day. Perhaps it was because they had been twins. Perhaps it was because they'd been best friends as well as brother and sister. Or maybe everyone felt the same aching sense of loss when a brother or sister died, as though nothing was ever going to be the same again.
Cleaning the smudged glass on the hem of her T-shirt, Tory placed the photo frame on her bedside unit. She didn't normally travel with a picture of her brother, but this trip was special. Michael was the reason she'd jumped at the unexpected offer when her publicist had called. She wanted to visit the place where her brother had spent the last months of his life, see the islands where he had been so happy. He'd joined the DEA straight out of college, and his first big posting had been to the Caribbean, working with local authorities, using his pilot's skills to best effect in undercover operations. She could still recall the vivid descriptions of the islands in his letters and e-mails home. She wanted to see the Caribbean through his eyes. Maybe it would help her say goodbye to him at last.
Sighing heavily, Tory crossed to the en suite bathroom to stow her toiletries. She caught sight of her reflection in the bathroom mirrorher blue eyes looked troubled, her skin pale after months of winter. She had the same dimpled chin as her brother, but her nose was more snubbed than his. Her shoulder-length blond hair was starting to frizz a little from a day in the Florida humidity, and she smoothed it with her hand. She knew she was generally considered more pretty than beautiful, but she'd never had a problem with her looksexcept for her curly hair. Fortunately a few minutes with her straightening iron fixed that every morning.
She tried a smile in the bathroom mirror. She looked tense, uptight.
Unbidden, words from long ago popped into her mind.
So you can laugh. I thought maybe you were missing a humor chromosome or something.
She squelched the rogue memory back down where it belongedin the X files, never to see the light of day.
Stepping back into the cabin, she picked up the information folder she'd been given when she'd reported to the personnel department that afternoon. Flicking past a detailed sailing schedule, information on lifeboat drills and pages of rules and regulations, she found what she was looking fora detailed plan of the ship. The cuisine arts center, a purpose-built venue unique to the Dream, was on the Aphrodite deck, two decks above her cabin. Officially she didn't hold her first onboard lecture until the day after tomorrow, and the bulk of the time she'd be working in tandem with Jacques St. Clair, a high-profile local chef the shipping line had recruited for this specially themed cruise. If she wanted to, she could just kick back and play at being a real passenger for the evening. But Tory had always been a big plannershe didn't do anything by the seat of her pants unless she absolutely had to.
Collecting a notebook and pen, she pocketed her key card and exited into the corridor. It was only when she started walking that she noticed the faint swaying of the ship. She guessed that after a few days she wouldn't even register it. She'd only ever been on smaller yachts and catamarans, but she was pretty confident she wasn't going to spend half the voyage hugging the toilet bowl. Just in case, however, she'd brought some motion-sickness pills. Like a Boy Scout, she was always prepared.
She decided to take the stairs rather than the elevator and was pleased to find she was barely out of breath by the time she'd gained the Aphrodite deck. All those early mornings at the gym had paid off a little, then. The moment she'd agreed to come on board Alexandra's Dream she'd gone into bikini-panic mode, booking herself into every body-blasting, fat-pummeling, trimming, toning class her gym had on offer. Since she was so tall five feet eight inches barefootshe'd never put on weight easily, but she'd figured she was already going to be feeling pretty self-conscious about her glow-in-the-dark winter-white body, so there was no reason to compound the misery with a spare tire or two around her middle.
The Aphrodite deck seemed to be made up mostly of state-rooms, and she made her way along the corridors until she came to two large double doors. A shiny brass plaque announced the cuisine arts center. Pushing through the doors, she found herself in a decent-size theater not unlike a movie cinema, only instead of a movie screen at the front, there was a state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen facing the rows of stadium seating. She noted that each chair had a small fold-down table similar to a true lecture theater, but she doubted many of the passengers would be going to the trouble of making notes.
She turned her attention to the kitchen itself. The countertops were granite, and there were three deep sinks along the back wall. The fridge was positioned to one side, a large double-doored unit, and when she opened it she saw it was already loaded with many condiments and basic staples like milk and butter. There were two ovens, both gas, and she noted that a series of small cameras had been built into the lighting rig above the countertop. She guessed that they would be fed live to the big plasma screens at either side of the stage so that everyone in the audience could see what was going on on the stove top or countertop.
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she recognized the pleasant hum of anticipation in her stomach. She loved talking about food and she was particularly looking forward to working with Jacques during the cruise. The kitchen was great, the decor attractive and she was about to visit the spice islands that she'd read about and researched so much. What was not to love?
The buzz that had eluded her earlier at last arrived. This was going to be fun.
She was running an appreciative hand along the edge of the European-designed gas stove, complete with eight burners and a fish cooker, when the double doors swung open and an attractive dark-haired woman entered the room. The woman's crisp navy uniform flattered her curvaceous figure, and Tory guessed she must be in her late thirties.
"You're Victoria Fournier, aren't you?" the woman said, striding forward with her hand extended. "I recognize you from the photo on your book jacket. I'm Patti Kennedy, the cruise director."
Tory shook hands and grimaced comically. "Pleased to meet you, Patti. I'm almost embarrassed you recognize me from that photo I look like someone just told me I was about to be audited by the IRS."
Patti smiled readily. "I wanted to make sure you were settling in and to let you know it's definitely worth your while getting to know all the little idiosyncrasies of the equipment before you take your first session. We've had some disasters in the past."
"I can imagine, but I never cook in an oven I haven't tested first," Tory assured her. "Several disasters of my own taught me that one."
"I'll leave you to get acquainted with the facilities, then. But before I go, there has been one slight change to the program that you'll need to be aware of," Patti said. "It won't alter anything dramatically, but you might get a few inquiries from our guests if they notice the substitution. We just heard this morning that Jacques St. Clair has broken his leg."
Tory's eyebrows rose toward her hairline.
"I hope he's okay?" she asked, her mind automatically slipping into crisis mode. She had a feeling she knew what Patti was about to ask herif she felt up to hosting the entire culinary program on her own, delivering lectures and providing the cooking demonstrations. She was so busy calculating what sort of preparation time she'd need to reconfigure the syllabus she'd worked up that she almost missed Patti's next words.
"He's going to be fine. And so are we, happily. Thank heaven we have a captain who enjoys five-star cuisine. He's called on the owner of his favorite restaurant in the region to rope us in another top-drawer chef at the last moment. You've probably heard of him, actuallyhis restaurant won a third Michelin star recently. Ben Cooper, from Café Rendezvous on Anguilla? The captain and Ben have been great friends ever since the captain fell in love with Ben's food several years ago."
Patti cocked her head to one side, waiting for some sign of recognition from Tory.
It took a few seconds for Tory's brain to do anything but resound with shock.
Ben Cooper. Here. On board the ship, working intimately with her, side by side.
Surely not. Surely fate could not be so damned tricky and contrary?
Belatedly she realized Patti was still waiting for her response.
"Um, yes. I know Ben. We we trained together at the Culinary Institute," Tory heard herself say.
Patti clapped her hands together with delighted satisfaction.
"There you go, thenit will be like old times," she said.
Tory somehow managed to smile and talk semicoherently for the next few minutes until the other woman took her leave. Then she just stood and stared vacantly out into the empty auditorium.
Ben Cooper. It had been a long time since she'd even thought his name. But now she was going to see himin just three days, in fact, when he came aboard in St. Bart's.
A shiver of something almost like fear raced up her spine.
I'm not afraid of Ben, she assured herself. He got what was coming to him. So what if he's still angry with me for what I did to him all those years ago? I'm still angry with him for what he did to me. So we're even.
Problem was, none if it made a difference to the feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Ben Cooper. She just couldn't believe it.
BEN STARED DOWN INTO the perfect, cherubic face of the baby in his arms, his lips curving into a spontaneous, utterly involuntary grin as Eva offered him a slobbery smile. She was so beautiful. Something tightened in his chest, and he fussed with her brightly colored playsuit for a few seconds as hot emotion burned at the back of his eyes.
For six months now he'd nursed this little urchin to sleep, fed her, bathed her, changed her nappies. He'd shared all the responsibilities of raising her with Danique, his ex-girlfriend, just as any decent man would when he learned one of his guys had gotten past the keeper, so to speak, and scored a goal.
He'd expected to be a dutiful father, at best. The kind of guy who handed over the right amount of child maintenance without quibbling, cooed at how cute the baby was at the appropriate moments and kept a miniature portrait in his wallet for appearances' sake.
She'd sneaked up on him, though, this little cutie with her wide-eyed stare and her chubby limbs and her repertoire of gurgles and grunts. Perhaps it was her utter vulnerability, her absolute trust in and reliance on him. Or perhaps it was the young/old wisdom shining from her big brown eyes.
Whatever, he'd fallen hard. He'd become the talk of the small island of Anguilla, with everyone nudging one another with amusement that the last of the Caribbean playboys had fallen, taken out not by a woman but by a baby girl.
It was true. He loved her. Dearly. Fiercely. Irreversibly.
And she wasn't his.
Danique had told him just last week when she'd come to collect Eva from her weekend visitation. His fling with Danique had been all about fun and no tomorrows, and neither of them had ever pretended it was any different. They'd remained friends, though, when the passion had died out, and it had proved a solid basis for their new partnership. Since Danique had had trouble breast-feeding, Eva had been on a bottle since three months, and they'd shared the load between them as much as possible despite the fact that they lived separately and led very different lives.
Last week, Danique had been unusually quiet as she'd gathered up Eva's diaper bag and other baby paraphernalia, and she'd waited until she was ready to go to drop her bomb. "Ben, there's something you need to know. Before I was seeing you for those few weeks, I had a thing going with Monty Blackman." Danique's eyes had shifted over Ben's shoulder to focus on the wall behind him.
Ben had frowned; Monty was a well-known local businessman. He was also a very married man with a high-profile, politically astute wife.
"Eva is his," Danique had blurted as though she couldn't hang on to the words any longer. Tears had stood out in her pansy-brown eyes. "I've tried to tell you so many times, but I was scared of how you would react. You've been so great with her, and then there's the money and everything else ."
Ben had shaken his head. "I'm sorry. I justI don't believe you."
When he held Eva in his arms, his heart ached. How could that be if she wasn't his?
"I had a test doneyou can see the results if you like," Danique had said. "And about the moneyI'll pay you back, I promise. Every cent."
Ben had sworn pithily. "I don't give a damn about the money." He'd paced agitatedly, then stopped to frown at her. "Why now? What's changed?" he'd asked. Then his frozen brain had swung back into motion and he'd held up a hand to forestall her answering. "Don't tell me, let me guess. Monty's leaving Angela."
Danique had nodded slowly. "I love him, Ben. I've loved him for years and I only broke it off with him because I knew it was hopeless. What you and I hadthat was about me trying to feel like a whole person again after waiting all those years for Monty to be honest about us."
"So I was just an insurance policy?" he'd asked bitterly. "A convenient stopgap until the real guy came good?"
"It wasn't like that," Danique had cried. But it had been, and they both knew it.