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As the taxi screeched to a halt, Lana Walker flung open the door and scrambled for her bags.
'Hey, slow down. You haven't missed the boat.'
The deep groove in the driver's caterpillar mono-brow had been honed with years of practice if his glare was any indication.
The way she saw it, she might have arrived on time to board the Ocean Queen, but she'd missed the boat metaphorically in every other way that countedwhich was exactly why she was taking this trip.
She rummaged for the fare and darted a curious glance at the ship, spotting several officers in white uniforms on deck.
Very impressiveand the ship wasn't half bad either.
A shadow loomed over the open passenger door as the driver held out his hand. 'Some people have all the luck. How about my fare, lady?'
Grouch. She resisted the urge to poke out her tongue as she handed him the money, picked up her luggage and headed for the escalators.
What would he know about luck? She'd worked hard for what she haddamn hard: five years as curator at Melbourne Museum, and three years as head curator at Sydney Museum had been amazing, stimulating and stressful.
Sure, she had a stellar reputation in the industry, and a gorgeous apartment in the beachside suburb of Coogee, but that was about it.
She didn't have a life.
No time out, no socialising, no fun.
Over the next two weeks she planned to change all that.
Though luck had played a part in this trip; if she hadn't won the cruise she wouldn't have taken a holiday, sad workaholic that she was.
As thoughts of work crowded her head, namely how she'd recently missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime courtesy of her crippling shyness, shestumbled at the top of the escalator and pitched forward, silently cursing the three-inch heels her shoe-crazy cousin Beth had loaned her for the trip.
So much for the hope that the illusion of height would give her extra poise. It would be difficult to feign elegance when she landed on her butt.
Grabbing wildly at anything more stable than air, she exhaled on a relieved sigh as a strong pair of arms shot out, holding her in a vice-like grip.
'Whoa. These things are lethal if you don't concentrate. Too busy daydreaming about the Love Boat, huh?' The smooth voice, with more than a hint of amusement in its husky depths, sent an unexpected shiver down her spine as she looked up into her rescuer's face.
Seeing good-looking guys on a daily basis was a perk of her job. The museum was a haven for sexily scruffy archaeological students, attractive teachers, even the odd university professor with a distinguished Sean Connery thing going on.
Yet this guy who now pinned her with arms displaying a great set of biceps was so much more than that. Striking was more appropriate. Even sex-on-legs, as brazen Beth would say.
Hypnotic eyes, a deep, cobalt blue, were fringed with long dark lashes any woman would have envied, and those baby blues were pinned on her, a teasing glint in their rich depths.
She inhaled sharply, unprepared for an intoxicating fresh citrus scent that left her head spinningand not just from her near-fall.
As for his lips, curving with the hint of a smile, for the first time in her reclusive life she understood the label 'kissable'.
All too aware she was staringgawking, more like it she dropped her gaze. Only to be confronted by an equally intriguing sight: a broad expanse of tanned chest where the two top buttons of his shirt were undone.
Hotter than Indiana Jones, leapt to mind.
She had a major thing for Indianaalways hadand, lucky her, Indiana's double was holding on to her as if his life depended on it.
She'd wanted to gain confidence, step outside her comfort zone, experience new things on this cruise. To broaden her outlook to the extent she was never passed over for a work opportunity again. She had been thinking along the lines of dance lessons, lectures on exotic destinations, shore excursions, that sort of thing.
However, being held by this guy had her mind sailing down channels she'd never usually contemplate. Not a bad thing entirely, if taking this holiday had already affected her mindset. Maybe shy, geeky Lanaas she'd once overheard some colleagues call herwas already slipping into vacation mode.
Her heart thumping, whether in fear of her strangely errant thoughts or excitement at what they might urge her to do, she eased out of his grip.
He grinned and, typically, he had a sexy smile to match the rest of him. 'So, do I pass inspection?'
Great. He knew she'd been checking him out. Her skill at covert observation was on a par with her wardrobe: shabby at best.
'What makes you think I was inspecting anything? You were holding me so tight I had nowhere to move, let alone look.'
'Feisty. I like that.' His eyes gleamed, and the corners of his too-tempting-for-comfort mouth twitched in amusement.
Heat suffused her cheeks as she struggled to come up with a comeback. She hated how she always thought of a great retort ten minutes too late.
How was it she could answer any student's query in a second, but right now her braina whiz at cataloguing priceless artefacts, leading tour groups and calculating storage datawas totally befuddled?
'Thanks for breaking my fall.'
As replies went, it was pretty lame. Pathetic, in fact; it looked as if her comeback skills had sunk to the same level as her flirting expertise: below average bordering on non-existent.
More embarrassed than she cared to admit, she managed a tight smile, picked up her luggage and turned away, striding towards the ship though her knees wobbled like just-set jelly.
'Watch your step!' he called after her, his voice shaking with laughter.
She stiffened, but didn't break stride, determined not to look back, refusing to give him the satisfaction. Besides, she could feel his stare boring holes into her back.
Her skin prickled at the recollection of those incredibly blue eyes twinkling at her, laughing at her, and she shook her head in disgust. She was such a novice at this.
'Live a little, cuz. Let your hair down. Go crazy,' Beth had encouraged her. 'You've got two weeks to cut loose, to be someone you wouldn't dream of being on land. Make the most of it.'
Great advice, and it had sounded easy coming from her bubbly, confident cousin, who bounced through life with a perpetual smile on her face. And Beth sure knew what she was talking about, considering her positive attitude had landed her Aidan Voss, the dreamiest husband on the planet.
As for Beth's other advice'dust off the cobwebs, get laid'Lana blushed just thinking about it.
It was precisely three years, two months and five days since she'd last had sex. Not that she was counting or anything. Besides, she'd have to date to have sexwould have to get emotionally involved with the guy to contemplate itand she didn't trust her emotions any more; not after what Jax the Jackass had done.
She tucked her old holdall under her arm tighter and headed for the gangway. Beth was right. While her professional life shone, her social life sucked. She had no confidence, no social skills, and no hope of being chosen for the museum's next overseas jaunt unless she learned to be more assertive, more outgoing, more everything.
Maybe this cruise would be just what a conservative curator needed?
Zac watched the petite brunette cut a path through the crowd, confused and intrigued.
Most of the holidaymakers he met were dressed to kill, and wearing enough make-up to sink a shipno pun intendedyet she wore a simple navy suit bordering on severe, and barely a slick of lipgloss. And yet she had managed to capture his attention anyway.
He'd reached out to her in an instinctive reaction, but once she was in his arms his synapses had short-circuited and he'd found himself wanting to hold on way longer than necessary.
What was with that?
He'd lost any tender regard towards the fairer sex around the time Magda had done her chameleon act, and he hadn't let a woman get close enough to sink her talons in since.
Unwittingly, his gaze was drawn to the diminutive figure striding towards the ship, head up, shoulders squared, as if ready for battle. No simple walking for her. No, sirree. She had to sway her hips in a natural, tantalising rhythm in sync with her legs.
Running a hand across his eyes didn't help his quest to wipe her imprint from his retinas. Her sexy gait was replaced by an instant image of feline hazel eyes and a full, pouting mouth. Lord, that mouth. He could fantasise about it for ever. As for that innocent schoolgirl-channelling-schoolmarm expression she had down pathe'd never seen anything like it.
When she'd stared at him with those striking burnt caramel eyes she'd appeared wide-eyed and ingenuous one second, and ready to give him a severe scolding the next.
Interesting. Very interesting. But he didn't have the time or the inclination to follow up on the first woman to pique his interest in a long time.
He had more important things on his mindlike doing a damn good job the next two weeks before he moved on to the next stage of his life. His uncle wanted him here. They'd noticed a pattern to the series of accidents that had plagued their cruise fleet, and the pattern suggested that the Ocean Queen was the next target. He planned for it to be the last.
After unpacking, Lana made her way to the promenade deck and wandered away from the crowds along the railings, finding a deserted spot with a clear view of the hustle and bustle below.
Circular Quay buzzed with activity, and people were waving as the ship pulled away from its berth, snapping the colourful streamers that bound it to shore. She had a great view from her vantage point: the Sydney Harbour Bridge on her left and the Opera House on her right as the ship sailed up the harbour. Both landmarks were imposing in the fading light.
The sound of low voices from somewhere on the deck above had her craning her head. If she had a great view from here, theirs must be amazing.
'Looks like loads of single women down there. Half are here for flings; the other half hope to find a husband. It's the same every cruise.'
'Your job is to pamper those women, not judge them.'
'Easy for you to say, buddy. If they see an unattached guy they're like piranhas circling their next meal.'
Despite her intentions to ignore the conversation, this harsh judgment captured Lana's attention, and realisation dawned as she looked up. Standing above her, silhouetted against the bridge, stood the stranger who'd saved her from falling earlier.
He wore a crisp white uniform that accentuated his tana larger than life Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentlemanand she swallowed, disconcerted by how she'd compared him to two of her favourite movie stars in under an hour.
Deep furrows marred his brow as his gaze swept the crowd, and she shrank back, hoping she was hidden. She didn't want to be scrutinised by that disconcerting stare not when she'd been eavesdropping, albeit unintentionally.
MrNautical's generalisations about women had her bristling enough to barge up there and give him a verbal spray, but if she had the guts to do that she'd be winging her way to Egypt right now, as the museum's spokesperson, not cowering under a deck hoping she wouldn't be spotted.
He was entitled to his opinion, and she to hers. And right now, as she darted a quick glance overhead, taking in those broad shoulders, deep blue eyes and the mop of unruly dark curls, her opinion screamed Neanderthal.
The band starting up drowned out the rest of his conversation, and she stood still for several minutes, waiting for the men above to move so she could make her escape without being seen. After a few extra minutes of shuffling her feet to kill time, she sidled along the deck, taking a few steps back towards an open door.
The owner of the low voice stood so close his warm breath caressed her ear, and she jumped and whirled around, her heart pounding as she stared into those familiar indigo eyes barely inches from her face.
'You startled me.' She glared, desperately trying to hide her embarrassment at being caught eavesdropping.
'Sorry. Maybe if you watched where you were going we'd stop bumping into each other like this? By the way Zac McCoy.'
He stuck out his hand, seemingly unaware she'd heard every word of his damning conversation. She'd wanted to keep it that way, so couldn't be as rude as her first instinct prompted her to be.
She placed her hand in his, unprepared for the jolt that shot up her arm as his fingers closed over hers. She yanked back, flustered by the residual tingle buzzing from her fingertips to her shoulder.
His eyes widened as he stared down at her hand. Great. Now he thought she was bad-mannered as well as clumsy. Way to go with the first impressions. Not that she had any intention of impressing him after what she'd just heard and as if she'd even contemplate impressing him if she hadn't, she thought derisively. Old clothes, minimal makeup and boring brown hair weren't exactly designed to impress any guy, let alone someone in Mr Tall, Dark and Nautical's league.
'I need to finish unpacking, so if you'll excuse me?'
As she pushed past him her bare arm brushed his. The strange buzzing was back with a vengeance, spreading upwards and outwards and confusing the heck out of her. She had no idea why her body was behaving like this.
Okay, so that was a lie. Jax the Jackass might have been her only boyfriend, the only guy she'd ever slept with, but once he'd dumped her and she'd fled to Sydney she'd had two less than memorable dates with co-workers. She still recognized that buzz.
Hormones. Her reaction to sailor boy had to be purely physicalno doubt intensified due to the fact she hadn't been this close to a guy in over three years.
'I'll leave you to it. Nice meeting you.'
She mumbled a non-committal answer and sent him a half-hearted wave, glancing over her shoulder as he walked away, her curious gaze lingering on parts it had no right scoping out.
She had a thing for guys in uniform. Always had.
Starting way back, when a young sailor had given her a flower after she'd dropped an ice cream cone and cried. A clumsy five-year-old who'd never forgotten her first crush. Her mum's warning at the time, to steer clear of men like that, hadn't meant much, considering she hadn't known what 'that' meant back then.
Now, seeing the white cotton outlining Zac McCoy's butt as he strode away, she knew exactly what that was, and it sent her scurrying for her cabin.