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In the army, Harm Connolly had developed a reputation for trouble. Not for getting into it, but getting out of it, and he was most attracted to trouble when the odds were against him.
Temporarily, though, impossible problems didn't strike him as any fun at all.
For the first time in his life, he couldn't find his guts. He really, really wanted to disappear in a deep, dark cave under an assumed name where no one could possibly find him.
It was the boat.
Since he'd arrived in Juneau yesterday, the rain had gushed down in thick, drenching sheets, and still showed no sign of letting up. The rain didn't bother him. That he was cold and soaked didn't bother him, either.
But standing on the dock, staring at the l03-foot yacht—ironically named Bliss—Harm reflected gloom ily that he'd rather suffer a burst appendix, get married again, face a firing squad—anything but climb aboard.
He'd never liked boats. Didn't matter if it was a dingy or a luxury yacht. The idea of being trapped on one for the next two weeks was enough to give him shudders… and the funny part of it all was that the boat trip had been his idea.
The gray, relentless rain blurred any chance of clear visibility, but Harm still kept his gaze homed on the four men climbing aboard ahead of him. They were all brilliant—a ton smarter than him—yet they'd become his employees a mind-boggling few weeks ago.
They'd sucked up to him from the get-go, but with each other… Hell. This morning, typically, none were speaking to each other. Enough friction sizzled among the four to fry a hole in the ozone. The silent anger pouring off the men was so toxic that it was bound to combust unless Harm somehow found a way to identify and defuse the source. Soon. Damn soon.
The yacht staff—captain and mate—greeted each of the men and ported their gear. Harm was last by choice. He wanted to board that boat like he wanted to cuddle up with a hornet's nest. Still, if he had to find something positive about this incredible mess…at least there were no women around.
When push came to shove, Harm didn't doubt his ability to handle financial crises or catastrophes or unexpected avalanches.
He was pretty good at handling most anything but estrogen.
"Mr. Connolly—Harm! Welcome aboard!" The captain, in full rain gear, surged forward and extended his hand. "Hope your trip into Juneau was pleasant. Nice weather for whales, huh?"
Harm was beginning to recognize Alaskans' unique brand of humor, and even wet and raw, the captain's smile was deferential. Harm got mighty tired of people treating him as if he walked on water, but in this case, he didn't mind the wary respect. Naturally, he'd thoroughly researched Ivan Gregory before signing on for this trip.
The captain was thirty-eight, of Lithuanian descent, a man's man with a history of hard drinking, womanizing and maverick morals—but Harm didn't mind a man's faults as long as he knew what they were. The critical factor was Ivan's experience. The captain knew the seas around Admiralty Island like the back of his hand, and had an unbeatable track record for sailing his way through rough weather, always bringing home passengers and boat undamaged.
"It was good to meet your men." Ivan grabbed his duffel before Harm could reach for it. "Interesting group. My crew is especially looking forward to this trip… we'll get your gear taken below, give you some time to wander about and get familiar with the ship…"
"That sounds fine. Thanks." Harm tuned out the captain's small talk as he stepped aboard.
He'd seen pictures, done his homework, of course, but was still startled by the reality of the boat's interior.
Peeling off his wet hood and jacket, he noted the aft deck was big enough to hold a board meeting. Double doors led into a spacious salon, the inside wall paneled in wild cherry, the cabinetry done in a rich burl. The leather seating clustered midroom was framed by bookshelves, all stuffed with books and references on Alaskan lore. Harm was just leaning closer to study the signed oil painting on the inside wall when his head suddenly shot up.
For an instant, he thought he heard a soprano. A woman's voice, emanating from the next room off the passageway—the entrance to the dining area.
But his attention was immediately distracted by the shock of hearing laughter from his team. His four guys were all peeling off their wet-weather gear, same as he was, but they were suddenly talking, clearly surprised and enthralled with the comforts of the yacht, sounding animated about the trip ahead. Harm wanted to hold his breath. He had no illusions the camaraderie would last, but it was a beginning—the whole reason he'd put this trip together. All four of them, he believed, were good men. Or had been good men, once upon a time. This trip was a chance to see if there was a prayer he could pull them back together.
Ivan pushed up his captain's cap and was clearly trying to channel the group's attention. "Okay, everyone, Hans here is my first mate." He motioned at a spectacled, gray-haired man who looked like a quiet grandfather type. "Cate's our chef this trip. You'll meet her shortly. Hans, in the meantime, will take you below, help stow your gear and then give you a tour of the ship. The only place off-limits is the crew's quarters. Otherwise, you're free to go anywhere, and explore all you want. I'll be topside for a few minutes, calling the harbormaster. We'll lunch in the dining room at twelve-thirty and do some Q & A, fill you in on the schedule, safety features and all that. A-OK?"
Cate? Harm's head whipped around again. There'd been no woman's name on the crew roster. He was positive.
And then he saw her.
Actually, what he precisely noticed was her shrugging off the captain's attempt to cup her fanny as she hiked past him into the main salon.
She dodged the captain's move, smooth as silk, but Harm's gaze still narrowed. Since she was female, she was inherently a problem. The captain's behavior hinted there could be an additional awkward problems between employer and employee. Yet, determining how much difficulty she was likely to add to the trip was confounding because her looks didn't remotely fit the picture.
Her hair was blond, paler than wheat, and she wore it razor short, spiked up every which way. Maybe she'd gotten around to brushing it last year. Her clothes revealed the flat figure of a kid—skinny jeans, mocs, a long-sleeved T-shirt with the slogan Forget Love! I'd Rather Fall In Chocolate! If she reached five-three, Harm would be surprised. With no makeup and a patch of freckles on her nose and a downright stubborn chin, she looked young. twenty-four, twenty-five? And far more like a scrapper than a siren.
Yet the first mate, the well-past-Viagra-age Hans, gazed at her as if she were the sex goddess of the century.
Harm's warring men—Purdue, Yale, Fiske and Arthur—spotted her and got the same moonstruck look.
The captain obviously thought she was the sexiest thing to ever sail this sea or any other.
Harm wanted to shake his head. Were they all crazy? She was no dazzler. More like an underfed scruffy mutt.
Only then she smiled and said, "Hey, guys. I'm Cate."
His heart went slam as pitifully as all the rest. It was that ssslllooooowwww smile. That throaty voice. That incomprehensible "something" that sent a guy's testosterone soaring and ransomed his common sense.
Him, too, Harm thought gloomily. His heart was thumping like a puppy dog's tail; his equipment already standing to attention. Hell.
He'd known this trip was going to be a nonstop stresser, but he figured her presence on the boat was going to turn the next weeks into a nightmare times ten.
Cate greeted the group with an exuberant smile. She didn't have to pretend. It was easy to be happy; she'd known from the start that this two-week gig was truly a dream job. There were only two teensy exceptions.
There were way, way, way too many men.
And the captain persisted in thinking that a bite of the cook was a job perk.
Still, she'd never been one to let a couple inconsequential details bog her down, and continued with her intro spiel. "Hey, guys! I'm Cate. Cate Campbell. Like the captain said, I'm your chef for the trip. I trained in New Orleans under one of the best chefs in the universe, which isn't to say that I'll ever be that good, only that my goal here is to knock your socks off with some terrific food—starting with lunch today at twelve-thirty. Just take whatever seat you want in the dining room. And over the next hour, I'll try and track each of you down separately, make sure I'm straight on any food allergies or preferences you have. Okay?"
Oh, yeah, that was okay. When the five guests climbed aboard, Cate had gotten a good studying look at all but the head honcho…but this was their first chance to get a look at her. The boss man still eluded her, was shedding rain gear in the companionway, his face in shadow—but his four minions had front-row seats. They looked up, and the smell of testosterone suddenly clouded the clean sea air. Sprawled like wet rats in the cushy leather chairs, they suddenly straightened their postures. Heads nodded like bobbers.
She'd seen the response from men before. Her sisters claimed disgustedly that she was sexy even when she was down with a nose cold—which was both silly and untrue. But men were men.
Cats were so much easier to get along with.
"All right…I'm back to cooking. Only one other thing I want to say up front. I'm the god in the galley. I'm not your wife, not your girlfriend—you don't have to watch your language or your manners around me, and you don't need to help with a thing. But nobody touches my knives, my tools or my spices. Can't imagine why you'd want to, anyway. If you need something from the galley, all you have to do is ask. We square?"
More head bobbing. A little laughter. A lot of smiles.
"Okay, I'll catch up with each of you in a bit."
En route back to the galley, naturally, Ivan tried to cop another feel. She shot him a look so icy it could have stopped global warming in its tracks, then just moved past him.
She heard his muttered chuckle. "Sheesh, Cate, it wouldn't kill you to loosen up. Don't forget, we're in Alaska. Rules are a lot more flexible here."
"I'm positive I told you in the job interview that I flunked 'plays well with others' in kindergarten."
"God, I love a feisty woman," he said.
She kept on going, didn't even waste a roll of the eyes. The captain wasn't a serious problem. As far as she could tell, Ivan was a terrific sailor, just a jerk around women. She could handle him with both hands tied behind her back, and even if the other men proved to be mangerines—boys with unmanageable balls the size of tangerines—Cate didn't anticipate any sweat working with them, either.
She would hardly be an adventure chef if she didn't love a little risk and danger now and then.
She zipped into the galley, instinctively whistling some old kick-ass rock and roll. What a kitchen. She'd made dinner for seven in the Himalayas in a snowstorm, sand-roasted snake for a gay couple in the Amazon, so maybe cooking under adverse conditions was her forte—but man, there was nothing wrong with a little luxury.
Naturally, she'd brought her own knives and spices— what chef didn't?—but the galley was a techno dream. Armed with a hot pad and spatula, she checked on lunch, savoring the work space at the same time. The Corian countertops were in a sharp navy blue; the walls ice-cream white. A Thermador cooktop and grill accompanied the Sub-Zero fridge and freezer. Extras included the trash compactor, double sink, convection microwave and two—count 'em, two—Thermador convection ovens, and that wasn't even counting the to-die-for pantry.
The whole package was enough to give a girl multiple orgasms—without all the hassle and messiness of a personal relationship. Besides which, the job was going to leave her with a chubby chunk of money. How could a girl not whistle?
It took less than ten minutes to put the finishing touches on the lunch menu. Obviously, the first meal needed to be killer good. Not fancy. Nothing that guys would be afraid of. It just had to be exactly right.
Once those chores were checked off, she grabbed her list with the passenger names and hustled below to the guest cabins. The big shot, she already knew, was Harm Connolly. The first names of his guys were Fiske, Yale, Purdue and Arthur. At the first cabin door, she rapped, and waited.
The man who answered the door was short, white-haired, plump and out of breath. Fiske. She took one look at the kindly eyes, judged him to be good to the bone and smiled. "A lot of running around this morning?" she asked sympathetically.
"Glad to finally be aboard and settled," he admitted.
"I'll bet. And I'm not going to bug you, just want to ask a couple of things to make sure I have the right info. Do you have any food allergies? Or any food issues, cholesterol, diabetes, anything you didn't put on the form that I need to know about?"
"No allergies. Nothing but the usual boring health issues, either. A little heart issue, have to take cholesterol meds, should lose a few pounds, that kind of nonsense. Had to give up doughnuts." He added in a mournful tone, "I love doughnuts."
"Me, too," she confessed. "Rather have coffee or tea?"
"Listen, Fiske, if you need a treat, you come find me. You hear? Or if there's anything special you like, just say." She resisted hugging him, but right off the bat, she could tell he was going to be an angel.
When she knocked on the next door, she knew she'd found Purdue even before the guy introduced himself. It was the look. Tall, dark, good-looking, maybe thirty, know-everything, so smart he charmed himself. In another ten years she figured the sharp edges might start showing up, but right now, he'd tickle any single woman's radar. Hers not included, of course.