A Great Catch

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Publisher: InkBooks
ISBN: 978-1-4524-5664-5

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Book Description: The man who got away is back... After years of working her way upward in the male-dominated maritime world of Great Lakes shipping, Tessa Jardine lands her dream job as first mate on the passenger ship SS Taliesen -- a dream job until she meets her captain, Lucas Hall. Ten years ago, Lucas broke her young heart when he walked away from her without a word of farewell, and she can't forgive him for that -- or for his more recent part in a failed rescue attempt that cost her younger brother his life. Now Lucas, the ex-Coast Guard hero, is back to complicate her life. Working together day after day, Lucas and Tessa discover the attraction between them is still hot and heavy -- but can Tessa forgive Lucas, or ever learn to trust him again? And what will Lucas have to do to win back her love?

This book was originally published by Avon Books in 2000, under the name Michelle Jerott.

"A compelling story." – The Oakland Press

Chapter One

Port of Milwaukee

"No, no...you've got it all wrong. You two need to be together. Like this--big buff dude in back, cute chick here in front."

The photographer clamped his hand around First Mate Tessa Jardine's arm and positioned her so that her shoulders bumped against the hard chest of the man standing behind her.

The instant their bodies made contact, her muscles tightened, and the tension shot like a rocket straight to her temples.
God, her head pounded, and the blinding-hot sun and rhythmic slapping of waves against ship and shore didn't help any--nor did the ever-present, screeching cacophony of the gulls.

Heavy humidity was slowly melting the creases of her white dress uniform, and each time the photographer squeezed her arm and called her "cute," she wanted to slug him.

 "Oh, my...that's perfect," the photographer gushed. "Love the contrast. He's so much taller than you, and it emphasizes his manly-man looks -- and you're just marvelous, so cute."

"I'd prefer that you don't call me cute," Tessa said in the firm voice she used to advise men twice her age or size to pay attention. "And I don't like being handled as if I'm some bimbo selling beer with sex."

The photographer snorted. From his shaved head, nose ring, and goatee to his baggy, overlong pants, he epitomized "trendy young artiste."

"Your boss's whole angle is sex, honey. Sex sells and I can make anything sexy. You want attention, right? You want to pack that old bucket with passengers, right? So go over the top -- be daring. I don't do ho-hum, I do sizzle and snap."

He snapped his fingers in front of Tessa's face. She jerked back in reflex, bumping into that warm chest again. She eased away -- or tried to.

"Oh, no you don't, missy." Oblivious to her warning glare, the photographer poked her backwards with an index finger to her shoulder. "Now, it's like this. The captain here, he's male with a capital M.  I see power. I see authority. I see chicks drooling. And you're just marvelous -- "

Tessa's fingers twitched.

" -- with those sexy kitty-cat eyes, and your mouth makes me think of a young Bardot. You're not blond, but hey! Nobody's perfect. I can't get over just how cu -- whoa!"

Tessa yanked him down by a fistful of his black-knit shirt. As his eyes popped wide, she enunciated very clearly: "Please don't call me cute."

The photographer's mouth pinched tight. When he cleared his throat pointedly, Tessa let him go. "That, young lady, wasn't very nice."

"Being nice," intoned a deep voice behind her, "isn't part of her job description."

On a heated rush of anger and embarrassment, she almost turned, but didn't. "Why, thank you so much. Captain."

"You're welcome." The body behind her bent down as he murmured, "Miss Jardine."

At the touch of his breath against her ear, Tessa shivered and looked straight ahead, focusing on the gray-and-white ship rocking gently at anchor.

I can work with this man. I can, I can...

"A bit skittish, are we?"

At the faintly condescending question, Tessa glanced at the photographer again. He was staring at her with an expression of distaste.

Skittish just about summed up her mood at the moment -- and she prayed the dampness under her arms had everything to do with the heat and nothing whatsoever to do with the man at her back.

Her commanding officer.

The perfect manly-man.

The perfect bastard.

"How much longer will this take?" Tessa asked with a sigh.

"Just give me a few seconds and I'll finish with the publicity stills. I have a job to do here, you know," the photographer retorted.

"Don't we all," Tessa said, as the kid again pushed her back against that warm, unyielding chest. At once, the scent of spicy cologne enveloped her.

Sandalwood...potent and earthy. A scent that shot straight to an ancient, murky part of her brain, triggering vivid flashes of images and sensations: a slow finger sliding down the pale skin of her belly, a husky laugh, lips tasting thickly sweet of rum and coke, a beard-rough chin.

Tessa took a long, steadying breath to clear her head as the photographer said, "Now, I want Captain...Paul, is it?"

"Hall."

"Is that your first or last name?"

"Captain Hall."

A silence followed, and Tessa almost smiled. The "big buff dude" wasn't happy about all this posturing, either.

"My, aren't we a friendly bunch," the photographer muttered. "Okay, Captain Hall, put your hands on her shoulders."

Tessa stiffened. "I don't think that's appropriate."

The photographer rolled his eyes. "Chill, okay? I want a cozy, one-big-happy-family shot, just in case your boss isn't interested in a sexier angle. Now stand still and you put your hands here...yes, exactly. Oh, I love it, love it!"

Hall's hands rested lightly on her shoulders, as if he didn't want to touch her any more than she wanted to be touched. The heat of his skin penetrated the fabric of her shirt, the press of his hands somehow intimate and heavy.

From the corner of her eye she could just glimpse strong, broad hands and very capable-looking fingers. A scar -- one she didn't remember -- cut across the knuckles of his left hand, and with the exception of a plain watch, he wore no jewelry. Not even a ring.

The photographer tilted her chin, putting an end to her discreet survey, then moved one of Hall's hands closer to her neck.

"Now," he said in a tone usually reserved for temperamental toddlers. "Let's all smile and look happy to be here. Captain, a little lip action would be nice, thank you."

Despite her irritation and pounding headache, Tessa couldn't help but smile at the irony of that particular comment.

This kid had no idea...

"Praise the gods, she smiles at last!" The camera clicked three times in quick succession before the photographer straightened. "That's it. I'm outta here. It's been such a pleasure, people."

He snatched up his equipment and stalked off, leaving Tessa with her back still pressed against her captain. To her relief, the weight of Hall's hands lifted from her shoulders, freeing her to step away. Raising her chin, Tessa turned at last to face him -- and took an instinctive step back, swallowing.

From the tips of his polished shoes up to the gleaming black visor, he looked as if he'd stepped right out of a recruitment poster. Not a single wrinkle marred the navy blue jacket and pressed trousers, or the white shirt he wore buttoned to the neck with an expertly knotted tie. He still kept his dark hair military short, and a beard shadowed his square jaw. While that infamous killer smile was notably absent, he still carried himself with all the hotshot arrogance she remembered.

Tessa ignored her damp palms, as well as the flutter in the pit of her stomach she hoped came from her missed lunch. "Mr. Sizzle-and-Snap is right. You do fill out that uniform very nicely. Sir."

Lucas Hall looked past her toward open water, legs braced wide, hands clasped behind his back as if he were already on the rolling deck of his ship. He paid her no more attention than he would a gnat.

After several moments, she tipped her head toward him, smiling sweetly, and murmured, "Stop ignoring me. People will notice."

"And you think nobody's noticed you've been ignoring me since you arrived here two weeks ago?"

"I haven't had time to socialize. I've been working my butt off fitting out this ship on time for -- "

"You've been avoiding me." He turned at last, staring at her from light hazel eyes. Eerie, wolfish eyes -- and about as warm as Lake Superior in January. Tessa went still, unnerved, but a flash of color caught her eye before she could respond.

Oh, joy. The boss had arrived.

"Show time. Get ready!" The whispered command followed in the swishing wake of pink silk, glittering gold, and floral perfume. "The cable crew will want to talk to you both next. Remember, act professional, answer only as you were instructed...and Miss Jardine, I don't want you standing so close to Captain Hall."

Which in Pink Widow language meant: He's mine. Back off.

Like that would ever be a problem.

As the woman breezed through a knot of reporters, the appreciative gazes of some dozen men -- including Hall's -- followed the pitch and roll of her hips. The frank stares reminded Tessa of snatches of gossip she'd heard from her crew over the last few weeks, and her mood darkened.

"At her age, I expect she's plenty experienced, but maybe I could give her a few pointers on your techniques," Tessa said tightly as she stepped away. "Especially that 'disappearing into thin air without so much as a good-bye' trick."

Hall shifted his gaze back to her, and the already humid air grew a little hotter and stickier under his glare. "We'll discuss this later, Jardine, but not here."

Bullseye. She'd finally rattled his icy calm.

Tessa turned her attention to the ship awaiting its ceremonial christening, and the sight of her high prow and sleek lines, so different from the huge, bulky freighters she was used to, eased away her tension.

Such a pretty ship. Every minute she'd spend on those freshly painted decks would be worth taking orders from Hall and putting up with the crew's inevitable distrust or harassment.

A gull's plaintive cry sounded high above her, and she looked up at a pair of gray-white birds wheeling gracefully against a blue sky high above the Taliesen.

It was almost a perfect day, and she wished her family were with her to help celebrate. But her father was loading taconite at Marquette, and by now Everett was downbound on the St. Mary's River. Steve had hoped his ship would make it to Milwaukee on time, but she didn't see him, and Matt --

Sudden tears stung her eyes as Tessa realized what she was doing. Swallowing away the lump of sadness, she glanced around the bustling dock, filled with a small crowd of ship buffs, media types, workmen, and several dozen suits. They'd all gathered this afternoon to watch Roland Stanhope's sleek widow launch her own venture, compliments of old Rolly's Great Lakes shipping fortune.

A cheerful shout sounded behind her, and Tessa turned to see the mayor walk past, a pack of reporters at his heels.

"Captain Hall, we need you over here," called Harry Kowalski, the company's PR rep. He motioned impatiently. "The Sentinel photographer wants a shot of you with the mayor and Dee, with the Taliesen in the background."

The gathered crowd -- especially the women -- watched Hall with rapt attention as he strode toward the mayor. An anemic blonde actually sucked in her breath as he walked past.

But Tessa couldn't help watching either as people made way for him, moving back without a word or even a signal. Tall and broad-shouldered, Hall radiated power and authority. The entire package dazzled; so much so that she wondered if anybody else noticed how his easy grace barely disguised the slight hitch in his walk.

The crisp uniform likely covered other scars, and the thought caused her a twinge of regret. So many memories today -- and impossible to avoid them.

"Miss Jardine!"

Tessa glanced at Kowalski, who motioned for her to join the group in front of the ship. With a soft sigh, she headed toward him and smiled at the mayor, who'd been drawn aside by several of the company's investors and board members, sweating in their expensive suits.

Upon joining Kowalski, Hall, and Dee Stanhope -- who managed to look cool and elegant despite the heat and brisk wind -- Tessa caught sight of a handsome black man standing with them and nearly groaned out loud.

Darryl Pointer, host of the local cable program City Beat, went after controversial subjects with the single-mindedness of a pit bull.

"I want a quick interview here on the dock," Pointer was ordering. "Then after the christening ceremony, we'll head over to the ship and shoot some footage there. How does that sound?"

"Perfect," Dee answered. "Why don't you interview Captain Hall first, then talk to Miss Jardine. You can save me for last. I don't have anything very interesting to say, I'm afraid. Everything I do is behind the scenes, you know."

Pointer made a tsk-tsk sound. "Mrs. Stanhope, I'm certain I'll find everything about you absolutely fascinating."

Dee Stanhope -- fortysomething and the owner of a thriving commercial shipping company -- blushed prettily. She shrugged and fluttered a hand as if to say: Oh, this old ship? Just a little something I whipped up the other day in the boardroom.

The sharp gleam of interest in Pointer's dark eyes told Tessa he hadn't fallen for Dee's demure act. "So, Captain," he said, turning to Hall. "Ready to answer a few questions?"

"Yes."

At the terse response, Pointer's brows shot up. "No call to be nervous. If it helps, pretend the cameras aren't here."

"I'm not nervous," Hall said in a clipped tone, and Dee touched his arm, flashing a brilliant, gushy smile. After a moment, he smiled back and visibly relaxed.

Startled by the familiarity of the exchange, Tessa dropped her gaze to the polished tips of her shoes. So much for rumors: Hall really was sleeping with the boss.

Anger spiked, sudden and hot. It had taken her over six years of hard work and struggling against blatant sexism to finally land the job of first mate, and all Lucas Hall had to do was unzip his pants and --

"Yo, Darryl," yelled the cameraman, interrupting Tessa's thoughts. "It's hot, man. Let's get this show on the road."

Pointer squared his shoulders, donned a jaunty smile, and stared into the wide black lens. The cameraman focused, then made an okay sign.

"Sun-drenched skies," Pointer said in his deep, pleasant voice. "Sparkling blue water. The pounding of the surf. A cruise ship, rocking quietly at anchor. The Caribbean? The Bahamas? Well, would you believe...Milwaukee, Wisconsin?"

He paused for effect, widening his smile. "If it seems a world away from the typical ocean cruise, you're right. I'm here today with Captain Lucas Hall, First Mate Tessa Jardine, and Stanhope Shipping's owner, Mrs. Dee Stanhope, to talk about risky business."

Pointer turned toward Dee, who stood with an indulgent smile as the breeze fluttered her pink skirt. "Risky business as in purchasing a century-old steamship, which today will be rechristened the Taliesen. Many are questioning the financial wisdom of a cruise ship sailing Lake Michigan. In these tough economic times, is the Taliesen doomed to sink, figuratively if not literally, before she even sets out on her maiden voyage? Mrs. Stanhope, would you care to comment?"

Sink?

Tessa stared at Pointer. What a jerk!

"Getting the Taliesen back in service has long been a dream of mine," Dee answered, unflustered. "She's a tribute to a way of life that's all but disappeared. These days, people are so intent on getting somewhere fast that I wanted to reintroduce the joys of leisurely travel. Stop and smell the roses, that's my motto."

"But do you -- "

"However, dreams and business don't mix, so I've spared no expense in restoring this ship from the keel on up. I've handpicked stellar officers and a dedicated crew, all of whom will make sure this ship is not only safe, but who'll treat each and every passenger like royalty. And at a very affordable rate. Unlike that other Great Lakes cruise line."

"But you acknowledge there's a risk?" Pointer said quickly, before Dee could interrupt him again.

"Of course. But without risks, life would be so dull, don't you think?"

That clearly took Pointer by surprise, although the man didn't miss a beat. "Captain Hall, you're a Coast Guard veteran, are you not?"

"Yes, sir. Nearly twenty years of service."

"And you've also received quite a few medals, including several commendations for valor?"

Hall nodded once in acknowledgment as a muscle in his jaw tightened. "That is correct."

"So modestly stated, sir." Pointer smiled. "But our area viewers will recall you also played a key role in one of the worst maritime tragedies of the past twenty-five years."

Here it comes.

Tessa's gaze shifted toward her boss. Dee's pink lips tightened a fraction, and Kowalski had turned purplish.

"Since the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975, the Great Lakes has maintained a good safety record," Pointer continued. "Until the tanker Robert D. McKee exploded and sank nearly two years ago. Captain Hall, some people find it ironic that you're now working for Stanhope Shipping, the company that owned the ill-fated McKee. Has this been an issue for you?"

"No, sir, it has not."

Tessa darted a glance at Hall. He stood straight and proud...and an unexpected pang of sympathy stole over her, even if he was the last person she should feel sorry for.

"And is this true for the first mate?" Pointer turned his inquisitive dark gaze on her. "Miss Jardine, you lost a brother on the McKee. How does it feel to work with the man who was partly responsible for sending your brother, and the four men with him, to the bottom of Lake Michigan?"

A heavy, awkward silence followed.

"Mr. Pointer, please," Kowalski said with a sigh. "This is not an appropriate question. Captain Hall was cleared of any wrongdoing, and with the Yarwood lawsuit still pending in court, you know we can't publicly discuss the McKee incident."

"I was only asking Miss Jardine to share her feelings with our viewers."

Tessa would've gladly done so, but snarling 'Up yours!' wouldn't go over well with Stanhope's board of directors. After all, she symbolized the company's equal opportunity savoir faire and had a part to play today.

"I have the utmost respect for Captain Hall, both as captain of the Taliesen and as the officer who tried to carry out his sworn duty, even at the risk of his own life," Tessa said, as she'd been told. In her own words, she added, "Shipboard employment can be dangerous, but as you pointed out, accidents are rare. I've worked for Stanhope Shipping for years, and I have no complaints -- obviously, or I wouldn't be here."

"Hiring Captain Hall also set off a rumble of anger in the union." Pointer didn't take his gaze from Tessa. "Some claim he was hired over more experienced men as compensation for the injuries he received during the botched rescue attempt, which forced him to retire from active service. Is this true?"

Stunned by the insensitivity -- it was her younger brother who'd died in that "botched" rescue attempt -- Tessa forced herself calmly to return Pointer's stare. The effort kept the pain at bay; it would look bad if Stanhope's token female first mate burst into tears on camera.

"My company is well within its right to hire outside the unions," Dee cut in, her tone civil but cool. "And Captain Hall is more than competent, Mr. Pointer."

"Maybe the captain would like to comment for himself?" Pointer turned to Hall.

"I'm very good at what I do, sir."

"Of course you are, but I see a big difference between commanding a passenger ship and chasing drug smugglers or illegal aliens," Pointer said, his eyes bright with pleasure at so obviously hitting a nerve. "And Miss Jardine has only worked as a junior officer on freighters. We've heard a lot of negative press lately about the safety of the cruise industry. Why hire a captain and senior officer who lack experience with passenger vessels? Isn't that just asking for trouble?"

Dee smiled, shaking her head. "Play fair. You can't compare a foreign cruise ship to one owned and operated in the US. We've passed stringent Coast Guard inspections and Miss Jardine coordinates a first-rate safety program. The complaints, Mr. Pointer, are just sour grapes. Now, shall we get on with the christening of my ship?"

"Certainly." Pointer signaled the cameraman to stop filming, then grinned. "You're one tough lady, Mrs. Stanhope."

"Please, Darryl, call me Dee. It's so much shorter, and we have a busy afternoon ahead of us." Dee rested her hand lightly on the man's shoulder. "I don't consider myself tough, but the Taliesen is my baby and we both know a little controversy is always good for business. Within reason."

Pointer laughed out loud, and Tessa yearned to shove him into the water. She glanced at Hall, half-afraid to see what emotion, if any, lurked in those hazel eyes -- and found him watching her. Unnerved by the intensity of his gaze, she quickly looked away.

Kowalski herded everyone toward the Taliesen's prow, where the mayor and his suit-wearing party waited with barely concealed impatience. No doubt they wanted to climb into their air-conditioned cars and head back to their air-conditioned downtown offices.

Tessa could well imagine their reactions to the sooty boiler room and the sweating firemen who loaded black coal into the orange-red inferno of the boilers. The women, with their heels and manicured fingernails, didn't look like they'd enjoy getting down and dirty, either.

She wished she were below deck right now, trading insults with the chief engineer, listening to the sound of hissing steam and the well-oiled thud and clang of massive piston rods, or the crew's curses and laughter hanging in air thick with the acridly sweet smell of burning coal.

A trickle of perspiration rolled down her back, itching beneath her white cotton bra. She ignored the itch, standing still while the mayor made his speech. Dee followed, keeping her own remarks brief, then she swung the bottle of champagne against the ship's repainted hull and christened the Taliesen in an explosion of pink bubbly.

Cameras popped and flashed, the crowd cheered and clapped, and Tessa smiled until her cheeks ached, staying as far away from Hall as possible.

Keeping her distance wasn't difficult; the guests and reporters, especially the women, found him far more interesting than a lowly first mate -- not to mention controversial. After all, she hadn't been accused of blowing up any tankers while there were men still alive inside.

How had her perfect job ended up such a mess?

Over and over, she'd told herself that turning down a promotion like this because of anger would be foolish -- but a hell of a chasm lay between theory and reality.

"Miss Jardine, we're heading to the Taliesen now." Kowalski's low warning brought Tessa back to the present. The mayor departed along a line of shaking hands, while half the media group followed Dee up the ship's ramp for a private tour. The sound of their voices and laughter drifted down, mingled with the slap of water against the Taliesen's hull.

Kowalski followed, guiding the rest of the group toward the main deck, which left Tessa and Hall to bring up the rear.
Hall was watching her. Again. With the brim shielding his eyes, she couldn't read his expression -- and it made her defensive, uncertain.

"What are you staring at?" she demanded.

"I'm not staring. I'm waiting." After a moment, he motioned toward the metal gangway. "Ladies first."

Tessa narrowed her eyes. "In this uniform, Captain Hall, my gender doesn't mean squat. You think of me as just one of the guys. Got that?"

Chapter Two

Not while he still had balls and a heartbeat.

Lucas watched Tessa march up the ramp to the deck, her hips swinging with irritation and drawing his attention to how her white trousers fit snug against her bottom, showing a hint of panty lines: high-cut panties, the kind that would make the most of the great pair of legs hidden beneath her uniform.

He briefly closed his eyes, until the scent of her baby shampoo drifted away on the breeze. After all this time, he still couldn't smell that powder-sweet scent without remembering a nineteen-year-old Great Lakes Maritime Academy cadet whose fingers and mouth had been anything but babyish.

Somehow, he expected she'd have grown beyond baby shampoo. God, the rest of her sure had grown up.

Quickly killing that thought, Lucas grasped the metal rail and followed his mouthy mate.

If they didn't find neutral ground, and fast, one of them would have to leave this ship. It sure as hell wouldn't be him, and he suspected nothing short of death would get Tessa off the Taliesen. It had been a long time, but some things a man didn't forget.

Just then, she shot a snotty glare at him over her shoulder.

And there were some things a woman wouldn't forget, either. Or forgive.

On deck, he made his way toward the sound of Kowalski's smoke-roughened voice relaying the Taliesen's history.

"...was built in 1908 and converted to a metal hull in the forties. She was retired from service in 1974 when the cost of maintaining her became too expensive. Mrs. Stanhope purchased the ship six years ago and began the restoration project with the help of public donations..."

While Kowalski rattled out trivia, statistics, and amusing anecdotes, Lucas kept away from the crews toting cameras and sound equipment, and the half dozen local television and newspaper reporters.

He'd rather corner a desperate Colombian smuggler with an AK-47, or even turn back a boatload of miserable refugees, than face another question about the McKee.

Lucas glanced at his mate, at the proud lift of her chin and wind-tousled dark hair -- and wished to God the reminder of every stupid mistake he'd ever made in his life wasn't wrapped around the luscious, never-forgotten body of Tessa Jardine.

Guilt shot through him, and an all-too-familiar knot tightened in his belly. What he really needed was a grueling, mind-numbing swim. How could he have thought he'd prepared himself for this?

"We're heading to the pilothouse. Are you coming?"

At Kowalski's questioning voice, Lucas looked up. Everyone, including Jardine, stood staring at him. Waiting.

"My apologies." He caught Jardine's gaze. "I was just admiring the view."

Jardine's dark, thick-lashed eyes widened, then she spun on her heel and walked stiffly away. As Kowalski and Dee guided the media up to the pilothouse, Lucas followed, his mood grim.

He shouldn't have let his temper slip loose, but if Jardine wanted to poke sticks through the cage of his self-control, it was only fair to warn her he would grab that stick and poke right back.

As everyone squeezed inside the small room overlooking the bow deck with its neatly stacked lounge chairs, Lucas positioned himself far away from her. The pilothouse still smelled heavily of varnish and paint, and the window frames gleamed with a suspicious wetness.

Dee had moved the Taliesen's launch forward with relentless force, despite the controversy surrounding the Yarwood trial's accusations of negligence against Stanhope Shipping in the McKee accident. The best way to deflect negative publicity was with something new and exciting and equally controversial -- like hiring as captain the key player in that same accident.

"Captain Hall." The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter's voice cut across Lucas's thoughts. "Would you mind explaining the purpose of this equipment?"

As Lucas came forward, everyone made way for him without his having to ask.

"The ship's wheel, of course." He grasped the polished wood and gave it a twist back and forth, then laid his hand on the instrument beside him, the brass cool beneath his fingers. "This is the engine order telegraph, or chadburn, which transmits speed and directional orders to the engine room. As Mr. Kowalski explained earlier, the Taliesen is equipped with a quadruple expansion steam engine. She's one of the last steam-fired passenger ships on the Great Lakes."

"Will we get to see -- "

"Miss Jardine will take you below deck for a tour of the engine department," Kowalski assured the Sentinel reporter.

Lucas then pointed out the GPS, gyrocompass repeater, magnetic compass, radar, radio, and chart room. Using the simplest language possible, he explained the line of gauges mounted near the ceiling that measured wind direction and speed, rudder angles and engine RPMs, while several of the men nodded as if they understood.

"Amazing," said Pointer when Lucas had finished. "Guess this means I shouldn't complain about driving my Saturn on cruise control down the I-94."

His comment garnered several laughs and smiles, then Kowalski led the group out of the pilothouse. Single file along the narrow corridors of airy aqua- and-ivory hues, gleaming chrome trim, and tan carpeting, they trooped through the public areas: the dance floor and bar, cafeteria-style dining room and retro-looking soda fountain, movie theater, children's play area, gift shop, even the ship's museum. All stood empty and quiet, but within a few days, these rooms and halls would once again ring with the sounds of passengers and crew.

Kowalski allowed the reporters a peek inside private rooms, from the economy Pullman cabins to the larger, pricier suites located on both decks.

"It's not as fancy as a luxury liner," said a petite blonde in a red suit. She sounded disappointed.

"The Taliesen wasn't meant to compete with luxury ocean liners, but to provide comfortable, affordable travel on the Great Lakes," Dee replied. "All those fancy interiors you saw in the movie Titanic wouldn't work here. Wooden decks and walls are against Coast Guard regulations. Fire hazard, you see."

"It's still pretty nice," said one of the cameramen. "Bet you couldn't build a ship like this today without spending a small fortune. Man, look at that bar!"

They'd returned to the dance lounge, gathering before its focal point: a vintage Art Deco black-and-silver bar shaped like a crescent moon.

"We've restored the Taliesen to what she would've looked like during her heyday, which is why the passenger areas have an Art Deco Modern appearance," Dee explained, her eyes shining. "I compared paint chips and fabric swatches myself, and hired a company to reproduce the original furniture designed by Warren McArthur. I spared no expense for authenticity. Of course, we've had to make changes to bring the ship up to modern safety standards. I've also modified the crew and officer quarters and converted one car deck to another berth deck. But otherwise, the Taliesen is largely unchanged. She's not only a working ship, she's also a museum."

That spawned yet another discussion on economics and the shipping industry as the group trooped back up to the pilothouse, where Lucas sought out Jardine again. She stood at the back of the room, stifling a yawn.

With her attention elsewhere, he let his gaze linger. A full mouth complemented her exotic slanted eyes, olive-tinted skin, and dark hair, which she wore much shorter than he remembered. She looked indecently good in the practical shirt and trousers of her uniform -- as well as natural. She carried herself with a confidence that said she'd found her place in the world.

Lucas felt a small, sharp twinge of regret that he couldn't claim the same thing.

His perusal moved upward, following the curves of a body no uniform could disguise -- and met Jardine's eyes. He didn't look away. What did she see when she looked at him?

He had a pretty good idea, since her attitude spelled it out -- and he'd hardly expected otherwise. As she'd avoided being alone with him over the past weeks, his hopes had faded that they could ever put the McKee -- and her brother's death -- behind them.

"Captain, can you tell these people about navigation on the Taliesen?"

Glad for the distraction, Lucas turned to Kowalski. With his back to Jardine, Lucas spent the next ten minutes explaining basic navigational techniques, until Dee ordered Jardine to fetch a sextant from the chart room and demonstrate how it worked. Then Jardine had no choice but to stand close to him in the hot, sweaty press of humanity crammed into the pilothouse.

The scents of starch and baby shampoo drifted his way. The sunlight added an auburn tint to her hair, and its softly polished sheen invited a touch.

Shifting back from her as much as he could, Lucas clasped his hands behind his back, his fingers tightening.

"A sextant provides the basis for all celestial navigation," Jardine said, holding up the instrument. She didn't look at him, totally oblivious -- thank God -- to his line of thought. "It measures angles in degrees, minutes, and seconds. The angle between the star and the horizon is called altitude and -- "

"Isn't that interesting," interrupted Ms. Red Suit. "But what I'd really like to know, Ms. Jardine, is how it feels to work on a ship full of men."

After a short silence, Tessa put down the sextant on the wheelsman's empty stool. Her arm brushed against Lucas, since she had no room to move away. "I'm asked that question a lot, actually. If it helps, think of my work as similar to corporate middle management. In addition to directing the ship's course on my watch, I handle the daily paperwork, cargo and inventory, personnel, and resources-management tasks. It's like an office job, except my office happens to float."

"Oh, I see. So it's like he's the boss," Red said, pointing a long, painted nail at Lucas, "and you're his secretary."

"No, that's not what I said." Jardine's body went stiff beside him. "I carry out the captain's orders, but I also issue orders and delegate responsibilities to other crew members. I'm a deck officer, ma'am, not a receptionist."

Red Suit pondered that for a moment, a faint frown on her face. "But do you ever feel overwhelmed? Do the men obey you as they would a male officer?"

"We've moved out of the Dark Ages," Dee cut in smoothly. "Orders are orders, regardless of the officer's gender."

"So sexual discrimination isn't ever an issue?" asked Pointer, plainly sensing a potential hot spot.

Now there was a loaded question. Lucas glanced from Jardine back to Dee, who stood watching him with a small smile.

"The older generation can be a little slower to warm up to change," Jardine answered in a carefully neutral tone. "But most crew members judge me by my abilities, not my gender."

"In addition to Miss Jardine's comment," Dee said, "I'd like to add that personal relationships are against Stanhope's company policy."

"Always?" Pointer leaned forward, bright interest in his eyes. "Didn't you say your chief cook is married to one of the men in the engine department?"

"Married crew members of the same rank aren't an issue, but we don't allow relationships between officers and subordinates."

"What about between officers?" Red Suit asked. Lucas didn't miss the woman's quick glance down his body and could almost see her mentally stripping away his uniform. "Captain Hall, are you married?"

"No, ma'am, I am not."

Beside him, Tessa twitched.

"Miss Jardine, are you?"

"No."

Lucas's gaze shifted briefly to Jardine's clasped hands, even though he'd already noticed the lack of a diamond twinkling on her ring finger.

"This isn't relevant," Dee interrupted, giving the petite reporter a cool look. "Personal relationships between officers are against policy for the same reason officer and subordinate relationships aren't allowed -- it's a conflict of interest and complicates the chain of command. Now, I think we've covered everything we need to up here. Mr. Kowalski, Miss Jardine, please take our visitors down to the engine department."

Jardine nodded and motioned toward the door. "This way, please."

"Are you coming along, Mrs. Stanhope?" Pointer asked.

She turned and smiled at Pointer. "I'll wait here with Captain Hall. It'll be a little crowded if we all go."

When everyone had ducked through the hatch, Lucas turned and held back his irritation. Whenever possible -- the inevitable public functions aside -- he avoided being alone with Dee.

"So," she said once the footsteps and voices faded away. "I think that went well. How about you?"

Lucas leaned back against the wheel. "Not bad. The ship looks good. You charmed them, and Kowalski impressed them with his stories and barrage of statistics."

She walked closer, saturating the room with the scent of an airy floral perfume. "The business with the McKee went better than I expected. Tessa did well."

Lucas's inner alarm went on full alert. Interacting with Dee Stanhope was a little like swimming through shark-infested waters, so he played dead, letting no emotion show in his eyes or voice. "Jardine strikes me as the type who always gets the job done."

Dee moved closer, her body almost touching his. "You're certain the McKee incident won't be a problem between you and Tessa?"

Although he didn't move back, Lucas glanced out the window bay, tracking an orange forklift lumbering along the dock, and told Dee what she wanted to hear.

"She's a professional. Whatever personal gripes she has with me, we'll work through them."

"I expect you will." Dee rested her hand on his arm, long enough for him to feel the warmth of her skin, but not long enough to be outright suggestive.

Lucas looked back at her, catching the faintly amused, assessing look in her eyes.

"This is my baby I'm placing in your hands. My dream," Dee said softly. "I need my crew to work together, or I'm going to fail. Do you have any idea how many of those nice, smiling businessmen out there today would love to see Old Rolly's Folly fall flat on her face? One mistake is all it'll take, and my investors will pull out and we all go down."

"I won't make any mistakes."

"I suppose not." Her expression was thoughtful as she stepped away with a final pat to his shoulder, slender fingers lingering. "You can't afford to, can you?"

"No," Lucas said, smiling humorlessly as an inner anger burned. "I can't."

###

Against her expectations, Tessa enjoyed touring the media through the bowels of the Taliesen and talking about her favorite subjects. At least she didn't have stand near Hall any longer, or feel his stare boring through her back.

How convenient, though, that the Pink Widow had stayed behind alone with him -- especially with the captain's cabin just off the pilothouse.

"You're frowning." Darryl Pointer's voice interrupted her thoughts. "Is something wrong?"

"No, I...have a headache, is all. It's been a long couple of weeks."

Pointer smiled. "And now you're stuck baby-sitting us. If it helps any, the sacrifice is appreciated."

She still hadn't forgiven him for his earlier interrogation, but managed to smile back. "Thank you."

"Ms. Jardine, these boiler things are safe, right?"

Tessa looked over at the blond, red-suited reporter, who picked her way carefully through clanging pipes, throbbing hoses, greased gears and shafts, and sweating crewmen who weren't shy about eyeing her legs or breasts.

They didn't look at Tessa like that. Or if they did, they were smart enough not to get caught.

"Extremely safe, ma'am. Steam engines have evolved a long way from the ones that used to blow up the old paddle wheelers."

The group didn't linger in the engine room, although there was a moment of aghast fascination as they watched the firemen demonstrate how a conveyor belt delivered coal to the boilers, the inferno within glowing red-hot and blasting heat.

"It's like stepping back in time," Pointer said once they were on deck again. He tugged his tie loose, and his dark skin gleamed with sweat. "Are you sure that job's legal? You don't chain those poor guys in there like slaves, do you?"

Kowalski made a dismissive motion with his hand. "The shift rotates often, four hours on duty, eight hours off. It's not the classiest job on earth, but without the firemen and coal tenders, the Taliesen goes nowhere."

"Man, you couldn't pay me enough to work in there," Pointer said with feeling. "It gives a whole new meaning to the word sweatshop, you know what I'm saying?"

"Which underscores the crew's dedication toward making the Taliesen a success," Kowalski said smoothly. "I believe this wraps up our tour, ladies and gentlemen, so unless anyone has additional questions, I'll escort you all back to the business office. We have drinks and a buffet waiting."

No questions followed; just a murmured "thank you" here and there.

Kowalski nodded. "Good. Miss Jardine, please let Mrs. Stanhope know we're returning to the dock."

"On my way," Tessa said.

She took her time, enjoying her first unhurried look at the ship since she'd first arrived in Milwaukee to begin fitting her out. While she wasn't personally a fan of the industrial look, it suited the Taliesen. The clean, uncluttered lines and light colors opened up the ship, and made her look and feel bigger than she really was.

When Tessa stepped back inside the pilothouse, she was relieved to see Hall nowhere in sight, although her boss stood propped elegantly against the magnetic compass, her hips framed by the compensation spheres.

"I take it the tour is over?" Dee asked, examining a long, pink fingernail.

In spite of herself, Tessa couldn't help checking for signs of a quickie -- but not even a single hair was out of place on Dee's head. And the woman was still standing; a sure sign nothing had happened in the captain's cabin, unless Lucas Hall had lost his touch over the years. And that was highly unlikely, seeing as how nothing else about him had changed.

"Yes, ma'am. Kowalski asked me to tell you they're heading back to the dock office."

"Good, I'll join them." Dee looked up. "But first, if you have a minute, I'd like to talk with you about this thing between you and Captain Hall."

Tessa hesitated, suddenly uneasy. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I'm not sure what you mean."

"What else could I mean, Miss Jardine? I'm referring to the McKee incident, of course." The Pink Widow cocked her head to one side, her delft blue gaze direct and discomforting. "You handled the reporter's questions well, thank you. But I sensed a certain...tension between you and the captain. You assured me your brother's death wouldn't be an issue. Has that changed?"

Tessa tamped back her rising temper. What did the woman expect, that she'd blithely forget? As if she could ever put it behind her, working day after day with Lucas Hall as a reminder.

"I can keep my professional and personal feelings separate."

Dee smiled. "You're my kind of woman, Miss Jardine. So dedicated and ambitious."

Coming from anybody else, it might've been a compliment. But with Dee Stanhope, Tessa didn't know what to make of it.

After a brief silence, Dee said, "Have I ever told you how much I admire your willingness to give up a traditional lifestyle in order to pursue your dream?"

Where the hell was this heading? "No, but thank you."

"I chose the more time-honored route to my own dreams."

Right -- as if marrying a rich old man could be called "time-honored" in this day and age.

"Some people don't approve of how I did it." Dee smiled, as if she'd read Tessa's thoughts. "But Rolly understood my needs, even if he wasn't the most enlightened man. If he were still alive today, you never would've been hired as first mate."

"I know that, ma'am." With an effort Tessa kept her voice cool, even as she realized where this was heading.

"And you know how important it is to me that the Taliesen is a success, Miss Jardine. I'm taking quite a chance on you."

"Yes, and I am grateful, ma'am."

"Then I trust you won't disappoint me."

"I won't."

"Good. Now, one more thing," Dee said, stepping away from the compass. "Forgive my bluntness, but you're an attractive woman, and I feel a need to remind you that a relationship with a fellow officer is, really and truly, against the rules."

The unspoken implication -- and threat -- hung between them. Tessa hadn't gotten this far in her career by acting like a doormat, and if she'd harbored even an iota of interest in Lucas Hall, she might've argued with Dee.

But she only wanted to forget the man and everything he reminded her of.

"I understand," Tessa said. "Completely."

"That's what I was hoping to hear." The Pink Widow smiled again. The woman never seemed to stop smiling. "Now, I must be off. One more performance for the media, then we can call it quits for the day. Let's head back to the office together."

Tessa would rather roll in hot coals. "Sorry. I have to check in with Lowery on a few things first."

Not true, but it was a good enough excuse to avoid spending one more minute in this woman's company.

"Very well." Dee walked past, hips swaying, her silk skirt swish-swishing. At the door, she stopped and looked back at Tessa. Her smile faded. "I'd be here Friday for the launch if I could, but there's no way I can miss the Cleveland meeting. Promise me you'll take good care of my baby."

"As if she were my very own ship," Tessa said -- and that, at least, was the absolute truth.

After Dee's departure, Tessa leaned back against the wheel and let out a long, low sigh.

Alright, there'd been an awkward moment or two today. Still, she and Hall had appeared together for the first time in public and the world hadn't come to an end. Maybe if she spent enough time around him she'd build up an immunity to the bad memories, and working with him wouldn't be so bad. She only had to treat him as she'd treated all her past captains: "Aye, sir" or "No, sir" or "Right away, sir."

How hard could it be to look at him as just another uniform?

Her confidence bolstered, Tessa headed out of the pilothouse and nearly collided with the short, squat body of Chief Engineer Amos Lowery.

Maybe the day's bad luck hadn't quite run out.

"I saw the boss," Lowery said, his gaze locked on Tessa's breasts. "She said you wanted me. I like the sound of that."

Once the older man looked up from her chest, Tessa stared him straight in the eye. "She was wrong. Now move."

"Hey, Jardine! How come you're never nice to me?"

Tessa pushed past him. "Bite me, Lowery. I'm in no mood to put up with you today."

The man's mocking laughter followed Tessa as she clanged down the ramp, annoyance fueling her forceful stride, and headed for the small office building off the pier.

Amos Lowery was a card-carrying member of the good ol' boys club; a man who still believed a woman's work was carried out in the kitchen or flat on her back.

Too bad Lowery was indispensable. He was one of the few existing engineers who knew his way intimately around a steam engine, hardware as outdated as the old man himself.

Really, she should be used to it by now. Discrimination and sexual harassment, subtle or outright, was a fact of life for any woman working in shipping. Every year she'd spent in the business had added another thick layer to her skin -- but some days, even that wasn't enough.

In the dock office, Dee and her poster-perfect captain held court in one corner of the room, surrounded by most of the guests. Everybody else hovered around the food tables.

Tessa's dark mood lightened. Nothing relieved stress better than a full stomach. Unfortunately, these days most of what she ate seemed to mutate instantly into fat cells on her hips.

Several people smiled a greeting at her, and Tessa grabbed a can of Diet Coke and smiled back. For the next half hour or so, she didn't have to do anything more taxing than smile, make small talk, and munch on fussy hors d'oeuvres.

She was contemplating the number of calories in a dollop of shrimp sauce when Rob Shea, the second mate, ambled over to join her. He, too, wore his dress uniform, his sandy hair was neatly combed, and he smelled a bit strongly of cologne. "Hey, Tess."

"Where were you earlier?"

"Kowalski wanted me to stay in the office in case any of our guests showed up late."

"You missed all the fun."

Rob shrugged. "Darn."

Tessa's attention shifted across the room toward the Pink Widow, who was laughing, her blond head bent close to Hall's. Bothered by the intimacy of the exchange, Tessa looked away. The small window air conditioner wasn't keeping up with all the body heat being generated in the room.

"I'd sure like to know how that woman manages never to sweat," she grumbled.

"She's plastic," Rob said with a grin, then added, "Your brother won't put in this afternoon. I just heard the Houghton set out from Gary a day behind schedule."

"Figures." Disappointing, but pretty much business as usual. She popped the shrimp-topped cracker into her mouth, her attention drifting across the room once more.

Dee had her hand on Hall's forearm and then, to Tessa's surprise, she reached up and straightened his tie.

What a...wifely gesture.

Feeling tired, sweaty, and hopelessly inelegant in her permanent-press uniform and steel-toed safety shoes, Tessa made a show of glancing at her watch. Her headache was throbbing again. "Time for me to head out. See you tomorrow morning at six."

"He sure knows how to land on his feet."

"Who?" Tessa followed the direction of Rob's gaze toward Dee Stanhope and Lucas Hall. "Oh. Yeah, I guess some people are lucky that way."

"You don't like Hall?"

Tessa glanced back at Rob, noting his arched brow. "What difference does that make? He's the skipper. You know the routine."

"You're not going to forgive him about Matt, are you?"

Good old Rob; always blunt and to the point. They'd been friends since their days at the academy, and had dated briefly not long ago. Rob knew her too well for her to bluff him.

"Even if Hall gave that rescue attempt his best effort, the sister part of me -- " Sudden grief hit her, still sharp and strong, as if two years hadn't passed since Matt had died. After a moment, she finished softly, "The sister part will always feel he should've known better."

Rob frowned. "He made a mistake."

True enough. Unfortunately, Lucas Hall seemed repeatedly to make his mistakes in her life.

"I worry about bad blood between you and the skipper. It'll cause nothing but trouble."

Again, Tessa glanced toward Hall -- and met his gaze head-on. Even from across the room, the intensity of that look sent a jolt of shock through her. After a moment, he lifted his plastic punch glass in a mock salute.

Cheeks burning with anger, Tessa turned back to Rob, but didn't meet his blue eyes as she gave him a comradely jab to his shoulder. "There won't be any trouble. We're the ones who have to do all the work. He just has to stand around and look good."

Chapter Three

Friday morning arrived windy and warm, with filmy rays of sunshine seeping through a cloudy sky. As Lucas pulled his Jeep Cherokee into the employee parking lot behind the Stanhope port office, he could see his ship waiting quietly at anchor.

"This is it," he muttered.

Lucas grabbed his duffel bag as he got out of the car. He rubbed his damp palms against his dark blue trousers and made his way toward the Taliesen, thinking the refitted passenger steamer looked as out of place amid the bulky commercial freighters as he felt.

But she sure was a sight to behold.

The Taliesen was a grand old girl, if well past her prime, and there was nothing quite like a shiny new coat of paint to hide the years of wear and tear.

Unless it was a new uniform. Thank God for the familiarity of a uniform.

"Morning, Captain!"

Lucas raised an acknowledging hand at a group of deckhands gathered outside the ramp leading to the ship's cavernous car deck and cargo bay. They sat on empty dollies, enjoying an early-morning smoke and coffee from the ship's galley.

"You're here early," an older man said.

Lucas stopped beside them, not so much because he wanted to, but because it seemed he should. "I wanted to check her over one last time."

A young man with shaggy dark hair dug into the pocket of his gray uniform shirt, then held out a pack of Camels toward Lucas. The familiarity caught him off guard every time, even though he knew the hierarchy and code of conduct he'd lived with for half his life had no place here.

"No thanks," he said. "I don't smoke."

The man shrugged, tapped out a cigarette, and lit up. "She'll pass any test you can give her," he said, puffing with gusto. "The mate's been riding our asses all week. We got you a fine ship."

Lucas eyed the group. "Has Jardine been working you hard?"

The men laughed, and someone muttered: "She can work me hard anytime."

A grinning deckhand turned to Lucas. "Yes, sir, she sure knows how to crack that whip."

Again, the men laughed. With a stab of irritation, Lucas registered the sexual innuendo, and almost warned them against such talk. But Jardine wouldn't appreciate his effort, and his intervention would undermine her authority more than it would help.

"And where is Jardine?" he asked instead.

"In the hold, bitchin' out one of the greenhorns."

"We have a busy day ahead of us," Lucas said evenly. "I'm sure you all can find work to do."

The smiles faded, and a few men shoved their hands in the pockets of their trousers or coveralls.

"Yes, sir. We were just finishing up our break."

With a curt nod, Lucas headed for the Taliesen's hold. Behind him, a low voice murmured, "Stuck-up bastard, ain't he?"

He could've turned and barked out a stinging rebuke, but a man didn't wear these captain's stripes unless he'd earned the right to do so, and that meant projecting a façade of control and confidence. Whether he felt it or not.

No mistakes, he reminded himself.

The metal ramp clanged as he strode into the car deck, refusing to let his stiff leg slow him down. The place smelled of decades-old layers of oil and grime no amount of paint could disguise.

Although still mostly empty, the hold would soon be packed with not only passenger's vehicles, but cargo. Dee Stanhope, nobody's fool, refused to rely solely on passenger profits.

Once in the hold, Lucas didn't have to look for his mate -- he could hear her. For a moment, the sound of her voice wrapped around him, uncomfortably intimate in the dim light. Her raspy, low voice perfectly matched her sultry looks. The first time he'd met her in that noisy Traverse City college bar, her voice and challenging, frank stare had sent a jolt of hot lust straight through him.

"You're name's Marshall, right?" that same voice was demanding; still alluring, still a siren's call to something bone-deep within him.

"Andy Marshall, yes, sir...I-I mean, ma'am."

A brief silence. "Are you nervous, Marshall?"

"Some, yeah. It's my first time out."

Lucas moved forward quietly until he could see the two of them. The "greenhorn" under fire, blond and wiry, couldn't have been much more than eighteen or nineteen. He stood stiffly in front of Jardine, who sat perched on a crate, clipboard resting across her lap. She wore a thin-lipped look of annoyance.

Poor kid.

"Marshall, do you understand what 'in trim' means?"

"Yes, ma'am. It's, like, about balance?"

"Right. And if the ship is out of trim, it's what?"

"Listing," the kid answered firmly.

"Excellent, Mr. Marshall. Now, keeping that in mind, please explain why you've arranged all twelve tractors back there" -- she jerked a thumb over her shoulder toward Lucas, but didn't turn -- "against the starboard hold?"

"Because Mr. Sherman told me to?"

Jardine sighed. "And you didn't think it was strange?"

The kid shifted uneasily. "I didn't want to look stupid, or bother the officers with too many questions."

"Mr. Marshall, my officers and I don't consider questions stupid. Answering questions is part of our job. I like questions. I like a trim ship and a happy captain. Okay?"

"I'll ask next time."

"Good. Right now, move six tractors to port. We have a lot full of cars and trucks to load according to point of departure, and that doesn't include the cargo and other vehicles we'll be picking up in Chicago. It's going to be tight in here."

"I'll get right on it, Miss Jardine." The kid headed for the tractors, where Lucas stood watching the exchange.

"Hey, Marshall," Jardine called.

When he saw Lucas, the young deckhand froze, the panicky expression on his face as readable as a neon sign: what to do first, answer the mate or acknowledge the captain?

"Hi, sir." The kid almost saluted, but stopped himself. "Yes, ma'am?"

Jardine twisted around, a frown creasing her brow when she saw Lucas. Her gaze cut toward Marshall, softening a fraction. "There's a lot to remember at first about working on board ship, but you're doing fine. Go take a break. You've earned one."

The kid bobbed his head. "Yes, ma'am."

Lucas waited until the sound of Marshall's footsteps faded away before walking toward Jardine. The dim lighting left her face half-shadowed -- but the shadows gentled the fierce thrust of her chin and unwavering stare, and added a graceful flair to the straight back and wary tension of her muscles.

Still 200 percent female, no matter how hard she tried to hide it or deny it.

Damn; here he was, alone with her for the first time in two weeks, and instead of trying to talk to her and face this anger between them, he was checking out her curves.

The silence stretched on for several awkward seconds before Lucas cleared his throat, the sound echoing loudly. "You handled that well."

"Thank you."

Silence fell again. She slowly came to her feet, holding the clipboard against her breasts as if it were a shield.

"I've been watching Marshall. He's a hard worker and smart, which is why some of the guys are playing pranks on him." She hesitated, then met his eyes squarely, and asked, "Is there something you need from me?"

Plenty; but nothing you'd willingly give me ever again.

He took a quick, sharp breath. Where the hell had that thought come from? "I'm doing a final walk-through on the ship."

"She's ready. I've gone over every square inch of the Taliesen myself."

If she got any stiffer, she'd shatter on the next puff of breeze.

"I'm sure you have," he answered mildly as he moved closer. "But this is my ship, and the safety of every single one of her passengers and crew is my responsibility. It's not that I don't trust you, but I still intend to look her over myself."

Jardine's chin inched higher -- but she didn't back away. "You're one of those hands-on kind of captains, huh?"

"I've always been a hands-on kind of guy." He held her proud, angry gaze, and added softly, "Remember?"

Her eyes darkened, and a flush stained her cheeks.

He instantly regretted his words, but the hostility radiating from this serious, straight-backed company robot, who wasn't anything like the woman he remembered, kept tripping up his good intentions.

"Look," he said, suddenly weary of the games, the guilt, "let's cut through the bullshit. I know you've got problems with me. Which one am I dealing with here: that I walked out on you years ago, or that I sent your brother to the bottom of Lake Michigan?"

She flinched, and grief briefly shadowed her eyes before she fixed him with a steely stare. "All of it. I've always been an all-or-nothing kind of gal. Remember?"

At her mocking reply, his muscles went taut as sharp desire curled deep in his belly. The tension thickened between them until he could almost taste it.

"Tessa." He touched her stiff shoulder before he could stop himself, and she recoiled immediately. He drew his hand back. "Walk the ship with me. We need to talk."

She shook her head, backing away with the clipboard crushed to her chest. "I've got too much work here to do."

As if on cue, the echo of male voices sounded nearby -- no doubt the deckhands, returning to work as he'd ordered. Frustrated, Lucas glared over his shoulder, but couldn't very well order them back outside.

He turned back in time to catch a look of relief cross Jardine's face. "Get Shea to handle the cargo."

"I'd rather not. Unless that's an order, sir?"

The deckhands shuffled to a stop, watching the exchange with curious expressions.

He had the authority to force her to go with him, but doing so held no appeal -- and not only because he didn't want to give the crew something to gossip about. Years of rising through the ranks had taught him to pick his battles.

"It's not an order, only a request." He waited a moment longer, in case she changed her mind. When she didn't, he added tersely, "Carry on. I'll see you topside in an hour."

"Yes, sir," Jardine said, her tone subdued.

He gave a brief nod to the staring deckhands, then climbed the narrow, steep ladder up to the salon deck.

Somehow they'd have to get beyond it all, and for the next week, as they circled Lake Michigan, he'd give her a chance. If she still hadn't come around by the time he docked the Taliesen at Milwaukee again, he'd pin her down for a talk. Without revealing more than he had to, he'd let Tessa Jardine know in no uncertain terms that he needed this ship as much as she did -- maybe even more so -- and he wouldn't put up with her hostility.

Lucas leaned back against the railing and breathed in deeply. The morning air smelled fresh and new, and the strong wind -- southeasterly, about eighteen to twenty knots -- felt cool against his face after the stifling heat of the hold.

He'd be sailing the ship through a few six-foot waves. It wasn't what he'd wanted for the old girl's launch, not with a green crew and 400 passengers, most of whom had probably seen the movie Titanic a half dozen times apiece.

He walked down the starboard deck, running a hand along the bottom of the lifeboats secured above him, all freshly painted blaze orange. Neat rows of life vests hung from the lines strung through metal eyelets on the overhead -- just as they had when she'd sailed in her heyday, over fifty years ago.

The ship lay quiet, except for the low thrum of the banked engine and an occasional shout from a deckhand. Standing back against the rail again, he ran his gaze from the smokestack to the mast and pilothouse. Colorful ensigns, strung along the mast, snapped and billowed in the wind.

The ever-present knot in his belly twisted tighter, but he paid it no mind and headed below deck to the engine room. Ducking through the low hatch, he found the hot, cramped areas in turmoil. Chief Engineer Amos Lowery stood yelling at his engineers, mechanics, oilers, wipers, and firemen, sending them scurrying along the deck and catwalks.

"Is there a problem?" Lucas asked, pitching his voice above the noise.

The chief -- a crusty old-timer who made no secret of his contempt for the Coast Guard and its officers, retired or otherwise -- barely glanced his way. "Nope. Just a bunch of lazy asses thinking they can stand around all day drinking coffee and eating donuts. Shea called. The coal truck's here. We got work to do."

Which meant it was time to start boarding passengers.

Unneeded in the engine room -- and unwelcome -- Lucas circled back through the two bustling cabin decks. He returned the shy smiles of the housekeepers as they moved between staterooms, checking to make sure the beds were neatly made and all the amenities in place. He stopped in the aft galley for a cup of coffee and a jelly donut as the cooks and stewards rushed around him in a chaos of last-minute preparations. He sniffed the air, and his stomach growled, loudly.

"Smells good," he called over to the chief cook.

"You want me to make you breakfast?" she yelled back, beaming, her rounds cheeks shiny with perspiration. "Eggs or bacon? Pancakes?"

Lucas shook his head, holding up his cup and donut. "I'm all set, thanks."

After leaving the galley, he walked along the narrow corridor between staterooms, trailing his fingertips along the bulkhead, feeling the pulse of his ship and listening to the language of her creaks and groans as she rocked at anchor.

The beeping of his pager cut across his satisfied perusal. He glanced at the number, pulled out his cell phone, and dialed the dock office.

"Hall here," he said.

"Miss Jardine has cleared the ship for boarding, sir. We're waiting your word."

"Go ahead. I'm giving the salon deck a quick inspection, then I'll head for the pilothouse."

Lucas slipped the phone back in his jacket pocket and made his way through the main lounge and cafeteria and went topside to the salon deck.

Outside, all the chaise lounges were neatly stacked. Inside, the raised dance floor, cordoned off by a white railing decorated with cast-iron seashells, awaited its first dancers. Under overhead spotlights, the bar's curving bands of silvery chrome gleamed against contrasting black laminate.

Lucas almost expected to see Humphrey Bogart belly up to it and order a whiskey on the rocks. The bartenders -- two college boys on summer break wearing white shirts and black trousers and vests -- laughed as they polished and stacked glasses.

When the bartenders saw him, their joking stopped, replaced with a wary, respectful silence.

Lucas hesitated, and in an attempt to put them at ease, he asked, "Everything ready to go?"

"Yes, sir," quickly answered the tall blond. "This is the best-stocked bar I've ever worked. We've got everything from raspberry ale to Jack D, just like Mrs. Stanhope wanted."

With a nod, Lucas headed out on deck again. Once there, he watched passengers thread their way up the ramp and onto the main cabin deck, where Chief Purser Jerry Jackson and his team would be greeting passengers, collecting tickets, and dispensing instructions with cheerful efficiency.

Lucas ducked through the hatchway leading to the pilothouse. He took the steep, narrow steps two at a time, slowing only when he saw a familiar figure waiting for him.

For an instant, as their gazes met, he had a crazy need to find out if her lips were still as soft as they looked, and if she still made those little sighing sounds when kissing.

"I was wondering when you'd show up," Jardine said, those full, kissable lips pursed. "It's almost time to get under way."

He stepped closer until his body almost touched hers. She went very still, eyes widening in alarm. He held her gaze for a moment longer in a silent warning, then brushed past her without a response.

Wheelsman Kip McNulty came to his feet. Second Mate Rob Shea turned from the radar and nodded a greeting. As they watched him, bodies taut and eyes bright, Lucas sensed a charge of expectancy in the air; excitement mingled with launch-day jitters.

"We'd better fire up the boilers," he said. Taking hold of the engine telegraph's handle, he swung it briskly and set the telegraph at STAND BY. A moment later the engine room rang back, signaling it had received the order. Within minutes, the ship's pulse accelerated and the thrumming grew louder.

Lucas turned toward Tessa. "Are we ready for cast off?"

"The anchor detail's on standby. Rob just got word the last passenger is on board. We're ready on your order." She added stiffly, "Sir."

Lucas caught Shea's raised brow before he turned away and radioed a warning to the engine room that he was starting the motor generator setup. To Tessa, he said, "Weigh anchor and cast off all lines."

"Weigh anchor, aye."

He faced the wide window bay, and moments later the ship started to vibrate beneath his feet. The lights dimmed and flickered as the windlass strained to raise its huge anchor.

Hundreds of spectators had braved the heat to give the Taliesen a proper send-off. They lined the dock, service roads, parking lots -- even the walkway of the breakwater. The passengers crowding the railings smiled and waved.

The ship shuddered a final time, and a loud, metallic clang reverberated through the ship, signaling that the anchor was stowed.

"The watchman's on board," Jardine said from behind him. "All the mooring lines are in."

Grasping the steam whistle toggle above him, Lucas gave it a firm yank. The deafening blast reverberated over land and water. Babies and toddlers burst into tears, children clapped their hands over their ears, and adults cheered and waved.

"Time to take this old girl for a ride," he said. "Let's see what she's still got."

Lucas let off the whistle, and as a rush of anticipation and pure exhilaration swept over him, he looked at Jardine -- and caught an answering gleam of excitement in her eyes, a faint hint of color on her cheeks.

"Mr. McNulty, I'll steer her out of port myself."

McNulty stepped silently away as Lucas set the telegraph at ASTERN SLOW. The bow thrusters slowly eased the ship away from the dock. As he swung the wheel, its smooth wood vibrated from the powerful thrum of the engine and the responding tension of her rudder.

"Atta girl," he crooned.

God, it was good to feel a deck pushing beneath his feet again. All the whispering doubts and fears slipped away as the Taliesen slipped from her berth, her bow swinging toward open water. He ordered the engine AHEAD SLOW.

Now the passengers and spectators along the breakwater waved in earnest. Even the deckhands and officers from nearby freighters and tugs hailed the Taliesen as she steamed past, escorted by a Coast Guard utility boat.

Lucas checked the compass, and rudder and wind gauges. Outside, a noisy chorus of gulls contended with the low roar of the wind and waves, and he glimpsed the splash of foamy white spray as the Taliesen's bow sliced through the water.

It was the most beautiful sight in the world, one he thought he'd never see again. And as the Taliesen began to ride the waves, something deep within him suddenly loosened.

The laugh broke free before he even knew it was coming. Shea let out an answering whoop, punching his fist into the air in a victory salute, and McNulty stood grinning from ear to ear.

At the radar, Tessa turned.

For a moment, nothing else registered: not the live feel of the ship in his hands, not the beckoning blue horizon, or even the faces and voices of his crew around him. Only her eyes, and within them the spark of some deep emotion he couldn't quite read.

Lucas looked away and sounded the master's salute on the whistle -- one long blast, followed by two short ones. On cue, the Coast Guard boat let loose with the ceremonial water cannon, directing a playful spray of water from their firehose up toward the huge bow of the Taliesen.

"Looks like an ant spitting at an elephant," Lucas said, grinning.

He glanced Tessa's way again -- and this time a wide, gamine smile illuminated her face. Dazzled, he didn't remember where he was for several seconds -- or what he should be doing. He forced himself to look away and focus instead on the wide blue horizon opening before him.

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