excerpt: His Hidden American Beauty
Dr. Annalise Walcott adjusted the two huge cases of medicines on her cart before she made the steep climb up the gangplank of the luxury cruise linerNeptune’s Fantasy. While she’d had most of the supplies delivered straight to her onboard facilities, she liked to bring along the ones that needed refrigeration herself, just to make sure they stayed at the correct temperature. Not that she’d ever had a problem—Annalise avoided problems as often as she could.
Call her a control freak and she wouldn’t deny it. She’d learned a long time ago that the only person she could consistently rely on was herself.
She trailed behind the last-minute stragglers, crewmates eking out the final seconds of shore leave before they boarded for the transatlantic cruise. They would be out at sea for over ten days straight before the first port of call, which meant a lot fewer breaks for the staff. And only a small percentage of crew got shore leave at each port. With rotating days off, most of them wouldn’t have a personal day on land for at least four weeks.
One by one, they went through Security, a procedure that took forever but which, she had to admit, was a necessity.
A Gulf breeze made the afternoon pleasant despite the strong subtropical sun heating Annalise’s back through her roomy, short-sleeved T-shirt. Thankfully, she’d slathered her arms and legs with sunblock before donning her shorts and sandals so she had no worries about her pale skin turning pink. Not a good example for a doctor to set when she warned others about avoiding sunburn.
“Need some help with those, Doc?” A bartender named Brandy pointed to the cases. Brandy sported a new tattoo, still red and slightly swollen.
Annalise hoped she’d had it done by a reputable shop. Illegal backroom bargains had consequences. She had long-lasting firsthand knowledge of that. If only hers had been as harmless as a tattoo.
“I’ve got them. Thanks, though.” She moved forward another six inches in the queue, wincing as the corner of the cart dug into her ankle.
“Have a nice time on shore?” Bartenders were chatty by nature and Brandy was no exception.
Annalise had never learned the art of making small talk herself, beyond the few stock phrases she used to put her patients at ease.
“Just long enough to realize I’m ready to be back at sea.”
Being on land in her home port of New Orleans always made her uneasy, even though all personal threats had long since passed.
“Didn’t I see you with a friend on the patio at the Crescent City Brew House this afternoon? A male friend?”
“He was my study partner in medical school.” They’d been more than study partners, but the bartender didn’t need to know how he’d helped her work through her pain and grief all those years ago. “He’s my platonic friend.”
“Nothing more? Not even a friend with benefits?”
Annalise laughed, inwardly wincing as it sounded brittle and forced in her ears. “He’s not my type.” Not that she had a type.
“What kind of man do you like, Doc? I’ll bet I can fix you up. I’m fairly good at that sort of thing.”
Annalise wished it were that easy. “You bartenders are really cupids in disguise, aren’t you? But there are rules against that sort of thing, remember?”
“I don’t know about you, Doc, but the rule against fraternization gets old when I’ve been out to sea for a while. It’s not natural to go without sex for such long periods of time.”
Sex. Shipboard sex meant a shipboard relationship—or at least a shipboard flirtation. No way would she risk her career—or her peace of mind—for a fling.
To forestall the conversation, Annalise pulled the brim of her baseball cap down tight and deliberately looked up.
From where she stood, halfway up the ship’s side with the ocean far below her and the top deck far above, Annalise felt the weight of such a huge amount of people, both guests and staff, dependent upon the ship’s medical facilities. As usual, she was the sole physician on board, but she had plenty of trained medical professionals to help her, including a new physician’s assistant. The P. A. came with great recommendations and Annalise was looking forward to meeting her.
Her only worry was the six-year-old girl on the manifest, Sophie Christopoulos, diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. But her parents had been wise enough to have the girl’s endocrinologist consult with Annalise ahead of time and Sophie had an introductory appointment before tonight’s first supper seating.
Sophie’s insulin was in one of the cases on her cart. With precautions, the young girl should be able to enjoy her trip just fine.
A crepe paper streamer sailed down from the top deck to drape itself across Annalise’s shoulders like a boa. The makeshift fashion statement made her smile.
She looked up to see passengers on the foredeck already in full party mode and they hadn’t even left dock yet. Cruises had attitudes and she could already tell this one was going to be a wild one. No peaceful, relaxing vibes coming from this crowd.
Brandy looked up, shading her eyes. “It’s going to be one of those.”
“The kind of cruise I enjoy most.” While Annalise didn’t partake of the party life herself, she enjoyed the energy.
“As long as they tip well.” Brandy pointed to the sky. “Looks like a storm is coming in.”
Annalise shrugged. “Typical late afternoon for New Orleans this time of year. It will blow through as fast as it’s blowing in.”
A thick bank of stormclouds dimmed the sun’s brightness while a strong gust of wind brought chill bumps to her exposed legs. Sprigs of reddish-golden hair whipped into her face despite the baseball cap she’d plopped onto her head.
The layered cut had been a whim while she’d been on shore, a consolation prize after visiting her mother and finding her the same.
She’d thought short hair would be easier, but she missed the straightforward care of her ponytail. Now her hair was too short to capture with a rubber band and too long to stay out of her eyes without a lot of styling and primping. And primping had no place in Annalise’s life. Why waste the time?
Her life was devoted to patching up people and keeping them healthy so they could enjoy their days under the sun. Stolen time away from the workaday world was precious and she wanted the passengers to be able to make the most of it.
Annalise knew the value of escaping the real world. That’s why being the Fantasy’s onboard physician was her dream job.
A squeal of tires from the parking lot down below caught her attention.
A sporty black convertible with the top down slid into an empty parking slot and careened to a stop. Annalise squinted to see the dark-haired man behind the sunglasses pop his trunk, grab a suit-sized carry-on, a serious backpack and a large rolling suitcase and make a sprint for the entrance of the cruise ship’s land-based check-in facility.
She glanced at her watch. A quarter till five.
When the cruise line said to embark before four o’clock, they had their reasons—security checks being one of the most important ones.
Brandy shook her head. “There’s always one who thinks the rules don’t apply to him, isn’t there?”
Annalise agreed. “He’ll have to do some real sweet-talking to get aboard this ship.”
Brandy gazed absently at the head of the line. “Some men are worth breaking the rules for.”
Not any man she’d ever met.
Stormclouds moved into position overhead, blocking the sun’s intensity but adding a couple of points to the humidity scale, making the moist air heavy to drag into her lungs.
The sooner she was out at sea, the better.
“Next,” came the call from the front of the line.
As she moved forward, Annalise looked back at the dark-haired latecomer juggling his luggage to open the door to the check-in office.
She had to admit he had a face and body that could entice a saint to at least bend the rules a little.
He flashed a dimpled smile at her as he caught her staring.
She could feel a blush heating her face as she looked away.
She was no saint, but the man didn’t exist who could tempt her. Sadly, she wished there were.
Dr. Niko Christopoulos leaned over the counter past the plastic Closed sign, giving the middle-aged receptionist a big dimpled smile. He hoped she liked the rugged, unshaven look. It couldn’t be helped.
“I’m so sorry to be such a bother. I’ve been traveling for the last thirty-two hours straight to get here and my last flight landed late.”
The receptionist, who reminded him of his Aunt Phyllis with her polite but no-nonsense attitude, pulled up his information.
“You’re responsible for the party of twelve, right? The grandmother who thinks she’s won the family cruise?”
Niko gave a quick look around the deserted lobby, as if any of his family might overhear. “That’s right. Do you need to verify my credit card?”
“We’ve already done that. But I do need your passport, please.” She held out her hand.
He handed her the well-worn leather folder.
“The Congo, Doctor? And before that Haiti? You’re quite a world traveler.”
Niko didn’t talk about his charity work—ever. But if it got him on this blasted ship before it sailed… “Doctors Without Borders. An adventure every trip.”
Her eyes softened and she picked up the phone. “Hold the ship for Dr. Nikos Christopoulos. He was unavoidably delayed and will be heading your way in just a moment.”
“Thanks for waiting on me.”
She gave him a sly wink. “I’m sure you’re worth waiting for.”
He returned the wink. “That’s what they tell me.”
“Do you need help with your bags?”
“Got it all here.” He pointed to his military-sized backpack full of shorts and swim trunks and toiletries, his suit bag with his tuxedo and his one rolling bag, glad he’d packed for this trip and stuffed his clothes in his trunk before he’d even left for Haiti, for once planning ahead.
He was more of a go-with-the-flow kind of guy—which came in handy when making split-second decisions in the field. Life or death decisions were enough to worry about without adding the little things to the list. But this week he intended to surrender all decisions and worries and soak in the sunshine.
He needed these three weeks of enforced restful playtime. He had become soul-weary, the kind of tired a good nap couldn’t cure.
Physician, heal thyself. He self-prescribed a big dose of fun and he intended to follow doctor’s orders.
“Have a wonderful vacation, Dr. Christopoulos.”
“I’ll do my best.” It worked. The charm his grandmother loved him for and his brothers taunted him about had gotten him where he needed to be once again.
Use the gifts you’ve been given, his grandmother told all of them. His brothers could all cook meals that would please the gods of Olympus. Niko couldn’t boil an egg.
An easy way with words and a genetically pleasing appearance had been his gift—he just wondered if a woman would ever care enough to see past the exterior to the man underneath.
But then again, that would mean he would also need to look beneath her surface and that would mean getting up close and personal. A relationship was out of the question with the lifestyle he would soon be living full time. His ex-fiancée had made that perfectly clear to him. But that was yesterday’s problem.
He would embrace today. Too many years ago he’d learned the hard way that that’s all anyone could really expect to have.
As he headed up the gangplank, the calypso music put a kick in his step. This trip may have originally been planned for his family’s benefit, but it was exactly what he needed, too.
Niko breathed in the tangy air and prepared to enjoy himself, no holds barred. And maybe he’d start with that cute little honey-haired woman in the baseball cap with the legs that went on forever. She stood at the end of the line apart from everyone else, looking totally unattached, which meant totally available, right? While long-term relationships were out, shipboard flirtations were definitely in.
“Those are mighty big bags for such a little lady. Prepared to dress for dinner, are we?” Niko jiggled his suit bag for emphasis.
Big drops started to fall from the clouds above. He moved closer to squeeze under the canvas canopy sheltering the ship’s entrance.
The long-legged beauty tried to shift away but there was nowhere to go.
Just as Niko was considering stepping out into the rain to put her at ease, the line moved, giving her the space she obviously needed.
Then again, it seemed this woman claimed her own space. She looked down her nose at him as best she could, considering she was several inches shorter than him. “I’m on staff here. I don’t do dinner.”
Which wasn’t quite true. Annalise helped out by rounding out the captain’s table on occasion to even out the couples ratio. It was no hardship. Seated next to a partnerless passenger, usually an elderly gentleman or an awkward geek, she’d met some delightful people.
People like this stunning man next to her always had a date, or found one or two while shipboard. The ship’s relationship rules definitely didn’t apply to passengers like it did to crew.
Since she was a rule-abiding crew member, this man was not a threat. Even so, she found herself leaning away from him and his overpowering personality, even while she regretted the sharpness of her tone. She was definitely too much on edge today.
Brandy reached across her toward the guy with an open hand. “Hi, I’m—”
“Next,” the security checker interrupted. He slid Brandy’s ship’s ID through the scanner. “You know the drill.”
The tension between the security checker and Brandy crackled, proof that shipboard break-ups made for an incredibly uncomfortable environment.
Brandy turned to Annalise. “You know, Doc, this ship is large enough that a person could sail for a month without running into everyone on board. But no matter how big it is, when you’re trying to avoid someone, no ship is big enough.”
Annalise felt trapped, literally being caught between a man and a woman and their conflict. A clammy sweat started down her back as the old terror threatened to overcome her.
“Relationships. Not my thing,” she managed to choke out as her throat tightened up on her. She tried to laugh but it sounded strained even to her own ears so she coughed to cover it up. From bad to worse.
Behind her, the late passenger took a step forward, concern in his eyes. “Are you okay?”
His voice was a low deep rumble. Masculinity personified.
She could feel the heat from his body as he crowded her.
Annalise took a deep breath as the unreasonable panic settled. It had been a few years, almost a decade, since she’d had a panic attack. But too many memories in too few hours had taken their toll on the solid, secure world she’d built for herself.
The sooner she put New Orleans behind her, the better off she would be.
“I’m fine. Thanks.” She gave a numb nod and thrust her card at the security checker, careful to keep her fingers from brushing his.
The security checker took Annalise’s card and slid it through. “Welcome back, Dr. Walcott. Need some help with that load?”
“Got it. Thanks.”
The man behind her held his card out for inspection. “Could you remove the sunglasses, sir?” the security checker asked.
Annalise had the strongest urge to turn around so she could look into his eyes but practicality took over. What she saw there would have no bearing upon her.
As she tugged her cart, it turned sideways, crashing into this man who made her feel things she didn’t want to feel.
If she were only as graceful as she was independent. “Sorry.” She meant for her gaze to skitter across his face but his eyes ensnared hers.
Tiger eyes. Amber golden with specks of brown, rimmed in a darker brown. Tiger eyes with a depth of…sorrow, perhaps, behind the brightness.
“No problem.” He blinked, breaking their gaze and allowing her to blink as well. When he raised an eyebrow at her, she realized she’d been staring.
Flustered, she yanked her cart, banging into the counter and almost taking out the passenger scanner. He must think her a total klutz.
What did it matter what he thought? Odds were they would never see each other again unless he had a medical emergency. And he certainly looked healthy to her. Well-worn jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt couldn’t hide his physical fitness.
She bumped into passengers all the time. None of them elicited a significant response from her.
Annalise overcame the impulse to check him out one more time.
What was it about him that made her feel… What?
Aware? Self-conscious? Tingly? That made her feel anything at all?
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