NATHAN KAPPAS marched along the corridor on deck zero, his newly acquired British pounds obtained for his upcoming excursion in Southampton safely stowed away in his pocket, only one goal in mind. He’d had to go to the purser’s office to get the foreign currency since this ship was too small to have a separate purser for crew members. Now he was intent on returning to the relative safety of the crew area as quickly as possible, since he hated the idea of having to interact with passengers. People weren’t his strong suit anyway, and, in his experience of four years on the Star Princess, the passengers on a cruise ship could be particularly—challenging.
The little boy came from nowhere. In a flash of movement, a tuft of spiky dark hair at just above knee level set over disheveled clothing caught Nathan’s attention. Following the boy’s gaze, Nathan discovered that he was pulling some sort of yellow wooden duck on bright red wheels behind him. The toy and the odd quacking noises it made as it was pulled along were clearly more interesting to the kid than checking to see where he was going.
“Ouch.” The boy fell on his ass, his gaze shot upward to Nathan’s scowling face, and after a second of stunned hesitation, tears sprang from his eyes as if from a fountain. “Mommmmie!”
“Can’t you watch where you’re going?” A young woman with a baby in her arms rushed up to them.
“Who, me?” Why was the woman staring at him?
The little boy had caused his own problems by looking behind him rather than in front of him. How was that suddenly Nathan’s fault?
“Yes, you!” The woman’s indignant look made it clear she blamed him somehow.
“Don’t madam me!” The woman shoved some blonde curly hair escaping her ponytail out of her face, shifting the baby up on her hip as she held out her free hand to the little boy. “We were told this was a family friendly ship, so I expect the crew to be careful and watch out for my children.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw the guest relations manager approach from the passenger reception area he’d just left. She had clearly decided abandoning her post was the lesser of two evils. She was right. Leaving him to deal with an upset passenger was a major incident waiting to happen.
“May I be of assistance?” The manager—Judy, according to her name tag—looked apologetic and authoritative at the same time.
How the hell does she do that?
“This—this man ran into my little boy, making him fall and hurt himself. And he won’t even apologize!” The woman huffed as she lifted the still wailing boy to his feet, pulling him to her side as if to protect him from further injury.
“I am very sorry, madam.” Judy turned to Nathan, anger radiating from every pore in her body as soon as she faced him. “I’m sure he will correct this immediately.”
Judy widened her eyes in a clear gesture for him to get on with it.
“I’m very sorry your little boy fell and hurt himself, madam.” That was as good as it would get. He wouldn’t lie and take the blame for the child’s stupidity. Granted, the boy was young—well, as far as he could tell—but his age didn’t mean a basic inability to look where he was going was excusable.
Judy rolled her eyes before she turned back to the woman, her friendly passenger-only smile returning as if by magic.
“May I add our official apologies?” Judy pulled a card from her uniform pocket and held it out. “Please consider this a token of our sincerest regrets. I will organize a babysitter at our expense for any nights you require one. You’ll also have the opportunity to sit at the captain’s table whenever you want for the remainder of the cruise. Just show the Social Hostess my card, and she will set everything up for you.”
“Really?” The woman stroked the little boy’s head, quietly hushing him. Her smile was radiant, all anger clearly forgotten.
Thank God, another human relations disaster had been avoided.
As soon as the woman was gone, Judy turned around to him, looking reproachful.
“That was a really stupid mistake to make.” She shook her head. “You should know better than to run around the passenger area without being extremely careful.”
“I’m sorry, okay?” What else was he supposed to do? He couldn’t really turn back time and make the incident un-happen.
“Yeah, well, maybe you should think about transferring to a ship catering to older passengers? Without children? Might be a little less risky for you.” Judy smiled, but the friendly expression didn’t reach her eyes. “And them.”
“Maybe.” He’d been thinking about a transfer anyway. He’d done four years as third engineer after graduating from the US Merchant Marine Academy as a Marine Engineer. Now he was ready to move on, but there was no hope of doing it on this ship since the second engineer had transferred in only a year earlier and wasn’t about to leave.
He said good-bye to Judy and continued his walk to the crew elevators at the end of the corridor. Maybe it was time to consider a change. Shit, but he hated the idea of having to find his way all over again. The thought of a new ship and new crewmates to get used to made him uncomfortable as hell. But at least, being on a larger ship, he could make better use of his technical abilities and skills.
FOUR MONTHS later, at the end of this leg of their trip and the beginning of his two months off-duty, Nathan walked into the Imperial Excursion Corporation, or IEC, head office in Miami with more butterflies in his stomach than he wanted to admit. The luxurious look, including marble floors, miles of gleaming glass, and polished hardwood everywhere, wasn’t even his biggest problem. Having worked on the Star Princess, a small cruise ship of the magnificence class, he was used to lavish decorations. At least in the passenger areas, since crew quarters were notoriously less extravagant.
No, what had him rattled about this particular visit to the human resources department was his upcoming interview for the position of second engineer.
“May I help you?” The super friendly receptionist wore reading glasses and looked as though she was ready to kick him out if he had no business there.
“Yes. I have an appointment with a Ms. Feenan?” He checked the granite clock on the wall to his left. Yes, he was on time.
“And your name is….” The receptionist looked at him over her glasses.
“Nathan Kappas.” God, he felt like an idiot.
She ran her pen along a long list on a clipboard, frowning until she turned to the second page, which apparently contained his name.
“Ah, yes, here you are.” She ticked a box then looked up, suddenly all smiles again. “Nicely on time as well. Excellent.”
“Please have a seat. I’ll let Ms. Feenan know you’re here. Would you like a coffee while you’re waiting?”
“No, thank you.” He turned around and sat down on a very modern looking white leather sofa.
More caffeine wasn’t what he needed. Too bad the Valium he wanted wasn’t available. He stroked the soft leather, admiring its pristine cleanliness. Thank God he wasn’t wearing one of his occasionally oily coveralls. Not that the one suit he did own was very comfortable, but at least it was clean and it made him look as if he fit in here. It was a nice illusion that would last until he opened his mouth at the wrong moment or said the wrong thing. Why were people so complicated?
He quietly snorted. It explained why he’d refused to go into the family-owned wine import business like his two older brothers and sister before him. How his parents could have ever thought he’d do well in the company was beyond him. All the jobs they had suggested required close interaction with suppliers, or colleagues, or clients, or all of the above. That was fine for other members of his exuberant family of extroverted Greeks, his immediate family’s branch now second-generation Americans. But his parents knew he was socially challenged, and none of his teachers had ever accused him of good people skills either. Nathan sighed. The truth was they had never wanted to believe how different he really was in terms of personality.
So instead of going for a job full of customer contact, he’d chosen a career around numbers and machines. Much to the despair of his family, who couldn’t grasp that a Kappas would leave their close-knit ranks to study something as exotic, to them, as engineering. By the time he’d chosen his specialty and became a ship engineer, they had given up on him. They hadn’t really spoken in almost three years, other than the obligatory contacts for birthdays and holidays. Not because they didn’t like him, but simply because there was very little common ground between them these days.
“Mr. Kappas?” A female voice woke him from his reverie. A thirtyish woman in a dark grey pants suit stood a few feet away from him. How had she sneaked up?
“Yes?” He rose, assuming this was Ms. Feenan.
“I’m Helen Feenan.” She stuck out her hand, and they shook. “Please follow me, so we can have a nice discussion in my office.”
A nice discussion? Is that what they called these interrogations now? Resigned to his fate, knowing he’d have to get through it if he wanted his promotion, he followed her to a very elegant office with a huge wooden desk and yet another leather sofa, this one red to match the desk chair and curtains. He accepted the offer of a coffee, not because he wanted one, but because it might be considered rude of him to turn it down.
By the time Ms. Feenan’s secretary brought it in, they’d finished an inane discussion of winter weather in Florida. Having grown up in New York, he didn’t think these people even knew what a real winter looked like.
“So, you have expressed an interest in the position as second engineer.” Ms. Feenan had already finished her coffee and put the empty cup onto the low table in front of them. “I’ve had a look at your file, and must say I’m impressed with both your academic achievements and your service record with us.”
“Thank you.” He put his half-finished cup next to hers and sat back.
“Your current seniorit y is certainly sufficient to qualify you for the next step up. However, a suitable position on the Star Princess won’t open up in the foreseeable future. This being the case, I can understand your request for a transfer to another ship.” Ms. Feenan crossed her legs, putting her folded hands in her lap. “But, let me be honest with you.”
Oh shit, not good.
“I have spoken to your superior as well as the chief engineer, and they have both expressed some concern at your ability to relate to your colleagues as well as passengers.” Ms. Feenan leaned forward. “I’d be interested in your perspective, please.”
Here we go! Thank God he’d expected the question, so he was prepared.
“I’m aware of their feedback. It’s true that relating to people has never been one of my strengths. However, as far as I know, working on a smaller ship like the Star Princess, even as part of the engine department, crew members have more need to interact with passengers than they do on larger ships.” Nathan sat back, trying to look relaxed. “So, to a certain extent, transferring to a larger ship would solve part of the problem.”
“So you don’t think passenger relations are important?” Ms. Feenan’s eyebrows rose almost an entire inch.
Not for me they’re not! However, that wasn’t the politically correct answer, nor would it get him the job he knew he was ready for.
“Not at all.” It was hard to keep a straight face, but he knew he had to do it. “But I do know I need more time to work on my interpersonal skills, and I believe a larger ship would be a good place to do this. The combination of lower immediate pressure to perform in an unfamiliar area and the availability of training courses might be just what I need to improve.”
“Excellent answer!” Ms. Feenan grinned. “I was hoping you would say this and am happy to hear you’re ready to address the only real weakness in your record.”
The rest of the discussion was easy. There was a choice of three ships in need of a new second engineer; one of them was clearly too small, the second one too large in terms of his technical abilities, but the Sapphire looked as if she was just the right size. Part of the Gem Cruises group of three ships, she specialized in around-the-world cruises. It was a very attractive position and he didn’t hesitate to accept.
NATHAN’S FIRST view of his new home, hopefully for the next few years, almost overwhelmed him. The Sapphire impressed by its sheer size alone. With a tonnage of almost seventy thousand, nine passenger decks, and a crew complement of 650, she may have been considered a midsize ship, but her visual impact was far larger. Having entered service only five years before, she was one of the most modern luxury passenger ships sailing the world’s seas today. Her clipper bow was nicely raked, her lines were well balanced, and while he didn’t like the currently “in” apartment block look of the ship’s exterior, he knew the extra balconies this build allowed were one of the reasons ships like this were so successful. Passengers today were a lot more demanding, and with the percentage of non-US citizens on the rise, rooms without access to fresh air had become less and less popular.
What wasn’t visible at first glance were the two latest generation environmentally friendly diesel engines providing propulsion. He’d read about them, but so far hadn’t worked with the compact, self-contained units powered by electric propulsion motors. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on them.
Of course the extensive electrical systems were sure to be a challenge in and of themselves, but he was looking forward to something more complicated than what he’d been working with so far. The additional responsibilities of a second engineer would hopefully allow for more than some minor repair jobs of automatic door openers, microwave ovens, or air-conditioning units.
The crew bus that had picked them up at the hotel had deposited them far enough away from the ship to give everyone enough time to admire their new home as they walked toward the check-in area. Security guards looked on as their passports were checked, those of American citizens being returned, while everyone else’s stayed with the purser for the duration of their seven-segment trip from Los Angeles via the South Pacific and South Africa to London, which was scheduled to last one hundred and ten days.
Once they’d been processed, they were ordered aboard via the gangway, a long, slender metal bridge with evenly spaced slats serving as steps when it was angled. Huge rubber fenders between the hull and the concrete protested mightily as the Sapphire gently inched up and down with the surge of the sea. The squeaking was horrendous, and he hurried as much as possible to escape the horrible noise.
As it turned out, he was too focused on the hurrying and once again, as so often in his life, not focused enough on his environment. The solid, hard body he ran into was a shock, not just because the stranger was suddenly there, but also because he was disconcertingly good-looking. He was about four inches shorter than Nathan’s six foot two, had a nice, slender build, and his light blond hair and bright blue eyes couldn’t have been more different from Nathan’s own darker appearance. His boyish look made Nathan wonder whether he was here legally or if he was some crew member’s kid.
“I’m so sorry.” Nathan’s voice sounded rough.
“No, no, it’s my fault.” The man’s smile was dazzling. “I just had to stop and look at this ship. Isn’t she amazing?”
“Yes, she is.” He grinned back, keeping the fact this man was far more amazing than the ship to himself. In his admittedly very limited experience, most men wouldn’t appreciate such a compliment coming from another man.
“I’m Harper, by the way. Harper Quade.” Harper stuck out his hand and Nathan shook it. “This is my first time working on a cruise ship. I look forward to finding out what it’s like. There will be so many places to visit, so much to see, I can hardly wait to get started. It’s just so exciting.”
“Nathan Kappas.” Their hands were still linked, and he liked the feeling of skin to skin with this man.
“Oh, sorry.” Harper pulled back, putting some distance between them. “You work here too?”
“Yes, I’m the second engineer.” He wanted Harper’s hand back in his.
“Oh wow, you’re really important, then.” Harper’s eyes went wide. “I’m just an actor and dancer. I love my job, but it’s not like anyone depends on me.”
“I’m not all that important.” Nathan shrugged. Providing entertainment to demanding passengers was by far the more difficult job of the two, one he couldn’t even imagine having to perform. Probably on a daily basis. “But I bet you’re very good at what you do, and I’d love to see you perform.”
“You would? Great!” Harper’s face lit up. “We do a couple of crew shows, so it should be possible.”
Suddenly his transfer to this ship had become even more appealing.