Like his cousins, Devin Walker aspires to be a chef, but he wants to indulge his wanderlust while feeding his customers, and working a cruise ship seems like the solution. Since he can’t find an opening in the kitchen, he’s happy to start out in a position behind the bar.
While onboard Poseidon’s Pearl, Devin is assigned to shepherd a visiting executive. Paul Bailey is quiet and unassuming, and a car accident that cost him his leg also shattered his confidence.
He doesn’t think he’s attractive to other men anymore, and Devin is eager to show him just how wrong he is. Paul has a surprising secret that might sink their passionate affair before it even leaves port.
PAUL MERCER stood in front of the full-length mirror mounted on the closet door and checked his tailor-made navy suit for lint or wrinkles before he left his cabin, which was more like a small hotel room than he’d expected.
But Triton Cruises prided itself on being one of the more upscale cruise lines, and Poseidon’s Pearl was one of their top ships. The suite was luxurious enough that Paul could have spent the entire trip inside, maybe reading on the private deck, which was big enough for two lounge chairs with a small table between them. But Paul wasn’t on vacation.
He’d been sent by his father, who was the CEO of Triton Cruises, to assess the ship and its crew and to report on whether the crew was adhering to company standards. To do so, he was posing as Paul Bailey, a new executive with the company who needed to learn about the cruise line. He was using his mother’s maiden name to help avoid anyone making a connection between him and the company’s founding family.
He glanced down at his pants, which were loose enough to hide the fact that he wore a prosthetic on his left leg below the knee. He’d covered the prosthetic foot with a shoe, and looking down at his dress shoes made him feel almost normal again. He had a slight limp, especially at the end of the day when he was tired, but most people were tactful enough not to ask about it, if they even noticed.
The other reason Paul had been sent was because he’d never been on a Triton cruise before. Hell, he’d never been on any cruise before. The cruise line was strictly eighteen-plus so Paul was never allowed to go with his parents when they took their annual trip while he was growing up. Then he’d gone away to college, and after graduation he went straight into grad school for his MBA.
After that, he’d started working his way up the ladder at Triton and hadn’t taken much time off except for a few long weekends here and there. Then the accident happened. So the trip was a way for him to experience a Triton cruise from their guests’ perspective. It was also the last trip Paul would take anywhere in a while.
Andrew Mercer was ready to retire, and he had put Paul on a fast track to taking over after Paul finished rehab and was cleared to return to work. Focusing on his reflection, Paul smoothed his hand over his dark brown hair, which was cut short and neatly styled, its natural wave tamed with product. It was too early to go to the dining room, so Paul decided to visit the bar for a while instead.
While most cruise lines these days seemed intent on going the megaship route—huge vessels that could accommodate almost seven thousand passengers—Triton catered to a different clientele. Ships like Poseidon’s Pearl and her sisters carried a maximum of nine hundred passengers, with a crew of nearly six hundred, and every stateroom on the ship boasted a private balcony.
The decor in the common areas was just as posh as it was in Paul’s cabin. As he left his cabin on Deck 7, it was only a short walk to the Seafarer’s Lounge.He heard soft piano music—live, not recorded—as he entered the two-story lounge, which was set in the fore of the ship. It had glass windows from floor to ceiling on three sides that offered a magnificent, panoramic view of the Gulf of Mexico and the serenely blue sky above. The room was large, with stairways on the port and starboard sides giving access to the second level.
Small clusters of loveseats and chairs were set around low tables, allowing for intimate groups to engage in conversation, while the rear of the room was lined in bookcases housing the ship’s library, which was large enough to cater to almost any taste. The plush carpet underfoot was patterned in tones of deep blue and gold, which set off the cream of the upholstery. In the center of the room was a semicircular bar topped with polished mahogany, surrounded by comfortable high seats.
As with everywhere else on the ship, the trademark of the line—a three-pronged triton—was subtly worked into the decor, such as the patterns of tile fronting the bar and the fabric covering the seats. There were no more than twenty or so people in the bar, broken into groupings around the room. Everyone was well-dressed, and conversations were muted, giving the room a relaxed and welcoming feeling.
As Paul approached the bar, he caught sight of the bartender, who was tall with broad shoulders tapering to a narrow waist emphasized by his tailored uniform vest. He had high cheekbones, a square jawline that looked sharp enough to cut paper, and skin with a rich copper glow that seemed to result from a combination of genetics and sunshine. His dark, thickly lashed eyes were crinkled at the corners as he flashed a dazzlingly white smile and handed an olive-garnished martini to his customer. His midnight-black hair was pulled back from his face and hung in a thick braid that reached all the way to his waist.
As soon as the bartender had scanned the customer’s cruise card and returned it, he turned to Paul, who had claimed a seat at the end of the bar, and Paul got the full effect of his smile.
“Good afternoon, sir. I’m Devin. How can I make your day even better?”The intense charisma behind that smile made Paul almost believe Devin meant the greeting for him alone, but he sternly reminded himself that the ship employees were supposed to say such things to all the customers.
“I’d like a glass of Malbec, please,” he said.
“Excellent choice,” Devin replied. He retrieved a bottle from the wine rack, and after uncorking the wine, he placed a crystal wineglass on the bar, then held an aerator over it as he poured a stream of the rich, dark wine from the bottle through it, making a bit of a show of the process. Then he set the bottle and aerator aside, placed a gilt-edged paper napkin in front of Paul, and served the glass of wine.
“Thanks.” Paul picked up the glass and took a sip, and he was pleased by the quality of the wine.
After cleaning up and recorking the bottle, Devin returned to Paul, favoring him with another smile. “How do you like it? Triton prides itself on the quality of the wines it serves, even the ones they use in the kitchen.”
Good to know, Paul thought, making a mental note for his report. “It’s good, thanks.”Devin glanced around the nearly empty lounge, but he must not have seen anything that needed his attention, since his gaze returned to Paul. He tilted his head to one side, looking at Paul with a slightly puzzled expression.
“If I may ask, sir, have you cruised with us before? You look familiar.”
Paul smiled as blandly as possible and shook his head. Full-sized portraits of Andrew Mercer and Abraham Mercer—Paul’s grandfather and the founder of Triton Cruises—hung in the atrium, so Paul wasn’t surprised one of the employees had picked up on the family resemblance.
“No, this is my first cruise,” he said, assuaging the slight pang he felt over deceiving the crew with the fact he was telling Devin the truth.
“All right, then. I’m very good with faces, and I’m sure I would have remembered you.” Devin grinned. “Especially since you’re almost as tall as I am.”
“Almost?” Paul raised one eyebrow. “I’d say we’re about even.”
“I’m six-foot-five,” Devin said. “In the lower areas of the ship, I have to be careful not to smack my head on the conduits.”
“Then we are in fact even,” Paul said. “I was in high demand for basketball teams all through school.”
Devin chuckled. “If that Charleston accent hadn’t already told me you weren’t from Texas, the basketball comment would have. I was in demand too, but as a wide receiver.”
“I’ve heard rumors that football is the state religion of Texas, but I’ve never played it myself,” Paul said, taking a sip of his wine. “I was on the varsity basketball team in high school, and I played intramural in college.”
“Nice,” Devin said. “I played in high school, then was offered a scholarship to Texas A&M, but football was never more than a hobby. I wanted to go to culinary school, and they don’t have football teams.”
He lowered his voice. “Although we often played badminton with food that didn’t turn out very well. It’s amazing how much overdone chicken Kiev resembles a hockey puck.”
Paul chuckled. “How did you go from culinary school to tending bar on a cruise ship? Have you worked here long?”
“Six months, and it was a matter of opportunity,” Devin said. “My best friend and I took a cruise after… well, after I went through a bad breakup, and it was just what I needed. I fell in love with the ship, and the sea, and the travel. I’d never even been out of Texas before, and the travel bug bit me hard. I did some research, and Triton is far and away the best cruise line to work for. They have people lining up for jobs, and it took me almost two years to get my foot in the door, and then it was because I’d also trained in bartending. Of course I hope to work in the kitchen someday, but when they offered me a position I jumped on it, and I haven’t regretted it for a second.”
Devin’s smile was rueful. “I hope I haven’t bored you to death.”
“Not at all.” Paul thought it was helpful for the staff to be friendly, especially on longer cruises like this one. It would promote the family atmosphere that Triton Cruises wanted to cultivate.
“I don’t want to monopolize your time, though.”
Devin glanced around the nearly empty lounge. “It’ll be slow in here until after dinner,” he said. “The action right now is up by the pool. But once the sun goes down, everyone will come into the Seafarer to socialize and listen to the cruise director’s talk about our ports of call.”
“I should probably come back for that,” Paul said. “I don’t know much about the ports we’re visiting, and I don’t want to wander off without a plan.”
“There are some great shore excursions,” Devin said, his brown eyes shining with interest. “They have some for people who like to be physically active, like diving trips and hiking tours, and some for people who prefer to relax on the beach and play in the waves. They also have activities for people who want to experience the culture of the various islands. And if you’d prefer to be on your own, they’ll have maps to help you out.”
“Sounds like I shouldn’t have any problem finding something fun to do.”“I’m sure you’ll have a great time,”
Devin said. “If I may make a suggestion, there’s something you can do tonight. Just before midnight, go up on Deck 9. They have an open area to do outdoor yoga. The captain always turns off all the extra lights on the ship for several minutes, and we’ll be well away from land by then. You’ll be able to see more stars than you ever thought the sky could hold. It’s beautiful and humbling at the same time.”
“If I’m still awake, I’ll check it out.” Paul glanced at his watch, then slid off the bar stool, taking his wineglass with him. “I should probably head to the dining room.”
“Be prepared for a real treat,” Devin said. “I recommend the beef Wellington, and the triple chocolate torte with Chambord for dessert. Although you won’t go wrong with any of the selections. The food on the Pearl is fantastic.”
“You had me at triple chocolate,” Paul said, lifting his glass to Devin. Then he headed out of the lounge. He wanted to get there in time to take a few notes about what he had observed so far before dinner, but if the rest of the ship had the same kind of staff and atmosphere as the lounge, his assessment would be a glowing one.