When his chef eloped with the masseuse, Captain Jack McCullough knew he’d have to pitch in to keep his four-star yacht afloat. Too bad he didn’t know one end of the galley from the other, but he did have the looks, the charm, and… the jilted bride?
Dodging caterers’ bills instead of confetti, jobless Chloe Winton did what every suddenly-single woman should. She talked herself into taking the week-long honeymoon cruise her former fiance had paid for (yes — for the whole week!) But when she meets the hot, sexy, do-gooding captain, she’s not sure the six days and seven nights will be enough!
From Chapter One
Chloe sat at the head table in the reception hall, feeling shell-shocked.
“Are you all right, dear?”
She looked up to see her Aunt Mildred, her wrinkled face the picture of concern.
“I…” She struggled for words. “Yes. I’m doing all right,” she said. It wasn’t exactly a lie. She wasn’t feeling badly – wasn’t feeling anything but numb, so she assumed that meant she was functional. As long as she was functional, she was all right.
“Have you gotten a hold of the groom yet?”
Chloe shook her head.
Chloe winced. “His mother says that he’s unavailable for discussion,” she said, unconsciously mimicking that woman’s crisp, overly-enunciated way of speaking.
Mildred made a snorting sound. “Convenient. He stands you up on your wedding day, with a note, and now he’s ‘unavailable for discussion’! That’s rich!”
Although she felt the same way, Chloe had had this conversation already, with at least a dozen members of her family. All her family had stayed to try and eat some of the reception food, since it was already paid for. Gerald, Chloe’s vanished fiancé and groom, had not bothered to let anybody other than his immediate family know about his plan, so everyone he’d invited had shown up to the church… and then had beaten a hasty retreat, once Chloe had made the announcement that the wedding was not going to proceed.
“Didn’t you just buy a house with this man?”
“Yes,” Chloe said, suppressing a sigh. “I did.”
“You were supposed to move in after the honeymoon, weren’t you? What’s going to happen now?”
“I don’t know, Aunt Mildred,” Chloe replied, feeling suddenly weary.
“That’s not the sort of detail you want to leave hanging,” Mildred said with a disapproving cluck.
“Now, now,” Chloe’s mother Beverly interrupted, to Chloe’s intense relief. “Chloe has a lot of details that she’s going to have to address in the light of… this unpleasantness. We’re not going to get this all handled in one afternoon.”
“Of course, of course,” Aunt Mildred responded, sounding contrite. “You call me if you need anything, Chloe, dear.”
Chloe nodded and waved weakly as her aunt headed for the dessert table. “Thanks, Mom,” she breathed. “If I have to answer any more questions about Gerald…”
“I know, I know. It’s terrible,” her mother said, and there was a vicious edge to her voice that Chloe rarely heard. Her mother was usually optimistic to the point of unflappability. “Your father has been raving like a lunatic. I finally got your Uncle Carl to calm him down.”
“Dad?” The thought of her sedate father raving over anything but new tax tables was something of a shock.
“Yes,” her mother answered. “He’s been spouting off about buying a shotgun and going by Gerald’s house. He’s not serious, of course, but the thought of doing physical harm to that idiot…” Her mother let the sentence peter out with a menacing overtone.
“Mom,” Chloe said, now truly shocked.
“He left you a note, Chloe. He didn’t even have the courage to face you,” she countered. “And, after making all these plans, telling you that he’s involved with someone else? That is unforgivable.”
Chloe felt her throat constrict and hastily looked away, blinking hard. Every time she thought of that particular sentence – Chloe, I think I found someone more compatible… and I’ve gotten more involved than I intended – she still felt a cold stab of disbelief. It had taken her months to get intimate with Gerald, when they’d started dating. They had a mutual, supportive relationship, or at least that’s what she thought. For pity’s sake, they split everything, including the house and the wedding bills, right down the middle… even though Gerald made much more money as an architect than Chloe did as a secretary. How much more “compatible” could this new woman be?
“And don’t even get me started on that devil woman,” her mother added.
Chloe sighed. “That devil woman” not being the “compatible” object of his infidelity, but rather, Gerald’s domineering mother. “Well, at least she’s not here,” Chloe said weakly.
“After insisting on all this frou-frou,” her mother hissed, pointing to the bunting, the flowers… the ice sculptures of King Arthur and Guinevere at the main buffet table. “Now, her son has the nerve…”
“Mom, I love you for being so angry for me,” Chloe said, and she meant every word. “But… it’s not helping. Not right now.”
Her mother took a deep, cleansing breath, then nodded. “Of course not. Just like your father always says – focus on the elements you can control, because there’s no sense focusing on the things you can’t. So…”
Chloe watched as her mother pulled a small organizer out of her purse and pulled out a pad of blank paper.
“What do you need to take care of?” Her mother looked at her, like a court reporter, ready to take down notes.
“Do I need to write up the list now?” Chloe said, feeling pained.
“Well, your Aunt Mildred was right,” her mother said mildly. “There are an awful lot of details. I don’t think you need to solve them right now, but you’ll feel better when you have an action list in place. I’m sure it all seems overwhelming right now, so think of how relieved you’ll be when you can see just what the extent of your problems are, in black and white. So to speak.”
Chloe looked away – looked at the ice sculpture that was slowly melting into the flower arrangements. She loved her family, and knew that her mother was just doing what she thought would be the most helpful in this grave situation. It was a family characteristic, like the wavy brown hair they almost all shared, or the slight almond shaped tilt to their eyes… being organized and efficient was downright genetic. But for once, Chloe wished that she didn’t have to be quite such a swift problem-solver.
I just wish I could get away from all of this.
Her mother was still waiting, so Chloe straightened in her chair. “Well, there’s the house,” Chloe said.
“Got it,” her mother said, jotting that down. “What else?”
Chloe closed her eyes, trying to will the scorching pain away. “I will need to speak with Gerald.”
“That goes without saying.”
“I need to figure out where to live.”
Her mother clucked, sounding like Mildred. “You can live with us for as long as you need to, sweetie.”
Chloe thought about the night she’d spent, last night, in her old childhood room… replete with four-poster bed and ruffled lace canopy. She shuddered. “Um… I will need to find a job,” Chloe continued, shifting her thoughts away quickly.
Now her mother frowned. “I still don’t understand why you quit, honestly. It wasn’t like marriage was going to affect your work.”
“Well, no, but there was enough talk when Gerald was simply dating his secretary,” Chloe said. “When planning the wedding got crazy, and he said he’d take care of my bills if I focused on this…”
She felt tears again, and quickly swiped at her eyes before they could fall.
“Oh…” her mother said, instantly comforting.
“Anyway, even if I had kept the job, there’s no way I could keep working with Gerald, knowing… what I know now, what he’s done,” Chloe said, sniffling a little and berating herself for it. “So I need to find a new job.”
Her mother dutifully added that to the list. “Anything else?”
Chloe blinked at her. Isn’t that enough?
“Just three things. Take care of the house, find a new place to live, find a job… oh, and talk to Gerald, which I’m putting in the first category of house-issues. There, that’s not so bad, is it?”
Chloe didn’t respond. The list was short, but it was ghastly.
Her mother glanced around. “So we’ll put you up at our house tonight. And there’s the rest of this wedding monstrosity to take care of.”
Chloe’s father walked up, looking like a stocky, balding James Bond in his tux. His eyes were still a little wild, she noticed, and instantly felt comforted.
“How’s my little girl?” he said gruffly.
She stood up and hugged him. “I’m hanging in there,” she said, rubbing her cheek against his shoulder.
“Well, of course you are. You’re a Winton,” he said stolidly. “What are you two doing?”
“Just did a quick list of what she’s going to need to take care of,” her mother said smoothly.
“That’s my girl,” he said, patting her shoulder. “Just because the world’s going to hell in a hand basket doesn’t mean you need to give in to the chaos, I’ve always said.”
He sounded so sure of the statement that Chloe smiled, even though she still felt like a collapsed building inside. “Of course, Dad,” she said instead, trying for her bravest smile.
“You might not be able to choose your circumstances, but you can always choose your response to it.”
“Yup,” Chloe agreed.
“The trick to handling any problem is dealing with the worst aspect first. Then it’s all downhill from there.”
All downhill from there. Truer words were never spoken.
“When life gives you lemons…”
“Dad,” Chloe interrupted. “I get it.”
“Hmm? Oh.” Her father reddened a little. “Well. I’m just trying to help you feel better.”
“I know. And I love you guys for it.” Chloe sat down, looking at her mother’s list. Figure out what to do about the house… get a job… find a new place to live.
Talk to Gerald.
She knew she ought to. Some part of her wondered if maybe she shouldn’t just storm over to the new house they’d bought, and bang on the door until he showed his cowardly face. She certainly wanted to… she was that angry. But what if he were with his new lover? The thought was like acid on an open wound. What would she do? What could she do? Was she even ready to face him? Or, even worse, face them?
Maybe it was cowardly herself, in turn, but the thought of facing Gerald, knowing that he’d cheated on her and walked out on her, made her physically nauseous.
Instead, Chloe picked up her mother’s pen and took the list herself. “All right,” she said, taking a deep breath and pushing all thoughts of Gerald out of her mind. “I’ll deal with the wedding, first. There’s no way everybody can eat all the food we’ve ordered – we only have half as many guests as planned. So I’ll see if the caterer can arrange to bring leftovers to a homeless shelter or food bank.” She jotted the note: caterer- food donation. “The flowers, too… they can go to a hospital, probably. I’m going to need to pay everyone…” She wrote a list of people who would be expecting checks at the end of the night – caterer, hotel, DJ. “And the gifts… we’re going to need to return the gifts and send out some explanatory note.” Another item added to the list.
By the time she was finished, she had a neatly printed column of details to handle, and she had to admit her mother was right – she did feel a bit better. Organizing was calming for Wintons, she knew.
Dodging the Gerald issue was calming, as well, she privately admitted to herself.
“Just let us know when you want to go home,” her father said, giving her another pat on the shoulder.
“We can type these lists up,” her mother added helpfully.
“Oh, and your cousins wanted to stop by, see if there was anything they could do to help,” her father said.
“Which reminds me – you’ll probably be getting a lot of phone calls.” Her mother shrugged. “They all feel so badly, and they all want to see if you need anything.”
Chloe thought about it. She could handle this. Sure, she was staying in a twin sized bed that was hard as granite with age, surrounded by posters of bands and movie stars she’d liked in high school. Sure, her parents got up at five o’clock in the morning, and would no doubt continue to “help” her with the full focus of their relatively free-scheduled “retirement” lives. And sure, she’d be deluged with offers of assistance from her well-meaning and equally organized family members…
She quickly grabbed the list again. “The honeymoon,” she said.
Her father blinked at her. “Sorry?”
“I’m supposed to be going on a cruise,” she said, gratefully adding one more item to the list. “The boat will be expecting us. I need to call them and cancel. I should do that right now.”
Right now, I should do anything but think about what I’m going to be faced with in the next week.
“All right, dear,” her father said. “You do that, and then we’ll go.”
Chloe headed to a quiet hallway to make the call on her cell phone, grateful for the distraction. She knew she couldn’t avoid her troubles forever. Then again, she also knew that, one way or another, everything would be all right.
She just wasn’t sure how.
“I am already having a bad day, Kenneth,” Captain Jack McCullough said ominously into his cell phone. “Please tell me you’re just running late or something.”
There was a pause on the line, and Jack knew immediately that Kenneth was not running late… and the “or something” was going to be bad. Call it sailor’s instincts, call it gut reaction, hell, call it Murphy’s law, but this was apparently one of those days when absolutely nothing was going to go right.
“I’m not working this cruise, Jack.” Kenneth swallowed audibly. “In fact… I’m not going to be able to work for you anymore.”
“It’s not the raise thing again, is it?” Jack said. “Because you know I’ve been in a bind, financially speaking. I swear, I’m doing the best I can. And if these private honeymoon cruises take off the way I think they will, I might be able to swing something in a few months. But in these cruises, I promised gourmet food… which will be damned awkward if you don’t show up, Kenneth!”
“I know,” Kenneth replied, and his voice did sound miserable. “But my hands are tied.”
“You’re just leaving? Just like that? With no notice?” Jack clamped down on the spurt of anger and outrage that shot through his system. “Well, what is it? Something medical? You in some kind of trouble?”
“You could say that,” Kenneth said. “I just found out my girlfriend’s pregnant.”
“Oh,” Jack said, temporarily deflated. That had to be a bit of a shock – Jack didn’t even realize Kenneth had a girlfriend, much less one he was serious enough about to have a kid with. “Well, that doesn’t mean you should quit your job. Hell, if anything, I’d think you’d want to keep your job in the meantime…”
“I have a new job lined up,” Kenneth said. “In a restaurant.”
Now Jack was more shocked than angry. “On land?”
“Listen, I’m not thrilled with it either,” Kenneth answered defensively. “But I’m crazy about her, and she needs me with her. So I’m staying.”
There was a note of staunch loyalty in his voice, and Jack sighed. “Damn it. Well… congratulations,” he said belatedly. “But you are leaving me in a hell of a jam. I mean, she’s not going to go into labor right this second or anything…” He felt petty bringing it up, so he stopped himself from elaborating any further. “Okay. We’ll make do. Besides, honeymooning couples aren’t going to give a damn about the food anyway, right? That’s not what they’re here for.” At least, he hoped that they’d be able to overlook that. The last thing he could afford right now was an unhappy customer that refused to pay the remainder of his fee.
“Um, there is one more thing…”
Now Jack’s back prickled with prescience. “Oh, man, what else?”
“I hope they don’t want massages either,” Kenneth said, and if possible, his voice sounded even more apologetic.
It took Jack a second to figure out what Kenneth was saying. The honeymoon cruises did offer massages, which was why he’d hired a woman who was willing to be maid and masseuse…
“Helen?” Jack said, flabbergasted. “Your girlfriend is my masseuse?”
“The morning sickness is killing her, man,” Kenneth said. “There’s no way she can work on a boat now when just looking at a glass of milk makes her want to hurl.”
“You have got to be kidding me!” Jack shouted. “My gourmet chef and personal masseuse are both ditching me right before a week-long, four-star private cruise. At this rate, we’re going to be demoted to one star. We’re going to be the floating equivalent of the No-Tell Motel!”
“We didn’t mean for this to happen,” Kenneth protested.
Jack bit back a swear. “I know, man,” he said. “And I am happy for you guys, as long as you’re happy. I just… right now is not a good time for us to have customers refusing final payments or demanding deposit refunds, if you know what I mean.”
“I’ll put feelers out,” Kenneth said, contrite. “I’ll find you another chef by the time you get back from this cruise. And I’ll have Helen look for another masseuse.”
“That’d be a help,” Jack said, although considering the meagerness of his current financial state, he knew that finding people of quality willing to work for peanuts was going to be tough. He was lucky because Kenneth and Helen both loved the ocean… or at least, they had, before all of this.
There was a buzzing on his phone, and he saw another call was waiting. “I’ve got to go,” he said to Kenneth, and switched over in the middle of yet another Kenneth apology. “McCullough Charters, how can I help you?”
“My name is Chloe Winton,” a woman’s voice said, in a tone that would’ve been business-like if it weren’t for a note of something else… something sad. “My… fiancé and I were scheduled to take a cruise this week.”
There it was again – the tickle down his spine that signaled rough waters ahead. “Yes, Mrs. Winton,” he said, putting on his very best customer service voice. “We’re looking forward to seeing you. We’re scheduled to depart at six-thirty, but since it’s a private charter, we can leave whenever you like. Is there anything special you wanted…”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to cancel.”
Cancel. Crap. That would mean repaying the twenty-five percent deposit, and no more money forthcoming… hell, he had bills that were already written against the deposit alone. “May I ask why?” he said, wracking his brain for some way to salvage the deal. “Perhaps there’s something I can help you with.”
There was a pause on the line. “It’s not a honeymoon, for one thing,” she said. “The groom sent a note to me at the chapel saying he couldn’t go through with it.”
“Ouch,” Jack said, before he could stop himself.
“Yeah, something like that,” she responded, and the business-tone dropped for a minute, leaving her sounding rueful… and very vulnerable. “So I don’t think it’s anything you can help with. I’ve got plenty of relatives that are already giving me advice,” she added, with a little laugh that sounded teary.
He could picture it now – this poor girl, stranded at the altar, surrounded by a bunch of family busy-bodies. And what kind of guy would leave a woman on her wedding day? If he knew it wasn’t going to work, then he knew it months ago. Why put her through the wringer in front of all her friends and family?
“Well, he’s the one that paid the deposit,” Jack mused, remembering vaguely. “He’s paying for the whole thing –I’ve got a post-dated check.”
“That’s right,” she said, sounding puzzled. “I was paying for some wedding stuff in exchange.”
“You know, it’s not your fault that the wedding was cancelled.”
There was another pause. “Well, not to my knowledge.”
Oh, you poor kid. “It wasn’t your fault. You showed up,” Jack said with certainty. “So why should you cancel the cruise? Why miss out on it, just because he’s being a butthead?”
That got a startled laugh out of her. “I don’t know that I’m in a honeymoon state of mind,” she said.
“Ever been out on the open ocean at night?” Jack said, getting into the swing of it – and not just to save the sale. “It’s the most peaceful thing in the world. The lapping of the waves, the breeze, the way everything looks and smells. It’s pure freedom.”
“Sounds like heaven,” she admitted.
“And,” he said, “It’s miles from anybody who has any sort of advice to give. You don’t even get cell phone reception most of the time.”
“Really?” Now he heard it – just the hint of a smile in her voice.
“I’ll admit it. I don’t want to lose the fare,” Jack said candidly. “But I also think you’ve had a shitty day, and you’re probably going to be in for it for a while. If you stay in town, odds are good you’ll bump into a bunch of well-meaning people who have no idea what to say to you, and the awkwardness is just going to make it worse.”
“Not to mention at some point I’ll run into the butthead,” she muttered, and now Jack laughed.
“Exactly. Who needs that? Come on the cruise. Leave all your stress on shore. Take the week off.”
A long pause, and Jack wondered absently if he was being cruel – if he were only making things worse. He’d never met her, but she sounded like a nice lady, and he probably would’ve told her to do the same thing even if she were booked with a different charter ship. Still, he knew that his take on what should be done, and most land-bound people’s view on how to act, tended to be radically different.
6″>”Wouldn’t I just be running away?” she finally asked. Her voice sounded sad, but hopeful… as if she were begging for him to come up with a reason for her to go along with his plan.
“Generals do it all the time. So do top executives. You’re not running away. You know what you’re doing? Repeat after me: you’re regrouping.”
“I’m regrouping,” she echoed dutifully.