There was always a great deal of confusion, more noise, and a touch of panic to flavor the arrival of embarking passengers. Some were already a bit travel weary from their flight into Miami, others were running on the adrenaline of anticipation. The huge white ocean liner, the Celebration,
waited in porttheir ticket to fun, relaxation, romance. When they crossed the gangway, they would no longer be accountants, assistant managers, or teachers, but pampered passengers assured of being fed, spoiled, and entertained for the next ten days. The brochures guaranteed it.
From the rail of the Observation deck, Serena watched the flow of humanity. At that distance she could enjoy the color and noise, which never lost its appeal for her, without being caught in the inevitable tangle of fifteen hundred people trying to get to the same place at the same time. The cooks, the bartenders, the cabin stewards, had already begun the orgy of work that would continue, virtually uninterrupted, for the next ten days. But she had time. Serena relished it.
These were her idle momentsbefore the ship pulled out of port. She could remember her first experience with a cruise liner. She'd been eight, the youngest of the three children of financial wizard Daniel MacGregor and Dr. Anna Whitefield MacGregor. There had been first-class cabins, where the steward had served her hot buns and juice in bed. Serena had enjoyed it the same way she enjoyed her tiny cabin in the crew's quarters now. They were both an adventure.
Serena remembered, too, the day she had told her parents of her plans to apply for a job with the Celebration. Her father had huffed and puffed about her throwing away her education. The more he had huffed, the more pronounced his soft Scottish burr had become. A woman who had graduated from Smith at the tender age of twenty, who had then gone on to earn degrees in English, history, and sociology didn't swab decks. And even as Serena had assured him that wasn't her intention, her mother had laughed, telling Daniel to let the child be. Because at six foot three and two hundred and twenty pounds, Daniel MacGregor was helpless against what he called his females, he did just that.
So Serena had gotten her job and had escaped from what had become endless years of study. She'd traded her three-room suite in the family mansion in Hyan-nis Port for a one-room broom closet with a bunk on a floating hotel. None of her coworkers cared what her I.Q. was, or how many degrees she'd earned. They didn't know her father could have bought the cruise line lock, stock, and barrel if he'd had the whim, or that her mother was an authority on thoracic surgery. They didn't know her oldest brother was a senator and the younger a state's attorney. When they looked at her, they saw Serena. That was all she wanted.
Lifting her head, she let the wind take her hair. It danced on the breeze, a mass of blond, the rich shade of gold one found in old paintings. She had high, slanting cheekbones and a sharp, stubborn jaw. Her skin refused to tan, remaining a delicate peach to contrast with the violet-blue of her eyes. Her father called them purple; a few romantics had called them violet. Serena stubbornly termed them blue and left it at that. Men were drawn to them because of their uniqueness, then to her because of the elegant sexuality she exuded without thought. But she wasn't very interested.
Intellectually, Serena thought a man was a fool if he fell for a shade of irises. It was a matter of genetics after all, and had little to do with her personally. She'd listened to accolades on her eyes for twenty-six years with a kind of detached wonder. There was a miniature in her father's library of his great-grandmother, another Serena. If anyone had asked, she could have explained the process of genetics that resulted in the resemblance, down to the bone structure and eye shadeand the reputed temper. But the men she met were generally not interested in scientific explanation, and Serena was generally not interested in them.
Below her, the crowd flowing up the gangway was thinning. Shortly the calypso band would be playing on the Lido deck to entertain the passengers while the ship prepared to sail. Serena would enjoy staying outside, listening to the tinny, rhythmic music and laughter. There would be a buffet laden with more food than the well over one thousand people could possibly eat, exotic drinks, and excitement. Soon the rails would be packed with people wanting that last glimpse of shore before all there would be was open sea.
Wistfully, she watched the last stragglers come on board. It was the final cruise of the season. When they returned to Miami, the Celebration would go into dry dock for two months. When it sailed again, Serena wouldn't be on it. She'd already made up her mind that it was time to move on. When she'd taken the job on the ship, she had been looking for one thingfreedom from years of study, from family expectations, from her own restlessnes. She knew she had accomplished something in the year on her own. Serena had found the independence she had always struggled for, and she had escaped the niche so many of her college friends had been determinedly heading for: a good marriage.
And yet, though she'd found the freedom and independence, she hadn't found the most important ingredient: the goal. What did Serena MacGregor want to do with the rest of her life? She didn't want the political career both her brothers had chosen. She didn't want to teach or lecture. She wanted excitement and challenges and no longer wanted to look for them in a classroom. They were all negative answers, but she knew whatever it was that would fill the rest of her life wouldn't be found by floating endlessly in the Bahamas.
Time to get off the boat, Rena, she told herself with a sudden smile. The next adventure's always just around the corner. Not knowing what it would be only made the search more intriguing.
The first long, loud blast of the horn was her signal. Drawing back from the rail, Serena went to her cabin to change.
Within thirty minutes she entered the ship's casino dressed in the modified tux that was her uniform. She had pulled her hair back in a loose bun at the nape of her neck so that it wouldn't tend to fall all over her face. Her hands would soon be too busy to fool with it.
The chandeliers were lit, spilling light onto the red and gold art deco carpet. Long curved windows allowed a view of the glassed-in Promenade deck, then the blue-green stretch of sea. The remaining walls were lined with slot machines, as silent as soldiers waiting for an attack. Fussing with the bow tie she could never seem to get quite right, Serena crossed to her supervisor. As with any sailor, the shifting of the ship under her feet went unnoticed.
"Serena MacGregor reporting for duty, sir," she said crisply.
Turning, a clipboard in one hand, he looked her up and down. Dale Zimmerman's lightweight boxer's build skimmed just under six feet. He had a smooth, handsome face he dedicatedly tanned, winning crinkles at the corners of his light blue eyes, and sun-bleached hair that curled riotously. He had a reputation, which he assiduously promoted, of being a marvelous lover. After his brief study of Serena, his grin broke out.
"Rena, can't you ever get this thing right?" Tucking the clipboard under his arm, Dale straightened her tie.
"I like to give you something to do."
"You know, lover, if you're serious about quitting after this run, this is going to be your last chance for paradise." Tugging on her tie, he lifted his eyes to grin into hers.
Serena cocked a brow. What had begun a year ago as an ardent pursual on Dale's part had been tempered into a good-humored joke about Serena's refusal to go to bed with him. They had become, more to his surprise than hers, friends. "I'm going to hate to miss it," Serena told him with a sigh. "Did the little redhead from South Dakota go home happy?" she asked with a guileless smile.
Dale's eyes narrowed. "Anybody ever tell you that you see too much?"
"All the time. What's my table?"
"You're on two." Taking out a cigarette, Dale lit it as she walked away. If anyone had told him a year before that a classy number like Serena MacGregor would not only hold him off but make him feel fraternal, he'd have recommended a good psychiatrist. With a shrug he went back to his clipboard. He was going to regret losing her, Dale reflected, and not only because of his personal feelings. She was the best damn blackjack dealer he had.
There were eight blackjack tables scattered throughout the casino. Serena and the seven other dealers would rotate from position to position through the rest of the afternoon and evening, with only a brief, staggered dinner break. Unless the playing was light, the casino would stay open until two. If it was heavy, a few tables might stay open until three. The first rule was to give the passengers what they wanted.
Other men and women clad in tuxedos went to their stations. Beside Serena the young Italian who had just been promoted to croupier stood at table two. Serena gave him a smile, remembering that Dale had asked her to keep an eye on him.
"Enjoy yourself, Tony," she suggested, eyeing the crowd that already waited outside the glass doors. "It's going to be a long night." And all on our feet, she added silently as Dale gave the signal to open the door.
Passengers poured in. Not in a tricklethey rarely trickled in the first day of a cruise. The crowd would be thin during the dinner hours, then swell again until past midnight. Dress was casualshorts, jeans, bare feetthe uniform for afternoon gambling. With the opening of the door Serena heard the musical sound effects of arcade games already being fed on the Promenade deck. Within minutes the sound was drowned out by the steady clatter of slots.
Serena could separate the gamblers from the "players" and the players from the "lookers." There was always some of each group in any batch of passengers. There would be a percentage who had never been to a casino before. They would simply wander around, attracted by the noise and the colorful equipment before they exchanged their bills for change for the slots.
There were some who came for fun, not really caring if they won or lost. These were the playersthey came for the game. It usually took little time for the looker to become the player. They would shout when they won and moan when they lost in much the same way the arcade addicts reacted.
But always, there were the gamblers. They would haunt the casino during the trip, turning the game of win and lose into an artor an obsession. They had no specific features, no particular mode of dress. The mystique of the riverboat gambler could be found in the neat little grandmother from Peoria just as it could be found in the Madison Avenue executive. As the tables began to fill, Serena categorized them. She smiled at the five people who had chosen her table, then broke the seal on four decks of cards.
"Welcome aboard," she said, and began to shuffle.
It took only an hour for the scent of gambling to rise. It permeated the smoke and light sweat that drifted through the casino. It was a heady scent, tempti ng. Serena had always wondered if it was what drew people more than the lights and green baize. The scent, and the noise of silver clattering in the bowls of the slot machines. Serena never played them, perhaps because she recognized the gambler in herself. She'd decided long ago not to risk anything unless the odds were on her side.
During her first shift she changed tables every thirty minutes, making her way slowly around the room. After her dinner break it began again. The casino grew more crowded after the sun set. Tables were full and the roulette wheel spun continuously. Dress became more elegant, as if to gamble in the evening required glamor.
Because the cards and people always changed, Serena was never bored. She had chosen the job to meet peoplenot the cut-out-of-the-same-affluent-cloth people she'd met in college, but a variety. In that she'd accomplished her goal. At the moment she had a Texan, two New Yorkers, a Korean and a Georgian at her table, all of whom she'd identified by their accents. This was as much a part of the game for her as the cards she slid onto the baize. One she never tired of.
Serena dealt the second card around, peeked at her hole card, and was satisfied with an eighteen. The first New Yorker took a hit, counted his cards, and gave a disgusted grunt. With a shake of the head he indicated that he'd stand. The Korean busted on twenty-two, then rose from the table with a mutter. The second New Yorker, a sleek blonde in a narrow black dinner dress, held with a nine and a queen.
"I'll take one," the man from Georgia drawled. He counted eighteen, gave Serena a thoughtful look, and held.
The man from Texas took his time. He had fourteen and didn't like the eight Serena had showing. Considering the possibilities, he stroked his chin, swilled some bourbon, then motioned Serena to hit him. She did, a tad too hard with a nine.
"Sweetheart," he said as he leaned on the table, "you're just too pretty to take a man's money that way."
"Sorry." With a smile she turned over her hole card. "Eighteen," she announced before she settled the betting.
Serena saw the hundred-dollar bill on the table before she realized someone had taken the Korean's vacant stool. Glancing up, she met a pair of green eyescool, depthless, direct. She stared, trapped in that instant of contact into seeing nothing else. Cool green, with amber rimming the iris. Something like ice skidded down her spine. Forcing herself to blink, Serena looked at the man.
He had the lean face of an aristocrat, but this was no prince. Serena sensed it instantly. Perhaps it was the long, unsmiling mouth, or the rough sweep of black brows. Or perhaps it was simply the inner warning that went off in her brain. A ruler yes, but not royalty. This was the type of man who planned ruthless coups and succeeded. His hair flowed over his ears thick and black and down to the collar of a white silk shirt. The skin stretched taut over the long bones of his face was as tanned as Dale's, but Serena didn't think he worked on the tone like her supervisor. This man faced the elements without a thought for fashion.