I was scanning the room, looking for the girl in the Pink Floyd T-shirt, when a low, amused voice came from the corridor behind me.
“Blinding, isn’t it?”
I turned to see the mysterious Mr. Lederer standing there.
“Just a touch,” I said. He held out his hand.
The name was faintly familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
“Laura Blacklock.” We shook, and I took him in. Even in jeans and a T-shirt struggling up the gangway, he was what Lissie would have called “eye candy.” Now he was wearing a dinner jacket in a way that made me remember Lissie’s rule of thumb: a dinner jacket added 33 percent to a man’s attractiveness.
“So,” he said, taking a glass off a tray proffered by yet another smiling Scandinavian stewardess. “What brings you to the Aurora, Miss Blacklock?”
“Oh, call me Lo. I’m a journalist, I work for Velocity.”
“Well, very happy to meet you, Lo. Can I offer you a drink?”
He picked up a second flute and held it out with a smile. The empty miniatures in the cabin floated up before my eyes, and I wavered for a moment, knowing I was on the cusp of drinking too much so early in the evening but not wanting to seem rude. My stomach was very, very empty and the gin hadn’t quite worn off, but surely one more glass couldn’t hurt?
“Thanks,” I said at last. He handed it over, his fingers brushing mine in a way I wasn’t sure was accidental, and I took a gulp, trying to drown my nerves. “How about you? What’s your role here?”
“I’m a photographer,” he said, and I suddenly realized where I’d heard the name before.
“Cole Lederer!” I exclaimed. I was ready to kick myself. Rowan would have been all over him, right from the gangway. “Of course—you did that amazing shoot for the Guardian of the melting ice caps.”
“That’s right.” He grinned, unashamedly pleased at being recognized, though you would have thought the thrill would have worn off for him by now. The guy was only a couple of steps down from David Bailey. “I’ve been invited to cover this lot, you know, moody shots of the fjords and stuff.”
“It’s not usually your thing, is it?” I said doubtfully.
“No,” he agreed. “I tend to do mainly endangered species or at-risk environments these days, and I don’t think you could say this lot were at any particular risk of extinction. They all look particularly well-fed.”
We gazed around the room together.
I had to agree with him when it came to the men. There was a little knot in the far corner who looked like they could survive for several weeks off their fat reserves, if we were ever shipwrecked. The women were a different story, though. They all had that lean, polished look that spoke of hot Bikram yoga and a macrobiotic diet, and they didn’t look like they’d survive long if the ship went down. Maybe they could eat one of the men.
I recognized a few faces from other press shindigs—there was Tina West, whippet-thin and wearing jewelry weighing more than she did, who edited the Vernean Times (motto: Eighty days is just the start); the travel journalist Alexander Belhomme, who wrote features and foodie articles for a number of cross-channel and in-flight magazines and was sleek and rotund as a walrus; and Archer Fenlan, who was a well-known expert on “extreme travel.”
Archer, who was maybe forty but looked older with his perma-tanned weathered face, was shifting from foot to foot, looking distinctly uncomfortable in his tie and dinner jacket. I couldn’t quite imagine what he was doing here—his normal beat was eating witchetty grubs up the Amazon, but maybe he was having a bit of time off.
I couldn’t see the girl from the next-door cabin anywhere.
“Boo!” said a voice from behind me.
I whipped round.
Ben Howard. What the hell was he doing here? He was grinning at me through a thick hipster beard that was new since I’d last seen him.
“Ben,” I said thinly, trying to suppress my shock. “How are you? Have you met Cole Lederer? Ben and I used to be at Velocity together. Now he writes for the . . . what is it at the moment? Indie? Times?”
“Me and Cole know each other,” Ben said easily. “We covered that Greenpeace thing together. How’s it going, man?”
“All right,” Cole said. They did that sort of manly half-hug thing, where you’re too metrosexual for a handshake and not hip enough for a fist bump.
“Lookin’ good, Blacklock,” Ben said, turning to me and giving me the once-over in a way that made me want to knee him in the balls, except that the sodding dress was too tight. “Although . . . have you, er, been cage fighting again?”
For a minute I couldn’t work out what he was on about. Then I realized: the bruise on my cheek. Obviously my expertise with the concealer wasn’t as good as I’d thought.
The flashing memory of the door slamming into my cheek and the man in my flat—about Ben’s height, with the same liquid dark eyes—was so vivid that my heart had begun thumping and my chest felt tight, and for a long moment I couldn’t find the words to reply. I just stared at him, not trying to keep the ice out of my expression.
“Sorry, sorry.” He held up a hand. “My own beeswax, I know. Christ, this collar’s tight.” He yanked at his bow tie. “How did you land this gig, then? Going up in the world?”
“Rowan’s ill,” I said shortly.
“Cole!” A voice broke into the awkward pause and we all turned to look. It was Tina, sashaying smoothly across the pristine white-oak floor, her silver dress rustling like snakeskin. She gave Lederer a lingering kiss on both cheeks, ignoring me and Ben. “Sweetie, it’s been far too long.” Her voice was throaty with emotion. “And when are you going to do that shoot you promised for the Vernean?”
“Hi, Tina,” Cole said, with just a touch of weariness in his tone.
“Let me introduce you to Richard and Lars,” she purred, and, slipping her arm through his, she bore him off to the knot of men I’d noticed at the beginning. He allowed himself to be carried away, with just a little rueful smile over his shoulder as he went. Ben watched him go and then turned back to me, cocking an eyebrow with such perfect comic timing that I let out a snort.
“I think we know who the belle of the ball is, right?” he said dryly, and I had to nod. “So how are you, anyway?” he continued. “Still with the Yank?”