What could I say? I don’t know? There’s a strong possibility I might have screwed things up enough to have lost him?
“Still very much unavailable,” I said at last, sourly.
“Shame. But you know, what happens in the fjords stays in the fjords. . . .”
“Oh, piss off, Howard,” I snapped. He put up his hands.
“Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
Yes, I can, I thought, but I didn’t say it. Instead, I grabbed another glass from a passing waitress and looked round for something to change the subject.
“Who are the others, then?” I asked. “I’ve got you, me, Cole, Tina, and Archer ticked off. Oh, and Alexander Belhomme. What about that crowd over there?” I nodded at the little group Tina was chatting to. There were three men and two women, one of them about my age but about fifty thousand pounds better dressed, and the other . . . well, the other was sort of a surprise.
“That’s Lord Bullmer and his cronies. You know, he’s the owner of the boat and the . . . I guess you’d call it the company figurehead?”
I stared at the little knot in the corner, trying to make out Lord Bullmer from the snap on Wikipedia. At first I couldn’t work out which one he was, and then one of the men gave a full-throated laugh, throwing back his head, and I knew at once it was him. He was tall, wirily slim, and dressed in a suit so well cut that I was certain it must be tailored. He was fiercely tanned, as if he spent a lot of time outdoors, his bright blue eyes narrowed into slits as he laughed, and there was a streak of premature gray at each temple, but it was the grayness that comes sometimes with extremely black hair, not old age.
“He’s so young,” I said wonderingly. “Seems kind of weird for someone our age to be a peer, don’t you think?”
“He’s Viscount Something as well, I think. The money’s mainly down to his wife, of course. She’s the Lyngstad heiress, her family owned that huge car manufacturer. You know the ones I mean?”
I nodded. My business knowledge might be shaky, and the family might be famously private, but even I’d heard of the Lyngstad Foundation. Every time I saw footage of an international disaster zone, their logo was on the trucks and aid parcels. I had a sudden memory of a shot I’d seen all over the papers last year—it might even have been one of Cole’s—of a Syrian mother standing in front of a Lyngstad-branded truck with a baby in her arms, holding the child up towards the driver like a talisman to make the vehicle stop.
“And is that her?” I nodded at the willowy white-blonde with her back to me, who was laughing at something one of the other men had said. She was dressed in a devastatingly simple gown of rose-colored wild silk that made me feel like I’d cobbled mine together from my childhood dressing-up box. Ben shook his head.
“No, she’s Chloe Jenssen. Ex-model and married to that chap with the blond hair, Lars Jenssen. He’s a big noise in finance, head of a Swedish investment group. I imagine Bullmer’s got him here as a potential investor. No, that’s Bullmer’s wife, next to him, in the headscarf.”
Oh . . . She was the surprise. In contrast to the other women in the group, the woman in the headscarf looked . . . well, she looked ill. She was wearing a kind of shapeless gray silk kimono wrap that matched her eyes, and looked halfway between an evening dress and a dressing gown, but even from here I could see she was wearing a silk scarf wound around her scalp, and her skin was waxily pale. Her gray pallor stood out in sharp contrast to the rest of the group, who looked almost obscenely healthy in contrast. I realized I was staring and dropped my eyes.
“She’s been ill,” Ben said unnecessarily. “Breast cancer. I think it was pretty serious.”
“How old is she?”
“Barely thirty, I think. Younger than him, anyway.”
As Ben drained his glass and turned to look for a waiter to fill up, I found my gaze drawn back. I would never in a million years have recognized her from the photograph I’d seen on Wikipedia. Perhaps it was the gray skin, or the loose-fitting silks, but she seemed years older, and with that glorious mane of golden hair gone, she looked like a completely different woman.
Why was she here and not at home lying on a sofa? But then again, why shouldn’t she be here? Maybe she didn’t have long to live. Maybe she was trying to make the most of her time. Or maybe—here was a thought—just maybe, she wished that the woman in the gray dress would stop staring at her with pitying eyes and leave her alone.
I looked away again and cast around for someone less vulnerable to speculate about. There was only one person left in the group unaccounted for, a tall older man with a neatly clipped graying beard and a gut that could only be the product of a lot of long lunches.
“Who’s the Donald Sutherland look-alike?” I said to Ben. He turned back round.
“Who? Oh, that’s Owen White. UK investor. Richard Branson type—just on a slightly smaller scale.”
“Jesus, Ben. How do you know all this? Have you got an encyclopedic knowledge of high society or something?”
“Er, no.” Ben looked at me, a touch of disbelief in his expression. “I rang up the press office for a list of guests and then googled them. It’s not exactly Sherlock Holmes stuff.”
Fuck. Fuck. Why hadn’t I done that? It was what any good reporter would have done—and I’d not even thought of it. But then, Ben probably hadn’t spent the last few days in a haze of sleep deprivation and PTSD.
But whatever Ben had been about to say, it was drowned out by the ting ting ting! of metal against champagne flute, and Lord Bullmer moved into the center of the room. Camilla Lidman put down the flute and teaspoon she was holding and made as if to step forward and introduce him, but he waved a hand and she melted into the background with a self-effacing smile.
The room fell into a respectful, faintly anticipatory silence, and Lord Bullmer began to speak.
“Thank you, everyone, for coming to join us here on the Aurora on this, its maiden voyage,” he began. His voice was warm, and had that curiously classless tone that people from public school seemed to strive for, and his blue eyes had a kind of magnetic quality that was hard to look away from. “My name is Richard Bullmer, and my wife, Anne, and I would like to welcome you aboard the Aurora. What we have sought to do with this ship is make it nothing less than a home away from home.”