“Home away from home?” Ben whispered. “Maybe his home has a sea-view balcony and a free minibar. Mine sure as hell doesn’t.”
“We do not believe that travel has to mean compromise,” Richard Bullmer continued. “On the Aurora, everything should be as you would wish, and if it’s not, my staff and I want to hear.” He paused and gave a little wink at Camilla, including her in the remark as an acknowledgment that she would likely be on the sharp end of any complaints.
“Those of you who know me will know of my passion for Scandinavia—for the warmth of its people”—he shot a quick smile at Lars and Anne—“for the excellence of its food”—he nodded at the tray of dill and prawn canapés traveling past—“and the spectacular glory of the region itself: from the rolling forests of Finland, to the scattered islands of the Swedish archipelago, to the majesty of the fjords in my wife’s native Norway. But I think that, for me, the defining quality of the Scandinavian landscape is—perhaps paradoxically—not the land at all, but the skies—wide, and almost preternaturally clear. And it is those skies that provide what for many is the crowning glory of the Scandinavian winter experience—the northern lights, the aurora borealis. With nature nothing is certain, but I very much hope to share the spectacular majesty of the northern lights with you on this trip. The aurora borealis is something that everyone should see before they die. And now, please raise your glasses, ladies and gentlemen, to the maiden voyage of the Aurora Borealis—and may the beauty of her namesake never fade.”
“To the Aurora Borealis,” we chorused obediently, and downed our glasses. I felt the alcohol trickle through me, taking the edge off everything, even my still-aching cheek.
“Come on, Blacklock,” Ben said, setting down his empty glass. “Let’s go do our bit and schmooze.”
I felt a twinge of reluctance to approach the group with him. The thought of being taken for a couple was awkward, given our past, but I wasn’t about to let Ben start making connections while I hung back. As we started across the room, I saw Anne Bullmer touch her husband’s arm and whisper something in his ear. He nodded, and she gathered up her wrap and the two of them began to make their way towards the doorway, Richard holding Anne’s arm solicitously. We passed in the center of the room, and she smiled, a sweet smile that illuminated her drawn, fine-boned face with a shadow of what must have been her former beauty, and I saw that she had no eyebrows at all. The lack of them, together with her jutting cheekbones, gave her face a curious, skull-like appearance.
“You’ll excuse me, I’m sure,” she said. Her voice was pure BBC English, no trace of accent that I could detect. “I’m very tired—I’m afraid I’m ducking out of dinner tonight. But I look forward to meeting you tomorrow.”
“Of course,” I said awkwardly, and then tried to smile. “I—I look forward to it, too.”
“I’m just going to see my wife to her cabin,” Richard Bullmer said. “I’ll be back before dinner is served.”
I looked at them as they walked slowly away and then said to Ben, “Her English is amazing. You’d never know she was Norwegian.”
“I don’t think she actually lived there much when she was younger. She spent most of her childhood at boarding schools in Switzerland, as far as I know. Right, cover me, Blacklock, I’m going in.”
He strode across the room, scooping up a handful of canapés as he went, and inserted himself into the little group with the practiced ease of a born journalist.
“Belhomme,” I heard him say, his tone full of a sort of Old Etonian faux bonhomie, which I knew to be completely out of keeping with his actual background, growing up on an Essex council estate. “Great to see you again. And you must be Lars Jenssen, sir, I read that profile of you in the FT. I very much admire your stance on the environment—mixing principles with business isn’t as easy as you make it look.”
Ugh, look at him, networking like a bastard. No wonder he was working at the Times doing proper investigative stuff, while I was stuck in Rowan’s shadow at Velocity. I should get over there. I should inveigle myself into conversation with them just as Ben had. This was my chance and I knew it. So why was I standing here, holding my glass with cold fingers, unable to make myself move?
The waitress came past with a bottle of champagne and, slightly against my better judgment, I let her fill up my glass. As she moved away, I took a reckless gulp.
“Penny?” said a low voice in my ear, and I whipped round to see Cole Lederer standing behind me.
“Sorry, Penny who?” I managed, though my palms were prickling with sweat. I had got to get over this.
He grinned, and I realized my mistake.
“Oh, of course, for my thoughts,” I said, cross with myself, and with him for being so coy.
“Sorry,” he said, still smiling. “Stupid cliché. I don’t know why I said it. You just looked particularly pensive standing there, biting your lip like that.”
I was biting my lip? Well, hell, why not trail the tips of my Mary Janes in the dirt as well and maybe flutter my eyelashes?
I tried to remember what I had been thinking about, other than Ben and my lack of networking skills. The only thing that came to mind was the bastard who broke into my flat, but I was damned if I’d bring that up here. I wanted Cole Lederer to respect me as a journalist, not feel sorry for me.
“Oh . . . uh . . . politics?” I brought out, at last. The champagne and the tiredness were starting to hit. My brain didn’t seem to be working properly, and my head was starting to ache. I realized that I was halfway to being drunk, and not the good kind of drunk, either.
Cole looked at me skeptically.
“Well, what were you thinking, then?” I said crossly. There’s a reason why we keep thoughts inside our heads for the most part—they’re not safe to be let out in public.
“Other than looking at your lips, you mean?”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and tried to channel my inner Rowan, who would have flirted with him until she got his business card.
“If you must know,” Cole continued, propping himself against the wall as the ship heaved over a wave and the ice in the champagne buckets rattled, “I was thinking about my soon-to-be ex-wife.”
“Oh. Sorry,” I said. He was drunk, too, I saw, just hiding it well.