Authors: Lena Nelson Dooley
Copyright Â© 2006 by Lena Nelson Dooley. All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the permission of Truly Yours, an imprint of Barbour Publishing, Inc., PO Box 721, Uhrichsville, Ohio 44683.
All scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.
All of the characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual events is purely coincidental.
Our mission is to publish and distribute inspirational products offering exceptional value and biblical encouragement to the masses.
A light melody invaded Charlotte Halloran's dream.
Oh no, it can't be morning yet.
Her right hand snaked from under the floral sheet that almost covered her headâreaching, searching for the offending clock radio. After finding it, she pushed the
button and settled back into comfort. But the sound came again, playing the same tune Philip had programmed as her cell phone ring tone. Charlotte pushed up to sit on the side of the bed. She needed to be fully awake to make any sense of a phone call. As she reached for the phone, she noticed the timeâ3:09 a.m.âand the other side of the bed remained empty. What was Philip doing out this late?
When he left after supper, he told her that he wanted to finish all the paperwork at the office so they could spend Saturday together. Their teenage daughter, Chelle, would be working at the youth carwash to help pay for summer camp. Charlotte and Philip could have a rare day alone. He said he would be late getting home, but after three o'clock was ridiculous.
Charlotte placed the instrument to her ear. “Philip, where are you?” She didn't care how harsh her voice sounded. She didn't like him staying out this late. Danger roamed the highways this time of night.
Her comment was greeted by a startled gasp then deafening silence. Instinctively, Charlotte knew it wasn't Philip on the other end of the line. Whom had she just spoken to? She hoped it wasn't a criminal or some kind of pervert. She had just informed the caller that her husband wasn't home.“Look, I don't know who you areâ” Charlotte's hand shook. She didn't like crank phone calls. Ever since Philip joined the police force, they kept their home phone number unlisted, so they didn't receive them often. “And I don't know how you got our number, but I'm going to hang up, and you can just forget you tried to make this crank call.”
“Please, Mrs. Halloran, don't hang up.”
The tentative masculine voice sounded familiar. Where had she heard it before? She had a hard time thinking when awakened from such a sound sleep.
Charlotte rubbed her temples with her left hand. “Why not? Do you have any idea what time it is?”
“Yes, I'm aware of the time.” The voice sounded firm and gentle. “This is George Mallory.”
Why is Philip's boss calling me at this time in the morning?
“Mrs. Halloran. . .Charlotte, there's been an accident.”
Charlotte waited for more information, but it wasn't
coming. “Philip wasn't on duty tonight. He was at the
insurance office.” Charlotte didn't like the geyser of panic welling inside her. Philip didn't like to work a second job to make ends meet. Why couldn't the city pay their police officers enough to provide a decent living for a family?
“I know. Listen, I'm right outside in a squad car. I didn't want to just ring the doorbell. Please come to the front door. I'll be waiting on the porch. Okay?”
Charlotte agreed and hung up. She stumbled to the closet and pulled out her fleece robeâthe one Philip had given her last Christmas. Her fingers fumbled, and she dropped the blue fabric to the floor before she finally managed to pull it on and belt it around her waist. Then, she ran a brush through her curls to tame them. As she did, she glanced in the mirror. She startled at her terror-filled eyes. When she tried to put the brush back on the dresser, it fell to the carpet.
After picking it up and placing it precisely on the middle of the polished pecan dresser, Charlotte hurried to the front door. She peeked through the peephole to make sure it really was Captain Mallory. She grasped the doorknob but didn't turn itâdidn't want to open the door. Something fearful waited for her on the other side. She heard a tentative knock and, finally, opened the door.
Phyllis Johnson, Philip's partner, accompanied Captain Mallory. The grim expressions on their faces did nothing to calm Charlotte's fears.
“Please come in.” She led the way into the den. “Would you like to sit down?”
“Maybe you should, Charlotte.” Phyllis perched on the edge of the turquoise sofa, and Charlotte dropped into the cushions on the other end.
Charlotte had always liked Philip's partner. They often teased about them being twins because of their names. Charlotte knew Philip trusted Phyllis with his life, and Charlotte had, too.
“What's this all about?” she couldn't keep from asking. But in her heart, she knew. Something had happened to Philip. Something pretty bad, judging by the way his coworkers were acting.
“There's no easy way to say this, Mrs. Halloran.” Captain Mallory sounded so formal. He usually joked and laughed a lot. Maybe that was why she hadn't recognized his voice on the phone. “On his way home, Philip had stopped to help a stranded motorist up on Airport Freeway. You know Philip never could pass by anyone in need of help.”
Charlotte nodded. Philip always said, “What if it were you? I'd want someone to stop and help. Wouldn't you?”
“He pulled over after passing the other car. The man in the car came up and talked to Philip. When they were walking back to the second vehicle, a driver drifted off the road. Philip pushed the motorist out of the way and took the brunt of the hit from an SUV.”
Charlotte had never felt faint in her lifeâuntil now. She lowered her head and took a deep breath. Just how badly had Philip been hurt? And why were they sitting here? They should all be on their way to the hospital.
“You know the bars close at two on Saturday mornings.” Phyllis didn't like drunk drivers any better than Philip did, and now one of them had harmed Charlotte's husband. “We think the driver had spent most of the evening drinking. At least it wasn't a hit and run. We have him under arrest.”
With her heart sinking, Charlotte raised her head to look at Phyllis. “What hospital did they take him to? H. E. B.?” Then it hit her like a second impact of that SUV. The captain referred to Philip using the past tense. A ball of fear settled inside her, not leaving her much space to breathe.
Phyllis glanced at Captain Mallory, whose grim expression looked anything but comfortable. “They didn't take him to a hospital, Mrs. Halloran.” He raked in a deep breath. “We had to call the coroner.”
Dead? Philip is dead? No, he can't be.
Charlotte leaned over and clutched her stomach, trying to stop the deep, agonizing pain that knifed through her. At that moment, something vitalâthe womanly intimate part of her that she and Philip had sharedâdied, too. Life as she had known it ended for all time.
Bright Louisiana sunshine painted everything golden as Charlotte and Chelle Halloran stepped from the airplane into the New Orleans airport. High humidity made the day seem more like summer than springtime. An employee of the travel agency met them. The young man helped to collect their luggage and load it into the cruise shuttle van. Chelle sat by the window so she could see everything on the long ride into New Orleans.
Charlotte couldn't understand why a city would have its airport so far from town. The travel agent had to book their flight before noon so they would have plenty of time to get to the cruise dock on the Mississippi River. The ship sailed from New Orleans down the river to the Gulf of Mexico later today, then on to the Caribbean.
“What are those?” Chelle pointed toward a cemetery.
“I really don't know,” Charlotte answered as she studied what looked like small concrete vaults on top of the ground, in regimented rows across the parklike setting. Some of the cemeteries in the Dallas-Fort Worth area had mausoleums, but they didn't look like these structures.
“Everyone in New Orleans is buried above the ground.” The van driver answered Chelle's question without taking his eyes from the freeway. “New Orleans is so low, and the water table so high, they can't be buried in the ground. The bodies would float right out of their graves at the first sign of rain.” Then he laughed at his own joke, his chocolate face wreathed in a smile.
His strong Cajun accent sounded rich as molasses, making it hard for Charlotte to understand. She really had to listen closely to catch everything.
What a strange way to bury people.
Charlotte decided this wasn't a subject she really wanted to dwell on right now. They were taking the cruise to get away from memories on the first anniversary of Philip's death, and here she was looking at cemeteries in New Orleans. She searched for different types of architecture and hoped it wouldn't take too much longer to reach the cruise dock. The typical homes in Bedford, Texas, where she lived, were definitely different from those that lined the freeway in the suburbs of New Orleans. As they got closer to downtown, they drove through industrial and shopping districts before they passed the Super Dome. Philip had planned to come to New Orleans the next time the Super Bowl was played there. He had always wanted to see the famed stadium. Even though the city suffered extreme damage during past storms, like the proverbial phoenix, it had risen again to the vital city that spread before Charlotte's eyes.
When they arrived at the dock area, the van driver unloaded their luggage and carried it into the building where Voyageana Cruise Line accepted passengers. They wouldn't allow passengers to board the ship until 2:00 p.m., but they did attach luggage tags with cabin numbers to the bag handles and set them aside to load on the boat. Piles of luggage formed two lines down the length of the building. Charlotte hoped her and Chelle's bags wouldn't get mixed up with someone else's. She didn't even want to think about facing eight days and seven nights without her essentials.
“Mom, I'm hungry.” Chelle was always hungry, but it had been a long time since breakfast.
Charlotte asked the cruise line representative where they could get something to eat. After being directed to the River Walk, they found a little bistro. Along the way, Charlotte and her teenage daughter tasted some of the samples of spicy Cajun dishes that were offered by other establishments. After they were seated at a wrought iron table, Charlotte was glad the bistro also served sandwichesâwithout the hot seasoning.
While they ate, Charlotte hoped she hadn't made a mistake taking this trip. Philip had planned on the family going on a cruise when Chelle graduated from high school. That was still a year off, but Charlotte decided to move the plans up, hoping it would help both of them. She was running from the memory of that fateful night last year when she lost her husband. By taking Chelle on this cruise, she hoped to erase some of the horrible memories, if that was possible.
After eating lunch, when they arrived back at the cruise dock building, they were told they could board. They waited in line to receive their room key cards, but the line moved quickly.
“Chelle, you know how important it is for you to keep up with the key card, don't you?” Charlotte almost hesitated to hand it over.
“Ma'am.” The young man in a cruise line uniform came around from behind the desk. “How would you like to have one of these?” He held out a lanyard with the name of the ship on it. “This way, she can wear it around her neck.”
Chelle got that stubborn look that said,
but Charlotte didn't give her a chance to voice her protest. “We'll take two, if that's all right.”
“Sure. Just let me punch a hole in the key cards.”
It must have been a good idea, because Charlotte heard the people behind them asking for lanyards, too.
She and Chelle stepped out into the warm Louisiana sunshine. The white ship rocked gently in the water. A lengthy stretch of dock spanned the distance between where the two of them stood and the moored ship. The glistening vessel looked huge, as tall as a seven- or eight-story building, at least above the waterline. Charlotte wondered how deep the boat went below the surface. Sunlight glinted off brass railings on three upper decks, and bright flags, strung on lines that stretched from the front to the back of the ship, fluttered in the wind. The
Pearl of the Ocean.
Voyageana Cruise Line's newest ship. According to the brochure, this was only the second voyage. Gleaming in the sunlight, it did look like a pearl. Very inviting.
The back half of the dock was completely shaded from the sunlight. A photographer had set up there making each group of passengers stop in front of a large canvas containing a picture of the ship. He took pre-boarding portraits before they continued toward the small shuttle bus.
After she and Chelle climbed up the three steps, they took the last two seats, right behind the driver. The short drive only took a couple of minutes.
“I don't know why we couldn't have walked to the ship.” Chelle sounded peeved.
Charlotte hoped she wasn't going to gripe about everything that happened. “Just relax and enjoy the nice things they're doing for us.”
At the ship, another line of passengers led across the boarding ramp that bridged the dock to the hatch of the ship. Evidently they had a security checkpoint just inside. She and Chelle took their places at the end of the line. There was no turning back now. Charlotte took a deep breath and followed her daughter, moving a few steps closer.
Charlotte glanced up at the ship, which looked enormous. Rows of portholes lined the level they would be entering. On the deck above, larger windows stretched across the length. Even farther up, the rooms had balconies. After counting the rows, Charlotte shook her head.
Why do I always count things?
A long-term, crazy habit that would be hard to break.
She noticed a blond man standing at the rail of one the decks above the entrance to the ship. He stood out in sharp contrast to the blue sky behind him, where a few cottony clouds drifted by.
The man was very tall with broad shoulders and a trim waist. He looked to be at least forty. Probably some kind of officer with all that gold braid on his snow-white uniform. Charlotte's gaze was drawn to his piercing blue eyes, which looked straight at her. For a frozen moment, she felt as if they were the only two people in the world. Something in him connected with something deep inside of her. And it scared her. She was glad she wouldn't have any contact with the officer, whoever he was. She didn't need the kind of complication that feeling could bring. After all, that part of her had died a year ago. She knew she would never experience romantic love again.
Gareth Van den Hout usually didn't watch the passengers come aboard his ship. He would begin meeting them soon enough. So many sought out the captain whenever they could. Today, for some reason, he felt more restless than he had in a long time. So he stepped onto the balcony outside the bridge. With practiced detachment, Gareth watched the passengers in the line, waiting to get inside. As with every trip, there were all kinds of people dressed in myriad ways, some extremely outlandish. Why did they think they needed to dress so differently to go on a cruise? Sometimes he had a hard time not laughing at some of the attire.
His attention quickly settled on two attractive women with curly hair so black that blue light glinted from itâone young, one a little older. While he watched them, the older one looked straight into his eyes. The bright eyes that stared back at him were a wonderful contrast to all that dark hair blowing in the wind. When their gaze connected, a jolt shook him, causing him to want to get to know her better. He had to know where that jolt came from.
Quickly, Gareth turned and walked to the office of his apartment on the deck right below the bridge. He picked up the phone and punched in his purser's cell number.
“Yes, Captain. What can I do for you?”
Gareth didn't know if he would ever get used to all these electronic gadgets. It still startled him when someone knew who he was before he identified himself.
“Doug, I just noticed two women in line to come aboard.” Gareth wondered if he was crazy to do this. It was a real departure from his usual behavior on a voyage. “They looked as if they might be mother and daughter. The younger one is tall with long dark hair. The older one looks like her, but is petite and her hair is shorter.”
“I see them on the screen,” Doug Baxter answered. “They are going through security right now.”
“Find out who they are and send them an invitation to dine at the captain's table in the later seating at dinner tonight.” Gareth hung up before he had a chance to hear Doug's affirmative answerâor the questions he knew his friend would ask.
After Charlotte and Chelle moved into the ship, a crew-member directed them to the elevators. “Go up to deck five. You can get information on what's happening today, and they will tell you how soon you may go to your staterooms.”
When they stepped off the elevator, another cruise employee pointed them toward the side of what looked like a balcony around the center of the ship. Charlotte moved to the railing and looked up at similar balconies on four more decks. A man who introduced himself as the purser gave out folders of information as he explained what would happen on board. Then they were urged to go to their staterooms. A member of the crew showed them on their map just how to get to their cabin.
Charlotte had saved money on the cruise by booking rooms on one of the lower decks. She and Chelle were directed down a hall toward a different elevator. When the elevator reached deck three, they got off in a sort of lobby.
“Mom, look at these mirrors.” Chelle pointed to several slabs of the shiny glass on the wall near the elevators and beside the open stairway. The mirrored tiles were attached in a pattern.
Charlotte studied them a minute before she realized what they were. “It's a world map. Each of the mirrors is one of the continents.”
Chelle stopped and cocked her head to look at them again. “You're right, Mom. That's pretty cool.”
They read the signs on the corridors that ran down each side of the ship to find which would lead to their cabin. Soon they reached their door, and both of them tried their key cards to make sure they worked. Chelle took a couple of times to get the hang of how to do it just right.
Charlotte was glad to see all their luggage had reached their room. First, she and Chelle checked out their cabin. To the right of the door, a nice-sized closet would hold their hanging clothes and keep their luggage out of the way.
“Mom, look at this tiny bathroom.” Chelle had opened the door opposite the closet.
Charlotte glanced in. “It's not so small. We probably could both be in here at the same time, if we need to be.”
“Yeah, especially if one of us is in the shower.” Chelle pulled the curtain across the opening. “I like the way it curves. And look at the showerhead. It's on a wand.”
“Good. In most places, the shower nozzle is too high for me. I can take that one down and use it as a hand shower.” Charlotte stepped back into the cabin.
Chelle followed her. “Look, Mom. We even have a couch and a TV. I wonder if they have satellite. Wouldn't that be the only way we could have programming at sea?”
“Probably.” Charlotte turned on the switch below the mirrored cabinet above the desk, which faced opposite the couch. Lights surrounded the mirror. “Well, one of us can use this while the other one puts on her makeup and does her hair in the bathroom. That's nice.”
Chelle flopped down on one of the beds that lined the walls on either side of a large picture window. Muted aqua-colored drapes framed the glass. “Want me to read this to you?”
“Sure,” Charlotte answered as she started unpacking their clothes. She put their underwear and pajamas in the large drawers and hung their other clothes in the closet. There was plenty of room for their toiletries in the corner cabinets beside the desk's lighted mirror.
“Do we want early seating or later seating in the dining room?” Chelle held a pen poised to mark the card they were supposed to turn in with their choices marked on it.
“What times are we talking about?” Charlotte shook out her royal blue after-five dress, wondering why she brought it. She knew there were a couple of formal nights on a cruise, but she wasn't sure whether or not she was going to participate in any of them.