Countering His Claim: Excerpt

With a final, fond look at the Melbourne skyline, Delia Walsh stepped onto the boarding bridge of the Cora Mae, the luxury cruise liner she called home.

Ahead on the deck, she spotted a group of people in business suits clustered around a tall man with his back to her. She hesitated, assessing the crowd. All she could see of the man in the center was broad shoulders encased in a tailored business jacket, a straight confident bearing and hair of darkest blond that tapered in against his neck. But that was enough to draw her attention and keep it there. The ship’s captain stood beside him and from various vantage points, beyond the grand foyer, groups of curious staff intently watched the interaction.

Which meant, most likely, the man in the middle of the action was him.

Luke Marlow, the man about to inherit the Cora Mae, had arrived.

Curiosity nibbling, she stepped into the foyer. Many senior crew members, including herself, had been invited to the reading of Patrick Marlow’s will today, and all of them had one question uppermost in their minds—what would his nephew and heir, Luke Marlow, do with the ship once he had control? Sell? Refurbish? Interfere with the day-to-day running?

Della was probably more interested in their guest than most—she’d been hearing snippets of Luke’s life from Patrick for years. It was possible she knew more about this man than she knew about some of her friends.

As she drew closer to the small crowd, she could hear Captain Tynan say, “We’ll get that cut seen to straight away.”

Luke Marlow held up a hand wrapped in what looked like a blue handkerchief. “No need. I’ll run it under the tap and throw on a bandage.”

The captain spotted Della. “Dr. Walsh! Good timing. Mr. Marlow has a cut that might need a couple of stitches.”

She pasted a smile on her face, and stepped forward, prepared to offer medical assistance as if he was any other patient, not the man who would soon be her boss. “Good afternoon, Mr. Marlow. If you’ll follow me to the medical suite, we’ll take a look at your hand.”

As she spoke, Luke Marlow slowly turned to her, his steel-gray gaze scanning her face before coming to land on her eyes. The air seemed to sizzle and spark; a wave of goose bumps rushed across her skin. Was she nervous because he held her future in the palm of his hand? Or was it his fallen angel’s face—sculpted cheekbones, strong straight nose and sensual lips—that unsettled her? Whatever it was, the effect was unwelcome and she squashed it.

“Now that you mention it,” he said thoughtfully, his eyes not wavering from hers, “I think it might need stitches.”

The captain nodded, satisfied. “I’ll take care of your staff and a purser will collect you from Dr. Walsh’s office and bring you to us when you’re done.”

As if in slow motion, the crowd parted and Luke Marlow covered the distance between them. He stood within touching distance, looking at her expectantly, and her heart thumped hard and erratically. Tall and charismatic, he filled her vision, making her breath come too fast, as if casting a spell over her…

Her smile slipped. This couldn’t be happening. She’d vowed never to let herself feel attraction to a man again. Ever. And this man was about to become her boss. Perhaps determine her future. Refusing to give in to her body’s blind response, she pulled herself to her full height—which leveled out in the vicinity of Luke’s chin—and found that professional smile again.

“This way,” she said, indicating the direction with her hand.

Luke inclined his head and stepped away from the dissipating crowd. When they walked farther into the foyer with its elaborate furnishings and chandeliers, she wondered if he noticed the eyes following him from every direction.

“Tell me something, Dr. Walsh,” he said, his voice pitched somewhere between sexy-low and curiosity.

Steeling herself against the shiver that threatened to run down her spine at the timbre of his voice, she led him through the foyer, to the bank of elevators. “If I can.”

“Is there always a group that size waiting to greet guests?”

The elevator arrived and after they stepped in, she pressed the button for the third deck. “No, but then you’re not an average guest.”

He arched an eyebrow several shades darker than his hair. “What sort of guest am I?”

The only guest who’s made my knees go weak. She paused for a long moment. He wasn’t merely the only guest who’d affected her this strongly, he was the only man who had since… She shied away from the thought and schooled her features into casual ambivalence. “We’ve heard you’ll likely inherit the Cora Mae today.”

“Ah,” he said and sank his good hand into his pocket.

He’d thought they wouldn’t know? Patrick Marlow had made no secret over the years that he considered his nephew his heir. “Rumors travel quickly around a ship.”

“Rumors?” That eyebrow rose again. “There’s more than one?”

Three hundred and thirty people lived and worked on the Cora Mae. Some were seasonal staff who wanted to see the world. They tended to work hard and party harder. But there was a solid core of people who did more than merely live on board—they’d formed a community. This ship was their home. And both groups were alive with speculation and snippets of information about Luke Marlow. Patrick had often spoken to her about his only nephew, mentioning his privileged background, his success with Marlow Hotels and the respect he garnered in the business world. But those stories from a proud uncle hadn’t prepared her for the toe-curling effect Luke had in person.

The elevator doors slid open and she led the way down a narrow, carpeted corridor while the man in question waited patiently for his answer. “Several rumors,” she acknowledged, “most of which probably have no basis in fact.”

“Humor me.”

She allowed herself a small smile at the idea of telling the man who would soon control both her career and home about the gossip doing the rounds. “I don’t think so.”

They arrived at the medical suite and Della stopped at the reception desk just inside the door to speak to the duty nurse. “Jody, is Dr. Bateman in?”

Something about Luke Marlow affected her. Perhaps it was his power over her future as her boss. Or the strange magnetism he had as a man. Or simply her unsettled nerves about the reading of Patrick’s will in an hour and the accompanying sharp reminder of her friend’s death only twelve days ago. Regardless, she knew if she didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable, it would be more appropriate to hand him to a colleague for treatment.

Hearing his name, Cal Bateman stepped into the reception room and Della’s shoulders loosened in relief.

“Cal, Mr. Marlow might need some sutures in his hand.” She turned to their patient. “Dr. Bateman will take care of you.”

But when she turned to go, Luke’s smooth, deep voice stopped her. “No.”

Her heart skipped a beat and she swiveled slowly back around. “Pardon?”

Luke stood facing her, dominating the room with his height and presence, his expression neither stern nor encouraging. “If I need stitches, I’d like you to handle them, Dr. Walsh.”

Puzzled, she looked at him. Why should it matter to him which doctor he saw? “I assure you, Dr. Bateman’s surgical skills are second to none. He did some advanced training in plastic surgery, so he’ll leave less of a scar than I would.”

“I don’t mind a scar,” Luke said, unconcerned. “I want you, Dr. Walsh.”

Her chest tightened. Was he flirting with her? No man had tried since…her husband. She deliberately cultivated an unapproachable aura to prevent it. Though, Luke Marlow didn’t seem the sort of man who bothered taking notice of such things. She held back a sigh. Either way, it didn’t matter. She was a professional. She’d treat Patrick’s nephew, a man who made her pulse jump, and she’d do a good job of it.

“Of course,” she said. She led him into her consulting room and began collecting the supplies she’d need. “Take a seat over here, please, Mr. Marlow.”

“Luke,” he said and sank into the patient chair.

“I’d rather keep to Mr. Marlow if it’s all the same to you.” She took her white coat from the hook behind the door and thrust her arms through the sleeves before turning back to him. “Chances are you’ll be my boss in a few hours.”

“It’s not all the same to me. You’re about to pierce my skin with a sharp needle and I’d feel more comfortable if we moved past formalities.”

Della regarded him for a moment as he stretched out in the black vinyl chair, shoulders relaxed. He wasn’t nervous, sutures or no sutures. But since he’d be inheriting the Cora Mae, he called the shots. She nodded once.

“Luke, then.”

He looked at the badge attached to her white coat. “Dr.

Adele Walsh,” he read. “Can I call you Adele?”

She held back the flinch. Only her husband had called her Adele. An image of Shane’s dear face rose up in her mind, threatening to overwhelm her. She focused on Luke.

“I prefer Della.”

“Della.” He blinked languidly as he regarded her. “I like it. Now that we’re on more intimate footing, tell me what the other rumors are.”

Before she could restrain it, a chuckle escaped at the way he’d maneuvered. “Well played, Luke.” She leaned back on the sink and folded her arms under her breasts. “Do you really want to waste time here talking about rumors?”

He met her gaze directly, deep gravity in his silver-gray eyes. “I suppose not. But there is something I would like to ask.”

For less than an instant, her breathing stalled—she could guess what his question would be about. Still, the topic was bound to be raised sometime; better to have it dealt with before the will reading.

She took a breath and found a reassuring smile. “Ask whatever you’d like.”

“We’ve been told one of the doctors on the ship cared for my uncle through his illness. A woman.”

“Yes,” she said, her voice not quite steady.

“Was it you?”

A ball of emotion lodged in her throat, so she gave a nod for her reply. Part of her still couldn’t believe Patrick was gone. He’d been such a vibrant man, full of personality, and suddenly he wasn’t here to chat and joke with. And Patrick’s death had brought her grief over losing her husband two years ago back to the surface.

Luke’s gaze was steady and solemn. “Thank you for doing that for him.”

She swallowed and found her voice. “You’re welcome. But there’s no need to thank me—I considered Patrick a friend. He deserved the chance to live out his days on the ship instead of ashore in a hospice.”

“One thing confuses me. None of his family knew he was dying. He and I spoke several times on the phone over the past few months and he didn’t mention it. He used to stay with my mother every three months for a couple of days, and we knew he was too unwell to come recently but no one suspected things were that bad.” Elbows resting on the chair’s armrests, he steepled his fingers under his chin. “Why didn’t we know?”

She thought back to several conversations she’d had with Patrick where she’d suggested he tell his family how serious his cancer was—or closer to the end, that he let her call them. But he’d been adamant. He didn’t want them to see him frail and wasted, and he didn’t want to endure their reactions to seeing him in that state. He said he wanted them to remember him as he’d been, but she’d wondered if it was denial—if a distraught family had arrived, he would have had to face his own mortality head-on.

She tightened her crossed arms a little. “Patrick was a proud man and he thought it would be for the best this way.”

“How long was he unwell?” Luke asked quietly.

“He’d had cancer for almost a year, and he’d been ashore for two rounds of chemotherapy, but it became more serious about four months ago. Even then, he was still mobile and involved with the running of the ship until about three weeks before he died.”

“Was he in any—” he frowned and seemed to think better of the word “—much pain?”

“I administered morphine and other medications as required, so his discomfort was minimal.” On occasions she’d even had to convince him to take the pain relief. Patrick had been of the soldier-on mold.

“Was there…” Luke hesitated and ran his good hand through his hair. “I honestly mean no disrespect, but was he seeing any other doctors, as well?”

He needn’t have worried; she understood. If their situations had been reversed, she’d ask the same question, want to know that her uncle had been given the best possible treatment.

“He was under the care of a specialist at the Royal Sydney Hospital, and I had regular contact with her. I can give you her details if you’d like to talk to her yourself.” Luke gave a single shake of his head so she continued. “For the last two months of his life, Patrick personally paid for an extra doctor to take over my regular duties so I could focus solely on him. We also brought a specialist nurse on board so there was someone with him twenty-four hours a day.”

Though, even when the nurse had been on duty, Della had found it difficult to leave him, and had checked in often.

Luke nodded his acceptance of the information as he let out a long breath. “Will you be at the will reading?”

“Yes.” Patrick had made her promise to attend, saying he’d left her a little something. Telling him he didn’t need to had made no difference. “Quite a few of the crew have been invited.”

“I hope Patrick left you something for what you did for him, but if he didn’t have time to change his will, I’ll make sure you receive something of meaning.”

With a twinge of grief in her chest, she realized that the generosity in his expression reminded her of Patrick, and of the stories he’d told about the man before her. She’d often wondered if Patrick had exaggerated his stories about his nephew or if Luke really was a prince among men.

“That’s sweet of you,” she said. “But there’s no need. I was doing my job and as I said, I had a lot of respect for Patrick. I counted him as a friend. I wouldn’t have had things any other way.”

“Either way, I’m grateful you were able to be there for him.”

“I appreciate you saying that,” she said and meant it. She’d often wondered if Patrick’s family would blame her for their not knowing about his illness. “And if you’re going to make that will reading, we need to take a look at your cut now.”

He glanced down at his watch. “You’re right.”

She washed her hands, sat down across a table from him and set out the sterile cloth. “Lay your hand over here,” she said as she slipped on a pair of gloves.

Luke looked into Dr. Della Walsh’s eyes and laid his hand, palm up, on the table. She was an intriguing woman. It couldn’t have been easy caring for his stubborn uncle out at sea, yet the information from the ship’s captain when he’d rung the family twelve days ago was that Patrick’s care had been second to none. But it was something else that had compelled him to insist she handle his stitches—something that radiated from within her. She wore no makeup yet her toffee-brown gaze captivated him more than any preening society woman. Her eyes held depth, intelligence and the promise of something more.