He went by James, but his real name was Warren James Hyde. He was a liar, a cheat and a thief, and he believed he was about to make his dreams come true.
She was called the ship of dreams, but her name was Titanic. She was the largest, most luxurious ocean liner of her day, and she was doomed.
He had an inkling the cops were after him. Guilty conscience, maybe, but when he glanced back over his shoulder as he handed his ticket over, he caught a glimpse of their silver buttons shining in the sunlight. “Thank you, gents,” James said quickly and hustled up the gangplank onto the ship.
The ship that was going to solve his current problems by carrying him several thousand miles away.
He felt his heart racing in his throat and put his head down. He told himself they wouldn’t follow him on board. The ticket in his hand said first class on it. No one would take him for a criminal. Only respectable people could afford a trip on the Titanic.
Too bad he could hear their thunderous footsteps behind him.
He took off running now, sprinting through a decorative doorway and down a long hallway. It was like being trapped inside a tunnel. Nowhere to run. He dragged his hand along the doorknobs of the staterooms, hoping one would give way.
One did, and he ducked inside, shoving the door closed behind him. A moment passed before the man he’d intruded upon registered in his vision. James opened his mouth, hoping for a good story to come out.
“Hide me.” He found that the eyes he looked into were dark chocolate brown and sympathetic. Wide and startled, but sympathetic.
Quick-thinking, the other man threw open the door to the cupboard. James stepped inside, listening to the cops drawing nearer. As an afterthought, he grabbed a handful of the other man’s shirt and pulled him into the cupboard too, tugging the doors closed behind them. Closing them up together in the darkness.
He held his hand against the stranger’s chest, keeping him still and silent. His pulse pounded, hard in his chest and loud in his ears. He became aware of certain things—the heat from the other man’s body, and the strong muscles beneath his palm.
“No one ’ere.” The statement was accompanied by the shuffle of feet, and the door to the stateroom swinging closed.
James held his breath for another moment, closing his eyes. When he opened them, the other man looked at him, so close up that his vision went soft, like it would on the face of someone he was about the kiss. His heart beat fast now not just from fear, but excitement.
He shoved the cupboard door open. “Thanks.” He knew it was time to run, but felt reluctant to go. He was impressed by the other man’s quick thinking, and his acceptance of the situation. His willingness to not betray James’s secret.
“What the hell—” the other man began to ask, but James was already gone.
When the door opened again, Will Woods thought perhaps the strange man had returned. He hoped for it. His mind still reeled from the surprise, and he began to feel as though the strange encounter hadn’t happened at all.
Instead, his mother crossed the threshold into his stateroom.
“I thought I heard a noise,” she said.
“It was nothing.” He stepped close to her, settling a steadying hand on her arm. In the months since his father’s death, his mother had grown frail before his eyes. Once a strong woman, now she faltered. That was why they were headed back home.
A step behind her was his fiancée, Annie. She reached out for his mother’s arm just as he had done, and then smiled at him over his mother’s shoulder. “It’s nothing,” he assured her. Together, the two of them helped his mother back into the room she was sharing with Annie.
There were two dark wooden beds, and he guided his mother to a comfortable seat on one. He sat beside her, resting his hand against the soft linen. “What do you think?” she asked him.
“It’s lovely.” He scanned the room, taking in the rich, dark wood of the dresser that separated the beds. “Annie?” he asked, and watched her head come up and her eyes blink as though she’d been raised from a trance.
“It’s beautiful.” She ran one hand along the woodwork. She ducked her head to look at Mrs. Woods, her green eyes wide and clear. “How are you feeling now?”
His mother nodded, as though to indicate she was better. “I thought I heard a noise.” She smoothed her hands down against her skirt and began to rise to her feet. He put his hand to her elbow to steady her. “We should go on deck, to see the ship off.”
“We don’t have to,” he said.
“I want to.” Her eyes turned fiery and snappish for a moment, and he glimpsed the strong woman who’d raised him. He didn’t see her very often anymore.
They fought a crowd all the way up onto the main deck. He couldn’t help scanning the crowd for the mysterious man who’d burst into his stateroom, wondering who he was. The classes were kept strictly separate on the Titanic, so he couldn’t have been some third-class riffraff. It was a mystery, one that had him intrigued.
He’d felt a strange physical pull toward the charismatic stranger, the likes of which he hadn’t felt in years. Will thought he’d left that sort of thing behind.
Standing casually at the rail, James looked down. The side of the ship was high enough to make his head spin for a moment. He thought about falling, plunging into the murky waters below. He closed his eyes and opened them again, this time directing his gaze to the people surrounding him on deck. They all seemed to have the glint in their eyes that only came from security and money in the bank. They chattered gaily and waved to those they were leaving behind, while he stood at the railing, silent and alone.
He looked up at the funnels that rose high from the deck. Plumes of smoke sliced into the sky.
There was another man looking up at the same time.
Perhaps because they were looking in the same place, at the very same thing, their eyes met for a moment. He felt an electric shudder go through him, because it was the man he’d just encountered. The one with the beautiful dark eyes, who’d hidden him in his stateroom with almost no questions asked. He received a funny little smile, which he returned with a grin of his own.
James watched him after he turned away. He was with an older woman, who had deep lines set into the skin around her mouth and wore a sparkling diamond pin on her lapel. He figured she was the man’s mother and dismissed her.
The woman clinging to the stranger’s arm was another story. She had long, dark hair and roses of life in her cheeks as she pressed close to him. He felt an uncharacteristic stab of jealousy, flashing back to the moment when he’d been just as close physically. He turned away from them all, his gaze seeking more likely victims. He needed money, and he needed it before the ship docked in New York.
“What do you think?” Will asked Annie.
“It’s amazing.” She seemed breathless. Times like this, seeing the wonder on her face, reminded him that she was nearly ten years younger than he was. Her youth made him feel young again. When she saw things for the first time, he could remember what it felt like to be young and free from care.
He turned to his mother, reminded of his duty. He smiled gently at her, and she smiled back silently. His father had been British, and they’d taken him back there to face the last stages of his illness. His mother was American, as was he, and it was time to go home. Still, he could understand her reluctance. Although familiar, everything there would be different now.
He looked at the crowds around them. Excitement hung in the air—even the ship herself was new and untested, although she was said to be the biggest, strongest and most expensive ship in the world today.
His gaze moved upward, to the four smokestacks pointed heavenward. Only three were operational. The fourth remained quiet and still, pristine. It embodied the true spirit of the Titanic—existing because the White Star Line believed the excess of having four funnels was preferable, even though three would do. He had to agree it gave majesty and symmetry to the look of the ship, not to mention an instantly recognizable uniqueness.
As he lowered his eyes from the fourth funnel, he noticed a man sharing his line of sight. They had looked up at the object at the same time, and now their eyes happened to meet across the deck. It was the man who’d intruded on his stateroom before.
His hair was dark blond, streaked as though by a sun that did not shine strongly enough in England. He must have spent some time on warmer foreign shores. Will recalled from their earlier meeting that the eyes that met his were the color of the sea far below their feet and the sky above their heads. He found himself smiling, recalling their earlier encounter.
The other man’s smile in return was glorious and bright. His full lips parted and dimples appeared in both of the man’s cheeks, deep grooves enhancing his smile, making Will feel as though he was receiving something truly special and precious. He would see this man again. He was sure of it. He would make sure of it.
“I’d like to go back to my room.” His mother’s voice was so quiet it was nearly lost in the crowd.
He felt the blood rush into his face, and he wondered whether either of the women had witnessed the strangely transcendent encounter. He wanted to stay, but when he saw her skin pale and papery, he knew he had to see to her. “Yes, of course,” he agreed.
They traveled through a maze of narrow halls back to their staterooms. Will opened the door for his mother and watched with concern as she sank gratefully into one of the elegant chairs. When had she grown so old? he wondered. It seemed to have happened overnight.
Uncomfortable with the thought, he turned his attention to Annie. “Are you excited?”
She nodded fervently, but he couldn’t ignore the shadow darkening her eyes.
“What is it?”
Annie closed her eyes for a long moment, and when she opened them again, her long lashes were damp, but no tears fell. “It’s always hard to leave. Even when there’s everything to look forward to.”
“Oh, Annie.” He pulled her into an embrace. He liked the way she felt in his arms, her body compact and soft, with the top of her head underneath his nose where he could inhale the scent of her hair.
“Will.” His mother’s voice was a sharp intrusion, and he reluctantly removed his arms from their place around his fiancée. She didn’t need to say any more, but she continued, “I expect you to behave properly.” They were words he had heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. He was too old for them, yet he bowed his head as guilt rose up within him. It was only this recent setback with his father that had thrust him back into the child’s role, the son underneath the thumb of the mother. He knew his mother needed him now more than ever, but his spirit bristled at it all the same.
“We are engaged,” Annie pointed out.
He cringed inside, knowing it was the wrong thing for her to say, but he knew it was his duty to back her up. “Yes.” He loved Annie, and he wanted a wife and a home and a family. But a fleeting remembrance of the man on deck flashed through his consciousness, forcing him to acknowledge that a small, wild part of him wanted not only love and safety, but also something more, something he’d never experienced.
“I’m going to rest here until supper,” his mother said, changing the subject. He nodded, in agreement and sympathy. He knew she would want him to stay with her. He also knew he couldn’t do it.
“I’ll see you before supper.” He moved to kiss her lightly on the forehead. Then he turned to Annie. A silent negotiation took place, one where Annie agreed to remain with his mother. He smiled his thanks to her, and kissed her on the forehead as well.
Then he was free to explore the cavernous ship.