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No More Sea
By Gloria Brandt
Truly YoursCopyright © 1999 Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Tuesday, April 9, 1912
The low groan of a ship's departing whistle registered somewhere amidst the usual chaos of Southampton's docks. Esther Mason, clutching her health certificate and seaman's discharge book in one hand and her weighty valise in the other, scurried through the busy crowd. She willed the tears obscuring her vi-sion to cease—and wished earnestly that the familiar voice be-hind her would somehow vanish into the cacophony of activity and leave her alone.
No such luck.
Picking up her pace, she shouldered her way through a paticularly thick clump of humanity, her long skirts swishing against the legs of bystanders. The gangway was just ahead. Almost there.
A sudden realization hit her in all its ridiculous clarity and left her standing, staring at the lengthy wooden ascent joining the dock to the ship's gleaming black port side. Where was she going? Where did she think she was going to hide?
Before she could even answer her own questions, a strong hand gripped her elbow, gently but firmly drawing her backward a few steps.
Esther drew in a shuddering breath and steeled herself against what she knew would follow. At least the tears were properly buried now. Slowly lifting her chin, she looked up into the concerned face of John Addison. The sun glinted off his brown hair, catching the golden highlights. His clean-shaven jaw was set in determination, yet the fine lines around his deep-set eyes marked the worry. Those hazel eyes of his that drooped at the sides, always giving him a quality of sadness, even when his normally wide smile was in place. Only now the sorrow was real—because of her.
She felt her grip on her parcels loosening along with her resolve.
John reached for her face, tracing the line of her jaw with his hand.
Her stubborn streak returned.
"Don't!" Esther yanked her arm from his grip. He'd done it again. Merely by looking at her. It never failed. Every solitary time she lost her patience with the man, every time she wanted to be angry with him—all it took was one glance from those soulful eyes. It wasn't fair.
"Esther," he murmured. "Don't shut me out. Not again."
As the work being conducted around them on the dock began to register, Esther's face flushed with humiliation. But not even propriety would squelch her this time. Four years was long enough—nay, too long.
With renewed fortitude, she hoisted her bag and her chin at the same time. "You always say that," she muttered, low enough so that they didn't draw any more onlookers. "I'm not shutting you out, John. You are."
His demeanor sagged as his questioning stare sought her for further explanation.
"Four years," she forged on, maneuvering the words around the lump in her throat. "Four years! 'One more voyage,' you always say. 'Just one more ship.'" She narrowed her eyes as the hurt spilled from within. "How many more ships will it be, John? One? Five? Ten, perhaps? I'm beginning to have my doubts regarding your sincerity on wanting to marry me."
His jaw slackened and he shook his head as if trying to clear it to think reasonably. "Esther, I—" He looked quickly around. Clutching her upper arm, he pulled her closer. His gaze bore directly into her eyes. "Esther, I love you," he whispered. "You've got to know that."
Feeling her knees beginning to weaken, she pressed her lips together and lifted her eyes in frustration as she felt the tears returning. "I only know I haven't the slightest idea what else to say to you right now."
A look bordering on panic covered John's face. From be-hind, a man laden with crates plowed into him.
Hurling the dockworker a look of irritation, John stepped to the side, giving Esther back some space, some breathing room. Some mettle.
She turned to board the ship.
"Esther," he called after her.
She couldn't keep herself from turning around. That maddening ability he possessed to garner and capture all her attention seemed to know no end.
"I need to get settled in my cabin," she threw back, allowing herself the reprieve of not meeting his poignant gaze. Then she started back up the walk.
She didn't have to turn around to know his eyes were following her. No matter. If continuation of the discussion was what he craved, he'd most likely have it. Not even something as huge and grandiose as the Titanic could give her space to hide. She scrutinized the behemoth sides of the vessel, fresh paint glistening in the morning sun. A grand beauty, she was. While flattered to be one of the handpicked crew for the liner's maiden voyage, she couldn't help but wonder, Will this truly be the "last voyage," as John has said many a time before? Or will it be the final trip by my own decision? That thought hadn't occurred to her before. Did she really need to wait around for any man?
Not allowing herself to dwell on it any further, she stepped on board and sought out her cabin on E-deck. Right now, she had unpacking to do ... and a ship to become acquainted with.
* * *
Finding her cabin didn't prove too difficult. Since Titanic was set up nearly the same as the Olympic, Esther hoped that the break-in period wouldn't be as stressful. A definite air of ex-citement permeated the impending launch of this palatial new ship. Everywhere she looked, every person she encountered, it was evident. While the feelings made for a special camaraderie among the crew, she couldn't fully enjoy the enthusiasm. For the time being, her heart was caught elsewhere.
Pushing through the door marked with her cabin's number, she found her roommate seated on the lower bunk, her personal items placed about the small area, giving it an immediate homey feel. "Good day!" the matronly woman greeted her with a smile. Her strawberry-colored hair was fastened in a tight roll, and her uniform already encompassed her ample figure. "My name's Ann. Ann Trumbull."
Esther smiled in return as she tossed her articles on the remaining top berth. "Esther Mason."
"Esther. Pleased to make your acquaintance." Ann pumped Esther's hand with healthy enthusiasm. "My, you're a bit younger than I'd have expected. Didn't know that White Star took on stewardesses so young."
Pulling her uniform from her valise, Esther smiled again. "It's actually my sixth year of service," she admitted. "But you're right. They did have some concerns over my age." Cradling the clothing in her arms, she turned toward the adjoining bathroom. "If you'll excuse me, I must change. No doubt they'll be calling for muster shortly."
"Ah, right you are," Ann continued from the other side of the closed door. While Esther readjusted her corset, checked her carefully upswept brown hair, buttoned up her pale blue puffed-sleeved blouse, and slid into the crisp white-skirted apron that made up her uniform, her roommate kept up a steady discourse on the ship, the new crew, the sore wages all stewards received, the prestigious names on the passenger list, and her recent bout with rheumatism, which had irrevocably put her in the position of second-class stewardess instead of her former first-class appointment. Esther had to smile at the woman's talkativeness.
As she stepped back into the room and fastened her belt, Ann eyed her once more. "A beauty, you are," she admitted with a trace of envy in her dark brown eyes. "I shouldn't imagine you have any want for admirers."
Blushing, Esther finished tucking the last pin into her gauzy white cap. "Thank you for your compliments, Ann. But I've found that 'beauty' is often worth no more than the mirror it's admired in."
A new light shone in Ann's eyes, and Esther could tell she'd immediately made a new friend. "Aye," the older woman agreed. " 'Tis what's on the inside that counts, right?"
Esther nodded. "Just as Scripture suggests."
From somewhere in the corridor came the sound of an officer's whistle.
"Time for muster." Ann opened the door and allowed Esther passage first, following after her. "I just can't tell you how relieved I am to know that you're a God-fearin' believer. I've had to room with some rather ... interesting individuals in my years with White Star. Heaven knows when some of these women find time to carouse and smoke and drink, but they always bring back the remainders with them, infecting my whole wardrobe along with theirs." The fair red head shook in dismayed annoyance, and the chatter continued as the pair marched toward the bow of the ship. Inwardly, Esther was grateful for the talkative new friend. Perhaps it would keep her mind off the many other issues pressing on her heart and mind.
For the moment, she allowed herself the pleasure of taking in the subtle yet obvious differences between this ship and her sister, the Olympic. From the utilitarian E-deck corridors' gleaming white walls and wooden floors, each deck they ascended grew a little more stately, a little more elegant. By the time they'd reached the first-class dining hall, Esther literally gasped. The vibrant rug that surrounded the room was a dizzying array of rich green and emerald florals, only to be upstaged by the carved columns interspersed across the expansive room. Every wall was polished to a shining clarity, each intricate molding showing its shadowed brilliance.
Electrically lighted brass lamps graced every single table. Esther sighed. It wouldn't be hard to imagine this room stock full of the notoriety that would be spilling up the gangway tomorrow morning. Indeed, in all honesty, it hadn't been so many years since she herself might have been among the privileged few to enjoy such a setting.
But for now, that was neither here nor there. Her head snapped to attention as the purser and chief stewards asked for the attention of the entire victualing department. Duty first. After that ... well, it rarely moved beyond that anymore. "Do your job, Esther," she murmured to herself quietly and listened to the last-minute instructions.
* * *
John brushed at the sleeves of his spotless white steward's jacket, then quickly recombed the thatch of hair that always liked to fall over his forehead. He'd not had time to have his hair cut before boarding. Perhaps if he had a spare moment while on the ship, he'd visit the barber here. For now, he borrowed some of his cabin mate's hair cream to slick it back.
Patrick Sewell chuckled at him from his seat on the bunk where he sat lacing up his shining black shoes. "Use too much of that, old man, and you're likely to start lookin' like one of the first-classers."
John sent him an amused grin while he straightened his black bow tie. "Not much danger in that, I don't think."
This wasn't the first time John had worked with fellow steward Patrick nor the first time they'd even roomed together. His friend's thin, hawkish features had always lent him an air of royalty, a natural to be placed among the wealthier of the guests. For himself, John couldn't imagine what on earth in his ordinary features or mundane background as the son of a dockworker would earn him the right to be serving the first class, but he was grateful nonetheless. It paid better, that was certain. And it had brought him to Miss Esther Mason.
Narrowing his eyes, he studied himself. What did Esther see in him, anyway? If she did, indeed, see anything anymore.
"What's that face?"
John swiveled to find Patrick staring at him.
"You look like some chap just shot your dog." Patrick stood and shrugged into his own jacket, smoothing out the stiff collar.
"Haven't got a dog." John tried for a smile but didn't succeed too well. He reached for the cabin door instead.
"Ah." Patrick's tone conveyed understanding and a trace of sympathy. "Problems with the lady again, eh?"
John shrugged, not wanting to divulge too much, yet unable to deny it either.
As Patrick stepped into the corridor behind him, he pulled tight the door to their cabin. "To be brutally honest, mate, I'm not sure what you're waitin' for myself." His brows raised above his smoky gray eyes in question. "Esther's a nice girl."
"Exactly," John countered. "Why do you think I've been scrimping and saving? You think I want to be stuck on these boats for the rest of my life? The rest of hers?" He shook his head adamantly. "No. Slave labor on a liner isn't what I would call the ideal setting for a marriage."
"What ... so you're going to swallow the anchor?"
John made room for a fellow crew member to pass by them before answering. "I don't see a lot of other choices. Besides," he added with a smile he couldn't suppress, "becoming a landlubber doesn't sound so bad ... not if she's with me."
Patrick had to chuckle. "Not sure if I envy you or not. I think the only part I might would be Esther."
John sent him a teasing punch in the shoulder. "Yeah? Well, don't get any ideas."
"Right," his friend laughed. "As if the woman has eyes for any other bloke but you, Addison."
They'd reached the series of cabins that were to be their personal responsibility for the remainder of the cruise, and Patrick opened the expansive paneled door to the first. John halted him with a hand on his arm. "Did you mean that?"
Sewell stopped midstride in the door frame. "What?"
"About Esther." His swallowed his embarrassment. "Her only seeing me."
"Yeah." The narrow face spread into a congenial smile. "She's yours, all right." He stepped into the richly outfitted cabin and began the final inspection. Turning from the gleaming brass-accented fireplace, he added one last comment. "But you'd better make sure she's officially yours before too long."
John's head snapped up from the wardrobe where he was checking the supply of hangers and blankets.
Patrick shrugged. "Some fellow might not be as understanding of your ... arrangement."CHAPTER 2
The nighttime lights of Southampton and its pier glowed in the increasing dusk, slowly assuming the duty the sun had quietly relinquished as the evening progressed.
On board, the newly wired electric lamps gleamed merrily, casting twinkling reflections across the quiet, lapping waves greeting the dock.
Esther breathed deeply of the placid spring evening air. Clutching the starboard rail, she scanned the intense, growing blackness of the infinite Atlantic. Its sheer, voluminous width and depth never ceased to amaze her—no matter how many times she'd crossed it. Amaze her ... and frighten her. Despite her occupation, she'd never lost that healthy respect for the ocean or her awareness of all it was capable of.
Even standing on the deck on a ship as immense as this, the thoughts of the pitch and roll the waves so effortlessly invoked on seagoing vessels still made her shudder, though she had overcome her tendency toward seasickness, thanks to John.
The memory brought a bittersweet smile to her lips.
John. It was impossible to forget how he'd taken her, as a new stewardess, under his wing, alternately protecting her, teaching her, and chastising her. He'd been encouraging but had never painted an unrealistic picture of sea life for her naive eighteen-year-old mind. She needed to know, he'd said, that life on a ship's crew could be heaven ... as well as its opposite. And it was safe to say that in the six years since, she'd experienced both extremes, from the overwhelming feeling of family and pride that came with each voyage to the unwanted advances of several officers and captains and the repercussions that inevitably came when she'd politely spurned their affections.
But she'd become a realist, even if she hadn't always been. To those uninitiated in real life, it would have been easy to gaze longingly upon the seemingly fairytale lives of the guests she waited on, hoping against hope that someday her life might be so. But her life had been like that once ... long ago. And now, she was all the wiser. Property, riches, and status held no privileged corner in her mind any longer. Problems were problems and knew no class boundaries. At least here—now—she was able to be real. To simply be Esther Eileen Mason, ship stewardess.
Who's in love with John Addison, her subconscious so cruelly reminded her.
Those same maddening tears she'd been battling with all day burned her eyes once more. How could she have known that something as heavenly as her and John's blossoming relationship would suddenly be grouped on the painful side of her shipboard experiences?
"I don't believe I've witnessed such a range of emotions since the last time I saw a nickelodeon."
Esther didn't even flinch at the sudden voice from behind her. His sudden presence didn't surprise her. John always seemed to have a way of sneaking into her private thoughts and places ... unintentionally, of course. It was as if his soul just always knew where to find hers.
"Perhaps I'm trying for an actress," she quipped, hating the way her voice contained the extra bite but unable to soften it. "After all, one cannot be a stewardess forever."
"No," he agreed softly. "I suppose you're right there."
The hushed wind danced around the deck, animating the wisps of hair that framed her face. She brushed them back, growing uncomfortable in the odd silence.
Excerpted from No More Sea by Gloria Brandt. Copyright © 1999 Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Truly Yours.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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