Alexandra’s pale blue eyes steeled with determination as she gathered her skirts in one hand and lifted the latch. She would not, could not, remain inside the stuffy cabin for one more moment; she had to know what was happening on the deck. Her nerves were too on edge to remain below, where the ship’s captain had shooed all the passengers following a hasty mid-day meal. For the past hour or more she had been bracing herself against the narrow bunk as the vessel lurched from side to side, its timbers creaking ominously with each new onslaught of waves from the storm.
The door slammed behind her with a loud bang of wood against wood, but she was so intent on her destination that the noise barely registered. The passageway was narrow here, the footing treacherous, especially in seas as rough as these. Still, it was the quickest way to the foredeck at the far end of the ship.
The burgundy velvet was not the traveling costume she would have preferred for a journey this early in the fall, but it had had to do. As soon as Lord Geoffrey’s carriage had disappeared down the driveway to London these two days past, she had snatched it from the mahogany armoire, her hands shaking with nervousness as she fastened the intricate passementerie frogs of the jacket across her breasts. Weeks ago, while planning her escape, she had carefully wrapped a few pieces of jewelry in linen strips and sewn them into the hem of its tulip-shaped skirt. Her betrothal ring—her real betrothal ring, not the diamond-and-emerald monstrosity Lord Geoffrey had given her—she had pressed into her maid’s hands for safekeeping.
At the moment, however, the suitability of her outfit was the least of her concerns.
Balancing herself against the swaying passageway, she stopped for a moment to take as deep a breath as she could manage against the constraints of her corset. Beneath the close-fitting jacket she could feel a trickle of moisture between her breasts from the oppressiveness of the air and the weight of the velvet. She closed her eyes for a moment against the motion of the ship, hoping the few bites of food she had forced down earlier would remain where they belonged.
Thank goodness, she thought, gulping back her nausea, the young man waiting for her in America would not care what she was wearing or even how she looked once she appeared. A few weeks more and they would laugh about her dramatic escape, as they built a new life together far from here. The thought brought a tender smile to her face, softening the stubborn set of her jaw line.
If she appeared.
Alexandra clung to the banister as the ship listed violently to the right, pounded on its port side by another gigantic wave. Her courage wavering, she paused, wondering if she should return to the safety of her cabin.
“Steady, now,” she chided herself, as she pushed open the trap door leading to the deck. Stifling a shriek as gallons of seawater doused her upturned face and cascaded down her neck, she flung the icy water from her eyes with a violent shake of her head, turned her gaze upward and gasped. The flesh on her arms rose into goose bumps as she took in the ominous greenish-orange of the sky.
Instinct took over that she didn’t know she possessed, instinct that pushed panic into the far corners of her mind. She dropped to her hands and knees and scrambled for the closest balustrade before another wave could hit.
“Captain!” The wind tore the words from her mouth as she rose to a half-crouch, ignoring the ache in her arms and chest as she clung to the railing. She could barely make out his bulky form in the downpour that separated them as she began a slow, hand-over-hand journey toward the ship’s wheel where he stood, glaring at the sky.
In another moment Captain Reilly saw her struggling toward him and made a furious gesture for her to go back. “Get below, milady! Are ye mad?” he bellowed. “We’re caught in a nor’easter. Get below!” Scowling, he motioned again in dismissal before turning his attention back to the sails flapping wildly overhead.
No, Alexandra thought, setting her chin in rebellion. If I am going to die on this ship, it will be up here, in the fresh air. I cannot bear it down below.
Just then, another towering wave slammed into the ship and took the decision out of her hands. The water’s force loosened the grip of fingers gone stiff with cold, pitching her slight form over the railing and headlong into the raging sea.
My baby. Only those words flashed through her head as the waves closed over her startled face. Her eyes wide with panic, she surfaced long enough to catch one last blurry glimpse of the ship. Her pale pink lips formed an “O” of surprise, as the sour tang of seawater flooded her mouth and nose. Then there was no more time to think as the weight of her velvet skirts pulled her under. The indifferent waves churned on, bearing her down, down, down into suffocating darkness and the cessation of thought, down to a place where there was no more anguish or heartache. Only peace, and the end of pain.
“Whatever the reason for that pleading look you’re giving me, Jeremy, the answer is no,” Shannon Tyler said with a scowl, tipping the phone from her mouth. “You didn’t see me, I’m not here, and I can’t do whatever it is you’re about to try and talk me into. I’m on assignment to follow around the Congressional delegation—remember? I just came in to check the wires and use the phone, and I am not available. Now. What can’t I do for you?”
The London assignment editor for WorldWide Broadcasting flashed his most winning smile. “C’mon, Shannon,” Jeremy Wharton coaxed. “You know you’re my favorite correspondent. Besides, you can’t say no until you hear what it is.”
“Sure I can,” she said, then relented as his face fell. “Oh, all right. What is it?”
“Our favorite Prime Minister has decided to answer a few questions from the foreign press this morning and New York wants us to be there. All my other correspondents are elsewhere today, so—you’re it.”
“Uh-huh. You want me to be a walking mike stand.”
“Not me,” he protested. “New York wants it. Y’know, show the flag. Show your legs. Whatever’s required. We just need to be there in case Miss Maggie says anything interesting.”
Shannon sighed. At the other end of the line, her producer in Washington was chuckling at the exchange.
“Janie, I’ve got to go. Jeremy the slave driver is sending me out the door—can you believe it? And I’m not even supposed to be here.”
Pause. “God knows. New York wants it. I’ll call you later. And listen—keep that little weasel Theo Tanner from snooping around my desk, will you? Last time I was away, half my interview files were missing when I got back … ”
Jeremy turned to hide a triumphant smirk as she hung up. As much as she liked to play tough, Shannon was a pushover. There was no way she’d turn down an assignment, no matter how petty—especially not one from New York. He knew very well, as did she, that the major goal in life for every network correspondent was to please and placate the mysterious powers on the New York desk. They were the unseen someones who dictated what got on the network’s precious 22 minutes of news each night, wedged between eight minutes of commercials. With dozens of correspondents all over the world engaged in a daily struggle for air time, a pair of sharp elbows and a willingness to please were prerequisites for success.
Shannon rose with a show of reluctance, just to let Jeremy know he owed her one. Truth be told, she didn’t mind forgoing a few tourist attractions for a chance to meet the Prime Minister—a woman, yet. The Protestant work ethic was deeply ingrained enough not to complain too much, and even after ten years in television she found it more exciting than she was willing to let on.
“Oh, shoot, Jeremy, wait a second.” Shannon looked at her feet in dismay. “I can’t go like this. And my other shoes are back at the hotel.”
Jeremy followed her glance to the ubiquitous pair of sneakers. Her crisp white cotton shirt and navy blazer were fine; the jeans she could probably get away with, but the sneakers? He sighed, trying to hold back a disapproving frown. A proper Brit from his scalp to his socks, Jeremy would never understand why Americans couldn’t seem to put on real shoes and look like the grownups they were, instead of overgrown six-year-olds heading for the playground.
“Hey, I wasn’t supposed to be working today,” she reminded him.
“The plan was to play tourist, and darned if I’m going to be uncomfortable. Do you have any idea how many stairs there are to climb around the Tower of London?”
“Well, at least the P.M. isn’t doing a sit-down. She’s just going to come outside Number 10 Downing for a few minutes and take questions.
No one will even notice your feet,” he assured her, crossing his fingers behind his back.
“If they do, I’m telling them it’s your fault.” She gave him a pointed look, but a slight twitch at one corner of her mouth gave her away. “The very idea, sending me flying out the door like this. My face isn’t on, my hair isn’t straight—”
“Right. As if any of that would ever stop you.”
Shannon shook her head in mock resignation. “And my crew for this adventure is … ?”
“You’ll have to meet them there. I had to grab a couple of freelancers— all our guys are out. I told them to look for a brunette with great legs,” Jeremy said, deadpan.
“How would they know? I’ve got jeans on,” retorted Shannon, mollified by the compliment but unwilling to acknowledge it outright.
Jeremy grinned and shrugged as she scooped up her raincoat and headed for the elevator.
“Thank God for the LM-HO’s,” he muttered as she disappeared.
“What’s an LM-HO?” The bureau’s college intern, on leave from Harvard for a semester of study abroad, had been taking in the conversation from one desk away.
“Low-maintenance, high-output,” Jeremy said, unable to keep a certain loftiness out of his voice. He had only been with the network for two years himself, and still enjoyed using insider’s lingo whenever possible.
The intern looked confused.
“It’s a ranking system for correspondents,” Jeremy explained.
“Someone who works hard and gets the job done without having to have their hand held all the time is a LM-HO. At the other end of the spectrum there’s the HM-LO: high-maintenance, low-output.
Most people fall somewhere in between. She,” Jeremy nodded toward the doorway, “is pretty low-maintenance, and less of a pain than most of them.”
The assignment editor reached for the stack of newspapers he dismembered every day for stories to be pitched to the desk in New York. “Good thing she was here today, actually,” he added. “Otherwise it might have been you holding the mike.”
“Oh,” said the intern, disappointed.
Downstairs, Shannon flagged a cab, rummaging through her bag to make sure she had her press credentials as she climbed inside.
The British seemed less strict about security than the Secret Service she’d grown accustomed to during her years in Washington. Still, she could hardly muscle her way into a briefing with the Prime Minister without proper identification. Ah, there they were: her old White House credentials, her newer Capitol Hill ID and network press card, all strung together on a metallic silver cord that dangled just below her chest.
She rubbed her thumb over the perfectly coiffed image on her ID with a rueful smile. Who was this glamorous stranger? Not that little oddball misfit from Georgia—Shannon Grace Taylor—for sure. “Shannon Tyler” sounded much more sophisticated, which was why she opted for her first name and a more stylish version of her last, when she made the switch from newspaper reporting into television. Her family might persist in calling her Grace Taylor, but to the inhabitants of her new world, she was someone else entirely.
And now, here she was in London—on her way to meet the Prime Minister, no less. Who would ever have imagined such a thing?
Not bad, lady, she grinned. Now just don’t mess it up.
Settling into the black leather cushions, she surveyed the passing scene with the pleasure she always felt when she was here. The afternoon was unusually mild for early December, with only a few puffy clouds scattered across a brilliant blue sky. She might not even need the Burberry trench coat that had been one of her first acquisitions as a network correspondent.
Turning from the window, Shannon ran an appreciative hand over the immaculate seats, noticing as she did how the dark leather set off her new ruby ring.
She wasn’t usually given to impulse purchases, especially something as expensive as this. But the antique store’s display of Victorian inkwells—her new collecting passion—had stopped her in mid-stride on the way into the London bureau. Upon closer examination the inkwells had been a disappointment, but the ring nestled on a nearby velvet tray was irresistible.
Anyone watching must have thought I was a complete fruitcake, she smiled, remembering how she had turned around at least three times out on the sidewalk in a fierce argument with her more practical self. ‘Yes, I want it,’ ‘No, I don’t need it,’—until finally she went back inside to ask if the proprietor if she could try it on one more time. He was still polishing the ring with a velvet cloth, calm as you please. “I knew you’d be back,” he nodded. “It’s meant for you, isn’t it?” She had laughed and agreed, pulling out a wad of traveler’s checks to make the purchase.
As the taxi scuttled through the crowded streets, Shannon’s smile widened. As many times as she’d been here before—several times with the president and now with a congressional delegation—something about the place felt like coming home. London was so calm, so civilized, with a cheery politeness that her Southern soul responded to right away.
“I guess when you grow up saying ‘yes sir’ and ‘yes ma’am’ to everybody, this seems like the way life ought to be,” she murmured, her head swiveling at the outdoor museum of architecture that made up the city: Georgian mansions bumping up against sprawling Victorians next to sleek towers of steel and glass that jutted their way into the sky along the Thames. As beautiful as it was, though, there wasn’t nearly enough work to do. Not for someone as driven as she was, anyway.
Her eyes closed in contentment at the thought of her return home tomorrow, back to Capitol Hill and her frenetic life. Visiting London was a kick, but she’d go crazy if she were here all the time: sitting around with her tongue hanging out, pestering Jeremy for juicy assignments that never came. Europe and the rest of the world were increasingly an afterthought on the network news agenda, unless someone royal was either getting married or assassinated …
“Close enough, Miss?,” the cabbie inquired as he pulled up to the street corner opposite Number 10 Downing. Shannon jerked back to full consciousness, with the oddest sensation that she had been clop-clopping along the London streets in a carriage instead of a cab.
“Oh, ah, yes, thanks,” she replied, trying to overcome the fog in her head long enough to convert pounds into dollars and calculate the proper tip. Even when her math didn’t come out quite right, she had noticed that London cab drivers didn’t snarl the way New York ones did when they got less than what they considered their due. Some even refused to take what they thought was too much.
“Here you are,” she said, finally, aware as she handed over several pound notes that she had probably over-tipped again. Oh well. Better over than under, any day. She didn’t mind over-tipping, really; she could afford to be generous. It helped alleviate the guilt she felt about how much money she made, for work she would have happily done for free.
“Do what you love,” her dad had always told her, “and then it won’t feel like work.” It had been one of his better pieces of advice.
Outside the shiny black door at Downing Street, a small crowd of reporters and photographers were waiting, most with their coats peeled off in acknowledgement of the mild weather. No one was on deadline, so there was no real hurry, no overt jockeying for position among the crews from Italian, German, Japanese, and American television. Unless the prime minister was planning to declare war on somebody, it was unlikely her comments would ever see air, at least not in the States. Mrs. Thatcher was making herself available largely as a courtesy. The TV crews were there for much the same reason, although there was always a remote chance she would say something deemed newsworthy. You never knew what would happen in this business, or when, so the only reasonable response was to keep the network’s backside covered as much as possible—especially when dealing with foreign heads of state.
One duo didn’t appear to have a reporter with them but, Shannon noticed, did have a WorldWide Broadcasting logo on their bulky canvas equipment bag. Inside were yards of mysterious electrical wires, extra microphones and cables, blank videocassettes, duct tape, extension cords and assorted other paraphernalia whose purpose Shannon could only guess.
“Hi guys,” she said, sliding smoothly into professional mode.
“Shannon Tyler, from WorldWide Broadcasting. Are you my crew?”
“Indeed we are. I’m Julian,” the closest one nodded. “Carl will be running sound for you.” The second man gave her a shy smile as he handed over a microphone topped with a foam windscreen, in case she wanted to ask a question.
“What time is she supposed to come out?”
“Two, they said.” Julian responded. It was three minutes until the hour.
Shannon eased into the front row of reporters with a slight smile of apology as the correspondent from NHK made room. She thought he had been in Japanese television’s Washington bureau for a while but wasn’t sure. Observing how impeccably he was dressed, she tried to find a place to stand where her sneakered feet might be a little less noticeable.
A sudden clatter at curbside and all heads turned to a brown Rover across the street. In a scene that looked like clowns in a circus act, half a dozen people crawled out of the little car, one by one, pulling with them an astonishing array of equipment: a tripod and camera, a long boom microphone with a furry cover, four gigantic lights and light stands, and bag after bag of additional gear.
“Bloody Yanks,” growled Julian, his competitive instincts bristling at the sight of so much expensive camera equipment. “Wot d’they think they’re doing, making a bloody movie?”
Shannon raised her eyebrows in agreement but chose not to comment. As the first member of the entourage grew closer, she did a double take. “Steve! What are you doing here?” she blurted. “I thought you went to work in Boston. Little out of your zip code, aren’t you?”
“Hi, Shannon.” The slightly built blonde man acknowledged her teasing with a sheepish smile. “Guess you could say that. I’m working on a documentary for ‘The World at Large.’ WGBH produces it for PBS, out of Boston.”
“No kidding,” replied Shannon, impressed. A documentary for PBS? That was big. Steve Mapping had been a senior producer for WWB’s morning show in Washington when she knew him. He must have talents she wasn’t aware of. But then, many people at the network did. The problem was, the task of delivering a 90-second snippet of news a few times a week seldom demanded them. Even for those who did want to do something different, something more substantive, the network paid so well that few were willing to abandon it.
“Why are you wasting your time with this?” she asked. “We’re just here to cover New York’s ass. I doubt there’s any news to be made, especially for a documentary.”
“I know,” Mapping shrugged. “At the moment we’re just following the P.M. around for a while. Day-in-the-life kind of stuff.”
“When’s it going to be on? I’ll look for it.”
“We don’t have a definite air date yet. Probably sometime in May.”
Her eyes widened. May? Six months to do one project? It was hard to imagine such a luxury.
“Wow,” Shannon said at last. “Lucky you. I wouldn’t mind having that kind of time to work on one thing. All this run-and-gun stuff gets a little tiresome after a while.”
“I know. That’s why I left.”
“Aw, c’mon,” she couldn’t resist a teasing smile as the heavy door to Downing Street began to open. “You don’t miss the bright lights of the big network? All the money and all the fame?”
“Not for a second,” Mapping answered in an emphatic whisper.
He pulled a notebook from his back pocket and began to scribble as Mrs.Thatcher appeared in the doorway.
The Prime Minister walked to the waiting circle of microphones taped to a sturdy metal tripod, pausing for a moment until she was certain the cameras were rolling. Britain still wasn’t quite used to the grocer’s daughter who had risen in her party’s ranks until she was chosen to carry the Tory standard in Parliament, a short time before the Americans chose another conservative, Ronald Reagan, as their leader. Margaret Thatcher bore herself well, however, and seemed to be growing rapidly into the job. Regardless of what others might think, she seemed to have no doubt that she could handle it.
Madam Prime Minister has beautiful skin, Shannon noticed, hoping she might age as gracefully. It was a constant fight to keep her complexion clear, especially under the layers of heavy makeup that were required for television. Even the most rugged face looked pale and sickly without it, so men and women alike submitted to the thick pancake as part of the price for being on the air.
Shannon had to stifle a giggle. If she were still back in Atlanta doing her talk show, the producer would probably want her to ask for the prime minister’s skin-care secrets—or something equally ridiculous. Thank God I got out of there, she thought. In fact, it had been her incredible good luck that just as she had walked away from the Atlanta job in disgust, the Washington bureau chief for WWB called to offer her a job.
“Thank you all, ladies and gentlemen of the press,” the Prime Minister began in her precise, clipped tone. “I have a brief statement I should like to read regarding the coal strike and then I shall be happy to take any other questions you may have.”
Oh, great, the coal strike, Shannon groaned inwardly, but was careful to keep her face expressionless. Nobody in New York—or anywhere else in America, for that matter—would give two hoots in hell about another coal strike in Yorkshire.
She leaned against the iron railing, propping a wrist against her elbow for support as blood drained out of the hand holding the microphone. This might take a while. She kept her face alert but her mind was elsewhere as the NHK correspondent followed up with two long and complicated questions on the strike and German television asked two more.
Thoroughly bored, she stretched her neck slightly and glanced around. As she did, her scalp tightened around the back of her head, the same kind of feeling she’d had before when someone was staring at her. Shannon tilted her head to see if she could tell—without being obvious about it—exactly who was giving her the eye.
Sure enough, a delegation of some sort was waiting for the news conference to end so they could enter Number 10 Downing. At the front of the group a man stood transfixed, his piercing blue eyes intent on her face.
She flushed and looked away. Accustomed as she was by now to being stared at, this man’s scrutiny seemed different. He appeared to be puzzled more than admiring, as if he knew her and was trying to figure out from where. She glanced over again, a little taken aback by the stab of longing that had accompanied her first glimpse of him.
Handsome devil, whoever he is, she noted, by far the most attractive man she had seen since she came here. Too handsome, in fact.
Black hair streaked with silver … and those eyes. Probably thought he was God’s gift to women. She knew the type: there had certainly been enough of those in her life over the years, men who wanted to take her out so they could brag to all their friends about dating someone who was on TV. Men who turned out to be far more trouble than they were worth.
She frowned as she lowered the microphone, clenching and unclenching her fist to get the circulation going, as Mrs. Thatcher ended the briefing and hurried over to the waiting delegation.
“Lord Michael,” she could hear the prime minister say, her stern face creasing into a welcoming smile. “I do apologize for the delay.
We so much appreciate your joining us this morning.”
Shannon turned away with a scowl. Her striking stranger was a Lord, yet. Probably as stuffy as they come, even if he didn’t have one foot in the grave the way the rest of them seemed to in Parliament’s upper chamber.
“Ah, well. The vultures must be fed, I suppose,” the man replied, as the Prime Minister took his arm.
Shannon’s cheeks flamed. Vultures, eh? She should have known he’d be a jerk. Just another arrogant, press-bashing politician … All the same, her eyes followed him until he disappeared through the doorway, his head bent attentively over the prime minister.
She sighed and turned back to the crew.
“If you guys are heading back to the bureau, can I grab a ride?” she asked Julian.
“Nothing,” Shannon reported to Jeremy, dropping the videocassette on his desk with a thud. “Twenty-five minutes of blah-blah. Boy, do you owe me.”
“Quite the contrary.” Jeremy folded his arms across his chest and gave her a complacent smile. “You owe me. David Moore just called, and when I told him what a good sport you had been he said to call him right away.”
Her eyebrows shot up, telegraphing her skepticism. “You’re sure those events are related.”
“No,” he had to concede. “But no harm in claiming the credit.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” replied Shannon, but she was smiling as she dialed the executive producer’s direct line in New York.
Ten seconds later, she turned to the wall to hide an excited grin. “Really? Christmas Eve? Sure. Okay. Thanks,” Jeremy overheard as he strolled up behind her. Shannon carefully placed the receiver in its cradle, her face bland.
“Yes?” Jeremy prompted. “What’s happening Christmas Eve?”
“Oh … nothing,” she said, savoring the moment for as long as possible.
“Shannon,” he warned, “It’s a very bad idea to keep secrets from Uncle Jeremy.”
“Oh, all right,” she replied, beaming. “They want me to anchor in a couple of weeks. On Christmas Eve.”
“Really,” he exclaimed, impressed in spite of himself. “Congratulations! That’s lovely. They’ve never had a woman news reader before.”
“Tell me about it. I was starting to think they never would. And by the way, we call them ‘anchors’ across the pond.”
“Well, whatever you call them, it had to happen sooner or later. You ladies seem to be taking over everywhere else,” Jeremy teased, then had the good sense to duck as she crumpled a sheet of paper and threw it at his head.
Now all she had to do was get herself safely back home. For some reason, she didn’t mind flying as long as it was over land, but flights over the ocean gave her the willies.
Ah well, she told herself, setting her mouth in a firm line of resolve, a couple of vodkas on the plane and you won’t even notice.
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