Zara Wilson stood at the Port of Dar es Salaam, shaking her fist at the departing taxi driver. The imbecile had been so distracted with trying to impress her with pirate stories that he had missed a turn and delivered her to the ship twenty minutes late. Then, when she dared to scold him, he rudely and unceremoniously tossed her designer luggage onto the dock and took off without even waiting to see if she would be able to get on board before the ship sailed. And that was after the fiasco with the booking agent, who had tried his best to discourage her as a ‘gold hair girl beautiful’ from traveling to Madagascar without a man accompanying her for protection.
Zara gritted her teeth and thought that if she were forced to encounter even one more boorish, sexist, incompetent male this day, she would surely scream and not be responsible for her actions. Realizing that her carefully manicured fingernails were painfully digging into her palms, she forced herself to relax. She smoothed her lavender rayon dress, ran her fingers through her long, blond hair, took a deep calming breath, and looked up at the ship.
From the dock, the tramp steamer, Alexandria, seemed smaller than she had expected. It also looked older and dirtier than any vessel she had ever been on before. Crewmen were busy with a crane and forklift, moving crates into the hull. She spotted four men working with the cargo, and another casually leaning against the rail and taking pictures of the proceedings. He was probably making a pictorial record for insurance purposes or something. All of the crew members were dressed in brown shorts and dirty blue t-shirts. None seemed the least bit inclined to inquire about her wellbeing or to help transport her belongings on board.
The man with the camera turned her way and began snapping pictures of her. She waved to get his full attention, and he started down the gangplank toward her, stopping a few times to take more pictures of his crew mates at work. Zara couldn’t help noticing that the camera man was actually very good-looking. He was tall, dark, and handsome, but that didn’t even begin to describe him. He was lean, muscular, and well-tanned, obviously spending much of his time out of doors. He looked more European than the rest of the crew. The others seemed more native African, with black, curly hair and darker skin tones. As he approached, she guessed him to be just over six feet tall, with a trim, athletic build. His long, lean fingers gripped the camera, and he snapped a close-up picture of Zara.
“Excuse me,” Zara said in her most authoritative voice. “Please put your camera down. I didn’t sign a release to be photographed. The least you could have done would have been to ask my permission first.”
She was a bit put off when the man simply stood there staring at her. Flustered, she added, “I don’t know why they have you fooling around with a camera when there are passengers needing assistance.”
She sputtered into silence and felt even more unbalanced upon noticing that his eyes were the most amazingly dark blue, like the blue coming deep out of the ocean. There was no getting around it; this guy was a handsome hunk. She had to consciously close her mouth and swallow to stop herself from drooling. Interacting with the crew might be fun after all.
He seemed to be staring at her with an odd sort of amusement that rankled her. It was as though he was aware of his strong masculinity and was looking down on the little female with a chauvinistic glint in his eyes.
“Stop staring at me, and be pleased to give me a hand with my luggage,” she snapped abruptly. “The taxi driver got me here late, and I need immediate assistance getting my things on board. The captain will thank you for hurrying.”
The man had the audacity to chuckle at her. “The captain will take no notice of you, little lady. Tramp steamers like this cast off when the cargo is loaded, not when superfluous passengers get settled. You’d best hurry your pretty little self aboard.” He spoke with a distinctly British accent.
“Thank you for sharing your information. Now, could you please carry my bags and direct me to my cabin? No one else seems to be available.” Zara was aware that her tone was more haughty than necessary. But the man’s good looks and cocky self-assurance irked her.
“Certainly. Stretch out your arms,” he commanded.
She complied, puzzled at his strange command and distracted by his accent. “What—”
“Good,” he said. “They’re not broken. Perhaps you can manage the small bag?”
His condescending attitude caught her off guard, and she became aware that her mouth was fixed open in outrage only after Camera Man had picked up the two larger suitcases, leaving her with the tote bag and computer bag. She closed her mouth with a snap, picked up the computer bag, and followed him up the ramp and onto the ship.
* * *
Camera Man took her up one flight of stairs and then down a short hallway to a small cabin. He set her cases on the floor, just inside the door. Zara stepped around him and took a quick look at the cabin. It was worse than she had imagined possible. She pressed her lips together and squinted as she surveyed the tiny room.
Against one wall was a small bunk, painted a most hideous green, with a serviceable woolen blanket of brown, red, and yellow. A small table, also painted green, was fastened to the opposite wall, with a straight-backed wooden chair next to it. A tiny sink with a cracked mirror screwed to the wall, a towel on a hook, and a used bar of soap completed the room’s furnishings. A tiny porthole window by the desk and a bare light bulb dangling overhead provided the room’s only illumination. She opened a door revealing a tiny closet with three wire hangers. There did not appear to be either a toilet or a shower.
She rubbed the back of her neck, willing her muscles to relax. “Excuse me, sir, but where are the facilities?”
“I expect that you shall have to share with me,” he replied nonchalantly. “It’s nothing fancy, but the shower has nice water pressure.”
Zara could not believe his gall. “Share with you? How dare you suggest such a thing! What kind of ship would make a lady share facilities with the crew?”
“Sharing with the crew would be your other option, although I don’t recommend it. These men are out to sea for weeks at a time. I wouldn’t want to think what seeing your nubile body in all its naked glory would do to their libidos.” He grinned wolfishly. “Now, if you don’t require any further assistance, I’ll go take some more photographs.”
Shaking her head in confusion, Zara tried to make sense of all that had been said. She rushed out of the cabin, shouting, “Wait a minute. Are you telling me that you’re a passenger and not part of the crew?”
He turned toward her, tilted his head back, and laughed out loud. “I was wondering how long it would take you to work that out. You’ve been treating me like gum from the sole of your shoe. No, Miss Hoity-Toity, I am not a crew member, although I wouldn’t mind being one, if they would have me. I’m just a passenger like yourself. The name is Richard, by the way. Richard Stryker. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
He stretched out his hand, and she shook it, feeling embarrassed. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Stryker. I just assumed.”
Not enjoying the smug look on his face, she forgot about good manners and added loftily, “Well, if you didn’t go about dressed like the crew, innocent, unsuspecting people wouldn’t mistake you for a crew member.”
He had the temerity to chuckle at her. “I suspect that one so feisty as you, little lady, is not an innocent. You can call me Richard, by the way.”
Zara pulled herself up to her full 5′ 5″ height. “How dare you question my innocence, you Neanderthal man! And stop calling me ‘little lady.’ It’s insulting!”
He gave a half smile and replied quietly, “So is ‘Neanderthal,’ my lady. When you stop throwing tantrums long enough to give me your name, I’ll try to remember to use it.”
“Tantrums? I don’t throw tantrums, and I’m not your lady either! The name is Zara. Zara Wilson. And what did you mean about sharing facilities?”
He held out his hand until she took it again. “I’m glad to finally meet you, Miss Wilson. Let me ask you this, do you never think before you speak?”
Zara smiled ruefully. “I’m sorry. Please call me Zara. Actually, it’s my habit to not think before I speak. It has the advantage of me being just as surprised as everyone else by what comes out of my mouth.”
Richard chuckled and then winked at her. “Stick with me, Zara, and that habit may change.”
Zara was wondering what he could mean, when he said, “Come along and have a quick tour of this old boat. I can show you the highlights whilst I take some more photos. We’ll start with those ‘facilities’ you’re so concerned about.”
* * *
Richard led the way across the hall to the shower and toilet facilities. This was a spoiled little rich girl if ever he had met one.He wondered what could have brought her to Tanzania. It certainly wasn’t a normal tourist attraction for wealthy American girls looking to spend Daddy’s money.
He smiled when Zara inspected the locks on the door and mumbled something about men under her breath. As he turned and led the way forward, he was a bit surprised to become aware that he was rather intrigued by Zara. She was a regular little spitfire.
He supposed that she wasn’t really so little. She was probably of average height for a woman, but she still seemed small next to him. Her slim body moved with grace and confidence. He admired her figure as the flowing purple dress swished about her toned legs. She could easily pass for a princess.
Having grown up around ships like this, Richard was pleased to be able to expound upon points of interest and to answer Zara’s many questions. He quite enjoyed the interest she showed in the workings of the ship and her many animated questions. That girl really did seem to say whatever popped into her mind.
He enjoyed listening to her talk. For all her haughtiness on the dock, she really was natural and not as conceited as he had first suspected. There was also something else about her; a sort of waif-like quality that seemed to bring out a protectiveness in him that he had thought was long dead. Whatever it was, the little brat interested him.
They made their way between tightly stacked piles of crates and bales, Zara babbling away with one question after another. All of a sudden, she stopped, looked down at her dress, and made an exclamation of disgust. She looked up at Richard and exclaimed, “Look at my dress! It has a grease spot. How am I ever going to get it clean again?”
He surveyed her somewhat tolerantly and decided to tease her a bit. “I believe the stokers might need more rags?”
She stared at him with a bit of hurt in her eyes. “Oh, that was mean! This is one of my favorite dresses.”
Richard felt a bit of tenderness at her forlorn look, and he smiled reassuringly at her. “I apologize for being a cad there, Zara. I also could have warned you about getting dirty before we started this little tour. I’m sorry that your dress got soiled. It does look quite lovely on you.”
He enjoyed watching her blush and knew then that she wasn’t indifferent to him either. Good!
She smiled shyly up at him. “Thank you.”
He gave her a wink and then waved for her to follow. As they made their way alongside the hatches, Richard found out that Zara had been part of a humanitarian aid delegation to Tanzania and had stayed behind to visit an old college friend in Dar es Salaam’s wealthy northern district.
Out of the corner of his eye, Richard saw the captain, who was talking to the men. He pointed him out to Zara. Before he could stop her, the little spitfire had pushed her way past him and was confronting the captain head on. It made him smile to see her relatively slight form address the big, burly, sea-toughened mariner.
His smile disappeared when he heard her take the captain to task. He moved closer and was just in time to hear the captain reply in stern tones, “Young lady, this is a working ship, not some luxury cruise liner. The toilets and other facilities are as you find them. Now, either get out of the way or get off my ship.”
The captain waved his hand in dismissal and turned away from Zara. Richard saw Zara’s mouth drop open as she stared at the captain. She fell silent for once, and he noticed the blush on her cheeks. She was no doubt embarrassed by the captain’s cavalier treatment of her.
Richard took Zara’s arm and steered her away, finding some pleasure in holding her slim arm in his hand. He saw her struggle to overcome her embarrassment, and he felt a twinge of pity for her. The captain had been a bit rough with her.
He led her away from where the captain and crew were working, toward the stern of the ship. He tried to distract her by explaining the workings of the little dinghy that served as lifeboat. Richard noted with some pride that she shook off her chagrin and concentrated on what he was saying.
He explained to her that captains of tramp steamers can be quite full of themselves, for they usually operate as their own boss. He told her about the long history of tramp steamers and how they operated independently, without a regular route or schedule, and could thus be available on short notice. She seemed interested, and so he went on to say that although a tramp steamer such as this was becoming a rarity, it fulfilled a very useful function in moving freight that ocean liners and container ships could not do.
Zara excitedly pointed out a beautiful, large sailboat. He zoomed in, took some shots of the sailboat, and then checked the camera and began taking more shots of ships in the busy little port. He took special interest in some seagulls on the end of a dock. So focused was he on his work that he forgot about Zara until she tugged on his sleeve.
She was smiling apologetically at him. “My phone doesn’t take adequate zoom photos. Could I please borrow your camera for a minute?”
He looked at her eager face and silently handed over the camera.
She moved the zoom lens and scanned the shore, murmuring with appreciation at the close-up views. “This is almost like having binoculars!”
Richard watched tolerantly as she took many photos. She suddenly halted and moved back a little. He heard her drawn-in breath. She lowered the camera and said in a low but stringent tone, “There is a guy watching us. With binoculars!”
He shrugged. “So, what of it?”
She exclaimed, “It could be one of those pirates. I heard about them.”
He looked at her again and chuckled. “More likely the guy is looking at your pretty legs.” He gestured at her dress, which was even now being blown about in the breeze, revealing perfect legs and even occasional glimpses of long, shapely thighs.
She blushed and then frowned. “The captain has to be alerted about the possibility of pirates.”
Richard shook his head and said, “I wouldn’t annoy the captain again, if I were you. I’m sure that he’s taken all standard precautions. No need for you to worry your pretty little head about such things.”
Zara apparently took no notice of his admonition, for the moment she spotted the captain, she rushed over to him and exclaimed, “Captain, captain! There’s a man over on that ship. I mean a man with binoculars. He’s watching us!”
The captain turned slowly and surveyed her up and down. His face darkened, and he pointed a finger at her chest, saying, “Lady, I believe I warned you before to stay out of my way. Now get back to your cabin, and stay there.”
Zara’s mouth opened and closed but no sound came out. Richard wanted to chuckle at her consternation. Finally, she sputtered, “But, but it could be a pirate ship!”
The captain turned back to Zara and said, “You go back to your cabin. Not another word, or I will toss you off my ship. Go now!”
She stumbled a little and allowed Richard to lead her back to her cabin. He noticed her bent head, and he thought she looked for all the world like a schoolgirl who had been told off by the headmaster.
She remained amazingly quiet while he steered her to the chair in her cabin. Missing her spark, he adopted a schoolmaster tone and said sternly, “Now, there will be no more nonsense out of you, little lady. Sit here, and behave yourself.”
He turned away, chuckling as he saw, out of the corner of his eye, her grab the pillow off her bunk and chuck it at him.
* * *
Richard stood at the rail, looking out over the harbor as he heard the commands to cast off and felt the engines begin to throb beneath his feet. As the shoreline faded into the distance, he stood there thinking of all that had brought him to this point. The sounding of the dinner gong woke him from his reverie. He quickly ducked into his cabin to exchange his old blue t-shirt for his favorite long-sleeved yellow fishing shirt. He considered changing into long trousers, but as the evening was still warm, he stayed in his cargo shorts and made his way to the mess.
He spotted Zara, still in the purple dress, but now wearing a matching little jacket over the top. She was arguing with a man who looked like the cook. Even from this distance, he could overhear the words ‘pig slop’ coming from her mouth, and he winced. The cook stared at her for a moment and then began to berate her in true seaman’s fashion. She glared at him and began to interrupt his flow, when the captain walked in.
Richard walked up swiftly and took her arm, saying, “Okay, let it go, before you get yourself in more trouble.” Unfortunately, Zara had noticed the captain. Shaking Richard’s arm off, Zara strode up to the captain and began to inform him about the poor dinner quality. The captain looked at her incredulously for a moment, and then he gazed at Richard.
He said quietly, “Sir, please take your woman to her cabin and keep her there.”
Richard replied calmingly, “Take no notice, sir. She is somewhat overwrought.”
The captain said after a moment, “I quite agree. I suggest you take her to her cabin and employ some old-fashioned methods to settle her down, or she shall be put off my ship at the next port.”
Richard nodded to the captain and took Zara’s arm again, whispering in her ear, “Not another word out of you.” He held her arm the entire time as he walked her to her cabin. She kept silent as they walked.
Once inside her cabin, Zara shook his arm off and demanded, “What’s with the manhandling?” She looked up suddenly. “And whatever did he mean by old-fashioned methods?”
Richard grinned sardonically. “I think he means that I should give you a good spanking.”
Her mouth dropped open, she tried to speak, and finally got out, “Are you kidding?”
Richard thought how cute she looked in her animated, indignant state, with hands on hips, a couple of angry snorts, and even a stomped foot. Chuckling, he folded his arms across his chest and replied, “I suspect that he is very serious.”
* * *
Zara glared at the door after Richard exited her cabin. How could he let the captain insult her like that? How could he escort her back to her cabin like a naughty child being sent off to bed? How could he, with superior attitude and blithe indifference to her feelings, discuss the captain’s outrageous suggestion of spanking her? Men! Richard and the captain were way too much alike. Barbarians, both of them!
She turned to look out the porthole. There was nothing but ocean to be seen. She had always loved the ocean. It was powerful, alive, and magical. This evening, the setting sun sparkled off the waves like bursting diamonds. The beautiful sight helped to calm her racing heart and to quiet her spirit.
At the edge of her window, Zara saw a ship approaching. It looked like a pirate ship. She threw open her door and dashed next door to Richard’s cabin. He wasn’t in there, but fortunately, he had left his cabin unlocked. She flipped on the light, stepped into the room, and grabbed his camera from off the desk. Thankfully, it still had the telephoto lens attached.
She raced out onto the balcony, focused the maximum zoom on the camera, and panned the pirate ship. Sure enough, there were armed men on that ship, dozens of them. There was no way that the crew of five men, the captain, and Richard could fight them off.
She supposed that they would be taken captive. The men would probably be ransomed off, unharmed, but she would not be so lucky. She had already been told what sorts of things pirates sometimes did to women, and she was not going to allow that to happen to her. If Richard and the captain wanted to ignore the warning signs, then she would have to take responsibility for her own safety.
Running back to her cabin, she zipped her cell phone and charger into her computer bag. Then, grabbing her tote bag, she tossed in several bottles of water, a change of clothes, the blanket from her bed, and her running shoes. Slinging the tote over her shoulder, she picked up Richard’s camera and her computer bag, stepped out of the cabin, and locked the door behind her.
A locked door wouldn’t keep the pirates out, but it might slow them down a bit. She wasn’t about to go down without a fight. She thought about taking her suitcases too, but that would mean two more trips, and she didn’t dare delay that long.
Zara stopped by Richard’s cabin to return the camera. Then she boldly walked over to the dinghy that hung over the back of the ship. The little lifeboat was covered by a piece of canvas which she unfastened and folded up inside the boat. She tossed her tote bag into the dinghy, loosened the clamps as Richard had shown her, and began turning the crank to lower the boat into the water. It was hard turning the crank at first, but then it seemed to loosen up.
For a moment, Zara thought about asking Richard to go with her, but she remembered how he had scoffed at the idea of pirates. He would probably laugh at her and stop her from escaping. She couldn’t take that risk. Zara had one foot over the rail, onto the rope ladder, when she was hauled back in a mighty grip.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Richard demanded.
“I’m escaping before the pirates attack us, that’s what I’m doing, you big oaf! Now, get out of my way!”
Zara picked up her computer bag and struggled to escape his grasp. When he stubbornly held her fast, she did what any self-respecting woman would do. She followed the steps learned in self-defense class: she kneed him in the groin, clouted him across the head with her computer bag, and kicked him away.
Unfortunately for Richard, he tripped over the pulley cables and tumbled over the side of the ship, banging his head on the edge as he fell. The sound of his head cracking made Zara’s heart catch in her throat. Seeing him face down in the water, several yards away from the dinghy, she grabbed her computer bag and tried climbing over the side of the ship. The bulky bag was awkward to handle, so she let it drop onto the boat. She looked down in horror as it bounced off the side and splashed into the water. She scampered down the rope ladder as quickly as she could.
By the time she jumped the last few feet into the dinghy, Richard had regained consciousness and was struggling toward the boat. With a sickened look at the computer bag, floating out of reach and then sinking, Zara unlatched the cables to set the lifeboat free. Then she grabbed one of the oars and started paddling toward Richard.
A wave crashed her against the ship, and she had to use all her strength to push away from the ship with the oar. Another wave caused her to lose her balance and nearly fall over the side. The oar slipped out of her grip, and she couldn’t reach it. Frantically, she grabbed the other oar and paddled over to Richard. When she got close enough, she held it out to him to grasp. With her last bit of energy, she pulled him toward the boat and helped him on board. She had saved his life. She purred a bit at the thought of her new hero status. Richard would now be forever in her debt.