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Match Me by Christmas by Armstrong, Lindzee (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Natalie stared out at the ship, one hand holding her floppy sun hat in place against the brisk December air. The boat—could you call it a boat if it held five thousand passengers?—towered above her, its pristine white paint gleaming in the late morning sun. A sky blue stripe ran down the middle of the boat, the name Ocean Dream written in elegant cursive. Beams of light glinted off the portholes and sliding glass doors leading to private balconies, while the excited chatter of guests embarking on an early Christmas vacation mingled with the squawk of seagulls.

Was this floating palace seriously going to be her home for the next eight days? Natalie barely held back a squeal. She’d always heard cruise ships described as miniature cities, but never really appreciated what that would look like up close—in a word, awesome. She could definitely get used to this.

She would get used to this, after landing the job as a travel reporter for World Traveler Magazine. This article was going to knock their socks off, even if it was on something as ridiculous as a matchmaking cruise.

Someone bumped into her from behind, making Natalie stumble. An older man in a bright pink Hawaiian shirt mumbled an apology. Passengers poured out of the terminal where she’d just checked her luggage, heading toward one of the gangways leading up to the ship. Natalie lifted her purse higher on one shoulder and fell in line with the crowd, eager to board. The California sea breeze caressed her skin, making her arms prickle with the chill. Hopefully the temperatures would be warmer in Mexico.

A trio of women in sundresses stood in front of Natalie in line, giggling. They all had the naturally tanned skin and sun-kissed highlights of native Californians, and the hopeful glow of someone looking for love.

“Do you really think I’ll leave this cruise with a boyfriend?” the tall brunette asked.

Her companion, a curvy blonde, rolled her eyes. “You’d better. We’d all better, for what this is costing us.”

“Toujour has phenomenal success rates,” the girl in sunglasses said, confirming Natalie’s initial suspicions that they were part of the singles group. “I just know I’ll find love this week. I can’t wait to introduce whoever he is to my family at Christmas.”

The blonde let out a happy sigh. “That sounds amazing. If I have to show up solo to one more family party…”

Natalie tightened her hold on her purse and tuned out their conversation. The idea of falling in love with a complete stranger—in eight days, no less—was completely ridiculous. Natalie had been around the block enough to know that wasn’t how relationships worked. The last three guys she’d dated had all left her with a broken heart and crushed dreams, and they’d known each other for months beforehand. Her relationship with Cole, her last boyfriend, had ended in a particularly brutal way three months ago. She’d thought he loved her, but it turned out he’d only loved her older brother Wyatt’s pro football career. Cole was majoring in sports medicine and thought Wyatt could use his connections to get him a job with the team.

So Natalie was no longer the wide-eyed romantic she’d been as a new college student, eager to take on the world. Next semester—in only five short months—she’d be a college graduate. And if she nailed this piece, she’d be a reporter for World Traveler, jetting around the world on their dime under the guise of work.

The line of people slowly shuffled forward. Natalie stepped onto the ship’s deck and presented her key card to the attendant waiting at the scanner.

“Ah, Miss James,” the man said. He had a thick Jamaican accent and smiling brown eyes. “Welcome aboard the Ocean Dream.”

“Thank you,” Natalie said.

“Your room should be ready in about two hours. Please, feel free to explore the ship and enjoy a bite to eat at the buffet.”

“I’ll do that,” Natalie said with a grin. She wanted that reporter job so badly she could taste it.

Natalie took back her key card and walked across the deck and into the ship’s interior. She gasped. The pictures had definitely not done the Ocean Dream justice. Chandeliers taller than a house hung high above her, illuminating the promenade. Five levels of balconies draped in garlands looked out over the grand entrance. Signs advertising the various duty-free shops boasted everything from diamond rings to exotic chocolates. A Christmas tree stood in the center, decked out in gold and red ornaments and rising past three levels of balconies.

“Incredible,” Natalie breathed. She owed Wyatt a killer Christmas present for helping her secure this opportunity.

When she’d sent her resume to World Traveler three weeks ago, Dana had promptly replied with a single question—Are you the Natalie James who is related to Wyatt James? Natalie’s heart had leapt when she saw the editor-in-chief’s name in the from line of the email, then promptly dropped at the one-line reply. Natalie loved Wyatt. He was her best friend. But being his sister wasn’t always easy. Everyone, from boyfriends to bosses, wanted to use her to get to him.

She’d reluctantly told Dana that she was indeed related to the famed lineman for the Los Angeles Coyotes. That had resulted in a phone call. Yes, Natalie was Wyatt’s sister. Yes, Wyatt’s fiancée, Tamera, had been a client of Toujour. Yes, Wyatt knew both Brooke, the owner of Toujour, and her husband, the owner of the Coyotes, reasonably well. Yes, Natalie was aware that Toujour was planning a singles cruise for the holidays.

That’s when Dana had issued the challenge. If Natalie could secure a spot on the Toujour cruise and write an article about the experience, she’d have her dream job waiting for her after graduation. And if she didn’t … well, Natalie could guess how many applications they had to pick from.

Natalie’s stomach growled, and she followed the stream of passengers heading toward the buffet. She’d boarded a red-eye flight last night after her last final, and then crashed for a few hours at Wyatt’s house before he dropped her off at the port. There hadn’t been time for breakfast.

The buffet was located at the front of the ship. The line already stretched nearly to the door, but it seemed to move quickly. Floor-to-ceiling windows offered a spectacular view of the ocean. Carved fruit sat decoratively among the silver warmers and bowls holding everything Natalie could dream of. She’d have to try her hand at fruit carving when she stayed with Wyatt over the holidays. Her small student apartment in Arizona was too frustratingly cramped to do any really great cooking.

Ten minutes later, Natalie loaded her plate with a taste of everything, no matter how weird the pairing—chicken wings with a side of ranch, macaroni salad, Jell-O, pizza, a large helping of seasonal fruit, and popcorn shrimp. She’d come back for dessert later, because that looked like it would require an entire plate by itself. At least she wouldn’t go hungry this week. If she had to do an article on matchmaking, at least the accommodations were top notch.

Her plate overflowing, Natalie turned to find a seat. She was met by a wall of muscles. Her plate smashed into the man’s chest, sending food crashing to the floor. Natalie tipped forward, her momentum smashing her against him. Her hands flew out, resting on his broad shoulders as she tried to right herself.

They were falling. She let out a yelp as his arms tightened around her waist. His back thudded against the carpeted ground, and Natalie landed on top of him with an oof.

“I am so sorry!” Natalie scrambled to stand, pushing away from the man.

He sat up with a groan. “What happened?”

His voice was low, with a subtle Southern twang. Natalie lost her breath, but this time for a very different reason. The man was young—perhaps only a decade or so older than herself, somewhere in his mid thirties. He had eyes that were a vibrant gunmetal blue and dark brown hair that swept over his forehead. Her heart thudded in her chest and her cheeks began to burn. It was bad enough that she’d clobbered some unsuspecting guest, but did he have to be so handsome?

“Here, let me help you up.” Natalie reached out a hand, but he waved her away and pushed himself to his feet.

She saw the glob of Jell-O and ranch seconds before his foot stepped in the mess. Her hand reached toward his, desperate to stop the second impending disaster. “Wait—”

It was too late. His foot slid in the concoction and his arms pinwheeled. Then he was flat on the ground once more.

“Oh my gosh.” Natalie dropped to the floor, her hands fluttering over the man’s body. “Are you okay?”

He groaned in response.

“I am so, so sorry. I don’t know what happened. Where are you hurt?”

Mortified. That was the only way to describe this moment. She could feel the eyes of curious passengers witnessing her humiliation. She’d have to walk around with caution stamped on her forehead for the rest of the week so that people would know to avoid Natalie, the walking disaster.

“I’m fine.” The man once again sat up, and he motioned to the passengers who stared at them. “Really, I’m okay. Enjoy your meal.”

“You shouldn’t sit up,” Natalie said, pushing against his shoulders. They were strong and broad, and her mouth felt suddenly dry. She swallowed hard. “Let me get a medic or something—”

His hands closed around her wrists and she froze.

“There’s no need for that.” He dropped his hold and rose to his feet with a grimace.

Natalie stood as well, the humiliation of the moment making her blink back tears.

That’s when she noticed his shirt. The yellow button-down shirt was smeared with pizza sauce and ranch dressing. Bits of macaroni salad clung to the fabric, and an orange-pink stain across his breast pocket told her where the Jell-O had hit.

The breast pocket which was embroidered with the logo of the cruise ship and a name—Shawn. She closed her eyes. He was an employee.

“Look at your shirt,” she muttered. “I’m such a klutz. Here, let me grab some napkins.” She turned to grab a handful from the buffet table, but the man caught her arm.

“It’s okay,” he said. But the tight clench of his jaw said otherwise. “I’ve got a fresh shirt in my cabin. Are you alright?”

A short man in the white-and-blue uniform of the crew rushed forward. “Mr. Erickson, are you okay?” he asked in heavily accented English.

“I’m fine,” Shawn—Mr. Erickson—whatever she was supposed to call him—said in a grumpy tone that suggested he was lying. “Can you get a bucket and mop to clean this up?”

“Certainly,” the man said, and scurried away.

Natalie stood there, arm folded tightly and cheeks burning with embarrassment. “Sorry,” she mumbled again. What else could she do or say?

Shawn motioned toward the buffet with his head. “You should get in line and grab more food. The staff will clean this up.”

Natalie laughed uncertainly and motioned to his shirt. “And you probably want to change.”

“Right.”

“Sorry again about this.”

He gave a brisk nod. “No problem. Have a good day.”

“You too,” Natalie called faintly. But Shawn had already turned and was walking away.

She ran her eyes down his lean frame, noticing a slight limp with each step. Was that her fault? She covered her face. This had better not be an omen of how the cruise was going to go down. She needed her article to impress Dana right into hiring her. Natalie hadn’t spent four years in college so that she could work as some beat reporter at a small town newspaper after graduation.

Shawn was an employee. She’d probably be running into him in hallways all week. It wouldn’t be easy to hide on a ship of five thousand. Natalie stifled a groan as she made her way back to the end of the line. There was a small grease stain on the bodice of her dress from the shrimp, and a few drops of ranch dressing on the hem of her skirt, but she’d escaped their encounter a lot better off than Shawn had. She really hoped that limp wasn’t an indication that he was seriously hurt.

With a new plate of food in hand, Natalie carefully turned and searched for an empty table. A woman along one of the windows raised a hand. Natalie looked around, wondering who she was waving at, but there was no one nearby.

The woman waved again. Natalie took a few cautious steps closer, squinting. The woman was slender, with shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair and a shy smile. Suddenly, the woman’s identity clicked. Kendra, the Toujour matchmaker that Natalie would share a cabin with for the next week. Tamera, Wyatt’s fiancée, had shown Natalie a picture of Kendra and told her how great she was. She’d been Tamera’s matchmaker, back when she’d been a Toujour client.

Natalie paused right beside the table. “Kendra?”

The woman’s smile widened. “That’s me. And you’re Natalie, right? I looked you up online. I hope that’s not too weird.”

Natalie laughed and shook her head. “Not at all. I would’ve done the same if Tamera hadn’t shown me your picture. Mind if I sit?”

Kendra motioned to the chair. “Please do. Are you okay? That looked like a hard fall.”

Natalie set down her plate with a groan. “You saw that?”

Kendra smiled sympathetically. “There weren’t too many people around. I’m sure no one will remember.”

Shawn, with his clenched jaw and grunted words spoken with that soft Southern twang, certainly would. “Thanks for trying to make me feel better.” And could they stop talking about this? The whole encounter was embarrassing enough without having to relive it with someone who was essentially a stranger.

Kendra seemed to hear Natalie’s unspoken plea and mercifully changed the subject. She speared a sliced strawberry and asked, “So, are you ready for the next week?”

“Absolutely.” Natalie took a bite of her own strawberries and nodded enthusiastically. Hopefully she wouldn’t spend the whole time ducking around corners to avoid Shawn. He was so handsome. Probably had a beautiful wife and three perfect children back at port. She batted the thoughts away like an annoying fly. Focus on the story. That’s why she was here. “I’m so excited for this trip. It’ll make a great editorial piece for World Traveler.” At least, that’s what she’d keep telling herself. What did a travel magazine want with a singles cruise, anyway? Sure, Toujour was the hottest new way to date for celebrities and plebeians alike. And yes, Brooke, the owner of Toujour, and her billionaire husband were an ultra-famous power couple.

Okay, so it made total sense why the magazine wanted an insider’s look at the cruise. Whatever. Natalie would just be grateful she had an in with Dana.

“I’m glad it worked out so you could come,” Kendra continued. “When Brooke asked if I’d mind a roommate and told me about you, I was so excited. This cruise is going to be so great for our clients, and I’m glad you’ll be getting the word out.”

That was one way to look at it, Natalie supposed. The clink of silverware and gentle laughter of vacationers filtered through the buffet, but Natalie ignored her plate and focused on Kendra. Time to put on her reporter’s cap. “I heard a rumor that some celebrities have joined this cruise.”

Kendra raised an eyebrow and took a sip of her water. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that particular rumor is out. Yes, we’ve got a handful of VIP clients who are on the cruise. Brooke even allowed one to come along purely for publicity.”

Natalie leaned forward. Well-known names and faces would add nice color to the article. Dana would be thrilled. “Can you give me names?”

“You’ll need to check with the other stars whether or not they want to appear in the article. Some of them are pretty private. Hiding from the spotlight of fame is one of the reasons they come to Toujour. But Jase Larson is here doing research for a role, and Brooke only let him come with the understanding that he’d promote the cruise to his followers on social media and stuff. I’m sure he’ll be fine if you mention him in the article.”

Natalie’s mouth dropped open. She did know Jase. Or of him, at least. If she’d been a teenage girl, she’d have had a poster of him on her bedroom wall. “Jase Larson? The actor who was nominated for an Oscar?”

“One and the same. He’ll mostly be observing, like you. Brooke was worried that if she let him participate too much, some of our clients might forget he’s here purely for research. The last thing we want anyone to leave this cruise with is a broken heart.”

“Yeah,” Natalie muttered, chasing a grape around her plate. Her mind flashed again to Shawn. She wondered if he’d broken any hearts. Those blue eyes of his should be registered as lethal weapons. They were that piercing. “So what can you tell me about the genesis for the cruise idea? Eight days doesn’t seem like very long to fall in love.”

Kendra gave Natalie a knowing smile. “You’ve been talking to Tamera. She was so promising at first, but quite skeptical about the whole process by the end.”

Natalie hadn’t been talking to her future sister-in-law, actually, but she decided to let that go. “You have to admit, a week seems pretty quick.”

“Falling in love isn’t about time—it’s about compatibility. In my four years of matchmaking, I’ve found that around sixty percent of couples who end up together long term put their files on hold within three dates.”

“Wow. That high a number?” Natalie dug in her purse, producing a notepad and pen. “Do you mind if I write some of these facts down?”

“Not at all,” Kendra said.

“Great.” Natalie jotted down a few notes. “Now, what else can you tell me about Toujour?”

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