Chapter 4: Departure
A limousine driver stood outside the Fort Lauderdale baggage claim area with a white sign in his hands reading Hamada. It took a moment for Akira to remember that she was traveling under the dubious surname. Her male companion, who correctly bore the title, was a leathery-skinned man of medium height with slicked-back gray hair and coal-black eyes that looked soft and muted in the light of day. However, his stocky frame and thick biceps gave the impression that he could snap someone’s neck with very little effort. He was wearing a charcoal linen jacket with a white pin-striped shirt underneath, slightly frayed at the edges. He also wore black jeans and a black cord necklace that was wrapped twice around his neck, with a bronze key hanging from it that stirred her curiosity. She had considered asking about its purpose while traveling from Japan and waiting for connecting flights. But Takashi Hamada’s quiet demeanor alluded to his need for privacy and her obligation not to pry. It also became clear that enjoying the tropical scenery or any aspect of their trip would be considered a waste of time until Keiko Mitsui’s murderer was eliminated and their assignment was deemed complete.
After waving the driver over, Takashi pointed at their luggage and spoke in a deep, emotionless voice. “Just two. I’ll keep this one with me.” He set his black bag between them on the seat and put on his reflective sunglasses. Then he sat back and stared out the window, emitting negative energy.
No words were exchanged by anyone as they sped along the highway toward their final destination, adding to the heat in the car. Upon arriving at the cruise terminal, the limo driver opened the right rear door, and Takashi was the first to exit. The driver extended his soft hand to Akira in a kind gesture and closed the door behind her.
“Have a nice cruise,” he said.
She nodded politely but chose not to answer, not with Takashi standing nearby. He palmed a tip to the driver and grabbed his brown duffel bag. Then he left Akira to follow behind with her rolling black suitcase in typical Japanese fashion. They showed their travel documents, one after the other, and crossed the gangplank leading to their assigned ship. Their bags were taken by one of the crew members, and they were presented glasses of shimmering champagne. The bubbles spiraled up in the flutes and burst as if trying to escape. As she accepted the drink, Akira felt a sudden longing to get away and also escape. But Takashi’s presence made it impossible.
“When you’re ready, check in at the registration desk,” the cruise director told her. “They’ll take care of you and your father and show you to your cabin. If you have any questions while you’re there, don’t hesitate to ask.”
Akira lowered her chin and said softly, “Thank you.”
“Of course. That’s why we’re here,” he said, “to make your trip as enjoyable as possible.”
To Akira, the tall, chiseled-faced man seemed perfectly cast as the cruise director. He kept his hands clasped behind his back and his shoulders squared in a rigid pose like an officer in the military. The fine lines etched at the corners of his dark-blue eyes deepened with his broad smile.
“This is our first cruise,” Takashi volunteered. “It’s very exciting for both of us.” He displayed his perfect white teeth and kept a hand on Akira’s back, reminding her who was in charge.
“Welcome aboard,” the director said. “My name is Michael Donley. Don’t hesitate to let me know if there’s anything you need.”
While making her way to their room, Akira realized she’d never seen such opulence, such luxury, oozing from every corner of a ship. Fine art and sculptures dotted the lobby, and the staircase and chandelier reminded her of the luxury liners she had only seen in movies. According to the information packet she’d been given, there were fourteen decks on the ship, ten of which were allotted to passengers. There were also two coffee bars, a champagne bar, sports bar, terrace bar, dance club, nightclub, six lounges, two theaters, one casino, four pools, two spas, a rock-climbing wall, a gymnasium, and two game rooms for kids. When it came to restaurants, Akira lost count at fifteen. She passed by the Asian dining room on her way to the elevator, and the exuberance of the staff and abundance of food on display left her speechless.
While Takashi stood beside her, Akira used the card key and was instantly struck by how much the spacious cabin reminded her of the expensive hotel room in Kyoto she had shared two years ago with her danna, Kenji—a man who had paid for the right to be her contracted sponsor. As promised, the suite was outfitted with every amenity for the ten-day cruise. Takashi stepped in front of her and announced that she would take the master bedroom located on the lower level of the suite. He would take the guest bedroom on the upper level, which included an additional bathroom and large exterior windows. Before their arrival, Akira had been nervous about sharing a room with a man she barely knew. But Takashi was quick to inform her that he would be spending most of his time familiarizing himself with the ship and would do whatever was necessary to maintain the father-daughter illusion.
While she unpacked, he left the room with a spare key in hand, still dressed in his jeans and linen jacket. A British gentleman arrived soon after, outfitted in a white shirt, black bow tie, and vest. He introduced himself as Bradley and explained that he would be serving as their butler throughout their journey and would be handling their dinner reservations and afternoon tea service. He also showed her how the wall plugs and lighting system in the rooms were activated by inserting a card key into the plastic box mounted on the wall in the entry.
Another knock at the door sounded and resulted in the appearance of Felicia, a middle-aged, dark-skinned maid who patiently waited for confirmation from Akira that her accommodations were to her liking. Her slender assistant stepped out from behind her and left a stack of white towels on the rack above the shower before returning to her station. Akira extended her thanks, but the dutiful, timid woman didn’t respond. She kept her eyes fastened on the beige carpeting under their feet, reminding the geiko of the class separations she’d experienced in Japan.
After everyone had left the room, Akira changed into a short black skirt, sleeveless white blouse, and black strappy sandals. She buried her anxieties before setting off to explore the ship, feeling like a young, inquisitive child. The spa offered an incredible array of services; the fully equipped gym, with fitness classes and a personal trainer, had her gasping for air. Near the top deck, she entered the ship’s culinary center and discovered that passengers had the opportunity to learn gourmet cooking while working side by side with master chefs. The library offered a wide variety of books, stretching out over one hundred meters, with deep leather seats where guests could delve into the latest bestsellers. Adjacent to the library was a coffee bar with floor-to-ceiling windows providing panoramic views as baristas served the finest espressos, cappuccinos, pastries, and homemade cookies.
She ventured outside and found the top deck replete with patio furniture, a large swimming pool, and an unbelievably handsome man with exquisitely drawn features. He was stretched out on a lounge chair enjoying a frothy beer in a chilled mug. His light-brown, almost red hair was squared off in the back and long in the front, and his cheeks were clean-shaven and gave rise to nicely sculpted bones, which melded into a square jaw and chiseled chin. She estimated him to be in his late twenties and assumed he was a rich playboy who spent his spare time sunbathing and bodybuilding—enjoying his life without a care in the world.
Akira smiled, wondering what it would be like to feel that way…for just one day.
A waitress with spiky blond hair was serving guests on the deck and approached her with an empty tray. “Gorgeous, huh?”
“Excuse me?” Akira’s vision trailed from the woman’s round face to the thin scar on her neck.
“The hunk over there,” the waitress pointed out with a nod. “The one with the cute dimples and killer eyes. I’ve been enjoying him for hours—along with half the women on this ship.”
Embarrassment warmed Akira’s face. Were all Americans this forward?
“That’s Devon Lyons…from California. He shares interest in a treasure-hunting business and is the hottest thing I’ve seen all year.” Her lips curled into a smile. “I sure wouldn’t mind jumping his bones.”
Akira was startled into reluctant laughter. It was the first time she’d heard the remark, although she assumed it was nothing new. As she stood watching, another cocktail waitress approached Devon and asked about his drink. Then she walked away smiling.
Amazing. There were thousands of men on this ship, and in less than twenty minutes, Akira had found the right one—a robust member of the Lyonses’ family to act as her ally. With no photograph in his file to guide her, even Takashi would be impressed by her discovery.
She glanced down at her hand, still holding her room key, and attempted to divert the conversation. “Actually, I was wondering about the temperature in the pool.”
“Oh, right. Silly me. It’s a comfortable seventy-two degrees. Were you planning to change and go swimming? I can have a chair set up and bring you something cold to drink if you’d like.”
Akira could feel Devon’s eyes on her, and it wasn’t a good place for them to be. At least not for the time being. “Perhaps later,” she said. “I’m new on board and was just trying to get my bearings.”
“Oh, right. Of course. We were told that you and your father would be arriving today. You must be exhausted. If you need anything at all, don’t hesitate to let me know. I’ll be here until nine o’clock tonight.”
Akira made a mental note of the name on her badge. “Thank you, Adriane. I might take you up on your offer tomorrow.” She watched the cocktail waitress approach another guest before stealing another look at Devon. He was leaning on his elbow, listening to something the young woman beside him was saying—smiling and laughing on cue. Akira became keenly aware of him occasionally glancing at her, increasing her discomfort. She released a short breath before walking away in search of the closest elevator.
After arriving at her cabin, she pulled the sliding glass door open and stepped out onto the balcony with her files in hand. The ship was still docked and not scheduled to leave for several hours, giving her time to review information about the Lyons family and to process her encounter with Devon. His bio described him as selective when it came to romance. Apparently he was drawn toward strong, powerful women but struggled with maintaining relationships. He would be a tough one to win over in the limited time she’d been given, especially with trust being an issue. She decided the best way to earn it was by playing the role of a shy, innocent, naïve soul—longing for his approval, love, and protection. It would be something new for Devon—a chance to show off his virility while staking his claim. As for the rest of the family members, she came to the conclusion that they would confide in her in due time, but only with Devon’s help. It would essentially be a game of chess, silently moving into a position of power before eliminating the right opponent.