The taxi collected Daniel Blake from the hotel on time. He liked that. Punctuality, efficiency and professionalism—three things he valued in all areas of his career. Be on time and be prepared—that had been his motto since he was fourteen years old. Fifteen years later, he continued to live by it.
He helped the driver load his gear into the trunk. There wasn’t much of it. When on the road, he traveled light with just a medium-sized case, a holdall and a suit carrier. He’d arrived in Lisbon the previous morning, disembarking from a cruise ship, where he’d performed for two nights. His shirts would need washing and his suit pressing before his next show. There was plenty of time.
He gave the driver directions to his designated cruise terminal and climbed onto the back seat. Thankfully, the air conditioning was running. Though it was late October, the outside temperature remained in the mid-eighties and it wasn’t even eleven o’clock. Last night he had heard some of the hotel staff complain about the weather turning cold, but for a boy like him, born and raised in the northeast of England, these climates were well above average. Back home, this would be a hot day in June or July.
It was a short drive to the port. Early in the day, but the streets were busy. Three massive cruise ships were anchored in the harbor, discharging thousands of eager tourists into the city. British, American, German, Japanese, they scurried through the streets, clutching backpacks and maps, keen to explore as much as they could of the historic Portuguese city in the few hours they had here.
Daniel smiled at their faces as they zipped by.
Lisbon, his last stop before home.
The car arrived at the port and within ten minutes Daniel stood beside the gangway with his luggage, waiting for the necessary security calls to be made that would allow him to board the ship. The enormous vessel towered above him, casting a huge shadow across the dock. The Atlantic was one of the biggest and most spectacular cruise ships in the world.
There were a lot of criticisms for super ships such as this. He’d heard them described as floating shopping malls, grotesque monstrosities and budget hotels at sea, but for Daniel there was something quite majestic about the craft and its design, to say nothing of the engineering that went into the construction of such a huge vessel.
“Those things are so top heavy,” a jobbing magician once had told him in a bar. “I hear they roll right over in high seas.”
Daniel had laughed at the man’s ignorance. “And when did you last hear of that happening?”
The man had floundered. “I’m just saying that something so uneven can’t be safe, can it? You won’t ever catch me on one of them things. Mug’s game, isn’t it?”
“It’s your loss,” Daniel had told him cheerily. He felt safer at sea, even in the roughest weather, than he ever had on a plane. Motorways too. It might not be the quickest, but without a doubt it was the most luxurious and extravagant way to travel. He loved being at sea.
Waiting for the security guy to return with his passport, Daniel realized he’d drawn some attention.
A slow stream of passengers was returning to the ship. They couldn’t have seen much of Lisbon, coming back already. Among them was an English family. While the parents lit cigarettes before joining the embarkation queue, the daughter, who looked around fourteen, stared directly at him.
“Hi.” He smiled. “Good day out?”
The girl was plump and pretty with wavy brown hair that fell around her shoulders. She wore a sweet, flowery sundress and red Converse shoes. She blushed as she realized she’d been caught gawking.
“Are you…? Oh, my God, you are, aren’t you? You’re Daniel Blake.”
He raised his hands in mock surrender. “Guilty as charged. Don’t shoot me.”
The girl nervously stepped forward, looking at him with wide, hazel eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m waiting to join the ship. I’m performing on board.”
Her jaw fell. “The Anthem? You’re coming on the Anthem?”
He nodded. He didn’t mind being recognized like this. Daniel was famous enough in the UK, but not so much that it ever became an inconvenience. His fame came from a TV talent show. The public had made him and he appreciated all the support he got.
“Oh my God.” The girl’s face became highly animated. “Mam! Dad! Come here. Oh my God, you won’t believe it. Daniel Blake. It’s actually him.”
Her bemused parents stubbed out their cigarettes and came over. They were an attractive-looking couple of around forty. The girl looked a lot like her father.
“I hope she’s not bothering you,” the dad said, looking cautiously between Daniel and his daughter.
“Not a bit,” Daniel assured him. “It’s a pleasure.”
“Daniel is going to be singing on the ship. Can you believe it? How cool is that?” She grinned a mile wide.
“Starting tomorrow,” he said. “Make certain you get yourselves a great seat down front. I can use all the support I can get.”
“I will, I will. I voted for you every week on The One. You were my favorite from the start.”
“So it’s you I need to thank for winning. What’s your name, sweetie?”
“Well, thank you, Julieann. Your votes changed my life.”
The girl blushed violently.
The security officer came back to escort Daniel onto the ship. Before boarding, he posed for photographs with Julieann and her family.
“The girls at school will have a fit when they see these on Instagram,” Julieann said proudly as they took a selfie together.
“See you at the shows,” Daniel said as he walked on board. “And don’t forget—front row. Be there. I’ll look out for you.”
“We’ll definitely be there.”
Once on board, he passed his luggage through the security scanner and was equipped with his sea pass ID, the plastic card that would enable him to move around the ship, access his accommodation and run a tab in the bars and shops. He was greeted on the far side of security by a young woman in a blue shirt and khaki shorts. Her soft blonde hair was tied back from her round, attractive face. She was vaguely familiar from his engagement earlier in the season. He checked her name badge to refresh his memory. Belle Hodges, entertainment crew, from South Australia.
“Hi,” Belle said cheerily. “It’s wonderful to have you back on board.”
She extended her hand and he shook it. “It’s great to be back. Honestly, I’ve been looking forward to this since I left in May. How has your maiden season gone?”
“Over too quickly and totally ace. I can’t believe it’s been that long since you were here. Yikes, the time has flown. Let me give you a hand with your stuff.”
“That’s okay. I can manage. Just point me in the right direction and I’ll find my way.”
Ignoring his protests, Belle took up the suit carrier.
“You’re in real luck,” she said. “You’ve been allocated a large stateroom on one of the passenger decks. Balcony and all.”
“You’re joking? Wow. Am I sharing with the house band or a football team?”
Belle giggled, wrinkling her nose. “Silly. You’ve got the whole place to yourself.”
“Seriously? What gives? I never get accommodation like that.”
Belle looked around cautiously and lowered her voice. “We had a family thrown off the ship in Gran Canaria so you’ve got their room. They caused a fight in the martini bar and punched an officer who tried to intervene. Captain Rassimov put them off at the next port. No second chances.”
“Good to know we’re in such firm hands.”
“Captain Rassimov is the best,” Belle gushed.
Daniel didn’t doubt it. He’d met the dashing captain on his last trip. Tall, dark, handsome and extremely charismatic, he sent hearts beating fast among the passengers and crew. If he wasn’t so straight, Daniel would fancy him too. Rassimov was the perfect man to master such a grand vessel.
Launched in May, with a rumored cost of over one-point-five billion, the Atlantic Anthem was coming to the end of its inaugural European season. It was the newest and biggest vessel in the Royal Atlantic fleet. Daniel had spent two nights on board when he’d performed a headline set on the maiden voyage. He’d worked for cruise companies all over the world, but he couldn’t fail to be impressed by the Anthem. It was billed as the ship with everything. From his own experience that was certainly true.
As he walked through the decks with Belle, his sense of excitement increased. The interior was truly splendid. Not a penny had been spared, from the lush carpets to the paintings and sculptures that graced every deck. Before coming on board, he’d read all the specs—about the spa and fitness center, two swimming pools and a solarium, the Royal Theater with nine-hundred-sixty seats, the bars—eight of them across the ship—the main dining room plus three specialty restaurants and a twenty-four-hour café. Several public entertainment areas were situated on Decks Four and Five around a jaw-dropping central staircase. Knowing all of that in advance, he still had been blown away when he’d came upon the ship for the first time. And he felt it now, all over again.
Only the most jaded, spoiled and hard-to-please traveler could fail to be inspired by the Anthem.
They rode one of the glass elevators to the tenth floor where Belle led him down a long corridor to his stateroom in the forward section of the ship.
“Last time, I had an interior cabin in the crew quarters.” He laughed.
“Yep, that’s where they like to cram us in. But now you’ve got this.”
Daniel swiped his sea pass card to enter the room. A major step up from crew class, the room was bright and contemporary, to the standard of any good hotel. He had an enormous double bed all to himself and a sitting area with a long, cream leather sofa. There was a dressing table, minibar, TV, private bathroom and balcony.
“I hope I don’t get lost in here,” he joked, dumping his luggage by the wardrobe.
“As long as you’re on stage for your shows tomorrow night, no one will mind what you get up to in here,” Belle said.
“You can put your mind at ease on that count,” he said. “I’ve been performing since I was fourteen and I’ve never missed a show in my life.”
Belle left him to settle in. Daniel unpacked his clothes first and filled a plastic bag with stuff that needed washing immediately—shirts, socks and underwear. Another great thing about working on a luxury cruise liner—everything was to hand. If he left the bag out today, all the items would be washed, ironed and returned by tomorrow.
He went into the bathroom next, laying out his razor, toothbrush and skincare products. He brought everything with him when he traveled. Though he wasn’t particularly vain, it was important to look good in public.
He didn’t have to worry. At twenty-nine years old—five months shy of thirty—he was in prime condition. He’d never looked better. For years he used to hate the way he looked. Everything about him had been out of proportion, especially his face. Eyes, teeth, nose, chin, they were always too big. But throughout his twenties, the rest of his body had caught up. He’d filled out and gained muscle and his face, which had seemed so awkward in his teens, had developed an extraordinary handsomeness. He had a strong jaw with a cowboy cleft, while his mouth was wide and masculine. With sky-blue eyes and thick brown hair, he had become a good-looking man. Very good-looking.
His confidence hadn’t grown to match his looks. A part of him would always be that skinny, peculiar kid. But only he could see it.
Finally unpacked, he relaxed and walked onto the balcony. He had a great view of the city and the people below, streaming like ants around the port terminals. Daniel took a moment to enjoy it all. He loved just about every part of the cruise experience.
Every ship, every voyage, was a new adventure.
The Atlantic Anthem promised a greater adventure than any other.
He couldn’t wait to get started.