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Meet Me at Sunrise

Meet Me at Sunrise

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  • 167 Pages
  • 3-4 Hours
  • 52K Words
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She's a reluctant heiress. He's a river cruise captain. Finding love in eight days was not on the itinerary…

Between a bad breakup and a rocky relationship with her overbearing father, twenty-three-year-old Vanessa Clark has a history of being disappointed by the men in her life. So when her long-lost grandfather reenters the scene and persuades her to tour northern Portugal on one of his river cruise ships, Vanessa boards the vessel looking for answers about her estranged family, not looking for love.

Captain Matias Romano has enough to worry about without having to babysit his boss’s spoiled American granddaughter, no matter how good-looking and wealthy she is. First the issue with the refrigerators, and now the ship's computers are malfunctioning—he’ll be relieved when this trip is over and he can get back to business as usual.

But as Matias plays tour guide on Vanessa’s excursions and they work together to investigate a series of suspicious accidents aboard, they both realize there’s more to the other than first impressions.

Can Vanessa work through her complicated past to make room for Matias in her future, or will they pass like ships in the night?

If you like sweet stories set on a river cruise with a dashing captain, a reluctant heiress, and a villainous saboteur, you'll love fresh twist on a romantic classic! Unforgettable stories of family, love, and learning where you belong. Discover Northern Portugal with the Romano cousins as they fall in love when they least expect it! Perfect for fans of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Virgin River, and Chesapeake Shores!

Main Tropes

  • enemies to more
  • forced proximity
  • heiress

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Synopsis

She's a reluctant heiress. He's a river cruise captain. Finding love in eight days was not on the itinerary…

Between a bad breakup and a rocky relationship with her overbearing father, twenty-three-year-old Vanessa Clark has a history of being disappointed by the men in her life. So when her long-lost grandfather reenters the scene and persuades her to tour northern Portugal on one of his river cruise ships, Vanessa boards the vessel looking for answers about her estranged family, not looking for love.

Captain Matias Romano has enough to worry about without having to babysit his boss’s spoiled American granddaughter, no matter how good-looking and wealthy she is. First the issue with the refrigerators, and now the ship's computers are malfunctioning—he’ll be relieved when this trip is over and he can get back to business as usual.

But as Matias plays tour guide on Vanessa’s excursions and they work together to investigate a series of suspicious accidents aboard, they both realize there’s more to the other than first impressions.

Can Vanessa work through her complicated past to make room for Matias in her future, or will they pass like ships in the night?

If you like sweet stories set on a river cruise with a dashing captain, a reluctant heiress, and a villainous saboteur, you'll love fresh twist on a romantic classic! Unforgettable stories of family, love, and learning where you belong. Discover Northern Portugal with the Romano cousins as they fall in love when they least expect it! Perfect for fans of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Virgin River, and Chesapeake Shores!

Intro into Chapter One

This was a bad idea. Why had she let Grandfather talk her into this trip?
Vanessa stopped at the entrance of the ship’s formal dining room and gazed around. Outside the panoramic windows, the city of Porto inched up the hill from the docks on the other side of the river, the buildings and roofs and church towers competing for space unsuccessfully. Myriad lights shone against the night sky and spilled in reflective ribbons on the water’s surface. In its architectural disorganization, there was a beauty that called to her. It was a city so unlike the ones she was used to. Much of Portugal was still a mystery to her.
Inside, the passengers sat in groups of eight at round tables, and waiters in white coats flitted between them with silver platters and bottles of wine. Everything in the room spoke of elegance and luxury, from the furniture and dark wood trim to the impeccably white tablecloths and fresh-cut flowers to the damask draperies drawn back with silver ropes and the pianist undulating at the baby grand.
She’d barely looked at the pamphlets Grandfather had sent her and was not prepared for the real-life opulence before her. She—the Kansas girl who preferred well-worn jeans and flip-flops to dresses and high heels—aboard the MS Princess Catarina, the crown jewel in Grandfather’s fleet of luxury river ships. How long until someone recognized she didn’t belong here?
A very bad idea indeed.
At least she was by herself. She’d managed to convince Grandfather she didn’t need the bodyguard he’d planned to send with her. As president of a multi-million-dollar company, he was the one who needed bodyguards. She was just an American girl on her own, and nobody knew of her yet. Besides, what could possibly go wrong on a small cruise ship?
Inside her clutch, her phone rang. It was probably Dad. Again. He’d insisted on being able to contact her throughout the trip and had prearranged a new plan with Verizon. He’d have to wait until tomorrow to talk to her.
An appetizing scent reached her nose. Roasted pork, rosemary potatoes, and something else she couldn’t identify. Vanessa was late to dinner and she had missed the “Welcome Aboard” cocktail party. The light breakfast from this morning was only a memory by now. Her stomach rumbled.
The maître d’ appeared at her elbow. “May I have your name, please?”
Vanessa turned to him, grateful that English was the official language aboard. “Vanessa Clark. Is it open seating?” she asked, while he checked the list in front of him.
“Not for you, Miss Clark. Please follow me.”
As he cut a path to the center of the dining room, Vanessa ignored the urge to smooth her dress and held on to her sequined clutch instead, carefully stepping on the gleaming wood floor and willing herself not to trip on her strappy sandals.
Was it her imagination or did most people pause to look at her? The conversations and clinking of silverware against the porcelain dishes continued on around them, as a few of the passengers darted their eyes at her. This was karma for being the last one to arrive at dinner. For someone who didn’t like attention, she sure had a lot of it now.
The maître d’ pulled out a chair next to a dark-haired man in a black uniform. He was clean-shaven and appeared to be in his early thirties, with an air of confidence that drew her attention. Who was he and what did he do?
The man stood and nodded at her. “Good evening, Miss Clark.”
Her eyes widened for a moment. How did he know who she was?
He didn’t smile openly, but his mouth curved into a pleasant expression, and Vanessa’s lips rose in response.
“I’m glad you made it.” His voice was deep and lightly accented, and his arresting brown eyes held hers for a moment longer than good manners called for.
After an awkward pause, they sat down and Vanessa dragged the bib-size napkin onto her lap, looking away from him and realizing the other guests at the table were staring at her. She drew a quick breath. There was a spotlight directly above, and the heat from it bore a hole in her head. Was the air conditioning even on? Goodness, he was just a man, and not even the most attractive one she’d ever met. Why the sudden discomfort?
“Is this your lovely wife, Captain?” The lady across from them asked.
Captain? Wife? Vanessa turned to the man, noting for the first time the white stripes on his sleeves. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were the captain.” Her cheeks heated at the mistake. She was seated to the captain’s right, without a doubt arranged by Grandfather.
He cleared his throat. “She is lovely but no, not my wife.” He shrugged in a self-deprecating manner, and the other passengers at the table chuckled lightly.
He turned to her. “I’m Captain Romano, Miss Clark.” He then addressed the other passengers who shared their table. “Allow me to introduce Miss Clark, from the United States of America.” He started at his left and went around the table. “Dr. and Mrs. Whitehead, from the UK; Mr. and Mrs. Grantham, also from the UK; and Mr. and Mrs. Grosse, from Germany.”
Vanessa nodded and smiled politely at them before they returned to their meals.
“Miss Clark, I apologize for the blunder,” one of the English ladies said. “But there was an empty chair next to the captain and he seemed to have been waiting for you.” She looked between Vanessa and Captain Romano. “And you two make such a striking couple.”
Vanessa’s cheeks reddened, the curse of a light complexion, courtesy of Dad’s Scandinavian ancestry.
“I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Miss Clark until now,” the captain said.
Vanessa nodded. “Yes, what he said.” She cringed inside. Why couldn’t she come up with an appropriate reply when she needed one?
She busied herself with the perfectly seasoned potatoes on her plate instead. If she nodded and looked interested in the conversations around her, maybe she wouldn’t have to say too much and could save herself from any more embarrassing responses.
“What state are you from, Miss Clark?” the German man asked, his accent evidence of his origins.
Vanessa paused to look at him. “I’m from Kansas.”
His forehead wrinkled and he looked at his wife who gave him a small shrug.
“It’s in the middle of the country. You know, lots of farming and fields, The Wizard of Oz and tornadoes,” she explained, her words running together.
They nodded in understanding. Maybe she should stop talking now.
Vanessa waited for more questions, but thankfully none came, and she slowly let out a small breath of relief as the attention shifted from her.
One of the English men put his fork down. “Captain Romano, is Chef Teresa still on your crew?”
The captain smiled. “She certainly is. In fact, I have the same exact crew as last year.” The pride in his voice was unmistakable.
Was this a common occurrence, to ask after the crew? Her knowledge of cruise etiquette was ridiculously poor despite what she’d read before coming, and even though Grandfather owned the vessel.
The questions continued for the rest of the meal, keeping the captain busy as he gave everyone his attention. How did he find the time to eat? His patience was admirable.
As the courses changed, the captain picked up the bottle of red wine, and Vanessa watched him pour a glass of the burgundy liquid for her. She thanked him and brought the glass to her lips, tasting a drop too small to swallow. The flavor was foreign to her, and she chased it down with a large gulp of the mineral water from the other tall glass in front of her. As she set the glass down, her hand trembled, and she tightened her grip on the stem until the base touched the table. How much longer until she could take refuge in her cabin?
As another waiter slipped a plate with the next course in front of her, she looked casually to the neighboring tables.
Couples. All the passengers sitting in the dining room were couples. Middle-aged and senior couples eating and talking and laughing. She couldn’t find another person close to her age among the hundred and thirty passengers. The growing uneasiness tightened in her chest, and she suppressed a sigh. What had Grandfather done, sticking her on a fancy river cruise with the upper crust of Europe?
Captain Romano leaned in her direction. “Is everything all right, Miss Clark?”
Vanessa’s tongue stuck to her palate, and she took another drink of the barely cold water. “Please, call me Vanessa, Captain.” She raised her eyes to him. “Have you met my grandfather?”
One of the waiters came to the captain and handed him a small card. He tucked it in his pocket and then turned to the rest of the table. “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. I am needed elsewhere for a moment.”
As he stood, he made eye contact with Vanessa. “Excuse me, Miss Clark,” he said to her.
Vanessa nodded in response, not knowing what else to say. Why did he single her out?
What an unfortunate time for him to leave, and how disappointing for her. Now she’d have to wait for another chance to ask him about Grandfather.


***

Matias Romano looked around for the cruise director. When he spotted her across the room chatting with a group of passengers, he rose and excused himself from the last table. He always took the time to greet all the passengers after dinner and he wouldn’t start making exceptions on this trip. But he could leave the rest of the evening in Anabela Rialto’s capable hands. Mingling and interacting with the passengers were some of her duties, and Matias had observed over the last few trips she seemed to enjoy that part of her job.
He had other matters to think about. Like Miss Vanessa Clark. They hadn’t had a chance to talk in private at the table, and she had left the dining room abruptly after the dessert course was cleared, not even waiting for the after-dinner espresso to be served. If she had returned to her cabin, he’d have to talk to her some other time. But leaving her question unanswered wasn’t ideal, and he felt obligated to set a friendly tone between them.
He quickly exited through the main lobby and climbed the stairs to the sun deck. He stopped short before reaching the bridge. There she was, to the starboard side, leaning casually by the railing, looking out to the city on the other side of the river. Her face was in profile, and her long blonde hair blew gently in the breeze. It was a lovely scene and she was a lovely woman, but there was nothing more to it.
So what if he was partial to blondes? A pretty face didn’t hold much interest for him when she’d behaved so snobbishly at dinner. She had picked at her food and barely spoken to any of the other passengers, gazing around the room with an air of aloofness instead. As the only granddaughter of the company’s president, she was probably used to the royal treatment, but that didn’t give her the right to look down on the other passengers. Suddenly, talking to her wasn’t a pressing matter anymore.
Why had he agreed to António Valadares’s harebrained idea? Sure, he could hardly deny any request from the president of the entire fleet of river cruise ships, but acting as a personal guide to his heiress granddaughter was not in Matias’s job description. He should have said no, plain and simple. He was the captain, not a babysitter to a young woman who had everything. But his sense of duty had prevailed instead, as it usually did. There was more at stake than his personal preferences. Senhor Valadares had hinted at a problem with the future of the company, but Matias wasn’t sure how it tied to the granddaughter.
Matias slowed down and squared his shoulders, letting out a slow breath. A hint of anticipation flared up, and he quickly squelched it, annoyed with himself at the twinge of attraction that sparked for a second too long. He only needed to talk to her. Nothing more.
She stood barefoot, her high-heeled sandals lying on their sides, her small purse next to them. Matias resisted the urge to return them to her and shoved his hands in his pants’ pockets. He cleared his throat to greet her, but she spoke first.
“How many times have you made this trip, Captain?”
“Quite a few, Miss Clark.” He faced the city as she did.
This was his seventeenth time up the river on this particular route. He knew because he’d been recording all his trips—not only the cruises but also the fishing and stocking ones—since he’d boarded his first boat as a deck hand at the age of fourteen. There were official records as well but he didn’t like admitting to that level of precision and mostly kept the exact number to himself. “Miss Clark—”
She interrupted him. “And just how long have you been working for this company?”
Matias turned to her. “Is there a reason to your questioning, Miss Clark?” He kept his tone level and even, but his fingers tightened around the key ring inside his right pocket. What was it about this woman? He’d barely met her, and already she set him on edge in a way no one else had in his recent memory.
She leaned away from the railing and turned partially to him. “Just trying to determine how well you know my grandfather.”
“Yes, you asked me that earlier. I’m sorry I didn’t reply.” They’d been interrupted by another passenger needing help, as he was so often during meals.
Matias took a quick breath and braced himself for more questions. He didn’t know what to expect from her and it made him uneasy. The reaction was new to him, but she was more than a simple passenger, and it would serve him well not to forget the connections she had. “I have met your grandfather on several occasions since I started working at the company.”
She turned away from him and let out a long sigh. “Probably more times than I have.” Her words came out quick and low, and maybe not intended for him to hear.
“Is there a problem?” He paused and made eye contact.
“Not a problem exactly.” She looked away and drummed her fingers along the rail.
“Is there something you’re not happy with, Miss Clark?” They hadn’t even departed, and already she had complaints. Usually he left the passenger-related matters to his cruise director, but not this one. She was in his hands, whether he liked it or not. “I know you’re probably used to more personal service, but if you give us a chance, you might be pleasantly surprised.”
Miss Clark’s eyebrows knit in a scowl, but she didn’t comment right away. After a long moment, she asked, “Are all the cabins as large as mine?”
“Excuse me?”
“The cabin assigned to me. Is that the standard cabin size?” She fidgeted with a length of hair, and when his eyes turned to it, she dropped it and flicked it behind her back.
The gesture lasted only a few seconds, but he lost his train of thought as it latched onto the woman in front of him. Matias struggled to resume their strange conversation. “Actually,” he shook his head. “Uh, no. Your cabin is one of two deluxe cabins on the ship. We refer to them as the grand cabins, and they’re reserved for our VIP passengers.”
It was her turn to shake her head. “He did it, didn’t he? He put me in that cabin?”
This conversation was turning more bizarre each minute. “If there’s a problem with your cabin, I’ll ask Miss Rialto to look into it. She’s our cruise director, and I’ll introduce you if you haven’t had the chance to meet her. Your grandfather requested you stay in that particular cabin since it’s the largest and best on the ship, and I have an obligation—”
Her eyes went wide. “Obligation? Obligation to what?”
Not to what, to whom. Her, to be exact. Matias didn’t reply.
“To me, isn’t it? You were going to say you have an obligation to me, weren’t you?”
Matias flinched at her words and the way she’d read his mind. He rubbed his forehead. “It’s not like how you make it sound.” He forced his eyes to her. “Yes, I have an obligation toward you but it’s the obligation I have toward all the passengers on board as well as my crew. I am the captain, after all.”
Her shoulders relaxed a fraction, and Matias pressed on. “Your grandfather only wanted to make sure you have the best experience on this trip and even you can’t fault him for that.” Matias knew from his own research that she was his only granddaughter.
“I’m sure he did.” She shook her head lightly, and her shoulders slumped even more, as if something weighed on her. “I don’t need a babysitter, Captain. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a grown woman.”
He’d noticed all right. More than he wished to, but he wouldn’t be telling her that.
“Did he tell you why he wanted me to take this trip?” she asked.
Matias fumbled to find a reply and she waved him off. “That’s okay, I don’t want to know what he said. There’s enough drama as it is.”
It was family drama and he should stay out it. Well, most of it. He was already involved.
After a moment, she straightened and met his eyes. “At what time does the boat leave tomorrow?”
“The ship departs after lunch.” He emphasized the word to correct her. It certainly wasn’t a boat. “There’s a guided excursion in the morning.”
She bent to pick up her shoes and tucked the purse under her arm. “What are the rules about leaving?”
“Any time the ship is docked, you can leave at your leisure. But if you don’t make it back before departure, we can’t hold it for you.”
She nodded. “That’s only fair.”
As she walked past him, he cleared his throat. “Nobody will prevent you from leaving if that’s what you wish to do, but I hope you’ll consider staying, Miss Clark.” He wanted her to stay, and not just because the company’s president had asked him. Proving to her that the trip was one worth taking had become more important than he’d anticipated.
Before she reached the staircase, he called after her. “Miss Clark.”
She stopped and looked over her shoulder.
“Please be careful when you come out on the sun deck.” He looked down at her bare feet, and she followed his gaze. “Oftentimes the floor is wet and it’s easy to slip. I wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”
She pivoted, raising her fingers in a mock salute. “Aye, aye, Captain.”

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