It had been a companionable cruise, these few days off the south shore of Australia. Johanna got up to shove the ropes into a more comfortable arrangement when a familiar voice interrupted her thoughts.
"If you were a crewmember, we'd have to throw you overboard here." A lightness in the gruff tone belied the threat. Hugh Nelson, of course. She knew it before she turned from the rail.
Returning his smile took no effort. "Indeed sir? May I ask how I have offended, before taking my dip?" It was her best party-room banter, designed to evoke a witty response.
He didn't answer in kind. Instead, he stepped to her, casually setting one hand at the small of her back to turn her back to the rail. He gestured to the sky above. "Your first time to see the southern cross. Your first time below the equator." The reassuring strength of the man beside her stilled, and his hand at her back offered a touch as gentle as she would hold a kitten.
"Ah." She smiled up at him. "A rite of passage."
He gave her that crooked suggestion of a smile, but continued in a serious vein. "Only for some."
She nodded. There was a certain comfort to his seriousness, and…could she be correct? His protectiveness. It was not how she had been taught to talk with a man. She'd long been admonished to show careful respect, and to offer light talk that would allow a gentleman to banter comfortably, allow you to admire his wit. Hugh seemed not to care what one might admire. He never attempted to be a wit.
Of course, he was hardly the sort she had been schooled to talk to. Yet, here she was, at the ship's rail, his arm so gently around her, reveling in his touch. She stood inches from that broad chest, and while he motioned in wonder at the heavens, her gaze slipped back to his face.
He nodded skyward again. "The southern cross is our guide and our guard in these waters."
Johanna made an effort to follow where he pointed, felt his solid bulk beside her. The warmth of his body reached her even through her layers of cotton and linen.