Smitten with Strudel - Smitten with Travel #3
Smitten with Strudel - Smitten with Travel #3
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Cloak-and-dagger shenanigans are on the agenda in this sweet romantic comedy set in Germany.
Smitten with Travel Series - Book #3
Why You'll Love This Book!
- Set in Germany
- Zany Spy Caper
- Riverboat Cruise
- Goofy Humor
- Closed Door Romance - No Sex Scenes or Language
- Happily Ever After
Cloak-and-dagger shenanigans are on the agenda in this sweet romantic comedy set in Germany.
When Isabelle took a job working on a European riverboat, the last thing she expected was to be recruited by a covert spy organization.
Enter Erich—a devastatingly handsome German guy who reminds her of James Bond, though the organization he works for is more along the lines of Get Smart. Their IT department is the worst, their intel is rarely right, and the woman who’s in charge . . . well, let’s just say she’s scarier than the bad guys.
If Isabelle’s past has taught her anything, it’s that you should never trust a man who trades in secrets for a living. But how can she say no to saving the world, even if she’s in danger of losing her heart?
If you like quirky characters, happily ever afters, and zany spy capers, you’ll love Isabelle and Erich’s story.
Chapter 1 Look Inside
Chapter 1 Look Inside
Chapter 1 - The Problem with Marshmallows
There are three things I can’t stand more than anything in the world—marshmallows, nylons, and secretive men.
I’ll apologize in advance if you’re one of those people whose eyes light up at the thought of s’mores or rice krispie treats, or if you have a drawer full of hosiery. But I think we can all agree that guys who are closed books, who never tell you the whole truth, those are the worst.
Given my recent run of bad luck, I’m not surprised that I’m having to deal with two of my pet peeves on the first day at my new job, namely marshmallows and nylons. Fortunately, since I’ve sworn off guys, cryptic, cagey men won’t be a problem I have to deal with. Right?
Please tell me I’m right.
I really need to be right about this. I’m nervous enough starting this new job. The last thing I need is another guy barging his way into my life and turning everything upside down.
Take deep breaths, Isabelle. In, out. In, out.
I repeat this mantra to myself for a few moments. After my last exhale, I feel better. It’s okay to feel anxious, I tell myself. It’s okay to have these feelings.
Then I remind myself what a great opportunity this job is. An American girl like me working on a European riverboat cruise line. What’s not to love? Sailing to exciting ports of call. Exploring quaint towns and bustling cities. Learning about new cultures. Meeting interesting people. Eating delicious food. Who wouldn’t be thrilled?
I straighten my shoulders and look around the reception area of the Abenteuer, the riverboat that will be my home for the next four months. We’re currently docked in Mainz, a German city on the Rhine River. The boat has just undergone some renovations, and everything sparkles and gleams. Unfortunately, the maintenance crew is still working on the air-conditioning system—a necessity for these warm summer days—so I’m dripping with sweat, which isn’t a good look when you’re hoping to impress your new manager and colleagues.
After wiping my brow, my eyes light on Sophia Papadapolous, the bubbly Greek front desk receptionist assigned to conduct my new employee orientation.
She’s still brandishing a tray of marshmallows. “Isabelle, are you sure you won’t try one? It’s a new recipe that the executive chef created. They’re amazing.”
Did I mention the marshmallows are green? Not an attractive shade of green either. More like something you’d see in a petri dish in a lab experiment.
I shake my head. “No, really. I’m not hungry. I just—”
I can’t finish my sentence because Sophia has shoved a marshmallow into my mouth.
Did I mention that they’re enormous? Seriously, who needs marshmallows this big?
I try desperately not to gag, but it’s hard not to. I feel like I’m choking on a sugary ball of cotton. I try to swallow it, but the spongy texture freaks me out. I can’t do it. I really can’t.
I frantically try to find a tissue in my purse to spit it out into, but all I come up with is a crumpled up twenty Euro bill. If I spit the marshmallow into it, I doubt that anyone’s going to accept it as legal tender after that. Would you take money covered in marshmallow? No, of course you wouldn’t.
While I’m pondering my options, Sophia prattles on about the executive chef’s other dessert creations.
There’s no box of tissues in sight. I have no idea where the restrooms are, and I’m starting to freak out.
Someone clears their throat behind me. I turn and see a man wearing a gray suit. He’s not wearing a tie, and his black shirt is unbuttoned at the collar. I catch a glimpse of gold chain before my gaze drifts upward past a jawline with the perfect amount of stubble to a pair of icy-blue eyes framed by hair so blond it looks like a whiteout in a snowstorm. Normally, I’m attracted to men with dark hair and eyes, but there’s something about this guy that’s making me rethink that.
Not that I’m thinking about this stranger in that way. Definitely not. Sure, he’s handsome, but I can tell from the look on his face that he knows women fall for him left and right. And that smugness . . . that’s definitely not my type.
His eyes sweep over me before focusing on Sophia. “Excuse me, miss. Is this where I check in?” he asks with a crisp German accent.
“You must be Erich Zimmerman. We were told you would be boarding the boat a day early.” Sophia presents the tray to him and smiles brightly. “Marshmallow?”
“No,” he growls.
Sophia’s hands tremble slightly when she sets the tray down. As she prints out his registration form, Erich gazes at me intently. Pointing at the left side of my face, he says, “Your cheek is swollen.”
Why yes, it is swollen. Swollen because there’s a giant inedible marshmallow pressing my cheek out like I’m some sort of hamster.
Of course, I’m thinking this, not saying it out loud. I was raised not to talk with my mouth full, thank you very much.
Erich cocks his head to one side, waiting for a response. When I don’t reply, he turns his attention back to Sophia.
I gently stroke my cheek. Is it possible this marshmallow is burrowing through my tooth enamel? Are cavities already forming? Is a huge dental bill looming in my future? What’s the world record for keeping a marshmallow in your mouth without swallowing it?
As these questions swirl around in my head, I spot a crisp white handkerchief tucked in the pocket of Erich’s suit jacket. He must have seen me staring at it, because he hands it to me. I immediately spit the disgusting, gooey marshmallow into it.
Then I do the unthinkable—I hand the handkerchief back to Erich.
Why? I don’t know. Maybe because my mom always told me to return things promptly after borrowing them?
Erich eyes the sticky handkerchief in his hand, then thrusts it back at me. “Keep it.”
As he asks Sophia where he can wash his hands, I feel my face grow warm. I’m mortified. Beyond mortified. Within seconds of meeting this suave debonair European guy, I’ve embarrassed myself beyond belief. I’m sure my face is almost as red as my legs.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to tell you why I hate nylons so much. Every time I wear them, my legs break out into a rash. And when I’m nervous, like I am now, my rash breaks out with its own rash.
I haven’t worn nylons since my days in the Air Force. Back then, nylons were required when wearing a skirt. That’s why I usually opted to wear pants with my dress blues. But here on the Abenteuer, pants are not an option with my uniform. The HR department was very clear—no skirt, no nylons, no job.
In hindsight, I should have opted for “no job.” I should have stayed back home in Texas. I should have kept my dead-end job working at the mini-mart. I should have . . .
Enough with the “should-haves,” Isabelle. Deep breath. In, out. In, out.
My breath hitches in my chest when I realize Erich is looking me up and down. Why is he so handsome? No one should be this good-looking. Especially not a guy whose handkerchief I just spit a marshmallow into.
Erich’s eyes widen ever so slightly when his gaze reaches my legs. I’m pretty sure it’s not because they’re long and shapely. No, if I had to hazard a guess, he’s horrified by the red, blotchy hives covering them.
“You really should get that looked at, Isabelle,” he says. “You wouldn’t want it to interfere with your morning run.”
He nods briskly at Sophia and me, then turns toward the restroom. As he walks away, I crumple his handkerchief in my hands and try to resist the urge to scratch my legs.
Then I do a double-take. How does he know my name? I’m not wearing a name tag, and I’m positive he didn’t overhear Sophia say my name. I’m certain that we’ve never met before. I furrow my brow as another thought sinks in—and exactly how does he know I go running every morning?
* * *
While I’m pondering how Erich Zimmermann knows who I am, a beefy hand clamps down on my shoulder.
“I should have you fired for what you just did,” a gravely voice hisses in my ear. “Spitting into the handkerchief of a VIP guest—that is verboten.”
I spin around and find a stocky woman in her early sixties glaring at me. Her beady eyes narrow as she cracks her knuckles, one by one. My stomach twists into knots and I feel the hives on my legs multiplying. This woman is seriously scary, like a villain out of a James Bond movie.
Sophia nudges me and whispers, “You should apologize to Frau Albrecht. Otherwise . . .” Her voice trails off, leaving me to fill in the blanks as to what fate awaits me if I don’t immediately express my contrition.
I startle, recognizing the woman’s name from the paperwork the cruise line sent me. Frau Albrecht is the Director of Guest Services. In other words, my new manager.
“Um, I’m sorry, ma’am,” I splutter. “It’s just that marshmallows—”
She holds one of her beefy hands up, cutting me off. Her knuckles look swollen. I’m guessing she won’t be able to get her gold signet ring off easily.
“Do not make excuses,” she says slowly, emphasizing each word.
Frau Albrecht’s German accent sounds harsh, unlike Erich’s, which sounded smoky and sexy. His voice was the kind that makes you feel all tingly from your toes all the way up to your—
Whoa, Isabelle. Stop thinking about that man’s accent. You swore off men, remember?
As usual, my inner voice is way more rational than the rest of me. I shove all thoughts of Erich out of my mind.
“You’re not going to fire her?” Sophia asks Frau Albrecht.
My new manager purses her lips. “Unfortunately, Head Office won’t let me.”
The way she says “Head Office” makes it sound like the ultimate authority, one that cannot be defied.
Sophia furrows her brow. “But I thought you made all the hiring decisions on board the boat.”
“Normally I do,” Frau Albrecht says. “But for some reason, Head Office is earmarking Isabelle Martinez for special treatment. They think she is an exceptional hire. Goodness knows why. She’s never worked aboard a cruise ship of any kind, and her only customer service experience comes from working at a mini-mart.” She spits out “mini-mart,” like it has left a foul taste in her mouth.
Sophia turns to me. “A mini-mart? You mean like one of those stores at a gas station?”
“It wasn’t located at a gas station. It was next to a dry cleaners,” I say, as if that makes my former dead-end job so much classier.
“Huh.” Sophia cocks her head to one side. I can’t tell if she’s trying to figure out what “dry cleaners” means in Greek or if she’s trying to find something polite to say about mini-marts.
“Ah, Herr Zimmermann.” Frau Albrecht oozes charm as she gives the VIP guest a wave.
Chewing on my bottom lip, I watch Erich walk toward us from the restroom. His hands look marshmallow-free. I can’t say the same about mine. Awkwardly clutching his handkerchief in my fist, I look down at the floor.
Frau Albrecht starts to speak in German to Erich, but he interrupts. “English, please.”
“My deepest apologies for your treatment earlier by a member of my staff.” I can feel Frau Albrecht’s beady eyes boring into me. She grabs the handkerchief from me, probably instantly regretting that choice given how sticky it is, then says to Erich, “We will have this dry cleaned for you immediately.”
“That’s unnecessary,” he says. “Isabelle can keep it. For allergy sufferers, a handkerchief can come in handy.”
My eyes widen. I take a step toward Erich. “How do you know I have allergies? What are you, some kind of stalker?”
“Isabelle, don’t be rude,” Frau Albrecht says sharply. “Herr Zimmermann is a personal friend of the owner of the cruise line and our VIP guest. You must treat him with respect.”
“It’s fine. Isabelle and I are just bantering,” Erich says in a soothing tone. Then he turns to me, “Isn’t that right?”
“Uh, yes,” I say hastily. “Bantering. That’s what it is.”
No, that’s not what it is. This is not bantering. This is just plain weirdness. What kind of stranger drops in facts that he shouldn’t know about you into casual conversation? I need to get to the bottom of this.
Erich bows slightly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, ladies, I will get settled in my stateroom.”
As he walks up the staircase that leads from the reception area to the deck above, Sophia whispers to me, “I’m glad you’re not getting fired. I have a feeling things are going to be interesting with you on board.”
Frau Albrecht clears her throat, then gingerly hands me back the handkerchief. “I believe this is yours. Now, about your duties.”
As she explains what’s expected of me as a desk receptionist, I notice that Erich’s handkerchief is monogrammed. Except the initials aren’t “EZ” for Erich Zimmermann. Instead they’re “STW.” Why is he carrying someone else’s handkerchief?
Frau Albrecht’s cell phone rings, mercifully stopping her lengthy description of the proper use of a three-hole punch. Apparently, the secret is in how you apply pressure. While she listens to the person on the other end of the line, she hands me a stapler and motions for me to practice using it. This office equipment tutorial is almost making me miss my days working at the mini-mart.
Sophia and I exchange glances when Frau Albrecht screeches into the phone, “What? Head Office wants me to do what?”
She listens for a few more moments—enough time to crack her knuckles several times over—before hanging up. Turning to me, she says through gritted teeth, “You’re no longer a desk receptionist.”
Sophia squeezes my hand. “You’re firing Isabelle? I thought you couldn’t do that?”
“No, I’m not firing her. I’m . . .” Frau Albrecht pauses to take a deep breath, grimaces at me, then continues. “I’m promoting her.”
“Promoting me?” I ask. “Promoting me to what?”
“Congratulations,” Frau Albrecht says flatly. “You’re our new tour manager.”
“Tour manager?” Sophia abruptly releases my hand. “But she can’t be. That’s Maria’s job.”
“Head Office has transferred Maria to another role. She’ll be based in London.”
“No, that’s not possible,” Sophia says. “Maria is my best friend. She would have told me if she was being transferred.”
“It was very sudden,” Frau Albrecht says.
Sophia pulls her phone out of her pocket, but before she can dial her friend, Frau Albrecht stops her. “You won’t be able to reach her. Her flight has already taken off.”
“Fine. I’ll speak with her later,” Sophia says. “But why Isabelle? If anyone should be promoted, it should be me. I’ve been working on this boat for three years, and Maria was training me to take over her role one day.”
“Yes, you would be much better suited to the role.” Frau Albrecht turns and glowers at me. “But Head Office instructed me to give the job to Isabelle.”
I hold my hands up. “I don’t want it. Give it to Sophia. Besides, I don’t even know what a Tour Manager does.”
Frau Albrecht ignores me and goes into the small office behind the front desk. She returns a moment later and thrusts a large binder in my hands. “Everything you need to know is in here. We have passengers boarding tomorrow for a weeklong Rhine River cruise. I hope you’re a quick study.”
Before I can ask any other questions, Frau Albrecht tells Sophia to join her in the office. I stare at the binder and gulp. I’d give anything to be back at the mini-mart right now.
I’m about to push open the office door and insist that Frau Albrecht give Sophia the job when I overhear the two of them talking.
“But that job should have been mine,” Sophia says.
“Don’t worry,” Frau Albrecht says. “She will fail. I guarantee that by this time tomorrow complaints will be so numerous that Head Office will have no choice but to fire her and give you the job.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” Frau Albrecht says. “She is completely unsuited for the position. One way or another, I’m going to make sure she leaves here in disgrace.”
I straighten my shoulders and hug the binder to my chest. Challenge accepted, lady. The only one who’s going to be disgraced is you.
Then reality sinks in and I slump against the wall. How in the world am I going to pull this off?
* * *
The clock is ticking. I have less than twenty-four hours before the passengers begin boarding the Abenteuer. They’ll be expecting their tour manager to greet them, answer any questions they may have about the cruise, and brief them about the itinerary and ports of calls. And they’ll expect that their tour manager is knowledgeable about the history and culture of the areas they’ll be visiting.
Boy, are they in for a surprise.
As of right now, all I know about the cruise is that we start in Mainz. From here, we’ll sail north, first stopping at Rudesheim, Koblenz, and Cologne in Germany, then onward to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where the trip will end and the passengers will disembark.
And that’s pretty much the extent of what I know. Detailed knowledge of each port? History and culture of the region? What time dinner is served? I don’t have a clue.
I shift the binder in my arms. Time to get cracking. I’ve got a lot to learn.
The reception area is bustling with activity as crew members get the boat ready for departure, so I decide to head to the library, where I can hopefully get some peace and quiet.
I race up the stairs, then through the opulent lounge, where passengers can gather for drinks, play card games, or just sit quietly and look out the windows, taking in the sights. The entrance to the library is next to the sleek wooden bar.
Pushing open the door, I breathe a sigh of relief. The small room is deserted. I kick off my heels, and my feet sink into the plush carpet. I set the binder on a coffee table, then inspect my legs. The itchiness is unbearable, but I remind myself for the millionth time not to scratch them.
It’s not easy. What’s the point of having an itch that you can’t scratch? There are some mysteries about the design of the human body that I’ll never understand—Why in the world do our ears keep growing? What’s up with having an appendix since it serves no purpose? Itchy skin is right up there.
I plop onto the couch and stare at the binder. I know my therapist and I have talked about the importance of embracing change, but this is ridiculous.
I should quit. There’s no shame in quitting, right?
Okay, there’s a little shame, but I can live with shame. It wouldn’t be the first time. But there’s the little matter of my bank account balance. Usually, I’m very careful with my finances. But I’ve spent more than I planned on this European adventure. Now all I have left is that crumpled up twenty Euro note in my purse. Since I won’t get my first paycheck until next month, I was counting on free room and board to get by.
I look down at the amethyst ring on my right hand, and my eyes tear up. Memories of my grandmother’s funeral flood back. “She wanted you to have this,” my mom had said to me. “She was a strong woman, just like you are.” That was right before I joined the Air Force. I thought I was a strong woman at the time. But so much has happened since then. Nowadays, I’m scared of my own shadow and panic when there’s any change to my routine.
After wiping my eyes, I grab my phone and send a text to my mom. It’s time to swallow my pride and ask for help. I know she’ll be happy to loan me some money, but I hate being in this position.
While I wait for her to respond, I absent-mindedly scratch my legs. When I realize that I’ve drawn blood, I shake my head. Why am I still wearing these ridiculous nylons? If I’m quitting this job, it’s time to take these babies off.
I walk out of the library and head to the restrooms at the far end of the lounge. Of course they’re closed for cleaning. Just my luck. I could go to the restrooms on the deck below, but I don’t want to run into Frau Albrecht until I’m sure my mom can help me out financially.
The itching is insane. I rush back to the library. There’s no one inside, so I close the door and hitch up my skirt. I strip the nylons off one leg, then as I’m tugging the other side over my other ankle, I hear a familiar German voice ask, “Do you need assistance?”
Startled, I try to pull the nylons back on and straighten my skirt. Things don’t go as planned, and I end up on the ground with my nylons twisted in a ball in my hands and my skirt turned around so that the zipper is in front. It’s a good look . . . not.
I squeeze my eyes shut. If I can’t see who’s talking to me, they can’t see me, right?
“May I assist you?” the man asks again.
Hoping it’s not who I think it is, I crack open one eye. Then I groan. It’s him. Or at least it’s his shoes. Why I recognize Erich Zimmermann’s shoes, I have no idea. It’s not like I’m into men’s shoes. Now men’s suits, those I notice. Especially ones that emphasize their broad shoulders. Like the gray suit Erich had on earlier.
I crack open my other eye. Is he still wearing that suit?
Stop thinking about what Erich’s wearing, Isabelle. You’re lying on the floor clutching a pair of nylons in your hands. Is now the time to be thinking about menswear?
I squeeze my eyes shut again. Maybe he’ll take the hint and go away.
“Here, let me help you up,” Erich says, oblivious to my hint.
Taking a deep breath, I open my eyes and see his outstretched hand. I extend mine, but he frowns.
Of course. That’s the hand with the nylons in it. He probably thinks I’m trying to give them to him, like I tried to give him back his marshmallow-encrusted handkerchief. He’s smart, I’ll give him that. Too smart to accept anything I try to hand to him.
I extend my other arm, and he pulls me to my feet.
“Thanks,” I mutter.
“Your leg is bleeding,” he says matter-of-factly.
I gasp when I see the bloodstain on the carpet. Why couldn’t I have resisted the urge to scratch my legs?
As I try to blot it out with my nylons, Erich walks over to a small buffet table by the window and pours a glass of water.
Really? Is he going to watch me try to clean this up while having a refreshing drink?
“Try this instead,” he says, pulling a fresh handkerchief out of his pocket and dipping it in the water. After he hands it to me, he leans back against the wall.
Okay, he was helpful with the wet handkerchief, but it’s really annoying how he’s calmly standing there watching me.
I finally manage to get the blood out, then Erich helps me to my feet again.
Glancing at the handkerchief in my hand, I say, “I don’t suppose you want this one back either.”
He shakes his head. “No, you can keep that one as well. Although, it isn’t as fascinating as the first one I gave you.”
Since when did handkerchiefs become fascinating? “Okay, thanks. It’ll make uh, an interesting souvenir.”
“Souvenir of what?”
I shrug. “My short-lived tour manager job.”
Erich furrows his brow. “Short-lived?”
“Yeah, I’m going to quit. I’m not cut out for this.”
“Quit? No, you’re not quitting,” he says firmly.
“Uh, yes, I am.” I shove the handkerchief in one of my jacket pockets and the nylons in the other. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Oh, but it is my business.” Erich’s eyes grow steely. “There’s no way you’re quitting. Not after all the trouble I went to arranging for you to get this job.”
I arch an eyebrow. “You got me this job? I don’t think so. I never even met you until today, mister.”
Erich folds his arms across his chest. “We may not have met before, but I can assure you that the reason you have this job is because of me. It’s the perfect cover for our mission.”
I arch an eyebrow. “Our mission?”
“Yes, we’ve been tasked with stopping an international arms deal.”