A/N: A few people will have read this first chapter already (as a flash — I've extended and rewritten it a little bit now, as well as getting it betaed). Apologies for that, and thank you if you read it again. :)
Thank you to the lovely team who supported me in this: my pre-readers Claire H and NinaQ (who was especially helpful, I feel lucky to have her) and my betas, TDS88 and Bigblueboat. Any mistakes are mine: I fiddled with things afterwards, and I'm probably a little stubborn over others.
Out of the window, there was only endless blue in every direction. Where the paler colour of the cloudless sky ended, the dark grey-blue of the North Sea began. The water was deceptively calm, with only occasional traces of white spray indicating what power lay dormant there.
My own calm exterior masked a mess of barely-tamed emotions. Excitement swirled inside me, mingling with a touch of first-day nerves. I knew the nerves were normal; I'd learned to harness them in this sort of situation, use them to motivate myself and be ready for anything. I wanted to seize this opportunity, and I was eager for whatever new experiences the day would hold.
The helicopter ride, combined with my incredulity at finally taking this journey, made for a powerful adrenaline rush — one I could only equate to the first time I'd skied down a blue-level slope; I could see why people did other extreme sports. This was going to be my commute to and from work, but I couldn't imagine the thrill ever wearing off. I hoped the rest of the day could live up to it.
Jake, another newbie engineer, nudged my arm from the seat beside me. I took my eyes away from the window and turned towards him, taking in his wide grin. I couldn't help smiling in response. I could easily imagine him as the male model in a toothpaste ad — though in the puffy yellow survival suit and headset he was wearing, perhaps he was more suited to a career guidance video. I was sure my own kit looked just as ridiculous.
"This is amazing, right? What a way to get to work!" he said over his mic.
Someone in front of us turned round and put both thumbs up. All of us — except the pilot — could hear each other over this channel of the intercom system.
I glanced out of the window again, before looking back to him. "Yeah, the view is stunning."
"It makes a change from the traffic jams of my old commute! One thing though … I'm not really sure yellow's my colour," he said, pinching the fire-retardant, waterproof material of his sleeve and crinkling his nose in mock distaste.
I laughed. "Maybe you can request a red one next time."
I was glad Jake was joking about the suits instead of reminding me of why we were wearing them. The helicopter crash simulator from our safety training course — a contraption we had to practise escaping from once it had plunged into a cold swimming pool — was still fresh in my mind. It was enough to scare less determined applicants out of proceeding any further. I was sure that part of the training must have crossed Jake's mind today too; the chance of an emergency happening was slim but very real.
I was under no illusions; there would always be danger involved in this job. I had to stay aware of it, but not let it stop me from enjoying the adventure ahead.
I pushed thoughts of risk to the back of my mind and looked over to my colleague. He was looking out of the window, a look of wonder coming over his face.
I didn't need another word to know what he'd seen, and I followed his gaze eagerly.
The oil rig rose up out of the expanse of empty sea like a mirage on the horizon. To anyone not in our field, the huge, multi-level metal structure probably would have looked ugly, but to me it was something beautiful; a complex feat of engineering allowing us to harness nature's fuel, black gold. The oil platform itself looked impressive, but it was what went hundreds of feet down that really mattered.
I couldn't take my eyes off the rig as we approached it. This was the place I'd finally get to put into practice everything I'd studied for. My friends and family had been warning me what a tough life it was going to be, but those who knew me best were well aware that once I'd decided to do something, there wasn't much they could do to stop me. The year I'd spent in an oil company's office to gain experience had only strengthened my desire to get my hands dirty. Offshore life wasn't for everyone, but it might be exactly what I was looking for. I understood what I was getting myself into, and I'd regret it forever if I didn't give this a try.
The helipad was coming into view. A sign to one side spelled out the name of my home for the next two weeks: the Caius oil rig.
"Prepare for landing," the pilot said into the intercom as he guided the helicopter down. We landed smoothly, and relieved applause broke out onboard; clearly even some of the regular travellers still felt nervous flying. Ten or so men, dressed in bright red coveralls and yellow helmets, were standing at a safe distance down on the platform.
The pilot opened the door and put down the steps. The engine had quietened down to a low whirr, but the rotor-blades continued to spin, so we had to keep our headsets on.
"OK, guys. You're safe to disembark," the pilot said over the intercom.
Jake and I were near the back, so most of the others had already got out before we got to the exit. He took the steps down first, and then put out his hand for me. He probably meant well, but I was perfectly capable of taking the steps alone. I needed to start as I meant to go on — on my own two feet. I smiled but shook my head, and Jake withdrew his hand, looking slightly disappointed. I stepped down carefully, feeling that all eyes were on me. I made it without any mishaps.
"This way, everyone!" a tall man shouted over the noise of the helicopter, beckoning for us to come towards him.
We followed him in single file down the metal steps, away from the helipad and onto a lower level.
"Everyone but the new recruits can go and get signed in." The man held a clip-board and spoke confidently, in a slightly Scottish accent. Like Jake, he was dark-haired, tanned and muscular, although this man looked older.
The other rig workers from our flight headed off towards a door, leaving only Jake and me.
The man looked down at his clip-board. "Jake and Bella, correct?"
"Yes," we said simultaneously.
"Welcome tothe Caius, both of you. I trust you had a pleasant journey over?"
"Yes, thanks, it was smoother than I'd expected," Jake answered.
"Glad to hear it. I'm Paul." He extended his hand to me.
I shook his hand, saying, "Good to meet you, Paul."
"Jake," Paul said, shaking the younger man's hand. "Good to have you both onboard. I believe neither of you have worked offshore before, right? I'll give you a tour right after we've met the guys."
Guys. Am I the only woman, then? I'd known this would be part of the deal — even on my degree course, we women were significantly outnumbered. In fact, I generally enjoyed male company better than female. This had been true since I'd been a teenager; I'd found them easier to get on with — less bitchy than girls my age. Maybe it had been something to do with living with only my father.
At least so far, Paul hadn't mentioned my gender outright. I didn't want any special treatment.
"First, I'll take you to the locker rooms where you can get out of those suits."
I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a female locker-room. Maybe I wasn't the only one, after all. I took off the suit and changed into some semi-smart black trousers and a blouse out of my backpack.
Once I met the others again, Paul showed Jake and me to a canteen area. Forty or so men were eating at three long tables. They were dressed casually, mostly in blue jeans and shirts or T-shirts. There was a scraping of chairs as nearly all of them stood up and looked in our direction. I wasn't sure if they were standing up because of me or if that was just how they greeted a senior officer.
"Sit down!" Paul shouted, and they did. One guy doffed an imaginary cap as he took his chair again. That gesture was definitely meant for me, and I couldn't help noticing him. The brief smile on his handsome face faded as he turned to talk to the man next to him, and I gave into my curiosity by studying him more closely.
He was amongst the youngest in the room, though probably still older than I was — perhaps in his early thirties. His chaotic, light brown hair wasn't excessively long, but still more so than most of the other rig workers, the majority of whom had short, army-style crops.
He was slim but muscular. I could see his well-defined arms clearly in his short-sleeved shirt, but there was the promise of more underneath. Moving my eyes back to his face, I took in his defined cheekbones, dark pink lips and that masculine jaw-line, emphasised by a dusting of stubble.
I wasn't here to appraise the looks of the male crew, and it bugged me that he'd got me doing so, but I had to concede that he was easily the best looking man here. Even Jake paled in comparison.
He turned towards me again, meeting my eyes, and winked.
I was irritated to feel my cheeks heating up in response, and I looked away quickly. I'd learned to control my blushing on most occasions, and I wasn't sure why I hadn't managed on this occasion.
Paul was talking, and when I realised he was addressing me, I regained my composure and gave him my full attention.
"… I'm sorry, Bella, I told them not to act any different for you, but we don't get many ladies here … so I'm afraid you'll have to put up with a bit of this." He waved his hands around, indicating the men.
He wasn't singling out the guy I'd been staring at, so maybe he thought they'd all made me feel uncomfortable by standing up.
"That's OK. I understand," I said, smiling and keeping my voice level.
"Not everyone's here. They can't all leave their posts. But these are some of the guys that will share your two weeks on the rig. The last remaining workers from the old shift leave for shore tomorrow, after handing over to us."
Two weeks on, two weeks off — that was the normal shift pattern. It was another aspect of the job that I was going to have to adjust to. Twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week sounded pretty intense, but on the other hand, the long breaks should make up for it. It was hard to know until I'd tried it.
Paul went on to introduce us properly to everyone. I knew I wouldn't remember many of the names, but I noted the one who'd winked at me was Edward Cullen, and he was one of the roughnecks.
"So meals are served here, and the menu changes daily," Paul was saying. "The food's pretty good. Now I'll show you to your living quarters."
There was energetic chatter from the guys as we walked away, especially from Edward's table. I heard a heated explosion of swearwords in one voice, and then laughter from the rest of the group.
"Not in front of the lady! Go wash your mouth out with soap, Cullen," someone at the table closest to us said. They laughed again.
I looked back, and Cullen was slapping bank-notes down on the table. He looked over in my direction, and I pulled my stare away, but not before seeing his indecent smirk. He was good at those.
Were they talking about me? Had he just lost a bet over me? It certainly seemed that way, but I tried to convince myself I was just being paranoid.
The next hour was spent viewing the rest of the rig, and I stopped thinking about him, excited to see the state-of-the-art machinery. The recreational areas looked pretty well-equipped too. The facilities included a small gym and a TV room. I had my own cabin because the only other empty bunks were in rooms shared with guys — there must have been a single-sex policy for sleeping quarters. I found out there were a handful of women on the rig, but that all but one worked in catering or on the medical staff. One other woman, Rose, worked in a technical role; hopefully, I'd get to meet her soon.
There were only a few hours left of my shift — I'd be working reduced hours for the first few days until I got up to speed. I was disappointed to be told by Paul to "kick back and enjoy myself" for the evening, instead of getting to see the platform floor properly, but I resisted the urge to protest. The final few, dark, hours of the shift were probably not the best time to start learning what was what. I found Jake in the TV room, along with a couple of others who were taking a late break. I half-watched the drama series that was on for a while, but seeing how hard it was for me to concentrate on the predictable plot made me realise just how tired I was. I excused myself before the programme had finished and went back to my cabin for an early night.
I got up the next morning, for once not hating the sound of my alarm clock. Today, I wanted to go to work. Plus, I was already on-site, so I actually had more time to spare than usual.
The simple-looking bunk had been more comfortable than I'd expected, so I'd slept well. I showered in the small ensuite bathroom, and then got dressed in black trousers and a blue blouse — white wouldn't stay clean for long in this environment. The clothes were smart but functional, more comfortable than my old office wear.
I hesitated for a moment in front of the mirror, before deciding to put on some subtle makeup — just mascara and a pale lipstick. To fit in here, I needed to look professional and give the right impression, but without looking as if I'd spent excessive time grooming myself. My hair was too short to tie back, so I just pinned back the loose strands from my face with grips.
When the hairdresser had shown me the result of her work in the mirror a month ago, I'd barely recognised myself. For years, I'd worn my brown hair longer than my shoulders, but getting the rig job had been the push I'd needed to try something new. Charlie had been shocked when he'd seen it, not that he'd said as much — he was a man of few words — but I knew from the look in his eyes. But I grew to like it, and perhaps he could too. The cut suited me, and I appreciated the time I saved on washing and brushing my hair. I still felt feminine, from how it sat in waves and framed my face.
I put on black work boots before heading out — not exactly a fashion statement, but practical and safe was what counted here. Good, ready to go.
I reported to Paul's office a few minutes before the appointed time, and he showed me to a room beside the control room I'd seen yesterday. There were three men inside: two were seated at computers, and the third was standing at the lab bench, wearing a lab coat.
"Hi, Garrett," Paul said.
A brown-haired man swivelled round in his chair, away from his computer, to greet us. He was probably in his forties, though he had no sign of grey in his shaggy brown hair or moustache. His V-neck T-shirt and brown suede jacket were in sharp contrast to the other men's smart cotton shirts, making him look like a well-travelled adventurer who'd wandered into the wrong location or was just passing through. His trousers were nothing noteworthy, but his belt had a showy metal buckle.
"I'd like to introduce you to Bella, the junior Fluid Engineer I told you about. Bella, you'll be working under Garrett's guidance. He's a very experienced senior engineer."
Garrett stood up and extended a huge hand towards me.
"Pleased to meet you," I said, shaking hands with him. His grip was firm and confident.
"Likewise. I'm looking forward to working with you, Bella," he said, in an American accent. The words sounded relatively formal, but there was a humour and a warmth to his voice.
"I'll leave you to it then. Have a good day, Bella. Let me know if you have any concerns," Paul said and left through the door we'd entered by.
I sat down beside Garrett in the empty chair he indicated.
"So, Bella … what experience have you had in the field?"
I filled him in on my degree and the year I'd worked since then, at another onshore oil company. I'd only had a few months of working on the actual rig, after a year stuck in the office, but I tried not to overplay my preference for one or the other. It was all relevant experience.
"You must have been dying to get out of the office," he said, smiling mischievously.
"You're so right!" The relief at him guessing the truth made me feel free, and I dropped my guard a little. "I can't tell you how badly. I suppose the best thing about it was that it helped me feel even more certain that wasn't what I wanted to do, though. Working at the drill site onshore was an improvement, but I wanted to come out here … really get my hands dirty …" I trailed off, hoping that I didn't sound like some naïve kid.
"That's great, Bella. Enthusiasm will get you a long way out here." His moustache twitched as he chuckled. "So will fluid mechanics, though. What do you know about pore pressure prediction?"
His face became more serious, but he nodded to encourage me as I dragged what I could of the subject from my memory. Once I'd finished, he prompted me with hints about a couple of points I'd missed out and then started to show me around the software. I noticed his jewellery as we worked: a leather thong around his neck with a carved wooden symbol on it, and a gold wedding ring on his left hand. It felt inappropriate to ask about his family, though I wondered if he had a wife or children back home. That must have been hard.
We went through the geology of the rig and what the ideal viscosity of the mud needed to be. The setup was familiar from my time on the onshore rig, but the equipment here was hugely more advanced and up-to-date. Offshore was where the real money was.
Garrett had a wealth of knowledge about the field and a clear love of his job. I was glad that my mentor was not only very experienced, but also so approachable. He made me feel comfortable enough to ask lots of questions, and he answered them patiently and comprehensibly. I wanted to soak up as much information as I could.
Garrett asked me to go down to the rig floor to make some checks, perhaps to test if I knew where to go or to get me talking to the workers there. I put my helmet and safety glasses on and a hi-vis jacket over my blouse, bracing myself in anticipation of the weather.
I took the metal staircase down to the level below the office. Once outside, there was a brisk wind, carrying with it a strong smell of oil fumes. Though I couldn't see the sea from here, I could hear the waves crashing against the platform, even over the noise of the machinery.
I spotted Edward, somehow recognising him — as if I was fine-tuned to his presence — even though he was dressed differently this time. Red coveralls replaced the casual clothing, and a yellow helmet hid his hair from view. He wore safety glasses like mine.
I looked around for someone else, but he seemed the only one within hearing distance, and I needed to ask where the right monitor was. I thought out what to say, not wanting to let him affect me like he had before.
"Can you tell me where the Marsh funnel monitor is, please?" I sounded suitably confident, but I knew once I'd spoken that I hadn't made myself heard over the machinery.
He focussed his curious gaze on me.
"Speak up, lady," he said, putting his hand behind his ear. His accent was English, maybe with a tinge of somewhere Northern.
Annoying, pretty fucker. I looked him in the eye, confidently, and repeated my question loudly, adding, "I assume you know what that is?"
Shit, that sounded patronising. Why am I being this antagonistic? He seemed to bring out the worst in me.
"Of course." He gave an easy smile that lit up his whole face, and I couldn't help but smile back. That was short lived. "You're the Mud-man right? Or should I say … mud-woman. Mud-ma'am?" He laughed.
I stepped in closer to be heard without shouting, though closer to him was not where I wanted to be at this moment.
"Yes, I'm here as a trainee Mud Engineer," I said primly, not bothering to say 'Fluid Engineer' as he'd probably make a joke out of that too. I hated hearing stupid nicknames for my career — they didn't do justice to the high degree of technical knowledge it required. I'd studied for four years, plus my year and a bit onshore, before managing to secure this position.
"Have you ever been on an offshore rig before?"
He seemed a bit amused, but perhaps he was just curious.
"Well, no, but I've worked at one onshore." I didn't add that most of it was in an office.
"Fuck, you're in for a shock then, sweetheart," he said. I bristled at the 'sweetheart', but at least he was ignoring his colleague's suggestion not to swear in front of a woman.
"Actually, I'm well aware of what's involved, thank you."
He ignored me. "The long hours? The huge distance from civilisation?"
"At least a lack of the opposite sex won't be a problem for you."
I wanted to slap him. And then kiss the dirty smirk off his face.
I decided to confront him about yesterday instead — that was probably safer. At least I could get the whole thing cleared up and move on.
"Did you lose a bet about me yesterday?" I demanded.
He quirked an eyebrow, then licked his soft lips, seeming to pause in thought.
"How did you know?"
I snorted, muttering, "Men," under my breath. I preferred their company to women, but some of them still managed to amaze me with their stupidity.
"The others bet that I'd end up sleeping with you."
I swallowed hard, surprised at his honesty as much as at the exact nature of the bet. "You what?"
I mentally counted to ten to avoid letting out too many expletives. I didn't want to start my first week with threats to report someone for sexual discrimination.
"Kind of disrespectful, I know, but we do our best to entertain ourselves during the boring long hours here … we get up to all sorts. They made me an online dating profile once!"
I snorted at that, but he ignored me.
"But it's hard to keep a girlfriend when I'm away from home so long. It's better if I just don't get involved. Anyway … we were all curious what sort of a woman would come out here to work."
I was about to say I'd never asked about his marital status and then give him an earful about the bet, but he was talkative once he got going.
"So I told them 'no way' was I going to end up sleeping with you, but that was before I'd set eyes on you." He reached out to touch my heated cheek, and I didn't stop him. "I knew that moment that I was a lost cause."
I was glad the men nearby seemed too busy to notice any of this. I pretended to tuck some hair behind my ear, even though most of it was in fact pinned back and hidden under my helmet.
"Tell me you don't have a boyfriend?" he asked, sounding a little desperate.
"I don't," I admitted. I didn't know why I wasn't telling him that it was none of his business; I couldn't seem to ignore the spark between us.
"Okay, well, I'm going to have to wait until we get off the rig, or I'll get us both fired." He laughed. "That's going to be pretty difficult though, Bella."
I loved the way my name sounded on his tongue. That started off thoughts of his tongue on me, and the heat from my face moved further down. That bloody blush again.
"Fuck me, you feel it too?" I could hear relief in his voice. He looked at me knowingly.
I didn't trust myself to answer. Instead, I tried to get back to what I was here for. "Please, just show me to the probe."
"Oh, I can show you my probe if you like, Bella." He chuckled.
"Really? You're really going to go there?" I asked, hands on hips. I'd dealt with enough men at university to know how to handle myself — being in the female minority, I'd often attracted attention. It was probably best to stop him now, in case he ended up talking about drilling me. I didn't know if I could handle that.
He held his hands up in apology, but he was still chuckling softly. "OK, I'll take you over there. I'll be good now, I promise."
I should have been relieved, but wasn't altogether sure I wanted him to be good.
I followed him across the platform.
This was going to be a really long two weeks.
A/N: Tell me what you think. :)