Back to reality ...
Of all the welcomes Cadie had imagined, being swept up into an all-encompassing senatorial bearhug was the most unexpected. She felt herself lifted off her feet as Naomi squeezed her.
"Welcome back, darling," effused the senator, putting Cadie down and planting a resounding kiss on her shorter partner's lips. "It's good to have you back. I missed you."
Cadie cringed, painfully aware of Jo turning away from the scene and making a show of greeting Jenny and Paul.
"Hello, Naomi," Cadie replied, fighting the urge to struggle out of the senator's grip. What is with this? she wondered. Yesterday she was screaming at me down the telephone and today she's all over me. What gives?
"I was worried about you," Naomi continued, guiding Cadie to a seat in the cockpit. "When Paul told us how Jo had disturbed a burglar at her house, I was concerned. Are you all right?" She looked the blonde up and down, her expression all concern and care as she sat down next to Cadie.
"Yes, Naomi, I'm fine," the blonde replied. "And it wasn't Jo who disturbed the burglar, it was Josh, the young man who was looking after Jo's house for her." She decided to stick with the same story they'd come up with for Josh's parents. "We got there at the same time as the police and they handled it."
"Well, that's grand," said Naomi, patting Cadie's thigh and casually leaving her hand there. "Look, I'm very sorry about my attitude on the phone last night. But, as you can understand, I was scared out of my wits for you." She smiled winningly and looked Cadie in the eye. The blonde felt herself squirming inside.
"It's okay," she mumbled. "Forget about it."
"In fact," continued the senator, "while I'm in the mood to apologize, I'm going to go and tell Jo the same thing, while you settle back in." Before Cadie could object, Naomi bustled off in search of the skipper.
"Look out, Jo," Cadie muttered to herself. "Here comes Hurricane Silverberg." She watched anxiously as Naomi accosted the tall skipper. She could see Jo's face over the senator's shoulder and at one point caught her eye, trying to smile in reassurance. Jo's expression clouded over as the senator shook her hand.
Jo watched the senator hurrying towards her with a large degree of trepidation. Like Cadie, she had been surprised by the friendliness of Naomi's welcome, and had stuffed the unexpected pang of jealousy deep down. But now there was no avoiding the senator's approach.
Welcome back to real life, Jo-Jo, she thought to herself as Naomi closed in.
"Skipper, I want to thank you personally for looking after my partner so well," gushed the senator, placing one hand on Jo's shoulder and pulling her away from Paul and Jenny. "I know you were in a difficult situation but she tells me you did everything possible to keep her safe and happy."
I certainly did, thought Jo. But I'll bet you don't want to hear that.
"It was no trouble, honestly," she said aloud. "I'm the one who should be thanking her for tagging along when my personal life was intruding on her vacation."
"Not at all, not at all," said Naomi, grinning from ear to ear. "It was good of you to keep doing your job in the face of such problems. And just to show my gratitude ... " She reached forward and shook Jo's hand, pressing a $100 bill into the taller woman's palm.
Jo caught Cadie's eye over the senator's shoulder and tried to keep her expression light. But then Naomi leaned forward.
"You really went above and beyond the call of duty, Miss Madison," she said quietly, and this time Jo saw the glint of something entirely different in the senator's brown eyes.
And if I do it again I'll be at the bottom of the ocean wearing cement boots, is what she's really telling me, thought Jo, keeping a tight rein on her temper.
"Really," she said, trying to keep her voice calm. "There's no need. And we don't accept cash gratuities." She tried to hand the money back.
Again the senator leaned in, this time her manner infinitely more menacing.
"Consider it payment for services rendered," she almost growled, her fingers now biting into Jo's shoulder painfully. Suddenly she released her grip and smiled broadly again, before turning on her heel and heading back towards Cadie.
Jo grimly fought down the urge to throw something large and solid at the back of the senator's retreating head. Instead she looked down at the bill in her hand.
Well, that's put me firmly back in my place, hasn't it, she thought. Angrily she stuffed the money into her shorts pocket and turned back to Paul and Jenny who had watched the conversation.
"What the hell was that all about skipper?" the tall man asked bemusedly. "She's been as mad as a cut snake from the minute she found out Cadie was with you. Now suddenly everything's sunshine and happiness."
Jo tried to brush it off.
"Beats the hell out of me Paulie," she replied with a wan smile.
"She hung on to my cell phone after she had a go at you last night," Paul admitted. "Said it was some kind of personal emergency. I didn't see it again for an hour." He saw the grim look on Jo's face and hastily apologised. "Sorry, skip, but I figured the customer is always right, y'know?"
Jo patted the tall man's shoulder.
"Forget it. You didn't have any choice." A slimy thought snaked its way around Jo's brain. "You got it with you now?"
He reached around and pulled the phone off his hip, handing it to her.
"Thanks." Jo flipped through the phone's menu items, searching for the option that stored the calls made. "Goddamn it," she muttered. "Whatever calls she was making, she's wiped the memory." She handed the phone back to Paul, who had a puzzled look on his face.
Jo smiled at him, shaking her head.
"Nothing, Paulie. I'm just getting paranoid in my old age." She looked around the deck and tried to clear her head of any negative thoughts. "Let's get her ready, eh? I want to motor back around to the beach."
Jo looked around, spotting Cadie still sitting in the cockpit, the senator sticking to her like glue. The skipper caught herself grinding her teeth.
So, the good senator is going to play the saint, Jo mused. No doubt she'll use that winning smile any way she can. The beginnings of a vicious headache thumped at her temples. Fuck this, she thought. Just gotta get on with it and take it all as it comes.
With a sigh she walked back to the cockpit, where most of the passengers were gathering for lunch.
"Okay people, let's make a move," Jo said as she jumped into the pit and reached for the engine cover. "I'm suggesting we motor back around to the beach. That should take about half an hour and then we can set up lunch on the sand. What do you think?"
She glanced around at the nodding heads, trying not to notice the senator's hand gripping Cadie's knee possessively.
"Sounds like a wonderful idea, Jo," said the senator with a wide smile.
"Right then," Jo said. "Let's go."
The cabin door clicked behind her and Cadie had the bad feeling she was trapped like a fly in a spider's web. She turned around to face her partner, who was looking decidedly green around the gills.
"Are you okay?" Cadie asked quietly, sitting down in the corner chair.
"No," grumbled Naomi, staggering a little against the rolling of the boat as she made her way to the bed. "This goddamn boat is a freaking bucket." She sat quickly and held her head in her hands.
"It's just because we're wallowing while we find an anchorage, Nay," Cadie muttered. "It'll be steady soon."
"It had better," the senator growled. "This vacation has been a goddamn torture test so far. Never again, I swear."
Cadie said nothing, preferring to see where this conversation was going. Naomi could have come below decks alone when she started feeling ill, but instead had insisted on Cadie's company. That meant only one thing.
"So," Naomi said, sitting up as the boat finally ceased its rolling. The rattling of the anchor chain sliding overboard could be heard forward. "Did you enjoy your little adventure?" All semblance of good humor had deserted the senator's face. What was left was not pleasant.
"Nay, why don't you just say whatever is on your mind," Cadie said wearily. "Because I'm not really in the mood for playing these games."
The senator moved faster than Cadie could have believed possible. Within a blink of an eye, Naomi was almost on top of her, grabbing the blonde's chin with a cruel grip. Cadie gasped and pressed back in the chair, trying to get away from her partner's intense stare.
"Games, Cadie?" spat the senator, almost nose to nose with the smaller woman. Suddenly her gaze softened, as did her hand, the vice-like grip on Cadie's chin turning into a slow caress. She leaned closer, her lips just brushing the blonde's cheek. "I don't think I'm the one playing games, my love," Naomi whispered.
Cadie stayed silent, the hairs on the back of her neck rising as Naomi's fingers stroked along her jaw and into her hair.
"Did she get this close, Arcadia?" The senator's hot breath brushed Cadie's earlobe. She swallowed hard and tried not to let her panic show. "Your silence is telling me a lot, darling," Naomi continued as she dropped light kisses down the blonde's neck. "My guess is you've had yourself quite a night."
Cadie stiffened as she felt Naomi's hands roaming over her body, the stocky senator's leg forcing itself between her thighs.
"Don't, Naomi," Cadie muttered.
"Oh come on now," the senator purred. "I know how much you love to be touched here." She kissed Cadie's neck again. "Nobody knows you like me, sweetheart." This time a hand slid up the inside of Cadie's thigh and the smaller woman tried to pull away from the contact.
"Ah ah ah, Arcadia," Naomi growled, slipping her hand higher and wrapping fingers around the top of Cadie's leg. "Don't fight me darling. All I want to do is make sure you know the kind of person you spent the night with."
"You know nothing about her Naomi," Cadie said through gritted teeth, turning her head away from the senator's baleful, close scrutiny.
"Oh but you see, I do," Naomi replied.
Cadie steeled herself and turned back to stare Naomi in the eye.
"What happened to you?" she whispered, tears stinging her eyes. "I don't know who you are anymore. What happened to the woman I fell in love with?" She felt the tear slide down her cheek, and for a moment she thought she saw something lost and fearful flicker across Naomi's face as her eyes tracked the salty trail.
But then it was gone and the hard, cold stranger was back. A mean little smile touched Naomi's thin lips and she leaned even closer, catching Cadie's tear with the tip of her tongue, licking upwards until the blonde could stand it no longer and jerked her face away.
"I grew up, Arcadia," the senator murmured. "I learned that to get what you want you have to bite and scratch and claw. Good guys really do come last. And life is too short not to have some fun along the way."
"That is the saddest thing I've ever heard," Cadie said tearfully. "You used to care so much about people, Nay. Where did that go? Or have the drugs got that big a hold on you?"
She winced as Naomi's grip on her leg tightened sharply and Cadie bit down on her bottom lip to stop herself crying out.
"If you have any sense at all," the senator growled. "You will never mention that word in connection with my name again." Cadie blinked wordlessly at her. Naomi chuckled low in her throat and suddenly backed away, wandering back to the bed where she sat leaning against the cabin wall.
"You have no idea what you're flirting with Arcadia. You weren't the only one who was busy last night. I was making phone calls and pulling the strings of the people who run this backward little country." The sneer on the senator's face sent a cold dagger of fear through the blonde.
"I know all I need to know about Jo," Cadie said, grateful to be out of reach once again.
Again Naomi laughed.
"You always did have a very naive view of the world, my love," she said. "Did you know, for example, that the good skipper has the blood of 15 people on her hands?"
Cadie felt the color drain from her face. She really does know - this isn't one of her usual bluffs, she thought.
"What's wrong darling?" asked Naomi sarcastically. "Don't tell me that in the course of her seduction she failed to mention that she was a professional assassin? Or did she only tell you about the drug dealer she worked for?" The senator raised her knee and rested her chin on her hand, watching Cadie, a tiny smile on her face.
"And how did you find out all this?" Cadie whispered, wondering just what was coming next.
"Like I said, darling. A US senator can talk to whomever she feels like when she has the right telephone numbers at hand. And I have the right numbers. The Australian attorney-general knows all about Miss Jossandra Madison."
"Then he should have also told you that she turned state's evidence in return for having her record expunged," Cadie said quickly.
"That means nothing if she reoffends," the senator smiled.
Alarm bells began ringing in Cadie's mind.
"You wouldn't ..." she began.
"Yes, Arcadia, I would. But only if you don't do as I ask from now on." Again Naomi bared her teeth in the kind of smile most often seen on circling sharks. Cadie felt a rising tide of nausea bubbling in the pit of her stomach.
I don't believe this, she thought. No matter what I do here, I'm screwed. Or Jo is. She looked across at Naomi, who sat patiently, knowing she had the upper hand. This is so unfair on Jo. She didn't ask for me to waltz in here and turn her world upside down. She swallowed the lump in her throat.
"What do you want from me?" she whispered.
"Stay away from Madison for a start," the senator growled. "And then I want you to do what you agreed to do a long time ago. Be my wife. In every sense of the word. Obey me, support me ..." She paused, raking Cadie with a long, lingering look. "Make love to me. Oh, and one more thing ... work for me."
"Give up my business?" Cadie gasped.
"Oh yes," replied Naomi. "Don't you see that everything started going wrong for us as soon as you went off on your own? You need to be with me all the time, Cadie. We need you to be with me all the time."
Cadie felt a pounding beginning at her temples which, combined with the nausea, made her feel like she'd been dragged backwards through a bush.
"And if I don't agree to do what you ask?"
The senator stood and walked back over to Cadie, leant down and rested her hands on the arms of the chair, her face close to her shorter partner's.
"Then I make a few phone calls, the authorities search this boat and they'll find the drugs I'm sure your tall friend has onboard," Naomi replied.
Cadie looked up into hard, cold eyes.
"I'll warn her," she whispered.
The senator snorted with laughter.
"No Cadie, you won't," she said. "When I say stay away from her, I mean it. Besides no matter what you tell her, I can move faster. After all ... " She leaned closer and whispered in Cadie's ear. "... I know exactly where the drugs are." She drew up to her full height and looked back down at the blonde. "You don't look well, Cadie. Perhaps you need to take a few minutes to recover." She paused, waiting for the blonde to meet her eyes and nod. "I, on the other hand, feel just grand. See you up on deck, when you're better."
And with that the senator turned on her heel and left the cabin, closing the door behind her.
Cadie slumped forward, head in hands. Shock and fear did their work on her emotions and the tears flowed freely. For several minutes she let them, preferring not to think. Eventually the tears dried up but her body wasn't done reacting. A wave of nausea tugged at her throat and she dove for the head, just lifting the lid in time as her stomach rebelled.
What a waste of a great breakfast, she thought incongruously as she leaned against the wall as the spasms eased. She let her legs give way and slowly slid down the wall till she was wedged in the corner of the tiny bathroom, resting her forehead on the arm draped across her knees.
For now I've got no choice but to do as she says, she pondered grimly. At least until we get back to the States and Naomi begins to forget about Jo and moves on to other things. Then I'll think of something. Absentmindedly she chewed on a fingernail. Until then I've got to stay away from Jo. That thought provoked a deep pang of grief and the tears stung her eyes anew. Damn it. I can't just let Naomi win this way. It's so ... sleazy. She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting a wave of panic.
You're well and truly trapped Cadie Jones. She banged the back of her head against the wall in frustration. And I can't warn Jo. She'll go in with all guns blazing and that's just what Naomi is waiting for. She shook her head to clear it some. I'll have to keep thinking about that one.
Jo finned silently under the Seawolf's hull, sensing the sudden drop in temperature as she swam out of the sun-warmed water into the boat's shadow. It was mid-afternoon, several hours after they had motored back around the southern-most tip of Whitsunday Island and anchored off Whitehaven Beach once more.
The passengers were dispersed in all directions. Therese and Sarah lounged topless on the small swimming pontoon anchored several hundred metres away. The senator, Cadie, and the two boys were on the beach with Jenny where they had set up a large shade cloth. Lunch had been eaten under its shelter. Larissa and Kelli were on-deck, sunbathing.
Jo moved slowly down the length of the yacht's hull, running her bare hands over the smooth surface, searching for any little flaws or barnacles. She'd talked Paul into the maintenance inspection on the pretext that the previous day's storm had been the wildest for quite some time.
"But we didn't hit anything, skipper," he'd protested halfheartedly, recognizing the determined look in the tall woman's eye.
"Don't care," she'd muttered shortly. "Better safe than sorry, Paul, you know that."
So here she was. Dressed in cutoff shorts, bikini top, weight belt, fins and mask, Jo inched her way along the hull, trying not to get tangled in the long breathing tube running from the air pump up on deck. The gentle, cool currents lifted the short hairs on her arms and swirled her long, black mane around her as she moved.
Predictably, she wasn't finding too much wrong with the Seawolf's hull, but then she hadn't expected to. She was more interested in finding some peace and quiet.
Just want to hear myself think for a bit, she mused as she stopped to pick off a stubborn barnacle with her knife tip. She reckoned on about 20 minutes peace before Paul tired of manning the air pump and hauled her back aboard.
The Seawolf floated in water deep enough to give about 10 feet of clearance under her keel. Jo stopped amidships and let the weight belt do its thing, drifting down to the sandy bottom where she let herself hang.
Visibility's incredible today, she thought, turning full circle and gazing for hundreds of yards in each direction through the pristine water. The seabed sloped from her left to right. The water color varied from the clear transparency of the shallows to the darker azures and indigos of the deeper water where the bay's bottom dropped away to open ocean. Schools of tiny fish ducked and darted around Jo's body as she hung motionless and she let her mind drift with them.
It's been the strangest day so far, she reflected. God, I hope the rest of the trip isn't like this.
Cadie had emerged from her cabin half an hour after the senator. It hadn't taken a genius to work out the conversation between the two women hadn't been pleasant. Cadie was red-eyed and silent, not meeting Jo's sympathetic gaze for even a second.
Jo was surprised how much that had hurt. Of course she had expected they would have to be incredibly circumspect once they returned to the Seawolf.
But not even a look, Jo thought, as she scraped some weed from the boat's keel. Something's badly wrong. Grim possibilities bounced around the inside of her skull. If that bitch touches her I'll .... She blew bubbles for a few quiet seconds, settling her temper, but not her resolve. If she crosses that line, then paying customer or not, I'll take Cadie out of here, I swear, and to hell with the consequences.
She drifted aimlessly for a while, disturbing a sleepy stingray with a wave of her fin, sand billowing up as the disgruntled creature undulated away. Jo watched as he found a new patch of sea bottom, shaking himself until a layer of sand settled over him, providing a perfect disguise.
I wish I could do that. No, she reconsidered. I wish we could do that. Just disappear.
There was a tug on the breathing tube and she glanced down at her watch.
Fifteen and a half minutes. Paul's getting impatient in his old age. With a sigh she tucked her knife back in its sheath on her hip. Jo kicked back up to the hull, patted the keel one last time and pushed up to the surface.
She emerged into the baking sun to find Paul sitting on the deck, legs dangling over the side, breathing tube in one hand and a stubby of beer in the other. The contents were obviously ice-cold, judging by the droplets of condensation running down the side, and Jo found herself craving a taste.
Paul read her mind and grinned.
"I figured you'd be panting for a coldie, skipper," he said, waving another, unopened, bottle at her. "Come and get it."
"You twisted my arm," she agreed and she struck out for the ladder, tossing her mask and fins up on deck before pulling herself up the metal steps.
Unclipping the weight belt, Jo plopped herself down next to the bare-chested crewman and accepted the cold bottle gratefully. She sucked down a long drag of the liquid amber, releasing an unladylike but deeply satisfied groan. She leaned back against the deck cowling and closed her eyes against the sun.
"You all right, skip?" asked Paul, looking at the lines of tension on his usually sanguine boss' face. "You look like you've gone 10 rounds with Kostya Tszyu."
Jo snorted an ironic laugh, tipping her stubby up again for another lengthy swallow.
"Gee, thanks Paulie. It's just been a long couple of days," she said, clinking her bottle against his in a toast. They both looked back over their shoulders at the sound of the tinny returning from the beach. "Hey Jen," Jo called as the brunette tied off to the stern and clambered aboard.
"G'day," Jenny replied cheerily. "Oh god yes, give me a beer Paul, I'm parched." The crewman yanked another bottle out of the icebox by his side as Jenny sat down cross-legged on the deck next to them. "Thanks, darl."
Jo was content to listen to the two crew members' conversation for a while, closing her eyes again and trying to block out thoughts of Cadie on the beach with the senator.
She's got to do what she's got to do, she thought morosely. And I've just got to find a way to survive it.
An expectant silence punctuated by Paul clearing his throat forced Jo to open her eyes to find both crew members looking at her.
Jenny and Paul exchanged a glance, the brunette eventually reaching out with a foot to nudge the big man with her toe.
"Go on Paulie, it was your idea."
"I smell a conspiracy," said Jo, taking another swig. "Come on, guys, spill it."
Paul put his beer down on the deck and leaned back on his hands.
"Well, skip, we've been thinking ... " he began tentatively.
"Ooooh, scary thought," Jo teased. "I'm beginning to think you want something and that this cold beer wasn't just from the goodness of your heart."
Paul clutched a hand to his heart in mock hurt.
"Me, skipper?" he objected. "Would I be that manipulative?"
"In a heartbeat. Now stop stuffing about and tell me what's on your mind."
"Hamilton Island Race Week," he replied bluntly.
"Aaaaaaah, I should have known," Jo said, pointing her beer at him accusingly. "Here I was thinking you were sewing that patch on the spinnaker just to give yourself something to do the other day."
Paul had the good grace to blush at that, but he launched into his argument nonetheless.
"Come on, skip, it's a great idea," he said. "Toby, Jason and Cadie are pretty handy around the sheets and winches. The others at least know enough to stay out of the way. And we've got a great chance this year."
Jo said nothing but leaned back against the cowling once more. Privately she agreed with Paul, but there was some fun to be had in giving the big man a hard time. Hamilton Island Race Week was one of the biggest yachting regattas in the country, a once a year festival of day-long racing and night-long parties. Yachts of all shapes and sizes could compete in various race categories, and the Seawolf had been a narrow loser to arch rivals from another company the year before.
"We only ever compete when we don't have a boatload of loopies, Paul," Jo pointed out. "It's an insurance nightmare if we rub up against someone."
Paul rolled his eyes.
"You're kidding aren't you skip?" he protested. "When was the last time we hit anybody? You know it's only us and Bombardier from ABC Charters who are any good in our class. The rest stay out of our way."
It's certainly a tempting idea, thought Jo. It would keep the passengers interested and was low maintenance for the crew, other than the actual racing, which would be full on.
Don't kid yourself, Jo-Jo, she thought. It'll keep you distracted as well. And too busy to be wondering every second where Cadie is and what the senator is up to. A happier thought occurred to her as she remembered the last time the Americans had been anywhere near a nightclub. And if Naomi is half the party animal I think she is, she might even leave Cadie alone for a few hours.
"Is Bombardier definitely competing?" she asked, looking at Paul, whose answering grin threatened to split his face in half.
"Too right. They've been talking themselves up too. They reckon we're too chicken to take them on."
"Oh really?" Jo drawled, her competitive spirit stirring at the thought of a week of match racing. She crossed her legs at the ankle and drained the last of her beer. "Okay," she said finally. "Let's do it." She held a finger up as Paul started to celebrate. "On one condition, Paulie. We still have to run it by the paying passengers. If they say no, then it's no. And even then we have to get the entry forms in somehow."
Paul looked sheepish and Jenny laughed.
"He's already lodged them, Jo-Jo," she said, giggling. "Weeks ago."
Jo arched an elegant at Paul.
"Pretty sure of yourself aren't you, mate?"
He shook his head vigorously.
"No, skip. Pretty sure of you though." He grinned and slid out of her way when she tried to swat his shoulder. "Come off it Jo-Jo, you know you can't resist a little healthy competition."
Blue eyes twinkled back at him.
"I can't resist any competition, Paulie, healthy or un."
"Woooooohooooo," he yelped, springing to his feet and doing a little jig. "I've been wanting to nail those bastards since last year. You beauty!"
The two women laughed at his antics, until the big man finally slowed down, pulling another three beers out of the icebox. Jo accepted her second gratefully, twisting the cap off and tossing it back into the ice.
"So," she said. "When's the first race?"
Paul flopped back down on the deck.
"Monday at noon," he replied. "Then each day at noon till Friday, providing the wind holds."
Jo started planning the next few days in her head.
"Okay, so assuming the Americans say yes, that gives us tomorrow to get ourselves around to Hamilton and tomorrow night and Monday morning to get race trimmed," she mused.
Paul shook his head.
"That won't take us that long, skipper," he said. "We've been running her pretty tight anyway."
"Well, I can vouch for the keel and the hull," Jo muttered, taking another swig of beer. "Okay, let's put it to the troops at dinner and see what they think."
"We're gonna kick some serious arse, skipper, just you wait and see," enthused Paul.
"Suits me, mate," Jo said quietly, settling back against the cowling. It's not the arse I want to kick, but it'll do for now, she thought.
Even silent, we're still talking to each other, Cadie thought as she leaned forward and poked at the fire with a long stick. She took in the circle of people gathered around the friendly blaze and smiled quietly. Jo had managed to position herself directly opposite Cadie, who was leaning back between Naomi's legs. The senator sat on a low chair, her right arm resting proprietarily on Cadie's shoulder.
But Naomi can't see my eyes, the blonde thought. And thanks to that cap, she can't see Jo's either.
The fire's glow turned the tall skipper's pale blue eyes molten gold and Cadie willingly fell into them. Under the peak of her cap, Jo's gaze was open and warm, though she kept her expression impassive.
Goddess, I love her, Cadie thought with amazement, smiling back at the dark-haired woman. A fleeting grin flickered across Jo's mouth in reply, followed by a raised eyebrow and a questioning tilt of her head. She wants to know what's going on, Cadie reasoned. I wish I could tell her. Hell, I wish we could just sail away together.
Jo watched Cadie flinch slightly as the senator's hand shifted from her shoulder and started playing idly with the blonde's hair.
Goddamn her. Jo suppressed the growl that welled up in her throat, and ducked her head momentarily to better hide her scowl. What's going on my love? I expected us to have to be careful when we got back, but having Naomi all over you all the time isn't usual.
I can't tell you, angel, Cadie tried to say with her eyes. Please understand. I'm trying to protect you until I can get her away from here. I'm sorry it hurts.
Jo couldn't tear her eyes from the blonde's. Other conversations swirled around her and she tried to keep half an ear tuned to them, but for the most part all she saw were the darker than normal, gold-flecked eyes across the fire.
Part of me wants the next 10 days over and done with, she thought. At least then things will happen. They may not be good things, but anything's got to be better than watching them together.
"Tell us about the racing, Jo," said Toby, from over to her left. She disengaged from Cadie's eyes reluctantly and smiled at the man's enthusiasm. The passengers had willingly agreed to them entering the regatta, the boys particularly excited by the prospect.
"Well, it's a different triangular course every day," Jo replied, feeling Cadie's gaze continue to track her. "If the wind blows like it normally does around here, then each race should take about three hours, from noon each day."
"Is there any prize money?" asked Therese. She was sitting to Cadie's left.
"Mhmmmm. A thousand dollars for the winner of each race, and $10,000 for the overall class winner at the end of the week," Jo answered. "So the racing can get a little serious." She grinned.
"And who gets the money?" That came from the senator, whose fingers continued to trail across Cadie's shoulder possessively.
It figures she would ask that, Cadie and Jo thought simultaneously.
"Well," drawled Jo. "It's Ron's boat, so technically the money goes to Cheswick Marine." She grinned again at the slightly disappointed looks around the fire. "Except that Ron made a policy years ago that whoever's on board shares the money." Smiles brightened at that. "So whatever we win, we split between all of us, okay?"
"Alllllllllriiiiiiiight," Toby whooped, high-fiving his partner.
"We haven't won anything yet, mate."
"We will," Jason said confidently.
"If we sail well we will," she agreed, leaning back on her elbows and running a handful of sand through her fingers. "We're gonna need about three of you to help us out at any one time. You up for it?"
"You bet, Jo-Jo," said Toby. Jason nodded vigorously beside him.
"I'm up for it," Cadie said quietly. Jo smiled at her and tilted her head in acknowledgment.
"Me too," said the senator quickly, despite having not once lifted a finger to help the crew since coming aboard. Jo watched Cadie's eyes roll at that and fought hard not to laugh out loud. Instead she opted to be gracious.
"Thank you, Senator," she murmured.
Just then Paul entered the circle from one side, and Jenny from the other a few seconds later.
Subtle, thought Jo, an affectionate smile creasing her face. She caught Cadie's eye again and saw the same thought crossing the blonde's mind. Nice to know one shipboard romance is working out okay.
She looks years younger when she smiles, thought Cadie, allowing herself a few seconds to just appreciate the angular, dark beauty of the woman sitting opposite her. She tingled at the memory of Jo's touch. Hard to believe that was only this morning. It feels like it was a week ago. Again their eyes met and Cadie felt the blush rising, realizing her thoughts and the skipper's were traveling along similar lines. Dark blue eyes looked up at her from under the peak of the cap and what she saw there set Cadie's pulse racing. Again.
Jo groaned inwardly, wishing the world would disappear.
"Tacking!" Jo yelled as she spun the wheel as hard to starboard as she could. The three men scuttled around the deck, ducking the boom and clearing the sheets and sails as Jenny and Cadie worked the winches hard. "Go, go, go," she urged as the boom and rigging slammed across the boat, swinging them round in a tight arc. "Go hard, go hard!"
Jo looked up and held her breath, exhaling as the mainsail filled and they regained momentum.
Didn't lose too much with that one, she thought, pleased with the efforts of her makeshift crew. And it's just as well. She glanced across to Bombardier, which was on the opposite tack and pretty much neck-and-neck with Seawolf as both yachts plowed down the third and final reach to the finish line. This is going to be a close-run thing.
She looked back down the length of the Seawolf. Cadie and Jenny were flat on their backs, breathing hard next to their respective winches. They'd lost the first race of the series, mainly because everyone was scrambling to learn the race routine, but things were much improved today. Jo grinned.
"Good work guys," she shouted. "Maybe two more tacks and we should be there."
Cadie lifted her head up and looked back at the skipper.
"Are we in front?" she panted.
Jo watched as Bombardier headed towards them on the opposite tack.
"Not sure. It's close," she replied. "Right now it looks like they're going to cross in front of us, but it won't be by much."
Cadie nodded and dropped her head back down, folding arms across her eyes and breathing deeply.
Damn, that grinding is a good workout, she thought. Her shoulders ached and her lungs burned as she tried to recover before the next tack. Something cold touched her knee and she glanced down to see Therese holding a stubby of beer out to her.
"Thanks," she murmured as she took the bottle and sat up to drink.
It was a glorious day. The cloudless sky arched above them but the stiff sea breeze took the sting out of the sun's burn. Cadie looked around and took in the view. Hamilton Island was behind them and ahead was an open expanse of ocean, with the yacht club's launch away in the distance, marking the race finish.
Naomi and the other women passengers were lounging around the cockpit, chatting and drinking and generally doing their best to stay out of the way of the crew.
"Here we go," yelled Jo as Bombardier loomed up on their starboard side. "Prepare to tack if we need to bear away, people." They were close enough now to hear the crew yelling on the other boat. Cadie jumped up and grabbed the handle on her grinder, ready if they had to retrim the sails. Paul ran to the bow.
"Jesus, it's going to be close," muttered Jo to herself. Hold your nerve Jo-Jo, hold your nerve. You only have to miss by an inch. The other 50-footer ploughed towards them and Jo opened her mouth to call the bear-away order, but Paul beat her to it.
"You're right, skipper," he yelled. "She's going to cross in front."
A few seconds later he was proved right as Bombardier slid past their bowsprit, close enough to see grinning faces.
"We've got you again, Paulie," shouted the Seawolf crewman's opposite number as the yachts pulled away from each other again.
"Long way to go you mouthy bastard," replied Paul under his breath, as he made his way back to the helm. "Close skipper," he said as he grinned at Jo, whose black hair was whipping around her head.
She beamed back at him, feeling the adrenaline rush.
I've missed this, she realized. She caught Cadie's eye as the blonde sat down on the edge of the cockpit cover, dangling her legs over the edge. Their eyes locked for the briefest of moments before Cadie tore hers away, a smile playing across her lips. I miss you, Jo mentally projected. I miss talking with you. I miss touching you.
"Hey, skip, where are you?" blurted Jenny. "They're tacking again!"
"Shiiiiiiiiiit," Jo exclaimed. "Come on, guys, prepare to tack."
Everyone scattered to their stations again and soon they were repeating the routine, swinging back onto the port tack.
"We're losing ground, skipper," Paul said shortly after as he watched Bombardier cross easily in front of them. "No danger of a collision this time."
"All we can do is trim it tighter, Paulie," Jo replied, looking up into the rigging. "What do you think?"
The big man shrugged.
"Bit dodgy, skip," he said, looking back at her. "We've only got one spare mainsail."
"Don't want to waste our prize money on a new sail," Jo agreed.
"Don't want to go two races down either," Cadie piped up from where she was sitting.
"Easy for you to say, Cadie," Jo retorted, laughing. "You don't have to face my boss." She's a competitor, she thought. I like that. She pondered the problem as Bombardier threatened to take an unassailable lead. "What the hell, Paulie, let's go for it."
"Yes!" yelled Cadie, jumping to her feet, evoking chuckles from around the cockpit.
"And you call me competitive," Jo muttered to Paul, provoking another guffaw from the big man as she took back the helm.
"And her butt is cuter than yours too," he answered conspiratorially, as he passed her on his way forward.
Can't argue with that, thought Jo appreciatively, taking in the sight of Cadie crouching over her assigned winch. Can't argue with that at all.
But then, like a cloud crossing the sun, the senator from Illinois was in Jo's face. The skipper didn't flinch, instead fixing Naomi with the steeliest ice-chip glare she could muster. She took a degree of satisfaction when the stocky American took a backward step.
"Enjoying the view, Miss Madison?" the senator asked coldly. Jo didn't reply, just continued to look Naomi in the eye. "I would appreciate it if you could manage to keep your interactions with my partner purely professional from now on."
"Right now, that includes talking about the race, Senator," Jo replied quietly, aware that Cadie was watching the conversation with wide, scared eyes. There's something here I'm not getting, she thought. "And as Cadie is acting as part of my crew, I can't really avoid speaking to her."
A deceptively friendly smile played across the senator's lips but never quite reached her eyes.
"Then try to do it without leering," she said. "I'm sure you wouldn't want to do something you might regret." With that she turned away, not affording Jo the chance to respond.
Oh, she is begging to be bitch-slapped, Jo found her inner demon saying. And I am just the bitch to do it. I hope I get half a reason to, that's all I'll need. Paying customer be damned.
Cadie's eyes were still on her, and Jo took the chance while Naomi's back was turned to flash the blonde a reassuring smile. She got a wobbly response and felt her heart ache.
This so sucks, she thought, willing herself to concentrate as the Seawolf neared the mark she'd designated as the place to tack.
"All right, let's go," she yelled, pushing everything but the race out of her mind.
Cadie arched her back, rolling her neck around to ease the ache from sitting for the past hour hunched over her laptop. Earlier in the evening she had made the short walk up the hill from Hamilton Marina to the hotel. There she'd hooked up to the internet and downloaded what appeared to be half the planet's e-mail. Since then she had been sifting through the posts, sorting the ones that needed a reply from the ones that could wait until she was back in the States.
Funny how I canČt seem to call it home anymore, she pondered, kneading the back of her neck with her thumb.
So far Naomi hadn't pushed the issue of her closing down her business, but Cadie suspected that was only because it hadn't occurred to the senator that she needed to push it yet. She was sure things would be different back in Chicago.
Cadie reached for the computer again, wincing slightly at the tugging ache across her shoulders and the backs of her arms, a legacy of four days of manning the winches and grinders up on deck.
Four days, four races and all square at two wins each, Cadie mused. Tomorrow's going to be a big day. Seawolf had indeed gone two races down after the first two days of the regatta but with each day Toby, Jason and Cadie had become better and better at making the big yacht race smoothly. Yesterday they had edged Bombardier by the barest of margins but today Seawolf had claimed the money by almost two boat lengths. And tomorrow there's $11,000 up for grabs, she thought excitedly. And a whole lot more besides.
She grinned to herself as she remembered Jo's delighted reaction when they had leveled the series that afternoon.
Like a kid in a candy store, she thought. And that smile. She closed her eyes and brought to mind the 1000-watt grin that had split Jo's face when the gun went off as they crossed the finish line. Wow. I'd give a lot to see that again.
"What's so interesting?" growled Naomi from where she sat on the bed behind Cadie. "You've been reading that same post for the last 10 minutes."
Back to reality, Cadie.
"It's from Mom," she said out loud. "She says hello, by the way."
"She wants to know if we're going to have time to go up and visit before we have to get back to DC." Cadie heard the words coming out of her mouth, but it felt like she was talking about somebody else's life. Boy, I wish I could talk to you right now, Mom. Without an audience.
"Probably not," Naomi replied. "The House reconvenes the Monday after we get back. And driving up to Madison with jet lag just to turn round and come back again doesn't really appeal."
"I guess not," Cadie murmured. She found it incredibly hard to imagine being back in a Midwest winter. No, she corrected herself. I'm finding it hard to imagine going back to my old life. The realization was both liberating and depressing. But I'm going to have to. At least for now. She looked around the small, tasteful cabin. I wonder when I will be able to come back.
"I'm going to take a shower," Naomi said, standing and picking up a towel from the bottom of the bed.
"Okay," Cadie acknowledged, closing out windows and shutting down the laptop. She sighed. I wonder which nightclub she's going to drag me to this evening. "Where's the party tonight?"
"Club up at the hotel," the senator replied gruffly. "Wear something short." And with that she closed the bathroom door behind her.
"Well actually, senator, I wasn't really looking for any fashion advice," muttered Cadie to the empty room. It's been a party every night since Monday and there'll be another tomorrow night, especially if we win. She sighed again. I need a cup of coffee.
She opened the door to the cabin and walked out into the Seawolf's main lounge. And right into an open blue gaze that bathed her in a bone-deep wash of warmth.
"H-hello," she murmured, unable, not to mention totally unwilling, to tear her eyes away from Jo's. She moved closer, joining the taller woman behind the counter in the galley.
"Hi there," Jo replied, feeling a quiet joy welling up inside her at the sight of the blonde's wrinkle-nosed smile. "Where's your watchdog?"
Cadie bit her lip.
"In the shower," she said, flicking a quick glance towards the cabin door, her stomach lurching at the thought of being caught.
A strong arm snaked around her waist and pulled her close. Cadie turned back and looked up into Jo's warm regard, suddenly feeling a shield of protection envelop her.
"I miss you, Jo-Jo," she whispered.
"And I you, love," Jo replied, leaning down and capturing Cadie's lips in the softest of kisses imaginable. The blonde reached up, sliding her arms around the tall woman's neck and pulling her down, deepening the contact into a sweet exploration. Finally Jo broke away, resting her forehead against Cadie's. She closed her eyes and felt her heart nestling into a very safe place. "What's going on, sweetheart?" she asked quietly.
Cadie touched a fingertip to the soft lips just inches from her own.
"Don't ask, darling, please?" Blue eyes flickered open and caught her own, the gaze intense. "Please, Jo?"
Jo stood up tall now, tipping Cadie's chin up with gentle touch. She felt the blonde snuggle closer.
"Is she threatening you?" Jo asked, fighting to keep a rein on her growing anger.
Cadie remained silent, dropping her eyes to escape Jo's scrutiny.
A light came on in the skipper's head.
Aaaaah. Now I get it.
"She's threatening me, isn't she?" she said, reading the acknowledgement in the blinking green eyes that quickly tracked back to hers. "Cadie, she can't do anything to hurt me."
"Yes, Jo, she can." Cadie pulled away from Jo and began putting together two cups of coffee. "You don't understand how powerful she is. She can hurt us both." She clattered cups on the counter, frustration making her hands clumsy.
"Arcadia," Jo said calmly, stepping forward and taking the shorter woman's hands in her own. She waited until the blonde turned back and met her gaze, tears welling in her eyes. "Listen to me, angel. I can handle anything she can throw at me. I've come up against a lot worse than her, I promise."
They both startled at a noise from the direction of Cadie's cabin.
"Jo, please just trust me with this," she said hurriedly, pleading with her eyes. "She can do a whole lot of damage to you, the company, all of it. Just let me get her back to the States and she'll soon forget all about you."
Jo couldn't argue with those big green eyes. She leaned forward and again rested her forehead against Cadie's.
"I do trust you," she whispered, feeling tears close to the surface. "But this hurts. It hurts seeing the way she's treating you, and not being able to do anything about it. And ..." She swallowed. "And it hurts that you're leaving with her. I know that was always going to be the case, but the way she's being ... just makes it worse."
Cadie cupped her hands around Jo's face.
"Nothing's changed in my heart, Jossandra," she said fiercely. "I will come back. I need to come back. But for now I need to keep you safe more. And if that means staying away from you and putting up with her touching me ..." She shuddered involuntarily and Jo tightened her arms around her waist.
"I hate her touching you," she muttered, squeezing Cadie gently.
"I know. And I hate the way she touches me. But if it means doing what she tells me to do for a while ... then I'll do it. Gladly."
A tear overflowed and tracked down Jo's cheek. Cadie caught it with the pad her thumb and brushed it away.
"Have you noticed we never seem to cry at the same time?" she said with a weak smile, leaning in and kissing the tip of Jo's nose. "One of us is always being the strong one."
"Just as well," sniffled Jo. "Otherwise we'd never get anything done."
They both laughed softly at that and then got lost once more in their connection.
"Has anyone ever told you you have the most beautiful eyes, Miss Jones," Jo murmured.
"Nobody whose opinion matters much to me anymore," Cadie replied, pulling the skipper's head down again for another long, lingering kiss. Louder noises from the direction of Cadie's cabin broke them apart, breathless and hungry for more.
"You'd better get back in there," Jo whispered into the blonde's ear, feeling Cadie's arms tighten around her in response. "I'll be here waiting for you, darling. Always."
"I love you." Cadie disengaged quickly, grabbing the two coffee cups and heading back to the cabin door. She looked back over her shoulder and met an encouraging smile with one of her own, before she pushed open the door and disappeared inside.
Damn, thought Jo, rubbing her eyes with one tired hand. This isn't getting any easier.
Twenty minutes later Jo was sitting up on the cockpit cowling with Paul, the spare mainsail gathered around them in large, cream-colored ruffles. They were going over the kevlar with a finetooth comb.
"I guess this means we're going all-out tomorrow, eh boss?" Paul said with a grin as they painstakingly stitched a patch to a needy bit of sail.
Jo cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Well, I called Ron, and the prospect of $11,000 on top of the $2000 we've already won has him drooling," she said. "So he said go for it. It'll be a boost for the company if we can win that trophy."
"It won't do us any harm either," he replied.
"I thought of that," Jo said, beaming.
Just then she caught sight of Naomi and Cadie emerging from the main cabin, dressed up for a night out. The blonde was in a shimmering green mini-dress that managed to accentuate both her eye color and her shapely legs. Jo had a hard time tearing her eyes away.
"Pick your jaw up off the deck, skipper," Paul said softly in her ear, surprising Jo into driving the large sewing needle into her thumb.
"Shit," she muttered, sucking the digit hard to take away the ache. She glanced up again to see Cadie, who obviously knew exactly what Jo had been gawking at and was struggling to keep her laughter silent.
"Not going out tonight, you two?" asked the senator, taking Cadie's hand and pulling her towards the gangplank.
"Got some repairs to do before tomorrow," Jo said shortly, wrapping her bleeding thumb in a cleaning rag she had stuffed in her pocket. "Have a good time." But Naomi hadn't waited for a response, and had already taken them ashore. Cadie gave a small wave behind the senator's back and Jo returned it with a tiny smile.
"Y'know what skip?"
"What's that Paulie," Jo murmured, watching the Americans walk up the hill towards the hotel.
"The more politicians I meet, the more I wonder what kind of scumbag you have to be to become one."
Jo turned and looked at her crewman, eyebrows raised in surprise at the usually affable man's criticism of a passenger.
"What?" he retorted. "Come on skipper, don't tell me you don't agree with me. That one's got a nasty streak as wide as her backside. She treats Cadie like crap."
"No argument from me, mate," she said softly.
There was a pause as Jo resumed sewing, head bent over her work.
"You're real gone on her, aren't you boss?" Paul asked quietly, realising he'd hit the mark when Jo's hands stopped moving and a blush crept up her neck. She glanced up at him, nodding slowly.
"Yeah," she replied. "Yeah, I am."
He whistled softly.
"Picked yourself a tough challenge there."
Jo snorted with laughter.
"I think the challenge picked me, Paulie," she said, smiling at him as they resumed work on the sail patch. "It just seemed to be there from the moment we met."
He nudged her with his shoulder.
"Ya big softie."
"Yeah, yeah .. give me a break, will you?" She quirked an eyebrow at him. "Besides, what about you? You've been spotted being more than a little starry-eyed lately yourself."
Jenny came up from below, carrying a tray of sandwiches and cups of coffee, which she slid onto the cowling in front of Jo and Paul. She leaned her elbows on the deck and placed a hand on the crewman's knee.
"There's actually a pretty good reason for that, skipper," said the perky brunette with a grin.
"Thought we were going to wait a while to tell people," Paul said as he put his hand over Jenny's.
"This isn't people, hon, it's Jo. That's different," Jen replied.
"Well somebody tell me something," interjected Jo. "Or am I going to have to torture it out of you?"
"What with? A sewing needle?" laughed Paul.
Both women slapped him on a shoulder at the same time.
"Okay, okay, okay," he laughed, throwing his hands up in surrender. "Tell her, Jen."
The brunette positively beamed at Jo.
"We're going to get married, skip," she said.
Jo whooped in delight, scrambling forward and leaning down to give Jenny a congratulory hug.
"That's fantastic! I knew it!!" She sat back up and poked Paul in the stomach. "You didn't need to go sneaking around y'know." She clapped her hands together and bounced up and down on the spot with excitement. "When?"
The couple looked at each other and shrugged.
"As soon as this trip is done," replied Jenny. "It's not going to be a big deal, Jo-Jo. Just you and a few other friends, my parents and Paul's dad. Just an excuse for a great big party."
"Sounds wonderful to me," Jo said, smiling. They all relaxed into a comfortable silence for a bit. "Awww guys, I think it's great. It's really good to see you both happy."
Jenny climbed up onto the cowling and sat down next to her fiance, wrapping her arms around him as Paul went back to sewing the sail patch.
"Thanks, boss," she said. She and Paul exchanged a look. "So - what about you and the cute blonde?"
"Two minutes!" yelled Jo. She watched as her five crewmembers scrambled for their stations as the Seawolf jockeyed for position along the start line. "Therese!" The attorney turned at the sound of her name and Jo gestured to her. "Give me a hand for minute?"
Therese clambered out of the cockpit and made her way aft to the portside helm station where Jo was juggling the wheel with one hand and trying to keep her unruly hair out of her face with the other.
"Take the wheel for me for a bit?" she asked the attorney. "My hair's driving me nuts."
"Um, Jo. I don't know anything about this," Therese said hesitantly as she stepped in front of the skipper and tentatively put her hands on the wheel.
"Piece of cake," Jo reassured her. She leaned forward and pointed over Therese's right shoulder. "See that flag on the bow of that big motor launch ahead of us." Therese nodded. "Okay, just keep her pointed that way. Turn the wheel a bit to get a feel of how she responds." She waited patiently as the attorney experimented, pulling the Seawolf off course slightly. "Great. Now get her back on the right course. Perfect. Now hold her there."
Therese nodded and Jo stepped aside, ducking down into the companionway where she had stowed a small bag of supplies under the map table. She dug out a cap and a hair band, impatiently pulling her dark locks back into a rough ponytail before securing it with the band.
That sounded a bit panicky, Jo thought as she threw on the baseball cap, quickly threading the ponytail through the gap at the back.
She sprinted back up the stairs.
"Okay, okay, I'm coming," she said as she passed Naomi, Sarah, Kelli and Larissa in the cockpit. "Thanks Therese."
"Sorry, but it looked like they were all coming at us at once," said the somewhat flustered attorney.
"No problem," she said. "I know it looks a little daunting right now." She looked down at her watch. "One minute, people."
Time to get your brain in the game, Jossandra, she thought to herself. She looked around at the teeming waters around the Seawolf. There were 10 50-foot yachts, all jostling for a good run at the starting line. Any boat that crossed the mark early had to bear away and do another circuit before being allowed to start racing, so timing was crucial in the run up to the gun. Gotta get this right, she thought. Jo had opted to aim for the northern end of the line, as had three other yachts, but Bombardier and the other five had headed for the southern end.
Immediately to starboard and ahead of Seawolf one of their competitors was in the process of getting it horribly wrong. The line loomed as the clock ticked down and the skipper could be heard yelling at the crew to bear away.
They're gonna miss the start, Jo thought with satisfaction. One down, eight more to beat.
"Thirty seconds," she shouted. Cadie crouched by her winch on the port side, immediately in front of Jo, amidships. Jenny was on the starboard side. Paul and Toby were further forward, trimming the foresail and organising sail changes. Jason was down in the sail hold - more usually used as the crew quarters - ready to pull out or stow sails as needed.
"Here we go!" Jo warned the crew, noting their heightened tension. Gently she eased the Seawolf away slightly so they were running almost parallel to the start line. "Five, four, three, two, one - " The gun fired and Jo ducked the yacht's nose over the line instantly, judging the timing perfectly.
"Nice one skipper," came the shout from Paul at the bow.
Jo grinned and set the yacht on the first of many tacks up the reach to the mark.
S'gonna be a long day, she thought happily.
"Wind's picking up skipper," said Paul. He had taken over the helm after they'd turned the first mark. The second reach was another tacking leg, but the third and final reach would be downwind, and Jo planned on a spinnaker run.
She looked up into the rigging, scanning for any visible signs that anything was close to breaking.
So far, so good, she thought. But we're not going as fast as we could. She looked back to find Bombardier.
"We've got about a half mile on her, Paul," she said. "But I don't think that's going to be enough once we hit the final reach."
The crewman nodded in agreement.
"They've got eight experienced crew on board," he said. "These guys are learning fast, and they're pretty good." He gestured towards the Seawolf's three recruits. "But learning how to get a spinnaker up is going to take some time."
"Mhmmm." Jo made a quick decision. "Five minutes till we tack again, yeah?" she asked.
"That ought to do it, skip," he replied.
"Okay." She stepped up onto the rim of the cockpit. "Toby! Get Jason out of his hole and come on back here." She waited for the two men to come aft and take a seat on the cowling, then she looked around at her crew and passengers. "We're doing pretty well," she said, grinning at the smiles that generated. "We are going to need to increase our lead a bit though, because once we turn the second mark there are a couple of tricky little manouevres we've got to do that may cost us some time. Hoisting a spinnaker for the first time is always a bit of wild ride."
She spread her feet a little wider as the Seawolf bucked over a bigger than usual wave, unconsciously adjusting her centre of gravity to maintain her balance.
Look at her, thought Cadie with a grin, more than happy she was sitting above Naomi, who couldn't see her without an effort. She's like a pirate king - born to be on a boat. Beautiful.
"So," Jo continued. "We need to ratchet it up a couple of notches. That carries a bit of a risk though because something on the boat may break. So I need you all to be extra careful about safety. Crew, make sure you have your gloves on and everyone, please keep hands and feet away from winches, sheets, rigging cables, whatever, unless you absolutely have to. Things fly around pretty quickly when they break. Okay?"
She waited for answering nods from everyone, feeling the warmth from Cadie's smile wash over her.
Mmmmmmmm. Race? What race? She laughed at herself and snapped her mind back into gear.
"We're coming up on our next tack. Let's get that done and then we'll crank it up."
The crew scattered to their positions again. Jo looked down at the remaining passengers.
"Are you ladies willing to sit on the high side if we need you to, to give us a little more stability?" All but the senator nodded, even Kelli and Larissa, who normally were indifferent to the workings of the yacht.
Nothing like the smell of impending filthy lucre to get a junkie motivated, Jo thought grimly.
Halfway down the second reach disaster struck.
Things had been going well after they rounded the mark. The crew had wound the Seawolf up so tight the rigging was singing, vibrating with tension as the wind ripped through it. They'd stretched their lead over Bombardier to almost a mile by Jo's reckoning and she had been quietly optimistic as they headed for the bottom mark. She had the crew lay out the spare mainsail along the deck under the boom just in case.
She looked up at the full, straining sails, knowing they were at the limit of what they could ask of the big boat.
This is the point where Australia II snapped in half, she thought, remembering the moment that particular Americas Cup campaign had come to a grinding, then sinking halt, scattering the 12m yacht's crew into the water.
Seawolf tilted over at almost 45 degrees to port, the wind bearing in hard from the starboard side. The crew and passengers - except for the senator, who sat huddled in a corner of the cockpit - were lined up along the high side, legs dangling over the edge. All were wearing lifejackets as a precaution.
Jo looked to her right, blinking rapidly as she recognised the telltale ruffles on the surface of the water that indicated an approaching gust of stronger than normal wind.
"Paul!" she yelled. "Bullet!!"
Paul and Jenny leapt up and dove for the winches, bleeding some tension out of the sails, but it was too little, too late and the wind gust slammed into the mainsail.
The boat tilted to an even steeper angle momentarily but then the sail exploded with a sound like a gunshot, a huge rent ripping down its length. The sudden loss of momentum jerked the yacht upright with a rush, the hull slapping down on the water violently. Cadie, who had half climbed to her feet when she heard Jo's yell, was caught off-balance, toppling backwards over the edge and into the sea.
"Paulie, get 'em down," shouted Jo, as she wrestled the wheel, pulling the still moving yacht around until it was pointing directly into the wind, the remaining sails flapping uselessly. Paul, Jenny and the two men scrambled to pull down the ripped remnants of the mainsail, as well as the foresail, trying to stop the yacht in its tracks as soon as possible. Meanwhile Jo grabbed the nearest life-ring and frisbeed it to Cadie who was, thankfully, fully conscious and seemingly unhurt.
Jesus, the senator is gonna have a cow, Jo thought as she watched Cadie strike out for the floating ring, even as the yacht slipped further past the blonde. Thank Christ she didn't hit her head on the way in.
True to form, Naomi was on her feet, screaming at the skipper.
"Stop this fucking boat!" she yelled. Jo turned to try and placate the senator, but she was having none of it, brushing past the taller woman and rushing to the stern. "DonČt just stand there, woman. Get in there and bring her back!"
"Senator, weČre not just standing around. Everything that can be done to stop us, is being done. And as you can see," she pointed in Cadie's direction, where the blonde had reached the life-ring and was floating inside its confines, calmly waiting to be picked up. "Cadie is okay. She's not going anywhere and we're doing our best to pick her up as quickly as possible."
"That's not good enough," Naomi shouted. "Get in there and pull her out!"
For god's sake, thought Cadie, brushing dripping hair out of her face and treading water.
"Naomi," she yelled. "Would you calm down, I'm fine." I swear she thinks I'm totally helpless. Mind you, I'm glad I'm getting back onboard any minute. This water is dark and deep.
She decided not to let her mind wander too far down that track, instead focusing on Jo, who had pushed past the senator and was hauling in the line attached to the life-ring. She felt the tug and let herself be reeled in. Like a great big sunburnt fish, she thought, giggling to herself incongruously. As she came in closer to the yacht, she grinned wetly up at Jo, who caught her eye and smiled back.
Finally she was in reach of the transom and she levered herself back up onto the platform.
"Nice catch, Captain Ahab," she said softly to Jo who suppressed a laugh.
"You sure you're okay?" she asked.
"Just a bit wet, but otherwise fine," the blonde replied, shaking seawater from her hair.
"Get out of my way, Madison," the senator growled, elbowing past Jo and grabbing Cadie's arm, dragging her back into the cockpit. "I'll sue this goddamn company for all itČs worth," she said, threatening Jo with a wagging finger.
"Sue for what, Naomi?" her partner protested as she picked up a towel and began drying herself off. "Wet clothes? Forget about it."
Jo looked up and saw Paul standing by the boom, pointing to their port side. She turned in the direction he was looking and saw Bombardier bearing down on them at full speed.
Jo glanced around the deck of the Seawolf, taking in the expectant faces of crew and passengers.
"Everyone else okay?" she asked. Nods all round. "Right. Let's go. Paul, Toby, Jason - get that new mainsail rigged. Jenny, you and Cadie haul the foresail back up. Let's get this show back on the road."
Everyone exploded into movement, leaving Jo and Naomi holding each other's gaze for a few cold seconds.
Come on you harpy, Jo thought. Give me half an excuse.
The senator blinked first, hissing in disgust and flouncing back to her corner of the cockpit, grabbing another bottle of beer from the icebox on the way.
She's all bluff, Jo realized suddenly. I wonder if Cadie has figured that out yet.
She moved back to the helm and watched as Jenny and Cadie hauled the smaller foresail up, then set about trimming it with the forward winches. It would take a while yet for the men to have the spare mainsail ready, but in the meantime they could make at least some headway.
"Trimmed, skip," came the shout from Jenny.
Jo waved her response and began the tug of war with the inertia-heavy wheel, forcing the rudder around until the wind began to catch the foresail again. Bombardier was now well ahead of them and she knew it was going to take some kind of miracle for them to win the prize.
But I'll be damned if we're going to wimp out on the fight, she thought, feeling the competitive rush flow through her.
They had come through hoisting the spinnaker amazingly well, reflected Jo, taking in the members of the crew lying around in various poses of physical exhaustion all over the deck. She couldn't see Paul or Cadie and guessed they were forward of the mast still.
Jo looked up, watching the huge, balloon-like multi-colored spinnaker fill and billow, pulling the Seawolf along at top speed. Ahead of them, by about half a mile, was Bombardier. They hadn't gained any on their main rivals, but they hadn't lost any more water to them either, so for now, Jo was satisfied. The other eight yachts in their class were well behind them.
Jenny recovered enough to pull herself up and she wandered back to Jo, handing the skipper a beer.
"I'll take it for a bit, boss," she said.
"Thanks, Jen. Good job by the way." She grinned at her smaller crewmate and got a tired smile back.
"WeČre not going to win though, are we skip?" Jenny asked, her disappointment showing on her face.
"Not unless they run into some dead air, or break something," she conceded. "But you know this is a flukey game, Jen. Anything can happen." She stepped aside and let Jenny take the wheel. "Keep Bombardier at about 10 o'clock, hon. I'll be back."
"Aye, aye captain."
"Oh shut up."
Laughing, Jo picked her way forward, stepping over bodies and greeting each of the crew and passengers as she came to them. Toby and Jason looked like they'd died and gone to heaven.
"Having fun, fellas?" she asked, fairly certain of the answer.
"Oh you bet, Jo!" enthused Jason. He was sporting a lump on his forehead from a close encounter with the boom, but otherwise seemed happy. "M'just sorry we blew that mainsail out. Doesn't look like we can win it from here."
"Yeah, sorry about that skipper," agreed Toby.
"Not your fault, guys," Jo said. "Purely mine. I pushed it too hard at the wrong moment. But you two are naturals. You should do more sailing when you get home."
Both men grinned from ear to ear at that.
"I think we probably will," Toby said. "We're having a ball, Jo. Thanks."
"My pleasure," she said. Well, at least that's two satisfied customers.
She continued forward, finding both Paul and Cadie flat on their backs. Paul appeared to be asleep, but Cadie was shading her eyes with a gloved hand, gazing up into the colors of the spinnaker. Emblazoned on a deep, rich blue background was the Cheswick Marine logo. Jo crouched down next to the blonde and gently touched her knee.
That provoked laughter from both supine figures.
"Oh, I'm out of here if that's the quality of humour we've sunk to," groaned Paul, jumping to his feet.
Cadie sat up, meeting a twinkling set of eyes the same color as the spinnaker. Just then the Seawolf slid down the face of the wave she was surfing and dug her nose into the trough. A spray of seawater engulfed the trio leaving them shaking themselves like a pack of wet dogs.
Cadie giggled. It was the first time she'd seen Jo look less than impressed by the ocean. But the scowl that touched the tall skipper's face didn't last long, good humor returning as she met the shining green eyes in front of her.
"Come on," Jo said. "You shouldn't stay forward of the mast in these kind of conditions."
"I'm okay, Jo-Jo," Cadie replied. "I'm having fun."
Paul chimed in.
"She's right Cadie," he said. "If the mast snaps, you're in the worst possible place up here."
"Okay, okay," she grumbled. Paul disappeared aft. "It's also about the only place on the boat Naomi won't follow me."
Jo nodded, suddenly seeing the lines of strain on the blonde's face.
If I think it's bad watching them be together how much worse would it be to be joined at the hip with the senator? she wondered.
"I'm sorry," she said.
Cadie brightened, shaking her head with a smile.
"Don't be," she replied. "I'm actually having a great time. Entering this regatta was an inspired idea."
"Well, we can thank Paul for that," Jo said. She opened her mouth to say something else, but another wave splattered across the bow, soaking them both again. She opened her eyes to find a dripping blonde, giggling at her.
"Sorry, but you look so pissed when that happens," Cadie chortled. "Like somehow you don't expect it."
Jo laughed, sitting down next to the blonde.
"One of the good things about being the skipper and not the crew, is you get to stay nice and dry in the stern most of the time," she said. She wiped the saltwater of her face. "That's the theory anyway."
"S'not working, skipper."
"No, it's not," Jo replied, squeezing the water out of the bottom of her shirt. She turned to face Cadie and the sudden sense of connection between them was almost palpable.
"You took my breath away before, you know," Cadie said softly, watching a drip slide down Jo's aquiline nose.
Suddenly bashful, Jo ducked her head, looking up at the blonde through long, damp eyelashes.
"When was that?" she said huskily.
"You were standing on the rim of the cockpit, and you had your arms crossed and you looked like the world was yours for the taking." Jo chuckled, feeling the blush rising despite the cold water. Cadie leaned in towards her. "It was about the sexiest thing I've ever seen."
Jo cleared her throat, fighting the urge to kiss the blonde right here and now, senator be damned.
"I think we both need a cold shower," she said, smiling. A movement in the ocean caught her eye. "And I think we're about to get one." Seawolf's nose dove deep into the trough of the wave in front of it and again the pair were doused. "Come on, or weČre both going to end up over the side."
This time the blonde didn't argue, letting Jo pull her upright.
"I think it might be a good idea if I went down into the sail hold and made my way back below decks," the skipper said. "That way Naomi's not gonna know which way's up, with any luck."
Cadie nodded, suddenly glum again.
"I'm sorry Jo. This is an awful lot of shit to go through just for a paying customer."
"Hey." Jo waited until Cadie's eyes lifted to meet her own. "You're not just a paying customer, and I donČt think you have been from the moment we laid eyes on each other."
Cadie smiled gently.
"What am I then?" she asked.
Jo paused, tilting her head as she thought about it.
"I think you're who I'm supposed to be with," she said.
Cadie's heart lurched in her chest at and long seconds went by as they gazed wordlessly at each other, just enjoying the connection, oblivious to the bucking of the deck under their feet.
"Oh, we are in so much trouble," Cadie muttered, laughing at the rakish grin that lit up Jo's face.
"Understatement," the skipper replied. "Now get going, crewman."
"Aye, aye, captain," Cadie responded, snapping a smart salute.
"Oh shut up," Jo laughed, watching the very wet blonde turn and make her way aft.
"We're running out of water, skip," Paul said.
"Yup, I know mate," Jo replied. She was sitting on the rail of the stern, holding the wheel in place with her right foot, propping her chin on her hand, elbow on her other knee. The spinnaker reach had been a straight speed run, with no tactics involved beyond picking the right sail and the fastest line to the finish. "Not much we can do about it. It's -" She stared hard at the stern of the Bombardier. "- in the lap -" She reached for her binoculars. " - of the gods." She gazed through them for several seconds.
"What is it boss?"
"Whooooooooooooohooooooooooooooooooooo - the gods are smiling, Paulie!!" she yelled, standing up and clapping her hands together. "They blew out their spinnaker!!!"
Paul grabbed the binoculars from around Jo's neck, almost lynching her in the process.
"Get the fuck outta here," he exclaimed, climbing up onto the rail. Jo jumped down and picked up Jason's gloves, which sat on the rim of the cockpit. She tossed them at the American.
"We're back in the hunt, folks. Let's kick it up a notch, eh?"
Whoops and hollers greeted the news, and people scattered in all directions. Cadie manned her winch, releasing the slack in the sheet and taking the tension on the grinder, waiting for the order to wind. She glanced back and watched Jo at the helm. The tall woman was wound almost as tight as the rigging, and Cadie grinned at the obvious glint in the steely blue eyes.
A pirate queen, she thought. My pirate queen.
Jo grabbed the trophy with both hands, tipping the deep silver cup up and drinking long and deep from the contents. The champagne threatened to spill over and she let it, not caring how much she wasted down the front of her shirt. There was plenty more where that came from. Tucked into her back pocket was $1180 cash - her share of the $13000 the Seawolf had won over the past five days.
The best part was hoisting the trophy over the heads of the assembled crowd with Paul holding the other side of it. She grinned, took another swig of the ice-cold champagne and passed the trophy on to Jenny, who happily buried her head in the silverware.
And the worst part - Jo looked around the deck of the Seawolf, which was packed to the gunwhales with the crews from the other boats in their class.
The worst part is Cadie isn't here to share in it, she thought, sobering. Typically, Naomi had pocketed her share of the winnings and, along with Kelli and Larissa, had disappeared into the night, dragging Cadie behind her. She looked like she was about to burst into tears, Jo remembered. Damn, I wish she was here. She worked just as hard for this as the rest of us.
She gazed around at the marina, which was fully booked for the biggest night of the regatta. Over 200 yachts and motor launches snuggled up to each other. There were several other parties on different boats across the marina, as the winners of each class hosted their own victory celebrations. Lights twinkled against the dark backdrop of the island rising behind them in one direction, and the open waters of Whitsunday Passage in the other.
There's a couple of sea-green stars I'd like to see twinkling right about now, she thought wistfully. But she didn't have long to get introspective as a loud war-whoop announced the arrival of Paul by her side.
"We did it, skip!!" he yelled, picking her up bodily and spinning her around. "We kicked their bums!"
"Put me down, ya big goon." He complied and she reached up to ruffle the big man's blond curls. "We got lucky Paulie. That's all."
"That's bullshit, Jo-Jo," he protested, waving his stubby of beer wildly. "We could've given it away when we blew the mainsail. But we didn't. You put us in the right place at the right time so we could have a go when we got a chance." He kissed her soundly. "And now Jen and I have enough for a honeymoon as well as a big party."
She grinned at him cheesily.
"My pleasure, big fella," she said, patting him on the belly.
Someone below decks cranked the music up and soon the boat was rocking as 70-odd happy sailors settled in for a big night of partying. The skipper of the Bombardier - a bearded man with a pot belly - sauntered up to Jo and bowed deeply.
"Congrats, Jo-Jo," he said graciously. "You got us a good one. Jen's just told me half your crew was a bunch of rookie Seppo tourists. You must've been training the buggers for weeks."
Jo beamed from ear to ear, proud of the makeshift crew.
"Actually, Jacko, we only decided on Saturday to give it a go." She laughed as his jaw dropped.
"Well, bugger me," he said. "All power to you, skipper, you deserve it." He shook her hand and pumped it vigorously. "We'll get you next year though," he added, wagging a finger at her as he headed back into the crowd.
Don't count on it, Jacko, she thought happily.
It was almost midnight as Cadie wandered back down the hill towards the marina. Parties were still in full swing all over the harbour, and she grinned at the thought of finally joining the Seawolf crew in its celebration.
She and Naomi had become separated in the crush of the dance party on the other side of the resort and she'd opted to make her way back to the boat, rather than try and find the increasingly intoxicated senator.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it, she thought with a smile as she caught sight of the Seawolf. Is that -? She laughed out loud as she recognised the figure halfway up the mast as Paul, hanging happily in a harness, singing his head off. Looks like it's already been quite the night. Her eyes swept around the deck. No sign of Jo though.
She walked up the gangplank and waved at Jason and Toby who yelled their greetings as they chacha-ed past.
I've gotta get out of these heels, thought Cadie, as she stepped into the cockpit and down the companionway. She emerged into the cabin to find Jo sitting with her back to her, head propped on the back of the sofa. Nobody else seemed to be around, so Cadie tiptoed forward and slid her arm over Jo's right shoulder, pulling the skipper close as she ducked down to whisper in her left ear.
"Hello, sailor," she burred, kissing the rim of Jo's ear softly.
"Mmmmmmmmmm, hello gorgeous," Jo responded, tipping her head back even further to look up into green eyes. "You managed to sneak away, huh?"
"Mhmmm, something like that." Cadie smiled down at the dark-haired woman, letting her fingers tangle in the long locks. Oh, I can't resist. She bent again and took Jo's mouth passionately, her tongue probing, bolts of desire rushing through her as Jo responded in kind. Strong hands reached up and cupped her head, pulling her closer.
Jo groaned into the contact, aroused beyond belief by the blonde's initiative. Damn this sofa, she thought blearily, wishing she could just pull Cadie over the back of the chair and into her arms.
Cadie could taste champagne on the skipper's tongue and she smiled as she gently pulled away. They rubbed noses and she kissed Jo lightly.
"You all done partying?" she asked.
Jo leaned forward and picked up a cup of coffee.
"No fear," she answered. "Just getting my second wind." She leaned back and watched Cadie ease her high heels off her feet with a happy groan. "How about you?"
"Well, I'm done wearing these torture devices," she said. "I'm going to change into something more comfortable." She laughed at Jo's raised eyebrow. "Not that comfortable, darling," she said, patting the skipper's shoulder. "I want to get some fun in before Naomi figures out where I am."
"Okay. I'll see you back on deck." Jo drained her cup and stood up. "Unless - ummmmm -" She grinned wickedly. "Unless you need some help in there." Casually she wandered over to where Cadie was laughing, one hand on the cabin door.
"Oh, Jo-Jo, my love. Don't tempt me." Cadie stood on her tiptoes and kissed Jo softly again. "But the way my luck is running, Naomi would swim by and crawl up through the head just to see what I was up to." She smiled regretfully as Jo nodded her agreement.
"Come up and celebrate with us, Arcadia," the tall woman said softly. "We missed you." She paused and cupped the blonde's cheek again with a gentle palm. "I missed you."
Cadie pulled on her jeans. As she had been doing for close to a week, her mind turned over the problem of what to do about Naomi's threats and demands. And as had happened every time, she ran into a brick wall. She smoothed down her shirt distractedly and looked around the cabin.
The drugs are the key, she realized. She's threatening to plant drugs on the boat and blackmail Jo with them. So - She spun in a slow circle. She wouldn't keep the drugs on her because - well, just because that's too big a pain in the ass for Naomi. And she's barely set foot in other parts of the boat. I doubt she even knows where the crew goes at night. That leaves the main cabin, where anyone could stumble over it, or - in here.
She glanced down at her watch.
Just after 1am. My guess is she's going to be at least a couple more hours. Plenty of time to search this room from top to bottom.
The cell phone rang with obscene volume so close to Jo's ear that it brought her upright with explosive speed. She cracked her head on the ceiling of the cramped crew quarters, driving her back down onto the bunk, hands pressed to her temples.
She scrambled to silence the offending gadget, sleepy hands fumbling as muffled curses floated up from below where Paul and Jenny were curled up in a sodden ball together.
"Hello?" Jo mumbled into the speaker, hoping she'd pressed the right button. She had.
"Is that Jo Madison?" came an unfamiliar male voice.
"It's her pitiful outer shell speaking," Jo replied, wondering just how a hangover could possibly feel any worse.
"I'll take that as a yes, then. Look, it's Constable McDonald here, from the Hamilton Island police." Jo's hangover got worse instantly. "We've got three of your passengers here. One of them claims to be a US senator."
Jo groaned, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand.
"Are they lost or something?" she asked, wishing fervently the man would just go away. "Want me to come and collect them?"
"Oh no, Miss Madison, you misunderstand.
TheyČre not lost. They're arrested."