Disclaimer: See title page.
|About the same time Jo was slamming
her head into the ceiling of the crew quarters, Cadie jolted back to consciousness,
face down, head buried under a pillow. You couldn't really call that
waking up, she thought fuzzily.
"Oh god," she groaned, not knowing quite what had woken her. Blearily she lifted her head, shoving the pillow off the bed with a flailing arm and revealing disheveled blonde locks. A sharp pain knifed through her brain. "Oh Jesus, take me now." Someone mean and vicious was pounding jungle drums between Cadie's ears and it took half a minute for her to realize someone actually was pounding on the cabin door. "Come on in," she mumbled into the mattress.
Jo pushed open the door and gingerly stepped into the cabin. Her own skull was still feeling hollow. She walked carefully around the small piles of discarded clothing Cadie had obviously left on her way to bed.
The tall skipper was stopped in her tracks by the sight of the petite blonde. Cadie wore a very brief set of short pyjamas, sporting tiny Winnie the Poohs.
Or is that Winnies the Pooh, Jo thought disjointedly as she took in the sprawled figure on the bed. The sheet was twisted around one of Cadie's legs and the other was exposed all the way to the bottom of the blonde's shorts. Now there is an instant hangover cure. Jo brightened considerably.
A bloodshot green eye peeked out from behind shaggy blonde locks.
"Are you the vindictive bitch who spiked my tequila with more tequila?" Cadie asked hoarsely.
"That depends," Jo said, managing a half-smile at her friend's obvious discomfort. "Was that before or after you started that game of Fuzzy Duck?"
Cadie moaned piteously and Jo decided to be merciful. She stepped forward to help the blonde swing her legs over the side of the bed and sit up. Cadie had obviously been in no fit state when she put on her pyjamas as the buttons were misaligned, giving her a slightly off-centre look.
My god, could she be any more adorable, thought Jo affectionately. She crouched down in front of Cadie and placed her hands on the smaller woman's knees, relishing the warmth and softness under her fingertips.
Being upright seemed to make Cadie feel better and she reached up and swept her errant locks back off her face with one hand. The other she placed on top of Jo's. For a few seconds the two women just enjoyed each other's presence, reveling in their connection.
"Hi," Cadie said softly, smiling down into twinkling, if somewhat tired, blue eyes.
"Hi yourself," Jo replied. "Quite a night, wasn't it?" She found herself in no particular hurry to break the news about the senator. Can't think why.
"Mhmmmmm. And I sure made up for getting to the party late, didn't I?" Cadie winced as a memory of a particularly vigorous round of limbo resurfaced. "I guess my image as a perfect young lady is shattered for good, huh?"
Jo replied by leaning forward, placing herself squarely between Cadie's legs. Funny how it doesn't bother me when she does it, Cadie thought as a gentle wash of desire chased the worst of the hangover away. Jo's hands slid up the blonde's thighs and came to rest on her waist. Dark hair spilled against her as Jo planted the gentlest of kisses on Cadie's breastbone, nuzzling a path between the folds of her pyjama top.
She smells so good, Jo's mind whispered as she brushed her lips across soft skin. Cadie wrapped her arms around her shoulders, resting her cheek on the top of Jo's head in a gentle hug.
"Mmmmmmmmmmm you feel so good," the blonde murmured. She felt Jo smile.
"I was just thinking the same thing," Jo replied, letting herself float in a golden haze.
Suddenly Cadie's brain caught up with the rest of her and sea-green eyes blinked wide.
Damn. Jo sighed and reluctantly pulled away from the blonde. She sat back down on the floor, resting her weight on her hands.
"Well, that's actually why I came to see you," Jo said carefully, unsure just how Cadie was going to react to the news.
"Oh I have a bad feeling about this," muttered the blonde.
"Naomi, Larissa and Kelli have been arrested for being drunk and disorderly and are currently sleeping it off in the Hamilton Island lock-up," said Jo.
Cadie's hands flew up to cover her eyes.
"Aargh. Shit, Jo, this isn't good." She dropped her hands and glared at the sprawled woman who was obviously having a hard time keeping the smile off her face. "It's not funny." Despite her best efforts, Jo's grin widened and Cadie felt a giggle welling up from deep inside. "Stop it Jo, don't you dare laugh." Wicked blue eyes twinkled back up at her through long dark lashes and Cadie felt the corners of her mouth twitching up into a matching grin. "Stop iiiiiiit."
In a rush laughter exploded from both women. Cadie doubled over while Jo collapsed back onto the floor, both helpless for a solid half minute of merriment.
"Oh god," Cadie moaned, wiping tears from her face with the backs of her hands. "It's not funny, really, darling. She's going to be so pissed."
That brought another hoot of laughter from the prostrate skipper. Running footsteps sounded above them as someone came aboard and then scrambled down the companionway.
"In here Jen," Jo called back, sitting up. The Seawolf hostess trotted into the cabin, taking in Cadie's disheveled appearance and Jo's casual posture on the floor with barely a fleeting grin.
But then she was all seriousness.
"We've got trouble, ladies," she said, holding out a copy of ĪThe Weekend Australian', the country's biggest, most prestigious newspaper. Splashed across the front page in glorious color was a six-column photograph of the Republican Senator for Illinois, hair askew, eyes glazed. She held a martini in one hand, and a redhead - Kelli, looking like something the cat dragged in - was tucked under her other arm. Above the unflattering photo the headline screamed 'Underworked, overpaid and over here!'
Even Jo winced. She handed the paper to Cadie who blanched and went very still.
"That really isn't funny," the blonde murmured. "This is the national paper, yeah?" Jo nodded quietly. "So the television networks will get to the story. And if the networks get it, word will get home before lunchtime."
"I went up to the resort to pick up some supplies," Jenny said. "There's already a pack of journalists waiting outside the cop shop."
Jo looked up into pleading green eyes. Awwwwww, shit, how am I supposed to resist that, she thought.
Jenny was reading the accompanying story.
"The good news is, there's no mention of Cadie, so there's a fair chance they think Kelli is the girlfriend."
"Not back home they won't. So not only will they think Naomi's a lush, they'll think she's cheating on me too. Great, just great." She flopped back on the bed, arms crossed loosely over her eyes.
"Jen, go roust Jason and Toby," Jo said. "I have a feeling we're going to need some spin control on this." She paused for thought. "Cadie, are Therese and Sarah criminal attorneys?"
"No," came the muffled response. "But they'll do. She's going to need a lawyer."
Jo turned back to Jenny.
"Get them up, too, mate."
"Aye, aye skip," said the crew member on her way out.
"Oh shut up," Jo said distractedly as she tried to figure out what to do next. She looked up at Cadie who had pulled a pillow over her face and was trying desperately to shut out the world. Jo pulled herself up and then sat down on the bed and stretched out next to the blonde, propping herself up on an elbow. "Sweetheart."
"Tell them all to go away, Jo-Jo, pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease?"
Jo smiled, reaching out a hand and sliding it under Cadie's pyjama top, searching for the soft skin of the blonde's firm belly. Once there she started slow, soothing circles with her fingertips.
Cadie groaned subvocally.
"Boy you've really got my number, haven't you?" she muttered sleepily, still holding the pillow over her face. Jo reached up and pulled it away, tossing it behind Cadie and smiling down at the blonde. "They're not going to go away are they?"
"'Fraid not, gorgeous," Jo said softly. Her hand drifted back under Cadie's shirt and she leaned down until their lips were just brushing. Tender butterfly kisses nibbled at the corners of the smaller woman's mouth and she let herself float in the tingling glow of Jo's attentions. "I would give anything for some uninterrupted time with you, darling," the skipper whispered as their breath mingled. "But somehow ·" Doors slammed out in the cabin and Jason and Toby could be heard yelling at each other. " · I don't think today is the day."
"Cadie!" Jason called, and Jo rolled away from Cadie, standing up and walking out into the main cabin before the blonde could reply.
"She's getting dressed, mate," Jo said quietly, watching the American hurriedly pulling on a shirt with one hand while he tried to read the newspaper with the other. At least he hasn't noticed I was in her cabin. All I need is a report on that to the senator, she thought.
"Christ, this is a nightmare," he said worriedly. "What do we know, Jo?"
"Not much more than the story says. The cop told me they were at the dance party on the other side of the resort. There were a couple of thousand people. There was a bit of a scuffle late in the night and the cops moved in and grabbed who they could. Apparently there was some ecstasy doing the rounds but he didn't find any on our three girls. But as you can see," she nodded at the newspaper, "they weren't exactly clean and sober."
Jason cursed under his breath and handed the paper to his partner who had just emerged from their cabin. Toby whistled softly, adjusting his glasses and running a hand through his sleep-mussed hair.
"Have they been formally charged, Jo?" he asked looking up at the skipper.
Jo nodded a greeting to Therese and Sarah who arrived at that moment.
"I'm not sure, mate. He said they'd been 'arrested'. Whether that means formally charged, I don't know."
"We'd better get over there," said Therese. She looked over Jo's shoulder as Cadie emerged, tucking her shirt into her jeans, a pair of sunglasses held in her mouth by the arm piece. She still looked a little disheveled. "I know we're all probably feeling a little rough around the edges," said the attorney. "But it would help a lot if we tried not to look like we feel, okay?" She paused while everyone started smoothing down hair and straightening clothes. "Great party, by the way, skipper."
"We live to serve."
The group made its way up on deck, where Jen handed out last minute cups of coffee. Paul sat miserably on the edge of the cockpit cowling, his sore head in his hands. Jo patted his knee sympathetically, smiling quietly at the memories of the big man swinging from the mast.
"I hate to do this to you Paulie, but I think we're going to have to get ready to get out of here in a bit of a hurry. If we can get the senator out of the joint, she's going to want to get as far away from dry land as possible."
"Shoot me now," he muttered, provoking a laugh from the dark-haired woman.
"Just say 'aye, aye skipper'," she said.
"Oh shut up," he moaned.
Nothing the American attorneys were saying was having any impact on the laconic custody sergeant in charge of the Hamilton Island lock-up. Despite the urgency of their pleas to see their clients, he was moving with all the speed of - well, Jo reasoned, all the speed of a cop who's been up all night dealing with the vagaries of Race Week. She couldn't help but smile at the frustration evident in the tourists. Even the usually unflappable Toby was beginning to get frayed around the edges.
They had managed to run the gauntlet of the press phalanx outside, mainly because nobody had recognized them. That wasn't going to be the case going out, Jo knew, and she was already planning their exit strategy. Assuming we can get the Terrible Trio sprung at all, Jo thought. And judging by our lack of progress so far, that's not a given.
She looked over to her left where Cadie was sitting quietly, head resting back against the wall of the police station. The petite blonde looked slightly stunned. Jo reached over and gently placed a hand on the woman's knee.
"You okay?" she asked quietly. Sea-green eyes met hers gratefully.
"I'm just trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be feeling," she replied, an ironic smile touching her lips. "Naomi hasn't exactly given me too many reasons to think fondly of her lately." Jo arched an eyebrow at her. "Yeah, I know. Understatement." She leaned closer to the tall skipper, till their shoulders touched. "But this could mean big trouble for her Jo. Career-wise I mean."
Jo smiled sympathetically down at her.
"And that's been the focus of both your lives for so long, you don't want to see it damaged," she extrapolated, nodding. "I understand, love." She smiled again as Cadie squeezed her hand quickly. Jo looked back at the group of Americans trying to make headway with the custody sergeant. Then she glanced at Cadie again. "Why don't I give Harding a ring?" she asked.
A flicker of hope crossed the blonde's face.
"You think he might be able to help?"
"It can't hurt. He's pretty high up down in Sydney and at the very least he'll know a few people to call."
An adorable wrinkle-nosed grin was her reward.
"I guess that means yes," Jo said, patting Cadie's knee and starting to reach for the cell phone on her own hip. She was stopped by a hand on her arm and she looked back to see the blonde biting her lip anxiously. "What's up?"
"There's something I need to tell you first," Cadie said.
"Okay," Jo replied slowly.
"Remember the conversation we had a few days ago? About Naomi threatening you?" Jo nodded. "Well, she implied that she would plant drugs on board the Seawolf if I didn't do as she asks from now on." She held Jo's hand tightly as she felt the thrumming vibration of rising anger in the tall skipper. "Jo, last night before I joined the party, I searched our cabin from top to bottom."
That explains why it took her so long to get changed, Jo realized. "And what did you find?" she asked softly, pushing her anger into a manageable bundle at the back of her brain.
"Not a damn thing," Cadie replied. "Which means she's either put them somewhere else on the boat or ·"
Their eyes met.
"Or she's bluffing," Jo finished.
Jo leaned forward, resting her forearms on her knees, hands clasped in front of her as she tried to think the situation through calmly and rationally. She turned her head to look up at the blonde.
"You think maybe this little fiasco might make her forget about hassling me?" she asked.
Cadie considered the question. On the one hand, she had never seen Naomi as jealous and possessive and · downright nasty · as she had been about the Seawolf's skipper. But then you've never been in love with anyone else, either, Arcadia, she reminded herself. On the other hand ·
"My guess would be yes," she replied. "If she follows her usual pattern, then her number one concern is, and will always be, her career. She's going to be too busy trying to save her political hide to be messing with you, baby." She paused and caught blue eyes dark with concern. "I hope." She smiled wanly.
"Well, I don't think we can take any chances," she said, flipping open her cell phone and dialing Paul's number. She waited. "Hey Paulie, it's me. No, we're going to be a while, I think. Listen, I need you to do something for me. There's a rumor going around that we may have some drugs stashed somewhere on board." She eased the phone away from her ear as Paul protested loudly. "I know, mate. But the way things are right now, it's in our best interests to turn the boat over, just in case. If you find anything, ditch it any way you can. No, don't worry about Cadie's cabin; she's already been through it." Jo glanced up at the group of Americans still trying to negotiate with the custody sergeant. "No, Paulie, I don't give a rip about their privacy right now. If we ever get out of here, we're going to have a pack of press and god knows who else on our tail, and I don't want any nasty consequences for the company."
Cadie watched as the dark-haired woman calmly went about organizing things with Paul. She reached out and placed a hand on the small of the skipper's back, rubbing gently with her fingertips.
I'm so glad she's here, Cadie thought, noting the fatigue evident on Jo's face as she scrubbed at her eyes with her free hand. The blonde remembered the Jo who had rescued Josh and blown away the man with the machine gun. That woman is a part of her all the time, she considered, recognizing the realities and history there. You can see it in the way she handles every crisis. Calculating, smart. So cool.
"Thanks, Paul." Jo wrapped up her conversation with the crewman and closed her eyes for a moment, savoring the feel of Cadie's fingers slowly working the tense muscles in her lower back. She's turned my world upside down, she thought. But I've never felt luckier.
They were both brought out of their reveries by a particularly frustrated outburst from Therese.
"Okay," said Jo, pushing herself up. "Time to get this bullshit done with." She walked forward, tapping the attorney on the shoulder. Therese looked at her inquiringly. "I think I can help," Jo said quietly. "Let me make some phone calls."
"Great, skipper, go for it. We're having no luck getting through to this idiot."
The sergeant bristled and Jo raised her hands in placation.
"Let's just all settle shall we?" she said, directing the Americans to the seats along the wall where Cadie was resting. She turned back to the by now far less friendly policeman and rewarded him with one of her most winning smiles. Cadie smirked at the charmed look that immediately softened the man's craggy features.
Putty in her hands, the blonde chuckled.
"Sarge," Jo started, pressing her hands down on the countertop and leaning conspiratorially towards him. "I know you've had a long night, and the last thing you want, really, is a pack of Americans on one side and the press just outside the door. Am I right?"
"It has been a long night, that's for sure, Miss," he said, reaching up and loosening his dark blue tie, unleashing the top button of his uniform shirt. "But I can't go letting those ladies go just because they're tourists now can I?"
"No, no you can't," Jo agreed solemnly. She rested her forearms on the desktop and considered her options. "The thing is though, you'd be doing me an enormous favor if you let me make a few phone calls and try and get this sorted out. See, these guys are my responsibility. And if my boss gets wind of this, he's going to kick my backside from one end of the Passage to the other."
The policeman knew enough to know he was being played, but he was enjoying the beautiful woman's attentions too much to make Jo stop.
"I can certainly understand why you'd want to clear this up as quickly as possible, Miss," he said agreeably, leaning down next to her.
"So how about letting me make those calls," she asked, smiling up at him.
He reached under the counter and pulled up a phone, plunking it down on the desktop with a nonchalant smile.
"I'll even let you use my phone, Miss," he said.
That's my girl, thought Cadie with a smile as she watched Jo grin at the officer and reach for the phone.
Meaty, nicotine-stained fingers fumbled for the jangling phone that was out to torture Detective Ken Harding. A jaundiced eye peeled itself open enough to take in the clock radio's red glare.
Who the fuck is calling me at 8am on a Saturday, he thought. His first attempt at answering failed miserably when all he produced was a hoarse gargle.
"What?" he barked, second time lucky.
"Hello, Ken," purred a dark, rich female voice that could only be one woman on the planet. Harding felt things shifting in his boxers that hadn't moved of their own accord in months. Hell, years, he admitted to himself. But, damn, that voice could move mountains. He rolled himself upright, swinging his legs off the bed.
"Zat you, Madison?" he growled redundantly, his gonads telling him exactly who it was.
"Mmhmmmmm," she drawled. "Hope I haven't gotten you up too early?"
Jesus, Harding thought. Now's she's psychic.
"It's Saturday. It's 8am. It's my first day off in two weeks, Madison. What do you think?" he muttered, scraping fingernails through itchy chin stubble.
She laughed a rolling sexy chuckle that made him think of satin sheets. He morosely flicked a dead toenail clipping off the thinning polyester number he was sitting on and tried to concentrate on what the woman was saying.
"Sorry, mate," she said. "But I need your help. Again."
Harding immediately sat up straighter.
"What's happened? Those bastards been after you again?"
"No, no, Ken, it's nothing like that. I just need a favor. A big one," Jo said. "I'm not even sure you've got the pull to get it done for me."
"Try me," he said, reaching for his cigarettes. He lit up his first for the day as he listened while Jo told him about Naomi's arrest. "Jesus, she sounds like a pain in the arse," he muttered at one point and he could almost hear Jo grinning.
"Oh, she is that," the skipper answered quietly. "What do you think, mate? Can you help us get them out of here without any charges being brought?"
Harding considered his options, taking a deep drag on the cigarette.
"You're positive there's no hint of drugs on these three?" he asked.
"Positive," she answered quickly. "Just drunk and disorderly. Though I will admit they've all got a history with the stuff. Thankfully this time they just got tanked on gin and vodka."
"Okay," he said. "Look, Jo, I think I can get it done. Ya gotta give me an hour or so, though. The Commissioner gets cranky this hour of the morning. Leave it with me, okay?"
"Great, Ken, thanks." He could hear the relief in her voice. "You've got my cell phone number, yeah?"
Tattooed on the insides of my eyelids, baby. "Yeah, I've got it," he replied. "I'll call you as soon as I've got something organized. But you know it's going to be hard to keep this outta the newspapers. I can't do much about that."
"It already is. But at least her spin doctors can make some mileage if we can get them out of here unscathed."
Harding stubbed his butt out in the overflowing ashtray next to his bed. He was a little puzzled.
"I don't get it Madison," he said. "I mean, apart from the fact they're clients, why do you give a shit?"
There was a pause on the other end of the phone and Harding pictured those gorgeous baby blues blinking as she came up with an answer. Sensational. He heard her sigh.
"It's for Cadie," she finally replied.
Aaaah, the cute blonde. I should've known. What a waste of a couple of great looking sheilas. "Fair enough," he said gruffly. "I'll do what I can, Jo."
"Thanks mate. Talk to you soon." She hung up.
Harding stood as he dropped the receiver back on the hook. With a grunt he pushed his hands behind his hips and arched, stretching out the kinks in his overladen backbone. He lumbered towards the bathroom, scratching himself as he walked.
Jesus, I look like something the cat puked up, he thought, staring at his reflection. Ah well. He picked his toothbrush up and scrubbed away for a couple of minutes. At least I look better than I feel. He walked back into the main room of his tiny, disorganized bed-sit. Okay, let's see who I can piss off at this time of the morning, he thought as he reached once again for the phone. Anything for long, dark and dangerous.
Jo looked around the room. The Americans had settled into a resigned silence and were scattered around the periphery. There wasn't a one of them who wasn't feeling the effects of a huge night of partying and it was starting to show on their faces.
Including mine, I'm sure, Jo thought wearily as the dull pounding at her temples forced its way to the forefront of her awareness. With gritted teeth she pushed it back again. God I hope Jen is making us all a big fried breakfast. We are so going to need it. She glanced over to where Cadie was sitting, her head resting back against the wall. Is she asleep? Jo wondered. Her question was answered when sea-green eyes blinked open and locked onto hers instantly. I guess not. Jo smiled, receiving an answering grin. How do we do that, I wonder.
Any further thought was interrupted by her cell phone. Jo looked down at her watch as she flipped the phone open. Forty minutes. Not bad.
"Madison," she said.
"It's done," she heard Harding say. "Your little mate behind the desk there should start getting phone calls any minute now." Sure enough the phone on the counter loudly announced itself and the custody sergeant reached for it.
"From your mouth to God's ear, Harding," Jo muttered. "I owe you one, mate. Another one."
"Forget it," he replied. "Just get yourself down here in a couple of months when that slime ball Marco is fit enough to put on trial."
"Count on it," she promised. "How is he, by the way?"
"He's talking again," Harding said. "Of course he's talking in a falsetto since you ripped his nuts off." Jo winced as she listened to the cop's rough laughter, and she caught Cadie's eye. "But he won't be walking around for a while yet. I'll call you when the court dates are set."
"Okay, Ken," she said. "Thanks again, mate."
She tucked the phone back into its holster and wandered over to the empty seat next to Cadie.
"Bad news?" Cadie asked quietly. "I saw you wincing before," she explained at Jo's quizzical look.
"Oh. No, not at all, actually." She nodded over at the custody sergeant who was still on the phone, his forehead creased into a frown. "In fact, I think our friend over there is just getting the word now." She looked down at Cadie and smiled. "It's going to be okay, love," she whispered.
"Oh, I adore you," Cadie replied, just as quietly. She wrapped a hand around Jo's bicep and squeezed gratefully. "So what was the wince for, Miss Miracle Worker."
"Just an update on Marco's medical condition." That earned her another empathetic squeeze. "And I'm not the miracle worker. Harding got it done."
"Remind me to send him a bunch of flowers," Cadie murmured, watching as the desk sergeant hung up the phone and disappeared out the door to another part of the police station.
"He'd appreciate a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of scotch more," replied Jo. She leaned sideways, intending to drop a kiss into the soft, gold locks that were so close. But a sudden realization that Sarah was watching them with a curious expression on her face brought her up short. Whoa, Jo-Jo, she thought. Remember where you are. She's not yours to kiss. Yet.
"I want to thank him, not contribute to his early death, Jo-Jo," the blonde replied with a smile, for once oblivious to the thoughts crossing the skipper's mind. She glanced up, surprised to find a very guarded expression clouding Jo's usually open face. "What is it?" she asked.
"Hon, you might want to let go of my arm," the taller woman whispered. "The children are watching."
"Ugh," grunted Cadie, sliding her hand away from the warmth of the inside of Jo's arm. "Sorry."
"Don't worry about it," Jo said. "I think that's going to be the least of our worries for the next few hours or so."
"Oh gee, thanks Jo-Jo, that's reassuring," the blonde laughed.
They were saved from further anxious moments by the return of the charge sergeant who walked through into their part of the room.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "I've been informed by my superior officer that there will be no charges brought against the three ladies and they are free to leave." Sighs of relief and subdued cheers rang around the room. "I reckon you don't want to be taking them out through the front door, so if you'd like to follow me, I can let you all out the back way."
Toby leapt to his feet.
"Okay, here's what we're going to do," he said. "Jason and I are going out to give the press a statement. That will give you all a chance to get back to the boat without having the hacks on your heels. Leave us a buggy and we'll catch up with you as soon as we can."
Jo nodded and stood.
"Sounds like a plan," she said. She turned and followed Therese and Sarah through to the part of the police station that housed the overnight holding cells. She felt Cadie at her back. The sooner we get out of here, the better, Jo thought, the smells and sounds of the jail bringing back some distant memories she would rather forget.
A reassuring hand on her back let her know Cadie was making a good guess about her thought processes and she couldn't help but smile.
They rounded a corner and there were Naomi, Larissa and Kelli. Cadie and Jo moved rapidly away from each other.
The blonde warily approached her partner, who sat in a corner of the room, her expression as dark and threatening as any she'd ever seen. Naomi was unkempt and clearly feeling very much the worse for wear.
Handle with care, Cadie thought to herself. Apart from anything else, a humiliated Naomi is a dangerous Naomi.
"Hi Nay," she finally said. Slowly the senator pushed herself up out of her seat. She glowered at Cadie with an intense fury that forced the blonde backwards a step. Jo felt the hairs at the back of her neck rise and she made a move towards the pair, stopped only by a quick look from Cadie.
"Where the fuck were you?" growled Naomi, low and soft. "You were supposed to be with me, and then you were gone. None of this would have happened if you'd just stayed where you were supposed to stay. Where ..." She moved closer to Cadie. "... the fuck ..." Jo felt herself rock onto the balls of her feet. "... were you?"
Cadie tried to stay as still and calm as she could. Inches in front of her face, Naomi oozed venom. Behind and to the side of her, she could feel Jo radiating a kind of protective anger that felt warm ... but dangerous.
"It was crowded Naomi," she said quietly, acknowledging to herself that her own long fuse was sparking. "I got separated from you in the crush. I could just as easily ask where you were. I looked for you for an hour and then decided the best thing was to go back to the boat. Perhaps if you'd thought about it a little more, that answer would have occurred to you."
Two things then happened in quick succession; so fast, in fact, that Cadie barely had time to blink and it was over. Naomi raised a hand to slap the blonde and a dark blur swooped over Cadie's left shoulder, pinning the senator's hand in an immovable grip.
"Don't even think about it," murmured Jo, nose to nose with the infuriated senator. "You'll regret it for a very long time."
Oooooooo, my hero, thought Cadie, wondering at the casual strength humming through the tall woman. But it's not a good idea to let this go on much longer. She looked at Naomi and for the first time, saw fear on the older woman's face.
"Jo," Cadie said quietly. "I think you can let her go now."
Without taking her eyes from the senator's, Jo released her hand and stepped back. Naomi lowered her arm, breathing heavily.
"Ladies," said Therese sharply from behind them. "We really don't have time for this bullshit. Let's go."
Jo nodded, and then gestured to the door, waiting for Naomi to make a move. With a low growl the American did so, walking out the door and into the brilliant sunshine.
"Thank you," Cadie said as she and the skipper followed Therese and Sarah out. "I don't think she would really have hit me."
Jo raised an eyebrow. The hell she wasn't, she thought. She was going to · she was all set to. "I wasn't going to take that chance, love," she said aloud. "Not now, not ever. I don't care what plans she has to blackmail us." Jo looked down at the blonde. "I know it's going to make her angrier, but I can't ö won't - let her hurt you." She shrugged. "Sorry. That's just the way I am."
Cadie watched as Therese, Sarah and Naomi climbed into one golf buggy, while Larissa and Kelli clambered into the back of the other.
"I wouldn't have you any other way, darling," Cadie murmured without looking back up at the blue eyes she knew were fixed on her. "I think I'd better go with them." She gestured at Naomi's cart.
"Mhmmmmm," Jo replied. "See you back at the boat. If you see a journalist, run over it."
Cadie snorted a quiet laugh.
Toby and Jason faced the media like the seasoned professionals they were. Toby, ever the front man, took control.
"Ladies and gentleman, if you would gather round please, we have a statement from Senator Silverberg." He waited as reporters, photographers and news crews bustled around him, hurriedly setting up microphone stands and tape recorders. "My name is Toby McIntyre. This," he indicated his partner. "... is Jason Samuels. We are the senator's press liaison team.
"Last night, while celebrating Hamilton Island Race Week with other members of her party and crew from the boat she has been staying on for the past two weeks, the Senator was detained by the Hamilton Island police. Contrary to this morning's newspaper reports at no stage was the Senator under arrest, nor was there ever any question of that being the case. She and her companions have been released with no action to be taken. Thank you."
A hubbub of questions rose from the assembled pack but Toby backed away from the microphones.
"There will be no further comment or questions answered at this time," said Jason, before he too turned away and walked back into the police station.
"What do you think?" he said sotto voce to his partner as they retreated.
"I think we'd better get out to sea pretty damn quickly," Toby replied.
The Seawolf sliced through the water heading due east from Hamilton Island, towards the outer banks of the Great Barrier Reef. Jo had a destination in mind that wasn't marked on any of the tourist maps and didn't even have a name on the nautical charts. It was a tiny horseshoe-shaped reef and lagoon she knew nobody else would find in a hurry, least of all a pack of journalists with no local knowledge.
They were cruising at about nine knots, the yacht listing with the wind and making good time. Jo didn't have to do much to keep the big boat on track and she relaxed against the bulwark of the port crew cockpit, her right hand and foot draped over the wheel.
It had been a very subdued group of passengers which had made it back to the boat without further incident. Toby and Jason had helped the crew get the Seawolf out to sea but since then the Americans had done little else but sit around the cockpit talking in low voices. The senator had disappeared below decks for a while but had since returned, showered and refreshed, to her usual spot in the corner. She'd said barely a word, Jo noted. Even Cadie was keeping a low profile, helping Jen in the galley.
Jo took another bite on the big bacon sandwich in her left hand, grateful for the hangover-curing miracle the tasty treat was working. Jen and Cadie had made enough to keep passengers and crew going until they could prepare a late afternoon lunch once they found anchorage. The skipper hadn't had much chance to talk with Paul and Jenny since their return to the Seawolf, other than to issue sailing orders, but she watched as the big man skillfully made his way towards her across the moving deck.
"Hey Jo-Jo," he greeted her, stealing half a sandwich from the plate tucked into a niche in the side of the cockpit.
"Hiya Paulie," she returned.
"Pretty quiet group," he said between mouthfuls.
"Mmmmmm. I suspect they're just realizing the good senator is in a fair amount of poo, mate," she replied. She looked over at the big man. "So how did the search go?"
He shrugged as he wolfed down the last of his bacon.
"Came up dry, skip," he said.
"You searched everywhere?"
"Hell, yeah," he reiterated. "I shone a torch in any space a human hand can get into. From the bowsprit to the bilge pumps. Nothing. If there are drugs on this boat, I'll bare my bum and do a dance down Main Street."
"Okay, okay, I believe you." She chuckled at the mental image. So it was a bluff, she thought. A tiny flicker of hope sputtered into life in her heart. Maybe, for once, the senator isn't going to have things all her own way. Perhaps Cadie will actually get to do what's good for her. It could be a start, at least. It was an unexpectedly bright thought in an otherwise grim morning.
Jo's gamble had paid off. The small coral cay had proven to be uninhabited and the Seawolf was safely anchored in the lagoon. The weather was idyllic; warm, and a cloudless sky but with an ocean breeze blowing from the east, where the breakers crashed against the leading edge of the reef. Their anchorage was sheltered and calm, a perfect spot for swimming or walking the coral.
The dark-haired skipper sighed as she balanced on the bowsprit, binoculars in hand. It should have been the ideal place to bring a boatload of tourists, but instead the Americans had settled into a morose kind of stupor. Only Larissa and Kelli, who were apparently oblivious to anything other than their own enjoyment, were making the most of the location, snorkeling not far off the boat's port beam.
Jo lifted the binoculars to her eyes and scanned the sea between them and the mainland.
So far, so good, she thought. Which is more than I can say for the mood. Therese, Sarah and Naomi had had a shouting match of epic proportions not long after they'd anchored. The attorneys were apparently none too pleased about being caught up in Naomi's escapades. At one point Therese had pointed out that the senator was on the brink of blowing 10 years' hard work for one idiot night of partying.
Hard to believe it could get that ugly, Jo pondered. She glanced up as Cadie picked her way over the deck fittings towards her. Despite it all the blonde still managed to conjure up her trademark smile, the top of her nose wrinkling as green eyes met blue.
"Hello skipper," Cadie said softly, resisting the urge to invade the tall woman's personal space just so she could feel those long arms wrapped around her. Instead she nervously held her hands behind her back.
"Hi," Jo replied. "How are you doing with all this?" Cadie shrugged and Jo noted the barely reined in tension in the blonde's compact body.
"I'm okay, I guess," Cadie said, not meeting Jo's gaze.
"Uh-huh," replied the skipper skeptically. "Try again, kiddo."
"Hey, I'm only a couple of years younger than you grandma, so who are you calling kiddo?" She grinned as she said it, and Jo was relieved to see a sparkle return to those gorgeous eyes. Cadie looked around at the other passengers dotted around the deck. "I guess we're all just waiting, and it makes me nervous."
"Waiting for what?" Jo asked. "I mean, if we can get through till tomorrow morning without the scumbag media finding us, it'll all blow over."
Cadie shook her head slowly.
"I wish that were true, hon," she said. "It may well blow over with the Australian media. But it's the middle of the night in the US. Hopefully we didn't make the evening news, but for sure it's going to hit the airwaves first thing in the morning. And then · " She shrugged again. "Who knows what will happen."
Jo had never had much reason to think about the internal machinations of US politics.
"So what are we talking about here? A rap over the knuckles?"
Cadie leaned back on the bowsprit rail, taking the opportunity to brush the back of her hand against the warmth of Jo's thigh. The two women took a couple of seconds just to enjoy the tingles that set off in both of them until, with an effort, Cadie pulled her eyes away and focused on answering the question.
"Well, Jason thinks she'll be recalled straight away," she replied.
"By the Senate?" Jo guessed.
Cadie shook her head.
"No. Senate isn't in session for another couple of weeks. By the senior party members. The leaders of the Republican Party in the Senate, in other words," she clarified, seeing the crease appear on Jo's forehead.
"And what will they do?"
"Good question. I don't really know to be honest. She's never managed to get herself into trouble like this before."
Jo shifted around a little so she could place a hand against the blonde's shoulder blade, where she began a gentle rubbing.
"Is it really such a big deal?" she asked, smiling as she felt Cadie lean back into her touch. "She's surely not the first politician to get caught with a glass of alcohol in her hand. Hell, here a pollie's looked at suspiciously if they don't take a drink."
Cadie chuckled, shaking her head.
"I'd believe that." She smiled. "Unfortunately, the Republican Party is a very conservative institution. Having an openly gay senator in the party was something of a novelty to say the least. There are still large factions of the party who have been waiting for an opportunity to tear Naomi to shreds."
"And she's just given them that opportunity," Jo murmured.
"Yes," Cadie quietly agreed. "It could get very ugly."
"Ugly as a hatful of arseholes." Jo grinned at the belly laugh that erupted from the blonde. Cadie quickly tried to stifle it as heads popped up all over the yacht. "Sorry, love," said Jo. "Didn't mean to do that to you."
Cadie wiped away a tear as she finished giggling.
"God, I adore the way you talk," she said, beaming back at the tall Australian, who arched an elegant eyebrow in reply.
"Perhaps you'd better back off a little, darling," Jo said softly. "Last thing we need right now is Naomi going off on another rant."
Cadie sighed and turned around again to lean back on the rail.
"Well, the good news is she's got way too much on her mind right now to worry about what I'm doing," she muttered.
Jo sensed the change in mood and saw the look of quiet resignation in the blonde's eyes.
"And the bad news?"
Cadie's head dropped and she fiddled nervously with the gold band around her ring finger.
"The bad news is I still have to go back with her, Jo-Jo."
Jo smiled quietly, unsurprised by that.
"I know, honey." She resumed gently circling her fingers between Cadie's shoulder blades, feeling the tension rippling under the surface of the soft skin. "Just to set your mind at ease a little, Paul and Jenny didn't find any drugs anywhere aboard."
Cadie straightened up and Jo saw her jaw muscles working as she ground her teeth together.
"So she was just trying to bluff me," the blonde growled. "And I let her."
"Ssshh. Don't be so hard on yourself. She can be bloody intimidating." That drew a smile from the American. Was wondering if I'd see that again, Jo thought.
"This from the Queen of Dangerous." Cadie was pleased when she felt the rumbling laugh from the tall woman behind her. And I'm going to give her an hour to stop that rubbing, she thought.
"Like I said before, honey, I've seen a lot worse than Naomi Silverberg," Jo said quietly. Cadie nodded silently and Jo felt a wave of sympathy for the younger woman. "You have a lot of history with her, Arcadia. I understand that you feel a need to support her through whatever happens next."
"It's not just that Jo," the blonde replied. "There are so many loose ends."
"I know. I'll be here when you're ready, sweetheart."
Cadie turned to face her, sliding a hand over Jo's nearest knee and squeezing softly.
"Have I told you lately how much I love you?" she asked softly, feeling a thrill as their eyes met, a solid jolt of desire warming her belly. Blue eyes blazed into hers and she knew Jo felt it too. A long thumb slid gently back and forth across the skin of the back of her hand.
"No," Jo replied, teasing. "But feel free to tell me as often as you like from now on."
"Okay." Another long smiling moment passed between them. Crisis? What crisis? "I love you more than air," she said tenderly, lifting Jo's hand to her mouth and brushing her lips across the palm gently.
A shiver unbalanced Jo momentarily and she quickly grabbed on to the bowsprit with her free hand, the strength of her physical reaction to Cadie's touch surprising her. She exhaled on a long, ragged breath.
"Wow." They blinked at each other for a few seconds. "Did you feel that too?"
"Oh yes, my love."
"More than air, huh?" Cadie nodded solemnly. "Oh, we are in so much trouble."
They'd decided on a late supper, and by 10pm everyone was starting to mellow out just a little. Soft music drifted up from below decks and though the moon was only about half full, there was gorgeous shimmering phosphorescence in the water around the boat. The air was still and the sounds of the open ocean half a mile away could be clearly heard in the background. There had been no sign of any media either by sea or air.
Cadie sprawled across the cockpit cowling, her belly full of fresh seafood, including lobster caught by Paul and Jo just that afternoon. She looked up into the blanket of softly twinkling stars. There must be more stars in this southern sky than back in Chicago, she thought wistfully. Here, away from the masking lights of any big cities, the inky sky seemed crowded with twinkling pinpoints. Beautiful.
She shivered as the slight suggestion of a breeze brushed coolly over her bare arms and shoulders, making the ever-present sunburn tingle in response. Cadie heard a movement to her left and startled as a cream-colored sweatshirt landed in her lap.
"It gets cool quickly out here," a familiar, warm voice said softly from below her. Cadie glanced down and saw two night-darkened blue eyes blinking back at her.
"Thanks," the blonde replied quietly, flicking a glance at Naomi who hadn't moved from the same spot in the corner of the cockpit all day. The senator didn't even give them a second glance. Cadie let her eyes drift back to Jo's, a smile flirting between them.
"My pleasure," the skipper murmured before she moved away again.
Cadie pulled the sweatshirt over her head, senses set tingling when she recognized the apricot and cinnamon-tinged scent that she immediately recognized as a combination of the soap Jo used and the tall woman's own distinctive aroma. And something else, she pondered, breathing the comforting essence in deeply. Sunscreen, she realized, smiling. God, I hope she doesn't plan on getting this back any time soon · if ever. She giggled softly at herself.
From where she sat in the crew cockpit, playing random notes on Paul's guitar, Jo watched the blonde affectionately. That thing's way too big for her, she thought as Cadie pulled the sweatshirt on and wriggled around in it till it was sitting comfortably. She could wear it as a dress. She found herself grinning as she caught Cadie pulling the front of the garment up to her nose and apparently sniffing it. What is she · She tilted her head inquiringly but all she got back in reply was a silly grin. I'm guessing that's the last I'll see of that shirt, she thought affectionately.
The music piped up from below ended and Jo began humming softly as she plucked the guitar's strings, letting her voice and the instrument find their own path together. She felt rather than saw a pair of sea-green eyes fix on her and she tried to make the music just for Cadie, weaving a slow, melodic counterpoint around the guitar's notes.
That's magic, Cadie thought. She stretched out on her side, head propped on her hand as she listened intently. When I get back I want to hear a lot more of her singing. Need to get her out here on the water and relaxed. Just the two of us. Because any minute now ·
"What time is it in DC?" Naomi interrupted. Jo, who didn't know, ignored the question and continued playing. Toby came up from below and sat down opposite the senator.
"It's 7am, Nay," he said quietly.
"Jesus Christ," Naomi exclaimed, standing suddenly and beginning a restless pacing up and down the length of the cockpit. "I can see it now. They're all choking on their muesli as they watch Good Morning America."
"I can't see Trent Lott eating muesli," Toby muttered incongruously. "He's more of an eggs benedict kind of guy."
Jo laughed quietly between codas, ignoring the evil glare she got from the senator as she resumed singling softly.
Suddenly a cell phone rang somewhere below decks. Naomi swung on Toby.
"I thought we didn't bring any phones," she snapped. He put his hands up in a gesture of innocence.
"It's mine," Paul shouted from below. The ringing stopped as he obviously answered the call.
"But the Party does know where you are, right Naomi?" Toby asked as the senator resumed her seat.
"It was all I could do to stop them turning this into a diplomatic mission instead of a vacation," she answered grumpily. "They were all for me giving some stupid, pointless speeches every other day. As if we give a damn what anybody in this backwater thinks of us." Cadie winced at that and flashed Jo an apologetic look. "We compromised. I gave them all the details of where we'd be, including the company's phone number, and I agreed to answer them when they called."
"Which is exactly what they want you to do," Paul said from where he stood at the top of the companionway. He reached out to Naomi with both his cell phone and a piece of paper. "That was Ron," he explained. "There's an urgent message for you, Senator."
Nice to see her intimidated for a change, Jo couldn't help thinking as she watched Naomi tentatively take the phone and message from her crewman.
"Fuck," the politician growled as she read the note. "It's from Lott," she told Toby and Jason. "Wants me to call him immediately."
The two men sat silently, neither willing to give any advice. Jo watched as she continued to play, humming softly now. Cadie sat up, swinging her legs over the edge of the cowling.
Feels like everyone is just holding their breath, Jo thought, catching Cadie's slightly shadowed eyes. Water slapped against the hull softly as everyone on board waited for Naomi to make a move. She sat still for several seconds, turning the cell phone over and over in one hand as she tugged at her bottom lip with the fingers of the other.
"So ..." she finally said. "I guess I'd better call him." She stood and climbed up out of the cockpit, picking her way forward to find a little more privacy.
Cadie wondered briefly if she should follow, but thought better of it. She'll be letting us all know exactly how it went, if I know her, she thought.
Sure enough, it wasn't many minutes before Naomi's fate became obvious to all. Subdued talking was followed by a protracted pause. Jo, the only one with an unobstructed view of the front of the boat, watched the senator's silhouette. After being almost rock-still for several minutes, Naomi suddenly exploded into motion, letting loose a long ragged howl of frustration and tossing the cell phone high and far.
The ensuing silence was punctuated by the distant splash of the electronic projectile.
"Tell me that wasn't my phone," Paul muttered.
"Okay, I won't tell you," Jo agreed grimly. Further conversation was prevented by the return of the senator who stomped back down into the cockpit and slumped in her usual corner.
"What's the news?" asked Toby quietly.
"They want us back there as soon as possible."
It's always 'us' when she's in trouble, Cadie thought ruefully.
Toby grunted and turned to Jo.
"Don't suppose you know the airline schedules off the top of your head, Jo?" he asked.
"I know enough to know the first plane to Sydney's at 9.30am tomorrow," she replied. "That will get you there in time to connect with the outgoing lunchtime flights to LA or San Francisco."
"And you can get us back to the airport in time for that?"
Jo did some rough calculations in her head.
"Not unless we sail at night, which isn't the best plan. But there's no problem. We can organize a water taxi to get out here by, say, 5.30am. Early enough to get you to Hamilton Island in plenty of time."
"Then I suggest we all start packing," he said quietly.
Larissa piped up from where she leaned against the starboard rail.
"Why do we all have to go back now? There's still a week to go," she whined.
Naomi stopped in her progress towards the companionway and Cadie watched as she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Ohhh, Larissa, that was not a good move, thought the blonde with a guilty feeling of relief that the oncoming blast wasn't going to be directed at her.
The senator turned, walked over to the lanky brunette and leaned down so she was inches away from Larissa's slightly startled face.
"I'll tell you why, Larissa," she hissed. "Because I paid for the whole damn thing. Because it's my reputation that got you out of jail in the first place." Jo and Cadie exchanged glances at that, the blonde smiling slightly at the skipper's eloquently arched eyebrow. "And because I goddamn well said so. Is that all right with you?" Larissa nodded mutely, shrinking away from the senator's intimidating presence. "Right. Let's get on with it then, shall we?"
The senator stumped down the companionway and disappeared below. For a few seconds the other passengers just sat in silence, absorbing their changed circumstances. Then, one by one, they stood and trailed down after her. Cadie was the last to go, jumping down off the cowling and casting a sad smile in Jo's direction.
Unexpectedly Jo found it hard to swallow for the tugging ache in her throat. She tried to smile back at the blonde before Cadie turned and headed below decks, but she knew her response had been wobbly at best.
Damn, Jo thought. I thought there would be another week before I started feeling like this. She was aware of Jenny watching her quietly from the top of the companionway and she turned away from the crewman's scrutiny. I refuse to cry, she told herself. If I cry now, how the hell am I going to cope when she leaves in the morning?
"She threw my goddamned phone into the ocean," Paul lamented from where he stood near the boom. "Can you believe that?"
Perfect end to a perfect day, thought Jo. She reached around and unclipped her own cell phone, keying in the Cheswick Marine office manager's home phone number.
"Hi Doris, it's Jo," she said when the woman answered. Jo glanced down at her watch, grimacing at the lateness of the hour. "Yeah, I'm really sorry about disturbing you at home this late. But we've got a bit of a problem and I need you to make some quick arrangements for me ·"
Cadie moved quietly around the cabin, collecting odds and ends that still needed to be packed and sliding them into nooks and crannies in either her or Naomi's bags. Normally she wouldn't have worried about who ended up with what, but a little voice in her head told her to keep her stuff close by.
I've already started separating our lives, she realized with a rush. She thought about all the logistics leaving Naomi was going to the entail and the complexity of it felt overwhelming. She fought down a slightly panicky feeling. Make like Scarlett O'Hara, Arcadia, she told herself. Think about today, today and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. She glanced over to the bed where Naomi was sprawled untidily. The senator had fallen asleep not long after they had started packing, preferring, as usual, to let Cadie do the work.
Cadie watched the familiar outline of her partner's face for a while; again struck by how much the woman had changed from the young college activist she had connected with 12 years earlier.
I should feel sadder about the prospect of leaving you, Naomi, she thought, as she lovingly tucked a certain cream-colored sweatshirt into the corner of her suitcase. But I don't. I'm scared, and I don't know when it's going to happen, but I don't have any doubts about it any more. Being with you hasn't been what I've wanted for myself for a long time. And it only took two weeks of being around Jo to make me see that. She snorted quietly at herself. Hell, truth be told, it took about two hours.
She shivered slightly, rubbing her arms to chase away the pre-dawn chill. She knew the water taxi would be coming for them soon.
I don't want to leave, she acknowledged. I don't want to leave Jo. She leaned over the suitcase, hands pressed onto the top of her clothes, eyes closed as a wave of melancholy threatened to unbalance her. Oh god, Jo-Jo. I don't want to go, because I don't know when I can come back again. And the truth is I don't want to spend another minute without you. In the space of two weeks I've gone from being someone else's partner, to being totally and utterly yours. Lock, stock and barrel. A picture of the tall skipper's sexy, lopsided grin floated behind her eyelids and Cadie felt herself smile. Not that you would put it that way, my love. But that's how it feels to me.
A light knocking on the door tore at her attention.
"Come on in."
She looked over as Jenny stuck her head around the door.
"Water taxi will be here in about half an hour, Cadie," the hostess said softly.
"Thanks," the blonde replied. She glanced over at her slumbering bedmate. "We'll be ready, despite all appearances to the contrary."
Jenny smiled back before disappearing again and Cadie sighed. She walked over to the bed and reached down, shaking the senator's shoulder gently.
"Come on, Naomi, time to face the music."
Jo hugged her knees up to her chest and stretched her sweatshirt over them to fight off the pre-dawn chill. She gazed out to the east where pale pinks and yellows were starting to tint the sky. A long, thin line of cloud banded the horizon, its underside glowing orange as the sun threatened to peek above the waterline.
The dark-haired skipper rested the back of her head against the mast, content to let the growing activity below decks carry on without her. Jo hadn't slept at all but she felt strangely alert, her senses buzzing.
I don't want to forget any of this, she thought. I don't want to forget a single detail of the last time I see Cadie. If she manages to get back here someday I want to have something I can compare that happiness with. The perverse logic of that tickled her sense of humor. If she manages to get back here. She could feel and hear the passengers starting to move around below. Jenny had done the rounds, warning everyone the water taxi was closing in, and already Paul was helping to move luggage up on deck. Jo glanced down at her watch. Barely 5.30am. They should get back to the island in time to pick up their spare gear and get to the airport, she mused.
Doris had made some hasty phone calls late the night before, booking the Americans onto flights all the way back to Chicago.
Almost 9000 miles away. Nine thousand miles and one enormous goddamn ocean away. Jesus, I don't even have her phone number. As the sun breasted the horizon, bathing the tall woman's angular face in pale warmth, Jo fought the panicky knot of tension in her stomach.
The skipper looked back over her left shoulder to see Jenny waving from the stern. The hostess pointed towards the mainland and Jo squinted. There in the distance was a large yellow motor launch churning through the waves towards them.
"Water taxi, skipper!"
Jo waved back in acknowledgement and picked herself up off the deck. As she brushed off her shorts she noticed the Americans making their way up on deck. Everyone stood silently watching the approaching vessel. Therese and Sarah had their arms around each other. Toby, taller than his partner, had one arm draped over Jason's shoulder, his chin resting on top of the shorter man's head. Larissa and Kelli, as usual, slouched indifferently away from the rest of the group. Naomi was pacing again, up and back in a tight arc that wore Jo out just looking at her.
Damn she's wired tighter than the rigging, Jo thought.
Last one up on deck was Cadie. Unlike the others, the blonde was not looking out towards the water taxi. Instead she turned to find Jo. Their eyes locked and like so many times in the past two weeks, the pair felt the world contract around them. Jo slowly began walking towards the stern, while Cadie stood silently in the cockpit. With Naomi so close it was impossible to talk but their eyes never left each other's. The skipper crouched down on the cockpit cowling, clasping her hands in front of her as she leaned her forearms on her thighs.
"Good morning," she said softly.
Cadie shook her head slowly back and forth and Jo could see the early light catching tears that were close to brimming over in the blonde's sea-green eyes.
"Not really, no," Cadie replied shakily.
"I know," Jo said. She swallowed back a large chunk of ache and cleared her throat. "You should get to the airport in plenty of time. The folks from the hotel are going to meet the water taxi with your extra luggage and then drive you to the terminal." She knew she was just filling air, and she knew Cadie knew it too, as the blonde nodded her silent response.
Cadie gazed up at the woman she loved; taking in Jo's mussed hair and the dark circles under hooded blue eyes. She hasn't slept a wink either, she realized. I can only imagine what this feels like for her. She took a step closer to Jo, wanting desperately to say so much more than just goodbye.
"I'm sorry, Jossandra," she said. "I know how much this hurts."
"Sssshhhhhhh," Jo said, putting her finger against her lips. "Don't be. Please. Just don't forget me."
A sob threatened to escape Cadie's lips and she put her own hand to her mouth in an effort to contain her emotion. Jo saw anguish close the beautiful eyes she adored and her own heart ached.
"Never," Cadie whispered. "I will be back, Jo-Jo."
Jo shook her head slowly.
"No promises, Arcadia," she said quietly. "Just do what you need to do for you. I'll be here."
Cadie nodded, but further communication was pre-empted by the arrival of the water taxi. Jo pushed herself up, but stayed put; knowing Jenny and Paul could handle things. The two crew tossed lines to the bobbing launch, pulling her closer till she was alongside the Seawolf's transom. They then started passing luggage to the two men onboard the taxi.
"Skipper!" It was Jason, and Jo smiled as the blond man bounded across the deck and threw himself at her in a huge bear hug. She chuckled as she returned the embrace.
"I wanted to thank you," Jason said, stepping back and clasping Jo's hand. "Regardless of all the bullshit with Naomi, Toby and I have had a fantastic time. We want to come back again on our own schedule and spend some more time with you guys." He grinned.
"It's been a pleasure having you both aboard, mate," Jo replied graciously. "And you're both welcome, any time. Good sailors will always find a berth on the Seawolf." She grinned back at him.
"I'm sorry she's been so difficult," Jason said quietly, nodding his head to where the senator continued to pace.
"Forget it," Jo shook it off. "Not your fault for a start, and I've had more difficult than her to contend with." She smiled again at the shorter man. "Good luck on the way home, though."
Jason rolled his eyes.
"God, I think we're going to need it," he laughed. "Anyway ·" He let go of Jo's hand and started backing away towards the stern. "Thanks again, Jo, and take care."
"You too, Jason."
She looked over and waved to Toby who gave her a thumbs-up as he clambered into the water taxi. Therese and Sarah, too, turned and waved to the skipper, calling out their thanks as they followed the two men. Larissa and Kelli barely looked back. Big surprise, thought Jo, grateful to see the back ends of the two women. The senator followed, casting one last malevolent look at the tall skipper who just raised an eyebrow in response.
Cadie was the last one to leave. She turned away from Jo to say goodbye to Paul and Jenny. She gave the hostess a quick hug and got a warm smile in return.
"I hope the wedding is everything you want it to be Jen," she said, trying her best to smile back.
"I'll show you the pictures next time you're here," said Jenny with a knowing smile, catching the blonde by surprise.
"Um · yes, yes please do that. I'd love to see them." A genuine grin touched Cadie's eyes at the crew member's confidence. "Thanks Jen. For everything."
The she turned to Paul. The big crewman scooped her up in a hug, and Cadie giggled as she felt her feet leave the deck.
"You take care of yourself, sailor, you hear me?" he said gruffly as he put her down.
"I will Paulie," she replied. She looked intently up into the tall blond's brown eyes. "Do me a favor?" she asked.
"If I can, you know I will," he responded, half-knowing what she was wanting.
Cadie glanced briefly towards Jo, who was standing in place, looking down at her feet miserably.
"Look after her for me? She's hurting." The big man nodded silently and Cadie kissed his cheek. "Thank you," she said.
She turned to disembark, but was halted by a hand on her shoulder, spinning her back around. She looked up into wide blue eyes that sparkled with unshed tears. I didn't even hear her coming, Cadie thought as she felt long arms sliding around her. How does she do that?
All further thought was driven from her mind as Jo dipped her head and claimed Cadie's mouth in a long and searing kiss that drew the blonde up and closer. She slid her hands up to cup Jo's face and poured her whole heart into her response.
Jo's knees buckled and she felt one of Cadie's arms quickly drop and wrap around her waist, supporting her. They were vaguely aware of a disturbance on the water taxi behind them, but nothing broke the sanctity of the kiss, until finally, breathless, they pulled gently, slowly apart.
"I'm sorry," Jo murmured. "I couldn't let you go without ·" Cadie's fingers silenced her and Jo lost herself in the warm safety of the fair-haired woman's gaze.
"I know. I'm glad you did," Cadie replied softly, gently unraveling herself from Jo's embrace, sliding her hands into the skipper's and taking a reluctant step back. "I love you, Jo-Jo."
"And I you." Just their fingers were touching as Cadie backed towards the transom and the waiting water taxi. Over Cadie's shoulder Jo could see the infuriated senator being held back by Jason and Toby. I just made things a lot harder for her, the skipper knew, acknowledging at the same time that nothing could have stopped her kissing the blonde.
Finally their fingertips brushed, then slid apart, and Cadie silently gave Jo a small wave, which the skipper returned with a crooked smile. Then the blonde took Paul's offered hand and stepped up into the motor launch. Once aboard she dodged around Naomi and quickly made her way to the stern as the engines fired up and the boat turned away from the Seawolf.
Jo watched the blonde take up her position. She gently raised her fingers to her lips again and blew Cadie a kiss, stretching out her arm towards the departing launch. Cadie replied in kind and Jo caught the kiss, pulling it to her heart and holding it there.
Cadie looked back at the skipper silhouetted against the rising sun, her hand over her heart. Tears slid down the blonde's cheeks as she held her own arm outstretched. Look at her, she thought sadly. My goddess.
There goes half my heart, Jo thought, watching the love of her life slipping away to the horizon. Finally the ache in her throat took over and tears welled up and overflowed. For a few long minutes all she could do was stand there, arms by her side, eyes fixed on the rapidly shrinking motor launch, until finally it disappeared. She closed her eyes and let the tears flow unchecked. Vaguely aware of Paul and Jen moving quietly around the boat, giving her plenty of space, she slumped down onto the deck, head in hands. This hurts so much. I didn't know it would hurt this much.
Suddenly her phone rang, startling her as it pierced the early morning silence.
"Jesus," she exhaled, reaching for the device. "Who the hell is calling this early," she muttered, fumbling for the right key. "The day can't get any worse from here, can it?" Finally she pushed the right button. "Madison."
"Jo it's Doris." It was just as well the Cheswick office manager identified herself because her voice was almost unrecognizable, hoarse and ragged with what sounded like panic.
"Doris? What's wrong?" Jo asked immediately.
"It's Ron, Jo. He's had a heart attack. Come back in as soon as you can. Please. It's bad."
Jo closed her eyes again, squeezing back the thumping headache which had sprung into life at Doris' words. Wrong again, Madison. Wrong again.
"We're on our way," she muttered, scrambling to her feet.