No looking back ...
Disclaimer: See title page.
Even after the Seawolf disappeared over the horizon, Cadie remained at the stern of the water taxi, gazing out to the east, blinking against the glare of the rising sun. If she closed her eyes she could still see the vision of her love - dark hair whipping around her head, golden circle of the sun blazing behind her, a hand clasped over her heart. It was a lovely picture, but Cadie felt only pain as she committed the details to memory.|
A million thoughts and emotions churned through Cadie's mind. Sorrow, love, indecision, anger and frustration all warred for their place in her consciousness. Chief among them was an overwhelming sense that she was doing the wrong thing by leaving.
But how can that be? she wondered. No matter how screwed up Naomi and I may be right now, we had something good once. Didn't we? Cadie covered her face with her hands, momentarily swamped by indecision. That's why I'm here, isn't it? Because of our history. Because of all the loose ends. Because she needs me to help her get through this. Doesn't she?
Behind Cadie, Jason and Toby had managed to wrestle the infuriated senator into the cabin of the water taxi. She sat between the two men, anger and jealousy radiating off her in malevolent waves. Naomi muttered and squirmed in her seat, shaking off Jason and Toby's hands which had circled her upper arms.
"Goddamn it Naomi, you have got to get a grip on yourself," said Toby earnestly, barely resisting the urge to shake some sense into the woman. "Don't you realize that she's crucial to how things work out for you in the next few days?" He gestured towards the blonde leaning against the stern rail.
That caught Naomi's attention and she tore furious eyes away from Cadie and fixed the PR man with a grim stare.
"Explain," she growled.
"Well, Jesus, Naomi, it's not brain surgery," a frustrated Jason said from her other side. "You're about to walk into a firestorm. The press think you were not only wasted on God knows what illegal substances, but that you were with a woman other than your partner at the time. The Australian media may not understand the significance of that, but once we hit US soil, Naomi, there's gonna be hell to pay. You're the first openly lesbian Republican senator, for Christ's sake. Part of why you were elected at all was the stability of your relationship with Cadie. You know that."
His partner took up the argument.
"Naomi, if you can walk off that plane in Chicago with Cadie at least looking calm and happy by your side, it will go a long way to helping this whole nightmare blow over. Turn up alone or looking like you both do right now, and things will get degrees worse, very quickly," Toby said.
Naomi glared from one to the other.
"That slut," she hissed. "Is the reason this whole nightmare' happened in the first place. If she'd just stayed away from that bitch and " She was silenced when Toby roughly grabbed her arm and covered her mouth with his hand.
"Shut up, Naomi," he said fiercely. "For once, just shut up, and listen to the advice we're giving you. That is what you pay us for, after all." He waited until the senator finally nodded and he lowered his hand. "I'll be honest with you Nay, I don't give a good goddamn who's to blame for what anymore. I don't even care what you and Cadie do in the long term. But I'm telling you that if you want to salvage this situation with any degree of dignity and more importantly, credibility intact, you'll march off that plane with her on your arm. And look like you want her there, what's more."
The stocky woman slumped back in her chair, all the fight seemingly drained out of her.
"Think about it, Nay," Jason said quietly. "The last 10 years of your career and the next 10, for that matter - rest on what happens to you in the next few days. Don't waste my time, Toby's time or any of your other supporters' time. At least mend enough fences to convince Cadie to play along until we can get you both out of the media spotlight for a few days."
Both men stood and turned away from the senator. They walked back out into the sunlight and sat down next to Therese and Sarah, starting a quiet conversation with the two attorneys. No one went near Cadie.
She needs me, right? Cadie thought to herself. I mean that's why I'm doing this, isn't it? Twelve years of history and I care about her, right? She looked back out to sea and her heart fled back over the horizon towards a tall, dark-haired skipper with shining blue eyes. Finally she turned to face the other people on the boat. Immediately her attention was caught by the ferociously angry glare coming from the shadows inside the taxi's cabin. Cadie firmed her jaw and stared back.
And I want her to understand that when I leave, it's because she and I don't work together any more, not because I met someone else. She has to know this is about her, not Jo.
Memories of that overheard conversation came back to haunt Cadie and again doubts welled up in her.
She's gonna kick me out anyway, she thought in frustration. God, why am I bothering? A little voice piped up, persistent as ever. Because it's the right thing to do, Arcadia. It might be hard to define and it might feel like crap, but it's the right thing to do. She sighed, knowing that going against her gut instincts was a short path to an ulcer, if not insanity.
God, Jo, I miss you already. I'd give anything to feel your arms around me right now. Cadie hugged herself instinctively, and looked around at the scenery as the taxi flew across the water. Colors are so bright here, she reflected, taking in the brilliant aquas and greens of sea and islands. She took a deep breath and turned her face to the sun, closing her eyes and savoring the warmth and rushing salt-wind.
I hope the universe brings me back here. Soon.
Cadie stayed that way for the rest of the journey back to Hamilton Island, moving only when she felt the boat decelerate as it entered the shelter of the marina. She looked over and saw two dark-windowed limousines waiting at the dock. Toby was talking to the water taxi's skipper, and it wasn't long before the American came back to talk to the group.
"The hotel's already loaded the rest of our luggage into the limos," he said. "So we can go straight to the airport. The press still don't know what we're up to, but it's a fair bet they'll have someone waiting at the airport. So, it's time for the game face, people. Let's try and look like we're all one big, happy family, okay?"
He looked up at the dock, where two chauffeurs and a number of hotel staff were waiting to assist them.
"Because the children are already watching," he emphasized. "It's only a matter of time before the press tracks us down."
Naomi emerged from the cabin looking like a new woman. There was no hint of anger or unhappiness on her face and she had made an effort to smarten up her appearance.
Every inch the politician, Cadie thought wryly, standing up straight as Naomi approached her. Just as always when it counts. The blonde had a brief flash of the goodbye kiss she and Jo had shared and was suddenly filled with apprehension about the senator's possible reaction. But for now, at least, she had nothing to worry about.
"All right, people, let's go," said the senator, brushing past Cadie with barely a glance. Quietly the others followed the politician off the launch and up the stone steps of the dock to the two cars. Toby gently nudged Cadie in the same direction as Naomi, but he needn't have bothered.
I know how to play this game, the blonde thought resignedly as she climbed into the spacious limousine and slid across the leather seats until she was next to Naomi. The senator turned away and stared out of the tinted window. And that suits me just fine. Cadie breathed a sigh of relief as it appeared she was to be left alone.
Jo was frustrated beyond belief. It seemed to her that almost from the moment Cadie had disappeared over the horizon, everything had started to go horribly wrong. In their haste to get back to Cheswick's base at Shute Harbor, Jo and the two crewmembers had rigged the boat as tightly as they could and picked the most direct route. But Mother Nature wasn't playing fair. The wind had died to almost nothing and the Seawolf was crawling along on a glassy sea.
"GodDAMMIT!!" Jo thumped the wheel with the heel of her hand in frustration. "Where the fuck did the wind go, Paulie?" She raised her binoculars to her eyes again, casting about for any signs on the water's surface of an approaching wind gust.
"Beats me skipper," said the crewman quietly. He was trying to keep a lid on his own emotions he was just as anxious to get back to Ron as Jo was but he was becoming concerned about the levels of stress radiating off the tall woman. Jo was restless and angry and Paul knew it had just as much to do with Cadie's departure as with Ron's illness. "Time to fire up the engine, Jo-Jo?"
The skipper growled with exasperation.
"Fuck it. Yes. Crank it up, mate."
Paul jumped down into the cockpit and scrabbled around, lifting the engine cover. Within a couple of minutes the boat was under power and Jo watched as Jen and Paul pulled down the useless sails and stowed them away.
Jesus, she thought. Today of all days. Perfect weather for the whole trip and the one day I really want to get somewhere fast nothing. She threw her cap into the companionway in sheer frustration and slumped onto one of the benches. I wish Doris would call back and tell us what's happening.
She knew Ron had a history of heart problems and had done since well before she had met him. But in recent years he seemed to have enjoyed pretty good health.
Running the business doesn't help with the stress levels though, she thought. Damn it. She ran her hand through her hair anxiously. Her feelings about the big Cheswick boss were pretty black and white. He'd given her a job when she'd needed one badly. He'd accepted her without asking too many questions, and he'd taught her everything he knew about sailing and looking after tourists. Ron Cheswick had left no stone unturned in helping Jo get her life back on the straight and narrow. He had been a father figure when she had needed one most. The thought of him being in pain somewhere in trouble wasn't something the tall skipper could stomach very easily. Especially when there's not a goddamn thing I can do to get back there any faster.
Her thoughts wandered back to Cadie and she looked down at her watch.
They'll be on their way to Sydney by now, she realized. Unconsciously she looked up into the cloudless sky, looking for a plane that would be hundreds of miles away by now. Safe travels, my love. She dropped her head again and caught Paul watching her from his position at the helm. A wry smile forced its way to her lips.
"Relax, Paulie. I'm okay," she said dryly.
"I'm under orders," he reminded her. A raised eyebrow told him exactly what she thought of that. "You wouldn't want me to let Cadie down now, would you?"
"I see she's got you wrapped around her little finger," she replied.
"Riiiiiiiiight. Like you're not," Paul responded, mustering up a grin from somewhere.
He's got you there, Jo-Jo. There's not a damn thing you wouldn't do for her, given half a chance. She brushed some dried salt from her knee absentmindedly. I wonder if I'll ever get that chance.
Cadie selected a tiny banana muffin from the buffet table, and slid it onto her plate next to the grapes and sliced pineapple she had already collected. Lack of sleep and all the emotions of the past 24 hours were beginning to catch up with the blonde. She was distinctly frayed around the edges. It had made the breakfast buffet in the first-class private lounge at Sydney International irresistible. She put down her fruit plate to pour herself a large cup of strong black coffee, then made her way back to the cluster of comfortable armchairs the rest of her group had claimed for themselves.
Naomi had been blissfully silent since they'd left the Whitsundays. Cadie glanced at her partner. The senator was gazing out the window at the line of jumbo jets parked along the terminal. She had a half-smile on her face and Cadie found the hairs on the back of her neck prickling at the sight.
She's planning something, the blonde realized. Cadie carefully broke the muffin in half and popped a morsel into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. That can't be good. Uneasily she looked around the spacious lounge, which was largely unoccupied. Thankfully there was no access to anyone but first-class passengers here, so it was a good bet they were safe from the press, at least for the time being. So far they had managed to elude any media complications at both Hamilton Island airport and the Sydney domestic terminal.
But it had been a different story once they reached the international terminal. Word had spread and soon a pack of journalists and camera crews had been on their trail. The lounge had proven to be a safe haven, at least until it was time to board their flight. Then, Cadie knew, they would have to run the gauntlet until they were safely aboard.
Another look at the senator and Cadie was convinced the older woman had something up her sleeve for that last run to the departure gate.
The timing makes sense, she pondered. Give a good impression to the Australian press here, then have 27 hours flying time to let that impression filter back to the US, and perhaps by the time we arrive in Chicago a lot of the sting will be taken out of the story. Cadie munched slowly on the remains of her muffin. The question is, what part is she going to have me play in all this. A growing knot of tension made itself known in the pit of Cadie's stomach and she suddenly regretted eating anything. Oh, I have a bad feeling about this.
Jo jogged down the ward corridor of the Mackay Base Hospital, head turning from side to side as she tried to figure out where they were keeping Ron. She reached the nurses' station and slapped her hand impatiently on the countertop when she realized there was no-one there to answer her questions.
Damn it's just been one of those mornings, she thought in frustration. The Seawolf had finally made it back to Shute Harbor, but too late. The office staff informed Jo that Ron had been airlifted to Mackay, and that Doris had gone along with him. He had been arguing on the phone with an insurance rep when the heart attack had struck. How many times have I told him to spread the load around a little, Jo fretted. She had grabbed the keys to the company car and headed south, trying to make the hour and a half's drive considerably shorter, foot to the floor. An hour and one speeding ticket later, she was pounding the bell on the top of the nurses station desk.
A formidable woman in a pale blue uniform advanced on her from the far end of the corridor.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"I'm looking for Ron Cheswick," she replied. "He was airlifted from Shute Harbor. Heart attack."
The nursing sister searched her records briefly, a stubby finger running down the page of the book on the desktop.
"Ah yes. Mr Cheswick is in ICU, at the end of the hallway. But I can only allow family members in there." The woman's expression brooked no argument, but Jo wasn't about to be deflected at this late stage.
"Ron doesn't have any blood family," she said bluntly. "At least, none that cares enough to be here. Me and Doris are as close as it gets. So, how about it, huh?"
"Doris, I take it is the lady who arrived with him?" the sister asked. Jo nodded again. "And can I ask your name?"
"Jo Madison." The tall skipper shifted anxiously from one foot to the other. "Please, I really need to see him."
Again the older woman consulted her list and Jo was just on the brink of throwing caution to the wind with or without her permission when she looked up and smiled fleetingly.
"You can go through, Miss Madison," she said. "I should warn you, though, not to expect too much in the way of conversation from Mr Cheswick. He's really very ill."
A cold chill shivered through Jo.
"Okay," she said grimly. "Thanks for the warning."
She was painfully aware of her sneakers squeaking on the polished linoleum floor as she walked down the corridor. Scary smells and sounds assaulted her senses, reminding Jo that hospitals were about her least favorite places to be.
Right next to jails, courthouses and dark alleys, she thought unhappily. God, Cadie, I wish you were here to hold my hand.
At the end of the hallway was a darkened ICU unit, and Jo tentatively looked in, one hand on the doorjamb. She peered through the dimness and could make out four beds, each occupied by lumps of humanity connected to every machine imaginable. Away in the far corner from Jo, she could see Doris, her face illuminated by the eerie glow of several monitors. The older woman was slumped in a chair, and she was rubbing her eyes wearily. Ron was obscured from Jo's sightline by the curtain half-pulled around his bed. The skipper swallowed around the lump in her throat and hesitantly stepped forward.
She crouched in front of Doris, taking in the tear streaks on her cheeks. Gently she shook the office manager's shoulder, trying not to startle her out of sleep.
"Oh, Jo!" Doris exclaimed, pulling the skipper close in a desperate hug. "I'm so glad you were able to get here. It's just been awful, and I'm so scared."
Jo returned the hug and then disentangled herself. They both stood and turned to look at Ron. The big man's face was almost totally obscured by breathing tubes and other contraptions that gave Jo chills just looking at them. A heart monitor reassuringly blipped when it should have, but there was no movement at all from the Cheswick Marine boss. His face was slack and a tiny sliver of drool trailed from the corner of his mouth to the pillow. Somehow, that made everything so much worse. Jo reached for a tissue from the box on the bedside cabinet and gently cleaned her boss' face. She brushed an errant lock of hair off his forehead.
"Hey, Ronny," she whispered. "It's Jo-Jo. Paul and Jenny send their love. They're minding the store for us." Ron's eyelids fluttered and she watched him struggle to open his eyes. "Take it easy, mate," she said, placing a calming hand on his chest, which seemed to relax him.
Doris approached the head of the bed from the other side and Jo glanced up at her.
"Did you contact his ex-wife?" Jo asked quietly. Doris nodded.
"But she didn't seem too interested in coming up," Doris said bitterly. Ron's 23-year marriage had ended in acrimony three years earlier, foundering on the rocks of the death of their only child, son Raymond in a car accident. Since the divorce the former Mrs Cheswick hadn't been sighted north of the Sydney social scene.
"No big surprise there," Jo murmured. She took Ron's right hand in hers and smiled when she felt him squeeze hers weakly. "Hey, digger. You hang in there. We've got your back." She patted his hand and placed it gently on his stomach before she and Doris moved out into the fluorescent glare of the ward corridor. "What did the doctors say, Doris?"
The older woman rubbed her face with her hands for a few seconds as she gathered her thoughts. When she dropped them again, her expression was one of exhausted misery.
"He's in trouble, Jo-Jo," she said. "They said the attack did massive damage to the heart and that he's going to need bypass surgery. But they can't do it yet because he's too weak and unstable. They're worried that he might have another attack before they can get him strong enough to survive the surgery."
Jo nodded. Not good, in other words, she thought. She tried to form an encouraging smile for Doris' benefit.
"So," she said. "We wait. And we keep our fingers crossed."
"And we pray," Doris murmured.
Certainly can't hurt, Jo thought silently. God, Cadie, I hope your day is going better than mine, and a lot better than Ron's.
"This is the first boarding call for all passengers traveling aboard United Airlines flight 815 to Los Angeles. Please present your boarding pass at departure gate 68."
Cadie's stomach sank into a by now familiar cold, tight knot as she stood in front of the restroom mirror.
Moment of truth time, she thought as she splashed cool water on her face. I feel sick to my stomach, she realized. If this is doing the right thing, then give me the wrong thing every time.
"Goddammit," she muttered as she headed for the door. She walked out into the lounge just behind where Toby and Jason sat flanking Naomi. All three had their backs to Cadie and they were engaged in a heated conversation.
"Naomi you had better start doing some very fast ass-kissing," Toby said pointedly, jabbing the senator's shoulder with his finger. "If you and Cadie go out there now looking the way you both do right now, that pack of piranhas is going to rip you apart. For Chrissakes, talk to her."
Cadie decided to see where this conversation led, and she leaned quietly against the wall.
"And tell her what, Toby?" the senator retorted sarcastically.
"Anything!" he exclaimed. "Promise her anything, Nay, for crying out loud. All you have to do is get past the departure gate and on to the plane without looking like you hate each other. Apologise to her, for a start."
The senator swung on him.
"For what?!?" she snarled. "For letting her hang all over that goddamn overstretched bitch for the past three weeks? For making a complete idiot of me?"
"Jesus " The exasperated PR man collapsed back in his chair. "You try, Jason. She's not listening to me."
Jason paused for a few seconds to gather his thoughts.
At least he has the decency to look uncomfortable about this whole thing, Cadie thought ruefully as she continued to listen.
Jason leaned forward.
"Naomi, none of that matters now," he said quietly. He held up a hand as she opened her mouth to protest again. "Honestly, it doesn't. I'm sorry if your feelings are hurt or your pride is wounded, or whatever but none of that matters a damn right now."
Cadie suddenly realized that the usually soft-spoken man was furious with the senator.
"The facts are these, Senator," he said with a quiet intensity. "There are people back in the States who cannot wait to get their hands on you. They've been waiting a very long time. They're the ones who never wanted you in the GOP in the first place, let alone elected to the Senate. They're the ones who fought tooth and nail to stop your nomination. All they've been waiting for is a tiny little chance to prove you to be the promiscuous, substance-abusing homosexual that they believe all gays and lesbians are." Toby nodded his agreement.
"And you know what, Naomi?" Jason continued, leaning even closer until he was almost nose to nose with the glowering politician. "You've given those bastards that chance. Because, the bottom line is, you've been playing pretty fast and loose with your career." Naomi moved as if to get up out of the chair, but both men pulled her back with a hand on each arm. "No, you're going to listen to this, Nay," Jason insisted. He waited until she reluctantly sat back in her chair.
"You've forgotten how hard it was to get you elected," Jason said, allowing some of his anger to show. "You've allowed yourself to think that now you're here you can do what you like.
"Maybe that's been partly our fault," he admitted. "We've closed our eyes to some of the things we know you've been doing the drinking, the affairs " Cadie swallowed hard, a missing piece of the puzzle of her last few years with the senator finally sliding into place. " and yes, the drugs." He paused, exchanging a sad glance with his partner. "We should have called a halt then." He looked down at his hands and regathered his thoughts.
"You're a US senator, Naomi," he stated flatly. "Do you want to still be one next week?"
She looked at him sharply.
"It won't come to that," she said quietly.
"Won't it?" That was Toby. "We're not so sure."
Jason pressed the point home.
"Cadie's your only chance of creating a good impression between now and arriving back in Washington on Monday morning. You have to make the most of it."
"All right, all right," Naomi growled. "I'll talk to her."
"Do more than that, Senator. Be nice, promise her the world. Just get her back on side," said Toby just before he stood and walked away to gather the rest of the troops.
Jason stood to do the same and as he did so he caught sight of Cadie, still leaning against the wall. He flashed her an embarrassed and apologetic look before he turned and walked away.
Cadie wandered slowly over to her carry-on luggage. Her mind was spinning in seventeen directions, but none of them were leading her to any kind of solution she could live with.
I'm just a marketing ploy, she thought with disgust. That's all I've been to her for a very long time. Maybe that's all I ever was to her. I don't know anymore.
She glanced over at Naomi and caught the older woman staring at her intently. Cadie walked back to the senator's group of chairs and sat down next to her. Might as well see which way she wants to play this, she thought resignedly.
Naomi turned to look at her with a weary half-smile.
"I know you have no reason to want to do me any favors," the senator said quietly leaning close to keep their conversation as private as possible. Cadie decided discretion was the better part of valor, at least for the time being. She held her tongue, keeping herself very still.
"We've been through a lot together, Cadie," Naomi continued, keeping her voice low. "All I'm asking is that you help me through the next few minutes until we're on the plane and away from the press."
"Why should I Naomi?" Cadie replied sadly. "You've made it very clear over the past few weeks that not only have I been a liability all these years but that this holiday was how did you put it? oh yes payment for services rendered." She paused to let that sink in, vaguely satisfied to see the senator flush. "You're going to kick me out once we get home anyway. That was the plan, wasn't it?"
She watched while Naomi ground her teeth, the muscles in her jaw bunching and unbunching in quick succession.
"Look, I'm sorry you had to hear that," she muttered hoarsely, clearly hating every second. "That was for Larissa and Kelli's benefit. Just to shut them up and get them off my back, y'know?" Cadie remained silent. "You know I would never kick you out, don't you?" She was almost pleading now.
"I don't know anything about you anymore, Naomi. All I know is I can't trust you. Not with us. Not with anything."
The stocky senator leaned closer still, desperation written all over her face now.
"Please Cadie," she whispered fiercely. "Just play along until we're on the plane and then we can talk. Maybe we can try and figure out how to get things back on track for us."
Cadie shook her head in disbelief, still amazed by the way the politician's mind worked, despite everything she had seen.
"I've been trying to get you to do that for months, Naomi," she replied quietly. "You're not interested in us. All you care about is power and having a good time."
"Stop it, Cadie, please," Naomi begged. "All I'm asking is that you pretend for the next 10 minutes until we get on the plane. That's all. Then whatever you want, you can have."
How can I believe anything she says? Cadie bit her tongue, watching Naomi squirm under her scrutiny.
"I can promise that I won't embarrass you, Senator," Cadie agreed finally.
"Okay, folks," said Toby from across the room as he gathered up his hand luggage. "Time for one last joust with the press before we get home." He waited as the others clustered around him. He nodded at Naomi, who, along with Cadie, had stood and walked over to the group. "Are you ready, Senator? Because this has to be good the next five minutes are going to be replayed on the US networks for the next day and a half."
"Don't teach your grandmother to suck eggs, Tobias," the senator said lightly, straightening her clothes and smoothing her hair. She turned to Cadie and put on one of her most charming smiles. "Ready darling?"
Cadie silently wondered just which direction the ambush was going to come from.
At least I know one's coming, she thought ruefully. Naomi held out a hand, inviting her partner to take it. Warily Cadie did so and the senator beamed at her with her best baby-kissing, campaign smile.
They stepped through the door into a barrage of camera flashes and a forest of microphones. Questions lobbed at them from every side, but for now at least the senator ignored them all, following Toby and Jason's lead in the direction of the departure gate. The two men plus Therese and Sarah formed a protective phalanx around Naomi and Cadie as the group pushed a path through the crowd of journalists. For a few moments Cadie was unnerved by the jostling, but soon they were into a clear space just before the gate.
Once there Naomi turned to face the press, pulling Cadie around with her. She waited a heartbeat to give the journalists a chance to gather around.
"I'll take a few questions before we leave," she said with a confident smile, tightening her grip on Cadie's hand. The blonde could almost feel the senator's intensity increase.
She feeds on this kind of thing, she realized, not for the first time in their 12 years together. You can almost feel her grow more confident the longer she's out here in the glare of the lights. God, I hope she doesn't get overconfident.
Questions again came from everywhere and the senator waited with practiced ease until one became discernable in the confusion. Cadie felt all eyes, and cameras, turned on her.
Oh Jo, I wish you were here, she thought. She had a brief flash of her dark-haired friend riding in on a blinding white charger, complete with shining armor and flashing sword. Only in fairytales, Arcadia, she thought ruefully as Naomi held her hand up to dampen the chatter from the press corp.
"Senator, were you using illegal substances the night you were arrested?"
Naomi laughed casually.
"First of all, let me correct the misapprehension y'all seem to have that I was arrested. I was not arrested. My friends and I were simply caught up in the confusion of what was a very large dance party on Hamilton Island. Like a lot of other people that night, we were questioned and then released in the morning.
"And no, at no stage then, or ever for that matter, was I, or anyone I was with, using illegal substances."
"But you were drinking, Senator?"
"I had a couple of martinis, yes."
"Who was the woman you were photographed with, Senator?
Naomi pointed in the direction of Kelli, who stood to the side, arm wrapped around Larissa, both women wearing broad smiles and innocent looks.
"My friend Kelli Mathieson," she said simply.
"Is there any truth to the rumor that your relationship with your girlfriend is in trouble, Senator?" That question had an American accent and Cadie wondered which US network had spent the money to get a journalist here just in time to turn around and fly back again.
She felt Naomi look down at her and glanced up, tentatively returning her smile. Another barrage of flashes blinded her momentarily.
"This is my partner, Arcadia Jones," she heard the senator say. "And as you can see, we are very much together and happy. Isn't that right, darling?" Cadie felt fingers tightening around her hand. She didn't trust her voice, so instead she just smiled and nodded. She felt Jason move in to stand close on her left, Toby mirroring his movement on Naomi's right.
Getting ready to move us on to the plane, she thought with relief. I've had just about enough of this.
But Naomi wasn't finished yet. Cadie had a sinking feeling as she sensed the senator's confidence growing. And a gnawing suspicion that she had had something else in mind from the very start.
Uh-oh, she thought.
"In fact, we have a couple of announcements to make," Naomi said, beaming from ear to ear. "You'll be the first to know."
Cadie felt a cold dread crawling through her intestines. Oh Jesus, where is she going with this?
"As soon as we get home to Chicago, Cadie will be giving up her business as a literary agent because we have decided to start a family. We've been wanting this for a long time and now the timing is perfect for us. We hope that Cadie will become pregnant some time in the next few months, God willing."
There was an empty silence for several seconds and Cadie took in the stunned expression on Toby's face as well as the unmistakably vicious glint in Naomi's eye as the senator looked triumphantly at her for a reaction.
Unbelievable, Cadie thought, momentarily dumbstruck by her partner's audacity. Now I've seen everything. She's actually willing to use a baby to keep her career on track. At long last the blonde's temper reached its breaking point. I'm not going to give you the satisfaction, she thought, suddenly seeing an escape route. In fact, I might just see your bet, and double it.
"And that's why," she picked up Naomi's thread, smiling broadly at the wall of cameras and microphones. "That's why I'm going to stay a little longer in this wonderful country while Naomi and our friends go home. I'm going to spend a couple more weeks resting up for what's going to be a very big year for us both." She turned to the senator whose jaw was now in danger of hitting the floor. "Isn't that right, sweetheart?" She raised an eyebrow at Naomi, challenging her to create a scene in front of the phalanx of eagerly waiting journalists.
Cadie watched Naomi's eyes widen as she realized the predicament she was now in. A red flush crawled slowly up the stocky woman's neck and though her practiced smile remained plastered in place, the blonde easily read the fury and dismay in the brown eyes staring at her.
Seeing the senator floundering for an appropriate response, Jason stepped in and called a halt to the impromptu press conference.
"No more questions, ladies and gentlemen," he said quickly. "As you can see they are holding the plane for us and I think we've delayed these good people for long enough."
Cadie stepped closer to Naomi and kissed her on the cheek.
"Safe travels darling," she said brightly. Naomi began to protest but Cadie pressed closer and whispered in her ear. "Ah, ah, ah, Senator. The eyes of the world are watching. Goodbye."
"You and that bitch will pay for this," Naomi growled softly. "Count on it."
No doubt, Cadie thought as she watched Toby edge the politician through the departure gate. But in the meantime, I know I'm doing the right thing. For the first time in weeks, I'm doing the right thing. Naomi turned for one last photo opportunity, and Cadie obliged, waving and smiling before the senator disappeared down the rampway to the plane.
"Jason, give me my bag, please," Cadie murmured, taking the slouchbag that he had been holding for her. Calmly she slung it over her shoulder and without a backward glance turned away and began walking towards the main terminal building.
Jason hooked her elbow and pulled her back.
"Cadie, wait." She looked at him and half-smiled. "Are you ever coming back?" he asked quietly.
"I'm sorry Jason," she replied. "Not this time. I can't do this anymore. I can't keep letting her do this to me."
"Look, I know what she just did is unforgivable," he conceded. "But why not let things cool down then come home and have it out with her?"
A light came on in Cadie's head.
Finally, she thought. Finally, I get it. A realization slid home in her heart and she shook her head.
"I am home, Jason," she said. "Nothing she can do or say can change that. And she's done too much damage in here." She tapped her chest lightly. "I know it's going to create huge problems for you, and for her, but I have to look after me and Jo now."
Jason stared at her for a few seconds and she held his gaze, more sure than she'd ever been that she was finally making the right choice for her. And then it was like he saw it too and the blond man smiled back at her. He pushed his glasses up his nose.
"Good luck to you Cadie," he said softly. "You deserve better. I hope you find it." He looked around at the press corp, most of whom were hanging around, still curious about the turn of events. "You'd better get out of here," Jason muttered.
He spotted an idle people-mover not far away, its driver leaning lazily on the wheel, waiting for someone to need a lift somewhere.
"Here, come on." He grabbed Cadie's elbow and steered her to a seat in the vehicle, then dug in his trouser pocket for some banknotes. "Buddy, you take this lady as far from that pack of journalists as you can get her." He pressed the money into the man's hand and then quickly kissed Cadie on the cheek. "Go, sweetie."
"Thanks, Jason. For everything," she said with a smile. Journalists were beginning to move towards them and Cadie touched the driver's shoulder. "Take me to the nearest cab, please," she said urgently.
She sat with her back to the driver and waved at Jason as they began to move away from the departure lounge. A detached part of herself kept waiting for the soundtrack to start.
Marianne Faithfull would start singing The Ballad of Lucy Jordan right about now, she thought dispassionately.
A small pack of hardy photographers sprinted after her, motorized shutters whirring and clicking even as they ran. She looked over her shoulder at the driver.
"I don't suppose this thing can go any faster," she asked.
"Not much, Miss, but I can give it a go," he replied. "Hang on tight, now."
Cadie turned back to see the photographers dropping off the chase. She was relieved that for the time being at least she would be left alone.
Now what? she wondered. She closed her eyes and mentally projected loving thoughts at Jo. I'll be home soon, my love. I just need to get some sleep and figure out which way is up. And then I'll come to you. She wearily watched the hectic world of the airport slipping past her. I just turned my world upside down. For good. I hope you're ready for that.
Hell, I hope I'm ready for that.
Jo leaned wearily back against the wall and took a sip from the hot cup of coffee in her hand. The cool of the hard corridor wall pressed against her back and she took the opportunity to stretch and loosen her shoulders. She had just swapped places with Doris after spending a few hours sitting by Ron's bed and she welcomed the chance to straighten a few cramped muscles.
A glance at the clock on the wall told Jo it was mid-afternoon. Ron had been holding his own for the most part, though the big man hadn't fully regained consciousness at any stage. Jo swirled her coffee and gazed at the brown liquid pensively.
There's no knowing how long this will go on, she thought glumly. But I guess every hour he doesn't have another attack is a good thing.
Reluctantly her mind turned to more practical matters.
Frank's got another three days to run on his trip. At least the Seawolf has an extra week up her sleeve before she takes on another load of tourists, she thought. We're gonna have to come up with some contingency plans. She spared a look back up the corridor towards the ICU where Doris was sitting with Ron. Especially if Doris is going to stay down here with him.
She worried away at that for a few minutes, gnawing at her bottom lip while the business of the ward went on, a stream of people flowing around her.
Cadie will be somewhere over the Pacific by now, she thought. She felt her emotions teetering on the brink of a very dark abyss at the concept of the increasing distance between herself and the lovely American. Boy, didn't this week just go to hell. Hard to believe that two days ago we were winning that damn trophy. Ron hasn't even gotten to see it yet.
Jo suddenly became aware of a shift in the atmosphere of the ward. Staff members were hurrying back towards the ICU and two nurses were pushing an ominous-looking blue cart at top speed.
Oh shit. Jo took off at a sprint, leaving her half-empty cup suspended in mid-air before it splattered on the floor. She reached the door of the ICU where Doris was standing, her hands to her mouth. Inside doctors and nurses crowded around Ron's bed, calling instructions to each other with a controlled brand of chaos Jo found chilling.
"What happened?" she asked breathlessly.
"I don't know," Doris sobbed. "H-he started twitching and the heart monitor went crazy. Then there were doctors everywhere and they told me to get out of the way."
Jo clenched and unclenched her fists as she watched the people around Ron. She felt sick to her stomach partly from helplessness but also the growing feeling that her mentor was in deep, dark trouble. She felt Doris' hands circle her upper arm and she winced slightly as the older woman's fingers put pressure on the still tender bullet scrape there. Doris rested her chin on Jo's shoulder, watching the activities in the darkened ICU.
Dread washed over Jo as she perceived the urgency suddenly drain out of the room. Low murmurs didn't quite carry to the waiting women, but soon a doctor was walking slowly towards them. He wearily brushed the surgical cap off his head and threw it with a degree of venom into the clothes bin near the door.
"Are you Mr Cheswick's family?" he asked quietly, his message already obvious on his face. Doris ducked her head, resting her forehead against Jo's shoulder, stifling the sob that escaped her. Jo just nodded mutely. The doctor took her hand and patted it in a way that part of the skipper's brain found oddly out of place. "I'm sorry," he said. "Mr Cheswick just suffered a massive myocardial infarct and we were unable to revive him despite our best endeavours."
This just cannot be happening, Jo thought. Doris' arms slipped around her waist and she could feel the older woman crying freely now against her back. Jo swallowed hard.
"Th-thank you doctor," she stammered. "C-can we see him?"
"Yes, of course," he replied. "Just give the nurses a few minutes to remove all the machines and then you can take your time." With one last pat of Jo's hand, he was gone, leaving the two women to their grief. Jo squeezed her eyes shut, fighting the urge to just sit on the floor and bawl.
"Come on Doris," she finally muttered, pulling the office manager around and sliding an arm around her shoulders. Several nurses with sympathetic expressions passed them, pushing various monitors and trolleys full of wires. Jo and Doris moved back to Ron's bed where one nurse remained. She handed Jo a small plastic bag containing Ron's personal effects. "Damn, look at that," Jo murmured. "They cut his wedding ring off."
Doris flopped helplessly into a chair, overcome with tears. Jo moved forward and leaned down, placing a gentle kiss on the big man's cool forehead.
"Goodbye, Ronny," she whispered. "Safe travels."
Cadie pressed her forehead against the cool glass of the hotel room window. She gazed out at a panorama that normally would have thrilled her. Darling Harbor, one of the biggest and most picturesque of Sydney Harbor's coves, stretched out before her. Its huge shopping mall, sweeping monorail and ferry terminus bustled with promise, and in any other circumstances, Cadie would have been the first one down there exploring.
But being a tourist was the last thing on her mind. Cadie had come straight from the airport to this hotel on the recommendation of the cab driver. Staying at the airport, even if it had meant a flight straight back to the Whitsundays, just wasn't an option with the press pack prowling around. She hadn't even waited around for her luggage to be pulled off the international flight. Fortunately a quick call to the airline once she had reached the hotel had solved that problem.
The practical implications of what she had done were beginning to sink in. She had handed over her credit card to the hotel receptionist a joint card she shared with Naomi with the realization that once the senator reached Chicago, she could expect to have that financial resource cut off.
And of course it's the credit card with no cash advance facility, she realized wearily. Great.
Cadie turned away from the window with a sigh. She knew she should have been feeling free, excited even, to be going back to Jo so soon, but instead she just felt exhausted. She had no luggage and soon, no money. And that nagging worry was still there in the back of her brain.
What will Naomi do for revenge, she wondered. Everything she's threatened so far has been nothing but bluff and bluster. But still Maybe I should take the opportunity to go and find Detective Harding, she pondered.
Cadie sat on the end of the bed and kicked off her shoes.
God knows, she can't do anything else to me. I have my laptop with me and the business' finances are separate so she can't touch those. She let herself fall backwards onto the bed, staring at the spackled ceiling that seemed to be standard in hotel rooms around the world.
There was a knock on the door and Cadie startled out of a light doze. She rolled off the bed and went to stand by the door. Looking through the peephole she could see a distorted image of one of the hotel's bellhops. He knocked again.
"It's room service, ma'am," he called out. "I have your luggage."
With a sigh of relief, Cadie pulled open the door.
"Thanks," she said. "You can just put it on the bed." She scrabbled in her slouchbag for some change to give the man as a tip. Instead her hand came up against an odd-feeling wad at the bottom of the bag. Puzzled, she pulled it out and found herself staring at a roll of banknotes. A silly grin plastered itself on her face and she giggled hysterically.
Eleven hundred and eighty dollars, she reminded herself. My share of the Seawolf's winnings. That's perfect. She laughed again. Thank you, Jo-Jo.
The bellhop was looking at her like she was an alien from a distant planet.
"Sorry," Cadie giggled, pulling off a smaller-sized note from the roll of cash and giving it to him. "It's just been a very, very long day."
"No worries, Miss," he replied, tipping his cap and moving back to the door. "I've seen a lot nuttier than you." He grinned cheekily and closed the door behind him.
I bet you have, she chuckled. Cadie tossed the wad of money from hand to hand for a few seconds, relishing her luck.
I could have so easily put that in the other bag with Naomi's stuff, she realized. Score one for me. She flipped the money back into her bag and crawled onto the bed, pushing her luggage away to the other side. A wave of exhaustion rolled over her, and she was asleep almost before her head hit the pillow.
Jo pointed the Cheswick Marine SUV north and let her mind drift as she and Doris began the trek back to Shute Harbor and Airlie Beach. The office manager was stretched out along the back seat, dead to the world. Jo wished fervently she could do the same, but she had the sinking feeling there wasn't going to be much sleep for her over the next few days.
She had hastily arranged for Ron's body to be transported up to Shute in the morning. Then, realizing there was nothing else she and Doris could do in Mackay, she opted to drive them home that evening. Now, with the highway stretching out endlessly in front of her, she was beginning to regret the decision.
If Cadie were here I'd be pointing things out to her, she daydreamed. Things that are everyday to me would be so interesting to her. She smiled quietly into the fading light, wondering if the American was thinking of her right now. I hope so. And I hope that bitch sitting next to her is giving her some peace and quiet too. She deserves it.
As the sun began to sink below the level of the low hills to her left, Jo tried to keep her weary mind alert. Traffic coming towards her already had lights on, and absentmindedly she flicked on her own. Something away in the distance on her side of the road caught her attention and she frowned, trying to make out the details.
The big red kangaroo stood at the side of the road looking for all the world like an old man trying to decide whether to cross or not. At six feet tall and a couple of hundred pounds, the `roo wasn't anything Jo wanted to tangle with, either in a car or not. She slowed the SUV right down as she approached the marsupial.
"Come on, you bugger, make up your mind," she muttered. Tentatively the marsupial took a couple of small hops, holding his front paws together in front of him. "Come on then, cross."
Just to be contrary the `roo stopped and Jo decided to take a chance. She accelerated, meaning to give him a wide berth. Just as she reached cruising speed the animal changed its mind again and bounded out onto the highway.
"Bastard!" Jo exclaimed, slamming on the brakes. She heard Doris give a yelp as the sudden deceleration rolled her off the back seat, but Jo was more concerned with the `roo. He swerved almost in mid-air, kicked hard with his enormous back legs against the bull-bar on the front of the SUV and then sprang off into the bush on the other side of the highway. "Goddammit," Jo muttered, heart pounding in her throat. "You okay, Doris?" she called over her shoulder.
"What the hell was that?" grumbled the older woman as she scrambled up from the floor.
"Dumb `roo," Jo replied. "I think he's bent the bull-bar." She scrubbed at her eyes wearily. "Should've known better than to try and do this drive at sunset. They're always on the move then."
"Do you want some company up there Jo?" Doris asked, worriedly noting the tired slump of the skipper's shoulders.
Jo shook her head.
"M'okay, D," she murmured. "I just want to get home." Except home's about 30,000 feet up and several thousand miles away by now.
Cadie replaced the receiver on the hook just as a knock came on the door of her hotel room. She had had a frustrating morning. Despite several attempts the blonde had been unable to get through on Jo's cellphone number. That was unusual for the skipper and it worried her.
She had worked out her finances, disconcerted to find that even with the Seawolf prize money she was still not going to be able to afford the airfare back to Hamilton Island.
Looks like it's a bus ride for me, she realized. Damn, is nothing going to be simple? She quickly doublechecked her calculations. Enough for one more night in the hotel, a few meals, a bus ticket and, with any luck, one call home to Mom. She knew she could just charge everything to the credit card now, while it was still functioning, but something made her reluctant to do that. That life is done with, she thought. I want to do this on my own. And there was something deeply satisfying about using the money she'd earned on the Seawolf. A new life.
She got up to answer the door, expecting to find a housekeeper wanting to change the towels. Instead a camera flash went off in her face as soon as she opened the door.
"Hey!" she yelped, shielding her face from any further flashes. The man behind the camera stepped forward and she recognized him as one of the pack of journalists who had been at the airport the day before.
"Hello, Miss Jones," he said with a grin. "I'm Tom Saunders from the Sydney Gazette."
"It might have been polite to ask before you took that photo Mr Saunders," Cadie retorted.
"Ah, but you would have said no, Miss Jones and then I would have copped an arse-kicking from my editor. I'll do anything to avoid that," he said.
"What can I do for you?" Like I don't know, she thought grimly.
"I just have a couple of questions," he said, pulling a notebook from his back pocket and sliding a pen from where it was stowed behind his ear.
"That was the point of yesterday's press conference, Mr Saunders. To answer any possible questions."
"I know, miss, I know, but I'm a particularly stupid sort of bloke and I wasn't quite quick enough taking notes. So I was hoping you would answer them again for me." Cadie stayed silent, waiting for the reporter to get on with it. "I'll take that as a yes, then," he continued. "May I come in?"
"No you may not," Cadie said shortly.
"Fair enough. Okay, then. Well, yesterday you said that you would be staying on for a while. Any idea how long exactly?"
Cadie thought carefully before answering.
"A couple of weeks," she said finally.
"But you won't be staying here will you?" Saunders asked, smiling. "Because you're only booked in here on a night by night basis."
So much for guest confidentiality, Cadie thought ruefully.
"No," she said aloud. "I'll be returning to the Whitsundays tomorrow, to stay with friends."
"So you had planned all along to stay beyond the Senator's departure then?" he asked.
"Then why did the flight have to be delayed further yesterday while they unloaded your luggage?"
Cadie had been a politician's wife far too long to let anything other than calm reserve show on her face, even though the question was a bolt out of the blue.
"Mr Saunders," she smiled at him. "I'm afraid I'm going to disappoint your editor because I don't have anything further to say beyond what was stated yesterday. I'm sorry you've come all this way for so little." She retreated back behind the door of her room and leaned against it as she slid the lock into place. A glance through the peephole told her when the journalist had left.
"Jesus," she muttered. I was hoping the story would hold together a little longer than that. She glanced down at her watch. Early evening in Wisconsin, she realized. She picked up the phone again and dialed a long number. When it was answered, she smiled at the familiar voice.
"Hi, mom," she said quietly.