A Beginning ...
Disclaimer: See title page.
Cadie settled back into her seat in the economy-class cabin and tried hard not to think about just how tired she was. No matter how luxurious the seat, or how good the airline food, 28 hours was a ridiculous amount of time to spend getting anywhere. And it wasn't over yet. She sighed. An interminable wait at Sydney International to get through customs and immigration had led to a bus ride across the airport to the domestic terminal and a seat on a plane so small there was no first class.|
Not that she cared about that particularly. But Naomi had been a bear with a sore head almost from the moment they'd checked in at O'Hare what seemed about a week ago, and the lack of a glass of champagne and room to stretch out had turned her into the ogre from hell.
"What kind of a rinky-dink operation is this?" she'd yelled at a passing flight attendant as they'd boarded the small plane to Hamilton Island.
"Nay, would you relax? You're not making this any easier," muttered Cadie. "We're not going to a big city, just a little island. I'm sure only the smaller planes can land there."
"I don't give a rat's ass. I just want to get to the hotel and get some goddamned sleep."
Fortunately for Cadie and the flight crew, sleep had finally claimed the senator long before the hotel was a possibility, not long after takeoff on the last leg of their journey. She was slumped bonelessly in the seat next to Cadie, snoring huffily.
Cadie rubbed her eyes blearily, just thankful the trip was almost over. Only an hour to go before they touched down on Hamilton Island. She lifted the blind on the window to her right and gasped at the tableau below her. The plane was making its way up the east coast of Australia, heading north from Sydney. It was a blindingly clear day and the ocean was the most beautiful shade of blue-green Cadie had ever seen. They were already over the southern parts of the Great Barrier Reef and there were occasional islands, ringed by white sand, passing beneath them. She could see the different depths of water in the varying shades of color where she presumed there were reefs and atolls and lagoons.
She had tried to read as much as she could about their final destination - the Whitsunday Islands - and was excited at the thought of spending the next three weeks in a completely different world to the one she was used to. Already Australia seemed so different from the frigid environment she'd left behind in wintry Chicago.
Just walking off the plane in Sydney had been a shock. It had been so hot - almost as if someone had sucked the air out of her lungs as she walked up the rampway into the terminal. Finally the air conditioning in the terminal building had kicked in, but she would never forget that first taste of an Australian summer. One of the flight attendants on this plane had laughed when she'd mentioned it, though not unkindly.
"Wait until we get to Hamilton Island," she'd said. "There's nothing quite like the tropics in January."
Cadie smiled quietly to herself. She was looking forward to it, though she knew Naomi would no doubt find plenty to grumble about. She took a pensive glance at her partner, stifling a giggle at the dribble of drool strung out between the senator's mouth and the pillow tucked under her chin.
Things certainly hadn't worked out the way she thought they were going to after that New Year's morning in her kitchen.
She had been dreading the senator's homecoming that evening, given the venomous nature of the morning's discussion, but Naomi had swept in bearing flowers and chocolates and a sunny disposition. She had set about the task of charming Cadie almost as if … well, almost as if she really meant it, Cadie had thought cynically as the performance unfolded.
"Hello darling. I thought we'd celebrate our upcoming vacation with a quiet night in. What do you say?" Naomi had smiled brilliantly and then leaned in for a long kiss.
Cadie had never considered herself a naive woman, nor did she think she was susceptible to being sweet-talked out of any dissatisfaction she was feeling about the relationship, but she had to admit it was tempting to give in to this charming, and to her, much more familiar Naomi.
"Okay. That would be nice," she'd said cautiously. "But we do need to talk about last night, and this morning, Nay," she insisted.
"Honey, it was a misunderstanding. That woman was either lying to you or was misinformed, or you just got the wrong end of the stick somewhere. You know me, Cadie. You know I would never get involved with anything like that, don't you sweetheart?" This last was whispered against her neck as the senator honed in on one of Cadie's most vulnerable points.
She had placed her fingers gently over the senator's mouth, putting off any contact. She was trying hard to resist, trying hard to stay objective and angry with Naomi. The trouble was, part of her wanted so much to believe her. The Naomi she knew 12 years ago, and through the early years of their marriage, before the politics had become a career and not a passion, certainly would never have sunk to the kind of depths Cadie was worried about. That small part of her was having a hard time resisting the puppy-dog brown eyes looking innocently at her now. In the end it had just been easier to put her doubts away for another day. So much simpler to accept the reassurances of the woman she had trusted for 12 years.
She wasn't very proud of herself for that when she'd woken the next morning with Naomi sprawled across two-thirds of the bed. But Cadie also hoped the vacation would be an opportunity for them both to do some re-evaluation of their lives. What could be better than three weeks alone on a yacht in a tropical paradise for focusing the mind on love?
And yes, she was forced to admit, there was a tiny bit of her that was terrified of leaving Naomi. It had been the longest, most significant relationship of her life. She had never lived alone, had never not been part of a couple, at least, not as an adult. The thought of saying goodbye to 12 years of history, to Naomi's extended family ... Cadie had shuddered as she'd lain in bed, listening to her partner snore. And there was Naomi's career to think of. They had worked hard for what they had achieved - and being an out and proud couple had been a big part of that feeling of achievement. Though she had increasingly felt out of the decision-making process, Cadie was still proud of what they'd accomplished, particularly in the early years of their relationship. No, better to make like Scarlett O'Hara and think about it some other time.
That philosophy had worked pretty well for Cadie until the day of their departure, when the reality of Naomi's attitude to the vacation slapped her full in the face. They had arrived at the international check-in lounge of O'Hare airport to discover a group of Naomi's closest friends gathered there to meet them.
All with their own luggage in tow.
"They're coming with us," the senator had said offhandedly to Cadie's enquiry.
"To Australia?" she'd asked.
"Yeh to Australia, and to the island, and on the boat," Naomi said impatiently. "Three weeks on a boat with just us sounded pretty boring to me, so I thought we'd take along our own party. What's the problem?"
"You are KIDDING me??" Cadie had exploded. "What happened to the romantic vacation for two we planned? And when was all this decided?"
"What's the big deal? They're good friends and it will add some variety ... I thought you said you wanted to have fun."
"They're your good friends, Naomi, not mine ... I dont see any of my friends over there," she had gestured towards the casually clumped group, which was watching the couple interestedly.
"Well, who's fault is that Cadie?" the senator leaned over her, lowering her voice. "You're the one who decided you were too good for my friends. It's not my fault if none of your buddies showed an interest in coming along."
"I'm sure if they'd known there was such an open invitation on offer they would have jumped at it," she had muttered. Christ. She looked around the group and groaned inwardly.
Therese and Sarah, a couple of corporate attorneys from Minneapolis who shared Naomi's bad taste in modern art. Jason and Toby, the senator's PR team. Cadie had silently dubbed them the 'queens of spin' many years ago. Larissa McNeil, Naomi's long-time college buddy, and ... Cadie winced. Larissa had a tall redhead hanging off her arm. A very familiar, tall redhead.
Cadie pulled herself back to the present. The redhead's name had turned out to be Kelli and, mercifully, she had utterly no memory of her New Year's Eve encounter with Cadie. Or if she had, she'd so far had the sense to stay quiet about it.|
A sense of dread welled up in the pit of Cadie's stomach for about the millionth time since they'd left Chicago. All she had wanted for herself and Naomi was a few weeks to themselves so she could come to some kind of conclusion about where the relationship was going. Not to mention getting some badly needed rest and recreation for them both. Instead, she had visions of one long drunken party, with the spectre of some more sinister recreational drugs hovering overhead as well. At least they'd had the sense not to try and bring a stash into the country with them. She shuddered at the thought of what those cute little drug-sniffing beagles at Sydney International would have made of that.
"Ladies and gentleman, we have started our descent into Hamilton Island. In preparation for landing the captain has switched on the seatbelt sign. Please fasten your seatbelts, make sure your tray table is properly stowed, and that your seat back is upright."
Cadie smiled at the gentle Australian accent of the flight attendant coming through the tannoy as she brought herself upright. Some things were so similar to back home, but the accent was an enchanting reminder that she was in another world.
The thought restored some of her excitement about the trip.
Damnit, she thought. I'm going to enjoy myself regardless. There's so much to see that's new and different and beautiful. I'm not going to let other people spoil this for me. Including Naomi.
She looked down at the senator and nudged her awake not so gently.
"Ww-wwhat, whassamatter," Naomi mumbled.
"We're almost there, Nay," said Cadie. "Time to wake up and get organised."
"Jesus, it's about time," she grumbled.
Yeh. Including Naomi.
A personable young man greeted her with a grin.
"Josh, hi! Thanks for coming over."
"No worries, Jo. You know I'm never gonna turn down the chance for time away from the wrinklies, unlimited internet access and cable television." He grinned again.
"Yeh I figured you'd jump at it." She smiled back at the good-looking 18-year-old. Josh was the son of her nearest neighbours and he had been her regular house and cat-sitter since he'd been old enough to drive. She watched him as he made himself at home, making for his regular berth. "How are your folks?"
"They're good thanks," he replied from the second bedroom where he was stowing his belongings. He re-emerged with Mephisto sitting on his shoulder. "He was lying on the bed waiting for me. God, cats are scary sometimes," he laughed.
"You're not wrong. Sometimes I swear he lives about 10 minutes in the future and just comes back to freak me out every now and then. Don't ya big guy?" She scratched the large cat's chin as he perched on Josh's shoulder, purring like a Mack truck. "Do me a favour, Joshy? Feed him his breakfast for me. I've still got a few things missing that I need to find before we go."
Josh took Mephisto to the kitchen and proceeded to have a long conversation with the feline over a bowl of kibble. Jo smiled and began the search for her Oakleys, sunscreen, cap and cellphone. Finally she had rescued them all from their various hiding places and she was ready.
"Come on Josh. Come with me down to the dock and then you can drive the Jeep back for me."
"No hooning around in it this time, okay?"
"Yes, ma'am. I mean, no ma'am."
"Mephisto!" she called. The cat leapt up onto the kitchen counter and sat on his haunches. Jo leaned in and butted heads with him. "Be good, boycat." He purred his reply loudly.
"Okay, let's roll." She followed Josh out of the house and locked the door behind her, resetting the security system. "You remember the code, Josh?"
"Yep, no worries. 3-2-2-1 right?"
Jo nodded as she climbed into her red Jeep Wrangler and fired it up. Josh clamboured in beside her and she reversed till she could manouver around his beat-up Toyota. They bounced down the dirt track that served as Jo's driveway and she took a moment to just collect her somewhat scrambled thoughts.
It was a gorgeous day - not a cloud in the sky and, although it wasn't yet 8am, the temperature was already climbing into the low 30's celsius, with the usual high humidity for the time of year. Jo couldn't wait to get out on the water and feel a bit of a breeze. For now she took a deep breath and just appreciated the cool patches generated by the canopy of trees meeting across the track.
Her first appointment this morning was a meeting with her boss, Ron Cheswick, the owner of Cheswick Marine. He would fill her in on the details of the boatload of tourists she would be responsible for over the next ...
"How long you gonna be gone this time, Jo?" Josh interrupted her thoughts with just the right question.
"To be honest I don't know the details yet, mate," she replied. "I'll give you a call as soon as I know what's what, okay? You don't have any big plans do you?"
"Nope," he said jovially. "Just wondering which Saturday night to have the party." He grinned from ear to ear.
"You little bugger ... " she laughed, slapping him across the shoulder.
"Just kidding, just kidding," the teenager said.
They slid off the last of the dirt at the bottom of Jo's hill and onto the paved surface of Shute Harbour Road, winding around the coastline till they rounded one last corner and came upon the port. Although it was early, the dock was already a hive of activity, and Jo dodged other cars vying for a spot in the parking lot and headed straight for the secondary pier which housed the Cheswick Marine office and those of its competitors.
Shute Harbour was the major access by sea to the Whitsunday Islands and as such it was a big focus for tourists. The main pier was a square concrete construction with a large kiosk and the Coastguard office above it on the land side, with a series of moorings around the outside ring. All the large catamarans and motor cruisers from the major resorts called in twice daily. In addition it was the starting point for most of the day-trippers going out on the smaller yachts, cats and game-fishing boats.
The north end of the parking lot led to the secondary pier, a long, narrow pontoon that snaked out into the bay. It was dotted with offices, dinghy moorings and piles of provisions. Not many tourists came out here, just the boaties and office staff. Most of the time the tourists who wanted to do a bareboat charter were picked up at whichever resort they were staying in, as was the case with Jo's group today.
Jo pulled up just shy of the pontoon and hopped out of the Jeep. She grabbed her bag from the back seat and flipped the keys to Josh.
"Take it easy Joshy," she said. "And listen," she pointed a finger at him with mock severity. "Any party is okay, you know that, right? Just don't traumatise the cat, do clean up afterwards - and you know my rules about booze and drugs." She walked around the back of the Jeep and headed for the pontoon.
"You got it, skipper," he called after her.
"I'll call you and give you some warning when I'm coming back in - just so you can get it habitable in time," she shouted back with a wave.
He grinned and revved the engine, peeling out as he accelerated out of the lot.
"You bugger," she muttered. "There goes another set of tyres." She found it pretty hard to get mad with Josh, though. He was a good kid and despite all his big talk of parties she'd always come home to an immaculate house, a happy cat and no signs whatever of anything untoward.
Jo strode along the pontoon, happy at last to feel the seabreeze taking the edge off the humidity. She noted that it was the prevailing south-east breeze, normal for this part of the world most of the time. It would make the trip to Hamilton Island, which lay away to the south east of Shute, a little longer and busier, but she could handle that.
She brushed her long black hair out of her eyes as she looked away to the right, spotting her yacht away in the distance. Well, technically it wasn't 'her' yacht, but for the time she was skippering it, it might as well be. She could see her two crew, Paul and Jenny, already on board, readying the long boat for its day out on the water. She waved and gestured towards the office when she got a response from Jenny.
"Hiya Jo!" Doris, Cheswick's erstwhile and long-suffering receptionist greeted her warmly as she stepped through the door of the small floating office.
"Hey, Doris, how are you?" returned Jo with a smile. "Is the boss in yet?"
"Surely is. Go on in."
"Thanks." Jo left her gear stowed behind Doris' desk and walked through into Ron's tiny office, knocking softly on the door as she did so.
"Hi Jo, come on in. Take a seat." Ron waved her over and Jo slid into the seat on the other side of his desk. He looked particularly harried this morning, she thought. Running this kind of business had its fair of share of stress, she knew. And at 50-something and not exactly at his fighting weight, Ron looked like it was all catching up with him. She watched him as he rooted around in a drawer for the file on the tourists she would be guiding around.
"How's business Ronny? We making money for ya?"
"Oh that's funny Jo. No, really," he snorted. "That group of Germans Frank took out last week? They ploughed into the jetty at South Molle yesterday. Can you believe it? The boat's going to be in dry dock at least a week."
Jo winced. Most of the business the company did was true bareboat charters in which the clients sailed the boat themselves after as little as a few hours' tuition from the company's skipper. Just how much tuition they received depended on how much sailing experience the client had. Of course, there was no way to make the client tell the absolute truth about how much experience they had. And there was no accounting for stupidity and the influence of alcohol. The company's insurance premiums were astronomical as a result.
Not to mention the clients who would arrive expecting to spend their dream holiday on their dream yacht, only to find their dream yacht in dry dock being repaired, and a smaller or less luxurious yacht waiting for them. The holidays were expensive and clients rightly expected the best for their money.
Nope, Jo wouldn't have Ron's job for quids. At least … Jo smiled … at least not the way this one was set up. If it were her business she'd make it all crewed charters, very exclusive, very small … And she'd specialise in the gay and lesbian market. There was such a niche there that was going largely untapped.
Ron interrupted her daydream by slapping a file down on the desk in front of her.
"There you go. Thank God, this mob you're picking up today are the exception to the rule. Rich as stink, and not in the least bit interested in sailing their own boat. At least I know the Seawolf's in good hands this trip." He sat down heavily and folded his hands across his belly, watching as the blue-eyed woman across from him thumbed through the file. Damn she's gorgeous, he thought for about the zillionth time since he'd first met her.
"How many?" she asked without looking up.
"Four couples, so it's gonna be a bit crowded. Make Paul sleep on-deck." He grinned.
"Three weeks? Damn, they're keen," said Jo.
"And rich, don't forget that." Ron said happily. "They won’t spend all that time on the yacht. But Jo," he leaned forward to make his point. "They're paying premium dollars for full-time service. You and the crew are on call for the full three weeks. If they want to sail, sail. If they want to dive, organise the divemaster. If they want to party, show them the hotspots. If they want to stay at a resort, make the booking and stay close at hand."
Jo nodded. And then her eyes fell on the passenger list.
"A US senator? Jesus, Ron, that's some circle we're sailing around in, huh?"
"Oh yeh. And what's more it's not just any senator. It's the first openly lesbian senator, her partner, and six of their rich gay friends. That boutique market you're so keen on cornering just landed in your lap, mate. Do me a favour?"
Blue eyes held his own as an eyebrow rose in inquiry.
"Don't blow it. Make nice, give 'em everything they want and hopefully they'll go running home to tell their little queer buddies all about faaaaaaaabulous Australia."
Jo closed the file and looked at him sardonically.
"Y'know Ron, for a straight bloke, you sure talk a good game."
"Yeh, yeh. Flattery'll get you nowhere Jo-Jo. You know that deep down you're just pining for a good-looking guy like me." He grinned. It was an old and familiar routine with them.
Jo leaned across the desk and chucked him under the chin.
"In your dreams, Ronny boy. In your dreams." And with that she strode out of the room.
"You have no idea, gorgeous," her boss muttered under his breath.
Jo picked up her gear, said goodbye to Doris and walked back out onto the pontoon. She flicked her cellphone on and speed-dialled Paul onboard the Seawolf.
"That you, skipper?" his gruff baritone answered.
"Sure is. Did you guys take the dinghy out?"
"Nope, we left it for you. Ron dropped us off."
"We fully loaded?
"Yes, boss. Except for one case of champagne which we left for you. Wouldn't want you to think we'd robbed you of the warm and fuzzy feeling from doing some manual labour." She could hear his grin through the phone.
"Smartarse. Anything else we need before we disappear for three weeks?"
A female voice yelled in the background.
"Tell her to bring chocolate!"
"Tell her it's all taken care of, Paul. I'll see you shortly."
"Aye, aye captain," he said flippantly.
"Oh shut up." She hung up and went in search of the Seawolf's dinghy. She found it not far from the end of the pontoon, hitched to a spare mooring. The case of champagne was already sitting in the bottom of the small tinny, so she tossed her bag in. She took a moment to fish in her pocket for a hairband and pulled her long locks into a loose ponytail before she donned her cap and stepped into the boat.
Jo reached back and yanked the string on the small outboard motor, casting off before putting the motor in gear and swinging the dinghy in the direction of the Seawolf, some 100 yards away in deeper water.
God, it was a glorious day. She closed her eyes and turned her face to the sun for a brief moment, revelling in the feeling of the heat and wind and small splashes of salt spray on her face. A whole other planet from the horrors of King's Cross, she thought. As she opened her eyes again she tucked away that dark part of herself once more. Every now and then she had to pull it out, just as a reminder of how good life was now.
"Hey Jo!" Jenny's happy voice floated across the water to her as she pulled alongside the stern of the boat.
"G'day Jen. Here, catch hold." Jo flicked the dinghy's tethering rope up to the deckhand. She tossed her gear bag up onto the deck and carefully walked to the bow of the dinghy. She gingerly held her balance as she lifted up the case of champagne.
"Hang on, Jo, let me give you a hand," said Jenny hastily, tying off the rope and starting to climb over onto the yacht's flat transom.
"No, she’s right, I've got it," said Jo casually, as with one fluid motion she stepped from the bobbing dinghy onto the transom without so much as looking like she was going to tip over.
"Jeez, Jo. I'm beginning to believe the rumours - you really can walk on water," Jenny joked as she leaned over and took the case from her skipper.
Jo laughed as she climbed up over the taffrail.
"I wish," she said. "How are you, Jen?" The athletic brunette grinned back at her.
"Couldn’t be better, skipper. And we're just about ready to go. Provisions are stowed, except for this one case, and I'm gonna break that open now and put a few bottles on ice, so we've got something to apease the masses with when they arrive. Other than that we're all set. Paul's down in the sail hold, sorting that out."
"He's not anymore." Jo's tall, blond deckhand appeared on deck and made his way aft towards the two women. "We're ready to go, boss."
Jo smiled at her two crewmembers. Paul was the stereotypical bronzed Aussie - tall, buff, brown, blond-haired and laidback. He was also a damn good deckhand, fast and sure on his feet, and strong with it. Jenny was younger and less experienced. She'd come to the Whitsundays a couple of Christmases ago just for a working summer holiday, and liked the life so much she had decided to stay. Apart from working on-deck when required, she was also the best cook in the company and would be responsible for keeping their guests fed and watered. She and Paul worked with Jo as often as they could and the threesome now formed a formidable team which was picking up the best of the jobs.
"Okay then. Let's get the paperwork done and we can get moving here." Jo dropped down into the cockpit and slid down the companionway to the main cabin. She pulled the charts out from their drawer and flicked to the relevant page. "By the way, Jen, the chocolate's in my bag there." She nodded to her carryall. "Any chance of some coffee?"
"Yep." The cook passed Jo, digging the chocolate out with a satisfied sigh. She moved into the galley, stowing the last of the provisions and firing up the coffee pot. Paul flopped down onto the small sofa and put his feet up for probably the first and only time this trip.
"Did Ron fill you guys in?" asked Jo as she plotted their basic course to Hamilton Island on the chart in front of her and got it ready to relay to the Coastguard office back on the pier.
"Oh yeah," Paul replied. "Could be a long three weeks I'm thinking."
"Well, at least we won't have to worry about going on any damn-fool rescue missions. Not like that last mob we had."
The trio laughed as they remembered the group of Japanese businessmen and their wives who had careened around the Whitsunday Passage on their own like some kind of demented pinball until, finally, they'd run aground way out on Heart Reef. It had taken a full day to refloat the yacht, not to mention the 10 days' worth of repairs.
About half an hour later, Jo and her crew were ready to sail. She'd filed the course she planned to follow for the day, called the office to doublecheck any last-minute changes, and checked all the safety equipment, including the radio and flares.
"All right," she said. "Let's go."
She fired up the engine while Paul and Jenny moved about on-deck readying the mainsail and small foresail for the moment they hit open water. Paul pulled up the anchor and Jo slowly manouevred the yacht under power into the channel leading out of Shute Harbour. The wind picked up a little as they rounded the small islet at the mouth of the port.
Ten minutes later Jo killed the engine and held the boat up into the wind as the two deckies manned the winches and hoisted the mainsail. She bore away slightly till the sails filled and they were off on the first of what would be at least three tacks before they could reach Hamilton Island. She settled back in the cockpit, her right foot steadying the wheel.
Paul was right, she thought, as she watched the crewman cleaning up the deck, stowing the sailcovers and making fine adjustments to the sails. This could either be the easiest of assignments or a real pain in the backside.
She was due to meet the passengers at about 1pm, more than enough time for them to reach the Hamilton marina and put the finishing touches on the Seawolf. For now she leaned back and just enjoyed the sailing. They were doing about seven knots, just on average for this boat.
Jo glanced around. It was a pretty smooth out here today though once they were out of the shadow of Long Island the chop would pick up a bit.
"Ready to tack," she called about 20 minutes later.
Jenny scurried up from below and joined Paul on the winches.
"Tacking," Jo yelled as she swung the prow of the boat first into the breeze and then away again on the opposite, starboard side. The huge boom swung across the boat, both deckies ducking under it and working the winches hard to trim the mainsail as it refilled.
"Nice one, skipper," grinned Paul at the smoothness of the tack. There was nothing more damaging to boom, mast and rigging than a violent tack that slammed the heavy boom hard from side to side. Jo had always had a gentle touch.
She grinned back and settled in for a good morning's sail.
The view was spectacular from Cadie's hotel room balcony. From where she was she looked out over the crowded marina and away to a perfect blue-green ocean and cloudless skies.
She inhaled deeply and savoured the smell of the sea and the close heat of the day, listening for the sounds floating up from the boats and dockside stores.
For the past 24 hours Cadie had absorbed her new surroundings like a sponge. While Naomi and the others had spent the time sleeping off their jetlag, she had found herself wandering the resort and its surrounds.
Hamilton Island was one of the first major resorts built in the Whitsundays, she knew. Its high-rise hotel and sprawling dockside shopping and eating precinct were the exception in the islands. Most of the other resorts were low-rise affairs, blended into their tropical environments. But Hamilton was also the biggest and busiest, thanks to the airport and large marina which hosted one of Australia's largest yachting regattas each year.
Cadie gazed out over the forest of masts in front of her. One of them, she knew, was the boat on which she and the others would be spending the next three weeks. She tried to guess which one it would be.
One in particular caught her eye. It was just pulling into its berth. Long and sleek, the yacht seemed, to her unpracticed eye at least, to be about the right length. She watched the crew moving about, stowing sails and other equipment. A blond man leapt onto the pontoon and wrapped two mooring ropes around the bollards at each end of the berth.
A tall, dark-haired woman was at the helm. Even from this distance Cadie knew she was stunning. There was an aura of confidence about her as she shouted orders to the crew and deftly gentled the boat into place. Suddenly, the woman turned and stared up at her balcony, and for an instant Cadie thought she was looking straight at her. But that couldn't be. Not from so far away, surely?
Nevertheless she found herself staring back and wondering at the slight tingling sensation she could feel at the back of her neck. Wow.
The dark-haired woman on the yacht broke off first to answer a question from one of her deckhands, and Cadie found herself hoping that was indeed the Cheswick Marine boat.
Time would tell. She and the others were due to meet the crew of their yacht in just under an hour.
She turned back into the hotel room, and the cool of the air conditioning. Naomi was repacking her luggage, already scattered after just a day in the hotel. Cadie flopped down into an armchair and watched with amusement.
"Aren't you going to pack?" asked Naomi.
"Already did," Cadie replied. "I only brought the one sports bag, remember."
Naomi grunted and continued to try and wedge her clothes into the already sardined case.
"Why don't you leave some of that in storage here at the hotel, Nay," Cadie suggested. "We're going sailing, not on a diplomatic mission."
"I'm not spending every night on a boat, Arcadia," Naomi grumbled. "There are resorts and restaurants and hotels all over this area, aren't there?"
"Sure," Cadie replied.
"So, a girl needs something to wear." Naomi grunted as she finally managed to close the bag.
Boy, that was weird, thought Jo as she turned to help Paul tidy up the furled mainsail around the tied down boom. She had felt someone watching her as they'd berthed. She had looked up to the hotel and found a gorgeous-looking woman staring down at her. Blonde, sweet figure, very cute. But it was the eyes that had held her attention. She couldn't tell what color they had been from this distance, but they had locked onto her own almost hypnotically.
She shivered slightly at the memory. She couldn't have been looking right at me, could she? Jo shook her head, trying to focus on what she was doing.
She stopped and took a look around the deck. She knew the Seawolf was looking better than it would at any time over the next three weeks. Boaties, used to living and working in confined spaces, were expert at stowing their lives away. Tourists, however, were another kettle of fish.
"Are we ready to be boarded?"
Jenny stood at the top of the companionway, hands on hips.
"Ready as we'll ever be at this end, skipper," she said.
"Bring on the loopies, Jo-Jo."
Jo rolled her eyes at his use of the local derogatory term for tourists.
"Get it out of your system now guys. It's customer service and tugging the forelock from now on in."
Both deckies snapped her a mock salute.
"Aye, aye captain," they chorused.
"Oh, shut up."
She jumped deftly onto the pontoon and started the walk up to the hotel lobby where she was to meet the senator's party. By the time she got there she had her game face on. She'd learned over the years that, while Americans found the Aussie laidback style of doing things somewhat charming, they also expected the very best in service, and usually they wanted it yesterday. Finding the balance between the two had always been a bit of a battle for Jo. In her early days as a deckhand she'd told more than one customer just where they could shove their strawberry daquiri.
She smiled to herself at the memory. Ron had been very patient with her. God knows why.
She caught sight of the hotel's head concierge and walked in his direction.
"Miss Madison! So good to see you again." The top-hatted and tailed man took her hand in a double-handed shake and beamed at her.
"Hello George. It's good to see you too. How's business?"
"Always on the go, miss, you know how it is. What can we do for you today?"
"I'm picking up a party of eight. I was hoping to borrow two of your bellhops and a couple of your jumbo golfcarts."
"No problem, no problem at all. Now, what was the party's name?" George bustled around his desk and began issuing orders left and right.
"Senator Silverberg," Jo told him.
"Ah yes," he said. "I think you'll find they're already waiting for you in the lobby."
Jo groaned. She was 15 minutes early and still they were waiting for her. She couldn't win. Ah well. Showtime.
"Okay George, thanks. Give me five minutes to get them organised and we'll be right out, yeh?
"Consider it done, Miss Madison. See you shortly."
Jo straightened her shirt and took a deep breath, then stepped through the sliding glass doors into the spacious lobby of the hotel. The senator's group wasn’t difficult to spot. They were clustered around the bar, and surrounded by a veritable mountain of luggage.
Figures, thought Jo. God forbid they should read the recommendations about what to bring on a sailing holiday. She pressed on towards the group, counting only seven. The senator stuck out like a sore thumb. She was louder than the others and was clearly the centre of the conversation. Besides, she just looked … Jo searched for the word … political.
Time to bite the bullet.
The woman turned at the question.
"That's me. What can I do for you?"
Jo stuck out a hand in greeting.
"It's more a case of what I can do for you, Senator," she said. "I'm Jo Madison, from Cheswick Marine. I'm going to be your sail guide for the next three weeks."
Naomi looked the taller woman up and down with obvious meaning and her face took on the kind of leer that made Jo's skin crawl.
"Reaaaaaally? Wellllllll," the senator drawled. "Things are looking up." She held on to Jo's hand just a little too long. "And I can certainly think of a few things you could do for me, Miss Madison."
Oh, I don't like her at all, Jo thought as she tried not to snap her hand back.
"Please, call me Jo," she said instead. "If you're all ready, I have some transport waiting outside to take us down to the boat where we'll settle you into your berths and give you the tour before you decide where you'd like to go this afternoon."
"We're just waiting on my partner," said Naomi. "She's in the gift shop, picking up a newspaper or something."
"I'm here now," came a soft voice from behind Jo. She turned and was immediately caught by the most beautiful pair of sea-green eyes she had ever seen. Wow.
Wow, thought Cadie. Those are the bluest eyes I've ever seen. She and Jo locked gazes for long seconds and she felt the world contract around them. It was like she and the tall skipper were wrapped in sound-proofing. Everything else seemed muffled and fuzzy and totally unimportant.
Jo suddenly realised she had taken the woman's hand to shake it and hadn't let go. The blonde's smaller hand just seemed to fit right inside her own and she found herself softly stroking the back of her passenger's hand with the pad of her thumb.
"Umm, h-hello," said Jo wittily.
Ohhhhhhhh, gorgeous voice, thought Cadie.
"Hello yourself," she replied, trying to ignore the tendrils of heat from whatever the woman was doing with her thumb. "I'm Cadie Jones."
And I am your slave forever, thought the taller woman.
The senator broke the spell by bustling over to Cadie and throwing her arm around her shorter partner's shoulders.
"This is Jo, ummm, what was it? Madison?" Jo nodded, still unable to tear her eyes away from Cadie's. What's going on here?
"That ought to be easy to remember," smiled Cadie. "I was born in Madison, Wisconsin."
Jo grinned back, relaxing a little as she took in the magical way Cadie's nose wrinkled when she smiled. How cute is that, she thought.
Goddess, she has a beautiful smile. Her whole face lights up, thought Cadie.
Jo regained her senses with an effort and one glance at the storm clouds gathering on the senator's face. She set about organising the bellhops to carry the luggage onto one of the golf carts she had requested from the concierge. She hustled about making sure everyone was seated comfortably in the other cart. Cadie took her place just behind the driver's seat, and not surprisingly, Naomi sat down next to her, possessively putting her arm back around her.
Oh god, please don't let her be like this for the entire trip, Cadie silently implored the universe.
Jo finally had everyone settled. She couldn’t help noticing the senator's firm hold on Miss Jones.
Heh, she chuckled inwardly. I hope I caused that.
She let out the hand brake and nudged the golf cart forward, towards the gentle slope that led to the marina.
How on earth did those two end up together, she thought. Anyone can see they're totally not meant for each other.
Oh, this is going to be a hell of a boat ride.