Three days later ...
Disclaimer: See title page.
The blue and red striped float bobbed up and down hypnotically with the movement of the water. Jo watched it with half-closed eyes, trying to ward off the worst of the glare off the glassy sea. She shifted slightly, making herself more comfortable, wedged as she was in the curve of the bowsprit rail, her left foot pressed against the vertical strut, her right dangling over the water. From her position she was looking out to sea. If she turned her head to the left she could see down the length of the Seawolf back towards the helm.|
A heat haze shimmered all around the boat as it floated in the wide expanse of blue and green. The atmosphere was still and muggy, the sun relentless out of the cloudless sky. There was no need to move to work up a sweat. It just oozed out of the body, the humidity sucking the moisture out.
The float bobbed again and Jo reached for the rod, feeling for the nibble she hoped wasn't too far away.
Nope, she thought. Not this time. She let her eyes drift down the fishing line again, tilting her head back and absorbing the sunshine on her skin.
It was three days since they'd left Hayman Island. The Seawolf had cruised south to Whitehaven Beach, on the reef side of Whitsunday Island, the largest of the group. It was a long, curving stretch of pristine white beach, lapped by clean, blue water. It truly was paradise. On the beach the crew had set up a camp which served as a great base from which to explore the jungle behind the beach, as well as somewhere different to eat meals and sleep if the passengers were so inclined.
Cadie felt like she was in heaven. She stretched out on her back on the deck of the Seawolf, her rolled-up shirt and shorts acting as her pillow. The sun was viciously hot, but the blonde American was covered in sunscreen, her newly-brown skin glistening. She felt remarkably sanguine, lulled into a half-dozing state by the heat, and the gentle swaying of the boat.
The three days since the disastrous night at Hernando's had been bizarre, not so much for what had happened, but for what hadn't. After the initial shock of the overheard conversation had passed, a sense of calm had settled over Cadie. The dynamics between her and Naomi had definitely changed, almost as if the senator had realised that she was being listened to that morning below decks. She and Cadie had barely exchanged more than half a dozen words, and though the blonde had gone back to sleeping in their assigned cabin, the contact between the two had been minimal. Cadie no longer felt the need to make a particular effort to stay away from Jossandra, and so far, the senator hadn't commented or made an issue of it. Cadie knew it was only a matter of time before there was a confrontation - she knew her own temper well enough to admit that - but for now, she was content to keep her own counsel and make the most of her vacation.
Payment for services rendered, huh? You'll pay, Naomi, that's for damn sure, thought Cadie for the hundredth time since she'd heard the senator dismiss their 12-year marriage in a five-minute conversation. You've certainly helped me make my decision, she pondered. I used to think there was a chance you might want to save our marriage. Now I know that's the last thing on your mind. Now I can stop wasting my time and energy on it too. Cadie felt a wave of sadness wash through her, followed by a shot of trepidation. How is this going to pan out, she wondered. It was a measure of how far along her thinking was that she now spent most of her time running through an inventory of her belongings back in Chicago.
She shifted slightly, moving with the position of the sun.
The ironic thing is, she thought, I pretty much have all I need with me right here. My laptop, my diary and contact books. I was running the business from home anyway, so that's not going to be affected. She thought about the closets full of expensive clothes, and dismissed them. I don't need any of them. That just leaves my books and CD's, and a few pieces of bric-a-brac. Cadie shook her head in wonder. I'm going to leave her. Amazing. And what's really mind-blowing is I have no hesitation about it anymore. I know it's the right thing to do. I'm even looking forward to it. She laughed out loud with relief. Thank you Naomi, for that, at least.
Jo turned in the direction of the soft laugh. She gazed at the American sprawled on the deck and felt a flood of warmth, some of it affection, some of it out and out chemical attraction.
She seems to be so much more relaxed now, Jo thought with a smile. She was right. She did need to hear that conversation. It's helped her make whatever decisions she was fighting with.
The tall skipper couldn't help but feel somewhat melancholy, however.
It really changes nothing for you, Jo-Jo, she told herself. Leaving Naomi is one thing. Being with you is another thing altogether. We barely know each other and - when she finds out the truth – she won't want to know me. Her eyes drifted slowly along the American's compact, athletic body. Goddess, she is beautiful.
Jo allowed her head to rest back against the rail, and she half-closed her eyes, keeping Cadie in her field of view. She imagined herself leaning over the reclining woman. Applying some sunscreen for her maybe, she thought, with a tiny smile. Her skin would be so soft. Jo's fingers tingled from the memory of the brief touches she had stolen while helping Cadie with her zip a few nights' earlier.
Oh yes, so soft. In her mind, her hands drifted down Cadie's body, barely touching her, palms sparking from the light contact. As she watched, the American shifted again, arching her back slightly as she repositioned herself. Jo groaned quietly, imagining how that would have felt if she'd been holding herself just above the smaller woman. I want to feel her pressed against me, she realised. Cadie turned her head slightly, away from the skipper. And I want to kiss her just there, thought Jo, pinpointing what she was sure was a sensitive area of Cadie's neck, just below her ear.
She continued to watch as Cadie reached for her bottle of sunscreen, mesmerized as she followed the movements of the American’s fingers removing the cap and squeezing an amount of the creamy fluid onto the fingertips of her left hand.
Oh god, thought Jo. What is she going to do with that?
Her question was soon answered as she watched Cadie’s fingers slowly stroke across her own cleavage, reapplying the sunscreen. The blonde’s fingers dipped briefly between her breasts and Jo had no problem imagining caressing that very spot.
Only I wouldn’t use my fingers, she found herself thinking. God, this is torture. Cadie’s fingertips continued to trail across her skin, sliding just under the edge of her bikini top. Jo held her breath, her own fingers tingling just at the thought.
Finally the blonde was finished, and Jo exhaled slowly, very aware of the aching desire she felt. She knew she was flushed, and that, combined with the delicate stretching pull of fresh sunburn on her skin, left her feeling as if volts of electricity were passing through her.
Cadie turned her head back towards Jo and blue eyes met green across the 15 feet between them. They held each other's gaze for long, endless seconds.
What is she thinking, Jo wondered, lost in sea-green depths, her whole body alive with sensation. The colour rising in Cadie's cheeks gave her a strong clue, and she found herself beaming at the gorgeous blonde.
Cadie smiled back.
I'm sure she can read my mind, the blonde thought. She's blushing almost as hard as I know I am.
Finally Jo broke away from the intense gaze, feeling that if she didn’t she would be hard-pressed not to do something about the insistent, tugging ache low in her gut. She tried to focus once more on the bobbing float on the end of her fishing line.
I'd crawl 15 miles over broken glass just to sweat in her shadow, the skipper thought.
Cadie couldn't help but smile at the tall woman's discomfort.
I know how she feels, but I just don't want to stop looking, she decided.
She swept her eyes across the dark-haired woman's body, greedily taking in every detail. Jo had her long bangs swept back in a loose ponytail, exposing a statuesque neck that cried out to be kissed, and Cadie was more than happy to picture herself doing just that.
Goddess, especially when she tilts her head to one side like that, she thought, watching the skipper concentrating on her fishing. Jo was wearing a cut-off midriff-hugging tank top that was barely more than a sports bra. The lack of material showed off her toned stomach deliciously. Cadie laughed quietly to herself. When was the last time you thought of someone's stomach as delicious, Jones? She groaned at the thought of trailing her lips and tongue over the smooth, brown skin.
She gasped softly as, almost as if by some silent command, Jo’s hand moved to her stomach.
Oh yes, Jo, Cadie thought. Touch yourself for me.
The skipper’s long, strong fingers almost caressed across her abdominal muscles. Cadie watched intently as one finger caught a trickle of sweat and slowly wiped it away. The blonde groaned inwardly and her eyes travelled lower.
I wish it were my hands caressing you and not just my eyes, she thought wickedly. The shorter-than-short denim shorts Jo was wearing were clearly well-loved and ragged around the hem, their pale bleached color highlighting the golden hue of the skipper's long, long legs.
Cadie gulped as a tantalizing picture formed in her mind.
I want those legs wrapped around me. I want to feel captured, tangled up in her. I want to feel that safety mixed with sensuality again, she thought, remembering being held by Jo as she had eavesdropped on that humiliating conversation. Goddess, she felt so good around me, surrounding me.
Ohhh Cadie, what are you doing to yourself, she thought. Where are you going with this? You're at most, a couple of weeks away from leaving the only major relationship of your life. Do you really want to leap straight into another one? A complicated one at that?
She rolled away from the view Jo afforded, sitting up to rest her forehead on her hand as her elbow balanced on her upraised knee.
But there's something there between us, no question. Would I be walking away from the one person in the world I'm supposed to be with? She couldn't help laughing at herself. I don't know her. She glanced back at the skipper, who was giving a good impression of being asleep, if it weren't for the slivers of blue peeking out from beneath slightly cracked eyelids. Cadie smiled softly, knowing those eyes were focused firmly on her. And yet, I do know her. How that's possible I haven't a clue. She has secrets, but they don't matter. I know her heart.
She knows I'm watching her, thought Jo. I wonder if she knows how badly I want to be sitting behind her, cuddling her against me, with my legs wrapped around her, kissing the nape of her neck …
A tugging on the fishing line almost distracted her, but it wasn’t until the tiny bell on the end of her rod started tinkling that Jo finally came to her senses.
"Whoooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaa," she yelped, sitting bolt upright as she grabbed the rod. "Holy shit, I've got a big one hooked here. Cadie, grab that net, will ya?" Jo stood up quickly, bracing herself against the rail as she applied some drag while the line played out.
Cadie sprang to her feet and grabbed the long pole Jo had indicated, swinging it around so the round net on the end hung out over the water. The skipper was battling to reel in what was clearly a decent-sized fish. She hauled on the wildly bending rod, winding frantically as she dropped it low, then leant back, groaning on the upstroke.
"You're going to snap that line, Jo," warned Cadie, hopping from one foot to the other with excitement.
"No way," grinned Jo, sweat starting to break out on her forehead. "This one's mine. Can you see any colour yet?"
Cadie leaned out over the rail, trying to follow the line below the waterline.
"No." She paused. "Wait. Yes! Yes, yes. Kind of flashes of pink."
"Woooooooooooooohoooooooooo!" yelled Jo with delight. "I bet it’s a red emperor. We eat well tonight!!"
"Like we haven't been eating well anyway," she said.
"Yup, but there's nothing beats eating something you've caught yourself," said Jo smugly. "And wait till you taste this fish, Cadie - smooth, creamy, sweet flesh … "
"Hey Captain Ahab, ya gotta catch it first," chided the American with a smile.
"Piece of cake," replied Jo. "Get ready with the net, 'cos this sucker is about ready to land." With one last big upstroke, Jo flicked the fish out of the water just as Cadie moved in closer and came in underneath it with the net.
"Yessssssssssssssss," cried Cadie, triumphant. "We did it!" She grinned up at Jo, who answered with a brilliant smile of her own.
"Yep, we sure did." The two women high-fived each other as the large red emperor flopped around on the deck. Cadie looked down at it uncertainly.
"Um … now what?" she asked.
"Well. Now I've got to kill it," replied Jo, reaching around for the small truncheon-like piece of wood she had in her back pocket just for that purpose.
Cadie bit her bottom lip.
"I don't think I'm going to like this bit," she said quietly.
"I promise it'll be quick," said Jo noticing the anxious look on the blonde's face. "Don't look if it's going to upset you."
"No, it's okay," said Cadie. "I'd rather know the reality." Their eyes locked again for a few seconds.
Jo grabbed the fish's thrashing tail and swiftly tonked it on the forehead with the cosh. Cadie winced at the strangely hollow sound. The fish immediately dropped lifeless and still.
"Done," said the skipper.
Jo picked up the fish and began to turn to walk aft. Cadie gently stopped her with a hand on her elbow, pulling her back around to look down at the American.
"What's wrong?" the skipper asked.
"When will you tell me, Jo-Jo?" Cadie asked softly, not knowing quite what made her ask the question at this moment.
"Tell you what?" Jo flicked her eyes away, suddenly uncomfortable with the scrutiny.
"Whatever it is that you seem to think would be so terrible for me to know," Cadie replied, ducking her head to recapture Jo's eyes. "There isn't anything you can say that will stop me …" She hesitated, not sure how far she was prepared to go. "Nothing that will stop me caring about you," she went on.
"You don't know what you're asking, Arcadia," Jo said, another wave of melancholy hitting her. "Trust me, you don't want to know." She paused, the warmth from Cadie's fingers on the inside of her elbow, giving her chills. "Let it go. Please?"
Cadie squeezed the skipper's arm gently.
"Trust me, Jo. Trust me to know my own feelings," she said.
"You have a lot more to think about than my dark, mysterious past," Jo said pointedly. "Don't make your life any more complicated than it already is, Cadie."
Cadie's crooked grin lightened the mood a little.
"Oh so you do have one then?" she cajoled, poking Jo gently in the ribs.
"One what?" asked Jo, gritting her teeth against the tickling sensation the poke provoked but unable to keep from grinning.
"Dark and mysterious past. That's the most you've told me so far."
"Mmmmmm … well, it'll take a lot more than a poke in the ribs to get me to tell you the rest." With a quiet smile Jo turned away again. "Come on. Let's give this to Jenny."
Cadie stood watching for a moment as the tall skipper walked away.
What could possibly be so awful, she wondered. She shook her head quickly, making a decision that surprised her with its intensity. It doesn’t matter. She's a good person, I can feel that in my heart. And I don’t give a damn what happened in that 'dark and mysterious past'.
She strode after Jo, following her down the companionway into the main cabin where Jenny was in paroxysms of delight over the large catch.
"Put it on ice, Jen," Jo was saying. "Paul can clean it up later." She rubbed her hands together in anticipation. "I'm drooling already," she grinned.
"Aye, aye captain." Jenny mock saluted.
"Oh shut up," Jo replied good-naturedly.
A distant thrumming noise caught all their attention just at that moment.
"What's that?" asked Cadie, making her way back up on deck. She gazed up into the cloudless azure sky, spinning around.
"Helicopter," said Jo shortly, from just behind her. "And if I didn't know better, I'd say it was …" She turned towards the rise of Whitsunday Island, looking west. She laughed triumphantly as she caught sight of the small aircraft heading over the hill towards them. "Yep, it's Billy." She grinned.
Cadie looked up over her shoulder at the tall skipper.
"A fly boy. A rich, spoiled, handsome, totally likable, fly boy." She turned with Cadie, following the path of the chopper as it circled closer and lower. "Around here the Air Sea Rescue Service is funded totally by donations, so it needs all the help it can get. Billy inherited a squillion from his parents - they used to own a bunch of newspaper and television stock. He bought himself a 'copter for fun and kitted it out with all the rescue gear, just so he can help the service out when they need it."
Cadie snorted, watching as the chopper circled the Seawolf one last time and started to come down for a water landing next to the wooden pontoon anchored in the middle of the bay about 50 metres from the Seawolf.
"He's a good bloke," said Jo, laughing at the incredulous look on the American's face. "He's just a bit of a lair as well."
"Yeah … ummm … a show off."
"Ah. That would explain the entrance," said Cadie with a chuckle.
The helicopter settled on the glassy water easily, about 50 metres away from the yacht. The engine died immediately and the rotors slowed, as a man clambered out of the cockpit, tied the chopper off to the pontoon and waved.
"Hey Jo-Jo!!" he yelled. "Are you gonna make me swim?"
"Yep," she shouted back.
"You asked for it," he replied. The sounds of bad singing wafted across the water towards them as Billy made a passable attempt at the Stripper theme song. He pulled off an item of clothing as he danced on the pontoon, flinging apparel in all directions.
Cadie laughed at the performance and Jo grinned at her.
"Like I said. He's a bit of a lair," she said.
"I see that," Cadie replied.
Finally the big man was down to just his board shorts and he dove into the clear water, stroking easily out towards the yacht.
"Prepare to be boarded," said Jo.
"Aye, aye captain," said Cadie just under her breath, catching Jo's eye with a smirk as the skipper did a double take.
"I heard that," she muttered.
Cadie giggled as they watched the man plowing his way through the water, finally reaching the transom and pulling himself up onto the boat. Billy was a big man, built like a footballer and with the height to carry it. Cadie thought he would tower over Jo by a good few inches, and he soon proved it by bounding up to the two women and pulling the skipper into his arms.
"Hello gorgeous," he bellowed, swinging Jo down into a deep dip and planting a long noisy kiss on her lips. She struggled for a couple of seconds and then went with it, catching her breath as he backed off and pulled her upright.
"Yuck, Bill, that was gross," she protested, wiping the back of her hand across her mouth. "Hello to you too, you big bastard." She grinned back at the tousle-haired man.
He started to say something else but caught sight of Cadie, immediately captured by her bikini-clad, blonde good looks. He pushed past Jo, much to her amusement, and immediately headed for the American.
"Weeeeeeeeelllllllllllllll, who do we have here?" he said smoothly. "Aren't you going to introduce us, Jo-Jo?" He took Cadie's hand and bowed over it, kissing it softly.
Cadie looked back over his shoulder at Jo, raising an eyebrow comically. The skipper laughed out loud.
"Cadie Jones, meet Billy Maguire, the Whitsundays' own millionaire playboy," she said.
Cadie did a double take.
"Maguire, as in Robert Maguire, media magnate?" she asked incredulously.
"Ah, daddy dearest, how I do miss him," said Billy mockingly, his hand over his heart.
Cadie looked at Jo again.
"Boy, you weren't kidding about those squillions were you?"
Jo grinned and shook her head.
"Please don't hold it against me, Miss Jones. I promise I'm only half the scoundrel my old man was." He beamed down at her.
"I believe you, I believe you. Nice to meet you, Mr Maguire."
"No, you must call me Billy. Everybody does y'know."
"And you call me Cadie. Miss Jones makes me feel like a schoolteacher."
He swept his eyes admiringly down and back up her length.
"If I'd had a teacher like you, Cadie, I would have stayed in school waaaay past 14." He grinned at her winningly.
She smiled back, liking him despite his brashness. Or maybe because of it.
"Okay, loverboy," said Jo, sitting down in the main cockpit. "What brings you out here?"
Cadie and Bill also sat down.
"You of course, beautiful," he grinned.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
"I was down at Shute, ran into Doris from Cheswick, asked after you and she said as far as she knew you were out here at Whitehaven. I felt like a bit of an outing, so here I am." He spread his arms wide. "I wondered if you and any of your guests would like a trip out to Heart Reef."
Cadie nodded enthusiastically.
"I'd love to go. Toby and Jason went fishing out near there the other day and they came back raving about it. So, yes, count me in," she said.
Jo flicked her cellphone on and keyed Paul's number. He was ashore with the two men, Naomi, Larissa and Kelli.
"Hey Paulie," said the skipper when he answered. "Billy's here, wondering if anyone wants to go out to Heart with him for the day." She paused. "Okay." She looked at Cadie and Bill. "He's asking them. Apparently the senator has a pretty fierce card game in motion."
Cadie rolled her eyes.
"She's a terrible poker player. But she can't stand losing, so they'll be at it all day."
Paul obviously replied to Jo and the skipper nodded.
"Okay, mate. Have a good day." She paused again. "Yeah I will, I think. Okay, see ya." She hung up. "No takers there ... the boys are climbing for coconuts." She rolled her eyes and laughed. "And the card school has settled in for the day, as you predicted. Where are Therese and Sarah?"
Jenny came up from below just as she was asking.
"In their cabin, skip," she said. "With the do not disturb sign up."
"Ahh. Okay. You want to come Jen?"
The brunette had wandered over to Billy and sat down on his knee, the big man happily wrapping her up in a bearhug.
"Nah," she said. "That mob'll need lunch." She indicated towards the beach with her head.
"Looks like it's just Cadie and me, Billy."
"Cool," he said, patting Jenny's backside as she stood up.
Ken Harding was sweating like an old, fat horse. Partly that was the climate, partly it was because he was strapped into a Queensland Police Service helicopter. There were two things in the world Harding hated more than anything. One was drug dealers. And the other was flying. Particularly when that flying was in a tiny glass-sided box with a ceiling fan strapped on top.
Fuck this, he thought, wiping his brow for the 50th time since they'd taken off from Mackay. Christ I need a cigarette. It had been an hour since his last desperate puff between getting off his plane from Sydney and waiting for the police chopper to show up.
He'd flown up on a whim. A nagging, nasty, cold slimy whim that had been burning a hole in the back of his brain for about a week.
It had been over five years since he'd last seen Jo Madison. She'd walked out of his dingy office in Sydney and disappeared into the night, as mysterious and untouchable as she'd ever been.
He'd tried to keep tabs on her though. His colleagues would make fun of him on a regular basis whenever he called in a few favours to pin down her whereabouts. It wasn't like he did that for any of the other state witnesses lurking out in the real world. But he couldn't help it. He had a thing for Madison. A strange half-paternal, half-lustful thing that made him care.
He didn't understand it himself. He just knew that when Marco di Santo, former henchman of Tony Martin - Madison's ex-boss - had mysteriously disappeared two weeks ago, it was time to do something.
When Madison had turned state's evidence that cold night five years ago, Martin had been the first she'd grassed up. In the barely controlled chaos that followed di Santo had been one of the few to slip through Ken Harding's fingers. He'd kept his nose clean since then, inhabiting Martin's old haunts but never quite doing enough to warrant police attention.
But that had changed three weeks ago when someone slipped a stiletto between Tony Martin's ribs in the shower block at Pentridge Prison. He'd bled to death on the floor while a roomful of criminals looked on. No doubt most had been more than happy to see his life washing down the bathroom drain.
Soon after that di Santo had gone underground. And Harding had a hunch the two events were not unconnected.
He's eliminating the people he sees as a threat to him taking over Martin's turf, thought Harding, in an attempt to keep his mind off the thin layer of perspex between himself and a 1000-foot drop. He's taken out the boss, and now he's going after the only one left who can threaten him, either by killing him or putting him away. I'm sure of it. Madison's in danger, and she hasn’t exactly made it difficult for anyone to find her. Damn her.
He had never understood Madison's attitude to the witness protection program. Whether it was arrogance or a death wish, her decision not to hide had always rankled with him. He knew she was far from stupid, so he had to assume she felt she could handle anything - or anyone - that came her way. And it was hard to argue with that. He had seen what she was capable of.
But he also knew she had been out of the loop for over five years. There was no way she could know what was coming.
Assuming your hunch is right, Harding, he thought to himself. This could just be a complete waste of time and di Santo is rotting under a pile of garbage in some Sydney dump somewhere.
The helicopter swung sharply towards the group of islands in the distance and Harding clutched the edge of his seat, his knuckles white with fear.
Oh Christ, I need a cigarette.
Cadie floated across Heart Reef, barely six feet above the coral heads and tropical fish. She was making no effort at all, just drifting in starfish position, absorbing every little detail she could. Jo was behind her in the lagoon made by the reef's unique natural formation. The current took the blonde closer to the outer edge of the reef and she caught her breath as she slid over the precipice. Suddenly the bottom dropped out from under her and the water went from crystal clear to dark indigo beneath her.
Cadie took a deep breath and dove down using her flippers to propel her down the face of the reef wall as far as she could stand. Fish flashed and dipped around her, filtered sunlight bouncing off their silver scales. A dark shadow passed overhead and Cadie's heart stopped for an instant, till she looked up and recognised the shapely silhouette. There was no mistaking the long legs and fan of dark hair floating across the surface.
The American grinned around the snorkel's mouthpiece and finally listened to the burning in her lungs, shooting back up toward the surface, bursting up a foot or so from the smiling Australian.
"Having fun?" asked Jo, lifting her own mask and snorkel off her face.
"Oh, you bet," enthused Cadie. "I can't believe the colors down there. It's gorgeous! I just wish I could hold my breath for longer, and go down deeper."
"Why don't you take some scuba classes?" asked Jo, as they started to stroke back across the reef and into the lagoon.
"I can't. I'm asthmatic. They wouldn't give me a medical clearance," replied Cadie somberly.
"Aaaah. Well, we'll have to see what we can do about getting you down a bit deeper somehow," said Jo. "There's a couple of mini-sub companies we could try hooking up with."
Cadie trod water and beamed at the skipper.
"That would be wonderful."
"Come on. They're about to serve lunch," Jo urged and they struck out once more for the pontoon on the other side of the lagoon.
Fifteen minutes later they were dry and happily munching on a shared plateful of sandwiches as they sat next to each other, legs dangling over the edge.
"There's a storm coming," said Jo, nodding at the dark clouds gathering away to the south. "We should probably head back after lunch - give Billy a chance to get home before the weather closes in."
"Okay," said Cadie, gazing at the thunderclouds. "My first tropical storm. Cool." She grinned. "Ummmm, will we be okay anchored at Whitehaven?"
"It’s a little exposed. We'll move around the point onto the leeward side of the island." She looked at Cadie. "Another reason to head back after lunch."
Several tour companies used the pontoon on a daily basis, and there were groups of tourists dotted around the large square, wooden platform. The company that owned the pontoon also provided food and anchorage. Apart from two helicopters, there were also several boats moored around the outside of the reef.
Cadie took it all in as she chewed on her sandwich.
"Jo, how long have you worked for Cheswick?" she asked the tall skipper.
"About five years," replied Jo warily, her defenses automatically preparing to rise.
"Relax, Jo-Jo," Cadie said, patting the woman's arm. "I'm not going to dig for anything you don't want to tell me. I was just wondering if you've ever thought about running your own business."
Jo nodded thoughtfully.
"Mhmmm I have," she said. "I'd love to have my own boat. I'd keep it small and aim for an exclusive market. Fully crewed and catered trips. And I'd focus on 'family' tourism."
"Family as in gay, or family as in kids?" asked Cadie, grinning at Jo.
"Ewwww no, no kids ... family as in gay." Jo swept her arm around the horizon. "There's so much to see out here that's different for so many people. And there really isn't a specialist tour operator who can create a safe space for gays. Ron's pretty good. If a group comes along - like yours - he's happy to give them what they're after, but he doesn't specifically aim for that part of the market."
"Is that why you're our skipper? Because you're gay too?"
"No, not really. It was just the way the roster worked out. But it did make sense. And I probably would have suggested it to him if he'd assigned you lot to another skipper."
Cadie studied Jo's pensive profile.
"So what stops you doing it, Jo? Running your own company, I mean. Money?"
Jo glanced at the American, and smiled.
"No, actually," she said, thinking of the untouched ill-gotten gains burning a hole in her bank account. She sighed. "I don't really know what I'm waiting for. I like working for Cheswick, and when I see how much stress Ron has, I don't see any reason to take on more responsibility."
"But you've just outlined how your business would be different," Cadie said gently.
Jo grinned, and began pulling on her socks and Colorados.
"I know. Shot myself in the foot there didn't I?" She chuckled. "Perhaps I'm just too chickenshit to take the plunge, Cadie. And maybe, too, I feel like I owe Ron a lot, and doing the best job I can for him as a skipper could be the most appropriate way of paying him back." She shrugged her shoulders slightly.
Cadie bumped Jo's shoulder with her own.
"Somehow I don't think you and 'chickenshit' should be in the same sentence, Jo-Jo," she said. "Pinning down a taipan with a twig kinda blows that image don't you think?" She nudged her again.
"That was just common sense," she demurred.
"Riiiiiiiiiiight." Cadie grinned at the slowly blushing skipper until Jo finally gave in and met her gaze with a sheepish smile.
"Okay, okay." She surrendered to the compliment, and then gazed back out across the reef. Something clicked in her head and she decided to share it with Cadie.
"It's almost like ... " She paused, trying to find the words. "It's almost like I've been resting ... recovering, in a way. There was my life before I came up here, and it was ... " She sighed. "Complicated. And stressful. And ... awful ... in so many ways." She looked down as she felt Cadie's hand creep around her forearm reassuringly, tiny tendrils of warmth jumping across her skin. Jo glanced up and caught warm, sympathetic green eyes gazing at her. "And I know this isn't making any kind of sense, is it?"
"It's okay," said Cadie softly. "Anything you want to tell me is okay by me, Jossandra."
Jo tingled at the way the American's soft accent caressed her name.
"Mmmmmmm," she murmured. "Anyway. When I came up here I wanted to get as far away from that life as I could possibly go. And part of that was letting go of any unnecessary stress and decision-making."
"I understand," she said. Jo looked at her from under a raised eyebrow. "Well, I kind of understand, given I don't know the details," she qualified. "You know what's really ironic, Jo?"
"You're a natural-born leader. You can't help taking responsibility and making decisions. It's just what you do. I may not have known you very long, but that much is obvious. I can't imagine you taking a back seat, especially if leadership is what's needed."
Jo had to admit that was true. It had to be or she would never have gone for her master's ticket in the first place.
"Mhmmmm. I guess maybe I feel like I'm coming to the end of that recovery part of my life," she said slowly, only realizing it as the words formed on her tongue.
Cadie smiled softly.
"Feel like there's a big change in the wind, huh?"
Jo turned her head and caught the blonde's green eyes with her own azure ones. Another long moment of connection passed between them.
"I guess you know that feeling, huh?" she said gently.
The locked gaze continued.
"Oh yeah," whispered Cadie.
Their reverie was broken by the insistent sound of Jo's cellphone. Cadie giggled as she recognised the musical tone as the theme song from a cult television show.
"Xena, Warrior Princess?" she laughed.
"Hey, I'm fan, all right?" Jo said with a smirk as she picked up the phone to answer it. Cadie laughed again and stretched out on the pontoon, soaking up the sun. "Yeah, hello?" said Jo casually into the phone.
"J-Jo? It … it's J-Josh."
Something about the teenager's tone sent icicles of fear lancing through Jo. His breathing was ragged and his voice high and anxious. She sat bolt upright, suddenly alert. Cadie's brow furrowed at the quick change in the skipper's posture.
"Josh? What's wrong, mate? Are you all right?"
"N-no … they've got me, Jo, they - " She heard the phone roughly pulled away and the sickening, but unmistakable sound of a fist hitting flesh and bone, then a body hitting the ground.
What the fuck is going on here, she thought desperately. Her world telescoped around her as a voice from her past curled around her heart and squeezed hard.
"It's been a long time, Madison."
Marco di Santo.
Jesus fucking Christ. Jo fought hard to breathe, the sudden tightness in her chest making her head swim for a moment. A long buried part of her scrambled to the surface and a cold, hard mask slammed down over the skipper's normally open face.
"Marco." She knew it was her voice but she barely recognised the sound.
Cadie sat up slowly. Something very weird was happening. Whoever was on the phone with Jo was either someone she did not like at all, or they had just given her the worst kind of news. She studied the skipper's face closely.
Maybe both. The rich blue eyes that were usually so open and expressive, were now pale and … Cadie shivered involuntarily … and cold. Tension washed off Jo in waves that the blonde could almost see. She was overwhelmed by the urge to comfort her somehow. Hesitantly she reached out to touch Jo's arm, but the dark-haired woman shrugged her off quickly, her focus totally on the voice at the other end of the phone.
"Did you miss me, Madison?"
Jo swallowed hard. Flashing visions of that dark back-alley nightmare flickered across the backs of her eyes as she tried to focus on what the scumbag was saying.
What has he done to Josh? Where did he come from? She felt a trickle of sweat at the back of her neck. Think, Jo. Clear your mind and think.
"Back to your old tricks Marco?" she said coldly, feeling her dark persona settling into place like a well-worn favourite overcoat. Scary how easily that came back. "Hurting the young and the innocent to get what you want?"
He laughed, an evil sound low in his throat that made the hackles on the back of Jo's neck rise.
"You always were a mouthy bitch," he growled. "But this is the end of the line for you, you treacherous slag. Get yourself here, and give yourself to me, Madison, or this young pretty boy you keep will find himself getting uglier piece by piece."
She kept silent, not wanting to give him any satisfaction. Instead she hung up. For a few seconds she sat calmly, gathering her thoughts into an embryonic plan. Jo tasted bile in her mouth and she knew she was afraid.
Enough, she told herself. There's a time for fear, and there's a time for action. And now is that time.
Cadie continued to watch quietly as her friend struggled with something. Jo was in another world now, she could tell.
I get the feeling the dark, mysterious past just jumped up and bit her on the ass. She said it was awful. If that look on her face is anything to go by, she was understating it.
Suddenly Jo came to life, as if she'd just made a decision. Without a word she sprang up and started striding towards the helicopter, which was parked on an adjoining pontoon. Cadie scrambled to catch up.
"Jo!" The skipper kept walking, her steps long and purposeful. "Jo!" Cadie reached forward and grabbed the taller woman's elbow.
It's like she doesn't even know I'm here, the blonde thought.
Jo blinked at Cadie unseeingly, not recognising her for a moment.
"What?" she said roughly.
Cadie stopped uncertainly.
"What's going on Jo? What's happened?"
"I have to go," Jo replied. She looked around the pontoon until she found the chopper's pilot, who was chatting up a pretty tourist boat hostess. "Billy!" she yelled. He looked her way. "C'mon on, I've got to go!"
He waved at her and turned back to the girl, continuing his line. Jo strode over to him and grabbed him by the arm.
"I'm not kidding Bill," she muttered menacingly in his ear. "We have to go … now!" She let him go at the startled look on his face. "Seriously - I've got an emergency."
"Okay, okay, Jo. Jesus. I was just saying goodbye."
"You can say goodbye another day. Come on."
The big man looked at her with a puzzled expression on his face, but followed, trusting her enough to know she meant what she said.
Cadie met them at the helicopter.
"Where are we going, Jo-Jo?" she asked quietly, as Bill walked around the chopper, doing his pre-flight checks.
"You're not going anywhere," Jo replied gruffly. "I'll get Billy to come back to take you to the Seawolf, after he's dropped me off."
Cadie shook her head.
"Jo, look at the sky," she gestured back over her shoulder at the increasingly menacing line of thunderheads. "You said yourself there wouldn’t be enough time for Billy to get back if we didn't leave for the boat straight after lunch."
Jo knew the blonde was right, but the last thing she wanted was Arcadia Jones anywhere near Marco di Santo and his ilk. And right now, she knew, she herself was one of his ilk.
Bill fired up the engine and the chopper's rotors started to turn. Jo turned and glared at the shorter American, the downdraft whipping her hair around as she held open the door to the craft's main passenger compartment.
"I don’t have time to debate it with you, Arcadia," she said, more harshly than she intended. "Get in. After Bill drops me, you two can go wherever you need to go. But you're not coming with me, okay?"
Cadie tried to ignore the stinging hurt that caused her, but climbed into the helicopter without further argument. She strapped herself in and watched as Jo did the same in the seat opposite her. Most of the space back here was taken up by the rescue equipment Billy had installed - a cable winch and reel, lifejackets, harnesses and a large first aid kit. Jo pulled on a headset, and Cadie did as well, plugging herself into the same audio channel as the skipper and the pilot. They lifted off.
"So. Where to, skipper?" said Billy.
"My place, Bill. As fast as you can."
Jo looked at Cadie, wishing like hell she had stayed on the pontoon. The American almost flinched under the cool, distant gaze from those pale chips of ice.
Goddess, she's gone somewhere I can't even conceive, I think, thought the blonde. She felt a stab of fear, wondering what was ahead. It's certainly never dull wherever she is. Well, wherever that is, I'm going too, she resolved, setting her jaw.
"There's nowhere to land up there, Jo," Bill said warningly.
"Don't worry about that. Just get me there. Just get me home," Jo replied shortly. She looked across at Cadie, who met her gaze questioningly, a tinge of hurt in those green eyes. Dammit, thought Jo. Don't ask me to be human right now, Cadie. She sighed. Like I have a choice. She gets into my heart like nobody I've ever met. Even now.
She reached forward and touched the blonde's knee with her fingertips.
There was a long moment as their eyes met.
"I do," said Cadie softly, knowing it for an unshakeable fact.