Mephisto stalked along the deck of the Seawolf like the silent killer he knew himself to be. The big black cat had the scent of his prey in his nostrils and he was intent on seeing the hunt through, wherever it took him. He padded down the length of the big yacht, delicately picking his way over and around the deck fittings and coiled sheets until he came to the flat transom at the stern. He sat for a few moments, taking long, deep sniffs of the sea air. There it was again. Fish. Not the fish swimming around in the dark depths under the boat. That was a background smell he was well familiar with. No, this much closer, much stronger, much more tempting.
A low purr began in the back of the big feline’s throat and gold eyes blinked in a way that would have looked sleepy if it weren’t for the gently twitching tail signaling another thought process altogether.
Mephisto came from a long line of ships’ cats. He recognized the smell of the ocean on the soft, warm breeze that drifted through the boat’s rigging. There was another tang there though, and he was determined to track down its source. He lifted a front leg and carefully licked his paw, then reached behind his ear and brushed forward, washing his face as he contemplated his next move.
It was a clear night and the boat was anchored in calm waters. Mephisto looked up into a wide, black vista sprinkled with stars. There was no illumination on board, save for the yacht’s riding lights, but he didn’t need any. Cat sight was a wonderful thing. He sniffed again. And so was a cat’s sense of smell.
He stood again and gracefully meandered around to the port side where a gentle tapping was intriguing his senses. There he found the yacht’s dinghy bumping against the hull as it drifted on the changing tide, its tethering rope afloat. Mephisto’s purr deepened as the fascinating odor strengthened. Whatever was producing the delicious aroma was in the dinghy.
A bobbing dinghy and a proximate ocean were no obstacle to any self-respecting feline and Mephisto didn’t give it a second thought, coiling his back legs and springing into the smaller vessel with barely a sound. He tiptoed around the bits and pieces of equipment in the bottom of the dinghy, following his nose to a large plastic bucket, with a conveniently loose lid. From it emanated the smell of heaven, at least for a cat.
Mephisto stood on his hind legs, front paws worrying away at the lid until it slid off with a satisfying thud. He looked over the edge and discovered the source of the happy smell – fish heads, lots of lovely, odorous, rank fish heads.
“Riiiiiaaaaaaaaaaaaaoww,” purred the cat, stretching out with one paw to try and hook himself a head. His weight was too much for the bucket, however, and it tipped, dowsing the feline, and the bottom of the dinghy, with a wet and rotting load. Delighted, Mephisto hunched down and rubbed up against the mess, eventually giving in to his baser instincts and rolling around in it, purring loudly.
Oh yes, Mephisto was a happy cat.
The two women slept peacefully in each other’s arms in the luxurious, but windowless cabin. Outside, the sun was crawling its way over the horizon, but in the cool darkness inside the two lovers were oblivious, safe in the warmth they generated themselves.
The taller woman lay on her side, long ebony hair splayed across the pillow, her shorter companion spooned into her lap, blonde head tucked under her chin. Both looked like they had slept together for years, belying the short duration of their relationship. Passion had kept them awake much of the night, and now their sleep was deep and dreamless and contented. When a four-footed visitor padded into the cabin, leaping silently onto the bed and settling into a spare corner of the bed, they slept on … at least for a while.
Before too long something began to irritate the nasal passages of both women, though it was the dark-haired one who stirred first. Her nose twitched once, then twice before sleepy eyes blinked open, revealing brilliant blue orbs visible even in the gloom.
“Cadie?” she murmured, letting her eyes close again once she could find nothing else that would be causing the unique aroma.
The blonde in her arms wriggled slightly, snuggling back against her lover’s stomach. She patted the hands clasped around her stomach reassuringly and didn’t even bother to open her eyes.
“Mmmmmmmmm?” she mumbled.
“Darling, you know I love you, right?” came the whispered question.
“Mhmmmm, yes I do,” the blonde replied, barely awake enough not to slur her words.
“And you know that I love every single part of you too, right?” the half-asleep dark-haired woman persisted. “Even the nasty bits that make my eyes water.”
There was a pause and the blonde’s green eyes flicked open as her brain finally connected her lover’s rambling conversation with the acrid odor that was still burning into her sinuses.
“And you know I adore you right? Even though that was the nastiest, smelliest, rankest …”
The blonde reached back and slapped her lover lightly on the thigh.
“Not nice, Jo-Jo. Don’t blame me for your own smells, sweetheart.” She snuggled in again, closing her eyes and hoping the aroma would dissipate soon so she could fall back asleep.
There was another pause, and then it was a pair of blue eyes which slid open again, baffled.
“But I didn’t,” she said plaintively.
“Didn’t what, love?” came the blonde’s sleepy response, the conversation almost forgotten.
The green-eyed woman sighed deeply and turned in her lover’s arms, entwining herself around the long body in front of her. She burrowed her face gently into the woman’s neck and kissed her there softly.
“Okay,” she whispered, just wishing the smell would go away.
“No really,” Jo insisted, now curious about just what was causing the stink. “I didn’t.” She lifted her head off the pillow, ignoring the grumbles that provoked from the woman in her arms. “Shhhhhh,” she murmured as she tried to pick out details in the gloom. She could just make out her cat’s silhouette as he cleaned himself contentedly on the corner of the bed. “Mephyyyyyy,” she growled, suddenly suspicious of the smug look on the feline’s face.
She untangled herself from the blonde’s warm embrace and sat up, leaning down to get a closer look at the cat. Her nose left her in no further doubt about the source of the stench and, as her eyes got used to the dim light, she could make out unmentionably gross globs of … something … stuck to the black cat’s fur.
“You malodorous little bugger,” she muttered. “What the hell have you been rolling in?” She crawled closer to the smelly feline. “Get out of here you bastard,” she growled, batting the boy-cat on the rump. He flicked out a claw which she narrowly avoided before she managed to tip him off the bed. Complaining bitterly, Mephisto stalked from the room, the tall, naked woman following him just far enough to close the cabin door behind him.
“Come back to bed,” murmured a sleepy voice from the double bunk.
“Hang on, love,” she replied quietly. “Gotta change the sheet, or we’re gonna be living with that pong for days.” She pulled open a cabinet near the berth’s tiny head and pulled out a fresh top sheet. Quickly she reached over and snagged the corner of the soiled sheet, grimacing as another wave of the noxious fumes hit her in the face. She yanked the linen off the bed, a move which revealed a delectably nude figure curled in the center of the bed. Jo smiled as she realized her lover hadn’t moved a muscle and was probably already deeply asleep again.
She bundled the dirty sheet into a ball, stuffed it into a plastic bag then dropped it into the laundry basket. A quick trip to the head to wash her hands followed before she threw the new sheet over the bed, and the lovely, naked form of her partner.
My partner, she thought with a sleepy smile as she clambered back into the bunk, snuggling in behind the blonde again. That’s gonna take a bit of getting used to. She pulled the smaller woman close once more and kissed the back of her blonde head. But I like it. A lot.
“Mmmmmmmm,” came the contented mumble from her companion, who tangled her fingers into Jo’s.
“Ssssshhhh. Go back to sleep, sweetheart. It’s way early.”
The sun was high over the gently rocking yacht when Cadie woke for the second time. She and Jo had shifted in each other’s arms as they slept and her eyes blinked open to the sight of her partner’s angular profile just inches away. The American was tucked into the crook of Jo’s arm, her leg thrown over the Australian’s hips.
Cadie chuckled quietly.
Since when did I become a limpet, she wondered, allowing her fingers to trace lazy circles on Jo’s firm, velvety stomach. Cadie watched as her lover slept on, a contented half-smile on her lips. What are you dreaming of, my love?
She carefully raised herself up on her elbow, not wanting to disturb Jo, whose eyes were twitching beneath their lids as she worked her way through some dreamscape. Cadie found herself mesmerized by the sight.
It's hard to believe I've only known her six weeks, Cadie thought as she continued to caress Jo's belly. It feels like I've known her forever. She thought back over the events that had overtaken them since the day they had first met. It's been a complete whirlwind, she thought. It's been wonderful to have these couple of days to ourselves, finally.
Cadie took a deep breath and reviewed her life, smiling as her lover shifted in her sleep, moving closer to the American's warmth.
Six weeks ago I was in a long-term relationship with a US senator - a woman I can't even imagine being with now. She laughed in quiet amazement. And now I'm on a yacht in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef with someone who ... She groaned softly, closing her eyes against the delicious tingle as the woman in question nuzzled her breast. Cadie opened her eyes again and looked down at Jo. Someone I utterly adore.
As if meeting and turning each other's lives upside down hadn't been enough, Jo and Cadie had endured a series of dramas that had ended with the tall Australian inheriting a thriving yacht charter company. The past two weeks had been a never-ending series of business meetings juggled with keeping happy the tourists who already had bookings with the firm.
It's been great fun, Cadie decided. But, boy, do we need this time to ourselves. She was pleased to see sleep had smoothed out the tension in her lover's face, taking years off her age. Cadie brushed aside a disobedient lock of black hair that was hiding Jo's face from her, and then planted a tender kiss on the older woman's temple.
These are the first few days we’ve had to ourselves since Ron’s funeral, she thought, smiling at the memory of Jo’s boss and mentor who had succumbed to a heart attack three weeks’ earlier. We'd better make the most of them. Things aren't going to get any simpler for us any time soon.
Cadie let herself slide slowly back down into the warm nest of Jo's embrace. We have so many loose ends to tidy up before life settles down for us, she thought sleepily, letting herself drift off again. She smiled against the soft, black hair. But that’s okay. She yawned. We’ll work it out.
Jo groaned and stretched, working out the kinks in her long, lean body as she woke up slowly. She was alone in the bed, though she could still feel Cadie’s warmth in the sheets next to her.
So she hasn’t been up very long, Jo thought with a smile. Her nose told her just what her lover was up to, tantalizing cooking smells wafting in from the galley. She rolled out of bed and stood up, reaching for the one-piece swimsuit she had left draped over the arm of the chair.
“Jo-Jo … breakfast is ready,” Cadie called out.
“On my way,” she answered as she stepped into the suit and pulled it up, adding a t-shirt over the top. She wandered out of the cabin and had to smile at the pretty picture her lover made.
Cadie had her shoulder blade-length blonde hair pulled back in a loose ponytail as she wandered around the yacht's large galley. She was naked except for one of Jo's loud Hawaiian-style shirts she'd thrown on and neglected to button up. The effect was rather enchanting, Jo thought.
"Good morning, gorgeous," Cadie said cheerfully, not looking up from her task.
"Hello," Jo replied as she walked around the galley's counter and came up behind her partner. She slid her arms around the smaller woman's waist and rested her chin on her shoulder. "Damn, that smells good."
"Well, with a little luck, it will taste pretty good too," said the American, as she concentrated on flipping the fried eggs without breaking the yolks. Bacon sizzled in the other corner of the fry-pan and there was French toast, mushrooms and sausage links. "Think I've made enough?"
Jo laughed quietly.
"Honey, I think you've made enough for a small army." She squeezed the blonde gently. "But I'm starving so I'm sure I'll do it justice."
This was the first time Cadie had cooked her anything, Jo suddenly realized. In the two weeks since Cadie had left her ex-partner Naomi at Sydney International Airport and returned to the Whitsundays, they had been in perpetual motion. Jo had been juggling two jobs - trying to get a grip on running a thriving business and her duties as skipper of the Seawolf, one of the company’s two 50-foot yachts. Cadie had been filling in for Jo’s regular crew members, Paul and Jenny, who were still on their honeymoon, while trying to maintain her own business. As a literary agent, with most of her clients based in the US, that was proving to be a logistical challenge.
As a result, most of their meals had been snatch-and-grab affairs eaten on the run. In the evenings they had been too tired to do anything other than drop into one of the many restaurants dotted around Airlie Beach and the island resorts.
Cadie slid their food onto warmed plates and together they wandered over to the cabin’s dining area, sitting down opposite each other across the narrow table.
“You do realize this is about the only thing I can cook, don’t you?” Cadie said, suddenly self-conscious about her culinary skills, or lack of them. She glanced up at Jo who was tucking enthusiastically into the hot breakfast.
“Tastes great, hon,” Jo replied, concentrating on a crispy strip of bacon that was eluding her fork. She finally managed to skewer it and happily popped it into her mouth. She looked up, noticing her companion’s silence. “So Naomi was the cook in the household, huh?” She tried to imagine the arrogant and obnoxious Republican Senator for Illinois making nice with pots and pans. “Somehow I just can’t see that.”
Cadie didn’t meet her eyes, preferring to move her food around on its plate with her fork.
“Um, no. She didn’t do the cooking. She could barely make herself a cup of coffee, actually. We had a housekeeper. Consuela.”
“Ah. Makes sense. You were both busy people.” Jo continued to watch the blonde playing with her food. “Sweetheart?” She reached out and captured one of Cadie’s hands with her own. “What’s wrong?”
Cadie dropped her fork and placed her other hand on top of Jo’s, lifting her eyes to meet the concerned blue gaze across from her.
“I guess I’m a little embarrassed,” she muttered.
“About not doing much cooking?” Jo asked, a little puzzled.
“Yeah, kind of,” Cadie replied. She tried to express just what was troubling her. “I guess I’m uncomfortable about the privileged life I’ve led. Mom and Dad were always well off and when I was growing up we always had a cook and a maid. And then when Naomi climbed up the political ranks – well, we never had to struggle financially and we were busy so having a housekeeper made sense. I never had to learn how to do more than throw a fried breakfast together.” She was disconcerted to find herself blushing.
Jo squeezed her hand reassuringly.
“And why is that anything to be embarrassed about, darling? You can’t help the circumstances you were born into. And having a busy, successful career is a good thing.”
“I know … it’s just …” She held Jo’s gaze for long seconds, finally smiling at the love and acceptance she saw there. “I think it’s left me sorely lacking in some of life’s more useful skills.”
“Well, if this is as bad as your cooking gets, then I don’t think you’re lacking at all,” she said with a laugh. “Don’t worry about it, love. There’s going to be plenty of opportunity for you to experiment. And I make a very good guinea pig.” She gave Cadie’s hand another squeeze before she withdrew it and resumed eating. “Honestly, if anyone should be embarrassed about money, it’s me. At least you came by yours honestly.” Now who’s feeling insecure, Jo-Jo, she told herself.
Cadie studied her companion as the dark-haired beauty continued with her breakfast. She knew Jo had plenty of money in the bank – more than plenty, in fact. And it was true that most of it was ill-gotten gains, payment for Jo’s previous life as a drug dealer’s bodyguard in the Sydney underworld. But she also knew that apart from investing the money wisely in the intervening five years, Jo had hardly touched that money, guilt stopping her from enjoying the spoils of her criminal past.
“You know what I think?” Cadie said, making a decision.
Clear blue eyes looked up at her and smiled.
“I think we should let go of all that stuff. The past, I mean,” she hastened to explain. She slid around the semi-circular couch until she was next to Jo and hooked her hand around the taller woman’s elbow. “You and I have led such bizarre lives, Jo-Jo. Have you noticed that?”
“You only just work that out, my love?” she teased, ducking her head and claiming a gentle kiss. Cadie returned it, reveling in the tingling connection between them.
“Mmmmmm, nice,” she whispered. “And no, I didn’t just work that out. But I guess it’s only just starting to sink in. Everything’s happened so quickly. It feels like one minute I was schmoozing with lobbyists at Naomi’s last fundraiser and the next I’m head over heels in love with a beautiful yacht skipper in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. What’s more, she’s got a dark and mysterious past, a wicked knack with handguns and as an added bonus …” Cadie slowed down as she saw the serious, slightly unnerved expression on her lover’s face. “As an added bonus,” she repeated more quietly. “She’s in love with me too.”
Jo nodded slowly, as she put her knife and fork down.
“Yes, she is,” she murmured. She reached out and brushed a finger along Cadie’s jaw-line. “Having second thoughts, Arcadia?” she asked calmly, trying to still the butterflies in her own stomach.
Damn Cadie, when are you going to learn that she’s terrified of the effect her past might have on how you feel about her? Cadie kicked herself mentally.
“Not for even a millisecond, Jossandra,” she said aloud, capturing Jo’s long fingers and tangling them with her own. “You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
A hesitant grin creased the Australian’s face.
Cadie smiled back and leaned forward again seeking another kiss which was willingly given. For several long, pleasant seconds they explored each other, a gentle wash of passion sweeping away any other concerns.
“You are,” Cadie answered on an irregular breath as they broke apart briefly.
“C’mere,” Jo growled as she wrapped her arms around the younger woman’s waist and pulled her closer. This time the kiss was deeper and lasted longer. Jo slid her hands inside Cadie’s shirt, trailing fingertips along the blonde’s bare skin. She felt her ribs expand as she inhaled sharply at the touch.
“Goddess, Jo,” Cadie gasped, suddenly wishing they were somewhere other than the narrow space between the cabin’s table and the hull.
“Mmmmmm?” Jo replied. She smiled against Cadie’s neck, loving her partner’s responsiveness to her touch. “So tell me, Miss Jones, what would you like to spend today doing?”
“You mean apart from ravishing you?”
“Mhmmmmm.” Jo nibbled at the soft spot just below Cadie’s ear.
The blonde groaned again.
“Well, you could ravish me,” she said, laughing weakly.
“Sounds like a full day,” she said wryly. Cadie’s barely clothed body was warm and soft against hers and the thought of spending a day in bed was very tempting.
Cadie ducked her head and placed a kiss on the Jo’s neck, leaving a trail of goose-bumps as her lips brushed the soft skin.
“Tell you what,” the blonde murmured between kisses. “Why don’t we … mmmm … finish breakfast … and then … we can figure out … what to do next … mmmm …” She had made her way along the taller woman’s collarbone and Jo threw her head back, savoring each and every touch. Cadie backed off, enjoying the look of quiet arousal on her lover’s face. “Your breakfast is getting cold, Jo-Jo,” she teased.
“It’s about the only thing that is,” the dark-haired woman murmured.
Cadie laughed and gently patted Jo’s stomach.
“Come on, skipper. Let’s eat, before we completely lose track of what we’re doing.”
It just doesn’t get any more gorgeous than this, thought Cadie as she stretched out on the cowling of the Seawolf’s cabin a few hours later. It was another perfect day in tropical far north Queensland. The sun blazed out of a cloudless blue sky and the yacht bobbed gently on a calm jewel-green ocean. They were anchored on the fringe of a small reef close to the outer edge of the Barrier Reef. If Cadie listened really closely she could hear the muffled roar of the open ocean away to the east. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, loving the scents of the sea and exposed coral. Mmmmmm perfect.
On an impulse Jo had decided on this trip just after lunch yesterday when there finally appeared to be a break in Cheswick Marine’s need to have her around constantly. She had arrived back at her Shute Harbor home to find Cadie knee-deep in an online conversation with one of her stable of authors, and more than ready to take an extended break.
While she had wrapped up her business, Jo had collected the boy-cat and a couple of boxes of supplies and loaded up the Jeep. Together they’d packed enough clothes for a few days on the water and headed back down to the company’s marina, where the Seawolf waited for them.
Jo had picked a small lagoon she called Horsehead Reef that wasn’t marked on any of the tourist maps and they’d headed for this little piece of paradise, reaching it by sunset. Dinner on deck was followed by moonlight skinny dipping, a unique experience Cadie had found sinfully enjoyable.
Lately, every day is a brand new experience, she thought, grinning at the memory of the warm water sliding over her bare skin. The reef had glittered in the silver glow of the moon, phosphorescence shimmering off the tips of the slight chop. The night creatures had flashed and darted below her and it had all felt like …
Like heaven, she sighed.
Cadie pulled herself up into a sitting position, raising her face to the sun and just savoring the warmth and peace. After a few minutes she opened her eyes again and reached for her laptop, flicking it on and waiting for it to boot. She had some research to do and outstanding emails that needed a reply.
Cadie looked up from the screen as a string of distinctly Australian curses continued to float up from the stern of the Seawolf. The blonde was sitting cross-legged, the small computer balanced on her knees. One glance at her lover, who was standing on the flat transom at the very rear of the yacht, told her Jo was less than impressed.
“What’s up, love?” she asked, watching as Jo hauled on the dinghy’s tethering line, pulling it towards her.
“I think I just found the source of the Stink From Hell,” Jo replied. Sure enough, another wave of the all too familiar stench wafted up from the bottom of the dinghy as she drew it closer. “Geez, that’s awful,” she grimaced. Fish heads didn’t smell great at the best of times, but after several hours in the late summer sun, the rotting mess was bordering on the unspeakable. Jo sighed.
“M’gonna have to wash this out,” she grumbled. She looked up at Cadie who was grinning back at her. “You laugh now, but I’m going to need your help to get this thing out of the water,” Jo warned.
“Ewww.” Cadie put down the laptop and uncurled, pushing herself to her feet. “I guess that means no snorkeling for a while, huh?” she asked as she made her way aft and stepped down onto the transom.
“Probably not a good idea, no,” she agreed. “The bities are gonna come from miles away when they smell this stuff in the water.” She glanced at the blonde. “Sorry about that.”
Cadie smiled at her lover.
“It’s okay, sweetheart. I’m sure we’ll find other things to do,” she teased as she leaned in for a quick kiss.
“Well, yeah,” Jo replied, kissing her back. “There’s all that paperwork you needed to catch up on and there’s that patch I need to put in the spare mainsail, and …” She yelped as Cadie reached around and slapped her backside playfully. Jo grinned down at a pair of twinkling green eyes. “Or we could snuggle some more.”
They had spent most of the morning in bed after breakfast had devolved into more teasing and touching. Eventually they had given in to it and retreated to the comfort of the double bunk. Cadie reached up and brushed Jo’s cheek with her fingertips.
“You know, only you and I could even contemplate sex with that smell in our nostrils,” she murmured.
“So let’s get it cleaned up,” Jo decided quickly, grinning at Cadie.
Jo unclipped the boat hook from its holders and swung the six-foot pole out over the dinghy.
“First off, we need that,” she muttered as she hooked the handle of the upturned fish bucket, lifting it up and out onto the transom.
“Yuck,” said Cadie, wrinkling up her nose.
“Oh yeah.” Jo gingerly moved close enough to pick up the bucket and tip its rancid contents over the side. Then she crouched down and rinsed it out with seawater. “Now we need to empty out the dinghy without swamping it. If it fills up with water it’ll be too heavy for us.”
“Okay,” Cadie said uncertainly, eyeing the long length of the aluminum tender as Jo tugged on the rope, pulling it closer. They both crouched down, each gripping one end of the little vessel.
“Ready?” Cadie nodded. “One, two … three!” On three they yanked the dinghy up and onto the edge of the transom, dumping the spoiled fish remains into the ocean. “Good thing the yacht’s as big as it is or we’d never be able to do this,” Jo muttered, grateful that the transom was wider than the length of the dinghy. “You got it?” she asked.
Cadie braced herself and nodded as Jo tentatively let go of the balancing boat long enough to refill the bucket with seawater. She began sluicing out the bottom as Cadie held it steady.
“Okay, that ought to do it.” Jo put down the bucket and rejoined Cadie. Together they slid the dinghy back into the water. “Good job.” The tall woman grinned at her lover who was watching the activity where Jo had dumped the fish.
“Wow, look at that,” the blonde said pointing. As predicted, fish were coming from all directions, including a couple of long-jawed barracuda with impressive rows of razor-sharp teeth. Mephisto appeared from nowhere and crouched on the edge of the transom in a pose of pure feline alertness, his eyes glistening at the feast swimming just out of reach.
“Careful Mephy,” Cadie warned.
“One of these days he’s going to find himself part of the food chain,” chuckled Jo, leaning against the rail next to Cadie as they watched. “Nature at work.” She slid an arm around the shorter woman’s shoulders and kissed the side of her head. “Thanks for the help.”
Cadie smiled up at her.
“No problem, sweetie,” she replied. A small reef shark joined the feeding frenzy and Cadie watched, fascinated. “I’ve never seen one up close before,” she said, admiring the sleek creature’s aerodynamic lines and dominant presence. “It’s beautiful.”
“Mhmmmm. Sharks are so misrepresented,” she said, settling her elbows on the rail and leaning her shoulder against Cadie’s. “When I first came up here, I was as misinformed as everybody else. Any time I was in the water, I figured every shark I saw was out to get me.” Cadie nodded. “But they’re just doing their thing, trying to survive. Most times, when they do bite, it’s because they’ve misidentified you, or like now, they’re in a feeding frenzy.”
The shark below them cut through the pack of smaller fish, seemingly not picky about whether it captured live or dead prey.
“I’m guessing that right now would not be a good time to try and pat him on the nose.” Cadie grinned.
“Um, no,” Jo agreed wryly. She glanced at the blonde’s smiling face, noting that the tension lines that had been normal for Cadie in the last few weeks of her relationship with Naomi were now completely gone. The result was lovely. “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” she asked quietly, unsurprised to see a very becoming blush rising on her lover’s cheeks.
Eyes close to the color of the ocean they floated on turned to Jo, one blonde eyebrow rising. Cadie cleared her throat self-consciously.
“Where did that come from?” she asked, bumping Jo with her shoulder gently. Her dark-haired companion shrugged nonchalantly.
“Just telling you what I see,” she answered with a smile.
Their relationship was still in its infancy, Cadie knew, and they were learning new things about each other every day. One of the most pleasant surprises had been discovering just how romantic her new lover could be. Now that they were free of Naomi’s presence and her obligations as yacht skipper, Jo thought nothing of saying exactly what was in her heart. It was in stark contrast to the first few weeks they had known each other and it was impossibly endearing.
Cadie reached up and gently swept the errant lock of black hair off her lover’s face. Then she planted the tenderest of kisses on Jo’s cheek, provoking a soft smile from the older woman.
“What was that for?” the skipper asked.
“That was for knowing just how to melt my heart, Miss Madison,” she whispered close to Jo’s ear. The soft words and warm breath on her skin sent tingles down Jo’s spine.
Mmmm, magic, she thought as she turned to face Cadie. They kissed, a long, slow exploration that left them both gently enervated by the time they broke off.
“Unless you want to spend the afternoon in bed as well as the morning, we’d better find something else to do,” Jo grinned.
“Mmmm, goddess that sounds tempting,” replied the blonde. “But you’re probably right.” She nibbled on Jo’s bottom lip teasingly. “Can we go walk the reef?”
“You bet,” the skipper answered. “Maybe we’ll find a few things to supplement dinner with. It might work off some this energy too.” She smiled.
“Mmmm, don’t count on it,” Cadie laughed. “I’m enjoying being alone with you when we haven’t got 17 other things to think about. I’m going to make the most of it.”
“Easy, tiger,” she said. “We’ve got all weekend.”
“I know,” Cadie replied. She looked up into gorgeous blue eyes and suddenly felt herself wanting to explain something. “The last couple of weeks have been kind of strange, Jo-Jo,” she said softly. “Everything happened in such a rush for us, and since then it’s been go, go, go.” She cupped the angular cheek above her with the palm of her hand. “I want to get to know you all over again. My heart knows you, and god knows my body has more than a half-clue.” She grinned up at Jo who matched it with one of her own. “But now I feel the need to talk and talk and talk. Does that make sense?”
Jo nodded, taking the blonde’s hand and squeezing it.
“I’m sorry. I keep forgetting how different all this is for you,” the skipper said softly. “You’ve changed my life, but yours has been changed, turned upside down and flung to the opposite side of the planet. It must feel very weird for you.”
Cadie shook her head slowly, giving her lover a reassuring smile.
“Actually one of the ways I know that I’ve made the right decision is that I feel completely at home here,” she said. “Everyone’s been very welcoming and being with you has been … is … the most perfect feeling I’ve ever known.”
A charmed smile was her answer.
“That’s mutual, my love,” came the murmured response. For a few long, pleasant seconds they just swam in each other’s gaze before Jo cleared her throat. “How about a walk on the reef, then lunch?”
Jo couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so contented. Her belly was full, the ocean was calm and tranquil, and her lover was snuggled up against her. The late afternoon sun was warming their backs as she and Cadie wound down from an energetic day spent exploring the small coral atoll nearby.
Jo yawned. She was curled on her right side, resting her head on her hand, her back against the deck cowling in the bow of the Seawolf. Cadie sat cross-legged in front of her and was resting against the tall woman's stomach. The blonde had her computer in her lap and she was trawling through website after website.
Jo found herself fascinated by a long thin scar that ran the length of the back of Cadie’s upper right arm. She trailed a finger tip down the faint white line, chuckling when it produced the slightest of shivers from her blonde companion.
“Ah, you’ve found my one blemish,” Cadie said wryly, as she tried to focus on the computer screen despite the rather pleasant tingles Jo’s touch triggered.
“How did you get this?” Jo asked as leaned forward to kiss the scar.
“Ice skating on the lagoon at Tenney Park, when I was a kid,” Cadie replied. She turned from the computer and brushed her fingers across Jo’s cheek. “I’m guessing that ice and snow haven’t figured too much in your life.” She grinned.
Jo thought about it for a moment.
“I’ve never seen snow, actually,” she said, looking up into wide green eyes. “Well, that’s not so unusual, honey. We don’t exactly get a lot of it here.” She shrugged. “When I was living in Sydney I sometimes thought about going up into the Snowy Mountains for some skiing, but I never seemed to get around to it. Apart from Tasmania, way down south, that’s about the only place to see snow. And the only ice I’ve seen is in my scotch.”
“I’m really looking forward to showing you my hometown,” she said softly. “Especially in winter. It’s going to blow your mind.” She hesitated when Jo’s face took on a slightly grim expression. “What’s wrong, love?”
“I think the chances of your government letting me into the US with my criminal record are really, really remote,” she said honestly, meeting Cadie’s somber gaze. “It’s not like I can hide it, or play it down.” She lowered her eyes again, suddenly ashamed. “I was what I was. And there’s no way they’re going to just shrug their shoulders and say ‘okay, come on in, Miss Ex-Assassin’.”
Cadie slid her fingers under the dark-haired woman’s jaw and tilted her chin up, forcing the blue eyes to look at her.
“Your record was expunged,” she said quietly. “That has to count for something.”
Jo shook her head slowly.
“No,” she corrected. “I was given immunity from prosecution for turning those guys in, but nobody’s pretending I never did the things I did. I killed people, Cadie. For a living.” Her eyes were fierce now, darkened by her emotions. “There’s no getting away from it, and it’s there for all to see. And if something happens, and I reoffend -”
“That’s not going to happen,” Cadie soothed, cupping Jo’s cheek. “We’ll figure something out, sweetheart. Perhaps Ken can help us out.”
Detective Superintendent Ken Harding. Jo smiled at the thought of the big Sydney cop she’d surrendered to all those years ago when all the killing had become too much. Harding was, in many ways, a complete caricature – overweight, balding, crude and rough around the edges. But he had a soft spot for her, Jo knew. And he’d come to her rescue a few weeks ago when he’d helped take down one of her old Sydney cronies who had come seeking a little revenge. Yeah, maybe old Ken can help, she thought affectionately.
“He certainly can’t hurt,” she said aloud, mustering a smile for Cadie. “Tell me more about – what was it? – Tenney Park?” she asked. “Is it in Madison?”
“Mhmmmm. It’s a lagoon with a big island in the middle and seating for outdoor concerts and picnics and stuff. And in winter the lagoon freezes over and the kids go wild.”
“And you went a little too wild, huh?”
Cadie felt herself blushing despite the teasing smile on her lover’s face.
“I was a pretty decent athlete back then.” She put the laptop down on the deck and turned towards Jo, leaning her elbow on the supine woman’s hip. “Part of that was because of Sebastian,” Cadie murmured.
“Mhmmmm. After he died … well, he had been into everything, y’know?” Jo nodded as she listened. “Football, hockey, track ...”
“All-American boy, huh?” Jo said, watching the memories of childhood and a now-distant grief cross her partner’s face.
“Oh yeah …” Cadie answered softly. “Anyway … I kind of picked up where he left off, I guess.” She smiled. “So playing pick-up games of hockey on Tenney Park lagoon was pretty much my preferred winter activity.”
“Somebody get a little rough with you?”
“Nope. I just zigged when I should have zagged and slid into a tree branch. Broke my arm in two places."
Mephisto sauntered across the deck and draped himself over Jo’s shoulder and arm.
“Don’t mind me, boycat,” the skipper said dryly. “Feel free to use me as your personal cushion.”
“Oh shut up.”
Cadie felt a peaceful sense of happiness settle over her. However quickly their relationship had snuck up on them both, however drastically their lives had changed, she felt completely blessed to be here with this beautiful woman. On a yacht. With a cat. She laughed and scratched the feline between his ears, an action which produced one of the most blissful expressions she had ever seen.
She glanced down at her lover, whose half-lidded blue eyes watched her avidly, a tiny smile gracing the full lips.
Except perhaps for that blissful expression.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Cadie said softly.
The tiny smile grew wider.
“I love you.”
Cadie felt a warm ball of … it’s mush, that’s what it is, she thought happily … spreading through her gut. When did I start to crave her, she wondered. The idea of her has always been in my mind, I know that now. Naomi never did fill that need.
“I love you too,” she answered. They basked in each other for a few more seconds before Jo laughed a low rumble of amusement that sent Mephisto scurrying away.
Jo turned her attention to the laptop.
“I thought you said you couldn’t connect to the internet out here,” she asked, noting that Cadie had been surfing the Australian government’s Department of Immigration website.
“I can’t,” the blonde confirmed. “I downloaded these sites to my hard drive yesterday before we left.”
“Ahhh, okay.” Jo flicked through a series of hyperlinks. “So what have you been able to figure out about your visa?”
Cadie sighed. She wished she had good news to tell her lover, but so far her research had yielded some pretty depressing results. She pulled herself upright and sat cross-legged.
“Well,” she began. “You know I’m here on a standard, three-month visa, right?”
“Mhmmmm,” Jo answered. “And you’ve got about six weeks to run on that.”
“Yes. The good news there is I can apply for a three-month extension.”
“Okay,” Jo said cautiously. “That’s a good thing, right?” She pushed herself up off the deck and turned around, sitting with her back against the cowling. Cadie smiled and took the opportunity to stay close, sliding between Jo’s knees and leaning back against her lover’s solid frame.
“It’s a good thing,” she said as she settled back, sighing contentedly as strong arms encircled her waist and held her close. “Mmmmmm, nice.” Warm breath tickled her ear.
“Yes you are,” Jo burred. She captured Cadie’s lobe gently between her teeth and nibbled it playfully. The blonde groaned and dropped her head back onto the taller woman’s shoulder.
“You are so wicked,” Cadie murmured, pressing even closer.
"Mhmmmmm, and I'm beginning to think you quite enjoy that," Jo whispered back, loving the way Cadie's body responded unconsciously to her touch.
Cadie's answer was to turn her head slightly so she could claim Jo's wandering lips in a soul-deep kiss that left them both breathless.
"Mmmmmm, what were we talking about?" Jo sighed a few minutes later.
"I have no idea," the blonde replied, happy just to be cradled in Jo's arms as the sun set behind them.
The skipper pressed her lips against Cadie's hair and gazed out across the gold-flecked sea.
Only one thing could make this more perfect that it already is, Jo thought.
"I want you here permanently, Cadie," she said quietly. "I don't think you having to shuttle between here and the States is going to work for very long. It's not fair on you." She smiled as Cadie snuggled closer, burying her face against the taller woman's neck. "So, as long as you want to be here with me, I think we should do everything we can to make sure you can stay without all that hassle."
Cadie took a few seconds just to let the words sink in.
It’s so different from being with Naomi, she reflected. I can’t remember the last time she told me she loved me just because that’s what she was feeling. There was always an ulterior motive with her. She looked up at her new lover’s profile, the setting sun throwing her face into shadows. There was still enough light to catch the pale blue of her irises, though. With Jo it’s real, Cadie realized. There’s no pretence, no artifice. She says what’s in her heart, not what she thinks I want to hear.
“I want to be here with you, Jo-Jo,” she said softly. Those blue eyes looked down at her, and Cadie caught her breath at what she saw there. “More than anything in the world.” She sighed. “I just don’t think it’s going to be as easy as we want it to be.”
A dark brow quirked at her.
“I thought I just had to sponsor you,” Jo said seriously. “You know, I guarantee to cover whatever debts you might incur in the first couple of years, that sort of thing.”
Cadie shook her head.
“Not that simple I’m afraid.” She sat up again and pulled the computer towards her, flicking through the pages she had downloaded until she came to the relevant set of information. “See, according to this, there’s two ways of immigrating to Australia.” She pulled the laptop up and rested it on her knees, making it easier for Jo to see. “There’s a skilled program and there’s a family program.”
Jo’s brow furrowed.
“Well, the skilled program means if you are in an occupation that’s listed as being crucial to Australia’s economy then you have an excellent chance of being accepted.”
Jo looked at her.
“And is literary agent on the list?”
Cadie shook her head.
“Not even anything close, as far as I can see,” she said.
“So what about the family program?”
“That’s a little more hopeful, but it’s still not simple.” She clicked through a couple more pages. “Here we go,” she murmured. “A spouse or fiancée or de facto can sponsor someone as an immigrant. It doesn’t specifically include same-sex couples.” She thought about that a moment. “Of course, it doesn’t specifically exclude them either. But there are other conditions.”
Cadie looked at Jo.
“For a start we have to have been together for a minimum of 12 months,” she said quietly.
They smiled wistfully at each other.
“Sometimes I have a hard time believing we’ve only been together a few weeks,” Cadie whispered. She reached for Jo, brushing her cheek with the pad of her thumb. “But somehow I don’t think the immigration officials are going to buy the ‘but we’ve been together forever in our hearts’ line.”
Jo sighed and shook her head slowly. She didn’t think she could trust her voice so she took a moment to just rest her forehead against Cadie’s.
“There are exceptions,” the blonde whispered after a few seconds. “We don’t have to actually live together for 12 months, but we do have to prove we’ve been in a committed, sharing relationship for at least that time.”
Jo blinked at her from close range.
“So that means …” She thought about it some more. “That means, even if you have to keep going back to the States every few months for a while, as long as we can prove that we’re still in contact and still together … then, after a year, we will meet the criteria?”
Cadie leaned closer and kissed the soft lips in front of her.
“Yes, I think so.”
She was rewarded with a stellar grin that transformed the somber mood of the moment.
“So what the hell are we worried about?”
Jo balanced herself on the Seawolf’s bowsprit. The narrow railing encompassed the big yacht’s pointed nose and if she shuffled herself out far enough, Jo was hanging out over the cool, clear ocean. She wrapped her legs around the snub end of the rail and let the slightly chilled pre-dawn air settle around her. Away to the east the horizon was just beginning to be tinged by pink, the mist from the breakers that crashed on the edge of the outer reef creating a hazy layer that diffused the rising sun's rays.
Jo let herself relax into her deep breathing exercises as she watched the slowly spreading colors. It had been quite a while since she practiced her early morning meditation routine, she realized. What with one thing and another, every minute of sleep had been precious.
She grinned to herself. And of course there is the fact that Cadie and I can't keep our hands of each other, she admitted. Can't say I mind too much about that.
But this morning she had woken before dawn and her body had shown every sign of wanting to be up and about. Cadie was deeply asleep against her side. Somehow she had managed to untangle herself from the blonde's unconscious grasp without waking her and had tiptoed out of the cabin.
Slowly she inhaled and exhaled, listening to her breath. Jo closed her eyes, reaching out with her other senses to experience the sunrise - the gentle slap of water against the Seawolf's hull, the distant roar of the breakers, the clinking of the rigging against the mast as the breeze disturbed them.
She took another deep breath, this time concentrating on the smells of the ocean, tangy and full of life. She started the meditation techniques, imagining the breeze blowing through her rather than around her.
Bit by bit she felt herself relaxing, her consciousness spreading outwards as if her molecules were scattering with the wind. She let herself drift with it, sensing the growing warmth of the sun.
Cadie rolled towards her lover, disappointed to find an empty space in the sheets where the Jo's lanky frame should have been.
"Jo-Jo?" she mumbled, pushing herself up and blinking sleepily at the obviously empty cabin. "Where did you go?" The door to the head was open and Jo was clearly not in there. Cadie slumped back into the bedclothes.
She’s probably just getting a drink of water, or something. Contented with that solution for the time being, she allowed herself to hover between wakefulness and slumber.
Unknown minutes later, and with no sign of her bedmate, Cadie came awake again. This time there was a little gnawing worm of anxiety in her gut as she let her eyes adjust to the cabin’s lack of illumination. She couldn’t see much and could hear even less. There was no movement either in the main cabin or up on deck.
Well, it’s a boat. It’s not like she could go far, she chastised herself. Unless she fell overboard. She thought about that for a few seconds and dismissed it. For god’s sake, Arcadia, would you relax? Impatient with herself she punched her pillow, fluffing it up and thumping back down into it. And then another thought occurred to her. Maybe she needed some time to herself.
“In the middle of the night?” she wondered aloud. The small clock on the bedside table mocked her. “Okay, so it’s not the middle of the night,” she muttered. “But near enough to it, damn it.”
Cadie clutched the pillow to her and curled up on her side in the middle of the bed, suddenly feeling irrationally insecure.
Am I crowding her, she wondered. She’s been alone so long, perhaps having me around has been a little too much, too soon. She gnawed at her bottom lip, giving it some more thought for a few minutes. She hasn’t given any sign that she’s unhappy, though, she conceded. And I’ve never yet seen her manage to keep anything like that hidden … so …
She made up her mind to get over the insecurity and rolled up out of the bed, reaching for her cutoff denim shorts and a t-shirt. A couple of minutes later she stepped up into the Seawolf’s cockpit.
“Oh wow,” she murmured, taking in the gentle pinks and oranges that suffused the sky. A warm, furry body bumped around Cadie’s calves, weaving back and forth between her legs. “Hello boycat,” she said quietly. “How about we find your mom, hey?”
One good thing about staying on a yacht, she reflected. You don’t have to go too far to find somebody. She quickly spotted Jo and smiled at the precarious spot she’d picked to watch the sunrise. As Cadie walked closer she could hear her lover humming in a low monotone. Meditating, she realized, surprised. I swear I learn something new about her everyday.
Rather than disturbing Jo, Cadie soundlessly dropped to the deck, resting her back against the mast.
Might as well enjoy the sunrise as well, she thought, her eyes firmly on Jo, who was silhouetted against the golden background of the sky.
Jo reached the end of her meditation routine and let herself return to consciousness slowly. She blinked a few times, smiling at the sun as it climbed a few degrees up off the horizon.
Mmmmmm that felt good. I needed that, she thought contentedly as she stretched. Her spine popped and crackled and even that felt good. She twisted around, swinging her legs over the bowsprit rail and sliding back onto the deck in one smooth movement. The sight that greeted her there brought her up short.
Cadie was sound asleep, slumped against the mast, her face turned to the sun, blonde hair framing a blissful expression. Mephisto was draped bonelessly across the woman’s lap, also dead to the world.
Jo chuckled, totally enchanted by the scenario.
“Well, isn’t that just the prettiest picture of the morning so far,” she murmured, tiptoeing closer. Slowly she lowered herself to the deck, stretching out on her side next to Cadie, resting her head on her hand. With her other hand she reached out and tickled Mephy’s belly, making his tail twitch. The fluffy tip brushed across Cadie’s thigh and the blonde woke up to a pair of twinkling blue eyes and a broad grin.
“Wh- … b- … Jesus,” she muttered.
“And good morning to you too, sweetheart,” Jo said, beaming up at her.
Cadie groaned and rubbed the back of her neck, where she’d developed a crick.
“I didn’t mean to fall asleep,” she grumbled.
Jo pushed herself up, placing one hand on either side of Cadie’s lap, ducking her head for a kiss.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said after they had thoroughly greeted each other. Jo smiled again. “You looked so peaceful sitting there, I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“S’funny,” Cadie murmured. “That’s exactly what I was thinking when I first came up to find you.” She ran her thumb over Jo’s lips, tracing the gentle smile she found there.
“Didn’t mean to wake you,” the dark-haired woman said quietly, charmed by the way the sea-green eyes in front of her followed the movements of her mouth as she spoke.
“Mmmmmm, I just missed you,” Cadie answered. “And then I started to wonder if I wasn’t crowding you, and you’d gone off to find some space for yourself.” That produced a raised eyebrow. “And then I gave myself a hard time for that, because I know you would have said something if that was the case.” She waited for the nod before she continued. “And then I just decided to get up and come find you,” she concluded.
Jo wrapped her arm around Cadie’s waist then rolled onto her back, pulling the smaller woman down on top of her as Mephisto scurried off to find a new place to snooze.
“I’m not feeling the least bit crowded actually,” Jo said as Cadie’s compact frame settled against her.
“Does that surprise you?” the blonde asked.
“A little,” Jo admitted. “I’ve never lived with anyone before, so I guess I was expecting it would be something I’d have to get used to. But it really has been easy.” She beamed up at her lover who nodded at her.
“So it doesn’t drive you nuts that I’m not as tidy as you are?”
“You’re not untidy, love,” she reassured. “I’m just a bit of a neat freak, is all.”
It was Cadie’s turn to chuckle.
“Have you always been like that, or is it because you spend so much time on boats?” she wondered.
Jo thought about it.
“I think I’ve always been like that,” she decided. “I can remember, back home, my mother used to joke that my bedroom was ‘unnatural’.” She grinned. “I always had to have everything in its place, y’know?” Cadie nodded and smiled back at her. Jo shrugged. “I just like being organized, I think. It’s the way my mind works.”
Cadie kissed her softly.
“I love the way your mind works,” she murmured against Jo’s lips.
“Mmmmmm, this is a good thing.”
They occupied themselves for a few minutes just kissing and nibbling, hands touching and exploring in a slow and gentle reawakening.
“Do you miss them?” Cadie asked finally.
Jo looked where her hands were resting, and squeezed the perfect handfuls gently.
“Constantly,” she grinned.
“Tch, not them, silly,” Cadie giggled.
Jo watched the faint blush making its way up the blonde’s neck to her face, highlighting her light brows. Gorgeous.
“You are so beautiful,” she murmured, smiling as her words heightened the effect of the blush.
“You are so biased,” Cadie demurred.
“Yes I am,” the dark-haired woman agreed. “But that doesn’t make you any less beautiful.”
Cadie’s heart melted. How did I get this lucky, she wondered.
“You didn’t answer the question,” she whispered.
“What question? Oh … do I miss my parents, you mean?” Jo’s gaze drifted from Cadie’s face to somewhere over her shoulder.
The blonde watched the emotions flicking across her partner’s face. Jo hadn’t seen her parents in about 15 years, she knew. Not since she had sneaked away from their farm in the west of New South Wales as a troubled teenager and headed for the temptations of Sydney. They had talked over the phone a few times, but Cadie knew it had been at least a year since their last contact.
“I guess I do, kind of, yeah,” she admitted. “I don’t … it’s been so long. I don’t know who they are any more, and for sure I’m a completely different person from the kid they knew.” Her eyes flicked back to Cadie’s. “And I guess I feel guilty as well. The longer it goes on, the easier it is to stay away.”
Cadie absorbed that, wondering just how true that was, or if Jo was avoiding the issue. I’d like to meet her parents, she thought. But unless she’s comfortable with the concept, I’m not going to push it.
Jo had her hands behind her head, eyes closed.
“I’d like them to meet you, though,” she said suddenly. Cadie smiled quietly, watching the older woman’s face carefully. “Maybe with you around, they’ll see that I’m not such a waste of time.”
Awwwwww Jo-Jo, don’t do that to yourself.
Cadie pushed Jo’s fringe away from her eyes.
“Why do you think that’s how they see you?” she asked gently.
She watched Jo swallow. Blue eyes blinked repeatedly.
“Because they’ve never asked me to come home,” came the bleak response.
“Ohhh, Jo-Jo.” Cadie leaned closer, wrapping her arms around her soulmate’s waist. She felt Jo bury her face against her neck and she planted a soft kiss against the black hair. “I don’t think it’s about them thinking you’re a waste of time, sweetheart,” she whispered. “I think, when you ran away, they were hurt and scared and angry because they didn’t understand. But I also think they wanted you to have what you wanted - which was to be anywhere but the farm.” She felt Jo go very still in her arms, just listening. Softly, softly, Arcadia. “Maybe staying silent was their way of letting you go. And as time went on, like you said, it got more and more difficult to ask for what they really wanted. To see you. To ask you to come home.”
Jo sniffled slightly, and wiped her face on Cadie’s t-shirt, provoking a smile from the blonde.
“D-do you want to meet them?” Very quiet.
“I’d like to very much, yes,” Cadie answered honestly. “But I understand how difficult that will be for you, sweetheart. And I’m in no hurry.”
Jo pulled back a little and Cadie kissed a stray tear from her cheek.
“I … uh … maybe we could start with a phone call?” she asked uncertainly.
Cadie laughed softly, kissing Jo’s lips.
“Yes, hon. We can do that.”