“Did you ever call Toby back?”
Cadie’s head snapped around at the question, which had come out of the blue. Or rather, out of the damp, drizzling grey. They were onboard the Seawolf, battling their way up Whitsunday Passage against a stiff breeze and a rain squall. Below decks, a small group of Japanese tourists were trying to enjoy Jenny’s seafood lunch, a challenge, given the rather rough ride. Jo and Cadie were braving the weather on deck. The women had been back from their Coonyabby adventure about three days and had only had a day at home before picking up this group, which had been a week into a two-week cruise when their skipper had fallen ill.
“Where did that come from?” the American asked, her eyebrow rising at the non sequitur.
Jo grinned from under the hood of her wet-weather gear and shrugged. “Who knows?” Perched as she was on the port rail, her right foot and hand keeping the wheel on a steady heading, she looked, and felt, like a half-drowned rat. “My mind was just wandering all over the place, and that thought popped in to my brain.”
“I love the way your mind works,” Cadie said with an affectionate smile. She tucked herself under Jo's sheltering arm and they endured the drizzling rain together for a few comfortable minutes. Cadie watched a long, slow drip of cool water hang and then drop from the edge of her raincoat's hood.
“So did you?” Jo asked eventually.
Cadie sighed. “Too much to ask that you would forget that question, huh?” she said, a little grumpily. The truth was she had been avoiding any thoughts of Toby, Naomi, or the United States in general since the senator's PR manager had called, and she didn’t really want to start now.
“Sorry, love,” Jo murmured. She could hear the note of annoyance in her partner's voice and she already regretted bringing the matter up again. But she was also curious. With a twist of her wrist she adjusted the Seawolf's position as they continued to beat into the wind. Then she glanced down at her shorter lover, and squeezed her shoulder in reassurance.
Tired eyes, more grey than green in the overcast conditions, looked back up at her. “No, it’s okay, Jo-Jo,” Cadie said, summoning a smile from somewhere. “Take no notice of me. I'm just a grumpy bitch today.”
Jo smiled back at her and kissed her damp forehead softly. “No worries, sweetheart,” she said. “It's just not like you to not return someone's call, so I guess that's why it was nagging away at the back of my brain.”
“Yeah, I know. I just couldn’t imagine that he was calling for anything other than bad news,” she admitted. “And, to be honest, I just don't want to go there.” She glanced up at Jo's puzzled look. “In my head I mean, not to the US.” She thought about that. “Well, actually I don’t want to go there either, but that's not how I meant it.” Jesus, get to the damn point, Arcadia.
“I know,” Jo said softly. The thought of saying goodbye to the blonde, even if it was only for a few weeks, bothered the hell out of the skipper. But she didn’t want to make a big deal out of it since she figured that would only make Cadie feel worse.
“And I guess I also decided that if it was urgent, he would call back,” Cadie continued. She looked a little sheepish at Jo's slightly amused, if tolerant, look. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm just making excuses. It's not like we've been easy to catch lately.”
When Jo had decided to fill in for the sick skipper herself, Cadie had opted to come along for the ride, and to help out where needed. And, although they'd been within reach of cell phones and the boat's radio, they hadn’t necessarily been easy to contact.
“He could just be ringing to say g'day, y'know,” Jo said calmly. Inside she knew that was unlikely. Although Jason and Toby obviously had a lot of affection for Cadie – after all, Jason had even helped the blonde make her getaway from the senator at Sydney Airport all those weeks ago – Jo didn’t think Toby would go to the trouble of tracking her down out at Coonyabby, just to say hello.
“I doubt it,” Cadie muttered, confirming Jo's private opinion. The blonde snuggled closer, and Jo was more than happy to accommodate her. She reached inside Cadie's wet-weather gear and wiggled her fingers under layers of clothing until she found the warm softness of her lover's stomach. Jo let her fingertips slide in comforting circles and was unsurprised to feel the compact body pressed against her begin to relax.
“Oh, I love you,” Cadie purred, resting her head against the tall skipper's solid, if damp, shoulder. “Mmmmm, I'm giving you an hour to stop that.”
Jo chuckled, appreciating her partner's tactile nature. Before Cadie had sailed into her life Jo had not known what it was like to express her feelings through touch. Sex she was familiar – more than familiar – with. And violence, absolutely. But gently affectionate, intimate touch? That hadn’t been anything she'd ever had a chance to learn. Cadie's tendency to touch her whenever they were talking privately, and sometimes in public, had been a revelation. She had decided she liked it. A lot.
“When will we be home?” Cadie asked.
“Tomorrow morning,” Jo replied. “This mob,” she tilted her head in the direction of the companionway, where warm, golden light was shining up from the main cabin, “has a plane to catch in the early afternoon. We'll give 'em a night in Blue Pearl Bay tonight, then head back to Shute Harbor at dawn.”
“Sounds good,” Cadie murmured. Jo's light touch on her belly was setting off the gentlest of tingles and she was rather looking forward to getting her home. “When we get home, can we spend a few days in bed?” She grinned up into Jo's rain-soaked face and laughed as a damp, but elegant eyebrow disappeared up almost to the skipper's hairline.
“Something on your mind?” Jo drawled, a smile playing across her lips.
“You,” Cadie answered bluntly. “And warm, dry sheets ... and a boycat.”
Jo laughed. “What on earth do you want to do with him?” she asked, giggling.
“Well,” Cadie replied speculatively. “That really loud purr he has could come in really ha-” A long-fingered hand muffled the end of her sentence, and she took the opportunity to lick Jo's palm with the tip of her lingering tongue.
“Ooooo, wicked woman,” Jo murmured. She took her hand away and ducked her head, taking advantage of their solitude on deck to claim Cadie's lips in a searing kiss that made them both forget the rain, the wind, or Toby's call. They shifted so their bodies were more in contact and deepened the kiss.
Jenny wandered up on deck, seeking a momentary escape from the constant chatter of the Japanese tourists. She'd pulled on a wet-weather poncho and her deck shoes before she stepped out of the warmth of the cabin and up on to the wet deck. It was situation normal to expect Cadie and Jo to be huddled together in the cockpit, but she could almost see the steam rising from the damp twosome.
Recently married herself, Jenny could certainly empathize with Jo and Cadie’s need to be close. She cleared her throat loudly and then laughed when the pair barely blinked, let alone interrupted their kissing.
Jo felt Cadie begin to pull away when she heard Jenny’s cough, but a gentle squeeze from the lanky Australian let the blonde know that they were being interrupted by a friend and not a tourist. Cadie relaxed against her once again and Jo reveled in the kiss, bringing it to a long, leisurely and altogether satisfying conclusion.
“Mmmm,” Cadie purred as she rested her head on her lover’s shoulder, her back still to the main cockpit. “Hello, Jen.”
“Hiya.” The deckhand moved towards them, shrugging herself deeper into her wet-weather jacket. “You two are the only people on the planet I know who actually would rather stand out here in the rain than be down in the warm.”
Jo grinned at her friend, even as she felt Cadie shifting around so she was tucked in the crook of the Australian’s arm. “Someone’s got to drive this thing, Jen,” the skipper said.
“And someone’s got to keep the skipper company,” the blonde tagged on.
Jenny shook her head in mock exasperation. “You two are something to see, you know that, right?” she said, grinning at the pair who looked blissfully happy despite the persistent rain dripping into everyone’s eyes.
“Is there a problem with that?” Jo asked, one eyebrow tilting upwards damply.
“Nope. Not a damn thing,” Jenny replied. “It’s just cute, that’s all.”
“Cute?” Cadie stifled a giggle at the sharp tone to Jo’s reply. “I’ve never been cute in my life Jennifer,” the skipper growled. But the deckhand wasn’t in the least bit fooled.
“Yeah, well, you’ve sure got it nailed now, skipper.”
Cadie’s soothing hand on her belly reminded Jo that she was being tweaked and she relaxed, grinning back at the brunette. “Ahhh, what can I tell you, Jen? It must be love.” She felt Cadie snuggle closer. “Either that or the incredibly adorable blonde under my arm is increasing my cute potential exponentially.”
“Ooh, big words, Jo-Jo,” Cadie teased.
“I took my smart pill this morning.”
“I see that.”
Jenny threw up her hands in surrender. “Oh, stop it, you two, you’re going to make me puke,” she laughed.
“What’s happening below?” Jo asked.
“Not a lot,” replied her crew member. “I think they’re pretty much sailed out. Ready to go home.”
“They’re not the only ones,” Cadie murmured as she stifled a yawn. “I don’t feel like I’ve even had time to unpack since we got back from Coonyabby.”
“We haven’t,” Jo said bluntly.
“And I guess it won’t be long before you have to be packing again, huh Cadie?” Jenny said.
Bummer, Cadie thought. Thanks, Jen, like I needed reminding. “Yeah, I guess so,” the blonde muttered. She tucked her head against Jo’s shoulder, seeking reassurance. And she got it, the skipper’s strong arm pulling her closer and squeezing.
“Sorry,” Jen said hastily, realizing her mistake. “Didn’t mean to blow the mood.”
“S’okay,” Jo said quietly. “We’ve got to think about it some time.”
“When do you have to go back, Cadie?”
The American sighed heavily. “Ten days,” she replied. Ten very short days.
Three very short days. Jo sighed. She leaned on the top rail of the verandah, gazing out over the lush, green forest that surrounded the house, and beyond to the rich colors of Whitsunday Passage and the islands. Three very short days and it already feels like we’ve been saying goodbye for a week. Jo sighed again. It left a cold knot in her stomach thinking about Cadie being gone for a few weeks. I just want to get this over and done with, so we can get on with the rest of our lives.
It had been a busy week for them both. Jo had been flat-out at the Cheswick Marine office, catching up on all the paperwork that had accumulated during their vacation at Coonyabby. She had discovered that as a company manager, she made a damn good yacht skipper, but she had also dug deep and found she very much relished the challenge of learning new skills. The week had taken its toll, however.
“Hi,” came a soft, familiar, and very welcome voice from behind Jo’s right shoulder. The tall skipper smiled in reflex. “You look like you could use this,” said the blonde, handing Jo a tall, icy-cold glass of white wine as she moved to stand beside her partner.
“Thanks.” Jo took a sip and purred as the cold liquid slid down her throat. “I don’t mind admitting, I’m flogged,” she said. Come to think of it, she doesn’t look too perky either, Jo thought, taking in Cadie’s weary expression and the dark circles under her eyes. “Didn’t we just have a vacation?” Jo asked wryly.
“Mhmm.” Cadie turned and leaned her back against the rail, looking up into Jo’s face. “We did and it was lovely,” she said, a small smile playing across her lips. “I think we’ve just hit the wall the last few days.”
Jo leaned down and brushed her lips across Cadie’s, tasting the wine there.
“Mmm, that was nice. What brought that on?” Cadie teased.
“Nothing much,” Jo replied. “Felt it, so I did it.” She took another mouthful of wine and looked out to sea. The sun was beginning to set behind them and the gorgeous gold and yellow tones of the fading light cast a surreal glow across the water. “Besides, it’s hard to look at that,” Jo nodded at the view, “without wanting to acknowledge it. Kissing the closest beautiful thing seemed to be a reasonable way to do that.” She grinned at the charmed expression on the American’s face.
“My, my, Jo-Jo, you can be such a romantic.” Cadie rested a hand on Jo’s upper arm and stood on tiptoes to return the favor, lingering over the delicious contact. “I do adore you.”
Blue eyes blinked at her. “And I you, sweetheart.”
They pulled apart again and stood in comfortable silence, just drinking their wine and watching the ever-changing landscape before them. Finally, Jo turned back to her lover, smiling at the sun-kissed profile.
“Did you get your flights booked?” she asked, quietly acknowledging the undercurrent that had colored their interactions all week long.
“Yes,” Cadie sighed. She had hated doing it and the travel consultant had looked at her somewhat askance when Cadie had expressed irritation over the details. “I’m afraid I pretty much bit Samantha’s head off in the process, though.”
“Who’s Samantha?” Jo asked.
“Travel agent,” Cadie replied. “She kept wanting to know if I wanted to go via San Francisco or LA, or what airline, or whatever.” She looked up and locked eyes with Jo, warmed by the understanding she saw there. “I told her I didn’t much care if I went over the North Pole, as long as I got a return ticket.”
Jo chuckled and wrapped her arm around the shorter woman’s waist. “How long do you think you’re going to need to be gone?” she asked quietly.
“I booked the return flight for three weeks from Wednesday,” Cadie answered as she leaned against Jo’s shoulder. “I figured that would give me enough time to clean out the rest of my stuff, get it either to Mom and Dad’s place in Madison, or ship it here, plus a little extra time to visit long enough to keep them satisfied.”
Jo nodded. “Makes sense.” Three very short days, followed by three very long weeks. She grimaced. This sucks.
“Sucks doesn’t it?” Cadie said. She looked puzzled when Jo laughed out loud. “What did I say?”
Jo ducked her head and kissed the blonde hair. “You literally took the words right out of my mouth, sweetheart, that’s all.” She grinned down at her partner and then sobered again. “And yes, it does suck. Mightily.”
The phone rang inside the house and Cadie groaned inwardly. Jo had been at everyone’s beck and call all day and she had planned a quiet, romantic evening.
If people would just leave her alone for two minutes, the American thought grumpily.
“I’ll get it,” Jo murmured. She let go of Cadie and turned back inside before the blonde could object, stepping through into the air conditioning. One of these days I’m going to unplug this damn thing, she thought absently as she picked up the receiver. “Hello, this is Jo.”
“Madison. It’s Ken Harding.” The cop’s familiar growl was a surprise and there was a pause as Jo adjusted. Finding out that Harding had been in contact with her parents almost from the moment she had turned herself in had been a shock. In effect, he had told her mother and father a bunch of personal history that, by rights, should have been hers to tell, or keep to herself, as she chose it. That choice had been taken away from her by a combination of circumstances.
I’m still angry with him, Jo realized. Then again, he probably did me a huge favor.
“Hello Ken,” she said quietly. His breath, which he had obviously been holding, came out in a rush.
“Thought for a moment you were going to hang up on me,” he said gruffly.
“Maybe I should have,” Jo answered. A wry smile touched her lips, unseen by the policeman but noticed by Cadie, who had followed her into the living area. “Ken,” she mouthed.
“I know you’re probably pretty pissed off with me, yeah?” Harding continued. “Bottom line is, I made a judgment call and I think it was the right one.” Jo could almost hear his rugged, probably unshaven, jaw sticking stubbornly out.
“Relax, will ya,” she said. “Sometimes I think you forget what I used to do for a living. If I was really angry with you, you’d know about it already.” She was tweaking him and it probably wasn’t fair, but she couldn’t let him get off completely scot-free.
On the other end of the line, in his seedy studio apartment in Sydney’s inner city, Ken Harding rocked back on his heels. He could never work out when Madison was joking and when she was seriously threatening him, but the memory of what she used to be was still cold and clear in his mind.
“Uh, look, I’m sorry, okay,” he muttered, trying not to sound like his testicles had just retracted what felt like several inches.
Her laugh surprised him.
“Harding, for Christ’s sake,” Jo admonished. “It was a joke.” She laughed again and then turned serious. “Look, I’m not going to tell you that I was entirely happy with what you did,” she admitted. “But in the end you saved me from one of the scariest conversations I could imagine. It worked out fine, Ken. Forget it.”
There was another pause before the cop finally let it go.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s forgotten.”
“Good. Now, is that why you called?” Jo watched as Cadie walked into the kitchen and began making fine adjustments to the dinner she was cooking for them.
“No, actually,” Harding said, the business-like tone returning to his voice. “I have good news and bad news.”
“Oh great,” Jo growled. “Just what I need. Okay, tell me the bad news first.”
Cadie looked up sharply, wondering just what was coming next. Please don’t let it be something that hurts her, she silently begged the universe. The time at Coonyabby had been a healing period for Jo and her parents, but Cadie knew there was still an underlying fragility to her lover’s self-confident outer appearance. If nothing else, the almost desperate way Jo unconsciously clung to her when they were sleeping was evidence enough. Cadie sliced a couple of tomatoes for the salad as she listened to Jo’s half of the conversation.
“Well, the bad news is I need you down here on Thursday,” Ken said. “Marco di Santo’s court case has come up and he’s fit enough to go on trial.”
Jo felt her skin go cold. Marco di Santo. The right-hand man of her former drug lord boss. The one who had slipped through the fingers of the law when she had turned State’s evidence. The one who had come back for her five years later. The one she had practically castrated and would have killed if it hadn’t been for Cadie’s intervention.
“He’s back on his feet, huh?” she said around the lump in her throat.
Harding chuckled humorlessly. “Yeah, he’s walking again. Got a bit of a girlie limp about him, but he’s walking. More importantly, he’s talking, though he sounds pretty rough.”
Jo closed her eyes and winced against the memory of the feeling of the garrote cutting deep into the henchman’s neck. Her face only relaxed when she felt Cadie move close and slide under her arm, a reassuring hand on Jo’s belly.
“So what was the good news?” Jo asked hoarsely.
“I’m probably only going to need you to be available on Thursday and Friday,” Harding replied. “God willing and the creeks don’t rise; he should be locked up for good by the weekend.”
“What about Josh?” she asked. The young man, a neighbor who had been house and cat-sitting for Jo while she had been at sea with Cadie’s touring group of Americans, had been taken hostage by di Santo in a successful bid to get Jo to come to him. Josh had been beaten and badly shaken by the encounter, and she knew he would have to testify.
“The judge agreed to let him testify by video,” she heard Ken say. “It’s already done. No worries there at all.”
Jo breathed a sigh of relief. Although she had talked with Josh several times since and he seemed fine with her, she doubted his parents would ever let him anywhere the house – at least not alone – again. It made her sad, because he was a good guy.
“That’s great,” she murmured. “I’m glad he doesn’t have to go through all that.” She looked down at Cadie and saw a question there. Quickly she dropped a kiss onto the end of the blonde’s pert nose, and then she dropped the phone’s receiver away from her mouth. “Josh doesn’t have to testify in person,” she quickly explained.
“But you do?” Cadie asked.
“Mhmm.” Harding was talking again. “Sorry, Ken, say that again. I was just explaining things to Cadie.”
“No worries, mate. I was just saying that I’ve organized you a plane ticket. You can pick it up from Hamilton Island airport – the Qantas desk – on Wednesday afternoon. Your flight’s at 4pm.”
\ Jo thought about it some and then made a decision.
“Can I make a change to that?” she asked. “It’s just that Cadie’s flying out to the States that day. I’d like to swap my flight to hers down to Sydney so I can see her off.”
Jo heard Harding rustling around with bits of paper. “Yeah, I can do that. What flight’s she on?”
“Hang on, I’ll let her tell you,” Jo replied, handing the phone to her partner with a grim smile.
Cadie took it and patted Jo’s arm as the taller woman moved into the kitchen. “Hello, Ken,” she said into the phone.
“G’day,” the policeman said. He had a lot of time for the American, having learned from experience that Cadie was a pistol. She had shown a lot of guts that afternoon they’d come after Jo and di Santo.
“How are you?” she asked, amazed, as always, that Harding and her partner seemed to maintain a rapport without ever asking those kind of questions.
“Ah, not bad, you know,” he replied. “Still plugging on. How about you?”
She smiled, recognizing the man’s awkwardness around her. “I’m good thanks,” Cadie replied gently. “You need to know what flight I’m on?”
Jo watched as the blonde continued to talk to Harding. Absentmindedly, she stirred the spaghetti sauce that was bubbling away on the stovetop. Cadie said goodbye to the cop eventually, hanging up the phone.
“So, I guess we’re going to Sydney,” Jo replied. She tapped the wooden spoon she had been using to stir the spaghetti sauce on the chopping board. If there was one thing Jo was sure of right now, it was that the last place on the planet she wanted to go to, was Sydney. Her stomach knotted at the thought. “At least I get to see you on to the plane for LA.” She smiled wanly at Cadie.
“Mhmm, and believe me, I’m happy about that,” the blonde answered as she walked over and wrapped her arms around Jo’s waist from behind. She took a second to drop a kiss on the taller woman’s shoulder before resting her cheek against the strong back. “Well, maybe happy is the wrong word. I don’t think I’m ‘happy’ about any of this.” Jo grunted her agreement. “Least of all the fact that I’m going to miss the trial. I really wanted to be there for you during that.”
Jo patted Cadie’s hands in reassurance. “Don’t worry about that, love. I’ve been there, done that. I’ll survive.”
Cadie thought about that. She knew enough about that Jo’s past to remember that she had testified against a lot of big-time crime lords.
Jo shifted slightly, maneuvering slowly around Cadie’s embrace as she spooned the pasta and sauce out on to two plates. “Mmm?”
“Those times that you’ve testified before … will this be as bad as that?”
Jo stilled for a few seconds as she considered her answer and Cadie took the opportunity to slide to her side. Warm, green eyes blinked up at her and she couldn’t help but smile back.
“I don’t expect so,” she replied, ducking her head to brush her lips against the soft ones waiting for her. “Mmm, god, you taste good.” They indulged themselves for a few more, blissful seconds. “In those cases I was the only witness,” Jo continued. Cadie tipped her head to the side as she listened, a gesture the Australian found hopelessly endearing. “All the pressure was on me, and all the risk. I was pretty much the prosecution’s entire case.” She sprinkled some parmesan cheese on the plates. “This time it’s a bit different, I guess.”
“Because of Josh?”
Jo nodded. “Yes. And because the cops themselves were witnesses to the last bits of it.” Images of that nightmare afternoon, and di Santo’s blood on her hands, flashed across her memory, causing her to blink rapidly. Cadie saw her lover’s reaction and she reached out, cupping Jo’s cheek with a gentle hand. A shiver went through the taller woman and Jo smiled wryly at the blonde and leant into the soothing touch.
“I was there for that as well,” Cadie reminded her. “Why haven’t I been called as a witness?”
Jo shrugged. “My guess would be Ken is just doing us a favor by having the prosecution keep you out of it. With his testimony and that of a few of his men, he probably thinks he doesn’t need to have you involved.” Cadie’s fingers were still stroking her cheek softly, and she closed her eyes, letting the sensation wash over her.
Cadie watched the emotions sweeping across Jo’s face. The dark-haired woman was usually a closed book to other people. Not hostile-looking so much as hard to read. But whether it was because Cadie had learned to read Jo better, or Jo’s trust in her allowed the Australian to show more, every twitch and flicker was like a neon sign to the blonde.
She’s as wound-up as hell, Cadie realized. “Come on, love. Let’s eat.” She picked up the two plates and wandered over to the dining table. Jo sighed deeply then followed. Soon they were eating together, enjoying each other’s company as quiet music wafted through the house. It wasn’t long before Jo was doing more food redistribution than eating, however. Cadie watched as the skipper chased a pile of pasta around the plate with her fork. If it wasn’t so worrying, it would be adorable, she thought.
“So …” she hesitated again.
“So.” Jo nodded, knowing she wasn’t being the most communicative of dinner companions but at a loss to know how to unblock whatever was jamming her up inside.
“I could hazard a guess and suggest that Sydney’s not your favorite place to spend a few days,” Cadie said quietly.
“And you’d be spot on,” Jo admitted. “Apart from the bad memories …” She swallowed, surprised by the knot of emotion in her throat. Cadie squeezed her knee gently. “Apart from those, I know that it’s likely I’ll … um … revert … a little, once I’m there.” She turned and looked Cadie in the eye, for the first time in a long while. “And that scares me.”
A tiny, cold sliver of … something … she refused to call it fear … trickled through Cadie’s gut. I’ll be goddamned if I’ll let her see that, though, she decided. Her instinct told her it wasn’t fear of Jo, but fear for her.
“It’s a self-defense mechanism, Jo-Jo,” she murmured. “I’d be worried if you didn’t feel that.” Blue eyes blinked at her, trying to understand what Cadie was suggesting. “Do you think you’re going to be in any danger down there?” she asked, her mouth suddenly dry.
Jo shrugged. “I don’t have any friends in that city, that’s for sure,” she muttered.
“Except for Ken,” Cadie pointed out.
The dark head dipped in acknowledgement. “Apart from Ken,” she admitted.
“And he’ll be looking out for you, right?”
A flash of something hard and angry flickered in Jo’s eyes for a moment. “He doesn’t need to look out for me,” she snapped, wishing she could take the words – and the tone – back as soon as she let them go. “Damn it.” Long fingers pinched at the bridge of her nose. “I-I’m sorry, love. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
Cadie’s hand, which had never left Jo’s knee, squeezed again and the blonde smiled gently. “Sure you did,” she said quietly. “And it’s okay. You can look after yourself. That’s what Sydney taught you. I don’t think you should beat yourself up for self-protection.”
Jo snorted in self-deprecation. “As long as I don’t beat anyone else up in the process, huh?”
There was a silence as Cadie waited for Jo to look at her again. When blue eyes finally met hers, she made sure her gaze didn’t waver.
“That’s not what was I was thinking, Jossandra,” she said quietly, but firmly. “I just meant that back then you had to look after yourself and it became habit. I don’t think it’s surprising that being back there would kick that habit into gear.” She caught Jo’s chin as the older woman made to turn away again. Tenderly she pulled her focus back. “Don’t put words in my mouth, sweetheart.”
As quickly as the hardness had appeared it vanished, replaced by welling tears and a slightly wobbling chin. Jo was confused by her wildly swinging emotions but beyond that she just felt about two years old.
Cadie smiled again. “It’s okay. God knows, neither of us is too happy about the timing of any of this. It couldn’t be worse.”
Jo leaned forward, resting her forehead on Cadie’s shoulder. The American slipped her fingers into the long, black hair that cascaded over her chest. It was silky and soft to the touch.
“I wish I could just say my piece in court, watch that arsehole get locked up and then get on the next plane and come after you,” Jo said miserably.
“So do I, angel. So do I.” Cadie rested her cheek against Jo’s head, breathing in the scent of her shampoo. “There’s no possibility of that, is there?” she asked tentatively. “I mean, your record has been expunged, right?” It occurred to her that she didn’t really know what that meant. “So why won’t they let you into the States?”
“Expunged is a bit of a misnomer,” Jo admitted. “Because it doesn’t mean I didn’t do those things, Cadie. It doesn’t mean my record doesn’t exist any more. It just means there’s a big, stinking note on it that says I did the right thing in the end. What I did is still there for all to see.” She sniffled slightly.
Cadie held her partner close. She could tell Jo was over the worst of the urge to burst into tears, but the hug was a welcome one for them both and neither felt like letting go.
“You’d think after 12 years with a US senator that I could pull a few strings somewhere,” Cadie grumbled.
That produced a chuckle from Jo, who finally pushed herself upright again and slumped back in her chair. “Yeah, well. Somehow I think Naomi is the last person to ask for some help in that area, my love,” she said, smiling affectionately at the blonde.
“Can’t think why,” Cadie muttered.
“Something to do with me stealing her wife away from her, I think.” The women looked at each other, both mentally reviewing the events of the last few months. “Somehow I don’t think I’m on Naomi’s Christmas card list,” Jo opined.
“Perhaps not.” Cadie quirked an amused eyebrow at the skipper, happy to see that Jo seemed to have regained some semblance of good humor. “Would you want her to help, even if she was of a mind to?”
Jo laughed again, knowing that Cadie had her pegged, well and truly.
“No, and you know it.”
They resumed eating and a few more minutes passed in companionable silence. Finally, Cadie came to the only reasonable conclusion possible under the circumstances.
“So I guess we just have to suck it up and get through the next few weeks as best we can,” she said softly.
Jo took a mouthful of wine and swirled it around her tongue before swallowing.
“Yup. I’m going to miss you.” The last was said so quietly, Cadie almost thought she had imagined it. Their fingers tangled across the table. “So much.”
Cadie had an inkling that there was a touch of insecurity lurking behind her lover’s relatively calm exterior. She squeezed Jo’s fingers.
“And I will miss you horribly too,” she said. “Jo-Jo, you know I’m going to try and make this trip as quick as possible, don’t you? Because, God knows, I don’t want to be away from you any longer than I have to be.”
Jo nodded slowly. “I know. I just don’t want Naomi hassling you. And I really wanted to be there with you to back you up.”
I really do need to call Toby back, Cadie reflected, wondering, not for the first time, if the man’s call had been related to Naomi’s state of mind. “Jo, don’t worry about that,” she said aloud, opting to push that pessimistic prospect to one side for now. “I handled Naomi for 12 years – I can handle her for another three weeks. And, besides, I’m not going to give her much chance. The Senate’s in session and she has to be in DC most of the time I’m going to be there. All I need is a couple of days to clear the rest of my stuff out of the Chicago house and then I’ll be safely up at Mom and Dad’s in Madison. She’s not going to come within 50 miles of me, I promise.”
Jo turned their hands around so she could stroke Cadie’s palm with her thumb. “Promise me you’ll call if you need to talk things out?” she asked.
“Darling, I’ll be calling you a million times a day, if I get the chance,” Cadie laughed. “Do you really think I could last more than half a day without talking to you?” Affectionately she ruffled Jo’s hair. “Silly girl.”
“Hi Toby. Sorry to call so late.”
“Cadie! That’s okay, sweetie. You know we’re a couple of night owls anyway. Wow, it’s great to hear from you,” the former PR man said happily. “I was beginning to think you were never going to return my call. What have you been up to?”
Cadie sank down into the leather armchair, glad that the man didn’t seem too put out by the lateness of the call. It was close to midnight in Washington DC, she knew, but she had wanted to wait until Jo had left for the day before calling.
“Sorry about that,” she murmured, hooking one leg over the arm of the chair. “It was difficult to call from Jo’s parents’ place and since then we’ve just been incredibly busy.” It was a lie, and she knew it, but she also knew Toby well enough to know he wouldn’t push the point.
“It’s okay,” Toby replied. “I’m just glad to hear your voice. How’s Jo?”
Cadie smiled in reflex at the mention of her lover’s name. “She’s great, actually. Since we last spoke, she inherited the yacht business from her boss and now she’s kind of queen of her own country. She’s like a kid in a candy store.”
“Excellent!” She could hear talking in the background and then Toby obviously turned his head away from the receiver. “It’s Cadie.” More talking. “Jay says hello,” he said.
“Say hi back,” Cadie said amiably. She waited while Toby passed the message on to his partner. “So what’s new with you guys? Or were you just calling for a chat,” she teased.
There was a momentary pause.
“Well, uh, actually we do have some news,” Toby continued quietly. “We’ve left Naomi.”
Wow. Cadie knew better than most how devoted Toby and Jason had been to the senator in the early days. “Seems to be catching,” she muttered. “What brought that on?”
Toby sighed. On the one hand, he did want to warn Cadie about just how nuts Naomi had been lately. On the other hand, he was well aware that despite their breakup, Cadie was big-hearted enough to still care about her former long-time partner.
“Things have been a little crazy lately,” he said carefully.
Cadie felt the beginnings of a headache nagging away behind her eyes and she pinched the bridge of her nose in a bid to keep it at bay.
“Crazy busy, or crazy as in insane?” she asked.
“Well, insane would be a little strong, I think,” he replied. “But Naomi’s certainly been a little …” He nibbled on his bottom lip as he tried to think of the right words. “Unstable, I guess.”
Great, Cadie thought. Unstable enough to drive away her two most loyal staff. She exhaled slowly. And me, of course. “My fault,” she said quietly.
“No, don’t do that, Cadie,” Toby said hastily. “You did what you had to do. We know that. God knows, she wasn’t exactly giving anyone or anything more than a second’s thought towards the end there. We still think you did the right thing. It’s just …”
Cadie waited, letting the older man find the words for whatever it was he was trying to say. Not sure I want to hear it though, she admitted glumly.
“It’s just that she really fell apart without you,” he finally said, reluctantly. “And there’s a lot of other pressure on her too. After that whole house party fiasco on Hamilton Island, the press was just merciless when we got home.” Naomi and two friends had been ‘detained overnight’ by the Australian police after being caught in the middle of an alcohol-soaked house party on the tropical island, the culmination of a big week of sailing and revelry. “And of course the GOP went nuts and they’ve been riding her ever since.”
Cadie swallowed around the knot of tension she felt in her stomach. She hated how easily the old, familiar guilt had settled over her. Damn it, I’m entitled to a happy life, she told herself.
“What else happened?” she asked hoarsely.
“Lots of little things,” he acknowledged. “She threw an ashtray at the housekeeper, who then quit, of course. There was the afternoon she was stand-up drunk in the Senate chamber.” Cadie winced. “And … well, there’s the threats.”
“Threats?” Cadie felt a prickling at the back of her neck.
“Yeah.” She heard Toby swallowing. “The last thing she asked me to do was to hook her up with a contact in the Customs Service. That’s pretty much when Jason and I decided we didn’t want to be working for her anymore.”
Cadie couldn’t quite see the connection. “Um, maybe I’m just dense this morning, Toby, but I don’t get it. Why is that a problem?”
“Honey, we’re pretty sure she’s trying keep track of you any way she can. She wants to know when you come back into the country.”
The blonde shifted in her seat. She gazed out on the glorious view over the Whitsundays and tried to reconnect with the way her former partner’s mind worked.
“You don’t think maybe there was some other reason she wanted to talk to Customs?” she asked hopefully. “I mean, maybe a constituent had a problem or a question, and she was just looking for answers.”
Toby snorted. “Not to be too blunt or anything, sweetie, but if it was a constituent thing, we would have heard about it first. And if there were answers to be found, she would have had us find them for her. Personal attention is not the good Senator’s style.”
Ain’t that the truth, Cadie thought ruefully. “Yeah, I know. So, you think she wants to know when I’m back in town, huh?”
There was a pause, and Cadie almost repeated herself, thinking that perhaps they’d been cut off or Toby had somehow not heard the question. Before she could say anything else, though, the ex-PR man spoke up.
“Cadie, I think it’s more than that,” he said quietly. “I think she means to do a lot more than just keep track of you.”
He can’t be serious. “Toby, come on, what exactly are you trying to say? You don’t honestly think she means me any harm?” Cadie still found it hard to believe that despite all they had been through, Naomi could mean to hurt her.
“Oh Cadie, I don’t really know,” Toby replied, a note of frustration evident in his tone. “I know she’s been nuts lately. I mean, really. Throwing things, drinking 24/7. And …” He hesitated again. “She’s been smoking weed as well. I know that for sure.” Cadie said nothing, trying to digest the information. “I know it doesn’t sound very dangerous, or threatening, but she’s pissed, honey. And if she doesn’t mean you harm, then I’ll bet my last buck she’d do almost anything to hurt Jo.”
The light dawned. “Ahhh. And, of course, the quickest way to hurt Jo is …”
“… Is to hurt you, yes,” Toby finished.
Cadie found herself suddenly short of breath. The possibility that Naomi had actually slipped into a mental state that would allow her to act so irrationally was a new and very uncomfortable thought. My fault, she couldn’t help thinking. My goddamned fault.
“Jesus,” she muttered, rubbing again at that pounding spot between her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Cadie,” Toby half-whispered. “I thought you should know.”
“It’s okay, honestly. I’m glad you told me,” she replied, wondering what the hell she was supposed to do with the information now that she had it.
“Are you going to tell Jo?” she heard Toby ask.
Sixty-four million dollar question. “I honestly don’t know, Tobes,” she answered. “I’m going to have to think that one through a little more.”
“Mhmm, I understand, sweetie.” Again, she heard Jason talking in the background. “Hang on, someone else wants to say hello.” There was a scrambling sound as the phone changed hands.
“Hey you,” came Jason’s cheerful greeting.
“Hey yourself,” Cadie replied, letting the man’s good mood push her own grim thoughts down, even if it was just for a few seconds. “So, now that you’re a free man, what are your plans?”
He laughed. “Free, my ass. Toby’s got me roped into some Caribbean cruise next week. If I had my way we’d be pounding the Senate looking for a new job.”
“Somehow, I find that hard to believe,” Cadie retorted, knowing damn well that Jason, in particular, had taken to sailing like a duck to water, and was more than likely the instigator of their new vacation plans.
“You know me too well, Miss Jones,” Jason replied playfully. “Actually, I don’t think we have a clue what we’re going to do once we’re back from the cruise, but frankly, I could care less right now.”
Cadie smiled. “Well, you two have certainly earned a break,” she said. “Who knows, maybe I’ve done you a favor by driving Naomi insane.” She meant the words lightheartedly, but there was an edge to them that Jason certainly didn’t miss.
“Hey, sweetie, don’t do that,” he chastised gently. “Remember what I said to you back in Sydney Airport that day?”
She smiled. The chaos of the day when she had left Naomi floundering in the middle of a gaggle of journalists had become a little blurry. “Remind me?”
“I told you that you deserved better. I was right then and it’s still right now. If Naomi’s brain is dribbling out of her ears because of it, then I can only think that that’s her problem to deal with.” He paused to let her absorb his words. “You know what, Cadie? Jo was the best damn thing that’s happened to you in a very long time.”
The headache receded just a little. “No argument from me,” Cadie agreed quietly.
“So quit beating yourself up for letting that happen. You deserved it too.” He sounded vehement. “And Naomi, well, she can just kiss my rock-hard ass.”
That made Cadie laugh out loud and Jason readily joined in.
“Hey don’t laugh, it IS rock-hard.”
“I don’t doubt it, Jase, honestly,” Cadie chortled. “It just provoked a mental image that was too priceless for words.” She grinned into the phone.
“Ewww, I don’t even want to go there,” he said. “Hey, Toby’s fallen asleep on my shoulder here, so we’re gonna call it a night, okay?”
“Okay. Thanks again for the warning, Jason.”
“Cadie, sweetie. You know that we’re here if you need us, right? Any trouble from the Senator, you give us a call and we’ll come get you, okay?” She could hear the very real affection in his voice.
“Thanks. You two take care, okay? And I’ll call you once I’m back in Madison.”
“You bet. G’night.”
Cadie hung up the phone and sat for a few minutes more, just contemplating the clouds scudding across the sky, their shadows sweeping across the islands below her. She glanced down at the approach of Mephisto, and smiled when the big, black feline leapt up into her lap and settled in for a snooze.
“Hi, handsome boy,” the blonde said softly as she ran her fingers through his long fur. “So, what do you think? Do we need to give Jo one more thing to worry about? Or are Toby and Jason making a mountain out of a molehill?”
Sleepy, gold eyes blinked up at her and the cat offered no solution, preferring to knead her thigh with his front paws.
“Thanks. That’s a big help.”
Jo rested her forehead miserably against the cool glass of the big-paned terminal window. Outside, in front of her, was the big, grey-domed nose of the 747. She was slightly above the level of the cockpit and from her vantage point she could easily see the captain and his co-pilot going through their pre-flight checks. Not that that cheered Jo up in the least. Part of her mind was willing there to be some minor technical problem that would delay the flight indefinitely.
I couldn’t get that lucky, Jo decided. She and Cadie had already said their goodbyes, the blonde walking backwards slowly down the rampway, her eyes locked on Jo’s until she had disappeared around the bend. Jo had been left feeling very much alone amongst the milling crowd of still-boarding passengers and family members. Eventually, she had made her way to the window.
It’s not that much different from the last time I said goodbye to her, she thought morosely. That day sucked too. Memories of standing on the deck of the Seawolf as Cadie’s water taxi receded into the distance floated at the front of her mind even as the big plane in front of her began to be pushed back from the gate. The plane slid backwards, turning away from the low terminal building before the tug disengaged from its front landing gear and drove away. Before long the big jet was taxiing forward under its own steam, the rumble of its engines felt more than heard by Jo as she pressed her forehead against the glass.
At least I could see her that time. She tried to imagine where Cadie was, knowing that the American had a window seat somewhere between the wings and the rear of plane. For a moment Jo let herself believe she could see a familiar face in the one of the tiny windows, but the reality was she couldn’t see any details at all. Jo reached up to the patch of condensation her breath had formed on the glass, and absentmindedly drew a tiny heart in the mist. This time I know she’s coming back.
A niggling doubt surfaced. I do know she’s coming back, right? The little voice of insecurity – the same one that had made her so afraid of talking with her parents, the one that had stopped her from telling Cadie the truth about her past right from the word go – piped up again now, like a worn out old recording spinning around in her mind. I mean, this isn’t just a nice way of telling me it’s over, right? Jo dug her hands deep into her jeans pockets, hunching her shoulders as the plane disappeared behind a line of buildings, its giant tailfin just visible above the roofline.
Her fingers came up against a piece of paper at the bottom of her left pocket and she pulled it out, puzzled at its presence. Carefully she unfolded it and found it covered in an instantly recognizable handwriting. Jo smiled.
Darling (it read), I know right now you’re feeling at least as miserable as I am. The saving grace for me is that I have a lot of traveling to do before I can sit down and really process the fact that I’m so far away from you. And if I know you – (do I completely, yet? – maybe not) – you’re already in the middle of that, and feeling a bit blue.
Jo smiled again. The note was so characteristic of her partner’s tendency to dissect her own emotions and those of the ones she loved that it was strangely reassuring.
I want you to know (the note continued) that you are the most important thing in my life. In a few weeks we can laugh and joke about how it wasn’t that hard being apart from such a short time, but right now I know that it hurts and that in some ways it’s scary, too. (Oh you do know me so well, my love, Jo thought). Listen, Jo-Jo, because this is important. I am coming back and when I do, we can really get started on building this life we both seem to want so much. I love you with all my heart, sweet Jossandra. Don’t ever forget that. Soon I will be home again, I promise. Kisses, your Cadie.
Jo sighed. That woman can reduce me to mush in the space of a paragraph and a half, I swear. She felt a little embarrassed about the doubts she had been wallowing in just a few minutes earlier. Honest to god, I don’t know what I ever did to deserve her, she thought ruefully.
A deepening rumble intensified from somewhere in the distance and Jo quickly looked up again, just in time to see the United Airlines jumbo heave itself upwards in the way only a huge 747 could. Jo didn’t mind flying herself, and she knew Cadie wasn’t bothered by it, but there was still something death-defying about the giant metal creature lurching skywards.
“Get up there, you bastard. Go,” Jo muttered, urging the plane on. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the plane broke the shackles of gravity and suddenly became graceful, soaring as its landing gear lifted and tucked away. “Bye, sweetheart,” Jo whispered, her eyes stinging. “See you soon."
Cadie closed her eyes as she felt the kick of the engines at her back. The plane lumbered forward, gathering speed as it rumbled over the runway. There was always that moment where she wondered if they were going to make it safely into the air. Three hundred-odd people hung in mid-air for a few seconds before Cadie felt herself relax into her chair.
She glanced around at her fellow travelers, jam-packed into the crowded coach section. She had opted not to use the return section of the business-class ticket she and Naomi had used to get to Australia in the first place. Somehow, it just hadn't felt right. Instead she'd bought a brand new, coach-class ticket.
Cadie was sitting in a window seat on the left-hand side of the plane. The man next to her had already settled in for the 14-hour leg to Los Angeles, turning away from Cadie and tilting his seat back as he pulled a sleeping mask over his eyes. Great. He's going to sleep for 14 hours and I'm going to be trapped in this space. Cadie sighed. I should have asked for an aisle seat. Live and learn. The blonde decided she was far too awake to try and sleep and instead she reached for the airline’s monthly magazine in the seat pocket in front of her.
The truth was she was just looking for a distraction. Despite her words in the note she had sneaked into Jo’s pocket as they had hugged their goodbyes, Cadie was by no means calm about walking away from her partner, even if it was for a relatively short time.
They had flown down from Hamilton Island that morning, both loaded with enough luggage to see them through their respective journeys. They had transferred from the domestic terminal to Sydney’s international terminal and had spent the few hours before Cadie’s flight sitting in the various passenger lounges and coffee shops of the airport.
The American had spent a lot of time debating the merits of telling Jo about her phone call with Toby and it was over a cup of coffee that she had finally decided to break the news.
“He thinks what?” Jo had snapped her head around upon hearing Toby’s theories about Naomi’s latest mind games. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Um, no,” Cadie had muttered, wondering if perhaps keeping quiet might not have been the best option after all. She stirred a teaspoon of sugar into her coffee, not meeting Jo’s intense blue gaze. “He thinks she’s going to be tracking me, though he’s not really sure what she intends to do about it.”
“For god’s sake, Cadie, what do you think she’s going to do about it?” Jo had exclaimed, exasperated. “She’s nuts. I wouldn’t put anything past her.” She dropped her spoon onto the table and it clattered against Cadie’s mug. “That’s it, you’re not going. Come on.” She made to stand up. “Let’s go cancel your ticket and get your luggage back.”
If the expression on Jo’s face hadn’t been so fierce, Cadie would have found her lover’s gesture comical. Instead she reached out and gently took Jo’s hand, pulling her back down in to her seat.
“Jo, sweetheart, let’s be rational about this,” she had said, smiling at her disturbed partner. “What exactly is it that you think she can do?” She had squeezed Jo’s long fingers. “It’s not like she can kidnap me and sell me into white slavery.” The words were accompanied by a wide smile and she watched as Jo visibly relaxed a little.
“Honey, that bitch is not rational, honestly,” Jo had replied, still perturbed beyond belief by Cadie’s news, despite the light spin the blonde was putting on it. “I don’t think she knows right from wrong anymore.”
Cadie had nodded, knowing that if what Toby and Jason had told her was accurate, her 12 years’ experience dealing with Naomi might not be enough for whatever had happened inside the senator’s psyche in the last few months. But she had decided not to voice those doubts to her agitated friend across the table.
“I’m sure she’s gonna try and put on a show for the media,” she had told Jo. “You know, like she did the last couple of days here.” She watched as Jo tilted her head as she listened, concentrating on Cadie’s words. “I’m almost positive that she may try and force me into playing the dutiful, returning, soon-to-be-pregnant wife.”
Jo had snorted, remembering Naomi’s desperate and, to Jo’s mind at least, almost hilarious attempt to keep Cadie by her side by announcing to the waiting media that they were planning on becoming parents as soon as they returned to the United States. Cadie had gazumped that idea by telling the journalists that if she was going to spend the rest of the year making babies, then she was going to extend her Australian vacation for a while longer, in preparation.
“Anyone who can come up with that as a blackmail attempt can come up with just about anything to keep you in the country,” Jo had muttered, taking a sip of her now almost cold coffee.
Cadie had watched the dark-haired woman, trying to figure out a way to reassure her.
“The bottom line is, I have to go sweetheart,” she had finally said. “My visa runs out in two days and I know you’d rather do this whole immigration thing the legal way.” Cadie had ducked her head to try and catch Jo’s rather elusive gaze. “Right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jo had grumbled. “But I don’t have to goddamn well like it, do I?” The Australian had glared at Cadie again, provoking an affectionate chuckle from the blonde.
“No, you don’t have to like it, darling.”
“I swear, if that lunatic lays a hand on you, Cadie, I’m coming after her with the biggest stick I can lay my hands on. I’ll beat the crap out of her.” Jo had, momentarily at least, allowed the angry, dark young woman she had used to be emerge through her eyes and Cadie watched it happen, fascinated. It wasn’t anything she hadn’t seen before, of course but it was only her innate trust in Jo’s control that allowed her to observe it calmly.
“I love you, Jo,” she had said quietly. Immediately the fiery intensity of Jo’s expression had softened into something much more benign and beloved.
“I love you too,” Jo had husked. “You’re going to tell me that you can handle Naomi, and that I shouldn’t worry about it, aren’t you?”
Cadie had nodded, smiling across at her lover. “Yes.”
Jo had sighed, admitting defeat and resigning herself to a few weeks of tortured worry. “Okay.”
And now here we are, Cadie thought as the banking of the plane as it turned to head across the Pacific brought her back to the present moment. I’m getting further and further away from Jo and closer and closer to who knows what. A knot tightened in her stomach at the thought of whatever she was flying towards. This is ridiculous, she decided. I can’t spend the next 24 hours worrying away at this or I’m going to be a wreck. She thought about the long, draining trip ahead. Or more of a wreck than I’m already going to be anyway.
Jo sat glumly in the back of the taxi. Det Harding had booked her into a decent hotel in the heart of the city, not far from the criminal court complex. She had barked the name at the taxi driver and left the rest up to him. Right now the last thing she wanted to do was take in the sights of Sydney, a city that held so many dark and unwanted memories for her. But it was hard not to find herself recognizing landmarks – a nightclub still operating, a restaurant where she’d spent many a night by her former boss’s side – and the further towards the centre of the city they got, the more familiar the landscape was becoming.
At least Ken had the good sense to find a hotel away from King’s Cross, she thought. It would have been too much to find herself in the middle of her old haunts. Too many nightmares waiting for me there, she realized.
Instead she let her mind wander back to Cadie. A glance down at her watch told her that only a couple of hours had passed since her lover’s flight had departed.
Probably drinking a nice glass of champagne and watching a movie, Jo imagined. Wish I was with her. Maybe one day we can make that trip together. That might be nice. I’d like to see where she grew up.
The headline on the front page of the newspaper lying on the seat next to her blared its message. DIMARCO TRIAL BEGINS TOMORROW.
And maybe pigs will fly too, the ex-assassin thought grimly.