This was a bad idea. Heather Sampson tilted her head back, squinting into the bright mid-morning sunlight. What had Geoffrey been thinking? She brushed the moisture from her eyes with the back of her hand.
She would never know. Just as she would never again engage his brilliant mind in debate about some esoteric topic. He was gone. Almost a year and the pain still felt like it would crush her. She shook her head, trying to clear her mind as she stared at the cruise ship.
Two days ago, she had been safely ensconced in their home. Well, perhaps a better word might be ‘hiding out.’ As she had been for the past year. Heather had pushed away all their friends. She was good at that. It was Geoffrey who had always been the buffer between her and the outside world. That buffer was gone now too. All she had was a grown daughter who did not need her anymore.
She swiped once more at her eyes and swallowed to clear the lump in her throat. It was not supposed to be this way. They were supposed to grow old together. He had promised her thirty-five years — one for every year that she had searched for Mr. Right.
Instead, they had barely more than a decade. It was not fair. Life was not fair. After a lifetime of searching, two failed marriages, and too many lovers to count, Heather had finally found what she needed in Geoffrey. Intelligence. Strength. Kindness. Patience. Everything a man should be.
She drew in a deep, cleansing breath. There was no use continuing that line of thought. She had been down it a million times over the past months. There was no answer. Geoffrey was dead. Simple as that.
The question was – what now? And she was still no closer to that answer than she had been that day almost a year ago when the doctor had walked through the A&E door. She knew just by the look on his face. And no amount of denial was going to bring back the man she loved.
Geoffrey had made sure that she and Maisie were cared for, whether it was a blessing or a curse. Her daughter had become his in every way that mattered, including inheriting the house that he had bought for them as well as a trust fund. Heather had insurance money, more than she would ever use.
That should have been a comfort. One less thing to worry about. Instead, it had become a crutch. Heather had not had a job in two decades. Her autistic daughter’s needs had consumed all her time and energy. Until he had come along, then the three of them had somehow just clicked. Become the family that Heather had always dreamt of.
But now that too was broken. Maisie was off to college, something that they had imagined, planned, and hoped for. And Geoffrey was not there to celebrate their victory. He was not there to do all the kinky things they had planned – once Maisie left.
She gave up. This time Heather did not attempt to stop the trail of tears that cascaded down her cheeks. What did it matter? Tears changed nothing. They certainly did not bring Geoffrey back. They did not even lessen the pain that was as sharp now as it had been that day when the consultant said, “I’m sorry….”
She thought about turning around, getting a taxi back to the train station, and a train back home. But it was not her home anymore. Oh, the will had given her the right to live there for the rest of her life. The thing was, a twenty-two-year-old college student with her first boyfriend did not want her over-protective mother living with them. And that was as it should be. But it still left Heather back to that same place – what now?
Two days ago, Stuart, their friend and Geoffrey’s financial consultant, had shown up at the house with a package. Inside was a letter and a ticket. A ticket for the cruise that Geoffrey had promised her when Maisie was independent enough.
Heather wanted to tear up both. The idea of this cruise without him made it all feel fresh again. Like stripping a band-aid off a wound. A suppurating wound that just would not heal. That was what her life had become. Geoffrey was gone. Maisie had moved on. But she could not. Where was she to go? What was left for her?
She wanted to run. But she had no place to run to. His strong arms that she ran to for twelve years were gone. The flesh was probably rotting from the bones by now. Just as her life was rotting like one of her tomatoes left too long on the vine. Neglected.
Oh, she had tried. She had walked. Sometimes for hours on the Gower, lost in her grief. The weight that she had worked for so long to lose had fallen off. That tended to happen when you forget to eat. Her aging body began to sag even more, like an empty bag, until that became a health issue as much as a cosmetic one.
Finally, three months ago, she had worked up the courage to have the tummy tuck she had always joked with Geoffrey and Maisie about. What did her fear of not waking up from the anesthetic matter? Would that be so bad? Would death be so bad? But she had woken up after the surgery. And despite a body that was three sizes smaller and looked better than she had since she was thirty-five, life still sucked.
As she recovered, she had lost herself in writing. What else was there to do since she could not wander the Gower lost in thought? Only read and write. She had almost finished her first novel in over two years. But she could not bring herself to show it to anyone. The story was too dark, too bitter. Even her writing left her feeling empty. What was the point? She did not need the money.
A voice over the PA system broke into her thoughts. A final boarding call. She fingered the ticket in her hand. What did she have to lose? She had lost everything that mattered almost a year ago. Sure, she still had Maisie, but that did not count, not when her daughter did not need her anymore.
She sighed as she rubbed the ticket between her fingers. Didn’t she owe this to Geoffrey? Hadn’t he gone to the trouble to plan this? She shook her head, knowing that sometimes there were no answers. Even when you wanted and needed them most. The only thing she could do was put one foot in front of the other. Join the queue with all the others.
There seemed to be an over-abundance of women, most older even than her fifty-nine. Correction, sixty. She would be sixty when she left the ship in ten days. A sixty-year-old widow, twice divorced, and with more lovers than was fashionable, even for a man her age, if you believed such bullshit. But Heather still had no idea what to do with whatever remained of her life. It was not supposed to be this way.
It could not be. Jan Iverson watched the passengers as they boarded his ship. But it was only one that he saw. He would know her face anywhere. It was the one that had filled his dreams for almost two decades. One he had thought never to see again after that email twelve years ago. He shook his head. No, it could not be her. She was living her happily ever after with some other man hundreds of miles from this Scottish port.
He checked the ship’s manifest on the tablet in his hand. Were they trembling? His eyes scanned the document. Alighting on the name he sought. He clicked on it, bringing up her cabin information. That could not be right. She was traveling alone? Where was he? The man that had stolen….
No, that was not fair. No one could take what was never yours. And while Jan might have enjoyed her body from time to time, that was all it was. All it could be. They had agreed on that years ago. But that had never stopped him from wanting more. Wishing things could have been different for them.
But she had a child. A special needs one. And he had decided long ago that kids were not for him. So, they had agreed. Friends with benefits. Though even that was only a handful of times.
He still remembered each one. They played in slow motion in his dreams every time he closed his eyes. They had for what seemed like forever. From the moment he had first seen her over fifteen years ago? Or perhaps even before that? Those first emails? Certainly when he received that email. The moment he knew that this time, he had lost her forever. Even then, he had refused to give up hope. She had had other relationships. It was just a matter of time. She always came back to him.
Why wouldn’t she? It was the most spectacular sex of his life. But it went beyond that. The kink they shared had blown his mind. Never had he been with a sub who surrendered so naturally, who entrusted herself to him so completely.
But he had blown it. Three strikes, and he was out. It was his fault too. He was the one that always pulled back. The one who, was the term, ghosted her? Too long between meets, between emails. What else was he to do? The woman had gotten under his skin. To hold something in your hand. Something that you craved for practically your whole life. And know that you could never really have it. Never own it the way you wanted and needed. Hell, yeah, he had pulled back. He had to, to keep perspective, to maintain his sanity.
None of that answered the critical questions, though. What was she doing on his ship? Why now? And where was the man that had finally given her everything that he could not? Those answers were not in the manifest. But he had ten days. Ten days to find out. And he knew just where to begin.
Jan motioned for the young ensign standing a few feet away as he scribbled a note on one of the cards he kept in his pocket. “Take this to the woman in cabin 1221. Tell her that she is to sit at the captain’s table this evening for dinner,” he passed the card to the man.
He wondered if the name would ring any bells with her. She had never known his last name. It was one way they had kept it casual. But would she think of another Captain Jan when she saw it? Would she remember the other time when she had sat at the captain’s table?
Though that was so different from this, a lifetime, it seemed. And sitting at the captain’s table on a cruise ship was far different than being the only woman in a room of fifty men on a cargo one. He had so enjoyed parading her before his men then. It had filled some sick need to stamp a sign of ownership upon her. Beyond just the bruises, bites, and rope marks that she always left with after their little rendezvouses.
He looked back up, but she had disappeared into the crowd. He double-checked the manifest. To assure himself that it was not all an illusion. Another of his warped dreams. Another fantasy of having that which was not and never would be for him. No, that was her name. She was on his ship once more for the next ten days. He had no illusion that they would pick up where they left off. She was happy. She had made that clear in the email. She sure as hell deserved it. And he would not do anything to endanger that happiness.
But where the hell was he? The man that had become all to her that he never could be. Jan would certainly never allow her to travel alone like this. Didn’t the man know that these cruises were dangerous? Maybe not in any physical way, but there were always men, young and old, who came on board to take advantage of women. Women traveling alone, and there were plenty of those to choose from.
Jan forced his mind away from those thoughts. He had things to do before they set sail. And he would have time this evening over dinner to get answers to those questions. And he would get answers. He would make sure that she was not one of the women that fell victim on this cruise. He owed her that much, at least.
He owed her so much more. He wanted so much more from her and with her. But some things were never meant to be. One day he would learn to live with that. One day she would not haunt his dreams — one day. But today was certainly not that day.
Heather surveyed the tiny cabin. It had taken her less than ten minutes to unpack and organize everything just the way she wanted. OCD. Obsessive-Compulsive, though she refused to add the word disorder. Though she knew that her older daughter Megan, with her degrees in psychology, would. For Heather, it was a harmless coping mechanism. Of course, that was only one of the many things upon which she and her eldest disagreed.
Neatness had always been one tool that she used to hold her world together. As a single mother, in her career, and certainly those blessed years as a homemaker. Disorder was not an appropriate description for such an asset. Especially now. Without the stability that Geoffrey had brought to her life.
She smiled as she re-examined the room. It was perfect, precisely as she would expect from him. Low key. Functional. Modest. He might have been a millionaire Daddy Dom, but the man knew the true value of things: love and money.
Heather had not known his net worth until over a month into their relationship. By then, she was already committed, right down to those three magic words. She knew he always appreciated that. Hell, leave it to her to find the only charity shop millionaire. It was the title of one of her most famous stories, loosely based upon their courtship.
Her eyes locked on the unopened envelope on the bedside table. She knew she needed to read it. But since Stuart had brought it in the package with the ticket, she had not been able to face it. She just could not… This cruise was to have been her sixtieth birthday present from Geoffrey, their delayed honeymoon. He had bought the tickets, two of them, weeks before… Of course, Stuart had seen to the details of canceling the other one.
A knock on the door tore her from her reverie; Heather rose and took the two steps necessary to reach it. She opened the door to the young porter, practically hidden behind a bouquet. That was not like Geoffrey. He knew that she preferred her live plants. “I think you have the wrong cabin….”
The man double-checked the sign next to the door, “No, the Captain was quite specific. Cabin 1221.” He held out the flowers with one hand and a business card in the other.
Heather shook her head even as the man pressed the flowers into her hands. She turned and placed the vase on the tiny table in the corner of the cabin. It would serve as a desk as well as a place to eat any meals she chose to take alone, which would likely be most of them. She rummaged through her bag, finding some change to tip him.
“Thank you,” she smiled as she took the business card and pressed the money into his hand, glad that she had remembered to stop at her bank yesterday to get a supply of small bills for just such things.
She closed the door before looking down at the card. Captain Jan Iverson. She frowned, then chuckled. “Captain Jan.” It had been years since she had thought of the man. Unlikely that there was any connection. Her Jan had captained cargo ships.
Her Jan? No, that had been the problem. The man had never been hers. It was not merely that they had never been anything more than ‘friends with benefits.’ She had had a number of those over the years between her divorces and before meeting Geoffrey. No, the problem with him had been how closed off he was. Shut down from any emotional connection.
Sure, the man was still the most technically proficient of her plethora of lovers. As a Dom, he was noteworthy as well. But none of that mattered without some connection, something more emotionally. She had always known that, but it was not until Geoffrey that she had truly appreciated just how important it was. No, for all Jan’s skills with ropes, floggers, and his tongue, she would not trade a lifetime of that for one more single night in the arms of a man who truly valued, appreciated, and loved her.
She shook her head; why would she even think of the man now? Obviously, the name triggered some memory. Still, in the almost year that Geoffrey had been gone, she had never once thought of any of her other lovers — never been tempted to email any.
Hell, she could not even remember the last time she had masturbated. For a woman who prided herself on her hypersexuality, that said something. But sex was not making love. Geoffrey had taught her that too. She felt the tears slipping down her cheeks once more. How many had she cried over the past year? Yet, they never seemed in short supply.
What was she doing here? This was a bad idea. Geoffrey might have thought it an appropriate present, going so far as leaving the tickets with their friend, just in case… But this was the trip they had planned to take together. Together. The honeymoon they never had because the responsibilities of caring for Maisie back then were too much. Not that he had ever minded.
“Stop it. Just stop. This never gets you anywhere.”
Heather looked around the cabin seeking any distraction. Something to clean was always preferable. But in such a small space, the maids had left her nothing to do. It was too late in the day to make any headway with her writing. That had always been an early morning thing when her mind was fresh and fueled by caffeine.
And honestly, writing no longer gave her that same sense of satisfaction it once had. She had not even bothered to update her website or publish anything. The words, even when they came, no longer flowed as they once had. Her muse seemed to have abandoned her every bit as much as had her sex drive, her zest for life, her will to go on at all. But the goddess had not seen clear to take her from this life, so she went through the motions.
Walking. That would do. Perhaps the ship would not offer the Gower’s natural beauty, but the fresh sea air always cleared her mind. It would get her out of the cabin too. Away from walls that felt too close and memories of all the plans they had made for this trip. Together.