Jan adjusted his tie in the mirror once more. Tie? He hated the damned thing. But for two years, he had been forced to wear them. Why had he not just quit when they transferred him from the job he loved to this ‘gigolo’ for older women and the occasional man? His excuses about the money to finish work on the island no longer rang true, even to his own ears.
He had bought the place almost two decades before when he was promoted to Chief Mate. The small plot of land in the Aland Islands was his home when he was not at sea. The place he came to rest and recover. But it was to be more than that. It was to be a place where she waited—waited for him. His return. The perfect sub just waiting for her Master’s return.
Over the decades, he had found only one woman who had come close. One woman that he could ever imagine waiting there for him. And she had made it clear almost from the beginning – she was a package deal. Her child would come first. It was a deal-breaker. For both of them.
It had been stupid. A crazy idea. They should have never bothered meeting at all after coming to that mutual decision. What had been the point? Torturing himself with the one thing he could never have. That was what it had been. And he was still doing it. That was what tonight was, too. The latest in a long line of futile exercises in what-ifs. But when it came to her, he never seemed to be able to stop.
Maybe this time would be different. Perhaps he could lay old demons to rest. Listen to her chat for a couple of hours about how blissfully happy she was. Jan could still remember the words of that final email. He had read and reread it often enough. Heather explained how she had met someone who could give her all she needed, who was not frightened away by one autistic teen girl, someone comfortable sharing of himself emotionally, someone willing to commit to her. To them.
He could not be angry with her for grabbing that when it came long. If anyone deserved that kind of happiness, it was Heather. The woman was the most open, giving lover he had ever known. If he were mad at anyone, it was himself. Angry that he had never dared to take that chance. To throw caution to the wind and give it a go.
What had hurt the most, though, was the sincerity he felt in her final parting. She had wished him the best. Specifically, she had implored him to open himself up more to his partners. To truly seek out someone that could make him happy. Except he knew that he had just lost the only woman that ever could.
What was he thinking? Sitting her at his table? Maybe it would be best if he simply messaged his Chief Mate, have Sebastian fill in this night. It was not as if that were unheard of. He usually did so at least once each trip. It allowed the man to practice for the day when it would be his responsibility to charm mature divorcees and widows, and it gave Jan a break from that drudgery.
But not tonight. Never the first night. That was the Captian’s responsibility. It set the tone for the rest of the voyage. No, he had painted himself into a corner this time. There was nothing to be done except get this over with. Face the woman that he discovered too late he loved. Smile as he listened to stories of her happiness and find out why the hell ‘the perfect man’ was not by her side for this holiday.
More than likely, it was her child. Though he supposed the girl would be almost grown by now. Might her disability mean she still could not be left on her own? Perhaps the man had sent her on a trip alone to give her a break from what he knew from their time together could be a heavy burden. Yes, the man was perfect. Certainly a better one than he. Boots he could never have filled.
He pulled his long blonde hair back, screwing it in a ponytail and examining his reflection once more. He supposed he did not look too bad for a man of almost fifty-five. A lifetime at sea had been kinder to him than many of his brethren. But that was another reason the company had transferred him to this floating bordello. To entice and thrill older women with eye candy and charm.
Time for the show to begin. Tonight’s performance needed to be the best of his life. He had not only her to fool, but himself as well. Because there was no way in hell, he was not going to imagine one more night in her arms. He had done nothing else for over a decade. And now she was on his ship.
Heather sighed as she fidgeted with her hands. Maybe that was why women carried those little clutch bags? Not to hold their make-up or the keycard that she had stashed in the band of her stocking, but to give them something, anything, to do with their hands at moments like this.
She stood on the landing at the top of the stairs, looking about the large formal dining room. This was another bad idea. She should not have come. Not to dinner. Not on this cruise. She was about to turn and flee back to the relative safety of her cabin when an older woman took hold of her elbow.
The woman’s face was deeply lined, her jowls hung loose, her completely snow-white hair was her best feature. No, her smile that was warm, welcoming, reassuring, and completely genuine was her crowning glory, as they said. “Are you new, dearie? Is this your first cruise?”
Heather could only nod as she did her best to return the woman’s warmth.
“Oh, aren’t you lucky to be on Captain Jan’s boat then? I have been on dozens of these things. My home in the Highlands gets a bit too chilly in the winters. So, I blow my children’s inheritance by taking cruises.”
The woman’s grip on her elbow never loosened as she propelled Heather down those steps. Her tongue never ceased either. “I have seen most of the world now. But this cruise remains my favorite. The stark beauty of fjords as they rise from the icy waters. And the Northern lights! There is nothing like them. Of course, a handsome young Captain like Jan doesn’t hurt either. That man has all the girls swooning over him.”
Heather was tempted to laugh; she only just managed to keep it in. She doubted that anyone who ‘swooned’ could be called a ‘girl.’ She was most definitely not interested in ‘young’ Captains. She had had her fill of boy toys before she met Geoffrey.
Oh, how different this night would be if she were sharing it with him, as they should be? She felt the tears collecting in her eyes, blurring her vision as she stumbled along in the wake of the woman. Maybe that was another reason for those little bags? To carry tissue? She should make her excuses and leave. “I’m sorry. This was a bad idea,” she muttered to the woman as she tried to pull away.
“Oh, dearie, how long?”
Heather shook her head and looked at the woman in confusion.
“How long since he died?”
She was not sure she could breathe. What irony. That perhaps she too would die from suffocation, just as that last asthma attack had stolen him from her. That was not completely accurate either, but she did not want to think about that right now. She knew that one day she would have to deal with the rest of it, but not tonight. She felt those tears escaping the corners of her eyes, but Heather was past the point of caring.
The woman opened her little gold clutch bag and drew out a handkerchief, an actual to goodness cloth handkerchief with an embroidered letter M in the corner. “Here, dearie. Take this.”
The arms of the woman’s floor-length formal gown were bare, despite the sag of what Heather’s grandmother had called her ‘chicken wings.’ She wrapped one about Heather’s shoulders and drew her closer. The older woman moved them towards the table in the center of the room.
“I know you won’t believe this, but it does get better. It never goes away. That emptiness you feel. Missing him every day. Thinking about all the things that you should be doing together. What he would say about this. It’s been almost a decade now, and I still find meself talking to Collie at the strangest moments. But the pain, it isn’t as sharp, as cutting, as it was in the beginning.”
Heather forced herself to nod. How many times over the past months had well-meaning friends and even complete strangers told her that the pain would get better? Somehow she could not resent it quite as much from this stranger. Perhaps it was the woman’s warmth or the bond of a genuinely shared experience that she heard in her tone.
“I’m Maighread. Me da had a thing for the old Gaelic pronunciations. But me friends call me Maggie. And I think we’re going to be good friends,” the woman smiled as they stopped before the elegant table in the center of the room.
“I’m Heather,” she mumbled as she wiped her eyes and offered the handkerchief back to the woman.
“Keep it, dearie. I keep loads of the things. Just in case. Which table are you seated at? Do you know? If not, we can ask one of the stewards?”
Heather stared at the floor as she fumbled with the handkerchief. She would have to see about buying one of those little bags at their first stop. Or maybe in the gift shop in the morning. She could finally see the purpose of the damned things. “The Captain’s table,” she muttered.
“Oh, how lovely. Then we will be sitting together. Goddess love him; when Jan sees me name on his manifold, he always makes sure to sit me at his table. He really is as sweet as he is handsome.”
Sweet? This Captain Jan must be nothing like hers. She berated herself once more for even thinking that word. The man had never been hers.
There had only ever really been one man who was. And he was gone now. She lifted the hankie once more to dab at her eyes. It was good that she had refused to succumb to societal expectations and did not wear any makeup. Mascara would have certainly run in black streaks down her cheeks by now.
Her new friend, or at least acquaintance, walked around the table, looking at the place cards. “Oh, just perfect. We are on either side of Jan. Wait until you meet the man.” Heather wondered if women in their seventies or perhaps even eighties could have crushes. Maggie certainly seemed to be enthralled with the man.
“So, what do we do now? Are we supposed to wait for him? Or do we just take our seats?” Not that Heather had ever spent too much time worrying about manners or protocol. No, as the parent of an autistic child, you quickly learned that most societal rules made no sense. And you learned to pick and choose which ones you followed. But she was not a parent anymore. Well, not in any meaningful way.
“Since I am here now, that is not a question that needs answered.”
Heather swayed. She felt the firm grip of his hand on her elbow. Just as she had that first time, they met. When Jan had reached out and drawn her through the turnstile in Tilbury. While she could not bring herself to turn and look at him, to confirm beyond all shadow of a doubt her worst fear, there was little doubt in her mind. This Captain Jan Iverson was very much her Captain Jan.
Jan was not sure what he expected. Certainly not the warm and teasing welcome that this woman had greeted him with that first time. But neither was it this pale, trembling, and almost frightened shell that was nothing like the woman he had once known so intimately.
What was the man thinking? Yes, this woman was strong. As strong as the shield maidens who had once ruled his country while their mates were away raiding. But still, there was always a vulnerability that had called to him, drawn-out that masculine need to protect. Why would her husband think it a good idea to send her on this middle-aged ‘love boat’ alone?
He was thankful for his friend Maggie’s girlish giggle that broke the ice, “See, dearie; I told you that Captain Jan makes us all swoon.”
He chuckled, partly to cover the unease he felt as he remembered one particular time he had made this woman swoon. Well, his tongue had. He drew out her chair, not only to seat her in it before she fell at his feet but also as camouflage for the growing erection that strained his trousers much too tightly. Still, he could not resist the temptation, “It is good to see you again, Heather.”
Once he had seated her to his right, he turned to Maggie. He brushed a kiss across her cheek. This woman reminded him of his mother; her straightforward way always put him at ease. That was why he had personally seen to the seating arrangement this evening. “And it is always a pleasure to see your smiling face, Maggie.”
“Always the charmer, Jan. But I did not know you knew Heather. She said this was her first cruise.”
He turned towards the woman he had never been able to forget; she was downing a glass of champagne much too quickly. “Heather and I knew one another many years ago.” Jan caught her gaze before those lovely green eyes that could never hide what she was thinking or feeling dropped to the table again.
“Oh, really? I do love a mystery. I will have to wrangle the answers out of you both, it seems,” Maggie smiled as he pulled out her chair and sat her to his other side.
“Nothing much to wrangle,” he stumbled across the unusual word. While his English was good, it had its limits. Had, in fact, been the stumbling block that constrained his career and sent him into exile as a gigolo on this floating romance novel for middle-aged and older women. “Just ships that passed in the night.”
Maggie looked from him to Heather and back again before lifting her glass of sickeningly sweet bubbly wine. He always wished his was beer, but never more than now. “I don’t know. I smell more of a star-crossed lovers trope here.”
He laughed once more, “That is why I thought the two of you might like one another. Heather is a writer, too.”
“Really, dearie? What genre?”
Heather managed to drag her eyes from the table, though she was careful not to look directly at him as she replied, “Romance.”
Something was definitely off with her. Heather was a talker. He had discovered that on their first ‘date.’ If you could call it that. Coffee in a local shop was the only real place to go in Tilbury. But he had found himself telling the woman more about himself, his job, and his family over coffee than he had women whom he had dated for months.
Of course, it was their imaginary kinky shopping trip around the store afterward that he would never forget. They had walked the aisles of the store, picking up dozens of everyday items. It was called pervertibles, common items that could have a very naughty alternative use. Wooden spoons, rope, and clothespins, of course. But those, even vanillas could guess. But her imagination for others had startled and pleased him. He had felt a kindred bond with her then. One that had egged him into inviting her back to his ship…and his cabin.
He was not taking that walk down memory lane. Not now, not here in a packed dining room. Not with the look that his friend had in her eye. He knew that Maggie sensed something more. But that was in the past. He needed to remind himself of that.
“I always appreciate a good romance.” Was it his imagination, or did Maggie have mischief in that glare that kept going back and forth between him and the woman on his other side? “Are we talking sweet and innocent or those naughty ones with the hot bodies on the cover?” Maggie quizzed.
He could see Heather beginning to relax. Was it the shared bond of writers or the second glass of champagne, which was already half-empty? “Guilty, I’m afraid of the latter,” she giggled nervously.
Maggie sat taller in her chair, “I am only mysteries. Simple who-dun-its. But do tell? Are we talking aliens? Reverse harem? That naughty BDSM stuff?”
“I would not call them reverse harem. My poly tends to the more complex than that. But yes, many of them have elements of BDSM as well. But I have never been very good at the alien stuff, though I have a couple of shifters in my repertoire.”
Jan relaxed a bit, leaning back in his chair to watch as the women chatted about writing, publishing, market changes, and things that were well beyond his expertise. He could tell that Maggie was drawing Heather out, and he was thankful for her role as a buffer.
“Your husband must have been so proud of you.”
Jan frowned; had he missed something? Perhaps this was one of those times when his English was just not quite up to the job. ‘Must have been?’ Wasn’t that past tense? He sat his almost untouched glass back on the table and turned his attention from those old memories to the conversation between them.
Heather’s fingers stroked the rim of the glass. Jan could almost feel those fingers running up and down his forearm as they laid in his bed after their last time together. It had shaken him. How intimate such a casual thing could be. He had avoided her for weeks, almost two months.
And in that time, another man had captured her heart and soul. A man that was far better for her than he could ever be, he reminded himself as he forced his muddled brain to focus on each word they said.
“I’ve never been very successful, at least not financially. But that never mattered to Geoffrey. He always encouraged me to pursue my dreams.”
Jan watched the tears fall from her eyes. He fought down the need to draw her into his lap, wrap her in his arms, and kiss away each one. That had never been his role. He gave her release through pain and orgasms. It was that simple. It was all he was capable of offering. That was why this was a bad idea. What had he been thinking? Selfish. He had selfishly intruded upon her happy life, and her behavior now showed that.
“He sounds like he was a good man, dearie. I can understand why you miss him so much.”
Jan’s stomach and world dropped out from under him. He understood what the captain of the Titanic must have felt. Was. Miss him. His English was more than sufficient to understand those words.
But they brought only more questions. What had happened? They had been so happy. Or that was what she said. And despite his shortcomings and inability to commit to this woman, he could not imagine any man giving her up. Yes, she had been divorced, but that was her decision and for damned good reasons too.
He lifted his glass as she had earlier and drained it in a single swallow. Maggie’s eyes met his. He could well imagine what his face must look like. She smiled as she reached out her hands with their wrinkles, prominent blue veins, and age spots to cover theirs. One hand over his and the other on Heather’s, like some priest offering a blessing.
“I’m sorry, Jan. Didn’t you know? Heather’s husband died a few months ago.”