Heather genuinely could not breathe this time. Her hand flew to her throat as she felt herself strangling on more of those damned tears. Panic rose in her mind as she struggled to force oxygen past the lump in her throat. Was this how Geoffrey had felt in those final moments? Her vision blurred even more. Was it from tears or the lack of oxygen?
What did it matter? Since the night that doctor walked through those A&E doors, she had heard and said those exact words hundreds if not thousands of times. Why then did they sound so final when this woman, this kind stranger, said them? And why, oh, why did it have to be in front of him? Jan’s presence loomed over it all.
She struggled to stand, to flee, but the room swam around her. She felt his hand on her elbow again and battled down the conflicting desires to push his hand away and escape. Or to fling herself into his arms and once more beg and plead for the oblivion of pain and orgasm that he had always brought her so easily. Especially in the most trying of circumstances.
And nothing had ever been more trying than these past few months, not even that other when she would have sworn that all hope was crushed. But thanks to Jan and the release of subspace that he gave her, she had risen from those ashes like a Phoenix. She had put one foot in front of the other. She had survived one day at a time. Until she found him. Met Geoffrey, and her life became so much more than just settling for ‘friends with benefits,’ second best, and surviving. And for a time, it had all been so perfect.
But that was all gone. It had been for so long that she feared she was forgetting what his arms felt like when he cwtched her. What his lips tasted like. His smell. Hell, if not for the hundreds of photos she had, she feared that she would forget his face. Perhaps believe that it had been nothing but a dream — a brief interlude between nightmares.
She was unsure if he guided her or if she merely dropped back into the chair from her half-standing position. She felt the glass once more pressed into her trembling hand, lifted to her lips. “Here, drink,” that voice of command once brought her comfort.
And some part of her begged for her to give in, just give in and allow this man to bring her respite again as he once had. But she could not. Geoffrey had spoiled her for all others. She knew, understood now, the difference between what was real, deep, and abiding and what was only fleeting, temporal, and meaningless. And this could never fill the hole in her soul left by true love.
The water hit her parched throat. It soothed it, making it easier once more for her to breathe. “Thank you.” She sighed as she looked up at Maggie, “It was nice meeting you, but I really should go.”
“No,” his deep, slightly accented voice held that same command she had once found so easy to obey.
“What, Jan, is trying to say, dearie, is that hiding away in your cabin won’t lessen the pain. I know,” Maggie smiled as she squeezed her hand.
It was not that either his command or Maggie’s plea swayed her but rather that Heather doubted if her legs could hold her up long enough to make that journey back to the cabin. She was lucky as their food began to arrive then.
The bisque soup starter was far posher than she was used to. Geoffrey might have been a multi-millionaire, but his taste ran to the plebian. Her tuna pasta had always appealed more to the man than any fancy restaurant. Then again, she knew that this menu was not what Jan was used to either. Or what he had once been accustomed to anyway.
She was relieved that Maggie, sensing her fragile state of mind, seemed to have distracted Jan into conversation. It appeared the woman had not been exaggerating; she was such a regular on these things that she seemed to know as many people as he did. They chatted at length about the comings and goings of various people.
The woman, on the other side of Heather, had tried to engage her in conversation as well. But she was good enough at reading people to shut that down. It was too easy, really. When the woman complimented her dress, Heather told her that she had bought it in a charity shop. That neatly ended any further intrusions from that sector. Had she seen a smile on Jan’s lips when he overheard that comment or was it whatever latest gossip Maggie was sharing? Not that it mattered to her either way.
Choosing the entre was a bit of a challenge. One of those moments when her sub-brain would have deferred Geoffrey. It was not that she was too stupid or weak to decide between salmon and steak. She was more than capable of making good decisions, as the past few months managing Geoffrey’s estate had shown.
But sometimes, especially moments like this when she was hurt or confused or just plain tired, it had been so wonderful to say ‘You decide,’ knowing that you could truly trust the person making that decision for you. It was just one of the million things she missed about Geoffrey. She picked up her glass of water, taking another sip before her throat closed, once more, making breathing a chore. She noticed that the menu shook in her other hand and laid it back on the table before anyone else noticed. Maybe she should go back to her cabin now?
Jan knew he was stumbling, failing to do his job. Entertaining the guests, making them feel special, was as crucial to his career as the oversight of the ship now. And he was not on his game. He could not remember half of what was said, who had said what, or even their names without looking at the place cards. It was not like him. Thankfully, Maggie picked up the slack, keeping the conversation going with the other guests around the table.
No, she had his full attention. His mind was still spinning with the revelations of this night. Obviously, she had loved the man every bit as much as that email had said. The intensity of her grief was real and almost overwhelming.
He remembered another time when this powerful woman had been shaken to the core like this. He remembered, too, that back then, she had come to him for help. She had sought him out to give her the release she needed. She had said that she trusted him, at least then. So, why had she not come to him this time?
She could not even hold the menu without it shaking, and the tears never completely went away. Helvete, there were a couple of times he had almost wanted to command her simply to breathe. No, this was worse, worse even than that other time. So, what had he done to lose that trust? And he must have. Otherwise, she would have come to him again, right?
He watched as she brought that glass to her lips. He remembered other things that those lips had caressed. He shifted on his chair, trying to find a more comfortable position. His cock had not gone down since he saw her across the room. It had been half-hard since the moment he saw her board earlier.
But, the question was, ‘What now?’ The husband, who had stolen her from him before he could untangle his conflicted emotions last time, was gone. There was not a single reason they could not resume their ‘friendship.’ If she could manage a ten-day cruise alone, perhaps her daughter was no longer the impediment that she had once been? Was there the possibility of another chance with her? Not that he deserved one, he knew that. But he knew that if he were that blessed, he would take it.
That was a long way, though, from this moment. He could sense it. Her sub-brain was spiraling down the drain as she had once described it to him before begging him to take charge, give her pain, and push the reset button as she called it. Would she allow that once more? If nothing else, it was the least he owed this woman he could never forget.
“The steak is excellent, but I recommend the salmon. It is freshly caught in the Scottish streams, and our chef is a master with the herbs,” his words were common enough. He had said them to hundreds of other passengers in the past couple of years. But his tone of voice was not. That was pure Dom. Her Dom – or he once had been, all too briefly.
She hesitated for a moment. What he would give to know her thoughts. Then she inhaled deeply. She laid the menu on the table and smiled at the waiter, “Salmon, please.”
It should not matter so much; something so simple should not matter. But her submission in such a little thing caused hope to flare to life in his mind and heart. He wanted to stand up, excuse them both, and take her back to his cabin. Give her what she needed to reset that incredible brain of hers. This woman was, after all, the smartest and strongest he had ever been with. Perhaps that, too, was what made her so unforgettable.
But not only did he have a job to do, he knew that he could not push her too far too soon. So, he gave her some space, focusing his attention on the couple to her other side. They were too arrogant for his taste, but he did his job. He had learned to deal with people of all sorts over the past two years.
Which was why he always valued his time alone on the island. It was finished now. Or at least, he had completed the work he had planned for it. As much as his introvert valued the refuge, it just did not feel like the home he had hoped to build. It was lonely and barren without someone to share it. There had been a few women over the years that would have been happy to take that job. The one attempt he had made did not bear thinking about. No, the only one he had ever felt fit the role he had let slip through his fingers – thrice.
Was he going to make that mistake again? He certainly hoped not. How many times over the past dozen years had he lain awake in his bunk on the ship or his bed on the island thinking of all the things he should have done or said to this woman? Now he had one more chance. And Jan knew that this was his last; there would be no more. Now that Fate had given him what he had wanted most, he had to take that opportunity.
But he also had to tread very carefully. She was so incredibly fragile. He could feel that somewhere deep inside, and it called to the Dom in him to protect and cherish this sacred of trusts. If she would let him. That was the question.
“Bon appetit,” he nodded to the table with far more grace than he felt as the food arrived and was served. He picked up his fork and brought a bite to his lips. He knew that his chef was one of the best, but the flavors did not register this night. What he wanted to eat sat next to him. He could almost taste her. A delicacy that had been missing for much too long, one he craved to savor again.
Heather brought the first bite of the salmon to her mouth. Why had she done it? Why had she allowed this man to virtually order dinner for her? Yes, she supposed it was his role as Captain to recommend items on the menu to guests. He had probably done it many times before.
But his tone of voice. She doubted it was the same. And why did the very idea of him using that commanding tone with other female passengers bother her? It was not like she had any right to be jealous of who this man Dommed or anything else. She never had. Never. That had never been part of their deal.
She tasted the fish. Even as disinterested in food as she had become, she had to admit it was excellent. That, too, irritated her. Why did he have to be right? She forced another bite down. She would eat her dinner. Excuse herself before dessert. Then go back to her cabin.
And what? Read a trashy romance? Cry some more? Perhaps she would take another walk around the decks instead. That always helped. How many hours had she spent doing just that these past months?
“Do you like the food, dearie? Paulo is such a wonderful chef. Everything that man cooks is excellent. But I am partial to the salmon. I think we Scots always are,” Maggie tried once more to engage her in small talk.
The trouble was that small talk was something Heather had never much enjoyed. Oh, she loved to talk. Once she got started, she could not stop. But not ‘small talk,’ not inconsequential things. No, she liked to talk about the important stuff: the purpose and meaning of life or even books, politics, religion, philosophy, or history would do in a pinch.
“Yes, it is very nice,” she hated to admit in front of him. “How long have you been writing?” If she must settle for small talk around the dinner table, at least, it could be something that interested her.
“As long as I can remember. But it was not until my children grew up and left home that I had any real time to write. Of course, that was over thirty years ago. What about you, dearie?”
Heather smiled at that word. Everyone was dearie to this woman, and she seemed to use it liberally. But she could not fault Maggie; each one seemed genuine. “Like you say, writing seems a genetic disorder you are born with. I have been writing almost since I began to read. But it was not until my second marriage started to fail that I got serious about it. It was a way of escape, I suppose. I posted a few stories on the internet. Looking back, they were horrid. But people liked them and commented. It just sort of grew from there.”
“Second marriage? How many times have you been married?” asked the woman to her other side.
Heather was more than familiar with that look and tone. She had long since stopped caring what people like that thought of her. “Three. Two dudes and a stud,” she knew she was pushing the woman’s button, and she enjoyed it. “But you know what they say, three strikes, you’re out.” It was Jan to whom she turned for this final comment.
Maggie, goddess love her, laughed heartily at her flippant humor. “I don’t know; seems to me once a filly has a good taste of a stud, she will want more.”
“Horses? Was someone mentioning horses? Ah, now there’s an excellent topic,” the woman’s husband turned from the man he had been speaking with. Heather fought hard not to spew the water in her mouth across the table.
“No, dear, no one was talking about horses,” replied his wife with another of those looks.
“But I clearly heard filly and stud, Margo.”
“Yes, but more in romantic terms than horseflesh, I’m afraid. Sorry to disappoint you, Gerald,” Maggie fielded this one.
“Oh, dear, terribly sorry. Most definitely not a subject that I would have any knowledge of,” he stared pointedly at his wife.
“Indeed,” Margo replied as she lifted her champagne glass and smugly sipped.
Heather was not sure that she could stifle this giggle. It bubbled inside of her. The first genuine one she could remember since that night. Perhaps she had underestimated these people, or at least their value for comic relief. She bit her lower lip to hold the mirth inside. She had just about succeeded, too, when Maggie winked across the table at her. That was it; it erupted forth. She quickly covered it with a cough, though. Not so much for the woman’s sake but for her husband. Heather always felt a bit sorry for those hen-pecked types.
She froze when she felt his hand on her mostly bare back. The air left her lungs in a great whoosh as the tingles along her spine bypassed her brain and went directly to other parts of her anatomy. Parts this man had once been intimately acquainted with.
“Here, perhaps a sip of water will help,” he smiled knowingly.
Heather doubted that even a cold shower would do much good at the moment, but the glass was as good a distraction as any. And an opportunity to change the subject back to something more comfortable, “You write mysteries, did you say, Maggie?”
“Oh, yes, dearie. I’m no Agatha Christie, of course. But enough people seem to enjoy the bloody things to indulge my little travel bug with cruises a few times a year. The old house just isn’t the same without Malcolm. Seeing new things and meeting new people give me a distraction. And quite a bit of fun,” Maggie nodded her white head slightly and smiled at the couple who had turned their attention elsewhere.
“But I want to hear more about these naughty novels of yours? So much more juicy and spicy than some old who-dun-it. Poly and BDSM? How interesting? Do you speak from your writer’s imagination or experience?”
“A bit of both, I suppose. Not so much with the poly. That has never been my thing. While I believe it can work for some people. Perhaps with the stress on the earth’s resources, it may even make sense environmentally. It has just never been my thing. I’m hardwired for monogamy. A one-man kind of woman, I’m afraid.”