Jan made a brief stop at the sound booth on the way to the kitchen. It was not that he needed to check on dessert. His kitchen, like the rest of this floating love boat, ran on autopilot. That was part of his problem. No one needed a captain, except the older women who fawned over what he knew were his fading Viking good looks. But discontent with his career, or what had become of it, was not what he needed to escape at the moment.
The revelations of this night were weighing on his mind. She was single again. She was on his ship. And for the next ten days, she was back in his life. So, what now? And what did he want?
When he first received that email twelve years ago, he figured it was just a matter of time. This was not the first relationship she had had since they met. She had ended their ‘friends with benefits’ relationship once before because she thought she had found a ‘real’ relationship. But a few months later, he had received another email. Things had gone wrong, terribly wrong.
She needed him. His Domination, pain, and the most spectacular sex of his life, and he was not being overly arrogant to believe it was for her as well. He had, of course, agreed. The woman was a drug. His favorite. He could never pass up a hit of Heather.
They had agreed that this time they were going to make this a more regular thing. Not just the once every year or two affair that it had been. But every time he was in Tilbury. Once a month. He would taste heaven. Hold the woman who was everything he wanted and needed. Then send her back to her life, while he went back to his. It should have been perfect, just what he wanted. But it wasn’t; it would never be enough.
When he was thirty-five and had just made Firstmate, he had taken every Krona and Euro he had saved and sunk them into a two-hectare island in the Aland archipelago. It was little more than a skerry, but it was his. His home. Or the first he had had since the sea called to him at sixteen.
He was a loner. He always had been. Even in his family, his parents and two sisters were lovely people, but he had never felt he fit. School had been a nightmare. Only the fact that he was a big child kept him safe from bullying. But he had never enjoyed or gotten much from school. So at sixteen, he had been ecstatic to get his first job on a ship.
That was easy. You did your job, you let other people alone, and they left you alone. Some people might think that was an unhealthy or abnormal way to live, but it worked for him. Oh, he could put on a show as this job required. He knew all the right things to say and do, but he found the whole thing terribly pointless and draining.
An island suited him perfectly. An isolated place all his own where he could go when not on duty. His life was routine, twenty-one days onboard and ten off. He used those ten to make improvements on the island, clear land for a house that he had built himself. Then a couple of other outbuildings. The whole time he thought about the woman that he would share it with. His sub.
That, too, was another reason he detached himself from others. For as long as Jan could remember, he had known that he was different. That his needs sexually were different than others. Oh, he had tried to be vanilla. He had worked damned hard at it when he fell in love at twenty-two. But he could not be satisfied with that kind of relationship. And she was not willing to even try his ‘perversions,’ as she called them. She had walked out and taken his heart with her. He had decided then that he would never love again.
But that did not mean he wanted to be alone for the rest of his life either. Two decades ago, when he bought the island, he had been so hopeful. The advent of the internet and kinky websites had opened doors to him in terms of finding a woman who could accept who he was and what he had to offer.
He might not want the traditional family, a wife and children, the way his sisters had, but the world was full of subs. He would eventually find one that was right for him. One he clicked with. She would not mind living on the island; she would crave the Domination and pain he had to offer. She would make the island into a real home. A place he looked forward to coming back to, knowing that she was there.
He had looked hard. Too hard. And in twenty years, he had only found one woman who he could imagine filling that role. One woman that got under his skin. One woman that he clicked with on such an intimate level.
But she was a package deal. She came with an autistic child. Jan had never seen himself as a pappa, certainly not to a special needs child that required more care. So, they both agreed it would never work out.
Except he had been stupid enough to meet her once for coffee, just as friends, of course. That day had been his undoing. It was ironic. The one thing that kept them apart, her dedication to her child, only made him respect her more. And the chemistry? It was unlike anything he had known before or since.
He knew he was stupid, that he would regret it. But he could not resist. He had negotiated her submission that day. Over the past fifteen years, those couple of hours had played through his dreams so many times, and each time he woke hard and reached for a woman who was not and never would be beside him.
He had thought that perhaps that would be it—all he ever had of her. But a couple of years later, she had emailed him. Just to let him know that their afternoon had inspired a book she was writing. It was a good laugh among old friends. But like an addict, the temptation was too much. He had invited her back for seconds.
They carefully negotiated the terms of that scene, too. He was sure that it would not be as good as he remembered. He would meet her, spend the afternoon with her, that would be it. He would be disappointed. He would work her out of his system, and that would be that. He could put her in his past and concentrate on finding a sub that he could have.
Except that was not how it had worked out. If anything, it had been better. The awkwardness and uncertainty of first times were gone. It was two old friends, comfortable with one another. They had laughed and lain together afterward in his bunk talking and cuddling, something he swore he hated.
Jan chuckled as he looked across the room to the Captain’s table, where she was buried in conversation with Maggie. That was the first time she had sat at his table. It was something he had never done. Not with the other women, other subs, that he had occasionally seen.
But something about her, that innocent white sundress that she had sewn herself. Yet he had demanded her panties, he knew her cunt was deliciously bare, and she wore his rope marks on her wrists, ankles, and even throat. It was perfection, a lady at his table and a whore in his bed. She was equally comfortable and proficient in both roles.
But he had run. He had told her that day they would meet the next time he was in port. He had holiday coming, so it would be six or eight weeks before they saw one another. He had spent every single moment of that holiday thinking about her. While he cleared more trees and built what he believed would be a playroom, the big people kind.
Even those few days in Amsterdam, not a single one of the whores he visited had come close to her expertise in bed. None of them could ever be her. No one could. So by the time he was back on the ship, he had made up his mind. He was not going to see her again. Ever. He would forget her and get on with his life. Torturing himself like this was not worth it. She was one sub he could never have. That was that.
Except it was not. She filled his dreams. Even the couple of other subs that he had tested out just could not measure up. So, he came to a decision. He would settle for what he could have. A couple of hours once a month or so was better than nothing at all, right?
But she had found someone else. Another single parent of a special needs child. Someone who was not scared of her life or unwilling to commit to her and her daughter. Her email was painfully polite, but she wanted more than he could offer. He had slammed the laptop closed, and he had tried to drown himself in vodka and other subs, though never at the same time. But it did not work. She still came to him most nights in his dreams.
So when six months later she emailed asking his help, he jumped at the chance. Things had gone terribly wrong. The Dom that she had trusted had abused not just her trust but her. As always, she was more than strong enough to protect her daughter. But rather than being the kind, involved, role model, and daddy she had thought him to be, the man had proven to be controlling. Domineering to both her and her child. When she had called it quits, he had become violent with her.
She had tried going to the police, but as was so often the case, the authorities were unable or unwilling to understand the difference between consensual Dom/sub and abuse. In the end, she had been raped again by that whole process. She and her child were investigated and exonerated by social services and psychologists.
Between the rape, mental and physical abuse, and the whole system, she knew that she was spiraling the drain, as she called it. Heading deeper and deeper into depression. She could not afford to succumb to it. Her daughter needed her too much. She had to get on with her life.
She did not want to medicate her pain, and she had seen firsthand that traditional therapy did not understand her need for submission. They saw submission as weakness. This woman was anything but that. He was not sure that he could have managed half of the shit she had been through. Yet, she remained caring and open.
She had an idea, a crazy one. But if subspace was the release of chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin in the brain, then wasn’t it just possible that she could reset her brain chemistry, bounce back from this experience and depression? If she could get enough pain and Domination to send her into subspace? She was sorry for asking; she knew she had no right to, after tossing him aside as she had. But after what happened, she could not just trust anyone else. He was the only one she trusted. Would he help?
He had strutted around like a peacock for days as his ship made it closer and closer to Tilbury. They once more negotiated what she needed. That day had not gone as well. The person she had arranged to care for her child ran late, the train was off schedule, and she had lost her whip out of the bag. She had texted that since they would only have a couple of hours, maybe it would be better if they met another day.
But he was not waiting four more weeks to see her. He commanded her through the whole hour and a half journey. When he met her at the train station, his heart stuttered to a stop. The Dom in him wanted to do as the hero in her book had, capture her, tie her to his bed, and take her home to his island where he could keep her safe. Make sure that no one ever hurt her again. He knew he couldn’t, though. So he did the only thing he could – he gave her the pain she needed.
By the time he took her back to the train station, she was a different woman. After the scene, she had told him the whole story. She had broken down in tears, and he had held her while she cried, reassured her that it was not her fault. That no matter what those shrinks said, there was nothing wrong with her. There was nothing weak or sick about being a sub.
Once more, they had agreed to meet on his next trip. Maybe ‘friends with benefits’ was all that either of them had to offer, she had said. Perhaps she was right. Maybe a couple of hours with this woman every few weeks was as close to his dream as he would ever get. But somehow, it just did not appeal to him. So again, he had run.
The pattern repeated itself. Another email from Heather. Another man. She had thanked him for giving her what she needed. Told him that if he had not helped her reset her sub brain, she would have never had the courage to meet Geoffrey. But he would always be special in her heart, and she hoped that he would find what he was looking for. He deserved it.
It was so final. But still, he held out hope that she would come back to him. He scanned her profile on that website at least once every couple of weeks. Both hers and the man’s profiles shared the same status. Worse, neither seemed to show much activity.
After two years, Jan was tired of torturing himself. He sent a final message to her. Wishing her the best and telling her that he was taking a break from it all. But she knew how to reach him if she ever needed him. He would always be there.
But she hadn’t. Hadn’t emailed him. Hadn’t sought him out. Even when her husband died. For more than a decade, he had waited for an email that had never come. At first, he had tried to do as she asked. Thrown himself back into the search for the ‘perfect’ sub.
He had even tried once. A young Russian woman. But it had not lasted. She was lazy. He came home to a mess. And once he got back, all she did was whine, begging to go to town, to the city. Anywhere to get off the island. Then he had come home to find half his stuff gone and a note. She had found someone else. Someone that would not hold her captive. She was taking some things because she had ‘earned’ them with all her hard work. That six-month experiment had cost him dearly.
It was the last straw. He gave up his dreams. He threw himself into his work. And he drank when he was home. He drank and dreamed of things he would never have. Then even work had turned sour. But he held on for the simple reason that he did not want to spend the rest of his life on that ‘gilded prison’ as the Russian girl called his island.
It had never been the home he had hoped it would be. It never would be. He was fifty-five. He had been working for almost four decades. And he had absolutely nothing to show for it. Nothing to look forward to. Then she stepped on board his ship. And everything changed. Or had it? He was more confused now than he had been. Why had she not sought him out when her husband died?
He studied her. She was thinner than she ever had been. Perhaps society or doctors would think that was a good thing, healthier, prettier. But it wasn’t. She looked drawn, tired. Helvete, even in that fancy dress that hung to what was now an almost the perfect hourglass figure, she looked worse than she had that last time he had picked her up at the train station.
Of course, her hair was almost entirely grey now, but then too, so was his. It looked far better on her than it did on him. And the lines and wrinkles on her face did nothing to mare her inner beauty. The dark shadows and puffiness around her eyes, on the other hand, did.
Why? It all came down to that. Why? Knowing how well things had worked last time, why wouldn’t she seek out his help this time? If nothing else than that. Or had she? Had she planned this trip for that reason? Was it Fate? Or the trickster god Loki having one more laugh at his expense? He had to find the answers to those questions. But so much rode on them. He could not even begin to think about the future…if they even had one. What happened next did not matter until he knew why.
He drew air deep into his lungs and soul as he straightened his jacket. Jan hoped that with it came the courage of his ancestors facing another battle. He forced a smile and started across the room. Dessert. A couple of dances, one exceptional one. But not the first dance of the night. That might frighten her – especially when she heard the song.
Closing his eyes and hiding when the honesty was too much had backfired on him – twice. But if he held her again, would that fear ever subside?
Heather could not take her eyes off him as he walked across the room, stopping at several tables to chat briefly. Making it ever closer to the chair right next to her. What then?
She should run. Excuse herself, and just leave. Go back to her cabin and stay there until they docked in Bergen. Then take a flight straight home. Home? Was it any more? Without Geoffrey, it did not seem that way anymore.
And Maisie? Her daughter, who she had sacrificed everything for, no longer needed her. She was a usurper in her life now. But that was how it was supposed to be. Children grew into adults. Even autistic ones. She could not be prouder of the woman that Maisie had become. So much of that, too, was thanks to Geoffrey.
Now was the time that they had planned for. Their time. They would do all the things they wanted to do, including this cruise.
But she was here alone. Just as she faced the future alone. Another couple of decades or more of nothingness stretched out in front of her. It was enough to make her want to throw herself overboard. Except for the pain, she knew that would bring Maisie, and the fact that was not how Geoffrey would want her to honor his memory. Honor the remarkable love they had shared for a dozen glorious years.
“We can’t live in the past, dearie.” Maggie’s words could have been Geoffrey’s.
Heather smiled weakly at the woman and returned the gentle squeeze on her hand as the waiters began to disperse the selection of desserts.
“Crème Brule or chocolate mousse? Which are you having?” Her new friend continued to chatter on.
Jan took his seat next to her. Small ramekins of each appeared on the dessert plate before her, “Try both.” He leaned in and whispered, “You have lost too much weight.”
If she had a dessert fork, she might have stabbed him, but the spoon would do not sufficient damage. Instead, she picked it up and stabbed the caramelized sugar coating on top of the creamy vanilla custard, pretending it was his heart. Well, perhaps that would be a bit too radical. Maybe his butt. Yes, that would be the perfect punishment for a Dom.
Of course, it might have ramifications. Uber Doms, like Jan, did not believe they were ever wrong and certainly did not deserve punishments. Those were for subs. But even as she thought it, she knew she was not fair to this man. He had never had the rigidity or arrogance of an Uber. In his own way, he had always considered her needs every bit as much as Geoffrey had. But she was not at a place to think about that right now.
The smooth, rich, subtle taste was comforting. Her brows furrowed; she would have to be careful. She had not found comfort or solace in food in close to a year. Her new slimmer figure attested to that. And she wanted to keep it that way.
She was shocked at her vanity. Why should she care if she was a size fourteen or forty? It was not like she would ever get naked and nasty with another man or even a woman. As for healthy? What was the point of living to a hundred now? Another four decades without Geoffrey seemed unthinkable. So, why was she worrying about eating two desserts or gaining a couple of pounds?
She licked the last of the Crème Brule from the spoon as she debated whether or not to try the chocolate mousse. She was still undecided as a spoon of the fluffy, dark brown goo appeared at her lips. “Eat,” that voice was not tentative or cajoling this time. If he had stealthily couched the salmon in his role as host, this was pure Dom. And it irritated her.
But her sub brain opened her lips as the flavors burst on her senses. Bitter. Sweet. Creamy. With just a tad of fruitiness. The Crème Brule had been excellent, but this was chocolate. Chocolate which was incredibly well done.
Jan smiled, and the lines around those icy blue eyes that had always fascinated her crinkled a bit more than she remembered. Then again, twelve years was an incredibly long time.
She could not even remember what color her hair was the last time they had met. Black? Purple? Red? And the skin of her cheeks, jowls, and neck definitely sagged more than it had then. The doctor had tried to get her to let him correct those as well while she was under the anesthetic. But she was not interested in erasing the badges of courage that went with aging, only the disgusting rolls of skin that came with pregnancy, overeating, and weight loss. She had no desire to be some plastic doll, merely be able to fit in her clothes properly.
She reached for her spoon on the corner of her plate, but before she could lift it, Jan brought another bite to her mouth. Those eyes held hers as he continued to feed her. There was an intimacy to the act that she did not want to examine too carefully. Especially when he took a bite from the same spoon. He leaned in so close that she swore she could feel the rough wool of his jacket brush her bare shoulder, “Incredibly sweet, though I have tasted sweeter. But not in a very long time.”
She knew that her cheeks must have been flaming red as she opened her lips for the final bite. Looking around the table, she realized just how obvious a show they had put on. Though at least she still had her knickers on, and there were no ropes burns. But from the shocked and disapproving expression Margo wore, there might as well have been. She wanted to laugh out loud at the image in her mind of the woman if she arrived at this Captain’s table as disheveled as she had that other one.
As she moved her eyes to Maggie’s kinder visage, it was like sharing some unspoken joke with a dear friend. Like Maggie knew what she was thinking and concurred. She smiled as Jan stood up. He held out his hand in her direction. At first, she thought it was for her. She was not sure she was ready to spend three or four minutes held in this man’s strong arms.
But she did not need to have worried. “Mister Leadbetter, may I have the honor of your wife’s first dance?” Jan poured on the charm so much that even Margo blushed like an innocent sixteen-year-old on her first date.
“You can have all of them for all I care. I’m not much of a dancer,” Gerald replied before turning back to converse with the woman on his other side about recent market upheavals.
Heather watched as Jan led the woman to the dance floor as the slow eighties ballad began to fill the room. She was a bit surprised at how easily he guided his partner through the steps. This suave persona was starkly different from the rough seaman she had known.
Margo smiled up at him as he said something. Not that she cared. She was not jealous. She picked up her napkin and dabbed the corner of her mouth before laying it on the table. She turned to Maggie, “It is getting late. I should go back to my cabin, but I hope to see you again.”
“If you’ll wait for a couple of minutes while I dance with Jan, then we can walk back together, dearie. I’d like to arrange to meet for breakfast tomorrow.”
What would a couple more minutes matter? She really would like to spend more time with this woman. Whether that was because they were both writers or widows or just this woman’s kindness, it did not matter. Heather nodded and smiled as Jan escorted Margo back to her chair, holding it out for her, then kissing her hand. He was perhaps a little too good at this job. Not that she cared. She was certainly not jealous.
He then turned to Maggie, “May I have this honor, Maggie Mae? You know that I always look forward to our dances.”
He was definitely good at his job, as even Maggie blushed prettily like a young girl. She left her bag and napkin on the table as she stood, winking at Heather. “I’ll be back in a few moments. Don’t go nowhere.”
She nodded as they made their way to the dance floor, bringing her glass of champagne to her lips once more. It was difficult to keep count of how many she had since the waiter seemed to refill it every time she sat it down. But it was probably way too much.
“How do you know the Captain?”
Heather heard the disapproval in Margo’s voice. She had spent too many years around women like this. Women who disapproved of everyone and everything, especially their husbands. Cold. Frigid. She was not sure whom she pitied more them or their husbands. Everyone lost in those marriages.
“I’m sorry. We just met, so I don’t think I need to lay my whole life on display for you.”
“Well, I’ve never. I was just trying to make conversation,” Margo replied as she lifted her patrician nose just a tad higher in the air before turning her back on Heather.
She sighed; she knew that she probably should not have been so honest with the woman. She knew just how sharp her tongue could be. But she was tired, incredibly tired. She was exhausted, not only from the shocks of this day but from months of grief. That meant, what few filters she did have, did not necessarily work when she needed them.
She was considering breaking her promise to Maggie and going back to her cabin alone when he took a seat next to her in Jan’s chair. “I meant what I said. I would like to spend some time talking with you. Hearing your perspective on autism, BDSM, and psychology,” Dr. McAllister intruded on her thoughts.
Would this night never end? What had Geoffrey been thinking? What had she? They both knew that these things stretched her limits sometimes to the point of breaking. “The cruise is another nine days. Perhaps at some point. But I’m just too tired right now to think about any of that.”
“Too tired? Or too preoccupied with other things?” The man turned to stare at Jan and Maggie, dancing and laughing like old friends.
Whoever coined the phrase ‘polite’ society either had a kickass sense of humor or had never spent much time in it. Heather shook her head, “Quite frankly, Dr. McAllister, that is none of your fucking business. I am not your patient. Nor your date. So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be going before I say anything else I won’t regret later.”
She had not even gotten fully to her feet before a masculine hand gripped her elbow. She was about to shake it off and tell the little shrink precisely what she thought about him and his profession, when she looked up into Jan’s cool blue gaze.
“I believe that this is our dance.” Turning to the other man, he added, “Then I’ll escort you back to your cabin as I promised.”
“That’s alright, Maggie and I….”
She did not have the chance to finish as he held out a card, “I’m sorry. Maggie said she was not feeling well. She asked me to explain and give you this.”
Heather nodded and took the card that had the woman’s cabin number, ten a.m, and the name of another of the ship’s half a dozen restaurants on it. “Thank you. But that is not necessary. I am sure that you’re busy, and I can make my way back to my cabin by myself.”
He shook his head, “No, it is my pleasure.” His hand on her elbow tightened a bit as if he realized that she was considering pulling away, arguing, and fleeing. But she supposed she had given these people enough fodder for their gossip this night.
Besides, it probably was better if they cleared the air between them in private. Whatever had once been, she supposed she did owe this man some explanation. Without his help, she might never have found the courage to reactivate that online profile, might never have met Geoffrey. Were one dance, a five-minute walk back to her cabin, and the truth too much to ask?
“If you’ll excuse us. I have other duties to attend to. If you need anything else, my First Mate Sabastian will be happy to assist. Good night,” he smiled at the table.
He led her onto the dance floor as one slow song faded away. She smiled and chuckled as the first notes of the piano solo floated on the air. When she had heard this song over the years, it always brought this man to her mind.
He drew her into his arms. She noticed that he held her far closer than he had Margo or Maggie. Her choices were limited: she could stare up into those icy depths or lean her head on his chest. That seemed the safer option as the music and lyrics wrapped them in a cocoon of nostalgia.
“The honesty was always too much when we touched,” she had not meant to vocalize her feelings.
“Yes, it was, and I always made the mistake of hiding,” Jan drew her even closer.
This was not the Captain dancing with another passenger. She knew that anyone looking at them could see that. She felt that to the bottom of her soul.
Her mind and her body were at distinct war. Her once wanton body that had been almost as dead as Geoffrey, was suddenly resurrected. This man had always known just how to play it. Perhaps he was even more technically proficient at that than Geoffrey had been, but that was comparing apples and oranges. This man had never made love to her the way that her husband did. She was not sure Jan even knew what that was. Sex was sex with him.
Her heart knew that. Knew that after years of making real love, just sex would never be enough. Could never replace what she had come to know. Second best, as good as it was, just would never be enough.