Jan knew that he was holding her closer than was appropriate. But it was not close enough. There were too many layers of clothes between them. And a room full of strangers exceeded even his exhibitionist tendencies.
He wanted desperately to be alone with this woman once more. But he knew once would not be enough. Not even having her in his bed for the next nine nights would be enough. He smiled at the words of the song as he drew her even closer. They floated over him as he hummed.
“At times, I’d like to break you and drive you to your knees. At times I’d like to break through and hold you endlessly. At times I understand you, and I know how hard you try. I’ve watched while love commands you, and I’ve watched love pass you by. At times I think we’re drifters, still searching for a friend, a brother, or a sister, but then the passion flares again.”
He had driven this woman to her knees, broken her apart, and rebuilt her. But the idea of breaking through, not just her defenses but his own, had always been the thing that sent him fleeing. That caused him to close his eyes and hide.
As the song came to an end and she stepped out of his arms, they felt emptier than they ever had. But he was no closer to answering those questions in his own mind. As she said, three strikes, and you’re out.
“I need to go back to my cabin.”
“I’ll walk you,” Jan prayed for just a few more minutes with the woman he had thought he would never see again, except in his dreams.
She shook her head. Her smile was fragile and forced, “No, really, that’s not necessary. I can find my way.”
He reached out and took her hand in his. It was trembling. Was that a good sign? “Please? It would be my pleasure.”
“Don’t you have other lonely widows you need to dance with? Something to check on the bridge? Why are you dredging this up now, Jan?”
He watched the tears gather in her green eyes; their color was so clear. They had always fascinated him. How many times had he commanded her to keep them open, to look at him, as he made her come, as he gave her pain? They were even more intense then.
These tears, though, tore at his heart. They had before – that last time. He had wanted nothing more then than to do as in her book: tie her to her bed and take her far from everything that hurt. But she had a daughter that needed her. So, he had let her go back to her life. He had run again, trying to figure it all out.
And another man had stepped up. A man that was not afraid to be there for her. That did not allow one autistic child to scare him away. He had lost her. But she was here now. That man was gone. And her pain rolled off her and over him. What could he possibly say? What answer did he have to give?
He brought her hand to his lips, “You said in that email you owed me. That if I had not given you the pain you needed, reset your sub brain, you would have never had the courage. Never met him,” he could not bring himself to say the other man’s name. He knew that he had no right, but jealousy ate at him nonetheless. “Please, a walk under the stars with the wind in our faces. Old friends catching up. Is that too much to ask, Heather?”
He knew her answer before she spoke. He had watched her face, those eyes, as his words had played upon her emotions. Maybe he should not have, but he would do anything for a few more minutes with her, alone.
“Fine. But I want to be clear. Nothing is going to happen between us, Jan. Not tonight. Not ever again. When you have known love, true love, well, you realize that it is not worth it. No matter how great the sex, second best just is not good enough.”
Her words cut deeper than any pain he had ever known. And he had not thought that possible. Not since he was that boy-man who had loved and lost. Been rejected by the only woman he would ever love and called a pervert and freak in the process.
Part of him wanted to run and hide. But that was what had gotten him into this predicament with this woman. No, he wanted, needed, answers. Perhaps then he could find closure, get her out of his mind.
He nodded his head and laced her hand through his arm. As they walked across the room, he tried to focus on other things, making certain that everything was running smoothly. Jan nodded at a few familiar faces, smiled at some of the crew. But he felt none of it.
Second best. Great sex. Maybe that was meant as some consolation. But it wasn’t. No man wanted to be second best.
As he opened the door to the deck and the cool breeze hit his face, he reconsidered it all. Not just the walk, but did he truly want to know the truth? Did he want to hear about her perfect life? About the man who had the courage not to run and hide?
But he had started this. And once he did, he finished things. “Here, take my coat,” he unbuttoned it and tried to slip it around her bare shoulders.
“No, it’s fine. We won’t be too long,” she shook her head. But he laid the coat across her back anyway.
They walked on in silence for a couple of minutes. The night was beautiful. The North Sea was calm, a stark departure from his thoughts and an unusual occurrence this time of year. Without the light of cities, a billion stars all seemed to burst over their heads. The moon hung huge, not quite full, but close, as it floated just above the waters. Its light reflected on them like something from a Hollywood movie. It was just about the perfect night scene. “It is beautiful tonight.”
She chuckled, “Oh, Jan, even over that first coffee, we could always do better than the weather.”
“Were you happy?” The question that had plagued him for a dozen years sprang surprisingly easy from his lips.
Those tears glistened in the moonlight as they traced a path down her face. “More than I ever thought possible.” She squeezed his arm gently, “I meant it, thank you. If you hadn’t….”
She stopped and stared at the stars, “I don’t want even to imagine what my life would have been like if you hadn’t helped me then. If I had not met Geoffrey. I was at my lowest. But you were there for me then.”
She turned and smiled; though it was weak and pained, it was genuine. “Thank you. For being my friend. For being there when I needed you.”
Jan stepped closer to her, wrapped his arm around her shoulders, and drew her against his body as those tears came faster. “It was my pleasure. In more than one way,” he teased.
Her smile widened through the pain and tears, “I seem to remember I always got the better end of that deal.”
His laugh echoed off the ocean, melding with the sounds of the wind and waves. “I thought we agreed that it was just one big, long orgasm.”
She nodded, then the smile disappeared. “I’m getting off the ship in Bergen. I’ll get a flight back from there.”
“Why? Because of me?”
“No, this was a bad idea. I know that Geoffrey meant well. We had planned this trip for so long. It was supposed to be the honeymoon we had delayed for Maisie’s sake. My chance to see and photograph the Northern Lights. But… But now… Without him… It just isn’t the same.”
“Why did you come?”
“I’m not sure. I guess because he had gone to all that trouble. Bought and left the ticket for me. I thought maybe I owed him this much. But… I overestimated what I could do. Without him, I just can’t handle it. All the people. It’s just too much.”
He turned her in his arms, looked down into her face, and those eyes that hid nothing, “Then let me help. Let me be there for you. As I once was. Please.”
Her fingers on his face were so incredibly tender as they traced the deeper lines around his mouth. He knew he was not the handsome Viking fantasy that he had been when they met. The years, too many regrets, too many sleepless nights, too many unfulfilled dreams, too much Vodka had taken their toll.
But when she touched him like that, with such care, so damned giving. That had always been the problem. This woman gave. Of herself. Without asking or demanding anything in return. It always made him feel terribly inadequate, empty.
“I wish it were that simple.” She stood on her tiptoes and pressed a tender kiss to his cheek. He wanted to turn his head, capture her lips. Remind them both how quickly the passions could flare between them.
But what then? What if it didn’t? Could he handle the death of his dreams? Even if it did, what then? Tie her to his bed for the next nine nights? Then what? What would his life be like when she walked off the ship and out of his life again?
“You’re a great guy. A wonderful friend. But that isn’t enough anymore.” She chuckled and shook her head, “Perhaps it never was. Maybe that was why I never had the patience to wait for you.”
She turned to face him, “I meant it, Jan. After twelve years of the deepest, most abiding love, a love that was so profound, I could never find the words to describe it. Domination and submission that was not flashy or showy. That was just who we were. Not about pain, or rope, or clips and wheels. Not about what we did, but who we were.” The pause said as much as her words. “I’m sorry. But there is nothing you have to offer that can compare to that.”
“So what? How long has your husband been gone? Months? A year? You’re a beautiful, loving woman with so much to give. Are you just going to spend the next twenty, forty years grieving and remembering a dead man?” Jan knew his words were harsh. Harder than he had ever hit her with the flogger or tawse.
“I don’t know. I wish I did. I honestly do. But that’s part of the problem. I can’t even imagine a life without Geoffrey.”
“You’re circling that drain again—your sub brain. Let me help you,” Jan pleaded.
“And then what, Jan? Then you close your eyes and hide? You run because you’re afraid of that honesty between us? You just disappear again?” Her voice held more strength than she realized. But that had always been the case. Heather was stronger than she realized. She always had been.
“I’ve lived and loved with a man. A real man. A real Dom. A man that was not afraid to say or show his love. A Dom that knew to be open and caring made him more of a man and a Dom than any scene ever could. A man that was not afraid to take the chance of being hurt because he knew that being loved was worth it.”
She shook her head, and her voice was as icy as the waters they traversed. “Like I said, why the fuck would I settle for anything less? What the hell do you have to offer that can compare to that kind of love?”
“No, I’m getting off this ship when we get to Bergen. And this time, Jan, this is good-bye. It is final. I’d say I wish you the best. That I hope one day you find that kind of love. Because even now, even as much as it fucking hurts without him. I would not trade one single moment of that for a lifetime of scenes and negotiated rules with you or anyone else.”
“Goodbye, Jan.” This time, she pressed that tender kiss to his lips. But instead of passion flaring, it was only the pain and bitterness of regret. Of dreams lost. She slipped his coat from her shoulders and pressed it back into his hands.
She tore out his soul as she turned and walked away. He realized too late that this was the one woman who really knew him at all. Now there was just an empty space. And her coming back to him was not just against all the odds. He had lived with that for twelve long lonely years. But this time, he had lost her. It was his life that stretched out for another barren two or three decades without meaning, purpose. Loneliness and regret swallowed him.