Cliff Cross was preparing to sail up the coast of the French South Pacific territory of New Caledonia and was in port in the capital of Noumea topping up with diesel and water.
He'd been ten weeks sailing up the Australian northeast coast visiting places and then crossing the Coral Sea attempting to find adventure and caught the attention of a nosy shark when he was swimming fifty yards away from his 42 ft sloop.
It gave him a series of scares and a big adventure story to relate at the yacht club when he returned home.
But it was the only adventure he'd had to that point that released adrenalin. The shark had decided it wasn't mealtime.
The long-time weekend sailor was over his injuries. His ex-wife had called on him with her two brothers the night the papers ending her marriage had arrived. The three of them had beaten him badly. She was such a vindictive bitch, one of the reasons he'd divorced her, and he'd never again marry on the spur of the moment.
His mom said his recklessness over sex would be his undoing and if those three bastards had arrived with axe handles it may well have been the end of him.
He grinned proudly when recalling one of the brothers had gone off in an ambulance with a broken jaw, a collapsed lung and seven broken ribs and he'd managed to lay his ex-wife out cold as she was about to bang him with a cast iron skillet.
The second brother, suffering only a bleeding nose, was attempting to garrote Cliff with an electrical extension cord when the neighbors piled into the kitchen to sort out the melee ahead of the arrival of the cops.
The incident left him with cuts and severe bruising and both shoulders broken.
Bloody good neighbors were the Boswell's and McKenzie's, salt of the earth.
Cliff looked up to the wharf and up the dress of the woman who had an Australian accent.
Not bad pins, he thought. Pity she was wearing panties.
"Take me cruising."
He'd thought she'd said to take her cruising.
"You're deaf. I'll come down."
"Nah I'll come up. I was thinking of going off for machine coffee."
He stepped on to the marina wharf and thought Jesus, she was almost as tall as he was and that was a short six foot one. He called it short because these days he had a slight stoop. Well he was thirty-seven.
She introduced herself as Nellie Kingston.
"What with these freckles?" she murmured, appraising him with her steady blue-eyed gaze.
"You look to be in good shape," he said, scanning her breasts.
She ignored that close attention.
"I have $1000 dollars I can pay you to take me cruising."
He sighed and said he was happy sailing solo.
"I knew that. I've had your yacht under observation for two days and haven't seen a sign of anyone else on board. You swim a lot."
"That's because I like swimming."
"I don't know. Come for coffee. How old are you?"
Nellie smiled and said she was thirty-one and was a schoolteacher on a long summer break.
That made Cliff grin and decide he liked her. She'd practically spat out the words 'God no' and yet hadn't gone on to say all men are assholes. She probably didn't waste her time thinking perpetually something she already thought she knew.
"Why my boat?"
"Well there are many other cruising yachts here but there are mostly families, over patriotic Americans or Australian and New Zealand guys on an epic and disgusting beer swilling and sex adventure. I wanted quite cruising and I was hoping to convince you to take me and not to pester me for sex."
"I said you were pretty. I didn't say you were sexy. Anyway how would I know if you were any good at sex?"
Nellie smiled expensively and Cliff, a marine insurance assessor, thought that smile would have been triggered by her thinking she liked him.
She said she liked the way he thought and as he stood aside to let her go into the food joint, she smiled and said thank you.
"I'll get the coffee. Food?"
"Yeah a steak sandwich if you're paying. Hot mustard. Um thanks."
"My pleasure although I must say I don't usually fete males."
"Are you lesbian?"
Nellie snorted and that was as good as a no and told Cliff it was likely they would fight to verbal exhaustion because he didn't believe in shutting down any dame and losing a row.
She returned with a tray of two coffees, a very thick steak sandwich and for herself a modest egg sandwich.
She had the audacity to demand, "If I am to sail with you, you'll have to moderate your abrasive way of speaking."
"No way. I don't believe in shutting down for any um female."
"I rather thought that would be the case. You're obviously a New Zealander."
"Well aren't the compliments flying this morning?"
She smiled. "Where would I sleep?"
Cliff eyed Nellie steadfastly. "Safe as a bug in your hotel room."
She eyed him and said, "I see. Well let's talk about this stubbornness of yours."
Cliff felt secure, as solid as an anchor. But he'd overlooked that with Nellie being a schoolteacher she'd honed her negotiating skills dealing with unruly kids.
* * *
They motored out at dawn two mornings later, a couple of dozen seagulls and a solitary fisherman watching them chugging off.
The reply Cliff received was the look a schoolteacher gives a troublemaker.
"Please don't overwork your attempts at humor as we'll have long days at sea."
"You may walk around nude. That wouldn't be scary enough to make me jump overboard."
"Well that is one of the things we hadn't discussed. Thanks and you have my agreement to go around nude as well. It would be unlikely to trigger sexual surges, right?"
Cliff yawned and said he though he'd told Nellie during negotiations that his urges were presently shelved.
She smiled and scratching an ear lobe muttered something that sounded very much like fucking liar but there was no way he could be certain. He decided to listen to her more carefully. Perhaps he was need of company to get his ears and other things back in tune?
Cliff had supervised the construction of the yacht to his design and the wheel was almost hard aft, allowing the helmsman to converse with crew sitting forward on side seating. Nellie was sucking in salt air and watching the seabirds and he thought although she was a bit lean he'd willingly fuck her. There was a fair amount of tit meat to work on.
The deal was she'd do all meals so she said, "What time would you like breakfast?"
"Thanks for asking but meal times are mostly immaterial to me. You are free to decide when we eat."
"I admire this boat. It is well thought out but I must say it's no family boat."
"I thought you said you know nothing about boats and sailing?"
"I sometimes lie. I didn't want you to become too eager to take me to sea before I could gauge your character and tolerances and self-control and be very sure you didn't regard this as a cigar-smoking cruise leaving me to do all the sailing and then trying to get me to bend over for sex."
"Yeah well I lied each time I gave you the assurance I wouldn't pester you for sex."
"Yes I knew that. I didn't come down on the last shower and it must have occurred to you I'm use to dealing with little liars."
"Uh-ha. Then why did you come?"
"Because they are many things about you I don't find objectionable and have remained confident throughout that you'd not force me to have sex. Now have we done with all that enlightenment?"
"Yes when can I see you nude? That shouldn't blind me sufficiently to obscure any further enlightenment."
"When I'm ready. I would appreciate being left for a little while to sense my freedom."
Those words alerted Cliff. "You sail, don't you? You fucking liar. I bet you father has a 50-plus footer and..."
"Yes and there's no need to shout. Actually Lady Kingston is 72-feet and is fitted out for Blue Water racing."
"Aha I knew it, you fucking liar. And I bet you adore sex."
"Please don't overheat yourself behind the wheel Cliff. I don't want you having a coronary so soon into my days of cool cruising. Now shut up and let me feel my freedom."
Cliff decided he was in love with her. He'd known he'd fall for someone eventually, it would have to be female, and probably when he'd least expected it. Nellie couldn't move her body like that without having a profound feeling of sensuousness and he was confident not only her girlfriends got to enjoy administering to her body.
He snorted under his breath, "Old maid schoolteacher my ass."
He cut the revs of the motor. That slowed them by half a knot but reduced the noise.
She murmured thanks, leaned back and closed her eyes.
He was not to known Nellie was beginning to feel at peace at last. The end of year (summer in the southern hemisphere) had dumped dreadfully on her.
* * *
Nellie's family had been in an uproar after her mom had walked into their bedroom one Saturday morning when she returned unexpectedly early from shopping, suffering a headache and what she found made her feel even worse. There she found her husband having sex with her best friend.
Both families had a bleak three weeks but the two women were got back talking and Nellie's parents were no longer discussing divorce.
During that trauma, the principal at Nellie's school had attempted to have sex with her when he caught her in the toilet during the school end-of-year staff party. She'd kneed him in the balls and elbowed him between the eyes. Someone found him and he was lead off to be patched in the sickbay.
Nellie wrote out her resignation and handed it to the school administrator.
That evening the police arrived to take Nellie in to be interviewed about a serious allegation of assault on her headmaster.
Nellie's dad followed her to the station and being the managing partner of a major law firm in Sydney he represented her at the proceedings. The lying complainant had two lawyers with him.
The chief inspector listened to the school principal and then Nellie give their versions of what had happened.
After that everyone waited while a police surgeon examined Nellie. He reported she had no lacerations but two deep bruises were appearing on her shoulders in the spots where she'd alleged she'd been held and forcibly pushed against the vanity unit.
The chief inspector asked, "Have you anything further to allege Mr Payne, any amendments to your claims perhaps?"
The school principal spoke briefly with his senior legal counsel and said, "No I want this out-of-control woman charged with assault and sent to jail."
"Nothing further to add Inspector Walsh."
"You are a lying scumbag Payne and my professional advice, unsolicited, is to drop this ridiculous charge forthwith and pay my daughter $5000 in voluntary damages. If this ridiculous complaint of yours gets to court and you continue with your fabrication, I'll do my utmost to nail you to the dock by convincing the Judge you have lied through your teeth and committed perjury most foul against one of the finest teachers under your care."
The complainant's shoulders slumped.
After conferring briefly with his legal adviser, Inspector Wash said the police had no interest in taking this matter any further. If the Mr Payne wished to test his case in court he could do so as a private prosecution.
Outside the police station the senior lawyer representing Mr Payne came over to Nellie and her father and said, "My client asks would you accept a payment of $5000 and agree that payment ends this matter in all respects."
Bruce Kingston said to his daughter, "Is that what you want or do you reject it and we proceed to attempt to get Payne sacked and stripped of his accreditation as a teacher?"
"I'd prefer to take the money and run."
"Are you sure?"
"Right Roger have a check for $5000 drawn on your firm's trust account delivered by hand to my office at 10:00 tomorrow and Nellie will be there to sign and have her signature to document witnessed confirming her acceptance of the payment ends all action by her to seek legal redress in this matter involving your client's complaint."
"My client is not admitting guilt Bruce."
"This is no time for sick jokes Roger. That filthy bastard should swing. That was my daughter he was attempting to have sex with against her will. Christ Roger..."
"Okay Bruce we've got the message loud and clear. This is an appalling incident."
As Bruce drove off he said, "By Christ I'd love to meet that jerk Payne in a car park at night."
"Leave it dad. I fixed him up good. He still looks cross-eyed and that egg between his eyes in grotesque. Also his balls must be up like cricket balls. I timed my knee slam perfectly. Poor bastard. Little wonder his wife left him several months ago, he's a right pig. But dad leave him alone. If you don't you'll answer to me."
"Well you certainly gave it to him darling. Those self-defense courses you attended when at university have proved worthwhile. What will you do now?"
"As I said, I'll grab that check and run. I'll go beachcombing, probably New Caledonia, and contemplate my future."
"Will you take Mark with you?"
"Mark is due for a Dear John letter dad. I'll call him tonight and say au revoir."
"I approve of that. He's too hard for my likening. You need a guy with some softness and sweetness, a guy who can see your aura."
"Please dad, don't give me that challenge. All those guys have been taken."
"Look for a loner Nellie. That's the type of guy who runs deep and will do superbly with my grandchildren. You are thirty-two and that's getting on."
"Oh thanks dad. Are you and mom back to having sex?"
"I'll put in some hard work for you before I leave, probably on the 27th. Christ dad, anal with Betty Lucas. Nothing disgusts mom more that hearing people talk about anal sex and yet she sees you doing it on her bed to her best friend."
"It's half my bed as well."
"Try telling that to mom or a Judge dad and see where that gets you. You men can be so thick and so insular and so unreal."
Nellie awoke and knew she was at peace. The breeze ruffled her hair and the slap of water caressed her ears like sweet music. She knew instantly that was water against a hull.
They were sailing.
She sat up and stretched, knowing Captain Cross's eyes would be tracing the outline of her nearest breast, stretched against the cotton fabric of her polo top. She thought of jiggling it for him.
Nellie looked back at the wheel. But he wasn't there; they were on self-steering.
She then smelt bacon and cussed, thinking the poor guy would be hungry and she'd let him down.
Nellie entered the saloon and yawned and said, "Hi, what time is it?"
"A little after 10:30."
"Omigod, I've let you down on my first day. I am so sorry."
"We are cruising baby, anything goes so long as we don't place ourselves in danger. It's fine."
"You are so kind," she said, wondering if he ran deep and could read auras.
"You looked so peaceful asleep I couldn't bear to awake you."
"Omigod I wish my dad could speak so gently to my mother like you have just done. What a wonderful think you said to me."
"Well the alternative of kissing your ass and yelling get my breakfast was unappealing even to me."
She laughed and his gaze jerked back to her and he said, "That was a real happy sound. You appeared a little uptight until now."
"Well I'll take the coffee up and you come with the food when ready. I'll then tell you about my awful month of December up to the time I left Sydney three days ago. Some of that will explain my comment about how I wish my father could deal with my mother more sympathetically."
"Is your father in big business?"
"He's managing partner of a large law firm."
"Don't you think that means being uptight is a carved path of life for him? It's difficult to be soft and sympathetic when you carry big responsibilities on your shoulders on a daily basis."
"Gee I've never thought of it like that. I always think of dad as dad, um except when I am in his office and see him taking calls, something using two phones and people coming to the door and calling to him and he looking at me, smiling reassuringly, having said the interruption would not take long before he was in the clear and could resume talking to me. It would be like that most days for him I guess."
"And mom growls at him when arrives for midweek lunch. I've been there when she's done it and he just smiles and says sorry and when she goes on he smiles and gives little shrugs. Omigod."
"It pays to have empathy and as well it's fair to acknowledge it's the life he chose for himself."
"Perhaps I'm a deep person."
"What color is my aura?"
Cliff glanced at her and said it's...no I shouldn't be talking like this. Food's ready. Off you go with the coffee."
Nellie whispered to herself that Cliff could see auras, or at least she thought her could. Perhaps she'd misunderstood what he was saying.
Out of habit (in the skipper's case out of necessity) they both scanned 360 degrees as they emerged up the companionway and rechecked the course they were sailing for anything untoward from a mostly submerged shipping container if they could indeed spot such a hazard to a ship or any disturbed water. The alarm-equipped radar was on but nothing and nobody was infallible in every situation at sea.
Cliff erected the custom-built collapsible table and he chose to eat facing her rather that sitting beside her.
"Right I'm listening," he said, cutting a piece of bacon and Nellie told him about the anal sex incident and the sexual assault on her by the school principal.
"Wow you have had an upsetting time," he said. "For what it's worth I think you handled both incidents admirably apart from resigning your job instead of negotiating with the authorities for a transfer."
"You should be pretty proud of yourself in getting your parents to cuddle. Your mother would feel terribly wounded but your little speech that life goes on obvious struck the responsive chord it needed to have the necessary impact."
She almost purred when saying, "It was tough but at least they committed to taking the first steps, pushed by me saying I wouldn't leave unless they attempted positive reconciliation."
Cliff appeared to be contemplating something. Finally he said, "My ex wife was frequently at me to engage in anal. Finally she pushed me over the top and we got it underway. The disgusting think about it for me was much later after a row one night she told me one of her brothers had introduced her to anal. I placed my hands over my ears in case she told me which brother and she jeered, 'Cry baby, cry baby' and I slapped her, not too hard, in fact not hard enough because she picked up a chair and broke it over my back, felling me to the ground."
"We started off really okay but in the third year things began falling apart and it became very difficult living with her. I suspect she was on drugs but never found evidence of that. I finally filed for divorce and our marriage was dissolved just over two months ago and soon after that I gave up my rented bolt hole and sailed across to Port Macquarie and then up the Australian coast to Rockhampton and then over to here."
"Oooh what a lovely sail. What was the highlight?"
"Looking up at you on the wharf two days ago."
"Oooh. When do you have to be back home?"
"I took six months leave of absence with the agreement of my three partners. We are marine assessors and are contracted by insurance companies to make damage assessments and valuation appraisals by insurance companies, which means we can be pretty flexible about taking leave. When someone takes leave he's out of the profit split for that period and the remaining partners work harder and make more money in compensation. It works well."