These are the first two chapters to Safe Harbor, one of my earliest Suncoast Society books. It’s set mostly in the area of Tarpon Springs, which is a locale very near and dear to my heart, since I grew up nearby.
Enjoy! (Not safe for work, though.)
[Ménage Amour: Erotic Ménage a Trois Romance, M/M/F, Consensual BDSM, public exhibition]
Clarisse seeks refuge from her abusive ex-boyfriend on the Dilly Dally, her uncle’s old fishing trawler in Tarpon Springs, Florida. She doesn’t expect to find Mac and Sully, the Dilly’s sexy new owners, on board making love.
They’re at first startled by her appearance, then outraged by the injuries her ex inflicted. They insist she stay with them, and with nowhere else to go, Clarisse agrees.
Both men find themselves falling for Clarisse, but she can’t bring herself to completely trust Sully, a former cop, like her ex. She’s shocked to discover the men aren’t just lovers either, but full-time Master and slave in a BDSM relationship. As she learns more about their history and lifestyle, she uncovers her own hidden desires. When danger from her past returns, can Sully and Mac provide Clarisse a Safe Harbor?
A Siren Erotic Romance
Someone—she couldn’t remember who—once told Clarisse Moore how lucky she was to have Bryan Jackson as her boyfriend.
If they could see me now.
Clarisse huddled deeper in her seat in the bus station lobby, her legs curled under her to keep her feet warm. The denim jacket she wore over her hooded sweatshirt proved no match for the cold Ohio January breeze that flooded the depot every time the door opened. Which at this time on an early Tuesday morning seemed remarkably frequent and made her even more nervous.
The bus wasn’t due in for another twenty minutes. Clarisse couldn’t help but scan the parking lot for Bryan’s car. No way he’d let her leave without a fight.
If not for his fists, she could deal with the rest of it. Mrs. Moore didn’t raise her daughter to be a punching bag. The first time, he got a freebie because she was too scared to report him. That time, he apologized and reined in his anger for a few months, until he gradually returned to his old, angry ways. Over the past few months, his rages had increased until he snapped yesterday morning.
He wouldn’t get a third chance.
By now, Bryan had already found all her things gone. She’d stashed her stuff in a storage space on the west side of Zanesville. Raquel would care for Bart, her dog, until she got settled and came back for him and her belongings.
Clarisse figured Bryan would be angriest about the bank account. At least she’d left him a hundred bucks—more generous than she should be, considering how he’d blown through her inheritance. She’d ended up with ten grand out of the original hundred thousand, nine of which she’d already deposited in a new bank account. She had a thousand in cash on her.
She couldn’t risk using credit cards.
Raquel had begged and pleaded for Clarisse to file charges this time. Reluctantly, she did.
He had beaten the crap out of her Monday morning. They didn’t arrest him because there were no witnesses or proof he did it beyond her word against his. He claimed his innocence. The police opened a case file and took her statement. She got an emergency restraining order against him, and the department put him on paid administrative leave.
Against her, the fact that Bryan’s father was best friends with the chief of police—Bryan’s boss. Late that afternoon, an unidentified man called her cell phone and threatened her unless she dropped the charges. She refused. Clarisse had been sitting on Raquel’s couch when the call came in. After she hung up, she smashed the phone with her foot. It was in Bryan’s name. Why the hell would she want it when he could probably track her with it?
Then she found “FAT FUCKING BITCH” deeply keyed into her car door when she returned to the house later that evening. She’d only been inside ten minutes. Clarisse had stopped by to drop off the car and take one last look around for anything she couldn’t bear to leave. Raquel had been following only minutes behind her. Clarisse raced inside the house, then out the back door and through a small patch of woods in case anyone had been watching the street.
Yes, she felt that paranoid. Justifiably so.
He’d registered the car in his name, even though her inheritance had paid for it—let him get it repainted. Served him right. She also didn’t want him following through with his threat to report the car stolen if she ever left with it. She didn’t know if he really could do that or not, but she wouldn’t risk it.
It was easiest this way. New start, new life. No more being screamed at for not folding his shirts just right. No more merciless harassment about her size sixteen frame.
That had been his favorite target lately, the one thing she’d not been able to immediately rectify about herself to curb his anger. Her hips would always be round, her thighs would always be full, and she would always be a little broad across the beam. At five-six she wasn’t obese, just amply rounded and curvy, but still no match for Bryan’s hulking two-hundred-plus pounds of muscle once he unleashed on her for talking back to him and telling him to fuck off.
As Raquel had said, he’d bitch no matter what, so the fewer reasons she gave him, the more he had to invent. Then their argument gave him a prime reason, so he claimed.
Still, she knew she had to get away fast. The restraining order would only protect her for a little while. He’d always teased that he could kill her and no one would know it, that his dad would get him out of trouble, that she could never outrun him or find a place to hide where he couldn’t find her. Maybe he’d be in jail by the time she came back for Bart and her stuff.
She patted the key ring in her jeans pocket, the keys she’d frantically searched for and finally found buried in a small box full of mementos. A cherished memory of an old, nearly forgotten life. Three keys, hopefully ones leading to her freedom.
The bus pulled in. She hefted her bags and painfully made her way outside. After the driver stowed her luggage, Clarisse boarded. Relieved, she sank into her seat and tried to relax.
Clarisse always thought of herself as relatively smart, which made it even more inexplicable to her that she fell for someone as controlling, manipulative, and dangerous as Bryan Jackson.
* * * *
By the time the bus pulled into a station in southern Ohio, Clarisse was ready to jump off to use a real bathroom. When the driver assured her that she had time, Clarisse raced inside. With relief, she finished and washed her hands.
She flinched when she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. The shiner looked horrible, the eye still nearly swollen shut, both her blue eyes red from crying. Thank God he hadn’t broken her nose. The split upper lip hurt like hell. She knew without looking that the black-and-blue bruises over her kidneys would take time to fade—as would the marks on her thighs and chest where he kicked her when she curled into a ball on the floor.
She pulled her baseball cap lower on her head and didn’t bother threading her long, black hair through the back. She could keep her head down. Her hair hid the worst of her wounds from others.
Back on the bus, she settled in her still-warm seat. Fortunately, no seat mate. She pulled the hood of the sweatshirt she wore under her jacket over her head, over the baseball cap, and stared out the window as the bus rolled south throughout the morning.
Her last look at the Midwest. No more brutal winters. She’d miss Bart like crazy until she could get him, but getting out fast was her priority.
Getting out alive.
She’d thought about flying. Bryan might have called the airport, so she didn’t. She didn’t know how that worked, only that he had threatened he could track her no matter what and prevent her escape in anything other than a body bag. He knew that she despised taking the bus. She’d sworn she’d never ride one again after a less-than-stellar cross-country trip with two of her friends after high school.
Maybe it would stall him. He might be a cop, hopefully soon to be ex-cop, and yes, he worked in the computer division, but he wasn’t a freaking psychic. Armed with her mom’s old driver’s license, using her name and paying cash for the ticket might slow Bryan a little more. Thank goodness she’d held on to that. She’d found it in the box with the set of keys.
Clarisse tried not to think about her mom and dad. It hurt too much. She left knowing that unless Bryan went to jail, she couldn’t risk visiting their graves one last time.
Despite her exhaustion, she couldn’t sleep. Instead, she watched the miles and country flow past the window as the day rolled into evening and the bus drew closer to Columbia, Virginia.
She spent the six-hour layover for the bus to Myrtle Beach counting the number of snack packages in one of the vending machines.
Blessed numbness had settled in. Emotional detachment.
At least it marginally overrode her pain.
Then she realized she couldn’t sleep. Every time a car pulled alongside the bus and stayed there for any length of time, she nervously waited to see if Bryan or one of his buddies was driving.
By the time the bus reached Myrtle Beach, Clarisse’s exhaustion had carried her into the realm of jittery, paranoid anxiety. The term “sleep-deprivation psychosis” swam through her mind as she stood waiting her turn at the ticket counter with her bags at her feet and her mom’s driver’s license in her hand. The black eye and split lip proved an asset at this point. She resembled her mom closely enough that the ticket clerks didn’t question her.
She patted her pocket to ensure the keys were still there.
That had quickly become a nervous, calming habit. She didn’t dare take them out of her pocket for fear of dropping and losing them. Stupid to think they’d even work, but it was her only chance.
At least she’d had the sense not to buy her entire trip at once. She didn’t want Bryan waiting for her at her destination. Yes, he could track her if he got that far, but hopefully he’d be running around Rapid City looking for her.
Clarisse had taken the time before she left to use the house phone to call an old high school friend who lived in Rapid City. She’d warned her old buddy that Bryan might come looking for her. Clarisse said she might head out that way, possibly to Spokane where another old friend lived.
Red herring. Isn’t that what they called it?
She closed her eyes and startled awake when the clerk called out to her.
Clarisse shuffled forward. “Tallahassee, please.” One more leg. She’d checked the boards. Take a bus to Tallahassee or wait five more hours for one to Miami. The bus to Tampa left in three hours, but that was too close to her final destination for her comfort.
How many hours, days, since she left? Time blurred. She didn’t know for sure what day it was, only that she hadn’t slept in the twenty-four hours from when Bryan beat the crap out of her early Monday morning, until she stepped aboard the bus in Columbus early Tuesday. Or more than catnaps since. That meant it had to be at least late Wednesday.
She thought she dozed off on the bus. Either that or her mind had gone. On the last leg of her journey, exhaustion claimed what little fight remained in her.
“Where to?” the Tallahassee ticket clerk asked.
“Do you have anything to Tarpon Springs?” Clarisse swayed on her feet while the girl looked it up.
“I do, a bus going to St. Petersburg stops there on the way. It’s leaving in two hours.”
* * * *
Clarisse hoped Uncle Tad still docked at the same marina. She didn’t dare use the disposable phone yet. She’d bought it on the way to the bus station in Columbus, wanted her calls slower to trace. Now, some time after midnight Thursday morning, Clarisse could barely speak due to exhaustion. The cabby dropped her off at the marina.
Clarisse sobbed with relief when she spotted the Dilly Dally docked in its berth. The fifty-foot fishing trawler was a beautiful sight.
Maybe the most beautiful sight in the whole world.
Oh, thank you God!
She didn’t have a plan B. This was her only plan, and it belatedly hit her she could have called the marina from Ohio.
It didn’t matter now. She was here, and so was the Dilly.
Clarisse slung her duffel bag and purse over her arm, yanked the handle on her large rolling bag, and carefully made her way down the familiar dock. She struggled with her bags, somehow muscled them on board without dropping them into the drink. Her hands trembled as she fished the keys out of her pocket. She studied the wheelhouse door lock.
Please, please, please…
She needed both hands to fit the key in the lock. Then she closed her eyes, and…
Clarisse cried. She quickly dragged her bags through the door and into the wheelhouse and closed and locked it behind her. All the while, tears coursed down her cheeks. She pulled her stuff downstairs through the main cabin to the small bow V-berth cabin she used to use. Despite the tight fit, she wrestled her stuff inside and shut the door behind her. Cold inside, but warm compared to Columbus. She didn’t want to risk turning on lights or cranking the generator or engines to start the heater. Clarisse didn’t know if the Dilly was hooked to shore power, and, frankly, she felt too tired to look.
Apparently Uncle Tad had become a better housekeeper than he used to be. Otherwise, not much else had changed.
Clarisse left her jacket and sweatshirt on, fell onto the bunk, then sank into immediate darkness.
* * * *
Her dreams took her back to high school, when she spent summers and weekends with Uncle Tad and Aunt Karen, learning how to shrimp, fishing, working on the boat, and enjoying herself. Before she moved to Columbus with her mom and dad.
Before she met Bryan.
Before Aunt Karen and then later her parents died.
She hadn’t heard anything from her uncle in nearly two years. She worried maybe he’d moved or sold the boat. Calling him wasn’t an option because Bryan tightly controlled and monitored the home and cell phone bills. Before leaving Columbus, she’d risked calling Uncle Tad’s old phone number from Raquel’s cell phone. She received a disconnected number message.
She hadn’t told Raquel that, afraid her friend would talk her into not going to Florida on a potential wild-goose chase.
But the Dilly still sat here in her old slip.
At least something had gone right for her, finally. If she’d stayed in Columbus, anywhere within a thousand-mile radius of Bryan, he’d kill her. She believed that with every sore bone in her body.
Clarisse slept throughout the morning and straight through the day. She never even stirred when the boat gently rocked as two men climbed on board a little after five o’clock that afternoon.
“So, Captain, what’s on the agenda?” Sullivan Nicoletto playfully asked his partner.
Brant MacCaffrey arched an eyebrow at him. “You’re a real ballsy guy for someone who’s stepping into my domain, aren’t you?”
Sully grinned. “You know I enjoy it, Mac.”
“You try to yank my chain, I might find a few new interesting ways for you to spend the weekend on the water.” He grabbed a box of groceries off the dock and handed it over the side to Sully.
“As long as I can pay you back on dry land, we’re copacetic.” Sully winked, his grey eyes twinkling.
Mac cranked the diesels and let them idle. Fifteen minutes later, with everything stowed in the galley and their familiar routine complete, Mac checked the gauges and set the GPS. “Okay, go ahead and cast off. I want to be at the head marker before low tide hits.”
Sully untied the lines, neatly coiling and stowing them. Then he took his usual position on the gunwale as Mac smoothly steered the boat out of the berth.
“Clear?” Mac called out.
Sully kept his eye on the final piling. “Okay, now.”
Mac used the bow thrusters to turn them in the marina basin. They cleared the marina and idled down the Anclote River channel toward the Gulf of Mexico. An hour later, they motored into open water and watched the sun set on the horizon in front of them. With the closest vessel in sight more than several miles away, they were virtually alone. Mac set the autopilot and radar guard alarm before he turned to Sully.
Mac held up a leather collar. “Don’t make me tell you.”
Sully rolled his eyes but reached for the collar.
“Oh, don’t even do the eye roll, buddy,” Mac playfully warned. “That’ll earn you another ten.”
When Sully had the collar fastened around his neck, he turned so Mac could affix a small, silver lock to the buckle. “Now what?” Sully asked.
Mac pointed to the wheelhouse door. “You know what I want.”
Sully walked outside to the railing and bent over, placing his hands on it and spreading his legs. “Like this?”
After grabbing a couple of straps from a storage nook, Mac stepped behind Sully. “Damn straight.” With fluid, practiced movements, he securely bound Sully’s wrists to the railing.
Sully looked over his shoulder at Mac. “It’s cold out here.”
Mac pressed his body against Sully’s ass and gripped his lover’s hips. “Yeah, but you’re damn hot, buddy.” He reached around, unfastened Sully’s jeans, and shoved them down his hips. Sully had gone commando. His bare ass prickled with goose bumps in the chilly evening air.
Mac ran his hands over Sully’s ass and squeezed his cheeks. “Gonna warm that up for you real fast.” He stepped to the side and spanked him, leaving the skin red and warm.
Sully tightly shut his eyes. “Don’t fucking tease me, man,” he groaned.
Mac laughed and ground his hips against Sully’s ass. “Payback’s a bitch, and so am I.” He reached around the other man again. This time he grabbed Sully’s hard, throbbing cock and squeezed it. “Doesn’t seem like the cold air’s bothering you too much.” Sully tried to rock his hips against Mac’s hand, but Mac squeezed even harder, which drew a pained moan from Sully. “Uh-uh. No you don’t. You get to come when I say so, and I’m not ready to let you do that yet.”
Sully groaned again
* * * *
Clarisse realized three things immediately upon awaking—the engines were running, from the way the boat rocked she knew they weren’t at the dock anymore, and that her entire body hurt like a motherfucker.
She groaned as she slowly sat up and scrubbed her face with her hands, then glanced at her cell phone to check the time.
The fact that she’d slept more than twelve hours shocked what little sleep remained right out of her system. Despite protesting muscles, she opened the door to the small bow cabin and looked around below decks. No one in sight.
She started to mount the galley stairs to the wheelhouse when through the open wheelhouse door she caught sight of two men on deck. Neither her uncle. The one man…
She ducked, her heart racing and her muscles screaming at the sudden movement. In the dim light she couldn’t see them well, but they both looked hunky. A shorter, brown-haired one bent over the rail with his jeans shoved down past his ass, and the other…
Was that a collar around the brown-haired man’s neck?
The blond man ground his hips against the other’s bare ass. Then he unzipped his jeans and reached for something. She watched as the blond man slicked his cock with lube before sliding it inside the other man. Her throat went dry as she watched his firm, tight ass clench and relax as he thrust into his partner.
“Jesus, you feel like you’ve got bigger,” the man on the receiving end said.
Blondie laughed. “You just haven’t been fucked enough lately. You need to get out on the boat more often with me.” He leaned in close and pressed his still-clothed torso against the other man’s back. “I take your cock without a second thought. I sure as hell don’t complain. Don’t tell me you’re whining?”
The other man bucked his hips backward to impale himself even more deeply. “I can take anything you dish out, buddy. Bring it on.”
Blondie grinned. “I hoped you’d say that.”
Clarisse realized that she stood out in the open. As much as she wouldn’t mind watching the two handsome hunks go at it, she realized that might not be a good idea.
She turned and started toward the front bow cabin. She spotted, in its usual place, the familiar blue plastic envelope where the boat registration and documentation papers were kept. Clarisse grabbed it, raced to the front cabin, and softly closed the door behind her. Unfortunately, one thing hadn’t changed—the latch on the cabin door still didn’t work. It would stay closed, but she couldn’t lock it. She jammed her suitcase into the space between the bunk and the bottom of the door. Wedged against the base of the bunk, it would slow someone down for a few minutes, at least. Not that the thin cabin door would hold if one of those buff guys wanted to kick it in.
She risked turning on the small reading light. With trembling hands, she opened the envelope.
State commercial fishing licenses and permits, vessel registration and documentation papers, captain’s license paperwork, and other official permits and documents.
The Dilly’s new owner: Sullivan Nicoletto, forty-two. The captain: Brant MacCaffrey, thirty-eight. PO Box address in Tarpon Springs.
She wondered who was who. Well, one of them had to be MacCaffrey, because the captain’s and commercial fishing licenses had been issued in his name.
With the situation fully striking home, Clarisse closed her eyes and fought another round of tears. It’d been a long shot, sure, but when she’d seen the Dilly in her slip, Clarisse thought her luck had changed for the better.
Where is Uncle Tad?
Even over the deep throb of the twin diesels below decks, Clarisse heard one of the men shout something. She shoved the paperwork into the envelope and shut off the light.
Hopefully they won’t be interested in me. A nervous giggle escaped her. That absolutely had to be stress. Not a damn thing funny about this situation.
Maybe exhaustion had finally gotten the better of her. She’d been physically and emotionally beat to hell and back. No catch in the looks or sex department himself, Bryan had accused her of infidelity enough times she’d been tempted to go out and actually do it for real, if she could even find someone interested in a “big girl” like herself. Standing there watching those two guys…
Clarisse curled up on the bunk. The cabin felt warmer than it had earlier. They must have turned on the heater.
Why were they out on deck?
Not as cold as Columbus, but still chilly enough out there. Why not take advantage of the warmer below-decks area?
Hopefully they wouldn’t discover her. The master cabin had a much larger bunk where two big, hunky guys could easily…
She shook her head to clear it. She hoped she’d be safe in the tiny bow cabin. Except now, she had a problem.
She had to pee.
Holding her breath, she moved the suitcase and carefully peeked out the cabin door. No sign of the men below decks.
With the forward head door right there, she ducked inside. Keeping the light off, she relieved herself and started to reach for the flush lever when she stopped.
Dammit. They might hear.
She cracked the head door open. She caught a glimpse of Blondie’s ass, still on deck.
Clarisse flushed and washed her hands.
Well, if they were still busy, she might be able to take care of another need—her stomach. She crept back to the galley where she checked the fridge and pulled out two bottles of water. From a box on the counter, she snagged a couple of packages of peanut butter crackers and three bananas before scooting back to the bow cabin.
* * * *
Mac considered untying Sully and stripping him, but it was a tad too chilly for that. Instead, he reached under the front of Sully’s shirt, found his nipples, and twisted them hard.
From Sully’s sharp, hissing breath, Mac knew he was close.
“Don’t you fucking come,” Mac growled at him. He thrust his cock deep inside his lover, his own release rapidly approaching.
Sully threw his head back against Mac’s shoulder. “Goddamn, where did you learn that?”
“Oh, yeah.” Sully laughed. “You’re a good student.”
Mac nipped the side of his neck. “My Master’s a damn good teacher. You can schmooze all you want. You still can’t come yet.”
Mac released Sully’s nipples and grabbed his hips. “You betcha.” He thrust hard and fast, slamming his cock home until he cried out as he came. He wrapped his arms around Sully as he caught his breath. “I’m gonna fuck your brains out this weekend.”
“I thought you had to fish?”
“Who says I can’t do both?”
Sully wiggled his hips against Mac, whose softening cock was still planted in his ass. “Thank God I brought a few pairs of sweatpants. Otherwise I’d be freezing my butt off.”
“I should have modified them and cut a hole in the ass.” Mac dropped his hand to the other man’s still-hard cock. “You’ve got thirty seconds to come or you have to wait until the next time I feel like doing this.” He started stroking as Sully’s eyes dropped closed, his hips working against Mac’s hand. The action immediately revived the interest of Mac’s cock, which started inflating again.
“Mmm, yeah, I get seconds,” Mac said. He wrapped his fingers tighter around Sully’s cock and pumped his fist up and down his shaft.
Sully fucked himself back and forth between Mac’s cock and hand, groaning as he struggled to make it. Just when he thought he never would, his climax rocked him, coating Mac’s hand with his juices. “Fuck yeah!” he groaned.
Mac gave him a few seconds before he grabbed Sully’s hips again and pounded his cock into him. “You lucky bastard, you barely made it. This is what happens when you torture me before we get on the goddamned boat. You left me fucking horny this morning…ah!”
He leaned against Sully for support again, trying to catch his breath. After a moment, he withdrew and slapped Sully’s ass, hard. “Be right back.”
“You’re leaving me here?”
Mac laughed. “Gonna clean up. I’ll take care of you in a minute.” He walked around the sorting table. “Hey, at least it’s too cold for me to hose you down.”
“I might. My boat, my rules. That’s the deal.” He grinned. “I told you, payback’s a bitch and so am I.” He didn’t bother zipping his jeans. He walked below decks to the aft head and cleaned up. Then he zipped, washed his hands, and walked over to the box of supplies on the galley counter. He reached in, hesitating before he pulled out a banana. He returned to the deck.
“Hey, you been into the food already?” he asked Sully.
Sully glanced at him. “That’s a weird tangent.”
Mac didn’t bother untying Sully. He lounged next to him in the deepening gloom and peeled the banana. “There’s only three bananas left. You been into them? I thought I grabbed a larger bunch than that.” He broke off a piece and fed it to Sully after taking a bite himself.
Sully shook his head, chewed, and swallowed. “Nope.”
They finished the banana. Mac tossed the peel overboard. “Well, whatever.” He caressed Sully’s ass. “You’re feeling a little chilly there, buddy.”
Mac started slapping his ass again until Sully’s flesh turned warm and pink. Only then did he relent and untie his hands. “Go clean up.” When Sully turned from the railing, Mac grabbed the front of his sweatshirt, pulled him close, and crushed his lips with his. “I’m gonna love using your ass this weekend. You’re gonna be gone a lot next month. That’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair.” Sully grinned. “You’ll just have to get creative.”
* * * *
Clarisse huddled in the V-berth and prayed they didn’t find her. How would she find Uncle Tad? Maybe the marina would know.
Worse, where would she go? She still had more than five hundred dollars in cash, but she wouldn’t be able to access the other funds in the new account for several days. She’d been gone from Florida for so long that she didn’t know anyone else here but Uncle Tad, unless some of the regulars still had slips in the marina.
Now she’d have to call Raquel and admit this was a dead end. She felt so tired, bone-dead tired, exhausted mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Maybe she should have just stayed and let Bryan kill her. No more struggle, no more fighting. She’d be with her dad and mom, right? Hopefully.
She closed her eyes and rested her head on a pillow. No, definitely exhaustion speaking. She didn’t want to be dead. She wanted to be free, and it’d been so damn long since she’d been free that she’d forgotten what it felt like.
Her eyes snapped open. She must have slept again because she saw through the tiny port window that night had fallen. She didn’t hear the men, just the sound of the diesels.
What woke her?
Her heart raced. Something had awoken her. Her instincts from all the time she spent on board kicked in.
She closed her eyes and listened, trying to pick out old, familiar sounds. The diesels—they sounded smooth, no problems there. But something…
Then she heard it again and immediately recognized it. The auxiliary aft bait tank circulation pump had clogged or sucked air, jamming the automatic kill switch open. That happened sometimes. She waited, anticipating one of the men would go below decks and unplug it. Usually Uncle Tad didn’t bother using the auxiliary pump unless absolutely necessary.
The minutes ticked by. What the fuck are they waiting for? How could they not hear that? If it overheated, it could short-circuit and cause a fire in the engine compartment. At the very least, it would ruin the pump.
She sat up and waited, chewing her nails.
The sound grew more shrill.
She heard a noise from the master cabin and realized why the men hadn’t reacted.
Didn’t anyone tell those assholes you have to have someone on watch?
She waited for several minutes. Unable to take it any longer, she yanked her suitcase out of the way and pounded on their cabin door as she ran past. “Get up! The pump’s burning up!”
* * * *
Mac jumped, startled by the pounding on the door. He whacked his head so hard against the bulkhead that he yelped in pain and dropped to the berth, swearing and gripping the back of his head.
Sully yanked on his restraints. “Who the fuck is that?”
“I don’t know!” With one hand on the rapidly swelling goose egg on the back of his head, Mac used the other to unclip Sully’s wrist cuffs and grab a pair of sweatpants. The men tumbled out of the cabin as they pulled on clothes. By the time they reached the main cabin hatch, they saw the engine room cover was up and caught a glimpse of a woman’s head disappearing through the opening.
“Shit!” Sully growled. He took the lead, ripping off the leather wrist cuffs as he ran. He raced down the ladder ahead of Mac. The woman had the engine room light on and was already buried headfirst in the far alcove behind the port engine where some of the electrical junctions were located.
Mac reached for the protective earmuffs he kept hanging inside the hatch and found them missing.
What the fuck?
Then he heard the screeching noise, what he didn’t hear before. Okay, so he’d been distracted, but still.
Sully started to go after the woman. Mac caught his arm and shook his head. Sully wouldn’t have heard him over the engine noise anyway.
After a moment, the screech stopped. The woman emerged. Yes, she wore the earmuffs and held a flashlight. The flashlight that also hung by the hatchway.
Who the hell is she?
* * * *
Clarisse had found the connector and, with no time to waste, yanked as hard as she could on the wire. When it broke loose at the junction box connector, the auxiliary pump shut off. Flipping the switch in the wheelhouse wouldn’t have done any good, because when the float switch stuck it overrode the on-off switch. It would have taken twice as long to find the damn fuse and yank it, but that would have killed both pumps. Uncle Tad had always sworn he never should have let his brother-in-law install the damn thing. He’d meant to rewire it properly to eliminate the problem, hence why he rarely used it when the other pump usually sufficed.
Old habits died hard. Even though she wasn’t thin and hadn’t set foot on the boat in years, Clarisse had no problem carefully wiggling her way out of the alcove. She maneuvered around the back of the port engine and avoided the exhaust manifold. Even with the earmuffs on, it was still friggin’ loud.
The two men looked stunned. She glanced at them only long enough to shove past them, her face turned away. She replaced the flashlight and earmuffs before scrambling up the ladder to the deck.
Fear set in. She raced for the V-berth cabin, hoping to get there first. Maybe she could talk to them through the door and they wouldn’t press charges against her for being a stowaway or breaking and entering or whatever since she’d saved their asses.
* * * *
His initial shock waning, Mac raced after her. He managed to grab her jacket and yank her back. “Stop! Wait, who the hell are you?”
She fought, hard and viciously. In the narrow passageway, he had to wrap both arms around her and drag her back to the main cabin area. She still managed to land a few good strikes to his shins with her heels. Fortunately for him her sneakers didn’t cause him much damage.
“Stop fighting! We’re not going to hurt you!” He muscled her into the galley and forced her to sit in the booth table. Sully pushed in, blocking her escape. She cringed away from them, her long hair obscuring her face.
“I’m sorry! Please don’t call the police!” She curled into a tight ball against the bulkhead wall.
“Are you on the run from the cops?” Sully asked.
She shook her head.
The men exchanged a glance. They still couldn’t see her face.
With Sully keeping her penned in, Mac slowly slid into the other side of the booth. She cringed. Jesus, she seemed so familiar—
Then it hit him. Betsy. She acted a lot like his little sister had the last time he saw her alive.
Before her husband killed her.
Sully started to say something else but Mac held up a hand. His Joe Friday cop routine wouldn’t fly right then. “What did you do? In the engine room?”
She still wouldn’t look at them, her hair concealing her face. “The auxiliary bait tank pump. You can’t use it. It gets stuck because the wiring’s messed up. I yanked the wire, that’s all. I heard it going. If it’d burned up, it could have short-circuited the panel and caused a fire.”
Mac felt Sully’s eyes burning into him, but he refused to look at his partner. Only someone with intimate knowledge of the boat could know that. He’d stupidly forgotten it, even though Tad had warned him about it and suggested calling an electrician to fix it.
“Look at me,” Mac softly commanded.
She cringed again, but she tipped her head just enough he spotted one eye through her hair. Still not enough to see her face.
“Thank you,” he said.
The girl froze. “You’re welcome,” she finally said.
Mac grabbed her wrist, firmly but not painfully. He reached for her chin and hesitated when she flinched.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “I promise, neither one of us will hurt you.” When she relaxed, he tilted her chin so she had to look at them. Mac heard Sully’s sharp intake of breath when they got their first good look at her face—and her injuries. Someone had beaten the crap out of her. No wonder she was hiding and scared.
“Who did this to you?” Sully growled.
Mac felt her tremble. He released her chin, but laced his fingers through hers.
“Bryan. My boyfriend. Ex.”
Her soft, scared voice ripped at Mac’s heart. He wanted to wrap his arms around her, protect her, never let her go.
And he didn’t even know her name. Dammit, she looked familiar though, like he’d seen her somewhere before.
“You’re not going back to him,” Sully growled. With Sully, Mac knew that was a command, not a request or even a question.
At least they were on the same page.
She vigorously shook her head. “No, but I have to return to Columbus at some point in the next few weeks to handle the legal stuff and get my things.”
“I’ll go with you,” Mac immediately volunteered. What the fuck? His reaction surprised even him.
Sully arched an eyebrow at him over that outburst. Okay, that would cost him some stripes back on dry land, but it’d be worth it.
The girl shook her head and slowly pulled her hands back. “No. That’s okay. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you guys owned the Dilly now.” She dipped a hand into her jacket pocket and withdrew a ring of three familiar-looking keys, laid them on the table, and cautiously slid them toward Mac. “You’ll want these.”
He looked at the keys but didn’t reach for them. “Let’s back up. Who are you? How did you get keys to my boat?”
“Clarisse Moore. My Uncle Tad used to own her.” She finally glanced around, her gaze quickly skipping over Sully, briefly landing on Mac, before she looked at the table again. “I spent a lot of time here growing up. I didn’t know where else to go. I didn’t have anywhere else to go where Bryan couldn’t find me. I knew it was a long shot. I’m sorry.”
He realized why she looked familiar. Tad had shown him pictures of her. “I’m Brant MacCaffrey. You can call me Mac, everyone does. This is Sullivan Nicoletto, my partner.”
“Sully,” he said from where he stood.
“I’ll leave as soon as we return to the marina. I’ll work while I’m here, earn my keep. I can do everything—fish, shrimp, sort, take watches.” She sighed. “I don’t suppose you know how I can get in touch with Uncle Tad, do you?” The men exchanged a knowing glance. “What?”
“We wrote you a couple of times,” Sully said. “Tad gave us your address. He’s in a nursing home. He had a stroke.”
No way could she have faked the shock on her face.
“Last March,” Sully told her. “You never got our letters?”
Clarisse shook her head. “No.” She closed her eyes and swore. “Bryan probably got them and threw them away. Is Uncle Tad okay?”
Sully must have felt it safe enough to sit. He slid into the booth next to Mac. “He’s partially paralyzed on his right side. He can get around, but he’s very weak. He had to sell the boat, and we offered to buy it from him. We go see him all the time. We were friends with him before he had the stroke.”
She felt a little hope—and a lot of guilt. “Is he close by?”
“Nice place, just south of Tarpon.”
She buried her face in her hands and slumped over the table as she sobbed.
Mac reached across the table again and gently patted her arm. “It’s okay, Clarisse. He’s got a lot of years left in him. He likes where he’s at. We can take you to see him when we get back.”
This time, she didn’t flinch away. When she finished crying a few minutes later, Sully offered her a roll of paper towels and she gratefully accepted it. She blew her nose and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I fell asleep. When I woke up, we were underway and I saw you guys on deck.” Her face reddened. “I didn’t mean to barge in like that. God, could I have messed up my life any worse?”
“Let’s back up,” Sully said. Mac sat back and let him handle the situation now that she’d calmed down. “Where did you come from?”
“I just spent a couple of days on buses from Columbus, Ohio. What day is it?”
“I left there on Tuesday morning, early.” She looked at the keys, which still lay on the table. Mac hadn’t pocketed them yet. “I guess that means I got here late last night or early this morning. I really lost track of time.”
“You didn’t have anyone in Columbus to stay with? Parents? Friends?”
“My parents died in an accident a couple of years ago. My only friend Bryan didn’t run off, Raquel, she’s got a baby. I didn’t want to put her family at risk. He would have found me there anyway, probably the first place he looked.”
“Did you file charges?”
She nervously shredded the paper towel. “Yeah.” She snorted. “They took my report. Fat lot of good that’ll do. We lived outside of Columbus, in Maxwell, close to Zanesville. He’s a cop there. Computer division.”
Mac spoke up. “Well, kiddo, you absolutely ended up in the right place. Sully used to be a cop—” He stopped at her shocked, fearful expression. She pulled away from them and drew tight into the corner again, trying to melt into the bulkhead. “Whoa, what’s wrong?”
She anxiously shook her head. “I saw the looks on their faces. His dad is best friends with the police chief. Two of his cousins work there, too. I don’t hold any hopes of him going to trial. They put him on ‘paid administrative leave’ after they arrested him. That’s bullshit cop slang for they’ll lose my paperwork and give him a pass. Again.”
Her angry gaze fixed on Sully. “Cops always stick together. They did the first time, they will this time. When his cousins saw my black eye the last time, they’d both sort of smiled and turned the other way.” She snorted in disgust. “He told me they wouldn’t believe me if I pressed charges that time.”
Mac exchanged a look with Sully. “Clarisse, trust me, you’re safe with us,” Mac assured her.
She wouldn’t take her eyes off Sully. “No, thank you for the offer, but I’ll find somewhere to go when we return to port. I’m sorry I ruined your weekend.”
Sully slowly leaned back, trying to open a little space for her. Mac suspected he’d seen this before, the overwhelming fear and anxiety in a victim. “Clarisse,” he softly said, “I promise you, if your ex shows up, I’ll be the first to put a bullet in his brain if he tries to lay a finger on you.”
She burst into tears. “He said he’s going to kill me! He told me if I ever left him, he’d hunt me down and kill me and nobody would stop him or prove he did it! That he’d done it before and got away with it!”
Mac nudged Sully. Sully climbed out of the booth, out of Mac’s way. Mac changed places and sat next to her, drew her into his arms. At first she resisted. Then she slumped against him and cried harder.
“It’s okay, honey,” Mac said. “I promise we won’t let him hurt you. I swear. We can take care of ourselves and protect you and keep you safe.”
After ten minutes, she cried herself to sleep in his arms. Sully sadly stared at her. “Fuck,” he whispered. “She’s out of her mind.”
“You would be, too,” Mac shot back.
“I didn’t mean she didn’t have a reason. She’s spent days on the run, in fear, looking over her shoulder. She’s past the point of exhaustion.”
Mac carefully brushed the hair away from her face. Fuck, if her face looked this bad, he wondered what other injuries she had.
As if reading his mind, Sully said, “Brant, she’s not Betsy. You can’t save her if she decides to go back.”
Mac set his jaw. “Save your goddamn psychology bullshit.” He carefully slipped out of the booth and gathered her into his arms. “Go open the V-berth cabin door, please.”
It was a tight squeeze, but Mac managed to tuck her into the bunk without whacking her head against the wall or hitting his own again. Sully fetched a blanket for her from their cabin. Then they closed the door behind them and returned above decks. Mac closed the engine room hatch and checked the autopilot and radar. He’d only planned to be below for ten minutes, more than enough time to play. Fortunately, their path remained clear.
Still shirtless, he shivered as he disengaged the autopilot, punched new numbers into the GPS, and turned the boat around. Sully emerged from the cabin. Fully dressed, he carried a shirt and jacket for Mac.
“Thanks.” He took them and dressed.
“We going in?” Sully asked.
“Uh, yeah. Duh, I think we have to, don’t you? We need to get her to a doctor.”
Sully fell quiet for a moment. “You don’t know she’ll want to see a doctor. Or if she can afford it.”
“She has to!”
Sully eyed him, his voice calm and quiet. “Calm down and back down. Right now.”
Mac glared at him. “Don’t you dare fucking start with me. You can beat the shit out of me for this when we get home, but dammit, I’m not letting her walk off and get killed! Take it out of my money if you have to, but she’s going to see a fucking doctor and get checked out.”
Sully studied him for a long while. When he spoke, his voice sounded firm. “You’re talking back to me, slave. You realize you’re getting too emotionally involved with someone you don’t even know. She’s an adult. Keep in mind she’ll probably be freaked out by what we do.”
Mac slumped in his chair as the full impact of Sully’s words slammed home. He reached for a lanyard hanging on a hook. From it dangled a small silver key. “I’m sorry, Master.” He waved him over. “I know we’re still on the boat, but you’re right. I’m too emotional about this. You need to handle this.”
Sully leaned over so Mac could unlock the collar and remove it. Then he cupped his hand around the back of Mac’s neck, touched his forehead to Mac’s and pressed a kiss to his lips. “We’re in agreement about protecting her,” Sully told him. “But we can’t overwhelm her.”
“I still want to go with her to get her stuff.”
“Let’s deal with that when it’s time. It’s too soon to decide that.”
“If it gets to that point, yes, I’ll let you.”
Mac hugged him, burying his face against Sully’s shoulder. Mac struggled not to think about Betsy, about how she’d looked when he’d found her, almost dead and beaten beyond recognition.
Sully whispered in his ear, “Just keep reminding yourself, she’s not Betsy. She’s Tad’s niece, and we’ll protect her. We won’t let anything happen to her, but you have to let me deal with this. Okay?”
* * * *
Near dawn they heard her moving around. They were still three miles from the head marker. Sully worked in the galley, cooking breakfast. He walked to her cabin and knocked. “Do you want some scrambled eggs and sausage? We’ve got plenty. I made extra.”
After a moment came her tentative reply. “Yes, please. Thanks. I’ll be out in a minute.”
He hated that when she emerged she warily eyed him, like a child watching a dog that’s bit them before but still has to be around it.
He kept his voice soft, steady. “How do you take your coffee?”
“Milk and sugar, if you have it. If not, I’ll drink it black.”
He poured her a cup and set it on the table, not so close that she had to approach him to reach it. He left the milk and sugar on the edge of the table after she sat back.
Mac stuck his head through the doorway. “Good morning! Did you sleep okay?”
“Fine, thank you.”
Clarisse watched both men. Last night, when she’d collapsed, they’d both been shirtless. Mac stood a little taller and beefier than Sully, both men obviously in great shape, and Mac had nipple rings. But this morning, Sully’s neck no longer had a collar locked around it.
She suspected the collar most likely meant Mac ran their weird little relationship. That made her feel safe somehow, even if it was stupid to feel like that about someone she just met. Maybe it was how his sweet brown eyes seemed to pull her in.
She didn’t trust Sully, though. Not a cop. She couldn’t trust a cop. Mac, however…something about him settled her.
“You come home with us,” Mac said. “Grab a shower and change, and we’ll take you to see Tad.”
She started to tell them no, to resist their help, then realized what an asinine idea that was. She had no place to go and no idea where her uncle lived. If they’d wanted to hurt her, they could have done it in the middle of the Gulf and then disposed of her body, not haul her back to shore just to molest her at their home. Besides that, they were obviously gay from what she witnessed.
“Okay, thanks.” She tried not to flinch when Sully set a plate of food in front of her. “Thank you.”
Mac returned to the wheelhouse. Sully took a plate to Mac, then returned and sat across from her with his breakfast. She stole glances at him. Brown hair, a little grey around the temples. Piercing grey eyes. He didn’t try to coax her to talk, something she felt extremely grateful for.
After fifteen minutes, he spoke. “So how much did you see last night? Of us on deck?”
She looked up, startled. He wore a smile she could describe as playful.
She blushed and glanced away. “Enough. I’m sorry.”
When he gently touched the back of her hand, she forced herself not to pull away.
“I hope we didn’t scare you. Seeing us like that.”
She shook her head. No, she hadn’t been scared. She tried to fight the sudden throbbing in her nether regions. What a totally inappropriate response to her memory of the sight of the two hunks…
“You didn’t scare me,” she managed. “I mean…” She had to swallow to form spit. “I’m scared, but not of you guys.” She closed her eyes. “I just feel so freaking stupid for not leaving him the first time.”
His fingers slipped around her hand. He gently squeezed before letting go and withdrawing his hand. “We meant it when we said we’ll protect you.” He paused. “We have a very large house, plenty of room. If you don’t mind our relationship, if that doesn’t bother you, we can work something out.”
Before she could reply, he stood and took his empty plate to the sink.
Tempting. So tempting. Why did he have to be a damn cop?
“Mac’s sister was murdered,” Sully said from where he stood at the sink. He turned and leaned against the counter. “He might come off as overbearing in some ways. I just wanted to tell you why he’s latched onto you. Her husband murdered her. Mac found her, she hadn’t died yet. The guy beat her to death. They pulled life support after several days.”
He left her chewing that over as he climbed the stairs to the wheelhouse.
She finished her breakfast and washed her dishes. Then she hunted down her toothbrush and toothpaste and went to the head. In daylight, she realized how horrible and pitiful she appeared. Her eye wasn’t as swollen, but the awful purple and green bruises looked almost worse. The split lip hurt. Thank God she still had all her teeth. She peeled down her jeans so she could use the toilet and noticed those bruises also starting to fade although they still looked ugly.
She changed clothes, felt marginally better, and applied copious amounts of deodorant to take care of the worst of her stench. When she returned to the main cabin, the men were still in the wheelhouse. She remembered to replace the envelope of paperwork, then climbed up to join them.
Both men offered friendly smiles. She noticed they’d passed Anclote Island. At idle speed, it’d take another half-hour to reach the marina.
She edged around the men so she stood on Mac’s far side, with him separating her from Sully. She watched their eyes, how they studied her injuries.
“We want to offer you a deal,” Sully said. Mac stayed silent. “Please, hear us out. You can stay with us. There’s only a couple of things I’ll require.”
She tensed again. “No, I’ll go somewhere. I’ll—”
“Can I finish?”
He ticked them off on his fingers. “As you’ve seen, Mac and I have an unusual relationship. We only demand respect, not endorsement or participation from you. You will see things that might disturb you, but they are consensual. We don’t expect you to do any of it, just let us live our life. We expect you to respect our privacy and not talk about our private life with others. We’ll protect you, but you can’t have contact with your ex. You’ll have to listen to us and do what we say in regard to handling that situation. You must give us total honesty, because that’s a firm, unbreakable rule in our home. Absolutely no lying allowed.”
She waited for him to continue. When he didn’t, she asked, “That’s it?”
“That’s the important and nonnegotiable stuff. You can pay rent, or you can work for us. You don’t bring people over without letting us know first so we’re not…” He arched an eyebrow at her. “Obviously so we’re not outed, so to speak. You’re free to come and go as you please, but if you’re going out, you keep in touch so we know you’re okay. It only makes sense for you to stay with us. You should be close to Tad, and we have the room.”
“Work for you?”
“Help Mac on the boat. You already know the ropes.” He smiled. “No pun intended. Help me at home, too. I could use an assistant. We’ll pay cash and trade room and board for chores.”
“Chores?” she nervously asked.
Sully smiled. “Yeah, chores. You know, washing dishes, doing errands, vacuuming. Not like blow jobs.”
She finally let out a tired laugh before returning his smile. “Okay.”
Sully stuck out his hand. “Deal?”
She nodded and hesitantly shook hands with him. “Deal. Thank you.”