Cruel Summer

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Chapter 4


I threw the coil of rope across the distance between the boat and the jetty where Linda caught it deftly between her hands. She then strained as she pulled on the rope, helping to guide it alongside the walkway while Jackson killed the engine. With the passengers on the bow, enjoying their last moments on the yacht and paradise on the reef, Jackson came to the railing, nimbly jumping off it and onto the jetty, pulling the front of the boat.

Both he and Linda tied off their ropes, and I dropped the plank across the gap. The passengers, now realizing that their time was up, came to the back of the boats with their small bags and I stood aside at the railing, waiting for them to disembark. Jackson and Linda, were now together on the jetty below me, similarly farewelling each of the passengers. The men and women passed, giving small goodbyes and I half paid attention, my eyes focused on the pair on the bottom.

The last night and half a day after the drifting boat incident had been slightly less uneventful. The smugness I had felt of catching the boat quickly dissipated as he quickly directed me to get everyone and everything back on the boat. I had made sure not to give the man any more reasons to find fault with me. And the more saccharine and competent I appeared, it seemed the deeper the frown lines on his face grew. After last night and pulling off my second night of being both chef, waiter, and cleaning crew with no complaints, I decided that there was just no pleasing this man.

That was okay though, I didn’t have to please him, or make him happy. I just had to not get fired. I could do that, little to no interaction past the basics of telling me what to do. I would keep my glances at a minimum and think real hard about Shane, the Ambercrombie poster boy.

Suddenly, my hand was taken by another and lifted to a hot breath. I brought my eyes in front of me to see Manuele lifting my hand to his lips with a small smile.

“Che vediamo, bella.”

“Che vediamo,...forse.” I gave him a knowing grin. Frickin Italians. Manuel probably had a beautiful goddess of a girlfriend waiting for him back home, but here he was telling me that he would see me later.

I watched his back stride down the plank and walk away from the boat, my eyes landing on Jackson, obviously seeing our interaction. Linda, however, missed it and was now walking up the plank with large shopping bags, cresting it and setting them down next to me before resting her hands on her hips.

“Well, how did it go?” she asked, looking me up and down while Jackson came back up to the deck. I met his face, set in what I had come to know as his standard expression. Slightly irritated with a hint of ‘I hate you’. I shrugged my shoulders at her question, waiting to hear if I was suddenly going to be rushing to find a new job. If I could. God, if he fired me for a fuck up I actually fixed, I was might literally cry in front of the two.

A moment passed and I shoved my hands in the pockets of my cutoffs, aware that Jackson was now trying to stare me down to see if I would flinch or give up the job. Finally, he replied,

“She can stay.”

I let out a sigh of relief and looked back up to him, smiling like he had just saved me from the guillotine. The annoyed look left his face for a brief moment, replaced by something like confused as if he hadn’t realized what he just said. Linda clapped her hands together, breaking him out of his stupor,

“Wonderful, glad to hear it! Carter, I’ll help you with how to do the cleanup, stow these groceries, and show you the ropes. I have the temp in the office for the next two hours, so if we get it done fast, I’ll take you out for lunch before the next group comes on board, right?”

I sighed with somewhat exhaustion and gave her a thumbs-up, and then watched as Jackson turned his back on us to finish securing the lines. His gait, long and decided, navigated the slick deck of the boat with so much grace it looked unnatural. Like a man who walked on water all the time. A man used to it and like the solitude the water gave him.

“Cheeseburger and fries, thanks,” I said and handed the waiter back the menu.

Across the table, Linda gave a snort before sipping her coffee.

“What?” I said with interest, watching the retreating waiter. The casual diner she had taken us to was much more of a ‘locals’ spot, a little ways past the main strip and much less foot traffic to contend with. It was also nice to see the menu prices more in line with what I was used to, even if I didn’t add the tip.

“Cheeseburger with fries, said in that accent. Sorry, it’s just the most American thing I’ve heard in a while,” and I laughed with her.

“Oh come on, this is tourist central, and surely I’m not your first American working on the boat.”

Linda inclined her head, “Actually, most of the visa holders are British, at least the last three were when I began working for Jackson a few years ago…” she trailed off, a lilt to her lips like she had just remembered something she’d rather not. The last crew members.

“So, are you going to fill me in here? I mean, two shots of rum were not much of a defense against whatever made Captain Jack back there declare his rule number one to be “don’t fuck the passengers”. He literally looked at me for the whole two days as a succubus for anything with a dick.”

She winced. “Yeesh. That bad, huh?”

“Worse. Staring daggers The whole time, and even when I wasn’t looking at him, I could feel them. So spill. Who was she?”

Linda drew her coffee cup to her lips, her eyes thinking over whether to give the details of the worm digging its hole in Jackson Vail’s brain. After another moment, she placed her cup down and leaned forward, her long earrings dangling forward.

“Her name was Ruby. She quit about a month ago, right before prime tourist season. Which is why your job process was so fast.” I nodded, the red flag I had seen was now waving high. "She and Jackson were an... .item. I think? She was a super cute petite brunette from London, and had been working for the company for about 6 months. I’m not sure how long they were together for, but probably not long after she started because she was staying at Jackson’s bungalow in the mountains a few weeks after her start date.”

I raised my eyebrows, a little surprised at the description. “I’m nothing like her though, why would he be super against me, already?”

Linda shrugged, her finger tracing the rim of her coffee in thought.

“Well, I think it’s just now women who he now distrusts. Probably a thing against hot women. As you probably worked out, Ruby didn’t just quit, she left with one of the passengers…”

I leaned back. Yes, that did make sense. What a way to burn your bridges though. Get nice and cozy with the Captain and your employer, then steal away with one of the passengers right under his nose. I had something of the gist of it before, not quite PTSD, but Jackson Vail definitely got fucked over, and on his own boat no less.

“So, what, she just left with one of the passengers and no one has seen her since?”

Linda shrugged, “She came into the office the next day and left a forwarding address at Rockhampton, a few hours north. But yeah, no one has seen her since.” She put her coffee cup down with a little force, pursing her lips, “Actually, you know what? Good riddance, that snotty Brit was never actually ‘nice’ and acted too sweet, like she was fucking Baby Spice. Taking a ‘gap’ year from her ‘fashion degree’. Psshhh.”

I smiled at Linda’s feigned British accent as she continued, clearly needing to gossip this to someone, “A twenty-year-old and Jackson, nearly thirty-one? I mean, I get it, she was cute but he had to have known she was just going to break his heart. He was just priming himself up for it after…”

Linda cut herself off suddenly, clamping her mouth shut. Sitting right in front of her, I of course noticed and called her out on it, raising my forefinger to shake at her,

“Oh no. No, no, no. You started your sentence, now finish it. I was quite enjoying the tirade. Please continue, ’after…”

The older woman, now frowning at me, took another sip of coffee, wanting to occupy her mouth.

She sighed after a moment of thinking whether or not I should be privy to company secrets, to Jackson’s secrets.

“After his dad died, just over a year ago, now.”

I sat back in my booth with the knowledge. A dead parent? At thirty years old. That was so young. My thoughts immediately flew to my own parents, now half a world away, full of worry for me. If I lost one of them now, I am was a hundred percent sure that it would fuck me up in some way.

A half-made burger landed in front of me on the table, while Linda’s chicken salad was placed on the other side.

“So, Jackson loses his dad, then shacks up with a young foreigner to fill the void? It does sound kind of cliche, but still, poor guy.”

Linda took a forkful of salad and chewed, and gave me a wild look as she was eating and leaned over conspiratorially.

“Oh god, that was only the half of it. I thought I would, for sure, have to look for a new job. So, get this. John Vail dies, bless his soul, leaves Jackson the company with the two boats, the beautiful house, and whatever else, and turns out, there was soooooo much debt on all of it. How he hid it for years, I’ll never know,” she leaned back and took another bite while I started to put together my burger, now deep in thought.

“Sooooo, what happened? How did Jackson...fix it? He paid off the debt?”

Linda frowned and put her fork down to use a napkin for her mouth.

“No, he sold the other ship. Triton’s Fury. Sad day, that was such a beautiful boat.” Linda frowned, but quickly recovered, “but it seemed to work and pay off the mortgages or whatever because we were in the black a few months later, and Jackson got to keep the family home.”

I nodded, now deep in thought about what kind of situation I had walked myself into. A struggling company with a newly orphaned, heartbroken, and betrayed owner who hated women in general. Who I was stuck on a boat with. For six days a week. My dad had a word for these types of situations. A clusterfuck.

Absentmindedly biting into my burger, thinking over whether I should actively be looking for another job while I was on land or try and stick it out with the hand I dealt myself. Linda’s hand snaked across the table and grabbed a fry from my plate. I looked up to her, she had known Jackson for a few years, and she seemed like she was genuine. She had to like something about working with him if she had stuck with it.

“So, how should I handle Captain Vail? I mean, it was not the most pleasant trip, I would like to get to a place where I am not berated and accused of sleeping with anyone who notices I’m a woman.”

She laughed and leaned back, “I would just keep doing what you’re doing. Do the job, be nice, spend time with the passengers, give him space to get used to you. A big sailboat like Sailor’s Revenge can feel like a canoe sometimes if there are too many people on board.”

I put my burger down, and stared at it, thinking over her advice. It was a lot. I had been through a lot lately, and therapy 101 told me that I should be kind to myself. Being around a man who I was physically attracted to, but made me feel like shit and openly detested me did not seem like kind. It sounded masochistic and a touch stupid. I should probably just save myself from some anxiety wrinkles and look around to see if any other companies would support my visa.

Linda, sensing my hesitation, reached her hand over again. This time, it placed itself on top of mine and I looked up to her,

“Carter, it will be fine. He is just grouchy with new people. Give him some time. You are, honestly, gorgeous, and seem nice. If he doesn’t let up on you soon, I will personally lay him out.”

I gave her a small smile.

“Honestly. I’ll do it. Just say the word.”

I nodded my head but picked up my burger again. Realizing I had relented, she continued with her salad, now almost gone.

The door to the cafe gave a discordant buzz as it opened, Linda’s eyes raising with the sound and then widened slightly, dropping back down to her bowl. I turned my head around and watched as a pair of cops in uniform came in together, and went straight up to the counter to order. I looked to the male and female officers and studied that Australian cop uniform for the first time.

Linda’s eyes subtly followed them, though she appeared to be eating from her now-empty bowl.

“Do you know them? Or are you just on the lamb?” I gave her a playful smile.

Uncharacteristically, Linda gave a brief grin with her lips but shook her head no. I frowned and looked back up to the male constable, now looking over the store. He noticed my stare and looked across the table, smiling when he saw Linda, and made his way over to stand in front of our booth.

“Hey Linda,” he casually spoke, but with a smile that reached his eyes.

She looked up from the empty bowl, and acted like she was surprised to see him.

“Joe! Hi, how’s it going?” Linda replied a little breathlessly, a little too enthusiastically.

Joe nodded and looked back up to stare out the window, appearing to think over his answer.

“Morning shifts are nice. Much better dealing with the drunk tank the morning after than trying to wrestle them in there, ya know?” and he smiled down again at Linda. I looked him over, about my height, sandy blonde hair, small nose, but a big smile. Wide shoulders but a small waist, trim. Average, but nice average.

Again, he noticed my stare and now gave his attention to me with a friendly grin, “Joseph, “ he said and held his hand out for a shake. I took it,

“Carter… Bbbrunner.” Shiiiiit. He seemed to notice my pause with my last name and tilted his head in thought, his hand holding onto mine for a moment too long. Linda, noticing the longer than usual handshake, but most likely misunderstanding it’s reason, piped up.

“Carter here is our new hire for the season. From Colorado.”

Joe’s eyebrows arched and his hand released mine, “A yank? You haven’t had one of those for a while.”

Behind Joe, his partner came up beside him, a brown package in her hands that she nudged his shoulder with. Turning back to her and nodding, he took the package and turned back to Linda with a rueful smile.

“Well, see you round, Linda,” he directly said to her, looking to hold her eyes. She pursed her lips together in something that might have been a smile and gave a slight dip to her head. His eyes glanced over me a final time before he followed his partner out the door.

After a moment of silence between us, it was clear Linda wasn’t going to comment on her odd behavior, seemingly much tampered by Joe’s presence, and was going to force me to.

“What in the world was that?”

She sighed, her shoulder slumping and she brought her hand to hold her head up and leaned over the table.

“That is my apartment neighbor. My extremely attractive, nice guy, cop neighbor. Way out of my league. Makes me tongue-tied whenever I even think about him.”

I pursed my lips together in a smile, and Linda swatted a hand at me. “I know, okay. I know. I can hear you screaming your good intentions and worldly American dating advice at me.”

I laughed at her, and picked up my burger again, letting the conversation go. I was certainly not one to give dating advice, despite what she seemed to think.

“Do you have any idea of where to stay on your day off on Sunday night?” she asked as she drained her cup of coffee.

I paused the last bite of my burger halfway to my mouth and gave her a confused look.

“Can I not stay on the boat?”

She immediately shook her head, expecting this.

“Nope, sorry, Jackson usually takes the boat out for himself, or ‘boys night’.”

I huffed and ate the last bite. “I guess the hostel has a good a bed as any,” I replied through chewing. Linda gazed at me for a moment, a slight smirk on her lips,

“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re already light years better than Ruby, and I have a wonderful couch. A small apartment, but the couch is yours if you want it. Just don’t stay at that hostel, that place has been getting pretty dodgy the last few months.”

“Are you sure? You don’t really know me? I could be a …”

“A recent college grad, cute as a button girl from Colorado?” she retorted. “Yeah, I’m more afraid of the locals than you, no offense.”

“Plus, you do live next door to Officer extremely-attractive, nice-guy, tongue tier.” I quipped and she sent a dirty look across the table. “Well, thank you. That is super nice, and as a recent college grad with very little cash, I humbly accept your couch.”

Linda’s face changed to a beaming smile, and I was suddenly very thankful for this job. Sure, Jackson might be a dick, the work might be hard and relentless, the perks very few when I couldn’t jump in the ocean whenever I wanted, but at least there was this. Nice people who wanted to help you even when you didn’t really need it.

She flicked her wrist up to look at her watch.

“Well, hour is up, and you have to get back to the boat to finish prepping for the next batch. Good to G.O., ‘Malibu’?”

I stood, leaving my burger money on the table, and rolled my eyes at her grinning face.

“He does know I’m not from California, right? Like literally very far away from Malibu.”

She laughed and we walked out of the cafe together, heading back to the main street and harbor.

“I think it’s the hair. Pure, natural blonde, and you’re a yank. Plus, you kind of look like a chic hair styled barbie? Maybe? Sorry, you got put into that box early.” She clamped her hand down on my shoulder in sympathy.

“Don’t stress, you’re not a local until you get a name that is totally different from your real one. Just let it happen.” I grunted in response and shook my head. Linda let go, and looked over to the Reef Escapes office we were now approaching,

“Anyway, see you soon!”

We waved goodbye and I continued walking down the street until the gated park and harbor appeared. I walked by it, now no longer anxious at the memory of my first night here or that piece of trash, Declan. Instead, I thought about Linda, and how different she seemed from my other ‘friends’ back home.

Most of the private high school friends I had grown up with in the small town of Foxwood Glen had moved away by the time I had finished high school. Now enjoying life as CEO’s or traveling with their trust funds. Those that had stayed after my return, and subsequent downfall, were more ‘friends’ by design. Our parent’s design. Not the best of people, but okay in a pinch.

And then there was Rob Stryker. I did the math in my head, it was the end of October, and his term had started in July, which meant he still had another three months left. I sent a silent prayer up to the sweet baby Jesus that mom and dad hadn’t advertised yet that I was gone. They wouldn’t. They knew it would start an international paparazzi hunt if they did so.

But eventually, someone in that incestuous little town would notice that Carter Magness hadn’t been on the slopes this year, or that Carol Magness was now going into the salon alone as opposed to with her daughter. Maybe not outside Foxwood Glen, but most certainly it's resident would. Upper echelon society ladies with not much else to do but gossip. They would eventually notice. As would Rob.

Walking on and down the jetty. The Sailor’s Revenge had it’s plank down, but the boat seemed empty.

“Jackson?” I called down the length of the deck. Hearing nothing but the seagulls circling above, I decided he must have gone to grab his own lunch and walked down to the aft and into the cabin. Only to be immediately struck by the trapped heat of an Australian midday sun.

Holy shit, it was hot, and I took off the large blue shirt, leaving my black bikini top on. Swiveling around the space, I still had to put the dry groceries away. Wait. Shouldn’t the engine be on, because of the fridge? Jackson wouldn’t forget about that right? I moved over to it and placed a hand on it to see if it was still running. It seemed still.

Opening up the small freezer portion, I snatched an ice cube and shut the door quickly. No, definitely off. All the food would spoil in another few hours. I held the ice cube up to my neck and checked my watch when the sound of heavy footsteps from behind the kitchen wall sounded. The little half/door beside the kitchen that held the anchor and engine suddenly swung open and out ducked Jackson.

He stood up and my mouth nearly gaped. The man had clearly been in the engine space, cause he had splashes of engine oil on his chest, slightly matted with sparse hair, and gleaming with rivulets of sweat running down his abs to his pants. He ran his hands through his long hair to push it away from his face, and he finally noticed me.

His body and face tensed with my presence, of having a woman see him half-naked, dirty, and looking like sin. My mouth actually did gape open, but couldn’t think of anything to say. The man was built like a gladiator and with the grime clinging to his body, all the words left my brain. All that was left was intense physical urges.

Jackson’s eyes narrowed at me at that moment. He knew. He fucking knew, like somebody language reader. He knew what he was doing to me. Hell, he probably did it to several women every day. Without a word, he closed the space between us and with his fingers, picked the long-forgotten and semi-melted ice cube off of my decolletage.

He stared me dead in the eyes before glancing down at my heaving chest now in deep breaths. I watched wide-eyed like a deer caught in a spotlight as he popped the ice cube in his mouth and crunched it in his teeth. Without a word, he turned to the stairs mounting them in two long strides.

I was left down the main cabin alone and I let myself recover from the shock of the older, mature man who looked like he could dominate me with a few fingers. Holy shit, how I wanted him to with just a few fingers.

And I had a moment of important realization: I had just turned into a willing masochist.

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