Chapter One

As the anchor chain rattled off the junk-rigged sailboat’s bow roller, Jack checked his depth on the electronic chartplotter.

His deckhand, Marie, let out chain as fast as she could, hand over hand. She was young—just out of undergrad and trying to figure out which marine biology master’s program she’d enter—but her baby softness was melting away under the labor on board. She hollered, “Anchor’s on the ground,” and slowed her pace.

“On the ground, aye.” He marked the spot on the chartplotter. Ten feet of water at high tide. With gentle winds predicted and high-test chain rode, five to one scope would be sufficient. “Fifty feet.”

“Fifty feet, aye.”

As he backed slowly away from the big Bruce anchor, Marie let the boat’s gentle bucking pull the heavy anchor chain out of her bare hands a bit at a time. Jack had trained her not to drop it in a big pile, and she was as conscientious about this as everything else he’d taught her.

The only passengers on this trip, an adventurous lesbian couple from the Midwest, marveled at the clear water, pointing out the frilly octocorals he had avoided when setting the anchor. Visibility remained good because the prop on his electric motor, turning slowly in reverse, wasn’t powerful enough to kick up any sand.

Marie called out. “Fifty feet.”

“Fifty feet, aye.” Jack poured on the power and sighted on a rock in front of a solitary Buccaneer palm. She settled onto her anchor like a champ, and he patted the old wooden wheel, salvaged from a turn-of-the-twentieth-century cargo schooner. When the rock and tree stopped moving relative to one another and the boat held position, he turned off the motor. “We’re hooked.”

“Hooked, aye.” She snapped the rope bridle onto the chain and let it take the weight of the boat, giving them the equivalent of a shock absorber.

The usual eighty-five-degree Caribbean breeze wafted through the cove, and his boat, the S.V. Lysistrata, pointed her bow into it. The February water was a wintry seventy-three. He monitored the boat’s position on his chartplotter a bit longer, while Marie named the specific types of damselfish, beau gregory, and parrotfish for the couple peering over the midships railing. Amy and Melissa held hands and ran from side to side like teenagers as Lysistrata’s ornately curved double bow swung around.

Marie slipped by the women at the railing and climbed the two steps to the cockpit. “Want me to check the anchor or cover the sails?”

“Cover the sails. It looks like Amy and Melissa are going to hit the water, so keep an eye on them while I check the anchor.”

“Sure thing. I bet they’re going to want to lounge on the beach. It’s too perfect.” She waved at the gorgeous cove.

Jack eyed the strange island. He had tucked them into a small unnamed cove, just broad enough for two or three mid-sized boats to anchor, bounded in a narrow crescent by straw-colored sand, fine-grained and pristine, or so it appeared from three hundred feet away. A stubby little wooden pier thrust into the crystal clear water across the cove, and a broad deck disappeared into shade that probably hid a shack under the Jamaican dogwoods. “I can’t believe this place. My electronic chart just shows this as a rocky area, but check it out. The old paper chart has the whole island right where it ought to be.” It would have given him a shiver, otherwise. How many sailors really wanted to find Serendib?

“That seems dangerous. Not everyone carries backup charts.”

He tipped his head at Marie. “You know me. Backups for my backups.”

“A decade of experience, but you still don’t take anything for granted. Best skipper ever.”

He ducked his head and fiddled with the chartplotter. His face warmed, but he didn’t think she’d see the blush through his dark tan. “Well, if they want the beach, we’ll give them the beach. I don’t want to launch the yawl boat for such a short trip. See if you can talk them into swimming over. You can float the cooler over with towels and the umbrella and get them set up.” Marie nodded. “Feel free to hang out on the beach or in the water. Leave them the conch shell if you want to come back to the boat. We’re chillin’ until it’s time to make dinner.”

“On it.” She pulled the sail cover from the deck box. Good memory on her. Much as he wanted whatever was best for her, and that probably meant going back to school soon, he hoped she’d keep crewing with him right up to that point. They savored most of the same foods and alternated cooking duties. They both adored light roast Ethiopian Sidamo coffee, and she got the same kick out of hand-grinding it as he did. Little things that lubricated their fused lifestyle. The lack of sexual tension between them was another crucial boon—Marie went for femmes. Even living together on opposite ends of the sixty-three-foot boat didn’t strain their working relationship. She nested in the cozy fo’c’sle, and the aft cabin was his kingly abode. Passengers took the guest cabin, which could sleep two in a wide bottom bunk and one above, and overflowed into hammocks in the main salon, unless they opted to sleep on deck under the moon and stars.

He walked to the bow, sharing a few words with Amy and Melissa on the way, and eyed the fractured image of his chain as it curved below the water and stretched toward the anchor. Too many tiny wind waves in the water obscured his view from the deck. He slipped off his deck shoes, stretched his toes on the warm teak deck, and arranged the boarding ladder over the side, amidships. These folks hadn’t checked any of the boxes on his accessibility form, so the hoist would remain stowed.

The couple had stripped to bathing suits—Melissa wore a brand-new-looking halter top bikini, very pinup, and Amy wore swim shorts and a ratty old tank top—and he reminded them of the rules. “You can jump from anywhere but the sail and the yawl boat. If you stand on the railings, hold on to the rigging. Varnished wood can be slick. We’re only in ten feet of water, but you should be fine for shallow dives. Most of all, drink lots of fresh water and have fun.”

“How could we help it? You brought us to paradise.” Melissa’s eyes gleamed with unshed tears, and Amy wrapped an arm around her waist.

Jack’s chest tightened. Best job ever. “Vacations are meant to be life squared, right? Everything in excess, even love and beauty.”

Amy nestled Melissa closer. “And freedom and release. This place is out in the middle of nowhere, as far as I’m concerned. I’m usually a control freak, and that should scare the shit out of me, but you’re so…well, methodical, I guess. It feels good to let go and trust you to take care of us.”

Melissa adjusted the strap on her bathing suit. “I couldn’t help watching you while we were sailing here. When we got going nice and strong, with the waves rolling us along, you got this look on your face. Like someone praying.”

Amy offered a word. “Transfigured.”

Jack bit his lip, shrugged, and grinned. “You caught me. I
love it.”

“You won me over, for sure.” Melissa stroked Amy’s hand where it gripped her hip. “Our conservative little town copes with us living together because we’re both locals, born and raised, but we don’t push buttons. We always vacation where we can hold hands or kiss in the street and no one cares. Provincetown, Rehoboth Beach, or cities like Chicago, New Orleans, Austin. But this?” She waved her hand at the boat and the beach. “This is all the exhilaration without the trumped-up confidence.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. “I stayed in the schooner trade for six years after I realized I was transgender. I had a good thing going as first mate and watch captain, but I couldn’t see how to transition at my own pace on the job. When I moved to Miami and started going by my new name, with new pronouns, I was proud but defensive. It was exhausting sometimes. Then getting out here.” He looked around at Lysistrata’s lines and curves. “I know exactly who I am out here, and I don’t have to fight for recognition. Just another being in the universe, loving life.”

“Transfigured.” Amy repeated her word from earlier. “I guess the trick is bringing this state of being back into the real world.”

“Amy, this is the real world.”

She looked taken aback. Melissa cocked her head and looked at Amy. They stared at each other as though the world had just slipped sideways.

Lives changed; job done. Jack leaned over the rail and looked into the water. “I’m going to change so I can check the anchor. See you when we’re wet!”

His light tone brought the fun back. He left them egging each other on about who would go first. He’d bet on them jumping together, holding hands.

He modeled good behavior by turning to face the ladder as he climbed down into his aft cabin, but he jumped the rest of the way as soon as he was out of sight. His cabin boasted a cozy fore-and-aft-oriented, twin-sized berth across from a built-in armchair, a private composting head, and dozens of tidy nooks and crannies and cabinets and shelves. A place for everything and everything in its place.

He stripped and pulled on his rash guard and boardshorts, swarmed up the ladder and to the side deck, swung a leg over the railing, and let himself fall in sideways with a yell and a splash. Amy and Melissa were laughing, still on deck, when he sputtered to the surface and waved before stroking away.

With such clear, shallow water, he hadn’t bothered with a dive mask and fins. He regretted that almost immediately when a school of peppermint basslet darted out from behind a clump of speckled cup coral. He would have loitered if he could see them better, but he was supposed to be working anyway.

He heard a double splash and looked back to see Amy and Melissa in the water, then he dove to the bottom. The anchor’s flukes were buried deep in the sand and the shank lay flat on the bottom. There was no pull on the chain near the anchor, so his scope was sufficient to keep them from pulling the anchor from its bed.

Jack surfaced and tossed his head, blowing stinging brine from his nose. Melissa splashed Amy playfully and turned to race away, but Amy caught her ankle and pulled her back to dunk her. Water games they could play just as well in their nearby lakes, but the Caribbean speared its way into the minds and bodies of visitors. Most eventually yearned to come back, which meant repeat business and extended relationships with folks who made regular trips. Again, best job ever. It would be an honor and a pleasure to watch Amy and Melissa grow into each other over the years.

From the deck, Marie caught his eye with a gesture at the beach. They must have asked to go ashore, as she’d expected. He nodded and dove, this time for the pure pleasure of streaking through the water. He wished, as he always did, that he felt comfortable stripping bare on top. The rash guard made him look like a surfer, but he’d rather feel the water on his skin.

Amy and Melissa slogged out of the water onto the beach, holding hands again. Melissa pointed to a bird in the pomegranate trees and Amy looked. They turned to each other and embraced.

Jack smiled. He couldn’t help it.

He was living the dream.

 

v

 

Eve strolled out onto her silvered wooden deck, humming an esoteric melody she’d been playing with. She wasn’t going to be able to force it out, though she’d spent a couple of hours at the piano trying. Perhaps the sea breeze on her bare skin—she worked best nude—would release the jam. The evasive tune looped and folded in her mind, vibrated in her throat. She needed to change the key, get it lower where it would rumble for a more sensuous effect. She sipped her chamomile tea and hummed low.

The furious sun defied the end of day with golden light against mackerel clouds. Eve opened her arms wide to the sky and warmed her face, her back to the deck railing. She let her arms drop, and a practical wing of her mind said bugs.

Eve bowed to necessity and lowered the long screens that protected the open wall of her house. The seas were hurricane free, so she could leave the wall raised and positioned as a deck roof. She wrapped the screen lines around a little cleat and stroked the wooden post that ended the open section.

She never thought, when she retreated to Anne Bonny Isle to lick her wounds and plan her revenge, that the house she built would charm her so thoroughly. She needed climate control for the bottom two floors, for the electronics and musical instruments, but her living space could be completely open to the world. Block and tackle systems raised entire walls high enough that they simply shaded the spaces underneath while allowing the Caribbean breezes to freshen the whole. And when the lashing rains came, securing her home was a simple matter of paying out a little line. The walls came down like big shutters and no deck roof remained to catch the fierce hurricane winds.

The deck looked over the long crescent beach and peaceful cove, and she spent productive hours reclined on a deck lounger, composing in her head or working on her computer. When she sang, though, she never sat. She stood, upright, and mustered the strength and flexibility of her whole body to project her voice out over the water.

Motion on the beach caught her eye, and she went to the rail. There was a boat in her cove! People on her beach! She threw her mug of chamomile tea at the water.

“Harmonie! Harmonie!” Her powerful voice should have raised the dead, but she’d last seen Harmonie in the sound booth. Fine, she’d take care of the invaders herself.

She spun around and grabbed her sarong from the deck lounger. She wound it around her body as she stomped down the deck’s steps and onto the soft sand. A knot behind her neck fixed it in place. As she passed the driftwood folly she’d crafted just above the high tide line, she grabbed the jade Buddha by the head and hefted him over her shoulder.

The additional weight hampered her progress through the thick sand, hot on her bare feet, and she headed for the harder area at the waterline. Her anger flared—not only an invasion but an imposition as well—and her vision narrowed.

She couldn’t have random people showing up and making themselves at home. Hacking the databases of every electronic chart maker had been a huge undertaking, involving hours of painstaking coding to hide the hack and rewrite the backups as well as the main charts. Getting rid of an island was no joke—and highly illegal—but it had been the only way to protect her work.

Harmonie had thought the effort futile. Deleting a feature on a chart didn’t hide the physical reality of the island, and they’d agreed not to take the risk of hacking the governmental databases at NOAA to get the island, which cartographers yawningly called Decker, off the official charts. Their hack had been completely successful to that point, though. Few boaters used NOAA’s paper charts in the age of electronic chartplotters, to the point where they didn’t even print them anymore except on demand. On the open water, power boaters tended to head from one island to another, or toward the mainland, and Anne Bonny Isle wasn’t on the tourist routes. Others, the fishers, weren’t as interested in land features as water features. The tradewinds that had made Florida and the Caribbean so wildly popular in the age of sail also drew most sailors right past her.

Three people lay on colorful towels in the sun, and a white umbrella shaded a small cooler. Sparks sizzled down Eve’s bare arms at the thought of their nonchalance. How dared they?

They’d claimed a spot most of the way around the cove, but the long slog only gave her anger time to blaze. In moments like this, throughout her life, she’d never bothered to conserve fuel, only burned as bright and high as she could. As she neared them, she drew on the thousands of times she’d stood on stage and poured herself at an audience that screamed back in delirious joy, whipped her fury to its peak, and pulled air into the enormous cavern of her chest.


Chapter Two

Jack sat on a towel at the mahogany navigation table below decks, tracing the inlaid curly maple and purpleheart compass while he pondered their return trip. The weather might give them time for sightseeing before they went back to Miami.

A wave of sound brought Jack’s head up. Someone out there was screaming.

It didn’t sound like Marie or his passengers, but he leapt up the companionway steps and scanned the beach. Someone stalked the beach, a person in a fluttering wrap of some sort, wielding a short, broad object like a fat bat. Marie stood between this person and the passengers, hands raised in front of her as though saying hold on a minute.

Jack dove. He kicked underwater until buoyancy pulled him to the surface, then stroked for shore. The clear saltwater burned his open eyes, but he kept looking for the spaces between coral outcroppings as he approached the shallows. When his fingers touched drifting sand, he pushed to his feet and waded farther in against the suck of a receding wave.

Marie must have pointed him out, because the furious woman bore down on him, walking straight into the water. The hem of her dress darkened where the next small wave washed over it, but she kept coming in water to her calves.

Her intimidating charge slowed Jack’s approach. The golden late afternoon light saturated her long black hair, too thick for the breeze to lift more than the edges. The locks flowed over soft bare shoulders as richly colored as aged varnish and showed hints of curl under her full breasts. The dress was just a big piece of fabric. Each side folded over her breasts and disappeared behind her neck. Her round hips pressed against the bright, thin cotton, and thick thighs flashed into view as she moved.

Water weighted the bottom edge of the sarong and drew it back from her legs as she stalked forward. The curtain parted, higher and higher, exposing more and more skin until skin stopped and fur took over.

Jack stumbled to a halt, shocked by the unexpected peep show and his even more unexpected painful hardening. Nipples, clit, and muscles alike throbbed suddenly.

Just a body. Just a body.

Her skin was rich brown all the way up, with a yellow undertone, her cunt hair as black as the hair on her head.

He looked up, desperate to move his focus.

Her eyes flashed. He shook his head, certain that eyes did no such thing. What a cheesy thing to think, but there they were, black and liquid and full of light. Her arched brows and narrowed eyes gave her the look of a wicked queen, but she didn’t have the smug smile of a movie nemesis. Her dark, well-defined lips parted, and she took an enormous breath.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing here?”

Jack quailed and nearly fell to his knees. Her voice cleared his head of thought with sheer volume and a rich timbre that seemed to use every cubic centimeter of her voluptuous body. He wanted to beg her for punishment, to learn her every desire and fulfill it before she even had to ask.

She used her hands wildly, shaking a heavy jade statue in one, pointing with and waving the other. Her breasts swayed and bounced with the force of her fury.

Yeah, yeah, she wanted them to go away. He’d gathered that.

Her voice dropped to a threatening rumble. “You can’t anchor here, kid. Get your boat and get the hell out of here.”

Who are you calling a kid? At twenty-eight, he was probably older than her. Jack shook his head, thought returning in a rush. “Like hell I can’t.” If he knew anything after the last year of battling the Miami-area homeowners’ association, he knew that the right to anchor was protected by maritime tradition as well as United States law.

“This is my island and my cove, you brazen trespasser!” Her voice penetrated even deeper, though he would have sworn it was impossible.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” He stepped up to her, almost eye to eye, and leaned close. He scented warm sandalwood and amber over the light stink of sea wrack and the omnipresent salt. “If this is your island, the most you can do is make us move down the beach, below the high tide line. You most certainly can’t make us pull up anchor. Your land. My water.” He did a little hand waving of his own to emphasize that statement.

Her breath rushed in and out in her rage, her abdomen swelling with each fast inhale. At such close range, he smelled chamomile on her breath.

She bared sharp teeth and he flinched instinctively. She inhaled one more deep breath, bigger than the rest, and screamed in his face.

Jack staggered at the frontal assault and braced himself several feet away. This was no movie scream, no ingénue attacked by a shadowy murderer. This was the full-throated roar of an enraged beast.

And he knew her.

Holy shit, the virago was the singer, Eve La Sirena. He knew her work intimately, loved all three of her albums. He’d fucked to “Rogue’s Gallery” more than he was comfortable thinking about all of a sudden, and her first album, Fit to be Tied, didn’t have a weak song on it.

The indie scene adored her, though her popularity and notoriety went far beyond bar venues and college radio stations. He’d fallen for her music through a late-night radio DJ who had been obsessed with her, as so many were. Jack had even won a ticket once to see her live in concert. She’d come to town the day he started rebuilding Lysistrata and he’d been too exhausted to go. He’d given the free ticket to a former crewmate and regretted that ever since. She never played another real concert, only popping up now and then in clubs to steal the spotlight from the scheduled performer. She went behind the scenes as a producer and finally disappeared altogether after the lead singer of one of her bands died. When she dropped out of sight, she should have fallen off the pop culture radar, but instead her mystique took over, and barely a month went by without her face on the cover of a tabloid. Usually wrecking a marriage—lesbian, gay, or straight—or dying of a rare disease.

Suddenly, the whole conflict, the whole island, took on a different cast. This was a superstar throwing a tantrum, a prodigy who’d never learned what no meant. There was no argument against the blind confidence of the gifted, insulated by fame. The visceral reality of her notorious body arm’s length away, pumping heat at him, hazed with the sudden, incontrovertible knowledge that she was not just out of his league.

Eve La Sirena lived on another planet.

Still didn’t mean she owned the water, but he figured she had reasons to cultivate privacy. She’d been dogged by paparazzi throughout her late teens and early twenties, even her overt and loud-mouthed outness failing to quell the fervor over her celebrated bisexuality. He’d even caught kinky references in her songwriting.

Holy shit, he thought again. She really was his dream dominant. Literally.

 

v

 

The handsome young captain morphed into a different creature. Their posture, their expression, their very smell altered when she screamed at them.

Recognition.

Eve clenched her hands around Buddha’s neck and wished she could crack his ass upside this person’s head. Her own fault, of course, for coming out here to begin with. And then to vocalize like that. Damn it. She was supposed to be on the down-low here.

The new precariousness of her position modulated her anger. She was a creature of her passions, but she prided herself on knowing when the tide turned against her.

She tossed her hair at the captain and slogged out of the warm water. She pulled her wet sarong with her free hand, bunching it in front of her as she approached the freaked-out baby dyke who’d tried valiantly to head her off in the beginning.

That one, adorably ginger and using her coloring well in a russet bikini, was smarter than the captain. The small cooler was packed, the towels and umbrella fastened to the top with shock cord. The whole lot floated in a rectangular air tube, which struck her as damn clever.

The other two, a butch/femme couple, stood wordlessly staring with their hands intertwined and their shoulders touching.

She addressed her comments to the couple. Baby Dyke had called them her passengers. “Folks, I’m sorry I came out with my metaphorical guns drawn. My privacy is crucial to my happiness, crucial to having any kind of pleasant life at all, and I didn’t give the situation time to soak in. I’m sure you can sympathize and, now that I’ve taken a moment to calm down, I understand that you’re not here to make problems for me.” The passengers stopped clutching each other so hard. A self-deprecating smile finished the job.

The femme in the cute halter pushed her glamorous sunglasses up on her hair. “We had no idea we were imposing, and I’m so sorry to have upset you.”

The butch had tried to speak, but let her lover go first rather than talk over her. Too charming. Damn it. She didn’t want to like these people. “Really, the boat is wonderful and we’re perfectly happy to hang out there.”

Neither blamed the captain, and Eve warmed to them further for that. Most people spent an inordinate amount of time looking for others to blame.

“You don’t need to apologize, really, just enjoy the rest of your vacation. Shall I bring out my canoe to get you back to the boat?” Not her most subtle moment, but if it worked…

They moved as one toward the water. The femme dropped a step behind her lover and turned back to say, eyes direct and open, “You’ve changed my life more than once. I live a life I love in part because of courage you helped me find. Thank you.”

Eve’s eyes filled with tears, and she went to the other woman. She dropped the jade Buddha and filled her arms with warm, trembling femme, pungent with sunblock and brine. “We help each other every day. Courage and love, sister.”

They clung a moment, then let go. The lovers held hands as they walked into the softly heaving sea and then dove one after another to swim for the sailboat at anchor. Eve watched them go, wondering about their story, making up a half-dozen in a flash, each one possible, beautiful or painful or both.

She turned to see Baby Dyke standing shyly nearby. Eve brushed aside her hand and drew her into a quick, rough hug. The bright red girl and the cooler contraption started for the boat.

Eve bent to the sand and picked up her Buddha, a gorgeous statue that she would have regretted breaking. She cradled him in her arms. She turned back to the captain, pulling a regal veil over her bearing. “You may or may not have the right to be in my cove, but I warn you. If you bring even one iota of attention to this island, to me being here or having a house here, I will end you. Don’t speak my name to a single soul.”

Head high, Eve sauntered away down the long curve of firm sand at the edge of the water. As she rounded the cove, the setting sun gleamed on the black and gold lettering streaming across the red boat’s transom. Lysistrata.

 

v

 

Harmonie waited on the deck, arms crossed. She might as well have been tapping her palm with a ruler.

“I know. Stupid.” Eve diverted from the walkway and headed into the sand.

“I know you know. So why? Why would you reveal yourself to a bunch of strangers?”

Eve retrieved her mug and mounted the deck steps. She stalked past Harmonie restlessly. “I thought we were safe here. Alone, getting our revenge and crippling the industry, opening music up to the people who want it. Need it. Funding the musical revolution.” The tagline to the movie of her life. Gross.

Too distracted to work, she went in to the bar, left her mug in the sink, and filled two glasses with a Sangiovese from Abruzzo. She raised her voice so Harmonie, still on the deck, could hear her. “We changed the shape of the planet to hide this place. What else can I do to get some damn privacy?”

Eve brought the wine out to the deck and handed a glass to Harmonie, who took it with pursed lips. Eve leaned against the deck rail so she could better glare at the beautiful boat. In Boston drawing room furniture, Chinoiserie seemed hopelessly exoticizing and Western imperialist. Floating on the water, the strong and elegant Chinese-looking lines had a sense to them. The boat had three masts with red, folded sails lying at the bottoms and wooden buttresses at both the front and the back. Rather than hugging the water like a racing boat in the Hamptons, structures rose along its length, starting low at the front and getting higher toward the back in what struck her as an old-fashioned design, something she’d see painted on rice paper at the Met. Red lacquer accents—probably paint—insisted on the Chinese theme, and the bronze dragon stretching along the back reiterated it. Instead of black to complement the red and gold, the bulk of the boat gleamed with dark wood varnish.

Harmonie snuggled close beside her and stroked her cheek with a soft fingertip. “Let me take care of anyone else who shows up.” Harmonie touched Eve’s lips when they twisted, running her sharp nail across the top. “Please, Eve. That’s what you can do.”

“Hide, because my fame and power are weaknesses.”

Harmonie didn’t have to smile. Eve could see her amusement. “I know this isn’t a word you’re very familiar with, but how about acting with some discretion?”

Eve sipped her wine, casting her witchiest gaze at Harmonie over the rim, who laughed and shook her head. Eve sighed. “Fine. I accede to your request that you handle trespassers from now on. But we need to know what our rights are.”

“You mean whether or not people can be on the beach?”

“Or at anchor. The captain of the sailboat says there’s no way to keep boaters from anchoring in the cove.”

“I’ll email the lawyer.”

Eve leaned on the deck’s railing. “Let’s see what Shonda can find on the captain, too. The boat’s called Lysistrata.”

“What an intriguing name.” Harmonie’s eyebrows rose. “A man who knows where the real power is?”

“I don’t know the captain’s gender. They’re probably transmasculine, or maybe butch. If they’re a trans man, they may be new. There were little tits under a tight swimming shirt—what’s that called—a rash guard, and no sign of facial hair.”

“Even stranger. A person who may or may not be a trans man choosing to name their boat after a story about men’s weakness in the face of female sexual power. Why change teams in that case?”

“This one must see relations between the sexes as inherently antagonistic. Ridiculous, of course.” Eve sent Harmonie an arched look. “Antagonism follows sexual attraction for any combination of genders, especially when the yen is one-sided. It’s embedded in the process of deciding whether or not to fuck.”

Harmonie swallowed her wine and rolled her eyes. “Tension and antagonism aren’t always the same thing.”

“They are to me.” Eve leaned in and took a sharp little bite of Harmonie’s bare shoulder. Salt and lime body scrub. Yum. When Harmonie’s eyes closed, Eve put her hand on Harmonie’s soft throat. “And you like me this way.”

“Yes.” Harmonie sounded breathless, and her voice box barely vibrated as she spoke. “I do.”

Eve smoothed her hand across Harmonie’s collarbone to her shoulder and rubbed the little indentions she’d left with her teeth. “I think the captain is a bottom.”

Harmonie’s deep brown eyes opened, soft-focused. “Everyone’s a bottom around you.”

Eve laughed and enjoyed the answering smile that revealed Harmonie’s strong teeth. “Would that it were true. No, before they recognized me. I charged into the water when they swam up, and I thought they were going to fall at my feet.”

“Your fame isn’t the source of your power, Eve.”

Eve pushed away from the railing and brushed aside Harmonie’s insightful reassurance. “Whether or not you believe in the concept of a natural bottom, they worked hard at not giving in to my fatal allure.” She vamped it up, dropping her voice to a devastating purr and pulling the sarong back to reveal her hip. “Of course, I’m sure it helped that the water dragged the sarong apart and they got a full-bush eyeful. Clutching at my sarong would have ruined the raging goddess effect, so…” She shrugged, insouciant.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” When Eve shook her head, Harmonie’s rolling laughter filled the air, ricocheting from the low shores of the cove. They probably heard it on the boat.

She had the best laugh, holding nothing back, and Eve wallowed in the sound. When Harmonie started gasping for breath, wiping her eyes, Eve took her hand. “Seriously, though, if they’re a bottom, maybe that has something to do with their focus on powerlessness.”

Harmonie had pulled herself together, for the most part. “Maybe it’s about the boat being stronger.”

“Or the sea?”

Harmonie sighed, the breath catching in her throat with the last scrap of laughter. “What’s this person look like?”

“Think of the brunette in a boy band.”

“Oh, not that again.”

Eve adopted an affronted look and descended on her assistant, her lover, her friend.


Chapter Three

Jack sat in the bootblack’s chair and let Tigger work on his boots while they caught up. He’d gone for dapper, with a soft button-down shirt and slacks, twisted toward leather by the boots and his favorite bondage belt. Another thrift store outfit, only a little wrinkled from being folded in his small cabinet. The crowd at Puss’n’Boots sported the usual array of clothing, from street casual through high-femme and fetish wear to nothing at all.

Now that he’d arrived, the urge to play had gotten stronger. Maybe his chest harness and jeans would have been better advertisement.

The club’s main space spread out before him. The black walls soaked away the light of the bright spots where the furniture stood. He’d been on the committee to repaint and had never dreamed it would be so hard to find a color that didn’t look either garish or hospital-industrial in the type of lighting required for tops to see what they were up to. Back to black. The rectangular room boasted the usual St. Andrew’s cross, spanking and fucking benches, slings, stocks, cages, and padded hobbyhorses, but it also had open spaces with rings that dropped from the ceiling for suspension play. He couldn’t quite see into the side rooms: a medical room, a schoolroom, an orgy room, and a playroom for the littles that looked like a day care.

By the horse, a collared sub in a waist cincher and gartered hose laid out the implements of her torture, handling each item reverently while her top stretched her shoulders for the work to come. A bantam rooster of a dominant checked herself in each mirrored surface as she strolled around the room greeting her friends. No-nonsense fucking proceeded in the nearest sling, where the wearer of the dildo harness jackhammered the jiggling woman splayed out in front of her and occasionally glanced around at the folks watching.

The bootblack chair was a throne, really, a big wooden platform with a densely padded seat. The boot rest thrust out at a convenient height for Tigger to kneel on the floor or sit on her little stool while shining shoes. That also put her well below Jack, who enjoyed the view.

“That shirt makes your tits incredibly distracting.”

Tigger spread the blacking over his leather. “It’s not the shirt. It’s the bra. You’ve seen this shirt before in less strained circumstances.”

“Huh.” Jack considered. “Okay. Regardless, it works.”

She looked up through her green Bettie Page bangs. “Thanks.” She swept one sparkling fake eyelash down in a slow wink.

“Damn, you’re good.”

“You too, handsome.” Tigger massaged blacking into his boot leather with a strong hand, rubbing his toes somehow. “I thought I’d be all alone until Daddy arrived. I hope you keep coming to the women-and-trans nights.”

“They certainly bring all the people I’m attracted to into close proximity.” He gave her an exaggerated leer.

“You don’t take it as an insult to your manliness?”

“My limited manliness is pretty robust.” She kept looking at him and he dropped the flirtatious tone. “I’m not such a man as all that. I’m still tussling with the idea that I may be at my best gender right now. I don’t want to join the boys’ club, but I feel like the girls’ club isn’t a great fit anymore. Actually, I appreciate not having to pick a binary gender just so I can get into a party.”

“And even the womyn—” she pronounced it whoa-mine “—dig your vibe.”

“Lucky me. Masculine enough but not too masculine.”

She must have caught the bitter edge. “Do you work at balancing there?”

He laced his fingers and watched as her hands moved slowly across the leather. “I try not to, but it’s like code-switching.”

She hummed. “You mean you get more or less manly depending on who you’re around?”

“More like I think of my behavior as gendered more around some people. It’s like there’s some piece of me that believes it’s outside of gender, that represents the truest me, and it gets refracted through these gendered lenses. So sometimes I’m just being me while other times I’m being manly-me and other times I’m manly-me-lite.”

“Sounds like a gender studies master’s thesis.”

“Know anyone who would want it?”

“Maybe. I’m still thinking about going back to school.”

Jack shuddered. “I barely escaped high school without burning the place to the ground. Give me a good library over a school any day.”

“I don’t want the debt, but I miss the academic environment sometimes. Not as much when we get together and talk sex and gender theory.” She changed the subject again. “I haven’t seen you around.”

“I took a bright-eyed lesbian couple on a two-day sail. Good people, really enjoyed themselves.”

“Did you get any action?”

Jack rolled his eyes. Tigger thought everyone should have sex with everyone else, and voila! World peace. “No, they’re a pretty traditional butch/femme couple. I would have gone for a night with Melissa, but Amy didn’t do it for me. And they smelled monogamous. On the other hand, I got into a fight.”

Tigger rested her blackened rag on his toe and looked at him, her eyelashes making sparkly circles around her wide eyes. “Seriously? How did you manage that out in the middle of nowhere? You don’t usually take people to crowded spots.”

“Yeah, not my specialty. But I found an island I’d never been to and we anchored in this glorious cove. Turbinado sugar sand, tall palms, clear water, coral, fish. Exactly what folks want from sailing in the Caribbean. The passengers went ashore with Marie—”

“Oh, the delectable deckhand. I just want to eat her up.”

“—and they got attacked by a wild woman wielding a jade statue.”

“Are you kidding me?” Tigger propped her wrist on his knee.

The person on the St. Andrews cross screamed, and he looked over. She was being whipped with a singletail. Ouch. Nice technique, though. Tigger poked him, and he resumed his story. “Well, verbally attacked. I dove in and swam ashore—”

“What a hero!”

“—and she screamed at me. She was trying to kick us out of the anchorage, but you know how I feel about that.”

“Nice boy turns to stone killer.” She pretended to machine-gun the crowd.

“Not quite. But I stood my ground. Anchoring is never at the discretion of individual property owners along the shore. Sometimes municipalities control anchoring for various reasons, but—”

“Get back to the fight.”

“Fine. Sure. So we went back and forth a little, but not until I’d gotten myself under control.”

Tigger waited a moment, mouth open. “What does that mean? You went Hulk on this person?”

“No, I went nonverbal. Tigger, she was amazing.” Jack’s eyes lost their focus as he remembered how she’d looked wading into the water to meet him. The noise level in the club rose as the party picked up steam, but he heard only Eve’s voice. “A goddess on bare feet with a fat Buddha as a weapon. She rushed toward me, right into the water, and her dress parted up the middle.”

“What kind of dress?” Tigger inched closer like a little kid at story time.

“Not a dress, really, just a piece of fabric wrapped around her torso and behind her neck.”

“A sarong, then.”

“Okay, so her sarong got caught by the water. The bottom edge flowed back until, honest to God, I could see her cunt hair.”

“No way.” Her eyes and mouth were equally round.

“Yes way. She is huge. Her presence, I mean. And big-bodied, round and full of motion. I’m telling you, a total goddess.”

“So you…” Tigger bounced on the edge of her seat.

“Told her we wouldn’t leave. I’m tired of being kicked around by landowners who think they can dictate my life. After the fiasco with the harbormaster and his brother-in-law…” He shrugged. “She turned away from me and had some sort of moment with one of the passengers. She hugged her and Marie both and then just left.” He hadn’t decided whether or not to reveal her identity until just that moment. Eve La Sirena. He was practically bursting with it, but he chose to obey her in that one particular.

“That’s it? Are you going back?”

Tigger’s enthusiasm for the idea pulled the truth from him. “Definitely. I have a point to make.” Though seeing Eve again both drew and frightened him. Jack raised his chin at the tanned brunette rolling through the door in a tricked out wheelchair, sleeves turned up to show off bulging arms. “In the meantime, there’s fun to be had right here. Your Daddy just arrived.”

Tigger lit up. “I’m going to finish you up real quick, okay?”

“Of course.” He didn’t bother to offer that she not finish. She was rightfully proud of her shines.

She pushed the stool aside and knelt, got her back into it, wiggling her ass in the air. Jack enjoyed the show while he cruised the room for his next thing. Tigger would bottom to Jane for the rest of the night and they wouldn’t get another chance to talk. He pushed aside the pang of loneliness. He had other friends who’d be at the party, sooner or later.

When Tigger stood and curtsied, her green panties glowing under super-short white crinoline, he inspected his boots with sober ostentation and declared them perfect.

Jane rolled up with her usual impeccable timing. “Nice boots, Jack.”

“Thanks to your girl. New wheels?”

She did a three-sixty on two wheels and stopped on a dime. “Sport model.”

“Sick.” The skater compliment echoed uncomfortably in Jack’s head. “Is it for basketball?”

“No, I have a different chair for that. With this one, now there’s no way my little girl can get away from me.” She grimaced at Tigger, who giggled. “Have you been a good girl?”

Tigger nodded. She pulled her fist out of her mouth and said, “Yes, Daddy.” Her voice was lighter, breathier. Jack didn’t get age play, but it worked like a charm on Tigger.

Jack excused himself and left them to their fun.

A circuit of the play space showed one of those strange pauses, when all the players were doing aftercare, packing up, or setting up. A quiet time between scenes, with no one cruising him back as he walked around. He went into the den, basically a break room with food, drink, and casual seating. At the snack table, he got a soda and sipped at it. He sat on the arm of a couch and made conversation for a while.

Cynthia appeared in the doorway, hair teased high and small breasts smashed higher. Her latex minidress gleamed with hard light that rippled with her sinuous walk. He scoped her perfect fishnets and wondered whether she was wearing thigh-highs with a garter belt. He sure did love garters.

They’d played before, friends with benefits, and when she walked over to him, he straightened.

“My cock is so hard it hurts,” she said without bending close or keeping her voice low.

A few of the conversations around them paused and interested gazes fell on them, but Jack kept his eyes on Cynthia. “How can I help?”

“I want you to suck me off on the stage. If you do a good job, I’ll cane you as a reward.”

Jack felt the smile spread slowly over his face. “Sounds like the perfect night to me.”

 

v

 

Eve lay, full-length, on Harmonie’s back. They both struggled to catch their breath after the energetic fucking they’d done. Sweat dried on her shoulders and her legs.

She rose onto her hands and knees over Harmonie, who moaned at the tearing apart of their sticky skin. Her tits hung, her belly just visible beyond. She’d long since stopped trying to maintain the shape and weight of her youth, but occasionally, she saw herself with the camera’s eye, with the tabloid eye, and knew that they would be vicious about her fat.

She slipped to the side and draped an arm and leg over Harmonie to anchor her through the aftershocks.

So be it. She felt good, she looked good, and it was no one’s business but her own. When there’d been an industry built around her voice, her looks, her performances and appearances and interviews, she’d let others sculpt her body into the expected. Or nearly that. She’d always, even at uncomfortably low weights, been termed Reubenesque. She’d been called a dark Marilyn Monroe to her face, live on camera, but the discretion everyone thought she’d long since abandoned kept her from shredding those vacuous talking heads on the spot.

She turned her pillow over, seeking a cool spot, and pulled away from Harmonie’s heat. She maintained the connection with fingertips and knees. Harmonie tended to get overwhelmed after play unless Eve shared the punchy energy they’d built together.

The charge of holding Harmonie down and making her come dissipated in memories of struggling for self-determination. She had beaten the music business on a personal level, damn it. She’d kept the power and the money and the control, enough to change her career when the constant scrutiny became oppressive.

Songwriting and cameos on other artists’ work had eased the transition. She missed performing regularly, ached for it sometimes, but clubs and bars were so much more fun than stadium tours anyway. Showing up for an hour at a roadhouse in the country gave Eve the contact she needed, let her shine enough that she didn’t burn herself up. Harmonie understood. Second-hand, though—as a studio musician by choice, being on stage was no part of her dream. Harmonie set up the shows, booked the travel, and got Eve through the door so that her imagination, her ear, and her voice could flourish.

Producing other acts should have let her create publicly, but she couldn’t go on, drawing artists into the industry that wanted nothing more than to exploit them. Not after Audion lost everything. Not after Marc Fern killed himself in helpless despair.

Eve believed in what she and Harmonie were doing. Freeing music from the artificial boundaries of copyright and dead tech. But it wasn’t creating, and she was a songwriter first.

She played and sang her grief, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to share those songs. Under the name Kitten Caboodle, she’d self-produced and self-released seven albums, all beats and cuts and manipulated vocals, since the last one as Eve La Sirena. Music sculpted for sex, paced and flowing to bring out the sybarite in the listener. Maintenance sex was fine, like anything that gets a body through the day, but she wanted to inspire listeners to linger, to dive deep into sensation and duration and extend the frenzy that took over at the end.

And look at her, taking her own advice. Eve ran her hand down Harmonie’s soft flank.

Harmonie turned onto her back, groaning. “I think you broke my cunt.” She stretched on the light cotton sheet, her dark brown skin fading a little under her breasts and a lot at her palms. Eve loved to trace those frontiers, and the rich sunlight angling under the raised wall of Harmonie’s bedroom brought out the rosy glow under the color.

“It’ll heal.” Eve propped her head on her hand and ran a finger, sticky with lube, around Harmonie’s soft nipple. It never disappeared, like Eve’s did. Poking out a little even in the most humid heat, her nipples were the first thing about Harmonie that had wetted Eve’s cunt.

A breeze flowed unimpeded from the water, over their drying bodies, and into the living room beyond. Armoires lined the side walls, most of their doors open and spilling glorious fabrics onto the floor. Harmonie didn’t care a bit about shoes, but her collection of gowns, sarongs, and headwraps brought fiery rainbows indoors.

“Yeah.” Harmonie’s agreement came out breathy on the end of another stretch. “You’re wonderfully distracting.”

“Glad you like it.” Eve nuzzled Harmonie’s shoulder and cupped her tit lightly. “I love your body like this. Soft and relaxed, hot and steamy.”

They fucked most often in Harmonie’s bed, when they used a bed. The third bedroom was the playroom, with their BDSM gear and a daybed for those times when they wanted a soft surface while playing hard. Eve’s bedroom was densely decorated, rich with color, more of a cuddle room.

“You do a fine job of getting me this way.” Harmonie slid her eyes to Eve’s. “You’re still not feeling it, though?”

Eve shrugged. “My cunt doesn’t want to open up. I don’t know why.” She squeezed Harmonie’s tit. “All my sexual energy is in my hands right now.”

“Okay. Let me know when that changes. I’ll eat you up.” Harmonie rolled on top of Eve and bit at her eyebrow and nose and chin before settling into a deep kiss. Harmonie’s hundreds of long, thin locs spilled onto Eve’s shoulders and around her head.

Eve loved their connection. No pressure, even when desire waxed or waned. Just an almost sisterly closeness.

Harmonie dropped back beside her with a sigh. “I tracked you down to talk about something.”

Eve closed her eyes and let her muscles go lax. “I had a feeling.” She took a long, slow breath through her nose, absorbing the ever-present sea salt and lime, a hint of coconut oil, and the light sandalwood incense Harmonie favored, all overlaid with the sharp tang of pussy. Sea birds screamed and water lapped at the sand of her cove.

“Nothing terrible. I heard back from the lawyers about anchoring law.” Eve stiffened and opened her eyes to the whitewashed ceiling. “The right to anchor is considered a safety issue. Safety for the boat, that is. The right has been protected and reinforced over and over. There’s generally a two-week limit on how long a boat can stay in one place, but that’s not a matter of law so much as precedent. Plenty of towns and cities and especially gated communities, and especially in Florida, want to control who can anchor or whether boats can anchor. There have been big battles between homeowners’ associations and boating groups, plus a never-ending stream of boaters getting harassed. The people on land bitch about their property values and claim folks at anchor use local resources without supporting them by paying taxes.”

Eve held herself still, but she was squirming inside. “These are the people on our side? Gross.”

“It gets worse. The city-by-city rules on anchoring were deemed an unreasonable burden on boaters, and now property owners are lobbying for draconian restrictions on anchoring that would apply to every waterway in the state.”

“Authoritarian pigs.”

“Yep.”

“So we don’t like them, but we need to use their arguments to keep that boat away?”

Harmonie grabbed the burnished bronze bars of the headboard and her triceps tensed. “Do we? Maybe you already won.”

“The captain went from brainless to self-righteous so fast that they’ll have to come back. It would be giving in to stay away.”

“Wouldn’t hurt to try talking. Make some sort of deal. They already know who you are. You should be able to bulldoze them.” Harmonie’s tone was matter-of-fact, a sure sign that she was trying to wheedle Eve into doing what she wanted. Whatever the lawyers had said, or maybe Harmonie had done more research after she’d talked to them, she wasn’t feeling the hard line with this issue. Eve had trusted Harmonie with far more important decisions. She leaned toward going with Harmonie’s gut on this as well.

Eve plucked at the soft cotton sheet, thinking it over. “We have to keep this place a secret. If we get caught, we’re looking at decades in jail and millions of dollars in fines before we even get hit with the civil suits.”

Harmonie lay in silence. Finally, she sighed and settled one arm behind her head. “I still don’t see the huge change we’re working for. Too many people want to get paid every time one of your songs is played. There’s constantly a bill in Congress to go nuclear against peer-to-peer networks, and we’ve won those fights so far. But the artists need more from us than a platform and a few pennies. They need support and legal aid and proper recording equipment.”

The distance between them gaped.

A few pennies directly from someone who loved the music and wanted to support it was light-years better than a few pennies squeezed past the tight sphincter of the record label accountant.

Artists were sucked up, used up, spit out. Those poor, stupid fucking idiots. Lining up for the opportunity to sign everything away. Everything they created became commodities, items traded for their market value rather than their artistic value. All their passion and all their venom—simple products. As producer, she’d ended up feeling like part of the machine. She was like a union member who took a management job with the goal of changing working conditions, only to find that she couldn’t, that she could only make excuses for her weakness. That she’d become what she hated.

But she’d already said that a thousand times in a thousand conversations just like this. The well-worn argument was going to push them apart. It was happening as they lay there, sloppy with sex. She and Harmonie had set up their operation together, studied coding and programming, split the plan into individual parts so they could job the complicated stuff out to anonymous programmers they found on the Net. After a couple years of spending extended periods of time on the island, sinking large money and larger time into their work, Harmonie chafed to get in front of the problem and take it by the throat.

Eve finally responded to Harmonie’s question. “The danger is a musical version of what grocery coops have been through. They start out scrappy. All they have to do is stop handing their power over to an uncaring system. They put all their hopes and dreams and desires into a new system that grows and takes on its own momentum under the rules of capitalism. It turns into Whole Foods, union busters with dissatisfied employees and customers that feel ripped off. It’s hard to stay small without disappearing, but it’s even harder to pool your power as consumers or workers or citizens without setting up exactly the kind of system that invites the power mongers to take control.” Eve stared at the ceiling. “Capitalism is a system for stealing value as a commodity passes through multiple hands. You want to change the hands. I want to remove them.”

“Digital systems can remove them. Open-source value-moving systems don’t have to skim. Of course, you can skim. The companies trading in Bitcoins are proof of that. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Eve turned her head and looked at Harmonie, who continued to stare at the ceiling. “Idealist.”

“Cynic.” The tinge of bitterness in her tone was softened by the slight curving of her lips.

“Yep.” Eve sighed. They’d gone yet another round, and they were far from done.


Chapter Four

When the wind built suddenly, Jack signaled Marie to reef two sail panels. The junk rig—a two-thousand-year-old style of boat—was a slow goer into the wind, but it performed beautifully with the wind aft of the beam, and nothing could be easier than reducing sail area in a strong blow.

A process that would have required the full crew on most schooners, including the cook, was an easy job for Marie. He could have done it himself, but why have a willing deckhand aboard if he was going to do everything anyway?

Tony held the wheel firmly, but his wiry, liver-spotted wrists and forearms looked relaxed. Letting passengers take the helm thrilled them more often than not, and it was a crucial tool in the fight against seasickness. Tony was an old hand, though, and wanted a turn at the helm for the pure pleasure of it.

His husband Dan watched Tony as well, brand-new sailing hat pulled firmly down on his tender bald head. Spry men in their seventies, Tony and Dan had been together for over forty years, most of them spent closeted as housemates. The opportunity to marry had pushed them to have the last of their coming-out conversations over the past year or so, and they’d married once everyone they wanted to invite understood their relationship.

The wedding pictures Dan flourished showed their big families rallied around them to celebrate. Tony had bent Marie’s ear about the few people who had boycotted the joyous event just past, but Dan, the bigger talker in general, hadn’t wasted much of his time on those “putzes.”

Dan turned to Jack, who sat across from him on the other side of Tony. The cockpit was a perfect conversation pit. The seating made a broad semicircle around the wheel, and Jack had seen nine people at a time squeezed onto the long bench. The angled back was comfortable under heel on either side, and the curve let folks look at one another without having to crane their necks. Dan crossed his legs. “Have you sailed all your life?”

“I learned to sail as a kid on Optis and other tiny sailboats.”

Tony nodded, his eyes sharp on the horizon. “Same here. Dinghy sailing on the lake.”

Dan shook his head. “Too wet for me. I like this size boat. Bigger is better, believe you me.”

“I went straight to schooner work from there. A lot bigger and not nearly so wet, except in the rain. When sailing’s a business, it takes a big bad storm to make them call off a trip.”

Dan shuddered. “I’m glad it’s not like that today. Do you go out in storms?”

Jack reached across to pat Dan’s thin, speckled knee. “Don’t worry, I take a different approach. I wouldn’t take you out if you weren’t going to have fun. Of course, schooner work was more than just sail handling. We entertained the passengers with call-and-response routines and flamboyant hand signals and storytelling. Sometimes we had chantey singers aboard. I loved those trips. The sail handling and chores, well, those became second nature.”

“Even second nature can be brutal.” Tony kept his eyes on the waves, but a little smile played around his mouth.

“True. The routine was exhausting and rewarding by turns. What I loved was how the passengers were a little different every trip. Some crew members called them cargo behind their backs, but I got a kick out of watching folks. That moment when the boat picks up speed and starts to heel—”

“Make or break time.” Tony glanced at him in amused understanding and looked back up at the sails.

“The big schooners never really lay down on their beams, but with all that sail area and those long waterlines, they can really move. And yes, some passengers learned they didn’t like sailing right about then. But lots of people got it. The water sliding along the hull and the timbers groaning as the sails filled.” Jack shrugged, unsatisfied as always with his attempt to express the core joy of getting under way under sail. “Anyway, I became a schooner rat, sailing and living aboard season after season, doing repair work and maintenance over the winter.”

“Same boat the whole time?” Dan’s bright eyes were fixed on him. Either he was really curious or just a kick-ass listener.

“No, I moved around a bit. I got to know dozens of casual crew members in it just for a season and made some close friends. It’s a small community, spread out, and not without its drama.”

“Oh, the good part.” Dan’s wrinkles only emphasized the pixie nature of his smile.

Jack grinned back. “The crusty, punk rock boats and crew, with their nonprofits, household paints, and accidental dreadlocks, versus the pomposity of the privately-owned polo shirt and ten coats of varnish types.”

“Which type were you?”

“I was comfortable enough on both types of boat, but I enjoyed the middle range best. Middle class passengers and the occasional educational cruise—my favorite kind of season. Much as I’m attracted to the crusty type, I couldn’t handle having children around constantly and hustling for that nonprofit cash.” Jack signaled Marie to sheet in the main and watched as she worked the sail a little closer in. She went back to gripping the rail, face raised to the spray. They both got plenty of that kind of exhilarating rest while underway. She would take over entertaining the men later, if Jack wanted a break. He liked these two, though.

“But you left the schooner life and got your own boat.”

Jack obediently went back to his story. “I saved all my pathetic pay for six years. I didn’t come out as trans on the schooners. I felt that a fresh start would let me navigate my transition at my own pace.” Dan nodded, but his expression didn’t show any great understanding. With guys that age, Jack was happy to settle for respect and proper pronouns. He didn’t need to go off about gender theory. “I’d wanted a small schooner for the familiarity and because everybody looks when a schooner sails into port, whether it’s gleaming with varnish or streaked with rust. A schooner is its own advertisement. The only problem was crew.”

Tony said, “What, you don’t yearn to order people around?”

Jack chuckled. “Exactly. I never envied that part of a captain’s responsibilities, and I kept my eyes open for alternatives to running a crew of four or five.”

“And then you found her.” Dan’s dreamy tone made it sound like Jack had found his dream lover. He wasn’t that far off.

Lysistrata hit me like a brick and turned into an obsession. She had all the benefits of a schooner, with a twist. Junk-rigged boats are unmistakable under sail, and most people think there’s something strange about them at anchor. The placement of the masts, the way the sails sit at the bottom—there are little differences that show even with everything stowed.”

“Once the sails are up, even a ‘cocktails in the cockpit’ queen like me can see that this is not the same old sailboat.” Dan looked up at the full sails and put a hand on Tony’s hip. They did a lot of that—little touches that warmed Jack’s heart.

“I studied junks while I kept sailing schooners. I learned the parts of the rig—parrels, sheetlets, sail panels, and a bunch more—and found a junk-rig missionary on a Web forum who was willing to take me out for a sail.”

“Oh, that’s ingenious.” Dan clapped. “No stakes that way.”

Jack rested his arm along the rail behind the bench seat. “The boat was big, plenty big enough to charter, and the guy ran it himself as though it were a daysailer while proselytizing the joys of the rig. He was the type of person who couldn’t love something without trying to make everyone else love it too.”

Tony said, “And if being preached at didn’t turn you away, you must have really liked it.”

“Right?” Jack nodded.

Tony’s smile was abstracted. He was concentrating on taking each wave at the perfect angle. Nothing wrong with concentrating at the helm, but working that hard would tire him out. Jack looked back at Dan, who was also studying Tony, and picked up the story. “A visually interesting rig that didn’t require a large crew but could push a heavy boat at a decent pace downwind. Perfect. The upwind performance was worrisome, but my pride made me think I could handle being tossed back onto my seamanship rather than powering through every difficulty.”

Tony’s increasing fatigue disrupted Dan’s relaxation, so Jack handed Tony a tube of sunscreen. “Your ears are getting crispy.” As good an excuse as any to take the wheel from Tony for the last part of the trip.

Tony moved over closer to Dan and spread on the sunscreen. Dan rubbed away the white streaks on Tony’s jaw and they shared a tender kiss.

The wind didn’t abate, so they swept through the water toward what Jack was calling Lysistrata Cove. Bursting waves misted the boat with glittering salt. They sailed into the cove well before dark and Jack, showing off for Tony and Marie, set the anchor elegantly under sail. Marie cheered along with the men and turned to coiling lines and covering the sails.

A fresh breeze flowed over the low island, ruffling the water more than on his first visit. He arranged the fruit and cheese he’d cut up earlier on a small silver platter and opened a light rosé wine. After he left the guys with their snack and some citronella candles, he dove in to check the anchor. He’d stuck it deep without raking it over or through any coral.

Back on the boat, he dried off and changed into light cotton pants and an even lighter long-sleeved shirt. He anticipated a buggy kind of night.

Marie had prepped the yawl boat by filling it with everything they’d need for a beach picnic and releasing the gripes, which held the boat close to Lysistrata’s stern. Amy and Melissa had been fine swimming ashore, but he wasn’t going to suggest it for the guys. He surreptitiously checked that she’d plugged the drain hole—she had—and called her over to help launch Lysistrata’s tender. Getting the yawl boat up and down using the davits was much, much easier with another set of hands.

Marie stood next to him and started to speak, but she bit her lip instead. She looked at Tony and Dan, seated close together only ten feet or so away.

“What’s up, Marie?”

“What are we doing here, Jack?” She untied the fall on her side and left one turn of the line on the cleat for leverage. Jack did the same.

“Lower away.” They eased the falls, letting the weight of the boat pull it down. He turned toward her when the boat hit the water. “What do you mean?”

Vertical lines dug in between Marie’s eyebrows, and she spoke quietly. “She doesn’t want us here.”

“Eve La Sirena isn’t named on the title to the property. If she’s nothing but a guest, I won’t let her run me off from such a perfect, deserted cove. If the owner is around, let them tell us we’re unwelcome.” Either way, the beach was public property and his plan was to rub it in her face while giving his passengers a honeymoon they’d treasure.

“I’d be more comfortable if we didn’t push the issue.”

Jack climbed over the aft rail and down the stern ladder into the yawl boat. He didn’t answer.

Marie leaned over the high stern. “I wouldn’t mind some private time on the boat this evening.”

He released the hooks from the rings on the yawl boat, freeing it from the falls. “No problem. I’ll ferry them over and get the bonfire burning, then start their dinner. We’ll probably be a couple-few hours.”

“Thanks, Jack.” Marie hauled the falls up far enough to stay dry and out of the way.

“It’s nonstop work having overnight passengers. I know that a free hour is a wonderful thing.” And it would give her a little distance in case there was another confrontation.

“No joke.” She tossed him the painter, turned away, and disappeared toward her cabin.

Dan came to the stern and looked over at where Jack stood in the yawl boat, holding himself in place with a hand on the stern ladder. “There’s wood in this adorable little boat,” he said, clapping in his excitement. “I love a fire.”

“So do I. And there’s nothing like fresh conch cooked over an open fire, served in a coconut with lime juice. Of course, that’s what comes after the caviar and champagne.”

Dan mimed a swoon. “After you served all my favorite fruits and cheeses with such an excellent wine? If I hadn’t just spent ten thousand dollars getting married to this big lug, I’d beg you to run away with me.”

Jack spread his hands wide, well balanced in the sturdy little boat. “You’re giving me more credit than I’m due. How do you think I knew all your favorites?”

Dan turned and melted. He held his arms up and Tony walked into them, wrapping himself around his husband like he’d never let go.

Pulling himself along, Jack brought the yawl boat around to the boarding ladder on the side of the boat—Marie hadn’t missed a trick—and checked the contents of the cooler. Everything present and accounted for. As the lovers had themselves a little cuddle in the cockpit, Jack settled at the oars and watched the sun drop behind the palms, pumping orange and red through the black, backlit fronds.

Never been a better reason to get a little behind schedule. Besides, Jack sold cruises on the concept of throwing away the very idea of an itinerary.

He’d have been perfectly happy sitting right there all night if it weren’t for his nagging desire to see Eve La Sirena again, but Tony and Dan appeared above him before long. Jack let Tony descend without help, but he offered a hand to Dan when he wobbled on the last step.

As he set the oars in the curved bronze oarlocks, he wondered what Eve would do. A series of day-sails had kept him plenty busy since his first visit. He didn’t know if he could have stayed away as long as he had otherwise.

The sleek yawl boat started through the water at the first pull of the oars. Jack settled into the pleasant work of rowing ashore.

Her behavior seemed inexplicable. Storming down the beach to get rid of them, only to withdraw when he’d recognized her. Why not just stay in the house if she didn’t want to be seen?

If she was using the island as a retreat, he could see her protecting her peace and quiet. She’d acted like there was more at stake than that, though he wasn’t sure why he thought so.

Was she hiding something more than her identity?

 

v

 

Holding her binoculars to the opening in her gauzy mosquito screen, Eve watched the older men join the captain in the little boat and head toward shore. The baby dyke remained on the big boat. The long sweep of the oars surprised her, but it made her think of hard, sweaty muscles. Hot.

They’d stayed aboard long enough that she’d thought there would be no need for a scene. She would have been disappointed had they stayed off the beach. She’d girded her loins for battle, and she hated to waste a good girding.

She moved to the mirror and practiced her most predatory smile. That young captain would never know what hit them.

The yellow cotton, block-printed sarong with repeating patterns in orange, red, and black, wrapped around her in generous folds. She laid the edges more carefully this time so she would stay covered unless she chose otherwise but draped the back farther down, framing the profound curve at the top of her ass with swags of fabric. The light shorts she often wore to combat thigh-rub came up too high for the effect she was after, so she pulled them off.

She studied the sarong in the mirror, shaking her shoulders to see her tits move under the cotton. Lascivious and precarious. Perfect.

Bold ankle bracelets with silver bells attracted the eye to her dark red toenail polish, while her bare arms spoke for themselves. She tumbled her hair on top of her head. The effect would be perfect with a heavily decorated silver chain running through and around the mass. She tugged and twisted until she was satisfied. A heavy clip actually held the hair in place, but it seemed to stay by magic. Dangling earrings finished the Gaia look, and she made quick repairs to the dramatic makeup she’d applied when the boat had arrived.

She skipped shoes but brought her driftwood staff. Twisted mangrove, polished by uncounted time spent tumbling in the surf, it shaded her look from harem girl to priestess-queen.

When she stepped onto the deck, she smelled the tang of a fire, though the wind carried the smoke away across the water. Maybe she would sit awhile by their beach bonfire after she sent them scurrying away.

She advanced on them with a measured tread, not sneaking but silent, not hiding but hard to see in the gathering dark.

What a fun role.

She’d gotten within a hundred yards of the fire when the captain looked over with a jerk of their head. They’d just served the two men something in coconut shells and the gasps and praise carried over the snap of the fire. The one she’d come to see froze, then walked away from the men with an absent pat on one’s shoulder.

The young captain moved smoothly, their hands loose at their sides as though mesmerized. She stopped and allowed them to approach.

At a distance of several arm’s lengths, she mustered her richest tones and spoke. “You dared return.”

The captain’s throat moved. “Yes.”

“This is not acceptable behavior, Captain.” She strolled toward the water, forcing the captain to turn their face toward the firelight.

“Jack. I’m Jack, I mean. Jack Azevedo. That’s my name.”

“And your pronouns?” She relished the surprised blink.

“He, him, his. Please.”

Oh, too delicious. He’d been well trained by someone. She could feel him cut off the honorific after the please and wondered which he would have chosen for her. Ma’am? Mistress?

“Jack, I require that you and your passengers leave this beach. You may not use it again.”

He frowned and she could tell he’d been a bit lost in the atmosphere of it all until then, as she’d planned. “I’m sorry…”

“You may call me Eve.”

He swallowed again. “I’m sorry, Eve, but I won’t leave. The beach is public property and as such, you don’t have any right to make us. Also, this land isn’t yours, or at least it’s not in your name, and so you don’t have the authority regardless.”

Respect sparked in her, but his refusal brought her eyebrow up in what she knew to be her haughtiest look. “There are thousands of islands. Choose another one.”

He didn’t lower his eyes, but his hands twitched as though he was controlling the urge to fidget. “No. Anchoring and beach rights are important and need to be defended.”

She tried a more threatening approach. “Do your passengers know that you’re trespassing and creating what might very well be a significant hardship for someone who only wants to be left alone? Would they appreciate knowing they are pawns in your meaningless protest against privacy?”

Jack looked over his shoulder at the men sitting close together on low folding chairs. Their champagne flutes flashed with reflected firelight when they met. He turned back to her and she could just see his resolve harden along with his jaw.

“Repeating the word trespassing doesn’t change the fact that we’re not, and this is about protesting exclusive access, not privacy. Those men have been together for decades and they just got married. Are you going to fuck up their honeymoon? Are you going to make them pawns in your meaningless quest for perfect ownership?”

Eve’s gaze flicked back to the couple, though she knew she was revealing a weakness. Some people oohed and ahhed over kitten pictures. For her, it was images of enduring love, especially between non-traditional couples. Whether it was the wedding of those Texan lesbians in their nineties right after the Supreme Court decision came down or a creaky septuagenarian kneeling to her dominant, old folks in love melted her right to the core.

She tried to bring back the persona she’d created to dominate this creature from a safe distance, but she’d cracked. Her heart wouldn’t let her spoil a single moment of the couple’s night.

“What did you serve them?” She tried to keep some hint of gruffness in her voice, but Jack must have heard the softening as well as she could.

He grinned, the impudent wretch, and said, “Conch in coconut and curry with lime.”

“Sounds delicious.”

He hesitated, the smile fading into a new tension that arrested her attention. “There’s plenty more. Would you like me to bring you some?”

Eve tipped her head to the side and considered the person she’d thought was so young. Trans men could fool a person like that, seeming far younger than their real age. She would never have expected such a bold offer and gave it due consideration.

Sharing a meal was no way to get rid of someone, unless…

His tension continued to build while the silence stretched. Perhaps she could make this work.

“Yes, I would.”

He tensed further as though surprised by her answer and excused himself with a nod.

Eve waited, leaning on her mangrove staff. Jack said a few words to the men, who looked over at her and waved. She waved back.

Maybe she could seduce him into obedience, but not if she got caught in a conversation with the honeymooners. Besides, Harmonie would kill her if she talked to another group of passengers.

Jack returned with a brown, hairy coconut in each hand, a blanket over one arm, and an open bottle of wine held against his side with one elbow. “Would you take the coconuts, please, Eve?”

“What did you tell them?” She took the rough husks in her palms, her thumbs dipping inside where the meat of the coconut was slick and wet. She breathed lime and curry, and a hum vibrated in her throat.

“That you’d come to see what we were up to and that we’d leave them to their private celebration. They’ll wave when they’re ready to go.” Jack spread the thin quilt as he spoke, spilling a little wine in the sand. He reached for the coconuts and she let go in order to settle herself on the soft cotton. “I didn’t bring enough glasses for four, but I’m game to share the bottle if you are.”

Eve assessed Jack with renewed surprise. His mix of vulnerability and confidence could very well seduce her. In the last hints of sunlight, his features looked soft and nearly monochromatic, Euro-something in shape, but she remembered the dark, deep eyes, blue as the cobalt sky above them, that contrasted beautifully with his mahogany skin.

His even features lent a deeper sense of innocence to his general good-boy vibe. A small, dark mole drew her eyes to his neck, right at the best biting spot. His body was slim and strong as a swimmer’s, but she imagined he dressed carefully to avoid enhancing his curves. When he knelt to push the coconuts into the sand under the blanket, she glimpsed a little curve in the open neckline of his light cotton shirt. If she knew her subject, and she prided herself on it, he would have sensitive, responsive, perhaps even orgasmic nipples. A fleeting sadness caused a twinge at the thought that he might have dysphoria around them and make them off-limits.

Not that she would ever find out. Right?

She picked up a coconut and looked into the hacked-off top before turning quizzically to Jack.

“I fish the conch out with my fingers and sip at the juice.” He demonstrated, licking coconut water off his long fingers.

Eve stuck two fingers into the warm fluid in the coconut and found a sliver of conch. She pulled it up the soft side and took a quick look before popping the dripping mollusk in her mouth. A low moan eased from her throat as she moved it between her teeth, using her tongue to test the firm, slick texture before biting down and releasing a flood of flavor.

Jack ate another piece. “Caribbean spices, Indian influenced, plus a good squeeze of fresh lime. Easy, but unbelievably good. It’s not ceviche because I pressure cook the conch beforehand, but it has some features in common.”

Eve soaked up the sensual experience of the richness, the brightness, the spark all surrounding the firm flesh of the conch. Sexy food. She sipped the spiced coconut water, the hydrating fluid rushing down her throat.

“And when we’re done, we can break the coconuts open and eat the meat.”

“Wine?” She held out a hand and Jack gave her the bottle. A sniff and a sip let her know that he’d chosen the pairing thoughtfully. “Oh, Jack. This is so good.”

“Am I forgiven?”

She blinked slowly and let her eyes focus on the near stranger who was feeding her as sensually as she’d ever been fed. That endearing look probably worked more often than not, but all she saw was a bratty bottom thinking he could charm his way out of a rightful punishment. She hardened her expression and waited until his grin faltered.

“Good and bad behavior don’t cancel each other out. This is wonderful, but you’re not off the hook for coming back when you knew you weren’t welcome.”

He perked up a bit. “Weren’t?”

“Aren’t.” Frustration moved through her. Damn it, she liked him. “You trapped me with this whole honeymooning thing. You’ve improved my mood with this amazing meal, but don’t press me.”

His face fell again. “What’s wrong with just being here, anyway? Are you using the island for something illegal?”

Eve used her hard-won control to keep her reaction a secret. She’d lived in a boarding school for performers, for Pete’s sake, from the age of eleven. She’d learned long ago to keep someone from knowing when they’d picked up a real weakness.

She didn’t want to think about why she’d revealed her soft spot for old lovers.

Her laugh was calculated to a T. “Why would I bother? Do you think cops like tangling with someone like me?”

Jack’s eyebrows rose. “Guess I hadn’t thought about it that way. I was trying to figure out why you’d be so fired up to get rid of us and I thought you might be running drugs or something.”

Eve’s laughter was real this time. She shook her head. “No.” She sobered and gave him a bit of the truth. “I don’t think you understand how many otherwise wonderful people would sell me to a tabloid without a second thought. My problems are so different from theirs that they have no empathy, no sympathy for what might hurt me.”

Jack grimaced. “You don’t have to greet us with open arms. You don’t have to greet us at all.”

Temper flooded her and pushed her to her feet. “You don’t have to come here. Just go away and don’t come back.” She leaned over for her mangrove staff without putting down her coconut and, on a whim, grabbed the wine bottle. She tucked it under her arm and stalked away down the beach, complete silence behind her.

Brat. She was too busy to mess around with Jack Azevedo.

For one thing, her old record label had put out an insultingly bad mix of a great song. She liked the band, thought they had real promise—though they’d given in to the pull of an establishment career. The engineers had fucked them over, though, and they’d never see the success that should be theirs if she didn’t get back to her little studio and remix the tracks she’d stolen from the recording studio’s backups.

She’d rework it and release it on Integrated Music. Her lip curled, an involuntary response. Fuck that record label’s cut. She’d pass along payment for the improved mix, and the musicians would see that they could do better than paying the industry to fuck them over. She knew her site’s visitors better every day, and she anticipated at least a two percent payment rate. If two out of every hundred people who downloaded the song chose to pay for it, she’ll be able to pass along more money tonight than they’d get from the label in a year. If they ever managed to pay back the outrageous production costs and get ahead of the avalanche of fees.

Though she filled her head with her next project, Eve couldn’t help wondering if Jack was watching her walk away.

v

 

Jack finished his conch and drank the juice, but he didn’t have the energy to break open the coconut. He watched Eve all the way back to her house, a dim figure whose ankles and hair flashed in the moonlight. She rose onto the deck he’d spotted on the first visit and disappeared.

Eve La Sirena. What a perfect name. He knew it was a stage name and that her real name was Turkish, but he couldn’t remember what it was.

He was in the right, damn it, but her angry gales buffeted him. Did the right to anchor need to be defended right then, right there? She was being straightforward, at least, rather than calling on family and favors to get him hassled like last time.

Depression settled over him. He didn’t like the compromises he’d made in the past, and the idea of giving in poked a bruise. Long battles with marina owners who saw boats at anchor as lost revenue…condo owners who saw them as ducking property taxes…city officials who couldn’t stand the disorder of it all…the brother-in-law of the harbormaster who hadn’t hesitated to use his family connection to get Jack pulled over and inspected every time he weighed anchor.

No one could cite him a law that said he wasn’t allowed to anchor. No one could fault him for unsafe conduct. Almost all of the people living at anchor were hassled, and they worked together to try to get some protection.

Eventually, complaints from his passengers convinced him that he’d have to give in. No one liked spending an hour of their vacation being questioned and searched by water cops, and it was only a matter of time before the cops found some illegal substance on a passenger. He could lose his boat if they did, but what was the alternative? Searching his passengers’ luggage as he carried it aboard?

The people not trying to make a living aboard kept up the long, slow protest while Jack started paying for a slip behind the house of a friendly acquaintance and using the public pier for meeting passengers. He and Justin got along okay, enough to have a beer together now and then, but Jack wished to be back out on the hook.

Privacy, independence. The process of ferrying passengers to Lysistrata in the yawl boat had been part of the experience, and pulling up to the pier didn’t have the same panache.

Giving up still chafed, and the soreness added to his intransigence.

As he sat, silent and still, the fire crackled and warmed the bones of the snuggling couple. The cessation of all human noise allowed him to hear the arrhythmic music of the planet. Fire, water, wind. Thought slowed with his breathing and his mind turned back to Eve.

Winning the argument was only part of why he’d come back. The island was perfect—easy to get to, gorgeous, secure—but in the Caribbean, those things weren’t in short supply. Nearly deserted was harder to find, but he had a handful of islands he could visit instead of returning to Lysistrata Cove.

When Eve had softened, looking at Tony and Dan, his infatuation had come roaring back. He could see himself clearly now and knew that he’d come back to burn in her fire.

He hadn’t expected, not even in his secret heart, to sit with her and flirt. He’d fed her the most sensual food he knew how to make and she’d reveled in it. She looked as though she spent all day being washed and massaged and oiled by slave girls, and in his fantasy, they were willingly bound to her.

She was beautiful, smart, impulsive, and dominating. She’d also treated him like a human being, an equal, instead of pulling that peon crap she’d tossed at him last time.

He absorbed the starlight. The moon formed a capital D shape, and it fell precipitously toward the horizon. He was pretty good at going after what he wanted, but she was undeniably intimidating and he was amazed that he’d opened his mouth and offered to feed her.

Sitting together, sharing food had given him a new perspective on her, though. He got a glimmer, again, of a realization he’d had over years of hauling passengers. Folks were folks, from the richest to the poorest, from the most easygoing to the most petulant, even including Eve La Sirena.

Eve.

He was almost glad she’d stormed off. He’d been wound up too tight, too raw and sensitive. If she’d have stayed, he would have exhausted himself just remembering to breathe. It would have been worth it, he intuited, but he didn’t mind taking it more slowly.

He would be back.