Storm Sister 1
The Aegean Sea
I will always remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that my father had died.
I was lying naked in the sun on the deck of the Neptune, with Theo’s hand resting protectively on my stomach. The deserted curve of golden beach on the island in front of us glimmered in the sun as it sat nestled in its rocky cove. The crystal-clear turquoise water was making a lazy attempt at forming waves as it hit the sands, foaming elegantly like the froth on a cappuccino.
Becalmed, I’d thought, like me.
We’d dropped anchor in the small bay off the tiny Greek island of Macheres at sunset the night before, then waded ashore to the cove carrying two coolers. One was filled with fresh red mullet and sardines that Theo had caught earlier that day, the other with wine and water. I’d set down my load on the sand, panting with effort, and Theo had kissed my nose tenderly.
“We are castaways on our very own desert island,” he’d announced, spreading his arms wide to gesture at the idyllic setting. “Now I’m off in search of firewood so we can cook our fish.”
I’d watched him as he turned from me and walked toward the rocks forming a crescent around the cove, heading for the tinder-dry sparse bushes that grew in the crevices. Given he was a world-class sailor, his slight frame belied his strength. Compared to the other men I crewed with in sailing competitions who seemed to be all rippling muscles and Tarzan-like chests, Theo was positively diminutive. One of the first things I’d noticed about him was his rather lopsided gait. He’d since told me how he’d broken his ankle falling out of a tree as a child and how it had never mended properly.
“I suppose it’s another reason why I was always destined for a life on the water. When I’m sailing, no one can tell how ridiculous I look walking on land,” he’d chuckled.
We’d cooked our fish and later made love under the stars. The following morning was our last aboard together. And just before I’d decided I absolutely had to resume contact with the outside world by switching on my mobile, and then subsequently discovered my life had shattered into a million tiny pieces, I’d lain there next to him perfectly at peace. And, like a surreal dream, my mind had replayed the miracle of Theo and me, and how we’d come to be here in this beautiful place . . .
I’d first set eyes on him a year or so ago at the Heineken Regatta in St. Maarten in the Caribbean. The winning crew was celebrating at the victory dinner and I was intrigued to discover that their skipper was Theo Falys-Kings. He was a celebrity in the sailing world, having steered more crews to victory in offshore races during the past five years than any other captain.
“He isn’t what I imagined at all,” I commented under my breath to Rob Bellamy, an old crewmate with whom I’d sailed for the Swiss national team. “He looks like a geek with those horn-rimmed glasses,” I added as I watched him stand up to move across to another table, “and he has a very odd walk.”
“He’s certainly not your average brawny sailor, admittedly,” agreed Rob. “But, Al, the guy is a total genius. He has a sixth sense when it comes to the water and there’s no one I’d trust more as my skipper on stormy seas.”
I was introduced to Theo briefly by Rob later that evening and I noticed his hazel-flecked green eyes were thoughtful as he shook my hand.
“So, you’re the famous Al D’Aplièse.”
Behind his British accent, his voice was warm and steady. “Yes, to the latter part of that statement,” I said, embarrassed at the compliment, “but I think it’s you who’s famous.” Doing my best not to let my gaze waver under his continued scrutiny, I saw his features soften as he let out a chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” I demanded.
“To be frank, I wasn’t expecting you.”
“What do you mean me?”
Theo’s attention was diverted by a photographer wanting a team photo, so I never did get to hear what it was he meant.
After that, I began to notice him across the room at various social events for the regattas we took part in. He had an indefinable vibrancy about him and a soft, easy laugh that, despite his outwardly reserved demeanor, seemed to draw people to his side. If the event was formal, he was usually dressed in chinos and a crumpled linen jacket as a nod to protocol and the race sponsors, but his ancient deck shoes and unruly brown hair always made him look as if he’d just stepped off a boat.
On those first few occasions, it seemed as if we were dancing around each other. Our eyes met often, but Theo never attempted to continue our first conversation. It was only six weeks ago, when my crew had claimed victory in Antigua and we were celebrating at the Lord Nelson’s Ball, which marked the end of race week, when he tapped me on the shoulder.
“Well done, Al,” he said.
“Thanks,” I replied, feeling gratified that our crew had beaten his for a change.
“I’m hearing many good things about you this season, Al. Do you fancy coming to crew for me in the Cyclades Regatta in June?”
I’d already been offered a place on another crew but had yet to accept. Theo saw my hesitation.
“You’re already taken?”
“Well, here’s my card. Have a think about it and let me know by the end of the week. I could really do with someone like you aboard.”
“Thanks.” I mentally pushed aside my hesitation. Who on earth turned down the chance to crew for the man currently known as “the King of the Seas”? “By the way,” I called out as he began to walk away from me, “last time we talked, why did you say you weren’t expecting me?”
He paused, his eyes sweeping briefly over me. “I’d never met you in person; I’d just heard tidbits of conversation about your sailing skills, that’s all. And as I said, you aren’t what I was expecting. Good night, Al.”
I mulled over our conversation as I walked back to my room in a little inn by St. John’s harbor, letting the night air wash over me and wondering why it was that Theo fascinated me so much. Streetlights bathed the cheerful multicolored house fronts in a warm nocturnal glow, and from a distance, the lazy hum of people in the bars and cafés drifted toward me. I was oblivious to it all, exhilarated as I was by the race win—and by Theo Falys-Kings’s offer.
As soon as I entered my room, I made a beeline for my laptop and wrote him an e-mail to accept his offer. Before I sent it, I took a shower, then stopped to read it through again, blushing at how eager I sounded. Deciding to save it in my drafts folder and send it in a couple of days, I stretched out on my bed, flexing my arms to relieve the tension and soreness from the race that day.
“Well, Al,” I muttered to myself with a smile, “that will be an interesting regatta.”
I sent the e-mail as planned and Theo contacted me immediately, saying how pleased he was I could join his crew. Then just two weeks ago, I’d found myself inexplicably nervous as I stepped aboard the race-rigged Hanse 540 yacht in Naxos harbor to begin training for the Cyclades Regatta.
The race was not overly demanding as competitive racing went, the entrants comprising a mix of serious sailors and weekend enthusiasts, all buoyed up by the prospect of eight days’ fabulous sailing between some of the most beautiful islands in the world. And as one of the more experienced crews involved, I knew we were strongly fancied to win.
Theo’s crews were always notoriously young. My friend Rob Bellamy and I, both thirty, were the “senior” members of the team in terms of age and experience. I’d heard that Theo preferred to recruit talent in the early stages of a sailor’s career to prevent bad habits. The rest of the crew of six were in their early twenties: Guy, a burly Englishman; Tim, a laid-back Aussie; and Mick, a half-German, half-Greek sailor who knew the waters of the Aegean like the back of his hand.
Although I was eager to work with Theo, I hadn’t stepped into it blindly; I’d done my best beforehand to gather information on the enigma that was “the King of the Seas” by looking on the Internet and talking to those who had crewed with him previously.
I’d heard that he was British and had studied at Oxford, which would account for his clipped accent, but on the Internet, his profile said that he was an American citizen who had captained the Yale varsity sailing team to victory many times. One friend of mine had heard he came from a wealthy family, another that he lived on a boat.
“Perfectionist,” “Control freak,” “Hard to please,” “Workaholic,” “Misogynist” . . . These were other comments I had gathered, the latter coming from a fellow female sailor who claimed she’d been sidelined and mistreated on his crew, which did give me pause for thought. But the overwhelming sentiment was simple:
“Absolutely the best bloody skipper I have ever worked for.”
That first day aboard, I began to understand why Theo was afforded so much respect from his peers. I was used to shouty skippers who screamed instructions and abuse at one and all, like bad-tempered chefs in a kitchen. Theo’s understated approach was a revelation. He said very little as he put us through our paces, just surveyed us all from a distance. When the day was over, he gathered us together and pinpointed our strengths and weaknesses in his calm, steady voice. I realized he’d missed nothing, and his natural air of authority meant we hung on every word he said.
“And by the way, Guy, no more sneaking a cigarette during a practice under race conditions,” he added with a half smile as he dismissed us all.
Guy blushed to the roots of his blond hair. “That guy must have eyes in the back of his head,” he mumbled to me as we trooped off the boat to shower and change for dinner.
That first evening, I headed out from our pension with the rest of the crew, feeling happy I’d made the decision to join them in the race. We walked along Naxos’s harbor front, the ancient stone castle lit up above the village and a jumble of twisting alleys winding down between the whitewashed houses. The restaurants along the front were teeming with sailors and tourists enjoying the fresh seafood and raising endless glasses of ouzo. We found a small family-run establishment in the back streets, with rickety wooden chairs and mismatched plates. The home-cooked food was just what we needed after a long day on the boat, the sea air giving us all a ravenous appetite.
My obvious hunger elicited stares from the men as I tucked into the moussaka and generous helpings of rice. “What’s the problem? Have you never seen a woman eat before?” I commented sarcastically as I leaned forward to grab another flatbread.
Theo contributed to the banter with the occasional dry observation but left immediately after dinner, choosing not to participate in the post-supper bar crawl. I followed him shortly afterward. Over my years as a professional sailor, I’d learned that the boys’ antics after dark were not something I wished to witness.
In the next couple of days, under Theo’s thoughtful green gaze, we began to pull together and quickly became a smoothly efficient team, and my admiration for his methods grew apace. On our third evening on Naxos, feeling particularly tired from a grueling day under the searing Aegean sun, I was the first to stand up from the dinner table.
“Right, lads, I’m off.”
“Me too. Night, boys. No hangovers aboard tomorrow, please,” Theo said, following me out of the restaurant. “Can I join you?” he asked as he caught up with me in the street outside.
“Yes, of course you can,” I agreed, feeling suddenly tense that we were alone together for the first time.
We walked back to our pension along the narrow cobbled streets, the moonlight illuminating the little white houses with their blue-painted doors and shutters on either side. I did my best to make conversation, but Theo only contributed the odd “yes” or “no,” and his taciturn responses began to irritate me.
As we reached the lobby of the pension, he suddenly turned to me. “You really are an instinctive seaman, Al. You beat most of your crewmates into a cocked hat. Who taught you?”
“My father,” I said, surprised by the compliment. “He took me out sailing on Lake Geneva from when I was very small.”
“Ah, Geneva. That explains the French accent.”
I readied myself for the typical “say something sexy in French” type of comment that I usually got from men at this point, but it didn’t come.
“Well, your father must be one hell of a sailor—he’s done an excellent job on you.”
“Thanks,” I said, disarmed.
“How do you find being the only woman aboard? Although I’m sure it’s not a one-off occurrence for you,” he added hastily.
“I don’t think about it, to be honest.”
He looked at me perceptively through his horn-rimmed glasses. “Really? Well, forgive me for saying so, but I think you do. I feel you sometimes try to overcompensate for it and that’s when you make errors. I’d suggest you relax more and just be yourself. Anyway, good night.” He gave me a brief smile, then mounted the white-tiled stairs to his room.
That night, as I lay in the narrow bed, the starched white sheets itched against my skin and my cheeks burned at his criticism. Was it my fault that women were still a relative rarity—or, as some of my male crewmates would undoubtedly say, a novelty—aboard professional racing boats? And who did Theo Falys-Kings think he was?! Some kind of pop psychologist, going around analyzing people who didn’t need to be analyzed?
I’d always thought I handled the woman-in-a-male-dominated-world thing well and had been able to take friendly jibes and asides about my female status on the chin. I’d built myself a wall of inviolability in my career, and two different personas: “Ally” at home, “Al” at work. Yes, it was often hard and I’d learned to hold my tongue, especially when the comments were of a pointedly sexist nature and alluded to my supposed “blond” behavior. I’d always made a point of warding off such remarks by keeping my red-gold curls scraped back from my face and tied firmly in a ponytail, and by not wearing even a smidgen of makeup to accentuate my eyes or cover up my freckles. And I worked just as hard as any of the men on the boat—perhaps, I fumed inwardly, harder.
Then, still sleepless with indignation, I remembered my father telling me that much of the irritation people feel at personal observations is usually because there is a grain of truth in them. And as the night hours drew on, I had to concede that Theo was probably right. I wasn’t being myself.
The following evening, Theo joined me again as I walked back to the pension. For all his lack of physical stature, I found him hugely intimidating and I heard myself stumble over my words. As I struggled to explain my dual personas, he listened quietly before responding.
“Well, my father—whose opinion I don’t normally rate, to be fair,” he said, “once stated that women would run the world if they only played to their strengths and stopped trying to be men. Maybe that’s what you should try to do.”
“That’s easy for a man to say, but has your father ever worked in a completely female-dominated environment? And would he ‘be himself’ if he did?” I countered, irritated at being patronized.
“Good point,” Theo agreed. “Well, at least it might help a little if I called you ‘Ally.’ It suits you far better than ‘Al.’ Would you mind?”
Before I had a chance to answer, he halted abruptly on the picturesque harbor front, where small fishing boats rocked gently between the larger yachts and motor cruisers as the soothing sounds of a calm sea lapped against their hulls. I watched him look up to the skies, his nostrils flaring visibly as he sniffed the air, checking to see what the dawn would bring weather-wise. It was something I had only ever seen old sailors do, and I chuckled suddenly at the projected image of Theo as an ancient, grizzled sea dog.
He turned to me with a puzzled smile. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. And if it makes you feel better, you’re welcome to call me ‘Ally.’?”
“Thanks. Now, let’s get back and grab some sleep. I have a hard day planned for us all tomorrow.”
Again that night, I was restless as I replayed our conversation in my mind. Me, who usually slept like a log, especially when I was training or competing.
And rather than Theo’s advice helping me, over the next couple of days I made numerous silly mistakes, making me feel more like a rookie than the professional I was. I castigated myself harshly, but ironically, even though my crewmates teased me good-naturedly, never once was there a word of criticism from Theo.
On our fifth night, feeling horribly embarrassed and confused by my uncharacteristically sloppy performance level, I didn’t even join the rest of the crew for dinner. Instead, I sat on the small terrace of the pension eating bread, feta cheese, and olives provided by the kind owner. I drowned my sorrows in the rough red wine she poured me and, after a number of glasses, began to feel decidedly queasy and sorry for myself. I was just lurching unsteadily from the table, headed for bed, when Theo arrived on the terrace.
“Are you all right?” he asked, sliding his glasses up his nose to see me properly. I squinted back at him, but his outline had become inexplicably blurry.
“Yes,” I replied thickly, sitting back down hurriedly as everything I tried to focus on started to sway.
“Everyone was worried about you when you didn’t turn up tonight. You’re not sick, are you?”
“No.” I felt the burning sensation of bile rising in my throat. “I’m fine.”
“You know, you can tell me if you are sick and I swear I won’t count it against you. Can I sit down?”
I didn’t answer. In fact, I found I couldn’t as I struggled to control my nausea. He sat down in the plastic chair across the table from me anyway.
“So what’s the problem?”
“Nothing,” I managed to say.
“Ally, you’re an awful color. Are you sure you’re not ill?”
“I . . . Excuse me.”
With that, I staggered up and just made it to the edge of the terrace before I vomited over it onto the pavement below.
“Poor you.” I felt a pair of hands clasp me firmly around my waist. “You’re obviously not well at all. I’m going to help you to your room. What number is it?”
“I am . . . perfectly well,” I muttered stupidly, horrified beyond measure at what had just happened. And all in front of Theo Falys-Kings, who, for some reason, I was desperate to impress. All things considered, it could not have been worse.
“Come on.” He hoisted my limp arm over his shoulder and half-carried me past the disgusted gaze of the other guests.
Once in my room, I was sick a few more times, but at least it was into the toilet. Each time I emerged, Theo was waiting for me, ready to help me back to the bed.
“Really,” I groaned, “I’ll be fine in the morning, I promise.”
“You’ve been saying that in between rounds of vomit for the past two hours,” he said pragmatically, wiping the sticky sweat from my forehead with a cool, damp towel.
“Go to bed, Theo,” I murmured groggily. “Really, I’m fine now. Just need to sleep.”
“In a while, I will.”
“Thanks for looking after me,” I whispered as my eyes began to shut.
“That’s okay, Ally.”
And then, as I drifted in the half-here, half-there world of the few seconds before sleep, I smiled. “I think I love you,” I heard myself say before I descended into oblivion.
I woke the next morning feeling shaky but better. As I climbed out of bed, I nearly tripped over Theo, who had used a spare pillow and was curled up on the floor fast asleep. Shutting the bathroom door, I sank onto the edge of the bath and remembered the words I’d thought—or, Christ, had I actually spoken them?—last night.
I think I love you.
Where on earth had that come from? Or had I dreamed I’d said it? After all, I’d been very unwell and might have been hallucinating. God, I hope so, I thought, groaning to myself, my head in my hands. But . . . if I hadn’t actually said it, why could I remember those words so vividly? They were ridiculously inaccurate, of course, but now Theo might think that I actually meant them. Which of course I didn’t, surely?
Eventually, I emerged sheepishly from the bathroom and saw that Theo was about to leave. I couldn’t meet his eyes as he told me he was going to his own room to take a shower and would come back to collect me in ten minutes to take me down for breakfast.
“Really, you go on your own, Theo. I don’t want to risk it.”
“Ally, you have to eat something. If you can’t keep food down for an hour afterward, I’m afraid you’re banned from the boat until you can. You know the rules.”
“Okay,” I agreed miserably. As he left, I wished with all my heart that I could simply become invisible. Never in my life had I wanted to be somewhere else as much as I did at that moment.
Fifteen minutes later, we walked onto the terrace together. The other crew members looked up at us from the table with knowing smirks on their faces. I wanted to punch each and every one of them.
“Ally has a stomach bug,” Theo announced as we sat down. “But by the looks of it, Rob, you missed out on some beauty sleep too.” The assembled crew members chuckled at Rob, who shrugged in embarrassment as Theo proceeded to talk calmly about the practice session he had planned.
I sat silently, appreciating that he’d moved the conversation on, but I knew what the others were all thinking. And the irony was, they were so, so wrong. I’d made a vow never to sleep with a crewmate, knowing how quickly women could get a reputation in the close-knit world of sailing. And now it seemed I’d acquired one by default.
At least I was able to keep my breakfast down and was allowed aboard. From that moment on, I went out of my way to make it clear to everyone—especially to him—that I was not the slightest bit interested in Theo Falys-Kings. During the practices, I kept as far away from him as was possible on a small craft and answered him in monosyllables. And in the evenings, after we finished dinner, I gritted my teeth and stayed on with the crew as he rose to leave and return to the pension.
Because, I told myself, I did not love him. And I did not wish for anyone else to think I did either. However, as I set about convincing everyone around me, I realized there was no real conviction in my own mind. I found myself staring at him when I didn’t think he was looking. I admired the calm, measured way he dealt with the crew and the perceptive comments he made that pulled us together and made us work better as a team. And how, despite his comparatively small stature, his body was firm and muscled beneath his clothes. I watched him as he proved himself time and again to be the fittest and strongest of all of us.
Every time my treacherous mind wandered in that direction, I did my best to reel it firmly back in. But I’d suddenly started noticing just how often Theo walked around without a shirt on. Granted, it was extremely hot during the day, but did he really have to be topless to look at the race maps . . . ?
“Do you need anything, Ally?” he asked me once as he turned around to find me staring at him.
I don’t even remember what I mumbled as I turned away, my face bright red with shame.
I was only relieved that he never mentioned what I may have said to him on the night I was so ill, and began to convince myself that I really must have dreamed it. But still, I knew something irrevocable had happened to me. Something that, for the first time in my life, I seemed to have no control over. As well as my usual clockwork sleeping pattern deserting me, my healthy appetite had disappeared too. When I did manage to doze off, I had vivid dreams about him, the kind that made me blush when I awoke and made my behavior toward him even more awkward. As a teenager, I’d read love stories and dismissed them, preferring meaty thrillers. Yet, as I mentally listed my current symptoms, sadly, they all seemed to fit the same bill: I’d somehow managed to develop a massive crush on Theo Falys-Kings.
On the last night of training, Theo rose from the table after supper and told us we’d all done a spectacular job and that he had high hopes for winning the forthcoming regatta. After the toast, I was just about to depart for the pension when Theo’s gaze fell on me.
“Ally, there’s something I wanted to discuss with you. The regulations say we have to have a member of the crew who’s in charge of first aid. It means nothing, just red tape and a case of signing a few forms. Would you mind?” He indicated a plastic file, then nodded to an empty table.
“I know absolutely nothing about first aid. And just because I’m a woman,” I added defiantly as we sat down at the table away from the others, “doesn’t mean I can nurse anyone better than the men. Why not ask Tim or one of the others to do it?”
“Ally, please shut up. It was just an excuse. Look.” Theo showed me the two sheets of blank paper he’d just taken out of his file. “Right,” he said, handing me a pen, “for the sake of form, particularly yours, we will now conduct a discussion about your responsibilities as the appointed crew member in charge of first aid. And at the same time, we will discuss the fact that on the night you were so ill, you told me that you thought you loved me. And the fact is, Ally, I think I might feel the same about you too.”
He paused and I looked at him in total disbelief to see if he was teasing me, but he was busy pretending to check the pages.
“What I’d like to suggest is that we find out what this means for both of us,” he continued. “As of tomorrow, I’m taking my boat and disappearing for a long weekend. I’d like you to come with me.” Finally, he looked up at me. “Will you?”
My mouth was opening and closing, probably in a very good impression of a goldfish, but I simply didn’t know how to answer him.
“For goodness’ sake, Ally, just say yes. Forgive the feeble analogy, but we’re both in the same boat. We both know that there’s something between us and has been ever since we first met a year ago. To be frank, from what I’d heard about you, I’d been expecting some muscly he-she. And then you turned up, all blue eyes and gorgeous Titian hair, and completely disarmed me.”
“Oh,” I said, totally lost for words.
“So.” Theo cleared his throat and I realized that he was equally nervous. “Let’s go and do what we both love best: spend some time mucking about on the water and give whatever this ‘thing’ is a chance to develop. If nothing else, you’ll like the boat. It’s very comfortable. And fast.”
“Will there . . . be anyone else on board?” I asked him, eventually finding my voice.
“So, you’ll be skipper and I’ll be your only crew?”
“Yes, but I promise I won’t make you climb the rigging and sit in the crow’s nest all night.” He smiled at me then, and his green eyes were full of warmth. “Ally, just say you’ll come.”
“Okay,” I agreed.
“Good. Now, perhaps you can sign on the dotted line to . . . er, seal the deal.” His finger indicated a spot on the blank sheet of paper.
I glanced at him and saw that he was still smiling at me. And finally, I offered him a smile back. I signed my name and passed the sheet of paper over to him. He studied it in a show of seriousness, then returned it to the plastic file. “So, that’s all sorted,” he said, raising his voice for the benefit of our fellow crew members, whose ears were no doubt on elastic. “And I’ll see you down at the harbor at noon to brief you on your duties.”
He gave me a wink and we walked sedately back to join the others, my measured pace belying the wonderful bubble of excitement I felt inside me.