Even in hell, there are rules . . .
It came to me slowly . . . I was no longer in the water.
Although I was fairly certain the mattress underneath me was real, I needed to touch something solid, to confirm this wasn’t another hallucination.
I stopped myself just in time.
Until I was sure of the situation, I would remain dead-still, my eyes closed, listening for the subtle draw of someone’s breath, the crack of a stiff joint, or the rustle of fabric from a shifting leg. My captivity on the Kelsey had taught me the value of concealing both my intentions and actions.
My brain was muddled from the beating I’d taken during the storm, but this much was a safe assumption: Someone had fished me out of the ocean. They had brought me aboard their boat and laid me in this bed. I had no idea how long I’d been here, if the time was measured in hours or days. My appetite should have given me a clue, but I wasn’t hungry. Just tired and sore.
Forcing myself to lie there, feigning sleep, I listened . . .
The throb of diesel engines mixed with the sound of waves sloshing against the hull. Overhead, the constant footfalls from the deck indicated two, maybe three crewmen. In my mind’s eye, I could see them stomping about in their high-topped, neoprene boots, the distinctive heavy thud of thick rubber on grooved teak suggesting this was a working boat, possibly a fishing trawler.
The last time I’d regained consciousness on a strange ship, I awoke in searing pain, shackled to a makeshift rack and half-covered in freezing water. This time, my discomfort was far less severe—the cramp of aching muscles and the sting from a minor laceration on my shoulder.
I counted to sixty. Then again, to be safe. I wouldn’t make the mistake of opening my eyes too soon.
I moved a finger, swiping it across the scratchy cotton sheet. If someone was watching me, they didn’t see it. Maybe I really was alone in the cabin.
I shifted my right arm. I wasn’t bound. Whoever found me didn’t consider me a threat. But I wasn’t ready to make the same assumption about my rescuers. After what I’d been through, no one—at least in this part of the world—would ever again receive the benefit of the doubt. For all I knew there could be someone a few feet away, waiting for me to regain consciousness—someone really good at keeping their presence a secret.
There was no point in continuing to pretend I was asleep. Whether it was now or later, I would soon come face-to-face with the men on this boat. A few minutes, one way or the other, wouldn’t make any difference.
I opened my eyes enough to form a blurry image. Directly overhead, the upper berth of a bunk-bed covered me like the lid of a coffin. A twinge of claustrophobia tightened around my throat. I turned on my side to escape the smothering delusion and propped myself up on one elbow, surveying the space.
I was alone.
Although covered with a blanket, my clothing was gone. I was naked. But that didn’t necessarily indicate sinister intent. My shorts and top had been soaked with sea water, and removing them would have been the first step in raising my core temperature.
Needing a better view of my surroundings, I rolled on to my stomach. The movement forced me to stifle a moan—a reflex from the pain of shifting my weight from one part of my bruised body to another.
The cabin was tiny, not much larger than a handicapped bathroom stall. It made my assumption about the type of vessel even more likely. Small quarters were typical of the fifty to seventy foot class of trawler, where berth space was sacrificed for a larger cargo hold to maximize the volume of fish that could be stored during a single run.
I sat up, searching for clues. The more I could find out about my rescuers, the greater my initial advantage.
The small St. Christopher’s medal hanging from a wall-peg brought a vague sense of relief. It was a real stretch of logic, but I doubted someone who was part of the slaver’s network would be a regular church-goer.
Scanning the bulkhead behind me, I saw a faded picture of a pretty young woman with dark hair and large brown eyes. Below the photo, several plastic covered certificates reflected past safety inspections, fishing permits, and the boat’s registration.
I needed to see more.
Rolling out of bed slowly, I hoped my movements suggested a nonthreatening rise to my feet, in case someone was watching from an adjacent or hidden part of the cabin.
Inside a small closet, I found a waterproof satchel containing a fold of Burmese currency, a driver’s license, and a government ID from the Provence of Ayeyarwady. So far, I’d seen nothing to suggest the men on the deck above were anything more than local fishermen extending the benevolent efforts of a Good Samaritan.
Any remaining hesitancy over meeting my rescuers face-to-face was dispelled by the discovery of an English textbook. Opening the cover, I found a rubber stamp imprint—Botata 4 High School—and below it, Property of Logan Morrison. The hand-inked date under the name confirmed the book was two years old.
I tried to put it all together. The boat’s captain was a family man with a son named Logan and a pretty, dark-haired wife, who was no doubt waiting at home, ready to greet him with food and affection after returning from a long day on the water. I was projecting a bit—even guessing. But I needed a break, and there was no better time for the universe to reverse my previous string of bad luck.
I had to find some clothes. Rummaging through the closet yielded a brown flannel shirt that fit me like a tent. I also found a pair of equally large denim jeans. I threw on the top and tied it to make it more manageable. But the pants presented a different problem. I could roll up the legs, but I had nothing to hold up the waist.
It was a challenge I never had to deal with.
Underneath the jeans, I’d noticed a neatly folded bundle of faded blue terrycloth. Thinking it was a large towel, I’d dismissed it. But with the pants no longer an option, I took another look. Opening it revealed a woman’s robe. Immediately, I knew it was hers, kept on the boat for those rare occasions when she joined her husband for a shopping excursion or some personal business requiring an overnight stay in a neighboring harbor.
I had already tossed the shirt on the bed and was cinching the robe’s ties around my waist when I wondered if the captain would mind me wearing it.
I decided it would give us something in common—his wife’s robe; my need to use it.
World Without Love is a continuing story and meant to be read in sequence, starting with Betrayed, followed by Book Two, Reunion, and concluding with Book Three, Redemption. All three books in the series are available in eBook and paperback.
World Without Love contains mature content and is intended for an 18+ audience