"That's a nice set of wheels," came a drawling male voice paired with fetid breath that wafted over Chloe in the driver's seat of the cherry red convertible.
She winced as if having bitten into something sour, and pulled her sunglasses down her nose. "Yes, it is."
He looked at the car and its driver appraisingly. "Bet you'd like someone to show you to really drive it."
"Doubt you could handle the stick," Chloe said dryly. "And if that isn't somehow emasculating enough for you..."
His clueless leering was punctuated by an undignified squeak as Nadine grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and flung him backward, sending him pinwheeling awkwardly before he skidded onto his backside two parking spots over. She strolled around the front of the car and hopped the door to land lightly in the passenger seat.
"Thanks for not denting the rental, love."
"Mmhmm," Nadine hummed, handing her a bottle. "Got you a root beer."
"A goddamn miracle," Chloe declared, with a reverent look. She cracked the bottle open and took a long draught. "Jesus, that's disgusting," she concluded, grimacing. "How do Americans drink this stuff?"
Nadine only grinned and put on her sunglasses.
"That was fucking disrespectful," came the indignant cry as Chloe's would-be suitor staggered back toward the car.
For a moment, the women canted their heads at him, studying his approach. "I could rip his arm off, then beat him to death with it," Nadine offered.
"Aw. You'd do that for me?" Chloe asked, turning to face her companion. She put her hand to her chest. "I am genuinely flattered."
The foaming idiot sputtered a bit, aware that they weren't paying the slightest bit of attention to him.
"Least I could do, especially after you punched that guy in the throat the other night in the bar."
"I thought he was choking," Chloe argued, with devastating innocence. "I was only trying to help."
"With your fist," Nadine pointed out. "Repeatedly."
"Well, I never claimed to be a medical professional," Chloe said, shrugging. "Also he was quite rude, even after I tried to help him."
"You two are insane," the man said weakly.
Chloe shifted to look back at him, annoyed. "Excuse me. I was having a moment with my partner just then. I believe you two have already met - she's the one who tossed your sorry ass across the tarmac."
His face had achieved an unhealthy shade of purple as he stared at them in disbelief, unable to comprehend why these women were not in any way affected by his considerable display of bluster. He opened his mouth to berate them further, then he noticed the gun.
Nadine's gaze hardened as she held the pistol pointed evenly at his head.
"You'll want to move along, mate," Chloe purred. She tossed her hair, pushed her sunglasses delicately back up her nose, and fired up the car's ignition.
As they peeled out of the parking lot, he could hear them laughing. He shook his head and wondered what godforsaken desert wind had brought the crazy into town.
"I thought Southern California would be a bit more temperate than this," Chloe said loudly over the buffeting air in the convertible, while they sped over a bridge to their overnight destination. She took a sip of her root beer, instantly regretted it, and instead pressed the cool bottle to her forehead.
"Santa Ana winds," Nadine shouted back. "Seasonal weather patterns that blow warm air down the mountain passes to the coast."
Chloe grinned, not even a little surprised her companion had that bit of trivia at the ready. "So this is a preview of the desert?"
With a thoughtful shrug, Nadine turned her attention to the bay below, as they neared Coronado, their base camp for the night.
Chloe had insisted on one night of indulgence before they headed inland to start exploring, and so they had gathered supplies and snacks, bribed the appropriate local contact to secure a firearm for Nadine, and made their way to the oceanside resort.
"We'll have a slumber party," Chloe had decreed with a nod, when they'd parked and unloaded their gear to the hotel room. Nadine offered a game smile while she cracked open a window to listen to the waves rolling in.
A few hours later, Chloe acknowledged that she'd honestly expected rather different results from this particular "party." She'd already raided the room's minibar, discovered a complete lack of entertainment on the TV, and walked up and down the beach outside their room, twice.
Her brain was starting to itch, and she remembered why she so strongly disliked sitting still. Even if the tradeoff to her nomadic existence was a certain perpetual level of danger, at least it kept her mind occupied.
Her companion, however, appeared to have no such concerns.
Nadine looked ridiculously relaxed, dressed down to boy shorts and a tank, dangling backwards over the edge of the oversized hotel bed, shoving beef jerky into her mouth while studying her phone.
All of a sudden Chloe felt her racing thoughts slow, pausing in the moment to revel in this woman's company. She couldn't help but grin as she plopped down at Nadine's side and grabbed a couple strips of jerky for herself.
"I've found some forums on the internet where people have claimed to see the galleon as recently as a year ago," Nadine said.
Really, she couldn't have cared less. Chloe made an agreeable noise around her snack, and went back to admiring the taut lines of Nadine's barely-exposed abdomen.
"Of course, if the ship is under mud in the Salton Sea, we're not likely to find it. So we have to hope for erosion of a dune in the desert that might have exposed a hull, or a mast, or... something."
When Chloe didn't offer anything beyond a vague murmur in response, Nadine flexed in a sort of half sit-up, pulling her head up to peer at her companion. "You think this is a waste of time," she accused.
"Not at all, love," Chloe countered. "If we find a galleon and there's a treasure, then that will be delightful. If we don't or there isn't, then..." she paused, considering how to complete the thought. "Being here with you is enough," she decided, finally.
Nadine narrowed her eyes, considering that response. "That is... unexpectedly sentimental," she observed.
Chloe shrugged, and gave a nod to the plush hotel surroundings. "I definitely don't mind the change of pace from ducking bullets and high speed chases," she said. "Besides, this line of work is usually pretty lonely. Turns out I rather like having you around."
"So I've noticed," Nadine said with a wry look at Chloe's hand that had somehow slid halfway under her tank.
Chloe huffed. "Oh please. You lay there like that - looking like that - and expect me not to get handsy?"
Nadine chuckled merrily. "See, that's actually a relief. I was wondering why you were so shy."
"'Shy?' Wh- Listen, you," Chloe sputtered, as she rearranged herself to properly straddle her prone companion. "Cheeky... I am not shy." Even as she said it, she realized that with Nadine, that wasn't quite true. "Usually," she concluded with a shrug. She had definitely opted out of her typical "do the deed with gusto then run away" approach, and if she was honest, she didn't really know why.
Nadine let her hands slide upward to stroke across Chloe’s thighs in gentle patterns, and waited.
"Told you I was bad at the 'people' thing," Chloe said, ducking her head. "Sorry."
Nadine chuckled and sat fully upright to meet her for a languid kiss. "Never said I minded," she murmured against Chloe’s lips when they parted. "Just didn't seem your style."
"Well, you’re different," Chloe admitted, surprising herself. "This is different, for me," she clarified, with a gesture between them. She took Nadine’s face gently in her hands and willed her to understand.
"Different in a good way?" Nadine whispered.
In the neon light of the Pink Lotus, a skeptical, angry Nadine Ross glared at her, and Chloe tried to ignore the bloom of a peculiar ache in her gut that had strangely never subsided.
"Different in the best way," she replied. Her voice hit that low rasp Nadine knew as both entirely sincere and utterly terrified.
Nadine's brow furrowed for a moment, then she set the unspoken worry aside and adopted a conspicuously lighter tone. "Okay, but for the record?" she said, as she reached up to tug her fingertips through Chloe's thick, soft hair. "You can get 'handsy' anytime."
Chloe leaned in to kiss her. "Duly noted, Ms. Ross. And likewise."
It started out teasing, with Chloe nipping playfully until Nadine pulled away with an intense, smoldering look that sought permission Chloe happily gave. The teasing evaporated, chased away by a surge and strong arms that pulled them flush against each other. Chloe responded with a low groan and rocked her hips in a shameless, needy grind.
Within minutes their respective clothing had been discarded, and Chloe was well on her way to getting the slumber party she'd been hoping for.
Chloe was awake far earlier than she meant to be, but found herself happily energized after the night before. She stretched out next to her bedmate in a comfortable lassitude and eyeballed the beam of sunlight threatening to split the hotel room curtains.
Natural restlessness aside, it was strange not feeling like they needed to run. They'd left Shoreline and Asav's army thousands of miles away, cycled through their assortment of faux documents to choose suitably low-key identities, and suddenly they were in a breezy room on the far side of the Pacific, naked and comfortable under crisp sheets.
She didn't have the heart to tell Nadine that their current job was near hopeless. Instead, she threw her usual skills at securing funding, this time targeting Silicon Valley venture capitalists with more money than sense. She'd seeded a few select social media accounts with the more remarkable photos she'd taken in India, and dropped clever hints about treasures yet to find. Hopefully, someone would bite, so they could eke out a means of at least breaking even from this gig.
(For reasons she did not care to deeply scrutinize, it was vitally important to her that their partnership could continue unimpeded.)
Nadine stirred next to her, and Chloe lifted a hand to smooth away some stray curly hair that was blocking her view.
While she waited for Nadine to wake and entertain her again, she let her mind wander to ten short days previous, in a tiny cabin on a merchant ship, where they sat together fighting seasickness and the lingering injuries from too many near-fatal falls. To her profound surprise, Nadine had turned to her, and asked in a quietly miserable voice if Chloe minded curling up at her back, as close as possible.
Chloe, somehow, had managed not to crack a joke about her companion being an unlikely little spoon. She just tugged Nadine down next to her on their shared cot and held her through the night. When they woke again, the seas had calmed, the sun was shining, and Colombo was on the horizon. When Nadine turned in her arms and kissed her good morning, Chloe found herself in possession of a treasure she found more precious than anything she'd ever "collected" from a long-gone civilization.
Honestly, Chloe thought their new sleeping arrangements were all rather adorable, especially the shameless way Nadine came to her night after night, the way she tied back her remarkable hair so it didn't smother Chloe while they slept, and the way she carefully held Chloe's hand against her belly until sleep claimed her and her fingers uncurled in relaxation.
Occasionally in those moments, Chloe found herself wondering just who this woman was, and every once in a while during daylight she'd catch a look from Nadine that made it seem like she was thinking the exact same thing.
Then there was the previous night, which had been full of all sorts of new discoveries. Their natural rapport in the field translated immediately to the give and take of intimacy and pleasure. More than once they'd paused to catch their breath and ended up laughing with a kind of incredulous happiness.
Chloe couldn't suppress a shiver of recollection, and decided she couldn't wait to try all of that over again, from different angles, and definitely in the hotel room's whirlpool tub.
Her phone buzzed on the bedside table, and Chloe reluctantly turned to grab it. While she studied the message, Nadine grumbled sleepily about the sudden cold air against her back.
Chloe read the message with a wicked grin, and fired off an immediate reply.
It was official: They had a buyer, and the deposit was already hitting the wire.
She snuggled back up to Nadine and planted a kiss on her cheek. "We just got lucky, china," she murmured.
"Ja," Nadine replied, still mostly asleep. "I was there."