31

Getting sunburnt is one thing. Getting drunker than Cooter Brown is another. But, for heaven's sake, don't get sunburnt and drunk simultaneously. It hurts. Badly.

Chloe lay in a cool oat meal bath with an ice pack on her head wondering what in the hell she'd done yesterday. The whole thing was a large, ugly blur. She could remember the Long Island Teas and the cute butt of her waiter. She remembered people-watching, especially all those lovely young men climbing around in the rigging.

Damn! She had fully expected to be sexually harassing 18-25 year olds for 5 days and 4 nights and here she was, practically unable to move on the first day.

There was a soft tap at her door. Not wanting to get out of the tub, Chloe just yelled out, "Who is it?"

A very pleasant voice responded, "It's the ship's nurse, Ms. Marzhal, may I come in?"

What the hell, "Sure, come on in." Chloe slid under the murky water with just her head and knees sticking out, like a little turtle.

The nurse, who introduced herself as Emily Anderson, entered and found Chloe in the bath, a concerned and sympathetic look on her face. She was dressed in what appeared to be a British nurses uniform, complete with the little watch pin.

"Let me guess, you see a lot of this, right?" Chloe moaned.

"I'm afraid so, miss." Emily had a light Irish lilt to her voice which was, indeed, pleasant.

"Any sure fire cures?"

"Well, you've already chosen wisely with the cool oat meal bath. Are you allergic to aspirin? It's usually the first thing I offer."

Chloe was way ahead of her. "Already took a couple. What I really need is a bathtub full of moisturizer or a spritzer of lidocaine. Don't know if I'll even be able to dress for dinner. Do they have a nudist version?"

The nurse chuckled. "In point of fact, I do have a bottle of lotion with a touch of lidocaine in it just for these circumstances. Might I suggest, if you do still wish to attend dinner, your lightest frock? And perhaps miss might avoid alcohol tonight?"

Chloe smiled to herself, thinking this woman actually reminded her of Dr. Chase. "Sounds like a plan. If I may impose, would you mind applying some of that lotion to my back, I should be able to reach everywhere else."

"Not at all miss, I'll step out for a moment."

Chloe hauled herself out of the bathtub and very gingerly dabbed herself dry. Wrapping the towel around her, she stepped out into her room where the nurse was waiting with the bottle. Feeling a little self-conscious, Chloe asked to read the bottle label. "I had a heart attack a little over a year ago. I'd just like to make sure there's not too much lidocaine in here. Wouldn't want to put myself into complete heart block or anything."

Emily nodded her head and handed her the bottle. "Perhaps if I apply some to your back only, so you can see how it will affect you? That might be safest."

Chloe agreed and sat on the vanity chair. Emily applied a pair of gloves and very gently applied the lotion. She had a light touch and was very considerate. It felt wonderful, the lotion just slid on smoothly and the burn disappeared within a few minutes.

On her way out, Emily handed Chloe a pamphlet on sunburn with the usual tips: maintain hydration, avoid alcohol, dress lightly, but avoid becoming chilled, that kind of thing. Chloe thanked her then tried to decide if she really wanted to go to dinner. Her back really did feel better. She applied a little more of the lotion to her nose and her shoulders, the two places it hurt the most, then rummaged around in her clothing. She chose her softest thong, the one that didn't pinch and a pretty little green floral dress, what Emily called a frock. No bra, but this dress wasn't too 'flashy'. Sliding into her sandals, and grabbing a very light shawl, she promised herself she would just eat, chat and leave. Chloe headed out to the dining room.

It was a lovely room, very much what she expected. Wood paneling and flooring, acoustic ceiling and recessed lighting. The tables were spaced around a dance floor and a stage where the musicians were already performing soft, easy-listening type music. Everyone had an assigned table and hers was #12, near the back of the room, but within good view of the stage. There were already two people at her table who appeared to be a couple. They barely noticed her approaching the table. She smiled, must be honeymooners. The waiter was at her side almost before her bottom had hit the chair. She ordered an iced tea with lemon and listened to the piano player. However, she decided that the bass player was her favorite. She was the tiniest woman, man-handling that huge instrument, but she was a pro. She handled that bass like it was a violin. Chloe wondered how boring a job like that must be, playing the same sappy tunes over and over again to drunken tourists like her.

Her table filled up and people started introducing themselves. She was right about the couple. Honeymooners from Florida. To Chloe's right was a real estate agent from Idaho and to her left a masseur from Ohio. Across the table was a high-maintenance woman who called herself a publishing editor, but looked more to Chloe like a high-priced hooker. Chloe took everyone at their word, however, not wanting to psychoanalyze anyone. Two more people joined the table and it was full: a very jolly receptionist from Georgia and a tall, regal-looking gentleman who had the most beautiful head of white hair she'd ever seen. He reminded her of Cesar Romero. Very polished.

Everyone seemed to want to talk about Chloe's sunburn and offer advice. She was polite and took it all in, saying things like, "This is what not to do on your first day aboard ship," and trying to laugh without cracking her face. They ordered their food and resumed chatting. The jolly receptionist's name was Judith and by the time the evening was over everyone knew her entire life story. She seemed good-natured enough, just chatty. The editor said little, scowling at the food every so often and commenting on the wine selection. The masseur, Jonathan, was very shy and said little. The real estate agent, of course, was selling through the entire dinner.

Once food was cleared away, it was Cesar Romero who was the first one to ask her to dance. The band was playing a nice waltz and she agreed,

"Dance, but no touch," she said, facetiously.

He bowed to her and took her hand. Turns out he was a very interesting gentleman. He had retired about ten years ago and was in pursuit of his life-long dream, traveling around the world in small bits and pieces. She couldn't get the feeling out of her head, though, that his real hobby was as an 'escort'. She started wondering how many 'pros' were actually on board. Then she started wondering how many people might think she was a pro. She was alone, after all. Almost everyone else on board was a couple.

Upon returning to their table, Cesar, whose real name was David, kissed her hand and helped her into her seat. But she wasn't there long. Chloe got a wild hair and decided to ask Jonathan to dance. He was shocked, but too polite to refuse. Jonathan proved to be a very good dancer. And gay. His parents back home in Hamilton, Ohio had encouraged him to get out and see a bit of the world after the death of his long time partner, Edward. Theirs was a long and sympathetic conversation. He was a very sensitive man, the poetry-writing type and Chloe liked him.

All too soon, Chloe felt a little chill and decided not to push her luck any further. She excused herself from the table and to her surprise, it was Jonathan who asked to escort her back to her room. That was acceptable, she thought. Another surprise was the kiss on the cheek he gave her when they got to her room.

"I just wanted to thank you for talking with me, you've been a great help. You have kind eyes." She smiled at that and bid him goodnight.

When she entered her room, she was shocked to find that someone had rifled through it, obviously looking for valuables. Thank God she wasn't stupid enough to bring anything she couldn't carry in her handbag. Upon reporting the incident to ship's security, she was informed that the ship's nurse was, in fact, a male named Arnold. Chloe grabbed the lotion and stuck it away in her luggage, surprised she hadn't been poisoned or raped. 'What a dope I am!' The captain and head of security were very apologetic, trying desperately to avoid a scandal or a lawsuit. They even contacted the cruise company who offered her ½ off her fare in the form of a refund. She hadn't been hurt, nothing had been stolen. She took the money.

From then on the trip was ruined. Chloe kept her eye out for 'Emily', but never saw her again. It was hard to believe that a whole person could just disappear in the middle of the Caribbean. She kept to herself and just spent her time people-watching, waiting to get back home.

32

"You were right."

Wilson stopped dead in his tracks. Three words he never thought he'd ever hear from House. "I was right about… what?"

They were headed to lunch in the cafeteria after the Cuddy blow up in his office that morning. House waited for him to catch up. "You were right about Chloe. She's not interested in owning me body and soul… or anyone else, for that matter." He lifted his face in superiority, "She likes me."

"Nobody likes you." Wilson was incredulous, shaking his head in disbelief.

"You like me." House whined.

Wilson pondered. "That's different. I'm a guy."

He and House had entered the cafeteria. House replied rather loudly, "You're gay? Why doesn't anyone ever tell me these things?"

Wilson stopped for a minute, then caught up with House again. "A guy, you idiot, not gay! What I'm saying is that women don't 'like' you. They want to change you, nurture you, heal you, bring you back to some semblance of humanity."

House snorted, "Yeah, like that's ever gonna happen!"

"I'm just telling you what she told me. She likes me, just as I am." House continued with his superior facial expression.

Wilson repeated the oft spoken mantra, "She lied. Everybody lies."

"Well, if she lied, she had an interesting method of convincing me."

Wilson was silent. They collected their food and took it to a nearby table. House looked at Wilson.

"You knew about the sleeping pill scam, didn't you? You let me stew for a week. Was it good for you?"

Wilson smiled. "You've got to admit, she's got moxie."

"She's got a brass set is what she's got. I've dealt with her lie, I'm talking about yours." House's stare was piercing.

"I did not lie. I simply didn't tell what I knew. That's not a lie. You chose not to discuss it with me… because… because you were embarrassed… you were embarrassed because you got sucker punched by a girl!" Wilson was laughing out loud now. "And, yes, it was refreshing to see someone get one over on you." Wilson continued to chuckle. House stuck his tongue out at him.

"So what did you two do last week? Come on, details, man!"

House sighed, "Well, she did take the time to show me that life isn't so miserable all the time."

Wilson thought about this for a second, "Wait, 'isn't so miserable'? Don't you always say 'suck'?"

House grinned, "Yeah, there was a lot of that, too."

33

Whatever else it might be, New Jersey was home. Chloe was never so happy to see that old building as when she came back to work. Although she could tell you every problem the hospital had and knew where a lot of the bodies were buried, Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital was home, too.

All her friends were glad she was back, commented on her sunburn, speculated on her 'activities' during the cruise and were horrified to learn the truth. They were glad she was back and safe and so was she.

Her second night back at work, Chloe wandered around the hospital during a much needed break from pus, pain and disease. She was surprised to see that the lights were burning in the diagnostics 'war room'. She peeked through the vertical blinds and could see the ducklings struggling with a file. "Dr. Foreman, a word, please?" Chloe pulled Foreman out of the huddle to ask him a favor.

She related the details of her cruise experience and handed him the bottle of lotion. "Would you be able to test this to see what's in it?" His eyes got wide and he agreed readily, although he wondered why she wasn't going through the police for this kind of thing.

She hung her head for a minute, then spoke, "I'd like to know the truth. I think I can get that from you. If I dodged a bullet, I'd like to keep it to myself. Going through the police just gets me notoriety, I don't want that."

He nodded his head. "Okay, I'll let you know." She thanked him and went on her way.

"What did the fair Cruiseling want?" House asked out loud from the darkness of his office.

"Anonymity." Was the only response he could get from Foreman.

'Why didn't she come to me?' House's brain started humming. "I'm going to take a break. Page me if you figure anything out." He limped out of his office into the hallway.

Cameron took off her glasses and rubbed her nose. "Where is he going at this time of night? For crying out loud, we're all grappling with this patient!"

Chase didn't look up, "He's found a more interesting puzzle."

Chloe was at the far end of the hall and, therefore, missed the warning signs. She didn't realize he was on the floor until she saw the other nurses scurrying for the safety of somewhere else.

"How was your trip, Crusty? We all missed you around here."

She just smiled at him. "Gregory, I should have known. Did you and Jimmy have a nice talk about me while I was gone?"

House gave her a mock-horrified look.

She held up her hand, "Don't bother denying it, Gregory. Jimmy can't keep a secret to save his life. Why do you think I stay in good with the oncology nurses? My grapevine is nearly as good as yours. And to answer your question, I'm glad to be home."

He gave her a 'that wasn't an answer' look, "What was all that about with Foreman? What did you give him?"

Chloe approached him slowly, getting very close and whispering in his ear seductively, "Nunya." He had come very near to wrapping his arms around her until he heard that word.

"Nunya? What… ?"

"Nunya bizness," she winked and walked away.

As he was leaving the floor, he noticed that the white board had been taken down. He smiled to himself. Time to tap into the grapevine.

34

Foreman made inquiries and found that Chloe wasn't scheduled to work the next two nights. Good, he might be able to talk to her today. Hopefully, he wouldn't wake her. He had heard about the handgun. He picked up the phone and called her number which she had given him. Her voice was a little groggy, but she didn't sound dangerous.

"Chloe, it's Dr. Foreman, Eric." He began.

"Oh, yes, Dr. Foreman, thank you for calling."

He was polite, "I didn't wake you did I?"

"Yes, but that's okay, I don't have to work tonight. Have you found something?"

"Yes, Chloe, I'd like to come over and discuss it with you."

She paused, "I could come in if it would be better for you."

There was another pause at the end of the line. "Listen, can you meet me at the coffee shop around the corner from the hospital? This is something better discussed in some sort of privacy."

That aroused her curiosity. "Sure, twenty minutes?"

"That'll be fine. Oh, and Chloe, I assume you don't want this going beyond us?"

Chloe smiled. "Yes, Dr. Foreman, I'd like it to stay between us."

House stood to the side, behind a column, listening to the conversation. According to his grapevine inquiries, he had found out about the close call Chloe had had aboard the Windjammer. He was not happy and had this bothersome sensation that the end of the cruise was not the end of the problem.

Chloe jumped out of bed and showered, dressed and hurried out the door. Twenty minutes later she was at the coffee shop. She loved the smell of the place, but couldn't partake of the offerings. Coffee did not agree with her, no matter what it's variation.

Entering the coffee shop, the first person she saw was House. Oh, for crying out loud. He was looking at her oddly. She didn't bother with pretense. "Gregory, do I have a locator beacon stuck up my ass or something that you always know where I am?"

He laughed heartily at that. "Well, I do take a particular interest in your ass, it's very special to me."

Chloe smiled and shook her head. "This doesn't really concern you, Gregory, it's nothing that you need to be worrying about."

Dr. Foreman entered the coffee shop and immediately spotted House and Chloe and sighed, he didn't really want to discuss this in House's present. However, he approached them and greeted them both. "Shall we get a booth?" offered Chloe, knowing House wasn't going to be denied. They all slid into a booth and ordered. The waitress looked at Chloe funny when she ordered Chai Tea Latte. Only snobs ordered those.

"Chloe, are you sure?" He nodded at House.

"Go ahead, Dr. Foreman, I can't seem to keep him out of my business anyway." She shrugged.

"Okay, well the lotion is at base your run of the mill stuff: lanolin, shea butter, mineral oil, aloe. There is 1 lidocaine in it as well. However… "

House got impatient. "Get to the point, Foreman!"

Chloe slapped his right thigh hard, deliberately choosing the location to make a point. He doubled over and cursed something under his breath. He looked at her with true pain in his eyes. "That hurt!"

She knew it had and at the same time, wanted to make him understand that he wasn't in control here. "Then shut up." As Foreman continued, she slid her had across his thigh, gently stroking, trying to ease the damage she'd done. House downed a couple Vicodin.

"Anyway," continued Foreman, "there is something else in the lotion. Something that is concerning. I found a large, no, a huge amount of fentanyl. It was appears you were lucky you didn't apply any more than you did. Were you experiencing any side affects after the lotion was applied?"

House broke in, "Where exactly was the lotion applied?"

Chloe thought for a moment. "Well, I was more worried about the lidocaine, so I let her apply it to my upper back and then I put a little more on the tops of my shoulders and a tiny bit on my nose."

Foreman thought for a minute. "So, about 10-12 of your total body surface area."

House chimed in, "And no side effects, you didn't get sleepy or high?"

Chloe thought hard, "No, I went to dinner. I felt relaxed, danced with a couple of guys and then left." She paused, "Even after the security guys left, though, I did sleep awfully well, which I thought was odd at the time, but now…" Her voice trailed off.

"There was nothing else in the lotion I need to know about?" She asked Foreman.

"No, Chloe, it seems you did dodge a bullet and I'm glad you did. Listen, I've got to get back. I'll see you later, House." Foreman rose to go and Chloe caught his hand in hers.

"Thank you Eric, may I call you Eric?"

Foreman smiled, "You're welcome and of course you may call me Eric."

Chloe repeated, squeezing his hand, "Thank you."

Foreman didn't realize until he left the shop that Chloe had slipped a note into his hand. "There is a particularly lovely young nurse who works on the third floor day shift. Her name is Mariq and she's from Nigeria. She's new to the states and has few friends. Just thought you'd like to know. Chloe." Foreman shook his head at her attempts at matchmaking, but smiled anyway. He'd seen Mariq himself… and she was lovely.

35

"Stop looking at me like I'm the star of 'The Perils of Pauline'! It was just a botched robbery attempt, happens all the time on those cruise ships." Chloe was a bit stirred, but not shaken.

"You're either blissfully ignorant or in severe denial." He was rubbing his own thigh now. "Damn, Chloe, that hurt," he mumbled.

"I'm sorry, Gregory, really I am. You've got to understand you can push your way into my life only so far before I start pushing back. I'm just as anti-social as you are. Even though I may treat others a little more kindly than you do, it doesn't mean I want to spend my idle hours with the majority of them." She shook her head sadly.

"When I was younger, I used to go around everywhere by myself, enjoying whatever, wherever, whenever. Now, it seems, that time is past. I'm to the point where I require a companion, if not a chaperone. This getting older crap is for the birds. I don't like losing my independence like this!" She slapped the table with the palm of her hand, instantly regretting the move as it stung like hell.

House was studying her again.

"Oh, stop that! I'm allowed to feel sorry for myself once a decade! Scoot out, I need to go home." He didn't move.

"Well?" She demanded. She was trying to decipher the look on his face… a shot in the dark on the best of days. Tilting her head to one side she took that shot. "You will not be coming to my rescue every time I do something stupid, Dr. House. Those are the rules."

He smiled. "There are no rules, Chloe. Let me take you home."

She shook her head. "No, I drove here on my own, I can get myself back."

He was going to push her to say it, she could see it coming. He just sat there like a Cheshire cat. "Look, Greg, I'm feeling a tad vulnerable right now and as much as I might like you, I refuse to allow myself to become emotionally attached to you. I don't want to rely on you for anything more than a damn fine romp in the sack. Now, please move so I can leave." There, it's what he wanted to hear, she'd said it. Now, would he buy it? Of course he didn't, but he had it to hold over her head if needed. And he would need it soon enough.

House finally removed himself from the booth and waited until Chloe was standing in front of him, her back to him, facing the exit. He touched her arm and dipped his head to the crook of her neck, barely brushing her skin.

She mumbled an expletive under her breath, that is, after she caught it. "Alright, you insufferable rake, follow me home."

Later that evening, House lounged on his couch, slowly swirling the smoky liquid in his glass, thinking about Chloe. She'd captured his imagination. That little stunt she pulled awhile ago, bringing herself to climax against his damnably scarred leg would be forever seared in his brain. He'd tried vociferously to prevent her, but she was determined. So he gave in to her and swallowed a sob, watching her fearlessness, hating his own weakness. He didn't want to lose her respect or affection. That was enough of a shock in itself and he realized the only way to do that was to back away. Slowly. She was trying to tell him the same thing. She got it, she would get it, she would understand.

They hadn't seen each other in a couple of months. By pure accident, Chloe found out why. Joining a group of friends at a local bar, she spotted House in a corner booth. At first she thought he was alone, which is what she would have expected. Until the high-pitched giggling reached her ears. The absolutely stunning blonde rose from the booth, headed for the powder room. Wow, what a looker. Damn near as tall as House with legs that went all the way up and hair to die for. She watched as he gazed at the blonde's assets. Not a pro, she thought, he didn't take his hookers out in public. Her friends filled her in on the details, apologizing for not saying anything sooner. She let them. It didn't really matter. The couple left the bar. She was pretty sure he never saw her.

It was one of those 60-40 things. 60 relief and 40 angst. Or was it the other way 'round?

He'd seen her. It was more like 80-20. Or was it the other way 'round?

Suddenly I see
This is what I want to be
Suddenly I see
Why the hell it means so much to me

The End (for now)