Authors: Nichole Chase
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Copyright © 2012 by Nichole Chase
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Table of Contents
About the Author
who never treated me like a fluke.
The brisk wind ruffled his hair as he pointed his boat down the coast. Marion sat at the front, large sunglasses concealing most of her face. Even from where he was, he could see the tiny lines along her mouth. They were the only indication of her grief. His heart clenched, and he had to swallow around the lump in his throat. Nothing seemed to help her with the emotional pain, and she had been drifting further and further away. Between the miscarriage and the destruction from the hurricane, things looked really bleak for their small family.
The refuge center they had taken over last year was in terrible debt and, after this storm, there might not be enough left to bother saving. They would be lucky if they were able to pull together enough money to even move out of the center. Shaking his head, he let his eyes travel along the shoreline, noting the debris washed ashore. His keen gaze looked for beached animals and grounded birds. He couldn’t afford to take in any more animals, but there was no way he could let them suffer.
“Ben!” Marion had a hand over her eyes to shade them from the light peeking through the clouds. “Look over there.”
Turning his head in the direction she was pointing, he grimaced. There were several deep-water buoys tangled together in what looked like a fishing net. Something was thrashing about and a pitiful keening noise reached his ears. Without thought he turned theWhalerin the direction of the trouble and sped toward the struggling animal. As they drew near, he cut the throttle and coasted next to the mess.
The loud squeal of a dolphin caught his attention, and he leaned over the edge of the boat to see how badly the animal was hurt. A large, old-style fishing net was wrapped around the buoys and the dolphin stuck inside thrashed when he tried to pull on the line wrapped around its tail. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his multi-tool and flicked out the knife. Slowly and carefully, he began to cut the net away from the dolphin’s tail and dorsal fin.
“Marion, come over here and pull the net closer. We’re drifting.” Something shiny flashed next to the dolphin and he paused to examine it a little closer, worried that there might be something in the net that could hurt the animal even more. Tilting his head, he moved a little closer to try and get a better look. Reaching his fingers into the net, he prodded the shiny material and was shocked when it felt soft under his fingers. “Marion, where are you? There’s something stuck in this net with the dolphin.” She didn’t respond and he tore his gaze away from the net to look over his shoulder. “Marion?”
“Do you hear that, Ben?” She was looking over the opposite side of the boat in confusion.
“Hear what?” Keeping his hand on the net so that the dolphin’s blowhole didn’t dip under the water, he kept his eyes locked on his wife. Something in her expression made his heart skip a beat. It was fear and determination.
“It sounds like a baby.” Her voice was so quiet he almost didn’t hear her over the water splashing against the boat. Shaking her head, she turned around to him and bit her lip for a minute. Taking a deep breath, she moved over next to him and grabbed firmly onto the net.
Not sure what to say, he looked back at the dolphin and pointed to the shiny area underneath. “See that? I’ve never see anything like it before. It almost looks like a scale, but it’s soft.”
Marion leaned over, and he could see the scientific part of her mind take over. “Maybe it’s not an animal. It could be some type of trash that was swept away in the storm. Finish cutting the dolphin free and then we’ll find out.”
He slid the knife back to the net that was wrapped around the animal and carefully began to remove the old ropes. He made soothing sounds as he worked, and was careful to not knick the dolphin, which was hard with the waves rocking the boat. The sound of another dolphin surfacing surprised him and he stabbed his knuckle. Muttering a curse, he looked to his right and smiled. There, floating next to the boat was a small dolphin. If he were to guess, he would say it was only a couple of months old.
“Oh, we’ve got to get the mother loose.” Moving her hands so that she had a better grip on the ropes, Marion smiled softly at the young dolphin. “Hurry, Ben.”
Renewing his efforts, he was able to get the dolphins tail free, but was rewarded with a mighty flick toward his face. Leaning back, he made shushing noises and looked over at his wife. She leaned closer to the dolphin and was whispering words of encouragement. Carefully, she moved her hand so that it could unloop the net wrapped around the dorsal fin before slowly working it over the dolphin’s head. Together they helped free the mother and watched as she turned to nose her baby.
Marion’s eyes stayed on the pair, tears dripping down her face to run along her soft smile. Reaching over to grab her hand, he laced his fingers with hers and pulled her toward him. She leaned into him for a moment and then pulled away gently. A soft mewling sound drifted over the water to his ears, and his wife tensed.
“I’m okay. I’m going to get the first aid kit and see if she will let me look at her back. She had some lacerations that didn’t look so good.” Marion patted his hand before moving toward the back of the boat. He watched her for a moment to make sure that she really was okay and then turned back to the mess next to his boat. He would have to call the Coast Guard to let them know about the buoys, but he might be able to get the net out of the water before anything else was caught. There was also the question of what had been under the dolphin.
Grabbing the net, he hauled it toward him with a grunt. Something in the net shifted and he jumped back in shock. His heartbeat sped up and he looked quickly over his shoulder toward his wife. She was kneeling and speaking softly to the dolphin. Swallowing convulsively, he moved back to the net and peered down at the sad face looking up at him with sightless eyes. Red hair lapped around her face and his eyes drifted down to where her body seemed to taper off. At first his mind wouldn’t grasp what his eyes were seeing. He stared and stared, but it just didn’t make sense. It was as if his brain refused to process what he was seeing. It shouldn’t be possible; it wasn’t possible and yet there was all the proof that his scientific brain could ever want.
“Ben?” Marion moved next to him and gasped. She leaned over the edge of the boat and pulled at the net. “What are you doing? Help her!”
Grabbing her shoulders, he pulled her away from the woman in the water. “Stop, Marion. She’s already dead.”
She covered her mouth and looked away. That strange mewling sound floated over the water again, making his shoulders tense while he held his wife closely. After a moment, Marion looked back at the woman tangled in the net and frowned. Getting back on her knees she reached for the net. He started to stop her but understood what she was being drawn to.
“Careful.” Leaning down next to her, he cut the ropes away from the woman’s face and watched as his wife gently unwrapped some seaweed from the net so that they could see better.
“Is this real? Can this be real?” Marion gently touched the soft, supple scales. Her face was pinched in astonishment and sadness. “A mermaid?”
Not sure how to answer that question, Ben shook his head. He didn’t tear his eyes from the mythical creature in front of him until the injured dolphin swam next to the boat and made a mournful sound. Looking into the sad eye of a generally upbeat animal made his heart clench.
“Marion?” He nodded his head toward the dolphin.
“Oh. I can almost feel how sad she is.” Marion ran a hand over the dolphin’s back. “What do we do? Should we take the… body… back with us?”
Under her words, Ben could hear Marion’s disgust and confusion over what would happen to the poor mermaid they found. Looking from the dead eyes of the woman floating in the water to the soulful eyes of the dolphin helped him make up his mind.
“We cut her adrift. I can only imagine that she would normally be at rest in the sea.” As if there was no other option, he began hacking at the rest of the ropes around the woman’s tail.
“You’re right.” Carefully, Marion moved some of the hair back from the mermaid’s face and closed her eyes.
After what seemed like hours of carefully cutting the netting away, they were able to see what caused the death of the beautiful creature. Tangled in the ropes and pinned between the buoys, a large piece of wood punctured her side. Carefully, he pulled the offending chunk out of her side and tossed it into the boat. As they pulled her body out next to the boat, the injured dolphin swam near enough to gently touch the mermaid’s arm with her snout. Marion washed some of the blood from her hands in the sea and watched sadly as the dolphin made another mournful sound.
After a moment, the mermaid’s body started to drift away from the boat and the dolphin kept pace. When he could no longer see them, Ben turned back to his wife and shook his head. He wondered if they would question this time years down the road. It was insane, impossible, and yet they had touched a mermaid and let her body float out to sea. If they brought the body back to shore, the discovery would have saved their refuge. It would have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in much-needed money.
“We did the right thing.” With a relaxed grin, Marion turned to pick up the mess from the first-aid kit. His heart felt lighter, as if her small smile undid clamps that had been wrapped around him. Deciding that it was time to alert the Coast Guard about the buoys, he moved toward the radio on the large center console. As he picked up the handheld receiver, the mewling sounded again over the wind. It was louder this time and sounded as if it was coming from nearby. Turning to see if his wife heard it, he saw the dolphin and her baby coming along the side of the boat. Marion leaned over the edge and gasped. She dropped to her knees and reached over the side.
“Marion!” Sliding along the wet deck, he reached out and grabbed her shoulder.
“Ben, it’s a baby.” Looking up at him, Marion gave a mighty sniff and looked back at the water with large eyes. “They brought her to us.”
Looking down into the water, he clutched the edge of the boat until his knuckles turned white. There in the water with the two gentle dolphins was a tiny mermaid. No, that wasn’t right. It was a young mermaid. If he had to compare it to a human child he would say it was roughly the age of a toddler. Perhaps a year old, but not much more. Her dark hair drifted around her head and shoulders as she shifted to float on her back. He couldn’t help but stare at the gorgeous teal tail that matched her tear-filled eyes.
Marion made a soft cooing sound and the small mermaid shifted her gaze to Marion’s. Ben watched as the child’s face seemed to brighten, a smile pushing at her plump cheeks. With a tiny hand, she reached out toward Marion and made an impatient sound. When Marion responded in kind, the mother dolphin swam forward and made a threatening sound.
“Marion.” He said her name in warning, scared that perhaps the dolphin hadn’t intended to bring the child to their boat after all.
“Shh. She brought her to us for a reason. She just wants us to understand how important this is.” Slowly she lowered her hand to the dolphin and looked the animal in the eye. “We understand. We will take care of her. I promise that I will do everything in my power to make sure that she is never hurt.”
Holding his breath, he waited while the dolphin seemed to ponder his wife’s words. After a moment, she moved closer to Marion and used her snout to push at her hand.
“I promise.” His wife said the words quietly before reaching for the tiny tyke with a tail. Pulling her out of the water, she cuddled the small mermaid to her chest and made soothing noises. The mermaid’s pudgy hand reached up to touch Marion’s cheek. Moving closer, he leaned over his wife’s shoulder and looked into the bright blue eyes of the little mermaid. When she turned her shy smile in his direction and waved her pudgy fingers, he was lost. In one short afternoon his entire life was turned upside down. His home had been destroyed. He saw a mermaid. And now he was a father.
- Meena -
“There goes the neighborhood.” Violet stood on her tiptoes so that she could peek out of the empty tank. Her feet slipped in the soap on the wall and she scrambled to keep from falling.
“You say that every year.” I couldn’t help but snort as my friend looked up sheepishly. Leaning down, I picked up Vi’s push broom and handed it back to her. I tried to not think about the fact this would be the last year she would be working the summer at Flukes. From now on she’d have internships for college every summer. And I’d still be here. Doing the same thing. I couldn’t help the sigh that escaped my mouth. Part of me really wished that I was going to college too, not the one being left behind.
“Well, it’s true every year. They stomp around and glare at everything. None of them do a good job, and we end up having to pick up their slack.” Violet scrubbed at the tank wall with a vengeance, the lather from the soap spraying angrily into the air.
“It’s better than having to do it all ourselves. Mom and Dad really need the help this time of year, and those kids have to work off community-service hours. It’s a win-win situation.” Stopping for a minute, I brushed the loose hair out of my eyes. “Besides, it’s only for a couple of months.”
“Meena. I don’t want to spend my summer vacation with those flukes.” Violet looked at me as if I was crazy. “And this year we don’t even have customers to distract us for the first couple of weeks.” Dad decided to close the sanctuary to tourists so that we could try to get everything back into shape.
“Flukes?” I frowned. When I heard my father’s voice addressing the arrivals, I looked up.
“The outcasts, miscreants, freaks, flukes of society. Their whole lives are flukes. Kind of appropriate that they come here. Flukes.” Violet huffed. I didn’t say anything and she stopped, her eyes widening with apprehension. “I mean…”
I looked away from Violet and bit my lip to keep from laughing. Let Vi sweat it out for a minute. Served her right for picking on the outcasts.
“Meena, I didn’t mean… You know I don’t think…” Dropping her broom, Violet threw herself at my back and wrapped her arms around me. “I love you, Meen!”
Pretending to ignore Violet, I bent over awkwardly and grabbed a handful of suds. Turning quickly, I worked the soap into Violet’s hair and laughed. Squealing, she tried to shove me away from her but only succeeded in sending us both to the ground.
“You stupid fish!” Violet lobbed a handful of bubbles. Puckering my lips, I made a fish-face. Violet laughed and threw more bubbles in my direction. Grabbing the nearby hose, I pointed at Violet. She slid backward on her butt and made sputtering noises.
“Meena! Don’t you dare!” Violet tried to scramble to her feet, but I twisted the dial and water sprayed out in a steady stream. Violet cussed loudly and ran for me with her arms outstretched. Yelping, I tried to back away but slid in the soap. Violet caught me in a giant hug, laughing hysterically as she wrestled for the hose. Once we were both drenched and soapy, we sat on the floor of the tank giggling.
The loud roar of a motorcycle reverberated through the concrete walls, making us look at each other in interest.
“No way.” Violet scrambled to her feet and peeked out of the tank.
“What? Who is it?” Standing on the tips of my toes, I tried to see what Violet was looking at.
“I can’t believe it. Blake Weathering is one of the flukes?” Violet’s eyebrows scrunched together in consideration. “I guess it was that fight in gym class last month.”
“Blake who? What fight?” I watched the motorcycle rider swing his leg over the bike and pull at the clasp of his helmet. He was tall and tan, but it wasn’t until he pulled his helmet off that I understood why my friend was so interested. His dark, unruly hair curled around his ears and even from yards away, I could make out the stubble on his chin and jaw. His mouth was turned down in a disgusted frown as his dark eyes traveled over the worn sign for the sanctuary and took in the rusted gates. Immediately, my hackles went up, angry to see someone openly judge the sanctuary. It didn’t matter how hot he was; judging my family’s hard work pissed me off. When his eyes swung in our direction, Violet grabbed my arm and ducked back down into the tank.
She pursed her lips. “How the mighty have fallen. Blake Weathering sent to do community service. I bet his dad flipped his lid.”
“Why do you keep acting like he’s something special?” I fought the urge to look back over the wall again. There was something about him that caught my attention. Maybe it was the obvious disdain he seemed to have for life. I really hoped it wasn’t just because of his sexy eyes. “Besides, he’s late if he’s supposed to be with the other losers, I mean workers.”
“Oh, come on. That boy is sex on a stick, but that’s not what I’m referring to. His family owns half of the major hotels in the area. His dad is a seriously scary dude, too. He came with Blake to my mom’s clinic when we were in grade school. Blake had broken his arm, but his dad acted like he deserved it.” Violet chewed on her thumbnail for a minute. “Blake is the proverbial badass at school. He’s always in trouble. Then there was that fight at the end of school. He beat the crap out of some dude in the locker room, but no one knows why. Probably just looked at him wrong or something.”
The sound of flip-flops scuffing along the pavement had us both looking up with wide eyes. Blake’s stared down at us, his mouth quirked into a smirk. The pull of his mouth and dark brown eyes seemed to grab my attention and hold it.
“Violet, what did you do to end up here?” His voice rumbled out of his chest in a pleasant way, but his tone set my teeth on edge, immediately breaking the spell I was under. Who did he think he was?
“I didn’t do anything. I help out every summer.” Violet stuck her nose in the air and glared at Blake.
“You actually want to spend your summers here?” Blake’s eyes left Violet’s and turned toward me. His gaze was long and thoughtful, making my skin erupt with goose bumps, desire warring with the anger that seethed just underneath. Violet ground her teeth at his words. “Who’s your friend, Vi?”
“Blake, meet Meena. Meena, meet his royal assness, Blake.” Violet rolled her eyes at him before turning around to grab her push broom from the ground.
Blake groaned good-naturedly and ran a hand through his hair. Something in my gut pulled when he smiled. I liked the look in his eyes, a little more relaxed and amiable, but I stamped out that response. Ididn’tlike the way he talked about the sanctuary. “C’mon, Vi. I haven’t stolen your dessert in years. You can’t still hold that against me.”
Violet rolled her eyes, but I saw her lips twitch a little. I could understand how that peek of boyishness would make her want to smile. “My mom made that cupcake just for me! It was my birthday.”
“Geez, we were eight.” Blake shook his head and looked back at me. It was almost as if he was memorizing my face. “So what school sent you to this hellhole?”
“My family owns this hellhole.” And with that stupid sentence, I was back to feeling pissed. It was like he slapped me. My cheeks darkened in anger and my back stiffened. “And you’re late.”
I didn’t get the chance to interact with a lot of the other kids my age on the island. I had been homeschooled and at this moment, I was actually glad. What would I have done if I had to spend time with jerks like this? I’d probably be one of the weirdos trying to work off community service. The desire to punch Mr. High-and-Mighty in the jaw was so intense I actually considered it for a split second.
He blinked slowly and frowned. “Talk about putting my foot in my mouth.”
“Take the path down toward the big building. The rest of the miscreants are in there with my dad.” I glared at him, my skin itching with anger. He hadn’t even apologized! My family worked really hard to take care of the animals at Flukes. Sometimes that meant they neglected things like paint and landscaping. Which is probably why his words struck such a wrong chord. But all the animals were well-tended and happy. The cosmetic stuff was what the screwups were here to fix anyway. If they could get the place looking better before the cruise-line people came to inspect them, they had a real shot at scoring a contract.
“Right.” Blake stood up and looked down the path toward the main building. “With the other miscreants. Got it.” His eyes swung back to me and I wondered what he was thinking. There was something thoughtful in his gaze. Not wanting to look like his smile had made things better, I continued to stare at him angrily, not caring if my face was red.
He turned away and headed down the path with a nod of his head. “See you later, Vi. Meena.”
Picking up my broom, I gave it a push against the tank floor before looking after him. I jerked when I realized that he was looking over his shoulder in our direction. Looking back down at the soapy floor, I scrubbed harder. Great. Not only was he a jerk, but he caught me watching him.
“Andthatwas his royal assness.” Violet shook her head and grinned almost apologetically. “He’s hot as hell and just as rude. I guess this summer is going to be a little more interesting than usual.”
I couldn’t help it and looked back toward the main building where they housed the learning tanks and special displays. Interesting was probably an understatement.
- Meena -
I twisted from side to side in an effort to work the kink out of my back. A loud yawn worked its way out of my chest as I stretched while walking slowly toward the toolshed to put up my shovel and gloves. I’d just spent the last three hours hunched over while cleaning out the bird cages and I wanted nothing more than a long swim at the beach to wash the stink off. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the birds, and I didn’t begrudge them the time it took to clean the cages, but the chemicals irritated my eyes and would cause blisters wherever they touched my skin.
Becca, the bird trainer, waved her thanks before heading for her old pickup truck. I replaced the lock on the shed and eagerly headed toward the quiet little stretch of beach that the tourists weren’t allowed to visit. It was my family’s sanctuary. The one place I could go to be myself. I rubbed the palms of my hands against my eyes as I rounded a corner on the tiny path and ran smack into someone. A large, strong hand grabbed my shoulder to steady me on my feet.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t realize anyone else…” I frowned up at Blake. “Never mind. It’s you.” I moved to walk around him but he blocked my path.
“I just finished cleaning the sea lion pen. Is the toolshed still open?” Blake held up his push broom and shovel and gave me a bright smile. His teeth gleamed whitely in the darkness and for some reason it annoyed me even more. I guess he stayed late to try and get on my dad’s good side. Great. Not only was he rude, he was a butt-kisser as well. Somewhere in the back of my head, an annoying little voice told me to not forget that he was hot, too.
“No.” I turned on my heel and headed back toward the shed. The sound of the waves in the distance called to me and I sighed. I’d get there eventually, but for now I was too tired to even really put much effort into being pissed. I dug the key out of my pocket as we walked and tried to ignore how close he was to me. “Why are you still here? All the others left hours ago.”
“I was late. I figured I’d make it up to your dad and make sure the pens were good before I left.” Blake shrugged.
“Why were you late? Too good to ride the bus?” I didn’t want to forgive him for being a jerk earlier in the day, even if he was trying to make up for it.
“I had a meeting with my father and it ran late.” Blake’s voice changed and my eyes darted up to his face. The bright moon threw heavy shadows over his features, but I could still make out his expression. His relaxed stance had changed and tension seemed to roll off him.
“A meeting with your father? What, you have to schedule appointments?” I wrinkled my nose at the thought. My mom and dad were always open to talk to, no matter how busy they were at the time. They were some of the most important pillars in my life.
“My father’s a really busy guy.” Blake shrugged, again, and I knew this was a sore spot.
“I see.” Thankfully, we had reached the shed and I was spared from having to say anything else. Talking to Blake made me feel itchy. I unlocked the door and moved so that he could put his tools up. When he was done, I closed the door and put the key in my pocket. Blake stood with his hands in his pockets, looking at me expectantly. Did he expect more work?
“Okay. Well, have a good night.” Not wanting to wait for the water any longer, I started to walk around him, but he turned to follow me.
“Where you headed?” He bent over as we walked and grabbed a large rock in the path. He chucked it out of the way, his eyes following the arc.
“I need to check on something at the beach. See you tomorrow.” I tried to hint again, but he didn’t seem to catch on.
“Want some help? I don’t have anywhere to be.” He cocked his head to the side as if amused by my attempts to get rid of him. He was one of the strangest people I’d ever had the misfortune of dealing with.
“No. I’m good. I won’t be out there long.”
“Is that safe? It’s dark and you’d be alone.” Blake moved to block my path again and I made an exasperated sound. My skin felt so tight, it was hard to take a full breath.
“It’s private property. I’ll be fine.” I shook my head in frustration. I’d come into contact with too many chemicals today and it was making me hurt, which was making me pissy. “But thanks for making sure the enclosures were clean before you left.”
“No problem, boss. I guess I’ll leave you to it.” Blake saluted me and I rolled my eyes.
“Try to be on time tomorrow,” I said over my shoulder. “And I’m not your boss.”
“Aye, aye, captain.” Blake stood there as I walked away, and it took all my willpower to keep from jogging down the path to the water.
When I was sure he was out of eyesight, my pace picked up and I pulled my shirt off, exposing my bikini top. Once my feet hit the sand, I threw the top to the side and my shorts and bathing suit bottom quickly joined it. I wasn’t in the mood to worry about bringing my bottoms with me. As soon as my toes touched the water, I sighed in relief.
Wading out until the water hit me mid-thigh, I sank gratefully to my knees as the change started. For most humans it would be uncomfortable to have your legs turn into one appendage, but I welcomed it. When my scales slid out to cover my skin, I closed my eyes and smiled happily. My tail was so much stronger than the human legs I wore most of the day. With a quick look over my shoulder first, I dipped my head under the water and swam away from the island. My tail made strong, quick strokes that sent me flying through the ocean.
It was quiet under the water, the creatures around came to say hello or avoided me in general. I coasted along on the current for a little while, letting the seawater heal my stinging skin and aching body. Once I felt better I headed for the cove to find Mitch. I knew she would want to go for a swim too.
The outer wall of the enclosure was made of netting, sturdy poles, and a walkway that followed the top of the net. There were no lights along the outside so that no one would be able to accidently see me surfacing at night. I called for Mitch as I surveyed the net, checking for holes, and smiled when I heard her jubilant whistles in response. I grabbed the hidden latch and swung open the small porthole-shaped exit just before the dolphin barreled through.
I locked the gate and held my hand out for Mitch. She slid next to me, her dorsal fin fitting into my hand perfectly, and off we flew. Mitch’s excitement was contagious and I laughed. We soared through the shallows, dodging in and out of the surf until Mitch got distracted by some fish. She went to hunt while I drifted on my back and stared at the stars. I loved my family, my friends, and the sanctuary, but I wished I could spend more time out in the ocean. Orgoto college instead of taking online courses. I felt like there was so much more to see than the area on and around our island.
Mom and Dad didn’t like for me to go too far from the sanctuary. I guessed that all parents felt that way about their kids, didn’t want them to go too far from home or somewhere they couldn’t be reached. Of course that was a whole different problem with me. We did do vacations when we could and visited other islands, even the Virgin Islands once. We had talked about going to the States, but we would have to stay near the coast. I couldn’t risk being away from the ocean for too long because I started to get sick if I was out of the water for more than a few days at a time. It would start like any cold would; I’d feel icky and might run a fever, then be weak and miserable. Sort of like the flu. It had only happened twice. Once when I was little and staying at Violet’s house, I’d had too much fun playing and hadn’t bothered to tell my parents that I wasn’t feeling well. The last time, we’d had inspectors at the sanctuary to renew our different licenses.
Mitch surfaced next to me and nudged my side. I ran my hand over her back before scratching her chin. I’d known Mitch my whole life. Well, for all that I could remember. Mitch and her mother had been there when my parents found my mother. Jallia was Mitch’s mother and often thought she was my mother too. I didn’t mind. Jallia and Mitch were my companions in the water, the ones that taught me about animals and how to be a mermaid. They were as much my family as Mom and Dad.
It was getting late, so I motioned for Mitch to follow me back to the lagoon. She wasn’t happy about it, but came anyway. Jallia was swimming near the gate, her agitation obvious. She was close to calving again and wouldn’t leave the rest of her adopted pod. I kissed Mitch goodbye and unlocked the gate for her to go back into the protected areas. Jallia swam out and nuzzled my side, her mothering instincts in full gear as she checked me over. Patiently, I held out my arms and let her see that I was okay. Once she was satisfied, she nuzzled my face and I ran my hands down her back. My fingers lingered at the fullness of her belly and I smiled. I wasn’t really sure how it worked, and neither was Mom or Dad, but I could sense the tiny dolphin growing inside of Jallia. It would be the dolphin’s first son and we were all excited.
I whistled reassurances as she twisted to look at me. I hoped she would birth at night so I could be in the water with her and help. Otherwise, it would be too dangerous for me to assist while in my mer-form. Mitch made irritated noises from inside of the pen and Jallia admonished her in turn. I couldn’t help the bubble of laughter that came while watching them. Jallia gave me a playful shove before darting back into the pen, arguing with Mitch. I checked the lock and headed back for my quiet beach.
I surfaced slowly, loathe to leave the water but tired enough to want my bed. My eyes closed and I concentrated on the change. It was harder when I was this tired, but the sooner I was finished, the sooner I could hit the hay. My teal scales slowly disappeared as my legs split. My long turquoise flukes shrank and were replaced with feet. I looked down at my human toes and sighed. I’d have to repaint my toenails before work tomorrow. They glimmered in the moonlight, the same color as my scales. My fingernails never lost their paint when I changed, because my hands stayed the same. I only had to repaint those as often as they chipped. I looked at my hands and cussed under my breath. All the cleaning had eaten a lot of that nail polish off too.
I gathered the last of my energy and dragged myself back up to the beach where I had left my clothes. I threw my shirt and shorts back on and slid my feet into the flip-flops. I could see better, smell better, and was stronger than most humans my size, but my feet were incredibly tender. The only time you would catch me without shoes was in the water or in the sand.
When I got back to the small bungalow I shared with my parents, I smiled at the music drifting out the open windows and door. Mom was listening to her favorite eighties hair band again, which must mean she was cleaning. Dad was much more likely to be listening to Jimmy Buffett. I always gave him a hard time for fitting the stereotype of living in the Bahamas and he pretended to be offended. It was our longtime joke. Shaking the sand out of my shoes, I threw them into the box near the door and immediately grabbed my house slippers from just inside. I jumped over the vacuum cord and hugged Mom from behind.
“Hey, sweetheart!” She turned her head and kissed my cheek.
“Hey, Mom. Any food left?” I headed for the kitchen and opened the fridge.
“Some spaghetti and cheese bread. Sorry we didn’t wait for you.”
“Nah, that’s okay. I needed a good swim.” Grabbing a plate out of the cabinet, I spooned a heaping amount of food on my plate and sat down at the counter.
“You’re not going to heat it up?” Mom shook her head at me and shut the vacuum off.
“Nah. Too hungry, too tired.” I slurped a noodle into my mouth and sighed. “Plus, it’s good like this.”
“Okay. If you’re happy, I’m happy.” She ruffled my hair before getting us both a bottle of water to drink. “So, how did the new recruits do today?”
“Meh.” I shrugged and ripped off a hunk of cheese bread. “Okay, I guess. There are a couple that are really lazy. A couple of smart-mouths.”
“So, same old, same old?” She sat on the stool across from me and smiled.
“Yeah. There was a late guy too.” I frowned at my dinner. Blake’s cocky smile had haunted me through my swim. I wasn’t really sure why he got under my skin so much.
“Oh, yeah? What did Dad say?”
“He sent him to clean out the sea lion pens.” I smiled while Mom laughed. That was one of the worst tasks you could get. Especially on your first day.
“Well, you know how your dad feels about being punctual.” Mom smiled and looked past my shoulder.
“What’s that about me?” Dad kissed the top of my head and pulled the pan of spaghetti over to him. Using the spatula, he scooped some of the food into his mouth.
“You had the late guy clean out the pens.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “Did you go check behind him? He left really late.”
“Mmhmm. I did. He cleaned all three.”
“All three?” I looked at Dad, surprised. “No wonder he left so late.”
“Did a damn good job, too.” He smiled. “I have to admit I was surprised when I heard his name.”
“Violet knew who he was too.” I frowned at my parents. I hated feeling like I was out of the loop.
“Weathering. His family owns most of the hotels on the island. Met his dad once but wasn’t impressed.” He pushed the pan back to my mom, who covered it with the plastic lid. “He was a scary guy. Big fancy car, suit, cell phone attached to his ear the whole time, ignoring the little guy next to him that was trying to show him a picture he had drawn. Well, he’s not so little anymore, huh? Kid’s taller than I am.”
“Huh.” I grabbed my empty plate and took it to the sink. That picture didn’t really mesh up well with the cocky guy on the motorcycle.
“Don’t be too hard on him, Meena. Despite the fancy digs and clothes, I don’t think his life has been a bed of roses. Maybe this will be his chance to see what a real family should be like.” Dad came behind me and squeezed my shoulders. “Go get some sleep. Tomorrow is going to be another long one. Got to get as much work out of those kids as I can early on. They always start slacking after the first week.”
I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at my dad, even though I loved him to death. If you didn’t know his insane obsession with being on time, you would think he was a born islander. All love and be loved. “Night, guys. Love you.”
“Love you too!” They chorused. I looked over my shoulder to see them smiling at each other. I knew I was lucky that my parents were still in love, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t grossed out by their moments. I made a gagging noise and they laughed.
My bedroom was at the end of a short hallway, next to the guest bathroom. It wasn’t large but had a great view of the ocean. A quick shower, old pajamas, and I was ready for bed. I kicked off my slippers and was out almost immediately.
The whine of my alarm made me sit up in bed. I slammed my palm down on the snooze button and tried to remember why the hell I was awake so early. Looking around my room in confusion, I noticed the dirty clothes sitting on the floor next to my closet. I groaned and scrubbed my eyes with the palms of my hands. Another day of community service and I didn’t want to be late again. I’d had meetings with Dad twice last week, and each of them had run over. I’d be damned if I gave the owner’s daughter a reason to look at me like I was a piece of crap again. I’d been stuck mucking drains and fixing plumbing in the bathrooms. Every time I came out stinking like crap, she would smirk and flounce away.
Of course, I had insulted her family’s business, so I might deserve a little shit. I groaned and wondered why it bothered me so much. She was pretty, but I’d dated pretty and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Maybe it was the instant fire in her eyes? Or the way she worked just as hard as everyone else. Shaking my head, I stood up and stretched. Nothing mattered right now except getting clean and finding some food. Since I hadn’t showered the night before, I could smell myself and that became my top priority. I shoved the door open to my bathroom and almost tripped on the rug.
“Damn it!” I kicked at the stupid mat my mom had picked out before she went back to France and turned on the shower. It was warm almost immediately, so I jumped in and turned on the extra shower head. The shower was probably going to be the best part of my day, so I decided to enjoy it.
Once my stomach started growling, I cut the water off and hopped out. I dried off, brushed my teeth, and dug around in my closet for clothes. For the last week I had been scrubbing tanks, hauling shrubbery, and trying to stay out of Meena’s way. I grabbed some swim trunks, an old sleeveless T-shirt, and some flip-flops. I tucked my wallet and bike keys into my pocket and stuck my sunglasses on my head.
As I jogged down the stairs, I could hear voices in the kitchen and almost decided to forgo breakfast. I could hear Vincent and his friend Liv arguing over the last grapefruit. They had been best friends since they both wore diapers. I wished I’d thought to bring my iPod; I could have ignored them both. My stomach growled again and I checked the time on my cell phone. There wasn’t enough time to hit town for some food, so I’d just have to suck it up and grab something here.
I pushed through the door and frowned at Liv. She was sitting on the counter in a pair of Vincent’s ridiculous pajamas and waved at me like a lunatic.
“Get your ass off the counter. We put our food there.” I opened the pantry and grabbed a box of cereal.
“I’ve got pants on.” She flipped me the bird and I chuckled. It was kind of hard to take the tiny girl seriously when she had her hair in pigtails and looked like she belonged in middle school.
“They aren’t your pants.” I poured milk on my cereal and checked the time on the microwave.
“They look better on her than on me.” Vincent frowned in my direction. “What the hell are you doing up so early?”
“Gotta be at the sanctuary.” I shoved a mouthful of chocolate puffs into my mouth and wished I’d skipped breakfast. Reminding Vincent about my community service wasn’t going to make anyone happy.
“I wish you’d let me do it for you.” He picked his bowl up and set it in the sink. Apparently he and Liv had decided to split the grapefruit.
“It’s not that bad.” Not wanting to see his guilty expression, I put the cereal back in the pantry.
“What’s it like? Did you get to play with the dolphins?” Liv hoped off the counter. “I’ve always wanted to swim with the dolphins.”
“All work, no play.” Shaking my head, I dumped my bowl in the sink and headed for the garage.
“Blake.” Vincent followed me but I didn’t want to have this talk. It was done and over. I wouldn’t have changed anything.
“I’ve gotta go, Vince. I can’t be late.” Gritting my teeth, I opened the door and headed for the bike—my freedom.
“I know. I just wanted to say thanks.” He leaned against the door in a ridiculous pair of men’s pajamas.
“Anytime, bro.” I shoved my helmet over my head and then slid my sunglasses on. “Hit the garage-door opener.”
Vincent used his elbow to punch the flat white button and waved over his shoulder as I pulled out. I revved my engine, checked the traffic, and headed out of town.
It was still quiet at the sanctuary when I pulled up and I smiled. I liked it like this, with no one around. I left the bike but brought the helmet with me. I didn’t want someone to swipe it while I was knee-deep in fish crap. Or walrus crap. Hell, it would probably be some type of crap. Especially if Meena had anything to do with it. She had still acted pissed when I saw her the other night. And in a hurry, apparently. I had ignored her obvious attempts to ditch me. Maybe she had been going to meet someone. I’d seen her heading down to that little beach a couple of times over the last week.
My instant irritation surprised me. What did I care if she was seeing someone? I shook my head and kicked at a broken stepping stone. I was out of these damn islands as soon I could get my trust-fund money. Girls were the last thing on my mind. Not that I wasn’t going to enjoy the scenery while I could. It was hard to ignore a girl that looked like Meena. Really hard when she was wearing that tiny bikini top and scrubbing tanks.
Shit. I was thinking about her and she wasn’t even around. Damn bikinis. Maybe I needed to go scrub fish crap. Worry about something more immediate and focus on getting the hell out of here.
“Blake! Over here.” The owner, Ben, waved me toward the toolshed.
“Morning.” Nodding my head, I set my helmet on a shelf in the shed and looked at Ben expectantly. I wanted to just get whatever type of torture I had to do out of the way.
“How are you today?” Ben picked up a rake and looked back at me.
“Um, good.” I looked around the shed and stared at the shovel—my salvation with a metal scoop.
“You look hungry. Have you eaten breakfast?” Ben leaned on his rake and looked me up and down.
“Had some cereal.” I looked from the shovel over to Ben and frowned. Why was he being so friendly? Wasn’t I here to work off my penance?
“That’s not food. C’mon. You’re here early, so you might as well get some good grub.” Ben laughed as he walked past me. “You’re going to need it.”
Not sure what I was about to get into, I followed the older man up to the little cottage on top of a hill. The bungalow overlooked the entire facility and had kick-ass views from every window. Ben kicked his shoes off at the door and I followed suit. It was a little weird to walk around in someone else’s house without shoes on, but the smell of bacon and eggs made me forget about it immediately. When my stomach growled, Ben clapped me on the shoulder and pushed me toward the kitchen.
“Marion! I brought a beggar.” My back stiffened immediately. I wasn’t begging for anyone’s food. Ben seemed to sense my tension, because he turned back and winked once.
Marion turned away from the stove and smiled at me. She was a pretty woman, but I couldn’t help but notice that Meena didn’t favor either of her parents.
“Blake, right? You’re here early.” Grabbing a plate, she turned around and started piling food on it. “Orange juice, milk, or coffee?”
“Coffee, please.” I sat down on the bar stool next to Ben and had to fight to not drum my fingers on the counter. I couldn’t remember the last time my mother made me breakfast. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if our cook was a mother. Did it count if she was and made me breakfast? Marion set a plate in front of me and drool pooled in my mouth. This was real, home-cooked food. Even the stuff our cook made felt fake. Our eggs came with parsley leaves and the bacon was set on toast with fluffy garnishes.
“Dig in.” Marion smiled at me and I was struck by her genuine niceness. She wasn’t playing hostess. She really didn’t mind that I had crashed their breakfast.
“Thanks.” She didn’t have to tell me twice. I didn’t remember chewing the bacon, but it was gone in seconds.
“Where’s Meena? Out swimming?” Ben took a sip of his coffee and something passed between the adults. Thankfully, I had all that delicious food to keep my attention, so I didn’t look around the house like a dumbass when they mentioned their daughter. Covertly, I let my eyes scan the little kitchen and took in the pictures taped to the fridge and the seashells that lined the tops of the cabinets.
“She was so tired, I think she forgot to set her alarm clock.” Marion set a plate in front of Ben just as a door slammed open somewhere in the back of the house.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Meena came barreling down the hallway into the kitchen, and I stuffed a big forkful of eggs into my mouth. Hopefully my mouth hadn’t hung open for too long. She was wearing a tiny tank top that hugged her braless body and showed off her toned stomach. If her parents knew what I was thinking right that moment, they would have skewered me with the spatula.
“What is he doing here?” Her voice cut through the room and you could hear a pin drop. She skidded to a stop and crossed her arms over her chest. I swallowed my eggs and saluted her with my fork. I decided I liked seeing her off-balance. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes were wide with shock. Even if we got off on the wrong foot, her reaction seemed a bit on the excessive side. Maybe she just wasn’t a morning person.
“He got here early, so I figured he might have missed breakfast.” Her parents talked over each other, but there was no mistaking their shock at her behavior. There went the morning person theory. Looks like it’s only me that gets the cold shoulder. Great. If I couldn’t spend some time with her pressed against me in that little toolshed, I’d settle for keeping her angry. I liked the way her eyes snapped.
“Is this your seat?” I wiggled on the stool and almost smiled when her eyebrows drew together and she took a deep breath. Yep, I liked seeing her pissed off.
“It is, but I don’t have time for breakfast.” She turned on her heel, giving me a nice view of her ass as she stalked back down the hallway. “Mom, toast me a bagel, would you?” She slammed her door shut and I laughed. I couldn’t help it.
“You sure did manage to piss her off, huh?” Ben elbowed me and smiled. “She’s usually a lot calmer.”
“We got off on the wrong foot.” I tore my toast in half and shoved a piece in my mouth. “I didn’t realize she was your daughter.”
“Uh huh. What did you say?” Marion leaned a hip against the counter and sipped from her coffee cup.
“I sort of hinted that I wasn’t happy about having to do community service.” I tried to find a diplomatic approach.
“I heard you thought this place was a real hellhole.” Marion looked at me over her coffee cup and I almost choked.
“Er, something like that. But mainly I was just complaining about giving up my summer.”
“Hellhole?” Ben looked at me and frowned. “That would certainly piss Meen off.” He chewed on a piece of bacon thoughtfully. “What exactly is so hellish?”
“Nothing.” I pushed back from the counter and took my empty plate to the sink. After rinsing the plate, I looked around for the dishwasher, but didn’t see one.
“Leave it. I’ll clean it with the others.” Marion’s eyes were thoughtful, and I felt like squirming.
“No, no. You don’t get off that easy.” Ben looked at me before standing up and kissing Marion on the cheek. He motioned for me to follow him out the door.
“Thank you, Marion.” That had been the best breakfast I’d had in years.
“Any time, Blake.” If it had been anyone else, I would have dismissed her words. But something about Marion and Ben put me at ease.
“I take it that your first impression of Flukes wasn’t that great.” Ben stuck his feet into his sandals and headed down the path toward the employee area. I kicked my feet into my shoes and hurried after him.
“Well…” I let my voice trail off. My first impression hadn’t been good. My second impression hadn’t really required any thinking. At least not with my brain. Which is why I wasn’t on Meena’s favorite-person list.
“It’s okay.” Ben sighed. He stopped for a minute and surveyed the sanctuary. “That’s actually what I’m going to have you guys working on. The place needs to be spiffed up. We’ve spent so much time and money on caring for the animals the other stuff fell through the cracks.”
“I can understand how that would happen.” The sanctuary sat in a natural cove that had been exaggerated by dredging. Roped-off areas and wooden boardwalks marked swim areas that housed dolphins. There was a bird house not far from the toolshed and a building that housed tanks and smaller animals.
“You’ve probably picked up some things from your father. What would you suggest focusing on? You’ve had a week to check things out.” Ben surprised me when he waited for an answer. He was really asking me.
“I don’t think I inherited the family business trait.” I was pretty sure I hadn’t inherited anything from my father.
“C’mon, Blake. You’re smart. I can see it and hear it. So, tell me the first thought that pops into your head.”
“A new sign.” I don’t know why I was actually answering him. “Not just a repaint, but a whole new logo. You need something more modern, something that won’t get lost in the crowd. Something bright and catchy, but welcoming. There are a bunch of dolphin-swims and you need to stand out.” I thought about it for a minute. This was an interesting puzzle. What would work? “Maybe a cool font that twists up into a dolphin tail, or shimmers like water.”
“That’s a good point. What else?” Ben turned to face me, intent on what I was saying. My father never asked me questions, just issued orders or demanded information. There was never a give-and-take conversation.
“Landscaping. Freshen everything up, make it look inviting and exciting. There isn’t anything tourists like better than to take pictures.” I looked at Ben, who was nodding his head. “Maybe hold a big event or something to announce that everything has been revamped.” I stopped there, because I had no idea what kind of money they had for this type of stuff.
Looking away from the man in front of me, I caught a glimpse of Meena walking down from the house and froze. I swear to God, my heart actually stuttered. Her hair was braided and pulled to one side under a little hat and her tiny shorts shouldn’t be legal, not even in the Caribbean where people were just as likely to show up in a bathing suit. The old shirt she wore hung off one shoulder, revealing her bronzed skin. It was a mouth-watering image and I looked away. The last thing I needed was to be thrown out of the program by her father for ogling his daughter.
“Meena, come here.” Ben waved her over and I fought a groan. Shoveling fish crap suddenly sounded appealing. At least then I wouldn’t be distracted or say something stupid.
“Hey, Dad. Did you already check on Mitch?” Meena stepped onto the little platform we were standing on and hooked her fingers into her back pockets.
“Not yet. Listen, Blake had some good ideas on how to get us into shape. The cruise-line people are going to be coming by in a few weeks, and I want us to have our best foot forward.”
Meena’s eyes darted to me as her father talked and I shrugged. It wasn’t like I’d suggested anything for the hell of it; he had asked me, but she was going to think I had ragged on her home again.
“So, I think you two should work on designing a new logo and maybe you can show him a little bit about how the sanctuary works. It might give him some more ideas.” Ben looked at me and cocked his head to the side. “That okay with you, Blake? I remember seeing your name on some of the pieces when the high school had their art showing last year. You could always come scrub tanks and help lay stepping stones instead.”
“No, I’d like to learn a little more about the sanctuary.” The man was sneaky. He had known I did graphic design and painted before even asking me. Ben smiled and I could see he was feeling a bit smug.
“All right! Get to it, then!” He clapped his hands and turned around, heading toward the toolshed.
I looked back at Meena, who was staring at me. Her face looked confused and nervous. My smile was immediate.
- Meena -
As soon as his mischievous smile showed up, I knew I was in trouble. My heart was beating too quickly and my stomach did little flips.
“C’mon. I’ve got to feed Mitch and check on Jallia before we do anything else.” I walked past him and headed for the last pen. This enclosure was much larger and had running lines to the other pools. The sanctuary was set up so that the animals were kept in nature as much as possible. Instead of large tanks, our protected cove served as their home. Rope fences separated the different areas and the animals were actually living in the sea they were from.
“So you draw?” If I was going to have to work with him, I might as well try to be nice.
“A little.” He shrugged.
“I would have pegged you for the sports type.” My mind went over the muscles in his arms and delicious washboard abs.
“Why do you say that?” I could hear the smile in his voice. The cocky jerk knew exactly why I had thought that.
“Didn’t seem smart enough to do anything else.” I didn’t look back at him, just kept walking.
“Oh, burn.” He laughed. “I guess I had that coming. I’m sorry about what I said the other day. I can see you guys put a lot of love into this place.”
“Thanks.” I looked back at him and smiled. I liked that he had laughed instead of being offended. It was also nice to hear him finally apologize. “We spend the majority of our money directly on animal care, but we really do need to start putting more effort into the other stuff.”
“And that’s why you got the community-service team?” Blake asked.
“Yeah.” I jumped over a large hose. “We’re up for inspection with the shoreside excursion company. If we can land the contract, it would mean a lot more money for the animals.”
I turned down one of the small boardwalks meant for staff and grabbed some fish from the food building. Blake stayed right on my heels and I almost tripped trying to get a little further ahead. His warm hand caught my shoulder and steadied me. Hot waves rolled over my body, and I took a moment to catch my breath. It was the most unexpected reaction to an honest touch I had ever experienced. My eyes darted to where his fingers touched my bare skin and then to his face.
His mouth was opened slightly, and he looked a little confused. Maybe he was just constipated. I mentally shook myself. Surely he hadn’t felt what I had. I watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed. He looked almost as if he was in pain when he finally let go. The absence of his warm hand on my shoulder felt colder than it should have in the bright Caribbean sun.
“Thanks.” I turned away and headed back to Mitch and the others.
I whistled when I got closer, not that I needed to. Mitch always knew when I was nearby. I pushed open the gate, hopped down onto the floating platform, and dangled my legs in the water. The water felt wonderful against my skin, and I sighed happily. Mitch, Jallia, and Stormy quickly came for their breakfast. Blake climbed down the short ladder and sat next to me. His shoulders were relaxed and he seemed interested in the animals.
Mitch swam straight for him and shoved her nose onto his lap. I could feel her checking him out, trying to see if she liked him or not. It was the weirdest display she had put on with a stranger. She was a friendly dolphin, but she wasn’t one to crawl in their lap and give them the dolphin version of the third degree. When she let me know she approved, I felt confused. Approved of what exactly?
“He’s friendly.” Blake’s voice was amused and he automatically scratched under Mitch’s chin. She squee’d loudly and spit water at his face.
“Mitch is a girl.” He held his hands up to ward off her wet assault and I couldn’t help but laugh. He didn’t seem irritated by Mitch’s antics, just amused and wet.
“My apologies, Mitch. I did think it was weird that you were so pretty if you were a boy.” Blake reached out a hand and scratched her chin again. He looked at me from the corner of his eyes. “Did you tell her to do that?”
“What? Oh, the splashing? No. She’s just sensitive.” Jallia came over and rolled onto her side. I traced my hands over her belly and cooed under my breath. The baby was healthy and happy. He was going to be a big boy. “Not long now, Jallia. You’re going to have your son out and playing in no time.”
Mitch nosed her mother for a minute, checking the baby as well. After a minute, Stormy started making noises about being hungry and I laughed. I set the fish bucket between Blake and Ime. “Here, feed them, but don’t let them knock the bucket over.” Mitch rose out of the water and flopped onto the decking between us. “Mitch! You got my clothes wet!” I yanked the bucket out of the way and pushed Mitch back into the water.
Stormy darted through the water and opened his mouth for Blake to deposit some fish. It didn’t take us long to empty the bucket and I enjoyed answering Blake’s questions. He was smarter than I had given him credit for.
“Are these markings from the other dolphins? They look like teeth scrapes.” Blake leaned close to Stormy and peered at the teeth rakings on his melon.
“Yeah. Some of them are from playing, roughhousing. Some of them are from being irritating. He is a nosy guy.” I ran my hand over Stormy’s head. “Most of them fade pretty quickly. They shed their skin every two hours.”
“Wow. Didn’t know that.” Blake looked down at the water and frowned. “So my legs are covered in dead dolphin skin. Nice.”
He was so engrossed at looking at his legs in disgust, I couldn’t help myself. It was the perfect chance to get payback for his insulting Flukes. I shoved his shoulder, pushing him into the water. “Now it’s all over you.”
Mitch laughed her dolphin laugh, but Jallia scolded me. When Blake came up sputtering, he glared at me. Mitch spit water at him, but he ignored her and swam to the platform. I thought he was going to sulk until he got closer. He looked up at the last minute and his mischievous smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. His brown eyes twinkled and I knew I was in trouble. I tried to get up and out of the way quickly, but he was faster than I thought. His strong hand closed around my ankle and dragged me into the water. Mitch darted down to me and I grabbed onto her dorsal fin. She surfaced quickly and scolded Blake with sharp whistles.
“She had it coming!” Blake held his hands out in front of him and laughed. He splashed water at me and I returned the favor. Mitch and Stormy joined in, but Jallia swam away, not in the mood for playing. His smile was infectious as he played with the dolphins, not minding when they dunked him or pushed him around. I found myself watching more than playing because I liked seeing him look so happy.
“You had it coming first. Calling Flukes a hellhole.” I laughed at his fake hurt look.
“I apologized! And it’s not like I didn’t notice that I was getting all the crap jobs last week.” He pretended to hold his heart. “I’ve paid my dues. What else can you want from me?”
“Fine. We’re even.” I rolled my eyes and shifted a little farther away from him. There was something compelling about him, something that made me want to be closer. He was dangerous.
“Looks like you lost something.” He tapped his head and I frowned.
“Ugh. My hat.” I looked around and saw it floating toward the sandy bottom. I took a deep breath that I didn’t need and dove after it. When I came back up, Blake was looking at me with wide eyes. “What? It’s my favorite.”
“How deep is this part of the cove?” He looked down and frowned. “What? Eighteen, twenty feet?”
“Something like that.” This part of the cove was twenty-eight feet. Mentally, I berated myself for being so stupid. I should have sent Mitch or Stormy after my hat, but I didn’t want teeth marks on it.
“Heh.” Blake looked at me, his eyebrows drawn together.
I hauled myself onto the platform and felt his eyes following me, making my heart jump in my chest. He pulled himself out of the enclosure and peeled his shirt off. The boy was gorgeous and he knew it. The exact kind of guy I should avoid at all costs. He twisted the shirt in his hands, wringing as much water out as he could.
“What next?” Blake slung the wet shirt over his shoulder.
The water droplets that ran down his chest drew my attention like a moth to flame. My fingers itched to touch him. I scrambled to my feet and backed away from him slowly while squeezing the edge of my shirt. Needing a distraction, I picked up the bucket and turned toward the ladder.
“The others should be here soon. I need to go help Dad with the assignments and then we can come up with a plan for the crews.” I didn’t look back at him after climbing the three short rungs, trying to shake the weird spell he seemed to have on me.
He stayed right behind me as I dropped off the bucket at the fish shack and headed for the toolshed. My heart was starting to pick up pace. No matter how much distance I tried to put between us, he seemed just as determined to stay close. When Dad and Violet came into view, I was so relieved I almost skipped down the last of the path. She turned to look at me and her eyebrows shot up to her hairline.
“Did you fall in the pen?” Violet’s eyes trailed over Blake and back to me. A slow smile spread over her face and her eyes gleamed. I knew that look. I was in trouble now. She had been picking on me for giving Blake a hard time all week, and this just fit right into the scenario she would have imagined.
“Blake dragged me into the water.” I pulled at my shirt again and realized you could see my bathing suit through the wet material.
“She pushed me in first.” Blake held up his hands and looked from Violet to my dad with innocent eyes. I snorted. I should have held him under, not just gotten him wet.
“Payback, huh? That’s my girl.” Dad held his hand out for a high five and I reluctantly returned it. “How was Jallia?”
“Good. It shouldn’t be long now.” I looked anywhere but at Violet or Blake, worried they’d see through my nonchalance.
“Excellent. I wonder if we’ll have the new babe for the shoreside rep.” Dad looked at me expectantly for answers.
“I’m not sure.” Shrugging, I walked into the toolshed and pulled my shirt off, not wanting to give anyone a show. I snatched a towel off one of the hooks and dried off as best I could before grabbing one of the spare employee shirts.
“Got an extra towel?” Blake ducked his head in and my heart skipped. I wore bathing suits all year, usually with nothing else on, but for some reason, I felt too exposed under his eyes. I yanked the towel off the hook next to me and threw it to him without turning around. I needed to get out of here. Hastily, I slipped into the big T-shirt and took my towel to hang on the railing outside. I stared out at the water past the cove entrance and tried to calm my racing heart. Why was Blake Weathering making me so nervous? I didn’t have time for boys that made me nervous. Especially when I was supposed to work with them to get Flukes a big contract.
“So, did you make any progress?” Dad’s voice was hopeful and I looked up from my thoughts.
“Not really. You wanted him to get to know more about the area, so I introduced him to Mitch and the others.” The corners of my mouth twitched when I remembered how much Mitch had liked him, then silently berated myself.
Blake walked over and hung his towel next to mine. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Violet watching us and almost groaned. She had been trying to set me up with guys for years, but I didn’t have time for that stuff. More importantly, I couldn’t risk anyone finding out my secret.
“What did Mitch think?” Violet leaned back on the railing and smiled at me. That smile told me a million things, all of them bad. Bad, bad, bad.
“She was okay.” I shrugged.
“She crawled in my lap like a cat.” Blake laughed. “I didn’t know dolphins were so affectionate. Or that they shed their skin every two hours.” He shot me a smile and I couldn’t help grinning. Violet’s smile grew until you could see her teeth.
“Really? Sounds like you made yourself a new friend.” Violet’s white teeth gleamed against her dark skin. Blake seemed to sense something, because he narrowed his eyes a little and took a step toward my dad.
“Vi, why are you all fancy? The fish don’t care what you’re wearing.” I looked my friend over and noted her makeup and dressy clothes. Her braids hung around her shoulders and flashy sandals peeked out from under her wide-leg slacks.
“I have that scholarship interview today, remember?” My heart clenched at the reminder. My best friend was leaving for Hawaii soon. She’d be oceans away, working on her Marine Biology degree while I did classes online or at the community college.
“Oh, yeah. Good luck.” I tried to smile. It obviously wasn’t a good one.
Violet laughed at my words and hugged me to her.
“Don’t sound so glum. I’ll be back for the holidays and you can visit me in Hawaii. Lots of lovely water there for you to swim in.” Violet squeezed my shoulder. “Besides, you’re already making new friends.”
I tried to not groan and darted my eyes toward Blake. He had certainly caught the undertone in that last sentence, because his mouth was quirked to the side in amusement. I couldn’t help but wonder if he liked the implication or if he thought it would be funny for one more girl to fall under his spell.
The rumble of the bus pulling up in the parking lot drew of our attention away, thankfully. Most of the workers rode the bus just because it was easier than driving themselves out to the sanctuary. As the crew unloaded, Violet shook her head and frowned at me.
“I’ve gotta run, but you take care.” There was an undercurrent to her words that drew my attention. Her eyebrows were pulled together as she watched some of the workers walk in our direction. “Some of these guys are a little rougher than we normally get here.”
“What do you mean?” My eyes followed one of the taller guys; his wide shoulders and long legs set him apart from the group. His eyes were large and blue, which contrasted sharply with his dark skin.
“They aren’t here because they had a run-in with a principal or trashed some public bathrooms.” Violet turned away from the approaching group. “I heard that the tall guy, Devin, assaulted some girl at a bar.”
“Why would they send them here?” Blake’s voice surprised me. I hadn’t realized he had come to stand so close to me.
“I don’t know. They normally send the ones that need a slap on the wrist.” Violet looked over my shoulder toward my father before lowering her voice. My mind immediately wondered how Blake had ended up at Flukes. He didn’t seem homicidal or overly violent. So why had he beat up some guy in the locker rooms? “I heard your dad talking about it to my dad. He said he was going to pull you from the normal stuff to put some distance between you and them.”
The pieces fell together in my head, and I suddenly understood just how sneaky my father really was. He hadn’t just decided that I needed to work with Blake on designing a new logo and directing the crews. He had put me on a task that kept me away from the worst of the miscreants. I looked over at Blake, wondering if he had put it together, and saw that his mouth was pulled to the side in a smirk. Why on Earth had Dad decided that Blake wasn’t dangerous? He had eyes, didn’t he?
“Don’t worry, Vi, I won’t let anything happen to her while you’re gone.” Blake’s voice rumbled out of his chest, giving me goose bumps.
“I’m going to hold you to that, Blake Weathering.” Violet narrowed her eyes at him and put one hand on her hip.
I was in even more trouble than my dad realized.
- Meena -
After Dad sent the crews to take care of the more remedial tasks, like cutting the grass or replacing the broken paver stones, I took Blake to the toolshed and grabbed some gloves.
“I figured I’d show you the lay of the land and maybe see if we come up with any ideas.” I tossed Blake some gloves and he quickly tucked them into the pocket on the back of his shorts.
“What are the gloves for?” He leaned a shoulder against the shed door while I dug around in a bucket for a small hatchet. When I pulled it out, I smiled over my shoulder at him before sticking the hatchet through one of the belt loops on my shorts.
“Well, while we’re walking, we can work. There are some downed trees on a couple of the paths from the storm earlier this week.” I pushed past him and waited for him to close the door. We headed down the path toward my beach, stopping to pick up some of the limbs that had been blown back into the walkway. “Dad’s been talking about expanding for years now. We constantly get calls to take in wounded animals, but right now we just don’t have the room. If we get the contract, it would mean we could grow.”
“Out this way?” Blake leaned down and picked up a large branch, moving it farther off the path. I used the hatchet to cut up a large limb and push it out of the way.
“Sort of. We’re keeping this part of the beach private.” I pointed toward where the path forked and dove down to the white sand. “But, we could move the birds and smaller animals up here on top of the hill. And this is the easiest way to reach it right now.”
“Okay. What would it take to expand something like this?” He pushed some branches out of the way for me. This part of the path wasn’t used as often, so the overgrowth was a problem.
“We’d have to start small. Probably a couple of million to get everything going. More if we do what Dad is really wanting to do.” I stepped over a rocky outcropping. “Watch your footing.”
“What is it he wants to do?” The entire way, he kept moving branches and stones out of the path. I couldn’t help but enjoy watching his muscles tighten and shift under his skin. He looked over his shoulder at me, his mouth turned up in that obnoxious grin. Frowning, I looked away and kept walking.
“A school, eventually. Try to educate the public and tourists about how important the oceans are to the world.” We were almost to the top of the hill and the sun was throwing shadows through the trees and foliage.
“Is that what you’re going to go to school for? Come back here and help teach? Or do you plan on leaving and finding your own place?” Blake’s voice was calm, but there was an edge to his words. As if he couldn’t wait to get out of here.
“I’m not going anywhere. This is my home.” I shrugged my shoulders. Most people wouldn’t understand. I loved this place. Loved the animals and the people that worked here. Plus, I couldn’t be far from the ocean, so it wasn’t like I could travel a great deal.
“You aren’t going to college?” His brown eyes raked over my face as if trying to figure out a puzzle. “Don’t you want to get out and see the world?”
“I’ll take online courses.” I frowned. Of course I wanted to see the world. Not that it did me any good to dwell on it. “What about you? You graduated this year. Are you going into the family business?”
“Fuck no. As soon as I get my diploma, I’m outta here.” His voice was full of conviction. Part of me understood the desire to see something new, to experience a different place, but I didn’t understand the underlying sense of hate he felt toward the island.
The foliage had started to thin and the views were taking its place. Turquoise waters spread out before us and you could see all of Flukes. My heart gave a contented thump as I looked at my home. It had taken years, but we had turned the place around. When I was little there had barely been enough money to feed us, much less the animals. As I had gotten older and started to understand my ability to work with the animals, things had gotten a lot easier.
“Great view.” I could feel his eyes on me, but he looked away when I glared. Blake shielded his eyes with his hands, scanning the area. “I can see why you want to keep that little beach to yourselves.”
“I’m sure you’ve seen a lot better, but this is my little piece of paradise.” I knelt down, letting my eyes run over Flukes, our house, and our tiny little beach. “There’s a little cottage down there that Mom and Dad lived in when they first moved here. I’m planning on fixing it up for my own.”
“The cove really makes it special.” His voice was honest, as if he really did think our place was worth something. “The northern part curves just right. I bet you guys don’t have to deal with too much storm damage. Don’t ever let my dad come here. He’d try his best to turn it into some high-end resort.”
“We still have issues, but it’s better than it could be.” I picked at a piece of grass and twisted it between my fingers. My eyes caught on one of the workers throwing shovels of sand at the sea lions. “Oh, hell no.”
Standing up, I tore back down the path, jumping over the rocky patches and heading for the sea-lion pen. Blake stayed right on my heels but didn’t say a word. As soon as I had the guy in my sights, I was ready to strangle him. He was now tossing rocks at the animals and laughing.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I barely stopped in time to keep from bowling the guy over. I grabbed the handle of the shovel and yanked. He held on, his blue eyes raked over my body, and a sneer pulled at his mouth. Something in me screamed to hurt him, to make him leave, but instead I pulled with all my strength and wrestled the shovel away from him. I pulled so hard that I would have landed on my butt if Blake hadn’t caught my shoulder. Again, that warm feeling ran over my skin, but I didn’t have time to wonder about it.
“The stupid shit kept spitting water at me.” The worker leaned forward as if asking for trouble. I recognized him from the first day of orientation—Devin, I think.
“So you throw sand at it? And rocks? It’s a sea lion! Of course it spit water at you, you idiot!” I looked back at the animals to see them swimming happily in the lagoon water. “Why didn’t you just move out of their range?”
“It should have listened when I told it to stop.” Devin leaned back against the rope railing and crossed his arms over his chest. My entire body vibrated with disgust. There was this foul smell of something dead rotting in the sun and I could swear it was coming from him.
“It’s asea lion. You were near its enclosure, doing something it didn’t understand.” My hands squeezed the handle so hard I could feel the wood digging into my skin. “Get out of here.”
“I can’t get out of here. The court says I have to stay.” Devin smirked. “You’re awfully upset about that stupid sea lion. Maybe if you spent time around real people, you wouldn’t care about animals so much. Or maybe you just prefer animals?” His eyebrows pulled up at his nasty innuendo.
“Go help the others lay pavers.” My jaw was clenched so tight I could barely get the words out. “Just get the hell out of my sight.”
“Sure,Meen-ah.” He drew my name out like it was an insult. “Whatever you say. Fish lover.” He mumbled the last word under his breath, but I heard it anyway.
“What’s wrong with you, man?” Blake stepped in front of me, the muscles in his back taut. “Stop being an ass and just do what you have to.”
“Watch yourself, Weathering.” Devin stood away from the fence, his chest puffed up. “I don’t take orders from you. You aren’t the only one with a rich daddy.”
“No. You take orders from her and her parents.” The amused look that had been on Blake’s face earlier had completely disappeared. Instead, he was wearing the aloof, irritated look I had seen the first day.
“And what? You’re going to be her enforcer?” Devin laughed. The sound was like razors along my skin. “You’re the safe guy. The one her daddy doesn’t care if she’s around. We heard him talking. You’re a joke.”
Blake moved before I could register that anything had happened. Devin stepped back, but Blake was right on him, sending the other guy to the ground with a hard shove. Devin fell back into the sand before scrambling to his feet.
Leaning close, Blake looked Devin in the eyes, his fists at his sides. “You’re here because you couldn’t get some girl to sleep with you, so you beat her up. I’m here because I put the captain of the soccer team in the hospital. Right now, you’re next on my list.” There was a low growl in his words that made my heartbeat pick up. “Get out of here before I decide to do more than throw rocks at your head.”
Devin’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say anything. Taking a step away from Blake, the boy looked at me and winked. Slowly he made his way up the trail, toward some of the other workers. I ground my teeth and glared at him as he walked. I was going to have a long talk with my dad. Not just about Devin, but about giving me a babysitter. Throwing the shovel down, I jumped the fence and waded out into the water.
“Harper! Ruth! Menolly!” I hollered the names of the sea lions and waited for them to answer. My connection was much stronger with the dolphins, but I could still feel and understand the other animals in the sanctuary.
The sound of splashing surprised me, and I turned around to see Blake wading out to where I was standing. His face was blank, but if I had to guess, he was still pissed. I didn’t blame him. Not only was he having to do community service, my dad had decided to make him watch out for me.
“Are they okay?” His voice rumbled across the water and I was immediately disappointed that he hadn’t asked about me. Taking a deep breath, I cursed myself mentally. I didnotcare if he was worried about me or not.
“Seems that way.” Harper bumped my leg and I kneeled down so that I could look him in the eye. “Did that jerk hurt you guys?” I ran my hand over his head before turning to check the two girls out.
“They seem okay to me.” Blake knelt down next to me. I was incredibly embarrassed that Dad thought I needed someone to watch out for me. And even more humiliated that I might have needed the watchdog.
“Yeah. They’re pretty tough.” I swallowed. “Look, I’m really sorry about—”
“You were pretty fierce—”
We looked at each other, both stopping midsentence. I felt a shaky smile pull at my lips, and he nodded at me to go on.
“I didn’t know Dad was trying to keep me away from those guys.”
“Yeah, I kind of figured that.” Blake looked away from me, his eyes running over the water. “Your dad’s sneaky as hell.” He sounded more amused than anything else.
“I take it he didn’t tell you about the other guys either?” Ruth pushed at my hand, so I scratched above her eye.
“No. Just what he told you this morning.” Blake stood up and held his hand out to me. I only hesitated for a minute before letting him pull me up. That warm feeling seeped up my arm and ran down my body. He looked at our joined hands briefly before letting go. When his hand dropped down by his leg, I saw his fingers flex as if shaking off a weird sensation. “Guess he figured he would kill two birds with one stone.”
“About that. I don’t really need someone watching out for me. I’m not a wilting flower. Dad’s just…” I shrugged my shoulders. “He’s just my dad.”
“Protecting his daughter is part of the job description.” He looked down at me and his eyes darkened. “Of course, if he knew what I was thinking when I saw you in those shorts, he might have regretted his decision.”
Heat rushed to my cheeks and I fought the laser-beam lock his eyes seemed to hold on mine. I literally had no idea how to respond to that and the longer I stood there with my mouth hanging open, the stupider I felt.
“I’ll have to remember to wear something different tomorrow.”
“Meena, you’d look good in a trash bag. Changing into something else isn’t going to keep me from noticing that.” He took a step closer and I took a step back. It was the first time he’d said my name today and it made my knees weak. I hated that.
“Why are you here? Why did you beat up that kid from school?” The lights went out in Blake’s eyes and distance as vast as the ocean spread between us.
“He had it coming.”
- Meena -
The rest of the week was spent in an uneasy truce. I’d catch Blake looking at me and he would catch me watching him. I couldn’t help it. I liked the way he moved, the way his muscles tightened, and how his hair would fall in his eyes. Everything about him made me feel unfocused and confused. If I wasn’t looking at him, I was thinking about him. That was completely the opposite of what I needed to be doing, and I hated that he seemed to have captured my mind.
It wasn’t that we didn’t get along. It was more like we got along too well and neither of us were comfortable with that. Not that I thought he was interested in anything with me that beyond a quick physical attraction, but I found myself interested in his thought process. There seemed to be so much going on back behind his warm brown eyes.
“Do you have any ideas for a new sign yet?” I picked up some of the rope we had pulled down from the old walkway and started coiling it up. We’d talked about it a few times but hadn’t really come to a clear solution.
“I was thinking maybe something with a mermaid tail. Maybe just the tail coming up out of the water?”
I dropped the rope and stood up straight. “What? Why?”
“I guess the name inspired me. And I think it would add a bit of whimsy.” Blake knelt down and fixed the rope I had dropped. He narrowed his eyes over his shoulder at me and I felt my heartbeat pick up. “You don’t like it?”
“No. I mean, I’m just surprised.” I shrugged and looked across the water. “It’s not up to me anyway. It’s up to my dad.”
“Water, animals, the name. It just all added up to mermaids for me.” I looked back at him and met his gaze. He stood up, not once breaking eye contact. “It’s a little bit because of you, I guess. The way the animals seem to accept you, the way you love this place.”
I swallowed convulsively. “Me? A mermaid?” The chuckle that escaped my mouth sounded sick and demented. Something flashed in his eyes and I wondered if I had offended him, or if he was just trying to figure me out. It was probably best if I had offended him. I didn’t need him to like me. The problem was that I was quickly realizing Iwantedhim to.
Ducking down, I picked up the rope and started to throw it over my shoulder. His hand caught mine and carefully pulled the heavy bundle from me. “Let me get that.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I slapped my hands together to knock off some of the sand. His loose hand reached out and caught my fingers. That warm tingling ran up my arm and down my spine. Turning my hand over, he ran his thumb over the chipped paint on my nails. My stomach dropped the moment I realized I had forgotten to repaint them this morning. The teal color of my nails peeked out from under the purple paint, clear as day. I tried to yank my hand back, but his fingers held tight.
“That’s an unusual color.” His eyebrows drew together. The warm feeling in the pit of my stomach warred with the anxiety I felt at having him see my real nails.
“Yeah. I’m always experimenting with nail polish.” I tried to pull my hand away again and, thankfully, he let go this time.
“You must really like that teal color. I’ve noticed you wear it a lot.” His eyes were intense and I noticed that he was looking at my toes, too.
“It changes. Sometimes it’s purple, yellow. I guess it’s just teal’s turn.” I curled my hands into fists and bit my lip. That warm feeling hadn’t faded as quickly this time and part of me wanted to touch him again, just to see if it would come back. I was starting to think that I hadn’t imagined the feeling after all. And that seriously worried me. Why on Earth would I feel something from touching Blake?
When we got back to the shed, the other workers were putting up their tools. I had talked to Dad briefly about Devin, but we hadn’t been able to really work out how to deal with him. The tall guy was leaning against the building, smoking a cigarette. I coughed and frowned at him.
“No smoking on the premises. There are signs everywhere.” I crossed my arms over my chest, well aware of his eyes resting there. “Or can you not read?”
He squished the end of his cigarette between his fingers and flung it out toward the pathway to my beach. “I just didn’t care.”
“Devin. You better start caring or I’m going to cancel your work order and you can do time.” Dad’s voice held none of his normal, happy hippy tone. “We don’t litter. Pick it up and put it in the trash.”
I had never really thought about it before, but Dad was tall, taller than even Devin. He worked outside doing lots of manual labor that kept him in shape. When you paired that with the serious tone, he was intimidating. Devin seemed to size him up for a minute before slowly going to pick up the cigarette butt. He walked to the trash can, held his hand above the opening, and dropped the cigarette into the hole. Without another word, he turned around and sauntered down the path toward the exit. He jerked his chin and several of the workers peeled off and followed him.
The ones that hadn’t left all nodded at Dad before making their way down to the bus. Dad shook his head once they were all on their way and the tension in his shoulders drained away.
“I’m going to call and find out why they were sent here.” Dad’s eyes flicked to Blake and then away. “Did you guys come up with anything today?” I knew my dad well enough to sense when he was changing the subject.
“Blake had an idea.” I busied myself in the shed, not wanting to let my expression give anything away. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Blake pick up a stick and sketch something in the sand. Dad grunted but didn’t say anything until Blake was finished.
“This is rough, but I think that works, too.” He didn’t say anything else. Just stood up and moved back so that Dad could get a better look. “Something loose that just suggests the theme.”
“That would be easy to translate onto promotional kits.” Dad’s voice was thoughtful, so I snuck a peek at him. He was rubbing his chin and his eyes were thoughtful. “What sent you in this direction?”
“Meena.” Blake’s voice was calm and nonchalant, but the memory of his fingers on mine made me blush.
“Meena?” I turned around and looked at Dad. I knew my cheeks were red, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
“When she’s swimming with the animals, she looks just like a mermaid should. Happy and peaceful. It goes with the name, too.” Blake tossed the stick back into the brush. “If you think it’s too whimsical I can come up with something else.”
“No. I like it.” Dad’s eyes focused on me and I wondered what he was thinking. There was something sad in his eyes I didn’t understand. “Can you make something a little more definite? If we get this nailed down soon, we can start production of the new sign and design some shirts for the staff.”
“Sure. Need me to do anything else before I leave?” Blake looked at Dad as if waiting for homework.
“Would you mind moving that cart with the bags of concrete? Looks like it’s going to rain tonight.” Dad pointed to where Devin had left a loaded wheelbarrow by the bird hut.
“No problem.” Blake’s eyes cut to me quickly before going back to my father.
I watched him walk away and was surprised that I was sad to see him go. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I liked being around him. Even though he was kind of a mysterious and frustrating.
“Meena?” Dad’s voice brought me back to reality and I winced. He sounded nervous.
“I swear, I didn’t do anything wrong.” Technically, I shouldn’t have swum after my hat, but that wasn’t a big deal.
“I know.” Dad closed the shed and slipped the lock in place. “We named Flukes after you. It’s not that long of a shot, you know? And really, it fits. I think it would work.”
“But we try so hard to not let anyone find out.” I sat down on a large rock next to the path.
“Sometimes the best hiding place is right in the open.” Dad leaned against the shed and looked at me. “If you’re flaunting it in their face, they won’t think there’s any way it could be real.”
“Meena, it’s all risky. All of it. The only way to be safe would be to pick up and move somewhere where you wouldn’t have any friends.” Dad frowned. “We thought about it. For years. But you would have been miserable.”
“So would you guys. You and Mom love this place as much as I do.” I smiled at him.
“We would have given it all up if it would’ve been the best thing for you.”
“I know, Dad.” It was time to change the subject before either of us got too mushy. “So, what’s the deal with the crew this year?”
“Yeah, I was going to talk to you about that.” Dad rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t want you to spend much time around the workers. Some of them are a bit rougher than usual.”
“What about Blake? You told me to work with him.” My voice was a little rushed and I hoped I didn’t sound worried. Or anxious. Crap.
“Blake’s a good apple. I’m not worried about him.”
“He put some kid in the hospital.” I stood up and brushed the sand off my shorts.
“I’m betting he had a reason for what he did.” Dad narrowed his eyes at me. “Not that I think that excuses him. He deserves his punishment.”
“Then why send him to work with me?” I wanted to hear the truth for myself.
“I knew he would come up with something that worked for our place.” Dad always trusted his gut. And it was usually right. “Plus, I thought he would make sure no one gave you a hard time. I saw him with Devin the other day.”
Heat rushed to my cheeks as I remembered Blake standing up for me. I didn’t want him to think I was helpless, but it had been something to see him ready to defend me. Dad just looked at me, a small smile pulling at his mouth, and I tried to wipe any expression from my face.
“I don’t need a babysitter.” Crossing my arms, I decided to go on the offensive. All the better to keep him from thinking anything scary about me and Blake. “I certainly don’t need a hoodlum to take care of me.”
“He was brought up around business and has an eye for design. His dad was the first one to fund Flukes, you know.” I hadn’t known that. It seemed like a weird circle to have his son working here now. “Blake’s been around boardrooms his whole life. Even if he doesn’t realize it, he’s picked up a lot of the trade. You understand the sanctuary and love the animals. It’s a good pairing for the project.” Dad stretched his arms above his head and groaned. “Go swim. I know you’re dying to get out there and this old man is ready to relax for a little while.”
“‘Kay.” I walked backward toward the beach, keeping my eyes on Dad. “But we’re not done talking about the babysitter issue.”
“Yeah, yeah. Go, already.” He turned away but his voice drifted to my ears. “Stay close tonight, though. Someone saw a shark earlier.”
“Save me some dinner!” I ran for the beach, my skin ready for the water, and I kicked off my shoes and pulled my shirt off. Kicking my shorts to the side, I waded out as far as I could before diving in. I slipped my bathing suit bottom off and wrapped it around my wrist like a bracelet. My left hand tingled during the change, so I shook it in confusion, but there was nothing on it. I must be even more tired than I thought.
The water was refreshing and I enjoyed the warm breeze that hit the top of my wet head as I floated. The moon was bright, casting sharp shadows under the clear water. This was my little slice of heaven. It was the only time I was completely myself. Not that I wasn’t myself when wearing legs, just that this was my most comfortable form.
After a while, I let Mitch out and we swam around the area. We checked for shells and sea glass—a hobby of mine. I loved making jewelry out of the pieces I found. Something bright flashed in the moonlight, and as I dug it out of the sand, I almost missed Mitch’s excited twitters. She shoved at me with her nose, herding me toward a small reef. She was a pushy dolphin all the time, but this was different. She was worried and agitated. Thinking that maybe there was a shark in the area, I heeded her warnings and hid as best I could.
What came into view a couple of heartbeats later made my stomach clench and I gasped, releasing a flood of bubbles. Mitch stayed low in the water, circling just out of sight of the mermaids that swam nearby.
No, that was wrong. It was a mermaid and a merman. The mermaid was gorgeous, everything that a mermaid should be. Her blue hair floated around her head as they swam, and her pale blue eyes sparkled in the moonlight. They slowed and looked around the area, the merman signaling something. His blond hair was on the longish side, and he had a face that would make Violet swoon. It wasn’t that I didn’t think he was attractive, but it wasn’t sexual. I realized that it felt like I was looking at someone I might know.
Shock ran through my system and even if I had wanted to do or say something, I wouldn’t have been able to. I’d never seen another mer before, was it possible that they would all look familiar to me?
- Blake -
Stupid, stupid, stupid. I am not a stalker. As soon as I had pulled the wheelbarrow under the awning of one of the buildings I went back to the shed to get my helmet. Only it was locked. I could have gone up to the house and asked Ben to unlock it, but I had heard Meena making tracks down the path. Now, here I was creeping along in the dark, looking for some girl. No. Not some girl. Meena. I should have asked Ben, but part of me demanded to see Meena again. Just one more time.
It was the stupidest thing, but it didn’t change my response to the feeling. I would see her tomorrow. It was only a few hours away, but I still wanted to see her now. I hurried down the path to the beach, sure that was where she would have gone. Rounding the corner, I was just in time to see her pull her shirt off, exposing her smooth skin to the moonlight. When she pulled her shorts down, the blood drained from my head. I stepped behind the nearest tree and watched as she dove into the water. She finally surfaced and wrapped something around her wrist before ducking back under the water.
I waited for a while, scanning the water to see when she came back up for air. After a minute or so, I stepped out from behind the tree and looked around. Had I missed her coming up? With each second that passed my worry grew. I walked up to the edge of the water and looked out.
There in the distance, I saw something floating in the moonlight. At first I thought it was an animal, the way the silver light glinted off something bright, but then it moved and I realized it was Meena. I don’t know how she had gotten so far out without me seeing her, but her head and shoulders floated just above the water. It was definitely her.
I stood there, watching her, my mind going over my options. I could go ask Ben for the keys or I could wait for Meena to come back. My eyes shifted back to the path and I contemplated going to wait by the toolshed. She would have to walk right past me to go home. She was gone when I looked back at the water and that made up my mind. Walking back to where her clothes lay, I sat down and waited. Eventually, I leaned back against the palm tree and looked up at the stars. I could understand why she liked to come out here after a long day of working.
It felt like forever before I heard the splashing that announced she was back. I sat forward and smiled when I heard her make a shocked choking sound. I picked up her shorts and held them up for her to see.
“You forgot a towel!” I didn’t get up. I wanted to watch her walk out of the water.
She sputtered some and thrashed around a bit more. I stood up, worried that she had managed to get attacked by a shark in three feet of water.
“Are you okay?” I started to walk down the beach. I didn’t want to be the asshole that sat under a palm tree while some girl was eaten alive in front of him.
“Stay where you are! I’m fine!” Meena’s voice was sharp and breathless.
“What’s wrong?” I froze in place, still worried she might need help.
“Nothing. I have to put my bottoms back on.”
My brain fritzed for a minute before my mouth tugged up in a grin. “Need some help?”
“No!” She pushed the wet hair out of her eyes and glared at me.
“Were you skinny-dipping? It’s a lot more fun when you have someone else with you.” Please ask me to go, please.
“Yeah, I bet you’d know.” Her voice drifted to my ears and made my smile grow even more.
“What was that?” I took a couple of steps forward, a laugh bubbling in my chest. “You want me to come help?”
“Nothing! No! I don’t need any help, thank you very much.” She stood up in the water and I felt my blood pressure rise. “I wasnotskinny-dipping. I just had sand in my bathing suit.”
She stomped angrily up the beach before coming to stand in front of me. Her teal eyes glowed in the moonlight as she glared holes in my chest and yanked her shorts out of my hand, before pulling them up over her long legs. Pushing the wet hair out of her face she stood back up but didn’t move away. My left hand tingled and I fought the urge to pull her against my chest.
“Are you a creeper?”
Her words pulled me out of my thoughts and I blinked my eyes. “What?”
“Are you a creeper? Following me around?” She put her hands on her hips and I fought the urge to smile. “I can have your job detail cancelled, you know.”
“You wouldn’t do that.” I reached out and brushed some of the hair from her cheek and watched her eyes grow bigger. She was going to call me a creeper? Well, I was staring at her like a boy that just had his first wet dream. I loved her spitfire attitude, but it was time to give her some of her own medicine.
“Why not?” Even in the dark I could see the blush spreading out under my fingers.
“Because you like having me around.” I shifted closer and heard her breathing pick up.
“What makes you think that? You’re a jerk. No one likes a jerk.”
“Because you watch me when you don’t think I notice.” Yep, she was blushing. When she bit her lip it made my body parts down south jump.
“I do not.” Her voice was a little less sure and I knew I was right.
“And because…” I leaned closer to her.
“Because why?” Her head tilted up, her mouth opening slightly in invitation. The smell of the ocean on her skin was intoxicating. Damn it if I didn’t want to taste her.
“You wouldn’t want me to have to do time just because I was waiting for you to unlock the shed so I could get my helmet.” Her eyes snapped up from my mouth and she glared at me. “I could have driven home without it, but if I died, you never would have forgiven yourself. And I didn’t want to burden you like that.”
“You could’ve just said that.” She jerked away from me and grabbed her shirt out of the sand. She pulled it on before digging in her pocket to find her keys. She slipped her feet back into her flip-flops after brushing the sand off and marched back up the trail. I didn’t mind following her angry footsteps. It gave me a great view of her ass.
“It was a lot more fun my way.” She grunted and I smiled some more. She might not want to admit it, but she had been just as excited as I was.
She undid the lock and opened the shed. I leaned in over her shoulder so that she was trapped between me and the door while she grabbed my helmet from the shelf. I shifted closer and moved my mouth down to her ear. This close, I had to fight my desire to bury my face in all that gorgeous brown hair.
“Good night, Meena.” She shivered against me and my hand clenched on the strap of my helmet. I wanted to touch her so badly but knowing her, she’d try to kick me in the nuts.
She turned her face and raised an eyebrow. From my vantage point, I could see all the bright blues and greens in her eyes. It was like staring into the Caribbean waters. Her eyes darted down to my mouth and she licked her lips quickly. She leaned closer and I felt my heartbeat pick up. Maybe she wouldn’t have kicked me in the balls if I touched her. Just as I was about to pull her against me, she moved the door just enough that the hinge pinched my finger.
“Shit!” I stuck my right pointer finger in my mouth. “You did that on purpose!” I stepped back and she closed the door and redid the lock.
“Good night, Blake.” She laughed as she sauntered away. And damn it, I still stared, even though I was seriously considering tackling her and finishing what she had started. Okay, I started it, but I still wanted to finish it. She looked over her shoulder once and I could see that she was laughing. She knew exactly what she had done and thought it was funny.
As I mounted my motorcycle and headed for home, I couldn’t help but laugh. I had never looked forward to a day of work like I looked forward to tomorrow. Unfortunately, my good humor didn’t last very long. When I pulled up to the house, the first thing I saw was Dad’s car out front.
“Fuck.” I parked my bike next to the garage and pulled my helmet off. He stayed at one of the resorts most of the time, but it looked like he had company, which meant he needed to impress them with a family home.
I went through the back of the house, hoping to avoid any confrontations. We had never really gotten along, but things had been much worse since the whole shit-storm at school.
Vincent was standing in the doorway to the kitchen and motioned for me to go in. He was wearing slacks, which wasn’t all that unusual for him, but the button-up shirt and bland tie meant Dad expected us to make an appearance. I groaned, but my brother made hushing motions and I rolled my eyes. I hated this part of being in the family. Yeah, we had money. Loads of money, but we spent so much time pretending to be the ideal family to people on the outside it was a joke.
“Investors.” Vince made a motion like he was going to shoot himself.
“What are we in for?” I set the helmet down and dodged one of the cooks.
“You’re late, so they already ate.” His expression was screaming that I could go eat shit for leaving him to deal with them alone. “But they’re having cocktails right now. Dad’s asking for you.”
“Great.” I headed for the door to go shower and change. I’d have to hurry.
“There’s a girl.” Vincent’s voice was irritated, so I already knew whatever was going to follow would be bad. “I’m too young for her, so you get to play.”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. “I’m not in the mood, Vince.”
“Not my call, dude. You know Dad is going to expect you to make nice.” He pulled at his tie and ran a hand over his hair. “And you’re already on his shit-list.”
“Fuck. Fine. I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
I ran upstairs and showered quickly. I threw on some khaki slacks and a green button-up shirt. I wasn’t wearing a damn tie, though. I hated those things. They should be outlawed in the islands. My hair was still wet, but I didn’t care. I’m sure Dad had come up with a story to explain me being late. Something close to the truth so it wouldn’t be hard to keep up with.
There was music coming from the parlor, and I could see the back of Dad’s head from where he was sitting in the wingback chair. There was a balding man sitting across from him with a blond woman too young for him draped across his lap. Vince was standing next to the fireplace, talking to a slim brunette. She wasn’t dressed as provocatively as the blonde, but her clothing didn’t leave much to the imagination, either. I tried to not roll my eyes when she smiled at me over her shoulder. Sometimes my reputation was a pain in the ass. I thought people would leave me alone the worse I was, but turns out girls really do like the bad boy.
“Blake.” Dad’s voice cut through the room and I turned to smile at him. It was hard and I knew it didn’t reach my eyes. It wasn’t that he was cruel to us, but he might as well be a stranger. We were only tools to seal a deal.
“Father, sorry I’m late.” I smiled at the couple on the couch. “My apologies.”
“Kids will be kids! Out having fun?” The old man smiled while the blonde leered. It was a disgusting show. The Texan accent made me smile, though. I’d put my money on oil.
“I was working, sir, and didn’t realize how much time had passed.”
“Ah, can’t hold that against him, can you, Marshall?” The fat man smiled at Dad as if they were long-lost buddies.
“Certainly not. Blake, meet Mr. Jordan and his wife, Lyla.” I shook their hands and tried to not grimace. “And this is Mr. Jordan’s daughter, Kimberly.”
Taking a deep breath, I turned and smiled at the brunette. She held her hand out and I shook it. “Lovely to meet you.”
I couldn’t help it when my eyes strayed to the clock above the fireplace. A completely useless fireplace. It was half past nine o’clock, so I had to make nice for a half hour before I could claim exhaustion. Kimberly sat down on the loveseat next to the wall and patted a cushion next to her. I sat down, knowing how this was supposed to go. I could feel Dad’s eyes on me as I smiled at the girl. If you could win over the whole family, you could land the deal easily.
“So, Blake Weathering. I’ve heard a lot about you.” She smiled, showing her orthodontist-perfect teeth.
“Is that so?” I smiled at her while I mentally counted down the seconds until I could escape.
She leaned forward to show off her enhanced cleavage and put her hand on my knee. “Lots. I was excited to get to meet you. My friend Meghan said that you were a lot of fun.”
Vince snorted into his drink and I felt my jaw clench. Meghan had been a giant headache. We’d had a fling a year ago, but it was short-lived. There were songs about her type of crazy. She had been fun for a little while but eventually turned into one of those scary, crying in public messes when I forgot to open a door for her. It had been ugly.
“I hope she’s doing well.”
“Oh, she’s fine. Shacking up with some ski instructor last I heard. What about you?” Her hand was still on my knee. I looked down at it and picked it up gently before placing it back in her own lap.
“Do you mean how am I doing? Or do you want to know who I’m shacking up with?” I knew that this wasn’t how I was supposed to play the game. I was supposed to lead her on a little, flirt a bit, then call it a night. But every time she opened her mouth, a pair of teasing teal eyes fluttered through my mind and I couldn’t stomach wasting my life like this.
She took a sip of her drink and smiled at me. “Both.”
“Well, you just cut to the chase, don’t you?” Vince piped in from where he was perched next to the long table that housed Dad’s bottles of scotch.
“I’m only here for a week.” Kimberly darted an annoyed look at Vincent. It was apparent now that I was here, she wanted nothing to do with him.
“I’m busy. Very busy.” I took the drink out of Vincent’s hand and downed the rest of it. He was too young to be drinking anyway.
“There are ways around work, Blake.” She ran a hand up and down her leg. It was a nice leg, but I just didn’t give a rat’s ass.
“True, but I’m seeing someone and I don’t play games.” I stood up and held my hand out to her. “It was lovely to meet you, but I’m going to have to excuse myself. I’m exhausted and have a long day tomorrow.”
“Oh.” She stood up and tried to give me an awkward hug. Vince’s mouth was pulled into a tight line as he fought to not laugh.
I left the room quickly. I didn’t care who I offended, I was done with this shit. There was a sharp tap on my bedroom door and I grunted. When Dad opened the door, I wasn’t surprised. He closed it quickly behind him and sat down in the desk chair.
“Want to tell me what the problem is?” His voice was low and quiet. If I didn’t know better I might think he actually cared, but that wasn’t it. He had spent years perfecting his voice for negotiations. That’s all this was for him.
“I’m tired of the fake shit.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “I’m not doing it anymore. I’m not wasting my life with these people.”
“It seemed like Kimberly wasn’t dealing fake shit. Sounded very straightforward.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “She’s attractive. I would think you wouldn’t mind spending time with her. Or are you really seeing someone?”
“It’s none of your business.” I ran my hands through my hair. “Shit. Are youtryingto pimp Vince and me out?”
“Don’t be an idiot.” There was the dad I knew. “I would never expect you to sleep with a client’s daughter. I do want you to be civil and friendly. That’s never hurt anyone.”
“No?” He stood up and put his hands in his pockets.
“No. I’m not going to kiss the ass of people I despise.” I pulled my hands out of my pockets, bothered that I had adopted his stance without meaning to.
“This is your family, too, Blake. You need to help make sure it stays where it is.” His eyebrows pulled together. “Your older sister ran off to be an artist in New York. Vince is a pushover. He would be eaten alive in this business. You’re the only one that can keep us afloat.” He took a couple of steps toward me. “I’ve already had to pay off a judge to keep you out of jail. Did you think they were just going to slap you on the wrist? This family is the reason you’re walking free right now and you will do your part.”
“You paid off the judge.” I said the words slowly. It was my fault that those criminals had ended up at Flukes. I was the reason Ben was worried about Meena.
“Not just the judge, Blake. That kids’ family and lawyers, too.” He walked to the door. “I’ve made excuses for you tonight, but don’t let it happen again.”
- Meena -
My skin was still tingling from my brush with Blake, but right now I had something even more important to deal with. I had seen mermaids. In all the years that I had lived here, I had never seen another mermaid. There had been times when I thought that I was the only one.
I kicked my shoes off and slammed the screen door open. “Mom! Dad!”
They were nestled into the corner of the couch, watching one of Mom’s favorite shows. They both looked at me in concern, so I tried to calm down and act a little more like my age.
“Is Jallia birthing?” Dad shifted Mom out of his lap so he could stand up.
“No.” I plopped down on the other end of the couch and tried to pick my words carefully. “I went for a swim with Mitch tonight, but something happened.”
“Are you okay? Is Mitch okay?” Mom leaned forward, her eyes doing that quick scan all parents can do.
“We’re fine.” I waved my hand to let them know it was all okay. “I saw another mermaid.”
Silence filled the room and my parents just stared at me. It was my mom who finally spoke first. “You saw another mermaid. You’re sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure! And actually, there were two of them. Well, a mermaid and a merman. I guess that’s what you would call a male mermaid. Right?”
Mom nodded her head, but didn’t say anything else. Why weren’t they excited? All these years and now I know I’m not alone.
“Did you speak to them?” Dad leaned forward, his hands clasped together like when we had The Talk.
“No. Mitch made me hide.” All the tension left both their faces. “Why? Is there something I should know? And what would I say? What if they didn’t speak English? Talk about awkward.”
“No, nothing like that.” Mom looked at Dad before turning her attention back to me. “It’s just that we don’t know if there are any customs you should know or how they would react to a mermaid raised by humans.”
“That’s silly. Why would it matter that I was raised by humans?” As I said the words a chill went through me. We worked so hard to keep my secret, what if they felt I was a risk? “Oh. You think they might hurt me.” Despair flooded my chest. There were mermaids out there. Real mermaids like me, but I couldn’t talk to them.
“We don’t know that, Meena. We just want you to be careful. There’s no way of knowing how they would react.” Dad leaned forward. “They may be very friendly or they might be territorial. We just don’t know at this point.”
“Territorial?” I felt my face twist into disbelief. “Dad, I don’t go around peeing on the house plants.”
“You know that’s not what I meant. It could be a cultural thing that you would have no clue about. It’s best to be careful.”
“There are mermaids swimming in our waters. Around our island, and I can’t talk to them.” Tears sprang to my eyes and I hated it. I hated that they were right; they were just trying to protect me.
“No, Meena. We’re saying to be careful.” Mom moved to my end of the couch and pulled me against her. “Just don’t rush out to them yet. Let’s see if they stay for a while and go from there.”
“Exactly.” Dad moved closer to us and reached out to rub my hair. “What did Mitch do? Was she upset?”
“Not really. She was nervous and excited, but not angry or defensive. I don’t think she knew what to do.” My breath came out in a gust.
“Well, that’s a good sign. Mitch wouldn’t lead you wrong.” Mom wiped some of the tears away from my cheeks. “We just have to approach this with caution. They may already know you’re here.”
“That’s true. We can’t know if they have different senses.”
“I really hate it when you start using the Scientific-We stuff.” I shook my head.
“Sorry, Sea Monster. Old habits die hard.” He smiled at me and I found myself feeling a little better.
“You’re right.Weneed to be careful.” I smiled at Dad. “But if the opportunity comes, then I’m going to try to make contact. I have to.” I held my breath, hoping they would understand why it was so important to me.
“Sounds good. You’re smart, Meen. Trust your gut.” Mom hugged my shoulders. “We just want you to be careful.”
“We always hoped that you would meet others like you. It’s just a bit scary, you know?” Dad’s eyes wavered for a minute and I realized he wasn’t just scared for me. They were scared that I might leave them.
“I’m not going anywhere, guys. I just want to know a little more about myself.” I looked them each in the eye so they knew I was serious. “This is my home and you are my family.”
“We know.” Mom squeezed me again.
“Okay. I’m going to shower and head to bed.” I stood up and stretched.
“You’re not hungry?” Mom headed to the kitchen and I followed.
“Well, maybe some food and then a shower.”
The next morning I was awakened by the heavy thud of someone jumping on my bed. Groaning, I sat up and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.
“What the hell, Vi?” I looked at my clock and frowned. “God, why are you here so early?”
“I wanted to see how yesterday went with your new buddy.” She laughed when I threw my pillow at her.
“He was waiting on the beach after my swim last night.” I looked at her from under my hair. I had forgotten to tell my parents about that part. They would freak out, but Violet was different. She squealed and quickly covered her mouth.
“Oh my God! Did he see you?”
I shrugged. “He saw me, but I don’t think hereallysaw me.”
“What was he doing? Did you tell him to meet up?” Violet tucked my pillow under her head and lay down next to me.
“No!” I lay back down and stared at the ceiling. “He thought I was skinny-dipping.”
Her laughter made me blush, but I couldn’t help smiling. “His expression when I told him I had to put my bottoms back on was priceless.”
“No, you didn’t!” She slapped my shoulder. “Spill. Everything.”
I did. I told her about Dad’s plan to redesign the logo, to spiff up the place, and plan a big event. I told her about Devin and how Blake had stood up for me, which led to our weird banter at the beach. She laughed and sighed the entire time.
“This sucks. You finally have guy trouble and I’m going to be on the other side of the planet!” She stuck her bottom lip out.
“Bah. It’s not guy trouble. He’s leaving as soon as he can.” I frowned. That bothered me more than it should. “So, tell me about the interview. Did you get it?”
“I did! They grilled me like a steak, but I got it in the end.” She sat up and turned to look at me. Her face was serious and I knew whatever she was about to say would probably make me sad. “But I have to leave early. They want me in Hawaii in ten days to meet with the head of the department.”
“You’re leaving? Ten days?” I sat up and looked at her. There was so much change happening, and I hadn’t even told her about the other mermaids yet.
“I know. It sucks, but it’s one of the stipulations.”
“It’s a good thing! You get more time in Hawaii!” I smiled and hoped it looked real. “By the time classes come around, you’ll know everyone. You’ll see, Vi!”
“I know.” She didn’t sound very enthusiastic. “I’m just really going to miss you.”
“Pfft. It’s the twenty-first century. We can talk every day.” I rolled out of bed and reached for some of the nail polish on my side table. I picked up a blue and a green. Violet grabbed the seafoam green and sat down on the floor. I flopped down in front of her so she could paint my toes while I painted my fingers. It was something we had done since I was little.
“So what did your parents say about Blake? Did they freak out when you told them he was on the beach while you were all fishy?” Her steady hands made quick work of my toes.
“Actually, I forgot to tell them. Something else happened last night.” I bit my lip. “While I was swimming I saw two mermaids.”
“Holy shit!” Violet jerked up to look at me and accidently knocked over the bottle of nail polish. “Shit!” She reached over and grabbed some tissues from the box on my dresser. “Sorry. Oh my God. What did you do? What did you say? What did they say? Do they speak human?”
I laughed and grabbed the nail-polish remover to help her clean the mess up from the wood floor. “I don’t know. I didn’t speak to them.”
“Why not? You’ve wanted to meet another mermaid your whole life!” Her hand stopped scrubbing and she looked up at me.
“Mitch made me hide. She was nervous.” I sighed, thinking about it.
“She was scared?”
“No. More like she didn’t know what to do, so she automatically went into protective mode.” I picked up the dirty tissues and tossed them in my trash can. Polish remover always stung my fingers, but it was a necessary evil.
“Meena! That could have been your one chance to talk to another mermaid!” Violet looked at me with big eyes.
“I don’t know. At least now I know that there are more of them. And it wasn’t just a mermaid. There was a merman, too.” I smiled when her mouth fell open.
“Logically, I know that if you exist there must be males, too. But holy crap! Was he as hot as I imagine?”
“He was hot, but not really my type. Honestly?” I looked toward my door to make sure no one was listening. “He looked familiar.”
“Familiar?” Violet’s eyes darted toward my door too. “Like you might’ve seen him walking around before?” She mimed walking with her fingers and I slapped her hands.
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “It doesn’t matter right now. Mom and Dad want me to be careful, but if I see them again, I’m going to try to talk to them.”
“Hell yes, you are!” Violet stood up and put the nail polish back on my nightstand. “You can’t let this slip away, Meen. You need to know more about where you came from.” She turned back and narrowed her eyes at me. “Now, go put on something hot. I hear Blake’s motorcycle and I want to see him drool over you before I leave.”
I snickered. “You can’t even stay today?”
“I have to pack.” She hugged me and then pushed me toward my closet. “Cutoffs. Guys can’t help themselves when a sexy girl is wearing cutoffs. And the teal bikini.”
She left the room while I changed, and I could hear her in the kitchen talking to Mom. As much as I hated to admit it, I sort of did want to see Blake drool a little. Especially after last night. I threw on the bikini, shorts, and a large gray tank top that had once been a football jersey. It hung loosely, giving a peek at the bright top underneath. I hesitated in the mirror. I wore this tank top all the time, but I had never done it with the intention of teasing a guy. It felt daring, and it never had before.
Shrugging, I braided my hair and pulled my hat on. Just as I was leaving my room, I heard Blake’s voice join Violet and my mom’s. My heart stuttered for a minute. Stiffening my spine, I walked straight into the kitchen and headed for the fridge.
“Good morning.” I grabbed the orange juice from the fridge and then a glass from the counter. I kissed Mom on the cheek and then turned to look at everyone else. Blake had a piece of bacon in his hand but had stopped halfway to his mouth. He seemed to realize he was staring because he quickly popped it in his mouth and chewed. After swallowing, he narrowed his eyes a little and smiled. Flames erupted in the pit of my stomach and my skin itched.
“Morning.” His voice rumbled through the room and I wondered if anyone else could feel it the way I did. His eyes flicked down to my hands and I realized that I was scratching at the skin on my left wrist. I grabbed some bacon from the plate Mom had set on the counter and quickly stuck some in my mouth. His eyes focused on my lips as if transfixed by the simple act of chewing. Behind him, Violet flashed a big thumbs-up and heat crept up my checks.
Mom turned around and winked at me. I choked on my bacon and had to take a quick gulp of orange juice. Well, that spell was broken.
“What’s that?” I pointed to the bag he had slung over his shoulders.
“Brought my laptop. Thought we could work on finishing up the new logo.” He patted the bag.
“Cool.” I finished another piece of bacon and downed the rest of my orange juice. “I’ve got to check on Mitch and Jallia first.”
“Want some help?” He looked at me, a small smile playing at the edges of his mouth. Yes, I wanted his help. I wanted his help with several things that I shouldn’t be thinking about while standing next to my mother.
“Sure.” I kissed Mom’s cheek and hugged Violet. “When do you leave?”
“Ten days.” Violet squeezed me tighter. “I’ve got to pack, but I’ll see you before I go.”
“Good.” I didn’t trust myself to say anything else, so turned back to Blake. “You’d better leave your computer in here. Don’t want any of the hoodlums seeing it in the toolshed.”
Something crossed his face as he pulled the strap over his head. If I didn’t know better, I would think he looked guilty. It passed quickly though and he cocked his head to the side with a smile. “Should I go put it in your room?”
The thought of Blake in my room made my stomach do flips. Flip. Flop. “I’ll go put it up.” I snatched the strap out of his hand and practically ran down the hall. My bed was still unmade, there were clothes all over the place, and it stank of nail-polish remover. I deposited the laptop and pulled the door closed behind me. There was no way I was letting Blake Weathering in my bedroom.
- Meena -
Violet came with us as far as the path that led to the parking lot. Unable to help myself, I hugged her again and closed my eyes. I was going to miss her so much it hurt. She mimed calling me later and ran to the little car her parents had bought her last year.
I didn’t say anything after that, lost in my thoughts. Things were going to be so different without her around. She was my normal, my reality check. Without her it would be all work. Not that I didn’t love the sanctuary or that it bothered me to take care of the animals. It just meant no more movie nights or runs to our favorite taco stand in town.
“You guys are really close, huh?” Blake had been pretty quiet, just following along as I gathered up the dolphins’ food.
“Yeah.” I didn’t look up at him. I didn’t want him to see how upset I was. Instead I locked the fish shack back up and took the ramp down to the dolphin pen.
“I’m sorry she’s leaving, then.” He was leaving too. I heard it in his words and my heart sank even further.
“It’s okay. It’s a really great school and I’ll see her on the holidays.” I kicked my shoes off and took my seat on the floating dock. Mitch came to me immediately, sensing my emotions. I kissed the top of her head and cooed under my breath.
“Why don’t you go? I mean, I bet there are lots of people that would love to have someone with your experience at their school.” Blake grabbed a fish and fed it to Stormy.
“Nah.” I handed a fish to Mitch. She ate it, but quickly came back to comfort me. “I can’t leave.”
“Why not? Your mom and dad could hire someone to help out. Hell, you already have a really dedicated staff that would be fine.” His dark eyes traveled over my face and for the first time I wanted to tell someone just why I couldn’t leave. Why I had to stay on the island. I bit my lip and looked away.
“Mitch would be lost without me. Wouldn’t you, girl?” She clicked in agreement and pushed my hand toward the bucket of fish. “You hungry monster.”
We were quiet for a while, focusing on the dolphins and their empty bellies. I appreciated the chance to just be quiet for a while. I wasn’t big on over-sharing and the fact that I wanted to with Blake bothered me. He picked up the bucket once we were done and showed it to the dolphins.
“Sorry, guys! You’re all out.” Mitch huffed at him but wasn’t really upset. I looked from her to Blake and made up my mind.
“Do you really want to learn more about them?” I stood up and looked down at him. His eyes were wary when they met mine, and I remembered that I had pushed him in not that long ago.
“Yeah. I want to know more.”
A shiver ran down my back and I wondered if he was really talking about the dolphins. I pulled my hat off and tossed it out of the way before slipping my shirt off and wiggling out of my shorts. His eyes never left mine and, for some reason, that excited me. “Then come on.”
I dove into the water without a second thought, swimming from the dock with strong, sure strokes before surfacing almost twenty feet away. He was pulling his shirt off and I enjoyed the show. His muscles rippled as he twisted to throw the shirt behind him and my mouth watered. When he took a step off the edge of the dock and plummeted into the water, I waited where I was. He surfaced next to me, leaving very little space between our bodies.
“Nice bathing suit.” Water droplets clung to his eyelashes and ran down the sharp lines of his cheek bones. My left hand itched to reach up and brush them off his lips.
“Thanks.” Our voices were low, as if there was no one else in the world while we treaded water.
“I thought you said you weren’t going to wear anything I might like. I’m glad you didn’t opt for a muumuu or tent.” He picked up one of the ends on the tie around my neck. “This is much better.”
I couldn’t help the laughter that escaped my mouth. “It’s kind of hard to swim in a tent.”
“Oh, I agree. For safety purposes, you should wear the least amount of clothing possible. Hell, maybe we should revisit the skinny-dipping idea.” His fingers brushed my shoulder when he let the string go to float in the water. Warm sparks shot down my arm and my heart thumped. I really shouldn’t like the fact that he wanted to see me naked so much, but I did.
His eyebrows drew together, but he didn’t say anything. If I was crazy, I would think he had felt it, too. Mitch swam up to me and I caught her dorsal fin. She pulled me away, rushing through the water. I imagined that this was what flying would feel like. When we neared the opposite side of the pen, I looked back at Blake and started laughing uncontrollably.
He had tried to mimic what I had done with Mitch, but didn’t understand how to position his body. So instead of floating along as Stormy pulled, he was being buffeted against the strong dolphin’s body and sputtering water. When he got to me, I tried to stop laughing but it didn’t work. I covered my mouth and chewed on the inside of my cheek. He ran a hand across his eyes and coughed out a little water.
“That may have just been the most embarrassing moment of my life.” He looked at me sheepishly. There was something in that boyish expression that made my heart thump like a bowling ball rolling down a stairwell. “Think I can get you to forget you saw that?”
“Oh no. Not on your life.” I swam over to him, checking his face to make sure he really was okay and not scared. Some people shied away from animals if they had a bad experience. “I’ll show you how to do it properly.”
“Maybe I should try it with Mitch. I think Stormy is out to kill me.” He shot the dolphin a halfhearted glare.
“C’mon. It’s not that bad. You almost had it right.” Without thinking, I reached out and grabbed his hand. I meant to tug him along with me but froze instead. Heat coursed up my arm and it felt like something was tightening around my wrist. I looked at our fingers in shock.
“What the hell was that?” Blake didn’t let go of my hand, but his eyes were wide.
“I…I don’t know. A jellyfish?” I looked around in the water, trying to spot the culprit. Blake moved next to me, his eyes searching too. Oddly enough, he didn’t let go of my hand, which made the butterflies in my stomach even more intense.
“It’s not jellyfish season.” Carefully he lifted our joined hands and examined them for markings.
“Tell that to the jellyfish.” My heart was beating a mile a minute and I could barely think straight. Touching him, looking into his warm eyes, was clouding my brain.
His eyes traced a path over my face before landing on my mouth. It was like I was standing in the middle of a fire rather than floating in the cool water. My lips burned with the need to touch his. Tenderly his right hand reached out to move some of the hair from my face before sliding around to the back of my neck. My body ached the closer we drifted together and my eyes fluttered closed. The warmth of his breath spread over my face and I bit my lip to keep from sighing.
“Way to go, Weathering!” A sharp whistle cut through the air and I pushed away from Blake. His fingers reluctantly let go of mine when I tugged. My eyes cut to where Devin was applauding from the walkway and my cheeks burned.
“Meena.” Blake’s voice was upset, but I didn’t look back as I swam to the dock. Thankfully, Devin was no longer anywhere to be seen. I pulled myself out and slipped my tank top on before pulling my shorts up. My mind was caught over the almost-kiss and I fumbled with the button for a minute.
“Meena.” Blake hauled himself out of the water and walked toward me. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” I pulled my cap on and took a deep breath before turning to look at him.
“Oh no. I know that nothing means something.” He ran a hand through his hair, spraying water around him. He looked at me and his eyes took on a determined gleam. He moved in my direction and I took a few steps back. I bumped into the ladder and froze. I started to turn and climb up, but his strong arms barricaded me between his warm chest and the plastic of the ladder. I couldn’t turn without rubbing against him and that seemed like a very dangerous option.
“Sometimes, nothing really does mean nothing.” I looked up at him and hoped my face didn’t give me away.
“This isn’t one of those times. Devin’s an asshole, but I swear I didn’t know he was watching us.” My heart bucked. He thought I was mad at him.
“You’re right. Devin is an asshole.” I tried to cross my arms, but there just wasn’t enough room. Giving up, I sighed. “Look, I don’t go around just kissing people. Especially the ones that work for my family.”
He chuckled. “So I’m the hired help. Ironic.”
“Irony or not, it’s the truth.” I glared at him.
“You wanted to kiss me just as much as I wanted to kiss you.” His eyes dropped back down to my mouth and I felt the fire in my stomach rekindle.
“That’s not the point.” My words were breathless and I frowned, realizing that I had agreed to what he said.
“And I’m only here for another six weeks. I’m more like an intern than a hired worker. It’s not like I’m getting paid.” He didn’t move any closer, but I felt the tension jump between us.
“No, you’re here because you beat some kid up. Not really a good first impression.” It was the truth. Even if I did suspect that he had a good reason for what he had done. There was something honorable about Blake, even if he was a bad boy.
“True enough.” His eyes were thoughtful and I felt like I was walking into a trap. “And you don’t go around kissing just anyone.”
“Right.” I nodded my head. “I hardly know you. And you don’t know me.”
“Then get to know me.” His arm moved and he reached down to grab my hand. That warm tingling slid up my arm as he rubbed my knuckles. “I want to get to know you.”
I looked at him, completely at a loss for words. His warm eyes were earnest as he studied my face. It was one of the few times I had seen him without any guards up or snarky attitude. My mouth opened and the word came out before I even realized that I was going to say it. “Okay.”
“Okay?” A smile curved along his mouth and I felt my knees grow a little weak. Oh, that sneaky smile was death to my resolve. “How about dinner?”
“Dinner?” Apparently my mouth was not in the mood to wait for my brain.
“Yes. Dinner. A date. I know a great little place, unless you have somewhere you’d prefer to go.” His thumb was making little circles on my hand and it was making it hard for me to think.
“Are you busy tonight?”
I snorted. I was never busy unless it pertained to the sanctuary. His smile grew; he knew he had won, and, despite myself, I found it charming that he was so excited. “No. I’m not busy tonight.”
He leaned back, but didn’t let go of my hand. “Good. Do you like seafood? Not allergic? Or does it remind you too much of work?”
I rolled my eyes. “Seafood is fine.”
“Then I’ll pick you up around eight.” He squeezed my hand before letting go, and I was sad to lose the feel of his skin against mine.
“This is weird—you know that, right?” Standing this close to him, I had to tilt my head up to meet his eyes.
“Why is this weird?” He smiled and I could actually tell that he was happy that I had agreed to the date. There were little crinkle lines at the corners of his eyes and his smile didn’t hold any snarkiness.
“Because. You just asked me out and we still have to spend all day together.” I motioned between us. “It’s just… weird.” My vocabulary was really astounding today.
“So? It just means we have more time to get to know each other.”
I shook my head and turned to crawl up the ladder.
“Or are you worried I’ll decide I don’t want to go out on a date with you?” I glared at him over my shoulder. His amused grin was all I needed to see to know that his cocky tone was a joke.
“I’m more worried you’re going to start following me around like a love-sick puppy.”
He hopped onto the bottom rung of the ladder so that he was pressed against my back. “Oh, we’ll see who’s following who around.”
I met his eyes and tried to slow my breath. His long, hard body pressed against mine was giving me ideas I didn’t need. Especially if I was going to be spending all day with him. He seemed to be thinking along the same line, because his breath had picked up.
“You know, kissingisa good way to get to know someone.” He leaned forward even more, pressing his entire body along mine so that I could feel every inch of him. And I do mean every inch. “A very fun way of getting to know someone.”
“Yep.” I turned away and started up the ladder. “I’m going to have to get you a collar.”
His chuckle slid over my skin. “Game on, Meena.”
- Meena -
We spent the rest of the day talking about the design he had come up with, making tweaks on the computer, and discussing how best to launch the new logo. Dad popped into the house once or twice to ask how it was going, but for the most part we were left alone in the living room. There were a couple of times that I felt a bit awkward, knowing that we were going out later, but Blake had a way of keeping me on my toes and putting me at ease at the same time.
Around five o’clock, Blake looked at me over the computer and smiled. He closed the top slowly and stood up.
“We still haven’t picked a color for the font. I don’t like the green you chose.” I frowned.
“We can work on it tomorrow.” He tucked his laptop back in his bag. “But right now, I need to go get ready for my date. I don’t want to show up covered in dolphin skin.”
“She must be something special if you’re going to go shower.” I grabbed our cups from the table and took them to the kitchen.
“She gives me a hard time, but she’s worth it.”
Heat ran up my neck and I was glad I wasn’t facing him. Otherwise he would have seen the goofy grin that spread across my face. Schooling my features, I turned back toward him and leaned against the counter. “And what kind of place are you taking this girl to?”
“It’s my favorite restaurant. A little joint near the coast that has a great outdoor sitting area. It’s pretty casual.” He slung his pack over his shoulders and picked up his helmet. “I can’t take her somewhere too fancy.”
“Why not?” I frowned at him, wondering what he was thinking.
“Well, it’s kind of hard to ride a motorcycle in a dress.” His eyes gleamed wickedly. “And if I take the motorcycle, then she has to hold on to me.”
“Sneaky.” My lips twitched.
“You have no idea.” He walked over to me, his helmet hanging at his side. With every step he took, my stomach jumped. The distance between us seemed to disappear as he braced one hand on the counter next to my hip. He leaned down and very gently kissed the side of my head. His lips only met hair, but it still felt like electricity ran over my body. He lingered for a moment, and I closed my eyes and breathed in his scent. He smelled like sun-kissed skin and salt water. When he pulled back enough to look into my eyes, part of me hoped that he would just go ahead and kiss me. A large part of me. From the way his eyes lingered on my mouth, I was pretty sure he was considering it, too.
“See you in a little bit.” With a quick smile he turned and left the house, but it took a lot longer for me to move away from the counter. I wasn’t sure if my heart would ever go back to a normal rhythm.
Mom walked in from the back door, took one look at me, and smiled. “So?”
“So what?” I blinked at her owlishly.
“Am I making dinner for three, four, or two?” She leaned against the doorframe and smiled again.
“Um, two.” My hands twitched at my sides. “I’m going out with Blake for dinner.”
“Good.” She nodded her head and stood up before walking into the kitchen. “Are you going to go for a swim now or when you get back?”
I glanced at the clock and frowned. “Later. I want to have enough time to shower before he picks me up.”
“What are you going to wear?” She picked up the cloth on the counter and looked me over.
“I have no idea.” I looked down at my clothes and frowned. Most of the things I owned were suitable for running the sanctuary, not for going out on dates.
“What about your pink skirt? It looks great on you.”
“Can’t, he’s bringing his motorcycle.”
“Ah. I see.” Mom frowned. “I hope he has an extra helmet.”
“I’m sure he does.” I never saw him without one, so I was pretty sure he wouldn’t expect me to ride without it.
“Okay. Then how about capris and some cute sandals?” She set the rag down and headed for my room. I followed behind her and watched as she deftly flicked through my closet. “This top looks good on you.”
She handed me a low-cut top that flowed away from my body. “The aqua is so pretty against your skin.” Next she fished out some khaki capris and handed them to me.
“You’re pretty good at this.” I smiled at her. The shirt even went with my nail polish.
“I’ve been on a few dates in my time.” She looked at me, her eyes a little bit sad. “This is good for you. You need to experience a little more of life.”
“But Blake Weathering?” I set the clothes on my bed. “Shouldn’t you be raising hell about me going out with someone who is doing community service?”
“I’ve read his record.” I looked at her sharply, but she didn’t look remorseful in the least. “We get to read them all when they’re sent to us, but rarely do. You know how Dad is—everyone deserves a second chance. I pulled Blake’s chart after that first breakfast. The way he looked at you… Well, you’re gorgeous and he’s pretty good-looking himself.” She shrugged. “His record is clean. A few run-ins with teachers or other students, but when you read behind the lines, most of it looked like he was standing up for himself. He makes good grades, doesn’t get into any serious trouble. Everyone makes mistakes. But if he does anything out of line or you feel threatened, you tell me. Deal?”
“Deal.” I bit my lip. “Did it say why he did what he did?”
“He refused to explain himself, which is why he wasn’t allowed to walk.” She shook her head. “I really don’t know.”
“Huh.” I didn’t really want to ask him again. It felt like I was prying, even though I felt like I should know. Mom left so I could shower, and I had a mild moment of panic. What were you supposed to do before a date? I didn’t have a lot of experience in this department. I had gone on a group date with Violet once, but that was more to be her wingman. The boy I had been paired with was allergic to seafood, which had made me incredibly nervous. I had spent the whole night avoiding his attempts to hold my hand because I was worried I’d send him into anaphylactic shock. Violet’s older brother, Max, has kissed me once, but it had been more of an experiment than anything else.
I picked up my phone and texted Violet. If I didn’t tell her I was going on a date, she would skewer me alive. Her response was immediate and just as exuberant as I expected. The next text from her was a long list of things to remember. Bring my own money, don’t eat spaghetti, don’t let him kiss me on the first date. Sheesh, I didn’t need a mom with a best friend like Violet.
After my shower, I played with my hair, picked out my favorite shell necklace, and sat in my room chewing my nails. I kept looking in the mirror and wondered what I had forgotten. I had liberally applied deodorant and then wiped it off, worried I’d get it on his shirt while holding on for the motorcycle ride. Then I reapplied some, because I couldn’t go on a date and stink. Thankfully, it was one of those hypoallergenic kinds, so it didn’t bother my skin too much. A lot of chemicals gave me blisters and rashes. Even the majority of my clothes were cotton. Synthetic stuff made me itch.
The rumble of a motorcycle made my heart skip. When I heard the knock on the front door, I stood up and took a deep breath. The clock said seven forty-five. I grabbed my purse off the bed and walked into the living room just in time to see Dad opening the door.
Blake was wearing jeans and a green T-shirt that suited his complexion. He shook Dad’s hand and came in the house. He smiled at me and I felt relieved that it wasn’t awkward. I pointedly looked at the clock in the kitchen and raised an eyebrow.
“I guess I was a little eager, huh?” He ducked his head and looked at me from under heavy lashes.
“It’s expected. Should I bring a bag of puppy treats with us?” He laughed while Mom and Dad looked between us, confused.
“Where are you guys going?” Dad asked.
“Sugar’s. It’s just outside of the city limits.” Blake smiled at Dad. “They have great food.”
“I’ve been there!” Mom placed a hand on Dad’s shoulder. “You’re right. The food is delicious.”
“Have fun.” Dad smiled at me, but I saw him shoot a look at Blake that made my eyes widen. “But you should remember that I know where you live.”
“Yes, sir. Very aware of that fact.” Blake didn’t mock Dad or seem upset at the insinuation. He just accepted it for what it was: a father worrying about his daughter.
Dad smiled, his shoulders relaxing a bit. “Just don’t forget you have work in the morning.”
“No, sir.” Blake turned to me. “Are you ready?”
I threw the strap of my purse over my shoulder. “Let’s go.”
He opened the door for me and led me down to his motorcycle. I had been right. There were two helmets perched on the seat. He picked up one of them and walked toward me. I stood still while he slid it over my head and pushed the hair out of my face. Carefully he did the strap under my chin and pursed his lips. I realized he was trying to not laugh.
“I look stupid, don’t I?” I narrowed my eyes at him.
“It could be worse. If it was white, you’d look like a ping-pong ball.”
“Was this part of your sneaky plan?” I couldn’t help smiling at him while he put his own helmet on. “Payback for me watching you almost drown in the dolphin pen?”
“Oh no. You’ll never see that one coming.” He winked at me and I shook my head. Swinging one of his long legs over the bike, he turned and looked at me. “You sit here and put your feet on these pegs. And remember, you have to hold on really tight. Just lean into me when we turn or go around any curves.”
I’d never been on a motorcycle before, so I was too nervous to make fun of his obvious attempts to get me to hold onto him. I slid my leg over the seat and had to do a little hop to be able to get all the way on. He chuckled and I play-punched his shoulder. Once I was on, I leaned forward and wrapped my arms around his waist. I wouldn’t admit it to him, but I liked being pressed alongside his back. Even though I was nervous, I felt safe tucked against him. He started the motor, and the roar and vibrations of the engine made me squeeze a little tighter than I had planned on.
“Okay. I’m going to take it easy, but hold on.”
“If I hold on any tighter, it’s going to take the Jaws of Life to get me off you.”
His laughter floated back to me as he revved the engine. We pulled out of the parking lot and I realized that Icouldactually hold on a little tighter. At the first stop sign, I slid forward on the seat until there was no space between our bodies. I tried to wiggle backward so that we didn’t look obscene.
“Squeeze with your legs and you won’t slide so much.” He patted my knee and my heart jumped. I did as he said and found that I could control my body a little better. Once we hit the open streets out of the city limits, I actually started to enjoy myself. If I closed my eyes, it felt a bit like when I swam with Mitch. The curves in the road were the best part, and I wasn’t saying that just because I was pressed against Blake. My hands fisted in his shirt and I could feel the vibrations of his laughter under my fingers.
After a while, we pulled into the parking lot of a little building that had tables outside. It was a pretty plain-looking establishment, but the parking lot was packed. Blake slid the motorcycle to the front of the lot and parked between the building and a large tree. I hopped down from my perch on the back of the bike and pulled at the chin strap of my helmet. I managed to get it undone and pulled the helmet off. I ran my hand through my hair to try and get some of the knots out while Blake took off his helmet.
“You’re a natural.” He took my helmet from me and motioned toward the door. He tucked my helmet under his arm so that he could open the door and put his hand on the small of my back. Several of the servers greeted him as we walked in and the bartender took the helmets from Blake without a word and then handed him a beer. He asked if I wanted anything, but I shook my head no. Alcohol didn’t sit well with me.
It was apparently a “seat yourself” kind of establishment, because Blake led me through a side door and out onto the patio. We found a table that had a great view of the water. I sat down and fiddled with the menu. There were a lot of local dishes, which I loved. A waitress came over and set a basket of johnnycakes on the table and took our drink order.
“See anything you like?” Blake hadn’t even picked up his menu, just took a quick sip of his beer.
“It’s been forever since I had conch, but the crab salad sounds good, too. What about you?” I grabbed one of the johnnycakes and broke it in half.
“I think I’m going to get the rock lobster.” He scratched at his chin and the stubble made a slight grating sound. “Mary is one of the best cooks on the island. It’s hard to pick.”
“So, how did the infamous Blake Weathering find a place like this?” I toyed with the napkin on the table. I was nervous again and didn’t want to just sit there saying nothing.
“My mother.” He leaned back in his chair, draping one arm over the backrest. “She brought us here all the time when I was little. She loved finding these little places. Diamonds in the rough.” A happy smile played along his mouth, and I liked seeing the softer side of Blake.
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” I leaned my chin on my hand, interested in his family. It was just me and my parents and some family that lived in Florida.
“One older sister and one younger brother.” He sat up in his chair and rested his forearms on the table. “Lizzie is an artist in New York. She had a showing at the Met last month. It was spectacular.”
“Wow. That’s impressive. Where did she go to school?”
“She did her undergrad in the States. Savannah, Georgia. But she received her graduate degrees in Paris.” He shrugged. “Lizzie has always been the one to take the less-traveled path.”
“What about your brother?”
“Vince?” A bright smile slid over his features and it took my breath away. “Vince is something else. He’s a freshman this year and thinks he’s going to move to Japan and develop software.” I was starting to see a trend with his family. Lots of travel, lots of things that had nothing to do with the island. “Vince is in heaven locked in a room with computers.”
“Where does he go to school? Has Vi met him?” There was so much love in his eyes when he talked about his sister and brother, it made me wish I’d had siblings of my own.
“He went to public school while my mom still lived here, but he’s had private tutors for the last few years.” Something sad flashed across his eyes. There was more to that story, but I didn’t think now was the time to pry.
“So, your mom doesn’t live here anymore?” I tilted my head to the side when his expression darkened.
“She went home to France. We see her few times a year, but not as often as we used to.” He frowned. “It’s nice to go see her for Christmas, though. Feels like a real Christmas when there’s snow on the ground.”
“Your parents are divorced?” I imagined that would have been painful for the kids, especially when it was obvious how much he missed his mom.
“No.” He shook his head, sending some of the hair over his eyes so I couldn’t see his expression. “They’re just happier living on different continents.”
“Oh.” I looked away from him. What did you say to something like that? “So, do you speak French?”
“Oui.” His eyes twinkled over the candle and I wondered if that was the extent of his skills.
“That’s it?” I narrowed my eyes. “I could have come up with more than that.”
“You’ll have to wait and see. I can’t give up all my tricks yet.” The smile that I associated with him being sneaky showed up. “On this quest to get to know each other, I think it’s only right that you answer some questions, too.”
I took a deep breath. “Fair enough.”
- Meena -
“Coke or Pepsi?” His smile was contagious. What a silly question.
“Bacon or sausage?”
“Sailor Moon.” I leaned back so that the server could light the candle in the center of the table. With the rising moon and the crash of the waves, I was starting to fall in love with the place. We gave the waitress our orders and Blake immediately returned to his questions.
“Favorite food?” His hand reached out and traced the back of my fingers.
“Seafood Alfredo.” I bit my lip at the touches of fire his fingers sparked.
“How many times have you fantasized about me?” His white teeth gleamed in the setting sun and candlelight. I sputtered, pulling my hand away.
“That many, huh?” He smiled and recaptured my fingers. “I figured.”
“You’re full of yourself.” I tried to pull my hand away, but he held on tight. Carefully, he laced our fingers so that our palms were pressed together. There was something simple and yet sensual as the heat of our skin mingled.
“And you’re beautiful.” He said it like it was obvious. I looked at him over the flame of the candle and felt the blush that spread over my cheeks.
“You’re also pretty smooth.” I smiled when he chuckled. It was true.
“So, I haven’t noticed any little Meena look-alikes running around. No sisters or brothers?”
“Mom and Dad couldn’t have any children. They tried for a long time before finding me.” The waitress brought our food back and set it in front of us. Blake squeezed my fingers before letting go and I had to admit that I already missed touching him. Our waitress whispered something to Blake before patting him on the shoulder and he laughed.
“So, they found you?” When she left he picked up his fork and motioned for me to continue. “You’re adopted?”
“Yes.” It was the truth, if a little bit of a stretch. We had adoption papers that Violet’s parents had helped set up, but they weren’t exactly legit. Her mother had been close friends with my mother and was a pediatrician. When they found me, they didn’t know what to do or who to trust. Dr. Lyla had never batted an eye about what I was and had worked to make sure that my secret stayed a secret.
“Favorite color?” He took a big bite of his food and sighed happily.
“Blue.” I followed his example and my eyes closed in pleasure as the crisp flavors hit my tongue. When I finished chewing, I opened my eyes and pointed at my plate with my fork. “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my life.”
“Yep.” He scooped some more food into his mouth and smiled at me around his fork.
“No. I’m serious. It’s fantastic!” He laughed, but I was too busy eating to worry if he thought I was silly. Our conversation slowed, but it wasn’t from lack of things to talk about. Mainly, we were just focused on our food. As soon as I got to the last couple of bites, I frowned.
“I should have eaten slower, but it was just too good.” I frowned and cut a piece in half, trying to prolong the meal a little more.
“We can order another.” He motioned to the waitress, but I shook my head.
“No, I’m okay. I’ll know next time, though.”
“Next time, huh?” His eyes gleamed in the darkness and I froze. I hadn’t realized what I had implied.
“Uh, I just meant…”
“I’d like it if there was a next time.” He ducked his head, looking up at me from under his lashes.
“Yeah?” I mentally kicked myself for not coming up with something witty. I just hoped I didn’t have food stuck in my teeth, too. At this point it would be par for the course.
“Yeah, Meena. I’d like to see you again.” He lowered his voice and leaned forward. He held his hand out for me and I laid my palm on top of his. “If you want, that is.”
“I’d like that.” Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of long, light blue hair and froze.
Sitting not three tables away were the mermaids I had seen last night. How had I missed them until now? How long had they been sitting there? The merman nodded at me, his face friendly, and I wondered if they knew what I was. Why else would he have nodded like that?
“Friends?” Blake’s voice cut through my thoughts and I looked at him with wide eyes.
“No.” I shook my head as if that one word hadn’t been clear enough.
“No. I’ve never met him before.” I looked at him and frowned.
“Well, looks like you’re about to.” I looked back to the table and realized that the mermaid was getting out of her seat and smiling at us. I had no idea what to do or how to act and out of all the times I had imagined meeting another mermaid, not once had I thought it would happen on a first date.
“Hi!” The mermaid bounced over to our table. Her bright yellow dress was almost garish, even in the moonlight. “I’m Mireille.”
“Hi.” My brain was really letting me down tonight, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Do you live around here? I think we missed you at the reef.” She pouted as if she was disappointed, which actually eased some of the tension in my chest. She didn’t sound very territorial. In fact, she seemed pretty friendly.
“Um, yeah. I do.” I let go of Blake’s hand and offered it to her. Did mermaids shake hands? “I’m Meena.”
“Nice to meet you. Jacen wasn’t sure, but I figured it had to be you.” She shook my hand before looking down at my fingers and smiling. “Oh!” She let go of my hand and picked up Blake’s. She turned it over so that she could look at his wrist and then sighed.
“I’m Blake. Nice to meet you?” Blake was looking at her with amused eyes, completely at ease with her eccentric behavior.
“And it’s very nice to meet you, Blake. You guys are so lucky.” She let go of his hand and turned to look at the merman that had come to stand behind her. “Jacen, she already found him.”
“Um, found who?” I swallowed, completely confused by how quickly my night had turned upside down.
“Blake.” Mireille shook her head at me like I was silly and I wondered if, by her standards, I was.
“Please excuse my cousin. You may not have noticed, but she makes awkward look comfortable.” Jacen smiled at me before offering his hand to Blake to shake. Blake shook his hand, for all the world looking like he met strangers and played nice on a regular basis.