“Lady Catriona! Come away from the edge of the sea.”
“In a moment. Oh but look at all the seals.” Catriona clapped her hands, laughing as one seal separated itself from the others, shooting along in the clear water of the inlet. The sleek creature leaped and dived almost as if it were showing off.
“My lady, I must insist. Your father is expecting you there when the guests arrive.”
Catriona looked at her long-time companion. “We will go in just a moment Fiona. I know I must, but I can’t help that I have no wish to be tied to the king’s nephew. He is old and I don’t trust him.”
Fiona looked alarmed, her pale green eyes darting nervously as if she expected Catriona would be overheard. “My lady, you must be careful.”
“Have we really sunk that low, Fiona?”
Catriona gazed at the inlet once more, searching for the seal who had played there a moment before, but it was no longer visible. She sighed and started to turn back, but a figure sitting on a rock across the other side of the inlet caught her eye. Cat glanced quickly over her shoulder to see that Fiona was still gazing worriedly back along the path, so she returned to watching the figure on the rock.
Not a seal, but a man. She stepped nearer the edge. He was beautiful. Long dark hair lifted on the breeze. She blushed as she realized his chest was bare, and then her gaze ate him up from his sun-bronzed skin to the sleek muscles. Cat swallowed, glancing once more over her shoulder to see Fiona idly picking wildflowers. Catriona spun back to the see, but her foot slipped. Arms windmilling, she tried desperately to regain her balance. Even as she cried out, she tumbled over the edge of the steep bank and down into the water. Oh blessed mother. She did not even know how to swim.
The water was shockingly cold, so cold she gasped and then began coughing as she thrashed. Panic swirled as the dark water bubbled and foamed around her. Oh please. She did not want to die. She might not want to marry the king’s nephew, but she didn’t want to die to escape her fate. The heavy material of her dress weighed her down, wrapping around her legs and making it impossible for her to push to the surface.
In the distance, she heard screaming, but as she sank below the surface of the water, the sound became muted and distorted. Panic faded as the certainty of death grew. As one replaced the other, Catriona experienced an odd peace. She even imagined seeing the most beautiful man.
Strong arms pulled at her, dragging her by her hair until her face broke the surface. Someone held tightly to her, towing her through the water and then onto a narrow bank along the inlet from where she had stumbled. She felt so sick. Catriona coughed, trying to free her lungs and stomach of the water she’d swallowed. Again, firm hands rolled her to her side and she heaved up the sea water in her belly.
“Come, little fish, you will survive.” The voice was deep and melodious, a soothing song to her ears.
“Die. I am going to die.”
“No, no. Not this day. Soggy you will be, but dead? Not while I breathe.”
She lay still, even her shivering ceased at the certainty she heard in his voice. Catriona looked at her rescuer. It was the man from the rock. How had he reached her so quickly? His eyes were dark, nearly black, and thickly lashed. Looking into them, she felt almost as if she drowned yet again. But this time she would do so willingly. His gaze was intense and it made her look away, her face flushing in embarrassment. She had seen other Faerie males, but they didn’t look like this man. Their hair was lighter, as were their eyes. He was unlike anything she had ever encountered.
“Who are you?” Her voice sounded like a croak to her own ears.
It was a hard name, like rocks. It was also not a Faerie name. Where was he from? She started to ask him when Fiona’s frantic voice called, “My lady! Oh my lady! I thought you were dead. Are you all right? You must come. We must go!”
“Must you really?” her rescuer protested “Can you not stay awhile? I could teach you to swim. ‘Tis dangerous to be so close to the water and not be able to swim.”
Learn to swim? She had always wanted to, but few Faeries knew how and seldom if ever went into the ocean. She looked at Carrick again, imagining his hands holding her, guiding her as he taught her. Oh, but she would love that. She snuck another peek at him. He was even handsomer at close range than he had been across the width of the inlet.
“Lady! We must go. Your father!”
She sat up. Carrick held his hand out to her, and then helped her to her feet.
“Your name,” he whispered as she stood. “What is your name?”
Cat glanced to where Fiona hovered nervously several feet away. “Catriona. I will come tomorrow morning, just after sunrise.”
He smiled, white teeth flashing against the sunlight.
As she and her companion hurried along the path back to her father’s dwelling, Fiona kept up a nonstop stream of worried thoughts. “Your father will have our heads. He will turn us into toadstools.”
“Nonsense,” Catriona laughed. “Wait, Fiona. I cannot show up looking as I do. Stop here in the glade. I need just a moment.”
As soon as her companion came to a halt, Catriona flicked her sodden curls back over her shoulders, adjusted her wet skirts and took a deep breath. “Father sun both warm and high, restore my person clean and dry.”
Fiona laughed. “You do that with such ease, Lady, I envy you.”
Catriona fluffed out her now dry skirts then ran a hand over her soft, curling hair. “You have no idea, Fiona. Do not envy me. I fear what I go to face is more than I can bear.”
Carrick wanted to follow her. After watching her for weeks always in his seal form, he had risked showing himself. When she lost her balance and plummeted from the high bank, he thought his heart would stop. He dove in, remaining as a human instead of shifting. He couldn’t risk the other woman seeing the change. He’d very nearly regretted that decision when he found her and realized how close she was to giving in to the sea.
Why would she not know how to swim? He had encountered many humans, and those who lived near the sea all swam almost as well as the Silkie in human form. Why not this girl?
Catriona. It was a beautiful name, and the other woman had called her lady. Was she some sort of noble? Did he dare approach her? Carrick’s heart thudded. She stirred something in him he’d never felt before, but she had not called him, and he knew his destiny would be with another Silkie. Though Silkie women were not easy to come by, his standing would assure him a mate. Still…
He thought of her hair, as red as the coral in the southern seas and her eyes, as green as the moss that waved from the rocks along the northern shores. No, she was very definitely not one of the Silkie, but if she called to him, he would be free to take her. He looked along the path where she’d disappeared then back to the ocean. He had nowhere he had to be. There were no prohibitions against him watching a non-Silkie. He looked down at his attire. A pair of human pants that he had found and kept hidden nearby. No shoes, no shirt. Well, he would just have to remain hidden.
Catriona stepped onto the veranda of her father’s home. Nestled into the edge of the forest, it blended so well with its surroundings that it was sometimes easy to miss if you were anything other than Faerie. It had always been a place of refuge, a place of comfort and security. She had lived here all of her life with only her father and her companion. An accident had taken her mother away when Cat was just a baby.
As she moved toward her father and the slender man standing near him, Catriona lowered her eyes to help cloak her thoughts. It would do no one any good if Camlin sensed her reluctance was more than just shyness.
“Catriona,” her father called with obvious relief. She was sure he knew of her hesitation and had probably worried she would disappear, but she dared not. She had heard rumors of what happened to some families when they would not bend to the will of the king and his family. “Come greet our guest.”
Still keeping her gaze lowered so as not to meet Lord Camlin’s eyes, she curtsied and held out her hand. “My lord.”
He brought it to his lips, and the wet, sloppy feeling of his mouth against her skin nearly made her snatch her hand back in revulsion. Instead, she smiled and let her gaze skate away as if overcome with shyness.
His laughter jangled her nerves.
“Such demureness.” Camlin’s voice oozed like oil. “Your daughter is a credit to you.”
“Thank you, my lord,” her father responded. “Come, join us for supper.”
Catriona smiled at all the right places, accepted their guest filling her plate for her, but all the while she cringed inside. How soon could she get away? It couldn’t be soon enough. Camlin made her skin crawl, and she had heard from more than one source that his surface cordiality cloaked innate cruelty.
Fiona had joined them as well for the meal, but as always, she remained so much in the background, she could just as well have been one of the wall sconces. By the time Catriona felt she could sneak away, her face hurt from trying to keep her expression under such rigid control.
All she could think about as she ran on whisper light feet to her chamber at the far end of the house was meeting Carrick at the inlet early in the morning.
Carrick loved the summer months. Rather than staying aboard the ship he’d inherited from his father, he chose to spend as much time as possible in seal form. What time he did spend as a human was most often in isolated areas, or coming ashore to answer the call of a human female. Though young, he understood the drive among his kind. They were motivated to give sexual pleasure, but it seemed more and more that Silkie males now sought mates among the humans.
He told himself that wasn’t what he was after. He had reminded himself of that as he watched Catriona smile at another man the previous evening. Yet her smile had looked so different than the one she had flashed at him before spinning away earlier.
Carrick had been fascinated by where she lived too. It was unlike any human settlement he had ever seen. An odd feeling of peace permeated the area around her home, both in the forest and the field. And the people looked different too. Not only were they fairer of hair and eye than what he knew, there was such an unhurried air about everything, as if they had all the time in the world.
He wondered about that now as he morphed from seal to man and strode from the ocean. Moving quickly in the gray of early dawn, he located the cut off trousers he had lifted from a human’s laundry line. He had seen men before, clad in swim attire that seemed ludicrous to him, but he couldn’t bring himself to wear anything so humorous. Were it not for fear of offending Catriona, he would simply have dispensed with any clothing at all.
A sound as soft as the brush of water against the shore made him lift his gaze to the top of the steep bank. She picked her way delicately down from the top. Nervousness made him motionless for a moment. Her gown flowed around her, lifting lightly in the barely discernible breeze.
He wanted to hold her, to gather her close and simply press her against the length of him.
“Good morning.” Her voice was soft, little more than a whisper of sound, and still it tingled along his nerve endings.
Unable to resist, he trailed his fingers along the satin sleeve of her gown. “Surely you don’t mean to go into the water in this. It would ruin it.”
She laughed. “I could fix it, but no. I—I have something else beneath.”
He smiled. She was more approachable this morning than she had looked with the other man yesterday. “May I help?”
The glance she gave him held some shyness, but also a laughing flirtatiousness that aroused need like he’d never experienced. Carrick wasn’t used to exercising control. Normally when he was this close to a female, it was because she had called to him. She was ready and wanting, already willing to accept him sexually.
This was a new game.
Her fingers slipped to the belt of her silk covering and he realized it was styled like a robe. As he watched her slender fingers loosen it, his breathing increased. “Let me.”
His voice was no more than a growl. He slipped the robe from her shoulders and folded it, laying it on a rock where the water wouldn’t reach it.
Carrick cleared his throat. “Do you…can you swim at all?”
“No. My father did not wish me to come to the sea. We have pools where I live, but they are not deep.”
He held his hand out. “Come. I’ll hold onto you while you become accustomed to the water. It will be cooler than what you’re used to, but the salt water also makes it easier for you to float.”
He was amazed how easily she placed her trust in him, even holding onto him while he swam with her riding on his back. When he saw her wide-eyed pleasure, Carrick laughed.
She went instantly still, and the shyness once more had her gaze shifting away from him. Unable to resist any longer, Carrick dipped his head and brushed his lips against hers.
Her arms slipped up over his chest and circled the back of his neck. Sensation exploded through him, arousing him to such a degree he feared he would frighten her. But when he started to back away, she whimpered and clutched more tightly against him.
“Don’t. You want more. I see it.” She pulled his hand down to touch the wet material clinging to the mound of her breasts.
“Cat…” The feel of her cupped in the palm of his hand made his throat go dry; he couldn’t tear his gaze from the darker pink of her nipple visible through the thin, wet material.
The sound of someone above them made him still. With a low growl he shifted his gaze up to see the young woman who’d been with her yesterday.
“You have company.”
Releasing his hand, she tilted her head back. “Fiona. What are you doing here?”
“Lord Camlin. He’s coming!”
Now his growl resonated, and as he turned back to Catriona, he saw her eyes widen with wariness.
“What are you?” Her whisper trembled in the air between them. Even though neither of them had moved, he felt the gap between them widen.
A fluttering at the edge of his own mind set off warning bells for him as well. Eyes narrowing, he dropped his hand and stepped back. “What am I? Perhaps I should ask that same question.”
“Lady! He will be here any moment.”
She muttered words in a language that sounded strangely like the old tongue, yet different, and in an instant her clothing and hair were as dry and clean as when she’d first arrived.
“You’re a Faerie.”
The gaze she turned to him for one more instant was now shuttered and sad. “Goodbye, Carrick of the sea.”
“Don’t!” he protested. “Don’t go to him. You don’t even like him.”
“I have no choice.”
She looked for her gown. With a snarl of frustration, Carrick stripped the pants from his body and leaped back into the sea. With a touch to the leather strip around his neck, he morphed back into a seal and dove, anger driving him deep into the inlet.
(more to come...)