Point Pleasant, Jersey Shore—Ten Years Ago

Once upon a time….

 

It was her last night of freedom and Lyria wanted to spend it as far away as possible from her family and the preparations they were making for her 18th birthday. They may be excited for her to accept the role of Healer and begin to enhance her magic with the bracelet that came to her at birth, but to her, it meant she was trapped in a role she didn’t choose, that she was good at only by chance, and which came with endless, unending responsibilities.

So much for the fun of becoming an adult that other mermaids enjoyed.

She’d swum hundreds of miles in the last two days, stopping at long forgotten or hidden islands to rest, and ignoring all attempts to contact her. She’d be back in time for the ceremony and celebration tomorrow. That was soon enough.

Initially, she didn’t intend to spend any time this close to the humans. She almost never interacted with them, but she’d been drawn to this location ever since her first accidental visit shortly after her 13th birthday, the first year she was allowed to swim long distances alone.

She’d been watching the humans party, laugh and swim. Couples, friends and families. She could sense their joy and their enthusiasm. When people were here it was as if they didn’t have a care in the world.

The sudden sensation of pain and panic drew her to the danger. A young girl was being claimed by the ocean. Lyria didn’t know if she’d been swimming and something had gone wrong, but she knew without a doubt that the child was about to die.

She saw a man with a red floatation device on his back swimming to where the girl had gone under, but she knew he wasn’t going get there in time. The girl was drifting deep beneath the surface and he likely wouldn’t be able to find her in the dark of the water.

Lyria didn’t think twice. She opened up her senses to the girl and the man, swam to the child and then did what she could to telepathically ease the little one’s fear. She put a small gift in the girl’s hand to help calm her, then poured healing energy into the girl, allowing her lungs to ease and find oxygen that hadn’t been there a moment before. Finally, with her arms around the girl, Lyria swam to the man who was searching for the child and pushed her gently into his arms.

As soon as she knew he had her, Lyria swam smoothly away, not alerting the man to her presence. It didn’t matter what the girl thought or said. All that mattered was her safety, and now that was assured.

Once she felt their energy received, Lyria peeked above the waves. Everyone was focused on the little girl so no one noticed her. It was bad enough the ocean would claim Lyria’s life as of tomorrow. There was no need for it to take this child as well.

The ocean could be cruel and demanding. There were several rusalkas in her generation to prove it, their grief a part of them for all time. The thought of a young girl being burdened with that kind of pain her whole life broke Lyria’s heart. She was pleased the man was there to help, since going close to the shoreline would have been dangerous for her. Without his help, Lyria’s assistance wouldn’t have been enough.

She liked his strength and determination. The first of those qualities she could see as he cut powerfully through the water, his arms and legs pumping, muscles bulging. The second she sensed as he came directly for the girl and pulled her into his arms. She was tempted to reach out and touch him, but stopped herself at the last moment, not wanting to distract him from his mission.

He piqued her curiosity, which was rare for her, especially when a humanoid was involved. Her vision was stronger than a human’s because she normally looked at the world through the veil of water, and even from a distance it was easy to keep an eye on the life-saving man. A noisy crowd formed around the little girl after they got to the beach. At the center, a woman was crying. A mother.

Shortly after, the man left, but Lyria stayed close, hoping he might return. She didn’t want to think about her reason why too closely, but she found herself curious about the man and wanted to see him again.

An hour later she was rewarded for her patience by the sight of him along the wooden walkway.

He was as good looking out of the water as in it. His tan skin suggested time in the sun, but sadness in his face suggested something she couldn’t know the reason for. She loved his light grey eyes, the color of storm clouds, and found herself wondering if they sparkled when he smiled, darkened when he got angry. Or became excited.

This was silly. She must have seaweed in her brain. No matter how physically attractive he was, no matter how staring at him made her tingle, she needed to stay away. Even though it was tempting to get closer—it wasn’t forbidden—something told her even one night would be too much. And not enough. As exciting as she found this section of land, she couldn’t allow herself to be lured by the lights and the energy of the place.

Humans weren’t to be trusted, especially men. All of Melusine’s descendants knew this.

Besides, tomorrow her life would change forever and she’d be bound for life by duty and responsibility to her people. A human could have no part of it, and would never understand.

By the deep, even she didn’t fully understand, but as the first daughter in her family, it fell to her to wear one of the bracelets which came from Melusine’s Band and accept the role it required of her. As well as the loss of freedom that was part of the commitment.

“You need come home,” a familiar voice said.

Lyria was so caught up in her thoughts and despair she didn’t hear her cousin, Amina swim up next to her. “How’d you know I’d be here?”

“I could tell you it was a good guess, but you know better than that. You know I love movies. I know you love parts of the Jersey Shore. I think your secret is funny. You think mine is cute.”

Lyria nodded and smiled. Amina did love human movies. She used to love to sing, but stopped that when they were children. Movies became her consolation.

She allowed herself one last look, took a moment to wish that her life could be different, then dove under the waves, making certain her fins didn’t break the surface.

* * *

It was his last night trapped in New Jersey, and Drew Crawford couldn’t wait to get as far away as possible from his family and this town which boxed him in to roles and expectations.

But first, he had a life to save.

The young girl practically popped out of the water and into Drew’s arms. It was as if the water itself had pushed the drowning girl towards him. In all his years as a lifeguard, he had never experienced anything like this, but he wasn’t going to argue.

“You’re going to be fine, Amy,” he said as he swam with her in his arms back to the shore. He was surprised by how relaxed she was in his grip. Most near-drowning victims thrashed even when they were safe continuing to be a potential danger to themselves and the lifeguard.

He still didn’t fully understand how it was possible that she was alive, but he wasn’t going to question his good fortune—or Amy’s. She had been pulled out into deep waters by an unexpectedly strong undertow, and she’d stopped breaking the ocean’s surface by the time he had reached her. He dove under the waves, almost certain he wouldn’t be able to find her in the dark water. He thanked whatever gods or angels were watching over Amy. She was damn lucky.

He had hoped his last week on the Jersey beaches would be quiet, but like most things over the last three months—hell, over the last 18 years if he was being honest – he didn’t get his wish. The beaches and business were crazy crowded with people trying to get in one last summer thrill. The ocean, unfortunately, churned with riptides and stronger than usual waves, although no storms had come through recently. It was as if the water was angry. He’d blown his lifeguard’s whistle more times in the last few days than he had all summer. He was more than ready to leave.

He couldn’t wait to get in his car and drive off to Chicago where there were no boardwalks, no Heather, and no one who knew him or his family. He’d lived and worked in the Jersey Shore town of Point Pleasant his entire life and he was tired of being known as Sam’s son, Michael’s kid brother and Heather’s boyfriend. Or, as it turned out, Heather’s ex-boyfriend.

“You’re leaving in the fall, Drew, and I’m staying here,” she’d said on Memorial Day weekend. “You know as well as I do we’ve been drifting apart. There’s no need for us to waste an entire summer pretending there’s something lasting going on between us. I want to see other people.”

She was right, but he didn’t like her being the one to make the decision. By July Fourth, she was hanging around with some junior from a local college. He’d spent the first half of the summer hearing “Hey, where’s Heather?” and the other half hearing, “Sorry to hear about you and Heather.” At the beginning of August, he’d stopped going to parties with people he expected never to see again and picked up additional shifts at The Siren, a bar and restaurant on the boardwalk, to keep himself busy on nights and weekends. The money was better than lifeguarding and it would come in handy in his new life far away from here.

“Amy, we’re almost at the shore. Just a little further and you’ll be safe.”

She spun around in his arms and put her hands around his neck as though they’d been playing together the whole time. “I know I will be. The lady told me so.”

“The lady? What lady?” Drew was concerned. Had Amy sustained more trauma than he thought? Could she have hit her head? Been deprived of oxygen?

She opened her palm to show him a tiny hair comb inlaid with pearls. “The lady under the water. She gave me this when she brought me to you.”

Drew looked at the small item in Amy’s hand. He’d never seen anything like it, but her story didn’t make sense. He glanced over his shoulder, just in case, to see if there was anyone else out there who’d either been helping him or needed his help, but he and Amy were alone. She must have had it with her when she swum out and forgot, or perhaps she’d been trying to get it from the ocean floor and that was what made her swim out too far.

There were no ladies in the water.

Shortly after Amy was safe in her mother’s arms and enroute to the local hospital to make sure she was fine, Drew clocked out for the last time. His coworkers surprised him with a “goodbye and good luck” cake and a gift card to Amazon. He was touched, especially since he didn’t feel as though he’d been connected to anyone during the summer. He knew he’d been remote the entire season, but many of them had known him for years, and he appreciated the gesture.

As he stood on the boardwalk and watched the sunset, Drew couldn’t help but be a little sad. From the way he was counting the days until he left, it would seem he hated the place, but that wasn’t entirely true. He had as many good memories of this place as bad, probably more if he really took time to stop and think. But he knew without a doubt that his future was somewhere else. He needed this change, and he’d been planning it, dreaming about it, for years.

“Hey, man, saying goodbye to the ocean? Think it will answer?”

Drew turned and saw Nico Vardini leaning over the rail next to him in an identical pose, although his friend had six inches and 50 pounds on him. “I guess.”

“Your Civic all gassed up and set to go?”

“It is.”

“Bet you’ve been ready for weeks.”

“Longer,” Drew said. “Couple of more things to put in it tomorrow morning and then it’s me and the road to Chicago. You ready for the military life? When do you leave?”

“Right after Labor Day. Gotta admit, I’m a bit nervous. Still, given the choices out there for a dumb jock, it’s a good option.”

“You’re not dumb.”

“And I’m not much of a jock, unfortunately. Dad still has the grumbles about the whole thing, but I think he knows it’s the right decision.”

Drew nodded. Nico was an only child, something Drew envied, but his dad didn’t have the money to send him to college and Nico didn’t have the grades for a scholarship like Drew. He’d chosen the army for its training and benefits. “Is he prepared for the change?”

Nico shrugged when he said, “Really doesn’t matter if we are or aren’t. I’ll be home when I can and there are always people around to help, especially in the summer. Who knows? Maybe the old man will finally hook up with someone.” The two of them looked at each other, then burst out laughing. “Yeah, I tried to say it with a straight face, but it wasn’t happening. Still, Mom’s been gone a while and I wish he had someone other than me. Think he’ll see you next summer? The Siren won’t be the same without you.”

“Not if I can help it. There’s too much here I never want to see again.”

Nico didn’t say anything. He knew Drew as well as anyone, possibly better, so there was no need for Drew to mention the one particular someone he didn’t want to see again.

Sam, Drew’s father, lived a life of perpetual disappointment in and annoyance of his younger son. He couldn’t understand why Drew couldn’t be more like his older brother, Michael.

Nico put a hand on Drew’s shoulder and Drew appreciated the gesture. What a history they had. They were unlikely friends in middle school, Nico standing up for Drew when some bigger kids tried to push him around. When they got to high school, Drew focused on academics, which weren’t Nico’s strong suit, and he joined the swim team. During their sophomore year, Drew was so anxious to fit in with a popular crowd of boys he pulled a nasty prank on Nico in the cafeteria causing Nico to spend the rest of the day wearing his lunch.

Unable to live with the guilt, but unknown to the guys who now thought he was cool, Drew went to see Nico and apologized. He ended up getting a long talk from Mr. V. and became closer with Nico. They never acknowledged their friendship in school, where they hung out with different crowds, accepting the politics of high school. But all year long Drew earned money working at the Vardini’s restaurant and bar, The Siren, and did it in addition to his lifeguarding duties during the summer. Any time he wasn’t busy, he could be found there, whether Nico was around or not. Mr. V. was like a second father to him.

Or, truthfully, like a first, since his father, a contractor with a small company, didn’t understand his younger son’s desire to go to college and into big business. “Always thinking and acting like you are too good for us. You’ll see when you get out there. The real world isn’t like you imagine. You’ll crawl back to us and beg for a job that matters.” The ‘us’ being his dad and brother, who went straight from star quarterback, good enough for high school but not college, into the family business, making his father unendingly proud, something Drew could never achieve.

He was tired of being around people who didn’t understand him or wanted him to be something else. He was clear about what he wanted and he saw it year after year when the rich tourists came to town. The expensive cars, summer homes, the big meals out. The admiration and calm acceptance and deference of total strangers. Clearly they had no concerns over how and when the bills were getting paid, or the stresses it caused a family. In the future he wouldn’t have to wait to have something he wanted because he couldn’t afford it. He wanted a life of money and class and seeing Point Pleasant in his rearview mirror was the first step to his goal.

Tomorrow morning he’d put the last of the things in his car and leave the Jersey Shore behind forever.

* * *

This summer

Drew dove naked into the ocean, as unconcerned about the lack of a lifeguard as he was about his lack of clothes. He may not have kept up with his certification, but he didn’t have to worry about drowning. He was always safe in the Atlantic.

In early June the water on the Jersey Shore was still brisk from the winter’s chill, but he didn’t care. The warm air finally hinted at the summer to come, and he had been waiting to feel the embrace of the waves since he’d come back in March. He probably wouldn’t be able to stay in it long, but even a short swim would be worth it.

He loved the salty coldness on his skin and reveled in the slightly illegal swim. Not only was it nearly 2:00 in the morning, but if he remembered correctly, skinny dipping was against some town ordinance. Somehow, when he was in the ocean he had no worries and anything that was bothering him seemed small and insignificant. The ocean was freedom and forgetting; two things he wanted and wasn’t getting any time soon. Maybe when he was back on his financial feet he would start saving for a houseboat so he could leave land behind for good and live on the water. Or at least live closer to the ocean—just not in this area. He had lots of college friends who liked the West Coast and had moved out there after graduation. He could join them.

After getting out beyond the breaking waves, he flipped over and floated, allowing himself to dream of an unanchored life. No debts. No reputation to clear. New people. New friends.

Acquaintances. Friends were something he wasn’t ready for yet.

He was enjoying the gentle rhythm of the ocean, letting it lull his body and thoughts when something brushed against him. He didn’t think too much of it, assuming it was part of the undercurrent, but when it happened again and it felt like a stroke from his foot to his waist, he dropped into the water and came up treading.

“Hello? Anyone there?” Spinning around, Drew stared into the shadows, trying to discern shapes. The beach had been deserted when he arrived, but it didn’t mean that someone hadn’t come in after him. The moon was only days away from being full and since the sky was cloudless, it was easy to see for a long distance. When there was no answer other than the sound of the waves breaking on the shore, he stretched out on his back and resumed his swim.

The caress happened again a moment later, this time gently sweeping over his chest and directly to his cock, where it lingered for a breath before disappearing again. It couldn’t be a wave. The placement was too deliberate, but when he lifted his head he still saw no one. He reached out beneath the water but didn’t feel anything near. He’d always found swimming naked to be arousing, but this was different. If he didn’t feel the Atlantic around him, he would have sworn he’d been stroked by a woman.

Clearly Drew had been working too hard and spending too many nights alone if he thought the ocean was trying to seduce him. He turned onto his chest and swam for shore. Even after years away and most of his time in the water in a pool, he was still a strong swimmer. Less than a minute later he was toweling off and trying to put on his clothes in the dark without getting too much sand in uncomfortable places.

He picked up his shoes and looked out at the water, enjoying once more how the waxing moon lit the night. Hopefully there would be another warm evening soon and he could come out again. He always loved the magic of swimming naked beneath a full moon. He shook his head as if to clear it of water. Magic. How stupid could he be?

The last year had given Drew enough indications that not only was there no magic in the world, but there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of goodness either. If there were, his business partner wouldn’t have cheated him out of almost everything he had and destroyed his reputation in the process, Nico wouldn’t have died in Kabul, and Drew wouldn’t be working at The Siren again picking up the pieces of his life and trying to figure out how everything got so fucked up.

It was a short walk from where he swam to the apartment he was staying in above The Siren. Mr. and Mrs. Vardini lived there when Nico was young, then moved into a house when they needed more room and business was solid. After Rose Vardini died and Nico left for the army, Mr. V sold the house and moved into an assisted living residence saying he was done paying for landscaping in the summer, shoveling in the winter, and rambling around space he didn’t need. Most summers the apartment was rented out for extra income, but when Drew came back to help out, Mr. V. offered the place to him and Drew accepted.

Even if it was above a restaurant and right on the boardwalk, it was isolated from residential neighbors. And from bad memories. Living on the boardwalk meant he rarely needed to go into town, which meant he didn’t run into anyone who used to know him.

Especially his family.

He hadn’t told them he was back and ended up having an unpleasant shock a few days ago when he discovered his ex-jock older brother, Michael, was dating his old high school girlfriend, Heather. When he ran into her on the boardwalk a few days ago, Drew thought it was a pleasant surprise. She looked good, if a little heavier than he remembered, and he was considering asking her to come to The Siren for drinks to talk and see where it might go, when Michael stepped out of the food kiosk behind them, handed Heather a fried Oreo, and put his arm around her. “Hey, little bro. Long time no see. Heard you were back.”

“Hi, Michael. How are things?”

“Slow at the moment, but they’re gonna pick up soon.”

Drew recognized the familiar refrain from his childhood. Knowing the fluctuations of work, Michael and his dad probably didn’t have much, if any, business at the moment. Not that Drew was one to talk. As if on cue, Michael said, “Guess the big city was too much for you.”

“Things didn’t go as planned, but as you said, they’re going to pick up.”

“Sure, sure. Good thing you could come back to your old summer job, huh? Funny how some things don’t change.” Michael stroked Heather’s shoulder possessively.

Drew didn’t see any humor in it. He made his excuses and ended the conversation. He  knew it wasn’t going to be possible to avoid them forever. He couldn’t wait for the run-in with his dad. That was going to be so special.

His hair was still wet and he was shivering a bit by the time he stepped into the apartment. As much as he didn’t want to be back, he really did like this space. When he and Nico were kids, they would come up here to do their homework and play video games. Mostly play video games. It held happy memories and he was grateful for that.

He’d come back to Jersey with less than he’d left with, which was good because he drove a smaller car now. The black Audi TT was one of the only luxuries he’d been able to keep after Russell cleared out their accounts and left him with a pile of debts and no way to pay them. His liquid case was almost as small as it was when he was in high school. He’d sold everything but the car to pay off creditors and arrived in Jersey with a small wardrobe, his favorite music and movies and only a couple of thousand dollars in the bank.

Fortunately he didn’t need much. The apartment over the Siren was furnished and had been updated and renovated a few years after Drew left. Instead of white wicker and hideous green rugs, it was now done in cool grays and blues with accents in silver and aqua. It made the place more appealing on the Air B&B listings that were now offline as long as he lived here.

There were two bedrooms and two baths all of which connected a huge living room, it was a perfect vacation rental. The kitchen was minimal and was fine for short-term renters. It would have bothered him more if he didn’t have access to a commercial kitchen downstairs.

Drew put his keys on a hook, opened some windows to let in the cool night breeze and went out onto the porch which was more like a large balcony. He took in the view of the ocean and moon and wished, not for the first time, that they could give him an idea of what to do with his life.

* * *

Lyria saw him stand on the balcony and her sharp vision allowed her to see the pain and sadness in his eyes. She hadn’t noticed that when she teased him in the water. It had been a lovely surprise to see him swimming and even better when she discovered he wore no clothes. Although she’d visited this beach when she could, she hadn’t noticed him in a long time and was thrilled to see he’d returned. Since she last saw the life-saving man, he’d changed a little, but was still as marvelously sexy as ever. She couldn’t resist making contact with him—he was simply too tempting—and Lyria preferred to give in to her temptations whenever possible rather than waste energy trying to resist them. There were so many things she needed to take seriously, so she took her fun wherever she could. He was definitely fun.

First she trailed her long hair over his legs. She needed to dart away quickly because he changed his position so fast. She’d been so caught up in his body that she’d forgotten he wouldn’t be expecting her touch. When he began to float again, the moonlight on his skin begged for her fingers, and again she reached for him, this time with her hand. His skin was warm to her, even though he had been in the water for a while. She only needed to slip away a few feet when he searched for what had caused the feeling.

She was sorry to see that shortly after her interaction, he decided to go back to the land, but she was delighted to know he was here again. She took it as a sign from Melusine that this is where she should stay to hide the Stone of Clarity from Fiero, the Sea Dragon. It would definitely make her stay among the humans more pleasurable to have a familiar face—and body—to enjoy. It was fun to watch him walk naked out of the water. He had the most marvelous ass, which she hadn’t had a chance to see years ago.

She’d been drawn by the sound of laughter that traveled beneath the water and the energy of the people who played here. Although she never had any desire to walk among humans, as some of her kin did, but she liked the atmosphere of this place. Even when the air chilled and the numbers of people dwindled, she occasionally peeked in on this piece of Earth to see and feel what was happening. Over time, she noticed businesses open and close, saw lovers meet and break up, and watched as the ocean reclaimed pieces while the arrogance of humans tried to push it back.

Because of her responsibilities and more recent concerns about the Sea Dragon, it had been more than two seasons since she last visited. When she fled their most recent battle, it was clear she needed a secure hiding place for herself and the Stone, which would have to be away from other merfolk. When an image of this place with its wooden lane and the lights as they reflected in the water at night came to mind, she set out immediately.

Diving under the water, Lyria fetched her scaled bag which held a few necessities for her time on land. Mostly clothes and a pair of shoes—which she hated—so she’d be able blend in with the humans. She swam to land and, as she got closer, shifted from fins to legs, an ability all mercreatures possessed. She gasped during the change as a pain lanced through her, a nasty reminder of the injury given to her by the Sea Dragon earlier in the day. Shifting ripped at the skin and the wound was bleeding again, with the added discomfort from the salt water.

She walked onto the beach, enjoying the sand beneath her feet. Because of her injury, it took hours to swim here and she was tired and ready for sleep. Calling on her magic, she dried herself, slipped into the clothes, and walked out toward the businesses and nearby homes. There was nothing she’d be able to accomplish at this late time in their day. Tomorrow would be soon enough to join the crowds, and no one would guess a mermaid walked among them.

For tonight all she needed was a safe place to sleep. She reached out with her senses, another gift merfolk used since they needed to be able to communicate through the density of water, and found an unoccupied home where she could spend the night. Taking out a hair comb, she undid the simple lock and let herself in. She uncovered a couch in the central room, folded up the covering as a pillow, and lay down. Placing her hand on her injury, she covered it with scales, hoping the healing would be further along by morning. Here she was, her people’s most gifted and powerful healer and she could do nothing for herself beyond the basics.

She was still close enough to the ocean to hear the waves, to feel its pull on her heart. As she closed her eyes, she sent a small prayer of thanks to the Goddess for getting her here safely and for the continued safety of her family.

The next morning, Lyria woke with the sunrise and stretched, wincing as the gash in her side pulled. She looked down at the injury. It looked improved, but she couldn’t be certain. Breathing in the air, she tasted it for changes in the weather and found none. It promised to be a beautiful day, and while she was ready to do what was needed to hide the Stone, she was nervous about her next step. She’d never spent time on inhabited land before and although she was fairly confident in her ability to blend in, being so close to people who could not be trusted with her true identity wouldn’t be easy.

As she sat up, the light caught the bracelet she always wore, the symbol of her importance in her community, coveted by Fiero, the Sea Dragon, along with two others. She held it in front of her, looking at it closely, something she hadn’t done in years.

It was a heavy bracelet of woven gold ropes, threaded with various small gems and charms which had been added by previous wearers and imbued with magic. At its center was a distinctive white sapphire, the Stone of Clarity, sister stone to two others, the blue Stone of Peace, and the green Stone of Strength.

To anyone who saw it, it was a stunning priceless piece of jewelry, but Lyria knew the true price—a life in service to her people. It may as well be handcuffs. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be a healer. She enjoyed helping others when she could, but her gifts weren’t always enough, and when she failed, the emotional cost was high.

“No one expects you to be perfect,” her cousin, Amina, said to her once when a young woman’s illness was beyond her gifts.

“They don’t mind if I’m not perfect for others, but not when it’s their loved one. Can you blame them?”

“No, but they can’t blame you either.”

But they did. And she felt every loss.

And she couldn’t ignore or escape the responsibility. The one time she tried to run away, two years after her bonding ceremony, Amina almost died from a reef stonefish attack. Lyria swore she would never leave her people unprotected again.

Even now that she was in hiding, she knew Amina could find her if there was an emergency greater than keeping the Stone from Fiero. Other healers had been alerted to the possibility of their help should the need arise.

Of course, Amina was in danger too, but Lyria couldn’t think about that—or do anything about it.

For now her priorities was finding a safe place to stay and remaining hidden, keeping the stone out of Fiero’s control.

Lyria put on one of the dresses she’d taken from her island home and a pair of shoes borrowed from Amina, who loved the toys and trappings of humans, and she checked through the gold and jewels she’d need to trade for cash.

It was nearing 9:00 when she stepped onto the wood street for the first time. Even with the serious issues that had brought her here, she couldn’t help but feel a thrill. The shops and stalls weren’t open yet, but there were people running—although she didn’t see anyone chasing them—and it was clear the place was waking up. Later it would be crowded and noisy. It was nice to feel as though the place was her own, if only for a little while. She needed time to get used to the location and being around humans.

As she walked, she saw an older man wizened by the sun and wearing a hat that came down almost to his eyebrows, sitting on a bench and throwing food to birds that surrounded him. Not knowing where to go to get the currency she needed, she focused on the man to get a sense of him—humans were easily readable—and decided he would be a safe person to ask for assistance. She joined him and he immediately offered her a smile and a “Good morning,” along with a piece of whatever he was tossing to the birds.

“Thank you,” she said, turning down the food. “I hope you don’t mind if I ask you a question.”

“Not at all, dear. How can I help?”

“I’m new in town and need to sell some jewelry for money. Do you know where I would go?”

“There’s JJ’s, a pawn shop, one block off the boardwalk near the corner of Boston and Atlantic Avenues. They give fairly good deals, I hear. Probably open at 10:00 like most of the stores around here. Don’t recall seeing any estate jewelry places about, but you could always check a phonebook. I think they still have phonebooks. And public phones. Maybe not.”

Boardwalk, she thought. What a good name for the wooden lane. “I will go there. I appreciate your help.”

They sat in companionable silence until he tipped the brim of his ill-fitting hat to her and walked, she assumed, home. She waited until she heard doors opening behind her, then gathered her bag and went in search of the shop.

JJ’s was easy enough to find, but she dreaded having to step in. Her senses were immediately on alert, and she wanted to run. Before she opened the door she could smell the strong scents of old and battered things. The moment she stepped inside it was obvious this would not be a pleasant experience, but it needed to be done. Quickly if possible. The man behind the counter was as old and unwashed as most of his inventory.

“Good morning, pretty thing,” he said, and she had no doubt he meant it when he called her thing. “What can I do for you?”

“I need to sell these.” She brought out two gold cuff bracelets. They were both heavy. One was etched in intricate designs; one was inlaid with crystals.

“Well, I don’t get much call for people wanting stuff like this.”

“Then I suppose I will find another location.”

He grabbed her by the wrist, pinning her where she was. “No need to hurry off, missy. I didn’t say I wouldn’t take them off your hands. Just not sure I can give you what you were hoping.”

Dismissive and untrustworthy, she thought. He had no idea how readable his face was to her. Humans were ridiculously bad at hiding their thoughts. “A fair price is all I need.” And to make a rapid exit, she thought. This man was not to be trusted.

Of course, this was true about most human males, no matter if they showered or not.

“I could probably find a good buyer for the trinket you’ve got around your wrist.”

Her hand flew to the bracelet. Not for the first time she wished magic could cloak it. No one had ever found a way, and she and Amina had searched different magical creatures for their assistance. “No, thank you, that’s not available. Just these.”

Lyria was glad to make it out of the store a few minutes later with only one nasty sexual proposition and enough money for a few days. As she walked back to the boardwalk, she looked at places to stay. From the prices listed outside, she had enough funds to take care of her shelter for the immediate future. She searched for and found a small place where the smell did not suggest she stay away and where the sign told her there was a vacancy.

It didn’t take long to learn every corner of her new quarters. One room, a bathroom, television, and something called a microwave. She walked to a mirror, dropped her dress, and, after shifting the scales away, stared at the red raw line left by Fiero’s magic. She’d never seen a blast like that. Water creatures typically shied away from powers connected to electricity, but this had the appearance of lightening, and sliced through her skin and scales like a blade. The injury started a few inches above where her fins normally began and extended for nearly three inches below. The blood cloud she saw growing in the water after the strike alarmed her, as did her continued inability to heal the wound.

How ironic. She was called for any and all serious cases and occasionally required to make life-and-death decisions for them. Unfortunately, she could not use her gift for herself when she most needed it. Instead, she’d required her Uncle Costin’s magical assistant to escape from the Sea Dragon. Remembering her last minutes with them, she recalled her uncle’s proclamation, which put her in greater jeopardy in the short term but offered the only potential for long-term freedom.

Lyria still shook with anger when she recalled Fiero’s claim of betrothal between his family and hers.

“I have a contract signed by her father,” Fiero argued. Where he found it, Lyria had no idea, but she recognized her father’s shaky scrawl and apparently her uncle did as well.

“Signed by a male no longer living and not countersigned by the mother. It is not binding,” Uncle Costin said.

“There was no mother or children at the time the agreement was made, which you can plainly see from the date.”

Sea Dragons, the children of mermaids and kelpies, and merfolk had a mutual history filled with more problems than merfolk and humans did. The two communities were notoriously incompatible with completely different temperaments, and although the dragon population was relatively small, they were a constant challenge. Lyria couldn’t believe her father had betrothed her to the Sea Dragon, although as a parent he had not been the most trustworthy of men and was frequently uncomfortable with the power of the people around him, none of whom where his family. Her mother married for love. To Lyria he had been remote, inconsistent at best. His death nearly ten years ago hardly affected her.

“He made a deal with my family when he was desperate for gold. The firstborn daughter of his family would be married to the eldest son of mine,” Fiero said.

Lyria wondered if this was why her father often said, when drunk or angry, she should never have been born. Then she took it as proof he did not love her. Perhaps there had been something else behind his words.

Fiero continued, “To satisfy the conditions of the agreement. Lyria, is mine. That she happens to wear the Stone of Clarity is a bonus for me and mine.”

Trying to remain calm, Uncle Costin said, “You cannot have her or the Stone of Clarity. I will not allow it.”

“You have no choice. The contract is enforceable, and I will take it to the council. You cannot stop me.”

“I can and I will. By the power of the seas and the magic and might of Aegir, if Lyria and the Stone are free three days past the coming full moon, they will remain out of your reach evermore.” Lyria felt his magic course through her as he touched the bracelet.

Fiero roared with fury and let loose the bolt of energy that injured her. Her uncle cried out for her. When he saw she had been injured, he helped her heal as best he could, then yelled for her to leave. The last thing she heard was Fiero yelling, “Hurry!” Lyria did not look back to see what he was doing.

She sent a telepathic message to her cousin, Amina, to fill a magicked bag with any necessities Lyria might need to stay on land and hide it in one of the secret grottos from their childhood. Amina sent no reply, but the bag was waiting for her. It was the only stop Lyria made before arriving on land.

She found some food in the bag—Amina always though ahead even when rushed—and ate while looking around the drab room which was, since land was better than water, as safe a place as she could think of. She missed her island home with its spacious rooms and walls that could be opened to the sea.

Feeling tired, she lay back on the strange bed and stared at the ceiling, trying not to imagine it pressing down on her. She would have preferred to have found a place more open, but the closer she remained to the humans, the less likely she was to be found. Mixing with their energy was the safest, if not the most pleasant, thing she could do. Here she would remain for the next six days waiting and hoping that on the third day after the full moon, she and the Stone would be safe and this nightmare would be over.

* * *

Drew wondered, why were the days leading up to the full moon always a nightmare? He’d been at work only a few hours and spent most of the time putting out fires, both figuratively and one literally. He was going to have to find a better place for the staff to smoke than the small alcove off the loading dock. They were lucky this time. He couldn’t imagine having to explain to Mr. V. that he’d burned down the family business. What a fuck-up he’d become. It seemed not a day went by when he didn’t notice something else he wasn’t quite getting right. He needed to get out of here as soon as possible. Maybe it was time to get specific with Mr. V. and find out when the older man would be ready to come back. Mr. V. had taken a bad fall and needed to recuperate of his feet. When he’d called Drew to ask for help, Drew, who’d been staying on the couch of a college friend drinking most his days away, had actually welcomed the offer. That didn’t last long.

Summer vacation was a few weeks away and while the influx of people would be good for business, he wasn’t looking forward to the tourist season any more now than he had as a kid. He wouldn’t see the beach much before sunset. Still, night swimming was fun, especially when you were visited by some sort of water spirit as he’d been last night. He’d enjoyed several erotic dreams after the strange encounter, whatever it was.

He finished unloading the day’s food delivery into the walk-in refrigerator and freezer. At least the summer would bring in some extra help so he could hand off some of the manual labor that took up a good chunk of each day.

“What the hell is this?” From the tone, Drew could only guess what Stanley, one of his head chefs, was looking at. He hoped it didn’t crawl. “We did not order these. Send them back.”

Drew peered into one the crates that just arrived. “It’s dragon fruit,” he said. He hadn’t seen it since leaving Chicago. It wasn’t something generally served in the restaurants around here.

“I don’t want it cluttering up my fridge. Get rid of it.”

“Sorry, I can’t. I already signed for the load. We received everything we ordered. It must have been something extra.”

“Well, don’t expect me to use it or dispose of it when it goes bad.” Stanley walked away, clearly annoyed. He had the temperament of a high-end chef and the range of a short-order cook. Not a great combination for a manager to deal with. Drew brought the fruit to his apartment to avoid any other conversations about it.

Yeah, it was a joy to be back.

Full moon madness was definitely approaching, and Drew was ready to howl.

* * *

Lyria woke from a short nap, stretched, and winced at the pain of her wound. She hated the reminder that the situation with Fiero required her to flee. True, she wasn’t ready to face him, but hiding didn’t sit well with her either. She looked again at the bracelet and the charms that dangled from it.

It was hard to believe something so beautiful could be such a problem and a challenge. The sunlight coming in the window created a sparkle, reminding her of the beautiful waves. When a cloud took the light away, it reminded her how fragile everything in her world was and how the simple could be complicated. What appeared to be a beautifully faceted gem was also a source of great pain, and in the wrong hands, it could end or control the lives of millions of creatures.

She never wanted to be the Stone’s guardian. Fiero would likely use it to give power to the sea dragons, possibly enslaving other creatures in the process. Not to mention how he would treat her as a wife. He’d probably lock her away as Melusine’s husband did. Lyria could not let either of those things happen. Truthfully, she didn’t know which was worse, although neither appealed to her.

But tonight she was safe and she wouldn’t focus on what might be. Instead, because there was nothing else she could do to avoid either result, she would remain on land for three days past the full moon and keep the Stone hidden.

She fingered the space to the right of the Stone. It stood out on the crowded bracelet, but the empty area was more precious to her than any other charm.

“I wish I could have a bracelet like yours,” Amina had said as they sat on the beach of Lyria’s parent’s island. “I mean, I know how it came to you and to Eden was horrible, of course, but still… It would be nice to be important.”

She’d learned earlier at the presentation ceremony how her life would be scripted and directed because of a piece of jewelry. Rather than the band coming to her at her aunt’s death, it had been given to her when she turned 16. The bonding ceremony would happen in two years. She had not been impressed with its sparkles or beauty. Lyria had hardly heard her as she fingered the charms. “What did you say?”

“I think you’re lucky.”

“Trust me, I’m not.” Still, Amina had looked so wistfully at her, she couldn’t help but smile. Amina was four years younger and had an older sister nearly Lyria’s age, but she was always closer to Amina. The Stone of Strength was worn by Amina’s sister, Eden. Amina often coveted what Lyria had. If giving Amina the bracelet could free her from her duties as family healer, she would have handed over the thing in an instant. But that wasn’t an option. Still, no one said she had to keep it completely intact.

She’d stood and taken her cousin’s hand. “Come with me,” she’d said and the two had gone into house. Taking off the bracelet, and loving how she instantly felt lighter, she’d reached to the right of the center stone and removed a dangling charm consisting of tiny slices of agate worked to look like the leaves of a flowing sea plant. Knowing her cousin would love the variety of colors, Lyria hooked the link onto one of her gold chains.

“Here, Amina, bend your head down,” she’d said. She’d clasped the bracelet around Amina’s neck and continued, “You are now bound to the heritage of Melusine’s Band, and we are bound to each other for eternity.”

Amina had looked up at Lyria with tears in her eyes and Lyria couldn’t help but feel emotional too. What had started as a gesture now felt like something of significance. Sunlight had caught the colors on the charm and shone into Lyria’s eyes. Perhaps this, too, was meant to be. She could not share the burden, but for the first time she thought she might not be completely alone in what she needed to do.

It was one of her best memories associated with the Band. She’d hoped for more, but until the third day of the waning moon, there was nothing to be done. Weary, she put the bracelet back on, shivering as the cool gold touched her skin.

Ironically, she supposed, circumstances had conspired to bring the Stone of Peace to Amina. Her cousin had gotten her wish, so they were bound by that as well. Amina, somewhat empathic as a child, was not the strongest empath the Oceanides had every known,

Lyria’s stomach growled and she realized she hadn’t eaten in hours. She wasn’t certain what she’d find, but she’d always seen people with food when she visited and watched, so she slipped on her dress and shoes and joined the crowds on the boardwalk.

She loved the sweet smells and the laughter she’d heard on her distant visits, but since she had never swam too close, she didn’t expect to be as overwhelmed and excited as she was. It wasn’t the kind of life she was used to, but there was great beauty here and she let the lights and energy surround her and pull her along.

There were couples laughing, groups of girls and boys flirting with each other, and even families with children mixed in. It seemed as though no one was left out of the fun, no matter what they were doing. Giant mechanical structures pulled people high and made them scream with delight. Lyria watched people play at booths and learned some of the games that lead to squeals of glee and funny toys being handed over. Then there was the food, none of it familiar, yet all of it smelling wonderful. She tried something called Sicilian pizza and, after burning her lips slightly on the first bite, sighed with every delicious cheesy and doughy mouthful. Humans certainly had a knack for decadent foods.

As the evening wore on, strains of music drew her drew her to a club, which she found amusing since this was a characteristic assigned by humans to her people, and one of the few that was often accurate. She found where the music was coming from and had to smile. The establishment was called The Siren and seemed to be perfectly named. Reading the sign out front, she wasn’t certain what jazz was, but the music playing was so enticing, she followed it in.

The place was crowded. Lyria maneuvered her way around the bodies, not particularly comfortable with their proximity. She was grateful when she found a single seat at a long wooden bar where people were enjoying multicolored drinks. She saw one go by with salt around the rim and decided it was something she’d enjoy. After asking the woman passing the drink what it was called, she ordered her first margarita. When the pretty concoction arrived, she took a small taste and was delighted with her choice. Cool, salty and tart, it started a tingle in her stomach she recognized as an effect of alcohol. Knowing her susceptibility to the substance—merfolk were not particularly good with spirits, even those who had a higher percentage of human blood—she made a mental note to drink slowly.

Continuing to sip her drink, Lyria turned to face the room and took in the sea of humanity. From what she could tell, the people were mostly young, some sitting drinking in groups or couples, others dancing on the center floor. Their movements were beautiful and often seductive. When Lyria opened her senses, she discovered the atmosphere was charged with desire, something that made her tingle more than the margarita.

She enjoyed watching them dance, some trying to impress the person they were with or attract the attention of another, some allowing the music to guide them. There was an unexpected beauty to the color and form mixing together. When a woman bobbled in her dance moves, Lyria looked down at her feet and saw, to her horror, the woman wore shoes with ridiculously high heels. Amina had a pair like that. She loved human fashion. Stilettos she called them. They did indeed resemble knives. Lyria’s feet ached at the thought of being forced into something so confining. Flexing her toes in the borrowed sequined flats she wore, she was grateful Amina had packed something more comfortable.

As Lyria watched, her heart jumped in surprise when she saw the man from the ocean across the room. The Goddess continued to smile on her.

He was so much better-looking up close. Strong features were kept from being intimidating by a cleft in his chin and a dimple on the left side that showed when he smiled. In the dark she couldn’t see their color clearly, but she remembered his eyes were gray. Tonight they were outlined by brows which were often drawn down.

Perhaps, Lyria thought, she could find a way to soften his expression.