May 5th, 412 Days to Departure
SOMETHING WAS WRONG. Emma felt it in the dark storm raging around her. Felt it in the cold rain peppering the surface of the sea. Felt it with each jagged gasp of salt water that filtered through her gills. Trepidation twisted her insides into tight knots, leaving her muscles quivering with anxiety. Normal people don’t risk swimming in a storm—but Emma Harris didn’t have that luxury. The turbulent spray curled up and crashed hard against the distant shore and the wind howled, creating a churning, ripping undertow that would drown even the strongest swimmer.
Well, the fully human ones, at least.
Emma’s muscles screamed, but kept her gliding, fast—faster than should be possible—as her body took what it needed from the ocean. The ebb and flow, more than just waves and wind, sounded like war drums, a continuous heartbeat of a living, breathing being controlled by the moon’s gravitational pull. That beat thrummed in her ears, sucked her body back, and shoved her forward, stroke after endless, exhilarating stroke, compounding her apprehension until she made it to the sharp rocks that led to the patch of sandy shore, still unsure what battle awaited her. When her head broke the surface, Emma gasped, her gills closing as her lungs filled with the sweet, fulfilling oxygen that could calm her mind in a way only saltwater could calm her body.
Hard drops of rain pelted her bare back and shoulders as she pulled herself onto the ledge and scooted across the rocks to lie on the sand, fully exposing her developing scales to the fresh water falling from the dark night sky. Her hand automatically went to her neck, where the thin slits of her gills settled below the surface of her skin.
Breath drove her into the water and breath pulled her back out. She was torn between the sustaining forces of saltwater and air—both necessary. For now. Eventually, the sea would fully claim her.
Unable to shake the dread in her chest, she dragged herself across the stony beach. The soft skin on her palms stung, scraped and cut from the rocks, and exhaustion made her limbs heavy, but she kept moving, scrubbing the salt off her legs with the aid of sand and rain, feeling rushed for no reason she could name. Drops pinged off the abalone shell hanging from her pearl necklace, creating a unique music few but Emma would ever appreciate. When the full moon peeked through the clouds, she inched backward, careful not to tear her swimsuit on the rough ground, until she reached the natural alcove where she’d hidden her clothes.
Strange to think that only a handful of hours ago, she’d spun slow circles in her prom dress with Tom, and now she was partnered with a tumultuous storm instead.
A flash of lightning rent the sky, illuminating her secret alcove long enough for her to see Merrick step from the recessed shadows near the cave wall. His sudden appearance—in addition to his complete lack of clothes—startled a scream out of her.
“What do you want?” She averted her eyes, heart racing as she forced herself not to look. Why was he here, and how long had he been watching her? She retrieved her towel, desperate to wrap up—hide herself—as she dried her now skin-soft legs, emotions swirling. Was he the reason sick fear curled in her stomach?
The merman seemed oblivious to Emma’s disjointed emotional state. “Fifteen moon cycles left.”
Emma squeezed her eyes shut, swallowing a knot of pain. “How could I possibly forget? I already struggle to breathe on land sometimes.”
He stepped toward her. “Tangaroa has given you to me for a mate. We will join upon your permanent return.”
His words sent a chill up Emma’s spine. It had nothing to do with the storm raging around them, and everything to do with the one swirling inside her. She’d suddenly become betrothed without ever having visited the place she was supposed to be living within the next year. “Mate? He has given me to you? But you’re way older than me.”
“Age has little to do with the will of the Sea King.” He waved a dismissive hand, walking nearer.
Everything about Merrick’s world seemed foreign, unreal. Though she’d known about Atlantis for a while, understood that she would physically have no choice but to live there someday, she despised its very existence, dreaded with blind terror a future she couldn’t even picture. “I don’t belong in Atlantis, Merrick. Oceanside has been my home for sixteen years. My family is here, and my friends. I have a life. I don’t want to leave.”
She thought of Tom, and wondered if she would miss him the same way she’d miss the sunshine, driving her car, Gram, her mother, father, and Keith. Somehow, she doubted it.
A wrinkle formed between Merrick’s brows. “But you must. Once your gills develop, you will need the sea water to survive. You cannot change the natural progression of life. ”
Under the cover of her towel, Emma wiggled into her jeans and tank top. “Natural progression or not, I was meant to be human. Why else did the Sea King—or my parents or whoever made the freak decision—leave me ashore in the first place?”
“We cannot care for a human-ish youngling ashore, and you cannot survive the sea until your gills have fully developed.” His green eyes caught hers, held, and the harsh honesty in them made Emma pause in the act of pulling a hooded sweatshirt over her head. “There is no way around it,” he said. “You waste energy in empty wishing. Tangaroa’s word is law.”
“Not my law.” Emma crammed the towel into her bag and slid her feet into flip-flops, then pushed past Merrick. “I don’t want a mate. Tell the Sea King I turned you down.”
Emma knew he couldn’t hear her murmurs of complaint over the wind, but didn’t care. She didn’t plan on letting anyone—Sea King or not—force her into something she didn’t want to do.
Merrick wouldn’t shadow her up the steep, rocky path to where she’d left her car—too much insecurity away from the water. But she felt his eyes follow her every step of the way. That same tumbling dread gnawed at her. She picked up the pace, leaving him behind to go back to her real life. The only one she’d ever known, and the only one she really intended to live.
After the difficult swim, hiking up the slope was more work than she remembered, and Emma’s steps slowed as her strength dwindled. Her muscles shook as she dug in her bag for keys.
She crested the hill, stopping when she saw the familiar figure across the road, illuminated by the beam of a streetlight. Tom leaned against her driver’s-side door, still wearing the tux he’d worn when he dropped her off at home over two hours ago. The white-and-pink boutonniere hadn’t even started to wilt yet.
Goose bumps prickled up and down her body. She swallowed and approached tentatively, uneasiness tightening her shoulders, skittering up her neck. “Hey, Tom.”
“Have a nice swim?” He didn’t smile or reach out to pull her into his arms as he had earlier. Didn’t even move away so she could get in the car. Just stared, his jaw clenched in anger, eyes full of bitter loathing Emma knew was born from misunderstanding.
“The water’s too rough for swimming.” Her heart mimicked the thunder shaking the sky as she popped the trunk with the key fob and walked around the car to put distance between her and Tom.
He followed, stone-faced. “What happened to, ‘Tom, I’m not feeling well. Take me home so I can go to bed’ instead of heading to the after-prom party in Mark’s hotel room?” His eyes absorbed her dripping hair and trailed to her wrinkled toes. “Obviously, you’re not in bed. So where have you been, Emma?” Her name whipped from his mouth like he’d just tasted something bitter.
Emma cringed, fear skittering up and down her spine. How could she possibly explain that she needed the saltwater to ease the tightness in her chest, to help her breathe? She dropped her bag in the open trunk, but Tom grabbed her arm before she could close it, his fingers digging into the tender skin beneath her sleeve. “I asked you a question.”
“The beach.” She tried to pull away, but he only held tighter.
“In this weather? Doing what? And with who?” His lips pressed tight against his teeth, his eyes flashing.
Emma twisted, trying in vain to loosen his grasp on her arm. He pulled the towel out of her bag with his free hand and shoved it in her face while the rain continued to pelt them.
“What about this, huh? You going to tell me it’s soaked from the rain?”
“I wrapped it around my shoulders to keep warm.”
“What’s his name?”
“The naked guy you were with down there.”
Emma felt the blood drain from her face as the breath caught in her throat. “I didn’t . . . It’s not what you think.”
“Like hell it isn’t. Don’t try to tell me you weren’t naked down there too. I’m not stupid, Emma.”
“I . . .” She swallowed, shaking, her brain scrambling frantically for an explanation, but all she could think of was the truth—which she couldn’t give him.
“That’s what I thought.” He growled a stream of profanities that stung Emma’s ears and brought hot tears to her eyes. His muscles bulged as he slammed the trunk and yanked her around until she was wedged between him and the car.
“Don’t lie to me. Don’t. Ever. Lie to me. All this time, I’ve given you your space, been gentle and careful because I thought you were so innocent. So pure. What a load of shit.” His body trembled with rage as he pressed closer, grabbing her other arm, his breath hot in her face. “I believed you. I respected you. I loved you.”
Emma’s arms throbbed under Tom’s grip, but she wasn’t as concerned about bruises as she was about the fury in his eyes. She’d never seen that look before, and it turned her already-cool blood to ice. Her voice quivered. “I’m not lying. It’s not what you think. I . . . I love you too.”
The sting of his hand across her cheek left her eyes watering. He hit me. I can’t believe he hit me. Shock rendered her speechless, immobile. He’d never hit her before.
“Shut up,” he growled. “Don’t you say that. Don’t you ever say that to me again.”
The second blow involved knuckles and sent her sprawling against the car. A starburst of pain exploded near Emma’s eye when the side of her head smacked the back windshield. She pushed up onto her elbows, trying to focus, needing to get away, but her head spun, and she slipped on the wet surface. Drips of warmth rolled down the side of her face, but whether it was blood or rain, Emma couldn’t tell.
“Keys,” she murmured. “What happened to my keys?”
“You’re not going anywhere.” In the space of a single flash of lightning, Tom hauled her over his shoulder and into a small grove of citrus trees on someone’s private property. She tried to scream, but his shoulder dug into her stomach, and she couldn’t catch enough breath. Tom tossed her on the ground. When his heavy weight pinned her down, Emma found a well of reserved strength and fought back. She punched, kicked, bit, and finally screamed. She struggled with everything she had until the lights went on in a nearby house and someone came outside, shouting.
Emma screamed harder, crying, shuddering, and then weeping with relief when Tom sprang up and ran away as a beam of light fell across her face and the person—definitely male—shouted again.
None of his words registered as anything other than loud. A blanket fell over her and someone tried to take her hand, but she refused it, curling on her side and turning her face into the rain-soaked grass, sobbing until the sound of her voice was drowned out by the wail of sirens.
I’ll never trust a boy again.