“Mark.” I didn’t know what to say, how to feel, with the intensity of his emotions laid out between us.
“It’s okay. I know you’re not sure you feel the same way. I just—”
In the hallway, the clock struck midnight. Heat worked its way through my body, a kind of sparkling warmth that lit me up from the inside. Was it the change or was it Mark? I didn’t know and in those moments, I didn’t care.
“I do love you. I love you so much, Mark.” The words burst from me, and as soon as I said them I wondered why it had taken me so long to get them out. Mark was everything I wasn’t—steady, sure, confident in himself and the world he lived in. I didn’t deserve him, but I wanted him and everything he stood for. For whatever time my mother’s legacy allowed me, I would take him.
I threw myself on top of him, suddenly unable to touch him enough. My hands skimmed over his shoulders, down his back, up his chest. I fumbled his T-shirt over the flat expanse of his stomach, relished the feel of his hot skin against my cold palms.
“Tempest!” He pulled me closer, glancing uneasily up the stairs as he did. “Your dad …”
I followed his gaze. The door to my dad’s office was firmly shut and I knew he wouldn’t bother me—at least not right now. Not on what might be my last night as a human.
“Kiss me.” I didn’t care if I was begging. “Please, Mark. Just kiss me.”
And then he did, his mouth hungry and intense on my own. I wrapped my arms around his neck, plastered my body to his, and kissed him like the world was ending.
Kissed him like I would never get enough of him.
Kissed him and kissed him and kissed him until we both were hot and sweaty and more than a little breathless.
Mark pulled away first, his breath heavy and eyes dark. Setting me on the other side of the sofa, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a flat, gold box. I was gratified to see that his hand was trembling when he handed it to me—that I wasn’t the only one feeling out of control. I was so turned on and shaky that I felt like a snapper could not just knock me over, but bury me as well.
“What is it?” Was that my voice, I wondered wildly, all low and husky and sexy like that?
Mark’s eyes darkened to almost black, and I realized that yes, I was the one who sounded like she’d just rolled out of bed.
“Open it and find out.”
My fingers were clumsy as I fumbled the purple ribbon off the box. I didn’t know what I was expecting, didn’t know what I thought I’d see when I lifted the top. But nothing could have prepared me for what I found.
For a second, I thought the back of my head was going to blow straight off.
Shock ricocheted through me, had me dropping the box like it was a jellyfish about to sting.
Mark picked it up, looked down at the necklace inside, as if searching for what had set me off. “What’s wrong? Don’t you like it?”
What could I say? How could I not like it when any normal girl would be gushing like Old Faithful?
“Of course I do. It’s beautiful.”
And it was beautiful, absolutely stunning. I needed to reach for the box, needed to coo over the gift and let Mark fasten it around my neck. Needed to rush to a mirror and see how it looked.
But I could do none of that—not when I was shaking so violently I could barely hold it together. Not when my world felt like it had just caved in around me.
“Tempest?” Mark’s voice was concerned. “I can get you something else. It’s just that when I saw it, it made me think of you.”
I looked down at the gold collar. It was designed to wrap around my neck like a lover’s hand, the gold soft and supple and perfectly rendered so that the two ends almost met in front. One end was a beautifully crafted tail, dotted with purple and blue stones, which led into a flowing body that would wrap around my neck before the other end—which was a mermaid’s face and long, ruby-encrusted hair—came to rest in the center of my chest.
“How could I not like it?” I whispered sickly, even as I reached for the box. “It’s perfect.”
I lifted my hair out of the way, let him secure the collar around my neck before dutifully crossing the room to look in the closest mirror. Mark followed, stopping behind me with his hands on my shoulders as we both gazed at my reflection.
“Wow!” he breathed. “It looks like it was made for you.”
And it did. It really did. I stared at myself in the mirror and did my best not to scream.
I was afraid that once I started, I would never stop.
After assuring Mark I loved his gift, I walked him out to his bike and watched while he drove away. I knew he was confused, knew he’d expected to take up where we’d left off after he’d paused to give me my present, but the feel of the necklace hanging around my neck killed all of the heat he’d generated inside me.
The second he was out of sight, I ran upstairs and ripped the thing from my neck. I wasn’t sure what bothered me more—that he saw through me well enough to see the mermaid part I thought I’d kept hidden, or that he’d been right: the mermaid was perfect for me—it looked absolutely fabulous around my neck. Like it was designed just for me.
I shuddered at the thought.
“Tempest.” My dad opened my bedroom door a crack. “I wanted to talk to you for a few minutes.”
“Not now, Dad.”
“But we might not get another chance. I wanted you to know that I’ll understand if you choose to go with your mother. I—”
“I won’t.” I walked over to stand in front of my mirror, started cataloging all the human attributes I still had.
“But if you do—”
“Tempest, please, listen to me.”
“I can’t.” I hated the tears that clogged my throat, but I couldn’t stop them—any more than I could stop time from moving forward. “I can’t think about it, Dad. I just can’t.”
He started to say something else, but must have thought better of it because in the end he merely nodded. “Okay.”
His eyes met mine in the mirror. “Happy birthday, Tempest.”
“Yeah,” I choked out. “Thanks.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I waited for the door to close behind him, then flung myself across my bed in a fit of rage. I didn’t cry, not this time. The anger was too raw, too real, and for now I was all cried out.
A few minutes later my bedroom door opened again.
“I’m sorry. I can’t just walk away and leave you in here when I know you’re scared and miserable.”
“Don’t kid a kidder, sweetheart.” He crossed to the bed and for the first time I realized he was balancing a tray with a teapot and two cups on it. He’d brought me hot chocolate—my favorite make-it-all-better drink from the time I was a little girl.
My heart cracked wide open and I threw myself at him, so hard I nearly knocked the tray right out of his hands.
He paused long enough to set down the chocolate and then his arms were around me, his chin resting on the top of my head as he squeezed me so hard I could barely breathe. But I didn’t struggle—for now, the pressure felt more than good. It felt perfect.