How could I have kissed Kona when I was with Mark?
How could I face Mark tomorrow, knowing that I had betrayed him?
More immediate, how could I face Kona now? Or myself?
The questions bombarded me—held my attention for precious seconds as I tried to swallow my guilt and embarrassment—so that I missed whatever it was that had Kona cupping a hand around my elbow and propelling me back up the beach toward home.
“I’m sorry.” He ground out the words without looking at me.
I wanted to let him take the blame, but I couldn’t. He’d given me the chance to say no, had given me an out, and I hadn’t taken it. Instead, I’d kissed him.
“It’s not your fault.” I could feel my cheeks turning pink.
“Sure it is.” We kept walking, his long legs eating up the sand so that I was forced to nearly run to keep up. More than once I would have stumbled if he hadn’t been right there to hold me steady.
The storm kicked up another notch and behind me, the ocean thrashed and churned. Waves hit the sand with long, angry slaps that seemed to grow closer with each second that passed.
Kona’s pace grew even faster and more than once, I started to say something. But a glance at the ocean had me stumbling along behind him. Suddenly putting distance between me and the Pacific didn’t seem like such a bad thing.
As we walked, the sand clung to my toes and calves, its wet graininess like sandpaper chafing my too-sensitive skin. I didn’t complain—the clenched fist of Kona’s free hand spoke volumes—just went along with him until we were at the top of my driveway.
The storm died as suddenly as it had started.
In the glow of the lone streetlight, we faced each other. A part of me was horrified by what had just happened on the beach, but another part wanted nothing more than for Kona to kiss me again. No matter what I’d told myself this last week, I knew now that I’d been waiting for him to make a move from the first time I’d met him. Anticipating it, even.
I’d wondered what he would taste like, what his lips would feel like against mine. Now that I knew, it didn’t make things easier between us—just more complicated.
“Don’t go in the ocean at night, okay?”
Locked deep in thought, I took a minute to register his words. When I did, the annoyance came roaring back. One kiss didn’t give him the right to tell me what to do. “Why not?”
“Tempest.” He started to say something else, then shook his head regretfully. “Just trust me, okay?”
“How can I trust you when you won’t be honest with me?”
“I’m being as honest as I can be.”
“That’s bull. You’re being as honest as you want to be. It’s not the same thing.”
His eyes grew sad. “Maybe you’re right.” He turned to go.
“Why can’t you just tell me?” It was my turn to reach out for him, to grab his hand.
“Because you’re not ready for the answers yet.”
“I’m not ready for a lot of things, but it doesn’t seem like I’m getting a choice here. When we were out there, you said ‘she.’ Told me not to give in to ‘her.’ What did you mean?”
“I misspoke.” His voice was low, with a dangerous edge I had never heard from him before, but I was too pissed off to heed the warning.
“Yeah, right.” I dropped the hand I was holding, stumbled up the walk toward my house. Was this what Mark felt like when I put him off without answering his questions? I hoped not, because it totally sucked. “Go away, Kona.”
“Don’t go into the ocean in the dark, Tempest. I mean it.”
I whirled to face him. “Don’t tell me what to do. If you won’t be honest with me, you don’t have the right to expect anything from me.”
He made an exasperated sound, shoved a hand through his too-long hair, started to speak, then changed his mind as he glared at me. His jaw was clenched, the muscles of his shoulders and arms tight and well defined. Good—let him be frustrated for a while. It bugged the hell out of me that I felt so connected to him, felt so much for him, when he obviously didn’t feel the same way about me.
He didn’t say another word for long seconds and neither did I. Instead, I climbed the steps leading up to my front porch, sat on the top one, and waited for him to calm down.
It didn’t take as long as I thought it would, and then he was sitting next to me, his thigh grazing mine with each throbbing beat of his heart. Electricity shot through me with each innocent brush of his skin against my own, and I told myself to scoot away, to put some distance between us, but I couldn’t. The connection—when I was so adrift—felt too good.
“When I was young, my mother used to tell me fantastic stories, filled with faraway places and the most amazing magic.” His voice was hushed, his eyes focused straight ahead as he continued. “There were always strange creatures and awe-inspiring bravery. Always weird things happening and ferocious battles between good and evil.”
My whole body, my entire being, yearned toward him like a puppet on a string, dangling helplessly. Waiting for his next words and whatever truth they would bring.
“There was always a brave warrior who fought valiantly, suffering terrible wounds to save his people—and, of course”—he shot me a grin—“the beautiful maiden who depended on him. There was blood and swordplay, spells and magic wands. Destruction and salvation.” The smile faded and he turned to me. “And there was always the evil sea witch and the creatures who followed her—creatures who would do anything for her, kill anyone for her.”
“Are you telling me that’s what I felt out there? A sea witch?” I tried to tell myself I was crazy for even thinking about believing him, but everything that had happened tonight seemed to prove that he was telling the truth.
“She’s powerful, Tempest, and she wants you. She needs you. But you can’t give in to her.”
“Of course I won’t give in to her—I don’t even know who she is or what she wants!” Yet the insidious voice was still there in the back of my head, hissing at me, demanding that I find my way back to her.
“In my mother’s stories, the warrior always won. He rescued the princess and they lived happily ever after.”
“Like a fairy tale.”
“Exactly. But, like fairy tales, her stories were just make-believe, Tempest. Just made-up things to delight a young boy. The truth is—” He paused, and the look in his eyes was so vulnerable, so filled with sorrow and regret that it had my breath hitching in my throat. I found myself reaching for his hand and squeezing, wanting to chase away the demons that seemed to lurk right below his surface.
“The truth is,” he repeated, “that sometimes—most of the time—evil wins. The warrior dies and the beautiful maiden ends up suffering a fate worse than any she ever imagined.”
He blinked, and it was as if a shutter came down and blacked out his thoughts. He focused on me again as he ran his hand gently down the side of my face. His fingers were rough with calluses, and my heart, which had jumped to my throat at his words, fluttered like the wings of a captured bird.
“What are you, Kona? Are you a mer—” I paused. What were male mermaids called, anyway?