“Like you don’t know?” He traced a light finger over my upper back. “That’s a frickin’ gorgeous tattoo. And it’s huge!” His hand skimmed down to the center of my back. “How long did it take you to get it inked?”
The throbbing in my back finally made sense. I stared at him, mutely, for as long as I dared, then muttered, “Not all that long actually.”
“No way! It looks like it should have taken hours.”
If he only knew.
It had taken seventeen years, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.
My birthday party was in full swing the next time someone commented on my new tattoo. I was hiding out on the family room balcony, trying to ignore the crowd that had invaded my house. I hadn’t wanted the party to begin with; when my dad had broached the subject a few weeks ago, I had turned him down flat. After all, the last thing I wanted my friends to see was me suddenly sprouting a six-foot tail.
But he had insisted, and what had started out as a small gathering of my closest friends had somehow turned into a party of more than fifty people. As the doorbell rang again, I hunched my shoulders against the cold and prepared for an excruciatingly long night.
“Tempest, what are you doing hiding out here?” I turned to see Mickey lounging in the doorway. She was wearing a pair of ripped, faded boyfriend jeans and a lacy white top that showed off her mocha-colored skin to its best advantage.
“I’m not hiding,” I lied. “I just needed to take a break for a second.”
“What for?” She crossed the balcony, handed me a Diet Coke. “There are some seriously fine guys in there—including yours—and you’d rather be out here, brooding into the ocean?”
“Mark will find me if he wants me.” I still felt guilty about kissing Kona, and right now the idea of facing my boyfriend was less than appealing.
“Of course he wants to see you—everyone does. This is your birthday party, after all.” She laid a hand on my shoulder, then drew it away quickly when I winced.
“Is it still tender?” she asked, pulling back to look at the crazy mixture of purple and magenta swirls that now decorated much of my back.
“Not really. I’m just not used to it yet.”
“I bet. But it’s gorgeous—really. I’ve never seen anything like it.” She pouted for a second. “I just wish you’d let me come with you when you got it done. Maybe I would have worked up the nerve to get one of my own.”
I didn’t know how to answer her, so I settled for a nod and a “sorry.”
“I really like the colors—this magenta is wicked hot.” She bent down a little, got closer to the part of my back exposed by my halter top, and I could almost see her squinting in that way she had when she was trying to figure something out.
“You know, it reminds me of the ocean.”
“What?” I whirled to face her. “How?” I’d studied the tattoo in my mirror for nearly an hour after I’d gotten back to the house today—had listened as my father told me of similar tattoos my mother had, although hers were emerald green. Neither of us had made the connection to the ocean—beyond, of course, the mermaid thing.
Which was bad enough. Yet somehow it felt even worse to know the changes were continuing after I’d had those few blissful, worry-free hours this morning, thinking the worst was behind me.
“They’re not waves.”
“No,” she agreed, tracing a light finger over one of the swirls. “I don’t mean literally like the water. Just—I don’t know. It’s more of an impression, you know? Like that painting you did a few months ago.”
I froze at her words, my mind jumping back to the painting she was referring to. It had made no sense to me at the time, the swirls and curlicues that had come pouring out of me without conscious thought. I had almost trashed it—I’m not normally what you would call an abstract painter—but in the end I had decided against it. Something appealed to me about the way the cacophony of colors shouted out from the canvas.
It was still in my room, buried in the corner behind a bunch of other canvases, some that were prepped and some that I had already used. I hadn’t thought of it in months, but now that Mickey had made the connection I could do nothing but think of its wild purples.
“We should probably go back in,” I said awkwardly, keeping my eyes from Mickey’s. Not only was she a good friend, but she was also a human lie detector—which made this whole mermaid thing just a little more difficult to pull off.
“That’s what I’ve been saying.” At that moment, someone put Beyoncé on the stereo and Mickey squealed.
“Come on, girl. You’ve got to dance to this one.” She grabbed my wrist and started dragging me toward the makeshift dance floor in the middle of my living room.
Dancing was the last thing on my mind, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer, and soon I found myself in the center of the floor, bumping and grinding with her and Bri and Scooter and Logan. Eventually Beyoncé shifted into Kings of Leon, and Mark joined me, his long, lean body pressing against mine from the back as his arms wrapped around my stomach.
“You look amazing,” he whispered in my ear, his peppermint-scented breath hot against my neck.
“It’s the necklace.” I touched his present awkwardly—it had taken me half an hour to work up the nerve to actually wear it, but the look in Mark’s eyes when he’d seen it around my neck had made the stress worthwhile.
“It’s you. You’re beautiful.”
I laughed. “Did someone spike the punch?”
“I wish you could see yourself the way I see you.”
My mouth went desert dry. I swallowed convulsively, trying to find the words to say what needed to be said.
But in the end, I couldn’t, instead choking out, “What do you see?” as I turned my head so I could look at his face. His eyes were a lush, warm chocolate that reminded me of all the little things I would give up if I became mermaid.
Walks through the nearby park with its rich vegetation and nearly overwhelming smell of jasmine.
Hand-in-hand excursions with Mark through Balboa Park with its abundant flowers and awe-inspiring museums.
Fast rides on his motorcycle.
Hot kisses stretched across his bed.
Rolling in the grass in the summertime.
Football on the front lawn in the fall.
The way he looked at me first thing in the morning, on our surf runs at dawn.
“Everything.” His lips brushed over my temple, down my cheek to the dimple at the corner of my mouth that I’ve always hated but that he loved to play with. “I see the whole world when I look at you, Tempest.”
His mouth skimmed down my jaw, nibbled at the sensitive skin of my neck. “I see the future. My future.”
His words were an open, aching wound inside me, yet I immersed myself in them anyway. Immersed myself in the husky rasp of his voice as he continued to whisper to me. Immersed myself in the fresh, clean scent of him as he surrounded me from all sides.
Was it selfish? Yes. Hurtful? I hoped not. As necessary to me as breathing? Absolutely. I wanted this moment, needed it, with a desperation that bordered on the insane.