“I already told you, I am not a mermaid.” He said the word like it tasted bad.
“Merman, then?” I teased.
“No.” He looked so insulted that I almost took offense myself—but since I wasn’t overly happy about that part of my heritage either, I thought it might be hypocritical to call him on his obvious distaste for the things.
“So are we going to play twenty questions all morning or are you just going to tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
I rolled my eyes. “Come on, Kona. Spill it. If you’re not a mermaid, then what exactly are you?”
My question hung in the air between us as Kona studied me, almost as if he was trying to assess how I’d react to his answer. I have to admit I was getting a little nervous—the way he was acting, I was afraid he would admit to being a bloodsucking octopus himself. So when he finally shrugged and said simply, “I’m a selkie,” I didn’t know whether to be relieved or confused.
I spent the better half of the next minute racking my brain, trying to remember exactly what a selkie was. I had heard the word before, but the definition danced just out of reach. Admittedly, I wasn’t exactly up on my mythical, or in this case not-so-mythical, water creatures, but I was pretty sure I remembered reading something about them at some point.
A picture of the creatures I’d seen earlier formed in my head and everything suddenly clicked into place. Before I could think better of it, I blurted out, “You’re a sea lion?”
“I’m a selkie.” This time the words came out through gritted teeth. “It’s an entirely different thing.”
“Okay. Right. Yeah. Of course.” My mind was whirling. “But still, you’re a shape-shifter. You change from human to …” I trailed off, not wanting to use the dreaded “sea lion” words again.
“Right.” It was coming back to me now. There’d been a story about selkies in a book of sea tales my mother had read to me when I was little. “And you have a pelt, don’t you, that you slip off when you’re on land?”
A horrible thought occurred to me. “Did you leave it in San Diego, near my house? Is that why you’re still …” I gestured to his human form.
“No. I’m in human form because I was expecting you.” He grinned. “And because I prefer it. I always have my pelt with me.” He gestured to his necklace.
“That’s what’s in the pouch?” I asked, amazed. I stepped closer to get a better look at the thing.
“But how does it fit? I mean, you’re huge and that thing is …”
“Shrinking the pelt is an easy spell. Not all selkies can do it, but my family’s pretty gifted with magic—not to mention paranoid about keeping our pelts with us at all times.”
I thought of the story my mother had told me, about the woman who had bound a selkie to her by holding on to his seal skin. “If somebody finds it, you’re under their control, right? You can’t shift back and you can’t leave them, ever.”
“That’s right.” The smile had faded from his face.
“No wonder you keep it with you.” I shuddered at the thought of being held against my will. The whole mermaid thing was bad enough, but jeez. The selkies had it so much worse. “I’d never let it out of my sight.”
He laughed then, and I watched in amazement as everything about him relaxed. Strange that I hadn’t realized how tense he was until he’d loosened up.
“What’s so funny?”
I faked a scowl. “I’m pretty sure I should take offense at that.”
“You shouldn’t. It’s just crazy that I spent so much time worrying about how you would react when you found out I was …”
I started to ask him why he’d worried about my reaction, but the look in his eyes said it all. Dark, intense, and so hot I could barely breathe, it told me all I needed to know about Kona’s feelings for me.
He inched closer and my heartbeat kicked up until it could keep time with the drums in an eighties heavy-metal song. My palms grew damp and my tongue twisted around itself. There was so much I wanted to say to him, but I didn’t have a clue how to start.
And in the end, I didn’t have to. He broke the silence first. “By the way, I wanted to thank you in person. You kept me alive until my brothers could find me. I appreciate it.”
I remembered the wrinkly black hands that had pulled him from my arms. “Those guys who took you—they were your brothers?”
“My three younger brothers, yes.”
“How did they know you were in trouble?”
He shrugged. “It just works that way. How did I know you were below, looking for me?”
It just works that way. Great. Too bad it hadn’t worked like that for me—I could have saved myself a completely useless swim. I shook my head, not believing how idiotic I must look. He’d been completely safe, yet I’d plunged into the ocean after him, thinking that he needed to be rescued. What a joke.
“Don’t do that.” Kona grabbed my hand, held it tight.
“Coming after me was the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me—don’t feel stupid about it.”
I could feel the red stain creeping over my neck and up my cheeks. “I told you to stay out of my head.”
“This time I wasn’t in your head, I promise. I’m just getting to know your expressions.”
“Come on, Tempest. I swear, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.” Kona’s breath quickened and he moved even closer. So close that I could see the rise and fall of his chest. So close that I could feel his warm breath as it fanned against my cheek.
In that moment, I finally understood the meaning of the phrase “cut the tension with a knife.” If the air around us got any thicker, I swear we’d be able to spoon it up like ice cream.
Heat bloomed inside of me, chased away the last of the chill that had dogged me since I stepped out of the ocean. It embarrassed me, scared me, so I ducked my head and let my still-damp hair fall over my face.
He reached out, pushed the hair back. Stroked the palm of his hand down my cheek and tilted my face up to meet his. For a minute, as our eyes locked, my brain stopped working. Just utterly and completely short-circuited as I remembered what his lips had felt like against my own.
“I—” My throat closed up from sheer nervousness, which was probably a good thing because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say anyway. Certainly not that I cared about Kona or that I was attracted to him or that when I closed my eyes and thought about the future, more often than not it was his face that I saw. I wasn’t ready to say that—wasn’t sure I was even ready to feel it, not when I still had such complicated feelings for Mark too.
Kona must have sensed my confusion because he pulled away before I did something stupid, like melted right into him and forgot all about Mark and my family and the crazy sea witch who seemed to be carrying the mother of all grudges against me.