This time Isabel didn't argue with her about her hair. She seemed mollified that CC was willing to wear her shift under the coarse night robe, and CC solved the bathing problem by saying she was too tired to wash that night—she would do it in the morning. Isabel had even appeared concerned at CC's obvious exhaustion and nagged her good-naturedly about doing too much too soon. CC agreed readily with her and asked only that Isabel make sure she wasn't disturbed so that she could get a good night's rest. Isabel limped out, humming happily as her charge pretended to fall asleep before the scullery had finished folding her clothes and banking the fire.
As soon as the door was closed CC leapt out of bed, pulled the scratchy robe off and put on her shoes. The clank of her many bracelets sounded like alarm bells ringing in the quiet room, and she quickly took off all her jewelry, except, of course, Gaea's amulet, leaving the bangles and rings in a sparkling puddle in the center of her cot. Pressing her ear against the door, she listened intently. She could hear nothing—not even the sound of the monks' swooshing robes.
"They're probably all in church or something," CC muttered to herself.
She went to the narrow dresser and set the pitcher and bowl carefully on the floor. Then, very slowly, so that she didn't make any noise, she dragged the heavy piece of furniture over to the window. Using the bottom drawers as ladder rungs, she climbed to its smooth top. CC breathed a sigh of relief. It was the perfect height. All she had to do was sit in the narrow window frame and let her legs dangle down until she found a toehold. And she'd noticed on her walk that there was a lot of debris outside against the wall. She shouldn't have any trouble piling enough up so that she could easily climb back through the window.
She peered into the night. The moon had just risen. It was almost full, and it glistened off the waiting ocean like a beacon. When she looked at the water, the ache in her body twisted unbearably. Nothing moved outside her window. She slid onto the windowsill. With her soft, moccasin-like slippers, it was easy for her to find a toehold, balance and then drop quietly to the grassy ground. Her feet felt light as she picked her way carefully down the side of the cliff, following the well-worn sheep path. She could hear her own heartbeat echo the sound of the waves.
Then her feet sank into sand, and she was standing on the shore, quivering with need.
What am I supposed to do? CC's mind screamed. She was panting, and she felt disoriented.
"Simply call your true body to you, Daughter."
Smiling graciously at her, Gaea was sitting near the beach leaning comfortably against the trunk of an ancient tree.
"I don't know how," CC gasped.
"Your body does. Listen to it," the goddess reassured her.
CC tried to listen, but all she could hear was the call of the water.
'Then follow that call," Gaea said, as if she could read her mind.
CC started to walk forward, but paused when the god-dess called, "Take off your chemise. You do not want them to have any evidence of where you have been."
Without any hesitation, CC pulled off her shift. Naked except for the goddess's sparkling amulet, she walked into the ocean's embrace. Stretching her arms over her head, she dove into the surf. I want my true body back, she thought desperately. The tingling began at her waist and spread quickly down her body, exploding in a burst of energy out through the feathered fins that replaced her feet. Her powerful tail sliced through the water, propelling her forward. Then, with a simple flick she changed directions and shot up through the surface with a joyous shout. CC shook the water from her head and looked for the goddess, but she had disappeared.
She was about to call a thank-you, or a good-bye, or something, after the absent goddess, when she felt the skin on the back of her neck twitch. Just like it felt at the cove, she thought. Someone had to be watching her.
A familiar chattering behind CC made her jump, but she turned with a happy cry of welcome.
"It is you! I'm so glad to see you." CC swam over to the dolphin and stroked her slick side.
I have missed you, Princess. The dolphin nuzzled her.
"I've missed you, too," CC said. "Swim with me—I want to be surrounded by the water."
Of course, Princess!
The dolphin butted CC playfully, then dove under the waves. Laughing, CC followed. Surprisingly, it wasn't dark under the moonlit surface. The crystal waters seemed to capture the light of the moon and the underwater world was illuminated with a silver glow. CC was thrilled by how easily she caught the dolphin and she reveled in the power of her body as the two of them played tag, swimming around the rocks that dotted the shallows, then over and through colorful masses of coral that grew in deeper water. CC wanted to swim on forever. The deeper within the water she swam, the more she wanted to immerse herself in the silken depths and never leave.
A strong hand grabbed her arm and jerked her to a stop.
CC whirled, at once frightened and angry. Dylan floated in front of her, worry creasing his brow.
The goddess told you that you must stay near the shore. The words bored into her mind.
A shudder passed through CC. How could she have forgotten about Sarpedon? She looked frantically around.
Sarpedon is not here tonight, but he does search the waters for you, so you must have care where you go.
How do you know all of this? CC thought to him.
Come near the shore, and I will explain.
The dolphin swam back between them, clicking and whistling restlessly. CC watched the merman's face soften as he gently touched the creature's blue-gray side.
I will care for the princess now, faithful one.
The dolphin ducked her head, nuzzled briefly against CC's side and then disappeared into the depths.
Dylan gestured towards the shore, and CC nodded. She followed the merman, noticing how in the moonlit water the orange and gold of his tail glistened like it glowed magically from within.
They surfaced next to one of the huge rocks that lined the shallows. CC faced the merman. Tonight his thick dark hair was tied back. He floated next to her with his shoulders and most of his chest exposed above the water. The moonlight touched his bare chest and clearly illuminated muscular ridges and hollows. CC still felt a little uneasy at her own body's nakedness, and she was glad that her mass of hair covered her breasts.
"Okay, now tell me how you know so much," CC demanded, covering her nervousness with a no-nonsense military tone of voice.
"I followed you."
"After you just happened to be there to rescue me and bring me to shore?" CC shook her head. "That doesn't explain enough. You were there when I was drowning, and now you're here again tonight. Seems too coincidental for me."
"I followed you from the grotto," he admitted, looking away from her with a pained expression. "I did not know Sarpedon had you trapped in the cave. I knew something was very wrong when I could not find you for the length of an entire day. It was only after you escaped from him that I found you again. I followed you to the goddess's cove, and I watched your transformation. That is how I knew to help you when you were drowning."
"So you know that I'm not really Undine?"
"I know that the soul of another lives in Undine's body," he answered simply.
"You say that so easily, like it's a normal thing. You obviously knew Undine before. Doesn't this surprise you, or upset you, or make you angry? Why are you willing to help me when you know that I'm not her?"
"Undine and I were childhood playmates. We spent many years together," he explained, choosing his words carefully. "But she was not happy here. She longed for the land even before Sarpedon desired her."
"Did you love her?" CC asked, suddenly understanding the strained expression on the merman's face.
Dylan's jaw tightened, but he nodded his head. "Yes, but she would not allow herself to love a creature of the seas."
"But she was a mermaid—and that is definitely a creature of the sea."
"When you are on the land, your body is human, is it not?" Dylan asked.
"Yes, of course."
"But do you not long continually for the water?"
CC's memory of that horrible, empty ache was sharp. "Yes, constantly."
Dylan's smile was sad. "That is how Undine felt. I am glad for her. She has finally been granted her wish and her longing has ended."
"Then you're helping me out of love for her." CC was ashamed of the twinge of jealousy she felt.
"I could not very well let you drown." Dylan's sudden grin was boyishly endearing. He reached out to pluck a long piece of seaweed from CC's hair. "And you know nothing of how to be a creature of the sea."
CC surprised herself by batting playfully at his hand. "And you're going to teach me?"
He raised one eyebrow at her rakishly. "That I will, my princess."
CC's heart did a little skip beat at his expression. Did his words have a double meaning, or was she being too sensitive?
CC told herself firmly not to be ridiculous. He was being kind to her because he was in love with Undine. Well, she could certainly allow herself the pleasure of his company—and she truly had a lot to learn about his world. She spread her arms, meaning to encompass the entire ocean. "Good! I want to know everything."
"Everything?" He crossed his arms. CC thought if he'd had feet, he would have tapped one of them at her.
"How about everything in this little area around here—for starters."
"That can be easily accomplished." He held his hand out to her, enchanted by her innocent enthusiasm. "Come with me; I will show you the wonders of our world."
CC put her hand in his. At his touch, she felt a shiver of excitement, but she didn't have time to dwell on her reaction because immediately he dove, tugging her under the surface with him.
Hand-in-hand they swam around the shallows. Dylan seemed to know just where the most unusual fish were playing and where the most colorful coral grew. He showed CC long, orange tubes, bright red fans and purple rectangles—all of which he explained were types of sponges. He pointed out a large, flabby-nosed octopus that rested sedately on the sandy bed; CC laughed and thought it looked like a wrinkled old man. The octopus seemed to take offense and swam off in a jet of dark ink, which made both of them laugh. Like underwater angels, jellyfish floated silently past them, ethereal and translucent. Huge, bloblike sea anemones enchanted CC with their lilac coloring, and she was intrigued by their friends, the brightly colored clown fish.
And Dylan was intrigued by this new Undine. It had been true that at first he had watched over her because she had taken the form of the mermaid he had known and loved all his life, but her physical form was where any similarity between them ended. The mermaid Undine had been a beautiful, ethereal creature who was kind, but aloof. She had been his friend, but she had always yearned to be something else, somewhere else. This new Undine was so very different. She seemed to be bursting with energy and curiosity. She embraced the sea as if she couldn't get enough of it. Her endless questions were laced with humor and a sweetness that moved the merman more than he wanted to admit.
She, too, was a creature of the land, he reminded himself. She belonged there; he belonged to the seas.
Dylan had been so patient with her many questions that CC had thought that he was actually enjoying himself, so she was a little surprised when he pulled her away from a cluster of feathery starfish and back to the surface.
"What—" she started to ask, but the predawn lightening of the morning sky was explanation enough. "Oh. I hadn't realized so much time had passed."
"It is almost dawn," he said. His face, which had been so expressive and animated all night, was now neutral. "You must return to the land."
CC nodded, biting her lower lip. "You were the perfect teacher. Thank you."
His quick smiled warmed her. "In the oceans we say that the teacher is only as good as the student."
"Well, isn't that a coincidence?" CC grinned back at him. "We say the same thing on land."
Dylan's laughter, rich and deep, surrounded them. They were still holding hands, and she used her free hand to splash water at him.
"It's not very dignified for a teacher to laugh at his student."
Dylan tried to compose his face, but his eyes sparkled with good humor as he teasingly bowed his head to her. "Forgive me, my princess. It has been an honor to be your teacher."
Dylan lifted her hand, meaning only to give it a gallant, playful kiss, but when his lips met her skin all thoughts of jesting with her fled his brain. He breathed deeply, and her delicate, feminine scent filled him. Her skin was unbearably soft, and he couldn't stop himself from turning her hand over and pressing his lips to the pulse point at her wrist. He felt her tremble, and he lifted his face slowly, afraid he would see rejection in her eyes. She was staring at him, and in her eyes he thought he read passion, not disgust. His mind registered her expression, and even though he knew he should not touch her, should not allow himself to love her, he could not stop. The way she looked at him made him feel as if his heart would break from happiness.
"When you touch me," CC said softly, "you make me tremble."
Still holding her hand, Dylan drifted closer to her until their bodies almost touched. "Is that because I frighten you?" he asked. Maybe he had misread her eyes. His heart stopped beating as he waited for her answer.
"No," her voice sounded breathless.
Slowly, she reached up and touched the side of his face. She let her fingers trail down his neck and shoulder until they finally came to rest against his chest. He quivered under her caress.
"Is that because I frighten you?" she whispered his words back to him.
"No," he said quickly. Then he captured her eyes with his. "What is your name?"
The question surprised her, and, not knowing what he meant, she hesitated to answer him.
"I want to know your true name," he explained. "I do not want you to think I care for you only because I wish to be with Undine."
CC could feel her cheeks coloring. She hadn't been thinking that; she hadn't been thinking about anything except the way it felt when he touched her.
"My real name is Christine Canady, but almost everyone calls me by my initials, CC."
He raised one brow at her. "Almost? Who does not call you by these initials?"
"Then I ask that I be awarded that privilege. May I call you Christine?"
"Yes." She thought her name had never sounded so beautiful.
"Christine, when will you return to the water?" Again, he tried to keep his face neutral, but she heard the longing in his voice.
"I have to come back every third night." Under the palm she still had pressed against his chest she could feel his heartbeat. "Will you be here?"
He was caressing her hand softly with his thumb, just like he had done on the day they had met.
"I will be here every third night until the end of eternity."
At his words her heart lurched, but the thought instantly went through her mind that even though she didn't want to leave the water or him, she didn't have a choice. She wasn't safe in the water. Dylan had said Sarpedon was searching for her—it was only a matter of time until he found her again. Could Dylan protect her? She remembered Sarpedon's size and incredible strength and blocked that thought from her mind. She wouldn't put Dylan in danger.
"I have to change back," she said aloud. As soon as she had spoken the words, she felt the already familiar tingling begin around her waist. Heat shot down her body and an instant later she was kicking her legs feebly and clutching Dylan's chest to keep from slipping under the water.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't know it would be that easy to change back."
His strong arms wrapped around her waist and he held her securely against him.
His smile was sad. "I understand. You must go." But neither of them moved.
"I wish you would kiss me," CC said the words quickly, before she could take them back.
With a moan, he bent his head to hers and their lips touched, gently at first. CC shivered in response.
Against her lips Dylan again asked one last time, "Not frightened?"
For her answer CC lifted her chin and recaptured his lips. Winding her hands around his neck, she pressed herself against his body and opened her mouth to accept him.
His hands caressed her back and then slid to her sides and up, so that his thumbs rubbed erotic circles across the edges of her breasts. CC was lost in the taste of him, which was salty and wild. Her body was on fire and his mouth consumed her.
The tolling of the bell that called the monks to early Mass splintered their world. Dylan broke the kiss and for a moment he rested his forehead against hers while he forced his breathing under control.
"I will take you to the shore."
He leaned back, pulling her up on his chest so that she lay more securely in his arms. With strong strokes of his tail, he swam slowly backwards, with CC nestled against him. When the water was shallow enough to allow her to stand, Dylan loosened his grip and she slid out of his arms.
"I want to kiss you again," he told her. "But I am afraid if I do so, I will never be able to let you go."
CC felt tears burning in her throat and she nodded, not trusting herself to speak. She walked out of the water and back to where she'd left her crumpled shift and shoes. She couldn't look at the water. She didn't want to see him disappearing under the waves. Without looking back, CC pulled on her clothes and started toward the path.
"Christine," Dylan's voice carried easily over the water.
She turned. He was floating exactly where she'd left him.
"Remember that I will be here," he said resolutely. "For an eternity, Christine. I would wait for you for an eternity."
She nodded again and turned to begin her trip up the side of the cliff. This time the path wasn't obscured by darkness, but by her tears.
Dylan watched her go, keeping his eyes on her until she was only a light-colored smudge that climbed up and over the side of the cliff. His heart ached as she disappeared. Why was he doing this to himself? He raked his hand through his hair. Like his mother before him, was he forever fated to love the unattainable?
He could still feel the softness of her lips against his. He clenched his jaw. He wanted her, and not because she wore
Undine's body. He wanted Christine, her sweet humor and her exuberance.
He thought about the innocent trust she had shown him as she had rested in his arms, and her passionate response to his touch. His heart made the decision for him. If he could only have her every third night, then so be it. He would love her, and, just perhaps, this time he would break the cycle and be loved in return.
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