Chapter Fifteen

Dinner was already being served when CC and Andras entered the dining room. CC tried to ignore the frowning looks the monks shot her, but she felt a little like an errant Catholic schoolgirl who was being sent to the headmaster's office. Obviously, she was in trouble for missing communion.

CC struggled to keep her expression neutral as Abbot William stood and greeted Andras with effusive warmth, offering the knight his ring, which Andras kissed without hesitation. Although he ignored her, CC curtseyed respectfully to the priest before taking her seat.

A servant hustled over and filled her plate with a steaming lamb stew that made CC's mouth water. Another servant topped off her goblet with sweet white wine. CC drank deeply, enjoying the cool liquid.

"I noticed you refused to take Holy Communion, Princess Undine." The priest's voice was a whip.

CC furrowed her brow in confusion. "Refused? Why would I refuse Holy Communion, Abbot?" She shook her head. "I'm sorry you misunderstand. I discovered a beautiful statue of the Holy Mother, and I was simply overcome with emotion when I noticed its state of disrepair." CC met his cold gaze evenly, and she made sure her voice carried.

"I know how busy you must be, Abbot, so I am sure you had no idea that the Mother of God was being neglected."

The priest's face darkened, and his jaw clenched.

CC squeezed Andras's arm and smiled up at him. "I knew the abbot didn't realize the awful state of that statue."

"It was indeed fortuitous that you noticed it," Andras said.

CC brightened her face and laughed girlishly. "I have an idea! I will take special charge of the Blessed Mother's statue. While I'm here, it will be lovingly tended and restored to its original glory."

When Abbot William started to speak, her brilliant smile silenced him.

"There is no need to thank me." She beamed. Then CC deliberately mimicked the words he'd spoken to her the day before. "For this I seek a reward that cannot be found in this world."

The priest's eyes narrowed, but his lips smiled. "Of course, Princess. That is very"—he hesitated as if choosing his words carefully—"generous of you."

"I have noticed that there aren't many women here, so I suppose it's not surprising that the Holy Mother has been accidentally neglected." She looked at Andras and widened her eyes. "Maybe that's my purpose in coming here. Maybe the Holy Mother guided me to this shore, not just to save me, but to save her statue." And, she added silently, maybe if the knight believed she had been specially blessed by the Virgin, he would be less inclined to seduction and more inclined to respect.

Andras looked impressed. "Yes, Undine. I am quite certain the Holy Mother is watching over you."

The priest's voice sliced across the table. "It is good for a person to know one's purpose."

CC studied him over her goblet. "I agree completely with you, Abbot William."

The look the priest sent her was clearly adversarial. She met it with a forced smile.

"Father, I have been considering the move that lead to my checkmate last evening…" Andras began, oblivious to the tension between his old teacher and the woman at his side.

As the abbot's attention shifted from her, CC suppressed a sigh of relief and concentrated on her second helping of stew. She needed food to ground her and to stop her head from reeling. So many things had happened in such a short amount of time. Despite the confidence Gaea showed in her, she felt a little like the Dutch boy who'd tried to stop the leak in the dike with his finger. And her medieval dike was feeling very, very leaky. Little wonder she was overwhelmed. She'd traveled a thousand years into a mythical past, exchanged bodies with a sea creature, met a goddess, kissed a merman… CC's stomach butter-flied at the thought and she had to remind herself to chew.

Now she had to deal with the obvious hatred of a powerful abbot and the amorous attentions of an incredibly handsome, macho knight. And, of course, there was Sarpe-don. CC thought about the goddess's words that day in the garden and again scolded herself that she hadn't thought to mention Sarpedon's manifestation earlier in their conversation. But she had received her answer in the chapel. Sarpe-don couldn't possess her as long as she was under Gaea's protection. With one hand she absently fingered the amber amulet. She must be careful to stay near land, even when she reverted to her mermaid body, no matter how alluringly the sea called.

Her quiet contemplation was broken by the noisy clanging of boots against the floor of the dining hall. CC looked up to see one of Andras's men quickly approaching their table. He stopped and bowed sharply to the knight.

"Forgive me for interrupting you, Sir Andras."

"Gilbert, have you news of Princess Undine's family?" Andras asked.

CC held her breath.

"No, Sir Andras." The squire glanced around the room and lowered his voice, obviously reluctant to speak further. "I do have a message for you from the mainland."

Andras looked apologetically at Abbot William and CC.

"I regret I must ask you to excuse me."

"Of course, my son, we would not think of keeping you from your rightful duties." The abbot fluttered his fingers in the direction of the exit.

"I should not be long detained." Andras stood and bowed to them. He and the squire hurried from the room.

The knight's absence left a definite hole in the conversation, which the abbot filled with chilly indifference. Except for an occasional disdainful glance, he pretended CC didn't exist.

CC kept her eyes averted from him and tried to focus on finishing the delicious mutton stew. She wouldn't allow him the pleasure of seeing her bolt through her meal and rush from the room like a terrified child. She remembered his reaction to her fear when she had seen the specter of Sarpedon. Fear fed the priest.

She chewed slowly and sipped her wine. She had been in difficult situations before. Like the time she was a young two-striper and the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Comm Center had come down with a violent stomach flu, thirty minutes before he was to give an instructional briefing on changing procedures for their newly installed computer system. Between dry heaves he had ordered CC to give the briefing. Two hundred people had filled the base briefing room that day, and she was pretty sure that one hundred and ninety-seven of them had outranked her. She'd done fine. No, she'd done better than fine; she'd been awarded a commendation for her ability to perform under pressure.

She wasn't a shrinking flower easily intimidated by powerful men. She wouldn't let him see her fear. No, as before, she'd do better than that. She wouldn't let one mean-spirited priest intimidate her. Gaea had told her that he should be pitied, and it was ridiculous to be intimidated by someone she should feel sorry for.

Eventually her stew bowl was empty and her stomach was pleasantly full, and CC couldn't stifle a yawn. This time when she felt the priest's censoring gaze she met it.

"I'm going to have to ask you to excuse me, Abbot William. The day has exhausted me, and I'm afraid I won't be able to wait for Sir Andras to return. Could you please give him my apology and tell Isabel that there is no need for her to come to me until morning? I know how busy she is."

If CC could run a complex military communications system, she could certainly figure out how to untie the lacings of her dress herself, and she really didn't want to keep appearing to Isabel as selfish and bothersome.

"It is understandable that you are fatigued. Women were made as weaker vessels." His voice was laced with undisguised hostility, and his smile was a patronizing facade. "I will await the knight. I can assure you that he will not be concerned with your absence. He does so enjoy our chess matches."

Good lord, he made it sound like the two of them were rivals.

"I'm glad he does. I hope you two have a nice evening," CC said with as genuine a smile as she could force on her tired lips. "Good night, and, again, thank you for your hospitality." CC curtseyed and hurried from the room, aware that the priest's reptilian gaze followed her unblinkingly.

She paused under the arched exit. It was late evening, and high, winglike clouds obscured the fading light, casting the little courtyard that separated the dining hall and her wing of the monastery into shadowed darkness. CC stepped onto the soft grass and rolled her shoulders, determined to relax now that she was away from the priest's oppressive presence. She inhaled deeply the cool, moist air. It smelled like rain. The thought of water, even if it just came from the sky, lightened her spirits. She yawned and stretched, wishing she had a book she could curl up with for a little while before falling asleep.

She was halfway across the courtyard when a noise startled her. It was the deep sound of a man's chuckle, but it held no humor. Instead it vibrated with sarcasm. CC stopped. Blinking, she peered through the darkness, unable to distinguish between shadows and shapes.

"Undine."

"Is that you, Andras?"

One of the shadows moved and became a man. He was standing near the well. As he spoke, he walked towards her.

"Did you think you could hide from me?" His voice had an unnaturally hollow sound, as if he were speaking to her from a great distance instead of mere feet.

Something was very wrong. Fear curled taut in her chest, and she had trouble breathing.

"Why would I hide from you?" She tried to keep her voice calm and matter-of-fact. "I just asked Father William to make my apologies to you. I'm afraid he was right about me doing too much too soon. I am very tired."

The knight stood directly in front of her; they were almost touching. His eyes flashed with the same eerie, silver light that she had seen within them the first time he had kissed her hand. Transfixed by a paralyzing sense of horror, she watched while his face seemed to shift, as if his well-defined features had suddenly become fluid and mutable. Power radiated from him with a palpable force. His lips twisted into an obscene leer.

"You will belong to me!" he snarled and lunged forward, grabbing her arms in an iron grip. He crushed her against his body, and CC could feel his huge erection pulsing though the silky layers of her gown.

Then a blast of heat shot with electric speed from her chest as the amulet of the goddess came into contact with the knight's body. His shriek was deafening, and he flung CC away from him so violently that she fell to the ground with a jarring thud.

"What is the meaning of this?" the abbot's voice cut through the night.

The breath knocked out of her, CC could only look up and gasp for air. The priest was silhouetted in the dining room doorway. Like a nest of baby birds, several shocked monks peered at her from behind him. How long had they been watching? She tried desperately to catch her breath and glanced at Andras. He stood near her, rubbing his chest and looking dazed.

"The well…" Andras began, sounding shaky. "There was something in the well." The knight was breathing hard, and CC could see that a sheen of sweat covered his pale face.

"Yes! It was scary!" CC's breath came back in a rush of words. She gave a jittery laugh and held out her hand. After only a slight hesitation Andras took it and helped her to her feet.

"What of the well?" the abbot asked sharply, striding into the courtyard and approaching Andras.

The knight hunched his shoulders and struggled to speak. His eyes were glassy and blank.

CC wasn't similarly confused. She knew who had emerged from the well. She also knew that it would be disastrous if the abbot realized what had really happened.

"Bats!" CC said suddenly and added a shiver she didn't have to fake. "I'd just begun to cross the courtyard when I noticed Andras standing by the well. He said he'd seen something, and after my experience earlier today he had, of course, felt the need to take a closer look." Thinking quickly she wove the fabrication. "All of a sudden a huge bat came flying up out of the well. It knocked Andras in the chest and then came straight at me. I screamed and fell to the ground." She shivered again and puckered her face. "I hate bats."

"That must have been what you saw this morning," Andras said slowly. The confusion was clearing from his face and he appeared willing to accept CC's story.

Relieved, CC nodded enthusiastically. "I think the well mystery has been solved. I feel like such a fool making a big fuss over nothing. Abbot William, please forgive me for interrupting you again."

The abbot's blue eyes narrowed at her, but he gave her a brief nod.

"We must speak, Father," Andras said suddenly. CC was pleased that he sounded coherent and in control once more. "I have had news from the mainland that is of concern to

Caldei." As an afterthought, Andras turned to CC. "Undine, I__"

CC waved her hand. "I wouldn't think of taking you away from important business with the abbot. I'm fine now and can easily find my way to my room. Goodnight Andras, Abbot William."

"Come, my son. Let us retire to my chamber where we may speak in peace."

Without another glance at her, the Abbot and the knight hurried from the courtyard, and the monks returned to the dining hall. CC was left alone with the silent well.

She ran a shaking hand across her face. Her knees wobbled and she felt the sharp bite of bile in the back of her throat. Sarpedon had followed her, and he had found a way to reach beyond his realm. The thought of being trapped within the walls of the monastery with the merman's malevolent spirit overwhelmed her. She needed space. No, she acknowledged grimly to herself—she needed the ocean. She ached for its comfort and the sense of belonging she felt whenever she was submerged in its liquid embrace.

And Dylan, her heart reminded her. She needed Dylan. Could he be out there in the soothing water, waiting for her?

CC hesitated, chewing her bottom lip. Yes, the ocean was Sarpedon's realm, and she was vulnerable to him there, but apparently that vulnerability now extended to the monastery. CC felt a surge of anger. What right did he have to stalk her?

The gate to the monastery was open, and it was much easier to walk through it than it would have been to climb out of her window. She would only be gone a little while, she promised herself. She'd be back before anyone would notice her absence. Squaring her shoulders stubbornly, she followed the sound of the calling waves through the gate and out of the monastery.

Picking up her skirts, she jogged down the path that led around the outside wall of the monastery to the edge of the cliff. The sun was low in the sky, and blushing colors of mauve and saffron lit the sea. On the horizon cumulus clouds billowed like giant dust bunnies that had been dyed the colors of evening. Carefully, she chose the winding path she had followed the night before, forcing herself to slow down so that her dress wouldn't catch and rip on the scrubby brush that lined the little trail.

Unexpectedly, fog began to form over the water. CC watched it spread, surprised at the ease with which it covered the rich colors of the evening sky. Like the cloak of a giant, it billowed up the side of the cliff. Within just a few steps CC was totally surrounded and had to slow her de-scent even more, picking her way down a path that seemed to dissolve into fairylike mist. She waved her hand in front of her body and was intrigued at the way the tendrils of wetness curled around her. She had never seen fog like that before—it shimmered with a strange iridescence, as if it was made of opals and pearls. She probably should have been frightened; instead the soupy fog made her feel hidden and secure.

Her shoes sank into sand at the moment a small section of mist shifted and parted, allowing Gaea to step through its diaphanous curtain. Tonight her robes were the color of smoke sprinkled with starlight and diamonds.

"Good evening, Daughter." The goddess embraced CC, holding her within the maternal comfort of her arms. "I thought you would desire to be free of the monastery this evening."

CC stood with her head resting on the goddess's shoulder. Gaea smelled like summer grass and lilacs.

"It was Sarpedon, wasn't it?"

"Yes. He possessed the knight." Gaea stroked her hair.

"I was so scared!" CC sobbed, feeling her body begin to tremble again.

Keeping one arm around her daughter, Gaea motioned to a large moss-covered rock behind them, inviting her to sit.

"Sarpedon only intensified the desires which already exist within the young man." Gaea's lips tightened. "The knight is honorable, but Lir's son is very powerful. It is a simple thing for him to manipulate Andras's lust. The knight has no defenses against Sarpedon, and you cannot warn him. Andras is a man who has been fashioned to despise the supernatural and the unknown."

"He didn't seem to remember any of it. He just accepted the explanation I made up."

"No doubt Andras has only a vague, dreamlike memory of his actions while he is under Sarpedon's influence. He is not the kind of man who would admit weakness, and a loss of memory, or of control, would be something that he would refuse to acknowledge, so consciously he will cling to any excuse offered him. It is only unconsciously that he will be in tumult. The knight's will and soul are as a kingdom in civil war, and he does not have the ability to reach beyond what he has been taught to seek aid."

"Then what can I do?"

"I do not mean for you to fear Sarpedon, but I do want you to be wise. Right now he enjoys toying with Andras. It amuses him to use the warrior's desire while he searches for a way to possess you." The goddess's tone was businesslike, which was as much a comfort to CC as was her presence. "But as long as you stay under my protection he cannot possess you directly, nor do I believe he can force the knight to act so against his nature as to actually do you harm, even if that was his intention."

CC gave the goddess a dubious look.

"Remember, Sarpedon does not want you injured; he simply wants you returned to him." Gaea's frown was a gentle chide. "Do you not trust me, Daughter?"

"Of course I trust you," CC said quickly, feeling her fear begin to thaw.

"There…" Gaea cupped her daughter's chin in her hand. "All will be well, do not doubt it." The goddess kissed her forehead gently. "Now, I hear the waters calling to you. I know they will soothe you even better than I."

"Isn't Sarpedon still looking for me?" CC asked.

"My fog will hide you from his eyes tonight. And I believe you need to conduct a search of your own." Gaea raised her beautifully arched brows suggestively and nodded towards the sound of the waves. "Find what is in your own heart, Daughter."

"Is Dylan out there?" CC's voice had dropped almost to a whisper.

"Did he not say he would be waiting for you?"

"He thinks I won't be here until I need to change back to my mermaid form, and that's not for two more nights." CC brushed a hand through her heavy hair. "Can I even change tonight?" She felt the call of the water, as always, but it wasn't as intense as it had been the night before. Instead of an overwhelming desire, it was just an itch somewhere under her skin.

"You must wait for the third night to change into your mermaid form—if you change more often than that, you may not be able to overcome your desire to remain a creature of the water."

"And then Sarpedon would get me." And he would kill Dylan, CC added silently to herself.

"Do not concern yourself with Sarpedon tonight. Concentrate instead on knowing your heart."

"But if I can't change back into a mermaid…"

"If Dylan is your true love, he must accept the part of you that is human."

CC gestured at her layers of skirts. "I'm not exactly dressed for swimming."

Gaea's smile was mischievous. "I have always believed one should not be dressed at all when one finds herself embraced by the ocean." With a slender finger she touched the intricate laces at CC's back. Instantly they fell open and the cloth slipped from her shoulders as if twenty nimble-fingered servants had assisted her.

CC stood to step out of the dress and smoothed it across the rock. Before she pulled off the shift, she glanced at Gaea. "How am I going to get back into that thing?"

Gaea's smile widened, and she passed her elegantly shaped hand over the dress, speaking softly to it.

"When she wills, your braids rebuild. So have I spoken; so shall it be." The air around the dress stirred, and CC could fee] the spark of Gaea's magic.

CC grinned at the goddess. "Thank you." Then she lifted the chemise over her head and kicked off her shoes. Almost automatically she pulled her long hair forward, obscuring the view of her bare breasts.

"Are you ashamed of your body, Daughter?" Gaea asked.

"No. I think it's beautiful."

"Then perhaps living at the monastery has convinced you that beauty is something to be feared and hidden?" The smile in Gaea's voice softened the reprimand.

"Absolutely not," CC said firmly. In one quick motion she swept her hair back, leaving her breasts totally bared. Then, naked except for her jewelry, she started walking toward the sound of waves. But soon her steps faltered and she was suddenly unsure of herself.

"Call to him." Gaea's voice came from behind her.

"Just call?" CC asked, looking over her shoulder at the goddess.

"He will hear you." The mist started to close and thicken around Gaea, so that her last words were disembodied. "You cannot remain long tonight. There is a storm coming, and they will be looking for you. My blessing goes with you, Daughter."

"I'll remember," CC said to the mist before turning back to face the sound of water. She walked slowly forward, making her way carefully between the many rocks and shells that littered the sand. The fog surrounded her, brushing against her skin in a wet caress, forming tiny drops of dew which glistened to decorate her body like liquid jewels.

When her feet touched water she stopped, peering outward, but she could see nothing through the thick fog. Feeling a little foolish, she cupped her mouth with her hands and called to the merman.

"Dylan! Are you here?"

Only the sound of waves breaking against the rocky shore answered her. She sighed and cupped her mouth again.

"Dylan!"

CC felt him before she saw him. There was a tingling all along her skin that settled somewhere low in her stomach—and she knew he was there. Over the section of ocean that stretched in front of her the mist thinned.

Dylan broke the surface, sweeping his long dark hair from his sparkling eyes. His blood throbbed hot at the sight of her. She was so lovely, standing there in her exotic human body which was all soft curves and long, supple lines. Her beautiful face lit at the sight of him, and her full lips shaped a delighted grin that was solely Christine—his vibrant, joyous Christine.

There was laughter in his voice when he spoke. "You do not need to shout for me, Christine. You need only call me from here." He smiled and pointed to his own temple. "Simply send your thoughts to me, as we do under the water. I will hear you."

"Oh," CC said inanely. She was sure he could also hear the herd of butterflies that were pounding around in her stomach. "I didn't know. Gaea just told me you would come if I called."

His expression sobered. "Always, Christine. I will always answer your call." He glanced around at the fog. "Is this the doing of your goddess?"

CC nodded. "It seems Sarpedon is on the prowl. Gaea says he can't find me in this. And, anyway, I think he's busy at the monastery tonight."

"It almost makes me feel pity for the monks," Dylan said, trying to lighten his voice, but it was clear the mention of Sarpedon made the merman uncomfortable.

"Don't be too hasty with your sympathy. I think that monastery could use a little shaking up, or at least that abbot sure could." She dug her toes into the sand and looked down. She didn't want to tell Dylan about Sarpe-don's possession of Andras. She could only imagine how it would make him feel—probably mad and jealous and frustrated that he couldn't do anything about it. And she didn't want the oppressive subject of Sarpedon to ruin her time with Dylan.

She glanced at the merman, and all thoughts of Sarpedon dissipated. Dylan's eyes were on her naked body. She could feel his gaze. It made her skin flush with a sensuous tingle.

He made her feel breathless and very nervous.

"I know it's not the third night, so I'm early, and, well, I can't change yet, but I'm glad you came."

He smiled at her. "I am glad you appeared early."

"Even if I can't, uh, be a mermaid tonight?" she stammered.

He raised one eyebrow, grinning at her boyishly. "Are you worried that I might let you drown?"

At his easy jest, CC felt her nerves loosen, and she smiled back at him. "Well, I do remember swallowing a lot of water the first time we met."

He laughed. "That is only because I was unprepared for your kicking and squirming." Drifting closer to shore he held one strong hand out to her and his voice deepened se-ductively. "Tonight I am prepared; come to me. I will not let you drown."

Without hesitation, CC walked into the water. When her feet no longer touched ground, she began to swim, but before she could finish a full stroke Dylan pulled her into his arms.

"I think it would be safer if you allowed me to do the swimming," he said with mock seriousness.

"And what will you do if I kick and squirm?" CC teased.

"I said that tonight I am prepared." His arms circled her naked body, pressing her firmly against his chest. CC could feel the rhythmic beat of his powerful tail as he tread water, easily keeping both of them afloat in the calm, fog-shrouded ocean. "I will simply hold you closer."

"That makes me want to kick and squirm," she said breathlessly, his touch making her feel a little light-headed.

"And I will be careful that you do not drown," Dylan murmured as he bent his head to her.

Their lips met in a rush of heat, and CC wrapped her arms around his shoulders, loving the mixture of hard muscle and slick, wet skin under her hands.

"Oh, Dylan," CC whispered against his lips. "I missed you today."

Dylan kissed her forehead softly. When he spoke his voice was rough with suppressed emotion. "I saw you."

CC blinked in surprise. "You mean when I came to the beach to eat brunch?"

"Yes. With the man."

CC touched his cheek gently, hating the haunted look in his eyes.

"I watched as he kissed you." The merman's jaw clenched. "I have never before wished to have legs, but today I wanted nothing more than to walk from the waters and take you from him."

A tingle of emotion flushed her body at his words. She took his face between her hands and looked into the deep brown of his eyes. "You need to know something." She felt him tense, as if readying himself for a blow, and she hurried on. "I'm not very good at this. I mean I'm not very experienced in relationships. I really haven't had much practice, so there's a lot I'm not sure about. But there is one thing I do know. I won't lie to you. I believe in truth and fidelity. And I'm giving you my word that I do not want Andras. He is not the man for me."

The tension in the merman's jaws relaxed under her hands, but his eyes were still shadowed.

"Man…" Dylan said, smiling sadly. "You say he is not the man for you, and I am glad of it. But I am also not a man."

"I didn't mean—"

Dylan's lips brushed gently against hers. "Shssh. I have something to show you."

Before CC could say more he flipped to his back, pulling her up so that she rested against him, safely out of the water. He propelled them backward, careful to keep her protected from the wash of waves while she lay securely within his arms.

"I did miss you," she whispered into his ear. He didn't answer her, but she felt him nod, and his hand caressed the curve of her back intimately.

After traveling down the shoreline, Dylan stopped in front of a large arrangement of stone and coral, part of which towered above the ground. It was vaguely cavelike, but the top was open to the sky. It was round and reminded CC of a corral.

"There is no other way to enter than from under the surface. You will have to hold your breath, but it will not be for long."

The sun had set, and it was almost totally dark, with the mist obscuring even the dim light left in the evening sky. CC looked nervously at the hulking structure that jutted imposingly out of the water. "Are you sure?"

Dylan smiled reassuringly at her. "Do you promise not to kick and squirm?"

"I'll be good," she said, trying to laugh off her trepidation.

Dylan kissed her forehead gently and cupped her chin with his hand. "I would never cause you harm."

His eyes were warm and she felt undeniably safe wrapped in his strong arms.

"I'm ready," she said.

Dylan shifted her so that she floated in front of him, then he turned her so that her back was to him. His hands cupped her waist, which left her own hands free.

"When you are ready, take a deep breath and dive. I will do the rest."

Before she could change her mind, she took a huge breath, nodded and stretching her arms over her head, she dove under the surface. Guiding and pushing her from behind, Dylan's power made CC feel slick and strong under the water—and she was almost disappointed at how quickly he angled them up so that their heads broke the surface together. CC shook the water from her face, laughing.

"Wow! That was almost like I had a tail of my own…" Her words trailed off as she registered the beauty that surrounded them.

They floated in the center of a ring of coral and rocks. As she had already observed from outside, the structure was open to the sky, and the circle formed a calm pool in the center, sheltering them from the rhythmic crashing of waves against rock. But that wasn't what was so spectacular about the structure. All around them hundreds, maybe even thousands, of phosphorescent blue fish the size of one of CC's thumbs, darted in schools of perfectly synchronized swimming. Their lights illuminated the ring of water with an otherworldly turquoise glow, giving their little section of the ocean the appearance of a swimming pool lit by magical, moving bulbs. It was an oasis of brilliance in their fog-shrouded world.

"Dylan," CC breathed. "I've never seen anything like this."

"That is not all." He pulled her with him to the side of the wall. Pointing down at a little pocket of coral under the water, he said, "Watch."

CC peered down into the clear, neon-lit water and gasped in wonder. Within the rocky pocket she could see two sea horses. The miniature equine replicas were about six inches long and colored mostly an amazing black-bronze, except for an area of their bodies that looked like waistcoats; there they were splashed with brilliant patches of pink, yellow, blue and white. As CC watched, the two creatures swam in delicate circles around each other, coming ever closer. Finally, they met in a trembling embrace, joining their bodies together.

"There are more." Dylan's lips moved against her ear and he pointed to another place within the coral wall. CC followed his gesture to see that another pair of sea horses were beginning their graceful mating dance.

CC leaned back against the merman, wrapping her arms around his. "I didn't know there was such beauty in the ocean. I never spent much time around it, and I didn't realize how incredible it could be." She turned fluidly in his arms. "You really are a wonderful teacher. Thank you for showing me."

"I cannot imagine you away from the water."

"It seems ridiculous now, but I used to be afraid of the water. As you may have noticed, I'm not even a very good swimmer."

"Then you did not know any of the mer-folk in your old world?" Dylan asked.

CC laughed. "There aren't any mermen or mermaids where I come from."

Dylan looked startled. "Are you certain?"

"Well, I'm pretty sure. They are considered mythological beings. People tell stories about them and draw pictures of them, but if they ever existed in my world they haven't been seen in more than a thousand years."

Dylan studied the woman in his arms with new eyes. He was struck by the realization that he loved a woman who was not simply a land creature, but from a strange world where none of his kind even existed. How could he hope to win her love in return? He knew she found him interesting and probably even exotic and appealing, but those were not emotions on which to base a lifetime of love—they were fleeting, transient and would vanish like mist with the rising sun of experience. He began to understand the despair that had destroyed his mother.

"I must seem very strange to you."

CC could hear the vulnerability in his voice and felt him pull away from her—not enough that she would be in dan-ger of slipping under the surface, but the intimacy with which he had been holding her faltered, like he was suddenly afraid to be too close to her.

"Strange is not the word I would choose." She tightened her arms around him, so that he had to come back to her.

"Then what word would you choose?" Dylan asked, trying hard to keep his voice neutral and his tumultuous emotions controlled.

"Well, I don't think one word would do—I think I would have to use several." She kept one arm wrapped securely around his shoulder. With the other she let her hand trace a path down his face and over his chiseled cheekbone. "Beautiful," she said softly, moving her fingertips down the side of his neck and over the firm muscle of his shoulder. "Spectacular," she continued, stopping to caress his thick bicep before crossing over to his chest and continuing down. "Amazing." CC's hand moved over the side of his taut waist. When her fingers felt the flesh of his skin change from human to mer-being, she hesitated and her gaze shifted to his eyes. He was watching her intently, and his breathing had deepened.

"I have legs now and not a tail," CC said.

Her words made Dylan's lips curl up in a surprised ghost of a smile. "Yes, I did notice that," he said.

"Have you ever, uh, been with a human woman before?" she asked.

Now his surprise was complete. "No! I have never before known a human woman." He paused, trying to find the right words. "… in any way… What I mean is that I have not…"

CC nodded quickly. "So what you're telling me is that you've never been intimate with, or even known, a human woman, yet you don't seem to find me repulsive, even though right now my body is very definitely human."

"I could not find you repulsive," Dylan said as understanding lit his eyes. "Even though I have not known any other beings of your kind." She had been worried about his acceptance. She truly desired him! In part of his mind he allowed himself to begin to believe that perhaps he wasn't destined to repeat his mother's tragedy. Relief flooded his body and the ghost of a smile became real.

"Then I don't think you should worry about me not having known any other mermen. That is unless you want me to start worrying about you thinking my legs are disgusting."

CC could feel Dylan's body relax, and she floated easily against him once more. One of his hands traveled down her back and past her waist. CC sucked in a surprised breath when it skimmed over her butt to caress the length of her thigh.

"Your legs are soft and warm." His voice was deeply seductive. "And I admit to wanting to touch them—very much."

"I want to touch you, too," CC said, letting her hand move purposefully down from his waist to skim over the unique texture of the rest of him. She looked into his eyes. "But I would like to see you, too. A little more clearly. Do you mind?" She hurried on as his brow furrowed. "I mean, you've seen me—all of me—very naked. Just a little while ago I was standing on the shore with not much on except a smile. But, well, I haven't really been able to see…" She nodded her head toward the water and what shimmered gold and orange beneath it, "you."

Dylan made a muffled noise in the back of his throat, but he shook his head, holding her gaze with his own.

"No, I do not mind," he said.

Looking around the ring of rock, Dylan searched until he found what he needed. With CC still in his embrace, he floated them across the turquoise pool to a smooth ledge that protruded about a foot above the water. CC eyed it. It was easily seven or eight feet long, curving gently along the inside of the rocky corral. It looked wide enough that two people could lie next to each other on it, especially if they were lying on their sides and didn't mind being very close.

CC felt a thrill of nerves mixed with excitement as Dylan lifted her out of the water and sat her gently on the ledge. She moved to her side with her back against the rock and lay on one hip, watching him. In a powerful movement he grabbed the edge of the ledge and lifted himself out of the water, shifting his weight so that he lay on his side, too, facing CC.

The first thing CC noticed was his size—he seemed so much bigger out of the water. She felt dwarfed by him, even though Undine's human body was tall and voluptuous.

"You're really big," she blurted.

Dylan's chuckle helped to ease some of her tension. "Christine, I am the same as I was in the water."

His dark hair had fallen over his shoulder, and CC brushed it back from his face. He turned his head and caught her palm in a quick, playful kiss, making her smile.

Dylan's torso was strong and familiar, and CC let her hand rest briefly on his chest. Then, taking a deep breath, she looked down.

His bronze skin tapered to his well-muscled waist, where it joined with the merman's tail. The colors were unbelievable. What CC had thought was only orange banded with gold was really a convergence of many different shades of yellow and cream and rust and red, all combining to form a rainbow the color of sunlight and flames. The bands of gold were metallic in color, and they ran in thick horizontal stripes around his muscular tail, which ended in a huge feathered fin that glistened gold streaked with ebony.

CC leaned forward and let her fingers stroke the side of that amazing tail. As she had discovered with her own mer-body, the flesh wasn't actually scaled, it just caught the light in a swirling pattern that could be mistaken for scales. Under her fingers Dylan's flesh was warm and smooth. She let her hand explore him, enjoying the feel of the bunch and swell of his muscles as he quivered under her touch.

CC forced her gaze from his body to his eyes. "You are amazing, Dylan. I could explore you forever."

Dylan thought his heart would explode with joy. She was his! By some incredible miracle, she wanted him as he wanted her. With a moan he wrapped CC in his arms and crushed her against him. His lips met hers and began their own exploration as they tasted each other. Intoxicated by the feel of her, Dylan's hands moved over CC's body, cupping her butt and stroking her legs.

CC's breath caught in her throat when she felt his hardness press against the center of her body. She shut out the mental picture of Sarpedon's throbbing maleness as it had emerged, engorged and demanding from his pelvic slit. No! She would not allow memories of Sarpedon to taint her. This was Dylan; she welcomed his touch—and he would never hurt her.

She slid her hand between their bodies and cupped him, wishing suddenly that she had more experience with men. He felt much like she had remembered Jerry feeling, with that wonderful combination of hardness wrapped in a shaft of velvet softness that she had found arousing, despite Jerry's awkward attempt at lovemaking.

Tentatively, at first, CC stroked him, allowing herself to become accustomed to him. He's just a man, she thought. Just a different, incredible type of man. Dylan's skin was hot and his body was becoming slick with sweat. The scent of him filled her senses with its uniqueness. He was sea and man melded together and she wanted to drown in him.

His breathing was ragged as he suddenly broke their kiss.

"Slowly, Christine." His hand shook when it brushed her cheek. "Your touch enflames me."

She pulled her hand abruptly from between their bodies. "I'm sorry. I told you I wasn't very experienced with men—or males—or…" she looked away, embarrassed.

He took her chin in his hand, forcing CC to meet his eyes. "You misunderstand. It is I who am having an experience," he raised one eyebrow and gave her his boyish grin, "or rather I should say, control problem. You are making it very right for me, but I would have it be so for you, too, my love."

"Oh, I didn't know," CC said, feeling a rush of joy at his endearment.

"Let me learn your wonderful human body. Perhaps I will find a way to give us both pleasure."

Then he began his own exploration. At first CC closed her eyes as his mouth moved from her lips to her neck, and on to kiss the swell of her breasts, where they lingered. But soon she found she preferred to keep her eyes open. She liked watching him as he bent over her, his eyes dark and his face taut with desire. His lips kissed the curve of her waist and his hand moved over her rounded hip to her legs. He bent one of her legs and kissed the inside of her knee. Lingering there he nuzzled and nipped gently.

"They are so soft that they cry for my touch," Dylan murmured, his lips still exploring her legs. He loved the distinctly female scent of her. The smooth heat of her body filled his senses, and he fought to control his desire to bury himself within her. He would not allow himself to rush. He inhaled deeply and let his tongue taste her thigh. "Your skin is a silk finer than any even your goddess could wear."

CC bit her bottom lip to stifle a moan.

"Do you like that, my love?" Dylan asked.

"I like it when you touch me," CC said breathlessly. "Anywhere—everywhere."

Dylan's hands caressed her inner thighs, moving toward her core. When he finally touched her wetness she couldn't stop herself from arching up into his hand and moaning aloud.

"Show me," he pleaded. "I want to know how to please you."

With trembling hands she guided his, until his fingers found the right rhythm. When she cried his name in release, he covered her mouth in fierce joy and held her against him, so that when the world stopped spinning she was lying on top of him. She could feel the tension in his muscles as his heart beat wildly against her bare breast. Sitting up, she moved his hands to her waist as she straddled his golden flesh. His eyes widened in surprise when she lifted herself and reached between them once again, this time guiding his hardness to the center of her.

She set her teeth against the pain she remembered experiencing with Jerry, and in one swift motion, sheathed him within her own slick heat. But instead of pain, she echoed his cry of pleasure as he fit perfectly within her.

Dylan spoke her name, murmuring wordless sounds of passion as he held her hips tightly while she arched her back and rocked against him. Now it was his turn to guide her and they moved together over and over, their rhythm increasing until the wave of pleasure crested and pulled first CC, then Dylan over into fulfillment. She collapsed against him, and they held onto each other while their bodies stopped trembling. CC fell asleep cradled within Dylan's arms.

The sound of annoyed chattering woke her. she was snuggled securely against Dylan. His eyes were closed, but his lips were tilted up in a satisfied smile, and he was stroking her hair.

"She sounds angry with you," he said.

Lifting herself up on one elbow, CC peeked up over his shoulder at the fluorescent water. The dolphin's head bobbed in the middle of the calm pool.

The goddess sent me for you, Princess.

CC felt a stab of fear. "I didn't realize! How late is it?"

Do not worry. The dolphin soothed. You have time.

Dylan sat abruptly and pulled her into his lap. "What is it?"

"I have to get back. Gaea warned me not to be gone too long. She said they would be looking for me."

Dylan's jaw tightened, but he nodded and slid both of them easily into the waiting water. In an absentminded gesture of kindness, he reached out to stroke the squirming dolphin.

"Thank you, loyal one. Assure the goddess that I will return your princess to land now."

The dolphin chattered at him, nuzzled CC and disappeared under the surface.

Dylan kissed the side of CC's neck. "Are you ready?" he asked. "Just like before."

She nodded and took a deep breath, diving down with the power of her lover steering her to safety.

They didn't speak as Dylan backstroked to shore. CC clung to him, trying not to think about the separation that had to come next.

"You can stand now," the merman said reluctantly.

CC stood, but stayed close to him, still wrapped in his arms. She could hear the surf breaking against the nearby shoreline, but fog and darkness prevented her from seeing it.

"I have to go back," she said, not able to look at him.

"I know." His arms tightened around her. "Will you return tomorrow night?"

"I don't know," she said. "I'll try. But if not tomorrow, the next will be the third night, and I have to return and change back to mermaid form."

He loosened his grip on her so that he could look into her eyes. "I will be here. Always. You need only call me."

CC tapped her head, trying to smile. "In here?"

Dylan kissed her forehead. "Yes, and I will hear your call in here." He took her hand and placed it on his chest over his heart.

CC tilted her face to his and they came together with desperate urgency. The kiss was deep and frantic.

"You are a part of me now!" Dylan broke the kiss to grip her shoulders and force her to meet his gaze. "We belong together. There will be a way." Then he kissed her one last time.

Fighting back tears, she stepped away from him. He brought her hand to his lips before releasing her. She turned and forced herself to walk out of the water. As she stepped onto dry land, she glanced over her shoulder, but the fog had already hidden him from her view.

"Christine?" His disembodied voice found her.

"I'm still here," she said.

"You know how you feel when you are separated from the sea? How your body aches for it?"

"Yes. I know the feeling," she said to the fog.

"That is how I feel when you are not with me. If you ever doubt that I will be here, or doubt that I will wait for you, remember that feeling, and know that I can do nothing else. For an eternity, Christine. I will wait for you for an eternity…" His voice faded as he returned to the sea.

"I'll remember," she called after him, biting her bottom lip to keep from crying.

In front of her the fog thinned, and she could see the rock where she had left her clothes. Hurrying, she used the shift to dry herself, grimacing as she pulled the damp cloth over her head. Then she stepped into the layered gown. As soon as she put her arms within the sleeves, CC felt a tugging at her back and the intricate laces magically rebraided themselves together.

"Thank you, Gaea," she said to the silent, misty night.

This time the goddess didn't answer, but to her left the fog swirled and parted, providing a little pathway of clarity in the darkness. She followed it unquestioningly, trying to ignore the pang of loss she felt as each step took her farther from the water and from Dylan. Soon it was obvious that the path she was taking was not any of the ones that lead up the cliff. This one wrapped over and around rocks and sandy dunes, and at first it appeared to be taking her away from the monastery. Just as she was beginning to worry about where the goddess was leading her, the fog shifted and opened at a sudden right angle and CC found herself following a familiar trail, which she recognized as being the path she and Andras had taken earlier that day. It led up past tall trees and emptied into the well-packed road. CC turned to her right and sighed in relief when she saw the lights of the monastery glowing dimly in the murky distance. She hadn't realized before how exhausted she was, but two nights of very little sleep had caught up with her. She smiled grimly to herself. Even her hard, narrow bed would be welcome that night. She lifted up her skirts and tried to coax her tired feet to move more quickly.

"Let's get going, girls, before they send out a posse."

"To whom do you speak, Undine?"

CC let out a little shriek of surprise as the knight materialized out of the fog before her.

"Andras! You scared me." She felt like her heart might beat its way out of her chest.

But Andras wasn't looking at her. Instead he was walking a tight circle around her, obviously searching the area.

"To whom do you speak, Undine?" he repeated the question more forcefully.

"No one except my feet. I'm afraid you caught me talking to myself." She smiled and fluttered her hand in front of her face like she was trying to fan away the heat of embarrassment, but her mouth went dry when he turned to her. Had Sarpedon possessed him again? She swallowed down her fear and studied him. His face was a mask of barely contained fury, but no manic silver light glowed from his eyes and his features remained his own. CC felt a surge of relief. She was just dealing with an angry man, not a malevolent spirit.

Automatically, CC took a little half step away from him, but the knight moved forward and roughly took her shoulders in his callused hands.

"Where have you been?" he demanded.

"Nowhere. I just went for a walk." CC forced herself to meet his furious gaze calmly.

"Alone, as night was falling? Why would you do such a thing?"

CC's thoughts raced as she fabricated an answer. "The bat that came out of the well scared me more than I realized." She allowed her voice to shake. "You were busy with the abbot, and I really didn't want to interrupt either of you again with my silly fears, but I couldn't stand to be in my room alone, so I thought I would go back to the beautiful beach you showed me today." She gestured with her head back down the road, and she saw the knight's eyes widen as he recognized the entrance to the path they had taken earlier. CC sent a quick, silent thank-you to Gaea for putting her in a place that lent itself to a ready excuse for being gone so long. "Then this fog came in and I got lost." She let a little half sob escape her lips. "And it got dark and I didn't think I would ever find my way back."

Andras studied her face, noticing for the first time the circles that darkened the area under her lovely eyes. She did look exhausted and disconcerted. The princess needed his protection—that was very apparent. And, of course, he wanted very much to protect her. He almost pulled her into his arms, until he noticed that her thick mass of hair was soaking wet, yet it seemed that under his hands her gown was dry. His eyes narrowed.

"How did your hair get so wet?"

Before his sentence was completed the darkened sky opened and a cold rain began to fall, effectively dissipating the fog.

"All of me is wet!" CC said, unable to keep the exasperation from her voice. "It's been a foggy, rainy night." She wiggled her shoulders. "Andras, you're hurting me."

Slowly, Andras dropped his hands from her shoulders.

CC hugged herself and shivered. "I'm cold and wet and tired. I've been lost and afraid most of the night, and my feet—who you already heard me talking to—are aching. Now would you like to escort me back to the monastery, or do I have to walk back by myself?"

Silently, the knight held his arm out for her. His look told her that he didn't like what she had said, or the tone in which she had said it, but as she took his arm he didn't comment on her rudeness or reprimand her. Instead he appeared to be deep in thought. CC was glad he wasn't questioning her, but she didn't like the idea of him thinking too much either—at least not about her or her fabrications.

It was raining steadily as they entered the deserted courtyard. CC was careful not to even glance at the well, but she didn't need to look at it to feel its ominous presence. They were almost to her room when the abbot stepped out of the shadows in the dimly lit hall.

"I see you found her, Andras." He smiled warmly at the knight, but when he turned to face CC, his expression changed to a sneer. "The good knight was worried about you, Princess, as well he should have been. I cannot imagine why you would choose to leave the monastery alone at night."

Courtesy, she reminded herself. She forced the annoyed sarcasm from her voice.

"I didn't think I was doing anything out of the ordinary. Maybe where I'm from women don't have to worry about being safe if they want to take a walk." Before either man could press the issue she added. "No! That does not mean that I've remembered anything else about where I'm from—unfortunately. Now if you will excuse me, I need sleep. Please have Isabel come help me get out of this wet dress."

She started to turn to open her door, but the abbot's voice stopped her.

"Isabel is already within. She is the reason we knew you were missing. When she came to your chamber to assist you, as you had requested, you were not there. She, too, was very worried, and she immediately reported your absence to me."

CC couldn't believe what she was hearing. She had specifically asked this jerk not to send for Isabel. Obviously, he was letting her know that he would be sure she was being watched, no matter what.

"I thought I asked that Isabel not be bothered to wait on me tonight. Perhaps it is because I'm so tired that my memory is not clear. I will apologize to Isabel for having worried her. I'm usually not so inconsiderate." She gave Andras a tight smile. "Goodnight, Andras. I am sorry that I worried you, too." Her gaze shifted to the abbot and hardened. "I will be more careful in the future."

This time she had the door partially open when the priest's question stopped her.

"Princess Undine, what does the name Wyking mean to you?"

Wearily, she looked over her shoulder at him. The priest's glittering eyes were locked on her, but CC noticed that Andras wasn't looking at her at all, instead he was staring at Abbot William, and his expression said that the priest's question had come as quite a shock.

The word he had said sounded very much like Viking—which made sense, she realized. This was an island and the Vikings had done a lot of raiding during the Middle Ages along the coast of Europe, or at least she thought she remembered that they had. She opened her mouth to quip a fast answer, denying any knowledge of anything, even if the word sounded familiar, but an idea came to her.

Slowly and distinctly CC raised her chin and squared her shoulders, forcing the weariness out of her stance and replacing it with what she hoped was the regal bearing of a princess. She smiled cordially at the priest and said, "If you mean Viking,"—she enunciated the word carefully—"to me it means tall, blond, vengeful warriors who do not like it

ISO

when something that belongs to them is mistreated by another. Good night gentlemen. Even a princess can get tired of answering questions."

Tall and blond, she stepped gracefully into her room, closing the door securely behind her.

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***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

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