Authors: Judy Griffith Gill
HE WAS NOT HAVING
fun. Jillian felt as if she were about to suffocate as she panicked and grabbed for the oxygen regulator the diver, Robin, held in his mouth. Willingly he gave it to her, allowing her to take a couple of breaths. Then, holding one of her shoulders in a large hand, he took the mouthpiece back and breathed from it himself while he reached down and picked up the flashing lure that drifted near the bottom of the ocean. As rehearsed, she held onto his shoulders, and he let her have another breath or two. Then he retrieved the regulator and carefully fastened the sharp hook into the sparkling fish skin between her breasts—only he wasn’t careful enough.
She jerked away as he scratched her skin with the hook, and glared at him as blood oozed from the small cut. Behind his mask, his expression was apologetic, and his cold fingers touched her even colder chest once again as he made sure no further damage could be done by the barbed hook. Then, after buddy-breathing once more, he gave the fishing line a sharp tug. As a blur, Jillian saw the line rise on an angle in front of her. She felt it go hard and taut before she started to be drawn upward steadily.
Shaking his head, Robin gave her the regulator again, holding her down, making it hard for the fisherman on the surface. With her hand tight in his, he went so far as to swim in the opposite direction from where the line was pulling her before he nodded and allowed her to rise toward the surface for just a few moments.
She wasn’t anywhere near the spangled, glittering surface, when again he led her off on a tangent. First one way, then the other, drawing her down or off to the left or the right, and all for the benefit of the cameras and the man on the other end of the line.
Her eyes accused him. Wasn’t this enough? Damn, but the water was cold! she thought, wishing she could get the whole, ridiculous thing over with by giving one mighty thrust of her tail and ascending. But she and Robin had a job to do, and they had to do it right—at least by Robin’s standards. He was stage-managing the whole thing, and as an avid sports fisherman, presumably he knew how a fish was supposed to act.
However, did he know how a mermaid was supposed to act? Jillian had to smile as she handed him the regulator once more. Heavens, even she, the only Mermaid in town, didn’t know how one would act if caught on a fishing line. In reality, she supposed, if mermaids did exist, they’d simply unhook themselves and swim away. For a moment she considered doing just that then remembered how well she was being paid for her stint down in the icy depths.
Soon, though not soon enough to suit her, Robin let her rise a bit more quickly toward the silver glimmer of the surface, and she realized it was almost over. Robin waited as she took several more replenishing breaths from the air hose attached to the tanks strapped to his back. Then he patted her bare shoulder and gave her a thumbs-up before diving away toward the bottom. He would, she knew, return to the surface, well out of camera range, and climb aboard the Zodiac—his part in the production finished.
Hers, however, had just begun, and when she finally reached the surface and the broken, choppy waves, she realized it was going to be a lot more difficult to maneuver with her tail than it ever had been in the depths of her tank. She was in trouble.
Waves caught under the tail driving her forward, smashing her face into oncoming swells. Coughing, sputtering, she stroked powerfully with her arms trying to force the tail to stay under control. But even though it was weighted to have negative buoyancy while underwater, it misbehaved badly above in rough water. There was only one thing to do.
Drawing in a deep breath, she aimed herself at the white blur that was the hull of the cruiser and dove down to where she could handle the cumbersome tail. There all she had to do was let the line pull her in the right direction and rise once in a while to gasp in a breath of air. If they needed film of her on the surface, surely they could patch in some clips of her taken in the tank.
Whatever it was, it was big. It was certainly the biggest thing Mark had ever hooked, and the weight of it on the far end of his line set his bare toes digging into minute crevices in the slippery shale rock where he stood. If it hadn’t been for the fish’s fighting, he would have thought that either his hook somehow had caught in the anchor line of the glistening white cruiser that lay a hundred feet offshore, or at least that his gear had tangled with that of the white-clad man who stood patiently on the stern, his back to Mark. But no, his gear wasn’t hooked up with the other fisherman’s; the man in white wasn’t fighting anything. The man stood still, staring at the water as if he expected to catch something spectacular for the two cameramen who were poised, one on the bridge, one in a gently bobbing craft just off the stern.
Mark frowned, wondering who they were and why filming the man was so important. But his fish was fighting, and fighting so hard, it made him forget about the cameramen, the other fisherman, and the large white cruiser.
His arms and shoulders ached, and he felt veins standing out on his neck. This battle had better not be long, because it surely was a tough one, he thought, but when his line suddenly went slack, disappointment swept through him. He’d lost it. The granddaddy of all salmon, and it was gone.
While he slowly reeled in the slack line so that he could check his lure and hook, he glanced at the cruiser again. The cameras were still aimed out toward the entrance of the bay, and the man in white continued to wait patiently for a strike.
Thinking he had lost the fish, Mark was paying little attention to his line, when it snapped taut once more and ran off the reel, screaming as it went. He let it run for several minutes until the fish seemed to tire. Then, far out in the choppy blue waters of the bay, just off the bow of the white cruiser, a tail broke the surface—and what a tail! Broad, thick, blue-green and shot with silver, it slapped the water with a mighty splash before disappearing. The line slackened once more as if the fish, having showed itself, was now willing to come to Mark without a battle.
As he reeled it in slowly and easily, he kept his eyes on the spot in the water where the line disappeared. Suddenly the creature broached the water halfway between him and the white cruiser. He stared, gulped, feeling himself become lightheaded as a hysterical laugh caught in his throat.
No! He hadn’t seen what he thought he’d seen. Or if he had, then he was crazier than ever. But oh, lordy, there it was again—first the huge, shining tail curving up out of the water to land with a splash, and then... then the milk-white shoulders and arms, and sleek blond head with hair streaming down over a pair of sweetly rounded breasts... breasts covered with the same silvery-blue scales as that massive tail.
He dropped the rod and reel, heedless of the line tangling around his feet, and simply stared, wondering if he was going insane. He glanced at the men on the cruiser. They hadn’t seen it. Their attention was aimed at whatever fish the man in white had now hooked. He was straining at his rod, playing his fish expertly, and all at once Mark felt grateful that no one else was witnessing his rapid decline into insanity.
He didn’t dare put a name to the creature that was swimming toward him. He could see her face, and it was lovely. Heart-shaped, it was as pale as her arms and shoulders, surrounded by the wet paleness of her long, straight hair. She was stroking strongly in his direction, her gaze clinging beseechingly to his face as she struggled to control the action of her tail in the choppy seas which caught it and swept it around, forcing her to dive under again and again. But her progress was steady.
His heart hammered high in his throat. He felt dizzy and wondered if he was about to pass out. No, of course not. He was not the kind of man who passed out. And he was not, repeat not seeing a mermaid. What he was seeing was some kind of hallucination brought on by worry, by overwork, by too much sun, by Lord only knew what. He was essentially a very practical man who did not believe in mermaids. So, of course, it was not a mermaid out there. Absolutely not!
But why did he feel sick to his stomach at the sight of the hook—his fishing hook—embedded in the scales between her breasts when she appeared on the surface to take a breath? He heard himself gag, and over the sound came the roar of a speedboat, which was full of teenagers and operating much too close to shore. The wake of the boat came sweeping in, caught that long, graceful tail, and tumbled the beautiful creature into the barnacle-encrusted rocks five feet below Mark’s ledge.
He leaped down, landing in waist-deep water, and gathered her limp form in his arms. Lifting her clear of the surging swell, he saw a streak of diluted blood running from her temple to her cheek and neck, and more blood where the hook had entered. Feeling the coolness of her face against his shoulder, the roughness of her tail across his arm, the softness of the scale-clad breast as it pressed into his chest, the miracle of the impossible swirled through his suddenly very impractical mind.
He stared at her unconscious face for what seemed half a lifetime, a bubble of joyous disbelief welling up inside him. In his arms he held a mermaid! In his heart he held a moment’s magic. In his soul he held a brand new world.
Then, becoming conscious of the icy feel of her skin, he knew he had to get her out of the water. Her lips were blue. He wondered if he should try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation but realized she was still breathing. Her head, though, was bleeding copiously. Her blood was sticky on his skin. The cold seawater streamed down his arm and side from her long hair. He gagged again at the sight of the hook he’d put through her skin.
He shuddered, cradling her more securely while scrambling up the bank. His knees were weak with shock, and the steepness and her unwieldy tail made the climb difficult. But when they were well above the reach of the water on the flattest part of the rocks, he stopped, bending to prop her scaly back on one of his thighs. Very carefully he took his knife and cut the leader, leaving only the hook embedded in her tender flesh, hoping she would remain unconscious until he could get her to a doctor and have the hook removed.
Doctor? Should he take her to a doctor or to a vet? he wondered with a false laugh. Or maybe to a marine biologist? Again, that mad little voice babbled in the back of his mind, and again he ignored it just as he ignored the loud shouts of the men in the cruiser who had finished making their film and were excited about the fish the man in white had caught.
He had a hell of a lot more than a mere fish to be excited about.
Lifting her, he struggled up the path toward the house, praying the cameras wouldn’t by some chance pan his way. Once through the gate of the high, wrought iron fence, he closed it, relief washing over him at the sound of the lock clanging shut automatically. If anyone had seen what he’d caught. Mark knew no one would believe it. He didn’t believe it himself, but in spite of that he didn’t want to share his with the world, so he had to get her out of sight as quickly as he could.
He knew perfectly well that just as soon as she was well enough he was going to have to let her go and never tell a soul.
The thought brought him an unexpected jolt of pain. He didn’t want to let her go. But in spite of everything that had happened, he was still a very practical man, and practical men did not make pets of mermaids—not even beautiful blond ones with sea-green eyes and tiny, golden freckles across their noses—he told himself as she opened her eyes and looked at him, clearly bewildered. He walked with her in his arms into the shallow end of his swimming pool.
As the warm water of the pool closed around her, Jillian let her eyes fall shut again. Where was she? Who was this man? Why was her head so fuzzy? She’d glimpsed eyes bluer than any sky she’d ever seen, the blue of real sapphires and a taut face wearing a worried expression. And there had been something else, but she couldn’t think now, couldn’t concentrate. She wanted to sleep where it was warm, where a hard, hot-skinned shoulder pillowed her head, and gentle, rough-skinned hands moved over her face and neck and arms.