Love StruckMelissa Marr
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DESPITE IT BEING AT the beach, the party was lame. A few people were trying to turn noise into music: if Alana had been high or drunk, it might’ve been tolerable. But she was sober—and tense. Usually, the beach was where she found peace and pleasure; it was one of the only places where she felt like the world wasn’t impossibly out of order. But tonight, she felt anxious.
A guy sat down beside her; he held out a cup. “You look thirsty.”
“I’m not thirsty”—she glanced at him and tore her gaze away as quickly as she could—“or interested.” Eye candy. She didn’t date eye candy. She’d been watching her mother do that for years. It was so not the path Alana was taking. Ever. Instead, she stared at the singer. He was normal, not-tempting, not-exciting. He was cute and sweet, but not irresistible. That was the sort of guy Alana chose when she dated—safe, temporary, and easy to leave.
She smiled at the singer. The bad rendition of a Beatles song shifted into a worse attempt at poetry. . .or maybe a cover of something new and emo. It didn’t really matter what it was: Alana was going to listen to it and not pay attention to the hot dreadlocked guy who was sitting too close beside her.
Dreadlocks, however, wasn’t taking the hint.
“Are you cold? Here.” He tossed a long brown leather coat on the sand in front of her. It looked completely out of place for the crowd at the party.
“No, thanks.” Alana scooted a bit away from him, closer to the fire. Burnt embers swirled and lifted like fireflies rising with the smoke.
“You’ll get cold walking home and—”
“Go away. Please.” Alana still didn’t look back at him. Polite wasn’t working. “I’m not interested, easy, or going to get drunk enough to be either of those. Seriously.”
He laughed, seeming not insulted but genuinely amused. “Are you sure?”
“It’d be easier this way. . ..”
He moved closer, putting himself between her and the fire, directly in her line of view.
And she had to look, not a quick glance, but a real look. Illuminated by the combined glow of firelight and moonlight, he was even more stunning than she’d feared: blond hair clumped in thick dreadlocks that stretched to his waist; a few of those thick strands were kelp-green; his tattered T-shirt had holes that allowed glimpses of the most defined abs she’d ever seen.
He was crouched down, balancing on his feet. “Even if it wouldn’t upset Murrin, it’d be tempting to take you.”
Dreadlocks reached out as if he was going to cup her face in his hand.
Alana crab-walked backward, scuttling over the sand until she was just out of his reach. She scrambled to her feet and slipped a hand into the depths of her bag, past her shoes and her jumble of keys. She gripped her pepper spray and flicked the safety switch off, but didn’t pull it out of her bag yet. Logic said she was overreacting: There were other people around; she was safe here. But something about him felt wrong.
“Back off,” she said.
He didn’t move. “Are you sure? Really, it’d be easier for you this way. . ..”
She pulled out the pepper spray.
“It’s your choice, precious. It’ll be worse once he finds you.” Dreadlocks paused as if she’d say something or change her mind.
She’d couldn’t reply to comments that made no sense, though—and she surely wasn’t going to change her mind about getting closer to him.
He sighed. “I’ll be back after he breaks you.”
Then he walked away, heading toward the mostly empty parking lot.
She watched until she was sure he was gone. Grappling with drunk or high or whatever-he-was guys wasn’t on her to do list. She’d taken self-defense and street-defense classes, heard countless lectures on safety, and kept her pepper spray handy—her mother was very good about that part of parenting. None of that meant she wanted to have to use those lessons.
She looked around the beach. There were some strangers at the party, but mostly the people there were ones she’d seen around at school or out walking the reef. Right now, none of them was paying any attention to her. No one even looked her way. Some had watched when she was backing away from Dreadlocks, but they’d stopped watching when he left.
Alana couldn’t decide if he was just messing with her or if someone there really posed a threat. . .or if he was saying that to spook her into leaving the party so she’d be alone and vulnerable. Usually, when she walked home, she went in the same direction he’d gone, but just in case he was lurking in the parking lot, she decided to go farther down the beach and cut across Coast Highway. It was a couple blocks out of the way, but he’d creeped her out. A lot. He made her feel trapped, like prey.
When she’d walked far enough away that the bonfire was a glow in the distance and the roll of waves was all she could hear, the knot of tension in her neck loosened. She had gone the opposite direction of danger, and she stood in one of the spots where she felt safest, most at peace—the exposed reef. The ground under her feet shifted from sandy beach to rocky shelf. Tide pools were spread open to the moon. It was perfect, just her and the sea. She needed that, the peace she found there. She went toward a ledge of the reef where waves crashed and sprayed upward. Mussel shells jutted up like blunt black teeth. Slick sea lettuce and sea grasses hid crabs and unstable ground. She was barefoot, balancing on the edges of the reef, feeling that rush as the waves came ever closer, feeling herself fill up with the peace Dreadlocks had stolen.
Then she saw him standing in the surf in front of her, staring at her, oblivious to the waves that broke around him. “How did he get here first?”
She shivered, but then realized that it wasn’t him. The guy was as defined as Dreadlocks, but he had long, loose, dark hair. Just a surfer. Or Dreadlocks’s friend. The surfer wasn’t wearing a wetsuit. He looked like he might be. . .naked. It was difficult to tell with the waves crashing around him; at the very least, he was topless in the frigid water.
He lifted his hand to beckon her closer, and she thought she heard him say, “I’m safe enough. Come talk to me.”
It was her imagination, though. It had to be. She was just freaked out by Dreadlocks. There was no way this guy could’ve heard her over the breaking of waves, no way she could’ve heard him.
But that didn’t change her suspicion that somehow they had just spoken.
Primal fear uncoiled in her belly, and for the second time that night, she backed away without looking. Her heel sliced open on the edge of a mussel shell. The sting of salt water made her wince as she walked farther away, unable to ignore the panic, the urge to run. She glanced back and saw that he hadn’t moved, hadn’t stopped watching her with that unwavering gaze. And her fear turned to fury.
Then she saw the long black leather coat slung carelessly on the sand; it looked like a darker version of the coat Dreadlocks had offered her. She stepped on it and ground her blood-and-sand-caked foot on it. It wasn’t smooth like leather should be. Instead, the material under her foot was silk-soft fur, an animal’s pelt, a seal’s skin.
It was a pelt.
She pulled her gaze away from that dark pelt and stared at him. He still stood in the surf. Waves curled around him like the sea had formed arms of itself, hiding him, holding him.
smiled again and told her, “Take it. It’s yours now.”
And she knew she had heard his voice that time; she’d felt the words on her skin like the wind that stirred the water. She didn’t want to reach down, didn’t want to lift that pelt into her arms, but she had no choice. Her bleeding foot had broken his glamour, ended his manipulation of her senses, and she knew him for what he truly was: a selchie. He was a fey creature, a seal person, and he wasn’t supposed to exist.
Maybe it was fun to believe in them when she was a little girl sharing her storybooks with Nonny, but Alana knew that her grandmother’s insistence that selchies were real was just another type of make-believe. Seals didn’t walk on land among humans; they didn’t slip out of their Other-Skins. They were just beautiful myths. She knew that—except she was looking at a selchie who was telling her to take his Other-Skin.
Just like the one at the bonfire.
She stood motionless as she tried to process the enormity of what had happened, what was happening right now.
Two selchies. I met two freaking selchies. . .who tried to trap me.
And in that instant, she understood: the fairy tales were all wrong. It wasn’t the mortals’ fault. Alana didn’t want to stay there looking at him, but she was no longer acting of her own volition.
I am trapped.
The fishermen in the old stories who’d taken the selchies’ pelts hadn’t been entrapping innocent fey creatures: they’d been entrapped by selchie women. Perhaps it was too hard for the fishermen to admit that they were the ones who got trapped, but Alana suddenly knew the truth that none of the stories had shared. A mortal could no more resist the pull of that pelt than the sea could refuse to obey the pull of the moon. Once she took the pelt, lifted it into her mortal arms, she was bound to him. She knew what he was, knew the trap was sprung, but she was no different from the mortals in the stories she’d grown up hearing. She could not resist. She took the pelt and ran, hoping she could foist it off on someone else before he found her, before Murrin followed her home—because he had to be Murrin, the one Dreadlocks was talking about, the one that the creepy selchie had told her was worse.
Murrin watched her run, felt the irresistible need to follow her. She carried his skin with her: he had no choice but follow. It would have been better if she hadn’t run.
With murmured epithets over her flight, he stepped out of the surf and made his way to the tiny caves the water had carved into the sandstone. Inside, he had his shore-clothes: woven sandals, well-worn jeans, a few shirts, and a timepiece. When his brother, Veikko, had gone ashore earlier, he’d borrowed the soft shirt Murrin had liked so. Instead, Murrin had to wear one that required fastening many small buttons. He hated buttons. Most of his family didn’t go shore-walking often enough that they needed many clothes, but Murrin had been on land often enough that the lack of a decent shirt was displeasing. He barely fastened the shirt, slipping a couple of the tiny disks into the equally tiny holes, and went to find her—the girl he’d chosen over the sea.
He hadn’t meant for her to find his Other-Skin like this, not yet, not now. He’d intended to talk to her, but as he was coming out of the water, he’d seen her—here and not at the party. He watched her, trying to figure how to walk out of the surf without startling her, but then he felt it: the touch of her skin on his pelt. His pelt wasn’t to be there. It wasn’t to happen like this. He’d had a plan.
A selchie couldn’t have both a mate and the water, so Murrin had waited until he found a girl intriguing enough to hold his attention. After living with the moods of the sea, it wasn’t an easy task to find a person worth losing the waves for.
But I have.
So he’d intended to ease her fears, to try to woo her instead of trapping her, but when she stepped on his Other-Skin, all of those choices had vanished. This was it: they were bound. Now, he was left doing the same thing his father had once done, trying to convince a mortal to trust him after he’d trapped her. The fact that he hadn’t put his pelt where she’d find it didn’t change anything. He was left trying to wait out her fears, to find a way to convince her to trust him, to hope for a way to persuade her to forgive him: all of the very same things he’d wanted to avoid.
Mortals weren’t strong enough of will to refuse the enchantment that bound him to her. It wouldn’t make her love him, but selchies grew up knowing that love wasn’t often theirs to have. Tradition mattered more. Finding a mate, making a family, those mattered more.
And Murrin’s plan to buck tradition by getting to know his intended first had gone horribly off course.
Thanks to Veikko.
At the dirty bathrooms along the beach parking lot, Alana saw a girl clad only in a thin top and ragged shorts. The girl was shivering, not that it was cold, but from something she’d shot up—or hadn’t been able to shoot. Usually, the junkies and vagrants clustered in small groups, but this one was alone.
The pelt tingled and resumed looking again like a beautiful leather jacket as soon as Alana saw the girl. Perfect. Alana walked up and tried to hand it to the girl. “Here. You can use it to warm—”
But the girl backed away with something like horror on her face. She glanced from the coat to Alana’s face, then out to the mostly empty lot. “I won’t tell or anything. Please? Just—” She made a gagging noise and turned away.
Alana looked down. The pelt, still looking like a coat, was covered in blood. It was on her hands, her arms. Everywhere the seawater had been was now black-red in the glare of the streetlight. For a heartbeat, Alana thought she’d been wrong, that she’d hurt the selchie. She looked over her shoulder: a trail of almost perfectly tear-shaped droplets stretched behind her. Then, as she watched, those droplets shifted to a silvery-white, like someone had spilled mercury on the sand. They didn’t sink. They balanced atop the sand, holding their shape. Alana glanced down and saw the blood on the coat shift to silver, too.
“See? It’s fine. Just take it. It’ll—”
The shivering girl had already gone.
“. . .be fine,” Alana finished. She blinked back tears of frustration. “All I want is someone to hold out their arms so I can let go of it!”
With the same surety that told her what Murrin was, what Dreadlocks was, she realized that she couldn’t cast the pelt away, but if someone was to reach for it, she could let go. It could fall to the ground, and then no one would be trapped. She just needed to find someone willing to reach out.
Twice more as she walked home she tried. Each time it was the same: people looked at her with terror or disgust as she held out what looked like a bloody coat. Only when they turned away did the dampness of the coat resume the appearance of thick, salty tears.
Whatever enchantment made her unable to resist taking the pelt was making it impossible to get rid of the thing, too. Alana thought about what she knew about selchies; her grandmother had told her stories of the seal people when Alana was a little girl: selchies, seal women, came to the shore. They slipped out of their Other-Skins, and sometimes, if they weren’t careful, a fisherman or some random unmarried guy would find the skin and steal it. The new husbands hid the selchies’ Other-Skins to keep their wives entrapped.
But Nonny hadn’t said anything about male selchies; she also hadn’t said that the seal women had entrapped the men. Nonny’s stories made the selchies seem so sad, with their freedom to change to their seal shape stolen when their Other-Skins were hidden away. In the stories, the selchies were the victims; the humans were the villains—snatching helpless seal wives from the sea, tricking them, having power over them. The stories were all quite clear: the selchies were entrapped. . .but in the real world, Alana was the one feeling trapped.
By the time she reached her apartment, she was wishing—yet again—that Nonny was still around to ask. She felt like a little kid missing her grandmother so badly, but Nonny was the Grown-up, the one who’d made everything better, while Mom was as clueless as Alana felt most days.
Outside her building, she p
aused. Their car was parked in the street alongside the building. Alana popped the trunk. Carefully, she folded the coat-pelt. After a furtive look around, she rubbed her face on the soft dark fur. Then, with a level of care she couldn’t control, she tucked it under the spare blanket her mother kept in the trunk—part of the emergency kit for when they broke down. It felt as if there wasn’t any other choice: she had to keep it safe, keep it out of his reach—and keep him out of others’ reach.
Protect my mate. The words came unbidden—and very unwelcome—to her mind. She slammed the trunk and went to the front of the car. And as she did so often when she needed to be outside at night, she stretched out on the hood. It was still warm from the drive home from whatever party her mother’d been out to tonight.
Alana stared up at the moon and whispered, “Oh, Nonny, I’m so screwed.”
Then, Alana waited. He’d come. She knew he would. And having to face him with her mom lurking around, gleeful that Alana’d brought home a guy. . .it would only make a bad scene worse.
Better to do this outside.
Murrin saw her reclined on a car reminiscent of the ones he’d seen parked by the beach for days on end. It was unsightly—covered in rust spots, one door handle missing. She, however, was lovely, long limbs and curved body. Short pelt-brown hair framed her sharp-angled face. When he’d seen her on the beach several good tides ago, he’d known she was the one: a girl who loved the reef and the moon was a treasure. The waiting had been awful, but he’d watched her habits and planned how to approach her. Things weren’t going according to his plans, of course, but he’d find a way to make it work.
“Wife?” His heart sped at saying it, naming her, finally saying the word to her. He stepped closer to the car, not close enough to touch her, but closer still. After so many years dreaming of finding a wife, it was a heady thing to be so near her. It might not be how he’d imagined it, but it still was.