This is dedicated to Megan, who was feeling down the other night.
Chapter Two: Angel of Death…er, right?
"Wake up, dammit!"
Killian's body lurched to the side into the water and he came awake quite suddenly, resurfacing and coughing up seawater. Blinking his eyes furiously, he grasped the wood that had become his life raft and looked around. The sun was bright and the sea had calmed under its rays. He became aware of someone panting behind him and stiffened. For a moment, he remembered that last insane vision before he had lost consciousness.
It had been a vision, right? This was crazy…
Kicking his feet in the water, he rotated his body to look behind him and found that vision glaring at him—only a few feet away.
Maybe he was dead. He had to be, right?
How the hell would someone have survived that storm unconscious? How would a little thing like this woman have been able to weather the raging sea?
He peered at her more closely. In the shining sun, her hair glinted red against the pale pearl of her shoulders. Delicately curved brows furrowed over eyes that glittered cerulean. Her eyes were prominent and framed with a thick veil of beautifully curved lashes. Water dripped down high cheekbones and an upturned chin. Full red lips captured his attention for a moment before he was distracted by them moving. He realized that his angel of death was talking.
He should probably listen. Death just got a whole lot more interesting. He tried not to leer at the appealing curves that he was sure the waves of the ocean concealed. After all, if he wanted to keep busy in this afterlife he should probably not annoy his gorgeous companion.
This was much better than a creepy figure shrouded in black with a damn long scythe.
When she realized he hadn't heard a word she said, the woman rolled her eyes and blew her bangs out of her face in exasperation. He focused back in on her lips.
Oh yeah. Much better.
There was a sudden blitz of sea water in his face and he spluttered. She had clearly just flung water at him. "What the hell?"
"It's about time you woke up. You weigh a ton!" The woman impatiently pushed her hair out of her face when her breath failed to move it. He became aware of the fact that its wet length obscured as much of her body as the ocean did. "Listen, buddy, water may make a person lighter, but when you're dealing with dead weight for that long it doesn't really help that much…"
Huh. Her manner of speaking wasn't quite what he expected of an angel of death. In fact, one would think she would have more tact with a recently deceased man.
"Excuse me, love, but don't you think you should be a bit more gentle with me in my emotionally fragile state?" He tried to make his expression look vulnerable. Her face softened a bit before she stiffened and narrowed her eyes, staring at him suspiciously.
"Really? Emotionally fragile?" She sounded skeptic. "Why would you be emotionally fragile? I saved you. You should be ecstatic."
"Saved me?" He felt a bit bewildered. "You mean, I'm not dead?"
Her eyes widened and he was struck once more with the mesmerizing effect of their color. She huffed out a laugh. "Um, no."
He leaned negligently back against the wood, sure that he was ever suave even after a night of dehydration and battering. Being alive opened a whole new world of possibilities. "So you're my savior, eh? Whatever can I do to repay you?"
His lecherous tone left no confusion regarding what he clearly thought was appropriate repayment. She rolled her eyes again and he tensed. Hmm. She seemed to be inordinately immune to his rugged charms.
That wasn't normal.
He relaxed a bit. He had to admit that he had just been through an extremely harrowing physical ordeal. If his manly appeal was slightly less effective than usual, it was only to be expected.
"Right. Anyway, swim that way and you'll find an island. Good luck." She casually gestured somewhere to the east and turned to leave without a second glance.
Okay. Maybe a bit more than slightly less effective. "Hey! Where are you going?"
He moved in her direction—maybe more like lunged in her direction—before he realized his muscles were still trembling. Lack of food and water paired with the extreme exertion it took to brace against the waves had left him weak as a newborn. He would likely have sunk beneath the surface if her arms hadn't come around him from behind, bracing his back against her chest.
Her very shapely chest.
He wished he had more strength. As it was, it was only a passing observation. She swam him the few feet back to the wood and more or less heaved him back onto it. He curled his fingers around the edge and exhaled slowly, resting his cheek against its grain and closing his eyes as he tried to regain some strength. Her voice was scolding when it spoke again.
"You really should give yourself at least a few minutes to recover. And you certainly shouldn't attempt to swim without this flotation aid." A cool hand brushed his brow and he had a sense of déjà vu, a vague memory of this same hand swiping his hair from his face. He reveled in the gentle touch.
"I'll be fine," he spoke weakly, being sure to let his voice tremble a bit. Although maybe it wasn't so much letting it tremble as not being able to stop it from trembling.
Meh. Who cared about such trivial details?
Her touch disappeared and he dragged his hand under his chin, lifting his head and opening his eyes. She was on the other side of the piece of debris, her own fingers grasping its edge. Their faces were disconcertingly close. He took in the beauty of her features and tried to gauge her expression. It seemed almost worried. Certainly at odds with the casual, almost irritated behavior she had displayed so far in their association.
He must really look like hell.
They stared at each other for a few moments, silence stretching comfortably between them as they studied each other and drifted in the ocean. His voice was like a clap of thunder and she jumped a bit when he spoke.
"What's your name?"
She bit her lip, hesitating. "…Ariel."
His lips quirked, one side rising in a toned down version of his trademark smirk. "Killian Jones. At your service."
She was unable to stop the smile that spread across her face. "I don't seem to be the one in need of assistance."
Her smile turned to an impish grin. "Ariel. At your service."
She winked playfully and he laughed. Outright laughed. He had rarely come across a female who could be so flippant with him. Or at least so flippant without clear sexual innuendo behind it. She seemed amazingly guileless. Straightforward in a way that he was unfamiliar with.
His laughter died down and silence fell once more as they eyed each other, trying to figure out their next step. She broke their eye contact and looked around.
"Well…" She seemed to come to some sort of decision and sighed, looking back to him. "I suppose there's nothing for it. I'll have to help you get to the island."
He raised a brow at her. Really, did she have any other pressing plans out here in the middle of the ocean? She must be playing some sort of hard to get. Of course, she had to want to get to the island also. After all, humans can only drift about the sea for so long. She shifted around the drifting wood to his side, causing him to move aside slightly so they could both be on the same side of the wood. He wished he didn't feel so weak. This would be the perfect time to put an arm around her, to become more acquainted with what he was certain would be supple curves.
Hell, being on a sinking ship was so troublesome.
She started to propel them forward through the water and, periodically, he tried to help. He had to admit (well, to himself—not her, of course) that he was very little help. A tiny speck grew larger and larger over the next hour. They stopped from time to time so Ariel could get her breath back. It was a novel experience for him. He normally left women gasping for air for much different reasons.
Her long red hair was everywhere, spreading out in reaching tendrils where it entered the water. Above the water, her hair was beginning to dry. No longer dark and flat from the weight of water, but shimmering with previously hidden highlights and looking soft and full in the sun. He wanted to run his hands through it, but thought better of it (actually, his muscles didn't seem to want to listen to him and he could barely lift a finger let alone an arm; naturally, he assumed she would be amenable to such a caress. How could she not? It was him, after all…).
They grew closer and closer to the island. She led them toward an inlet with rocky outcroppings and drew them to a stop near one, returning to the opposite side of the debris piece so she could face him once more.
"Alright. I know you're tired, but you're going to have to make it to land on your own now." She spoke in such a matter-of-fact tone that all he could for a moment was gape at her. She made a move as if to back away and his hand—previously unable to do much more than clutch at the wooden surface—reached out in a flash, grabbing her wrist. Her skin was just as soft as he had expected.
"Um, love, I don't know if you've noticed. But you were stranded in the ocean also. And this is land. Don't you think we should stick together until we figure out how to get back to civilization?"
Her expression changed from surprise to amusement. "That really wouldn't work for me."
"Because you're afraid you can't control your passions around me?" He looked thoughtfully off to the clouds, not noticing that her amusement faded and irritation took its place. "I mean, I understand your dilemma, but I'm sure we could work something out—hey!"
He lifted his free hand to rub the back of his head, which she had just slapped none too gently. She glared at him.
"Of course I'm not afraid I can't control myself. Get a grip! Look, you're not bad looking, but that doesn't mean you've turned me to a puddle of hormones," she said wryly.
His eyes widened. Not bad looking? Maybe the sinking ship had given her a head wound, affected her eyesight? She had to have been on the same ship where he had been incarcerated. That was the only explanation. Maybe he should have made more of an effort to help get them here. Clearly the horrors of a sinking ship and then all that exertion had done something to her. Not bad looking? It just wasn't normal…
He shook himself. He'd deal with her issues later. Time to focus on the problem at hand. "Look, either way, it's probably best that we stick together for now. You know, safety in numbers."
He could think of a lot of things that were better with two than one. Specifically, one very pleasurable activity…
"Yeah. Like I said, that's not really going to work out."
He was getting annoyed. What was her deal?
"Why not?" He snapped in irritation.
"I don't do well on land."
His brow furrowed. "You prefer to live on ships? Well, that's great, but in case it's escaped you, we don't exactly have one of those right now."
"No wonder you got captured by those dumb pirates. You really aren't the sharpest tool in the box, are you?"
What the hell? Now she was insulting him?! After she had already demonstrated her own dubious intelligence and taste? "Look, lady, they caught me by surprise. And they only had me for a few hours. I was about to spring myself from their holding cell when they managed to sink their own bloody ship!"
"Sure you were," she responded skeptically.
She raised a brow and he realized they had gotten off track. He almost growled in annoyance, suddenly feeling much more energetic than he had for the last few hours.
"That doesn't matter right now. We're going ashore together. You're coming with me." His hand was like an iron manacle around her wrist. No way was he letting go of her, even if she was nuts. He supposed he must have some kind of conscience left. Wouldn't do to let the loony lass perish among the seas simply because she had either received a head wound or just had a few screws loose.
"No. I'm not." Her voice was suddenly steel, eyes darkening and reminding him very much of the roiling sea last night.
"You can't just stay out here in the water."
"Actually, I can." The amusement was back. "In fact, I must."
"Why?!" He practically shouted at her, frustration passing all boundaries.
She surprised him by reaching out with her free hand and smoothing his hair back. Her touch automatically leeched out some of his mounting anger. "I'm a mermaid. Of course, I live in the sea."
He froze. What…
Had she just said—was she really—wouldn't he have noticed…
He looked down automatically, but the board was blocking his view and he realized even if it wasn't there, her voluminous hair blossoming around her in the water would make it difficult to see anything else.
He cleared his throat. "A mermaid?"
How could he be sure this wasn't just some hallucination on her part?
She nodded, leaning back in the water and suddenly a fin came briefly out of the water before sinking back under the surface. He stared at where it had been, transfixed. He had never seen anything like it. Scales the most beautiful shade of green, gleaming with shots of deep blue.
"What the hell?"
He had heard the tales of mermaids. In fact, many pirates hunted them, hoping to capture one and sell it to the highest bidder. He had never really given their existence much thought. He had never seen one and so they didn't even come into his consideration. It was hard enough hunting treasures that he knew existed—gold, jewels—let alone chasing legendary ones.
In his surprise, she was able to pull her wrist free, gracefully swimming back a few feet. She laughed at his outraged shock. "What? You really thought I was some random woman who happened to show up in the middle of the ocean to save you?"
She made him sound ridiculously stupid. He felt his annoyance rise once more. "No. I figured—logically, might I add—that you had been on the ship, also. Perhaps the chit of one of those idiots."
She looked at him in disgust. "Do I look like someone who would belong to one of those dolts? A pirate?"
Her level of disgust made him pause. Ah, so she didn't like pirates. He supposed that made sense, what with the whole pirates-hunting-mermaids thing. Realization hit. That must mean she didn't know he was a pirate…
She disappeared under the water. She was gone so long that the surface stilled and he wondered if she had left for good. He turned, scanning the water in the small inlet and leaning back against the wood. Suddenly, she was right in front of him, the expression on her face both stunning and terrifying.
"And you would do well to remember to never call me a chit again."
Her tone was soft, seductively so, but also laced with a deadly intent.
It reminded him of the call of the sea. He had always felt it—the need to be closer to the sea. But he had never deluded himself. He knew the sea was a powerful and merciless master, able to kill and consume without remorse.
He knew also that its creatures were very similar.
An image of his first mate came to mind, peg leg weathered by surf and spray. Shark attack.
Yes, the sea's power was nothing to scoff about.
Apparently, the same could be said of mermaids.
He looked at her more closely, interested despite himself. Or maybe just this particular mermaid.
He opened his mouth to speak, but she was gone once more. He waited—for how long, he didn't know; perhaps minutes, perhaps an hour—but she didn't return. The sun began to embrace the horizon and he knew he should get ashore and find shelter and warmth.
He felt exhausted thinking about it, but he supposed his personal savior was well and truly gone. He slowly began to make his way to the beach.
A blue gaze followed his movements from behind a rock formation, curious even though she knew she shouldn't be.
She wanted a glimpse of his legs as he clambered to land.
Such beautiful things, legs.
Her fin twitched in the water. She sighed. She really had to get back. Her father was going to be very angry with her. Especially when he realized that she had given her companions the slip once more. And she had been gone for over a day.
She remembered the feel of his hair—Killian's hair—as she had pushed it back from his brow. Soft hair, forehead radiating a lovely warmth.
Some things were better left unremembered.