Chapter Eight

Cc gasped with shock. The thought that flooded her mind was that she had to escape, and she pushed violently against his chest, kicking her way free of his arms. Instantly another wave battered her, pulling her under the water again. When she felt his hands on her, she forced herself to be calm and to quell the overwhelming urge to fight. She allowed him to lift her back to the surface.

This time, instead of holding her securely against his chest, he grasped her waist and held his arms straight out from his body, keeping her as far from him as he could. CC could see his thick tail beating hard against the water below, keeping them afloat.

"If you do not allow me to help you, you will drown." His deep voice sounded surprisingly gentle. "Your new body cannot breathe under the water."

"Who are you?" she asked breathlessly, pulling her water-soaked hair forward to cover her naked breasts.

"I am called Dylan."

"I won't go back to Sarpedon."

The merman's brows came together, and he shook his head. "I am no friend to the son of Lir."

"He didn't send you here?" She couldn't stop shivering.

"No." The word was clipped.

"Did Gaea?"

He shook his head.

"How—" she started to ask, but he broke in urgently.

"Undine, I must get you to land." He paused and looked deeply into her eyes. "It would be best if you would put your arms around my shoulders. I…" He hesitated again, trying to catch his breath, then he continued with an apologetic shrug. "I do not have the strength to carry you to shore as I am holding you now."

And he obviously didn't. His breath was coming in gasps, and the muscles in his arms were tight and quivering. CC could see the effort it was costing him to keep them afloat in the choppy waters. She looked at him more carefully. If he had been human, he would have been a tall man. The merman's torso was well defined; his arms were powerful and his flat abdomen rippled with strength. But he didn't have the bulky cords of muscles that had packed Sarpedon's frame, nor did he have the other merman's overwhelming size. Obviously, mer-creatures came in different shapes and strengths, just like people.

"I give you my oath that I will not harm you, Undine." Dylan spoke the words slowly and clearly, enunciating carefully around his ragged breathing. "Look—" He shifted one hand from her waist, causing her to slip a little way down in the water. He grasped her arm, still keeping her head and shoulders above the water, and with his other hand, he reached toward her breasts.

"Stop!" CC jerked back.

"You misunderstand," he assured her quickly. "I wish only to touch the amulet of the goddess. If it does not burn me, you'will see that I have no desire to harm you."

CC held very still as the merman's hand moved slowly between her breasts. He cupped the amber teardrop in his palm.

Nothing happened. Dylan let the amulet fall from his hand and held his palm open for her inspection. It was unmarked.

"Do you believe me now, Princess Undine?" he asked.

She nodded. "What do you want me to do?"

"Hold onto my shoulders and rest your body against my back. Then I can swim under the water while you remain above the surface."

"Okay," she said, fighting back her fear.

"Come, then."

Still holding her securely by the arm, he pulled her toward him and turned so that she was facing his broad back. His skin was tan and flawless. His hair fell thick and heavy past his shoulders. It was wet and it glistened like a raven's wing. He slipped down in the water so that she could easily reach his shoulders.

She hesitated, afraid to touch him. He's just trying to help me, she told herself and forced her hands to grasp the rounded tops of his shoulders.

"You must hold tightly." He turned his head and spoke over his shoulder.

"I'm trying," CC said. Her hands felt numb and they didn't seem to want to obey her. Her lips were cold and the skin on her arms looked unnaturally pale.

Dylan reached around and with his forearm held her firmly against him. The length of CC's naked body was pressed to the back of the merman. She could feel his muscles tensing against her. His breathing was rough, and his skin felt incredibly warm against her chilled flesh. He turned his head again and their eyes met. Hers were wide with shock; his were dark with unspoken emotion.

"You have nothing to fear. I will not let you fall," he said simply.

A strong thrust of his tail sent the merman forward. He ducked his head under the water and began swimming just below the surface. CC clung to his back, struggling to breathe as waves slapped her face. Against her body she could feel the rhythmic beat of the merman's tail as it propelled them toward the shoreline.

As they neared the shore, the rain stopped. The sky began to clear and the waves quieted. Within minutes it was as if there had never been a raging storm. Dylan swam around jutting clumps of coral and rocks until CC could see that the shoreline was just a few yards from them. With a graceful flick of his tail he lifted his torso out of the water.

CC still clung, gasping, to his back. Hesitantly, as if he didn't want to stop touching her, he unwrapped his arm from around CC. Her feet found the sandy bottom, and she let go of his shoulders.

The instant her feet met land, she felt an electric tingling throughout her body, and there was a burst of incredible light. Threads of brightness obscured her vision, like she had been trapped in a glowing spider's web. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the light show ended.

CC was standing in water that came just below her breasts, and her body felt somehow different. She looked down at herself and gasped. She was clothed in layers upon layers of cloth that created a beautiful dress, which sparkled and shimmered with the exact colors that had been in her mermaid's tail. The fabric was heavy and wet, but CC could still see the intricate needlework that covered almost every inch of it. Her fingers and wrists were covered with rings and bracelets. She shook her head in wonder and felt dangling earrings brush against her neck. Her hair, too, felt unnaturally heavy, and CC raised a hand to touch strands of jewels that had been magically woven within it and draped around her slender neck.

"The Goddess Gaea cares for her own," Dylan said. The merman's tail was curled under him so that it appeared that he was standing beside her. He had drifted a step away from her, as if to give the magic room to work, but he didn't seem surprised by the sudden manifestation of CC's new wardrobe.

"Thank you, Gaea," CC said aloud. She studied the thickly leafed trees lining the beach, but she didn't see any sign of the goddess. Then her gaze returned to the merman.

"And thank you," she said. "I think I owe you my life." The sun had come out and its rays were already warming her. She was exhausted and her body felt like it was made of lead, but her uncontrollable shivering had stopped, and now that she was dressed, she didn't feel nearly as helpless.

He shook off her thanks. "No, Undine. There is no debt between us. I only offered aid when it was needed."

"Well, thank you anyway." Automatically, she offered her hand to him, and with only a slight hesitation he took it.

But instead of shaking it he lifted it slowly to his mouth and pressed it to his lips. CC stopped breathing. Dylan's lips were warm—and that warmth traveled through her body, making the fine hairs on her arm rise in response. His eyes met hers, and CC realized how darkly handsome he was.

She found herself wanting to whisper I think I dreamed about you, but his gaze mesmerized her into silent breath-lessness.

He continued holding her hand in his, and she felt him stroke it gently with his thumb. Her skin tingled under his caress, and her breath came back in a rush. The smile on his full lips was reflected in his dark, expressive eyes. When he spoke his voice was rough with emotion.

"Undine, you are most wel—"

A shout from the shore startled them. In one blink, Dylan dropped her hand and plunged headfirst, disappearing instantly beneath the waves.

CC turned to the shore in time to see surging from the line of trees a man riding a huge black horse. She took a step forward and her feet became tangled in the thick skirts of her dress. She fell face first into the water, where she struggled and floundered impotently against the weight of her clothes. Before she could regain her feet she was pulled roughly to the surface, swept up into the man's arms and carried to the beach like a child. She coughed and wiped water from her eyes, thinking how extraordinarily tired she was of swallowing seawater.

"You are safe now, my lady," the man said earnestly. Placing her gently on the sand, he kneeled beside her.

"Th-thank you." CC coughed. She looked up at him and couldn't help staring. He was dressed like she imagined an ancient knight would have been dressed. He wore a pointed helmet made of silver metal that left most of his face open, except for a studded nosepiece. A long tunic of gray chain mail covered him from torso to knees, leaving his thickly muscled legs bare. He had a huge sword strapped to his waist and the scarlet cape that was tossed over his shoulders was held in place by a large pewter brooch in the shape of a roaring lion. Blond hair escaped from under the helmet and curled around his shoulders. He looked like a young war god.

But he wasn't looking at her. His attention was focused on the water. "My lady, were there no other survivors from your vessel?"

"No," she said quickly. Then she remembered Gaea's words and pressed her hand to her forehead, leaning heavily back as if she was on the edge of fainting. "I-I don't know. I can't remember." She felt her body quiver with shock and the sob that escaped her lips was suddenly very real. "I can't remember anything."

He turned his attention back to her and his eyes widened as his senses registered the beauty he held within his arms. "Forgive me, lady," he said hastily, patting her shoulder awkwardly. "You have been through a horrible ordeal. It is just that for a moment I thought I saw someone in the water with you."

Two men on horseback burst through the tree line. The warrior shouted orders to them.

"Marten, Gilbert—search the shore and the waters for other survivors. This lady is injured. I must get her to shelter."

The two men saluted him and instantly obeyed his orders, but CC couldn't help noticing the way their eyes kept snaking back to her. The way they looked at her made her feel like she was still naked. The man kneeling beside her seemed to notice their looks too, because he shifted his body to block her from their view.

"Can you ride?" he asked gently.

CC glanced at the gigantic black beast and gulped. Slung over its odd-looking, curved pommel was a large silver shield that looked a little like a monstrous kite. The creature pawed dangerously. The only horse she'd ever ridden had been attached to a carousel, and that had been many years ago.

"Not without help." She definitely wasn't pretending when her voice shook.

In one motion he scooped her from the sand and strode to the waiting horse, who snorted and shied at the waterlogged body in his master's arms. Without any warning, he tossed CC into the saddle, then grabbed a handful of the stallion's thick, dark mane and vaulted up behind her. Leaning forward he gathered the reins, kicked his heels into the horse's sides and the stallion leapt forward.

"Wait!" CC felt a stab of panic as they headed into the forest and away from the ocean. Something inside of her wrenched, and a wave of dizziness washed over her. "Where are you taking me?"

"Do not fear, my lady. There is a monastery not far from here. The good monks will give you aid."

"But I can't leave the ocean," she said frantically. "My family—" she broke off with a frightened sob.

His arms tightened around her protectively as he thought of her lovely helplessness. He was unaccustomed to having a woman touch his emotions, but it felt as though this young woman's beauty had already cast a spell upon him. She most assuredly shook him. When he spoke his voice was gruff, making his words sound harsh.

"We are not leaving the ocean. Caldei Monastery is but a short distance up this coast." He forced himself to add a smile to his voice, trying to reassure her. "And it would be impossible for us ride away from the ocean. Caldei Monastery is built on the island of Caldei. We are surrounded by the ocean."

The man's words didn't seem to register to her battered brain. She couldn't stop her body from shaking. What had she gotten herself into? Where was Gaea?

They broke through the trees onto a dirt-packed road and the warrior pointed his horse to the right. Clearing his throat and forcing himself to speak in a more soothing tone, he said, "My name is Sir Andras Ap Caer Llion, eldest son of the great Lord Caerleon. I am pleased to be of service to you, and I pledge that I will not allow any harm to befall you." His warm breath touched the side of her face. "May I be honored with your name?"

CC forced her eyes from the snatches of blue that she glimpsed through the trees. Her mind was in turmoil. She wanted nothing more than to shake free from the cage of the knight's arms and to hurl herself back into the ocean.

You will ache for the waters. Gaea's words drifted through her memory as she struggled against the primitive urge that engulfed her.

"Your name, lady?" the knight prompted.

CC breathed deeply, forcing herself to relax in his arms. The sun glinted through the trees that lined the dirt road, and as the stallion galloped forward, the play of light and shadow danced alluringly over the knight's silver helmet and golden hair. CC felt another wave of overwhelming emotion. She had been rescued first by a creature from her dreams and then by an authentic knight in shining armor.

And through it all, her body ached and cried for the sea.

"I am the Princess Undine, and I cannot leave the water," she whispered, closing her eyes and allowing her head to rest against the strength of his shoulder.

A safe distance from shore Dylan watched1 as the human man carried Undine away. His hands balled into fists, and he clenched his jaw until it ached. It didn't matter that he knew this was what she had always wanted. It didn't even matter that he knew the soul inside her body wasn't that of his childhood playmate, Undine. He still felt drawn to her. He remembered the look in her eyes when he had kissed her hand, and the hope that had filled him at her unexpected response to his touch. Watching her ride away, he felt like a piece of his body had been hacked from him.

Through the trees he could see that the horse had turned and was traveling parallel to the ocean. Ignoring his despair, he glided through the water, careful to keep her always within his sight.

She may still have need of him. He had failed her at the grotto; he would not fail her again.

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