Chapter Seven

"You were very brave." Gaea's voice had returned to that of a mother praising her child.

"I don't feel very brave right now," she said hesitantly, still awed by Gaea's power.

The goddess bent and stroked CC's soft hair. "I am proud of you. There is a strength in you that was lacking in Undine."

CC felt a rush of pleasure at her words.

The dolphin surfaced, blowing water on the two women and chattering like an upset nursemaid. Laughing, Gaea wiped the drops of seawater from her gown.

"You had better comfort her; she will not leave us in peace until she is assured of your safety."

Feeling a little shaky at first, CC slid from the shore. Again, she felt that prickle at the nape of her neck that made her think she was being watched.

No, she told herself firmly, Sarpedon is gone. He cannot come within Gaea's grove. She was just being paranoid—and who could blame her? Thankfully, as soon as she was immersed in the water, her fears began to subside. She glided up to the distraught dolphin and stroked the creature's smooth sides.

"Hey, I'm fine," she said aloud. "Gaea got rid of him. He can't hurt me here."

We feared for you, Princess. The dolphin nuzzled CC, then turned and bowed its head reverently at Gaea. Thank you, great goddess, for protecting our Princess.

Solemnly, Gaea inclined her head and acknowledged the dolphin's adoration.

CC could see the shapes of the smaller fish timidly hiding around the clumps of bright coral.

You can come out now. She coaxed and was delighted to see them respond by wriggling up to her. With one arm draped over the back of the dolphin, she petted and soothed the frightened fish.

"Sarpedon was correct about one thing," Gaea said.

"What?" CC's attention had been focused on the delightful fish, but the goddess's words sent a chill through her body.

"I cannot protect you there." The goddess pointed to the seemingly limitless expanse of ocean. "And you cannot live forever in this cove."

"But what am I going to do?" CC knew the goddess was right. How could she live her life in this small cove? It was the equivalent of being trapped forever in an apartment. No matter how luxurious or wonderful, she would still be trapped.

"We will do what we must to keep you safe," Gaea said.

"Which means what?"

Gaea studied the girl who inhabited her daughter's body. She had strength, yes. And she was outspoken and brave. But did she also have wisdom? Perhaps the child had a kind of wisdom that was foreign to this world; but perhaps that was the kind of wisdom that would be needed for her to survive the tests that were sure to be ahead of her. The goddess made her decision.

"There is only one answer. I must take you from the sea."

CC eyes widened in surprise. "But I thought that was the problem. You couldn't take Undine from the sea without Lir's permission." Then an idea came to CC. "So why can't we get Lir's permission now? You said he loves Undine.

Doesn't that mean that he wouldn't want her own brother to rape her?"

"Sarpedon is Lir's child, too." Gaea's expression was grim. "Perhaps Lir has given his permission for your mating."

"Ugh, that's disgusting—brother and sister mating." Just the thought made CC feel sick.

"Gods and goddesses do not view these things the way humans do," Gaea said simply.

"You think it's okay that he wants me?" CC was shocked.

"Never," Gaea said firmly. "But only because you have rejected him; thus, he has no right to you. Understand that relationships are different between the gods."

"I'll take your word for it," CC muttered. "So we can't go to Lir. How do I get away from Sarpedon?"

"There is a way, but it may prove difficult."

"Is it worse than being raped by Sarpedon?" CC asked.

"Only you can answer that question, little one." The goddess began pacing back and forth along the shore as she explained to CC. "I can gift you with a human form, but it will not be permanent. You will still be tied to the seas." She gave CC an apologetic look. "Your body will long to return to the water; it may even be painful for you. And you must return to the waters and your mermaid form once each third night, or else you will sicken and die."

"Well, I suppose that's better than being trapped in this cove forever," CC said doubtfully.

The goddess stopped pacing and spoke earnestly to her. "But there is a way to make your human form permanent. You must find a man to love you and to accept with a full heart that you are a daughter of the sea, as well as that of the land. Then even Lir cannot break the bond of true love, and you will be gifted with your human form permanently."

"Oh, Gaea," CC groaned. "I'm not very experienced with men. Actually, they treat me like I'm a little sister." Then she added quickly, "And where I come from that didn't mean they wanted anything romantic to do with me."

"The handsome young pilot on your transport desired you."

Gaea's words cut into CC. Her eyes filled with tears as she remembered Sean's sweetness. "Yeah, and look what happened to him."

"He was living his destiny, child." Gaea's tone was soothing. "It was not your fault; he was fated to die on that journey. He did so heroically. You should honor his memory."

"He was going to die anyway?" CC asked.

"Yes. You did not cause his death. His life's thread had run out."

At Gaea's words CC felt a weight of guilt lift from her. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer of thanksgiving for Sean's bravery. When she opened her eyes she met the Goddess's gaze with a clear conscience.

"Tell me what I need to do."

"I will cast the spell. You must simply find the man who can accept and love you."

"Wait! Shouldn't that be easy in this world? You said gods and goddesses live here. Aren't people used to magical things?" CC asked.

"At one time, perhaps." Gaea hesitated, as if weighing her words. "You have priests in your world."

Gaea hadn't made it sound like a question, but CC nodded anyway.

'They are here, too. And many of them are good men who serve their God with love and devotion." She paused, and when she spoke again her voice sounded disgusted. "But not all of them are honorable. There has begun a new sect of priest that has infected parts of their religion. They preach that all magic is evil, and that there is only one way to believe—their way. They believe beauty, especially that of the female body, is sinful and evil." Gaea's laugh was dry and humorless. "They are fools, afraid of their own desires. But of course they want people shut away from beauty. It is easier to control people who lack hope." She shook her head sadly. "Unfortunately, too many listen to their poison."

"I wouldn't want to be with a man who believed that anyway," CC said.

"Do not judge too harshly. Even good men can be misled. Be wise in your choice and all will be well in the end."

"Ha! My choice? I haven't even had a date in six months." CC felt her cheeks color at that admission.

"My daughter," the goddess smiled indulgently. "I promise you that men will desire you."

CC glanced down at her sexy curves. "Oh! I get to keep her body?"

Gaea's laughter rang throughout the cove. "What was hers is yours, Undine."

"Ooooh." CC's mouth rounded in wonder. She was going to be beautiful. Incredibly, amazingly, as-gorgeous-as-Marilyn-Monroe beautiful.

"You must appear to be a princess who has survived a shipwreck." Gaea's words were coming quickly now that the decision was made.


Gaea held up her hand, cutting off CC's question. "I am afraid I must create a storm." She looked narrowly at CC. "You can swim?"

"Yes, but not very—"

Again, the goddess cut her off.

"Good." Gaea paced while she spoke to CC in a matter-of-fact, instructional tone. "Feign loss of memory. You should even appear desperate to find your family…"

CC wanted to ask how she was supposed to find true love based on lies, and amnesia, but there was no interrupting the goddess.

"… that desperation is why you must insist on staying near the ocean—so that messages can be more easily sent and received. And I will be certain that you come to shore in a place surrounded by water." Gaea's gaze was piercing. "But do not forget that in truth you must stay near the water or you will perish." Then the goddess softened. "But you will already know that, child. You will ache for the water. Just be wise when you change your form. Do not let yourself be seen, and always stay close to the shore where you will be under my protection. If Sarpedon traps you away from my shores, I cannot aid you."

"But you will be with me when I'm on the land?" CC's voice sounded panicky.

"I will be watching you." The goddess smiled softly. "Remember to wear your amulet. I will always be there when you truly have need of me, but you must choose your own path, Undine. Be sure to choose wisely."

Before doubts could overwhelm her, CC said, "I'll try my best."

"Are you ready, Undine?" The goddess asked.

CC fought back the nervousness that threatened to overwhelm her. She almost changed her mind and begged the goddess to let her stay in the protected cove where she knew she would be safe and loved. But she wasn't a fish in a bowl, and she'd already left one life that had been too small to contain her when she joined the air force. Was this really so different?

"I'm ready, Mother," she said resolutely.

"Then know my blessing as well as my love goes with you."

The goddess stepped away from the water and walked back to the greenery that lined the sandy shore. Once surrounded in living plants, she turned and faced the ocean. Lifting her arms over her head she began to speak, and CC shivered as the power of the goddess's words filled the cove.

"I call upon the elements I command. Air—that blows over and through me, ever present and ever blessed. Fire—that is fed and brought to life by me, a true partner and respected friend. And Earth—my body and soul. It is through you that my child was born, and to you she shall someday return."

As the air around Gaea started to glow, CC could feel the lower half of her body begin to tingle.

"With this Earth spell I protect my own. I command that only true love will complete it—and only death can break it. So have I spoken; so shall it be. "

The glow that had been surrounding Gaea exploded, hurling its brightness outward and directly at CC. She closed her eyes and threw her hands over her face just before she was enveloped in a blinding flash of color and sen-sation. She could tell she was being pulled into the air, and her body felt as if it was on fire. CC could see nothing and she was deafened by a cacophony of shrieking wind.

Time had no meaning. She tried to scream Gaea's name, but the words were ripped from her mouth, lost in an unnatural gale of noise and light.

And then she was plunged back into the water. Only her body didn't obey her with the awesome power of a mermaid. This time she could feel her human legs kicking feebly against the angry current as she struggled for the surface. She couldn't breathe and her lungs screamed. Finally, she broke through the surface and gulped air.

The sky was black and bruised looking. Waves crashed over her head making her sputter and choke. The peaceful cove was nowhere in sight, nor was her dolphin friend or the goddess. She could see an unfamiliar shoreline a daunting distance away from her. Trying to keep a growing sense of panic at bay, she started swimming for land.

The skies opened and rain began to pelt her. A white-capped wave hit her, and CC was slammed under the water. She clawed for the surface and realized that in the liquid blackness she couldn't tell which direction was up. All rational thought fled her mind and panic surged through her as she flailed helplessly in the drowning darkness.

Strong hands gripped her by the waist and lifted her, holding her above the seething water so that she could suck air into her burning lungs. She coughed and gagged, vomiting the seawater she had been unable to keep herself from swallowing. Her body shook uncontrollably. She could feel hands holding her waist securely. Her naked back was pressed firmly against the hard muscles of a man's chest—she could feel his deep, even breathing. She thought that he had to be standing on firm ground to be able to support her so well. With shaking hands she rubbed her eyes clear of saltwater, expecting to see the shore close before her. Instead, it was still a too distant line of darkness.

Confused, CC twisted around to find that she was being held in the arms of an oddly familiar stranger. His wild black hair hung in runnels around his shoulders. He didn't speak, but his sable-colored eyes were fixed intently on her.

Questions surged through CC's mind. How could he look familiar to her? Hadn't Gaea sent her to a medieval world? Had the goddess made a mistake?

And then realization hit her with a rush of dizzy wonder. He looked familiar because he reminded her of the man from her dream! The one who had called to her so desperately the night she had summoned the goddess and danced in the rain.

Fascinated, CC stared at him. His broad chest was bare and smooth and felt hard and warm against her naked breasts. The corded muscles of his arms flexed with the effort of holding her above the surface. But instead of being able to feel the muscles of a man's legs against her own bare legs, the lower half of her body was pressed firmly against a single expanse of slick, warm flesh that flexed and beat steadily against the current. She glanced down. Even through the swirling water she could see the orange and gold brilliance of his thick, banded tail.

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