Chapter Twenty-one

"I love you, Christine."

She must have fallen asleep, because Dylan's voice woke her. At first CC thought they were still lying on the bed of sea foam, but the sound of waves breaking against the shore around them and the velvet feel of sand under her hip made her realize that she and Dylan had drifted to shore. She was still nestled against his chest and he lay semireclining, with his back against one of the many smooth rocks that peppered the shore.

"I'm so glad," she said and stretched languidly. Then she laughed.

"What?" he asked.

"I was just thinking that I feel like a satisfied cat, which seemed kind of funny under the circumstances." She gestured at their entwined tails. Then she raised her eyebrows at him. "You do know what a cat is, don't you?"

He tugged a wet strand of her hair playfully. "It is a feline creature that is closely allied to human women." He looked introspective for a moment, like he was remembering something, then he added, "They are fond of eating fish." His face split, and he laughed, too.

"Not that we're fish," CC said between giggles.

"Certainly not. You are Goddess of the Seas," he amended good-naturedly.

"That must make you," she finished with a flourish, "God of the Seas!"

Dylan's face instantly changed. It took on a guarded expression that caused CC a pang of anxiety. He hesitated before he spoke, and when he did his words sounded heavy, as if they were weighed down by the sadness of painful memories.

"No, Christine. We are different. My mother was a simple water nymph who preferred rivers and streams to the ocean. My father was a human. When my mother became pregnant she went to Lir and asked that she be granted a human form so that she could spend her life with her human lover. Lir agreed, but when my mother left the waters my father rejected her." Dylan's jaw tightened, and he looked away from her. "He already had a wife and a family. He had no use for a sea creature and her bastard offspring. My mother returned to the waters, which is where I was born. But she never found contentment. She was forever returning to the river where she had met and mated with my father. When he failed to return she killed herself. Lir allowed me to stay in his crystal palace while I was young out of love for Undine, who was my playmate. When I grew to adulthood he granted me the responsibility of overseeing the waters where they merged, river and sea. I think the great sea god hoped that under my watchfulness no other river nymphs would be lost to the lust of humans. But I am not the son of immortals; I am not as you are. Perhaps you did not realize that. Forgive me for not explaining our differences to you earlier." He wouldn't meet her eyes.

"Dylan." She took his chin in her hand, forcing him to look at her. His face was tight and withdrawn, but she could see the pain reflected in his eyes. "I'm sorry about your mother, and it makes me sad about your father, but it could never change what I feel for you. How could you believe that could matter to me?"

"You are Goddess of the Sea. I do not have even a palace or a realm to offer you."

"Yeah, I know all about being offered a realm—Sarpe-don already did that," she said fiercely. "And I'm not interested." She nodded her head toward the monastery. "And there's a knight up there who has a castle to offer me," she scoffed. "I'd rather be trapped on land than accept their kind of love. Or, better yet, I'd rather have no lover at all than what they offer."

At the mention of the other two males Dylan's jaw clenched, and she could feel his body tense against her.

"I want what you offer me," she said.

"But I have nothing to offer you," he said miserably.

CC splayed her open hand on his chest over his heart. "You have this."

"No," Dylan's voice was thick with emotion. "I do not even have a heart. It was lost to you lifetimes ago."

"Don't ever think it's lost, Dylan. I'll keep it safe. Always." She pulled him down to her and their kiss was filled with the tenderness of true love.

"For an eternity," he said.

"Yes, for eternity," she agreed. "And I want to stay with you. Here, in the water, in this form, forever."

Dylan's look of joy was quickly shadowed by worry. When he spoke his voice was calm and filled with the hardness of purpose.

"I will protect you from Sarpedon," he said. "I will not allow him to harm you."

Remembering the raging, insane power of the gigantic merman, CC felt a stab of fear. "No! You won't have to. Gaea is going to Lir. She'll work everything out; she just asks that we be a little patient. She said Lir has some problem with another goddess who's taking his attention right now."

"I am not God of the Sea, but I do have some power of my own, Christine." Dylan's expression had darkened, and CC felt the deep, constant strength that rested beneath the merman's kind exterior.

"I know you do! But Sarpedon is crazy, and he's getting more and more bizarre. He scares me, Dylan. Please let Gaea handle it. I couldn't bear it if anything happened to you."

Dylan opened his mouth to argue, but CC silenced him by pressing a finger against his lips.

"Promise me you'll stay away from him."

When he didn't answer her, the stab of fear turned to panic. Her mind whirred while she searched for something she could say to convince him. Then she knew.

"If something happened to you I would be forced to marry the knight so that I could stay on land, away from Sarpedon's realm," she said simply. She hated that her words caused the flash of pain that crossed the merman's face, but fear for his life overrode her desire to protect his feelings.

"I promise you I will not seek out Sarpedon. But I also promise you I will not allow him to take you from me."

She smiled at him, trying to lighten his mood. "Do you really think it would be so easy to take me?"

Begrudgingly, Dylan's face relaxed, and he smiled back at her.

"No, I believe you would be very difficult to capture." He kissed her quickly. "You must have been a goddess in your old world, too."

CC's laughter sparkled.

"Well, I was a sergeant. I guess that's pretty close to a goddess, at least in some circles."

"What is this, ser-geant?" He pronounced the foreign word slowly, which made CC want to laugh again. "Where was your realm?"

"The Comm Center." She grinned. Then she sighed at his confused expression and tried to explain. "I was in the USAF, the United States Air Force. My, uh, I guess you'd call it my realm, was the United States. The air force is a branch of the armed forces that protects my realm's freedoms. I worked in the communications part of the USAF—making sure different people and countries got the information they needed to make wise decisions."

Dylan nodded his head. "A messenger goddess protecting her realm. Yes, that suites you. I would have guessed as much."

CC opened her mouth to try and explain that there really were no goddesses in the USAF, but she sighed again and stayed silent. Hadn't she just been trying to convince Isabel that there was magic inside of each woman? So why couldn't she take that belief one step further and claim the goddess within every woman?

A wonderful thrill swept through her as her thoughts touched upon a belief so ancient that she could feel the depths of her soul leap in response. That was it! Each woman must hold some part of the Divine Feminine deep within her. CC wanted to shout with the discovery.

"Yes," she said joyously. "You're right. I am a goddess."

Dylan didn't look surprised at all. "I wish I could visit your realm of the United States Air Force."

CC almost choked as a mental image of Dylan in Oklahoma flashed into her mind.

"Well," she said quickly. "It's in the middle of a land that's far from the ocean. There's really no way to swim there." Even if we were in the same century, she finished the sentence silently.

"I would have to have legs again," Dylan said thoughtfully. "Having legs was such an unusual experience."

CC tried not to laugh.

"I do not think we can ever go back," Dylan said.

CC shook her head. "I seriously doubt it."

The merman studied her. "Will you miss it? What of your family there?"

CC took a deep breath. She had been avoiding thinking about her parents. Now homesickness filled her. Yes. She would miss them. She loved them. But… her gaze traveled out over the fog-covered water. The soft fingers of the surf caressed her body.

The realization came swiftly to her mind. She belonged here.

She had left home when she was so young because she had never felt like she really belonged, and she had been traveling all of her adult life trying to find someplace where she truly fit in. The air force had been satisfying, she realized, not just because she enjoyed her work, but because she never stayed in one place long enough to begin to feel the discomfort of not belonging. While her peers were settling down, getting married and having children, she had been living the nomadic life of a woman searching for home. Deep within her she knew she had finally found that home.

She touched Dylan's cheek. "Yes, I'll miss my parents, but it's time for me to grow up and move on." She remembered their Silver Cruise schedule with a poignant smile. "They'll be fine. They have each other. And this is where I belong."

The monastery bells began their lazy morning toll. CC felt each clang as if it was a physical thing.

"I wish you would stay," Dylan said, his voice sounding strained.

CC pressed her head against his chest. "There's nothing I want more." Except to keep you safe, she thought. "But I promised Gaea that I would be patient and wait for her to fix things with Lir."

"You must keep your word to the goddess." Dylan's voice was muffled as he buried his face in her hair.

"It can't be too much longer. You should have seen Gaea today; she was magnificent. There's just no way Lir will be able to resist her. Soon she'll come to me and tell me that everything's fine, and I'll run down that cliff and swim to you, and whatever human is watching can just go straight to hell if they don't like it!"

"Do not place yourself in danger," Dylan said sharply. "You are right. We can be patient."

CC kissed the corner of his mouth. "You'll be waiting here in case I can slip away?"

Dylan cupped her chin in his hand. "For an eternity, Christine. I will wait for you for an eternity. Never forget that."

"I couldn't, Dylan," she whispered.

They kissed—a long, gentle kiss that held the sweet promise of more to come.

"I have to go." When she spoke the words aloud she felt the morphing burn begin at her waist, and in an instant the sand gave way under her naked legs.

Dylan smiled sadly and ran a hand caressingly down the length of one of her newly re-formed legs.

"You know I do love to touch your legs."

"Apparently men don't change much, no matter their form." She smiled, trying to keep her tone light. She kissed him quickly before she stood.

"I love you, Dylan," CC said. Then she turned and walked slowly to the log that held her clothes.

"And I love you, Christine. Always." Dylan's voice echoed around her. She heard the wet slap of his body against the water as the ocean reclaimed him.

The goddess's rain had finally stopped, and the lightening of the sky told CC that she should hurry, but her steps were slow and leaden. Her feet felt awkward after the powerful grace of her mermaid body. And each step took her away from Dylan. She forced herself to navigate the final twists of the path. As she climbed up onto the grassy space outside the monastery wall, she spoke a prayer aloud to her goddess.

"Please hurry. I can't stand this separation much longer."

"The abbot was wise when he told me to beware your beauty. I see now that it clouded my mind into believing you were simply an innocent maid." Andras's voice was hard and angry as he and his two squires stepped from the shadows of the monastery wall.

CC jumped, and her hands automatically splayed to cover her breasts, which were clearly visible through the sheer, damp chemise.

"Andras! You startled me," CC blurted, her heart pounding painfully.

"Yes, I imagine being caught would startle you."

"Caught?" She straightened her spin, irritated at the arrogant tone of his voice. The way the three men leered at her overrode her rush of fear at the possibility of arousing the spirit of Sarpedon. "At what do you think you've caught me?"

"Innocent maidens do not cavort at night naked and alone."

She noticed that his eyes maintained their normal color, but he squinted and peered around her like he expected to discover a busload of sailors she had been entertaining.

"Cavort? I was climbing up from the cliffside path.

There was very little cavorting involved. And I'm certainly not naked."

"It is improper for you to be seen in your chemise, and it is obvious from the state of your chamber that you escaped through your window," Andras challenged.

"I didn't want to ruin my dress," CC said reasonably. "And I didn't escape. I used my window because I didn't want to wake any of the Brothers."

"Enough talk!" Andras snapped, grabbing her arm painfully. "You shall return to your chamber now. We will speak of this with the abbot after he has completed morning mass and when you are properly clothed." He started to pull her toward the front entrance of the monastery.

CC dug in her heels and wrenched her arm back. Andras whirled to face her. His face was flushed with anger and the hand that didn't hold her arm was closed in a fist as if he wanted to strike her. CC swallowed her fear and pulled strength from deep within her. As she spoke she felt the protective warmth of the amber amulet against her breast.

"Don't ever touch me without my permission. I am still a princess and even though this is not my realm I am not totally without power here. I will not tolerate such treatment," she hissed at him. Her body felt hot and her head tingled like energy was rushing into her from above.

The fierce look on the knight's face faltered as he watched Undine transform. Seconds before she had been a wet, nearly naked woman, who looked scared and alone. Now she stood with her back straight and her chin held high. Her drying hair crackled around her and she seemed to glow with radiant power. Unexpectedly, a little shiver of foreboding crawled the length of his spine. Sorceress! The word whispered through his mind and he loosened her arm as if it burned his hand.

"That's better," she said. "Now I will be pleased to return to my chamber; I was already on my way there when you interrupted me." CC turned and strode confidently down the path to the monastery gate. The three men followed silently behind her.

The gate was unbarred, and CC pushed it open without waiting for the knight. Expecting the courtyard to be de-serted, she was surprised to see Isabel, Lynelle, Bronwyn and Gwenyth huddled nervously against the wall near the gate.

"Oh, Undine!" Isabel's words came out in a rush of air.

But before she could say anymore, Andras broke in. "You were right to report her absence. Your diligence and loyalty will be rewarded."

His words stabbed her heart. Isabel had betrayed her? She remembered how cold and judgmental Isabel had been when they had first met, but CC had thought those days were over, that Isabel and the other women had begun to care for her as she had them. She forced her face to remain expressionless as she continued woodenly across the courtyard to the entrance of the hallway that led to her room. She wanted to rush back to the group of woman and yell, Why? I thought we were friends—family even! But she refused to give Andras the satisfaction of seeing her pain.

At the door to her room Andras spoke belligerently to her. "The abbot will expect to see you as soon as mass is finished. I will send for you then." He paused before adding, "I assume you will not be making any further lone trips today, but for your own safety my men will see that you remain in your chamber until you are summoned."

CC met his eyes with her own hard gaze. "For my protection, is it? It sounds to me like you're appointing jailers."

Without waiting for a reply, she entered her room, giving the door a resounding slam behind her.

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