The strong September sun cast a rainbow of fluid shapes onto the gift shop floor. Mari stretched to stick the suction cup of the last stained-glass ornament onto the storefront window. The little glass mermaid sparkled in purples and blues, and she twisted it as she hung it on the hook. Maybe not a realistic mermaid, but the decoration was quaint, and tourists loved ocean fantasy, as the store’s Labor Day receipts proved. Too bad it was nearly time to face the long winter of fewer sales and colder water. Still, it beat the alternative. She was by the ocean, making her own way, despite her mother. An upbeat Beatles song danced through her head and she whistled the tune, bobbing her head in time with the beat.
The pink shells hanging on the glass door rattled, and a long shadow fell across the colorful floor as the door swung open. Crap
. She stopped whistling, midchorus.
“I have bad news.” Chase let the door close behind him, the shells staccatoing as they clinked against the glass in a discordant rhythm. “And it’s urgent.”
Mari’s heart rushed and her cheeks warmed. The man did that to her, bad news or not. “I thought the first storm bands weren’t coming in until tomorrow evening.” She set the empty shipping box on the floor and rubbed her hands, trying to disguise her body’s reaction. Chase McCormack, the man she had saved from drowning and now her landlord, rarely came into her little gift shop, but that didn’t keep her from sneaking peeks at him as often as she could. His bar was upstairs where the patrons could get a better view of the water, and the large deck Chase had built gave her a perfect place to sit and pretend to read while he did his bar-owner thing. She didn’t mind having a shop on the lower level since it meant she was closer to the sand and waves.
“It’ll be here when it gets here.” He scowled.
Boy, he was grouchy. She glanced at him. Yeah, and he was still hot. And tall. Even though he wasn’t diving anymore, his muscles retained a swim-slender shape. His imposing frame made the shop feel smaller, but she didn’t mind in the least. Not when he filled the space. “Has the forecast changed? It’s a weak hurricane, right?”
He looked up at the mermaids she’d hung in the window, and hued stripes lit his angular face in all the right ways. Mari sighed. The colorful stained-glass ornaments brightened up the shop, making it look like a cross between a candy store and a fluorescent aquarium aglow with light in Las Vegas. Not that she’d ever been to Las Vegas or anywhere far inland. But the pinks and purples suited Chase, at least in her mind.
She straightened the tchotchkes on the glass counter at the register. As if she didn’t already have enough problems. Getting out of her arranged marriage to Inna wasn’t going to be easy, but successfully running her own shop should show her mother she could be independent. Now there was a hurricane approaching. And Chase had bad news.
What else could go wrong?
“I’m not here about the storm, though we’ll need to board up in the morning.” Chase stepped closer, his footsteps heavy on the wooden floor as if the weight of his news burdened his stride. He picked up the empty shipping box off the floor and set it on the step stool by the window.
She stared at his backside. Yep, he was as good-looking from any angle. But she needed to worry about her problems, not his ass.
And right now, the only thing that would definitely get her out of the marriage to Inna was marrying someone else, with her mother’s permission. Someone like Chase. Her tail quivered to release, but she relaxed the sensation away. She couldn’t look at him when she had thoughts like this. Ridiculous fantasies had no place in running a business, and if she was going to be independent, she’d have to focus on business matters. Daydreams and swimming would have to wait.
Thoughts of sex would have to wait.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “What then?” she asked. “What’s the bad news?” Did Chase have another girlfriend? The last one had been…a treasure. She shook her head. He wouldn’t drop by to tell her something like that anyway. He was a private man.
And she wanted him.
And anyway, once a mermaid saved a man, wasn’t he destined to be her true love, with weddings on ships or private islands and happily-ever-afters filled with music and sparkles and talking fish? She wasn’t thinking about all that when she pulled the diver out of the water, but now that it was over, shouldn’t he be The One? Unfortunately, Chase didn’t have a tail, and that would prove a no-go with her mother.
“It’s about the bar.” He reached up and took down the mermaid sun catcher, then set it gently into the box, surrounding it with packing material.
She put her hands on her hips. No matter how hard she’d tried to get his attention, he’d sulked and all but ignored her. Too bad diverboy hadn’t shown any instalove back. She’d grown to know him better since the accident—especially once he ditched his snarky girlfriend—but he hadn’t seemed to notice her “that way,” even when she rented the small shop space on the first floor of his bar, in part to be closer to him. Still, he wasn’t a lost cause. As long as he was on the island, he was a possibility. At least in her dreams. To hell with what her mother thought.
“And your shop.” He tucked the mermaid deeper into the box.
“What about my shop?” Her breath caught. “And what are you doing? I just finished putting those sun catchers up.”
He didn’t speak, but took down an orange seahorse and set it in the box too. He took the figures down one by one, layering the box’s packing material in between each fragile shape.
What the hell?
“Hey! Tell me what’s wrong. And stop messing with my stuff.”
Chase captured her in his intense gaze. “If this window breaks during the storm, you’re going to have a mess. All of these little ornaments could get broken. I’m guessing you don’t want that.” His sandy brown hair, cropped short and spiked, had paled in the summer sun, and his tanned face drew tight with what must be really
bad news. “You can’t leave all this stuff on the window during a hurricane. It’s not safe.”
Mari licked her lips. Chase was hot, no doubt about it. Even when he scowled. Even when he had bad news. “It’ll be fine. I can take care of my shop.” She fanned herself. She needed a tall drink of water to cool her down. One that came in a Chase-shaped glass.
He didn’t answer but removed the rest of sun catchers one by one. She wasn’t sure what to say. Who did he think he was? Sure, the building belonged to him, but her merchandise didn’t. She couldn’t decide if his actions pissed her off or endeared him to her because he acted like he cared about her well-being.
“I said I can pack those. Besides, the storm may not make landfall near us. What’s the rush until we see the updated forecast?” She took a deep breath. “Like you said, we’ll board up. If it floods, then I guess I’ll deal with any damage.”
The shop wasn’t likely to flood, not with the pylons the whole building sat on. Unless the storm turned into a monster, most of the risk would be wind damage. She moved the box of tiny sharks’ teeth by the cash register to the other side of the counter then back again. The storm wouldn’t be that bad. Things would be back to normal in a couple days at most. He was overreacting.
He shrugged and set the last glass ornament in the box. He started removing the suction cups and setting them in a neat little row on top of the sun catchers.
“What’s the news, then?” Why wouldn’t he come out and say what he had to say? “Rent going up?” Did she sound as stupid as she felt? She had always shied away from conversation with Chase, other than the normal pleasantries she’d learned good Southern people offered regardless of how they felt. Even if he was The One, she had been nervous he’d recognize her as the girl who saved him.
who’d saved him.
She leaned on the display case. Confidence. Project confidence
. Her mother had paid a lot of money for her to go to finishing school. Maybe they didn’t have cotillion at home, but finishing school was darn close to the same thing, minus the sweet tea and white gloves. She stared. Definitely no gloves.
And if Chase was going to come into her shop, she’d take full advantage of it—absorb every detail of his sexy self to round out her fantasies. In her head, she’d written at least fifty romance novels with him starring as the hero. Steamy sexy romances, with her as the heroine. The Mermaid and the Millionaire, Shells in the Sand, Once Upon an Ocean…
She jerked her head up. “Yeah?” Crap
. She’d been busted while fantasizing again.
Chase straightened the last suction cup in the box. “Well…”
“You done there? Wanna sweep too?”
Apparently, the man couldn’t resist. He had to help out, no matter if he was asked to or not. Mr. OCD Protector hot man diver. She stifled a smile. Hot.
He shook his head and folded the box closed. “No need to sweep till after the storm. Where do you want this?”
“I don’t care. Set it on that top shelf by the plates, I guess.” She realized she wasn’t being nice, but she couldn’t help herself. Chase’s news of the big bad was stressing her out.
“I want to know what the news is. Spit it out.”
Chase pushed the box onto the top shelf, then stuck his hands in his pockets and looked at the floor. She knew his face well enough to imagine his bright green eyes narrowing with whatever stress this bad news was causing. She remembered the panic during the accident. She studied his thick muscles and the tentacle tattoo that wound its way up from his wrist to his left bicep and then disappeared under his snug T-shirt. His other arm boasted some type of navy diver tattoo, faded and smudged. The one time he’d gripped her he’d almost lost his life.
And he didn’t remember any of it.
“Rent isn’t going up.” He stepped closer to the display case and picked up a sand dollar from the wooden bin on top. As he turned the white disk over, it broke in half in his grip, and dusty fragments spilled into the air and onto the counter. He winced. “I’m selling the bar and moving west. Leaving the island for good.”
Mari’s stomach lurched and she steadied herself against the glass case, staring at the mess on the counter. Moving?
“Why?” she asked, her voice a quarter-octave higher than normal. One of her main reasons for staying in the little coastal village was to spy on him. Erm, watch him. Ogle him. Pretend he loved her the way she loved him. “Why sell the bar? Why leave? I thought you loved it here.” Oh, no, buddy. You aren’t leaving me. I saved your ass and you are my “Plus One” from now on.
“I gotta get out of this little town and away from the ocean.” He gripped the sand-dollar fragments. “Tired of storms and water and reliving bad memories.”
“My brother is dead.”
“But wouldn’t he want you to stay?” Chase had loved his brother and had taken his death hard. Now he wanted to move. Well, that wouldn’t solve anything. Was it her business, though? Her mother had always said Mari lacked tact. Maybe she was right.
Chase grunted but didn’t respond.
“I mean, wouldn’t he want you to run the bar? It was his dream too. A beach bar, right on the sand.” Sweat dampened her palms and she wiped them against her jeans’ legs. She’d never been outspoken with Chase, but she couldn’t let him walk out of her life when he should be swimming alongside her.
“Luke’s gone, Mari. And I’m moving to Kansas and buying a farm. Or possibly Montana. Hell, maybe I’ll buy a mine and become a miner if I have enough money. I don’t know exactly where I’ll go or what I’ll end up doing, but I do know it will be far, far away from the ocean. I don’t even want to be near a lake.” He dropped the remaining pieces of the sand dollar onto the counter and dusted off his hands. “Sorry about that.” He nodded at the mess. “Let me know what I owe you.”
“You owe me more of an explanation.” Mari could feel her nostrils flaring, and her face was probably as pink as her T-shirt. But she needed Chase. Not his building for her store, but his presence. She could never follow him to Kansas, because mermaids had to stay near the ocean. If Chase left, she’d have to marry Inna, or run away and live in a hidden cove somewhere her tribe couldn’t find her. “You can’t up and leave all you’ve built here.” Tears threatened, but she gulped them down. He couldn’t leave. He wouldn’t.
“I’ve made up my mind, Mari. It’s the right choice.” He stared out the window for a few seconds and she watched his face for any sign of emotion, but he was rigid. Unreadable. Stone-like and sexy.
“Last week, I spoke with a real estate agent. He already has an offer on the whole property. The bar, this shop, everything.” Chase turned toward her, his eyes looking through her. “The new owners don’t want a tenant. They’re going to convert the whole place into a megabar. Build a karaoke stage. Line-dancing area. Maybe put in a mechanical bull.”
She bit her lower lip to keep from retorting. Chase would never have added karaoke to his bar. He preferred the sea-worn old-school look of the 1950s. Shag dancing, maybe. Never karaoke. How could he consider this?
His broad shoulders sagged and she fought the urge to comfort him. Or shake him till he regained some sense then fuck him till he knew it for sure. Clearly, he’d lost his mind if he thought he’d leave the island and her. It simply couldn’t happen.
“It’s a great offer,” he added. “And they have the cash in hand. I won’t have to wait for a mortgage to process. Should be a fairly straightforward deal, then I’m outta here.”
Deep breath. “When?” She tapped her nails on the glass case. How much time would she have to convince him to stay?
“Soon. I’ve already signed the papers. You’ll get a formal letter asking you to vacate, but I thought I’d stop in and tell you personally. You’ve been a good…friend. ”
“How friendly of you.” Perfect
. He was sure to respond well to her smart-ass attempt to hide her feelings. Awesome
. She knew how to get her man. If she couldn’t slay them with a song like other mermaids could, she could tie them up and beat them to death with her sharp wit. She bit the inside of her cheek. “Thanks for letting me know. You can leave now.”
“Look,” he said, his voice strained with an emotion that could’ve been frustration or anger. “I know this is short notice, but I have to get out of this town. As soon as I can. I know you don’t understand, but I have to do this.”
“But I have a lease…”
The light glinted in his eyes and she held back a moan at the warmth he elicited with a glance—even an annoyed glance. Any other day, his eye contact would be filed in the fantasy category called “replay.” Not today. She looked away. “I have a lease,” she repeated, aware that her soft voice wasn’t much more than a whisper. The small shop had been her connection with the human world, and her independence. And having Chase upstairs had been the cherry on top of her life’s sundae. If the shop were gone, she’d have no choice but to go home and admit defeat to her mother and to Inna. And that would suck.
“Your lease is month-to-month. I’m sorry. Consider this your notice, though I’d appreciate it if you moved before the four weeks you legally have. It’ll make things easier for everyone.” He eyed the window again. “I’ll get someone to help you pack up after the storm. It’s the least I can do.”