A seaside christmas, p.2
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       A Seaside Christmas, p.2

           Susan Donovan
 
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  This wouldn’t be good. His leather jacket and smooth-soled Jack Purcells might work for brunch in Malibu but not for a December nor’easter off the coast of Massachusetts. He grabbed his cell phone to call the B and B. Dead battery. Of course.

  Figuring the place couldn’t be too far away, Nat decided to walk. He strapped his laptop case across the front of his body, grabbed the handle of his rolling suitcase, and took a step. He almost landed on his ass. Seasickness? The inability to walk on ice? Ridiculous. He was a child of the blizzard belt. There was no way he would let a little winter weather stop him from getting where he needed to go.

  Twenty minutes later, Nat had progressed about two blocks down the boardwalk. His hair was a helmet of ice. His hands were numb. The Christmas decorations along Main Street were charming, but he decided to keep his eyes on the placement of his feet, just to be safe. He did so until he passed a quaint tourist shop with a name that made him laugh out loud—A Little Tail. He wondered if the naughty double entendre was intentional and decided it couldn’t be. The kitschy store was probably run by a little old lady with a white bun and a cat who slept near the cash register. Nat smiled at the idea just as he noticed the list of products for sale within: “Mermaid-themed souvenirs, mermaid/sea captain erotic novels, adults-only cakes and chocolates, X-rated sea shanties.”

  “What the—?” Distracted by the sign, he took a step without noticing the slight downward slope to the boardwalk, and his feet flew straight out in front of him. His body planked parallel to the walkway and ice pelted his face,

  Just before his body slammed to the boardwalk, Nat realized this was going to be even worse than he thought.

  2

  When Annie heard the loud thump! she jolted with surprise. What an odd sound. And it seemed to have come from outside the front door of her house. She cocked her head and listened carefully, but all she heard was the clicking sound of ice hitting the front windows and the faint whistle of wind.

  Her cat looked at her and meowed loudly.

  “Thanks for the heads-up, Ezra. I heard it too.” Annie placed the laptop on the floor near her chair and walked to the front door, stretching her arms over her head as she moved. Maybe she’d lost a shutter, too. Or maybe the shop sign blew down. Only one way to find out.

  She opened the door and gasped. Her hands flew to her chest. She staggered back in shock and almost tripped over her own stocking feet.

  That was no shutter. That was a man. And he’d obviously just wiped out and landed on his back at her doorstep, his body already coated in a shiny fondant of ice.

  “Oh boy. Oh hell. Oh God.” Annie peered down at him. “Uh, sir? Are you all right? Can you hear me?” She squatted next to him and patted his cheek, which was freezing. She got no response, though she could see he was breathing. The man was young, handsome, and wearing an expensive, albeit useless, leather jacket. She noticed that a rolling suitcase had skidded to a stop on the cobblestones of Main Street. This had to be Rowan’s B and B reservation.

  Annie remembered from her lifeguard days that anyone with a possible neck injury shouldn’t be moved unless there was another immediate danger. So she left the man outside, ran into her living room, and grabbed her cell phone. Her 911 call got her transferred to the emergency room on Nantucket. A helpful doctor gave her some good news and some bad news—yes, she could go ahead and move the man indoors because of the risk of hypothermia, but no, no one could make it to Bayberry until the next morning because of the storm. The doctor gave Annie suggestions for getting the man warm and dry and making him comfortable, then told her to call back as soon as he’d regained consciousness.

  Annie took a deep breath and told herself she could do this. She slipped on her snow boots, jammed a heel against the doorjamb for support, and then grabbed the man by his feet, shaking her head in disbelief as she did. No wonder he fell! What kind of idiot wears hipster Converse sneakers in an ice storm? With the first yank, she spun him around so that his feet were across the threshold. With the second yank, she had him half inside. The third yank was followed by a steady pull, which was enough to get him toward the center of the hardwood floor. Next, Annie called Rowan.

  “You’re not going to believe this, but there’s a man in my house.”

  Rowan snorted. “You got a man over there? But tourist season is five months away!”

  “He’s passed out on my floor.”

  “Like I said—”

  “Just get over here and help me, would you? I think he’s your ferry passenger.”

  Annie pulled the man’s briefcase strap over his head, then ran out into the storm to fetch his suitcase. Once back in the warmth of her cozy front room, she stared down at her lifeless guest, feeling something akin to panic.

  “Okay, Annie. Keep it together.” She knelt down, unzipped and removed his jacket, then tossed it aside. She snagged a toss pillow from her writing chair and put it under his head. The sheen of ice was melting, and Annie saw that he was soaked. Slowly, with trembling fingers, she removed his stupid shoes and soggy socks, and was in the process of figuring out how she could remove his stylish V-neck cashmere sweater and his undershirt when Rowan blew in the front door.

  “No time for foreplay?”

  Annie rolled her eyes. “He’s wet.” When her friend had no snappy comeback, she looked up to find Rowan’s eyes wide. “What?”

  “I’m not even going there.” Rowan tossed her parka to the boot bench by the door. “What can I do to help?”

  Annie sat back on her heels and rested her palms on her knees. “I guess we should get him stripped and in my bed—and keep your clever retorts to yourself.”

  “Jeesh. Fine.” Rowan knelt down on the other side of the man. “He’s pretty cute, really.” She leaned close and felt his forearm. “Ooh, strike that—he’s reeally cute. He’s got hottie muscles! Smells nice, too. Did you check his ID to be sure he’s my guest?”

  “I’m not sure he’d appreciate you poking and sniffing him like he was a melon, and no, I didn’t look for an ID.”

  Rowan raised a brow. “Allow me, then.” She reached into both his front pants pockets and found nothing but a giggle, then reached for his wet jacket. She pulled a wallet from an inside pocket. “Aha! Yup. Nathaniel Ravelle, age thirty-four, six-one, one ninety-five, brown hair, green eyes, from Los Angeles.” Rowan looked up. “He’s booked for two nights in the blue suite. He’s on island to do research for a TV show. Did I tell you that?”

  Annie snatched the wallet from her friend, examining the driver’s license and credit cards. She opened a slim business card holder and read aloud, “Senior producer, Truly Weird.” Annie felt her mouth hang open. “Oh God, Rowan! Have you ever seen that show? I have, and it’s complete trash. I take it they’re doing something on the Mermaid legend?”

  “What else?” Rowan took it upon herself to undo Mr. Ravelle’s belt and unzip his trousers. “He said the crew plans to film during next year’s festival week. They’ve already booked three rooms and two suites for ten days. Here, help me pull these off.”

  “Wait a minute.” Annie grabbed the lap rug from her writing chair and draped it over the guy’s hips. “He deserves some privacy. What if he doesn’t wear underwear or something?”

  Rowan smiled. “Then he automatically qualifies for a discounted room rate.”

  The two women pulled off his sweater and T-shirt, and Mr. Nathaniel Ravelle of Los Angeles, California, lay almost totally nude on Annie’s floor.

  “Holy Moses,” Rowan whispered.

  Annie would have said something similar if she’d been able to form actual words. Instead all she could do was breathe too fast and stare. Truthfully, this was the finest naked man to grace her home since Todd “the Bod” Townsend from the 2009 season. Todd had been the only lover for whom she’d been tempted to reevaluate her no-man-past-Columbus-Day rule. But in the end she decided it would be best if h
e packed up and returned to the mainland, like all the others.

  This Nathaniel Ravelle guy was even better looking than Todd. His body was gracefully athletic but not bulky. His skin was a rich peach color, and his chest was touched by fine dark brown hair, which continued down the center of his abdomen all the way to his . . . lap rug. Eventually, Annie got her voice to work. “We need to lift him, Rowan.”

  “Say what?” Her friend blinked at her. “Can you dead-lift a hundred pounds off the floor?”

  Annie pursed her lips. “I would have no way of knowing the answer to that.”

  “Well, I know my answer to that. I’ll call Ma. She’ll bring reinforcements.”

  Not five minutes later, eight senior members of the Mermaid Society arrived, most in formal wig-and-scale regalia and three sheets to the wind, a sure sign that Rowan’s call had interrupted a Mermaid Society “meeting.” The women spilled into Annie’s small front room and stared in disbelief.

  “I’ll be damned,” Polly Estherhausen said, her mouth unhinged.

  “That’s got to be some kinda record,” Izzy McCracken slurred.

  “There’s a naked man on your floor, Annabeth.” Mona stared at her in shock.

  “He’s harmless, Mona. Don’t worry. He’s a Safe Haven guest who arrived by ferry. I found him outside my door on the boardwalk after he fell on the ice.”

  “Damn! No way! You’re messing with us, right? What time was this, because that is just completely impossi—” Abigail Foster slapped a hand over her mouth, as if she’d said something she shouldn’t have.

  “What’s going on?” Annie looked from one woman to the next, aware that the group’s behavior was more odd than usual, if that were even possible.

  “Nothing,” Mona snapped. “So, how can we help you?”

  Rowan answered her mother. “We need help lifting him and carrying him to Annie’s bed.”

  “That shouldn’t be a problem.” Everyone removed their coats. Mona immediately went to Nathaniel’s shoulders and propped him up. She assigned the legs and arms, then instructed others to put their hands under his back. Annie ran ahead to open her bedroom door and pull back the covers. She turned around in time to see the middle-aged mermaids stagger around with Nathaniel Ravelle’s limp body, nearly banging his head on the wall in the process.

  “He’s slipping!” Abigail screeched.

  “Hold on, ladies.” Mona backed through the bedroom doorway and coordinated delivery. “This side of the bed, everyone. Hurry. On the count of three, let’s swing him.”

  “No swinging, Mother!” Rowan yelled. “Just set him down gently.”

  Izzy grunted with effort. “We can’t just set him down because we’re all standing on the same side of the bed. He’d end up on the floor, and I’m sure as hell not going to pick him up again!”

  “Yeah,” Polly said.

  “I’m gonna drop him!” Abigail screeched once again.

  “Ready?” Mona nodded toward the bed. “Let’s aim for as close to the middle as possible. One. Two. Three!”

  “Oh Jesus. The lap rug!” Annie tried frantically to cover him but wasn’t quick enough.

  A silence fell over the room.

  Izzy was the first to speak. “That boy’s drawers are so wet, they’re see-through,” she said, looking slightly shell-shocked.

  “I need another hot toddy,” Polly said.

  “Ladies, come with me to the kitchen, please.” Mona began ushering her charges into the other room while speaking to Annie. “We’ll make a pot of tea for when he wakes up. Anything else we can do for you?”

  “Uh, I don’t think—”

  “We’ll be back in just a jiff.” Mona closed the bedroom door.

  Annie shook her head. “They’re up to no good.”

  Rowan snorted. “Of course they’re up to no good. It’s what they live for.”

  Annie put her hands on her hips and sighed. “Well, our guy can’t get warm with wet boxers plastered to his body, so help me get them off. You hold up the comforter and I’ll try to yank them off without looking.”

  “You always get the good jobs.”

  “Let’s just get this over with, okay?” Annie shook her head. “Honestly, I feel uncomfortable touching a naked man I don’t even know.”

  “Really?” Rowan held the comforter up and away, trying to suppress a laugh. “So who are you, exactly, and what have you done with my friend Annabeth Parker?”

  • • •

  “Shhh! Keep it down! I’m serious!” Mona herded the ladies through the kitchen, out the back door, and onto the covered porch. “Gather ’round, ye ’maids.”

  The women formed their sacred circle.

  “I don’t think this has ever happened before,” Mona whispered. “Polly, you’re chapter historian. Are you aware of another occasion when the Great Mermaid has acted almost instantly?”

  “No.” Polly screwed up her face in concentration. “Not unless we count the time Liz Tantillo’s groom missed the ferry from Hyannis and the wedding was called off and she fell in love with the party rental guy from Martha’s Vineyard only two hours after he petitioned the Great Mermaid to find him the girl of his dreams.”

  Izzy shook her head, clearly annoyed. “We’ve never formally ruled on that case and you know it.”

  “I know!” Polly looked hurt. “That’s why I prefaced my analysis with the words ‘not unless we count. . . .’”

  “Never mind,” Mona snapped. “All we can do is look at the facts, and the facts are: We petitioned the Great Mermaid to intervene on Annie’s behalf, and less than an hour later there’s a naked man in her bed. It cannot be a coincidence.”

  Everyone nodded in agreement.

  “So this is unprecedented,” Mona mumbled. “I’m at a loss here, ladies.”

  “If I may say something.” Abigail glanced around hesitantly. “I think we’re overlooking the most shocking part of the night’s events.”

  Mona crossed her arms over her chest. “Go on. We’re listening.”

  “Well, um . . .” Abigail’s eyes widened. “Am I the only one who’s noticed how . . . well . . . how similar this is to the origin of the Mermaid Legend?”

  A collective gasp rose from the circle, and one by one, the ladies contributed to the discussion.

  “A nor’easter!”

  “An injured man!”

  “Unconscious, even! Soaked to the skin!”

  “And a lovely young woman brings him in and nurses him back to health!”

  “Maids!” Mona lowered her voice to a raspy whisper. “This is huge. Mind-boggling, really. We must take the sacred pledge to never speak of tonight’s intervention, not until Annie and . . .” She stopped. “Does anyone know her heart-mate’s name?”

  All members shook their heads to the contrary.

  “Well, anyway, not until Annie and Mr. Whozits are in a committed love relationship. No matter how long that takes. No matter if it’s years. You know how vital this is. If even one of us breaks our pledge, their love will be lost and will never return, and I know none of us wants that on our heads.”

  Each woman placed her right hand above her left shell and recited the pledge of secrecy, their lips moving in silent unison, their expressions solemn.

  • • •

  “Mr. Ravelle? Nathaniel? Can you hear me?”

  She was indescribably lovely, this vision, with very long dark blond hair and pale blue eyes. Her touch was gentle on his cheek and her voice sounded like soft music playing very far away. But where was he? Odd. . . . He was in a bed, but what bed? Whose bed? Was it hers? How did he get here? The smell of wood smoke floated into his nostrils. He felt light-headed and just a little unsteady. Was he ill? Drugged? Dead?

  More female beings began to hover nearby. It was difficult to figure out what was happening, but they seemed to be
bickering, nudging at one another, and peering at him curiously. There was something strange about these creatures. Their long hair seemed dull and thin. Why were they wearing shells? And what was that iridescent, shiny stuff below their waists? Were those scales?

  “Fucking mermaids!”

  Nat tried to sit up but couldn’t. His plan was to force himself awake and end what was obviously another work-related nightmare. He’d had them before—a Loch Ness Monster in his condo swimming pool, cute little werewolf pups free to a good home outside the Ace Hardware in Koreatown, zombie hairstylists at his neighborhood barbershop. This time, however, his eyes were wide open, but the paranormal populace of his dreams hadn’t vanished. In fact, the creatures stared down at him like he was the only freak of nature in that room. One mermaid, who reminded him a little of his mother, looked as if she might cry.

  “That was entirely uncalled for,” she said.

  Just then, Nat realized the reason he couldn’t sit up was the wave of pain that rolled from his hips to his head via his spine. That’s when he had a vague recollection of erotic chocolates and losing his footing on a slick sidewalk.

  The lovely blond-haired vision shooed everyone away from the bed. She pulled up a small wooden chair and sat down near Nat’s shoulder, touching him through the fluffy down comforter pulled up to his neck. “My name is Annie Parker, and you’re in my house on Main Street. You fell on the boardwalk right outside my door. You’ve been unconscious for about fifteen minutes, but you’re going to be fine.”

  He blinked. Nat raised his right arm and was relieved to see it move. This Annie woman smiled down at him and it had to have been one of the most divine smiles he’d ever seen. “So you’re not an angel?”

 
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