“Now stroke, good, and again, very good.” The wind carried his voice, letting it slip over the skin of her cheek, swirling in the whorls of her ears along with the cold, salted wind.
Focusing on her instructions, Helena placed the left side of her paddle in the water and pulled. The sleek orange kayak jumped over the slight wave in front of them. Thrilled by the rolling motion of moving perpendicularly over the wind-shaped waves, Helena stroked again.
The Pacific stretched out in front of her. At the horizon, still dark at this early hour, the water was grey blue, but directly against the kayak it was murky green. Behind her, Catalina Island, a busy little hub of boats and environmental research centers, crowned by the city of Avalon, sat triumphant.
When the muscles in her arms started to quiver, her biceps twitching inside the wetsuit jacket she wore, Helena turned to look over her shoulder. Behind her in the kayak’s rear seat sat her guide. Dark haired and tan with sapphire blue eyes—now hidden behind sunglasses—he appeared supremely confident, as if he were the master of the waves.
When Helena signed up for the kayak lessons and tour, she’d had two options. The first option allowed her to have her own kayak, with the guide in a separate vessel. While the freedom of that appealed to her, the idea of being alone atop the world’s largest ocean in a vessel that looked like shark food was terribly intimidating. Helena had opted for the double kayak, and was she ever glad she had.
“Getting tired?” Ocean asked.
“Rest your arms a minute and let me guide you.”
Nodding again, Helena turned to face front. Once she was sure he could not see her face, Helena rolled her eyes and grimaced at herself. Ocean O’Brian, her guide, was not only beautiful to look at, but kind, charming and easygoing. This meant that Helena had turned into a mute idiot around him. Hot guys intimidated her. She was much more comfortable with guys who were less-than-stellar looking and quiet. Men who let her be the confident one, a role she was more accustomed to playing and one that gave her control.
At this rate, she had no idea how she would make it through the week. She had to talk to him at some point. This was only her second kayaking lesson. The first was yesterday afternoon right after she brought her car over on the ferry. Today was the first full day of her ten-day vacation/mental-health break. Working as a financial planner had its perks, mostly in the salary area, but was incredibly stressful. It was easy for some of her associates to forget the money they moved around represented years of work and savings by their clients. In school, they were taught to see it as a game, but Helena never could. In every dollar she saw someone’s hopes and dreams, and took prudent care of their money. Her deliberate and cautious investment strategies pushed her up the corporate ladder. The series of promotions led to a job with fewer, more significant accounts. Increased dollar value, higher profile clients with impossible demands and an ulcer had come with the promotion.
After being treated for the ulcer, Helena had taken a stand with her boss. As a result, Helena now had a junior-level planner as her assistant and a nice ten-day vacation as a “please-don’t-leave” present.
The ten-day kayak training and exploration package was something she’d seen in an outdoor-vacation magazine years ago. She’d saved the article and when this vacation came up, she’d turned right around and booked her trip. With the temperature rising inside the concrete jungle of L.A., a peaceful week on an island had sounded blissful.
“Look. Three o’clock.”
Helena turned her head and scanned the ocean’s surface. There, bobbing just above the wave, was a seal, his head poking out from the rolling swells. They were close enough for Helena to see his long whiskers twitch before he disappeared beneath the water.
“Was that a seal?” It was much easier to talk to him when she wasn’t looking at him.
“Isn’t this a bit far for him to be out?” Woo-hoo! Two sentences in a row. By the time this was over, she might be able to actually have a conversation with the man.
“Not at all. He’s probably fishing for his breakfast. Seals come into shore to lie on the rocks or under the pier when they’re tired and want to rest, but they spend most of their life under the water.”
“Do they ever go up on the beach?”
“Only if they’re sick.”
Helena scanned the horizon for more bobbing heads.
“You want to try driving again?”
Helena nodded and lifted her paddle, digging into the water. With nothing but the Pacific in front of her, it was easy to forget that there was land behind her, that there was anything in the world but the wind, water and the sun chasing the night into the western horizon.
Lost in the moment, Helena laid her paddle across her thighs. Fingers spread wide, she reached into the cold water, shivering in pleasure at its salty touch on her flesh.
Raising her hands, Helena tilted her head back, letting drops fall on her face, thanking the world for this perfect moment in the only way she could.
Ocean put one paddle in the water, controlling the roll of the kayak. Luckily the motion was automatic, prompted by years of piloting light, sleek vessels over the waves.
He was distracted by the brunette in front of him who, until this moment, had been just another client, fit and pretty, but unremarkable.
He watched, stunned, as she dipped her fingers into the water and then raised them to the sky in an offering, a prayer as primal as humanity and timeless as the ocean they sat on. She repeated the motion, her head falling farther back. The wind whipped wisps of her hair from her braid and lifted them so the sun could kiss them, turning brown to red and gold.
When she repeated the motion a ritual third time, a little ripple made its way over Ocean’s skin.
Was this a sign? For her to do this so soon after they saw the seal? Did she know what he was? Was she of the sea?
She lowered her arms and picked up her paddle. He could tell from the hunch in her shoulders that she was embarrassed by what she’d done. Ocean wanted to tell her not to be embarrassed, not to doubt what had been an unpracticed and heartfelt expression of joy and thanks.
She started paddling once more, the subtle muscles in her arms flexing as she propelled them over the water. Shaking himself out of the lingering astonishment, Ocean put his paddle in the water and helped her. Something magical had just happened, and when they reached land, he intended to investigate her most thoroughly.
* * * *
They paddled up beside the low floating dock a few hours later. Helena nervously held onto the edge of the cold aluminum as Ocean maneuvered himself out of the back opening and onto the dock. Once he was out, the kayak started to float away. Helena, with the paddle in one hand and the other desperately trying to hold onto the edge of the slippery dock, emitted a squeak of distress.
Ocean laughed. “Don’t worry, gorgeous, I’ve got you.” Gorgeous? Was he talking to the kayak?
He pulled the kayak up to the dock, looped a rope through the eyelet and helped Helena out. Three hours sitting in a kayak that had acquired half an inch of frigid ocean water in the bottom had atrophied the muscles in her legs and ass.
In a maneuver right out of a bad romantic comedy, the minute she tried to stand up on her own, Helena collapsed against Ocean.
“Oh no, I’m sorry. My legs are…broken or something.”
He laughed. “Not to worry, gorgeous, you’re just tired and a bit stiff.” After making sure she could stay upright, Ocean dipped to one knee. He wrapped his hands around her right calf, working at her leg, which was bare beneath the knee-length wetsuit pants she wore.
“What are you doing?”
“Warming you up.” His hands switched to her left calf, kneading and softening the muscle, before coming back to her right leg and thigh. One hand on the front, one hand on the back, he squeezed her flesh, manipulating the stiff muscles. “Feel any better?”
Helena, heart in her throat, staring dumbly at the top of his head, nodded. It took a moment for Ocean to look up, but when he did, he answered her dumbfounded expression with a quizzical one.
“Helena, if this makes you uncomfortable, please let me know.”
“Uncomfortable? No, not that…”
“Can you tell me what’s wrong?”
“Who says anything is wrong?”
“You’re looking at me like I’m an ax murderer.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, it’s not that at all.” Helena could have smacked herself. Why couldn’t she say something intelligent instead of answering questions with questions or stuttering useless platitudes?
“Then what’s wrong?”
“I’m just nervous.”
“I’m making you nervous?”
“Like, you’re nervous I’m going feed you to the sharks when we go out tomorrow morning, or you have a boyfriend named Bruno who would break both my legs if he saw me touching you?”
His head was down, focusing on working the kinks out of her legs, but his probing question made it clear that he wanted to know if she was in a relationship. Helena knotted her fingers together in nervous excitement, flattered and unnerved by his interest. She wasn’t so beautiful that every man she met wanted to sleep with her, and her painful self-doubt insisted that she’d read the signals wrong.
“I don’t have a Bruno, I mean boyfriend.” She wished she were a better flirt, able to whip out witty banter at a moment’s notice.
“Then you’re worried I’ll feed you to the sharks?”
“Well I wasn’t, but now I’m starting to.”
Ocean threw his head back and laughed, a full-bodied sound. He laughed as if he didn’t care who knew he was amused. Helena smiled, his mirth infectious, her chest and cheeks flushing with pleasure at having made him laugh.
“If I promise not to feed you to the sharks”—his eyes sparkled with amusement as he said it—”will you stop looking so worried?”
“I’ll try, I just get nervous talking to pretty guys.”
“Pretty?” He seemed disgusted with what she’d said, though she meant it as a compliment.
“I, um, meant handsome, not pretty.”
He gifted her with a tender smile, and Helena worried that she’d just changed attraction to fraternal caring with one careless comment. It wouldn’t be the first time, but she felt a deep pang of sadness at having lost his interest.
“I’m glad you think I’m handsome.”
“I bet girls tell you that all the time.”
“Maybe.” At least he had the grace to acknowledge it. “But it’s not other girls’ opinions that matter right now, just yours.”
There was a silky quality to his voice, a bedroom smooth that overrode her earlier conclusion that he’d lost interest in her. Ocean’s manipulation of her muscles changed along with his voice, from physical-therapist massage to lover’s caress. He pushed to his feet, hands circling her hips and thighs in a slow, deliberate touch.
“You smell like the sea, and all I can think about is making love to you. I want to lick the smell of salt off every”—Ocean pressed his lips to her right ear—”inch”—he moved his mouth to her other ear—”of you.”
Between the midday sun and him, she was more than warmed up. Protected from the wind by the raised pier, there was nothing to cool her. From above, the sun baked her inside the black wetsuit jacket and shorts she wore. Ocean’s hands on her thighs pressed her against his wetsuit-clad body.
She was on vacation, her first one in a long time. A man she found attractive, if intimidating, had just made it clear he was interested in having sex with her.
Helena had two options. She could push away from him, make it clear she didn’t find this behavior appropriate and continue her vacation. Or she could pretend to be someone else, a woman so confident that she had sexuality to burn and ate gorgeous men for breakfast. The second option terrified her, but the sun’s heat combined with his presence and his touch burned away her reservations, questions, worries and doubts.
Helena shook her hair back, imagining it was a rich, flowing mane of blonde locks rather than a bedraggled brown braid.
“I want to feel you. I want you to touch me, taste me. I want to feel your body above mine, in mine.” If her words were awkward and forced, her voice shaking in nerves, he had the grace to ignore it.
He pressed his lips against her cheek and smiled, letting her feel his pleasure. Those lips then traveled across her cheek. Helena started to turn her head into the kiss, but Ocean pulled away.
“No. I want to save that, save this kiss, until the perfect moment.” His voice promised things she couldn’t imagine, promised kisses that changed lives.
“Um, okay. I mean, yes, I want the perfect kiss too.” Denied his kiss, she suddenly wanted nothing more in the world than his lips on hers.
“Come on, gorgeous, let’s get you out of those clothes.”
Helena leaned her sweaty forehead against the bathroom wall. This was crazy, but it felt right, felt good. She had never had a one-night stand, or even really had casual sex. Helena wasn’t a prude, but the idea had always made her feel dirty, as if the sex would be so tainted by the circumstances it wouldn’t be satisfying. She had never understood fantasies about meeting a stranger, having sex with him and then walking away. For her, it came down to trust. She had to trust her lover, and trust was not something that could be had with a casual-sex partner. But, despite all these personal rules and society’s warnings, she was willing and eager to sleep with Ocean because she trusted him. It didn’t have anything to do with the fact that he was gorgeous.
Ruefully amused at her own prissy justifications, Helena stripped out of the wetsuit. She was in the ladies’ room in Ocean’s Tours headquarters for the business. Stripped down to the swimsuit she wore underneath, Helena pulled on the sweat pants she’d worn that morning. At four a.m. when she got dressed, the sweat suit had seemed like a good idea, protection against the morning chill, but now it was simply too hot.
Tying the sleeves of the hooded sweatshirt around her waist, Helena slipped her feet into flip-flops and opened the door.
Ocean stood behind the small counter, a binder open in front of him and the phone stuck between his shoulder and ear. He wore a pair of knee-length board shorts and a T-shirt with the company logo on the back.
“Now then, did you want the full Kayak Explorer tour or did you want daily lessons?”
As he listened to the response, Helena made her way around to the front of the counter, grinning when she saw the gold wire frame glasses perched on his nose. Smiling, she leaned across the counter and touched the tip of her finger to the thin piece of wire over the bridge of his nose, the glasses making him more approachable, giving her the courage to flirt. Ocean captured her hand and slid her finger into his mouth. Helena’s thigh muscles gave a quick tremble as he sucked the tip of her captured finger before turning his head and biting the pad of skin at the base of her thumb. He was clearly the better flirt.
He released her hand. “Absolutely. We can do that. I look forward to seeing you then.” Eyes on her, Ocean ended the call. “Are you ready to go?”
Helena nodded, her tingling hand and the reality of what she was about to do making her mute.
Ocean scooped up a duffle bag and came around the counter, placing one hand on her back and leading her out the front door. Helena waited in the bright sunlight for him to close down and lock up the building. When he came out into the light, she was struck again by his pretty-boy looks.
He wore his dark hair long. The majority fell to his ears, cut in soft layers, allowing locks to drift forward in front of his eyes.
He ran his fingers through one side, scooping it behind his ear. Almost immediately, most of it fell forward again. In the sunlight, his hair picked up hints of russet, not the uniform black it had appeared that morning.
His eyes were blue. Ocean blue. Helena slipped her fingers into his when he held out his hand. The small hotel where Helena was staying was near the dock, probably the reason why her vacation package included accommodations there. It was not to the hotel, but to Ocean’s truck, that they headed. After opening her door, Ocean slung his bag into the back and climbed in.
Helena leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes.
Ocean stuffed the key into the ignition and started the car, taking his eyes off Helena long enough to back out of the parking lot and turn onto the main road. Her eyes were closed, her head resting against the back of the seat. She might have looked relaxed if you didn’t notice the faint tightness around her eyes and the nervous motion of her fingers, pleating and smoothing the fabric of her sweats. He found her nervousness adorable, her brave attempts at femme fatale endearing, but now it was time to see how much she would take, how far she would go. “Take off your sweats.”
“Why?” she asked.
Eyes still closed, she braced her feet on the floor and lifted her hips, slipping the pants and knotted hoody down and off. She let them pool on the floorboard. Helena crossed her lightly tanned, satiny soft and smooth legs, drawing his attention to her best feature.
Ocean took in her long stems and forced himself to focus on the road, shooting glances at her out of the corner of his eye. Her suit had bikini-style bottoms but the material of the top extended down her waist to meet them, making it look like a single piece. She’d been hiding those under the clothing, but now, wearing only her bikini bottom, her secret was out.
The built-in underwire of the top hugged and lifted her breasts, offering them up for Ocean’s viewing pleasure. The suit was a simple dark green with silver stitching, the color of lush leaves near a rainforest pool. Her skin glowed a pale cream in contrast.
Ocean breathed deep, keeping his attention on the road. He was a leg man, and those were a truly exemplary set. He imagined them wrapped around his body as he rode her, and nearly crashed the car. He needed to slow down. They had all day and night to play, no reason to get too excited now.
“Open your eyes,” he whispered, voice rough from arousal. “Helena.”
Her wide eyes had a doe-like softness to them, at odds with her flirting body language. She was beautiful, magic, utterly unique.
“All right, gorgeous, I want you to turn in your seat. Put your back against the door and swing one leg up and onto my lap. Leave the other on the floor.”
In the warm cabin of the truck, Helena obeyed, turning and placing her left leg across his lap, slipping her foot between his knees and the steering wheel. She drew her other leg in close to the seat.
Ocean, eyes still on the road, wrapped his right hand around her calf and slid his palm up her leg to her thigh. Her skin was smooth under his hard palm. He pressed his fingertips into her exposed inner thigh, massaging it as he had on the dock, but this massage had no pretense of physical therapy. It was purely sexual.
Her other leg fell to the side, splaying her open, only a thin barrier of stretch fabric interrupting his view of her sex. His palm traveled back down her leg, even moving under the steering wheel so he could cup her foot, pressing his fingertips into the arch.
He pulled off the road into a parking lot. At one end a small dock stretched out, with other small docks sticking out the sides like evenly spaced tree branches, a stately sailboat docked in each slip.
Tall masts with furled sails speared up, and endless lace patterns of white ropes glittered against the blue sky.
“You live on a boat?”
“A sail boat. A thirty-one foot Catalina 310 to be precise.”
“Which one is it?”
“I’ll take you to meet her.”
Ocean jumped out of the truck, grabbed his bag and came around to her side of the truck. He opened the door and held out a hand.
“Just a second, let me get my pants.” She was blushing, trying to hide it by reaching down for her sweats.
“No, leave them.”
“I can’t just walk to the boat in my—”
“Yes, you can.” He smiled, making it a challenge.
Helena fished her shoes out from under the sweats and slid on the flip-flops, leaving the pants behind. Her flush might have been from embarrassment, but he didn’t think so. To him it looked like arousal. Placing her hand in his, she hopped out of the truck. Ocean gifted her with another smile as they passed out of the parking lot and onto the dock. Made of smooth, tight-fitting planks, it was unlike the rough and uneven boardwalk-style docks. This was a real dock, a working dock.
“So you can live on these little boats?”
“Not comfortably, no.” Ocean smiled as he said it and Helena laughed. “One of the back rooms down at the office is full of my stuff. I sank my life savings into her. Someday I’ll need an apartment, but for now it is just me and Moira.” He gestured to their left.
Sitting calm and pretty in the green water was a sleek white lady. “Moira” was written out in navy script on the side. The sails were down, strapped to the arms by coverings.
“Your boat is very pretty.” Helena’s comment was cautious, as if she wasn’t sure what kind of compliment was appropriate. Non-boat people were often unnerved by the personification of the vessels.
“She is, isn’t she?” He loved his boat, and it was apparent in his voice. “Come on, let me introduce you.”
They moved down the short pier running along the left side of the boat. Ocean moved in front of her onto the platform at the back of the boat and swung open the thigh-high door which gave access to the cockpit.
Ocean held her hand tight in his as he guided her onto the ship and through the little door. One step down had them standing in a comfortable seating area where the captain’s chair was situated. Helena looked around curiously, and Ocean took advantage of her distraction to slip his hands around her waist, fingertips sneaking under the waistband to press against her bare hips.
“Helena,” he whispered in her ear, “I would like you to meet Moira. Moira, this beautiful creature is Helena, who has already proven herself a lover of the ocean.”
Ocean laced their fingers together once more and led her to the door to the cabin. It was blessedly cool below deck, the light maple-colored paneling and the white and navy décor giving the room a welcoming feel. The minute they stepped inside Ocean remembered he wasn’t exactly ready for guests.
“Just stay here for a minute while I go clean up the berth.”
Less than ten steps had Ocean at the door to the bedroom, which he opened a crack and squeezed in, not wanting her to see the mess inside. Helena craned her head to see past him, but Ocean slammed the door shut, leaving her in the cluttered cabin while he dealt with the truly disastrous berth.
Helena smiled as the door closed. She liked that he was messy, it made him much less perfect and the situation less surreal. She’d been suffering from regrets and nerves in the car on the way here, but they were drowned out by her arousal. Ocean made her feel beautiful, sexy. The way he looked at her did more for her self-confidence than dozens of compliments from a different man. Nothing had really happened in the truck, she was wearing a bathing suit after all, but the way he’d ordered her to strip and change position so he could play with her made it seem more sexual than some of the technical sex she’d had with previous lovers. It was almost kinky, and with him she felt sexy enough to enjoy kinky.
Pulling her braid over one shoulder, she tugged out the rubber band and fumbled to get the strands separated. Saltwater spray, like high-intensity gel, had glued the hair to itself. Grimacing at the texture, she scrubbed her fingers along her scalp.
She made her way to the low bench that wrapped along one wall of the cabin. The multitude of throw pillows made the otherwise plain seating look lush and inviting, and she plucked up a few pillows along with a faux fur throw.
Chucking the pillows to one end of the seating, she held up the blanket. It was a lopsided oval rather than square. She rubbed it against her cheek. Layers and layers of downy hair made the fur unbelievably soft. Jerking it away from her face, she curled her lip. Ugh. Not fake fur. Real fur. It seemed out of character for him to own a fur blanket, but then again, she had only known him for eighteen hours.
Resolved to talk politics after they had some yummy sex, she folded the blanket, and not wanting it staring at her, reached down and lifted the seat bottoms. Several of them opened but most were already full—some with essentials like canned goods and paper towels, others with life jackets and miscellaneous boat paraphernalia. When she lifted one seat to reveal a cubby full of sleeping bags, she tucked the blanket down between them. Satisfied, she made her way back to the space she had cleared, sitting and arranging herself carefully.
This was going to be fun. No, it was going to be more than fun, it was going to be hot and sexy and amazing. She wouldn’t worry about her belly pudge or the fact that one boob was slightly larger than the other. She’d made a choice, the choice to have a once-in-a-lifetime vacation fling with a gorgeous man who was inexplicably attracted to her.
A smile playing over her lips, she waited for her lover.
Ocean found one last sock hidden in the folds of the sheet and stuffed it into the drawer built into the platform of the bed. As he knelt to force the overstuffed drawer closed, a dark shiver skipped down his back. A moment later, every inch of his flesh stood up in goose bumps. His skin.
He jerked to his feet, but could go no farther, a creepy-crawly sensation on his human skin telling him that another held his skin. Icy fear settled in his belly as his breathing became quick.
He shouldn’t have left it out, or should have remembered it was just sitting there, but no one ever came on his boat, the island a tight-knit community with a low crime rate. Besides, one would have to believe in magic and faerie tales to understand the importance of his skin, and most humans had closed their minds to magic so he’d relaxed his guard.
There was only one logical culprit. Helena.
He knew she was magic, knew because she’d preformed an ocean ritual in the kayak that morning, raising the water to the sky three times. He was so entranced by this he’d never stopped to consider that her apparent knowledge of magic might mean she knew the truth about him and had come to capture him. He assumed she was of the ocean, hiding in a human skin as he was. He’d hoped to spend time with her, get to know her, and then reveal what he was, hoping his revelation would prompt her to do the same.
But now it appeared she did know what he was. Perhaps she was a witch. If so, his skin was probably gone from the boat, transported to a hiding spot by magic. Even if it were on the boat, he would have a hard time finding it.
The curse of his people dictated that once caught by others the skin would be hidden from his people’s eyes. Most humans hid the skins anyway, in case the magic preventing the captured creature from seeing their skin were to fail.
His people were known to be physically beautiful and skilled lovers. That combined with the fact that once bound by the theft of their skin, his people were unwaveringly loyal to the thief, meant they were prized as husbands and wives. There had been a time when so many females had been captured, taken as loyal, beautiful wives by human men, that they’d faced extinction.
If he wanted his skin back he had only two choices. He could kill the one who had taken it. Most chose continued enslavement over committing such an act. They were creatures bound to the earth and sea. The taking of a life for anything other than food or defense was one of the most reprehensible crimes.
Or he could coax her into giving it back, please her until she returned it. Despite his nervous fear at having been trapped, he couldn’t help but like the idea of coaxing his skin from her. If he chose this path he would be completely under her control, giving himself to her until she was satisfied.
The theft of a skin was powerful, uncertain magic. Having never been in this position before, Ocean couldn’t know how it would affect him, or her. He needed his skin back. Knowing he could not go to the sea as long as she held it frightened him, so he forced himself not to think about it. Instead he focused on how he would get it back. This brought a smile to his face. She was shy, uncertain of her own appeal, and he wanted her. Despite the fact that she’d stolen his skin, he still wanted her. He’d been enthralled by her before she took his skin. Now they were bound by magic.
He would get his skin back, and he would enjoy doing it.
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