At ten to eight, Lorelei answered the door, flustered. It was the pizza guy.
“Hello, Lorelei,” Dean said. He was a couple of years older than her, and Lorelei suddenly felt self-conscious. She’d seen him a bunch of times at the pizza place, since Haeley’s folks owned it, and they hung out there a lot. But they’d never had a conversation. He’d always ignored her, rightly, as part of Haeley’s high-school crowd.
“Hi…Dean, isn’t it?” Lorelei wasn’t sure why she pretended not to know his name. He hadn’t ever looked at her like he was doing now. It was weird.
He nodded and gave her a little wave, and she was suddenly sure she wasn’t the only one feeling self-conscious. What in the world? After a final glance over his shoulder, Dean returned to his car. Lorelei was glad Haeley wasn’t working tonight – it was possible Dean was on some wicked drugs. She made a mental note to steer clear of him, and shut the door.
While she was happy to see the food, she sighed when she realized she’d have to repeat the awkwardness in a few minutes with Vardon when he arrived for their absolutely-not-a-date study session.
She had no reason to be nervous. She’d known Vardon since first grade, when she’d moved with her father to Anacortes, from tiny Orcas Island.
And this was absolutely not a date, no matter how Haeley and Em had pestered her as soon as she returned to the lunch table. Have you noticed how tall he is? If he wasn’t so quiet and weird, he’d be super cute, Lori.
Lorelei rolled her eyes. The last thing she needed in her life was a cute boy.
She set the pepperoni and mushroom pizza on the dining room table, next to her calculus textbook and pencils and such.
The doorbell rang as soon as she’d grabbed a plate and a slice.
She left her steaming pizza to answer the door, pulling it open with a smile plastered in place. Greeting committee. Hello, person I never expected to have in my house.
“Hi,” she said lamely.
“Hi,” he answered stiffly. He held up his textbook. “Are you ready?”
“Yeah. My pizza just got here, but I can eat while we work.”
He sniffed the air, and stopped in his tracks, two steps inside the front door, his shoulders hunched uncomfortably.
Maybe he didn’t like mushrooms.
He recovered and followed her to the dining room table.
“You want some?”
Lorelei fled for the kitchen to grab another plate and a couple of cans of soda. This was too weird. But she needed the help with homework. Mr. Richards had been watching her in detention today. She knew if she screwed up again, it wasn’t just her place at the top of the class she was risking. She could still get kicked out. And then she wouldn’t be able to complete AP calculus until senior year.
When she returned to the living room, Lorelei caught Vardon snapping a picture.
“Something interesting?” she asked from behind his shoulder.
He jumped, obviously feeling guilty.
She tilted her head to the side. She was nervous, but what was going on with Vardon? Selfies in her living room? Did he have it that bad?
She pointed to the plates, reminding herself of her father. Who…should be home by now.
Lorelei and Vardon sat across from each other, and Lorelei discovered he was not, in fact, concerned about the mushrooms. He inhaled three slices of pizza seemingly without a breath, before taking his plate to the kitchen and cracking his calculus book.
Lorelei finished up, too, and heard the front door open while she was in the kitchen adding their plates to the dishwasher. Dad was talking to someone as he came in. An answering giggle sent a trickle of alarm through Lorelei. Who had her father brought home?
They met in the dining room. Peter Dorian’s eyes lit on Vardon as soon as he came through the door. “Lorelei, you know you aren’t supposed to have boys over when I’m not here.”
“Wow, Dad…I didn’t even think of it that way.” Lorelei gestured to the textbooks while checking out the blond, forty-something woman who had just entered her home. Dad didn’t date, so what was this? “We were just about to study.”
Dad still wore a scowl. He reached out a hand to shake Vardon’s.
Lorelei must have been mistaken, but she could have sworn Vardon flinched as though he expected her father to hit him. The thought was funny. Dad wouldn’t hit anyone, at least not in any circumstance Lorelei could imagine. Then they shook, and the tense moment passed.
Lorelei extended her hand to her dad’s guest. “I’m Lorelei.”
“Yes, I’ve heard so much about you.” The blond had a firm, but cold, handshake. “I’m Amy – I just started working at the veterinary clinic with your dad.”
“My car broke down,” Dad explained. “I’ll need you to take me over there in the morning, honey.”
“Okay. I can take you on the way to swim practice.” Lorelei caught Vardon fidgeting. “Now, do you think I can get to studying?”
“Sure. We’ll be in the kitchen.” Dad gave Vardon a long stare before he left the room.
How humiliating. The typical fatherly reaction was ridiculous in this situation.
“Sorry about that.”
“No,” Vardon said, watching Dad’s retreating back. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s start with chapter ten.”
Vardon tried for silence as he entered through the sliding glass door abutting the breakfast nook. He needed some time to think before…
“Vardon? Is that you?”
No such luck. “Yeah, Mom. I’m home.”
“How’d it go?” Mom popped around the corner holding a yogurt, and wagged her eyebrows at him.
“Just studying, Mom.” He shuffled into the kitchen. “Good. It was good.”
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s just…I thought she was one of us. Now I’m just confused.”
“She’s not a selkie?”
“I could swear she was.” He was seriously blowing it. Mom had been so excited when he said he met a selkie girl at school. It was important to her that he know his own kind, but the selkie community was spread thinly across the globe. The San Juan Islands had a decently sized community of about thirty selkies, many of them ancient.
“What made you change your mind?”
“Her dad, actually. He does not smell selkie at all. I don’t think he’s human, either. But more like human than selkie.”
Mom frowned. “Maybe the girl is mixed blood. That would be a shame.”
Vardon frowned back. “Lorelei is great – no matter what she is. Don’t talk like that.”
Mom shrugged. Their family had remained pure despite the dispersion of their people over time. But they couldn’t continue to do so if other selkies mixed blood with humans.
What mattered to Vardon was knowing another seal shifter, one his own age. He had a good friend among the selkies, another guy his age, Rory, who came to visit with his parents sometimes, and there were a few other local selkies in their twenties, one of them female. Most selkies were older. Other than that local community, it was swimming with the family, often all three generations of them. Swimming with Mom and Dad and the grandparents was fine, had always been fine…but it grated on him these days. Every time they were in the sea he wanted to swim off on his own. That wasn’t allowed, of course. So he’d taken to stealing out at night with his skin, down the steep sand of the beach and into the surf.
He’d do it tonight, after Mom went to bed. He had to. Only the sea could strip the visions of Lorelei from his mind so he could sleep.
Math whiz, swim team star, sweet but spitfire Lorelei.
She had to be his girl.
He grabbed a yogurt from the fridge and spun a chair around to sit backwards while he ate it.
Rolling her eyes, Mom sat with exaggerated elegance in a chair close by.
“Look at this.” Vardon pulled out his cell and opened the photos. The picture he’d taken in Lorelei’s living room stared back at him. A seascape complete with mermaids, seaweed tangled in their flowing hair, and an underwater castle that shone in the darkness of the underwater world. The colors in the painting almost seemed to move, as if in the drifting tides. He handed the phone to Mom.
She stared long and hard, and when she turned startled eyes on him, he leaned forward to hear what she’d say…too far forward. He almost crashed to the ground, but caught himself at the last second, shoving his heels back so the chair rested on all four legs again.
Mom hadn’t stopped staring. No eye roll at his clumsiness.
“This painting. You saw it at the girl’s house?”
“Her name is Lorelei. And yes. That’s the living room mantle, at the bottom of the picture.”
“Vardon, you can’t see this girl again. At least not until I figure out what’s going on.”
He stilled. “What is it?”
She looked at the picture again. “Vardon…this is Finfolkaheem. The finfolk are not to be trifled with. You must let me find out what this girl is. I would not restrict you without cause.”
She spoke so formally that Vardon knew any argument was lost. She wouldn’t change her mind.
“What are finfolk?”
“They’re a dark sort – sorcerers. Physically similar to modern culture’s take on mermaids, but they can shift; they can take your shape, or mine, or even our seal shapes. Our people have never mingled. Any they find they take away. Forever.”
“It is said they have a mystical island, where they keep their human – and other – spouses, to work for them.” She met his eyes again, pulling her gaze from the allure of the painting. “But they can spell you to breathe underwater, too, and take you to their ancestral home, on the ocean floor. Finfolkaheem.”
He was silent.
“We stay away from the finfolk, Vardon.”
He still didn’t answer. He finished his yogurt without looking at her.
“If you disobey me, I will know.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
Find the Water Rites series at your favorite retailer.
Castle and Crown (**Coming winter 2017**)