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Nara's head went under the water. Choking and gasping, she flailed to the surface, only to sink again. Once more she fought her way up to the air, no longer thinking, hardly conscious of what was happening.
Something seized her by the hair. The merman, the merman coming for her.
Hands grasped her under her arms, dragging her up, up, up and over a wooden rail. Coughing, spewing salt water from her mouth, Nara was dimly aware of being sprawled across the seat of a rowboat.
"Up with it," a man's voice ordered. "Get all the water out of you."
Nara retched helplessly until nothing more came up, then closed her eyes, the rough wood of the seat against her cheek. She heard waves slapping against the boat and felt the water sloshing over the side to drench her, but she was so chilled and exhausted she didn't move. She couldn't move, not even to get off her knees that were in the bilge collecting in the bottom of the boat.
"Should make the island," he said tersely.
I'm safe, she thought. Safe in a boat. A rowboat. She tried to raise her head, but a wave of dizziness overcame her and she whirled off into darkness.
Nara roused from her stupor when her head jolted off the seat. At the same time, she heard an ominous splintering. For a moment she thought she was back in the sailboat, reliving the instant when it grounded on a hidden rock. Then water swept over her and she cried out, struggling upward. Strong arms grasped her around the waist and lifted her. She clutched at a man's shoulders, clinging desperately to him. Little by little she became aware he was carrying her as he waded from the water onto a rocky beach. Teeth chattering with chill, she tried tocomprehend what was happening, but her mind wouldn't work. She couldn't think coherently.
The next she knew they were entering a building, he ducking through the low doorway, still carrying her. When he tried to ease her onto her feet, Nara did her best to stand, but her legs gave way and he let her down to the floor. She stretched out, closing her eyes and drifting away again. Hands touched her, turning her this way and that. She rolled limply, unable to resist. She was cold, so cold. She felt rough wool against her skin, then warmth, blessed warmth. Nara snuggled next to the warmth and, once again, darkness lapped over her.
She woke slowly, first hearing the drum of rain on a roof, then the rhythmic swish of waves against a shore. A smoky smell mingled with the faint odor of brine. Nara opened her eyes.
From only inches away, sea-green eyes blazed into hers. The merman! She'd dropped to the bottom of the sea and drowned, and he'd claimed her. She lay next to him, their bare bodies touching and he wasn't cold and scaly at all but wonderfully warm...
No, she hadn't drowned, she was dreaming. She was really back home at Winfield Hall, asleep upstairs in her walnut bed with its high scrolled headboard. All of this was a dream--wrecking the sailboat, being swept off by the current, the rescue, a man carrying her from the water.
The green eyes came closer and closer. She shut her own as his lips brushed against hers and then nibbled gently at her lower lip. Nara sighed, winding her arms around his neck to hold him to her. A wonderful dream, a dream of Dan.
"Nara," he said softly, nuzzling her throat.
She murmured contentedly, savoring the thrill of being held close, her senses rousing as he kissed her again, not so gently this time, with a kiss that demanded her response.
Her mouth softened, opening under his, and she experienced the new delight of his tongue. She'd never been kissed like this, ever, ever, but she knew she'd longed for someone who could make her feel as she did now. No, not someone--Dan. She'd wanted Dan to kiss her.
He was kissing her, and she was dreaming of Dan, his dark curls under her caressing fingers. He smelled of the sea, of himself and the sea, an intoxicating scent, and he tasted faintly of brine, too, as though he really were a merman. On his lips the salty taste was sweeter than ambrosia.
His hand cupped her breast, his thumb brushing over her nipple, setting off an exquisite tingling that penetrated to the center of her being. She pressed closer to him, drowning in wave after wave of delight.
Was she dreaming or was Dan really here caressing her with his lips and his hands? When she opened her eyes she could see she wasn't in her bedroom at Winfield Hall but some kind of a rude hut. She was lying with him somewhere, both of them unclothed. In her languorous state, the thought was far from alarming. She wished for nothing more than to stay exactly where she was, to have him go on holding her.
He was real. He wasn't a dream. They were together in another world, a world as strange and wonderful as the merman's, a place where they'd discover secrets unknown to mere mortals.
Their place--hers and Dan's.
How strong he was, his back muscles rippling under her fingers. His skin was satin-smooth--she'd never realized a man's skin would feel like that. She could touch him forever and not grow tired of the marvel of his flesh.
"How beautiful you are," he murmured, his hands gliding over her in a glorious trail of fire, kindling every inch of her body to eager flame.
She burned for him only. There was no one else in this world except herself and Dan. He was what she wanted, had always wanted, would always want. They'd been created for one another; they'd been destined to meet and come together. Nothing else mattered.