Dayna’s roommate was groping the guy she’d said had the IQ of a piece of celery. Tomie had to recognize that guy—he’d been hitting on her for the length of the entire cruise. Maybe Tomie did recognize him, but there was something about the anonymity of this last night on the island for the singles’ cruise with them all masked. Tomorrow, Tomie could act appalled and shocked as if she hadn’t known it was him.
Dayna wriggled her nose beneath the mask. It killed the mood a bit that the mask was itchy as hell. She was going to head back aboard the ship and hit the sack early. She did recognize all the guys on the cruise and masking their faces wasn’t going to make a walk of shame any less shameful.
Taking a wide arc into the shadows where the lanterns didn’t reach, Dayna walked around the fifty, swaying, masked singles. That guy with the tiger mask had already leered at her at least a dozen times. It was Nate. Of course it was Nate. She’d been avoiding him the entire cruise. It was just like Tomie to drag them on a singles’ cruise with Dayna’s ex-boyfriend. Nate still wanted to see their relationship as friendly with benefits.
She was so busy staring behind her that she missed the long legs of someone sitting on a piece of drift wood to the side. One minute, she was walking, looking behind her—the next, she was sprawled on the ground spitting sand out of her mouth.
The guy’s laugh was deep and amused as he jumped to his feet. “Hey, Dayna. Having fun yet?” He grabbed her by the waist and helped her up. He was strong, and his hands left the impression of heat long after he’d released her.
She pulled the mask forward to wipe the gritty sand off her nose and cheeks while she tried to get a better look at him. It was so dark, but she was still fairly certain he had dark hair, skin, and eyes. The eyes were really a guess, though as the black half-mask hid his face rather effectively.
“How did you recognize me?” she asked. Who was he? His voice didn’t sound familiar.
“Your blonde ponytail,” he said, tugging on it lightly. “Plus, you’ve been the first to leave every planned event, so I’ve seen you from behind more than from in front.”
Yikes. Okay, so he didn’t know her. She took a few more steps back, still brushing sand from her wrapped skirt and tankini.
“I’m not very good at being single…to be honest,” Dayna muttered.
“You’re better at relationships?”
“No.” Okay, she sucked at this all around. Why was she even here? Ohhh right. Tomie. She turned to glare at her roommate and co-worker. Her two weeks of vacation time had gone to fending off the advances of her ex-boyfriend and avoiding burning her pale skin. So much for a quick and forgettable romance with no strings attached. She still had the cruise back…but, then again, it would be with the same group of guys who did nothing for her on the trip down to the island.
Well, and this guy she’d run into…whoever he was. She turned back to him.
“This is embarrassing, but I have no idea who you are,” she said.
“Not really surprising. As I said, you’ve left everything about fifteen minutes in.” It seemed like an observation rather than a reprimand.
She pulled off her mask. It was pointless. They couldn’t see her in the lit area on the beach, and her mystery man clearly knew who she was. Besides her face was still gritty. Dropping the mask near the driftwood he’d been sitting on, she continued to brush her cheeks off while blinking. She’d really bull-dozed the sand when she’d tripped over masked guy’s legs.
Pointing at the crowd of singles, where a limbo line was forming, Dayna said, “See that guy in the shorts covered in palm trees? That’s my ex-boyfriend. My roommate couldn’t remember where she’d first heard about this cruise until after we saw him beside the pool.”
“Nate? Yeah, he’s a moron,” the guy said, picking up her mask and spinning it around on his finger by the ribbons meant to hold it on.
“How do you know that?” It was true—of course it was true, but how did he know?
A smile in the darkness. “He broke it off with you….”
Clever. Smooth. Dayna rolled her eyes while smiling. She went to grab the mask from him so she could head back to her cabin.
He held it up above his head. The moonlight shimmered across his tanned skin. “Come for a walk with me.”
Dayna turned and looked at her roommate who was still giggling and laughing with the guy she’d been putting off all week.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“It’s a secret until midnight, remember?”
Whatever. She turned to go back to the ship, but he grabbed her hand.
“You must be the least adventurous single on the Adventurous Singles’ Cruise ever,” he said.
Dayna turned and crossed her arms on her chest. “Okay, so…you want to go for a walk. What am I supposed to call you? Guy? Dude?”
He took a moment to answer. “Fisher.”
Why had it taken him so long to answer? Maybe he was taking this masked thing very seriously.
Okay, so she was being gutless. At least this guy wasn’t Nate. Wow. Her dating life truly sucked if she was listing that as the only known positive. Still, it was a moonlit night…on an island…and a masked mystery guy had just asked her to go on a walk. He was probably a psychotic killer. But he wasn’t Nate.
She shrugged. It’s not as if there was anything back in the cabin for her. She’d been reading a skinny romance book, but Tomie had taken to openly mocking her for reading rather than doing. Dayna took one last glance over her shoulder at Tomie who should’ve been reading instead of doing.
They walked away from the group, the citronella torches, and the music being pumped from a stereo. The laughter and music followed them for a bit before they reached the edge of the water and the sound of surf pushed out the sound of the others.
Away from the light of the torches, she could see him clearer under the moonlight. He was tall with dark black hair that curled at the tips. His skin was tan, even in comparison to the black mask. His hand held hers firmly at first and then he let go to slingshot her mask out into the surf with a laugh. When he reached for her hand, he twined only their fingers together in a casual grip. It was the kind of hand-holding that long-time couples did.
“So you’re really not going to take off your mask?”
“Nope,” Fisher said, smiling at her.
Dayna glanced back over her shoulder. She couldn’t even see the lights from the group anymore. Her natural inclination to panic was rising. She didn’t know this guy. He could be a freak. It was weird she hadn’t seen him the whole week. The more she looked at him—the more she knew that she hadn’t.
“Give me a hint,” she said.
“I’ll give you one hint for one kiss,” he said.
He laughed at her horror.
“Okay. Fine,” she grumbled. She wouldn’t enjoy it, though. She knew she wouldn’t.
They stopped, standing—facing one another.
“Who goes first?” she asked, licking her lips nervously.
“What do you do for a living?”
His lips curved into a smile below his mask. “I don’t really need money—I’ve got enough of that, but I do some diving for nautical exploration.”
She watched as his mouth dipped toward hers and brushed hers. His mouth was soft, warm, and tasted salty.
Dayna smiled in relief. Anyone who was satisfied with a single innocent kiss couldn’t be all bad. He was a man of his word. “Who is your roommate?”
“I’m not staying in a cabin.” This time, the kiss was longer and deeper.
It took her equilibrium a moment to return after that kiss. That kiss hadn’t been innocent, and she knew the next one wouldn’t be either. It changed the path of her questioning.
“Who else have you hooked up with on this cruise?” she asked seriously. Depending on his answer, this might be his last kiss. The others had been very indiscriminate about their pairings. Even Tomie had hooked up with two or three guys on the trip. The only one not bed-hopping was Dayna.
“No one. I haven’t been interested. I came because I was curious…but not about that.”
“You swear?” she asked as his mouth approached.
“I swear.” His mouth was touching hers as he said it, and her arms slid up around his neck as he kissed her. Her mouth was sweet from the juice she’d been drinking, and his was salty almost like the ocean—together it was like a decadent dessert meant to leave them both hungry.
“What were you curious about?” she asked when she could catch her breath.
“How the other half lives.” This time he kissed a line up her neck as she arched it. “Then, I was curious about you.”
She froze in his arms. “Me?” she repeated. No one was curious about her. Tomie was the out-going flirt. She was the flash. Dayna was just the quiet shadow in the corner, watching.
“I like the way you move like you don’t want to disturb the air,” he whispered in her ear. “I like how your eyes are the color of sea foam and reflect everything. I like how they flash when you’re angry. I love how you love the sea—how it makes you smile.”
He kissed just below her ear as he pressed her body against his. There was molten heat between them. His words were poetry, not the clumsy words that Nate and others had tried.
She did love the water. It was the only reason she’d agreed to come on this cruise with Tomie. In fact, if her days hadn’t been used on the cruise, she’d have used them to stay in her grandparents’ beach house. Well, her beach house now.
“You’ve been watching me?” she asked. How had she not noticed someone was watching her?
“Every morning, you go stare at the waves on the water at the rail before anyone else is up,” he said, lowering them both down into the sand, his body on top of hers.
“It reminds me of my grandparents’ beach house in the San Juans.”
“Mmm hmm,” he agreed, sliding his hands up her sides. It was heaven.
Dayna watched the stars in lazy pleasure as he slid down to kiss her stomach. Dayna was doing it. She was having that ocean romance. She’d be able to have what she wanted and then walk away. It was that easy. She cupped his cheeks, dragging his mouth back to his. Wow, he could kiss. This would be the best no-strings fling ever.
There was just one problem. She didn’t want this to end like that. They’d have this week and the trip back, but then what? She lived in Seattle where the cruise was from, but what of Fisher? And that might not even be his name.
“Where do you live?” she asked him.
He still had the mask on. She tried to take it off him, but he grabbed her fingers and kissed each one.
“Wherever I want,” he said.
It couldn’t be that easy. Besides, what if he didn’t want anything more than this? The hot flame inside her was doused. The sand beneath them irritated her in a thousand pinpricks as she became aware that she was lying on the sand with him on top, and he was kissing a line along her tankini strap.
This is why you didn’t do things like this. She didn’t even know what he looked like.
“What time is it?” she asked. If she saw his face, his entire face…maybe then the shivers in her stomach would subside.
“Almost midnight,” he said, sliding off her. He laid down on the sand beside her and stared at the moon. Was she wrong or did he sound…concerned? Was there something wrong with his face? It wouldn’t matter.
“I like the sound of the water…of the ocean,” she said, turning onto her side, cradling her body against the side of him.
“It feels like home,” he said.
“Yes.” It was an odd thing to say, and an odd thing to agree to.
“You should live on the water, Dayna,” he said. “You’d be happier.”
“Some of us actually need money.” Dayna shook her head, even as her mind started spinning ideas. Crazy ideas. She could live in the beach house, and she could tele-commute a few days. And if Fisher truly could live anywhere…. No, she shouldn’t start including him in her plans. Still, she would be happier living in the beach house she’d inherited.
“You’re happier there,” he said.
“What?” she asked, sitting up.
In the distance, someone blew a conch shell.
Time for the unmasking.
“Go ahead. I’ll meet you in a bit,” Fisher said as she stood up.
An uneasiness slid into her veins, but she shook it off, saying, “You’re taking off your mask, Fisher. You got a whole lot more than a few kisses.”
He smiled. “I did…and so did you.”
Her cheeks flushed with heat. “You’ll take off the mask?”
He put his hands behind his head as he lay in the sand. “Next time you see me, I won’t be wearing a mask, I swear.”
Dayna nodded and wandered back toward the direction of the party where laughing was heralding the unmasking. Sure enough, Tomie was feigning surprise at her companion’s identity. They’d both been drinking heavily, though, and Tomie wasn’t pushing him away. Nate was trying to score with one of the cruise directors who’d also had too much to drink. It all seemed dirtier and less vital now. Maybe she wasn’t a fling sort of person. She should probably warn Fisher about that. Dayna glanced behind her. What was keeping Fisher?
“I’m telling you, I swear, it’s been happening every morning,” the girl from the ship was telling Nate intermixed with giggles. Nate stuck his arm around her, and they bumped into each other—both by accident and on purpose.
“What?” Dayna asked. The night seemed colder. She shivered and wished she had someone’s arm around her.
“We’re being followed,” Tomie said in a goofy haunted voice. “Ohhhhh….” She wiggled her fingers at Dayna in what was meant to be a ghoulish way.
“Followed?” Dayna repeated.
“The ship crew are all Scandinavian,” Nate explained, smirking. “They swear there are such things as mermaids.”
Everyone laughed even as Nate’s conquest protested the truth of the myth.
Twenty minutes later, they’d all gone back to the ship. No sight—no sound of Fisher. Nate’s new “friend” had proclaimed all were “aboard.” Dayna watched the night from a deck chair wrapped in a blanket from her cabin. What had happened? When the dawn crested the horizon, the boat started up, and Dayna couldn’t bring herself to ask questions.
Was she crazy? She’d kissed and been kissed by someone who apparently didn’t exist.
She was crazy. That was the only explanation. Most of the other singles didn’t appear until later in the day. No Fisher. Dayna gave up and went down to the empty cabins and slept.
The rest of the cruise, she joined the group in person if not in spirit. If he was going to appear with an explanation, she’d be there.
He never did.
Perhaps he was part of the crew.
The cruise slipped by, and then they were back in Seattle.
Life began again. Dayna had managed to avoid giving her heart away during a quick fling—because they hadn’t had a fling.
Tomie waited until their first day back at work to ask what was wrong.
Dayna shook her head. There was no way to explain what might not have even been.
After a week, a homesickness slipped into her body and every day felt like a day away from where she was meant to be. Dayna broached the idea of tele-commuting some of the week, and her boss went for it.
That weekend, as she stood on the ferry deck, the salty air reminded her of Fisher, but everything reminded her of him. She was longing for someone who didn’t exist. She was in love with a fantasy.
“I’m losing my mind,” she murmured over and over.
The island’s only taxi dropped her at the front door to her beach house. She’d spent every summer out here from her childhood to adulthood. Maybe she’d imagined it…and maybe she hadn’t, but Dayna had thought she’d seen a mermaid or two. She’d even played with a boy for many summers when she was younger who her grandparents hadn’t ever heard of—they’d said their neighbors hadn’t either. Imaginary friends. Mermaids. The place had always seemed magical. She should’ve come back here long ago.
Dayna pulled a deckchair out to the rocky shore near the water and sat watching the sun sink down. Closing her eyes, she let the sun warm her face. It smelled like Fisher. It felt like home. It made her ache and feel whole all at once.
“I told you that you’d be happier,” he called. He’d been so quiet, his approach hidden by the waves.
Shading her eyes, she turned to watch him walking along the shore.
He crouched beside her deckchair. No mask. He was as tan as she’d thought, and his hair was as black as midnight on the water on a moonless night. Beneath his right eye, was a star-fish shaped mark that had been covered by his mask. The boy she’d played with—had a birthmark near his eye just like that.
Fisher. That was his name. It’d been so long, but that was it.
She wasn’t surprised he was here. Her heart rate had quickened, but it was from excitement. Why wasn’t she surprised? Maybe because it felt like they’d both belonged here. She’d once been part of the magic of the island, and now she was again.
She smiled, and he grinned back.
“Will you stay here?” Dayna asked. It’d broken her heart a little that he’d never shown up unmasked on the cruise. She wasn’t going through that again.
“Will you stay here? I will if you will.”
“Yes, I belong here.”
Fisher nodded and sat on the rocks beside her. “You do. I wondered when you’d realize that. I’ve been waiting for you to come home.”
Home. She reached for his hand, and he took hers. Raising her hand to his lips, he kissed her fingers while holding her gaze.
She leaned toward him and whispered against his lips, “It’s good to be home.”
Copyright © 2013 by Wendy Sparrow
If you liked Masked Charades, you’ll love Stealing Time and Frosted.
You are forgiven. I love your short stories. Have a great holiday weekend!
Seriously, mermaids? You have made my dreams come true.