Copyright © 2011 Jodi Redford
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
There are some things you just don’t want to see while trolling for dinner. A three-hundred-pound dude in a yellow Speedo? Mark it number one on the list.
A massive shudder coursing through his dorsal fins, Maxwell Truitt gave Mr. Banana Hammock splashing overhead a wide berth and continued piloting through the watery depths of the Atlantic. Some of his brethren wouldn’t think twice about taking a chunk out of the swimmer. Fortunately for the guy, Max’s carnivorous appetites didn’t include dudes with excess body hair. Now a fat, juicy NY strip at the Boar’s Head? Bring it on.
His stomach rumbled and he grimaced. He was facing an eight-hour patrol tonight, making his sudden hankering for steak damn inconvenient. Given his size, and the rate of his metabolism while in his shark form, he wouldn’t be able to go too much longer without feeding.
He needed to find a meal. Soon.
Up ahead, a school of red porgies darted toward one of the many rocky ledges bordering the Savannah coastline, triggering a ripple of hunger through Max.
You can run, but you can’t hide, my delicious little friends. Giving a stealthy swish of his long tail fin, he torpedoed forward and overtook the fish in a burst of speed. He managed to gobble four of the tasty treats before the remaining porgies eluded him beneath a sand shelf. S**t. Well, at least the snack in his belly would tide him over for a couple hours.
Mentally humming the latest Rascal Flatts tune, he swam north along the coast, heading toward Tybee. In the last few weeks, there’d been an inordinately large number of siren sightings near the lighthouse. The mischievous creatures hadn’t caused any havoc with unsuspecting sailors. Yet. As long as he was on duty, it was damn well gonna stay that way.
The metallic, coppery smell of blood carried on the current. Undoubtedly a charter boat nearby, chumming. He redirected course, heading farther from shore and any stray fishing nets. Light had a harder time penetrating this deep in the Atlantic’s belly—something that wasn’t an issue for him, thankfully. If anything, the limited visibility only sharpened his senses and made him more attune to the slightest variance in his environment.
Which might explain the warning tingles that shot through his snout when a minute disturbance of water pressure tickled along his gills. Normally he wouldn’t give a second thought to it, but the sensation prodded an uneasy feeling in his gut.
There was something in his territory that shouldn’t be here. Something that came with a heavier stench of death than the chartered fishing boat he’d steered clear of. He changed course yet again and chased the dark, evil scent.
The water temperature unexpectedly plummeted. A few hundred feet ahead of him, a large, bulky mass dove through the waves. He could just make out the shape of tentacles. It took a moment for his brain to register what he was seeing.
What. The. F**k?
The dangerous, elusive creatures didn’t routinely venture this close to shore. Granted, he’d heard tell that the butt-ugly things occasionally sought their prey on land, but for the most part, they kept to their deep, watery domains and snagged their victims from the countless ships that’d either wrecked or become stranded miles out at sea.
So what was the damn thing up to?
Intent on finding out, Max rushed to catch up with the creature. He was a faster swimmer than the leviathan, and soon he narrowed the margin between them. It didn’t look like the creature was full grown. Thank Jesus, because adult versions of the son-of-a-bitchin’ things were known to be as massive as a damn submarine.
Drawing closer, he finally noticed what he hadn’t before. An unconscious figure was tightly bound within the grasp of one of the leviathan’s tentacles. The sight spurred him into action. He whipped his tail, the motion bulleting him forward. The maneuver also alerted the leviathan to his presence, and the creature’s seven heads pivoted in his direction. Red beady eyes locked on him.
Undaunted by the evil malice glaring him down, Max dove for the nearest tentacle. The slick, heavy appendage slashed out, striking him in the mouth, and he bit into the suctioned end. Angry screeches assaulted him as hundreds of razor-sharp teeth snapped in his direction. He wrenched his entire body to the side, deflecting the leviathan’s deadly attack, and hurtled the creature into a dizzying spin. The tentacle imprisoning the unconscious female reflexively untwined and the woman’s limp form floated free.
Menacing purpose flashing in its multitude of eyes, the leviathan lunged after its victim. Max tightened his grip on the tentacle, towing the creature from its intended goal. Hideous sounds shrilled from the leviathan, giving Max plenty of warning that he was in for one hell of a fight. He steeled himself as his opponent rammed him, the blunt force knocking him backwards.
Despite the leviathan’s determination to escape, Max kept the tentacle anchored in his mouth and plunged beneath the beast. Teeth sank into his tail fin. Blocking out the burst of pain splintering through him, he rocketed toward the corroded carcass of a half-submerged ship’s hull resting on the ocean floor. If he could make it down there and pummel the creature into the metal enough times to—
A pair of tentacles squeezed around his stomach as the leviathan caught on to his intention. It was like having a damn boa constrictor riding him piggyback. Choking and sputtering, he clamped down hard on the appendage in his mouth. Horrendous caterwauling streamed from the creature and it thrashed wildly, its grasp tightening. The damn thing seemed intent on wringing Max to death. Hell if he’d go down without a battle, though. He gave a vicious tug, severing the thick tentacle, and the writhing, dismembered tip sank to the sandy bottom. Realizing it now sported one less limb, Max’s opponent eased its constricting hold.
Taking advantage of the creature’s confusion, Max barreled toward the sunken ship and veered sideways, slamming the leviathan into the top of the hull. A shuddering groan rumbled through the metal and the leviathan bounced off its surface. The beast scrambled to reassert its grip, but Max was prepared. Using his body for extra battering power, he hammered the creature repeatedly against the ship, until the imprisoning hold on him completely loosened.
He shook himself from the tangle of tentacles and cautiously eyed the now-unconscious leviathan. Hard to tell if the thing was dead or not. He decided to air on the side of caution and assume it was still alive. After a wary inspection, he deduced the creature was at least safely down for the count, and swam in the direction he’d last seen the female victim. The currents had carried her several yards away and deposited her on the ocean floor. Dark brown tendrils of hair floated around her head like silky strands of seaweed. Up close, her face revealed her to be even younger than he’d originally guesstimated. Definitely in her mid-twenties. Thirty tops.
What a f**king shame. Nobody deserved to have their life cut short. He should have finished off the son-of-a-bitch leviathan. Hell, maybe he still would. Not like he wouldn’t be doing the world a favor by ridding it of one less scum.
Grim fury firing his determination, he started to turn. A small stream of bubbles broke from the woman’s mouth. He froze, disbelief seizing him.
What the hell? He inched closer, his focus glued to her slackened lips. Was she…breathing?
He swept his gaze lower and swore he detected the faint rise and fall of her chest. Maybe it was merely his imagination, or an optical illusion perpetuated by the constant ebb and flow of water buffeting her.
Cursing the present lack of fingers that hindered him from performing a thorough examination, he shot a glance in the direction of the leviathan’s limp body. Not giving himself time to rethink the wisdom of abandoning his shark form while a deadly predator lay less than fifty feet away, he shifted into his human skin and pressed his middle and index fingers against her carotid artery.
Sure enough, the steady drumming of her pulse verified his suspicions. He exhaled in bewildered shock, expelling his own series of oxygen-loaded bubbles.
His brain immediately snapped into investigative mode and began cycling through probabilities. Could she be a water shifter? One that didn’t require gills while in human form, like him? Possibly, but something kept him from clinging too tightly to that theory. For starters, it made no sense that she wouldn’t have shifted into her alter form when the leviathan snatched her. Even with an ability to breathe under water, a shifter remained a thousand times more vulnerable in their human skin. Unless she’d been unconscious when the beast grabbed her—and what were the odds?—she wouldn’t have left herself open to attack.
Well, whatever the hell she was, he couldn’t leave her stranded in the middle of the damn Atlantic.
He hugged her to him and kicked away from the sandy bottom, propelling them upward. Being deprived the use of his other arm made the task of swimming longer and more difficult than it should have been, but finally he broke the water’s surface. He bobbed for a moment, the slumped torso of his dead-to-the-world companion secured within the crook of his arm while he scanned the vista. The shoreline was closer than he’d anticipated, thank the gods.
Keeping the woman anchored close to his chest, he plowed along with the waves, riding their powerful currents rather than attempting to go it on his own. The choice to conserve his energy paid off, and roughly fifteen minutes later, the tide deposited them on a deserted stretch of beach. Catching her beneath the knees, he staggered toward the nearby dunes. It wasn’t the girl’s weight that made his gait awkward—hell, even dripping wet she weighed next to nothing—but it always took him a moment to acquire his land legs.
After reaching a concealing cluster of sea oats, he carefully lowered the woman onto the sand and knelt beside her. Ignoring the bite marks on his lower calves which were beginning to sting like hell, he worriedly surveyed the girl’s pale face. She hadn’t so much as fluttered an eyelash. Now that they were on land the steady flow of her breaths was readily apparent. Her lungs obviously hadn’t filled with seawater, one more clue that revealed her to be something beyond human.
Which sure as s**t complicated things. As sheriff of parish nine, it wasn’t only his responsibility to keep order within his district, but also to keep the citizens of Savannah as blissfully ignorant of the slightly less-than-normal creatures splashing around their coastal waters. He couldn’t risk taking the girl to the hospital, not without knowing exactly what she was.
Awarding the ever-darkening sky a wary glance, he rose to his feet. Full nightfall was rapidly approaching. Whatever he ultimately planned to do, it needed to be done soon. Scrubbing a hand along his jaw, he eyed the female again. The best course of action would be taking her back to his place and having his buddy Boone check her over. Though Boone wasn’t a doc, per se, he was a vet, and possessed enough medical know-how to hopefully treat whatever was wrong with the girl.
Fortunately, Max was less than a ten-minute jog from his bungalow. Unfortunately, that journey required a stroll across a popular section of beach. Even at this time of evening, there was always the chance beachcombers would be out and about. Considering he was buck naked and would be carrying an unconscious woman, the odds of someone not raising an alarm were slim to none.
“F**k.” Much as he didn’t like it, he’d have to risk leaving her alone while he swam back to his house and grabbed his car. He dropped onto his haunches and smoothed a wet straggle of hair off the delicate slope of her forehead. “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’m only leaving you for a few. I promise. We’re gonna get you someplace safe and all fixed up. You’re gonna be okay.” Hopefully.
She didn’t stir. Not that he’d expected her to. After reassuring himself she was properly hidden behind the protective screen of tall grasses, he climbed atop the dunes. Keeping hunkered low enough not to draw attention in case a car passed by, he scoped his surroundings for any memorable landmarks. About thirty yards down the road and across the street a mailbox shaped like a purple sailboat flanked a driveway. With that image branded into his memory, he ran back down the beach and dove into the surf. He shifted into his shark, figuring it’d cut his trip time in half, and less than five minutes later he was sprinting toward the deck of his bungalow.
He yanked the French doors open and raced inside the house. His cell phone sat on the kitchen table. Snatching it up, he hit the speed dial for Boone’s number and thundered into his bedroom. He snagged a pair of sweats and wrenched them on one-handed. Boone’s voice mail clicked on and after leaving him a clipped, desperate message to haul his ass over there with his medic kit pronto, Max hung up and hurried to the front door. He slowed his frantic pace just long enough to jam his feet into a pair of sneakers and snagged his key ring from its hook before barreling outside. Beeping the alarm on his Jeep, he hopped behind the wheel and powered up the engine. Heavy-metal music blared from the speakers, and he quickly flicked the volume down as he rammed the gears in reverse and roared out of the drive.
Traffic was nonexistent, making it an uneventful trip back to the spot where he’d left the woman. If you could call his heart thudding hard enough to beat a hasty exit from his chest remotely uneventful. He pulled snug to the side of the road to avoid a potential accident from oncoming motorists and jumped out of the Jeep, double-checking to ensure he spotted the sailboat mailbox in the distance. Satisfied he was in the right location, he jogged across the dunes, the dry, crispy tufts of grass snapping beneath his feet. Winded and frantic, he reached the bottom and spied the scattered footprints he’d earlier left in the sand.
His heart in his throat, he dashed toward the curtain of sea oats. He pushed them aside, and his pulse slowly eased to normal when he spotted his girl.
Surprise flickered through him. His girl. Where the hell did that come from? Grunting, he sat on his haunches and gathered her into his arms. Her head lolled back on his biceps, her damp hair sending wet rivulets down his skin, but she didn’t wake. She’d been out of it for at least thirty minutes. Was that normal? Worry once again kicking him into high gear, he clasped her to his chest and barreled up the dunes to the road and his waiting Jeep. Freeing his left hand, he tugged the rear passenger door open and bundled her onto the bench seat, carefully positioning her so she wouldn’t roll off and hit her head.
He climbed behind the wheel and stomped on the gas. Adrenaline was running rampant through his veins, making his fingers shake and his stomach clench. Somehow he kept the vehicle on the road and made record time reaching his house. Boone hadn’t shown up yet. Praying his friend wasn’t working a double at the animal clinic, Max rushed inside with the female, beelining for his room. He settled her on the bed and stared at her, suddenly uncertain what he should be doing.
His focus drifted to her waterlogged blouse and capri pants. “S**t.” Now she was lying in a big wet spot. He probably should have removed her clothes first.
“Dumbass.” Cursing his slow thinking, he unbuckled the straps on her sandals. Her ankles felt incredibly tiny in his big, clumsy hands. It occurred to him that he was spending way too much time touching her bare skin. He dropped her legs, and she bounced on the mattress. Yeah, like that’d help get her closer to dry and comfortable.
Come on, Truitt. Get your f**kin’ s**t together. Growling beneath his breath, he slipped off her shoes and reached for the zipper on her pants. The metallic rasp of the teeth separating sounded inordinately loud in the room. Shifting his focus to the right so he wouldn’t be staring directly at her crotch, he tugged the soaked cotton down her legs and let the garment plop onto the carpet. Next he set to work on her top. He fumbled with the dainty shell buttons, attempting to pop them through their holes. Finally he freed each one and eased the top off her shoulders. The sides fell open, revealing a flesh-colored nylon bra. The wet transparency of the fabric made it all too easy for him to see the rosy outline of her areolas. Her nipples were puckered.
He probably shouldn’t be noticing that.
Clearing his throat, he lifted her enough to tug the shirt from her arms. After tossing the garment on top of her capris, he moved her to the other side of the mattress. Before he could stop himself, his scrutiny fell to her nearly invisible bikini and the triangular patch of glossy brown curls covering her mound.
Feeling uncomfortably like a huge pervert, he swallowed hard and shifted his focus away. He grabbed the blanket folded at the end of the bed and tucked it around her securely. Satisfied that he’d done as much as he could to ensure her comfort, he left the room and went to fetch his phone. The message icon flashed on his cell’s display screen. S**t, he’d forgotten he’d put the damn thing on vibrate earlier. He punched the button for his voice mail and exhaled in relief when he heard Boone’s recorded voice promising he was on his way over. Thank the gods.
Realizing he’d likely need someone to cover the remainder of his patrol tonight, he punched in the number for Jona, his second-in-command. After providing a bare-bones explanation of the situation, Max secured the dolphin shifter’s agreement to take over his rounds and hung up. Running his fingers through his hair in an effort to corral his scattered thoughts, he strode into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the mattress. An irresistible force drawing him in, he gently traced the line of her cheek with his thumb. She was so small and delicate. The fact that she barely looked strong enough to defend herself stirred all of his protective instincts.
There was no question about it. If the leviathan’s attack had permanently injured her, he’d track down the ugly motherf**ker and put an end to its miserable life.
The girl’s head listed slightly. He froze. Momentarily forgetting to breathe, he watched her face closely, gauging for further sign that she was regaining consciousness. Just when he was ready to chalk her movement to the pillow slipping, her eyelashes fluttered. Almost as if it were happening in slow motion, she opened her eyes, revealing irises in a mesmerizing shade of green. She blinked, her attention taking forever to focus on him. He met her stare and smiled reassuringly. “Welcome back to the world of the living.”
She gaped at him for a long moment before blasting out an ear-splitting scream.