Authors: Tymber Dalton
“Thanks, y’all. I appreciate it.”
Sean started to leave the bathroom, then turned. “Why didn’t you just come into the house during the storm?”
Wyatt shrugged. “I kinda like the weather. Pool’s safe. No waves. Nice and warm. Emery did tell me where y’all keep the spare key in case I wanted to come inside, but the pool was just fine. I appreciate you letting me hang around.”
“No problem,” Emery said.
They left Wyatt alone and returned to the kitchen. “Dude, you’re lucky I don’t have a bad ticker,” Sean scolded. “Please don’t do that to me again. That was so not funny.”
“Yeah, it kinda was, babe.” He grinned. “At least Mom didn’t wet herself when Wyatt scared her. Of course, he was in her kitchen at the time.”
* * * *
After Wyatt finished his shower, Emery drove him back to where he’d left his car. Sean grabbed a shower, alone, knowing he wouldn’t get much time with Emery that night, at least. Emery returned after Sean stepped out of the shower.
“Just when are you planning on sleeping?” Sean asked.
Emery shrugged. “I’m okay. Working on adrenaline, and not sure how badly we’ll get slammed at the office tomorrow, but I’ll nap when I can.” He pulled Sean to him and kissed him. “You have your own stuff to worry about.”
“Don’t remind me. Dad’ll be wanting me to help him remove his storm shutters tomorrow after work.”
“We’ll probably go back out tomorrow night, too, and then again on Friday.” His expression darkened. “Unless we find anything tonight.”
“I think you and I are on the same wavelength.”
“You won’t find him in good health.”
Emery let out a sigh. “It wouldn’t be the first time a dolphin lost a fight with a shark. Not as common with the shifters, because we try to hunt in packs for that very reason, but there’s just something wrong about all this.”
Sean kissed him. “You’d better get going. I’ll call the marina in the morning and have them put my boat out for me.”
“You’re the best, babe.”
“Just keep saying it, you sweet-talkin’ thang, you.”
Emery left laughing, a sound that warmed Sean’s heart. As Sean listened to Emery’s Mustang fire up in the driveway before he pulled out, he headed back to the bedroom. Exhaustion was quickly setting in. Despite hating to sleep alone now, he knew he wouldn’t have any trouble finding slumber.
* * * *
The alarm blasted Sean out of sleep way too early for his liking Thursday morning. He rolled over and slapped at the alarm clock, moaning.
The other side of the bed was empty. Emery hadn’t returned yet.
He forced himself to sit up and swing his legs out of bed. Otherwise, it was just too tempting to fall back asleep.
And he didn’t want his father crawling up his ass for being lazy that morning.
After starting a pot of coffee, he headed for the shower. He was drying off when he heard what he thought was the front door shutting.
He called out. “Em?”
“Yeah.” A moment later, the man appeared, looking tired. He leaned in for a kiss before stripping and stepping into the shower.
Emery leaned against the shower wall, eyes closed, and shook his head.
“Stay home and sleep.”
“I can’t. I have to go into the office today. I’ll be okay once I get some coffee in me.”
Sean walked out to the kitchen, fixed Emery a cup, and took it back to him. He set it on the bathroom counter. “Here you go.”
Emery peeked out of the shower. “Thanks, babe. You’re the best.”
Sean was dressed and ready to go by the time Emery emerged from the back of the house, naked and with his cup of coffee in hand.
Sean thought he still looked like crap. Handsome crap, but crap nonetheless.
“You want me to drive you up to the office?” he asked.
“No, I’ll be okay.” He gave Sean a smile that didn’t fool him in the least. “This isn’t the first time I’ve had to run my tank on empty. Fortunately, the other times it was due to too much fun. Not something like this.”
Sean worried about him all day as he dealt with things at work and coordinated restarting their project schedules with the construction companies, who had to check their own equipment for damage. He tried calling Emery, leaving a message for him after he left the office to head to his parents’ house.
His parents still deftly avoided any and all discussions about what had happened at the Nadels’ house. Sean knew how badly the incident had rattled his mom when after asking if he would stay for dinner and he said no, she didn’t try to change his mind.
Well after dark, he finally pulled into his own driveway and shut the truck off. Emery’s Mustang wasn’t in the drive.
Despite his exhaustion, he wished he could go out and help look. At least he’d be close to Emery and get to spend some time with him.
Then he yawned again and realized how tired he was.
He dragged himself into the house and headed for the sliders leading to the pool deck. Mid-stride, he did an about-face, found the light switch, and flipped on the pool lights.
Nothing except the accumulated debris he needed to get cleaned out.
No alligator, shifter or otherwise.
With a sigh of relief, he stripped and dove in, doing a few laps before flipping onto his back and floating in the warm water. He did feel bad that his parents found out Emery’s secret the way they did, his preference being they hadn’t found out at all. He didn’t like the uneasy tension he felt from his parents while taking down their shutters. How his mom made small talk about any- and everything not relating to Emery or his family, when she usually made a point of asking about Emery, his work, how he was doing.
I’m going to have to talk to them.
Whether they liked it or not, Sean didn’t want the invisible bomb hanging over his relationship with them like that. Yes, they drove him crazy. They were his parents, after all, and that was one of their jobs.
The sound of the front door opening and closing startled him from his thoughts. He stood up in the pool. “Em?” He hadn’t even heard his car drive up.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Emery walked out onto the lanai and sat at the edge of the pool. Sean swam over, saddened by the deep lines in his lover’s face.
“No sign of him?”
Emery shook his head.
“Did you eat?”
Another head shake.
“I thought you were going out to search for him again tonight?”
“Dad took one look at me and sent me home. We’re going out in the morning.”
Sean boosted himself out of the pool and grabbed his clothes before taking Emery by the hand. “Come on. Into the shower with you. I’ll fix you something to eat.”
When Emery emerged from the shower, Sean immediately steered him back to their bed. He turned the TV on for him and handed him the plate of warmed-up leftovers. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He kissed him on the forehead, but before he could go, Emery reached out and touched his arm.
“Seriously, Sean,” he said, “you are the best. You have no idea how much I love you.”
Sean smiled, his heart aching for his mate. He knew Emery was worried about the missing shifter and doing everything he could to help find him. “Yeah, well, you’re stuck with me, babe.”
When Sean returned to their bedroom a few minutes later, Emery had cleaned his plate, but he’d also fallen asleep with it on his chest. With a smile, Sean carefully took it back to the kitchen before crawling into bed with him without waking him up.
They both needed a good, solid night’s sleep in their own bed. As he drifted, he couldn’t help but wonder what fate had befallen the missing shifter.
Friday morning, Sean, Emery, Wyatt, and Joseph were once again on the water along with several other shifters. There was still no sign of Barry, alive or dead, and the general consensus was that something bad had happened to him.
Louise had spent the past several days combing all news reports for any mention of a dolphin washing ashore dead or alive anywhere along Florida’s southwest Gulf coast, before or after the storm, and found nothing.
Wyatt had Sean drop him off near the Placida fishing bridge, which wasn’t too far from the last place anyone could definitely remember seeing Barry. Wyatt would swim up into the mangrove shallows and see if he could find any signs of Barry. The waters were too shallow for the dolphins to make it, but their thinking was that maybe storm surge could have washed his body there.
No one doubted Barry wouldn’t be found alive.
Sean ran Emery and Joseph back out to Gasparilla Island, where they dove into the water, shifted, and met up with several other shifters. Sean motored around the south side end of Placida and started slowly working his way north along the western edge of Charlotte Harbor, along the Cape Haze peninsula, in hope of finding anything.
By late afternoon, no one had found any sign of him. Everyone involved in the search except Wyatt gathered near Gasparilla Island again. Joseph shifted to human form and looked grim as he spoke to the forty-something shifters and Sean.
“I hate to say this, but I have a feeling we won’t find him alive. I don’t want to suspend the search, but if we haven’t found him by now, I doubt we will. Thank you, everyone, who came out to help. It is greatly appreciated. I’ll keep everyone posted.”
Emery shifted back and climbed into the boat, followed by his father, as the rest of the dolphins dispersed.
“Let’s go get Wyatt,” Emery quietly said.
Sean nodded and headed off. Fortunately, no one was fishing on the trestle when Sean motored up to where a shifted Wyatt was quietly lying in the shade of the fishing pier. He quickly shifted into human form, swam over, and climbed into the boat with the others.
Sean immediately knew from the grim look on Wyatt’s face that he had discovered something.
So did Joseph. “What did you find?”
Wyatt shook his head and quietly said, “I’m sorry, Joseph. He’s up deep in the mangroves. Storm must have pushed him up in there.”
“Yeah. And it weren’t no accident.”
Wyatt pulled on a pair of shorts. “I’m no doctor, but it looks like someone slit his throat and pretty much gutted him, fins to tail. Decomposition’s already started. The belly wound looks too damn straight. Like a knife. I’ve seen plenty of gutted animals in my time. Gutted a few myself. Seen more than my fair share of critters what died of natural causes and blew up from gasses and split open after the bloat got too bad. Whoever did it did a right fine job of it.”
* * * *
Sean, Emery, and Wyatt went back later that night with two borrowed kayaks and a couple of large, heavy plastic contractor bags. Joseph had already talked to Barry’s family and told them what they found. A friend of Joseph’s would meet with them near the Placida trestle to pick up Barry’s body and take him to be cremated at a facility run by a shifter.
Their friendly shifter doctor would list the cause of death as a heart attack.
Sean softly muttered to Emery as they quietly paddled in the dark without lights, following a shifted Wyatt up the mangroves to retrieve the body. “And why the fuck aren’t we calling the police?” he muttered to Emery.
“What the hell are we supposed to tell them?”
Sean didn’t have an answer for that one. He shut up.
Wyatt shifted back into human form. “Up here,” he said, motioning them forward. In the dim light from the moon and the stars, they spotted a mottled grey form tangled in the mangrove roots.
Then the smell hit Sean. Worse than bad bait or rotted meat. It was the sound of the swarming flies that finished him off. He hung his head over the side of his kayak and hurled his dinner into the water. Emery got out of his kayak. He slogged through the shallow muck, grabbed the contractor bags out of the dry box on Sean’s kayak and carefully worked with Wyatt to get them pulled around the dolphin’s body. Sean glanced once, quickly looking away as the dark glistening of guts spilling out of the wound made a sickly, slurping sound. Sean heard the
of duct tape as the two men got the bags sealed together. Then they carefully laid the grisly bundle in the bow of the kayak Emery was paddling, an open type made for two people.
When it was safe to look, Sean watched Emery, who wore a grim expression, get back into his kayak. Wyatt shifted into gator form once again and led them out of the mangrove maze. In silence, they paddled to the meeting place. Joseph and a man Sean had never seen before helped carefully lift the plastic-shrouded body into the back of a pickup truck with a topper on the back. Then the three of them returned to the Placida boat ramp, loaded the kayaks into Sean’s truck, and returned to Sean and Emery’s shortly after midnight.
Sean didn’t attempt to make small talk. He didn’t feel like talking and suspected Emery and Wyatt didn’t, either. He wasn’t a squeamish person by nature, but knowing the dead dolphin was, in fact, a person changed his perceptions.